Golden joysticks: How some Liverpool Teenagers Kick Started the 8-bit Game Explosion

computer games

In 1983, Microdigital in Liverpool was the first computer outlet in the country, stocking early Apples and office software. It rapidly became the meeting point of a group of like-minded teenagers who kick-started the 8-bit game explosion. While the city was beset with high unemployment, the nerds were making millions.

In an era of lavishly illustrated, movie-style entertainment software made with million-dollar budgets, the idea that a crude Eighties game constructed of straight lines, stickmen and a palette of primary colours might still be deemed a classic seems ridiculous. Yet Manic Miner is just that.

the Sinclair ZX Spectrum 8-bit game console
The Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Released in 1983 for ZX Spectrum, the vintage platform game is revered by retro gamers, a movement that has gathered such pace that Sir Clive Sinclair’s original 8-bit home computer is about to be revived in the shape of the crowdfunded ZX Spectrum Vega.

Just over 30 years ago, the British games industry was taking off and Manic Miner had hit the start button. It was an era when an entire industry was forged thanks to a mix of DIY, punk attitude and gimlet-eyed, Thatcherite entrepreneurism.

The Rise of 8-bit Game Culture

Teenage walls which were once covered in pictures of pop stars were now being plastered with tearsheets of advertisements for games made by companies like US Gold, Elite, Ocean and Gremlin Graphics. Games programmers like Matt Smith, Jez San, David Braben and Archer MacLean were the new rock stars. “Everyone who grew up in that era and went on to make games played Manic Miner,” says David Darling, who became a teenage millionaire himself, running Codemasters with his brother Richard.
“It made us want to produce our own. It was a very competitive atmosphere, everyone was pushing one another.”

The Darling brothers
Codemasters founders David and Richard Darling, a video-game success story

The buzz around this new business was tangible but no one knew quite how big it was going to get. In fact, many people didn’t think it would last at all.

“The feeling was that it was going to be around for a few years,” says Gary Bracey who was development director of leading publishing house Ocean at the time. “The Atari VCS had died and there was a feeling that this might, too, so it was seen as a fad. It was great fun but no one thought it was going to become the significant entertainment medium it has. In a way, that helped. The attitude was get in and make hay, which lowered the barriers. Long-term strategic planning wasn’t really there and it wasn’t governed by big corporations and men in suits as it is now, things which constrain the creativity of the industry.”

Kickstarting The Games Industry

Ocean, the most successful house of that era, was based in Manchester but it was Liverpool that played a key role in kick-starting the UK games business, partly because it was home to one of the first ever computer shops in the country.

On weekdays, the shop, Microdigital in Brunswick Street, sold early computers like the Apple II and accountancy packages but on Saturdays it became a hang-out for kids who used its manuals on programming as a library, made demos and swapped ideas.

One of them was Matt Smith, who lived in Wallasey. The 16-year-old whizz kid wrote Manic Miner in a few weeks and released it through local company Bug-Byte. Smith soon left to set up his own company, Software Projects. Two other employees, Dave Lawson and Mark Butler, also quit to establish Imagine Software down the road in Sir Thomas Street. Imagine was to become the shooting star of the era, a company that was the embodiment of the Eighties in terms of talent, front and excess.

Matt Smith
Matt Smith from Wallasey created Manic Miner in less than a month and revolutionised the UK game industry

Within a few months they were turning over millions, despite the fact that everyone was making it up as they went along. Not only was there no internet shopping, there were no computer-games shops either. Microdigital owner Bruce Everiss came in to run the marketing and hired a sales team who leafed through the Yellow Pages and sold the games to anyone – corner shops, electronic retailers, newsagents – who would stock them.

Selling the 8-bit dream

Everiss then decided the company needed to raise its profile, so he set about hyping it. He put out a story about one of its junior staff, 17-year-old Eugene Evans, who used to work in his shop on Saturdays, being handed a Lotus Esprit company car and a wage of £35,000 (over £100,000 today). The media lapped it up with papers and TV crews descending on the troubled city for a feel-good story.

“It wasn’t entirely accurate,” concedes Evans, now 49. “But I did have a Lotus and it wasn’t long before I was earning that sort of cash.”

Evans, an intelligent schoolboy from the notorious Cantril Farm estate (quaintly known as Stockbridge Village now), was destined for university until he discovered the allure of computer games.

One of the junior staff, 17-year-old Eugene Evans, was handed a Lotus Esprit company car and a £35,000 wage

“My teachers were upset. Writing computer games? No one had heard of such a thing. But we were geeks, the nerdiest of the nerdy and this was revenge of the nerds,” says Evans with barely disguised glee. “And we were getting rich, we had sports cars.”

