The just-over-8,000 words below contain the full texts of the interviews I conducted with the four people I worked with on Wednesday’s grandiose Tips & Tricks oral history. Though much of it was quoted in that piece, a lot of it just plain didn’t fit. You’re sure to find something new and interesting below. Again, I would like to thank them all from the bottom of my heart.
What was your position with T&T and when did you work in their employ?
Jim Loftus (JL): Prior to joining Tips & Tricks I was originally hired as art director of VideoGames Magazine in June of 1994. Even though my primary job was doing page layout and design – and I love design — I also had an opportunity on the side to write for the magazine. I lobbied aggressively to write out of love for games since childhood. From the time I got an Atari 2600 as a kid, I pretty much ate, drank and slept video games every day. The short version is, I enjoyed writing about games so much that I wanted to make a transition from design to editorial.
Charlotte C. Thai (CT): I started working at T&T in 1999 as an assistant editor. Back then my name was Charlotte Chen instead of Charlotte Thai. Over the years I was promoted to associate editor, senior editor, and finally executive editor. My final year was in 2007 when the magazine folded.
Ara Shirinian (AS): I started from freelancer and worked my way up to Senior Editor. This was around 1999-2003. I made a fanzine called Spectrum when I was in high school, and thanks to VG&CE and their Fanzine column, I got noticed by them and even was nominated for their yearly award. This directly led to me meeting other fanzine editors, eventually meeting Tyrone Rodrigues who wrote for T&T at the time, and that is how I met Chris.
[Chris Bieniek (CB) was Editor-In-Chief of T&T and, later, the Codebook, from its inception until they folded in 2007 and 2011 respectively.]
JL: When Chris Bieniek got Tips & Tricks up and running, he hired me on full time as art director. A few months later, he gave me a shot at the executive editor position, which was a dream come true for me. Chris really believed in me, he encouraged me and inspired me. He showed me the meaning of integrity – unwavering integrity. And he is a genuinely nice guy, too. I don’t think he would hurt a fly, I’m serious. Super smart, too. I wanted to be like Chris, he was my mentor. He made me a better person and I am forever grateful to him.
Before you began work with T&T, what did you think/how did you feel about it?
JL: I felt it was very good but like many things in life, could be even better. Since Chris was running it as Editor-In-Chief, I knew it was technically in good hands. When I came on board we would spend a lot of time talking about how we could improve it, how we could make it the best it could be. I would ask questions like, “What are we missing? What can we add or delete?” I would go after design-oriented stuff a lot but I also wanted to expand the editorial and widen the scope of the magazine.
CT: I knew about T&T from browsing game magazines at newsstands. I was actually subscribing to EGM at the time I started working at T&T, not realizing that maybe mentioning my years-long subscription to a rival magazine might not be a good idea during a job interview! I think I had no idea EGM had any relationship to Expert Gamer. I thought T&T was good at covering more obscure gaming and toy news (through Japan Report, and Cool Zone (I liked this section but hated that name)).
AS: Let me just say that it made me feel like cutting my salary in half from a cushy government contractor to go live in one of the most expensive cities in the country to work at T&T was the clearest and most obvious life changing decision to make.
JL: Chris was always very open to new ideas, although at times a bit hesitant to pull the trigger. He did not believe in changing something for the sake of change, and honestly, I agreed. But I would have all of these things running around in my head, ideas and things I wanted to implement to help make the magazine more appealing or even just to make it “pop” more. In hindsight I must have been like a crazy new puppy jumping around, out of control. I was probably a bit annoying at times, in fact, I’m sure I was. But Chris was patient and always very approachable for trying out new things because he knew I had the best of intentions. After making my case passionately for a particular change or addition to the magazine, he would oftentimes approve. I think that, during my time there, I was able to play a part in helping to grow and evolve the magazine.
How did Tips & Tricks truly begin? I understand it spun off of VG&CE at some point but what can you tell me about what that process was like?
CB: If you really want to go all the way back, I think the original idea was suggested before my time at LFP (the magazine’s publisher). When Donn Nauert left VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine, I took over some of the monthly columns he used to write, like “Tip Sheet” and “Easter Egg Hunt.” I also inherited his desk, and in one of the drawers, I found a copy of an old memo in which he had pitched the idea of a “tip guide special” to the company president. I guess they shot him down at the time, but he did plant the seed for Tips & Tricks by explaining how a separate cheat codes magazine could be profitable.
