Piracy, Imagine Software and the Megagames


Browsing the internet I came across this interview of me in Your Spectrum from June 1984. It brings up several issues that were very pertinent at the time and which still have resonance today. They have never adequately been explained with the benefit of hindsight so I thought that I would do that now because things were not as they seemed. As a director of Imagine I was involved in all the discussions and decision making that went on behind the scenes. This is the definitive story of what happened.

Imagine software was an amazing success. We doubled turnover pretty much every month until by December 1983 2003 it was a million pounds a month. A massive figure in those days. In January 1984 2004 sales collapsed and we were initially at a loss as to what had happened. We employed a lot of young people on the government Youth Opportunity Programme, which kept us in touch with our customer base. They pretty soon told us that nobody was buying games anymore. Tape to tape copying had been discovered and stealing games was a lot cheaper than buying them.

We reacted by sending a letter to all the magazines explaining the damage this would do to the industry. Some magazines published the letter in full and some took a stronger line in not carrying adverts related to piracy. But overall their reaction was pretty muted. Which is surprising really because they relied on advertising revenue from the game publishers for income. Game piracy ended up hitting them too with one magazine publisher, Newsfield in Ludlow, eventually going out of business.

Our next tactic was to reduce our prices. To become cheap enough that customers wouldn’t want to copy because they could have the real thing at a low price. This tactic would have worked and eventually did with budget software pretty much taking over the 8 bit cassette game market. However we were ahead of our time and the retailers and trade threw a complete and utter fit at our price reduction. Mostly they said they wouldn’t buy our games off us anymore at the lower pricepoint. We were forced to keep prices up.

Because the games were being professionally as well home copied we started printing our inlay cards using a metallic fifth colour. This made it much more difficult to reproduce counterfeit inlay cards.

So next we came up with the idea of a hardware add on or dongle to plug into the game computer without which the game would not run. Initially we looked at putting the Z80 maths co-processor in the dongle which would allow our programmers to write more powerful code. But in the end we settled for putting a ROM in which would allow us to write a much bigger game. Combined with several development breakthroughs we had made this would have allowed us to make some very special games. The megames, Psyclapse and Bandersnatch were born.

But is was not to be. Piracy knocked our income so badly that we could not afford to run the company. There was no money to pay the bills and we went out of business. All filmed by the BBC for their Commercial Breaks programme, which you can still see on YouTube.

You can find a full article on game piracy here.


  1. 2004?. Tape to tape?. Either you’re kidding or your dates are 20 years wrong.

    Sorry, but the problem was not piracy but prices from the retailers. Here in Spain, prices where dropped from 3000 pts to 875. Retailers and publishers both did a good amount of money, and piracy all but disappeared for years, until publishers got greedy again and started rising the prices (875 to 2100 in 2 years).

    Keep prices down, and come down HARD on people SELLING copied games. THAT’s piracy, not just copying them.

  2. Look at this list to see just how many companies were wiped out: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/games/index.html

    Piracy put the games industry in the doldrums for ages. Budget games that were not worth copying ruled. It was only with the introduction of copy proof game cartridge consoles (which did what Imagine had tried to do) that the industry took off again. Because once more there was a viable business model.

  3. Just look at the way that bit torrent has dramatically reduced the number of boxed PC games now developed.
    There is the same effect on PSP where game software sales are a tiny fraction of what they would otherwise be.

    Sinclair Spectrum game sales collapsed when tape to tape copying was “discovered”. This really hammered the game development and publishing industry who tried everything they could to prevent it. Budget games was the only solution that worked until the consoles came along.

    It was piracy that destroyed Imagine. Sure if we had all ridden bicycles and worked out of a tent we may have survived a little longer. But basically our income collapsed.

  4. The high cost base just accelerated Imagine’s demise. The lack of new product was largely down to the concentration of resources on the megagames.

    There is no revisionism. It is a matter of record that we tried to drop retail prices, that we wrote to all the magazines, that we went to 5 colour inlay cards. Why would we be putting our effort into doing all these things if it weren’t that we were being very badly affected by piracy?

    As I said earlier I was there as a board director and was involved in the decisions. I know exactly what happened and it is in that article.

  5. “The lack of new product was largely down to the concentration of resources on the megagames.”

