|8 December 2007
||The Making of the CGW Archive
Note: This interview was originally given in October 2006. Since then, the CGW Archive has disappeared from Filefront.com; however, the magazines are still available at the Museum.
When did you first start reading CGW?
Mid-1980s. One issue that I do remember very well and that really hooked me was #48 (June 1988), with the Bard's Tale III cover. My brother and I were big fans of the Bard's Tale series (more him than me, though) and we were very excited at the release of the third game. He bought the magazine at a hobby store and I read it many times cover-to-cover.
What is it that attracted you to CGW in the first place, and do you still get that from the magazine?
It was mainly the quality and depth of the writing. It was obvious that the reviewers had played the games through and careful consideration had been given to all aspects of the games. All this was packaged up in a writing style that was interesting and easy to follow - read Scorpia's review of Bard's Tale III in the above-mentioned issue, for a good example!
Further to this, CGW was about more than reviews. There were numerous articles on game design, tips, and strategy, as well as the state of the computer gaming hobby/industry, regularly written by designers themselves. Very early issues of CGW featured contributions by Joel Billings (SSI), Chris Crawford (various), and Jon Freeman (Epyx/Free Fall), among many others. This was the sort of insight that was rarely available anywhere else, particularly in a pre-Internet era.
Computer gaming has changed a lot since then. It's now big business and definitely an industry as opposed to a hobby. And I think in general, print magazines (with a monthly cycle) have somewhat struggled to stay relevant in a time of instant news and instant gratification brought by the Internet. Admittedly, I don't have the time or inclination to play games as I did back in the 1980s (the last game I played to completion was Wizardry 8, if I recall!), so a comparison solely based on my level of interest probably wouldn't be fair. We'll come upon that later, but I think CGW had a bit of an identity crisis from 2001-2003 or thereabouts; however, I've been very pleased with the magazine of late. I was particularly happy to see the introduction of the "Viewpoints" section (which dropped game scores), although I hear that wasn't popular with too many other readers.
At what point did you decide to start collecting issues of the magazine?
I ordered a pile of back issues from Golden Empire back in 1990 or so, as I thought it would be great to read about the games, even if I had already played them. I remember that CGW had an ad along the lines of "Study the Classics", selling themed bundles of back issues. I think I missed those, and by the time I ordered, the selection was fairly limited, and no pre-1984 issues were available. Busy with school, I forgot about it all throughout the 1990s (other than thinking it would be great to have those articles available online - a recurring theme!). Fast forward to early 2003. I saw someone selling a few issues on eBay, including some that I was missing. I picked up the lot for next to nothing, and that rekindled my interest.
How did you go about securing copies of the magazine?
Mainly, I watched eBay and posted messages on Usenet newsgroups. I had a few replies, and managed to slowly add issues to the collection. I also did a search on the WWW and picked up a few issues that way. My big break came in December of 2003, when a gentleman by the name of Bob Millard replied to one of my Usenet messages. He had nearly every issue starting at 3.1 (1983). I picked up a few 1982 issues on eBay, and pretty soon I was only missing 2.2, 2.4, and 4.1. These were the three copies that were the hardest to find, and to this day, I'm not sure why. Perhaps they were published in smaller numbers? Looking at some of the back issue ads in early CGWs, those three are more often than not shown as sold-out. In the Fall of 2004, I contacted Tim Finkas, the original CGW cover artist, for an interview. By that time, I had managed to find 2.2 and 2.4, and was only missing 4.1. Turns out Tim had a spare copy of 4.1, and he provided the final link to the collection.
Why did you decide to start the CGW Museum?
A few reasons: first and foremost, I wanted to provide cover and table of contents scans of the early issues of the magazine - those were not available anywhere. With that, I wanted to try and provide some behind-the-scenes information about CGW, by interviewing former (and current) contributors and employees. Opening the CGW Museum seemed like the logical way to do this. Secondly, when I published the site (March 2004), I was still missing issues 2.2, 2.4, and 4.1. I was hoping to generate some interest and locate someone who would have those early issues. It didn't quite work out that way, as I ended up locating these issues myself. However, John McDaniel provided issues 2.2 and 2.4 from the collection of his late brother Robert and told me, "I enjoy collectibles like this, but I'm sure you would put them to better use as part of the Museum archives." And he was right, I definitely put them to good use. So, having the Museum open was definitely helpful in finding the last few missing issues.
How have you gone about posting the magazines, and why is it important that they be searchable? Why not simply take the easy option and just scan them?
