Tales of Britsoft
The movement’s stars recall the highs and lows of the early British game industry
The place was an absolute shithole. There were bits of carpet, stuff jammed in the floorboards to plug holes, and there were Jiffy bags everywhere. He made me a coffee from an already used coffee mug, and I couldn’t drink it quickly enough to get out of there. And in the midst of it all, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
He was making 1K RAM packs for the ZX81, which was a big deal, and school kids would pile in at 3.40pm and put them in Jiffy bags and sell them off. He used to take orders through Popular Computing Weekly, and you’d have 28 days to fulfil them. But it was already starting to turn into a business, and he had started to design games like Defender and Space Invaders and put them on the RAM packs. So one day he called me and said, ‘Hey, guess what’s happened? WHSmith called me and they want 10,000 units of a game.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic!’ and he said, ‘I told them to fuck off. They wanted a 50% discount, man.’
Peter Stone and Richard Leinfellner
Most of the games themselves in those days were pretty basic, and the marketing of them was also very basic and very cottage industry. We would get on the phone and we would order games, and this box of cassettes would turn up, sometimes even without any artwork, or sleeves, just cassettes.
It was very chaotic and there were a lot of people who were just selling anything they could, because you could sell anything back then. There was a new market that was desperate for software, and people were selling any old crap, to be honest.
Peter Stone and Richard Leinfellner
There were no real distributors of games then. We used to sell Llamasoft games, and Jeff Minter’s mum used to come in and bring a box of them for us to sell, so it was kind of bizarre.
There was one program I came across that was a defining moment. This Jiffy bag arrived with a tape in, so we loaded this thing and this 3D Escher-like world came up, and you just knew you were witnessing something that was groundbreaking. It was written by a guy who I have got such a huge affection and admiration for to this day, Sandy White. He and his then girlfriend, Angela Sutherland, were from Edinburgh and they were art students. I called and I said it was a lovely game and asked if we could get together, and his immediate reaction was one of suspicion and defensiveness. ‘Why are you so interested in it?’
The technology and the art that prevailed in video games was pretty simplistic, and Ant Attack used 3D graphics, with these Escher-like images, with large ants that came across as scary. It was a completely different approach to gaming, with a completely different view, and it created atmosphere. The only other game that I didn’t publish that I felt was as groundbreaking at the time was Jetpac by Ultimate Play the Game.
The first games I really got much exposure to were the Ultimate games like Jetpac and Atic Atac. It seemed like they were the first professional products, where you could sit back and relax: professionals had gotten together and made a safe, reliable product. They had great graphics and great animation, and great humour. They had scary monsters and comedy monsters, and they were very concise and very efficient in terms of everything that was on screen. It was like immersing yourself in a sumptuous leather seat, compared to a harsh bench, which is the comparison to its rivals.
The programmers and the developers there were extremely excited about [Elite]. The people we unkindly later referred to as the suits talked about it and said, ‘Oh yes, it’s a very interesting technical demo and it shows that you are very competent, but why would anyone want to play a game like that? How long is it going to take to play it?’ We said, ‘Oh, quite a long time.’ They said, ‘What? Half an hour?’ We said, ‘No, no, no, weeks, and you won’t really finish it,’ which they didn’t like either. We said, ‘You just get better. You will be able to do more things, you will be able to go further and explore and ultimately you will get bored with it.’ They said, ‘But that’s not very good. You can’t do that. What happens if you die?’ I said, ‘You die.’ They didn’t like that either! They said, ‘Why can’t you have three lives?’ I said, ‘Well it really doesn’t fit in with the logic of the game, but we are allowing you to save your place, so that’s essentially the equivalent of lives.’ ‘Oh, so how many times can you do that?’ I said, ‘Well, as many times as you like.’ ‘But you don’t get a free life when you get 10,000?’ I said, ‘Well, we haven’t got a score.’ They said, ‘You need a score.’ I said, ‘That’s what our money is. Whatever you do earns money. If you shoot a pirate, you get a bounty. If you trade goods …’ And they said, ‘That’s all very complicated. No one will want to do that.’ And, actually, to be fair, we were a bit worried, thinking we might be in this sort of ivory tower. Are people going to want to work out how much money they need to buy 16 tonnes of food or whatever?
