The History Of: Code­mas­ters Sim­u­la­tors

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by David Crookes

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.

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