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Steve Jarratt interview

 

Steve Jarratt is a long-time videogames journalist and magazine editor with 25 years experience in the industry. Having spent the majority of that time at Future Publishing, Steve launched a number of successful and influential magazines, some of which are still being published to this day...


Out-of-Print Archive: You spent some time in the chemist business, so how did you get involved with the videogame magazine industry?
Steve Jarratt: Well I became obsessed with videogaming, first on a friend's ZX Spectrum, and then when I bought a Commodore 64. I started buying Zzap!64 magazine and loved it. When they advertised a position on the team to replace Gary Liddon, I applied thinking I might get a chance to see the offices and get to meet the team. I was lucky enough to be interviewed but then didn't hear anything for ages. Eventually (I think after two other people didn't work out) I was offered the job of staff writer. This happened just before I was made redundant from my job at the chemical company, so it was a bit of a no brainer. I upped sticks, left home and moved to Ludlow. I was crap at chemistry anyway.


OoPA: While you were at Newsfield Publications you quickly moved from staff writer to sub-editor on Zzap!64 before becoming editor for Crash.  What are your recollections of working for the innovative publishing company?
SJ: It was the most fun I've had in work. The place was teeming with youngsters, all running around, working hard, but having fun and learning as we went along. The place was a right state; floor to ceiling with games, discs, mags, busted C64s and controllers. There were drink cans, unemptied ashtrays, paper and gaming paraphernalia everywhere. It was chaos, but for a young bloke who loved games, it was brilliant. And generally the people working there were a good laugh, too - it was a very eclectic bunch.
  Zzap!64 issue 24

OoPA: You then left Newsfield to work for rival publishers EMAP, holding the position of deputy editor on Commodore User as well as contributing to the likes of C&VG and The One. What prompted this move and what was it like working for EMAP during the height of their videogaming magazine empire?
Zzap!64 group pic May 1988 (Steve Jarratt, Gordon Houghton, Paul Glancey and Julian Rignall)
Zzap!64 staff encourage the readers to a games challenge in
issue 37
(May 1988). From left to right: Steve Jarratt,
Gordon Houghton,
Paul Glancey and Julian Rignall


SJ: I left with the promise of a freelance partnership by someone at Newsfield, and – frankly – I got stabbed in the back. With no real source of income, I took the job at EMAP. I never really liked it there and had no desire to move to London so was, stupidly, commuting from the West Midlands each day by train. That's the kind of dumb thing you do as a kid, and I knew it couldn't last.

There were some really nice people at EMAP, but there was also a lot of sniping and backbiting and I had no time for it. Also, I'd moved from working on computers to a typewriter, which was like going back in time - the production process was archaic compared to Newsfield, which also didn't help.

OoPA: You left EMAP to work for Future Publishing. What were the reasons behind this decision?
SJ: I knew (or at least hoped) that EMAP was only a stop-gap. Fortunately, the late, great Graeme Kidd offered me a role on ACE, Future's multi-format games mag. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity.

OoPA: You were then appointed editor of new Sega magazine called S: The Sega Mag (later renamed Sega Power). It seemed quite a bold move on Future's part to launch a dedicated Sega magazine at that time, so what prompted that launch?
SJ: I don't really know the precise thinking behind it, to be honest. I think Chris Anderson had secured some sort of deal with Virgin Mastertronic which was distributing the Master System. Initial sales were very poor but it gradually grew and then took off when the Mega Drive arrived.

 
Gunship – Zzap!64
Gunship Zzap!64 review

OoPA: From launching a magazine that was arguably ahead of its time you then went on to launch Commodore Format, a magazine dedicated to the 8-bit Commodore 64, and which many thought was behind the times.  Why would Future launch a magazine dedicated to a computer that was thought to be in its twilight years?
SJ: I guess someone saw that the C64 was still shifting units, still selling games and was worth the investment. I'm pretty sure over the course of its lifetime, CF made a stack of cash for Future, as we enjoyed decent sales and pretty steady advertising. I'm still very proud of the quality of the mag, and the ideas and level of work that went in to it.


OoPA: With an editorial team of former Zzap!64 staff, was there ever any rivalry between the two magazines?

SJ: Yeah, of course. It didn't help that Zzap! kept stealing my ideas and even the layout of some of the pages. You always want to outsell your rival and we managed it from a standing start really early on.


OoPA: Presumably predicting demand for the upcoming SNES, Total! was launched late 1991 with yourself as Editor. As with S, this was the first UK magazine dedicated to the Nintendo range of consoles. Was this another case of being ahead of the predicted increase of gamers for the consoles?
SJ: Again, these decisions weren't being made by me but by Chris Anderson who owned the company, and the publishers in charge of the individual mags (in this case a guy called Steve Carey). I was just lucky enough to be along for the ride!

