It’s Part 8, and from the bright and breezy complacency of the mid-00s, we come to 2008: the era of Mock the Week and the global financial crisis.

Part 8: 2008-10 – The Bitter End

Just as I was getting used to the new Zone family (I blame the mildly disturbing Zone Christmas card from 2006 for that particular characterisation of the team) there was more change afoot. Jamie Sefton’s tenure as editor came to an end; Suzy Wallace pursued her love of racing sims by going to work for Blimey! Games (later Slightly Mad Studios) and serving as producer on games such as Need for Speed: Shift.

Sefton was replaced as editor by Will Porter, who opened his first issue with a heartfelt and rather touching declaration that this was a dream come true: “It’s an honour, an absolute bloody honour…That doesn’t stop me from being absolutely terrified about breaking everything…the fact that I now edit a national publication is a sure sign of some fault in the system.” I always had the sense that Porter was truly a fan who ended up in charge: someone of my generation who started reading in the mid-90s who managed to achieve exactly what the rest of us 90s fanboys wanted.

Unfortunately, many of those same fanboys were now of the opinion that Zone was a pale shadow of its former self and didn’t hesitate to express this opinion. I think this was all a little harsh on the writing team at the time, and especially Porter, who always gave the impression that he cared a great deal about Zone and trying to maintain its 90s legacy. This was evident in his introduction to Issue 200, for which he managed to recruit significant Zone alumni, including Charlie Brooker: “There is something special about PC Zone…there’s a thread that has run through this magazine from issue one all the way through to today, our milestone 200th issue. It’s a feeling of shared history, of hands across the ages, and the brilliant fact that someone like me, in my first weeks of editorship can receive an email from someone who worked on the magazine seven years ago, irreconcilably angry that we were running adverts for a once-bitter rival (“What are you thinking about you stupid bastards?”, being the turn of phrase used)…Some people say that PC Zone isn’t as good as it used to be, but for this issue at least they can shut up. Today we are.”

Issue 200 was arguably Zone’s last hurrah, in that the old writers did come back (Brooker was rewarded with a copy of Euro Truck Simulator to review: “Oh thanks, PC Zone. You bring me back from the dead for one last review and what do you give me to look at? A game in which you drive a lorry full of tomatoes to Lyon”, while Mr Cursor’s copy arrived “on floppy disks and in the post, with ‘Urgent’ scrawled on it in Biro”) and the magazine still seemed in reasonably healthy shape.

No thanks to me, though: I’d already let me subscription lapse at some point in 2008, buying issue 200 as a one-off on the promise of some 90s nostalgic ramblings. Again, I don’t really have a sense of making a conscious decision to not renew: it was more likely a case of basic laziness. I have a theory about magazine subscriptions causing the reader to lose interest: with a subscription, magazines drop unexpectedly through the door, to be retrieved after a day at work and put on a pile with credit card bills, only to be half-heartedly flicked through one evening before bed. One-off purchases, on the other hand, are usually made shortly before a long train journey or flight abroad, associated with the optimism of the beginning of a holiday or long weekend, and are subject to multiple levels of scrutiny: the quick scan, the second reading with particular emphasis on things of interest to you, then multiple further sweeps to mop up the bits you might have previously ignored.

Subscription fatigue aside, I again had the feeling that I wasn’t really interested enough in the games themselves, and too many issues passed without me having expressed any enthusiasm for any new or forthcoming releases. The cover of the December 2007 issue featured some kind of action face-off between Gears of War and Unreal Tournament III, fronted by what seemed to be virtually identical manly macho men. Thin issues and barren reviews sections (with rather too many MMOs featuring) certainly contributed to my apathy. I suppose under the circumstances you have to give credit to Zone for not receiving every potentially big game with rapturous applause: Steve Hogarty’s lukewarm 72% for Assassin’s Creed could very well have been massaged into something more positive in order to give Zone a big game to shout about.

