The History Of: Codemasters Simulators
David Darling, Jason Falcus and the Oliver twins on the popularity of their many budget games
It was a little aside buried deep within issue 67 of Crash magazine, but anyone who read it could have been forgiven for letting out a small, snide snort. “Rumours have it that Mouldcasters are due to release Advanced Tortoise Simulator later this year,” jibed the fictional writer Lloyd Mangram. But had Codemasters (the obvious butt of this particular joke) actually produced such a title, it’s unlikely many gamers would have been surprised.
Three years before that reference, Codemasters had released a popular game called BMX Simulator and followed it up with plenty more. It was 1986 and the company’s cofounders Richard and David Darling were drawing on their experience of working for Mastertronic. “We’d made a game called BMX Racers for them and it had sold very well,” says David. “So when we set up Codemasters, we thought we’d be able to replicate the success.”
Such thinking was based on solid evidence since the Darling brothers’ involvement at Mastertronic had been deep. As well as making games for the budget publisher, the pair ended up owning half of the company and they would work with other developers to select the best titles to take to market. “We realised that a lot of programmers were coming to us with games about space, but that the ones which did really well were based on existing themes,” David adds. “We also noticed that many people liked their games to be realistic.”
With that in mind, Richard had got down to work on BMX Simulator, seeking to capitalise on the huge interest in BMX bikes at the time. He created it in the Codies’ small office based at the Beaumont Business
Centre in Banbury, infusing the game with as much realism as possible under the constraints of the Commodore 64 by working hard on the physics.
“The whole idea was to avoid making an arcade-style racer because there were already a good number of them around,” David continues. “It also meant we could justifiably make use of the word ‘simulator’ which was a term people were familiar with thanks to the professional flight simulators being used in the aviation industry.” When BMX Simulator subsequently sold well for Codemasters, the Darlings were convinced they were on to a winner.
Philip and Andrew Oliver were quick to spot the potential, too. Having already produced a couple of games for Codemasters – Super Robin Hood and Ghost Hunters – the twins were looking for their next project. As soon as they set eyes on BMX Simulator, they knew what it should be. “We wanted
to do a top-down car racing game along the same lines,” Philip says. “We thought it would work perfectly.”
As huge, huge motorsport fans, the Darlings instantly agreed. “We were in the habit of choosing developers based on their pedigree and ability to make high-quality games and the Olivers fit the bill,” David says. Yet the aspiring Olivers had an ulterior motive for wanting to produce what became Grand Prix Simulator. “Fast cars were very aspirational for us as teenage boys and when we saw the Darlings’ Toyota MR2 and Celica we thought we could buy cars like those if we wrote a game that sold really well,” Philip says.
In their bid to ensure it would be a hit, the twins vowed to match the quality they’d seen with Richard’s BMX Simulator on the Commodore 64 in October 1986. “That game had set the benchmark in terms of gameplay and it showed us exactly how we could create a car racing game,” Philip continues. “We simply adopted the same game design, changing bikes to cars.” The rest seemed to slot in to place.
Opting for a top-down view, however, saw the game lambasted by Activision, amid accusations that it was too similar to its conversion of Super Sprint. Both the Olivers and Codemasters refuted the charge and refused to withdraw it from sale, with the subsequent fuss and press coverage soon having a positive effect. Grand Prix Simulator sold more than 250,000 copies on the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC and Atari 8-bit computers. “The Simulator series of games was born,” says Philip.
Indeed it was. “We realised that it made sense to have a sub-brand or badge and ‘simulator’ seemed to fit,” David explains. “It gave a flavour of the direction we were taking with the games and it also showed that we were trying to be different. So many companies were making games from scratch, having one hit and then going on to produce a completely new game. But we felt that we could build some good momentum.”
BMX Simulator and Grand Prix Simulator sold for a pocket-friendly £1.99 and Codemasters believed gamers were more likely to pick up further titles if they could see signs of consistency. It became crucial to pick the right kind of sport or activity to maximise sales, although this was often done for personal as well as rational reasons.
“It was often a case of, ‘We’ve just been skiing with the Olivers so we’ll do a skiing game,’” says David, “or we’d see a trend such as the popularity of jet biking and consider it a decent theme.” Past experience was also considered: ATV Simulator and Professional BMX Simulator sought to build on the huge appetite for motorsports.
