Welcome to the Inconvenienced Blog. This is a Comedy and Gaming Culture Site all rolled into one. Alongside humorous articles, we'll also be be giving our thoughts on games, and the gaming industry as a whole.

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3 November 2007

The British Gaming Industry in the '70s and '80s.

First off, apologies to Sum0 for not posting this sooner. In my defence last night I was very tired and didn't get round to doing the biz. Here it is now.

Oh, and the captions of the pictures are done by me. I'm telling you this so as not to disgrace Sum0.

I would.

1984 - Elite. 1991 – Lemmings. 1996 - Tomb Raider. 1997 - GoldenEye. 2004 - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. While the US and Japanese industries hog the limelight, and European developers are responsible for some of the most innovative recent games, the British games industry has worked busily in the background for nigh-on three decades. In 2004, the British games industry recorded sales in excess of £2 billion, making the UK the biggest market in Europe and the third biggest in the world after the US and Japan.

It all goes back to November 29th, 1972, when Pong, the first widely popular video game came out. Pong, however, was developed by the then fledgling American company Atari. Though it made it to British shores (my parents have photographs to prove it), back then the British games industry was non-existent.

The 1970s

For the next ten years the video game industry established itself, dominated by Japanese and American developers and companies: a new breed of geeks, working on university mainframes, pushed the boundaries of games design with text-based adventure games like Adventure (1976) and Zork (1979); giants like Namco and Nintendo established themselves in the arcades with games like Space Invaders (1978) and Donkey Kong (1981); and in 1977 Atari established the home console market with their seminal Atari 2600.

One of the first wholly British games to be created was MUD, or Multi-User-Dungeon, created by two students at the University of Essex in 1978. 19-year old Roy Trubshaw wrote the first version of the game on the university’s PDP-10 mainframe. MUD, inspired by text adventure games (like the prototype versions of Zork, at that time still in development) was originally a series of interconnected rooms through which multiple players could move around, explore, and chat to each other.

While Trubshaw concentrated on the technical and programming side of things, the planning of rooms and puzzles – the actual game design – was taken up by his friend, 18-year old Richard Bartle, who describes the writing of MUD as a “team effort”. When Trubshaw left university, Bartle remained and worked on polishing Trubshaw’s code into a finished game: adding a points system, monsters to fight, and the game’s ultimate goal of reaching Wizard status: giving players all-powerful, meta-game admin abilities.

MUD, perhaps the first multiplayer game with a persistent world, became phenomenally popular. Initially just played by students at Essex, the game was eventually opened up to players across Britain using then-new modems, as long as they logged in at the off-peak times of 2am-6am. Even with those unsocial hours, MUD was always full to capacity. A cross-Atlantic link to ArpaNet (the predecessor of the internet) allowed American players to join in too. Over time MUD evolved into MUD2, which is still going strong today, almost 30 years later. MUD’s influence can be felt in today’s Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft, which despite their 3D graphics still owe a debt to the work of a pair of British university students.

The 1980s
Despite the success of MUD, it was limited to a fraction of computer science students and a few hobbyists. Video games had yet to reach the general public.

Enter Sir Clive Sinclair. Bespectacled, bearded; invariably described as a “boffin” by the British press; revered and ridiculed in equal measure. His grandfather a naval architect and his father an engineer, Sinclair was born for the electronics industry. After a few years selling electronics kits and writing a book on transistors, Sinclair started Sinclair Radionics Ltd. in 1961, a few days before his 21st birthday.

It was in 1980, however, that Sinclair made his (unwitting) entry into gaming history. The Sinclair ZX80, his first home computer, ran at 3.25 MHz, had 1KB of RAM, was in black-and-white, had no sound, and sold 50,000 units at a mere £99.95 – which meant that the UK led the world in home computer ownership. The following year saw the updated Sinclair ZX81: and in 1982 the definitive model, the ZX Spectrum, was released.
The Spectrum was a revolution in home computing. With a colour display, rudimentary sound, and a much-maligned rubber keyboard, the “Speccy” sold for £99 in its most basic model and became widespread in homes and schools across Britain.

I would. (This, by the way, is Clive Sinclair)

The Sinclair computers were easy to program and a generation of “bedroom programmers” sprang up. Northern Irish developer David Perry described his first success in the games industry in a BBC interview.

“I sent a game I wrote to a magazine. I think it was a driving game, a black blob avoiding other black blobs. They printed it, and I was really happy.

"Then after I sent them some more games, a check for £450 came in the post. I was shocked, as I didn't even have a bank account. Just imagine how many sweets I was able to buy!”

From his bedroom, Perry went on to develop more games for the ZX Spectrum. After moving to the US, he formed his own company, Shiny Entertainment, in 1993. He went on to create the hugely successful multi-platform Earthworm Jim series, the critically-acclaimed MDK, and more recently two games based on the Matrix films, Enter The Matrix and Path of Neo.

