In this episode of GameMaster, Bill Roper is joined by Chris Roberts to talk about Star Citizen and the importance of games as an artistic medium.
GamesMaster is a podcast that talks about the history of video games. The oral history episode goes into detail on how the show started and what it’s like to work for them.
GamesMaster retaliates (Photo: E4)
Rab Florence, one of the presenters of the GamesMaster revival, chats to GameCentral about games on TV and Sir Trevor McDonald’s gaming habits.
You may not even be aware that video games exist if television had been your exclusive source of knowledge and amusement for the last 40 years. They’re seldom addressed on live television, and if they are, it’s almost always in a negative news show. Even terrible magazine programs like Bad Influence were remembered because of the rare exceptions, but there was one series that was both really excellent and popular with a large audience, and that show was GamesMaster.
GamesMaster initially aired on Channel 4 from 1992 to 1998, and it is now returning, with three new presenters vying for the role of Dominik Diamond, and Sir Trevor McDonald taking over for the late Sir Patrick Moore. The second episode is set to air this Sunday, but we spoke with co-host Robert ‘Rab’ Florence about his experiences with the program and the little but noteworthy history of video games on British television before then.
Florence seems to be the ideal candidate for the role, having already starred in the only other two notable UK programs, his own VideoGaiden series from the late 2000s and an appearance on Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe. Even again, throughout the previous 25 years, both television and video games have altered nearly beyond recognition, so does bringing GamesMaster back make sense today?
The new GamesMaster series is divided into three episodes, each lasting one hour. They’ll be published once a week, but first on E4’s YouTube account before airing on E4.
Episode 1 is already available on all platforms, however Episode 2 will premiere on YouTube on November 28 and on E4 on December 1.
On Sunday, December 5th, Episode 3 will be released on YouTube, followed by E4 on Wednesday, December 8th.
GC: I’m wondering as to when you became engaged with the reboot, since I’m sure it’s something people have been considering for decades. Do you have any idea why it occurred now, at this particular moment?
RF: No, I arrived late, and I arrived extremely late. I’m not entirely sure. I’m not sure what the logic was behind it coming back, and I’m not even sure whether I’m sure… After the TV program ended, the magazine obviously continued for years. But, like everyone else, I was taken aback when I learned at the start of the year… I believe the earliest rumblings of it returning began around the beginning of this year, or even towards the close of last year.
GC: When it comes to these kinds of things, I always image a clock ticking away in some marketing office somewhere, counting down the days until something popular becomes old enough for people to wax nostalgic about it.
[laughs] RF: Maybe, but I’m wondering whether, with Twitch’s popularity and people performing speedruns and other things, someone suddenly thought, ‘Oh, hold on!’ We control the rights to a framework in which users compete in gaming challenges.’ I believe it was something along those lines…
Because, you know, that kind of thing has become a lot more popular lately. My daughter, who will be 15 in January, speaks about speedrunners and other such topics. As a result, it is clearly on the minds of young people. This kind of stuff.
GC: It is evident, though, that television has utterly lost out on any type of game-related synergy, neglecting the scene altogether. What makes you believe that?
RF: The way I see it, we clamour for it… those that like video games beg for it a little bit, you know? What happened to the huge game and stuff TV show? But it’s not like there haven’t been any film-related TV series… or the subject of books. And these film-related exhibitions are seldom actually that huge.
GC: You’re absolutely correct. I used to watch Barry Norman’s film presentations and wondered aloud, “Why is this on at 11 p.m.?” even as a youngster. I thought movies were important? Everyone is talking about them and their actors, but no one is talking about the real events.
RF: You’re going back a few decades to see when there was a type of late-night movie program. So I don’t think it’s weird [that games aren’t handled better], and what I do find strange is this: I’ve always assumed that the reason there isn’t a lot of games TV is because people prefer to play games rather than watch them, right? They want to be a part of it because it’s an art form.
Twitch’s popularity, on the other hand, has shown that this is not the case. People are very content to sit and watch other people play games for hours on end, which perplexes me, to be honest, but it happens.
In GamesMaster mode, SirTrev (Photo: E4)
GC: The only rationalization I’ve come up with is that a lot of people see it as background noise, like moving wallpaper. They aren’t generally paying attention, as they would be in a written program.
RF: I believe Twitch has a lot of intriguing individuals doing interesting things. Many people are attempting to make it more entertaining and participatory, but it is, after all, primarily about watching others play games. So, the GamesMaster thing that was coming up for me was… I’ve always had the impression that a) I knew a lot about video games and b) I had some understanding of the scene. When I was building GamesMaster, though, I felt completely out of touch.
