The Codemasters Season – an introduction


Next week is Codemasters season here at Bruceongames. A series of articles look at some of the product disasters that cost the company fortunes and which, ultimately, led to it being owned by venture capitalists.

Codemasters has a unique place in the history of the gaming industry. Surviving 20 years as a family company through multiple platform transitions and economic cycles to become a business that innovated and published some outstanding entertainment.

I first joined in 1985, just after the start when they were in a small industrial unit in Banbury. The total workforce was Jim, David, Richard and Abigail Darling, Ann Pinkham on sales and me. This grew to a $100 million a year company with 400 employees and offices around the world. An incredible achievement.

In the beginning Codemasters published budget (£1.99) games on cassette for 8 bit home computers. We succeeded in getting in excess of a 27% total market share in the first year of trading, the foundation that all future success was built on. Then came the Amiga and ST. Then self manufactured console cartridges and the Game Genie. Before settling down to become a mainstream publisher.

Codemasters was built on a foundation of exceptional people. The entry IQ test ensured that you never had to deal with thickies (at least in development) and created an espirit de corps of like minded people achieving great things. There was never a lot of money thrown around (Jim Darling was far too good a businessman for that). So teams tended to be small, using their brains to come up with clever and elegant solutions. Some of the best product was when John Hemingway was development director and I think he did a fantastic job in the difficult balance between budget and creativity. Product wise it was largely downhill after he left, as the declining review scores (and chart successes) showed.

Very many people in the game industry throughout the world owe their careers to Codemasters. Certainly for a very long time having Codemasters in your CV opened a lot of doors. And with years of graduate recruitment and a willingness to promote people out of QA it was a great industry first stepping stone. At it’s peak Codemasters had a very low staff turnover, going to work anywhere else represented a step down.

But Codemasters is no longer a family company. This series of articles looks at some of the product disasters that made this inevitable. Mistakes that cost tens of millions of pounds in wasted money and lost opportunity. There were other disasters too, in employing the wrong people in senior positions and in setting up whole un-needed departments on the development side that were just ego trips. To go into these would involve apportioning blame. And though I, obviously, know where much of that lies, it is not something for here and now.


  1. I.Q. tests? Ugh, no thanks. I once had to do an aptitude test of sorts which was in fact a test to see if you were as smart as the boss (mistakenly) thought himself to be.

    Around the time when I was looking for my 2nd or 3rd job in the industry it was the fashion to tell recruiters “anywhere but Codemasters”. It’s a little sad a company can fall so low. I’m looking forward to the retrospectives!

  2. It’s “esprit de corps”. Very nice blogs, Bruce and JC !

  3. “The entry IQ test ensured that you never had to deal with thickies (at least in development)”

    What about in marketing?

  4. Frank, the thicky statement is a big dig at Codemasters marketing. In fact it contains an in joke that many who were at Codemasters will instantly see.

  5. What an exquisite irony-charged expose! – Lifting the lid on the all too often secret world of ‘codemasters campus’.

    I love how you hint that there was at least one individual there that was surplus in their usefulness, yet no-doubt drawing money from the place like some kind of clueless leech-spirited hominid.

    I realise that it would be just too much to divulge who this would be!

  6. After leaving Codemasters, it’s fair to say this isn’t a specific problem with Codemasters, it’s symptomatic of ALL organisations, regardless of Industry Sector.

    Undoubtably, you almost always have somebody in a senior decision making capacity that has been promoted far beyoned their level of competence and whose ideas appear absurd/ludicrous compared to what the people on the ‘ground’ perceive to be the ‘right’ way forward.

    That said, there are often other constraints affecting senior level decision making processes, that aren’t immediately clear at lower levels. This is where the art of communication comes in – a succesful top-down/bottom-up company relies on clear, consice communication channels – unfortunately, Codemasters employed the following scenario:

    “Treat them like mushrooms”

    (roughly translated, keep them in the dark and feed them full of S%&T…)

    This is perhaps the biggest single point of failure for Codemasters, indeed this ‘issue’ no doubt lead to the creation of such atrocities as Club Football and other poor uses of very valuable IP – the latest Colin McRae seeing the absolute demise of a brilliant racing game (In my opinion) – I don’t want to hear an American co-driver shouting pace notes – if I wanted SEGA RALLY, I would have got SEGA RALLY, I wanted Colin McRae, but instead ended up with an alternate version of SEGA RALLY…

    So in summary, unless people up and down the food chain are ‘ALLOWED’ to have ‘REASONABLE’ input into the DECISON MAKING PROCESS, we’ll keep seeing ‘issues’ like this occuring.

    A secondary issue is RISK ADVERSIVENESS – everybody is now relying on ‘old IP’ to generate new revenue – like the Airwolf series being remade into a file, the resurgence of Night Rider etc etc… This is certainly proof that the ‘Finance’ bean counters are running the show 😉 – god bless them and their EXCEL spreadsheets, I mean, numbers don’t lie right…. 🙂

    Except in an IQ test :p

    Just my 2p 🙂

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