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Lemmings 2: The Tribes

When the lads at DMA Design started making the original Lemmings, they envisioned that it would allow you to bestow about twenty different “skills” upon your charges. But as they continued working on the game, they threw more and more of the skills out, both to make the programming task simpler and to make the final product more playable. They finally ended up with just eight skills, the perfect number to neatly line up as buttons along the bottom of the screen. In the process of this ruthless culling, Lemmings became a classic study in doing more with less in game design: those eight skills, combined in all sorts of unexpected ways, were enough to take the player through 120 ever-more-challenging levels in the first Lemmings, then 100 more in the admittedly less satisfying pseudo-sequel/expansion pack Oh No! More Lemmings.

Yet when the time came to make the first full-fledged sequel, DMA resurrected some of their discarded skills. And then they added many, many more of them: Lemmings 2: The Tribes wound up with no less than 52 skills in all. For this reason not least, it’s often given short shrift by critics, who compare its baggy maximalism unfavorably with the first game’s elegant minimalism. To my mind, though, Lemmings 2 is almost a Platonic ideal of a sequel, building upon the genius of the original game in a way that’s truly challenging and gratifying to veterans. Granted, it isn’t the place you should start; by all means, begin with the classic original. When you’ve made it through those 120 levels, however, you’ll find 120 more here that are just as perplexing, frustrating, and delightful — and with even more variety to boot, courtesy of all those new skills.



The DMA Design that made Lemmings 2 was a changed entity in some ways. The company had grown in the wake of the first game’s enormous worldwide success, such that they had been forced to move out of their cozy digs above a baby store in the modest downtown of Dundee, Scotland, and into a more anonymous office in a business park on the outskirts of town. The core group that had created the first Lemmings — designer, programmer, and DMA founder David Jones; artists and level designers Mike Dailly and Gary Timmons; programmer and level designer Russell Kay — all remained on the job, but they were now joined by an additional troupe of talented newcomers.

Lemmings 2 also reflects changing times inside the games industry in ways that go beyond the size of its development team. Instead of 120 unrelated levels, there’s now a modicum of story holding things together. A lengthy introductory movie — which, in another telling sign of the times, fills more disk space than the game itself and required almost as many people to make — tells how the lemmings were separated into twelve tribes, all isolated from one another, at some point in the distant past. Now, the island (continent?) on which they live is facing an encroaching Darkness which will end all life there. Your task is to reunite the tribes, by guiding each of them through ten levels to reach the center of the island. Once all of the tribes have gathered there, they can reassemble a magical talisman, of which each tribe conveniently has one piece, and use it to summon a flying ark that will whisk them all to safety.

It’s not exactly an air-tight plot, but no matter; you’ll forget about it anyway as soon as the actual game begins. What’s really important are the other advantages of having twelve discrete progressions of ten levels instead of a single linear progression of 120. You can, you see, jump around among all these tribes at will. As David Jones said at the time of the game’s release, “We want to get away from ‘you complete a level or you don’t.'” When you get frustrated banging your head against a single stubborn level — and, this being a Lemmings game, you will get frustrated — you can just go work on another one for a while.

Rather than relying largely on the same set of graphics over the course of its levels, as the original does, each tribe in Lemmings 2 has its own audiovisual theme: there are beach-bum lemmings, Medieval lemmings, spooky lemmings, circus lemmings, alpine lemmings, astronaut lemmings, etc. In a tribute to the place where the game was born, there are even Scottish Highland lemmings (although Dundee is actually found in the less culturally distinctive — or culturally clichéd — Lowlands). And there’s even a “classic” tribe that reuses the original graphics; pulling it up feels a bit like coming home from an around-the-world tour.


Teaching Old Lemmings New Tricks

In this Beach level, a lemming uses the “kayak” skill to cross a body of water.

In this Medieval level, one lemming has become an “attractor”: a minstrel who entrances all the lemmings around him with his music, keeping them from marching onward. Meanwhile one of his colleagues is blazing a trail in front for the rest to eventually follow.

In this Shadow level, the lemming in front has become a “Fencer.” This allows him to dig out a path in front of himself at a slight upward angle. (Most of the skills in the game that at first seem bewilderingly esoteric actually do have fairly simple effects.)

In this Circus level, one lemming has become a “rock climber”: a sort of super-powered version of an ordinary climber, who can climb even a canted wall like this one.

