There are two developer/publisher companies which have consistently claimed to be the biggest in Britain. Jagex in Cambridge and Codemasters, outside Leamington Spa. Let’s put this to the test. The best source of figures are their annual accounts, which are available from Company’s House for the cost of £1 a pop. Each of these covers the last year the accounts were filed for and also the previous year for comparison. I have Codemasters Group Holdings Limited accounts for year ended 31 March 2014 and also 30 June 2011, also Jagex accounts for 31 December 2013.
The first measure we can look at is turnover, or sales as it is more commonly known. Jagex has a 2013 turnover of £46,537K down from £53,098K in 2012. Codemaster figures were £51,969K for 2014 and £53,242K for 2013, so there isn’t much in it. But both were down year on year. Interestingly Codemasters turnover was £122,961K in 2010 and £119,182K in 2011. So the company is doing well under half the business it was doing just a very few years ago.
The second measure is number of employees. Jagex had 515 in 2013 and 472 in 2012. Staff costs were £21,699K for 2012 and £22,858K in 2013. Codemasters had 731 staff in 2013 costing £28,202K dropping to 588 staff in 2014 costing £22,063K. So once again there isn’t much in it. Going back to 2010 Codemasters then had 778 staff costing £32,331K and in 2011 814 staff costing £32,782K. So whilst their turnover has more than halved their staff numbers have dropped far less.
The third measure is profitability. Jagex made £9,758K in 2012 and £945K in 2013. A huge drop. The balance sheet for 2013 shows accumulated profit of £7,067K. Codemasters accounts show a LOSS in 2013 0f £12,868K followed by a LOSS of £3,337K in 2014. Accumulated losses in their 2014 balance sheet total £188,957K. So Jagex has Codemasters very comprehensively beaten on this measure but with a worrying trend.
Of interest, considering the above, is the remuneration of their highest paid directors (and we know who these are). At Jagex the highest paid director received £437,166 in 2012 and £381,815 in 2013. At Codemasters the highest paid director received £862,000 in 2013 and £816,000 in 2014. So making losses at Codemasters pays around twice as much as making profits at Jagex!
Overall, on these figures, it is pretty much a draw as to who is biggest. But accounts are always historic, so the current situation might be a lot different.
As you are almost certainly aware the app marketplace is the toughest and most competitive that has ever existed. Getting on for a million apps with around a thousand added every day. The barriers to entry are so low that anyone can have a go. This creates an immense problem of visibility, as in how do you get any when all the possible channels are clogged up.
Here at Kwalee we have a published iOS game called Gobang Social, which is intended mainly as a technology demonstrator. However we do need some players, so as to demonstrate and test the technology, but we don’t need a full blooded marketing campaign.
One of our solutions is this competition to give away an iPad3 to the most effective player of the game. In marketing terms this is pretty cheap. And it gives our social marketing some ammunition to use. Hence the video.
Whilst Codemasters was an exciting place to be it was also very much a family company and I felt that I would never get the rewards and recognition that could be found elsewhere, so in 1989 I left to pursue other opportunities. I was still friendly with the Darlings and did things for them, for instance I twice went to Japan to investigate commercial opportunities for them. Working for myself I also contributed to the marketing of the Sam Coupe computer for Miles Gordon Technology. Getting Mel Croucher in to write the manual for the computer and Bo Jangeborg to create the Flash! graphics software that came with each machine. Although the Coupe was based on Spectrum architecture it had more powerful graphics and this software was essential if the capabilities off the machine were going to be exploited by both developers and the public. Also I worked extensively with the press and with the fanzine community who were very important at the time.
But I was looking for a proper business of my own, not just a way of selling my time. The ZX Microfairs were dead by then so I decided to start up a new series of one day events, but for all computers, hence the name All Formats Computer Fairs. This took the novel idea that business and home computers could be sold side by side, the market at that time had split into two parts that were totally separate and I thought that they would come back together again. Lots of people told me that this wouldn’t work and it nearly didn’t. One help was that MGT launched the Sam Coupe at my first fair. Working 100 hour weeks for years, often for negative income, the business eventually thrived. We ended up with events all over Britain, every weekend attracting thousands of people. The business was widely copied and soon there were a vast number of similar events for computing and gaming enthusiasts serving every population centre. This was for me the most financially successful phase of my career and attending the events kept me at the very sharp end of what was happening in both consumer and business computing. I ran the business as what is known as a virtual company with all the staff being hired as and when they were needed. This made it easy to add and remove events according to demand and once the business had stabilised it meant that I didn’t have a great deal to do. Codemasters had asked me back several times so I had a chat with David Darling and pretty soon had a job there in charge of communications, working 3 days a week. A lot had changed in my absence, it was now employing hundreds of people organised in departments churning out console games sold all around the world. So I put in place, developed and ran a press release system designed to produce 2 press releases a week, all supported by assets and released simultaneously in the local languages in every market around the world. This became a very powerful tool that pretty much guaranteed we would reach millions of people with our marketing messages.
