Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bedrooms to Billions - an ode to UK computer gaming history

Saturday, June 20, 2015
Bedrooms to Billions regales the unlikely story of how nerds bashing seemingly gibberish code into flimsy, rubber-keyed toys created by the man behind the 'space-aged, lying down peddle bike' spawned an industry worth quite a sizeable wad of moolah. Billions worth I'd imagine. Personally I'd have called it something along the lines of, "How Corporate Parasites Stole My Childhood", but then I live in the past, am jaded, and diplomacy never was my forte.

In Anthony and Nicola Caulfield's Kickstarter success story, we are invited to hear the enthralling tale directly from the horses' mouths. From horses who were there, lived it and made it happen, games developing horses no less. Now there's an image George Orwell could appreciate.

With a couple of misty eyes and a lump in the throat, it hearkens back to the era when playing computer games demanded a tad more hoop-jumping than poking an icon in Steam. You either had to save up your street-poundingly-earned paper round money and send off for one by mail order, or laboriously plough reams of magazine code into your computer to conjure up the most primitive array of monochrome pixels that would be unrecognisable as any form of entertainment to a child today. They rarely had sound and in the very early days before data storage was something we took for granted, your labour of love would be lost to the ether upon powering down your computer.

I took one glance at the sheer volume of finicky data crunching involved and cried, "you're 'avin a larf!" (despite being Mancunian), and hurriedly went back to playing 'Horrace Goes Skiing'. I'm just immensely grateful other people had more patience and the tenacity to stick with it, learn from what had gone before and up the ante. They coded so we didn't have to, and for that I salute them. I believe something similar was said with regards to our forebears who fought the Germans to defend our freedom during the two world wars. While that wasn't gaming related, I suppose it had its place in history too.

In awe of these legendary pioneers, we traverse the evolution of video game creation from bedrooms to corporate office battery farms, and back again with the recent advent of mobile gaming. And folks, these pivotal moments all happened here in good ol' Blighty! We'll have none of that Atari nonsense that was going on over the pond thank you very much.

Nowhere are their accomplishments made more apparent than in the extra footage of David Braben's interview. The irony is palpable when listening to Elite's daddy - one of the most influential game developers of all time - discussing how in 1984 he was told by the 'suits' what constitutes a game, and what would - or wouldn't - appeal to the game-buying public, before the people who were at the forefront of sculpting this fledgling industry knew themselves what the definition of a game was.

I don't think there even was a definition at this stage. Today, game genres are largely set in stone. They fall into one camp or another, or occasionally they straddle two in a weak effort to at least appear to be doing something fresh and edgy. In the 80s, David et al were forging these now clich├ęd pigeon-holes, winging it as they went to discover what worked and what didn't. I may have dreamed this, but I think the way Simon Butler put it in a podcast I listened to recently was, "They didn't so much think outside the box; there was no box. They built the box... and turned it into a giraffe". It's entirely possible I invented the last bit.

In Matthew Smith's extra footage interview, we discover how the bedroom-coding genius of Manic Miner fame charmed the humble Speccy 48k into dancing to tunes even Clive didn't know were in its repertoire. As a precocious 17 year old with no previous experience of game development, he set out coding on the obscure TRS 80 computer. The assembly code for Manic Miner was written on this and 'injected' intravenously into the Spectrum's bloodstream with nigh-on instantaneous effects, allowing him to quickly recover from crashes, and as anyone familiar with the Spectrum will know, these were far from rare occurrences.

At the time it wasn't possible to simply hook one machine up to the other to allow them to communicate. Nevertheless, rather than accept this hardware limitation and muddle through, coding on the ill-equipped Spectrum, he invented his own interface board and continued developing on his favoured machine.

Sadly, time and fame haven't been kind to Matthew. Under the pressure of his over-night notoriety, he seemingly came off the rails, somehow ending up living in a commune in Amsterdam in 1995 where he flew under the radar for several years before re-emerging in Britain looking extremely dishevelled following deportation for failing to "keep his residency papers in order".

Bedrooms to Billions doesn't delve into what happened during these 'wilderness years', and perhaps Matthew would be too private a person to divulge this, but I imagine the story would make for a fascinating follow-up.