In this Polar level, a lemming has become a “roper,” making a handy tightrope up and over the tree blocking the path.

In this Space level, we’ve made a “SuperLem” who flies in the direction of the mouse cursor.


Other pieces of plumbing help to make Lemmings 2 feel like a real, holistic game rather than a mere series of puzzles. The first game, as you may recall, gives you an arbitrary number of lemmings which begin each level and an arbitrary subset of them which must survive it; this latter number thus marks the difference between success and failure. In the sequel, though, each tribe starts its first level with 60 lemmings, who are carried over through all of the levels that follow. Any lemmings lost on one level, in other words, don’t come back in the succeeding ones. It’s possible to limp to the final finish line with just one solitary survivor remaining — and, indeed, you quite probably will do exactly this with a few of the tribes the first time through. But it’s also possible to finish all but a few of the levels without killing any lemmings at all. At the end of each level and then again at the end of each tribe’s collection of levels, you’re awarded a bronze, silver, or gold star based on your performance. To wind up with gold at the end, you usually need to have kept every single one of the little fellows alive through all ten levels. There’s a certain thematic advantage in this: people often note how the hyper-cute original Lemmings is really one of the most violent videogames ever, requiring you to kill thousands and thousands of the cuties over its course. This objection no longer applies to Lemmings 2. But more importantly, it sets up an obsessive-compulsive-perfectionist loop. First you’ll just want to get through the levels — but then all those bronze and silver performances lurking in your past will start to grate, and pretty soon you’ll be trying to figure out how to do each level just that little bit more efficiently. The ultimate Lemmings 2 achievement, needless to say, is to collect gold stars across the board.

This tiered approach to success and failure might be seen as evidence of a kinder design sensibility, but in most other respects just the opposite is true; Lemmings 2 has the definite feel of a game for the hardcore. The first Lemmings does a remarkably good job of teaching you how to play it interactively over the course of its first twenty levels or so, introducing you one by one to each of its skills along with its potential uses and limitations. There’s nothing remotely comparable in Lemmings 2; it just throws you in at the deep end. While there is a gradual progression in difficulty within each tribe’s levels, the game as a whole is a lumpier affair, especially in the beginning. Each level gives you access to between one and eight of the 52 available skills, whilst evincing no interest whatsoever in showing you how to use any of them. There is some degree of thematic grouping when it comes to the skills: the Highland lemmings like to toss cabers; the beach lemmings are fond of swimming, kayaking, and surfing; the alpine lemmings often need to ski or skate. Nevertheless, the sheer number of new skills you’re expected to learn on the fly is intimidating even for a veteran of the first game. The closest Lemmings 2 comes to its predecessor’s training levels are a few free-form sandbox environments where you can choose your own palette of skills and have at it. But even here, your education can be a challenging one, coming down as it still does to trial and error.

Your first hours with the game can be particularly intimidating; as soon as you’ve learned how one group of skills works well enough to finish one level, you’re confronted with a whole new palette of them on the next level. Even I, a huge fan of the first game, bounced off the second one quite a few times before I buckled down, started figuring out the skills, and, some time thereafter, started having fun.

Luckily, once you have put in the time to learn how the skills work, Lemmings 2 becomes very fun indeed, — every bit as rewarding as the first game, possibly even more so. Certainly its level design is every bit as good — better in fact, relying more on logic and less on dodgy edge cases in the game engine than do the infamously difficult final levels of the first Lemmings. Even the spiky difficulty curve isn’t all bad; it can be oddly soothing to start on a new tribe’s relatively straightforward early levels after being taxed to the upmost on another tribe’s last level. If the first Lemmings is mountain climbing as people imagine it to be — a single relentless, ever-steeper ascent to a dizzying peak — the second Lemmings has more in common with the reality of the sport: a set of more or less difficult stages separated by more or less comfortable base camps. While it’s at least as daunting in the end, it does offer more ebbs and flows along the way.

One might say, then, that Lemmings 2 is designed around a rather literal interpretation of the concept of a sequel. That is to say, it assumes that you’ve played its predecessor before you get to it, and are now ready for its added complexity. That’s bracing for anyone who fulfills that criterion. But in 1993, the year of Lemmings 2‘s release, its design philosophy had more negative than positive consequences for its own commercial arc and for that of the franchise to which it belonged.

