Commercial Breaks: The Battle For Santa's Software

Transcribed by Matt Westcott

Radio announcer: ...And last week's number one, down to number two - Underwurlde from Ultimate.
Radio jingle:"Britain's Number One"

This Christmas, we'll spend over 30 million pounds on home computer games. This highly competitive business is flooded with thousands of software fantasies.

This is the story of two companies both searching for the magic ingredient which will make their game a Christmas hit.

The Battle For Santa's Software

Imagine Software only started making computer games two years ago, but by early 1984 their turnover is already millions of pounds a year. Games like Arcadia have brought their founders instant success and rich rewards.

Mark Butler is just 23. But fast cars are the style for everyone at Imagine, and fantastic salaries for the star programmers.

Publicity and image have become as important a part of the business as the games. With money to spend, they can indulge in the kind of pleasures which are beyond the dreams of most their age - TT bike teams and big houses.

As sales race ahead, so this new industry honour Imagine with its own version of the Hollywood Oscars: the Golden Joystick.

By May 1984, the company has grown so rapidly that it employs over 70 people producing computer games. Now established with expensive offices in the centre of Liverpool, Imagine's plan for a Christmas winner is based on a radically different product - the "Mega-game".

David Ward: Do you know where Bill is?

David Ward started Ocean Software a year ago in Manchester. He acts as a software publisher, attracting games from programmers across the country.

DW: ...And he's also sent his new game as well to have a look at, which is called "Castle Capers".
DW: What do you think of this, guys?

He employs a handful of his own programmers to write games in-house, and to help judge the freelance ideas.

DW: I think... maybe not the graphics, the animation isn't Commodore standard any more, is it... it's not state-of-the-art.
Secretary: Well the order didn't go out 'til Tuesday, so you should be receiving it any time at the moment.

David Ward has high standards. He rejects 99 per cent of what arrives at Ocean every month.

16-year-old Jonathan Smith has just walked in with "Pud Pud", a game that he wrote at home.

Paul Finnegan: What's the object of the game, Jonathan?

Sales director Paul Finnegan helps to assess the merits of Pud Pud, and of its young author.

Jonathan Smith: You have to collect 10 puddings.
PF: How long have you taken to write this, from the...
JS: About 7 weeks.
PF: 7 weeks? And how long have you been programming?
JS: About a year.
PF: About a year.

Ward likes Pud Pud so much that he pays Jonathan a thousand pounds for it, and gives him a job at Ocean. But he knows that it's not the Christmas hit that he's searching for.

DW: Now what we're coming up to is the most important selling period for us. As the software industry has become more seasonal in line with an entertainment industry, we're looking at the period between the beginning of September and the end of January as being maybe 70 per cent of the year's sales.


At Imagine, everybody's in early, as the plans for the new mega-game take shape. With so much competition, they recognise the need this year to create something completely different.

Mark Butler: Well, if you look at a normal cassette game at the moment, or as it was, we've come to the limits of the machine - whatever machine it's for - you cannot go any further. So, you've got 480 software houses in Britain producing the same version of the same game - although it looks slightly different, they call it another name - it's still all the same. We wanted to do, as we said two years ago, something different.

And this is it. "Bandersnatch" - the ultimate adventure game, which, when it's finished, Imagine claim will take you into a fantasy world. The secret of Bandersnatch's power is a special piece of electronics - a hardware add-on to the home computer, which eventually will be reduced to a small cartridge and sold with the game.

As the only programmer on the team over 30, John Gibson is known as "Grandad", and for the moment he's struggling with an animation problem.

John Gibson: It's functioning alright now - he's going at the proper speed, and that's the policeman, he's going at the proper speed as well. Now what I was trying to do is compensate for the fact that the speed changed when you move into a new scene, and the code's not working properly, so when he goes into the new scene everything's suddenly going at a terrific speed. So that... is a bug! Damn it...
MB: We've done things like, we've got cartoon animation in the game, which you can't get in an ordinary computer; we've got real sound in the game, and we've got real control of a full life animated figure which you can do literally anything you want with.

