Trenton Webb was Commodore Format’s longest serving editor, arriving on issue 18 and staying until number 35. He oversaw a massive change in fortunes for the Commodore 64 and a huge redesign of the magazine. The website would never have been complete without him, so we’re very pleased to bring you this chat. “I wasn’t a C64 fan at first”, he remembers. “But CF readers taught me first to respect it. And then love it.”
Trent! So pleased to meet you. So before we get going – where have you been since leaving Commodore Format in late 1993? Everywhere, I think. After leaving CF I did a couple of more magazines – Nintendo Game Zone and ST Format. Then I moved into videogames development with a local Amiga games house called Binary Asylum – run by Amiga Format’s Bob Wade. After a brilliant 5 years there – including work on a Star Trek game which allowed me to revel in my inner anorak – I started getting involved in internet projects with Simon Forrester (of the CF parish). After a spectacularly poorly timed start-up venture (we launched almost to the hour that the first tech bubble burst) we then did website and database builds for about six years. Now I’m the grandly titled Digital Marketing Manager for a Pet Pharmacy. So technically speaking I became a drug dealer. Only the legal kind!
You were CF‘s longest serving Editor. How did you land on the mag in 1992 in the first place? Good luck and lovely people. I’d been Games Editor on Amiga Format for about 18 months when Future Publishing really exploded. As a result they had too few good people with too many good ideas and too many magazines – which is why the likes of Steve Jarratt and Andy Dyer were pressed into service creating TOTAL! when Colin Campbell took over. He was then needed elsewhere and they looked around for a replacement. It was too good an opportunity to miss. I applied and by some fluke got the job. I moved my desk about 15 feet (the offices were crammed) and then realised the enormity of the task I’d taken on.
Were you a C64 fan? And if you weren’t, did you end up loving the machine? It’s OK if you didn’t, honest. No I wasn’t a C64 fan. To be truthful when I joined Future I wasn’t a massive games player, I may have massaged the truth to get in. Then it was full bore on the Amstrad (for Amstrad Action) and Amiga (for Amiga Format) so I just didn’t get the chance to play many games on the machine. I very much came to love the C64 through the people. Both the readers and the writers were such an infectious bunch I came to first respect it, then love it.
CF is so well known for its characters…The Mighty Brain and Roger Frames being the most loved, of course. Were they fun to write as? It must have been quite a change from Amiga Format and the like. And was it you that made Roger Frames a Bristol Rovers fan? He seemed to “turn” when you showed up…The characters were brilliant. I have no idea how Steve and Andy managed to craft such a great set of people to write as but they bequeathed a brilliant creative toy box. As for Roger, I’d love to take credit but most of that was James Leach’s work. He’s probably the best writer I’ve ever worked with and so my input was the football shirt. Even that may have been Ollie’s idea! Mike Roberts and [art editor] Ollie Alderton just seemed to get understand each other and so that gave a very strong Roger visual character. The rest was simply “James, you’re good, off you go and don’t spanner this up!” He didn’t. Personally I always loved writing as The Mighty Brain, because you never get to be that big headed, arrogant and know-it all in real life!
You were so obviously pleased to hear from us when we first wanted to talk about CF…”happy memories” were your words! For us fans – can you even begin to sum up the experience of working with your team? James Leach, Cathy Parnham, Ollie Alderton, Clur…talented funny people, it seemed like great fun. It just leapt off the pages. Belying late nights and stress, though? It simply was fabulous. For all the reasons – namely the people – you’ve outlined above. They all had a passion for their magazine, had great design/writing talent and loved playing games. It was had the feel of a University campus newsletter editorial team, only we got paid and the hardest journalistic question we had to ask was “when is game X about to be released?” Yes there were late nights. Yes there was stress. That all came down to planning which was the Editor’s job, so sorry about that everyone! I’m glad it worked, but the real secret was nothing more than getting a team of people who cared about what they did. And don’t forget Sean, Lam, Lisa, Jane and many others who all added to the mix.
Maybe you can settle something for us. CF used the famous games magazine percentage ratings system…how did that actually work when you sat down to sum up a game? Did you start at 100% and knock off points for each “flaw”? Did your writers have guidance on that? It was less of a science and more a mixture of gut feeling and peer review. Inevitably I’d approach any game with a pre-conceived idea of what I wanted or thought it would be. This had to be put aside while it loaded. Then I’d start fumbling around, learning the controls and the vocabulary of the gameplay. At this point I’d start to get a real idea of how I felt about it. Then I’d leave it for the day. When you come back you’d know if it was with a sense of dread or excitement. . Even if I couldn’t play it (for example there were some puzzle games that were just too elegant for my simple mind to grasp) you’d already know if someone could have fun playing it and you’d know if it was in the 80’s 30’s or 60s title. Give it another hard few hours playing to see if there any surprises or real hooks you missed. Then write the review and take screenshots. With the combined play time, you’d then be able to score it. The peer review bit came when it went to the Sub-editors and art team who’d directly quiz you – “do you really think it is that good/bad”. All the games editors of the other mags kept an eye on scores too, and then be merciless if they thought you’d got it wrong. As for the guidance, Greg Ingham (the uber Boss) cited the pocket money rule – imagine you’re a 13 year boy, who’d saved up for months to buy this game, so make sure your review would save them wasting their money or be sure they didn’t miss out.