The fact is that Lemmings 2‘s attitude toward its sequel status was out of joint with the way sequels had generally come to function by 1993. In a fast-changing industry that was fast attracting new players, the ideal sequel, at least in the eyes of most industry executives, was a game equally welcoming to both neophytes and veterans. Audiovisual standards were changing so rapidly that a game that was just a couple of years old could already look painfully dated. What new player with a shiny new computer wanted to play some ugly old thing just to earn a right to play the latest and greatest?

That said, Lemmings 2 actually didn’t look all that much better than its predecessor either, flashy opening movie aside. Part of this was down to DMA Design still using the 1985-vintage Commodore Amiga, which was still very popular as a gaming computer in Britain and other European countries, as their primary development platform, then porting the game to MS-DOS and various other more modern platforms. Staying loyal to the Amiga meant working within some fairly harsh restrictions, such as that of having no more than 32 colors on the screen at once, not to mention making the whole game compact enough to run entirely off floppy disk; hard drives, much less CD-ROM drives, were still not common among European Amiga owners. Shortly before the release of Lemmings 2, David Jones confessed to being “a little worried” about whether people would be willing to look beyond the unimpressive graphics and appreciate the innovations of the game itself. As it happened, he was right to be worried.

Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings sold in the millions across a bewildering range of platforms, from modern mainstream computers like the Apple Macintosh and Wintel machines to antique 8-bit computers like the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, from handheld systems like the Nintendo Game Boy and Atari Lynx to living-room game consoles like the Sega Master System and the Nintendo Entertainment System. Lemmings 2, being a much more complex game under the hood as well as on the surface, wasn’t quite so amenable to being ported to just about any gadget with a CPU, even as its more off-putting initial character and its lack of new audiovisual flash did it no favors either. It was still widely ported and still became a solid success by any reasonable standard, mind you, but likely sold in the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. All indications are that the first game and its semi-expansion pack continued to sell more copies than the second even after the latter’s release.

In the aftermath of this muted reception, the bloom slowly fell off the Lemmings rose, not only for the general public but also for DMA Design themselves. The franchise’s true jump-the-shark moment ironically came as part of an attempt to re-jigger the creatures to become media superstars beyond the realm of games. The Children’s Television Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street among other properties, was interested in moving the franchise onto television screens. In the course of these negotiations, they asked DMA to give the lemmings more differentiated personalities in the next game, to turn them from anonymous marchers, each just a few pixels across, into something more akin to individualized cartoon characters. Soon the next game was being envisioned as the first of a linked series of no less than four of them, each one detailing the further adventures of three of the tribes after their escape from the island at the end of Lemmings 2, each one ripe for trans-media adaptation by the Children’s Television Workshop. But the first game of this new generation, called The Lemmings Chronicles, just didn’t work. The attempt to cartoonify the franchise was cloying and clumsy, and the gameplay fell to pieces; unlike Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles eminently deserves its underwhelming critical reputation. DMA insiders like Mike Dailly have since admitted that its was developed more out of obligation than enthusiasm: “We were all ready to move on.” When it performed even worse than its predecessor, the Children’s Television Workshop dropped out; all of its compromises had been for nothing.

Released just a year after Lemmings 2, Lemmings Chronicles marked the last game in the six-game contract that DMA Design had signed with their publisher Psygnosis what seemed like an eternity ago — in late 1987 to be more specific, when David Jones had first come to Psygnosis with his rather generic outer-space shoot-em-up Menace, giving no sign that he was capable of something as ingenious as Lemmings. Now, having well and truly demonstrated their ingenuity, DMA had little interest in re-upping; they were even willing to leave behind all of their intellectual property, which the contract Jones had signed gave to Psygnosis in perpetuity. In fact, they were more than ready to leave behind the cute-and-cuddly cartoon aesthetic of Lemmings and return to more laddish forms of gaming. The eventual result of that desire would be a second, more long-lasting worldwide phenomenon, known as Grand Theft Auto.

Meanwhile Sony, who had acquired Psygnosis in 1993, continued off and on to test the waters with new iterations of the franchise, but all of those attempts evinced the same vague sense of ennui that had doomed Lemmings Chronicles; none became hits. The last Lemmings game that wasn’t a remake appeared in 2000.

