Now head of Curve Dig­i­tal En­ter­tain­ment, the Do­mark co-founder pon­ders a Brit­soft re­vival

EDGE - - AN AUDIENCE WITH… - BY WILL FREE­MAN Pho­tog­ra­phy Joby Ses­sions

Do­minic Wheat­ley set up UK videogame pub­lisher Do­mark in the early ’80s with busi­ness part­ner Mark Stra­chan, in­spired en­tirely by an en­counter with a Com­modore 64 and the ar­rival of ad­ven­ture games. Tak­ing the fledg­ling com­pany’s brand from a port­man­teau of their names, the pair quickly se­cured Games Work­shop leg­end Ian Liv­ing­stone to write their first ti­tle, Eureka.

From there Do­mark grew quickly, pub­lish­ing one of James Bond’s first in­ter­ac­tive ad­ven­tures, be­fore even­tu­ally merg­ing with Ei­dos via a re­verse takeover, es­tab­lish­ing one of the UK’s most im­por­tant pub­lish­ing houses. Hav­ing guided Ei­dos through the de­but of Tomb

Raider and be­yond, Wheat­ley even­tu­ally took a back seat, fo­cus­ing on other busi­ness. Un­til now, that is. Step­ping up as the head of Curve Dig­i­tal En­ter­tain­ment – it­self formed from the re­cent merger of Kuju and Curve – Wheat­ley has re­turned to the helm, and has high hopes that Bri­tish pub­lish­ing can re­gain ground.

Look­ing back to the be­gin­ning, when you set up Do­mark, you came into games with no ex­pe­ri­ence of the in­dus­try at all. What mo­ti­vated that move?

I was work­ing in a small ad­ver­tis­ing agency in Covent Gar­den [in Lon­don] in 1982 un­til 1984. And then the Christ­mas in 1984 I went home, and my brother had bought a Com­modore 64, and I saw him play­ing some games on it, and I thought it was ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nat­ing. I al­ready knew about Space In­vaders on the Atari VCS and those sorts of plat­forms, but when I saw him play­ing an ad­ven­ture game where he would type ‘kill the dwarf’ and it would say, ‘You killed the dwarf, and now the door is open,’ I thought that was just un­be­liev­able. It was a very sim­ple parser en­gine, but I had never seen any­thing like it. I’d thought com­put­ers were just for ac­counts de­part­ments. Sud­denly games were us­ing a key­board in­stead of just sticks. There was typ­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and I thought to my­self that this would be huge.

Work­ing in an ad agency, I was in­ter­ested in find­ing po­ten­tial clients that we could ad­ver­tise for, so I thought I had to find one of the guys do­ing this, be it Sin­clair or Com­modore, and make them a client. I went back to work at the agency in the new year, and I went up­stairs to see my ac­count di­rec­tor – a guy named Terry Bubear of Clark-Bubear-Hill – and I was for­mu­lat­ing my idea as I walked up those stairs. And then lit­er­ally as I opened the door I thought, ‘Hang on, why don’t I get in­volved in this games busi­ness?’ I re­alised I could cre­ate a games com­pany that would make or pub­lish the games that play on th­ese com­put­ers.

As I swung the door open Terry looked up from his desk. I looked at him and said, “Hang on, Terry – I’ll come back.” I walked back down those stairs know­ing I needed to do this my­self. Ba­si­cally, I de­cided then to start a videogame com­pany. So I went through the usual process of try­ing to raise some money and get­ting it up and run­ning, and that was Do­mark.

With no game-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, how did you ap­proach your first re­lease?

We started out with a game called Eureka, and the idea was that it was an ad­ven­ture game, so we got Ian Liv­ing­stone to come and do the scripts. He was part of Games Work­shop at that point, and writ­ing Fight­ing Fan­tasy books. We went off to a guy called Robert Stein who had some de­vel­op­ers in Hun­gary, be­lieve it or not, and they were com­mis­sioned to pro­gram the game. This was very, very early days and quite rudi­men­tary. We used our mar­ket­ing and ad­ver­tis­ing skills to get a lot of pub­lic­ity. We did PR, var­i­ous pro­mo­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing, and got in­ter­est in the thing, of­fer­ing a prize [£25,000] to the first per­son to solve the game. Re­mem­ber, this was when the game in­dus­try was re­ally a mail-or­der busi­ness.

