Readers of the magazine will see that there’s a special celebration of Crash magazine in today’s issue. I was lucky enough to travel up to Ludlow and visit co-founders Roger Kean and Oliver Frey and also Matthew Uffindell. I’m also fortunate enoug to work with two ex staff members of the magazine as well, Nick Roberts and Mark Kendrick. What follows is the full interview with Nick and Mark, which was sadly too long to fit in the actual issue.
I’ve also included a few YouTube videos of my visit. Enjoy.
Nick started off as a staff writer at Crash and moved up to deputy editor. He now works at Imagine Publishing.
How did you get your job on Crash?
I was just a reader picking up his monthly copy of the mag for 95p when I discovered in the mag that the Playing Tips writer, Hannah Smith, was leaving. Luckily I also lived in Ludlow, the home of Crash Micro Games Action, which was a big bonus. I don’t really know what possessed me, but I sent in a letter to Roger Kean, on Alphacom 32 thermal paper printed out from my Spectrum, asking if I could take over. I hadn’t really given my future career any thought at that time, I was only 15 in 1987, but as it turned out that piece of thermal paper set me off on a career that has lasted 22 years as Roger took me on as an after school reviewer.
I came in and played Spectrum games, and they paid me £5 a time! I think my first ever review was Finder’s Keepers, and I impressed Roger as I knew who had programmed it and what they had done before. As you can imagine, I soon gave up my paper round and dedicated all my free time to Crash. After about three months I got the Playing Tips job that I had written in for when Lloyd Mangram couldn’t be bothered to do it any more. I soon discovered why… typing in long POKEs listings was a bitch!
What was it like working on the magazine?
It was like being a member of an exclusive club, and very rock ‘n’ roll. There was a great bunch of people around at the time… Robin Candy, Mike Dunn, Ben Stone, Richard Eddy, Mark Kendrick, Julian Rignall… many of them are still big in publishing and videogames today. We were all working above Victoria Wine in Ludlow, playing the latest games, getting taken out to lunch by PR people, going off on trips that you would never normally get to do and ending up in The Bull after work for a few pints. Just don’t tell my mum… I was only 15 at the start remember! I have fond memories of the launch of Lotus Turbo Esprit where I got taken for a 200mph ride in a sports car up Ludlow by-pass. I remember visiting the Rank VIP cinema in London for a preview of a new sci-fi film called Robocop as we were writing about the game. We used to have a great time at the PCW Show too where we were made to feel like popstars as readers queued up for autographs! That’s a weird feeling, doesn’t happen much these days.
Was there any pressure from publishers when writing reviews?
Yeah, much the same as it is now, but I think in the 80s they were much more open about simply splashing some cash to gain a good review. Not that any of it every influenced Crash’s writers of course. I do remember a particularly bad game from a software company (mentioning no names, but the company name rhymed with Potion) where the PR guy simply said “You know it’s rubbish, I know it’s rubbish, do you fancy some new CDs?!” We refused.
What did working on Crash teach you?
I think the magazine, and the various editors I worked with, gave me a strong work ethic. It was the best work experience I could have wished for, learning from the best in the business about writing style and magazine production. We all worked hard to hit those deadlines, and I’m still doing the job to this day and loving it. I can’t imagine where I would be if it wasn’t for Crash and Newsfield Publications. I owe Roger a lot, and I thank him for the break.
How has the editorial process changed over the years?
In my opinion, things were a lot more focused then. We had PCW 8256 green-screen word processors that we wrote the magazine on, and that’s about all they could do – process words. As an old fogey 37 year old working in magazine production today I see the 18 year olds starting out and they have so many distractions to take them away from the games playing and writing. When they come in there’s email to check, then there’s their favourite website to look at, maybe check out the online news or write something for their blog. Then their mobile goes off and they have to return the text message. The internet is a wonderful tool for magazine publishers, but I hate to think how many man hours are lost each day that were spent doing the job back in the 80s and 90s.
You had to be extra careful about mistakes too. The Editor would obviously edit what you did on his Apricot computer, and then your review would be type-set – the words came back from Tortoiseshell Press on long strips of special paper – all in columns and in the right fonts. Then the magazine was pieced together by hand by arty types with a scalpel. These days right up to the moment you press Print on your pdf you can change words and pictures around. Of course the biggest change is that today one man with a Mac can make a magazine – back then it was a ten-strong team of people in various departments! Of course the Christmas parties were better when there was ten of you…
Is it true you’re Crash’s longest running writer?
Yes that’s right. I started on issue 47 and wrote for the magazine until issue 98 when the company went bust. 51 issues man and boy! I worked my way up to Assistant Editor by the end.
It must have been devastating when Crash closed 2 issues short of the big 100.
It was a shame not to get to 100, but to be honest the magazine was a shadow of its former self by then. 32 thin pages with a cassette glued to the front. Poor old Crash became the unloved older child of the company, while young whipper-snapper magazines were being launched to cover the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive. I just wish they had kept the name going, but evolved the magazine into a multiformat mag to take on C&VG, or something. It might still be around today. Mmmm… that’s an idea!