It’s interesting to ask whether DMA Design and Psygnosis could have managed the franchise better, thereby turning it into a permanent rather than a momentary icon of gaming, perhaps even one on a par with the likes of Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog; they certainly had the sales to compete head-to-head with those other videogame icons for a few years there in the early 1990s. The obvious objection is that Mario and Sonic were individualized characters, while DMA’s lemmings were little more than a handful of tropes moving in literal lockstep. Still, more has been done with less in the annals of media history. If everyone had approached Lemmings Chronicles with more enthusiasm and a modicum more writing and branding talent, maybe the story would have turned out differently.

Many speculate today that the franchise must inevitably see another revival at some point, what with 21st-century pop culture’s tendency to mine not just the A-list properties of the past, but increasingly its B- and C-listers as well, in the name of one generation’s nostalgia and another’s insatiable appetite for kitsch. Something tells me as well that we haven’t seen the last of Lemmings, but, as of this writing anyway, the revival still hasn’t arrived.

As matters currently stand, then, the brief-lived but frenzied craze for Lemmings has gone down in history, alongside contemporaries like Tetris and The Incredible Machine, as one more precursor of the casual revolution in gaming that was still to come, with its very different demographics and aesthetics. But in addition to that, it gave us two games that are brilliant in their own right, that remain as vexing but oh-so-rewarding as they were in their heyday. Long may they march on.

One other surviving tribute to Dundee’s second most successful gaming franchise is this little monument at the entrance to the city’s Seabraes Park, erected by local artist Alyson Conway in 2013. Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto… not bad for a city of only 150,000 souls.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Compute! of January 1992; Amiga Format of May 1993 and the special 1992 annual; Retro Gamer 39; The One of November 1993; Computer Gaming World of July 1993.

Lemmings 2 has never gotten a digital re-release. I therefore make it available for download here, packaged to be as easy as possible to get running under DOSBox on your modern computer.)

 
 

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Games on the Mersey, Part 5: The Lemmings Effect

“Mummy, what’s a group of lemmings called?”

“A pact. That’s right, a suicide pact.”

“Mummy, when a lemming dies does it go to heaven like all good little girls?”

“Don’t be soft. They burn in hell — like distress flares.”

(courtesy of the January 1991 issue of The One)


 

If you had looked at the state of Psygnosis in 1990 and tried to decide which of their outside developers would break the mold of beautiful-but-empty action games, you would have no reason to single out DMA Design over any of the others. Certainly Menace and Blood Money, the two games DMA had already created for Psygnosis, gave little sign that any visionaries lurked within their ranks. From their generic teenage-cool titles to their rote gameplay, both games were as typical of Psygnosis as anything else in their catalog.

And yet DMA Design — and particularly their leader, David Jones — did in fact have abilities as yet undreamt of. People have a way of surprising you sometimes. And isn’t that a wonderful thing?


 

There are some interesting parallels between the early days of DMA Design and the early days of Imagine Software, that predecessor to Psygnosis. Like Imagine, DMA was born in a city far from the cultural capitals of Britain — even farther away than Liverpool, in fact, all the way up in Dundee, Scotland.

Dundee as well had traditionally been a working-class town that thrived as a seaport, until the increasing size of merchant ships gradually made the role untenable over the course of the twentieth century. Leaders in Dundee, as in Liverpool, worked earnestly to find new foundations for their city’s economy. And one of these vectors of economic possibility — yet again as in Liverpool — was electronics. Dundee convinced the American company National Cash Register Corporation, better known as NCR, to build their principal manufacturing plant for Britain and much of Europe there as early as 1945, and by the 1960s the city was known throughout Britain as a hub of electronics manufacture. Among the electronics companies that came to Dundee was Timex, the Norwegian/Dutch/American watchmaking conglomerate.

In 1980, Sinclair Research subcontracted out most of the manufacture of their new ZX80 home computer to the Timex plant in Dundee. The relationship continued with the ZX81, and then with Sinclair’s real heavy hitter, the Spectrum. By 1983, Timex was straining to keep up with demand for the little machines, hiring like mad in and around Dundee in order to keep the production lines rolling day and night.

David Jones. (It’s my understanding that the nose is removable.)

One of the people they hired was David Jones, 18 years old and fresh out of an experimental new “computer studies” program that was being pioneered in Dundee. He came to Timex on an apprenticeship, which paid for him to take more computer courses at nearby Kingsway Technical College.

