By Stuart Williams and Jonathan Beales
The past few years have seen many notable 30th anniversary celebrations in the retro computing/gaming community. This month it’s the turn of the once-popular, but now largely forgotten (at least on the internet) dedicated British Atari ST magazine, ST Update, which was first published in spring 1987. And here at Retro Computing News [RCN], we’re doing our best to celebrate that birthday, with this, the first of a two-part article focusing on an exclusive piece of oral history given to RCN, plus a very special download for our readers, for those involved with the magazine, and for the Atari ST community at large.
Having recently spotted the rapidly approaching anniversary of the birth of ST Update, and finding almost nothing about it online, our editor Stuart Williams decided that it really deserved more of a remembrance than to fall between the cracks of Wikipedia and the various online archivers of old computer magazines, which at the time of writing still hold nothing of significance about the magazine. ST Update was also the first commercial magazine to publish Stuart’s own work, again in 1987.
Sunshine on a rainy day
March 1987, thirty years ago to this month, saw the birth of ST Update, then a Sunshine Publications magazine, out of the same stable as the also much-missed Popular Computing Weekly.
ST Update was an excellent magazine that, unfairly, has until now gone mostly unrepresented online. Based in Little Newport Street, London, this new kid on the Atari block was dedicated to all aspects of Atari’s finest range of computers, the ‘Atari ST’ (representing Sixteen/Thirty-two, after the Motorola 68000 CPU at its heart). As you will read below, the magazine came out at what was becoming a gloomy time for the home computer market and computer publishing in the UK, with the 8-bit market heading towards the end of an era.
Slow, slow, quick quick slow
Launched in June 1985, the American-designed Atari 520ST and its successors were, after a relatively slow start, set to become increasingly popular and affordable competitors, especially in Europe, to the somewhat similar but much more expensive Apple Macintosh, and the audio-visually more powerful Commodore Amiga, although the new 16-bit micros perhaps sat uneasily, not quite sure of their market, between their cheaper, better-supported 8-bit predecessors and what was to be the eventual wave of the future – the rise of the next generation Apple Mac and the IBM PC and clones. It would take a while for the new, more expensive market to mature, at least on the UK games front, which was inevitably where home computers stood or fell at the time. But for approximately a decade, the 16-bit next generation still held out the prospect of ‘power without the price’.
Competition on paper
To put things into a publishing context, of which you’ll again read more below, Atari ST User, published by Europress, had been around since March 1986, and even before that when it had started life as a pull-out section in Atari User magazine. Although Atari ST User did review games and carry demos, far more of the magazine was concerned with ‘serious’ issues such as hardware, programming, and music than its later rivals ST Action (launched in April 1998 by Gollner Publishing Ltd., the first dedicated games magazine for the 16-bit Atari) and ST Format. The latter launched August 1989 when its predecessor, the short-lived (June 1988-July 1989) dual coverage ST/Amiga Format magazine was split into two separate publications by Future Publishing.
So, ST Update was launched into a new world of sixteen-bit publishing, while the market was still forming, and as it turns out, the story of the magazine is also the story of that market.
At the suggestion of Darren Doyle, admin of the Green Meditations /|\ Atari ST group on Facebook, and the man behind http://www.atarigamer.co.uk/ and http://www.retrovideogamer.co.uk/, RCN and Stuart Williams reached out to the former advertising manager and co-founder of the magazine, Jonathan Beales, now a sports broadcaster and documentary producer, who kindly spoke to Stuart at some length about ST Update, its ethos, the market it was launched into and how it got going all those years ago.
The following remarks are from the first half of what Jon told Stuart about how ST Update came into being, as he saw it back in the day – and with the benefit of his modern perspective. We’re splitting up Jon’s contribution over two pieces so we can do justice to this, over the next week or so. Please stick with us on this, it’s a fascinating story to mark the 30th birthday of ST Update!