The years following the release of the Spectrum saw an explosion in British games design. Matthew Smith developed the legendary platformer Manic Miner in just six weeks in 1983, and followed it up with Jet Set Willy in 1984. Both were true pioneers in platforming games, years ahead of the competition, and pushed the Spectrum to its limits with colourful graphics and in-game music – a first for the Spectrum.

Another Spectrum developer was Codemasters: a partnership of two brothers, Richard and David Darling, founded in 1985. Codemasters were popular for their low-price budget releases such as the Dizzy series, starring an anthropomorphic egg (and coincidentally coded by another pair of brothers, Philip and Andrew Oliver) and titles such as Advanced Pinball Simulator.

Over the next twenty years Codemasters rose to become the second biggest games publisher in the UK after Eidos, some of their more recent releases including DiRT and Clive Barker’s Jericho.

The Spectrum wasn’t the only home computer popular in Britain. The Amstrad CPC, Acorn’s BBC Micro (commissioned by the BBC to aid computer literacy, and widespread in schools), and the internationally popular, best-selling Commodore 64 were all common – and Ashby-de-la-Zouch-based developers Ultimate Play The Game coded for them all.

Ultimate Play The Game (usually shorterned to Ultimate) were founded in 1982 by yet another pair of British brothers, Tim and Chris Stamper, who had previously worked developing arcade games. Their first release as Ultimate was Jetpac on the Spectrum in 1983, a game involving a spaceman who must assemble a rocket and fuel it before blasting off to the next level. It was hugely successful, selling 300,000 copies to a market of about a million Spectrum owners. In the same year, Ultimate released Pssst, Tranz Am, and Jetpac sequel Lunar Jetman.

The following year, Ultimate released Sabre Wulf, an action adventure and the first game in the Sabreman series. Wasting no time, they released the sequels Underwurlde and Knight Lore in the same year. Knight Lore is notable for its isometric, 3D graphics engine dubbed “Filmation” by Ultimate, an innovation copied extensively by other publishers.

By the end of their second year, Ultimate had churned out eleven hit games on the Spectrum. The Stamper brothers’ high-quality, regular releases built up a huge fanbase in Britain, despite their media shyness.

But then everything changed. In 1984, the Stampers acquired the newest Japanese sensation: the Nintendo Famicom, a revolutionary 8-bit games console. Though it had been out in Japan for nearly a year, it would only reach the US and Europe in 1985 and 1986 respectively, renamed as the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES). Amazed by the potential, the Stampers soon diverted all their attention to it. In 1985, they sold the Ultimate name and back catalogue to Birmingham-based U.S. Gold, and abandoned the Spectrum for good. Having impressed Nintendo enough to receive a license to develop for the NES, they expanded their NES development into a full business. They called themselves Rare.

But more on them later.

This game is called Knight Lore and it is pink. Somewhere someone claims this to be their favourite game.

Following in the footsteps of MUD developers Trubshaw and Bartle were David Braben and Ian Bell, who met in 1982 as undergraduates at Cambridge University. Though they were each working independently on separate games, they decided to collaborate to write a game for the BBC Micro. It was released in 1984 as Elite, and quickly went down in video gaming history.

Elite places the player in a small, lightly armed spacecraft, 100 credits, a rating of “Mostly Harmless”, and a universe of 2,048 planets to explore. Players can travel from space station to space station, buying goods such as food, machinery, and minerals at a low price in one region and selling them for a profit in another. Alternatively, they can sign up for military missions, collect bounties, mine asteroids, or conduct piracy on merchants.
There is no goal in the game. Players can choose their own objective in the game universe: to achieve a level of “Elite”, to accumulate wealth, to put together the most powerful spacecraft. This sort of freeform, complex, non-linear gameplay was completely novel at the time and even today remains a holy grail for game designers.

Elite was not the first game in the space-trading genre, but it was far more expansive than any previous efforts and featured revolutionary 3D graphics. It sold 150,000 copies for the BBC Micro alone, and was eventually ported to 12 other platforms (including the Spectrum).

For many years, developers tried to create the next Elite. David Braben himself made a successful attempt in 1993 with Frontier, developed by his company Frontier Developments, but the sequel First Encounters was bugged and failed miserably. More recently, Microsoft’s Freelancer was a success, along with Egosoft’s X series. Elite has been taken to its logical conclusion with EVE Online, a massively multiplayer online space trading simulation where the players themselves determine the flucuations of the market economy. But these games all owe their existence to the work of two university students twenty years prior.

In 1991 a remake was released, called Elite Plus. It was programmed by one Chris Sawyer, who we’ll get back to later.

By the end of the 80s, the British games industry was in a transition. The Spectrum, never that powerful in the first place, was being increasingly outclassed by newer machines such as the Amiga 500, the Acorn Archimedes, and the IBM PC. Dedicated games machines like Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System were increasingly popular, too. The stage was set for a new burst of creativity.

This is Elite. Fear it, for in some quarters it is labelled as a God.

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