Interview: Andy Payne, Mastertronic, ELSPA

We talk exclusively to the boss of budget gaming leader Mastertronic, who also happens to be on the board at ELSPA. Sizable agenda includes 1990s Sega, Sold Out, console budget space, cash for reviews, piracy, illegal downloads, clueless executives - and Manhunt.

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He may not be somebody you hear of every day in the games business, but there's little doubt that Andy Payne has a gaming accolade or two under his belt. Having built the most successful budget PC software label, Mastertronic Group, augmented by the recent acquisition of Sold Out, Payne's firm literally owns the affordable software, or republishing sector - offering quality titles for as little as five notes.

Payne is also a member of the ELSPA (European Leisure Software Publishers Association) Council and a board director. The industry body has seen a significant raise in profile in the last year, thanks to the successful launch of London's EGN and GameStars events, as well as meticulously defending and promoting the industry in the face of issues like sensational Manhunt press.

Our interview with Andy starts off with a detailed look at the Mastertronic business, including its two product ranges, M.A.D. and PC Gamer Presents, as well as some more businessy type talk about what drives success in the competitive budget area, and even an unhealthy amount of 1990s Sega related banter.

Even if PC budget software - which includes huge franchises such as Colin McRae, TOCA and Command and Conquer - isn't your thing, the suggestion that Mastertronic aims to enter the console space should raise a few eyebrows.

We then turn onto the ELSPA side of things, with Payne speaking openly and frankly about a number of issues, such as Internet piracy, the incredible Daily Mail "Murder by PlayStation" fiasco of last year, and industry executives who simply, "don't actually understand what's going on".

Kikizo: Thanks for your time today to discuss Mastertronic and the latest with ELSPA. Mastertronic has quite a history behind it now, it says here that it started in 1983?

Andy Payne: Yes, that was the original company that went through a number of ownership changes. It became Virgin Mastertronic, and then after that it was sold to Sega. It kind of became the vehicle for Sega Megadrive, as the distribution side of the business. It was sold to Sega and the name Mastertronic resided with them until about August 2003. Frank Herman, who is now the Chairman of Mastertronic, and was the Chairman of Sega Europe, sold the name to Sega in the first place - so he knew where it was, and negotiated to buy it back from Sega.

Kikizo: And you also personally started The Producers, what direction did that take?

Payne: The Producers started in 1988 and that's always been my company, and pretty much still is. That company is manufacturing and fulfilment, so it has always worked for the publishers, and done their dirty work, in a kind of agency format. Taking the hassle out of the manufacturing process, distribution and all that kind of junk. The Producers has always backed a lot of things that the publishing side has been involved with, so it made sense for Mastertronic to offload as much as possible to The Producers. Mastertronic Group owns Mastertronic Games and now The Producers, and the Group also launched Mad4Games, which is the mobile service, with Steve Cooke [games media guru], Fish [Mark Fisher, formerly technical director at Acclaim], and David Upchurch [veteran games journalist]. So it has three distinct business units, but they separately exist as limited companies, run by the group.

Kikizo: Does Frank Herman still have any involvement with Sega - he still has fingers in loads of pies?

Payne: He has loads of contacts - fewer fingers than pies. His only paid job in the games business is with Mastertronic. He was a non-exec at Intent Media [MCV] but he resigned that earlier this year because of conflict of interest. But Frank has been at the top of GT, Sega and Virgin.

Kikizo: Can you explain more about the Sega connection, in that your literature says the company was responsible for bringing Master System to the European market during the eighties?

"Master System and Megadrive trailblazed the way for consoles."

Payne: That's right, Virgin Mastertronic was the appointed publishing distributor for Sega. Virgin bought Mastertronic and wanted to have that as part of their portfolio, and because Frank came with the Mastertronic name, they had good contacts with Sega, and Virgin Mastertronic became the vehicle for it. The Master System and Megadrive were successful products and trailblazed the way for consoles, probably more so than Nintendo in the UK, and almost blueprinted the way that Sony came and did a really good job with PlayStation. A lot of people who were involved in the Sega launch and the ongoing business ended up working with Sony.

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