Over to Jon Beales
“I’m going to give you the facts now, because with a lot of retro gaming stuff today, there’s a lot of people who will celebrate the past, rightly so, but really thirty years ago things were very, very different. There was no home PC market, there was no PC games market, no console market, there was no internet. It was all a very, very small operation. Even when you look at the retail stores, you had Boots, you had W.H. Smiths, about fifty John Menzies stores, and you had a lot of very, very good independents, selling games and entertainment products.
“The Atari ST was something very, very new. Even thought it had been around for maybe a year and a half, a couple of years, people had not begun buying it, it’s as simple as that – because it was way too expensive. When they released it in ’85-’86, they were nice machines, but people just did not buy it because of the price point and because of the distribution because it was hard to buy. You had specialist outlets like Silica Shop selling them and they were £400-£500. You had to buy a monitor for the original ST, and all these things were very expensive. It was the same for the Amiga, all very nice but the A1000, the A2000, these were £1,000 machines [Ed. typical 520STFM price plus monitor, or 1040STF without monitor up to £600, advertised in the pilot issue]. Even in today’s money that’s a lot of money for a machine, and looking back thirty years it was a small fortune.
“So really, you know, I’ve got no sympathy for the hardware companies, Atari and Commodore did themselves no favours, they simply were out of touch with what people really wanted. They had seen the success of the Spectrum and the Commodore 64 because they were lower price machines. Then Amstrad coming along with the CPC series, Mr Alan Sugar did that incredibly well, he’d put things together cost effectively, but Atari and Commodore weren’t doing that. Because the Atari and the Amiga were pitched at the higher end, business machine, desktop publishing, and graphics, these were like professional machines. It was like Commodore and Atari weren’t really interested in the games market or the domestic market. They were going for boutique, avant-garde machines delivering high-end graphics and productivity machines.
“So, that was the scene, the 8-bit market was pretty much drying up, and you had the Spectrum, the Commodore 64 and the Amstrad, the three prominent 8-bit machines. They were all doing ok, but I think games publishers were getting pretty fed up with them, they had their limitations, the user bases weren’t growing. Commodore had re-launched the C64 as the C64C in ’87, the year before Clive Sinclair had thrown in the towel and sold up to Amstrad for £5 million, did a deal [on 7 April] at the Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool Street, London [Ed. The Spectrum +2 was Amstrad’s first post-Sinclair product in ‘86] and there was a lot of uncertainty at the time.
“People weren’t quite sure where things were gonna go. But again, you were in an era where computers weren’t completely defined in terms of their role in the home, and they weren’t in the workplace, only machines like Apricots, IBM PC’s, and Mr Sugar had only started to sell the [Amstrad] PC series in volume. He’d done incredibly well with the 8256 and the 8512, because again you’d got incredibly good value; you had a word processor [plus CP/M], a printer and a monitor and it was all one price. So, Amstrad was cornering the business market in the UK on two fronts with the PC and the PCW, and this left Atari and Commodore almost isolated because they were very expensive and the only route that they were going to go down was the games route because all these other things like graphics and productivity, spreadsheets and programming, they were all great but not really commercially viable.
“The graphics packages were quite expensive, the ST wasn’t as good on graphics as the Amiga. The ST later found itself as a music system, the 1040 was good for sampling, and the Amiga for lower end video, it [the Amiga] wasn’t really powerful enough for [broadcast] television because it didn’t really have the software to get the best out of it [Ed. The Video Toaster for Amiga wasn’t announced till end ’87 and came to market in December 1990].
“So, you had two machines which were quite expensive and weren’t really positioned in the right place. Thankfully Atari saw sense in early ’87 with the Atari STFM [M for built-in TV RF modulator] and Commodore by launching the Amiga 500 [Ed. The A500 first arriving in the Netherlands in April ’87, with a separate modulator]. At long last they’d seen the writing on the wall and you could have a [16-bit] home computer where you could plug your machine into a television. Hurrah! And off we went…
“The 520STFM was £399 and thirty years ago it was still a lot of money. And the Amiga was £499 – five hundred pounds for a machine with half a megabyte of ram, which you’re supposed to plug into your TV! This is the reason why everything [the 16-bit market] was incredibly slow growing, because you had to buy everything; Atari and Commodore had made you buy a monitor for your machines, and these monitors weren’t cheap, everything was very high end. The public looked at it and thought “Nah, we’re not having this, we’ll just stick with our Spectrums and our C64’s.” Which is what they did.
