For someone who spent ten years editing one video games industry publication to then launch another to compete with it, it’s remarkable that Stuart Dinsey would embark on a long career championing video games without much of a care for them. To be fair, this was back in the days when computer and video games were largely marketed to and for children, which, unlike most that went on to write about them for a living, the ambitious business-minded Dinsey certainly wasn’t.
It was while working at the famed advertising agency McCann Erickson in 1986 that Dinsey, then 19, would busily devour any trade magazine that crossed his desk; titles such as Marketing Week, Broadcast and Music Week. Launched two years previously, Computer Trade Weekly was never among them, but Dinsey did spy an ad for CTW that piqued his interest. He applied, met its editor Greg Ingham, and despite having next to no knowledge or interest in gaming, secured a job as CTW’s trainee reporter. “If I’d known it was about computers, I probably wouldn’t have applied,” he says.
Within two years Ingham had moved on, joining disruptive new magazine publisher Future as its managing director, having seen enough in his 21-year old protégé to bequeath him the CTW editorship. “Which was really scary,” recalls Dinsey. “Greg however advised me to hang in there, because I had the best job in the world … and I did.”
Over the next ten years, Dinsey built up CTW to be a formidable champion of the UK games industry, overseeing a period that stretched from the tail end of 8-Bit era to the cultural singularity that heralded the arrival of the Sony PlayStation. However, despite securing CTW’s position at the heart of the UK games industry, in the midst of the drama of the FIFA World Cup in June 1998, Dinsey unexpectedly handed in his notice. “I decided it was time for me to launch my own media company.”
THE THREE EXITEERS
Unbeknownst to CTW, Dinsey had been approached by German publisher Computec Media, which in 1998 was looking to foreign shores after its successful listing on Hamburg’s Stock Exchange. The company had launched its own trade magazine at home, Markt für Computer & Videospiele, and was keen to export it to the UK, which it insisted would retain the original publication’s name, albeit translated into English.
“I probably wouldn’t have gone with MCV,” admits Dinsey, who aside from a name change, got everything he wanted to launch the new industry publication, including many of the team that had helped him establish CTW in the years previously. Lisa Foster (now Carter) and Alex Jarvis (now Moreham), CTWs deputy editor and sales manager respectively, were the first to jump ship.
“I loved working there and they were lovely people,” but, says Carter, CTW was suffering from a sense of inertia at being unchallenged in the market for so long. In addition, despite some involvement in the incumbent UK industry event ECTS (European Computer Trade Show), there seemed to be little interest from CTW’s owners in broadening the brand. “We didn’t even have a full colour magazine” says Carter, who jumped at the chance to join Dinsey when he made his plans known. “I was ambitious. I knew that he was ambitious, and we knew there were things we could do outside of putting together a weekly magazine – as difficult as that would be.”
Less than a month after leaving CTW, Dinsey, Carter and Moreham moved into MCV’s first office in Arlesey, Bedfordshire; which Dinsey later referred to, with some justification, as the ‘Bedfordshire shithole’. “We were in a really dreadful temporary office in the back of nowhere which looked over a toxic waste dump,” recalls Carter. ”It was just a horrific, awful place.”
It was there, with no network (files were shared via floppy discs), two phone lines, and under a leaking roof, that the first MCV team was assembled. Dinsey and Carter resumed their prior CTW roles as editor and deputy editor respectively, with another from the diminished weekly, Dave Roberts, joining as the star writer who would help drum up business on the side. The editorial team was completed by the arrival of Owain Bennallack from Edge Online and newcomer George Kotsiofides, who on the basis of his prior experience managing a games shop, was hired to give MCV some retail credence.
The magazine also lost its first staff member early on, a designer whose efforts were deemed so unworthy that MCV’s ad-courting dummy issue had to be put together without one. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t well received, but with the first proper issue due to be launched at ECTS in less than three weeks, the only choice was to press on.
