Flashback: Remembering five historic British video game developers and publishers
The reason why the UK games industry is so successful today is partially down to it’s rich history. From the games companies who brought us Lara Croft, Grand Theft Auto, and Fable, the UK’s historical games scene has greatly shaped the future of the industry both domestically and internationally.
Let’s take a look at some studios and publishers who are no longer with us, but whose legacy is still significant in the present day.
DMA Design (1984-2002)
The most recent installment in the infamous Grand theft Auto (GTA) series was recently crowned as the best-selling entertainment product of all time. But while GTA is associated with its grimy representation of American metropoles, the original GTA was created in a Scottish city known for jute, jam and journalism by a group of ex-classmates.
DMA Design holds its roots in Dundee’s Kingsway Amateur Computer Club. In 1984, founders David Jones, Steve Hammond, Mike Dailly and Russell Kay would meet here to create their own games on the most popular personal computers of the day - the Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga 1000. The classmates later formed their first games company, Acme Software. Some went on to later attend the-then called Dundee Institute of Technology, later Abertay University, and began development on a game which would later be released as Menace in 1988.
During these baby steps of success, it was eventually discovered that the name Acme was already taken by another company. A brainstorming session followed, where DMA Design was born.
Following this, a string of games were published, and in 1991 the now infamous Lemmings series was established. But it was in 1997 that DMA Design’s legacy was fully solidified.
Originally titled Race’n’Chase and intended for release in 1996, Grand Theft Auto suffered numerous development setbacks as the small team struggled to keep everything together. It missed many of its production milestones and there were more than a few attempts to kill the game completely.
Fortunately, it lived and became a commercial hit. Upon its release GTA became a best-seller in the UK, shipping over 1 million units globally by the following year, and won the Gold Prize for revenue at the 1999 Milia Festival in Cannes for raking in revenues above 17million in Europe alone. GTA has gone on to be a massive financial and cultural success.
The success of the studio, and its philosophy of innovation, attracted the attention of Take-Two Interactive, who purchased the studio in 1998. And in 2002, DMA Design became Rockstar North - ending over a decade of highly productive work.
Core Design (1988-2006)
If it was surprising that GTA was first created in Dundee, then it may surprise you even more to find out that Lara Croft was born in Derby. But Lara wasn’t able to come into existence without the help of a company called Core Design
Founded in 1988, and led by Toby Gard and Paul Howard Douglas (formerly of Gremlin Graphics), Core Design initially released a range of titles for the Amiga, Atari, Sega CD and DOS systems. This included platform games like Rick Dangerous, a licensed racing game for Jaguar and even a Monty Python game.
But Core Design’s biggest success story came with the release of the first Tomb Raider in 1996. The game was conceived to be a trailblazer from the start - both in its choice of a daring female adventurer in the starring role, and as a 3D action-adventure game. CEO of the series publisher Eidos at the time, Ian Livingstone, later said how they had initially predicted that 100,000 units would be sold.
Lo and behold, it did much more than that. As well as selling over a million units worldwide, Lara became a worldwide cultural phenomenon. She crossed into Hollywood with the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, a film which grossed $300million worldwide and helped catapult Angelina Jolie into her action heroine fame. Each game released to success and high sales. Lucozade even temporarily renamed itself to ‘Larazade’ in 2001.
However, keeping the Lara bandwagon rolling took its toll on Core Design. Pushed into an annual release cycle, the team began to suffer burnout. By the fourth game, designer Andy Sandham recounted bluntly: “We all wanted to kill Lara” - and indeed they did, finishing the game on a scene with Lara getting trapped inside a tomb.
Their plan failed, however, and they released a further five games. It wasn't until their ninth, Angel of Darkness, that Core Design was set free. Angel of Darkness was tonally much darker than previous installments and released to mixed to negative reviews. Eidos then took the decision to relieve Core Design of Tomb Raider, passing the baton onto Californian studio Crystal Dynamics which has gone onto reboot the series twice with the most recent instalment Shadow of the Tomb Raider releasing in 2018.
Following the loss of Tomb Raider, three key members of Core Design resigned and the studio slowly evaporated, closing down in 2010. But their legacy remains in leaving behind a lasting iconic heroine and franchise that still tops games charts today.
Eidos Interactive (1984-2009)
Speaking of Lara Croft, the game’s publisher Eidos Interactive was another grand British video game publishing name.
