As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, here we look back at the launch of Edge. This feature was first published in August 2003 within our 10th anniversary issue, which had ten different covers.
Freddie Mercury’s Living on my Own was riding atop the charts, having toppled Take That’s Pray. Ex-circus performer John Major was still Prime Minister and just about in charge of the Conservative Party. Trip Hawkins had just launched the 3DO. The CD-ROM was apparently going to usher in a new era of videogaming. The PS-X was little more than a glint in Ken Kutaragi’s eye, while the Dolphin and the Xbox hadn’t even progressed that far. Videogame hardware such as the Mega Drive and SNES were supported by magazines such as SuperPlay, Mean Machines, Computer & Video Games, The One, Sega Power and even Sinclair User. What was then the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Members of the current Edge editorial team were variously working hard in sixth forms or universities around the country. And, on August 19, 1993, Edge magazine was launched.
That first issue arrived in an opaque black bag, loudly proclaiming that it “wasn’t for everyone”; a multiformat videogame magazine aimed at older, serious gamers. Underneath the masthead was a list of the hardware formats that it would cover: Mega Drive, Super Nintendo, PC, Amiga, PC Engine, Neo Geo and 3DO. It was largely the brainchild of launch editor Steve Jarratt, who had started his career in videogame journalism on Zzap!64, along with publisher Steve Carey and art editor Matthew Williams. The rest of the editorial team on the launch issue consisted of deputy art editor Rob Abbott, production editor Harry Wylie, and two writers, Jason Brookes (who would go on to edit the magazine from E10) and George Andreas.
“Every issue we’ll be fighting to ensure you’re ahead of the field for news and previews of videogames,” read the editor’s introduction. “And when we aren’t first with a game it’s because it’s not worth your time… or because we’ll be bringing you the whole story – not just a handful of intro screenshots and a mouthful of garbled rumour.” Inside, a range of pundits made their predictions for the future of videogames, including George Lucas and Arthur C Clarke. The news pages reported Commodore and Atari’s bid to enter the CD market, and the Japanese launch of Pioneer’s LaserActive system, before managing to fit the release schedules for all the platforms on the cover into just two pages (not something that would be possible in today’s era of videogame proliferation). Highlights included previews of Dungeon Master II, Rise of the Robots and Virtua Racing, features about 3DO and the impact of Dolby Surround and Qsound, and reviews of Street Fighter II Turbo on SNES, Mortal Kombat on SNES and Gunstar Heroes on the Mega Drive (which was unfairly admonished for a lack of secrets or hidden levels).
Reading through the first issue of Edge, it’s clear that the videogame industry, and its attendant specialist press, were both very different to the corporate leviathans that later evolved. Simon Byron was editor of The One (“Britain’s least-popular Amiga games magazine”) at the time. He describes the period as “an extended episode of ‘Press Gang’, though with a million geeky Dexter Fletchers and no Julia Zimbabwes. Kids playing Sensible Soccer or Speedball 2 for a fortnight, before thinking about what to put in the next issue. It astonished me that companies such as EMAP and Future would essentially place huge financial responsibility in the arms of inexperienced (in publishing terms) gamers with, in our case, very little managerial guidance in terms of how the magazine should progress.”
Paul Davies, who was working on EMAP’s official Nintendo magazine, Nintendo Magazine System at the time, concurs, “Everyone was reviewing games from imported Japanese or American games, and crediting the supplier. Overseas news from Japan and the US was lifted from Japanese mags like Weekly Famitsu and US mags like EGM. It was every man for himself, and some of the older ‘personalities’ were still helping each other out when it came to exclusive UK-oriented reviews, competitions, and so on. It was a time of transition, to be polite about it.”
Perhaps it’s because of this that it was also a period that was bursting with potential. “You have to remember that this was the moment when videogames were suddenly the new rock ’n’ roll,” argues Carey. “Sony was putting them into nightclubs, Sega was throwing money around on marketing like it was going out of fashion (though in fact the reverse was true) and any hot new act that wanted to signal cool had to know their videogame stuff.”