When a good amount of com­puter games were be­ing sold via black-and-white ads in hob­by­ist mag­a­zines.

Ab­so­lutely. So we pred­i­cated our busi­ness plan on the idea that it was go­ing to be a mail-or­der busi­ness, be­cause that’s how it was. But as we were wait­ing for the game to be cre­ated – which took about eight months – things changed. By the time we were to­wards launch, the big re­tail­ers like WH­Smith and in those days – be­lieve it or not – Boots had started sell­ing games, al­ways on cas­settes, and for Spec­trum and Com­modore. Then small mom-and-pop stores and lo­cal deal­ers stated sell­ing them too, bun­dled with com­put­ers. Sud­denly we had a retail op­por­tu­nity, and though we did sell a few thou­sand through mail or­der, mostly we were sell­ing into shops.

That came out and it was half suc­cess­ful. It ac­tu­ally did quite well, con­sid­er­ing. But it did what we didn’t think it would do. It didn’t do great and it didn’t do ter­ri­bly ei­ther. We thought we would fail, or win big.

It gave you the op­por­tu­nity to press on, though.

It did. We didn’t make our for­tune and re­tire, but nor did we go out of busi­ness. We were still there, with money in the bank, so we thought, ‘What are we go­ing to do next?’ My grand­fa­ther was an au­thor and the same peo­ple who looked af­ter my grand­fa­ther’s rights looked af­ter [ James Bond au­thor] Ian Flem­ing’s rights. So I was hav­ing


lunch with them and we were talk­ing about this crazy new world of videogames. And then the ‘agent’, if you like, for James Bond stuff said, “Why don’t you do a James Bond game?” This was back in prob­a­bly late 1985.

And it was Eureka’s mod­est suc­cess that en­abled you to cover the cost of the rights for that first Do­mark Bond game, A View To A Kill?

Ab­so­lutely. That was it. And it built and built.

You seem to have ap­proached all of this in your stride back then, and talk about it as if in­vest­ing came as se­cond na­ture. Were you a nat­u­ral en­tre­pre­neur?

I think I be­lieve we’re all en­tre­pre­neur­ial to a greater or lesser ex­tent, and I sup­pose back then I did feel en­tre­pre­neur­ial. I felt like games were a good op­por­tu­nity and a good idea for us. I knew even as a kid grow­ing up I would do some­thing on my own. I wasn’t ter­ri­bly bid­dable. I was OK with in­sti­tu­tions, as I was an army of­fi­cer for three years, from 19 to 22, or that sort of pe­riod. That took me to the jun­gles of Belize and so on. So I could, as it were, work for peo­ple, but I didn’t re­ally feel com­fort­able in that and knew I wanted to do my own thing. I don’t sup­pose I thought I would do it all so soon.

And af­ter get­ting to the point of Do­mark sell­ing £11 mil­lion in games a year, you man­aged a re­verse takeover of Ei­dos in 1995. Was that part of a well­con­sid­ered plan?

We al­ways had our eye on a main goal, and peo­ple do say, ‘Be care­ful what you wish for, lest you should re­ceive it.’ There can be con­se­quences to hav­ing big plans, but I al­ways thought we would make it big and we would be a big com­pany, and our in­vestors would make a good re­turn. That was al­ways in my mind, but how would we get there? I saw it as a course that would come to us.

And we had ups and downs over the ten years build­ing up to the Ei­dos deal. But one way or the other, we got there. It wasn’t ex­actly an ex­e­cuted plan, it was more of a gen­eral as­sump­tion that as long as we did OK, it would work out.

What about your con­nec­tion with games as a medium? You saw their busi­ness po­ten­tial, but was that paired with any af­fec­tion for what games are?