CB: The name of the cheat codes column in VG&CE was changed to “Tips & Tricks” after a focus group study, where we learned – among other things – that a lot of our readers were confused by the term “Easter egg” as it relates to video games. Then Andy Eddy left the company in 1993, and his replacement was Chris Gore, who became very successful at starting up new magazines for the company around that time. He changed VG&CE into VideoGames, and launched a whole bunch of different magazines, not all of which were video game-related. He thought the “Tips & Tricks” column would do well as a spinoff magazine, and he was right – it lasted for 150 issues, much longer than VG&CE and VideoGames combined.
T&T was only available on newsstands in the early days. What helped the transition to also include subscriptions?
CB: It was originally just a “one-shot” special issue, with strategy guides and cheat codes that had already appeared in VideoGames magazine. And it sold surprisingly well, considering that it was almost entirely reprinted material. I think Mortal Kombat was the key, really. The public just had an insatiable appetite for Mortal Kombat information around that time. We had Mortal Kombat II on the cover of three of our first four issues! As the magazine got more and more successful, the frequency was increased: quarterly, then bi-monthly, then monthly. We started to offer subscriptions when it became clear that the audience was there, and that the magazine was going to be around for a while.
The focus inherent in Tips & Tricks separated it from other gaming magazines which instead focused on generating hype and reviewing games. At any point did T&T consider shifting that focus?
CB: It was discussed, yeah, but not until after the magazine had been around a very long time…and even then, it was never seriously considered. We had our own niche, and that was always more important to me. A couple of other publishers tried to compete with us for that niche, and we successfully defended our position as “the #1 Video-Game Tips Magazine” every time.
AS: I don’t think we ever did. I found it much more interesting to write strategy guides versus reviews, because it gave me a chance to do creative things that virtually no other magazines were doing around that time, or even full American-published strategy guides.
CT: Since T&T focused on strategy guides, and this required completing (often multiple times) the games we covered, we were not as caught up in the hype machine. The intent was for the magazine to be available at the same time as the games we covered were released. The closest T&T came to “hyping” games was in the back section columns, which were dedicated to specific franchises or game genres with the intent to appeal to hardcore fans of those. The idea of adding reviews was floated from time to time, but it didn’t really fit into the magazine’s focus.
JL: I liked our Select Games preview section but previewed games were never cover stories because the magazine’s focus and reason for being was game strategy. Chris was big on that and I wholeheartedly agreed with him. There were a dozen other magazines which served as “general purpose” but we were the go-to strategy magazine. Can I just throw something out there for a minute? I was very proud to be a part of that magazine. Tips & Tricks was literally the number-one, best-selling video game tips magazine. No one else could come close. And other magazines tried to emulate us, even going so far as to launching their own code mags. We had the most amazingly talented game player editors who just dug into games and tore them apart like nobody’s business. They would just dismantle them and turn them inside out and expose them. Chris did that, too. He would literally – and I’m not kidding here – literally, spend days digging for a line of code on one game disc! It was an amazing thing to witness. Tyrone Rodriguez, Ara Shirinian, Jason Wilson, Anatole Brown, Pat Reynolds, Glenn Broderick – all of those guys used to just blow my mind, they were so good and so dedicated to their craft. I remember thinking to myself at one point, “Jesus, we really do have the ‘best of the best’ doing this, doing these strategies.” So no big focus on game previews. I guess it’s that old cliché, stick to what you’re good at, right?
AS: One problem I always had with reviews as a profession was that it was such a subjective process, it was almost impossible for “good” reviewers to be distinguished from “bad” ones. Working from a non-review angle gave me a much more grounded perspective by which I could judge the quality of my work and strive to improve it. Plus, at the time, reviews had already descended well into their stereotypical disingenuous patterns.
AS: I remember one time I had slaved over drawing maps for Beetle Adventure Racing. Because was no proper built-in mapping feature of the game, I had to compose them in the most low tech cartographer’s style possible. This wasn’t the only time I did this, but it was the most extensive and challenging. I drove slowly around the track, stopping every 100 “feet” or so as I sketched. This is hard, because you have to translate the low 3D camera projection to a 2D top view projection all in your head without distorting spatial relationships. Of course I imported the hand-drawn sketches into the computer and then rendered nice looking versions of them for publication.
AS: The best, or worst part of this, was that at one point in a phone conversation the PR rep for the game asserted to us, unequivocally, that those maps were made by the developers of the game. That was the most flattering dismissal of my work I have ever experienced.
