I’m slightly surprised that I’ve never written anything on this blog about PC Zone, a magazine which I took for over a decade from its launch in 1993, and which was my favourite games magazine for much of that time.
All the eulogies of the magazine that I’ve seen have dwelt on a handful of controversies that occurred during a ‘Maxim-esque’ phase of the magazine’s life in the late 1990s (coverdisk porn, joystick-groping nuns, banned cartoon strips and prank phonecalls, the latter two being the work of a pre-media-moguldom Charlie Brooker, whose moderately successful stint at the magazine has predictably gained a legendary status).
Conventional wisdom has it that PC Zone was more puerile and lightweight than the more respectable PC Gamer. There’s a grain of truth in this, but the laddish reputation tends to overshadow the fact that PC Zone contained a lot of very good, innovative and influential writing.
PC Zone could trace its roots back through Game Zone (short-lived multiformat console mag now primarily remembered for employing Jonathon Ross’s wife Jane Goldman), Zero (startlingly ahead-of-its-time ‘lifestyle’ games magazine which regularly gave over a third of its editorial to anything its extensive pool of writers were interested in, from comics to film trivia to band interviews), and the venerable Your Sinclair. It was the UK’s first dedicated PC games magazine.
PC Zone mk. 1 (edited by ‘Lord’ Paul Lakin) was essentially a more mature extension of Zero. At that time, buying a £1,500+ PC purely for entertainment was unheard of, so Zone’s tone was very much aimed towards 25-45 year old professional males with a technical bent. Many PC games at the time were fairly stodgy, text-heavy adventures or in-depth military sims, which Zone made the most out of – peppering reviews with summaries of games’ inspirations and source material, and getting an actual pilot (whose name temporarily escapes me, but I don’t think was Zero flyboy Marcus ‘Binky’ Berkmann) to review flight sims for authenticity.
Early PC Zone’s single most inspired idea was to give Duncan MacDonald the task of writing a light-hearted back page column from the perspective of a PC gamer who wasn’t a brainiac PC buff. Entitled “Mr Cursor (He’s afraid of his PC)”, these columns rapidly deviated from talking about PCs and games, becoming a series of increasingly bizarre and hilarious anecdotes/shaggy dog stories.
MacDonald’s writing was frequently gaspingly hilarious. Charlie Brooker may have been able to craft scatological metaphors for England, but MacDonald could turn a simple comment into concentrated hilarity simply through the judicious use of inverted commas. (“I’m sort of ‘magic’, you see…”, “Let’s say you decided to have an ‘experiment’ on holiday in Crete…”)
Animals were a recurring theme. One episode involved preparing and cooking cockroaches, another recounted a scheme to clean a carpet using dung beetles stolen from London Zoo (which backfires when the beetles are eaten by pigeons, who crap everywhere). One of the most memorable and extraordinary columns recounted Mr Cursor’s attempt to discover the resolution of a half-remembered Jacques Cousteau documentary in which the question was posed “Do octopusees ‘ave orgasms?“, by supplying readers with a cut-out-and-post form which read (and I paraphrase):
“I can confirm/deny that octopuses have orgasms, on the authority that (tick one):
A: I also saw the Jacques Cousteau programme in question and remember the ending
B: I am a marine biologist specialising in octopus reproduction
C: I am a Cretian pervert”
Another column circa 1994 gave an almost eerily prescient description of a future “online interactive movie” where thousands of players were embroiled in an intergalactic war, not entirely unlike EVE Online. (But then there was also the month when he supposedly built an A.I. facsimile of John Kettley.) Mr Cursor lasted for the first four years or so of the magazine, after which Duncan MacDonald worryingly disappeared from the scene entirely (briefly resurfacing to write the very Cursor-esque South Coast Diaries web series in 2001).
The other writer who gave PC Zone a distinctive voice in the early days was David McCandless, nowadays best known for his popularisation of quirky, artistic infographics (collected in his book Information is Beautiful). Another veteran of YS and Zero, ‘Macca’ championed a string of major PC gaming obsessions in the mag, most notably Star Control II, Ultima Underworld, Doom and Quake.