We were play­ing games be­fore my brother bought that Com­modore 64. We were play­ing In­tel­livi­son games, and things like Pong and Space In­vaders, of course. We en­joyed those in­ter­ac­tive games – Scram­ble, too – and there were loads we used to play. So I was fa­mil­iar with games when I saw that ar­rival of the key­board in games, and the fact you could have ad­ven­ture games as well as those Space

In­vader- type games. That whole new di­men­sion to what in­ter­ac­tive en­ter­tain­ment was about re­ally ex­cited me.

Am I a bril­liant game de­signer? No. Do I like and ap­pre­ci­ate in­ter­ac­tive en­ter­tain­ment? Yes. Do I play Call

Of Duty ev­ery night? No. It’s a bit like work­ing in a choco­late fac­tory. You don’t eat as much choco­late when you’re in­volved in mak­ing it. In games that’s dif­fer­ent on the pro­duc­tion side of things, but if you’re on the busi­ness and mar­ket­ing and sales side of things, you tend to be look­ing at the mar­ket dif­fer­ently, and fo­cus­ing there, rather than play­ing too much.

But that busi­ness op­por­tu­nity is con­nected to what games of­fer cre­atively and as a medium?

Ab­so­lutely, and that’s why I thought they could be­come an enor­mous in­dus­try. There were peo­ple who said at the time to me, at the point I was go­ing around ask­ing for money be­cause I had none, “Oh, it will be like the skate­board. It will be over by Christ­mas.” There were peo­ple who thought games wouldn’t last; that they were a toy – some bounc­ing ball to be taken over by an­other bounc­ing ball. But I felt dif­fer­ently. I felt games were a medium, like print or tele­vi­sion. Games were like film and mu­sic, and I was sure they would be­come big. If I’d said they would be­come big­ger than movies by 2015, they prob­a­bly would’ve laughed me out of the room, but that’s ob­vi­ously what’s hap­pened. I think peo­ple were sur­prised by how big games be­came, and by how big our com­pany be­came. That was all very sat­is­fy­ing.

You men­tioned be­ing cap­ti­vated by the tran­si­tion from early con­soles to home com­puter sys­tems for videogames, but dur­ing your time with Ei­dos there was a tran­si­tion back to con­soles. What kind of chal­lenge did that bring?

That move was a dou­ble-edged sword. When Nin­tendo and Sega came in later in the ’80s and the early ’90s with th­ese ma­chines that worked all the time – that could be thrown into a wall and they’d bounce off it and still work – that was in­ter­est­ing for us. They had car­tridges that were ab­so­lutely per­fect and loaded in­stantly, and they’d been tried, tested and QA’ed to within an inch of their lives, so you knew they were qual­ity and weren’t go­ing to have bugs. That brought or­der to what was a very, very dis­parate mar­ket. Be­fore

that there were a lot of com­pa­nies putting bad games – fea­tur­ing a lot of bugs – into fancy pack­ag­ing. If Christ­mas was close, they would just launch with­out QA. Con­sumers were, to some ex­tent, go­ing off com­puter games a lit­tle bit in that pe­riod.

How about the other side of the sword?

The other side of that dou­ble-edged sword was you sud­denly had to be a rea­son­ably sized busi­ness to be able to play. You had to get a li­cence from Nin­tendo or Sega – and you couldn’t do both in those days. You had to pick your con­sole, and we picked Sega at first. Then you were only al­lowed to do three or four games a year. You couldn’t just do ten. And you couldn’t say which games you wanted to do; you had to of­fer a choice and be told which to make. And you had to buy the bloody car­tridges up­front. They were $10 a pop, so if you wanted 100,000 car­tridges that was a mil­lion [dol­lars] you’d have to pay.

The con­sole thing changed things com­pletely, and a lot of the smaller and middle-sized pub­lish­ers just fell away. And a lot of de­vel­op­ers who were pub­lish­ing their own stuff also fell away. Con­soles brought or­der, but they also shoved a lot of peo­ple out of the game in­dus­try, or forced them to join an­other com­pany. I think, in a way, that was a great shame.