CB: There was one thing that happened…I’ll never forget this. We used to do focus group testing, where they would bring people into a conference room, show them the magazine and see how they reacted to it. I always worried about the feedback from those studies because I didn’t always agree with the conclusions they would draw, yet I felt obligated to make changes to the editorial package based on the random comments of total strangers. If a couple of those people said that they didn’t like the Animal Crossing column…well, that column had to get whacked. The company paid a lot of money to conduct these studies, and that was considered actionable intelligence! Anyway, in the last focus group we had, they were asked about the idea of adding reviews to the magazine, and making it more like the other magazines. And these people were not intimately familiar with Tips & Tricks; most (if not all) of them were seeing it for the first time that day. To my great surprise and delight, they basically said, “No, why would you do that?” They recognized that we were trying to do something different and they thought it was cool the way it was. I was so pleased, I almost tipped over in my chair!
AS: I was mesmerized as a kid by the extensive cartography of NES games that found their way into the things like the Official Nintendo Player’s guide. When I was in high school I made my own poor man’s version of this for Super Castlevania IV by just taking photos and stitching the prints on the wall. This affinity to cartography and visualization of data has stuck with me my whole life, even now as a video game designer. By the way, I some of my favorite maps I made for T&T still reside on my web page.
When do you consider to be T&T’s peak?
CB: In terms of newsstand sales, I think our sales peaked around 1999. Personally, I think the quality peaked many years later. It’s hard to say exactly when, because the magazine changed a lot over 13 years, and there were so many different people who brought something special to it at different times.
Which was your favorite section near the back of the magazine (“Japan Report,” “Animal Crossing Almanac,” “Collector’s Closet,” “Sports Desk,” “Pencil Puzzles,” etc.)?
CB: I was really proud of ALL of those “lifestyle” columns; I wish more people had seen all the cool stuff we put into them every month. I think “Animal Crossing Almanac” was the one that was most personal to me. The game was perfect for that kind of continuing coverage, and I really put a lot of time and care into it.
CT: Although I wrote two columns for the back section myself (Pokémon Report and Final Fantasy Fan), my favorite to read was always Japan Report, followed by Collector’s Closet. When T&T was still operating as a monthly magazine, it wasn’t as easy to get news out of Japan as it is today, and the US market wasn’t as open to the somewhat bizarre nature of some of the Japanese titles. You’d get the occasional PaRappa The Rapper or Incredible Crisis localized, but for the most part Japan seemed to get all the best and most interesting games first. Japan Report was like a peek into the future.
What was your favorite Room of Doom? My girlfriend and I both very much enjoy the Virtual Boy collector.
CB: Without looking back at all of the collections we featured, I’d have to say that the Virtual Boy “shrine” was the one that everyone seems to remember. I had a pretty good Virtual Boy collection myself, but it was nothing like his!
The 100th issue was a huge milestone. What was the buildup to it like?
CT: I honestly can’t remember if this was a big deal at the time.
CB: It was hectic!
CT: I have vague memories of a cake with “100” on it but maybe I’m just making that up in my head. Publishing the magazine every month required pretty strict adherence to a demanding schedule, so for my part I remember this issue being mostly business as usual, although of course everyone was happy to reach this goal.
CB: Every issue was hectic, really…we were always running behind schedule, always shipping pages out at the last minute, always scrambling around, trying to make the best magazine we could possibly make. Around that time, there was a TV show called Cheat! on the G4 cable channel, and they wanted to shoot an entire episode in our offices. So we scheduled a date for them to come in, and we were supposed to be finished with the 100th issue by that date. And of course we were late! When they rolled in with all their camera equipment, we were still trying to wrap up the last few pages of that issue. I remember they came into my office and asked me a bunch of questions about Animal Crossing, and during that whole interview I had these layout documents open on my computer screen, trying to paste together maps for a game called Galaxy 5000 as quickly as possible so I could get issue #100 out the door!
There were a lot of top-secret cheats and codes included in that issue. Some of them were even NSFW. Which one was the most important to have included?
CB: Obviously, the most memorable one was the Klax password that unlocked a secret marriage proposal! But that was important to only two people, really. I was much more excited about the exclusive codes that Nintendo gave us. I wanted to do something special for the 100th issue, so I spent a few months making all kinds of phone calls and sending out tons of e-mails, just begging for really good cheat codes…stuff that was buried deep in these games. I never expected Nintendo to respond to a request like that, because they rarely leaked that kind of information, especially to a magazine that was not Nintendo Power. But they hooked us up with some good ones.