Friends and I produced a game in ’84 called Skyline Attack on the Commodore 64, which was kind of a Defender clone but it had the skylines of cities of the world, so it had beautiful graphics. That game’s claim to fame was not actually the main game, though. It was the first game that had another game to play while it was loading. Loading took so long on the Commodore 64 that you played a game of Snake while it was doing it, which some people cruelly said was better than the main game.
The name goes back a long way. I was notorious for having a fascination for camels when I was at school, and llamas were like an extension of that. I’d written a character editor for my VIC-20, and I sat down with it and made this little sketch of a llama, and then I wrote underneath, just off the top of my head, ‘Llamasoft’ with three exclamation marks underneath it. There was no sort of design process. That’s it. Everybody called their software houses something, and I thought, ‘Why not Llamasoft?’ The llama was a little icon which I could attach to it.’
One interesting thing that happened was that John Taplin, the editor of ITN News, saw that in his newsroom they were all using BBC Micros, and they were apparently all playing Elite in their downtime. He thought it was great and newsworthy because he found out it was from Cambridge, so they sent a news crew down. It was really bizarre. We saw the news film with us on it on Channel Four News, between Arthur Scargill and the miners’ strike, which of course was current at the time, and something about Margaret Thatcher, I’m sure. We were the happy bit in the middle. I suppose the fact that it was national news really made us take it seriously and go, ‘Wow, this is exciting. This is a career.’ I think also it challenged the scepticism that friends and family had. You know, ‘We saw it on the television, it must be true,’ type of thing.
One of the things I used to do between games was to come up with ideas. In the case of The Sentinel, I was sitting on the edge of the bath, running the tap, and I don’t know why but that kind of freed my mind a bit and it suddenly dawned on me it might be possible on the 8-bit machines to have a 3D environment that you could move around in.
We used to program just about what we wanted, which was the nice thing about the early industry. We would take a copy of a game in progress to Andrew Hewson. Very often he would say, ‘What on Earth is that?’ I think those were his exact words for Paradroid. He normally wouldn’t understand at all what we were trying to do, and that was the thing with publishers throughout the whole industry. They always wanted something that was similar to the last thing that sold, but we had a nice position: we didn’t owe anyone any money and we never took any advances, so we did just what we jolly well liked, which basically was what we wanted to play.
Tomorrow’s World did a programme on us as the fastest growing company in the UK in 1982 or ’83. It was fronted by Peter McCann, and filmed in a NatWest bank’s vault, and he held the cassette up and he said, ‘This is worth more than …’ and the camera panned around the vault, ‘… all this.’ The bank manager allowed us to do that because we were absolutely flying.
I remember seeing in the Daily Star a colour photograph of an Imagine programmer called Eugene Evans leaning on, I think it was a Lotus Esprit, and it said this man would earn £35,000 this year. A graduate salary at that point was about £6,000 or £7,000, so, you know, he was a bloke writing games, driving a so-called dream machine, living the rock star lifestyle, although he probably worked quite hard being the full-on geek, and earning five or six times more than a graduate! Having just left university with a 2:1 degree, I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, I want a slice of that.’
Somewhere my parents still have a press cuttings album with it all, and it’s kind of scary to look back on it. But it was a story of success at a time when there was a lot of negative news around, and it was astonishing and it put Imagine on the map. That was what we had set out to do.
People often ask about the cars. Yes, there were a number of them and it was definitely about perception. They were all leased, you know? I had a Lotus Esprit. John Gibson had a Porsche. Bruce drove around in several cars at different times, including a Ferrari Boxer. Mark Butler was a little more conservative, he had a very nice BMW. Dave at one point was driving an Aston Martin Vantage. So it was quite the collection. You can imagine in the middle of Liverpool in the early ’80s, this line of cars all parked outside the front of the building.