Nothing defines retro-gaming quite like Jeff Minter with a sheep...
...well perhaps Jeff Minter and a llama
Other talented developers picked up the mantle and forged ahead creating ever more expansive virtual worlds with what little technology they had at their disposal. The limitations of the hardware, through necessity, taught programmers to be inventive. 'Impossible' was scratched from the dictionary as computers were hacked to achieve feats far beyond their original scope. Bugs were imaginatively exploited for artistic ends, while music composition was an exercise in tricking the hardware into producing one sequence of melodies or another. They weren't after-all off-the-peg instruments in themselves, but could be coaxed into something resembling one with the right talented individuals at the helm pulling their strings.

Computers geeks set a precedent by making it feasible for the average person to influence the characters on their TV screens as opposed to passively absorbing a movie for instance, and this was a colossal technological leap forwards for entertainment. It was their ability to engineer this unparalleled wizardry that elevated them - in playgrounds up and down the country - to pedestals shared only by the likes of rock stars.

Soon one person development teams morphed into small bands of coders, artists and musicians who set themselves up in pokey, phoneless offices, often above shops. Critical marketing calls were sometimes made from roadside telephone boxes as and when the traffic noise allowed. As Peter Molyneux recalls in the documentary, some of them weren't even furnished with the bare essentials necessary to make a place of work habitable. In the early days his team took it in turns to use the sink as a toilet because that's all there was!

While the structure and segmentation of these development teams was rapidly evolving, they remained in control of their artistic direction, and it was this autonomy that allowed their creative juices to flow, leading to the emergence of some of the most innovative and original games ever produced.

It certainly didn't go unnoticed - 'software houses' couldn't stuff envelopes with their wares fast enough to keep up with public demand. The money poured in and was often impulsively 'invested' in fast cars and even faster lifestyles. Developers worked hard and played hard with no real consideration towards balancing the books, and some met their untimely demise at the hands of the receivers as a result.

Companies burnt themselves out, as did individuals. Mark Healey - of Bullfrog and Lionhead fame - at one point was travelling the length and breath of the country coding as a freelancer and sleeping under desks to squeeze every last drop of productivity out of his days. In a decidedly surreal moment of his interview he reveals that the stress was causing him to produce *ahem*, albino toilet deposits shall we say? I wasn't quite sure I'd heard him correctly so Googled it, and true enough there's a logical biological explanation for it. Stress can inhibit the liver's ability to produce adequate levels of bile salts to be stored in the gallbladder and secreted into the intestines to aid digestion, and it is these salts that give faeces its more typical brown colour. You don't get this in The Guardian's movie review section do you? I aim to please.

When your pocket money is severely limited, yet the number of games available to fritter it away on aren't, how are you to make any sort of informed decision about what to buy and what to bury in a desert landfill? In the early days it was pot luck what you ended up with. All you had to go on was a brief synopsis littered with hyperbole and an artist's dramatic impression of the general theme of a game, and of course these were cobbled together by the developers themselves who wouldn't be the most impartial of critics.

The solution was to round up the kids who lived and breathed computer games, had played the majority of them and knew their Skool Daze from their ETs, and get them to review the new releases. Luckily they were a self-selecting bunch as they spent all their free time loitering in the game shops so weren't difficult to root out. The most vociferously opinionated individuals were offered jobs working for iconoclastic magazines such as Zzap!64 and Crash. These in particular developed a cult following because gamers appreciated their bold, unrestrained opinion pieces. Consumers could trust their reviews because they knew they were written by like-minded gamers of a similar age, and not odd-jobbing, middle-aged journalists who could just as easily be writing about garden hoses if it was lucrative enough. The most talented reviewers were revered much like those developing the games under scrutiny. They had the potential to make or break a game... and they knew it.