    So you had nothing to sell because you were devoting all your time and money (that which wasn’t being wasted on fast cars and empty offices and idle tape plants, at least) on absurd fantasy projects that didn’t have one chance in a thousand of ever coming to fruition. You were relying on continuing sales of Ah Diddums and BC Bill funding the entire bloated, insanely-wasteful company for the months and years it would have taken to get Psyclapse and Bandersnatch finished, and then hoping that Speccy owners would fork out £40-£50 on a single game.

    That’s an accurate statement of Imagine’s business plan for 1984-86, yes?

  6. There was no idle tape plant.
    All we did is book our duplication early so as not to miss out on the then limited capacity.

    Also I don’t understand your obsession with cars. We only bought secondhand cars and they were on hire purchase. The monthly running costs including finance payments were not dissimilar to running a Ford Granada. In fact at the time probably cheaper because of the lack of depreciation.

  7. What happened is that we largely sold the stock. However much of it was returned to us a faulty by the retailers who then refused to pay us. When we tested the games they were perfect, the retailers had refunded the customers without question. And of course the customers were returning the games because they had made copies.

    Once tape copying took off loads of people took their game collections back for refund. Stores like W H Smith had a no quibble policy and gave people their money but then they didn’t pay us.

    So piracy wasn’t just not selling any new stock. It was not being paid for stock that had previously been legitimately sold.

    I remember the huge mountain of games that came back from W H Smith, the largest retailer in those days.

  8. Firstly it was piracy that led to the demise of Imagine. Without piracy it would probably still be here, there were some good people in the company who have gone on to have successful careers in the industry.

    The situation at Imagine was worse than at the other publishers:
    1) Because we were the biggest, so the most exposed.
    2) We had expanded very quickly on a small capital base.
    3) Our overhead base was large. We had a larger workforce than any other publisher and we had expensive premises.
    4) What financial resources we had were going into the megagames.
    5) Our development talent was going mainly into the megagames.

    1) to 5) are not the reason for the demise of Imagine. They are merely factors that made the piracy bite harder.

    As I have said repeatedly I was there at the highest level in the company.

  9. When a format is piratable at massive inconvenience to the pirate then the incidence of piracy is low. As now on PS3, Wii and 360.

    It is when piracy is so easy that any idiot can do it that we have the problem. As in 8 bit tape to tape, PSX disk burning and PC bit torrents. All three of these have decimated sales and damaged the industry.

  10. My mother pirates games on her DS. It’s not a difficult task by any means.

  11. I’d just like to pop in and say that I very much enjoyed reading this thread.

  12. Hacking a fat PSP doesn’t need a Pandora battery – the earlier firmwares were pretty easy to mod once people starting making the n00b-proof programs. After the later firmwares it was a little more tricky but I’d imagine the majority of PSPs are easily hackable.

  13. As a few people seem to be interested in the Imagine liquidators’ report, it’s quite possibly available here:


    Irritatingly, the idiot site uses dynamic URLs so a straightforward link isn’t possible, and Imagine’s company number is surprisingly elusive — it’s not on any of the worldofspectrum.org ads or inlay scans, for example — but from examining the likely suspects it has to be

    Imagine Software Ltd: company number 01720850

    (The obvious one, Imagine Software 1984 Ltd, is in fact the later Ocean incarnation.)

    The info page says the papers have been archived so you have to ring up, but of course they’re now closed for the weekend.

  14. Another example of megagames sinking a company is Micro Power and Doctor Who and the Mines Of Terror. Yuo can read the Wikipedia page here:


    In essence, Mines Of Terror is often cited as the gane that sank Micro Power because it cost so much to develop and manufacture, and the only copy of the game they ever sold was to my family.

    You can check it – they made bigger and bigger games and sold fewer and fewer copies – a combination of development time and niche markets. It’s got nothign to do with piracy; if you make niche products you have to shoulder the responsibility of the corresponding market size.

  15. deleted

  16. I would be fascinated to see the final creditor’s meeting report. In it’s entirety, not just edited highlights. I was not involved in the receivership process so have no idea what went on.
    Obviously Imagine went bust because outgoings exceeded incomings. There were many factors that contributed to this, but the main one was the collapse in sales when tape to tape home piracy and large scale commercial piracy took off.
    As I said in my article we tried many different strategies to counter this piracy, one of which was the megagemes. The megames were purely created as an anti piracy measure. If there had been no piracy we would not even have thought of the idea and would have continued churning out tape products.