But I think at this stage Future recognised that games mags was going to be a huge market. It was already big and growing every year – so they were just looking for any inroad to a new segment of the market. At its peak, Future had at least one mag for every games machine out there.
  S The Sega Mag #1
OoPA: Working with staff writer Andy Dyer, who was also with you on Commodore Format, you seemed to have a lot of fun producing Total! There certainly was an air of humour throughout the magazine with witty use of caricatures of the reviewers. Was that the case in reality?
SJ: Yeah, I always enjoyed working with Andy and for the most part we got on really well. I was sad to lose him to Mega in the end.

Commodore Format #1   OoPA: It has been stated by a former Future journalist that the content in Total! – as with Mega the following year – was written by freelance contributors with editorial staff taking credit for the work. What are your thoughts on this subject?
SJ: I'm not sure about Mega, but in the case of Total!, yes that was the case. However, I think the term 'taking credit' makes it sound underhand and sinister, when it was simply a way to populate the mag with enough content. There's no way me and Andy could have written everything in the time available, so we did freelance out a few reviews and put our names to them. It was the style of the mag to have these cartoon reviewers, so we did paint ourselves into a corner with the original concept. It was probably naive of us at the time, but I don't see how it's much worse than biographies being ghost-written by real authors; as long as the reviews were fair and accurate I didn't see how it was hurting anyone. And the writers never seemed to have a problem with it, certainly not at the time. They were happy enough being paid.

OoPA: From Total! – a magazine that didn't take itself too seriously – you went on to helm the launch of Edge in September 1993. What prompted the launch of Edge, considering that Future sold ACE  a similar style of magazine  a few years previously and were also publishing GamesMaster?
SJ: When ACE was sold to EMAP, the company had to sign a non-competitive agreement which lasted for, I think, five years. The moment that was up, Future wanted another multi-format games mag. By this time I was getting older and didn't want to do kids mags any more, and I also felt like videogaming was coming of age, with the advent of CD-ROM, 32-bit processors, lots of 3D polygonal games and so on.


OoPA: Edge was – and still is in many ways – known for its editorial stance and anonymous writing style. There was one instance in particular that many readers remember when issue one gave Gunstar Heroes – now generally considered to be a Mega Drive classic – an overall rating of 6 out of 10. Was it always the plan to display a bit of harshness when reviewing and did the anonymity of the writer contribute to the harshness in any way?
SJ: I suppose Edge was the antithesis of the very character-driven games mags I'd done, so instead of everything being written from a particular person's perspective, I wanted it to be from 'Edge'.


Commodore Format staff - Launc h issue (Front: Trevor Gilham, Sean Masterson; Back: Andy Dyer, Steve Jarratt and Lam Tang)
Commodore Format launch issue staff.
Front: Trevor Gilham, Sean Masterson
Back: Andy Dyer, Steve Jarratt and Lam Tang


The idea being that we'd all play the games and it was a general view – after all, if you give the wrong reviewer the wrong game, you can get very biased opinions. However, I never meant for the mag to start believing its own hype and evolve [into] this weird hive-mind approach. I wanted the tone to be sort of adult and knowledgeable, but still witty and entertaining. At various times, Edge has been almost unreadably pretentious. I think its current incarnation is much better – although I haven't really read a games mag for years.

Total #1   OoPA: Edge was the fourth launch magazine that you had helmed as editor and was now becoming your forte. Was there any added pressure and expectations being the launch editor of a magazine?
SJ: The only pressure I felt was to do something original, fresh – and better than the previous mag. I was still learning my craft and making mistakes.

OoPA: OoPA: During the summer of 1994, you became editor of Amiga Format, one of the few times you took over as editor from someone else. What was it like to take over as editor with a successful magazine rather than launch one?
SJ: Fine. No launch hassle; no recruitment worries; a stable, existing readership... the only thing is you need to be careful not to throw away what the previous incumbent has achieved when trying to bring in your own ideas. If I'm honest, I think Amiga Format probably suffered under my tenure, because I just wasn't that big an Amiga fan. You really need to love the subject matter to be a magazine editor, otherwise you're in the wrong role - and probably just going through the motions.

OoPA: There was a huge amount of anticipation for the officially endorsed Playstation publication with Future eventually obtaining the rights to launch the Official Playstation Magazine in October 1995. As launch editor, what are your recollections of the events surrounding the phenomenally successful launch?
SJ: Well it was a long time ago. I remember being pretty pleased with the design and the structure of the mag, and some of the nice ideas we put in it, but I think by then I'd just had enough of editing games mags. Certainly by issue six or seven I was ready to jump ship and let someone else take over. Of course it was exciting to be at the start of a new generation of gaming, but it's surprising how quickly the novelty wears off and you find yourself just editing another games mag.