Things were more promising on the business side. Dinsey recalls being dropped off with Alex Moreham by helicopter after sealing a £50,000 advertising deal from a Staffordshire-based company; MCV’s first. It was only as the the chopper hovered out of sight that the team felt able to jump up and cheer with relief and delight. “Moments like that stay with you” he says.
SHOWDOWN AT OLYMPIA
Having secured the services of a competent designer, the first issue of Market for Computer & Video Games went to press on September 3, 1998 (the same date that CTW launched in 1984), arriving with the thousands on its growing circulation list the following day – which, thanks to PR agency Bastion, was on course to outnumber CTWs by two-to-one. In addition, the magazine would be available to everyone set to attend ECTS in London on September 6, 2023.
Just a few days before, CTW had found itself under new ownership, with Highbury House picking up the veteran trade title for a reported £5 million. For Dinsey, who had quit just a few weeks before, it meant there was to be no payout on the shares he once had. On the plus side, any semblance of loyalty for his former employer was gone. The downside was, at that time, Highbury House was seen by many to be the only serious competitor to a Future Publishing that, in the decade since Greg Ingham had taken charge, had become dominant in the video game space.
“It was an emotional time” says Dinsey, who despite the many occasions he’d walked into the halls at Olympia, was immediately overawed at seeing a vast CTW logo stretched across the glass at one end of the Grand Hall. Underneath it boasted of being ‘The World’s No.1’. “We had a tiny little stand in piss alley and we walked in going ‘Oh my god. What have we done?’”
Back on CTW, staff writer Samantha Loveday, who had been editorial assistant under Dinsey and Carter, was meeting the newly-assembled team brought in to to replace CTW defectors. The new editor, while an experienced journalist, had very little games industry experience and few of the precious industry contacts that Dinsey had accumulated in his ten years at the helm. Despite this, Loveday insists, CTW got back on its feet, learnt quickly, and the two magazines slugged it out for the top stories like the heavyweights they were. Trading blows that might land one week, but were countered the next, with no clear advantage between the two.
Regardless of how swiftly CTW got back onto its feet, MCV had certainly bloodied its nose. However, it wasn’t until early in 1999 that the Computec-backed title felt established. For Lisa Carter, it was around the time that MCV moved out of Arlesey into a new Hertford office, which was indicative of the confidence Germany had in MCV and in the UK market as a whole, with plans being laid that would lead to the launch of new consumer titles, PlayStation World and PC Gameplay, based out of Harrow.
With Dinsey increasingly involved in looking to new markets, Carter took over the editorship of MCV in the spring of 1999, making her one of the only women editors working in games editorial at a time when magazines such as Loaded and FHM were at their insidious peak. (This was the year that Loaded’s photoshoot with Gail Porter was projected onto the Houses of Parliament without her prior knowledge or consent). Inevitably, Carter found herself having to deal with executives that only wanted to deal with Dinsey, who would tell them politely but firmly who they should be talking to. “I got a lot of pats on the head; ‘Well done you, being editor’.”
Towards the end of 1999, the team that had done so much to establish CTW started to make good on the ambition that had compelled them to leave, which was to establish not just MCV, but a range of titles across a number of markets.
First came the monthly magazine Develop, which had been run since 1996 as an email newsletter for game creators, programmers and artists by Bastion. Owain Bennallack, who seems to have been the most traumatised by his time in the Arlesey office, had since turned to freelancing, but was tempted back into the fold as the glossy new magazine’s first editor.
Other titles would soon follow, but before the next of them joined the fold, Computec Media had issues of its own to consider: Despite some initial success from the launch of new consumer titles in the UK (PlayStation World quickly becoming second to Future’s official magazine), the same success was alluding the company’s US operations. After just six months the magazines Incite PC Gaming and Incite Video Gaming magazines, as well as the trade website MCV Now, were all closed down – along with the company’s San Francisco office.
In fairness, with the fallout of the burst of the dotcom bubble and the overconfidence that had saturated many internet businesses, 2001 was not a good period for games magazines or their websites. All but the most established magazines were closing due to falling advertising revenues and the expected income from online ventures was failing to make up the difference.
