Before The 30 Years of Play: the development of the UK interactive entertainment industry
Although we’re running the 30 years of play campaign this year, the UK interactive entertainment sector has a long history that exists well before ELSPA/Ukie was first founded in 1989.
It’s been said that the behemoth that is the video game industry today was built from Japanese boardrooms, American courtrooms, and British bedrooms. The UK games industry began with pioneering steps by the best and brightest in the country, before being developed by thousands of adventurous bedroom coders who went to school in the day and created innovative hits at night. By the end of the 80s, games became such a massive venture that ELSPA was formed.
We’ll be taking a look at some of the landmark achievements, games and companies who made the sector what it is today…
The British video games industry began earlier than you may think. Following the war and his groundbreaking work on cracking the Enigma machine, the father of computer science Alan Turing spent two years on the creation of a chess-playing programme.
He never managed to test it on a computer before his untimely death in 1956 - but his work was beyond his years. Despite chess champion Garry Kasparov beating the programme in 2012, he acknowledged that it was an “outstanding achievement” for its time, especially considering how Turing managed write such an algorithm without a computer.
After the devastation of the Second World War, the UK Government decided to boost morale and show off it’s successful recovery by hosting the Festival of Britain in 1951. Unlike previous fairs in British history which had an international flair to them such as the Great Exhibition in 1851, the fair would entirely be based around British contributions to science and technology.
Ferranti employee John Bennett suggested that they create a computer that would play the game of Nim. Nim is a mathematical game in which players take turn to remove matches, the winner being whoever gets to remove the last match. Ferranti promptly got to work, creating the Nimrod machine, arguably one of the earliest computer game systems. At the Festival of Britain, it was a hit with attendees - and even played by Alan Turing himself.
However, it was never intended as an entertainment system despite how fun attendees found playing it. With its job complete after another showcase at the Berlin Industrial Show, it was sadly dismantled.
The first graphical computer game is credited to Alexander S. Douglas, who created OXO, a game of tic-tac-toe on the EDSAC computer whilst at Cambridge. It was one of the earliest known games to display visuals on a computer monitor.
The history of video games isn’t all just about computing. 1975 saw the establishment of Games Workshop.
Founded by industry giants Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, Games Workshop soon carved a niche in selling pen and paper role-playing games after discovering Dungeons & Dragons. You may wonder how this could possibly be related to video games. But the computer RPGs which are enjoyed by millions around the world today would not exist without the foundations of these early non-computing RPGs - designing characters, choosing one’s class and stats, and deep narrative stories were all hallmarks of the original RPGs which are so familiar in the ones we see on games consoles now
Thanks to the success of Games Workshop, Livingstone and Jackson later persuaded Geraldine Cookie of Penguin Books to publish a book based on the role-playing phenomenon - which led to a British one of its own.
Inspired by the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels which were being published in the States at the time, Livingstone and Jackson decided to combine both the mechanism of allowing the reader to make choices determining the direction of the plot, and the role-playing elements seen in the paper/board games their retail shops were selling. The Fighting Fantasy series was born in 1982 as a result. Readers created their own protagonists and made their own choices, fighting enemies along the way - and even possibly having their hero die! - all inside one book.
The incredibly clever and innovative framework was a success. The original series sold up to 20 million copies and stoked the fires of inspiration in the minds of early British games developers.
You might think that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft were the creation of the internet age. But it may then come as a surprise, then, that the genre has it’s humble roots in the UK in the late 1970s.
Two Essex University students, Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, created MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) in 1978 – a text-based role-playing adventure game set in a fantasy world. Incredibly for it’s time, players were able to play together on the university network – making MUD a significant milestone in the development of MMORPGs.
Before the legendary Spectrum came the ZX80. Created by Science of Cambridge Ltd (later Sinclair Research), the ZX80 was named after its z80 processor - with an X denoting the ‘mystery ingredient’ that made it magic.
It was the first computer in the UK that cost less than £100. Consumers could purchase it for £99.95, or even have a go at assembling it themselves for £75.95.
In 1981, the BBC Micro was born, shortly after ITV’s documentary series The Mighty Micro, where it was predicted that the world was on the precipice of a microcomputer revolution. While today we often hear concerns about encroaching AI technologies and self-driving cars, in the early days of the 80s, the microchip was the source of much anxiety in Britain - The Mighty Micro gave the sense that Britain was falling light years behind.