Mark Kendrick was an art editor at Crash. He is now creative director at Imagine Publishing
So what did you do at Newsfield?
My first role was actually Designer, which was part of a team of staff who literally put the company’s magazines together. I was looking at job section in my local Birmingham newspaper one week after having a pretty awful week in my design job at the time which was as ‘Visualiser’ and ‘Finished artist’ doing packaging work for companies like Cadbury’s. I saw an recruitment advert in there for ‘graphic artist required for magazines’. I applied over the phone and arranged for an early evening interview ‘after I finished work’. I drove the 90 minute trip to Ludlow where in ‘Crash Towers’ I was interviewed by Oli Frey and the Production Director Dave Western on the top floor in the art studio area, where I showed my obligatory portfolio of work and some pieces of illustration I’d done too. They were looking to expand on their portfolio of mags and I was specifically interviewed to work within the studio on all magazines but with an emphasis on a new title which was in the pipeline called ‘LM magazine’. After a 40 minute chat I was offered the job there and then! I started four weeks later in September ’86, but… I was late on first day! My car broke down on ‘Clee Hill’ and I eventually got there about an hour late. Once there my first design work was actually on Zzap! 64 (still my all time favourite title to work on) on a ‘Jon Twiddy’ interview. From there I worked daily on Crash, Zzap!, Amtix, Einstein User and then worked with Art Director Gordon Druce and Oli on the launch of ‘LM’. It was a fantastic start to my career.
What was it like working there?
I learned very quickly that this was unlike any working environment that I’d known or have experienced since. It was unique in that it was like we were creating something very special indeed at a great time of technological development. It was a wild time, when computer gaming was the new ‘rock n roll’ and the magazines and indeed the people who worked on them were like superstars. Roger and Oli were the ‘sages’ there, but on a daily basis the teams were largely self reliant to craft the magazines. There was no real ‘production workflow’ or anything like you get today. and the editorial staff such as Julian Rignall, Gaz Penn, Ciaran Brennan and so on worked incredibly hard and played hard too. As such, for designers it was a case of effectively ‘two weeks on/two weeks off’, where nothing really happened in the first week of a mag cycle at all, but by the last week everyone was literally working 24 hours a day. I lost count the number of times I popped out to get take away and bring it back to the office for the evening work. Everyone had their own knives and forks at their desks. Ludlow is a small provincial town, with a mix of incredibly young, but enthusiastic local and ‘imported’ talent, so the company developed it’s own social culture, which was part of what made the magazines and working on them so special. Just reading a copy of Crash or Zzap! you, even now, get a sense of ‘belonging’ to a unique group of people who were ‘living the dream’. As crazy as this may seem I’m really not overstating’ this, as I believe this injected the magazines with magic, which made them what they were. To illustrate the effect the mags had on people, we even used to get people going on holiday to Ludlow just to get a chance of seeing ‘King St’ offices and having their magazine signed by the team. They were crazy times indeed.
What did you learn from working with Oliver?
Perhaps the most important thing I learn from Oli was to have confidence in your own ‘style’. Oli’s illustration work is so distinctive and against a backdrop of so many other styles going on at the time, his work has continued to this day to be enduring. Overall though, from Oli I learned the visual aspects of magazine craft, and in particular how cover structure and the balance between type and art is essential making the difference between a cover that attracts and sells, and one that just presents the info. There is a big difference between the two. Oh, and the speed that confidence gives you. Oli could create an amazing piece of art overnight. I was staggered how that was possible. Especially given how basic his airbrush set up seemed. I applied his use of speed to layout and I prided myself how accurate and quick I could layout a magazine. I remember once I designed a whole issue of Zzap! 64 in two days. I didn’t sleep, but I did it. I think it was the ‘Creatures’ issue.
I also learned a lot from Roger. Roger’s skill in editorial magazine craft cannot be understated. Even now everyone who ever worked with him will quote him in relation to the golden rules of magazine craft. His attention to detail in flatplanning, editorial balance, feature elements and general use of ‘English’ in terms of subbing and proofing set the standard for me. Everyone who had the opportunity to work on the classic Newsfield magazines such as Crash and Zzap! worked on magazines that set the gold standard for mag craft. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have worked for two such talented people that without whom I doubt I’d be in the position I am now, and I’d argue the magazine industry wouldn’t be what it is today without them.
How have video game magazines changed from a design point of view over the years?
Where shall I start? Back when I started things were sooo different. For a start there were no computers that you could really relate as magazine design tools. The text was written by editorial on old Apricot word processors. The text files were bagged and popped down the road to a typesetters (Tortoiseshell Press) who ran out the strips of text. We had a ‘runner’ who regularly had to go and get the text for the mags from there which would turn up in big fat rolled bundles. Back then we used wax machines for applying glue to back of strips of text, which we cut up with a scalpel and stuck to artboards which had a page template marked on them by specially printed ‘bloo’ ink. This ink was invisible when exposed to a light camera that converted the page art to four colour film plates. This was called ‘reprographics’ and we had a six strong team of people who took my black and white art page layouts and applied my ‘invisible bloo’ colour and tint instructions.