    Now different commentators may give different weight to the different factors in Imagine’s demise.
    Here are some:
    1) Variable product quality.
    2) Excessive premises costs.
    3) Large staff overheads.
    4) Flashy cars. (Very tabloid but in reality not a vast overhead)
    5) Very high level of return from retail and consequent non payment of their accounts.

    You can’t say poor management decisions without saying what those decisions were.

    However as I have pointed out before I was there, in charge of sales and marketing. And I saw the sales collapse once the copying genie was out of the bottle. The megagames were the last throw of the dice in order to beat the scourge.

    The game industry survived for a while on the back of mainly budget games that were so cheap as not to be worth copying. Vitality only returned to game development and publishing in the UK when largely copy proof game consoles game along.

  17. Easy to pirate = huge success is the sort of thing game pirates say when they try and make out that their thieving is a victimless crime.

    I was at Codemasters when they laid off 20% of their workforce directly as a result of Playstation piracy. It was not rubbish games, it was not flash cars, it was piracy. At the beginning of Playstation there was no piracy because burners were too expensive and chipping hadn’t been worked out. So we prospered. But once the burner/chipping genie was out of it’s bottle sales collapsed.

    Once again I was there and I saw it happen. It affected many developers and publishers incredibly badly. Lots and lots of development staff got laid off throughout the industry and couldn’t find jobs as nobody was hiring.

    People have to pay for the game to pay the wages of the people that made it. When the vast majority are buying pirated games then there is no money to pay the wages. That is why Playstation development came to an abrupt halt and Playstation 2 development didn’t. Playstation 2 wasn’t pirated in the same way.

  18. Sure, the PSP is “zapped by piracy” but not even remotely on the same scale as the thriving DS. There’s far, far less to pirate for one thing – but before you seize on that statement, lets take a look at the PSP from inception to now.

    You could write a book on just how badly Sony handled the handheld market (please, don’t ask me to say that whilst drunk) leading to the PSP floundering around.

    On paper, the PSP looks like the infinitely superior console – and indeed it is *on a technical level*. A series of gross PR mistakes (All I Want For Xmas Is A PSP being an especially horrific misjudgement), making the console “not especially handheld” and a lack of compelling killer apps announced from launch pretty much put the nails in the coffin before anyone had even considered hacking the beast, but there’s a far more compelling reason if you sit back and think about the shape of the market today.

    On one hand you could claim that Nintendo already owned the market, but given that the DS has a far broader appeal than the Gameboy range ever had – virtually everyone I’ve met in the past couple of years has not just one DS but a number of them in the house, then clearly there was still a lot of ground to be gained.

    Sony aimed head first at a handheld media centre and, oh how I hate this phrase, “hardcore” gaming market instead of making the primary focus on accessibility,price and opening the market up to the casual spectrum. And, I would wager, there lies the root of the PSP’s floundering as Nintendo countered with a move the industry needed to expand.

    A mistake, cockiness or just short sighted? We’ll doubtless never know but they targeted a small subset of the market. Nintendo aimed to bring everyone into gaming at an affordable price, something that’s also paid off in droves with the Wii.

    Developers naturally go to the winning format for a sustainable business. With limp sales of the PSP, it’s natural that developer support will be lacklustre, and that’s without factoring in the higher development costs for the console (another major consideration) making the returns lower.

    Sony didn’t notice the world was turning, and whilst now the PSP has a number of titles and features to make it a wise purchase, the damage has been done. The DS has laid waste to the market.

    And the irony? It’s far, far easier to wodge pirate software on a DS than it is a PSP.

  19. I quite liked ‘Pedro’ . It was regually loaded on my Speccy.

    So cheers for that Bruce, and cheers for all the other quallity titles. I can honestly say ‘Imagine’ was a brand I purposfully looked for when choosing where to spend my pittifull weekly pocket money. It was definately a decider in many game buying decisions in a time when demo’s and in-shop previews weren’t available.

    Imagine may have been a brief, bright light in the early computer game industry, but I for one was glad they were about.

  20. Stuart Campbell calling himself a “journalist” is abit like Alan Hanson calling himself a “footballer”. Hanson may have been a footballer once but he now only gets wheeled out for charity matches.