You showed up on the magazine at a really pivotal point in the C64’s life. The Commodore had just had its last truly great commercial Christmas and the games were just starting to dry up. Can you talk a bit about arriving on a games mag that was running out of games to talk about? Well I’d cut my teeth on Amstrad Action so it wasn’t too much of a shock, that machine had been through this cycle one or two years before. And while there were not the huge number of games that there once were, many of those that were still in production were labours of love so it was easier to spot the diamonds. There was also the heritage factor. The C64 had such vast library of games, many of which were flooding out as budget re-releases there was still plenty to talk about. Combine that with the cast of characters we had to play with and were never short of copy.
Your redesign of the mag (CF33) was the biggest overhaul it ever had…all of a sudden the magazine was shinier and neon coloured. What was the thinking behind the changes? It was all my own personal vision. This may be a lie. Some of the shinier and neon colour elements came from the new DTP and printing systems that became available during that time – offering more sophisticated options than were available during the launch. The rest really came from Ollie’s fevered brain. I just got to sit around, nod in approval and then claim all the personal glory! I’m just glad they were well received. However, can I borrow the text above and a time machine? It would be really handy for an appraisal I once had…
Well, there was one downer when CF relaunched. Axing Roger Frames’ column must have been a tough call. So popular, yet of course suddenly had no “budjit” games to review…Yes, hated it. It was like sacking a friend. The final image (with him walking off into the sunset) still brings a lump to my throat. Next.
How do you feel about how CF ended? It went on until 1995…but had just 22 pages and cost a fortune. Some have said there was a bit of ill feeling about how it and Amstrad Action were spun out. A commercial decision that I’m glad to say was well out of my hands – Future was after all a business and not a democracy. It is always sad to see a mag you’ve worked so hard on wither on the vine, so I got it both ways with AA and CF. I even felt pangs when ZZAP! closed and that had been a fierce (but fair) rival.
Did you keep an eye on CF after you left? Surely you must have seen Mayhem In Monsterland eventually got 100%. Do you reckon you’d have done the same? Yeah, you can’t help but keep an eye on these things, but you have to let go. It is someone else’s baby by then. It was delightful to see Mayhem come through and deliver what it had always promised – inventive fun, lovingly crafted. The mag and the machine needed a swan song and Mayhem fitted the bill perfectly. I’m not sure I could have ever given any game 100%. The highest mark I ever awarded was 96%. I’m pretty sure Mayhem would have beaten that.
What’s your standout memory from your time on Commodore Format? It was the level of reader interaction and enthusiasm. Just made work, well, not like work.
Few questions from our readers before we set you free, Trent! Andrew asks what the old trade shows were like. They were a hoot. Confusing and chaotic, but fun. I’ve been to my share of trade and consumer shows since and nothing comes close. We do Crufts at the moment and that’s entertaining, but nothing beats row after of row games, big screens and very loud music from an industry just starting to realise its potential.
Gerrard wants to know if those covertapes were a nightmare to compile – but also to thank you for some wonderful games…quite often the only time people got to play new stuff, y’know. Preparing the tapes was horrible. The stuff would always arrive late and have to be compiled at the last minute. They’d be late back from the duplicators and go out with less testing than we’d have liked… We were magazine folk and never really had the technical skill to make them and so they still give me the fear to this day. I’m glad you liked them, but I still get shivers whenever I see a C15.
Mick says – any good stories about meeting programmers or other C64 bods? Too many to share here, some of which may have involved beer. In short there were three distinct types of programmer: the artist, the novice and the bitter. The artists were making games because it was their vocation and they were a joy, they loved the machines and the projects they worked on and could talk for hours about it. Novices were those on their way up; and so often given the ‘junior’ formats to learn their skills and their enthusiasm was infectious. The bitter ones were those who wanted to be the next Braben or Bitmap Brothers but found themselves doing the C64 and Z80 conversions of Outrun II or Thunderblade III. They always had the best gossip.
And finally, I think Pete Southworth speaks for all of us – “cheers for an amazing magazine, Trent. It was the best ever. I still read it today”. Does it surprise you that people remember it and still play C64 games? I can only say I’m humbled that together the CF team made an impact. It does not surprise me about the games, as there were some absolute corkers. As for the mag, why thank on behalf of us all.
Thanks for speaking with us, Trenton. What are you up to for the rest of the day?
Listing dog foods on eBay and then buying what I have determined to be the least romantic Christmas present in the world for my wife. I’ve got her a nice romantic one too, but the scamp in me has had this brilliant funny idea…(and we never, ever found out what it was! – Ed) CF
- Trenton was CF’s longest serving editor, overseeing issues 18 to 35. He spoke to us at christmas 2014. For more on Mayhem, see our MAYHEM homepage and read all the articles!