At this time the Internet was coming very quickly into prominence. I both loved and hated this. The bad news was that it destroyed the business model of All Formats Computer Fairs. We had existed by providing lots of competing traders under one roof and the internet did this far better. So I gradually closed the business down as each individual fair lost its viability. The good news was at Codemasters it became possible to communicate directly and immediately with customers anywhere in the world. We were developing an MMO at the time called Dragon Empires and they has a community liaison person as part of their team. I took this idea and adapted it to work with boxed console games, creating a social marketing department years before Facebook and Twitter even existed.
But once again game piracy came very close to killing off my employer. The market consisted of the PlayStation and the PC, just 2 platforms. And Codemasters majored on the PlayStation because initially the games were copy proof so it had a better business model. However its copy protection was cracked and suddenly our games only sold on launch weekend, after that they could be bought far more cheaply from the many commercial pirates who had banks of disk duplication machines in their homes. Our income collapsed and we had to make 20% of the workforce redundant. To keep the company going we published a series of PC games: Prisoner of War, Insane, IGI2, Severence etc. But it was another one that was the saviour of the company: Operation Flashpoint. We had very little money for advertising so we worked like crazy at public relations and internet marketing. So it was immensely gratifying when we launched the game and it went to number one in nearly every country with a chart around the world. It is an utter travesty that this game was not developed into a gaming mega brand and that the space that it occupied in the market was given over to other publishers.
Eventually the Darlings decided to reduce their stake in the company and introduced a venture capital company to the business. These people parachuted in their own management team and I left. As did other key talent over the next year or two. I decided to spend some of my time using the internet so I set up the Artfotrums.co.uk online community and started writing the Bruce on Games blog, both of which were very successful. The blog has over 900 articles covering many areas of the business of making games and is one of the largest bodies of work by a game industry insider. Alongside this I also went back to game marketing consultancy and did work for a number of different companies around the world. One simple change made to one company website increased new business for them by 30%. But this sort of work is not satisfying because it lacks the emotional engagement of actually being employed by a company, of being a part of the team. So when David Darling told me he was setting up Kwalee I was quick to offer my services and very happy when they were accepted.
A huge problem in the app marketplace is gaining visibility. Many hundreds of new apps are released every day, all vying for the attention of journalists and the public. It is immensely difficult to get your app noticed at all. If you go to the forums where the indie developers hang out you can see that this is their biggest problem. As Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.
There are two ways out of this that are commonly used, one is to throw money at the problem, to buy visibility. We don’t really want to do this at Kwalee if we can help it. The other is to cross promote between a catalog of existing apps on the app store. But Kwalee only has one app out there, Gobang Social.
Gobang Social is a great fun game to play with your Facebook friends. We developed it as a technology demonstrator, to prove that we could do many different things that are involved in developing and publishing an app. Also as the testbed to create our turn based server technology. This simple, fun game was ideal for the task and enabled us to climb all sorts of learning curves.
However we do need to have players using the game in order to test and develop what we are doing. So we need to do some marketing to attract these people. And as we already know, this is difficult in an extremely crowded marketplace.
Our solution was to create a really wacky video and to incorporate a competition. In marketing terms this was very inexpensive indeed. And it has worked, it has done exactly the job it was intended to do. Not only that, the staff had a great fun day out. And we continued to build our brand image as a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously and which has a laugh.
And just for good measure, here is the product video for Gobang Social, so you can see what our game looks like:
So here is the second of three parts of a potted history of UK gaming through one pair of eyes. As first published on the Kwalee website. If you are interested in drilling down for more stories you can use the anecdotal musing button in categories in the right hand column here, or search for keywords using the box at the top of the right hand column.
Imagine Software was very profitable to begin with, the cassettes cost us well under 50 pence to manufacture and sold to distributors for between two and three pounds. We built up turnover during 1983 to a million pounds a month. So although the directors had nice cars the hire purchase payments on these used up very little of our cash flow.
Then in 1984 sales hit a brick wall and we suddenly had no income. It was as if someone had turned a switch. We employed quite a few Youth Opportunity Programme people and they told us that all their friends had stopped buying games, they were tape-to-tape copying instead. To double the problem, a number of illicit duplicators now had manufacturing equipment to counterfeit product to sell cheaply in markets.
One of our largest customers was the newsagent chain W H Smith. One day a truck filled with literally tons of our games appeared from them which Smiths told us were all faulty and they refused to pay our bill. We tested the games and they were all perfect, the kids were buying them, copying them and then returning them as faulty.