I didn’t buy another issue until I heard that Zone was to be shut down. I was a little bit shocked by what I found when I bought the final Zone (225). Evidently, the pace of change had increased exponentially after the 200th anniversary issue. Porter quit as editor, swiftly followed by most of the other writers. Although I wasn’t buying the magazine at this point, the final issue gave a hint as to what was going on (the final retrospective, on the later years: “If you’re haemorrhaging staff, and having your budget whittled to zero, you might as well trade on your ebbing kudos and exploit the general public as if they were slaves. So it was that the last years of PC Zone ended with a succession of students and recently unemployed grown-up gamers, plucked from obscurity to write admirable words about not-so-admirable games.” Hogarty, from the same retrospective piece: “Bye-bye Zone. Thanks for letting me be your staff writer, then section editor, then deputy editor, then editor, all by virtue of my superiors quitting in rapid succession.”)

I don’t think I’ve ever bought the last issue of anything before, and I guess I wasn’t expecting it to be a laugh riot, but the overriding feeling of sadness that permeated that last Zone hit me more than I expected. For one: everyone had left, and they hadn’t been replaced. Meet the Team featured four people, only one of whom (David Brown, of whom it was said: “David wrote so much, we invented writers to create the illusion of variety”) actually did any writing. Somewhat fittingly, the final Supertest photo featured Brown sat on his own in the pub (although this was supplemented by some phone camera photos of the participants). The cover feature made reference to Batman: Arkham City with the words: “The Dark Knight. The Final Issue. The Ultimate Send Off.” I guess you’d hope the end would coincide with some kind of big game, as if it was all deliberate and pre-planned.

Where Zone 200 felt like a final call to arms had been answered, Zone 225 was a sad collection of pages: the retrospective included a selection of recycled stories, with ex-writers failing to contribute anything of note (Brooker was too busy, so they published a series of tweets in which he admitted he was too busy). Inevitably, there was quite a lot of anti-corporate stuff, the implication being that the Dennis Publishing days were ace, before Future quietly strangled Zone to death.

And, with a review of Starcraft 2, a sombre Supertest, an edition of NeverQuest in which Steve Hill left his computer and went to the cricket, and a round-up of goodbyes from mostly US-based developers, that was it for PC Zone. Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of it was the letters page, which was chock full of correspondence from long-time readers writing in to say what Zone had meant to them over the years.

It was perhaps inevitable that some of the final eulogies focused more on the working environment and the camaraderie of its writing staff than anything else. Paul ‘Prezzer’ Presley was called upon to deliver the last rites in Zone itself, and in Will Porter’s farewell piece on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and he delivered defiant, fist-in-the-air type stuff that proved mildly irksome to a small minority of the below-the-line RPS cognoscenti. But what would you do when faced with the closure of the company you worked for? Would you reminisce about all the great work projects you completed successfully? Or focus on the good times you had with your friends and work colleagues?

Any retrospective (including this one!) would inevitably focus on the flashpoints: the supposed laddishness, the porn on the CD, the arse-eating and Cruelty Zoo. Ex-contributors were keen to play up the rivalry between Zone and Gamer, too. But although those things were obviously part of Zone history, they weren’t the main things I remember when I think about the magazine. And though I obviously remember 90s Zone most fondly, it feels a little unfair to judge the later iterations by the same standards. In the 90s, I was a teenager and the writers seemed like gruff, manly grown-ups whom I was happy to worship. By the end, the editor was the same age as me and many of the writers were even younger (Steve Hogarty was a teenager when he started). And they were operating under much tougher conditions for print media.

Back to the Gamer rivalry: I did remember it all being a fairly big thing at the time, but I didn’t find as much evidence of it as I thought I would (except the odd reference to “PC G*m*r”). Perhaps I just didn’t have access to the issues with particularly bitter comments in them, I don’t know. If it really was that bad, then the passage of time, or the ultimate victory for Gamer, must have contributed to some thawing of relations for RPS, formed from an alliance of ex-Gamer writers, to post any kind of tribute at all.