And the exponentially improving technology seemed unstoppable. “On paper, there were systems that threatened to offer all the sophistication we’d been promised by The Future,” agrees Byron. “The CD-ROM, for example, implied far more than it ever delivered – but at the time, we were astonished by Rebel Assault and The Seventh Guest’s undeniably impressive eye candy.” Which perhaps explains Edge’s decision to give quite so much coverage to Microcosm (“I remember being a little concerned about Microcosm getting so much coverage,” recalls Brookes, with the benefit of hindsight).
Future Publishing, the birthplace of Edge, was itself an embodiment of this turbulent slice of videogame history. “It was a pretty exciting time,” relates Brookes. “There was rapid expansion due to the 16bit boom and there was a feeling that Future was unstoppable. Personally, I felt there was a warm family vibe at Future at that time – it was quite innocent. I can’t believe that we didn’t have internet access for the first two years of Edge. I remember receiving the initial specs for the PlayStation and Saturn via fax from our ‘Frenchman in Japan’, Nicolas di Costanzo. I think he must have copied them out of Weekly Famitsu – and yet no other games magazines reported on this.”
Matt Williams has similar memories. “Future was privately owned and a lot smaller, which meant we had a direct line to the boss [Greg Ingham, then Future’s managing director] – who had a conscience. Obviously it was about making a living, but it was all about believing in the magazines, because his background was as a videogame journalist anyway. Everybody knew everybody else and it was quite tight-knit, and the videogame industry was just overflowing with potential. The technology we have now to produce the magazines is so advanced compared with what we had then; it was being produced to film, there was no digital workflow. Interestingly though that probably made us think more about what we were producing.”
What they were producing was, according to Carey, “the result of a lot of conversations, many of them in the pub. Believe it or not, Edge was never about making money – I distinctly remember being told that very explicitly by Greg Ingham. It was about making something unbelievably, uncompromisingly brilliant. Future at the time was pretty no-nonsense in its launching; we didn’t go in for focus groups or any of that nonsense. With Edge, in particular, we had the feeling that we were going to produce a magazine that we loved, and that the readers would respect and appreciate. It’s such a cliché now but at the time it seemed fresh: if you build it, they will come.”
And build it they did. When Future Publishing had sold ACE magazine to EMAP some years earlier, the terms of the deal prohibited the company from entering the multiformat market with a new launch for a certain period of time. According to Jarratt, it was the end of that period that kicked off the conception process. “When the agreement between Future and EMAP allowed us to enter the multiformat market again, following the sale of ACE, Greg Ingham and Steve Carey asked me if I wanted to launch one and I was really keen. I figured that if I was still heavily into videogames at the age of, er, approaching 30, then there’d be others like me. At that time, I was a great fan of a US mag called Cinefex, which is all about movie special effects. That was sort of the inspiration for a mag which went into more depth in terms of how games are made, the technical aspects, development issues – basically a mag that treated games as a serious work. It came together pretty quickly, and though the initial idea was mine, credit has to go to Jason Brookes who really helped flesh it out and bring in the import/Japanese/hardcore culture.”
Or, as Brookes describes it, “Stevie J knew what he was doing. At that point games were in an awkward development stage – graphics, and primarily FMV, were a huge distraction from gameplay. But because prerendered 3D graphics were so new and interesting, we could get away with it. Like all of us, Stevie J was a big geek. He had this big list of technically slanted features that included as much cutting edge hi-fi and home cinema stuff as possible. He loved all that. I was responsible for selecting a lot of the games for inclusion, and I think he hired me because he wanted someone keeping track of all the arcade and Japanese developments.”
If that makes the creation process sound suspiciously close to improvisation compared to the focus-grouped market opportunities that characterise today’s magazine publishing industry, it’s probably because it was. Initially it involved creating a 16-page dummy copy of the magazine, in order to crystallise the design and type of content that would appear in the finished product, but that’s as regimented as it got.
“We just made it up as we went along,” reveals Jarratt. “The only approval process was between us and the publisher, Steve Carey. I had the privilege of working with Matt Williams who is a great designer and our ideas just meshed – the sort of clinical tone, together with his clean, black and white design.” Williams confirms this impression of a meeting of minds: “It was one of the easiest launches I’ve ever done,” he states. “It just seemed to be right for the time and Steve and I felt really plugged in.”
Still, it wasn’t entirely without problems: “Finding the right staff, trying to get Brookesy to hand in his copy on time, me having no real experience of editing a mag of this type, people not ‘getting’ it, struggling with deadlines,” is how Jarratt recalls them. “You know, the usual.” And, as per usual, they were overcome.