To try and prevent people copying instead of buying we tried many things, including writing a letter to all of the magazines, which some of them published. We wanted to bring the retail price of our games down but our big customers (W H Smiths, Bootsetc) wouldn’t let us. The “megagames” (Psyclapse and Bandersnatch) were an attempt to make our games copy proof by incorporating a “dongle” that plugged into the back of every customer’s computer. But we ran out of money before they could be completed and we went bust. Lots of other game publishers also went bust. We were particularly vulnerable because our development process was drastically under managed, so lots of staff created very little product which resulted in us being one of the first to go.
After Imagine, I went to see Barry Muncaster, the managing director of Oric and he offered me the job of managing director at their software house, Tansoft. He wanted to inject more excitement into the market for his computer. There were rumours that they had financial problems so I asked Barry if the job would be safe, he said that they couldn’t go bust because they were a subsidiary of a public company. Unfortunately I believed him and my new job did’t last very long. Working in Cambridge was very interesting because there were so many technology companies staffed by exceedingly bright people, but it was a desert for marketing. If we added some marketing competence to Cambridge we would have a British Silicon Valley.
At Tansoft I had met Bill Richardson of Oxford Computer Publishing, based in Chalfont, who published serious software for the Spectrum. Bo Jangeborg from Sweden was writing a graphics programme and Bill employed me to market it. But he sold it toTelecomsoft who published it as The Artist and I was looking for something to do again. Luckily one of his friends, Vic Cedar of Citadel Products, had a spare desk for me and I set up a company called Abbot to buy and sell computer related stuff using my contacts in the industry. Working at Citadel was fascinating because it was an early PC clone manufacturer and the workshops were always full of the very latest technology so I learned a lot about what made the IBM PC tick. At this time I started exhibiting at the ZX Microfairs held at the Royal Horticultural Halls in London, which were incredibly busy.
Then one day I saw a cheeky advert in CTW for a new game company in Banbury, set up by the Darling family, called Codemasters. I went up to see them and they asked me to work for them a couple of days a week. Within a month I was full time, in charge of marketing and I sold Abbot off. Back then Codemasters consisted of David and Richard Darling mostly managing product but also massively involved in the business side of things, their father Jim Darling (who today is the chairman at Kwalee) applying his vast business experience, sister Abigail running the office and Anne Pinkham ringing round the industry to generate sales.
Codemasters’ business model was to combat piracy by selling games at the lowest possible price. This meant that they were not worth copying and became impulse purchases at places like petrol filling stations. We came up with a very effective marketing strategy of telling the world that our games were full price quality at a budget price. This was very effective against the competition. Why buy a full price game when you can buy something of comparable quality for a fraction of the price? And why buy from one of the other budget publishers when you could buy a higher quality game from Codemasters? The £1.99 price point meant that we had to sell enormous quantities of games and that there was not much money to spend on marketing. So we concentrated our efforts and spend on marketing to the trade, with advertising campaigns in the trade newspaper CTW. To reach consumers we used public relations and went to the Lynne Franks agency (which the Absolutely Fabuloussitcom is based on). They got David and Richard on to lots of the weekend morning kids TV shows and into most of the weekend newspaper colour supplements. Within the first year of trading we had 27% of the total UK market by sales volume according to the Gallup charts, but in reality we were selling much more because we were selling vast quantities of games through outlets that Gallup didn’t monitor.
A lot of marketing effort went into trying to recruit other developers whose work we could publish. Andrew and Philip Oliver were the most prolific, churning out game after game, all to a very high quality. Most famously they developed the Dizzy series of games and today they run a large development company in Leamington Spa calledBlitz. Gavin Raeburn was another excellent game developer who is now development director at Playground Games in Leamington. Peter Williamson came from Scotland and created many titles. He is now Managing Director of Supersonic Software in Leamington. And so it went on, a panoply of young talent who went on to have a major impact on the game industry in Britain.
On the Kwalee website we are trying to be as open and informative as possible. Part of this means listing and profiling all the staff and doing Q&A sessions with them. To supplement this I wrote three articles that are a biographic look at the industry. Regular readers here will know that there is enough material for a book, so this is very much a compressed version.
Kwalee CMO, Bruce Everiss, talks about his experiences in the UK games industry. Starting at the very beginning.
In the early 1970s I trained as an accountant in Liverpool, because of wanting to be a businessman. There wasn’t the plethora of business degrees then so serving articles for the Institute of Chartered Accountants seemed to be the best way of gaining a broad business-based knowledge. After this I became a Managing Director, running a computerised book-keeing company called Datapool Services, which is still going! In those days the only computers were vast and enormously expensive machines owned by government, universities and big business. So our book-keeping was done on time rented from a big bank computer.