Back then, when designing pages you had to imagine in your head how the page would look finished. There was no ‘preview’, no colour correction, no InDesign, no Photoshop and no Quark Xpress. It was all done by hand. This meant that the ‘barriers to entry’ was very high for anyone wanting to create a magazine. A magazine was really crafted by hand, and it was a highly skilled profession. It still is today, but things have changed. In the very late 80s/early 90s Apple computers running early versions of Quark Xpress, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator meant that a single workstation could create a whole magazine there on screen. The impact was immense and immediate. The magazine industry changed within a year, and gone were the artboard days and reprographics departments. The design and creative industry went through a huge upheaval and there was a lot of fallout as technology made things easier but there were casualties and people like myself had a whole new skillset to learn very quickly. Luckily I did, and made the move to computer based design on issue 74 of Zzap! 64. I remember it clearly, as all of a sudden you could change colours of boxouts whenever you wanted. Typefaces became like clay as you could model anythign you wanted. Layouts allowed for text to ‘flow’ around pictures and the ability to merge pictures and text in a way never seen before. It was a revolution, and with it came new magazines, new ideas and more entrants into the market. It became much easier to make a magazine, and unfortunately Newsfield found it difficult to move quickly enough to capitalise on this. But in terms of magazine design, it was the best thing to happen in for hundreds of years. A designer could really let rip creatively. But this also led to a lot of hideous mag design too by those who, without some core disciplines in the basic arts which traditional paste-up layout, threw the kitchen sink on every page of layout because now they could and it was ‘free’ thanks to new tech. The early to mid 90s was a bad time for video games design. It took quite a while for the disciplines to come back in, which it did thankfully. I recall one of the first that set the standards for the ‘new vision’ was the original ‘Official PlayStation Magazine’ from Future. It was very clean, done in FF Meta font and was lovely. It was very clean indeed. This was one of the first that settled things down and brought magazine design back to about presenting content as opposed to ‘turning tricks’ such as ‘Ultimate Future Games’ did a couple of years before (although, I did really like this!). These days magazine design has come full circle. It’s about presenting well written, informative content in a way that uses restrained but distinctive typography and a template that hangs the content together in a cohesive structure that allows for creativity without compromising on the reason behind the magazine’s job, which is to excite, enthuse and inform. And in terms of videogames titles is exactly what Oli, Roger and Franco set out to do with Crash back in 1984. I hope they are proud of their legacy.
Why do you think the magazine is still held with such high esteem?
I think Crash is held in such high esteem as it was the right product, at the right time with the right tone. In under two years the huge lists of command lines required on the ZX80 just to get a sprite to move on screen was replaced by pocket money video gaming on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 that had story, music and full interaction with the player. It was a fast moving, exciting time. Crash came along to fuel the excitement and give a sense of community to a new massively expanding hobby of home computing and games playing to the ‘Star Wars’ generation just when home computing became accessible to all. Crash and Zzap! 64 were of the time and hugely successful, when there was no email, internet or 24 hour TV. The magazines and the people on those mags were central for readers to interact with, identify with and idolise. I look back at the mags now and I really think it would be tough for another ‘independent’ videogames magazine to top over 100,000 sales every month ever again. The will forever be the giants of single format games titles.
Tell us an interesting anecdote about your time at Crash
Tell you something that’s printable? That may be tough without consulting my lawyer. I’ve so many stories about my time at Newsfield and after that when the company became Europress Impact that maybe I should I write a book. or example, did you know I’m actually the longest serving team member on Zzap! 64?
If there’s one enduring thing that Crash, Zzap! and Newsfield gave me besides my career (which is seriously still in mags!) it’s that I met and married my wonderful wife on Crash. Claire started work as a staff writer on the mag, and I met her while one day berating Stuart Wynne (editor of Crash) one why his editorial work was sooo late. He was terrible at timekeeping and I’d always be working really late thanks to his slovenly ways. (Only joking Stu ). Anyway, Claire had just started and was scared to death of me after hearing this. So when I popped over to say hi, I got a very steely response indeed. Still, it didn’t put me off, as 18 months later we were married, still are to this day and now with a wonderful 19 month old daughter.
Personally I have so much to thank Oli and Roger for as they not only gave me my training in magazine publishing which I still appreciate to this day, and of which I have such wonderful memories of, but my life has been utterly shaped by the eight years I spent working and ‘living’ those magazines. These days I’m lucky enough that any chance I get I try to incorporate some of the style of Crash and Zzap! 64 into the magazines I now produce. Take a look at the early retro section of Gamestm to see my homage to Crash, or in RetroGamer, the ‘back to the 80s’ section uses a Zzap! 64 template and has brought back the ‘reviewer head’ drawings. So in a way Crash isn’t dead but alive and well in every mag I create in some way.