Wireframe

Staying alive: The turbulent history of British game development

By Kim Justice. Posted

It’s said that Clive Sinclair never predicted that his little black computer, the ZX Spectrum, would become such a popular games machine. Some even say Sinclair never wanted people to play games on it at all – launched in 1982, the Spectrum was designed to be used in homes, schools, or small businesses. Computer games, quite simply, were never part of the equation.

But for many people, young and old, the Spectrum and machines such as the Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC became the leading sources of electronic entertainment in the 1980s. And for the people who created the games, it was an opportunity to start a revolution from their bedrooms – and, if they were lucky, make a rather pleasant sum of money.The 1980s growth of the British software industry was explosive. It moved so quickly, from hobbyists who fell into making games almost by accident, to coders who were barely out of secondary school, and as of yet there was no corporate image to live up to.

In no time at all, a cottage industry that survived on mail orders had graduated to high street shelves as people decided they needed a computer for their home – with magazines, marketing, and distribution sectors quickly springing up to meet the massive demand.

Even the mainstream press couldn’t ignore the impact computer games were having – not just on their largely youthful audience, but on the people who were making them. For many future coders, such as Ocean programmer Jim Bagley, what could have been seen as a misspent youth in the arcades led to a craft which could be learnt during school hours.

“I got into games because of the enjoyment arcade games gave me, then when I started high school they had computers,” Bagley tells us. “Six Sharp MZ80Ks were sitting there doing nothing, and they had the BASIC manual with them, so I started to have a play with the Sharp computers by typing in the BASIC programs in the manual and then breaking them down and changing bits as I was learning what the instructions were doing – all for the purpose of making my own games.”

For this generation of programmers – fondly dubbed the ‘bedroom coders’ – a similar story would play out every time. Matthew Smith, a 17-year-old programmer from Wallasey, spent eight weeks coding a game called Manic Miner. Released in 1983, it was an immediate hit – and made Smith an unexpectedly rich young man.

The Oliver twins at work in 1988.

The Oliver Twins, makers of the Dizzy series, were another success story.
“Our dream was always to make games good enough that people would want to play them,” says Philip Oliver, co-creator of such hits as Super Robin Hood and the Dizzy series. “We knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight and knew the route was to get published first, and build on the quality. We were always so excited and proud to walk into shops and see our games on sale. We often moved them into prominent positions – like the number one slot on the charts area.”

In the case of Liverpool’s Imagine Software, an operation which had started in one of the country’s nascent microcomputer shops would, thanks to a couple of hits, be catapulted into a plush office building where the executives drove to work in Ferraris and there was a helipad on the roof. Nobody at Imagine actually owned a helicopter yet – but then again, why not plan for the future?

Up and down the country there were similar stories – in cities such as Sheffield, which had been hurt by the fall of their primary industries, the rise of a computer game studio such as Gremlin was something to shout about. In the Thatcher era, when the role of the entrepreneur was an aspiration, the booming software industry was something to be celebrated, if not understood by those in power – enough that Clive Sinclair was awarded a knighthood in 1983. It was a glorious time, one that people thought would never end – and while some may have entertained the thought that things weren’t going to be this good forever, what did it matter when the profits were so appetising?

The games themselves are their own representative of these times – the coders, raised on a diet of arcade games from Japan and the US, were now ready to make their own indelibly British mark on the scene. Games such as educational romp Skool Daze and Trashman – the epic story of a refuse collector’s attempts to clear rubbish without being run over – couldn’t have come from anywhere else. There was an idiosyncrasy to these games – a touch of British humour and irreverence that set them apart, although they certainly played well too; classics such as dark infiltration drama Saboteur and everyone’s favourite series of egg-’em-ups, the iconic Dizzy games, enjoyed brisk sales. And the cheap price of entry – as little as £2 for a budget game – meant that kids could persuade their parents to pick up a new experience whenever they went to the local corner shop.

At a time when games usually arrived on cassettes and software was seldom officially licensed before release, it was a challenge to track all the new titles emerging each month – but the nascent British gaming press tried its best. Magazines such as Sinclair User and Crash vied for readers’ attention – the former could rely on a healthy stream of exclusives, whereas the latter traded on honesty and spectacular covers painted by fantasy artist Oliver Frey. There was no end of barbs thrown by one magazine at the other, along with the occasional bit of controversy – one Crash cover, which featured a half-naked sorceress taking a man as his slave, saw no end of hand-wringing and people wondering just what these games were exposing their innocent kiddies to.

