This all happened in the winter of 1999 - a weird time for video games. The PlayStation was drawing to the end of its spectacular life, and the hype had begun for its successor. Microsoft was muttering about the Xbox. Everyone was looking forward to a new generation.
Then there was Dreamcast.
Sometime in the spring of 1999, I got a call from Caspar Field who had worked with me on Edge a couple of years before. He was launching Future's unofficial magazine for the new Sega machine. It was going to be called DC-UK for some reason that I still don't fully understand. He wanted to know if I'd come aboard as associate editor. At the time I was freelance and I didn't really want to get back into full-time magazine production. In the late-nineties, Future ran its publications like crazy little fraternity houses; it was fun, we were largely autonomous, but we were badly paid and over-worked and every issue of every magazine was a chaotic maelstrom of late nights and booze and hangovers. I felt like Al Pacino in Godfather 3, I didn't want to be dragged back in.
But then this was Sega. Sega, the creator of the Mega Drive, the brilliant console that my dad bought for himself in 1989, but let me play on. The console where I discovered Streets of Rage, Sonic, Phantasy Star and Toejam & Earl. The console that changed the way consoles were marketed and perceived.
Things hadn't gone brilliantly for the company in the intervening years. The Mega CD had sold well but the 32X was always a disaster and the Saturn, although amazing, was built for a different time, a different consumer, than the PlayStation appealed to. So now Sega was an underdog, and I have a terrible weakness for underdogs. I said yes. I said I'd do it.
Over the next two months we produced a beautiful magazine, something unique and innovative. We scrapped the standard layout (news, previews, features, reviews, tips), we built great contacts with developers, we got proper exclusives and we had an amazing time. Future had a lot of cash thanks to the massive success of the Official PlayStation Magazine - so when we came up with daft feature ideas - like taking the whole team fishing off the coast of Cornwall so that we could truly understand and appreciate the game Sega Bass Fishing - our publisher was, like, sure. Whatever.
Caspar left the magazine after seven issues and I took over. It wasn't quite a poisoned chalice, but the drink was certainly very murky. Dreamcast had done pretty well in its first few months establishing a core user base in Japan and the US with decent titles like Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi, but it wasn't getting great support from Western publishers. Electronic Arts announced that it wouldn't be making any games for the platform and with Fifa such a massive seller that really had a huge effect. Other companies followed. No one wanted to commit.
On the magazine, we saw the circulation start to drop barely eight months after the launch - a bad sign. We had to change the format, go with cheaper paper and ditch some of the cooler features. However, we also realised that because of our extensive coverage of the Japanese games scene, we were attracting a strong community of hardcore gamers - the people who wanted to read about Giga Wing, Mars Matrix and Ikaruga. We knew we had to court them because they would keep us alive as a publication when the bottom really fell out of the market. For games magazines, there are always two key pressures: circulation and advertising income. You need to sell mags and sell ads and there's a symbiotic relationship between those two concerns. If your machine is doing well, they're pretty easy to align, if it's not, things get more complicated. It's still fun, but there's this underlying tension.
And then, when you're working on a single format magazine there is something else you have to worry about: your relationship with the manufacturer. Sega was a pretty chaotic organisation, or at least that's how it seemed from the outside. There were powerful decision makers in both Japan and America and they seemed to be constantly at odds - and the European launch of the Dreamcast was an expensive farce. Instead of appealing to its fanbase, the company spent millions on expensive adverts with Robbie Williams soundtracks, and decided to sponsor three football teams: Arsenal, Sampdoria and St Etienne. On the magazine, we watched in fascination and horror. But we were independent so at least we could write about what we wanted - there were no expectations, there was no corporate line to drag. We knew we had to be different, we had to be irreverent - I was hugely inspired by Amiga Power at the time, one of Future's most iconic magazines thanks to its anarchic attitude. We wanted to be the Amiga Power of the Dreamcast.
So one month I ran a feature on how to run imported Japanese Dreamcast games by disc-swapping to bypass the region lock-out. I felt like we were serving a hardcore minority of Dreamcast users by getting them into proper Cave, Treasure, SNK and Arc System Works titles. I'd been over to Japan and trawled Akihabara, spending hundreds on weird games we'd never get in the UK - train sims, dating games, visual novels, I wanted to celebrate that stuff.
But Sega Europe was pissed off. They hated that feature - they wanted magazines to support local releases, they saw the import scene as a threat. And then something really bad happened.
I'd got a call from Datel, a veteran UK company that specialises in cheat cartridges and other peripherals. They'd developed a disc for the Dreamcast that would allow players to input codes for extra lives, to open up new levels, etc, and they had a demo available. There was a proposal: They'd produce a special disc with a limited number of cheats for a select range of early Dreamcast titles - we'd put it on the cover. I can't overstate how important cover mounting was to the games magazine market at that time. The Official PlayStation Magazine was a good read, but the reason it was selling 300,000 issues a month at its height was a lot to do with the monthly demo disc. There were no online beta tests back then - demo discs were how you played new games. A good cover mount could add an extra 20 per cent to your sales. So I said yes. Of course.
