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  • A Chat With Former CGW Head Johnny Wilson

    [12.22.11]
    - Steve Fulton

  • Is there anything you would have done differently in the heyday of CGW if you had the chance to do it all over again?

    I'd like to believe that I could have staved off the decline of journalism by pulling back on the Sneak Preview hype. We wrote sneak previews based on what we hoped games would be like but reviewed them by a different standard when the games came out. Toward the end (and now, on the web), all it took was a screenshot and a bunch of PR hooey for a sneak preview. At CGW, we always tried to "touch code." I don't see that happening today.

    I'd like to believe I would have stood up to ZD earlier about getting an online presence before they tried to buy "turnkey" solutions with Nuke and Gamespot. I'd like to think  I could have won the circulation battle by being more diplomatic with ZD's VP of Circulation. I wish I'd have had the moral courage to stand up to my younger editors and say that I was sticking with M. Evan Brooks and Scorpia I made an error in judgment. I thought I was right, but I'd change that decision if I could.

    In general, though, I believe Computer Gaming World took the games and the industry seriously when no one else was. I believe we made a difference in the industry. And, I believe that I was privileged (through no special skill or talent of my own) to surf a fabulous wave in time.

    What events transpired when you left CGW?

    When I left Computer Gaming World, PC Gamer was out-distributing us by between 100-150K. Where we were equally distributed, we were matching them or outselling them, but I couldn't convince Ziff-Davis to match their distribution. So, PC Gamer had more visibility and more momentum than we could manage. My staff and I always felt like we were working at a handicap.

    ZD felt like I was graying, Terry Coleman was prematurely gray [which you wouldn't know from his red-orange hair today], and the average editorial age was considerably higher than those of our competitors. They felt having me as the spokesperson for the magazine sent the wrong signal, since I was a crappy FPS and RTS player at a time when those genres were the fastest growing titles in the industry. I kept getting second-guessed by executives in my own company.

    Jon Lane, the best boss I ever had, helped me come up with the idea of becoming "Editorial Director" and letting a younger guy become Editor-in-Chief. In that position, I began to work on three projects: 1) a time-limited demo DVD for McDonald's play areas (we accomplished in a month what the eventual contractor took eight months to accomplish); a DVD-based trade publication with both demos and articles in the same "package" ( ZD decided not to make it  because they thought Gamespot had the demo scene covered); and 3) planning  my personal future.

    At E3, I ran into a Wizards of the Coast executive I had known for years. She saida reorganization had put all of their magazines in her department. I proposed that she hire me as Group Publisher and I immediately began trying to redesign those publications to make them more newsstand savvy. So, I essentially stepped up when I left ZD. ZD was very good to me-not an evil empire.

    You brought up "ageism" is regards to CGW.  Do you think the entire game industry (not just magazines) tends to have a very short memory about the history of gaming and game journalism?

    When I was covering the game industry, I felt like most of the people on the development side were very much aware of the history of games. Today, most  don't see any value in looking back at failed interfaces, archaic design decisions, technological limitations, etc. I'm extremely thankful that DePaul's faculty has seen the wisdom of covering this material so I believe our students have a bigger bag of tricks than some because they know what's worked in the past and what hasn't.

    How did your book High Score come about?

    RuselDemaria had a dream of writing a coffee table book on the history of video games. When he talked to the editors at Osborne-McGraw Hill, they felt like the book would have more credibility (and probably more hitherto unpublished anecdotes) if it had more than one author. He suggested me, and Rusel approached me about writing a small portion of the book. We negotiated a deal where I'd do about a third of the work and he'd do the rest. The look and the approach is primarily Rusel's . I wrote what I wanted to write. Alas, there are still a lot of stories I tell in my History of Video Games class at DePaul University (with complete deniability) that I wouldn't feel comfortable putting in the book. I think it's a nice book, but I wish I could have proved that Multimedia Company X was laundering money for Mid-Eastern Arms Dealers or that Publisher Y was funded with money that came from organized crime so I could have published it.


    How was High Score received?

    High Score was a bestseller in its space. I heard from several professors in game development programs who used the book as a textbook and heard from others that it was more superficial than Kent's book. It's true that we don't have as much detail, but our goal was to make a very accessible volume. It's more of a trip back in time than an analysis.

    High Score was released just after Steven L. Kent's The First Quarter. Why do you think there was an interest in gaming history at the time?

    At the turn of the millennium, I believe the industry was just reaching a point of legitimacy. So, we were at a landmark point so that all of the kids who grew up with the earlier eras of electronic games had become adults. They were ready for some nostalgia and nostalgia often sells at turning points.

    After Steven L. Kent published The Ultimate history Of Video Games he pretty much quit writing about games altogether because, I believe, he didn't think there was a place for real journalism (read: it didn't sell) any longer in the field of video games. Do you agree?

    Recently, I read the most pretentious book of game "journalism" I've ever read (Extra Lives) and a very interesting book on the phenomena of gaming and the future of the industry (Tom Catchfield's Fun Inc.). Will game journalism sell? There's always a market if you package it right. Brian Fargo wants to do a book on the game business with me called The Bard's Tale. So far, we haven't figured out how to package it.

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