    Campbell is virtually unemployable these days due to being slightly “difficult” to work with after a very public run in with his former employer. Virtually the only thing he writes now are rants or reviews of 20 year old games because at least doing that he can be shouty and hate everything that is new.

    Of course, he does write for his own site. But if writing on the internet makes you a journalist then we’re all “journalists”.

    Of course, Bruce may be re-writing history and throwing a few bad arguements in as well. But watching all of this is quite amusing to say the least.

  21. Just thought I’d weigh in on this one. My understanding was that around end 83 – early 84 there was a significant drop in sales affecting the industry as a whole. This was going on more or less world-wide. Imagine was run poorly financially and I would be surprised if it wasn’t for the reasons Bruce (and Stuart) have commented on above (i.e. rapid growth + inexperience + sudden drop off due to a mixture of market changes and decisions that could’ve should’ve and would’ve been better thought out).

    Piracy has been with us as long as software’s been around. It encourages some to buy and others not to. I do remember some of Imagine’s games being of a higher quality than much that was around in 83. Not really great by the Ocean-owned era’s standards but not too bad.

    It’s pretty clear that Imagine was primarily a victim of its own success, combined with inexperienced management and a sudden drop-off in sales after taking on too much by way of outgoings. The many articles and of course Commercial Breaks videos back this up. Piracy may have been a factor in the downfall, but I don’t believe it was the defining one.

  22. Just wanted to say that as an impartial gamer who cares, this thread is just gold.

    To see you three go at it has made my day just that little bit brighter. All of you have fairly valid arguements too.

    Agree to disagree and get over it.



  23. I believe that Imagine was brought down by a combination of factors. Overexpanding for the Marshall Cavendish contract, high premises overheads, poor financial control and insufficient management of the creative staff being the prime culprits. However the killer blow was piracy, both schoolyard tape to tape and large scale counterfeiting. This created a fairly sudden drop in sales for the whole industry. Made worse by returns of good stock from retailers that had been returned by customers who had copied it. This is what I saw.

    Companies like Ocean and Ultimate were also badly affected, but they had far smaller workforces and far lower premises costs so they survived. Very many early game publishers did not.

    In a week or so I will write an article on here explaining how piracy damages the game industry giving examples from differrent stages in the history of the industry. It is logical common sense that if people aren’t paying for their games then it is not possible to make them.

  24. I think it is rather unfortunate that in their quest to “win” the argument, both sides here have succumbed to some disingenuous commentary and hyperbole. It’s inevitable I suppose, as an argument progresses, to see participants become more entrenched in their positions than they might otherwise be.

    Stuart has raised some excellent points regarding the demise of Imagine and the conduct of the people responsible for it. Bruce’s somewhat revised account of the story is interesting, but not exactly comprehensive. That said, there’s no doubt that organised piracy hit everyone in the business hard at the time – just because some of the more notable developers went on to succeed in spite of rampant piracy does not suggest that many other fine developers of quality products weren’t affected badly by piracy.

    When it comes to the piracy issue, there is far too much in the way of anecdotal evidence and “I feel this to be so, so it must be true”. Yes the games industry has grown and continues to thrive in 2008 but that is DESPITE piracy and not because of it. So let’s not see any more ridiculous claims about highly pirated platforms being more successful – they are highly pirated because they are successful platforms, and not the other way around.

    Anyone who thinks piracy doesn’t hurt the industry… try talking to any of the highly successful PC game developers who can trace plummets in sales in certain regions DIRECTLY to the game becoming available on certain bittorrent portals. Again, just because companies succeed DESPITE piracy doesn’t mean the industry isn’t being hurt by piracy. There are always people who want something for nothing – not everyone has a finely tuned sense of morality and a desire to financially compensate the developers of a game they enjoy.

    Again the piracy apologists wheel out the point that pirated copies of a game don’t necessarily imply lost sales. Certainly, however, it also doesn’t imply ZERO lost sales either. Not everyone who pirates a game would have bought it, but some people who spend their money on dodgy PS2 disks (5 games for 20 quid) might (if they had no alternative) have put that money into legitimate game purchases. The truth is more complicated than either polarised side of the debate seems willing to admit.

