Author Topic: RVG Interviews: Roger Kean.  (Read 94 times)

Offline zapiy

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RVG Interviews: Roger Kean.
« on: November 07, 2018, 15:12:45 PM »

Roger Kean is one of the founders of Crash and Zzap!64 magazines, there were the two must have magazines for us growing up in the 80's. Roger has recently been working on a series of books with Chris Wilkins at Fusion Retro Books and he took sometime out to chat with us.

Zapiy

Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?

Roger

One aspect of my life few people know about is that I was brought up as a kid in Nigeria, where my dad worked in the Ministry of Civil Aviation. I was seven when we left Solihull where I was born, and 16 by the time my parents settled back in the UK. The experience game me a love of travel and moving around…which goes no way at all to explain why I haven’t moved away from Ludlow in 36 years! I suppose Crash, Zzap!64 and Newsfield Ltd in general are as much to blame for my slothfulness as any other aspect.

There were no schools in Lagos for children of British expatriates, which meant boarding school back in England. I finally left Highgate School in north London after A-Levels and went to continue studying painting at Hornsey College of Art, but gravitated more to filmmaking, eventually going to the London Film School (where I first met Oliver Frey). For the better part of the next ten years after graduating, I worked as a freelance film editor for several TV production companies, including stints at Granada, Thames, Open University, the BBC and a lot for Transworld International (TWI), not only a film company but also a global sports agency. I used to edit the official films of Wimbledon, British and US Golf Opens, Masters and other sporting events.

But in all that time, I was writing for various agencies: general journalism, London scene club news, gay events; and learning the trade of laying out magazines. I cut my teeth in the technical aspects of bringing out a periodical with almost no back-up team. It involved organizing typesetting, sizing and cropping photographs before their conversion to halftones, and page layout. In those days page design was a very physical business, using pre-printed layout grid sheets, scalpels, Cow Gum for sticking down typeset galleys and halftones, learning print pagination and reprographics – the business of turning paper layouts into four-colour films from which the printer made the printing plates.

When I decided it was time to get out of London (house prices beyond any means…), friends drew Oliver and I to Ludlow in 1982, a town we had visited several times since 1976, though neither of us anticipated what we were about to do to the town’s medieval-Georgian charm.

Zapiy

How did you get started in gaming journalism?

Roger

That came about as a consequence of Oliver’s brother Franco getting us involved in setting up a mail order business selling ZX Spectrum game cassettes. His theory was that because they were nearly impossible in 1982/83 to buy in stores, we’d make a fortune with inexpensive adverts in the likes of C&VG, Sinclair User and Personal Computer Games (PCG). First off, we marketed ourselves through catalogues that included scores of titles and I had to give each game a glowing review-ette, while Oli added lustre to the cheap production by drawing illustrations straight onto the gaps left between sticking down cut up typewritten text. It was all done on ordinary copy paper and printed at our local instant printers, the Tortoiseshell Press

TrekMD

What motivated you to create Crash?  How long did it take to get things going?

Roger

Perversely – given its unfortunate computer association – we opted to call the mail order business CRASH MICRO GAMES ACTION. When a young customer showed his father, who was managing director of a magazine distribution company, a copy of the catalogue, dad dashed off to WH Smith. One day I took a phone call from the managing director of magazine distributors Wells, Gardner & Darton. His young son, it seemed, had received one of our catalogues. Intrigued, he’d shown it to the news buyer of WH Smith in Swindon, who told him that if this black and white rag turned into a real magazine, WH Smith would certainly stock it in all its stores.

Zapiy

How did Newsfield Publications start-up?

Roger

Suddenly, the three of us needed a limited liability company to continue operations. It was all very well-being a partnership in the purchase and reselling of cassettes, but the levels of continual funding required to print real magazines and distribute them was scary. We purchased an off-the-shelf company in the early summer of 1983. These are sold for £100 by specialist firms of solicitors, and each company is given a typical, though unique, ‘off-the-shelf’ name – ours happened to be called Newsfield Limited and we never changed its name to something more suitable because it was about news and we certainly lived in a field compared to all our soon-to-be London-based competition.