AS: I don’t know about the important ones, but there was some point where we discovered that it could be fruitful to search the raw data on PlayStation discs with a hex editor and some kind of arbitrary offset that could be figured out.
AS: Remarkably, sometimes a lot of junk as straight up readable ASCII strings would appear. For example, I think it was the pre-release Colony Wars discs that had a bunch of URLs dumped in there that were of soccer fan pages and the like. It sounded like whatever tools the programmers were using to build the game also just saved and dropped in random things like that.
How would you define what Tips & Tricks was?
CB: Hmm. Well, at the start, Tips & Tricks was a collection of video-game strategy guides and cheat codes, neatly organized for easy access in a convenient, portable package. It had all this useful information to help you become a better game player, and to point out stuff in games that you might have missed. But as the years passed, it became so much more than that. After we started to add the monthly columns and whatnot, the cheat code/strategy guide content became nestled in kind of a monthly love letter to video-game culture.
CT: T&T was one of the last print gaming enthusiast magazines that focused on strategy guides and cheat codes. As a result of this, I think the magazine was also one of the few that was welcoming to gamers who skewed a bit younger, since as gamers age they tend to (or at least my own experience was) want to solve problems on their own. I think it was optimistic and nonjudgmental and was kind of an anomaly in the gaming magazine world during its time.
CB: I used to say that Tips & Tricks was all about PLAYING games. Getting the most out of them, beating them…collecting them, even. We celebrated video games, you know? The other magazines would build up a game with hype, then rip it a new one in a review and move on to the next. Whereas we would take a game like Armored Core and talk about it in every issue…like, for a year after it came out!
How many codes and cheats do you estimate you published in the nearly decade-and-a-half run of T&T?
CT: I think only Chris Bieniek would know the answer to this (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew an exact count).
CB: I don’t know the total number of codes in our archives, but we had 12,225 of them in one of the Codebooks we published in 2003. And that was for only ten game systems. The total number could have been as high as 20,000 by the time we stopped looking for new codes in 2011.
CB: We used to count them, you know. We’d put a blurb on the cover that said, “Over 2,000 Cheat Codes” or whatever. Then one of our competitors kept upping that number…like, if we said we had 3,000 codes, their next cover would say “3,001 codes” and so on. This continued for a couple months, and I got a little tired of the back-and-forth, because they had nowhere near as many as they claimed. They were just picking numbers that sounded impressive, because they knew nobody would bother to count all the codes. Well, I counted them! One day I sat down and counted every single code that was going into our September 2003 issue. There were exactly 3,837 of them. So I changed our cover blurb to say, “3,837 TIPS! COUNT ‘EM!” And I swear, the other magazine knocked their number down to 2,500 after we did that.
One of the benefits of accepting snail mail only is, because of the added effort, people are less willing to send hate mail. Did T&T get a lot, a little, or barely any?
CT: I wouldn’t call it hate mail, but I did get a letter from someone upset that I said in my Final Fantasy Fan column that the Japanese version of Final Fantasy III had never been released in the US. At the time, this was true, since until then the only version of Final Fantasy III available in the US was the SNES game that was based on the Japanese version of Final Fantasy VI.
CT: The writer was under the impression that I meant Final Fantasy III for the SNES didn’t exist, and wrote me a long letter chastising me, and telling me all about their love of this game and all of the characters. I vaguely remember responding to this letter by sending them back a personal letter where I explained the numbering discrepancies between U.S. and Japanese releases of Final Fantasy games at that time. I don’t think this exchange was ever published in the magazine.
CT: Of course, now the Japanese version of Final Fantasy III has been released in the US, and the Japanese version of Final Fantasy VI has been re-released in the US with the correct numbering, so it’s even more confusing for everyone involved.
AS: I read a lot of letters, and sorted out the interesting ones for publication for a while. I don’t remember hardly any hate mail. We didn’t really do anything that could potentially upset readers.
AS: Although there was this one time that some mother confused a hilt of a sword from press art of one of the newer 3D Gauntlet games for a penis. Chris would be able to tell you more about that. He showed me that picture as it appeared in the magazine, it didn’t look anything at all like a penis.
CB: Barely any. There wasn’t much to hate in Tips & Tricks! We made sure the codes worked, and that’s all most people cared about.
CB: I’ll tell you, though: VideoGames got a lot of hate mail, especially after the changeover from VG&CE. I’ll never forget this one package that came in a big envelope. There was a copy of VideoGames inside, and it had been subjected to every unspeakable horror you can possibly imagine. It looked like somebody threw the magazine in the mud and ran over it with their car a few times, then set it on fire and put out the fire by urinating on it. And they sent it in a sealed plastic bag. Like, it was still damp!
How is Earl the Mailman doing?
CB: Ha ha…great question! I don’t know what he’s up to; he left the company before the magazine folded. Earl was a cool dude, and a good musician, from what I heard. He played bass in a jazz band.
How is the Cheat Biscuit doing?
CT: I hope Cheat Biscuit is out there, doing what he does best, which is ruling over EPROMS with an iron fist. Or at least that’s what I think the drawing of him on Jason Wilson’s door was doing.
CB: Cheat Biscuit, the quasi-official Tips & Tricks mascot! He’s retired now. We didn’t do too much with him after he appeared on the T-shirts we handed out at E3 in 2006.
As video games have evolved over several generations of consoles, cheat codes have typically been less prevalent. Do you have any commentary on this?
AS: I don’t have much comment on that, as a player I did not particularly care for cheat codes. However there’s something closely related that has also been lost gradually in games – and that is the art of design of secret things in games in general. Secret areas and such were much more rewarding to find in the old NES games compared to most games today. I think the main reason is that back then, when you found a secret, it really felt like you were in a place you weren’t supposed to be, and you uncovered something you weren’t supposed to. Today, the spaces of games are generally so over-produced and predictably structured, that discovering a secret feels more like you found the employees’ bathroom.
CB: Yeah, and I’m glad you asked. I’m shocked that developers don’t include more codes in modern video games…especially in this era of social media, where companies are always looking for ways to spark word-of-mouth communication about their products.
CB: Here’s the thing: People tend to scoff at the idea of cheat codes, like there’s something impure about unlocking stuff in a game by pressing a certain sequence of buttons. We used to see this a lot in online forums; they would say, “I don’t buy Tips & Tricks ’cause I’m not a cheater.” And I can understand why a game publisher would not want people to use a level-select or invincibility code with a brand-new game. I totally get that. But man, not all codes are cheat codes. They don’t always make the game easier! Some codes unlock stuff that can’t be unlocked any other way, and some codes actually make the game more challenging. In many cases, you would not see everything that a game had to offer unless you put in the codes to unlock all the extra weapons or whatever.
CB: You have to look at all the historical examples of games that used secret codes to get players talking, and to keep their interest for longer periods of time. When you put in a code to unlock a secret character or give yourself a big head in NBA JAM, it didn’t “ruin” the game or make it any easier. It just made the game more fun for a while. Or the paintball code in GoldenEye; same thing. That’s not a “cheat,” it’s a bonus game mode!
CB: I guess the trend nowadays is to make you pay extra for that kind of content, or just patch the game to add new features. But when you do it that way, you’re removing one of the key elements that made cheat codes so much fun in the first place: People enjoy knowing something that others don’t know, and they really enjoy sharing that information with their friends. That’s empowering somehow. When you tell someone, “Hey, there’s a secret level in that game, and here’s the code to unlock it,” that person is gonna get more enjoyment out of the game. It’s like you’re giving them a gift, you know?
From what I have read, the transition from Tips & Tricks to Tips & Tricks Codebook was ugly. If you’re comfortable speaking frankly about it, what can you tell me about what that was like?
CB: It wasn’t ugly at all; that story was greatly exaggerated. First of all, the Codebook was a separate magazine that we started in 1998. It was published concurrently with Tips & Tricks for about nine years, just not as frequently. And it stayed profitable long after Tips & Tricks started to lose money. In mid-2007, it was decided that we would switch both magazines to bi-monthly schedules on alternating months. We were supposed to start that new schedule right after issue 150, but that’s when they decided to just kill off Tips & Tricks and keep the Codebook.
CT: The end of the monthly T&T magazine was hard. All of the staff being laid off learned about it right before that year’s E3. The way we learned about it was through one of our freelancers contacting us and asking about a letter he had received with his most recent paycheck regarding the “last issue of the magazine.” This was obviously not the way we were intended to learn about the end of the magazine, so we took it about as well as can be imagined. From what I understand, the layoffs occurred before E3 (rather than during or after) since the powers-that-be figured we could look for new jobs at the conference. I wasn’t really interested in doing that at the time, so the last E3 I ever went to was the one before the year of the magazine’s demise.
CB: What happened was that one of our freelance writers found out about it before anyone else knew. He got a letter with his last paycheck, thanking him for his contributions and letting him know that the magazine was folding. They mailed those letters on a Friday afternoon, and I guess they were planning to tell us on the following Monday that we were all laid off. But he got the letter on Saturday and sent me an e-mail over the weekend to confirm. When he realized that we hadn’t been told, he wrote kind of an angry, snarky blog post about how the layoff was handled badly. It really wasn’t a complete surprise to us that the magazine was being killed, and he deleted that blog post within a day or two, after he cooled off. But by then the “story” had been picked up and dramatized by a couple of Web sites, and everybody was talking about how we got screwed and all this kind of stuff. There was no drama behind any of it; he just wasn’t supposed to get that letter until the following week. That’s all.
Going to tipstricks.com, I see that the last time it was updated was November 2010. Was that when the Codebook went officially kaput? Why is there no notice?
CB: There was one more issue of the Codebook (February 2011), but we never updated the Web site to show it. By the time that last issue appeared on the newsstands, we had already been told that it was over, and I guess we were all busy looking for new jobs.
T&T did previews of games but they were never constructed to generate hype nor were they cover stories. How did/do you feel about this policy?
AS: I have a strong opinion about what previews should be, and I couldn’t tell you if this was instilled by Chris’ perspective or just influenced.
AS: My most embarrassing moment for video game press in general was a panel about the press at GDC, where the panel members defended all the negative aspects of game writing by insisting that their jobs were to provide entertainment first. This went against everything I valued about the video game media, and represented everything that was wrong with it. Readers do not read video game media because they think it’s entertaining, they read because they want to find out about what this or that video game is like. I thought it was the apex of self-aggrandizement. As media writers, we time and time again let our own masturbatory satisfaction get in the way of putting the reader’s needs first, and we have the temerity to say that we are delivering meaningful entertainment not only at the same time, but more importantly? If you want to entertain first, become a comedian or actor or performance artist. Do not become a video game writer.
AS: It is possible, and even desirable to be entertaining as a video game writer, but it must be secondary to and not interfere with your first job, which is delivering to readers information about games that is insightful, easy to read and understand, and most importantly gives them enough space to be able to decide for themselves what they would like or dislike about a game, as opposed to blindly stuffing some authoritarian subjective opinion down their throats. You can render your opinion with or without the latter. Doing it without the latter takes special skill and consideration.
AS: So this is where previews enter the picture- it always seemed rather clear to me that the job of the review was to give readers the clearest possible picture about the game, and also render your professional judgment. The preview was to do the same, but minus the judgment parts, because the preview is about a product that isn’t done yet (or you are not provided enough means to properly review), so it is unfair to judge in that state.
AS: Incidentally, it is a little funny that 90% of the time or more, we would not find much of a different impression between the qualities of the game from preview to review state. Every single time where I would think that this or that design variable in the beta copy that was so obviously broken and sure to be fixed, was left unchanged in the final copy. It was not until I was a professional game designer for a while that I realized how this could be so on such a frequent basis.
AS: Another artifact that was a bit taboo to mention back then, was that we successfully avoided a certain category of political/PR drama by just making it a policy to not give out opinions or hype in previews, plus the fact that we never did reviews. I do not know if this was deliberate or happenstance, but it was convenient.
AS: It is important for game fans to realize that the vast majority of PR approaches the game press as if they are a tool to be exploited as much as possible without giving too much of that impression to get noticed, so whoever has the most leverage dictates the terms of the quid pro quo relationship. It is ironic that the tables have turned somewhat, with review sites now requiring money for reviews, unless your game is already big enough that they want to review it anyway.
CT: The previews section of T&T was limited by size constraints. I think the longest a preview ever got was maybe a single page. Usually they were quarter-page sizes. It wouldn’t have made sense to put one of them on the cover, since most of our readers would expect the cover story to feature one of the strategy guides. I think it would have annoyed them to see a game on the cover and then find there wasn’t a strategy guide for it in the magazine.
Why didn’t T&T survive?
CT: I don’t know if there is any one answer to this question. I think it was any number of things. Print publications in general were fading out as the Internet became a more prominent space for gaming news, and niche magazines like T&T were some of the first to feel these effects. There wasn’t really an infrastructure in place to transition T&T into an online space in a way that would truly differentiate it from the print issue, and we didn’t have enough resources to pour into an endeavor of that type anyway. The publisher tried shopping it around but it wasn’t picked up. I would say it didn’t survive because the people that cared the most about it didn’t have the power to make that happen.
AS: One reason was because ‘strategy guides’ fell out of favor as general magazine content. The marketing force of ‘strategy books’ was too powerful to overcome, and is a much easier sell- you only have to be a fan of one game to buy the strategy book, there it is right next to the game you are buying, and hey, look it’s the definitive official guide so what could be better. But you really have to be a big fan of game strategies in general to get a magazine about it.
AS: The biggest and most obvious reason however was the code and strategy guide content becoming available for nothing on the internet. Although I believe I authored much more value in my guides than the generic ‘go here and get that’ step by step snoozerama that was the unfortunate common structure of most guides, I don’t think there was enough of a market that cared about high quality, insightful analysis of video game strategies.
JL: I can only speak to that in a limited way because I was not employed with the magazine during the years leading up to its end, so Chris would have much better insight into that. All I can do is speculate based on the time I was there. One thing I felt was hurting us, and in no small way, was the Internet. When the Internet appeared it was cause for concern because people no longer had to pay to obtain information — in this case, game tips and codes. There was some discussion as to how to build a presence on the web but at that time the tenth floor would only green-light it if we could charge people to access the site or limit the content. You have to remember that back in those days, a lot of companies were still trying to figure out the business model; there were very few companies making money online.
JL: So if I had to guess, I would say that the inability of LFP to effectively adopt a working online business model was what ultimately hurt T&T. In fairness, LFP is a great company in many ways, and there are countless other print publishers who have died, and continue to die, at the hands of digital. But when Tips & Tricks finally did establish its online presence, it was purposely designed to offer a limited amount of information. The logic being, they did not want to give too much away for free out of fear no one would buy the print version. Biggest mistake they ever made with T&T, in my opinion. Personally, I always viewed the name “Tips & Tricks” as a pretty meaningful term, a valuable brand. Even as the magazine was showing signs of slowing down, I believe LFP could have parlayed it into a huge online presence if it would have had the right mindset behind it, and the right budget to support it. The ad revenue would have come, it was just a matter of believing in the Tips & Tricks brand and waiting it out. Just my opinion.
How does T&T compare to other positions you have held in the game industry, if any?
JL: In 1999 I left Tips & Tricks to work for GameWEEK Magazine in Connecticut. Although I very much enjoyed my time working for Hal Halpin and Mike Davilla at GameWEEK, my time at LFP working on Tips & Tricks was probably the highlight of my professional career.
AS: T&T was a special time for me because it was my first job that I actually loved to do. I was a software engineer for a year before I went to T&T full time, and I took a massive pay cut to do it. There was also a great fire rumbling inside me where I really wanted to make video games instead of just write about them as an “outsider,” I just didn’t know it yet. Being as young as I was at the time I did not yet know how to harness this energy, so T&T was a long and confused road for me to figure out that my passion really lay in designing video games and the psychology of what happens between players and games. All of my work since T&T has been game design related. For these reasons it is hard to compare, but at the time I was in a weird emotional place where I was frustrated with what I was doing yet simultaneously had the greatest affinity for it that I could imagine.
CT: I held a lot of different positions within T&T. I also did a little bit of freelance work for websites like Happy Puppy and Electric Playground. I really loved working at T&T and think much of the quality of the writing in it was due to the excellent editing performed by Chris Bieniek. I still remember when he pointed out a typo to me in one of my lengthier strategy guides (I think it was for Final Fantasy XII), where I described a section called “Footfalls of the Past” as “Footballs of the Past.” I think of myself as a good proofreader, but he was a step beyond.
CT: The only other full-time position I’ve held in the game industry since T&T was as a digital asset specialist at Blizzard Entertainment. The job there was completely different from anything I had done at T&T. They were also held about 10 years apart. When I started at T&T it was after looking for jobs seeking someone with an English BA. When I started at Blizzard it was after looking for jobs seeking someone with an MLIS.
CT: I think the environments were similar in that I worked on small teams that were part of larger organizations. The main difference was T&T was pretty much left to its own devices by the larger organization, whereas the team at Blizzard was somewhat more integrated and responsible to the other teams there as well as the overall operation. Both situations had their pros and cons, just like any job.
CT: Everyone on the small T&T team loved games but no one else around us was really into them, except for a few individual employees who worked for other LFP, Inc. publications. The Blizzard environment was much more of an overall gamer culture, with people bringing their dogs to work and the whole company taking a day to play Diablo III when it was released.