    Most of the people commenting here seem to be knowledgeable enthusiasts, so surely we can all see the difference between that type of pirate and the bigger problem of casual piracy for your average PS2 / DS owning punter? We enthusiasts are not representative of the greater problem. We may pirate a game to briefly check it out, but we buy the stuff we like. Speaking for myself, whenever I tell one of the more casual PS2 owning punter (ie non enthusiast) that I work in the games business, inevitably they tell of how they got their PS2 chipped and how they buy all their games for a fiver each. THEY are people who have money to spend on games, and absolutely could spend it on legitimate purchases, but choose not to because the pirated stuff is cheaper. Anyone who thinks that isn’t a problem is a fucking idiot.

  25. Thought i’d chip in with a bit of info. I remember reading about Ultimate and how they raised the prices because they weren’t selling as many copies – put down to piracy. And one of the reasons they ditched the spectrum and went over to the NES as Rare was due to piracy.

    To try and quantify how big piracy is on PSP – God of war released recently – sell through was 150k in the first week in the states. One of the torrent sites that provides stats said it had been downloaded 95k times in that time. So piracy could be having an effect on PSP although not every pirate would buy the game anyway so who knows.

    And then there’s the effect of second hand sales/rentals…

  26. Hi Bruce,

    Yes I’ve read lots of your other posts and quite enjoyed them on the whole.

    I came here from thechaosengine though, not “World of Stuart forums”!

  27. “Pirates seek any pathetic excuse to avoid it.”

    We just don’t care.

  28. I miss Spectrum. They had some really awesome games. But all good things do come to an end eventually, sadly.

    ik319 pretty much posted everything I wanted to, and then some. I do admit, I have stolen software at times and felt no remorse. It’s easy as heck – just track it down on a tracker and download the torrent, or ask a friend to burn you a copy, anything really. If there’s a way to play it, there’s a way to pirate it – the game does have to bypass all those protections itself in order to function, and if that can happen someone can write a quick little hack to simulate it with a stolen copy.

    These days, I’ve stopped my piracy. It is theft, to some extent: a lot of the things I copied were things I would have never bought anyway. But looking back, I realize that if I didn’t have any of those games, I would’ve been far more bored and would’ve probably decided to save up for one of these games anyway. Even though I didn’t think I would’ve when I downloaded them because, hey, I already had a lot of games. I wasn’t bored – I didn’t feel any need to buy any games.

    And while maybe I wouldn’t have bought the games I pirated, they kept me occupied and gave me less of a reason to save up for the games I WOULD have bought. There’s that factor to consider as well.

    That’s just me, of course. But to anyone with a couple of pirated games you figure you’d never buy, ask yourselves if you wouldn’t have saved up money and bought some other, funner game if you were completely gameless, and supported THAT company in the process.

    Wether piracy was THE defining factor to kill Spectrum or wether it just contributed along with a host of other problems in slowly killing it, I don’t know. I do miss it though.

  29. I remember I had a few ‘turbo’ tapes for my C64 which held many games and also loaded a lot faster. I am sure I had ‘Ye Air Kung Fu’ which I am sure was a imagine game (and a good one). Im feeling a little guilty at reading this thread but at the same time the price of a game back in the day to a 9 year old was out of reach.

  30. just as “pirates” play down the effects of piracy, game developers naturally tend to assume the worst case possible (every download on bittorrent is a “lost sale”). the truth probably lies somewhere inbetween and there is no way to ever know the exact figures, so i don’t see the point in arguing about it. piracy is here to stay and always has been. it’s part of the business.

    instead let’s ask: “how can piracy be countered effectively?”

    copyprotections don’t work and just annoy the legit customers (especially in pc-gaming). it also raises production costs because of additional licensing of a useless product.

    so, here’s a thought:
    don’t EVER give your customers a single reason NOT to buy your games. (i.e. annoying copyprotections)
    and always give them as many reasons as possible to do so. (i.e. additional content in the game box. whatever happened to cloth maps and scratch-and-sniff-cards being packed with games?)

    the best reason for a customer not to buy your game is overpricing. how often do you think your average gamer can afford to fork over 50 bucks every month/week? especially when they are still in school (which, most gamers that have enough time to actually play a lot of games, are).

    the gaming industry has been growing rapidly in the past years (as has the number of gamers) and is starting to compete with the movie industry.
    a brand new movie on dvd will go for an average 20 bucks. after a couple of months you get it for 7-8 bucks.
    a game? 50-60 bucks at first then maybe after YEARS it will go down to 15 bucks (if you’re lucky)!
    i just recently got interested in “knights of the old republic” and looked it up in a shop. the game is 5 years old and they still wanted 30 bucks for it.

    you want to fight piracy? halve the prices.
    20-30 bucks for a new game sounds about right. then after a couple of months go down to 10-15 bucks.
    developers won’t necessarily make more money that way (who knows, maybe they will…) but it will cut down on piracy.