There was no question that we would stick with the Spectrum. In truth I hadn’t much of a clue about any of the other machines, and the Commodore 64 had barely impinged halfway through 1983 as we prepared to take the plunge with Crash. Having come up with the name for the catalogue business, and WH Smith having accepted it, there was no reason to find another name for the magazine. Always a fan of short, sharp titles, both Oliver and I were amused to use ‘crash’, almost like waving a red rag before a bull. When we approached Sportscene Specialist Press, later renamed Dennis Publishing, seeking financial support for the proposed magazine, we were told that we ‘were far too late!’ because they were ready to launch Your Spectrum. The publisher asked what was our title and scoffed at it. This snub only firmed us in our conviction to stick with CRASH. Your Spectrum (later Your Sinclair) launched a couple of weeks before Crash, but it was bi-monthly, whereas we went for the throat with a monthly periodical.

TrekMD

Who came up with the idea of Lloyd Mangram and why?

Roger

For the first few issue only Oliver, Franco, me, and Matthew Uffindell – a youngster who’d bought games from us at the front door – made up the team. With our previous London experience of magazine production, Oli and I knew that a magazine needed more names listed in the masthead to sound convincing, so I added a few made-up names, including Lloyd Mangram. In my days editing sports films for TWI, the veteran US golf champion Lloyd Mangrum impressed me in a vintage piece of film showing him scoring a hole-in-one at a former British Open and I adopted his as my pen name thereafter, only switching the ‘u’ for an ‘a’. Lloyd became almost the heart and soul of Crash and soon after Zzap!64.

TrekMD

How difficult was it to compete for readers' attention given other magazines that covered the Spectrum?

Roger

The other magazines dedicated to the Spectrum were only Your Spectrum and Sinclair User. The former, which tended more to games coverage, started out as a bi-monthly with barely half the amount of pages in Crash, and Sinclair User was seemingly uninterested in games, preferring to see itself as a ‘serious’ educational periodical. Frankly, there was no competition at launch until Your Spectrum/Your Sinclair upped the ante. The first thing I did was to take a serious look at the way contemporary computer-related magazines handled games reviews – pretty badly was the answer. So from the word go Crash was going to fulfil WH Smith’s wishes as an all-games vehicle. Type-in listings were out; heavy-duty techie stuff was out – wide-spaced (‘educashunal’) typesetting was out. Detailed game reviews were in; researched playing tips were in; technical stuff that mattered, ie. joystick connections, RAM packs, anything that boosted sound, was in. Articles about software houses were in, and I was determined we would make pop stars of the programmers and games designers – something amazingly overlooked by the ‘professional’ magazines. Most certainly, pages devoted to encouraging letters and offering reasoned responses were in. All those other mags printed a few letters, but invariably offered no response.

Almost from the outset, the Crash style appealed to software houses and within two issues Newsfield attracted the attention of the most powerful games makers of the day, Ultimate Play The Game. no other magazine in the business got the competitions, prizes and support we did. That and the depth of the content made Crash an almost instant success.

TrekMD

How did Zzap!64 come about?  Did lessons from working on Crash help you when developing and publishing this magazine?

Roger

With the growing success of Crash and increasing sales of the Commodore 64, it became inevitable that Newsfield would launch a C64 title. In a Crash editorial, I was rude about PCG, though my defence was that Crash had been renamed ‘Trash’ in one of their issues. I was therefore surprised to receive a most polite phone call from a certain Chris Anderson, PCG’s editor. He’d heard rumours that Newsfield was planning a C64 title, and could he apply to be its editor. His reasons were primarily two-fold. He was fed up with editing a multi-format magazine and wanted to work on a single format, particularly the rising 8-bit star, and second he lived in Yeovil and commuted daily to PCG’s London offices. Our biggest commitment would be to base the new magazine’s editorial not in Ludlow but in Yeovil. Franco and Oliver were reluctant, but Chris was such a catch we consented.

Following Crash we thought a second title would have to be called Bang and the third, for the Amstrad, would obviously be Wallop! Chris (thankfully!) refused ‘Bang’, and with a bit of brainstorming Chris suggested ‘Zap64’ as being, like Crash, short and snappy. It was Oliver who added the second ‘Z’ and the exclamation mark before the ‘64’.

A lot of what we had learned in Crash went into Zzap!64, though Chris had his own way of doing things and certainly wanted a permanent reviewing/writing team, rather than Crash’s schoolboy pool of reviewers. Our distributor, the giant COMAG, was more than happy to take on a new ‘Crash’, and the launch of Zzap!64 was a bigger roll out of copies than had been the case for the untried Crash.

TrekMD

Did you keep copies of the magazines at home? Do you have a collection of them now?