I realized how out of touch I was with how the scene works, who the individuals are, what they like to play, and other such things. Because, you know, I’m still a little retro-obsessed. And so it was intriguing, and doing that was a little bit of an education for me as well.
GC: We attempt to cover everything on the site to some extent, but I’m constantly mindful that there are large swaths of gaming culture that have absolutely no overlap with conventional console gaming. For example, League Of Legends is the most popular game on the planet, yet I’ve never heard another writer or developer even mention it in all my years.
RF: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, There are some games that are just lifestyle games for some people, and I think it’s difficult to… but we’ve always seen things like that, because even with a game like EVE Online, which I consider to be one of the greatest games ever made, it was difficult for anyone to skim across the surface and get a sense of what it was. So, even though it was highly popular and perhaps one of the most exciting things going on in gaming at the time, it didn’t receive much attention.
But I think there’s always been that part of things where, you know… I think one of the challenges that game journalists have always had is the pressure to evaluate games to deadlines, and that treadmill that they’re constantly on makes it extremely difficult for them to dig deep on things.
They won’t be able to say, “I want to spend five months playing EVE Online to really immerse myself in the community and have a thorough understanding of it.” And a TV program isn’t going to be able to achieve it. So I’m hoping that by bringing some of these characters onto the program and having them undertake tasks that are highly interwoven within their own worlds and scenes, we’ve started to break that open a little bit for folks.
Robert Florence has more experience with television games than anybody else (pic: E4)
GC: So, given that you were brought in late in the game, how much of an impact have you had on the show? Have you ever been able to say, “Well, we shouldn’t do this or we should cover that,” for example? Or should we bring in these specific individuals?
RF: I’ve had some feedback. But I would argue that when I was brought in early in the process, I realized that… When you’ve been playing games for a long time and you’ve formed firm ideas on things like what I’d want to see and what I’d like to cover. Nobody would want to watch the program if they had taken a lot of my suggestions into consideration. Do you get what I’m saying? [laughing]
It would have been obscure Japanese games, or ancient things… Now, my aim is that as we do more, I’ll be able to start slipping in these little bits here and there, little strange things, more obscure things, older things, and stuff like that. But, in the process, I felt compelled to… it’s that thing about someone like me who doesn’t watch Twitch and doesn’t really watch people on YouTube and the games they play… I’d be the incorrect guy to jump in and say, “This is how we should do it, and this is how we shouldn’t do it.”
There’s a reason why the game shows I’ve always done haven’t gotten a lot of attention, and I’m well aware of it.
[laughs] GC: Who did they consult when deciding what should be included in the show? Were there any researchers or other journalists present?
RF: It was more of a collaborative effort. There were a few of us on the team who were excellent individuals, and everyone on the team plays games to some level – some of us play them a lot, others of us play them a little, casually – and a lot of stuff, as you’ll see… A lot of it has to do with rights and what you’re allowed to utilize on the program. So that material has a little bit of a hold on you.
Because I’m not sure how the production process went for GamesMaster back in the day, but I’m guessing they wouldn’t have run into the big PR juggernauts who already had their PR plans charted out for the next 24 months and weren’t necessarily saying, ‘Right, we’ll also put the game out early on this show that nobody’s seen, that nobody knows how it’s going to be or whether we’re going to be respectful of the game or anything like that.’
So, for example, we couldn’t simply say, “Let’s have this, this, this, and this on the program,” because it would need talking to these attorneys, those lawyers, and these PR people, those PR people. So it’s not as straightforward as that. As a result, putting the concert together was very difficult. Because getting games noticed these days entails jumping through a lot of hoops. It’s not simply a person on the other end of the line saying, ‘You may use it!’ Maybe it was never that way, but I believe it was looser 25 years ago.
GC: Another aspect of the program, and Dominik Diamond has been quite forthright about it, is that many of the celebrity challenges were just an opportunity to view a female star’s backside as she played a skiing game or anything. Obviously, such kind of behavior won’t fly today, but it was a significant part of the original show’s attraction.
RF: I mean, I think it’s simply one of those things… I’ve always said unequivocally that I believe Dominik is to blame for GamesMaster’s success. It was because of Dominik that people tuned in. During the course of the exhibition, I’m sure there was a lot of things and a lot of people surrounding Dominik. But, in the end, I believe it was Dominik’s program, and people tuned in to watch Dominik. And you can’t duplicate what a gifted personality like Dominik accomplished.
It’s not even courteous to attempt to recreate it, if you know what I mean. So you’re not going to do it now, are you?