“The trick was to pick something aspirational where players would say,
‘I’d love to play that’ because they wanted to do it in real life,” says Philip. “It was important that they had an idea of what the game would be and it was our job as developers to give them the best possible experience in that theme given the constraints of the computers.”
Even so, one of the criticisms levelled at Codemasters’ simulators was that the claims on the box did not always match the game. Were Fruit Machine Simulator, Pro Skateboard Simulator and Advanced Pinball Simulator really “just like the real thing” as the back of the games’ packaging claimed? And, indeed, was International Rugby Simulator “absolutely brilliant” as David Darling was quoted about his company’s own game?
“Producing more accurate simulations was beyond the capability of those 8-bit computers and beyond our ability to code them,” admits Andrew. “But in game development, everything’s a trade-off and we focused more on fun than simulation, but at budget prices, which is all that was expected. Codemasters had great boxes that looked exciting, but were also informative. Within seconds of flipping a box over in the shop you knew roughly what you were getting.”
This was definitely the case. All of Codemasters’ games carried a similar eye-catching look which made them instantly recognisable to anyone scanning the shelves. The hope was that they had bought a previous title from the Codies and that this would make them more willing to take another to the till.
“It was important that the packaging would carry through with all of our games and so we would have the familiar yellow splashes and numbers on the spines,” David says. “We wanted people to recognise Codemasters first and the individual titles next.” For this strategy to work, however, the quality of the games had to be reasonably high.
“We tried really hard to make all of our games look and play well,” David continues, “and one of the ways we did that was to give our developers space. We’d leave them to make the actual
We wanted people to recognise Codemasters first and the individual titles next David Darling
game and trust that they’d do it well. Only once they’d made it would we discuss ways to improve a title. We certainly didn’t dictate how it should be done from the beginning because we didn’t want to affect creativity.”
The Olivers back up that claim, saying the only real constraints on the simulators were from the sports or activities themselves. “There were no rules for the creation of the games, but there was an understanding that they should be multiplayer which was rare in those days,” affirms Philip. This came from David and Richard’s competitive streak and their penchant for wanting to win at anything they turned their hands to, especially videogames. Ultimately, though, the general theme of the game was all that really mattered.
“It was great to have the reference of the imagery and rules of a sport as inspiration but we didn’t pay too much attention to the real rules – it just set the theme for us to then design a game within the capabilities of the computer,” Andrew says. “You have to remember, in the early days, game design was limited to what the computer could do. That’s why it was the programmers that also did the game design. They often did the graphics too – we often did!”
It meant there was room for experimentation and this was actively encouraged by Codemasters. With Professional Ski Simulator, for example, the Olivers attempted pseudo-3d isometric visuals by having the player view the action from a 45-degree angle. It also tried to put gamers in the shoes of the skier so that pushing left or right on the joystick would move the stickman figure to its left or right rather than yours. With two-player action, the ability to compete against the computer and a screen split into three, a good amount of thought had gone into the title. It even boasted digitised speech. Not bad for a game made in a month by devs who admit they were never looking for challenges.
“Pro Ski Simulator required us to master the isometric design, code and graphics, if we were to do justice to the game,” says Philip. “We loved Marble Madness in the arcades and thought it showed how the side of a mountain could be achieved, and how traversing it would be fun. Sadly on the Spectrum and Amstrad, achieving the speed and fluidity we wanted from a scrolling screen was beyond the capability of the computers, so we were always disappointed with the results.
It’s a shame but 8-bit, pixel mapped computers weren’t really suitable for scrolling games.”
Still, they tried. With 4 Soccer Simulators, Codemasters bowed to the world’s biggest sport and came up with a varied compilation based of the beautiful game that included vertically-scrolling version of 11-a-side, indoor soccer, soccer skills and street soccer. The fact that none of these are enthusiastically spoken of today speaks
We were making so many sims that people were only remembering the big ones David Darling
volumes (they were no Emlyn Hughes, Match Day II or Sensible Soccer) but they nevertheless ended up on the main 8-bit computers as well as the PC and NES and sold very well.
Meanwhile, Advanced Pinball Simulator didn’t just attempt to translate the pinging of balls around a board to computers, it tried to shoehorn a plot in amid the trapdoors, rollover lanes and mega-bumpers.
In some ways such frivolous additions would mask underlying faults, in this case the disappointing ball physics, but in the most part those were due to the constraints of the machines. “Our initial intention was to create a series of pinball games all based on the same code, adding themes and new mechanics over time just as arcades did with real pinball machines,” says Andrew. “But towards the end of developing the game, we ended up putting a lot of ‘bodge code’ in just to cover up the poor ball movement so that it was good enough to ship.”
