Back to the ’80s
UK legends meet at the From Bedrooms To Billions premiere
AUK game industry founders reflect on the past at the From Bedrooms To Billions premiere
t the end of a great hall in London’s Earls Court exhibition centre, the face of Llamasoft legend Jeff Minter is displayed across three separate cinema screens. A grey-haired audience of his peers watches silently below, enraptured by this erstwhile outsider. In this room is gathered the cream of the old UK videogame industry – that is, the industry that grew fast and fat in the 1980s and ’90s, and then faded from view somewhat as consoles from Japan and the US gained traction across Europe. They’re here to reminisce about their salad days by watching a movie called From Bedrooms To Billions, by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield.
The documentary tells the story of the UK game industry, encapsulating its beginnings as amateurs assembled Nascom 1s and Compukits, and following through to the excesses of the 1980s, followed by the downturn of the mid-’90s, which saw so many publishers and developers close their doors against a backdrop of power shifts. The Caulfields interviewed over 140 industry veterans to make their movie, giving it a vibe that is at odds with something like Indie Game: The Movie, which focuses on a new generation of game-making talent.
Given the closeness of the UK industry, it’s a surprise to see faces here and onscreen that haven’t been heard of since their heyday. Their reasons for leaving the industry demonstrate how it has changed. Archer MacLean is here, the Dropzone and Mercury creator having departed videogames following a series of deals with distributors that ultimately came unstuck. Revs creator Geoff Crammond is here, back for a very rare appearance following his decision to quit some years ago when Infogrames closed Microprose, the publisher of his F1 games. And up on the screen is Matthew Smith, creator of Jet Set Willy, who was so burnt out by publisher exploitation and the effects of celebrity that he gave up programming entirely. MacLean is clear on his feelings about problems that marred the development of the UK game industry. “One thing they didn’t want us talking about in [the film] is that most of the creative types in the ’80s, they all got ripped off; some got destroyed,” he says. “They all hinted at that [in the film], but they didn’t want to cover it. Everybody in that room has, at some point or other, put their heart and soul into something and not got paid.”
If you know where to look, there is certainly no shortage of stories like this, so you might expect the Earls Court venue to be filled with bitterness. Mostly, though, there’s camaraderie. Rod Cousens, CEO of Codemasters, is candid. “There were some in there tonight, I was shaking hands with them, but we were fierce competitors,” he explains. “There was no love lost in the day. But you look back with great affection and you do have the benefit, as time’s moved on, of recognising that you built an industry. And sometimes we don’t give that enough credit, because the new talent wouldn’t be able to exist if the people in that room hadn’t driven down the barriers. And there were a lot of barriers.”
The removal of those barriers, whether
“There were some in there tonight, I was shaking hands with them, but we were fierce competitors”
Ex-Virgin Games chief Nick Alexander and Jeff Minter join in the panel discussion; Rod Cousens; Archer MacLean