“So, Bob Gleadow at Atari UK in about March or April [’87] I think it was, cut the price to £299 [Ed. the earlier 520ST-M, which had a separate external floppy drive, was advertised by Silica Shop in the pilot issue of ST Update at £259 plus mouse and floppy drive. I remember buying one of them to add to my 520STFM!].
“Now, on the publishing side of things, I have to say that I’d been working on Popular Computing Weekly since January 1986. That was at a time I came into it because I had a big interest in computer games as they were then known back then, and I really wanted to get into this, I loved it! I loved my time at Popular Computing Weekly, I loved my time on ST Update, but back then again in ’86, we had Popular Computing Weekly, which was viable and profitable, but we were churning out a weekly magazine. There was productivity and some games in it, and you had all the other hobby stuff, graphics, music, listings in the back of the magazine, which were great. But these were very niche productivity methods and ways of doing things.
“By the late eighties, in the games sector, you had coin-op conversions, and you had film licenses. Ocean were very strong, they’d done well with Rambo, Miami Vice, we hadn’t yet seen Robocop [Ed. Robocop came out on the 8-bits in 1988, sixteen bit machines had to wait till ‘89]. And US Gold were very strong with the coin-op conversions, and Elite and Activision, but US Gold were wrapping up Gauntlet, Elite had their Commando game earlier, etc., and that was what it was going forward. You just needed work-for-hire coding shops to convert these things and the publishers to pay for the license.
“But really, by the end of 1986 we’d seen off pretty much all the other 8-bit machines [in the gaming market]. We had a magazine called Dragon User, which was on subscription, they didn’t even bother putting that out on the newsstands anymore, the 8-bit market was pretty much dead [Ed. Though several 8-bit games mags still managed to struggle through to the early 1990s]. There was something called Commodore Computing International [Ed. First published by Nick Hampshire, later by Antony Jacobson with Croftward Limited]. Antony Jacobson, he was like a Commodore cheerleader, and he took the magazine.
“We also had a magazine called Banking Technology, which was away from video games and productivity and computing, which had done incredibly well because at the end of ’86 on the stock market we had the ‘Big Bang’ – timing was brilliant for that. But in the game sector and everything else, at the end of ’86-’87, people could not wait to see the back of 8-bit. Today, we so much love and affection for 8-bit [retro]; this Sinclair Spectrum Vega thing, various stories have been published about that, there’s a lot of love for it [the Sinclair Spectrum] but thirty years ago people could not wait to get rid of these things. The buzz-word thirty years ago was ’16-Bit’. It’s what everybody was talking about.
“And Firebird, who were owned by British Telecom [Telecomsoft], thirty years ago, had the Star Trek game [Ed. Star Trek: The Rebel Universe, originally intended for the Beyond label, which had promoted it at the 1986 PCW Show, was previewed in the pilot issue of ST Update 30 years ago this month] and it was the big thing, everybody was going on about Star Trek [Ed. And again this year, with the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, but the games are a bit better now!]. The native platform on it was the Atari ST, we (ST Update) had seen some screenshots, one or two reviewers had claimed that they’d seen the game playing, this was the Big Thing.
“So, you had Star Trek, Rainbird were very prolific with The Pawn, Starglider came in ‘86 [Ed. And Starglider 2 in ‘88] from Rainbird, and in 16-bit, because 16-bit offered a new platform, a higher price point, and it meant that publishers could actually move forward rather than faff about with 8-bit and cassettes. Publishers wanted to grow, they needed the next big thing. Bear in mind that we’d had 8-bit since the end of the seventies, and things hadn’t grown. Sixteen-bit was the New Big Thing on the horizon, and Atari had cut the price to £299, and that meant things became viable.