For David, the odd blip here and there was not such a big deal as long as developers aimed high in the first place. “There’s always a risk that if a game isn’t good, then you don’t sell very many and that, ultimately, limits the damage,” he says. “We were at the point where we were making so many simulators that people were only remembering the big ones anyway.”
To that end, it seemed to matter little that Fruit Machine Simulator was handed a big fat zero in Amstrad Action despite being an enjoyable game (“maybe it didn’t fit as well as Grand Prix and BMX but it was still something we could realistically simulate,” David says). Similarly, the Codies largely got away with grabbing By Fair Means Or Foul from Superior Software and re-releasing it as Pro Boxing Simulator by simply changing the packaging and lending it a new title screen. David does not remember much about this but it caused a minor furore at the time, albeit one that blew over very quickly.
The big issue was that Codemasters labelled the game as a “new release” and it meant that anyone who had bought it at full price from Superior felt cheated. Richard Darling went on to tell Crash magazine that it was a new release (for Codemasters, at least)
“but it was really unfortunate and a mistake not to indicate that the game had been originally published with a different name”. As a consequence, the “new release” label was amended to “previously known as By Fair Means Or Foul”. Codemasters also offered to refund any gamers who already had the original game.
The upshot was that the Simulator branding had been down but it was certainly not out. What had received a bloody nose, however, was an attempt to create another price point for its simulators that was mid-way between budget and full-price. Promoted by Codies’ marketing chief Bruce Everiss as the Codemasters Plus range, it came with the bonus of two cassettes and two modes: ordinary and expert.
The first game in this range was Jet Bike Simulator followed by Pro BMX Simulator, but the higher price point placed a little extra pressure on the development teams. “The extra price meant we had to put more in and so we’d give ourselves six to eight weeks on these games,” says Philip. “In reality it meant creating more courses, as there was only so much we could do within the game itself.”
Codemasters had felt that it would be too much to go straight for the £9.99 price yet it yearned to show that it could produce more than budget games.
“The mandate was that they had to be bigger and better than the usual games so that they would deserve the higher price,” Philip continues. “The good news is that we were all on royalties so we’d get more money per game sold too.”
According to David, “the price reflected the extra costs of production and development to some extent” (Jet Bike Simulator also came with a sticker and a free colour poster). “But we didn’t achieve anywhere near the volume of our £1.99 and later £2.99 games.” Cue a return to simulators at the lower price, among them Super Tank Simulator which was developed by Optimus Software, headed up in Middlesbrough by Jason Falcus.
This game had players rumbling along in a tank, avoiding mines while shooting turrets and other vehicles. It also included a shooting range section for variety. “We were inspired by classic old games from Atari consoles, I think, in which tanks fired bullets which bounced off walls,” says Jason. “We wanted to do something inspired by that fun mechanic but with a more detailed, arcade-like graphic style.”
Advanced Pinball Simulator, meanwhile, was made even more surreal with the addition of light-gun support when it appeared on the flip-side of the Defender Light Gun compilation. The Olivers also built on Grand Prix Simulator with a sequel.
“The original had various issues we wanted to fix so we got on and did it,” Philip remembers.
Revisiting old themes with the simulators made commercial sense. “The games had a short shelf life even if they were very good, so a year after release you wouldn’t be able to buy a copy,” Philip explains. “The sequels were also great from a creative point of view because you were always left with regrets that a game could have been better. A follow-up was a good way to improve a game and get it back in the shops, selling to players that had bought the first game, but also selling to new players.”
One of the sequels was Fruit Machine Simulator 2, proving that – despite the scorn the original received – it had performed well for the company. There was even room for Arcade Flight Simulator, even though that appeared to go against David’s original ethos – an arcade game and a simulator in one? It was, however, a way of distinguishing it from the likes of Microsoft Flight Simulator given that it was not, in any way, shape or form, as comprehensive as its more expensive rival. Instead it had players in various planes pitched in battles from the two world wars (and a proposed third conflict).