Just as had Bruce Everiss’s Microdigital shop in Liverpool, Kingsway College was fomenting a hacking scene in Dundee, made up largely of working-class youths who but for this golden chance might have had to resign themselves to lives spent sweeping out warehouses. Both students of the college and interested non-students would meet regularly in the common areas to talk shop and, inevitably, to trade pirated games. Jones became one of the informal leaders of the collective. To ensure a steady supply of games for his mates, he even joined a cracking group in the international piracy “scene” who called themselves the Kent Team.

But for the most dedicated of the Kingsway gang, Jones among them, trading and playing games was a diversion rather than the real point. Like the gang as a whole, this hacker hardcore was of disparate temperaments and ages — one of them, named Mike Dailly, was just 14 years old when he started showing up at the college — but they were united by a certain seriousness about computers, by the fact that computers for them were, rather than just a hobby or even a potential means of making a living, an all-consuming passion. Unlike their more dilettantish peers, they were more interested in understanding how the games they copied worked and learning how to make their own than they were in playing them for their own sake.

In 1986, Sinclair sold their entire extant home-computer line to Amstrad, who promptly took the manufacturing of same in-house, leaving Timex out of a huge contract. Most of the Dundee plant’s employees, Jones among them, were laid off as a result. At the urging of his parents, he invested half of his £2000 severance check into a degree course in Computer Science at the Dundee College of Technology (now known as Abertay University). He used the other half to buy a Commodore Amiga.

Brand-new and pricey, the Amiga was still a very exotic piece of kit anywhere in Britain in 1986, much less in far-flung Dundee; Jones may very well have been the first person in his hometown to own one. His new computer made him more popular than ever among the Kingsway hackers. With the help of his best buddies from there and some others he’d met through the Kent Team, his experiments with his new toy gradually coalesced around making a shoot-em-up game that he could hopefully sell to a publisher.

David Jones first met Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson of Psygnosis in late 1987, when he took his shoot-em-up-in-progress to a Personal Computer World Show to hawk it to potential publishers. Still at that age when the events of last year, much less those of three years ago, seem like ancient history, he had little awareness of their company’s checkered past as Imagine, and less concern about it. “You know, I don’t think I even researched it that well,” he says. “I remember the stories about it, but back in those days everything was moving so quickly, it never even crossed my mind.” Instead he was wowed, like so many developers, by Psygnosis’s cool good looks. The idea of seeing his game gussied up by the likes of Roger Dean was a difficult one to resist. He also liked the fact that Psygnosis was, relatively speaking, close to Dundee: only about half a day by car.

Menace

Psygnosis was perhaps slightly less impressed. They agreed to publish the game, running it through their legendary art department in the process, giving it the requisite Roger Dean cover, and changing the name from the Psygnosis-like Draconia to the still more Psygnosis-like Menace. But they didn’t quite judge it to be up to the standard of their flagship games, publishing it in a smaller box under a new budget line they were starting called Psyclapse (a name shared with the proposed but never-completed second megagame from the Imagine days).

Still, even at a budget price and thus a budget royalty rate, Menace did well enough to make Jones a very happy young man, selling about 20,000 copies in the still emerging European Amiga market. It even got a showcase spot in the United States, when the popular television program Computer Chronicles devoted a rare episode to the Amiga and Commodore’s representative chose Menace as the game to show off alongside Interplay’s hit Battle Chess; host Stewart Cheifet was wowed by the “really hot graphics.” A huge auto buff — another trait he shared with the benighted original founders of Imagine — Jones made enough from the game to buy his first new car. It was a Vauxhall Astra hot hatch rather than a Ferrari, but, hey, you had to start somewhere.

Even before Menace‘s release, he had taken to calling his informal game-development club DMA Design, a name that fit right in with Psygnosis’s effect-obsessed aesthetic: “DMA” in the computer world is short for “Direct Memory Access,” something the Amiga’s custom chips all utilized to generate audiovisual effects without burdening the CPU. (When the glory days of Psygnosis with Amiga tech-heads had passed, Jones would take to saying that the name stood for “Doesn’t Mean Anything.”) In the wake of Menace‘s success, he decided to drop out of college and hang up his shingle in a cramped two-room space owned by his fiancée’s father, located on a quiet street above a baby shop and across the way from a fish-and-chips joint. He moved in in August of 1989, bringing with him many of his old Kingsway College mates on a full-time or part-time basis, as their circumstances and his little company’s income stream dictated.