During this time I started reading the two computer industry newspapers, Computer Weekly and Computing. Occasionally they carried articles about the amazing idea that an individual person could own a computer and have it at home, using a kit of electronic parts centred around the only recently available microprocessors. Then came news of people actually setting up retail stores to look after the people who were interested in these products. I knew that this would explode in popularity and decided to do the same. I begged, borrowed and stole the money to set up Microdigital in Liverpool in 1978, one of the first computer stores in Europe. Most British people couldn’t afford the expensive American home computers, but luckily we had a home grown device called the Nascom 1, which cost £200. This was a kit with 1,200 solder joints and which gave users a massive 1K of RAM to play with. We created a very successful business fixing kits that people had built but which had failed to work.
For rich people we sold the Apple 2, which had 16K of RAM for £1,200. This was a fortune in those days and used a cassette interface to input and output content. Eventually Apple brought out a disk drive that cost £425 and which had a capacity of 113K. Everybody thought that this was incredible.
Over the years we sold many other machines: the Commodore Pet, the Science of Cambridge MK14 (from Uncle Clive), Exidy Sorcerer, Hewlett Packard HP-85, Sharp MZ 80K and more.
Getting hold of stock to sell was problematic, as the demand was so much greater than the industry could possibly keep up with. It was not unusual for our turnover to double month on month. Our bread and butter was selling books, which we imported from America, to satisfy the thirst for knowledge. We set up a mail order department and pretty soon we were shipping stuff all over the world. We also set up our own monthly computer hobbyist magazine called Liverpool Software Gazette and used our extensive contacts to fill it with excellent articles.
During this time I went to America a lot, they were well ahead of us and were the place where the products and ideas were coming from. On one visit to Apple in Cupertino, California, I was offered their UK distributorship but turned it down because I knew we just couldn’t handle it. On these trips I also visited the early computer stores, such asComputer Components of Orange County. I noticed they had some polythene bags attached to a noticeboard containing a cassette (or disk) and a sheet of photocopied paper in each one. These were the very first commercially available home computer video games that people had written and duplicated at home to sell on the noticeboard. I bought loads of them and brought them back to use as demonstration software in the shop.
Eventually I sold Microdigital out to a large chain of Hi Fi retailers called Laskys for them to use us as a template to put computer stores within their shops all over the country. Then there was a phase of consulting. I did the business plan for a home computer industry magazine for Felix Dennis at Dennis Publishing, this becameMicroscope. I did a pile of stuff for an office equipment company in Liverpool calledDAMS and I did some work for Bug Byte. This was fascinating, one of the very first home computer game publishers in Britain. I managed to convince them to upgrade their cassette inlay cards from crude mono sheets, sometimes photocopied, that were the industry standard, to professional four colour printed cards with an airbrush image to represent the game.
Then, in 1982, one of my former Microdigital Employees who worked at Bug Byte, Mark Butler, told me he was setting up his own company with a programmer he worked with called David Lawson. I joined them as Operations Director at Imagine Software and took over marketing, amongst other things. Then Eugene Evans joined us who had been a Saturday boy in the Microdigital shop before working for Bug Byte. Eugene is now VP, Studio GM, Bioware Mythic, at Electronic Arts. Back then there was no proper video game industry. Most people who wrote games ran their business from home (often part time) and sold directly to customers by mail order. We decided to do it differently with a proper company with departments and offices. Our first problem was getting sales. I remember sitting with everyone else on the carpets, packaging up games to go in the mail and then filling rows of mailbags up. This was no way to go. So I recruited a couple of tele-sales staff from DAMS (something that was then new and which I had learned there). They were given every Yellow Pages for the UK and they rang retailers telling them to stock our games. This was the foundation of video games as an industry in the UK. They would ring every newsagent, then every electronics shop, then every photographic retailer, doubling turnover every month. Obviously once a retailer started selling games they would look for more to sell and would contact our competitors. So the industry moved from a mail order hobbyist footing to professionally run companies selling their products at retail.
After a while I recruited two more tele-sales staff. One who spoke French and German fluently and one who spoke Spanish and Italian fluently. Then we sold our stuff like crazy all across Europe. This was the beginning of the dominance of the British video game publishers in Europe. At the same time we developed our inlay cards adding more and more folds and on these we put development credits, company profile, sales material for our other games and translations for our overseas customers.
Games originally were written by one person using assembler software and writing on the target machine. The first improvement was when John Gibson was having difficulty getting the clouds to look realistic in Zzoom. We dragged an artist in and using a piece of graph paper he represented pixels and created realistic clouds. David Lawson seized on this and soon we were employing artists, then he extended the concept and we were employing musicians. Then we looked at getting away from using the target machines and bought very powerful 68000 based professional computers running Z80 assemblers. Then we started to move over to the C programming language.
So throughout the life of Imagine software we continued to lead and innovate in many ways. What we did was very widely copied. The reason we had to be creative was because nothing existed before us, we were the pioneers in many ways.