Games media’s problematic transition was highlighted in a controversial interview, not in MCV but in CTW, in which Future CEO (and ex-CTW editor) Greg Ingham was asked to defend a share value that had plummeted from £1.3 billion to just £35 million in under a year. In a letter responding to the article that he implied was a hatchet job, Ingham made the charge that CTW wasn’t doing that well either, saying that it was ”getting caned by MCV”. On that final point, at least, he may have been correct.
However, after its US misadventures, Computec Media was also in some difficulty, to the extent that in March 2002, Stuart Dinsey completed a management buy-out, taking ownership of MCV, Develop and the recently relaunched ToyNews. In the process of simultaneously acquiring the assets of the ailing CTW that its exeditor had called out, Intent Media was born.
CTW’s death spasm was to birth a new rival. Writing for GamesIndustry.Biz in 2017, the site’s launch editor Rob Fahey – who wrote for CTW before it was closed – wrote of the frustrations of working on a weekly trade magazine in an era where the rise and importance of websites was making print as redundant as he had briefly been. “Print no longer made sense” he wrote of his reminiscences; “The time taken to lay out, proof, print and distribute a magazine was short-circuited by the immediacy of the web.” His words might have been laced with some bitterness, but he was right.
After pitching the idea of a gaming industry news site to Eurogamer Network, Fahey was given the resources to launch GamesIndustry.Biz on June 10, 2002, just three months after CTW had been absorbed by MCV. “GamesIndustry.Biz came along and did something really exciting” says Dinsey. “They moved everything forwards [and] provoked me into investing heavily in online, so that MCV was able to become a significant online brand.”
Central to MCV’s digital expansion was the hiring of Johnny Minkley who replaced Samantha Loveday as the magazine’s editor in 2004. Loveday was another CTW veteran, joining MCV in 2000 as deputy editor and taking over the helm as Lisa Carter became increasing involved in the launch of new and acquired titles. Minkley’s background, however, was in consumer journalism.
He joined from Dennis Publishing, where as well as writing for the magazine that spawned it, he’d helped to establish the Computer & Video Games website, which had become well known for breaking its fair share of industry news ahead of even GI.biz. Future were so impressed that they happily took Dennis’s games magazines off its hands in order to acquire it – sans Minkley – closing the world’s oldest games magazine in the process.
MCV’S EXCELLENCE ADVENTURE
One of the reasons for leaving CTW in 1998, Lisa Carter maintains, was to establish brands in markets aligned with and away from games that could be broadened into industry events. Given the increasing threats to print media from a growing online audience, together with far-from-assured digital revenues, it was a strategy that made perfect sense. Ironically, it was to be CTW that got there first with the CTW People Awards: “A proper bloody party – the games industry can outdrink film stars any day of the week,” Rob Fahey is quoted as saying after the last one them in 2001.
That’s not to suggest MCV’s Industry Excellence Awards, which debuted in 2003, weren’t any less rowdy. Neil Long – who succeeded Johnny Minkley as editor – recalls his first MCV Award experience a year later, where he witnessed a senior executive pinning Stuart Dinsey up against a wall demanding to know why his company had been overlooked. “Getting Best Publisher, Best Developer, those awards were so important to those companies” says Long. “And it was absolute carnage at the end of the evening. Apocalyptic, really.”
Even more infamous were the Games Media Awards, which started in 2007 and ran until 2016. The thinking behind them was that as Intent considered itself something of a neutral party, distinct from the likes of Future, Dennis and Imagine, celebrating the games media made sense. Especially so given how popular the media categories of the MCV Industry Excellence Awards had become.
“It was very much Dave Roberts’ idea,” recalls Lisa Carter. “He worked on it with Caroline Miller and all the big companies – Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo EA, Ubisoft – all supported it. And it ran really well for a few years, until Grainger Games Came on board as a sponsor.”