I have very little knowledge of PC Gamer past or present: I bought it a couple of times in the 90s, and from what I remember I thought it was ok, but I don’t remember much, except for getting an early glimpse of a (ponytailed?) Kieron Gillen (future cause of/solution to all problems in games writing) making a hyper-serious face. Gamer’s reputation was certainly that it took itself a bit more seriously (some might say too seriously), and there’s some evidence of that in RPS to this day.

Perhaps it’s time for a eulogy of my own. Many people are interested in playing sport (bear with me), perhaps once harbouring dreams, however unrealistic, of doing so professionally. Over the years, these aspirations change and become more grounded in reality, but the desire to play still remains, even among overweight middle-aged men kicking a ball about on terrible pitches with no-one watching. Deep down, there’s a part in the minds of everyone playing sport that makes them feel happy because they feel like they’re a famous player off the telly.

I used to like to play sport, too, although there came a point when my inability to maintain my skill and fitness levels killed any possibility of enjoyment stone dead. Instead of flailing about in the mud on a weekday evening, my own delusions are manifested in churning out reviews and retrospectives for this site, pretending in some small way to be writing for PC Zone in the nineties, but without the pressures of the actual, real job – stuck in a time loop in a parallel universe, playing and writing about games until the fun, the time or the mind dries up and brings it all to an end.

In addition: PC Zone made me feel like PC gaming might be cool. Not cool-cool, but not a spoddy niche hobby for nerds, either. It was like having an older brother who said, hey, it’s ok, you can play games and still be normal. To me, that was the standout feature of 90s Zone. And whatever else that might be said about the later years, Will Porter was right, I think, to claim that you could identify a common thread running through the magazine from Issue 1 to 200. For that to be true, over such a long period, represents another considerable achievement.


“The following half hour is a tense, contradictory, expletive-ridden Q&A during which he throws the microphone at one ‘beardy wanker’, refers to the ‘Yankee representative’ of the game as ‘a fucking arse’ and expains that he misses ‘having sex with the Queen Mother.’”

Steve Hill meets John Lydon, promoting the PC release of Guitar Hero III (Zone 189, January 2008).

“If you’re not a die-hard PC Zone aficionado you won’t know who I am, so this is for you: I wrote the Back Page column from issue one to issue 54, then I severed all ties with everything, left the country and moved to Pitcairn Island, thinking it would be a paradise. It wasn’t. I escaped from Pitcairn and to Sierra Leone. That was even worse. Now, many years later I’m back in Blighty and living in Hastings – which is the worst of the lot. A complete shitehole. And scary with it.”

Mr Cursor revives the tradition of slagging off British towns in Issue 200 (Zone 200, December 2008).

“Not even in my wildest dreams have I ever conceived a day in which I could put an angry bear in a metal helmet on the front of a magazine.”

Porter relishes the power he now wields (Zone 192, April 2008)

“Most shit Reality Check would have to be LARPing in a cave in Kent with some absolute fucking cunts…the highlight was probably some numpty from PC Gamer hitting someone repeatedly with a foam sword while verbalising the damage caused to his opponents’ hit points: ‘1, 1, 1, 1.’ A swig of his blue Panda Pop and it magically became ‘2, 2, 2, 2.’ The shame was complete when we surfaced for lunch at the same time as the local comprehensive school.”

Steve Hill picks his favourite Zone memories, with mild PC Gamer-bashing thrown in for good measure (Zone 225, November 2010)


– Here’s a nice Zone retrospective from 2010:

– The BBC story by ex-disc editor Dan Emery:

– Will Porter’s RPS piece:

Scans: – around 50 issues, from mid-90s to 2001 or so. – a decent collection with some issues from the early period, and pretty much every Zone from 1998-2001. – a few scans, including some from 2006.

Thanks to: anyone who uploaded their old Zones to the internet, anyone who read this retrospective, and anyone and everyone who worked on PC Zone over the years.