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Part 1:

By Johnny Wilson
By Randy Sluganski
December 11, 2002

For 18 years from 1982 – 1999, Johnny Wilson progressed from staff writer to Associate Editor, to Editor, Editor-In-Chief and finally Editorial Director of the world’s most popular computer gaming magazine – Computer Gaming World.

Just as Vegas had their Rat Pack (Frank, Dino, Sammy, et al), the devoted readers of Computer Gaming World also felt as though they had their own computer gaming rat pack by following the monthly antics of Russell Sipe, Johnny Wilson, Scorpia, Charles Ardai & M. Evan Brooks.

During this time, a review from CGW could –though they would be loathe to publicly admit this – make or break a game. Their slavish devotion to detail and to insisting that the reviewer finish the game would be unthinkable in today’s marketplace where internet gaming sites post reviews of games that take 40+ hours to complete the day after their release and magazines publish reviews of beta versions just so they can scoop the internet sites.

I first met Johnny Wilson during a press junket four years ago. At the time, I was a nobody. Now, I am an older nobody and Johnny Wilson, after a brief stint with Magic the Gathering, is the President of Paizo Publishing a company that publishes special interest magazines – Dungeon Magazine, Dragon Magazine, Star Wars Insider & Dungeon Polyhedron – in the fields of entertainment and hobby gaming and promotes community and fan involvement through the official Star Wars fan club.

Imagine my surprise when, after one of my JA newsletters elicited a humorous response from Johnny Wilson, I off-the-cuff asked him if he would be interested in writing an article covering his years at Computer Gaming World for Just Adventure and 8 hours later the article you are about to read appeared in my inbox.

Whether you are new to computer gaming or, like myself, an old-timer, sit back and enjoy yourself and relive the days when Scorpia was the queen of adventure gaming and Johnny Wilson its undisputed king. As for myself, well an email from Russell Sipe has just appeared in my inbox – it seems he has just read the interview I conducted with Scorpia in the Summer of 2002 - so who knows what the future holds…

By Johnny Wilson

Part 1:


(All pictures and captions accompanying pictures are courtesy Russell Sipe and are part of Mr. Sipe’s personal archive. My sincere thanks to Mr. Sipe & Mr. Wilson for allowing JA the honor of publishing their reminiscences of the glory days of computer gaming and life at CGW)

It almost takes a Walter Brennan or Gabby Hayes impression to do justice to the way things used to be at Computer Gaming World magazine. One expects to hear a crackling voice out of a B western as soon as the first few lines are read: “Our first articles were typed on an Apple II using Magic Window and sent to the typesetter via a 300 baud Hayes modem. We picked up the linotyped text in person and returned to the kitchen table to cut the columns to size and paste them to art boards using wax.” It gets worse: “We didn’t use color screenshots in those days. We took black and white pictures with a camera on a tripod and sent them out to be half-toned. Then, we cut those up and waxed them to the boards, too.”
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An early shot of the office in Russell Sipe's garage. The Apple II (expanded to 64K!) was the editorial and game playing computer. The Compaq "luggable" was the subscription database computer. Not shown: the C-64 and Atari

In these days of computer-to-plate publishing, using desktop layout programs, it’s hard to imagine how primitive our operation was. I say “our” operation because I was privileged to be a part of Computer Gaming World for so long that I took a proprietary attitude toward the magazine. Even before I became an official part of Russell Sipe’s staff in 1986, I had written for the magazine, sorted mail, handled UPS shipping to the retailers (in those days, mostly “Mom and Pop” computer shops that handled computer games in zip-locked bags hung on wire racks), and helped Russell with the booth at local and national game conventions. In fact, I remember meeting the folks from Australia’s Strategic Studies Group and the U.S.’s Strategic Simulations, Inc. at the 1985 Origins game convention in Los Angeles. But, the fact is that even though everyone thinks I was there from the beginning, Computer Gaming World was established by Russell Sipe. He worked a miracle by getting the magazine out the door and surviving until the cash flow caught up with the initial investment. He’s the one who started on the proverbial kitchen table, moved the operation to the spare bedroom, renovated the garage into a real office, and expanded the operation from one office to two offices to new offices during the time we worked together. I watched Russell move the circulation needle from a few thousand to 20,000 and up to over 100,000 while I worked with him. So, even though I’m telling the story my way, I don’t want anyone to forget him. He da’ man!

When I did come on board in 1986, everything was already in place for success. I must have believed that. I took the job at half-time pay and supplemented my salary with writing (not just for CGW) and teaching business college at night. Russell generously foreshadowed the dot.com era by giving me stock for every quarter I worked at the company, but my stock actually proved to be worth something when Ziff-Davis purchased the magazine in late 1993.