Against this backdrop of worries over the nation’s industrial decline and whether Britain would struggle to keep up in the dawn of a digital era, the BBC commissioned the creation of a personal computer to be used at home and in schools as part of their wider Computer Literacy Project to boost the digital skills of the population. The BBC Micro was the result, the platform for many iconic and classic games for years to come.
The ZX Spectrum home computer was released, the successor to the ZX81, developed by Sinclair Research. it was the British equivalent of the Commodore 64 in America, and a great number of games were developed for this system. By 1982, young adults and adolescents across Britain were trying their hand at games creation. As of yet, there were no high-street retail outlets for video games - and so fledgling programmers and games designers sold games through mail order instead.
One such early games designer was Jez San, who created studio Argonaut Games. He was a teenager at the time. Jez San would later go on to make Starglider in 1986, and work directly with games industry legend and creator of Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto at Nintendo. Jez San helped develop the first 3D graphics accelerator Super FX, and in turn, smash-hit game Star Fox in the 1990s.
The “Wild West” British games development scene was in full swing amongst the cultural atmosphere of punk, rebellion, and entrepreneurship.
In the high heat of Thatcher’s premiership and the miners Strikes, 17-year-old Matthew Smith created the aptly named Manic Miner in just six weeks on a borrowed ZX Spectrum.
The game, featuring Willy the miner crawling through caverns, dodging dangers and collecting shiny objects, sported impressive visual quality for the time and sold in significant numbers in the UK.
Unfortunately, over the pond, things weren't looking quite as healthy.. The American Video Game Crash kicked off, only finally ending in 1985. This had a significant knock on impact on the British video games industry.
As a result of the Crash in the US, the British market slowed. But while the market slowed, another major early player in British video games history.
Gremlin Graphics was established in Sheffield and created its first game Wanted: Monty Mole. The game, which was another title inspired by the mining strikes running during its development, proved to be enough of a hit to earn Monty Mole an entire series of games.
But while Monty may have proven a hit for Gremlin Graphics, its arguable that its biggest contribution to the British video games industry would come after it splintered. A number of Gremlin employees split away from the company to found a company called Core Design. Ten years later, it would help create one of the biggest cultural and financial phenomenons of not only the British games industry, but the whole entertainment sector: Tomb Raider. And that game would play a significant role in propelling the industry to further heights in the middle of the 1990s.
However, there were further developments in 1985 worth shouting about. Continuing the tradition of curious students creating successful video games, David Braben and Ian Bell developed Elite for the BBC Micro whilst at Cambridge University. Its combination of unique visual design, enormous game world and pioneering concept helped propel it into the sales stratosphere: making it the first non-American game to become a US best seller
And with the popularity of games increasing, chart organisations were forced to respond. Gallup expanded their official music weekly sales charts to create a computer games chart - helping the industry to meaningfully track its commercial performance.
One of Britain’s oldest still-running games studios, Codemasters, was established. They released BMX Simulator, one example of their philosophy to create ‘full-priced quality games’ for ‘budget prices’ in the hopes of developing a loyal customer base. This helped the company to establish itself as a major player in the British video games industry, laying the foundations for its long term success.
A big factor in the rise of Codemasters - and the sector as the whole - came in 1987 from what could be described as an unusual source. Namely, an anthropomorphic egg with a perchance for exploring fantasy settings.
The first game of the Dizzy series, which was created by the Oliver Twins, landed in 1987. It proved to be a commercial smash hit and one of the first long term video game franchises, with twelve separate Dizzy titles topping the charts from the late 1980s into the 1990s.
Beyond commercial success, Dizzy mattered because he was one of the first video game characters to go beyond the game itself. With Dizzy becoming the focus of books, mugs and other merchandising, the late 80s egg foreshadowed much of what was to come for iconic video game characters.
1989 was the when year when one of the first auteurs of the British video games industry emerged. Peter Molyneux, led the development of Populous. The game was pioneering - establishing the ‘god game’ genre, players would act as a deity, controlling landscapes and cultivating follows. The game went on to inspire many others in the god-game genre and is credited to opening up the appeal of games to women as well as men. Molyneux would later found Lionhead Studios, developer of the hugely successful Fable series.
With the technology and popularity of games advancing rapidly and bedroom coders becoming increasingly professionalised, 1989 also saw another important development too. On the 6th September, the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA) was founded – providing the video games industry with its first dedicated trade association to represent its interests.