By this point (1989 to 1990), the simulators had been released as a steady stream and there was a feeling that the Codies had pretty much exhausted the possibilities (Your Sinclair had already lampooned the idea by popping Advanced Lawnmower Simulator on the covertape of issue
45). That said, some decent, if above-average, games were still being launched such as yet another motorsport title in Moto X Simulator. Players could also enjoy Pro Golf Simulator which had a cool course editor and Pro Tennis Simulator which had a range of court surfaces, a simple interface and decent animation. Their instant playability pulled in gamers faster than a serve by Samuel Groth.
What’s more, Pro Tennis Simulator had a sense of realism that, say, Pro Powerboat Simulator did not. As a vertically scrolling racing game for up to two players, it had you picking up fuel and seeing off your opponents with
We were all on royalties so we would get more money per game sold Phillip Oliver
some well-dropped mines (something we’d hazard a guess doesn’t happen in real life). But reality was also biting for the team at Codemasters. Not only was competition nibbling but it needed to move away from budget games in order to survive in the long term.
“By this time, we were having problems with other companies copying our idea and releasing games with ‘simulator’ in the title and that was confusing for gamers.” says
David. Zeppelin was one of the “offenders” with games such as Rally Simulator, Spaghetti Western Simulator, Go-kart Simulator and Professional Go-kart Simulator, but there was also Turbo Boat Simulator by Silverbird Software, Future Bike Simulator by Hi-tech Software and, perhaps most bizarrely but eye catching, Top Ten Software’s Werewolf Simulator.
Codemasters sought to get some extra mileage out of its own offerings with the Quattro compilations. Quattro Sports contained Soccer Simulator, Pro Tennis Simulator and BMX Simulator; Quattro Power Machines included Pro Powerboat Simulator; Quattro Arcade popped Fruit Machine Simulator, Grand
Prix Simulator and Advanced
Pinball Simulator either side of the tape; Quattro Skills consisted of Professional Skateboard Simulator, Pro Tennis Simulator, International Rugby Simulator and 11-A-side Soccer and on it went.
“We also ported our simulators on the 16-bit machines, the Amiga and Atari ST and they worked really well for us for a few years until the industry moved on and we got into Nintendo games,” David says. “On the consoles the cartridges were expensive so we had to move to full-price and that continued with the move to Playstation. Yet the core of the simulators stayed with us. We might have stopped using the simulator brand but we didn’t stop the desire to make racing games realistic and that’s still in the DNA of Codemasters with the TOCA, DIRT and Formula 1 games.”
Philip agrees. “The Simulator series – and the Dizzy games, of course – were the backbone of Codemasters,” he says. “Without these, we doubt the company would have survived.” Andrew says the simulators were able to evolve as the technology improved and developers became au fait with earlier titles.
“We enjoyed making them and we are happy they were fondly received and remembered well,” he says. “It was interesting to see other developers attempted creating ‘simulators’, although we think having Goat Simulator was taking the concept a little too far.” Not as far as an Advanced Tortoise Simulator but we get what he means.
» [Amstrad CPC] BMX Simulator was the first of many top-down racing games from Codemasters.» David Darling cofounded Codemasters with his brother Richard.
» [Amstrad CPC] Pro Golf Simulator was a comprehensive little golf game that enthusiasts were sure to enjoy .
Prix Simulator to be converted to the Spectrum. » [ZX Spectrum] It took six months for Grand
» [ZX Spectrum] ATV Simulator was surprisingly good fun, with an enjoyable multiplayer mode.
Dizzy their names with the» The Oliver twins made on a number of sims. series, but also worked
there are exceptions. games are found on the 8-bit systems, but» [Amiga] Most of Codemasters’ simulator
» [C64] Every developer has at least one football title in its library and Codemasters is no exception. It has several.
» Jason Falcus worked on SAS Combat Simulator.
» David Darling remains a huge motorsport fan and he often competes in karting events even today.
» [ZX Spectrum] Advanced Pinball Simulator was created by the Olivers with Christian Shrigley coding the C64 port (right).
» [ZX Spectrum] International Rugby Simulator brought a game of side-on rugger to the 8-bits and the Atari ST.
reference » [C64] Many of the sims would include and this to Codemasters, such as Moto X Simulator, helped to cement the overall brand.
» [Amiga] Bold and colourful, Pro Powerboat Simulator was another top-down sim but we reckon in real-life the racers don’t have bombs.
» [Amstrad CPC] Super Tank Simulator had loads of enemy fire to contend with – you could even deflect shots off the walls.
» The idea for Professional Ski Simulator followed a joint holiday taken by the Darlings and the Olivers.