Rockstar Gamer

In the Liverpool of the Eighties, when the unemployment rate was over 25 per cent for young people, it used to be that the only way out was to become a rock star or a footballer. Now you could add programmer to the list. Not that it was all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. They were geeks, after all. “If we were up all night it’s because we were finishing a game, not out clubbing,” admits Darling. “Not that I regret that; we were entertaining people. I used to love watching kids buying my games in Woolworths. One week we were No.1, No.2 and No.3 in the charts.”

The economic troubles of the era were no illusion but they passed the nascent games industry by. “We were like, ‘What recession?’” laughs Bracey.

Enter the 8-bit Pirates

It was boom time at Imagine. Games like Arcadia and Zzoom were flying out the door and the directors’ egos had moved to the next level. A staff of 100 manned its plush offices while a fleet of sports cars was parked in the garage. There was a rumour that a helipad was being built on the roof. In fact, it did attempt to buy the Sixties-built Radio City Tower in Liverpool and move its office to the revolving, flying saucer top floor. The left-wing council rapidly put a stop to the plan. Then the wheels fell off. Imagine was trying to develop more and more sophisticated games on tiny 8-bit computers while piracy ate away at its sales faster than a Pac-Man clone.

Cash-flow nasties drained its lifeline rapidly and the company collapsed almost overnight with a BBC TV crew from the show Commercial Breaks on hand to film bailiffs scouring its offices (have a look on YouTube). The Ferraris and Porsches were repossessed, although they turned out to have been leased.

The Imagine name was snapped up by Ocean, a business set up by David Ward, who had made money in the rag trade, and his partner Jon Woods. The only thing they knew about games was that there was money in them.

“I don’t recall either of the owners ever playing a game,” says Bracey. “It was a commodity and they understood business. With the pair of them on one hand and some talented programmers we had a very successful company.”

Team Games

Good programmers didn’t make great businessmen, so a pattern began to emerge of young coders teaming up with older, wiser heads. Codemasters were mentored by their father, who had his own contact-lens business, and an older, wiser Bruce Everiss.

Ocean forged ahead, adhering to a business plan that relied largely on licensing arcade coin-ops. They made a few originals but relied on an exclusive deal with Taito and Konami. Then the company scored a super bonus with one of the early Hollywood licences, RoboCop. The movie was an unexpected hit and the game became the first million seller. Hollywood took note.

Scripts began to land on Bracey’s desk but the royalty rates started to rise rapidly, too. Five years later, Ocean paid the first £1m advance for Jurassic Park. Innovators were still able to break through – The Bitmap Brothers came up with the slick Speedball in 1988; Peter Molyneux created Populous for Bullfrog Productions in 1989, paving the way for god games like The Sims; Dundee’s DMA Design invented the fiendish Lemmings, in the process laying down the foundations of a company now better known as Rockstar Games, makers of the world-dominating Grand Theft Auto.

Level-Up!

Nevertheless, the barriers to entry were multiplying. Games were becoming more sophisticated. Now one kid in his bedroom fuelled by Doritos, cola and porn mags was not going to cut it. Ocean had a team of 70 working on its big Christmas game. Home computers were eclipsed by consoles – the Nintendo NES, then the Sega Game Gear.

As the stakes rose, one failure could spell game over. Everyone became risk averse and creativity was stifled. Barely a decade after Manic Miner’s release, the British games industry had lost its zap. Symbolically, Matt Smith had gone to live on a commune in Holland.

Encouraged by tax breaks, the US and Canada started throwing dollars around. By contrast, British venture capital showed zero interest in entertainment software. Bullfrog was swallowed up by US corporate Electronic Arts. Ocean was bought out by French publisher Infogrames in 1996, with Woods now a director at Everton FC. Programmers crossed the Atlantic in numbers unknown since the Irish diaspora. Eugene Evans ended up there, with EA.

Coders are Doing For Themselves

And yet today, any smart kid with a computer can still make a million in his bedroom. Mobile has brought back the early pioneering days when anyone could write a hit game. “The last few years have been very exciting,” says Evans, who now runs his own app company, gopop.tv, in the States. “Kids are writing games again. There are machines like Raspberry Pi to encourage programming. I want people to think, ‘I could do that!’” Cut The Rope, downloaded 400 million times, was created by a pair of self-taught Russian twins, the Voinovs, who learnt to program on an old ZX Spectrum.

Gary Bracey is commercial director at Kuju, David Darling’s latest venture is Kwalee, both makers of games for mobile. “It’s gone full circle and I’m excited again because you can distribute a title around the world in a few hours,” says Darling. “The challenge is being original and that’s the fun side, not stock control. It’s like the music industry. There’s no barriers except how good are you, how hard can you work and how much do you want it? That’s what it was like 30 years ago.” ML