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.

1 Comment

  1. “Operation Flashpoint… 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.”

    It was sort of developed… Armed Assault. (However is megabrand possible without weaknening of concept – in this case simulation of war?)

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