‘Right, there’s this framework, there’s the GamesMaster, he sets challenges… what might this be?’ was how we approached it. What form might this possibly take?’ Obviously, there was a hint to GamesMaster’s bizarre, almost Saturday morning kids’ TV aspect back then, but everything else was a new start.
And, as anybody who worked on GamesMaster at the time will tell you, it was a product of its time. It’s a program from the 1990s. And that kind of thing simply doesn’t fly any more. You may debate whether it genuinely flew back then, since there were plenty of people who…
GC: I’m sure there were a few raised eyebrows even back then. However, they emailed me the program to view, but it was just half an hour ago, so I haven’t got the opportunity yet. So, since I’m a journalist, I’ll lie and say I have for the sake of this interview.
GC: But, if you could just walk us through how the show works, that would be great. Because I’m relying only on my recollection of the original program. I recall it having a little of news and magazine pieces, followed by two or three challenges; is that still the general structure?
RF: The structure is still the same. So someone shows up, we introduce them, and we give them a challenge; if they win, they receive their golden joystick; if they fail, they’re thrown into the abyss. If they lose this time, we’ll murder them. We basically wanted to make it an enjoyable show.
One of the things I didn’t want it to be was, I feel like when a video game show debuts on television, there’s a lot of expectation on it to be the serious video game program that finally gives video games the attention they deserve.
GC: Finally! Video games are tedious to play!
RF: [laughs] Is that correct? ‘Let’s not do this,’ I thought. Let’s just make it enjoyable. Let’s make sure that everyone who comes to the concert has a good time.’ So we though, why not just create a nice entertainment program that hopefully goes by fast, since I was rather surprised to see that the episodes were an hour long. Because GamesMaster was never more than half an hour late. Hours terrify me even as someone who works mostly in humor. Because I usually consider drama to be an hour long.
GC: But why is it an hour? It does seem strange.
RF: I’m not sure! I’m not entirely sure. It certainly provided us a little more time to work on the problems… I recall that the challenges on the old program were sometimes a little shorter, like 60 seconds or something. The tasks are now a little longer, and there was a belief that since people are accustomed to Twitch and YouTube and other such platforms, we could go a little longer.
News about games:
GC: So, who’s taking part in the challenges? Is it just regular individuals or do you have any celebs in there?
RF: Well, there was a lot of chatter about celebrities at first, and I recall an early press release or something indicating that celebrities will be participating in the challenges, but that was not the case. It’s mostly folks that applied to do it because they’re simply regular punters. A pair of men who have had a long-running Street Fighter feud dating back to when they were in college together and such. And there are some streamers and YouTubers that aren’t celebs but have their own little followings and things like that.
What astonished me was that these individuals were going on as challenges, and everyone was so TV-ready already, if you know what I mean. [laughing] Because young people nowadays are so accustomed to being online, on YouTube, on Twitch, and talking to an audience, it’s almost as if they’re already trained when they get on, so they can converse, they’re confident… which is a huge benefit when developing a TV program.
GC: So, what does Trevor McDonald do exactly? I’m guessing he’s stopped offering advice and hints?
RF: He isn’t, he isn’t. He’s still setting up the challenges in the Patrick Moore style. Before they begin, the participants are given the opportunity to visit his domain and speak with him. And I believe people will be shocked by how he acts on the program, because I was thinking when he was cast, ‘Right, I know he has a lot of power, he’ll be fairly serious…’ But he’s really quite a strange GamesMaster, and he’s pretty fun. I believe many will be amazed at how he does this.
GC: So he’s really with you on set?
RF: No, he wasn’t on set; he was working in a green screen studio.
GC: Does he have any gaming experience? I mean, I’m grateful he did, but why did he agree to do it in the first place? I assumed he’d retired, so this is an unexpected reason for him to return.
RF: I’m not sure. It’s a strange thing with GamesMaster… Like when I was invited to attend to an audition to try out for the role of host, I’d never auditioned for anything before. My agent, on the other hand, often calls me and says, “This individual wants you to do this, to do this,” and I always decline. So I was like, ‘Oh god, it’s GamesMaster!’ when this came in. ‘It’s GamesMaster,’ says the narrator.
I’m sure he didn’t have the same reaction this time. [laughing] However, he was presumably still aware of it. And an understanding of the legacy of it, because I believe people remember Patrick Moore and the whole event. And it’s a task you can accomplish for him while you’re seated!
GC: I’d have liked it if he’d responded by saying he’s a huge Final Fantasy fan or something.
RF: That would’ve been great. [laughing]
GC: All right, good luck with the program. Thank you for your consideration.
RF: You, too, had a fantastic time.
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