DMA’s first office, a nondescript place perched above a baby shop in Dundee. That’s artist Gary Timmons peering out the window. It was in this improbable location that the most successful game the British games industry had produced to date was born.

DMA, which still had more the atmosphere of a computer clubhouse than a conventional company, gladly took on whatever projects Psygnosis threw them, including the rather thankless task of converting existing Amiga titles — among them Shadow of the Beast — to more limited, non-Amiga platforms like the Commodore 64. Meanwhile Jones shepherded to completion their second original game, another typically Psygnosisian confection called Blood Money. This game came out as a full-price title, a sign that they were working their way up through the ranks. Even better, it sold twice as many copies as had Menace.

So, they charged ahead on yet another game cut from the same cloth. Just about everything you need to know about their plans for Gore is contained in the name. Should you insist on more information, consider this sample from a magazine preview of the work-in-progress: “Slicing an adversary’s neck in two doesn’t necessarily guarantee its defeat. There’s a chance the decapitated head will sprout wings and fly right back at you!” But then, in the midst of work on that charming creation, fate intervened to change everything forever for DMA and Psygnosis alike.

The process that would lead to the most popular computer game the nation of Britain had yet produced had actually begun months before, in fact within days of the DMA crew moving into their new clubhouse. It all began with an argument.

Blood Money was in the final stages of development at the time — it would be released before the end of 1989 — and, having not yet settled on making Gore, Jones and company had been toying with ideas for a potential sequel they tentatively called Walker, based around one of the characters in Blood Money, a war robot obviously inspired by the Imperial walkers in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Scott Johnson, an artist whom DMA had recently rescued from a life of servitude behind the counter of the local McDonald’s, said that the little men which the walker in the new game would shoot with its laser gun and crush beneath its feet would need to be at least 16 by 16 pixels in size to look decent. Mike Dailly, the Kingsway club veteran, disagreed, and set up about trying to prove himself right by drawing them inside a box of just 8 by 8 pixels.

But once he got started drawing little men in Deluxe Paint, he just couldn’t stop. (Deluxe Paint did always tend to have that effect on people; not for nothing did artist George Christensen once call it “the greatest videogame ever designed.”) Just for fun, he added a ten-ton weight out of a Coyote-and-Road-Runner cartoon, which crushed the little fellows as they walked beneath it. Johnson soon jumped back into the fray as well, and the two wound up creating a screen-full of animations, mostly showing the little characters coming to various unhappy ends. Almost forgotten by the end of the day was the fact that Dailly had proved his point: a size of 8 by 8 pixels was enough.

This screen of Deluxe Paint animations, thrown together on a lark one afternoon by a couple of bored young men, would spawn a franchise which sold 15 million games.

It was another member of the DMA club, Russell Kay, who looked at the animations and spoke the fateful words: “There’s a game in that!” He took to calling the little men lemmings. It was something about the way they always seemed to be moving in lockstep and in great quantities across the screen whenever they showed up — and the way they were always blundering into whatever forms of imaginative deaths their illustrators could conjure up. The new name resulted in the appearance of the little men morphing into something not quite rodent-like but not quite human either, a bunch of vaguely Smurf-like fellows with bulbous noses and a cuteness people all over the world would soon find irresistible — even as they watched them die horribly by the dozens.

The very first lemmings

 


Did you know?

James Bond author Ian Fleming’s real name was in fact Ian Frank Lemming. It doesn’t take a genius to see how easily a mistake was made.

Success for Jane Lemming was always on the cards, but it took a change of name and hairstyle to become a top television personality — better known as Jan Leeming.

“One day you’ll be a big movie star,” someone once told leading Hollywood heartthrob Jack Lemmon (real name Jack Lemming). And he is.

(courtesy of the January 1991 issue of The One)

The actuality of real-world lemmings is in fact very different from the myth of little rodent soldiers following one another blindly off the side of a cliff. The myth, which may first have shown up in print in Cyril Kornbluth’s 1951 science-fiction story “The Marching Morons,” was popularized by Disney later in the decade, first in their cartoons and later in a purported nature documentary called White Wilderness, whose makers herded the poor creatures off a cliff while the cameras rolled.