Grainger Games was a retailer originating in the north of England, looking to make an impact on the wider games industry. It had a reputation for what Carter euphemistically calls ‘hard partying’ and to keep its representatives in check, the plan was to promise an exclusive interview upon their arrival in London that, it was hoped, would keep them sober on the train down from Newcastle. It didn’t work. “Within 20 minutes of them arriving they were caught in the toilets doing a load of coke,” recalls Carter. “It just got worse from there.”
Employing dwarfs and scantily-clad models to hand out awards was bad enough, but reportedly flicking branded condoms into people’s food and roundly jeering at every award winner that took to the stage was beyond the pale. Stuart Dinsey was livid and issued an apology the following day, but not before the story was reported in The Sun newspaper. The episode was for Lisa Carter something of a low point. ”Annoyingly, I took over running the GMAs because Dave Roberts had moved over to Music Week” she laughs. “He blames me for their downfall.”
It’s difficult to be precise with the timings, but there are broadly four discernible eras that make up MCV ’s quarter century: First were the early years from 1998 until 2002, where MCV was under the ownership of Computec, which ended with the founding of Intent Media and the closure of print rival CTW. Then a subsequent period of largely unchallenged growth, during which time MCV was jointed by number of other trade publications and the MCV and Games Media Awards were established.
There followed a period of consolidation which more or less began in 2008, around the time that Neil Long departed for Future (and Tim Ingham and Dave Roberts joined the music industry) and MCV and Develop were increasingly aligned under the guidance of newly promoted editor-in-chief Michael French. French first joined MCV back in 2002, first as a lowly editorial assistant before becoming MCV’s deputy editor under Samantha Loveday. He then left to join Future, returning in 2005 thinking he’d be helming one of Intent’s recent acquisitions, BikeBiz, before discovering on the day before his restart that he’d be taking the reins of Develop due to Owain Bennallack’s unexpected departure.
Over the next three years, there was a drive to broaden the appeal of Develop magazine, which meant that when Neil Long had left for Future and Tim Ingham turned down the opportunity to replace him, French was asked to become the editor-in-chief of both MCV and Develop.
“It was useful for me to take over both” says French. “The worst of the industry downturn was during the next year, , but there was a lot of change. 2008 was the year the App Store launched, Steam was disruptive and events were becoming increasingly important, so it was a natural step up to take over all the editorial content.”
It was in this period that Chris Dring was on the team, recently promoted to staff writer and soon to become MCV’s deputy editor. Other staff writers included James Batchelor and Dominic Sacco, with Will Freeman coming in to lead Develop. Ben Parfitt, MCV’s longest-serving staffer, became the online editor across both titles.
“Even though one was weekly and the other monthly, we started to share things,” recalls French. “If there was a big story that Develop landed that was more time-sensitive, it would end up on MCV’s cover. Workflowwise, we were all proofing each other’s stuff. In terms of tone of voice, it was ultimately me signing off the pages or throwing them to Stu as the final step, but it was about being more collaborative.”
WHAT A LOAD OF CUTS
The beginning of the end of MCV’s third era arrived at the end of 2012, when Stuart Dinsey sold Intent Media to US publisher NewBay media. Dinsey stayed on as managing director, but it became increasingly apparent that his time leading MCV was coming to a close. “MCV was his child and he was the daddy, but suddenly he became one voice in a room full of Americans and it was just very different” remembers Ben Parfitt, who by this time had worked under Dinsey for almost a decade.
MCV’s former owner remained committed to the cause, but when he left in October 2013 and NewBay hired a new managing director the following February, it felt like a green light had flicked on to make sweeping changes.
“From that point on it was kind of a death spiral, sadly.” Parfitt continues: “There was no transparency. Management were hopeless and the sole mandate seemed to be to reduce costs.” With the decreasing importance of physical game sales over a number of years, while there had long been a realisation that MCV was by necessity moving away from its traditional focus on retail and would have to find a new niche for itself, there was a grim understanding that there was no passion for the business, the magazines and the teams – which would have a negative impact on the company culture.