  31. I have played many pirated games over the years but most of those were games I wouldn’t even have considered buying in the first place. This is even more true now i can just download them.

    Anyway, I think that certain games manufacturers have started to get a grip of the problem, and will continue to do so. Ironically this is because of the internet. Let me explain.

    If you look at games such as the Battlefield series for mac, you could download a pirated copy… but then you wouldn’t be able to play online (which is the whole point of the game – single player is pointless and crap). This is because they can easily check if you’re using a genuine copy via your disk’s key hash.

    Also, a more recent development, are the free-to-play games. A business model so appealing that the worlds largest games distributor, EA Games, have decided to get into the act.

    A few years ago they released a free to download, online version of one of their FIFA Soccer games in South Korea. Within months they had gained approx. 5 million users. Of course most people played the game without handing over a single penny, but a small proportion decided to upgrade their characters appearance through the use of micropayments. This married with the low cost of online distribution and in game advertising made it a real money spinner!

    It is for this reason that EA are releasing their next Battlefield game as a free-to-play game, worldwide.
    How many users will they garner? And what small proportion of a potentially huge user base will spend money to upgrade their characters appearance through micropayments? EA have obviously predicted enough to make a substantial profit.

    Think about it. You could specifically employ a designer or two, on 30-40k/year, to do nothing but design new, purchasable content.

    And there you have it… a game with a huge user base, regularly updated content generating a constant, steady income… equalling a vibrant community and ZERO risk of piracy effecting sales.

    This is the future of gaming.

  32. Basically, what a PC developer needs to do is make a game people want to play (sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.. basically it means do not make yet another generic shooter but something a bit more original) and actually can play on their 2 to 3 year old machines, not some configuration from the future.

    It’s what Stardock has done with “Sins Of A Solar Empire”, which they’ve produced without ANY copy protection and it has sold very well.

    Also, a few good ideas about how to “fight” piracy on the PC in a positive and thus more productive way, from Shamus Young:


  33. that shamus young article is excellent.
    every employee of a game developer or publisher should be forced to read this thoroughly.
    combine those suggestions with a lower price tag and you’ve got a HUGE step towards countering piracy.

    “making games people want to play” may not be the right phrasing. if people wouldn’t want to play the games they wouldn’t even bother pirating them.
    but if a developer goes the extra mile to produce something really fresh and special people might appreciate that enough to be more willing to pay for it. that’s probably what you meant, right?
    the wii and nds are nice examples of this btw. even though they are not “software” their success clearly shows that people are craving for innovation.

  34. I worked in the games industry from 1984 until 1990 starting at Mr Micro (yeah I’m sorry) and ending at Binary Design.

    You can continue your interesting argument but I’ll leave you with one anecdote.

    I used to go to a pub called “The Beehive” in Swinton to swap pirated games in 1988/89. One day FAST raided the place. About 50% of the people questioned by FAST worked for Ocean, Binary Design, Icon, Software Creations and all the other games developers in Manchester.

    All charges were dropped.

    Did I mind piracy? No. Did it kill the industry? No. Do I still write software now? Yes. Do I still buy software? Yes, if I use it often enough. Do I still pirate software? Yes.

    Imagine were (from where I was standing) a bunch of “show off” Scousers who spent too much money. Get over it.

  35. “And there you have it… a game with a huge user base, regularly updated content generating a constant, steady income… equalling a vibrant community and ZERO risk of piracy effecting sales.”

    Wrong. Once the protocall content formats for 1 version of the game gets fully reversed, private servers can and will be made, and then those special pay extras will be availible to whoever wants them. And if the game is good, there will be plenty of fans willing to create their own new content once the tools get around.

    Granted, private servers arn’t as widespread as most cracking, but if more games are released that way, they will be.