Artists and programmers are rushing to get the story and the characters finished. First drawn on paper, the full size figures are then put into the computer. Using this cast, the teams can then devise the mythical world that the characters will inhabit - an elaborate maze of tunnels, landscapes and hazards which will become the scenes of the adventure.

...turn that way, and leave a bomb or something, so then he's got to get out quick.
Where's that one go - that one, yeah... sure? Why's it only got a D in? Why couldn't you have gone back up again?
You can come up to it, but you can't go up any further, 'cause that's it, it's only got one level.

But Bandersnatch is beginning to drain Imagine's ample resources. Programmers have been pulled off other games, and the company must gamble a huge sum on producing the hardware add-on.

MB: The investment we have to make is approximately 2 million pound.

To find that money, which is more than twice last year's profits, the directors have been working all night on a company plan. Inevitably, they're using computers to help them produce a funding proposal, which they hope will attract the investment they need. But this is a young industry with new companies forming every month, and traditional investors are suspicious of its bizarre nature.

Ocean employee: So that's the only snag. If you want to come to the show with me, you have to wear that outfit...

At Ocean, David Ward is still looking for his Christmas hit. Front runners are sequels to last year's successful games, "Kong" and "Hunchback".

Man in gorilla suit: The feet have kind of gone a bit slack...

18 year old Tony Pomfret is one of the resident programmers at Ocean. He's busy keying in the instructions which will set new hazards for the hunchback Quasimodo to overcome.

Tony Pomfret: Well the objective is, yet again, you're Quasimodo and you have to manage to rescue Esmerelda, she's stranded in the belfry. There's a lot of obstacles facing you, such as bats that fly around and knock you off ropes and things; spiders, which bite and kill you as well. This blob is supposed to be Hunchback, although he hasn't actually been drawn yet. The idea is, you have to try and walk over the top of these bells that you can see. And it's taken about a week to manage to get the basic idea together, and to actually get the ropes swinging and the guy jumping, it's taken about 3 days.
Programmer: ...he'll be going up and down.
DW: Yeah, he's got to be able to shin up the rope, even though the rope itself...
Programmer: No - the rope'll be moving up and down and he'll move up and down with it.

A few days later, the team meets under David Ward's watchful eye, to work out how Hunchback 2 can improve on Hunchback 1.

DW: ...different ways of achieving a good result - it needs to be progressively more difficult, even if you've played it once before.
Programmer: And also, by trying to obtain points that way, it'll make it more difficult to complete the screen.

While the storyboard is finished, there are still some intriguing items for the youthful design team to wrestle with.

DW: ...a real time game. What about the other characters that we're involving here, the other elements of the game? The spiders, the bats...
Well we've got spiders that go up and down the ropes...
We've got a caterpillar here - I think...
What on earth is this thing here?
I don't like the idea of a caterpillar. Besides, it doesn't fit in with...
What's it doing up a belfry?
Yeah, we've got spiders and we've got rats.

Dreaming up computer fantasies is nothing if not a serious occupation.

Programmer: We'll have bats in this screen as well.


But selling computer games is a seasonal business, and this summer is particularly difficult for Imagine's sales manager, Sylvia Jones.

Sylvia Jones: It's never been as slow as it is now. Never. Wasn't like this this time last year. It's slowed down dramatically in the last three months. Not just for Imagine - for everybody. Probably because there are a lot more software houses now producing goods than there were this time last year.

Sylvia has come to see Imagine's Birmingham distributor. He wants to discuss the slow-selling old games, but Sylvia would rather interest him in the Bandersnatch mega-game.

SJ: Morning Chris.
Chris Hedges: Morning Sylvia. Good to see you again.

But she has a problem in introducing the idea to managing director Chris Hedges. He's looking at new games every week. But since the mega-game isn't finished, she has nothing to show him - and she hasn't even seen it herself.