S The Sega Magazine 1 - October 1989 (UK)
Wonderboy 3: The Dragon's Trap

OoPA: T3 (standing for Tomorrow's Technology Today) was launched in the autumn of 1997 and was a slight departure for someone who had been actively involved with videogaming magazines for the past ten years.
SJ: Ah - [as previously mentioned]! Three things: I was bored of doing games mags as they're largely pretty much the same each time – plus I'd been doing them for ages. I was also getting too old; my pop culture references were out of date and I didn't speak kiddie lingo any more. And I'd also been getting more and more into computing, technology and home entertainment, so this was a good move for me. It was a 'proper' adult magazine, so I could stretch my editorial muscles as it were, beyond writing endless previews and reviews.

OoPA: You then became Senior Editor and Group Senior Editor during the intervening years. What were your responsibilities and how did these new roles differ from your previous positions?
SJ: The idea was for me to help less experienced editors by passing on some of the stuff I'd learned. At one point I had about 22 mags in my portfolio, and was doing covers, redesigns, mentoring, that kind of stuff. And I was also just available for an editor to speak to, get some ideas, work through problems, help with staff issues and so on.


OoPA: After 20 years in the industry, you won the Games Media Legend award at the 2008 Games Media Awards. How did it feel to win such an award?

SJ: It was very nice to be recognised for the work I'd done. I'd been pretty anonymous in the industry really; I never put myself about like some of the journos, so it was a bit of a surprise that anyone even knew what I'd been doing!
  Edge #1

OoPA: Following a downscale in staff at Future, you decided to leave in October 2011. Having spent over 23 years at the company, it must have been a tough decision.
SJ: Well I'd been enjoying the Group Senior role less and less, as I felt I had no real direction. So I asked to take on an editorship again – I kind of demoted myself I suppose. And although it was only supposed to be temporary, I was still there two years later when the axe fell. My role was made redundant and rather than reapply for my old job – probably on half the wages – I figured Future had had enough of me and so I just took voluntary redundancy.

OoPA: You’re currently working freelance, but are you still involved with videogame magazines at all?  What are your thoughts on the current crop of videogame magazines?

SJ: I'm no longer directly involved with game journalism (expect a few iOS reviews) and, much like the rest of the population, I don't read mags any more! But I do go to websites every day: mainly Eurogamer and CVG, plus the occasional flirt with a few other sites and Zero Punctuation. However I do find a lot of the writing a bit like they're trying too hard to be edgy and culturally relevant. The number of times I skip past the first three paragraphs so the writer can get their creative writing wankfest out of the way and start actually talking about the game...

Official Playstation Mag   OoPA: Edge is still highly regarded as much today as it was when it was launched and doesn't appear to be doing as badly as the other magazines. Do you still keep an eye on the current issues of Edge and, if so, how do you compare it to 1993/94 Edge? Why do you think it has remained so successful?
SJ: Well it's still losing readers, but at a slower rate than its competition – and it's possible some of them are now reading the iPad edition, which is very good. I think the mag delivers real quality editorial, and 'proper' journalism. The team goes out, they do interviews, they break exclusives – it's still content worth paying for. It still fulfils a particular need and does it very well.

But I'm afraid the last time I read the mag was when I was at Future which is probably about 18 months ago, so I wouldn't want to make any real comparisons. (Although I'm pretty confident the current issues are far, far better than the ones I did!)

OoPA: Looking back at the many magazines in the day, what were your favourites and why?
SJ: Of the ones I edited, I think Commodore Format is my proudest achievement. I never really liked a lot of the competition to be honest, so never read them!

OoPA: What do you think about videogaming magazine preservation projects like Out-of-Print Archive?
SJ: It's good that all that hard work, creativity and ingenuity doesn't just get forgotten. And they might be useful for people interested in media and games journalism or gaming nostalgia.

OoPA: Having spent 25 years in the industry what would you say are your fondest memories and biggest achievements? How would you like to be remembered?

SJ: My fondest memories are working on Zzap!64. Biggest achievement I suppose will be Edge, even though I only edited seven or eight issues. And I'd really like to be remembered for winning the triple-roll-over Euromillions and spunking all the cash on a house like Tony Stark's and a collection of jets and supercars.
  Steve Zzap!64 charicature



Notes:
Special thanks to Mort at The Def Guide to Zzap!64and Andynick at Magazines From the Past.

 
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