The publicity began on the back of this press release, and it was almost getting out of hand. The next thing you know I’m invited to appear on a quiz show, and to a cocktail party at Downing Street the day Margaret Thatcher announced her intention to run for a second term. At shows, not only me but other people were being asked to sign posters and cassette covers, and you start to go, ‘This isn’t what we thought.’ It was fame and stardom that none of us was prepared for, and it hurt a lot of people.
It felt weird to be famous, actually, but it was nice that people liked the games enough to want to come up and shake your hand for having made them. It made you feel chuffed.
With Zzap!64 we came up with this idea of actually showing in the expression of the reviewers’ faces their level of excitement about the game, so for a five-star game you would have the reviewer going, ‘Woooo!’ and for a one-star game they would be sort of scrunched up in agony. People seemed to like that.
I gave Andrew [Braybrook] a very open brief for Paradroid. I said I’d like for his next game to be a more technical game, featuring robots. I had seen a lot of films like The Black Hole and Star Wars, where you had these little cute robots with character, and no one had really done a game with robots, so it would be a good subject.
He didn’t really like the idea. I eventually did the game in my head with Quazatron, but he came back the next morning with a bit of paper, kind of almost like the Ten Commandments, a list of rules which basically outlined Paradroid. It said things like, ‘Cute and tech don’t go, so it’s going to be a techy game. It’s going to be a series of spaceships with robots that have run amok and you’ve got to take control of them.’
He immediately started building the spaceships, so he hadn’t really worked on how the gameplay was actually going to work, how you’re going to take over things. I remember him talking about wanting to build a ship in Lego to check that it would actually work as a three-dimensional space. He wanted it to be like a real place.
POWe loved cartoons, and we wanted to make the ultimate interactive cartoon. Now, the first thing needed for a cartoon is to have a main character, but our coding and also the capability of the machines was such that you could actually only put a very small sprite on the screen, and it was very difficult to add any personality. We’d just drawn this man running around this haunted castle and his head was like three pixels by three pixels in three colours. So the first challenge was how do you put a personality into the main character.
AOIt was a case of trying to draw a big face, so we were trying to draw the smallest face where you could see some kind of expression, but we ended up with something quite big, like the whole thing was a face. We decided arms and legs didn’t matter, but what you do need is feet and hands. We said, ‘Okay, it’s a big smiley face with feet and hands.’ Then, because of restrictions on colour, it ended up being a very white face, very red boots and gloves and we were like, ‘Okay we’ll go with this, though it’s kind of looking like an egg.’ It struck a chord with people, though a lot of them said it was an egg, and we ran with it. The other slightly funny thing is every single review of the very first Dizzy kept on using egg jokes, so, ‘It’s egg-citing!’ And ‘egg-cellent, egg-xhilerating’. We realised that every single twist you try and do seems to be a positive name.
Wizball didn’t really make a lot of sense, because it was nothing like Parallax, so when the time came to do it I didn’t really have any ideas, so I suggested to Gary Bracey that I go down and work with them for a couple of weeks. He was like, ‘Yeah, knock yourself out.’ By this point I basically had free rein to do anything I wanted, because my music was getting high scores in the magazines and generally people were pretty happy, so I got on the train with all my Commodore 64 stuff and I went down to Ilford, where Jon Hare was living.
I was sleeping on a couch in a sleeping bag and I was there for six weeks and I didn’t take a bath the entire time. It was the longest period of my life that I didn’t take a bath. They had their guitars and their amps in the living room, like cliché rockers, and I was having the time of my life hanging out with these guys, because they were really great musicians.
We were definitely aware of the idea of promoting programmers as celebrities, or guys behind the creative works. Like, if you really enjoy Manic Miner, or you really enjoy this particular game then these are the people who are actually making it.
We used to go on press tours, anytime we went to the States to do a show, and we’d get a bunch of journalists and take them out to Six Flags and go roller-coasting for a day. That was our thank you to them for good coverage and reviews. Now, of course, journalists who didn’t give us good reviews? I’d get my baseball bat out and put it over the top of their heads.