CH: When are we going to see it, Sylvia, "Bandersnatcher"?
SJ: Probably about 4 weeks.
CH: And how are we seeing it - are you going to send us samples?
SJ: We're going to give you a preview. We probably will send you a sample as well. But we'll give you a preview. It's yet to be decided.
CH: So it's 4 weeks away... preview.
SJ: A preview, yes.
CH: When's launch?
SJ: Well, I'd say the end of July.
CH: Really?
SJ: Yes. If we can do it sooner, we will do.
CH: So, you're looking at 6 weeks to launch?
SJ: Yep.
CH: Have you got any details of A) the product, and B) the launch programme?
SJ: No, no details of the launch programme - they will follow, though. They're not decided yet. I can tell you that there's 25, possibly 30 items in the box.
CH: That sounds complicated.
SJ: It isn't really.
CH: No?
SJ: It's going on 48K but there will be a piece of hardware to come with it, which increases the power of the computer.

But Hedges is becoming increasingly concerned that all these extra features will push the cost way beyond the average game price of 6 pounds.

CH: I can see what you're doing. I mean, I... have you got any price points for it yet, approximate?
SJ: It's going to retail at about 40 pounds. 39.95.
CH: Every time I speak to you, it goes up!
SJ: It goes up, yes, I know. You'll get used to it, though. 40 pounds.
CH: But that's got to be something extraordinary, Sylvia, to sell at that...
SJ: Oh, it certainly is. It is totally different from anything you've ever seen before.
CH: It really isn't just software, it's software-stroke-hardware.
SJ: There's also a music tape which goes with the game, and we're thinking now of having an LP made up of music - that's a separate idea altogether, to go out after the game. We're going to have a voice-over, probably a famous name voice-over, on the music for the tape, through the game itself.
CH: Well. I mean obviously we've just got to wait and see, haven't we. You've now taken the product in my mind beyond, sort of, understanding 'til I've seen it.

Back in Liverpool, the Imagine directors have a problem. The release of the game has been delayed, so instead they must produce new press handouts with more hard information.

Bruce Everiss: I've been speaking to the media, and we've hyped them up so much that unless we actually deliver some goods to them soon, it's going to come off the boil. And this is a way of delivering some meat to them. What we want, in our time, so we keep them on the boil until the release. Because otherwise, they're just going to forget about us soon because they're just going to get fed up. Because they've had enough hype without substance, now they've got to have some substance.

What's more, financial director Ian Hetherington has not raised his 2 million pounds. And sales are so bad that the company is having difficulty paying its suppliers. Their cassette duplicator is waiting for 50 thousand pounds that Imagine owes him.

Ian Hetherington: We get it back from the printer Monday, and the release goes out to the press a week Tuesday. Okay. So that's the current timing. In fact I don't know why you've gone to so many visuals, because there's so little you can actually do with this.
BE(?): Well, because I've been waiting for this meeting for so long, I've had to get the studio going on something.

They need money urgently. Even the Bandersnatch box will require expensive colour printing.

It's not the call he's been waiting for, and the financial crisis is worsening by the hour.

BE: That's it then, Mike.
IH: We don't do anything. I mean, we don't place any orders without my say-so.
IH: I can't stress this too greatly. We must not commit to any expense at all. Okay?

But the problem of money that the company has already spent remains, as does this anxious supplier. But what has led to this crisis in their fortunes? Everyone in the industry claims that a substantial loss of income is caused by the selling of pirate cassettes.

But how large a threat is professional counterfeiting - or even schoolboy copying? And how do you recognise the genuine from the fake, or know when it's being sold?

Market trader: Get your Christmas cards here... twelve, 50 pence a packet.

Street markets are thought to be a good place to look. We took David Ward of Ocean to a market outside Manchester. The industry believes that stalls like this are a common source of pirate tapes.

And indeed we did find illegal music cassettes being sold for 2 pounds each, like this copy of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's latest release, with its crude black and white photocopy of the label. From the evidence of a police raid, earlier in the year, David Ward is convinced that there is also much more professional counterfeiting of computer games - something which may cost Ocean a hundred thousand pounds in sales over the year.