The result was something vibrant and new; something that captured the zeitgeist of that aspirant moment, and something that stood out from all the other videogame magazines on the news-stand. “As it transpired it was launched right on the cusp of the explosion of the videogame industry into a million dollar business,” relates Williams, who was largely responsible for the magazine’s stand-out design. A high cover price allowed the magazine to be printed on the most expensive paper available, an attitude to presentation that extended to every part of the magazine. “It was most celebrated for its high design and production values,” recalls Brookes. “We always went the extra mile to make things look nice – in the early days that meant taking photo transparencies instead of screen grabs when we wanted to do justice to a game’s graphics. Matt Williams understood typography and pacing really well – in particular, the use of ‘white space’. Of course, that meant that fans of traditional ‘packed’ mags couldn’t appreciate it – ‘What a complete waste of space!’ they’d say. But we also had more information than any other mag out there. I think it seriously upped the ante. There was just so much information to get your teeth into, and a nice balance between celebrating gaming’s history via things like retroview, and anticipating its future.”
Perhaps controversially for the time, Edge was launched in a sealed, opaque bag – preventing would-be readers from sampling a copy at the newsagents. And the launch was accompanied by a marketing campaign that ostensibly appeared to discourage readers. “As well as a strong team we had a pretty visionary publisher in Steve Carey,” discloses Brookes. “He was bright, erudite and, if I remember correctly, a big bully. But I did admire the vision he had for Edge – an authoritative and damn stylish videogame magazine. I think he came up with the guerilla-style marketing – the black bag, the billboard ads, and apparently, subliminal messages masquerading as personal ads in London weeklies. There was an arrogance at play even then.”
Indeed. Carey describes this arrogant vision as, “Instead of the old New York Times tag of ‘All The News That’s Fit to Print’ it was going to be “Only If We Say It Matters’.” But this apparent arrogance was quite a carefully cultured one. “Another very perverse thing we did was to severely restrict the availability of the magazine at launch,” continues Carey. “Normally you try and get a new magazine out everywhere so it can be seen and sampled. Not Edge. I think we put it in only one in 15 of the nation’s newsagents. On the first day it came out, I was fielding calls from desperate, desperate types – I remember in particular one guy who’d been into dozens of places looking for it. He was practically in tears. I think I may even have popped a copy into the post for him. I hope he’s still reading: he really made my day, I can tell you.”
“The reason for doing it was to generate myth and mystique, and brand creation,” explains Williams. “At the time, brand creation wasn’t a concept that really existed, but we wanted to create an impression that the magazine was essential.”
“The whole idea of the overprinted sealed bag and the ‘It’s not for everyone’ routine was to build up a mystique,” agrees Carey. “We knew we had the hardest of the hardcore videogames players reading our other mags, and we knew they were smart enough to notice what was going on. They were the opinion formers, and if we could catch their attention, others would come along for the ride.”
But how did the rest of the industry react to this brash, self-important, new kid on the videogame mag block? “There were two schools of thought,” explains Byron. “As multiformat magazines were struggling to compete with the dedicated singleformat publications, it was obvious from the off that Edge would need to position itself radically in order to succeed. It did this by producing a genuinely aspirational read, promoting itself deliberately ambiguously and trading not necessarily on exclusive content but on issues which hadn’t really been tackled by our press before. The second school of thought is much more succinct: we thought it was a bit up its own arse.”
On balance, that second point of view was probably the predominant one among Edge’s competitors. “The thing that confused us all initially was how eager it was to break the mould,” Byron continues. “It was sold in a sealed bag, for starters – how we laughed when we realised no one would buy it when its contents could not be skimmed in Smiths. That wasn’t the case, of course; Edge traded superbly on this elitist reputation. Not knowing what was in it, merely reinforced the need to purchase.”
Paul Davies recalls a similarly nonplussed response from his colleagues. “Of course all the senior people within EMAP were dismissive of it, this expensive mag that came in a sealed bag. But it was clear that it had its own agenda, and all the design guys liked the look of it. Edge was massively different from anything else out there. Clearly more mature. Nothing like what the rest of us were doing, so we didn’t let it concern us.”