“The reality was,” says then-editor Chris Dring, ”that NewBay bought a company that was punching well above its weight. Everyone was working at full capacity – you couldn’t get a single drop more blood out of them – and then NewBay came in and went ‘Right, how are we going to get 15% growth on our investment?’ And we were like, ‘Well, we need more staff here, and we need to buy Develop Brighton….’ And they were like ‘Oh no, we don’t have any money. We spent it on the business.’ That’s where things started to go wrong.”
Dring remembers one effort to cut costs that involved removing swathes of people from the MCV subscription list, including the whole of Square Enix and the influential founders of Rockstar Games, all made without consulting or informing the staff. For years “MCV was always in people’s faces” adds Dring. “It was a weekly mag. It had a daily newsletter that went out and there was an event maybe every six weeks – a pub quiz or a football tournament or an awards show. So when you cut the circulation and events from the schedule, you lose touch with the industry.”
Four years into NewBay’s ownership of Intent, in October 2016, MCV endured an abrupt change in staff, with Chris Dring and James Batchelor – the respective editors of MCV and Develop, leaving within weeks of one another to join GamesIndustry.Biz. Only staff writers Alex Calvin (promoted to deputy editor) and newcomer Marie Dealessandri remained to greet the new editor Seth Barton and news editor Katharine Castle, who had worked together at Dennis Publishing.
However, it wasn’t long before MCV and Develop’s all-too-apparent managed decline threatened to become terminal. Within a few months of Barton heading MCV, in April 2017, the magazine changed to a fortnightly schedule after nearly 19 years of being weekly. Then at the end of the year it was announced that Develop would be closing and MCV going monthly instead.
It was a decision that baffled Chris Dring, whose understating was that Develop was the brand most likely to find growth. Despite his heart being with MCV, Dring says that if he had made the choice, Develop would have been the title that was saved. Before there was time to ponder the wisdom of Develop’s closure, MCV and its skeleton crew was forced to endure another storm, with NewBay sold to Future Publishing for £13.8 million in April 2018. No sooner was the ink dry on that deal when MCV found itself with its third owner in just eight months, Datateam. Thankfully, that’s where it’s stayed.
FACING THE FUTURE
Since being rebranded MCV/DEVELOP in October 2019, things have more or less stabilised for MCV. Glossing over the not inconsiderate challenges of a global pandemic, which put a halt on industry events and forced staff to hole up in their homes for the duration, the dual-brand magazine has settled comfortably into its monthly schedule. However, the question that vexed the staff of MCV when it was still a weekly publication still hangs in the air: Is there still a place for it? “I think there absolutely is,” says Stuart Dinsey, “so long as the industry supports it, because you can’t do it without revenue.”
“It’s incredibly difficult. Any criticism [of MCV] that people might have has to be tempered with the lack of resource and the change in the marketplace. “Probably the most difficult thing is the time that it takes to put a magazine together when there’s not many of you. Do you preserve with print or do you move online? Because it seems that it’s difficult to do both to the level you would like.”
At some point, it seems, MCV will face a reckoning. Possibly in a few months, or years – though likely not after another 25 of them – a decision will have to be made as to what MCV should be and for whom. Until then we’ll continue to celebrate what MCV was, a disruptive and hugely successful and influential weekly magazine that is still championing the industry 25 years later. Next year, if there’s no repeat of the drama that has punctuated the last five, MCV will be the first games publication to reach one thousand issues. That will be quite something. See you then!
Huge thanks to Stuart Dinsey, Lisa Carter, Ben Parfitt, Samantha Loveday, Chris Dring, Michael French, Neil Long, James Batchelor, Owain Bennallack, Chris Buckley, Tim Ingham, Katharine Castle, Steve Merrett, George Kotsiofides and Dominic Sacco for taking the time to answer our many questions over recent weeks. Sorry we couldn’t get as many of your words in on this occasion as we’d have liked, but we’ll be saving them for when the MCV story inevitably reaches its next milestone eight issues from now.
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