It wouldn’t be long before mainstream media saw computer games as a target – the television and its four channels were no longer the only game in town. As such, the exploits of the ‘bedroom coders’ were covered in a rather mocking, antagonistic way – almost as if because these people dealt in a fantasy world, the business they were in wasn’t real either and they were playing at being flash businessmen. This rivalry between old and new media wasn’t something that was going to go away, no matter how unreasonable it was.

Imagine Software were among the first UK studios to spend large sums on marketing.

BANDERSNATCH

Inevitably, the good times couldn’t last forever. In 1983, a video game crash occurred on the other side of the pond, but the industry in Britain was making money hand over fist. The following year would, however, see a slowing of the market – one that many companies were not prepared for. This was unwittingly documented by a BBC TV programme called Commercial Breaks: The Battle for Santa’s Software, which covered the changing fortunes of both the aforementioned Imagine and Ocean Software – the latter a studio from Manchester.

The resulting stories couldn’t have been more different. Imagine was the free-wheeling face of the new industry, and the money which came with it – the directors drove around in sports cars, they’d changed offices twice in a year, and the programmers looked like they were rolling in cash. An attempt to create a much-publicised, self-described ‘mega’ game called Bandersnatch would, however, be the firm’s undoing. Packaged with add-on hardware, the game would have pushed the capabilities of the Spectrum far beyond its limits, but to offset costs, Imagine wanted to sell it at £30 – more than four times the going rate for a full-price game in 1983.

Understandably, this was something software buyers weren’t keen to take on. And then suddenly, a whole army of creditors descended; it turned out that, despite all the sports cars and helipads, no one had been keeping an eye on the accounts. It was too much for the company to take, and in July the publicity-hungry firm would go bust in spectacular fashion. On the day the bailiffs came to wind Imagine up, Mark Butler – one of the firm’s founders – had to be called to the office from the Isle of Man, where he’d had a crash while riding for Imagine’s TT Racing Team.

Ocean, on the other hand, struck a more modest image – its offices weren’t as plush
as Imagine’s, but the company was consistent with its releases. It rode out attempts by Imagine to suffocate the competition by block-booking pressing plants during the 1983 Christmas rush (which inevitably resulted in Imagine attracting more creditors), and it was developing a studio of young, hungry, and creative people like the late, great Jonathan ‘Joffa’ Smith. Company founder David Ward was more philosophical about problems such as software piracy, and as Imagine played with their TT bikes, Ocean got their heads down. As a result, the company survived a tough year for the industry and, in a fitting epilogue for the documentary, ended up acquiring the rights to the Imagine label.

Ocean Software in their late-1980s heyday.

Ocean was hardly averse to spending large sums of cash, but in the end it was more reserved than companies like Imagine, which seemingly threw money everywhere in the pursuit of press inches while ignoring the myriad causes of their explosive demise. Being creative and producing excellent games was one half of the equation, one that was enough for a short time – but a harsh reality soon emerged that, in order to survive, you had to be good at business, too.

“The downfall of the big software houses was always when they got too big,” Jim Bagley tells us. “An expensive development cycle on a game that flopped could cripple a company and even make them go bust – which happened quite a lot – or excessive spending from the bosses and their new-found cash flow. At a few of the companies I worked at, I told them not to expand too big, as it never bodes well when they do.”

This lesson was not strictly limited to software companies – the people who made the computers would also be in for a rude awakening.

Sir Clive Sinclair, the man credited with the spark that set off the software boom, would see his company falter – in no small part thanks to the high-profile flop of his electric pedal vehicle the Sinclair C5, but also due to the failure of his latest computer: the Sinclair QL, another machine aimed at the business market. Acorn, maker of the government-backed BBC Micro, would fall hard in a doomed pursuit of a share in the US market.

The Sinclair QL: not the Quantum Leap Sir Clive had hoped.

Meanwhile, while its UK wing continued to perform well, American firm Commodore had its own problems at home, as the computer crash continued to bite hard. These major hardware platforms would survive in one way or another – the rights to the ever popular ZX Spectrum would be bought by Alan Sugar’s Amstrad, a company that thrived in hard times through all-in-one deals and a strong presence in the rest of western Europe. Smaller computer makers such as Dragon Data and Tangerine (maker of the Oric Atmos), on the other hand, would end up cashed out of the game altogether.

“There were many factors (in the downfall of these companies),” says Philip Oliver: “greed, disorganisation, poor decisions, piracy, international games with higher investment, and the arrival of consoles.”

These times could also be hard on the creators themselves. Manic Miner creator Matthew Smith would achieve further success with 1984’s spectacular sequel Jet Set Willy, but he and his company, Software Projects, were never able to follow it up, and he eventually ended up living in a commune. Not that such excess was overly common (party animal Philip Oliver says, “We’re programmers! We were too busy working… if you do the maths of the number of games we wrote, it’s evident we didn’t get out much!”) but some coders would find their overnight success tough to deal with, for a multitude of reasons.