As I said, everything was in place for success. Russell had already recruited Scorpia, M. Evan Brooks and Charles Ardai as regular contributors and had an entire network of strategy gamers from the local game clubs to draw from as part of the contributor pool. All I had to do was work with them in such a way that I didn’t make them mad. Of course, my goal was to cram as much gaming goodness as I could possibly stuff into the pages of the magazine and that meant that it was only a few issues before I ticked off some of our regulars. I didn’t tick off Scorpia (for a while, at least) because I thought her columns were absolutely unique (more on those, later), but I had the most boring review of a sports game I had ever read. It was a game that was advertised in our magazine, so I believed it needed to be covered, but the article was so poorly written that I trimmed it down to a one-page article from the 2-3 pager we were expecting to print.
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Visiting with Richard Garriott (aka Lord British) at an early CES. This picture was taken sometime before Johnny was promoted to pundit and gadfly. Hmmm. I wonder what I was saying to Richard? "No, Richard, we cannot change the name of the magazine to Ultima Gaming World."

The authors of the review had the most amazing temper tantrum. They screamed that they were regular contributors to an AWARD-WINNING magazine (at that time, Computer Gaming World hadn’t yet won the Charles Roberts Award for Best Professional Adventure Game Magazine nor had I won the SPA award for Best Software Reviewer), not some rag like ours. Their award-winning magazine had exactly one-fourth the circulation that we had at the time and it was to get progressively smaller in circulation as our publication became progressively larger. What had I chopped out to infuriate these “award-winning” authors? I had removed the description of the package and the details of the documentation, as well as some of the box scores from the games they had played using the strategy game.

By the way, a lot of people may get the wrong impression when I say that a game was advertised and needed to be covered. This is not and never was the case in my days at CGW that an advertised game got a good review because it was advertised, but we felt that if a game had flaws and was advertised, the readers deserved to hear about a flawed advertised game before they heard about an okay non-advertised game. The irony of my entire tenure at CGW was that we were constantly accused of being “in bed” with advertisers at the same time that people in certain major companies (Origin, MicroProse, Sierra and Activision) wouldn’t speak to us because they thought they had been singled out for editorial abuse. The truth is that Russell and I both believed that we needed to be shot at by both sides in order to know that we were being objective enough. Looking back, we must have been plenty objective.

Computer Gaming World had an editorial philosophy that isn’t practical in the current publishing environment. We expected the reviewers to play all the way through an adventure or role-playing game and we expected the reviewers to win a strategy game. We also expected our reviewers to play the actual commercial version of the game that was sold in stores. We didn’t review patches. We reviewed what the gamer was buying. The few times we reviewed early versions to try to hit deadline, we were burned (including the time I reviewed a game with online functionality based on the gold version and discovered after we went to press that the company had stripped out the online functionality just before duplication). This expectation of playing all the way through the game and reviewing from commercial copies has largely gone away since the era “shrink wrap reviews” on the web took hold. (In order to post reviews as fast as possible, many web reviews are based on popping the shrink wrap, installing the game, fiddling around for a couple of hours and writing the review. We called these “shrink wrap reviews.” They could almost be written from the blurbs on the back of the box.)
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A group shot of some CGW staffers and various computer game design notables. I'm (R) rusty on a few of the names here. Johnny (L) can tick them off for you. Uh, I mean, Johnny can list their names. Of course, he ticked some of them off too.

By the way, notice that everyone is having a good time except Johnny. What's going on there, Johnny?

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Here Johnny (R) and I  (L) pose with "Wild Bill" Stealey in front of his T-28 "Miss Microprose". If I seem a bit stressed its because just minutes before Bill and I had landed after a near belly flop. Bill was showing off for an A-10 squadron lined up in preparation for take-off after our landing. Bill hot-dogged a power dive landing but forgot to lower the landing gear. As we pulled out of the 3-g dive and leveled off I noticed that the landing gear dial indicated we were wheels up. We were less than 10 feet above the deck. I hit my intercom button but at the same moment the tower radio blared out "WHEELS UP!". Bill firewalled the engine which roared and slowly pulled us up from the edge of disaster. Watching from the tarmac Johnny thought we were just goofing off. During the much more conservative reapproach to the field Bill swore me to secrecy. But he began to tell the story himself in bars at CES in the following years.
These rules weren’t a problem when we were the source, but once we had competition in print and online, we kept redrawing the lines we wouldn’t cross. I’m still proud of CGW’s staff. I think they still do the most thorough job of covering the actual games for the readers—even in this era of “shrink wrap reviews.” The rules also paid unexpected dividends. Since we only paid a few cents per word at that time and the old games often took 40+ hours to play, this meant that our fees weren’t high enough to attract the big name computer journalists of the period. These guys were used to playing the game for a night and writing a couple hundred words for $.50 to $1.00 per word. We had read those mini-reviews in the “real” computer publications and we weren’t impressed. As a result, we ended up assembling the strangest cast of characters to ever populate a freelance stable. We had wargame reviews written by veteran pilots, active naval officers and graduates of military command schools. We had a driving game reviewed by a professional sports car driver. We had science-fiction games reviewed by published science-fiction writers (there were three of these across the years and all were published under pseudonyms). We had role-playing reviews by one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons. We had an Ivy League professor analyze the mathematical model underlying an armored combat simulation and we had a professional investor analyze a business strategy game. At one point, I was even recruited by the National Space Society to review serious astronomical software and space simulations for their magazines (Space World and Ad Astra). Why? They asked because it was clear that I had learned a lot from the simulations available in those days and they wanted to pass along the good news.