This was not an attitude that lasted for long, however. “When we started to see interviews with some very important people in there, and when we started to see coverage of games in development that we felt we should be covering, that’s when we started to take notice,” continues Davies. “The whole industry-oriented approach was paying off, and we didn’t see it coming. We weren’t used to arranging appointments with people like Howard Lincoln, or Trip Hawkins. Actually we didn’t care about Trip Hawkins, but when Edge was showing cool Donkey Kong renders we were straight on the phone to Rare, crying, and being told, ‘Well, you didn’t ask. Anyway, it’s much too early for you.’ So we felt that our credibility as an official source was being hurt.”
Byron recounts a similar tale, “We immediately went to our publisher and demanded we had access to spot varnishing. And a design team that didn’t rely on symmetrical grids and primary colours. I think we also got a bit fed up with the industry reaction – which was universally positive, resulting in all those damned InDin Magazine of the Year Awards.”
Indeed from the very outset of the magazine’s life, it was enormously well received by the videogame industry. Which wasn’t without its downsides. “Unfortunately every marketing manager in every crap games company was instructed by their boss to get their games into Edge,” explains Brookes. “So we often got duped – as with (cough) Rise of the Robots. Great cover though.” Still, for every Rise of the Robots, there was a genuinely exclusive report enabled by the videogame industry’s desire to see itself in the pages of Edge. “The mag was so highly regarded that I’d often find myself as the only journalist invited to NDA-protected presentations and private demos,” he continues. “For example Steve Jarratt and I were the only journalists in the world to see the pre-production PlayStation hardware up and running almost a year before it came out.”
Part of this favour and patronage was because the industry itself was as keen to reposition videogames as a respectable form of entertainment as Edge was. “It was so heartily welcomed by the industry; it really opened doors for the rest of the group,” explains Williams. “It was a calling card. I think it had such an impact because the industry wanted to justify its existence. I think they wanted to see themselves in it, and it was where you go to first to find out what’s going on in videogames. It became a focal point for the industry, and the letters were really good, and when it evolved into an outlet for recruitment advertising, developers made an effort to design adverts to look really nice, which shows some of the mag’s influence, since they knew that we probably wouldn’t take their ad if they designed a shit one.”
The evolution of Edge’s recruitment section is just one example of how the magazine has developed to encompass the seismic changes that have shaped the videogame industry over the past ten years. The magazine today is very different to the one that launched in 1993. “Initially we gave too much space to dodgy FMV adventures at the expense of really good, playable 2D stuff,” says Brookes. “I think the mag’s increasing retro slant these days acknowledges that to some extent. And I have to say, I was probably responsible for the over-concentration on specifications in the early days. I couldn’t give a crap about stuff like that today – it’s all become so meaningless.”
As a testament to the achievements of the handful of people who put that first issue together, it’s worth noting that, of the magazines around a decade ago, only Official Nintendo Magazine, GamesMaster and PC Gamer remain. A sister magazine to Edge, NextGen, was launched in the US in January 1995 but closed its doors in January 2001 having won praise from various quarters, including Time magazine, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and ABC News. “It’s certainly true that many people dislike Edge and its attitude and influence,” concludes Byron. “But had it never launched, I do think that the standards of specialist press journalism would have remained as poor as they were when I was doing it.” Which certainly looks like a compliment.
Having gone on to bigger and better things, the members of the launch editorial team that Edge spoke to are justifiably proud of their achievement. “When I see it on news-stands here in Australia, I still feel immensely proud that I played a part in it,” declares Carey, “even though that was sometime in the last millennium. How could you not feel proud? Just last week I suddenly won new respect and admiration from an IT lawyer down here in Australia, because I played a part in the launch of Edge.”
Brookes also looks back on the period with satisfaction, “It put a traditionally maligned pastime into a cooler perspective. It educated people rather than feeding them a diet of hype. And perhaps best of all, it really started to question why we should be accepting games of such a pitiful standard – back then, 90 per cent of games were unplayable.”
But perhaps the last words ought to be left to the magazine’s launch editor, “I wanted to make a mag that catered for serious, passionate gamers,” finishes Jarratt. “A magazine that would outlive the various hardware generations; that was a showcase for the very best that the industry had to offer; and a mag that sold about 100,000 copies a month with loads of advertising. Well, three out of four…”