DW: We have here a couple of tapes - this is one of our top-selling games of last year, Hunchback, and we can see here that we've got... this is a commercially pirated copy, as opposed to something that somebody's made at home. These people have gone to the business of reprinting coloured inlay cards, which is quite expensive to set up, so they would obviously have to have done several thousand to make it worth their while. The difference, I suppose, to the average chap in the street wouldn't be that obvious. On the left here is the real thing, and on the right is a very professional piece of computer piracy. Now with this kind of situation, we obviously suffer a commercial loss, because the total number of programs sold are dramatically affected by the fact that we're not making all the programs that are sold. That isn't quite the same situation as what's called home copying, where a chap borrows his neighbour's cassette and reproduces it for himself - I think our real problem in the industry is people making copies for gain on a large scale, rather than the odd schoolboy at home copying - although I don't condone that, I don't think it's as big or as significant. And I think in a way it's an endemic part of computer hacking, that kids'll try to get into a tape - it's part of the whole industry of computing and that sort of thing.

29 June

But it's doubtful whether Imagine's problems are anything to do with piracy - schoolboy or professional - and the outlook now looks bleak. The only director left on the premises for the past week seems resigned to a gloomy future.

BE: As you can see it's fairly empty. I think a lot of people are going to the pub quite early these days, but... They've had the video cassette recorder playing this morning, they've all been watching American Werewolf in London, and you see they've been making flags and decorating the place generally, instead of doing work. Because, why bother? They all know that, you know, there's no point. No-one will supply us with anything, so we've got no cassettes to sell, so the company come to a full stop. This company cannot continue trading for another week unless there's a cash injection of, I would say it needs an extra week, about half a million pounds.

But events take place faster than Everiss predicts. Within hours he's resigned, and when some of the staff come back from lunch, there's an unexpected welcome.

Leave the room, please.
Can you tell me why?
Get off that, please... Michael... Let go please, Michael.
Tom - Can you tell us what's happening?
You'll get your foot off the door, please... Thank you.

Agents of the bailiff have moved in, and no-one seems to know who's running the company.

Why can't we come in?
You can't come in.
Why not?
Tom [Bromley?] says we're not allowing you in... It's not my choice.
You can't get in.
Why not?
Because they're not letting you in.
Who isn't?
They're not.
I've got my - I've got a cheque book and everything in there.
..My bag, can you just get that for me?
I've got an alternative jacket...
It's not to do with you.
It is.
Look, can't you read, it says "No entry, please use other door".
Can I get my bag then?
Oh my god, it's all gonna be repossessed you know.


Incredible Hulk: Hi, I'm the Hulk! Have an autograph!

Meanwhile, the show goes on. The giant Personal Computer World exhibition has arrived at Olympia.

The event is frantic with activity. Every hardware and software manufacturer is anxious to be seen, and to sell.

It's the biggest of the computer shows, and this is the last chance for the industry to exhibit ideas before Christmas.

David Ward is busy with some foreign buyers. And the new Hunchback is here too; in two months' time it'll be launched onto its discerning young clients. And enough of the game has now been written for a sneak preview at Ocean's stand.

DW: We're really showing it to show what's wrong with it. The advantage of coming to a show is that you can get opinions from people who are actually going to be the buyers - I think sometimes in this industry we forget about the fact that we're making all this, this product, these programs, to entertain and stimulate, and hopefully please, people who are actually computer users, that are going to buy them. So from this we can see the reaction. First reaction is that the characters are not good. The figure of Hunchback himself has not been well received - possibly because he looks as though he's a kind of, I don't know, a pterodactyl with a green blob on his back! But he will be improved on that. And in fact the graphics can be put in at the last minute, because essentially you work out the algorithms of the game, the game shell - the graphics can be put in later.