Doom was the first game to warrant coverage month after month beyond launch. McCandless took the obsession further than most, becoming the UK Doom champion, interviewing many key figures in the nascent e-sports and modding scenes, and ultimately striking up a close relationship with id Software.
PC Zone ‘got’ id’s games in a way that the slightly sniffy and condescending PC Gamer never could. McCandless’s 16 page review of Quake calmly (but menacingly) explained exactly why the game was a landmark (“Fucking Brilliant. 96%”) for PC gaming – that it didn’t matter that the single player campaign was rubbish, or that it lacked the gimmicks of Duke Nukem 3D, or that it ran slowly on old PCs, because it showed that native networked multiplayer games with extensible engines were the future for the PC, an argument which has now been proven a thousand times over.
Zone prospered in the boom time for PC gaming from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Under the editorship of Jon Davison (who had previously edited Games-X, and later went to work for 1UP, and as such can confidently identify Zone as the peak of his games writing career) the mag became more brash and boisterous, while contrastingly developing more rigourous reviewing standards. (Amiga Power-like refusals to bow to publisher pressure over their coverage of a Euro 96 football game and the notoriously rush-released Frontier First Encounters being commendable cases.)
The larks were eventually reined in by Everquest-junkie Chris Anderson circa 1997, under whose tenure (if memory serves) the mag was given a classier redesign and imposed a harsher marking scheme (under which a score of 90% had almost as much weight as an old Edge 10/10) for about a year. This was the era of the rise of Valve and Blizzard and the messy fall of Ion Storm, all of which were given extensive coverage.
At the turn of the century the magazine was being edited by Dave Woods, and most of the original contributors were fading into the background, replaced by a team including Paul Mallinson, Richie Shoemaker, Steve Hill, Phil Wand and Jeremy Wells. This was the era in which PC gaming started its slow decline into a market saturated with World War II shooters, fantasy RTSes and shortlived MMOs. It was also a period marred by some high profile reviewing blunders – proclaiming Black & White to be “a work of pure genius” on the basis of a slightly dubious exclusive review, and more embarrassingly scoring the execrable Unreal II 94% and implying that it was the best first person shooter ever made.
Around 2005 the mag was sold to Future Publishing and Jamie Sefton took over as editor. It was shortly before this that I allowed my subscription to lapse, having gotten sick of murky brown RTS games with interchangeable screenshots, and increasingly indulgent ‘Supertest’ round-table features. At the time I was sure that the magazine didn’t have long to live, and that it could only be a matter of time before it was canned or merged with stablemate PC Gamer.
Surprisingly, Zone somehow managed to survive for another five years with a dwindling readership (the internet having made print PC games mags and their cover discs largely obsolete), an ever-smaller and younger writing team and fewer pages. (A fate that closely mirrored that of Your Sinclair when that mag was bought out by Future 15 years ago.) I missed out on Jon ‘Log’ Blyth’s years on the magazine (unfortunate, as Log is perhaps the funniest games writer ever to have been ridden like a horse), and the rise of Rhianna Pratchett and Dan Marshall, who have gone on to do vaguely games-development-related things, and Will Porter, Steve Hogarty, Ali Wood and god knows who else.
And now after 17 years(!) it’s all over. It was never a perfect mag, but it was always one that went to great lengths to include its readers, that managed to communicate a massive enthusiasm for games that often didn’t have huge marketing budgets. It didn’t become an institution purely on the back of sticking around for longer than anyone else and having Charlie Brooker attempt to eat his arse for losing a bet.
I wish the last crew of PC Zone all the best in their future endeavours, and hope that some of those who read it over the years will attempt to keep its spirit alive, as a reminder that ‘mainstream’ games journalism didn’t always equate to dismal tabloid blogs like Kotaku and Games Radar.