So the deal went through, the next issue of DC-UK came out with a Datel Action Replay disc on the cover. I was pretty confident it would have an impact, something we could build on. A few days after launch however I started getting emails from readers. Did I know that the disc cancelled out the Dreamcast's security measures? Did I know that once you'd spun it in the drive you could then put in a Dreamcast game from any region - even a pirated copy on a burned CD - and it would load? I didn't. I called Datel, they were nonplussed - I'm not even sure they knew it did that. But news spread fast, it was all over the games forums. Here was a powerful, easy-to-use product that could turn your machine into a multi-region console for less than a fiver. [Correction: The disc didn't actually allow pirated games to run. See note at the foot of this article.]
Then Sega's PR agency called me. Sega Europe weren't happy. They were furious. They were horrified. At that point they still felt they were in a position to build a big enough user base to see off PlayStation 2, or at least compete, so they were watching game sales closely - the last thing they wanted was the mass availability of a product that could bypass the security chips on their consoles. There was a lot of shouting apparently. My publisher called me in to explain. I shrugged my way through it. I mean, I was secretly elated. I'd have Sega on the phone explaining why it was so awful, while at the same time I was emailing circulation asking if they could print more copies. But very quickly it became clear that Sega was pulling support from my magazine. No more early game code, no more news. The dreaded blacklist.
This happens in every sector of the magazine business - in music mags, film mags, car mags. Often it happens when something gets a bad review and, in a fit of pique, the publisher/manufacturer pulls all the editorial support and advertising. Usually you take the hit and if your publication is selling well, the company comes back. There was the famous fall-out between Amiga Power and the publisher Team 17 when a couple of poor reviews got the magazine blacklisted. Team 17 would send game code to Future's other Amiga magazine, Amiga Format, with little compliment slips saying "for your eyes only"; they were told not to let Power see the games. It became a jokey sort of industry feud.
But here I was editing a magazine dedicated to Sega and Sega wasn't officially talking to me anymore. I had 100 pages a month to fill. I had a team relying on me. I had 25,000 readers.
Sometimes, you learn the most valuable lessons in the most trying of circumstances - that's how the human brain seems to work. And it was in those weeks that I really got to grips with the games industry. A few months before, I'd bumped into the editor of Famitsu Dreamcast, the Japanese magazine, and we'd got on. I emailed him and suggested that we start up an assets trading agreement - he'd send me news and screenshots of Japanese games, and I'd get him the equivalent from the west. I had good contacts with third-party publishers throughout the US and Europe so I'd go to them directly for game code and stories. I also knew the editor of the US Official Dreamcast Magazine, so he got me access to the games I wasn't supposed to be seeing. When we went out to the 2000 Tokyo Game Show, I tagged along with him - which is how a blacklisted magazine got to visit Sega HQ and interview the Phantasy Star Online team. Also, my deputy editor Lee Hart got on really well with someone at the PR agency, who sent us game code when no-one was looking.
It all blew over. It was always more of a grey- than a blacklisting, anyway, but it was worrying for a young editor on his first magazine in charge. Within a year, I left DC-UK and the magazine closed shortly afterwards - the Dreamcast itself was already over. Two years later, I was working with Sega again, helping to run the Official Football Manager Magazine. The people who were angry at me were just trying to protect the machine they believed in; I don't blame them at all.
What the whole episode taught me was that there can sometimes be an enormous disconnect between the community as the magazine sees it and the consumer base as the manufacturer sees it. There is a tension in all specialist publishing between your responsibilities to the people who buy your magazine and your ability to operate in the industry. As an editor you navigate through that as best you can, but you know that ultimately, what matters is the person who slaps a fiver on the counter and takes a copy of your magazine home. I know because I grew up devouring magazines like Zapp 64 and CVG - I knew what it meant.
So yes, I made a mistake with the Action Replay disc, but it was also not a catastrophe. It taught me a lot. It taught me that the games industry is good at generating its own disasters, and sometimes you have to be quiet and patient, and work things out. You make new connections.
Sometimes I wonder what I would have done if I'd known in advance about the security issue on that disc. Would I still have run it? I know the answer, of course. It never changes. But there are some things you don't have to share with readers.
Correction: Keith has been in touch to say that his memory was playing tricks on him. "One of my old DC-UK colleagues pointed out that I misremembered something about the cheat disc... It bypassed region lock-out entirely but it did NOT allow you to run pirated games." It was a long time ago, so we're inclined to forgive him. Will Sega? -Ed.