  36. “We employed a lot of young people on the government Youth Opportunity Programme, which kept us in touch with our customer base. They pretty soon told us that nobody was buying games anymore. Tape to tape copying had been discovered and stealing games was a lot cheaper than buying them.”

    And from that you make the assumption that tape to tape copying is what killed the company. I say this is jumping to a conculsion – you have no evidence of cause and effect. Your YTS employees are not representative of the game-buying public as a whole at that time.

    I don’t argue with you that copying games reduces sales, but as a kid who grew up while all this was going on (and therefore a member of Imagine’s primary market) I know that with my pocket money I was lucky if I could afford one game a month. So by copying I could get more games; I was a kid, I didn’t understand the morlas of it, I just saw more games… But, and here’s the point, this allowed me to save up and buy those very special games – the original and excellent games that I really wanted. So I, and almost everybody I knew, was still buying games as frequently as before but now we were being more selective and saving our money until we saw something really worth spending on instead of just buying the next generic platform game as soon as it came out.

    Games companies today seem to have learned this lesson – everything is a franchise now; one successful game spawns a clutch of sequels and the fans of that franchise will even queue outside shops to be the first
    to own the latest installment. It’s all about marketing, branding, and creating fan loyalty to a game by giving them what they want and then giving them more of it. The problem with Imagine (and other company’s) approach was that they basically lost all their fan loyalty by disappearing while they created their mega-games; the clutch of cheap-and-crappy stuff they released in the meantime only did their image even more harm. I remember that when the Doctor Who game from Micro Power came out, most people thought Micro Power had already gone out of business. They hadn’t released anything in ages and suddenly this huge box that cost a year’s pocket money arrived. Nobody was going to spend that sort of money on something from a company whose last few releases had been, as I recall, pretty pisspoor. On the other hand, if Acornsoft had released ‘Elite II’ on 4 floppy discs at 40 quid I’d have been first in the queue. Give us what we want and we’ll buy it. Give us rubbish and we’ll find something else to do, like copying it and playing it once before we decide what we thought all along – “god I’m glad I didn’t pay for that”.

  37. I’ve never bought the piracy argument myself. As I kid I spent what I could afford on games, magazines (Your Spectrum and Your Sinclair etc.) and music. I did share some my my games / music with friends. Had I not shared games / music with my friends the gaming and music industries would not have made a single penny more from me as I was already spending as much spare cash as I had anyway.

    By swapping games and music it actually encouraged myself and my friends to continue to buy more so we could trade them.

    Now I’ve no idea if that still works in the modern world but a quick google for anyone doing any research into it seems to provide some evidence that some people at least think it does.

    These days of course I have no friends and therefore have to buy all my music and games for myself 🙂

  38. The games industry is much like the music industry (which i work in) – by limiting choice in general and demanding massive profits / wages at every step of the ladder (except mine:( ) they’ve managed to turn a great thing (music) into a dreadful corporate monster, people in general don’t care about the people who make the products because it’s CLEAR that those people don’t care about them.

    How many times have i paid for a game that crashes all the time? thats so short I’ve completed it in less than a weekend? thats so like every other game on the market at the moment that i might as well have reloaded wolf3d! The worst part is most of the time as a gamer i can tell that whatever rubbish i’m being offered is just anouther pointless clone created by advertising departments to strip me of the few notes in my pocket.

    I have no pity for you drivers of flash cars with your power meetings and your big money transactions, developers have been treating users like idiots for years, showing nothing but contempt for their end user base – why should gamers care that developers can’t to afford to eat at de’laieys tonight? As far as most gamers are concerned that developer should be in the office writing a patch for his defective game!

    That said, i don’t pirate games anymore it’s not that i would have an objection to it on a moral ground it’s just that these days all the games i play are open source. All this nonsense about ‘oh we couldn’t make the games if they didn’t cost £50′ i always laugh when i see it and think of good ol’ linux.

  39. “Game piracy ended up hitting them too with one magazine publisher, Newsfield in Ludlow, eventually going out of business.”

    Do you have any specific evidence that shows how game piracy was responsible for Newsfield closing? I’d always thought that the company’s demise was brought about by a long and expensive covermount war coupled with the end of the 8bit era. Newsfield simply didn’t have an Amiga or ST mag to carry on with, presumably because they spent a fortune sticking full price games on covermounted tapes. Which, in itself, is another factor that helped devalue the industry in those days.