“So, getting back to the magazine sector, it was mooted in our company that we might look at doing an ST magazine, and I caught wind of this and I was told about it and we said ok, we might put a “pilot” together. And I just thought, that’s not very ambitious… I wanted to see this thing. I mean I’d got a bit fed up with working on Popular Computing Weekly, it was OK, but me personally I wanted something new as well, and the Atari ST represented something new. I could sense from advertisers, and from software houses as they were known back then, and dealers, and retailers, they wanted something new. This was the way of evolution – move forward. The numbers weren’t very big in the way of the user base, but the industry wanted something bigger, better, faster, more expensive, something to generate revenue.
“So, the “pilot” was kind of mooted back then, and I thought yeah, ok, we’ll do this pilot [Ed. The ‘Spring ‘87’ first issue] and I started speaking to Jenny Ireland at the publishers, and said we need to do this, and Peter Worlock who was the Managing Editor on Popular Computing Weekly, and I said “Pete, you know, we have to do this,” and Pete was a bit sceptical and a bit negative, I think he’d probably seen a lot of doom and gloom in the home computing market because bear in mind that in 1985-86 the mass media and the mainstream media had written off home computers because they’d basically said that gaming was coming to an end and the home computer boom was over. It was “Eight-Bit Boom and Bust”. That’s what was being told as, it was a fad, it was a ‘nine-day wonder’.
“So, he was a bit sceptical, quite cautious, and he thought, we’ll do an ST ‘pilot’, because nobody else was doing one apart from Database Publications [Ed. Aka Europress from the late 1980s, published Atari ST User as a pull-out in Atari User from March 1986 and as a standalone magazine from April 1987]. And the only other thing was ST World, which was published by Gollner Publications, by a guy called Hugh Gollner working down in Chichester, but that wasn’t on the newsstand, not full distribution. They had a deal with Silica Shop where they would literally make it and then it would go into every box of every Atari sold, so it was a nice little deal. Hugh Gollner, who was about 18-19 years old, pretty much the same age as me back then, he working with his mum, Jean Gollner, and they were putting this Atari ST magazine together.
“So, this was thirty years ago. And me being the competitive type, that wasn’t going to be a problem to me…”
And it wasn’t, as you’ll see in Part 2 of this article, which will be published next Sunday. We hope you can wait!
FREE DOWNLOAD – ST UPDATE PILOT ISSUE
Meanwhile, to further celebrate the 30th birthday of ST Update magazine, here’s a little extra gift to all our readers, and especially to encourage the preservation of Atari and computer publishing history in general, something which really, really needs preserving and making available. Your very own, free, gratis and for nothing, downloadable PDF copy of the ultra-rare ‘Pilot’ issue of ST Update, published this month, thirty years ago. As with the above article, this is a Retro Computing News exclusive, and as far as we know is not available anywhere else on the web. Just click on the link below – please note that the 300dpi file is 86mb in size.
Copyright and redistribution
PLEASE NOTE Permission is not granted for sale of this PDF document and it must not be sold in any form or distributed in any manner which is paid for. We make no claims for copyright of the contents of this PDF, the company which originally published it, Sunshine Publications, is long defunct, but if anyone can prove with documentation that they have legal copyright over it from the original publishers, then we will gladly take down the download.
You are however invited to share the link to this page to anyone or any group who may be interested. We are aiming to have this file uploaded to relevant computer magazine/Atari preservation sites so that it can be made fully available, after which the file link on this page will be redirected . If you are an official representative of such a site, please do get in touch!
Comments and Contacts
We would be particularly glad to hear from any former staff of or contributors to ST Update. Comments are welcome below, via our Contact page or by direct email to Stuart Williams via email@example.com
The majority of illustrations in this article are from the ST Update Spring 1987 launch issue.
UPDATE: Part two of this article is now available, click on the link below: