Technically speaking, I'm still on my year off before I go to university. The original plan had been to secure a place at either Nottingham or Warwick University to study psychology, and then spend a year earning some cash so that things didn't get too tight in the four years (or more) that I would spend dazzling the academic establishment with radical new insights into human behavior. I don't remember the specifics, but I think I actually got the place at Warwick pretty much sorted out at one point.
Fresh out of school, resplendent with a uniformly atrocious portfolio of exam results (thanks to the "I'm going to dump you the night before your first English paper is due" shenanigans of my then-girlfriend) I had landed a truly glorious job in the menswear department at English department store Marks & Spencer. This was after a brief two-week stint of twisting bits of wire and dipping it in solder at a local industrial park that was the single most mind-numbing experience of my life. Stretching this crap out for a whole year was looking like it was going to be a truly painful experience, and despite occasional changes of scenery working in either the grocery department (which I loathed) or the lingerie department (which was a bit surreal, particularly when women that would have been classified as cougars before the term even existed would come in and ask "what I thought" of various frilly things) I was thinking of changing my whole plan.
At some point during all this, I'd applied for a job as a staff writer at ST Action at Europress up in Macclesfield. I didn't get it. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same girlfriend that dumped me the night before my English paper landed the same job several months later. But I digress. I figured that professional games writing was something that would be permanently out of reach. Then, out of the blue, Hugh Gollner (the boss of the games rags at Europress) called to ask if I'd like to be a staff writer on a new publication, a weekly magazine called Games-X that would be modeled after pop-books like Smash Hits. Needless to say I jumped at the chance. I actually took the call while on a coffee break at Marks & Spencer, and upon receiving the official offer - a staggering 7,000 GBP a year - I quit the menswear gig on the spot and walked out. Two weeks later I was living in a horrific bedsit in Stockport, and writing about Amiga, ST, and import Super NES and MegaDrive games all day and night. It was wonderful.
Games-X lasted almost exactly a year, but the discipline of that weekly deadline is something that has been the foundation of my attitude toward writing and editing ever since. While there, I sat next to Alex Simmons, who is now the editor in chief of IGN in the UK. Our London news editor was Gary Whitta, who later went on to run PC Gamer in both the UK and the US before leaving the industry to be a movie screenwriter. I met a lot of great people, and from that point on, I was on a career path that I wanted to make last for as long as I could. Games-X led to work on both ST and Amiga Action, as well as a brief stint on GB Action. Soon after, Hugh left Europress to start a new company and a bunch of us went with him to form our first "start up" Maverick Magazines, where we produced MegaDrive Advanced Gaming (my first editor in chief gig), Control (a SNES mag) and later PC Player, my first solo-launch. PC Player led to the gig at PC Zone in London, which in turn shoved me into more international circles and helped get me on the Ziff Davis guys' radar in Chicago, and ultimately to the gig on Electronic Gaming Monthly in 1998.
Back in those early days, I always wondered how long the whole thing could really last. Would this be something I'd still be doing when I was 35, or even 40? Turns out the answer to that is a resounding yes.