Roger

Oliver and I always kept copies of the magazines at home. Oliver is a collector by nature and it was his insistence on binders that led to us investing in them within a few issues of the Crash launch. The collection of almost all the different titles Newsfield produced are still held, though I mostly transferring Crash, Zzap!64 and Amtix! from the old binders to box files for better protection.

Zapiy

What was your fondest memory of working on the zzap!64 and Crash magazines?

Roger

I have too many fond memories of the Newsfield days to list! I think I’m happiest to have been a part of an organisation that launched a lot of young people – many local to Ludlow – into careers in journalism or games design.

Zapiy

To us as kids and even now it still seems like it must have been very glamorous working with the Zzap!64 and Crash teams, was it as glamorous as we all imagine?

Roger

It was always extremely hard work in editorial, art and production, and there were some dark times too. But the atmosphere in the King Street premises was generally buoyant, and we attracted most of the top names in gaming to visit, whether coders, musicians or power-play PR people – that added a layer of glamour!

Zapiy

You’re heavily involved with Fusion Retro Books, how did this come about?

Roger

In about 2006 Chris Wilkins got hold of me on the phone. He’d been trying for some time, but the moment I heard he was a former Crash reader I ran metaphorical mile! By then, we were publishing highly illustrated educational reference titles and games were the furthest thing from my mind. However, Oliver and I were ‘dragged’ into the retro limelight as guests at Replay Expo in 2011…and that’s when Chris pounced!

I agreed to use whatever little influence I had to persuade David Ward and John Woods, the former bosses of Ocean, to do an interview for a book Chris wanted to do on the software house. From that beginning, we have now collaborated a several titles. However, apart from offering some technical advice from time to time, I am not involved in Fusion magazine.

Zapiy

Are you a gamer yourself (what are some of your favorites to play)?  Do you own any retro systems?  Modern systems?

Roger

It may sound heretical, but I’ve never been a gamer. In the early days of Crash I did play Spectrum games both in the office and at home, but later the management workload precluded playing games. Defender, Jet Set Willy, Jetpac and Lunar Jetman were about the extent of my playing. At Impact magazines I owned a Sega mega Drive and became expert on Sonic The Hedgehog, but never bothered with anything else after Crash Bandicoot.

TrekMD

Which publication you have been involved in are you the fondest of and why?

Roger

Inevitably, Crash and Zzap!64 occupy a similar space in my memories, but I suppose as it was the first, Crash holds my fondest memories. After that I think I’d have to say I’m fondest of The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome…I wrote it after two years of research and Oliver illustrated every single emperor, members of their families, enemies and usurpers from coins and busts.

Zapiy

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Roger

The resurgence of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming did surprise me. At first I thought it was sheer nostalgia – and to a degree that must be the case – but the fact remains that those old games packed in an amazing amount of gameplay, which I see lacking in a lot of today’s cinematic blockbusters. And of course the minute you have a growing community of like-minded 8-bit gamers sharing on Facebook their enthusiasms, it only adds to the general enjoyment.

Finally

Can I say a huge thanks to Roger for taking the time to chat with us here at RVG, I am sure you will agree that was a fantastic read.

Thanks Roger.
Own: Jaguar, Lynx, Dreamcast, Saturn, MegaDrive, MegaCD, 32X, GameGear, PS3, PS, PSP, Wii, GameCube, N64, DS, GBA, GBC, GBP, GB,  Xbox, 3DO, CDi,  WonderSwan, WonderSwan Colour NGPC

Offline TrekMD

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Re: RVG Interviews: Roger Kean.
« Reply #1 on: November 13, 2018, 01:14:12 AM »
Another nice interview!  He provided some really good answers. 

Going to the final frontier, gaming...

Offline zapiy

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Re: RVG Interviews: Roger Kean.
« Reply #2 on: November 13, 2018, 20:28:57 PM »
Cheers Trek, hope others like it.
Own: Jaguar, Lynx, Dreamcast, Saturn, MegaDrive, MegaCD, 32X, GameGear, PS3, PS, PSP, Wii, GameCube, N64, DS, GBA, GBC, GBP, GB,  Xbox, 3DO, CDi,  WonderSwan, WonderSwan Colour NGPC

Offline Shadowrunner

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Re: RVG Interviews: Roger Kean.
« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2018, 04:04:18 AM »
Really nice. :)