Thursday, December 9, 2010

Retro Gamer issues 80 to 84

In the spirit of Christmas my friend, and ex-boss on Retro Gamer, Darran Jones sent me some copies of Retro Gamer. I praise the magazine’s many positives, but first I must share some flashbacks.

Despite my reservations, these are actually really amazing. In fact, they kind of make me wish I’d taken a subscription, or at least accepted Darran’s offer for a monthly column, which would have guaranteed me a regular supply. Unfortunately I’ve never bought a copy, and never will, since despite having left 4 years ago, I still harbour what many would call undue psychological baggage. So although I praise the magazine’s writers and skilled designer, I do have reservations.

As staff writer I earned £12,000 per year. That’s £1,000 a month. After tax and national insurance it was more like £750 (income tax was 22% in 2006, NI was on top of this). Then I lost something like £400 on rent, plus there were utility bills on top of that: electricity, gas, phone, water, food etc. I lived on a diet of boiled rice and tinned pilchards since that was the cheapest food I could find. Each month after all the above deductions I had £100 of “fun money” to play around with. Also, working on a retro mag, I didn’t get free games like my colleagues, unless it was retro compilations. And apart from the Sega ones (which I gave 96% to once), these compilations were mostly crap. So I was poor, hungry, overworked and seldom had games to play. My average hours per week regularly reached around 45 hours. Sometimes more.

After 6 months I thought bugger this, quit, and landed a job as sub-editor at a massive corporation, doubling my salary (yes, DOUBLING it), and halving my workload. Instead of running around to meet ludicrous page quotas per week, my days were spent casually proof reading articles in an unrelated field. This is when I realised that getting a job based on your hobby is NEVR a good idea. A hobby is fun because you’re in control of it – when it becomes a job there are rules to adhere to and you’re doing on someone else’s time, to someone else’s schedule. I stopped playing games and ended up hating them – they represented the prison cell I had volunteered for. I didn’t play games again until the winter of 2007 I ended up so burned out. Also, when your job is also your hobby, there is no middle ground, everything ends up becoming AMAZING, or ABSOLUTE CRAP, and you lose any sense of impartiality.

My advice is always this: aim for a job which pays AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, because screw the hippy liberals, by the time you hit 25 money is the only thing that matters anymore. And make sure it’s a job which is EASY and which you are mildly apathetic towards, so you can do it proficiently 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year, FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. I really liked my new job and my new colleagues were wonderful and very carefree (working in games magazines my colleagues were all underpaid, underfed and psychologically abused by upper management). I gave my new job after leaving RG all my effort, because I could still leave it at the office, whereas on Retro Gamer I never left the office, my home became the office, the pub was the office, wandering the high street was the office.

Anyway, long story short, I wasn’t paid enough, I was worked too hard, and all of us were treated very badly by the CEOs at the top. It’s traumatised me somewhat – made worse by the fact that I volunteered for the position. If I had been forced into it, I could maybe forgive myself. And so although seeing these issues today makes me think it’s a fantastic looking mag, with some great written articles, I will never be able to see Retro Gamer without having really awful flashbacks of working long under-appreciated hours and only being able to afford a scummy apartment, drinking neat Stolichnaya and occasionally punching the wall with anger at life’s unfairness. Jeez, they paid me so little it’s disturbing. Never again.

If you’ve never worked as a professional games writer on a UK magazine though, and I implore you not to, then Retro Gamer is a pretty good magazine with the best design I’ve ever seen. Still, they don’t pay their staff anywhere near enough fucking money, so when you enjoy it, pause for a moment and think of the poor individuals who are burning away the best years of their life to create it.


The Mario cover had this neat gimmick like an advent calender, where you could lift each square to find a screen from a Mario, with a date of release and info. This must be one of the coolest covers I've ever seen on a games mag. Ever.

I'm not a fan of the author behind the Axelay article, but the design is so incredibly beautiful.

Retro Gamer also covers things like TV shows based on games - in this case it's Bad Influence, a UK TV show covering technology and videogames.

A big feature on the adventure games of Dynamix. Pretty good, with a lot of interesting inside anecdotes.

Desert Island Disks with Larry DeMar, written by the always excellent Paul Drury. These have always been a highlight of the magazine, with fantastic writing and some incredibly personal stories from the interviewee. DID is the gold standard for video game interviews I feel, and blows away a lot of the basic Q+A pieces phoned in by other magazines.

A detailed Making Of feature on Ms Pacman. This is another strong point of RG. EDGE magazine does one making a month, RG sometimes does three. In 50 or 100 years time, these Making Of articles will still be read, and will still be worth something. How many other magazines can claim that?

GamesTM's deputy editor Ashley Day wrote a 4 page on the Pokemon Mini, one of the most intelligently written features I've read in a while - a personal favourite in fact. So many games commentators today take the Seanbaby or AVGN approach, of moronic criticism, without trying to understand what's being covered. The Pokemon Mini might not be a hugely relevant piece of hardware, but it's still a fascinating topic when handled with decorum.

I like these Complete Guide To articles, since by showing every level, every boss and every enemy, it negates any need to play the game any more. For me, it helps put the game away, so I feel like I can move on to other titles.

Making of Day of the Tentacle. They like their adventure games almost as much as HG101 does.