When I first published the Museum, I had scans of the covers and table of contents of every issue up to 100. Soon enough, I began to get requests for articles and ads. My reaction to that was to start posting magazine excerpts on the site, a few every now and then. That's when I started thinking again about what had entered my mind in the 1990s: the ultimate solution would be to have the entire issues available online, every single page, every single article, every single ad.
I gave lots of thought as to whether or not that would be achievable, and how to best go about it. I think this planning stage was key to the success of the project. I experimented with different resolutions, scanning methods, workflows, document formats, and more. Finally, in October of 2004, I did a test issue (#54). I showed it to a few people and got an overwhelmingly positive response, along with some valuable comments, which I incorporated into my final process. I did another test issue, #2.1, and this time the comments were that I shouldn't change anything. So I knew I was headed in the right direction. I then started on the (long!) road to producing the rest of the issues.
I followed a very specific process. First, I unstapled the magazine bindings to get the pages to scan completely flat - all CGW issues up to (and including) #99 had a stapled binding, which was a godsend because I could easily remove the staples, scan, and then replace the staples without damaging the magazine (issue #100 and thereafter had a glued binding... I had to sacrifice a copy of #100 for the project!). The quickest way to do things was to scan all the pages, and then worry about post-processing. I had a really slow scanner (Epson 1250), but it gave excellent results - so I stuck with it. I scanned everything at 300 dpi and saved the files as TIFs so I would only have one compression step (creating the PDF).
After scanning, I went on to post-processing: cropping, straightening, colour-correction, and sometimes retouching. Thankfully the colour-correction required was nearly always the same, so I used a macro. Straightening was sometimes a bit of a nightmare: early CGW issues were pasted up by hand, so most page elements had slightly different orientations. I ended up simply going for what looked best to me, but inevitably that meant some articles within a page were straighter than others. Later CGWs had a much more consistent layout, but sometimes the page and the page content were at slightly different angles, so straightening was still required. Every now and then, I touched up a page or two to remove obvious pen marks or damage.
Once my pages were ready, I ran them through OCR. This is one area where it really paid off to have 300 dpi, uncompressed files. I used OmniPage which gave excellent OCR results, however the user-friendliness and stability of the program leaves something to be desired. I zoned every page manually, since the auto-zoning wasn't particularly useful. Once that was done, I ran every issue through the OmniPage proofreader to catch any significant mistakes. I'm sure there are some left, but the intent wasn't to have 100% text accuracy: rather, it was to have sufficient accuracy such that a text search would return the correct page and issue. I think this has been more than achieved.
The next step was to export to PDF, as an uncompressed file with image on text. I can't say enough about the "image on text" PDF file format: what a great idea! Once in Acrobat, I finally compressed the files using settings based on trial and error. It was the usual quality/file-size debate, although I favoured having a higher quality file than a small file. In the end, the 102 issues (100 CGW plus 2 Computer Game Forum) take up just under 3 gigabytes - everything fits neatly on a DVD, with lots of room to spare.
The last touch was to add some navigational improvements to the files. I bookmarked all the articles and features, and linked the tables of contents. Furthermore, if you've ever read some of the early CGWs, you'll know that articles tended to jump between pages, sometimes 4-5 times. So I thought it would be great to link the "Continued on page xx" and "Continued from page xx" indications, which makes it a lot easier to follow through an article.
I decided on having text-searchable magazines right from the beginning. Part of the reason was that I figured that if I was going to do this, I may as well go all the way. With apologies to other magazines, CGW was pretty much the only computer gaming reference throughout the 1980s. I see this project as more than 102 individual issues. Rather, I think it's one compendium of gaming history, and what better way to make this easily accessible than have a searchable index? Acrobat's Catalog feature really provided the solution to this. The index has 3+ million words and the searches can be as complex as Acrobat allows, all in a user-friendly interface. The only articles that are not OCRed are ones with background pictures or ones with text that's not horizontally aligned... there's only a few, however. Also, one thing to note is that I wanted to have the highest possible quality product to maximize the chances of Ziff Davis getting onboard. There were certainly times when I wanted to go the easier route, believe me!
At what point did Ziff Davis get involved, and what has the relationship between CGW Museum and Ziff Davis been like?