So, where does the mystery lady of computer gaming fit in? Scorpia was already on board when I joined the CGW staff. Although Russell had her “real name” on a Rolodex card in his office, we made out her checks to “Scorpia” and sent all mail to her as “Scorpia.” Scorpia is one of the most refreshing people you could ever meet. Ask her to review a crappy game and she would respond, “I guess so. I hate to finish it, but it’s so bad my readers have to know.” Ask her if she thought some niggling point in a review was necessary and she’d defend it to the utmost. “My readers care about that kind of thing and it would be dishonest for me not to tell them. I owe them, Johnny.” Ouch! Those are the kinds of statements that editors are supposed to make to publishers. Yet, that’s the way Scorpia was.

Scorpia not only kept disk-based copies of all her characters and game saves, she kept detailed files with hand-drawn maps and notes. I really enjoyed having access to this human database of information. If I needed help with a puzzle in an adventure or role-playing game, I could call her up and tell her where I was. Instead of telling me the answer outright, she would give me a hint—just like she used to give in Scorpion’s Mail. Instead of saying, place the cards in the following order, she would challenge you to remember the mnemonic for the color spectrum that you learned in junior high school (ROYGBIV) and you’d know to insert the cards from red to violet in a set order (or, as in The Neverhood, to press buttons in that order). No one, but no one could ever match her walk-throughs or hints.

Of course, editors and reviewers don’t always see eye-to-eye. Because of our insistence that the games be played all the way through, Scorpia often felt an urgency to get to the end. As a result, there were certain more open-ended games that we didn’t assign her because she hated “red herrings” that led nowhere and kept her from getting to the end of the story. The good news was that she often found bugs in the end games of adventures and RPGs that the playtesters had missed. Some companies truly didn’t believe that any players would ever get there or felt that they would have the game patched by the time the players got there. The bad news was that she occasionally skewered a game for doing what I thought a game should—offering multiple possibilities.

This brings me to the biggest disagreement that Scorpia and I ever had. It was over the MicroProse game, Darklands. Darklands was a thorough and marvelous game of role-playing in medieval Germany. Scorpia, like most players, hated the game because it crashed too often. I was playing an unpatched version and had 60+ hours with only two crashes. The guys at the office kidded me about having the Immaculate Contraption because I was able to play many games without experiencing the crash problems that others were experiencing (I later found out the reason). She also didn’t like the conclusion of the game, sacrificing one of the player characters in order to win. I thought the idea of self-sacrifice was a unique factor in computer games and Scorpia felt it mocked the heroic efforts of her party members. I thought she was treating her characters too much like her children, the digital equivalent of those who pamper their pets. She thought I was lying about the program not crashing on me.

So, I ran Scorpia’s review without slicing off her criticism of the product, but I ran a sidebar that said that I thought the idea of sacrifice was a marvelous corrective to the typical heroic ending of most computer role-playing games. The readers castigated me. They felt like I had invalidated Scorpia’s criticism by putting in an alternate opinion. You would have thought I had thrown a flask of urine at the pope from the reaction! Later, after 72 hours of playing around with minor quests and avoiding the main plot line of Darklands, I decided it was time to finish the game. I had seven complete system crashes in less than an hour-and-a-half once I decided to jump in and finish the game. I didn’t really have an immaculate contraption, I just hadn’t encountered the worst crashes because I hadn’t filled my upper memory with the system critical details of the end game. Scorpia hadn’t overreacted to the crashes because she was mad about the ending. I just hadn’t seen how bad it was because I was fooling around with the game instead of trying to win. Since most players would be trying to win, Scorpia’s review was more valid than my sidebar. Ah, well, that probably isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done when I thought I was being fair.

End of part 1.

Please join us next week as we conclude Johnny Wilson’s walk down memory lane as he continues his reminisces about his years at Computer Gaming World.


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Part 2