It was seen by observers as Britain's “publishing superstar”, standing among international publishing giants like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. As demonstrated, Tomb Raider hit success after success, but it wasn’t just Lara that raked in fame and fortune for Eidos. In 2004, Eidos acquired the Danish development studio IO Interactive - taking their Hitman franchise and Agent 47 with them. Hitman: Blood Money was published in 2006, regarded as one of the best in the series after selling 1.5million copies in two months.
However, their story began to take a turn for the worse. Tomb Raider’s Angel of Darkness damaged Eidos’ wallet and image, and in 2003 the developer of Championship Manager, Sports Interactive, left the Eidos family and went on to develop the now-ubiquitous Football Manager. By 2004, they began actively looking to be acquired, and it was assumed that Elevation Partners, led by an ex-COO of games company giant EA would be the victor.
However, to some industry insider’s confusion, it eventually went to the much smaller British publisher SCi Entertainment and Eidos were able to retain their name despite a brief period of going by SCi’s brand. But this wasn’t enough, and in 2009, Japanese behemoth Square Enix acquired Eidos and folded it into their juggernaut - ending their reign as one of the biggest publishers in the UK.
When companies fold or get acquired, other companies tend to follow in their wake. Lionhead Studios,which was founded by industry legend Peter Molyneux alongside Mark Webley, Tim Rance and Steve Jackson in 1997, was a perfect example of this.
Named after Webley’s pet hamster, the studio founded in 1997 after Molyneux left Bullfrog Productions - the legendary Guildford based publisher he helped found in 1987 responsible for Theme Park, Syndicate and Populous - due to creative differences.
Their first title, Black & White, released to public and critical acclaim, winning BAFTA Awards for Interactivity and Moving Images in 2001 (the same year that Bullfrog, ironically, went under).
By 2002 Lionhead was developing six games at the same time through various satellite studios - one of which was the first installment of the Fable series.
Fable, which was developed by the as then independent Big Blue Box released in 2004, was an story-driven RPG set in a fantasy world tinged with what one developer described as a “Monty Python-esque comedy”. It became a massive commercial and critical success - providing Lionhead with a major franchise to call its own.
By 2005, Lionhead fell into financial difficulties. Their history of success however had piqued the interest of Microsoft and Ubisoft, with the former succeeding in acquiring Lionhead in 2006. Fable II soon followed in 2009, once again to critical acclaim, and Fable III to slightly less positive reviews in 2011.
However, things started to go downhill. In what was nicknamed “Black Monday”, 2012 saw several Lionhead veterans resign in disagreement with the direction that the studio was going in, and Molyneux followed months after. The Lionhead that remained began to work on Fable Legends, a free-to-play multiplayer, despite a desire to begin development on a single-player, adult Fable IV.
In 2016, however, Microsoft announced the cancellation of Fable Legends and the closure of Lionhead Studios. The Fable series today remains an infamous, quintessentially British RPG and is reportedly set for a comeback in the coming years.
And while Lionhead is long gone, it has left Guildford with a games legacy, with triple A companies like Ubisoft, Epic Games and EA residing alongside independent studios like Hello Games, Playsport Games and Fireproof Studios.
Mastertronic was founded by a group of businessmen, Martin Alper, Frank Herman, Terry Medway and Alan Sharam in 1983.
Despite having little experience with the then developing video games market, what they had was extensive experience in marketing, distribution and a clear strategy for success: to sell games as cheaply as possible to entice retailers into listing their titles.
To really understand the legacy and impact they had on the UK games industry, computer games at time time weren’t clearly retailed. They were sold in electrical stores or photographic shops, but high street chains were confused and had little desire to commit to an industry which faced a crash only the year before, and where studios were opening and closing at dizzying levels. How would returns work? Could customers test the game before buying? It was completely unfamiliar territory.
What Mastertronic did was to sell budget games to garages, newsagents, groceries, and high street chains such as WH Smith and Woolworths. By distributing games in 100-cassette packs with ready made cardboard shelves and selling them at £1.99 (roughly one fifth of the average retail price at the time), Mastertronic was able to impress retailers with a highly professionalised operation at a time when the industry was developing.
However, the budget games market began to unwind through the 80s. Mastertronic stumbled on a couple of ventures, including an attempt at developing arcade games.
The company was eventually taken over by Japanese giant Sega in 1991. Its brand was then revived in 2004 as the Mastertronic Group and this reboot lasted for 11 years before it entered administration in November 2015.
Which historic British video game companies do you remember for their influence on the sector? Let us know on Twitter by tagging @uk_ie and using #30YearsOfPlay.