    Piracy has always been a problem, but it seems like you’re pointing at everything that ever went wrong in the UK games industry and saying “PIRACY!” with little actual evidence to back it up, when most of it can just as easily be explained by a generational hardware shift and good old-fashioned mismanagement.

  40. I agree with Dan. With the death of the 8 bit people moved onto the Amiga/ST, Crash/YS/Sinclair User obviously all faded away.

    Newsfield didnt seem to do enough with the 16 bit era and people chose different 16 bit mags from the ones Newsfield sold. Saying piracy also caused Newsfield to go out of business is laughable.

    People just moved away from most of the mags Newsfield created.

  41. Excellent points by Fatgerman and Richard:
    As I kid I spent what I could afford on games, magazines (Your Spectrum and Your Sinclair etc.) and music. I did share some my my games / music with friends. Had I not shared games / music with my friends the gaming and music industries would not have made a single penny more from me as I was already spending as much spare cash as I had anyway.

    By swapping games and music it actually encouraged myself and my friends to continue to buy more so we could trade them.

    This is quite a contrast with the ‘1 pirated copy = 1 lost sale’ view.
    When I used to swap and copy a few tapes for my C64 as a 9 or 10 year old (I got about £5 pocket money a week if I was lucky – compare this with today’s ridiculous €70-80 for a full-price PS3 game here in Ireland) I found that over 90% of the games were pretty bad.
    I’d have to say that I spent almost the same time loading games on tape as I did actually playing them.

    Then there were the duff copies and dodgy originals. I picked up an original tape of IK, one of the few C64 games I liked (along with Midnight and Resistance, Sly Spy, Nightbreed and a few others that came with the machine anyway), and at first it would load successfully 1/2 of the time. A week or so later and it was loading 1/5 of the time. Then it became completely useless…

    When I moved to the Atari ST, things were similar, and gameplay didn’t really improve. Only this time, 90% of my disks were cracks.

    It’s pretty simple to see why casual copying caught on. Part of your basis for assuming that piracy killed Imagine was the testimony of some young kids doing work experience or something.
    How much cash do you think they had to spare? A few quid a week? How many games is that – maybe one or two a month?
    Imagine how they felt when they found that a large proportion of the games they bought were absolute trash, leaving them with no money. Doesn’t it make sense for them to turn to casual copying to, at the very least, TRY a game to see if it stinks before losing all their money and feeling stupid when they realise the game they’ve bought is rubbish (e.g. Red Heat, Terminator 2 and many other movie tie-ins around then)?

  42. Could it be possible that Imagine went down the tube because they never produced a decent game once, they got completely owned by Ultimate who pushed their own imagination into producing unique and original ideas and pushed the limitations of the basic hardware available in those days to the limits, all Imagine had was a smart logo (mind-you, so did Ultimate!!)

  43. Interesting read, but I think you overstate the effect of piracy.

    Firstly, there were a number of other software companies which survived long into the 1990s, Ocean being one. Others still exists today, Infogrames springs to mind.

    Secondly, even though software WAS being copied in great numbers, and nobody are saying Imagine games were not copied, there is no guarantee that Imagine would have sold more units if piracy was made impossible (or at least very difficult). In a functioning market with unlimited supply (in practice) of a product, but with many competitors, and limited tender (for the purpose of purchasing said product), only the companies which supplies the best articles will succeed. Imagine released 12 games for the ZX Spectrum and a few others for other plaforms. Of those, I can only remember enjoying one; Zzoom. And even that one did not really compare well to other contemporary games like Manic Miner, Ant Attack, any Ultimate – game just to name some.

    Thirdly, the “Megagame” concept was tested: Mikro-Gen released Shadow of the Unicorn in September 1985 to rather weak sales [http://www.sincuser.f9.co.uk/046/news.htm]. I don’t think Imagine would have fared bette with a target price of £30-£40….

    Piracy has existed ever since technology made it possible to make a good enough copy of any creative work (I believe it was Tennyson who coined the allusion) with relatively easyness. This is a fact which any company which operates in mass production markets needs to relate to. No, the demise of Imagine was not the fault of piracy. It was a plain management problem. As an outsider I don’t have all the answers, but the Cavendish deal, the Kiltdale blunder, exuberant vages and general high overhead all contributed more to the demise than piracy.

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