What’s in­ter­est­ing to me now, some 25 years later, is sud­denly we’re back to not hav­ing the in­ven­tory is­sue. Sud­denly you don’t need to have car­tridges or discs or any­thing at all. You don’t need lor­ries and ware­houses and shelf space and retail re­la­tion­ships. All of those things were a big part of the busi­ness and a ma­jor rea­son you could be suc­cess­ful as a pub­lisher.

Is that part of what finds you re­turn­ing to a UK pub­lisher, via the merger of Kuju and Curve?

The fact is we went on [through Do­mark and into Ei­dos] as a com­pany, from Sega through Nin­tendo and PlayS­ta­tion to launch Tomb Raider in 1996. PlayS­ta­tion had been out a lit­tle over a year, and it was get­ting mo­men­tum, and things just went to the Moon. We were lucky in a way, be­cause we were one of the early ones with a real hit on PlayS­ta­tion. In fact, I think we drove PlayS­ta­tion sales in many re­spects. This was all fan­tas­tic, and I was de­lighted, but I’d spent quite a long time in the game, and all my in­vestors had made a lot of money. I felt the job was done. I was liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia and had been there five years. My wife wanted to come home with the chil­dren, so it was time to exit stage left. That was around early 1997. Leave them laugh­ing, I thought.

Yet you ul­ti­mately came back to a more di­rect in­volve­ment in games again, with Catalis, which was set up as a ser­vices com­pany for the in­dus­try.

Things were wob­bling a bit at [Kuju and Te­stronic owner] Catalis, so I took it over, and that brought me back into a nine-to-five – or eight-to-eight – in the game in­dus­try. We got things go­ing great for Kuju and Te­stronic. So I’d been run­ning both of them, es­sen­tially.


But over the same four or five years we’ve seen this shift from disc prod­uct to dig­i­tal, and we’ve seen Steam come roar­ing to life. We’ve seen PlayS­ta­tion 3 and Xbox 360 move to serve dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion, which has only in­creased with PlayS­ta­tion 4 and Xbox One.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have dreamt of be­com­ing a main­stream pub­lisher with in­ven­tory and lor­ries and ware­houses. I didn’t want that cor­nu­copia of crap that means you need about $300m just to en­ter the game. That was never go­ing to hap­pen. But now, sud­denly, with dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion, all that mat­ters is the game and, of course, the mar­ket­ing. I was in­ter­ested again.

Does the dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion model al­most re­turn the sit­u­a­tion to the mail-or­der days of old?

It does. It’s ab­so­lutely di­rect-to-con­sumer again, so we’re slightly back to where we were. My heart is in be­ing a pub­lisher; I’d seen this change in the mar­ket and I’d been think­ing about it for some time. And then I saw what Stu­art Din­sey and Ja­son Perkins were do­ing with Curve Dig­i­tal. They’d been go­ing about a year-and-a-half, and ul­ti­mately we ended up buy­ing them, which cre­ated this new piece of Catalis, which is what we call Curve Dig­i­tal En­ter­tain­ment, which brings in Kuju and its work-forhire projects. And Curve, of course, is look­ing for in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers do­ing great work, who could use a proper pub­lisher to bring their prod­uct to mar­ket.

So with what Curve is do­ing – and with the re­newed promi­nence of pub­lish­ers such as Team 17 – do you think we’re see­ing a re­turn for the UK pub­lisher, and a re­turn to the ‘Brit­soft’ era when UK de­vel­op­ers and pub­lish­ers were such a pow­er­ful force?

Well, apart from Ubisoft – and pos­si­bly 505 Games, as it’s Ital­ian owned – most of the money pub­lish­ers are rais­ing, from an in­vest­ment point of view, has been in Amer­ica and Ja­pan. So all of the big­gest game com­pa­nies – Kon­ami, Cap­com, EA, Ac­tivi­sion and so on – are based in those ter­ri­to­ries. They’ve long had in­vestor groups who have un­der­stood the busi­ness and had the courage to put money in.