Showing individual customers their new idea is one thing, but the big distributors need convincing of the game's value. Websters' warehouse near Guildford is one of the biggest. It ships over a hundred thousand cassettes every week to 1,400 major high street stores. What Websters choose to stock is critical. Every month, they accept one hundred new games - but they reject five hundred. It's the 1st of November - there are only weeks before the Christmas selling season begins. Ocean's sales director Paul Finnegan has come to Websters to demonstrate to their buyer an almost-finished version of the game.

PF: Basically this is where we left off from the original Hunchback, the final screen which we never used, so we decided to start the game off with this one.
Buyer: How many screens actually will you show us?
PF: We have, there's five screens, just to give you an idea of the graphics and the playability.
Buyer: OK. So when do you think you'll be able to launch the Spectrum version?
PF: Well, the release date is November the 15th.
Buyer: Right.

But this year the game itself isn't enough. Websters also want to know what kind of advertising and marketing plans Ocean have for the launch of Hunchback 2.

PF: advertising schedule, or the release schedule, some idea of the leaflets that we're about to launch. Again, we can supply these to you in any sort of quantity.
Buyer: Right. Do you have any other point-of-sale material - for example badges?
PF: We don't - no, we don't have any badges, or hats, or anything at the moment. No. That's a poster with the both games on.

If he's convinced, the buyer will place an order a week before the launch. The same evening, at a school near Manchester, one class has stayed behind to give Hunchback his sternest test yet.

There's supposed to be one there, not down there. It should be up there.
Go on, jump off the edge... no, that edge.
It's at the first, the beginning - I've got one more bell to get.

Tony Pomfret has brought the almost-finished version for the computer club to cast a critical eye over. Their verdict may still bring last-minute changes to the design.

I think it's very good. It's pretty good graphics - I like the way he rolls up and down on the screw - it's a good idea that, that's quite nice as well.
The way it's planned out is very structured, and I like the graphics.
I think it's a good game altogether. I like the idea where the man goes up and down there.
...bells, and monsters... little bats...
Looks a bit funny.
I like the hunchback, and I like the bats.
I find it quite difficult to get over the bat on the first one.
Well, it's challenging - that's the sort of thing that I like in a game - a challenge, not too hard, but not too easy. And I think this'd, sort of, fit the bill.

So, the experts seem happy with the design. But will they buy it?

Schoolboy: If I had the money!

A week later, the distributor decides to invest in Hunchback 2, with an initial order of 2,700 copies.

23 November

But it takes Ocean another 10 days to prepare for mastering the magnetic tape. On November the 23rd, the duplication process begins - in just a few hours, the first 5,000 copies are made. At a wholesale price of £2.50, these finished cassettes at 50 pence each are the dearest part. About 40 pence pays for programming, which leaves about £1.50 for marketing, distribution, and a healthy profit.

DW: We will ship, first week, probably 20 thousand units. We will hope to get at least one major repeat before Christmas and one major repeat just afterwards, in that period when people who got a computer for Christmas are looking for software to play on it.
Radio announcer: Yep - this week's software games top ten, as compiled...

As the shopping bonanza gets under way for Christmas in the first week of December, Hunchback has only just reached the high street.

Radio announcer: ... from US Gold. At 9, up from 12, Dangermouse from Creative Sparks. And at 8, up from 11, Beach Head from US Gold.

And there are 200 other new games released this Christmas fighting for attention.

If Hunchback is to make it to number one, the shops will have to sell 60,000 by January.

Although it's not had time to get into the charts yet, so far 30,000 copies have gone out to the wholesalers, and it's selling well. But in a business that's seen spectacular growth and failure, David Ward has realised what the key to success is.

DW: This industry has grown from being a cottage industry to being a major supplier in the high street, and it requires all the skills of business that being a supplier to high street stores requires - whether you're supplying them with radios or toothpaste, or cornflakes or whatever. This industry makes money out of top-ten hits, just like the pop single record industry.

And Imagine? They had the image of the pop record industry, but not the business skills to survive. But the name will - David Ward bought it from the liquidator, and he now employs Grandad and others from the team, writing games for Ocean.