While it has little to no basis in reality, the myth can be a difficult proposition to resist in terms of metaphor. Fans of Infocom’s interactive fiction may remember lemmings showing up in Trinity, where the parallel between lemmings marching off a cliff and Cold War nuclear brinkmanship becomes a part of author Brian Moriarty’s rich symbolic language. It’s safe to say, though, that no similarly rarefied thoughts about the creatures were swirling around DMA Design. They just thought they were really, really funny.


 

Despite Russell Kay’s prophetic comment, no one at DMA Design was initially in a hurry to do anything more with their lemmings than amuse themselves. For some months, the lemmings were merely a joke that was passed around DMA’s circle in Dundee in the form of pictures and animations, showing them doing various ridiculous things and getting killed in various hilarious ways.

In time, though, Jones found himself at something of an impasse with the Gore project. He had decided he simply couldn’t show all the gore he wanted to on a 512 K Amiga, but Psygnosis was extremely reluctant, despite the example of other recent releases like Dungeon Master, to let him make a game that required 1 MB of memory. He decided to shelve Gore for a while, to let the market catch up to his ambitions for it. In the meantime, he turned, almost reluctantly, to those lemmings that were still crawling all over the office, to see if there was indeed a game there. The answer, of course, would prove to be a resounding yes. There was one hell of a game there, one great enough to ensure that Gore would never cross anyone’s mind again.

The game which Jones started to program in June of 1990 was in one sense a natural evolution of the animations, so often featuring long lines of marching lemmings, that his colleagues had been creating in recent months. In another, though, it was a dramatic break from anything DMA — or, for that matter, Psygnosis — had done before, evolving into a constructive puzzle game rather than another destructive action game.

That said, reflexes and timing and even a certain amount of destruction certainly have their roles to play as well. Lemmings is a level-based game. The little fellows — up to 100 of them in all — pour out of a chute and march mindlessly across the level’s terrain from left to right. They’ll happily walk off cliffs or into vats of water or acid, or straight into whatever other traps the level contains. They’ll turn around and march in the other direction only if they encounter a wall or other solid barrier — and, once they start going from right to left instead of left to right, they won’t stop until they’re dead or they’re forced to turn around yet again. Your task is to alter their behavior just enough to get as many of them as possible safely to the level’s exit. Doing so often requires sacrificing some of them for the greater good.

To meet your goal, you have a limited but surprisingly flexible palette of possibilities at your disposal. You can change the behavior of individual lemmings by assigning them one or both of two special abilities, and/or by telling them to perform one of six special actions. The special abilities include making a lemming a “climber,” able to crawl up sheer vertical surfaces like a sort of inchworm; and making a lemming a “floater,” equipped with an umbrella-cum-parachute which will let him fall any distance without harm. The special actions include telling a lemming to blow himself up (!), possibly damaging the terrain around him in the process; turning him into a “blocker,” standing in one place and forcing any other lemmings who bump into him to turn around and march in the other direction; having him build a section of bridge — or, perhaps better said, of an upward-angling ramp; or having him dig in any of three directions: horizontally, diagonally, or vertically. Each level lets you use each special ability and each special action only a limited number of times. These restrictions are key to much of the challenge of the later levels; advanced Lemmings players become all too familiar with the frustration of winding up short by that one bridge-builder or digger, and having to start over with a completely new approach because of it.

In addition to the tools at your disposal which apply to individual lemmings, you also have a couple of more universal tools to hand. You can control the rate at which lemmings pour out of the entrance chute — although you can’t slow them down below a level’s starting speed — and you can pause the game to take a breather and position your cursor just right. The later levels require you to take advantage of both of these abilities, not least because each level has a time limit.


A Four-Screenshot Introduction to Lemmings

We’re about to begin one of the early levels — the first on the second difficulty level, or 31st out of 120 in all. We see the level’s name, the number of lemmings with which we have to deal, the number we’re required to save, their “release rate” — how quickly they fall out of the chute and into the world — and how much time we have.

Now we’ve started the level proper. We need to build a bridge to cross this gap. To keep the other lemmings from rushing after our slow-working bridge-builder and falling into the abyss, we’ve turned the one just behind him into a blocker. When we’re ready to let the lemmings all march onward, we can tell the blocker to blow himself up, thus clearing the way again. Note our toolbar at the bottom of the screen, including the count of how many of each type of action we have left.

With the gap safely bridged, we turn our lead lemming into a horizontal digger — or “basher” in the game’s preferred nomenclature — to get through the outcropping.