AS: There is something else tangential I would like to mention. T&T was also a very important step in my personal development, as at the time I was horrendously shy and introverted and unsocial and felt immense emptiness by it. Thankfully, the opportunities I took to go on press trips were huge challenges for my psyche and were necessary beginnings in an even longer road I have undertaken to figure out who I am in the world and operate capably and comfortably in all aspects of social space. The personal importance to me about this was proportional to the pain that it brought. There is a general lack of appreciation for how much hard work this is for massive introverts, and I am not sure I would have found the way out, that is to finally realize comfort in my own skin, if everything didn’t happen the way it did.
How has Tips & Tricks influenced your current work and life as a whole?
CT: T&T was one of my best working experiences. The job itself was a combination of two things I loved (writing and playing video games), and everyone who worked there was truly passionate about making a great magazine. I think the majority of people who worked at T&T are still doing something related to video games.
JL: It changed me as a person. I learned to appreciate things in life. I learned to believe in myself. I learned that you should never let anyone discourage you or bring you down when you really believe in something. I learned that sometimes you need to take risks and be aggressive and yes, even be an asshole, if you truly believe in what you are doing. I learned that good things do happen if you are passionate and work hard.
CT: It also gave me enormous respect for the work performed by collectors. I am currently working at Stanford University Libraries and one of their major collections is one that was donated by a person named Stephen M. Cabrinety who dedicated most of his short young life (he died at age 29) to collecting microcomputing software, hardware, documentation, and artifacts that were created between 1975 and 1995. This collection includes a huge amount of video games. It’s taken a long time, but now more libraries, museums, and archives are seeking to preserve video games as items of cultural value. Without the work done by game fans and collectors over the years to keep some of this data alive, this effort would be much more difficult.
CB: In terms of my life…well, I learned an awful lot about video games and about magazine publishing, I guess. Made a lot of friends, as well.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
JL: There are way too many memorable things about working for T&T to list, but a few stand out. One day a ninja appeared in our office. Another day our secretary was dancing on my desk to trance music, which was not a good thing. Not because it was trance music, but because she was lifting up her skirt and rubbing her breasts and the whole thing was just so incredibly bizarre. I thought I was being set up, to be honest. One night, I think it was around midnight while Tyrone Rodriguez and I were working late on the magazine, we discovered one of our copy editors pretending to be Larry Flynt’s cousin or something. Turns out he would have these hot girls come in after hours and take pictures of them half naked and do god knows what else. We literally caught him with his pants down and a camera around his neck, coming out of his office with a girl in a teddy. I guess he thought no one would ever see it. That was a mind-blower.
JL: In the end though, I want to say that LFP, as a company, was very supportive and empowering with its employees, there was no micromanaging, they just let us do our jobs and play games and write about them and kick ass. I loved working there. I made a lot of friends and I got to work with so many nice, genuinely talented people. Most amazing job I ever had.
CT: I was surprised a couple of months ago when I realized the Tips & Tricks Wikipedia entry had disappeared. I think the entry was started sometime near the end of T&T’s run in 2006. It feels a bit sad to think that a magazine that survived for 100+ issues only lasted as an entry on Wikipedia for eight years. Of course, I could try to recreate an entry, but I feel like the only person really qualified to do that is Chris Bieniek.
CB: Tips & Tricks was all about codes and strategy guides, first and foremost. But outside of our loyal readers, most people don’t know about all the other aspects of video-game culture that we brought to the forefront. I’m very proud of our arcade game coverage, for example. It was a real pain in the ass to include them, because it was very difficult to take screen shots of arcade games. But we put them on the cover all the time, and we had regular features like arcade high score lists and “Token of the Month” to shine a light on the arcade industry whenever possible.
CB: We also did a lot to promote the competitive fighting game scene, first with the “XBand Top 5” lists and later with our monthly “Tournament Report” column. We supported the fanzine community, giving national exposure to aspiring video game journalists, some of whom we actually hired. We published interviews with a lot of Japanese game creators, including some lesser-known designers who rarely spoke to the American press. And I know for a fact that our “Collector’s Closet” column introduced a lot of people to the concept of video game collecting as a hobby.
CB: We were just trying to make a great magazine, so it’s really gratifying when people say things like, “I got into pixel art because of the Tips & Tricks Pencil Puzzles,” you know? It’s nice to hear that we inspired people in some small way.