I’m afraid in the UK we haven’t had that kind of in­vest­ment com­mu­nity. So while it’s not im­pos­si­ble – and we man­aged to do it in the ’90s with Ei­dos – I’ve not of­ten seen any­body from a Bri­tish stand­point be able to raise mil­lions and mil­lions and mil­lions, be­cause the in­vestor ap­petite has been miss­ing. But that was partly an is­sue of the in­vest­ment in in­ven­tory.

We have to ac­cept we didn’t have in­vestors with big balls here, so what do we do about it? Now the de­vel­op­ment ef­fort is the ma­jor cost, and I think now there’s a good op­por­tu­nity to at­tract more sig­nif­i­cant back­ing – given that we’ve re­moved the in­ven­tory risk – from Bri­tish in­vestors. That could fund more Bri­tish de­vel­op­ers to make games, and pub­lish­ers like our­selves and Team 17 to pro­mote and mar­ket those games. So it’s a good time, cer­tainly. This is a mo­ment in time where we can get back in the game. I’d love there to be not just one, but sev­eral big Bri­tish pub­lish­ers, cre­at­ing jobs, ex­port­ing our cre­ative work, and bring­ing dol­lars and Euros and yen.

Is Brit­soft com­ing back? Well, you never want to re­peat his­tory, but we can learn from it, and I think there’s an op­por­tu­nity for Bri­tish busi­ness be­ing in­volved in game de­vel­op­ment and pub­lish­ing. We haven’t had that for a long time now. Could we cre­ate an­other Ei­dos? I don’t know, but it’s def­i­nitely pos­si­ble.

And I think de­vel­op­ers do need pub­lish­ers more and more to­day, be­cause there are so many games. There’s a need again for pub­lish­ers to help to pro­mote, to mar­ket, to have re­la­tion­ships with the plat­form hold­ers, and to get games on the store’s pro­mo­tion screen.

There’s an alchemy to pub­lish­ing and it’s im­por­tant again. And we’ll also be com­mis­sion­ing games. There are peo­ple with good ideas who need money, so we can act as bank and pub­lisher. That’s a more tra­di­tional pub­lisher role. We’re es­tab­lish­ing funds too. It’s an ex­cit­ing time.

And should we be do­ing $20 mil­lion or $30 mil­lion pro­duc­tions in three or four years’ time? Ab­so­lutely. You’ve got to start some­where.

Does all this mean you’ll stick to UK-made games?

No. That’s not the case. Al­ready Curve has pub­lished games from places like Swe­den. We’ll re­main open. We have to in or­der to be a com­mer­cial pub­lisher. But there’s no doubt our fo­cus is on re­la­tion­ships with de­vel­op­ers in the UK. We’re sup­port­ing the UK, ab­so­lutely.

Look­ing back to the dawn of Do­mark, and con­sid­er­ing UK game pro­duc­tion as it stands to­day, how do you think things com­pare?

I think they’ve got bet­ter. We’ve got tax re­lief – that’s a ter­rific ben­e­fit for the Bri­tish game com­mu­nity. I think the en­vi­ron­ment to­day is far more game-friendly. You don’t have to jus­tify the po­ten­tial of games any more. Or­gan­i­sa­tions like BAFTA are help­ing games. There are more op­por­tu­ni­ties now and it’s the right time to be get­ting into this in­dus­try in the UK.

Eureka, penned by Ian Liv­ing­stone, was the first game to carry the Do­mark la­bel. A prize of £25,000 was on of­fer to the first per­son to fin­ish the ad­ven­ture

Years be­fore Rare had a crack at Bond, Do­mark pro­duced a se­ries of ti­tles based on Ian Flem­ing’s char­ac­ter, in­clud­ing 1987’s The Liv­ing Day­lights

At Ei­dos, Wheat­ley over­saw the in­tro­duc­tion of the most iconic Bri­tish videogame char­ac­ter

Curve’s work in re­cent years has in­volved de­vel­op­ing ver­sions of games such as Proteus and TheSwin­dle for Sony plat­forms, but in its new it­er­a­tion the com­pany has as­pi­ra­tions to grow as a pub­lisher on var­i­ous plat­forms

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