Some of my most cherished memories of those days are punctuated by the fervent acquisition of Crash cover tapes. Once these became a fixture for gaming magazines, I'd await their release with bated breath... probably not advisable for someone who suffered from chronic asthma. Live fast, croak young baby! The Spectrum was worth it! ;)

In those days a new demo really meant something. It was a window into another world for me; I didn't care that it constituted a fraction of the full game because I was unlikely to ever see the end in any case; I never was the most accomplished player. Without the internet, social media or YouTube to distract me, I wrung every last drop of entertainment out of these tasters before moving onto the next big thing. I can still picture the earlier neon-coloured covers featuring little more in the way of artwork than the names of the games contained within printed in block capitals. That's all it took to draw me to the honey pot. I knew what to expect because I'd read the previews several months prior to their official unveiling.

Above all else, this is what I mourn for when I look back on my distant childhood. That sense of things - and new experiences - being all-consuming, significant, inducing wide-eyed appreciation. Watching Bedrooms to Billions I'm transported right back to those formative years; it's a poignant commemoration of the wonder of youth, and also the boundless possibilities for human ingenuity.

With sales soaring exponentially, mail order without a dedicated logistics team was no longer going to cut it (the muster or mustard, take your pick). Selling software directly to the public at micro fairs plugged the gap for a brief period, though it wasn't until the likes of heavyweight retailers John Menzies (who were later eaten by WH Smith) and Boots saw an opportunity to piggyback on this trailblazing golden goose that the industry really stepped up a gear. Developers were able to get back to doing what they did best and the floodgates were opened to other corporate investors who wanted a piece of the pie. 

Publishers offered to take care of the business end of operations and a much tighter reign was kept on the purse strings. With more at stake than ever before, management began imposing all kinds of stipulations upon the kind of releases that would be deemed marketable, and this inevitably stifled freedom and creativity. New releases from then on were much more likely to take the form of bankable, safe bets such as sequels or licensed games with a ready-made consumer awareness and distinctive brand.

When the Sega and Nintendo console juggernaut hit British shores, the situation would only get worse for the early bedroom-coding free-thinkers. If a publisher wanted to release a game for the Megadrive or SNES platform for instance, they would be required to pay a hefty license fee and have the idea sanctioned by the gaming equivalent of the nanny state. This meant the death knell for many small developers who simply couldn't match the financial clout of the mainstream publishers so were swiftly elbowed out of these newly emerging markets; a state of affairs gaming journalist Julian Rignall refers to as the 'brain-drain'. 

It's a slippery and depressingly short slope. Before we know it, the documentary thrusts us kicking and screaming into the epoch of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One with its entourage of artists, musicians, coders and peripheral management and admin staff, cubicle-farm corporate offices and two year risk-averse development cycles. Fifa 17 meet Call of Duty 13.

This is my own real niggle with 'journey' documentaries of this sort. If you're a die-hard retro-gamer who staunchly believes the games industry today is a mere shadow of its former self, you'd really rather not reach the foregone conclusion, the climax of its destination. I lapped up the bedrooms from the edge of my seat, but would rather the billions didn't happen. Perhaps I'll edit it and release my own Benjamin Button-esque special edition DVD whereby we finish at square one and go out on a high!

I can't overestimate what Nicola and Anthony have achieved here. To take so many - what I'd imagine would be highly disjointed and rambling - interviews, and lovingly weave them together to form such a coherent, progressive narrative is a true testament to their dedication and affection for the subject matter. There's no narrator to bridge the themes, you don't see the interviewers or hear them; it's all about the geeks, and their unbridled odyssey through the computer-gaming landscape of yesteryear.

Is it possible to suffer PTSD through watching a DVD? As the closing credits of Bedrooms to Billions faded to black, it dawned on me that I'd just seen a documentary based on the metamorphosis of computer gaming over the last three decades that didn't mention that damn plumber from the Planet Bland, or Tonic the Sledgefrog (or whatever he's called), save for a few fleeting glimpses when the Megadrive puts in an appearance. I can't stress enough how refreshing it is to witness the long-overdue recognition of the pivotal role played by UK games producers.

That said, as marvellous as Bedrooms to Billions is, there's a gargantuan, unavoidable vacuum running through its core; the distinct lack of coverage of 'The Amiga Years'. What's that, there's a sequel in the works? Whatcha gonna call that then?

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