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A history of the UK video game industry through my eyes. Part 3

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 history of the UK video game industry through my eyes. Part 2

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.

A history of the UK video game industry through my eyes. Part 1.

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 SorcererHewlett Packard HP-85Sharp 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.

 

Dr Henry Edward Roberts

Dr Henry Edward Roberts has died at the age of 68. He was truly the father of home computing, the platform on which video gaming is based. His company was Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) and in January 1975 his $395 kit computer, the Altair 8800, appeared on the front cover of Popular Electronics. And the word exploded. They could not keep up with demand, cloned imitators appeared, new magazines were published and a young man wrote a version of the programming language BASIC to run on it. His name was Bill Gates.

The main feature of the architecture of this machine was a backplane bus that cards carrying components plugged into, called the S-100 bus, this became the standard for microcomputers until Apple came along. When I opened my computer store Microdigital, in 1978, we offered an S-100 machine.

It is now well over 30 years since the revolution that we now take for granted happened. It was created by individual people and it is sad that time is now catching up on them, what was real events is now rapidly becoming history.

Game development clusters

Rugby scrum

30 years ago commercial videogames for home computers arrived in Liverpool when I brought a pile of Apple 2 games to Microdigital that I had bought at Computer Components of Orange County in California.  A couple of years later, in Liverpool, Bug Byte software was set up, one of the very first British video game publishers. From this, also in Liverpool, there came Imagine, Software Projects, Psygnosis, Denton Design, Jester Interactive, Bizarre Creations, Rusty Nutz etc

Then in the mid 80s I worked at Codemasters, just outside Leamington Spa in the centre of England. From this there are now has a whole pile of gaming companies in the area. This is not something unique to the gaming industry. It happened with shoes in Northampton, with bicycles in Coventry and with pottery at Stoke on Trent.

There are now lots of game development clusters around the world, usually created in the fallout from just one pioneer. In the UK we have cluster in Dundee, Guildford, Brighton and several more. In China there is one in Shanghai of at least 20 companies as a result of Ubisoft being there. In America there are lots of clusters, Austin, Texas has very many game companies as do Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston. In Canada Toronto and Montreal have grown quickly as the locations for many companies. And Seoul, Korea has around 60 companies.

From the point of view of a developer there are many advantages doing business in a cluster. The human resources and services are all there, geared up just right for running a gaming business.

From the point of view of an employee there are many advantages to working in a cluster. Job mobility without moving house and security of employment being significant advantages to anyone.

But a further advantage of clusters can be found in the pages of Adam Smith’s 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. A cluster will support the division of labour with specialist companies forming to service the industry. For gaming this could be sound, QA, translation, motion capture, marketing and other technical services which make doing business in the cluster more flexible and effective.

And then there are the politicians. Political attitude has a huge bearing on the success of a company. So it is vital for a game business to nurture local and national politicians as well as the civil servants who do their bidding. When an industry employs several thousand people in one location it can exert considerable political power to its advantage.

This is just one reason why companies within a cluster should co-operate, even if, as is often the case, there is previous bad blood arising from business dynamics. The businesses have many areas in common that can be addressed more effectively jointly. There should be CEO level meetings of every company within a cluster every month.

And, of course, government can leverage these clusters to generate national wealth, something we have seen the Canadians do with startling success and something the British government has failed abjectly at. The game industry is already worth many tens of billions of pounds in economic activity and will grow to be a lot bigger still so this is of critical national importance.

So there we have it, if you want to start a game company then do it in a cluster, if you want to work in the games industry then you are best off in a cluster and, if you are already part of a cluster, ensure that you leverage it for your maximum advantage.

Will lightning strike twice at Apple?

I opened one of the first computer stores, Microdigital in Liverpool, in 1978. So I was in a good position to see the rise of Apple to dominate the personal computer (PC) market. I even visited Apple in Cupertino in California and was offered the UK distributorship. So this put me in the front row as they built up to own the market, then threw it all away.

Apple computers were well made, came with excellent documentation and were easy to use. All of which was not necessarily true of the competition. Apples were also expensive but were worth the extra. They became a bit of a cult, a fashion item, as well.

The big strength of Apple computers was that the software and the hardware came from the same company, so they worked. The resultant dominance in the early 80s was such that other PCs might as well not have existed. Apple had a virtual monopoly. Then along came Microsoft’s MSDOS and changed the rules. Here was a standardised operating system (and consequential applications) that would run on machines from many hardware manufacturers. So the hardware manufacturers had to compete against each other on price and features. And it was war.

The result of this war was the survival of the fittest, rapid evolution that improved the breed. And Apple was left well behind looking underpowered and overpriced, they could not even vaguely get near competing with the MSDOS machines. So Apple’s market share collapsed and they fell back to serving niche markets such as pre publishing. In just a couple of years they went from near monopoly to sideshow.

And history could very well be repeating itself. Substitute Personal Computer with Smartphone. And substitute MSDOS with Android. Otherwise it is the same. Apple dominate the consumer smartphone market with the iPhone. The hardware and the software come from the same company and it works. It is a fashion item, a bit of a cult. Android, however, is available to all hardware manufacturers. Most of them are developing models that use it. So they will have to compete against each other on price and features. It will be war with rapid evolution improving the breed. Already the Samsung i7500 looks better featured than an iPhone.

Some may think that the tens of thousands of applications on the App Store make the iPhone entrenched. But remember that these were put together in a little over a year, so Android can do the same in a year. Just as Apple’s dominance of PC application software was quickly overcome when the MSDOS computers arrived on the scene in big numbers.

Of course Steve Jobs and Apple, having been there before, may have the answer this time. They need to entrench their position, which they are doing by going to multiple air time providers in each territory and by going to new territories. But Android will be doing all this too. They need to very rapidly advance their hardware technology. There is plenty of room to do this, the iPhone has a rubbish camera and no OLED screen, for instance. And the iPhone operating system has lots of room for improvement. But Android will be doing all this too.

Apple are moving on from the iPhone with a tablet device and probably a home console. Maybe this is their strategy. Don’t compete, move on.

The one saving grace that Apple have here is their brilliant marketing. In fact, to me, Apple are a marketing company first and a technology company second. Compare and contrast that with Google who have a trail of great products that have failed due to poor, almost non existent, marketing. But Android is different because it doesn’t need Google marketing, it will be marketed by all the handset manufacturers and air time providers. Companies like Vodafone, Sony Ericsson, Sprint Nextel, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Toshiba and Garmin. Formidable, isn’t it?

Now for the gaming perspective. The iPhone and App Store have produced the biggest flowering of gaming creativity in history. In terms of range of products they have left every other platform behind. However the business model employed here is easily copied. So we are moving into a new age where the iPhone game publishers will maximise their profitability by going multi format. Develop for Android, iPhone, PSP, DS and possibly PC simultaneously and reap the marketing benefits. It makes sense.

Imagine, Ocean, historic early game industry videos

Obviously I know the people in these videos. Sadly a few of them are now dead, which is the first thing that comes to my mind when I see them, past colleagues who are no more.

The first part, unfortunately, has no sound. And the Google video link they give does not work. A big pity. The second and third parts have sound.

Edited to say, here it is in one full video with sound.

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