I initially contact Ziff Davis in October of 2004, simply to gauge interest. Back then I contacted them through an inquiries e-mail address from their website - the response was essentially "No interest and you don't have permission to put these online." No worries though - I knew that it would be much easier to convince someone with a finished product in hand, plus I also knew that the best way to get things going was to contact someone on the inside who would be interested in the project and could push it through. Fast forward to mid-August 2006. CGW announced its rebranding on 2 August, but I didn't know. On August 15 or so, I e-mailed CGW editor Jeff Green to ask about interest in my scans, particularly given that CGW would turn 25 in November. My e-mail never made it through (overly active junk mail filters). However, a few days later, I received an e-mail from Michael Jennings, CGW Art Director, saying he was aware of the CGW Museum and asking if I could provide some old cover scans for the final issue of CGW! I called Michael and explained that I could do much more than that, and he seemed very interested. He mentioned it to Jeff Green and I hear that Jeff thought this was a great idea. So I sent out a DVD, and here we are. The CGW staff at Ziff Davis has been extremely friendly and supportive of my work.
How does it feel to have achieved your goal of posting the first 100 issues?
Very relieved! And so is my scanner... I'm just really happy that I was able to work something out with CGW and Ziff Davis regarding the distribution. A few people were fairly pessimistic that this would happen, because it's always easier to do nothing instead of something, particularly for a large corporation. I think there was an element of luck in how things lined up (with the end of CGW and the 25th anniversary), but overall this does show that these kinds of fan-based projects can be successful if approached in the right way.
Where do you go from here?
One place I'm definitely not going is scanning other issues. The page count goes up dramatically starting at issue #90 or so. There are 7438 pages in the 102 issues I scanned - that's for 11 years. There are probably around 5000 pages in the next 25 issues. Not to mention the glued bindings, and the use of more complex page layouts and coloured backgrounds. As I've said, things just lined up right for my project, like I was meant to get it done. :-)
I think I will slightly reposition the Museum in the next few months - with CGW completing its 25 year run, I think I will focus the site on the entire run of CGW, keeping particular emphasis on the first 100 issues. Right now there's virtually nothing post-1992. Furthermore, I'd like to get more behind-the-scenes information, similar to the column on Tim Finkas. I'm a bit at the mercy of former CGW staff for this, although my feeling is that most of them would like to contribute something - it's just getting the time to do it.
What was your reaction to hearing that the magazine would be changing its name?
Mixed. It's a bit difficult to believe that we've seen the last issue of the magazine, after so many years. However, it might have just been the right time to do it... 25 years cover-to-cover. I look forward to reading the last issue (haven't received it yet!) and the first issue of the new publication!
What do you feel the highpoints of the magazine's run have been?
Definitely the pre-1990s content is gold. And I love the Tim Finkas covers (issues 1.1-26, with a few exceptions). Some more than others, but the artwork is excellent.
I also feel like the magazine had found itself of late, with great viewpoints, interviews, and features on game design and the game industry. I also prefer to see in-depth content as opposed to more content (for example, a smaller number of longer, more detailed viewpoints instead of many short ones), and I think this was on the way to being achieved. I hope the new magazine keeps going in that direction.
Have there been any lowpoints in your opinion?
From issue #95 to #105 or thereabouts, the magazine was experiencing significant growth. There were a number of glitches and errors, and the staff was experimenting with all kinds of new fonts, coloured backgrounds, and layouts, which mostly didn't work. You can see some of this if you look at the later issues in the archive. That was a bit of a low point for me.
Also, between approximately 2001-2003, I think the magazine was searching for an identity, perhaps struggling with how to position itself due to the Internet, and trying to find new ways of increasing readership. This didn't always work and I think the quality of the magazine suffered.
Finally, how important do you think it is that something like the archive exists?
It's important, I think. I mean, it's not life-and-death stuff, but it opens up a comprehensive new source of historical information on 1980s and early 1990s computer gaming. The early issues of the magazine were distributed in the low thousands of copies, so not many people have seen them, and never would if they weren't available online. I've been told that even Ziff Davis doesn't have a complete set of CGW, so this ensures that the content of the magazines will be preserved in the future.
As an aside, I have one amusing story about the scanning project. In early 2006, I received a 2000+ page contribution from a CGW Museum visitor (generally, issues #85-#100). Due to the page count, I was dreading to have to scan these issues... So I finished scanning the rest and thought I was done. Unfortunately when I tried to work with the scans, I wasn't able to OCR them properly due to bleed through and file compression issues. So I had to re-scan all those pages! I also had another contributor who provided one scanned issue, but I mistakenly scanned it myself anyways...
If I can say a few thanks: to Russell Sipe for creating CGW, to Freddie Bingham for hosting the Museum, to all the contributors and visitors to the CGW Museum for their help and support, and to the current CGW/Ziff Davis staff for their willingness to take this on.