It still baffles me that PC Zone ever worked at all.
In 1993, the old console markets were in the twilight of its years and PlayStation had yet to drag the public perception of gamers from sad ski-jacket wearing nerds into ‘ordinary’ people. But that’s what gamers were and still are. And PC Zone spoke directly to them.
In the early days, they spoke to them in slightly posh tones. As Tim Ponting – the magazines publisher till the end of the 90s said: “It was public schoolboy, very clever, holier-than-though, but it worked.”
Didn't quite work without the Eidos reference
I joined the team a few issues in, after the decision was taken to put a CD-Rom, full of game demos, on the front of the magazine. The internet was still very much in its infancy and it took the best part of three weeks to source, download and compile the disk. Sending CD masters off to Blackburn at 2am on a Sunday night was not an unusual occurrence.
Everything changed with the arrival of a very young, slightly beardy, long haired editor from Paragon: John Davison While the previous editors, Paul Lakin and Laurence Scotfield loved playing games, John took it to a whole new level. These days we would call it OCD.
The editorial staff also expanded, with the average age dropping significantly (and the mental age struggling to make double digits). Joining the ranks of some of the magazines key talented writers, such as David McCandless, Duncan McDonald, Paul Presley and Patrick McCarthy came Jeremy Wells, Richie Shoemaker, Charlie Brooker, and Steve Hill to name but a few.
And the gaming audience changed too.
Perfectly normal behaviour in the PC Zone office
While Sony’s new PlayStation marketing campaign tried to make gaming ‘cool’ by appealing to clubbers and developing games with funky soundtracks (the seminal Wipeout featured tracks by The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy), its core audience then were still children and teenagers, and the console magazines reflected that.
PC gamers, on the other hand, were males in their twenties and early thirties. And that chimed with the other shift in attitudes of the time: ‘The lads market’.
Maxim, FHM and Loaded were all hitting the shelves for the first time and suddenly knob jokes, foul language, and images of girls in PVC didn’t get you pulled off the shelves, they put sales through the roof.
PC Zone tapped into this, more by accident that design. The staff were entirely male (other than poor Ziggy and Amya Lopez on the roduction desk), most were in their early to mid twenties, they enjoyed having a laugh, and they loved playing video games. In short, they didn’t talk to the reader, they were the reader.
The PC Zone Office in Bolsover Street at 11am - notice the lack of any staff, other than Davie 'spike' McCormack and Tim (art and production)
What's more, John was quite happy for the staff to push the boundaries of both humour and taste. Most of it worked, occasionally it blew up in our faces.
Some of the more memorable issues were "The Joy of Sticks" where a rubber clad woman rated joysticks for their phallic value; the Frontier: First Encounters review, where instead of screenshots, the two pages were covered by a gigantic turd wrapped in a yellow bow (the game had been released way before it was ready and was riddled with bugs); a court martial of two flying games, once of which would be shot at dawn; and, of course, Culky.
Culky (who in real life was an East London mate of Duncan McDonald) was a surreal video, shot on a budget of 50p, where he would walk into E3 and ask people to rate Hulk Hogan, try and flog a duff paining or, strap rockets to a VW Beatle and launch an attack on Electronic Arts HQ in Langley.
Remember, this was years before Trigger Happy TV and the like taped into that vein of surreal humour.
The egos do battle
But there were times when it all went wrong. Charlie Brookers Cruelty Zoo cartoon - which was a parody of Lara Croft and her fascination with killing animals - had the Eidos references removed (John Davison was worried they would sue), ending up with a poor taste cartoon of a child smashing a monkeys head in with a claw hammer. Or my attempt to get a 1000 Doom levels on a cover disk, with the process taking so long that I didn't get a chance to check the content. 999 levels were fine, the last xxxdoom.wad featured some very hard core pornography. WH Smith went ballistic.
This was also the era of low costs and massive rewards when produce a video game. And with no shareholders to worry about, the industry was awash with cash.
Consequently the industry - PC Zone included - lived on a diet of hard graft and mindless hedonism.
A very young Simon Byron, Steve Hill and Paul Fox (still getting over the shock of moving from the record industry) at the Crown and Sceptre circa 1997
Press trips were frequently debauched; the Brits on the Piss tour of E3 went way 'off message' when everyone decided to run amok at the Paramount Studios; Microprose's PR Man, Jason Dutton, decided the safest thing to do was lock himself in the loo with some Columbians and let someone else deal with it. Or the Virgin Interactive trip to Vegas where PC Review's John Bennett started yelling, as we flew in a helicopter ride over the strip "Shit! There's Charlie on the wire! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!" and the pilot, who was obviously a 'Nam vet, had a flashback and we ended up roaring 40 feet above the houses and came back to a police reception at the heliport.
One thing I haven't mentioned is the intense rivalry, at the time, between ourselves and PC Gamer. It was like Chelsea and Arsenal - both two very talented teams, competing in the games market, with a very distinct style that was, frequently, completely at odds with the other. For most of the 90s the two mags were neck and neck circulation wise (although Gamer always had a slight edge, which irritated us no end).
And there were the unsung heroes on Zone, without which it would never have worked. Art Editors like Phil Clark and Mark Wagstaff, the production team - Ziggy, Amya Lopez, 'Scary' Barbara, Mike Sheppard, Saul Lease and Emma Newman who flogged the add space. And, of course, Teresa Maughan and Tim Ponting, without which Zone would never have happened.
Charlie Brooker explains to Wayne Jordan the best way of getting a TV series commission
My tenure on Zone came to an end in 1999, when I moved onto the ill-fated PC Gear Magazine; many of the other old faces left too. Watching from afar, I saw Zone and Gamer begin a slow and gradual decline, not through any fault of the editorial staff - people like Martin Korda, Dave Woods, Will Porter and Rhianna Pratchett did stirling work - but because a magazine pitched at probably the most IT savvy people in the country, and that made its sales from magazine cover disks and monthly reviews, could not compete against the rise of the internet, with dedicated game sites putting up reviews every day and demos downloadable at the click of a mouse.
Most of us who worked on the magazine in the 1990s were blissfully unaware of what a revolutionary ‘thing’ we had created. We were just having a laugh and doing something we loved: it just so happened it was the right magazine, with the right people, at the right time for the right market. And it's a testament to how tight a team it was that, more than a decade later, most of us are still in contact with each other.
It was a golden age for both PC gaming and magazine publishing and I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have been part of that.