Now head of Curve Digital Entertainment, the Domark co-founder ponders a Britsoft revival
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
“I THINK PEOPLE WERE SURPRISED BY HOW BIG GAMES BECAME, AND BY HOW BIG OUR COMPANY BECAME”
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.
“IS BRITSOFT COMING BACK? YOU NEVER WANT TO REPEAT HISTORY, BUT WE CAN LEARN FROM IT”
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