I’ve still got our old phone book, and in it The Bitmap Brothers are called ‘The Bitmap wankers’, with a big star around it. This is typical of Chris Yates’s humour. But there’s a reason for this! We were very resentful of other people’s success in the media when we were younger. We had Wizball, Parallax, Shoot ’Em Up Construction Kit and MicroProse Soccer out, and the Bitmaps came along with their shades and the stuff they did with the helicopter and that, and before we knew them personally we just saw them as having created this rock star persona and stolen our thunder. We’d had a bunch of hit games before them and we hadn’t done that. We were jealous.
Branson got roped in quite a bit while we were publicising Jimmy White. Virgin management felt that by getting in the big guns it was really going to do this thing. So yeah, there was one afternoon where myself and Jimmy White pitched up at Branson’s house in Holland Park, about lunchtime. We had already stopped in a bar on the way, which was a bit naughty, and Jimmy had about 18 pints or something, which wasn’t good for later on. But as soon as we got in through the door, Branson’s there, knowing he has got the afternoon off. He was ecstatically happy because apparently he had that morning signed The Rolling Stones back on to the Virgin label and sold the company to EMI, so he was pouring drinks left, right and centre. Boy, did we get drunk while a crew was trying to film a TV news piece. They were trying to film Jimmy doing trick shots and he just couldn’t get a ball in because he’d had one drink too many and was cross-eyed.
Branson had a drink or two, too, and was making jokes about why Jimmy couldn’t get the ball in. There was this great bit where Jimmy tried 20 times to get the ball in the pocket, and he turns around and says, ‘Well, the pockets are too tight!’ And Branson turns around and says, ‘Well what do you expect, it’s a virgin table,’ and the TV crew cracked up. It was just one of those afternoons where everything was a laugh, but the funniest thing was that neither of them had ever used a mouse. We’re talking ’91, before Windows, but the Amiga and the ST had one, so they filmed Jimmy and Branson sat on the edge of a seat peering into an Amiga monitor, and I was underneath the table with my hand like this, trying to do something intelligible with the mouse under the table. Good old days. We didn’t leave until about ten o’clock that night.
I kind of felt quite sad about the feeling of it all becoming a proper industry, because a lot of the playfulness and friendly competition had kind of gone away. It was a lot more serious to a lot more people, a lot more money was being made, and I almost felt like it was leaving me behind because I just wanted to carry on making Llamasoft games.
We were inventing new game genres every other month back in the ’80s and ’90s. The only reason it stopped is people stopped wanting to pay money to take risks on people being highly creative.
I always think the UK back then was almost a mirror image of Japan, producing the same degree of quirk. We were producing things like games about brushing your teeth, which you would expect from Japan. If you take something like Manic Miner, it has some fantastically quirky British humour in it, and you never got that kind of stuff in the US. The games from the US have scale, you know? Maybe that’s a reflection of the country, while the UK is a small island, and Japan is another island. Maybe it’s a coincidence that these two islands were producing this kind of quirky stuff almost in isolation.
It felt almost like we were amateurs, but in a very positive way, whereas the corporate side in America was always more pronounced. You always got the sense that these guys could attract the money and knew what to do with it, while we were doing it for ourselves.
I think Britain is very good at its quirky, strange, sometimes esoteric, sometimes smarter than the average bear games. These more novel and interesting ideas are a sock to these massive multi-multi-multi-million dollar blockbusters. They’re like blockbuster movies. Prometheus? Fantastic movie, it looks great, but you know what? I love Doctor Who. It’s a fantastic show, it’s brilliantly written, it’s kind of weird and quirky, and certainly some of my American friends absolutely love it, and some of them just don’t get it at all, but it’s British, it’s quirky, and I think we can do the same thing with games. It’s like we don’t need to compete on the same level, we find what we’re good at and that’s what we make.
This excerpt is taken from Britsoft: An Oral History, available to purchase now exclusively from Read-Only Memory.