By Jonathan Beales and Stuart Williams
Last week, Retro Computing News began our exclusive celebration of the 30th birthday of ST Update magazine, which was first published for Atari ST computer fans in March 1987, but which has since then become largely (and unfairly) forgotten, at least on the internet. We published the first part of a two-part article by our editor Stuart Williams (who first wrote for ST Update in 1987) and Jonathan Beales, who was one of the founding managers of the Sunshine Publications magazine and whose hard work managing advertising was an essential part of its initial success. We also provided a full download of the first ‘Spring 1987’ pilot issue of the magazine.
Today we conclude with this, the second part of the article, focusing on the continuation of an exclusive piece of oral history kindly recounted to Retro Computing News by Jonathan, and for which we are very grateful to have had the opportunity to publish and set the record straight about what was a great, pioneering British magazine of the 16-bit era.
If you have not already read part 1, we highly recommend you do so first before continuing with Jon’s narrative below.
Part the second
Over to Jon Beales:
“And, Database Publications (Europress) based up in Stockport, in Macclesfield, they again were looking at doing an Atari magazine. Their editorial skills weren’t that great, well, they were good, but they didn’t quite have that kind of polish. Future weren’t doing anything, EMAP weren’t doing anything, and I just thought yeah, we’re gonna push on this and we’re gonna get this [ST Update] together, so I worked on the first issue, did very well. I think I sold £17,000 worth of advertising – and all I had was an A4 flyer, a telephone, some contacts and just self-belief, in this magazine. And, everybody loved it!
“And people came on board, and I’m not sure what the sales figures were on the first one, the print run was quite low, I think the print run was only about 20-25,000 because the numbers on the installed [Atari ST] base thirty years ago in March 1987 were very, very low. I mean, I don’t think there were probably more than about, combined 16-bit audience, ST and Amiga, wouldn’t have been upwards of 20,000. Because it wasn’t stocked [the ST], there were very few Atari ST and Amiga games, they weren’t really on the High Street, the independents sold them but the chains, which were W.H. Smiths and Boots, they were nowhere near them, because you did not have the user base. Back then, it was the old thing – software sells hardware. And because there weren’t many games, there wasn’t enough software to sell the hardware, and the hardware was too expensive.
What a game
“One of the reasons why I think Peter Worlock [the managing and launch editor] loved the ST so much, one of the reasons why he saw it as the away ahead was because in the summer of ’86 the Popular Computing Weekly editorial team loved the game Leader Board. Leader Board arrived on import on the Atari ST, and it was great. It was one of these really brilliant, well-executed first ST games around. And it was really, really good – everybody loved it. You know, you had tournaments between the Popular Computing Weekly team, the editorial staff, and everybody loved it because it was, I say ‘next-gen graphics’, slightly upgraded graphics compared to what a Commodore 64 could do, but it offered next-gen gaming. The first time that we’d really seen next-gen ahead of 8-bit.
But then, going back to 1986, in the UK there was no Nintendo, there was certainly no PlayStation, there was certainly no Xbox. There were no consoles. That is all you had. Leaderboard on the ST, on import, it wasn’t even actually released [in the UK] on the ST until 1987, about a year later, because all their stuff went through US Gold. So, we had next-gen gaming in the Popular Computing Weekly office via Leaderboard, which was a very playable and good game. I didn’t really like it myself, because I’m not really into golf games, but it was great and I think Peter [Worlock] saw that, and the editorial team saw it, and they thought yeah, this is going to be the way ahead. Which was very good.
Early days at ST Update
“So, ST Update came out, and sales were very encouraging. There wasn’t a lot of marketing on it, we put a half-page advert in Personal Computer World (PCW), I think that was about £500, I did the media buying on that because I was really into it. And yeah it was great. It was very, very good and for me, that was going to be the next big thing. And, eventually it was. But at first, we had no competition; Database arrived with their Atari ST User magazine in about April, I spoke to one of the guys there, a guy called John Snowdon, very nice guy “Snowy’, a bit of friendly banter, I was a lot more competitive than he was, he was quite a laid-back Manchester guy, very nice guy, and I was pretty ferocious, bit of a Rottweiler. Jack Tramiel’s famous quote was “Business is war”, and I was very much along the same lines, ‘cause at the end of the day, if you don’t have any self-belief you’re not going to get anything done, and you have to go up, because if you’re not going to get the deal, somebody else will. And you’ll lose out.
“But it was fun. And I think we published it [ST Update] monthly from about April or May time. I worked on it myself pretty much, we had Chris Jenkins who was the editor, Chris had come across from Popular Computing Weekly, Chris’s bag was very much music, he loved Atari ST music because Steinberg had released a software package on the Atari ST, which he was well into, and he loved his kind of MIDI stuff on the ST. And the Atari ST as we know went on to bigger things and the 1040 model came out, and it did well because they got the price down on that. So, Chris worked on that and he got us a few freelancers in, Kenn Garroch was hired from his work on Popular Computing Weekly for his peek and poke stuff, the programming side of things. A few other freelancers from Popular Computing Weekly, Duncan Evans came on board just to get the games out, but on the games side, there just really weren’t the games, you had a Microsoft Flight Simulator, you had the Harrier game on the ST from Mirrorsoft, these were reasonable games but they were very early in the cycle of the generation. And so, you really hadn’t seen much stuff.