Even a respected studio like Ultimate wasn't immune from the changing 80s industry landscape.

People displaced by the collapse of companies like Imagine would mostly find their way back in with others, but any high-profile collapse would bounce several talented names out of the industry. Even Ultimate: Play The Game, one of the most high-profile developers of the 1980s, wasn’t safe – despite the huge success of titles such as Knight Lore, Jetpac and Sabre Wulf, when sales fell even slightly it would find itself in a precarious position. Company founders Tim and Chris Stamper ended up selling the label off to U.S. Gold in 1985 and began to look overseas, forging a relationship with Nintendo through their new company, Rare. This was another important key to survival – the ability to look at the big picture and see where things were eventually going.

RISE OF THE CONSOLES

For the longest time, dedicated games consoles were seen as a poor investment by the average British gamer – not only were cartridges a great deal more expensive, but the systems themselves could only play games. Sure, most gamers probably didn’t do their word processing on the Speccy like the adverts said they could, but it was nice to know that the feature was there.

Because of this, the ageless micros held firm against consoles like the NES that were dominating worldwide through the middle of the 1980s – the reinvigorated Spectrum and C64 remained healthy through the entire decade, with companies like Ocean at the top releasing spectacular arcade conversions and popular licences such as Midnight Resistance and RoboCop, while other firms like Codemasters – home of the Oliver Twins – were successful in the budget market. At the end of the decade, the runaway success of the Commodore Amiga 500 and, to a lesser extent, the Atari ST, ensured that the microcomputer would, at least in Europe, still have a role to play in the 16-bit era.

The 1990s saw the continued success of several companies covered so far, alongside new names like Bullfrog, Sensible Software, and Psygnosis. These developers often thrived on a small, creative-driven setup, with only a handful of core employees in charge of design, art and programming.

In the 16-bit era, when 2D still reigned, this was fine – operations had long since migrated from the bedroom to a small office building, but the hours were loose, people played as much as they worked, and there’d be enough boxes of half-eaten Chinese takeaway dotted around the desks to make it look like a bedroom.

These new names, coupled with the established likes of Ocean, Codemasters, and U.S. Gold, helped to create a healthy climate – but still, something was coming that would not only tighten the industry further, but would fundamentally change a playfully British way of working.

When the 32-bit era came around, polygon graphics were the order of the day and few publishers wanted to sell a 2D game any more. A lot of British companies struggled to make the transition, and some simply couldn’t; 3D development required more of everything. Whereas it was easy enough to make a quick proof of concept in a couple of weeks in order to sell a 2D game to a publisher, the same process could take anything from several months to a year in 3D – not to mention the demands of money and manpower.

Studios like Sensible, that operated on a dozen or so people, could scarcely afford this transition, and even the likes of Ocean found themselves struggling, since not only did the cost of making games greatly increase, but so did the cost of the movie licences through which it had made its name. Many of those who survived did so by truly becoming a business and embracing corporate practice, whether by themselves or through a high-profile owner such as Sony or EA. This was, perhaps, the true end to the so-called bedroom coder as anything more than a hobby.

By the end of the 1990s, names that were once ubiquitous in British games magazines had either been sold off or vanished altogether; Ocean Software merged with French publisher Infogrames in 1996, and quietly faded out two years later. U.S. Gold was acquired by Eidos Interactive (formerly Domark Limited) in 1996, and the brand was retired. A small number of studios – most notably Rare – survived the turbulence of the 1980s. But for so many companies that had found success in the British games industry’s first flush, it was the end of an era.

THE BEDROOM CODER IS BACK

What, then, is the legacy of the bedroom coder? To this day, some of their best exploits are still remembered, and their old games celebrated. But then, many of those coders are also still working: Julian Gollop, Jeff Minter, and Peter Molyneux are just a few of the names whose careers thrived well into the PlayStation era.
In the 21st century, digital distribution means that such games as Undertale, Celeste, and Superhot can succeed with small teams or even a single individual at their helm – you don’t need to make a deal with a publisher or be capable of printing thousands of copies of a game in order to prosper.

As a result of this, many veteran developers are going independent again. Some, like Jim Bagley, are attempting to push the computers they worked so hard on into the present. “Thirty-three years later, I’m now involved in making the ZX Spectrum Next… it’ll be like the good old days, although the games won’t be for sale in retail shops, sadly.”

In the end, it seems that nothing ever truly dies in the world of video games – it simply lies dormant, ready to emerge once again when the conditions are right. Then, before you know it, someone’s once again sitting in their bedroom, energy drinks and fast food to hand, with the makings of a smash hit on their screen.


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