The Mario issue featured a massive article on Mario as a character. It was OK, not badly written. But for my money I would have liked a bit more coverage on the Hudson ports, and perhaps an explanation for them. And furthermore, they claim that Hotel Mario is a bad game, when in fact it's a fantastic single-screen arcade style game, like a cross between Elevator Action and Donkey Kong. Also, for a laugh they really should have included a boxout on Mario as a communist. Maybe also some weird Mario fan-art for good measure. Still, without an author's byline it must have been done in-house, which meant they didn't have much time. So I can forgive them. They got famous games people like Carmac and Hawkins to explain what they thought of Mario, which is ingenious. I want to see more of the industry commenting on itself.

I know the artwork shown above has been discussed online across various forums, but I wanted to mention it again. The Mario 3 article was by Ash Day and, as usual, was of an excellent quality. Considering how flogged to death the Mario 3 topic is, he handled it quite well. Also, the design, look at how gorgeous that design is. If you look at the collection of sprites on page 2, you'll notice that every Mario sprite is doing a different animation. One is standing, another running, another running with his hand out, one kicking, another jumping, then jumping with hands out, and so on. It's not all standing poses, each is different. And that map double spread - oh lord is it beautiful. Every single magazine should look this good. Only GameFAN has matched this level of style.

A making of Leather Goddesses of Phobos. Very detailed, very interesting.

The Making of Gorf - RG usually has a good blend or arcade, computer and console coverage.

Parker Brothers!

Sid Meier!

The Primal Rage making of was fascinating. I had no idea they'd implemented so much copy protection. And I didn't even know about PR2.

This article is a personal favourite. It covers copy protection in games, from old computer games right up to Earthbound and its super difficult mode that occurs with a pirate copy. Six pages, and one of the best researched pieces I've read in a long time. Actually, I'm tempted to scan the entire feature and put it up - this is the kind of article everyone should read and have access to.

A big Donkey Kong arcade feature, including an interview with the guy who did the Atari 2600 port.

I love these spreads where they show a version of every port. Now, I've read every RG since it first started, and I'm fairly sure that this level of obsessive detail was done first by HG101. In which case, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.

Harvest Moon is a great series, and this is a great look at it behind the scenes. TRUE FACTS: Kim Wild isn't actually Kim Wilde, plus I used to live just two streets down from her after I left RG. Always does well researched features.

And that about wraps up the 4 issues I got. I didn't cover everything, because it doesn't all appeal to me. There's lots of stuff which I don't even read - but after flicking through these 4 issues, it does tempt me to start picking it up.

Interestingly, Retro Gamer recently won an award in the UK for best games magazine. Which they deserve considering the effort that's needed compared to other magazines.

Ignoring the fact that management DON'T PAY ANYONE ENOUGH, the writers and designers do a great job, a far better job than they should considering the low pay.

But perhaps I'm just a bitter old scoundrel.

PS: they don't pay their staff enough.


  1. 48 weeks of work? That's a nice perk of Europe, in the US you're lucky if you get 2 weeks vacation. :(

    Retro Gamer has always paid better attention to the quality of the computer ports, something which I never did in the early years and some older articles currently lack. Even now we tend to write them off a bit, maybe because most of us in the US never grew up with Amstrads, Amigas and Spectrums ...and the IBM PC ports we did get were almost unilaterally awful anyway.

  2. Only 2 weeks? Jeez, that does suck. Man!

    I'm sure I got 3 weeks on RG, and 4 weeks at my next job. Actually, it was more like 20 days or something, to be spent as I pleased. I often used to take half days off at random - it was ace.

    Well, the Speccy, Amstrad and C64 ports are often pretty awful for some games too, but it's always fun to look at them - sometimes more fun to look than actually play.

  3. I've collected RG since issue 1, and while sometimes there isn't much in it to interest me (of course this is always going to be the case with such things) I'm in that kind of compulsive-buy zone now, as in... I've got every issue so I have to buy it whether there's interesting content or not.

    I'm sad to hear about the working conditions, as it makes me fear for the health of the magazine. Like HG101 itself it's actually doing an essential service. This stuff needs to be documented.

  4. It seems that hours and pay in the games mag biz have only gotten worse as the years have gone on. A mag like Retro Gamer is really run on passion and you can't phone in a mag like that every month.

    There was a time, a few years ago when I hankered after getting back into mags and I had the opportunity to start something from scratch but I just couldn't take the pay cut. I don't particularly enjoy games development but it sure pays better than mags.

  5. Interesting to hear about the work conditions. I can say that writers in other fields have similar issues. Quite a shame, nobody seems to invest in quality writing anymore.

    Er, this post does however seem to make the opposite point: Retro-Gamer pays shit but actually makes a quality magazine. It does credit to the writers who barely scrape by enough to live on yet manage to create something worth reading.

  6. RG does well I think because it's predominantly an externally written magazine, done by freelancers, who don't rely on RG's freelance money.

    There's only 3 in-house staff: editor (who also writes a lot of content), staff writer and designer. Plus some in-house copy editors who work on several mags at once.

  7. Al Alcorn's desert island disks was probably the best written article they had so far. I think it was either last issue or the one before, but it was a real insight into the early days.