“We hadn’t seen Star Trek [the game], Star Trek was delayed, as was the real kind of culture of computer games back then, things got delayed, and things became a problem. US Gold got into the market later that year with Roadrunner, which is a reasonable conversion, but I remember speaking to David Ward at Ocean, we had these conversations, and he wanted to release Argonaut, and I persuaded him to advertise, even he said he had his reservations, they didn’t make games because the user base didn’t exist. And he was absolutely right, there’s no point in making something if you can’t sell it. But gradually, they kind of rolled things out. They ran an ad for Slap Fight I think, a multi-product ad, that was the way David decided to go ahead and advertise because it would be cost-effective to do a multi-product, three products in one ad. So, you had Slap Fight, you had Arkanoid, and they gradually rolled things out on the ST. But everybody wanted the ST. US Gold had the Outrun license, we saw Outrun later in ’87, it was appalling, it really was, it was a terrible conversion after such a great coin-op. And you know, as you say all the rest is history, but you had some very good original developers. Rainbird were pretty big with The Pawn, and the high-end 16-bit stuff. We saw Starglider later on, we saw Carrier Command the following year.
The writing on the wall?
“But I left in about July-August 1987 [Jon is credited as advertising manager in the August dated issue of ST Update]. The company [Sunshine Publications] was sold to Focus Magazines, there was a guy from there who was put in charge, a guy called Jeremy Kite who was very smug, he seemed to be more passionate about silly little one-liners than actually the whole business and the market. I knew the market inside-out, I make no bones about that, I don’t say that with any arrogance. I knew the way it was going. I spoke to all the retailers, I spoke to all the publishers, I spoke to the advertisers, the software houses, I knew exactly where it was going, and I knew the market. But Focus Magazines didn’t know the market, they saw magazines as a business, which was great, which was absolutely fine, they bought Popular Computing Weekly as well, the staff were transferred over.
“But you know, I’d got myself a really great company car out of ST Update, a very fast car, which I liked, it was a company car, a free car, and Focus said I wasn’t allowed to have it, and I thought, that’s really pathetic. If you’re going to take something away from somebody who’s worked pretty hard for it, because if it wasn’t for me, I was instrumental in the launch of ST Update, and if it wasn’t for me being instrumental and doing the commercial side of it, and just having the general enthusiasm and passion, Focus wouldn’t have had a magazine.
“So, you know, ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’, that’s what they did. So, I left, I joined Future Publishing. I moved down to Bath and worked on ACE [Advanced Computer Entertainment] magazine, which some retro gamers would refer to as ‘legendary’. It was a great magazine, hooking up with Chris Anderson and Bob Wade and Pete Cooke, Steve Connor, the guys on ACE and Multi-Format. Again, we knew the way that the market was going, Future certainly knew the way the market was going. Focus, in my opinion, Focus didn’t.
“Focus folded a few years after, I don’t know when, but they didn’t really last very long, they took the magazine [ST Update] over, but like any business or anything else, if you don’t have enthusiasm and you don’t have the passion for something, things just fold and go away. I mean, I worked on ACE magazine, and that was a great, great magazine. It’s like anything else, if you want to do something well, you’ve got to get behind it. And you’ve gotta believe in it.
“I don’t think Focus really believed in it [ST Update], I think they couldn’t care less whether there was an Atari ST magazine or a magazine about dog food, you know, they just wanted magazines, they were in the magazine business, and they were just looking to acquire things. They’d had some money come in from somewhere, and were just making acquisitions. So, it was almost like a sausage factory approach, which was great for them, initially, all these ideas, but I wasn’t going to go, I didn’t want to work in Victoria either. Because we [Sunshine Publications] were in Little Newport Street [London], between uptown Leicester Square and Soho. Brilliant place to work, that’s where I wanted to work, and that’s where I did work. But when the change came along, I didn’t want to be part of their [Focus’s] fold. So, I decided to leave. It was a shame.
“ST Update gradually folded, and you can skim through all the adverts in the magazine and you’ll see that pretty much that every single company is no longer around today. But they were great days, they were pioneering days, and they were very, very early days. And it’s very hard, I think possibly for younger people reading this, to try and put that into context, but stuff wasn’t around. You did not have the internet, you did not have consoles, there were no [mobile or smart] phones, there was no market, there was nothing like that. You had a landline ‘phone and a fax machine to work with. And a whole lot of passion and belief. And that’s all you pretty much had. That’s what I had. That’s what I still have today. And I’ll always say to anybody working on anything or doing anything – always believe in yourself. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody’s gonna believe in you.
“So that’s pretty much it. Those were the Atari ST days. It was very small, but it was gathering and growing pace. It’s what everybody wanted, it’s what the publishers wanted, it’s what the software houses wanted, because they could not wait to see the back of 8-bit, which was getting pretty sad at that point. That’s pretty much it. Thank you very much.”
Jonathan Beales and (as editor) Stuart Williams
Once again, Retro Computing News would like to express our gratitude to Jon Beales for his invaluable help in presenting the early story of ST Update magazine ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ as it were, and with it revealing a further fascinating chunk of behind-the-scenes home computer magazine history which you won’t find anywhere else on the web – at least for now.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading both parts of this important story and will also enjoy reading the first ever issue of the magazine, presented through these pages.
FREE DOWNLOAD – ST UPDATE PILOT ISSUE
As with last week’s article, to 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.
Please feel free to share this link to anyone or any group who may be interested, and we would be particularly glad to hear from any staff or contributors to ST Update – comments are open below.
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 from the original publishers, then we will gladly take down the download.