There were no other barriers between our lead lemming and the exit. So, we’ve blown up our blocker to release the hounds — er, lemmings — and now watch them stream toward the exit. We’ve only lost one lemming in total, that one being our poor blocker — a 99-percent survival rate on a level that only required us to save 50 percent. But don’t get too cocky; the levels will soon start getting much, much harder.


 

Setting aside design considerations for the moment, Lemmings is nothing short of an amazing feat in purely technical terms. Its levels, which usually sprawl over the width of several screens, consist entirely of deformable terrain. In other words, you can, assuming you have the actions at your disposal, dig wherever you want, build bridges wherever you want, etc., and the lemmings will interact with the changed terrain just as you would expect. To have the computer not just paint a landscape onto the screen but to be aware of and reactive to the potentially changing contents of every single pixel was remarkable in the game’s day. And then to move up to 100 independent lemmings in real time, while also being responsive to the player’s inputs… Lemmings is a program any hacker would be thrilled to claim.

As soon as he had the basic engine up and running, David Jones visited Psygnosis with it and “four or eight” levels in tow, to show them what he was now planning to turn into DMA’s next game. Jones:

They were a big company, probably about thirty or forty people. I said, “I’ll just go out to lunch, but what I’ll do is I’ll just leave the demo with a bunch of you here — grab it, play it, see what you think.” I remember coming back from lunch and it was on every single machine in the office. And everybody was just really, really enjoying it. At that time I thought, “Well, we have something really special here.”

That reaction would become typical. In an earlier article, I wrote about a Tetris Effect, meant to describe the way that game took over lives and destroyed productivity wherever it went. We might just as well coin the term “Lemmings Effect” now to describe a similar phenomenon. Part and parcel of the Lemmings Effect were all the terrible jokes: “What do lemmings drink?” “Lemmingade!” “What’s their favorite dessert?” “Lemming meringue pie!”

Following its release, Lemmings would be widely greeted as an immaculate creation, a stroke of genius with no antecedents. Our old friend Bruce Everiss, not someone inclined to praise anything Ian Hetherington was involved in without ample justification, nevertheless expressed the sentiment in his inimitably hyperbolic way in 1995:

In the worlds of novels and cinema, it is recognised that there are only a small number of plots in the universe. Each new book or film takes one of these plots and interprets it in a different way.

So it is in computer games. Every new title has been seen in many different guises; it is merely the execution that is new. The Amiga unleashed new levels of sound, graphics, and computer power on the home market. Software titles utilised these capabilities in some amazing packages, but they were all just re-formulations of what had gone before.

Until Lemmings. DMA Design created a totally new concept. In computer games this is less common than rocking-horse manure. Not only was the concept of Lemmings completely new, but also the execution was exemplary, displaying the Amiga’s capabilities well.

Lemmings is indeed a shockingly original game, made all the more shocking by coming from a developer and a publisher that had heretofore given one so little reason to anticipate originality. Still, if we join some of the lemmings in digging a bit beneath the surface, we can in fact see a source for some of the ideas that went into it.

David Jones and his colleagues were fanatic devotees of Peter Molyneux’s Populous before and during their work on LemmingsPopulous, like Lemmings, demands that you control a diffuse mass of actors through somewhat indirect means, by manipulating the environment and changing the behavior of certain individuals in the mass. Indeed, Lemmings has a surprising amount in common with Populous, even as the former is a puzzle game of rodent rescue and the latter a strategy game of Medieval warfare. Jones and company went so far as to add a two-player mode to Lemmings in homage to the Populous tournaments that filled many an evening spent in the clubhouse above the baby shop. (In the case of Lemmings, however, the two-player mode wouldn’t prove terribly popular, not least because it required a single Amiga equipped with two mice; unique and entertaining, it’s also largely forgotten today, having been left out of the sequels and most of the ports.)

Although it’s seldom if ever described using the name, Lemmings thus fits into a group of so-called “god games” that were coming to the fore at the turn of the decade; in addition to Populous, the other famous exemplar from the time is Will Wright’s SimCity. More broadly, it also fits into a longstanding British tradition of spatial puzzle games, as exemplified by titles like The Sentinel.

The Lemmings level editor

But one area where David Jones and company wisely departed from the model of Populous and The Sentinel was in building all of the levels in Lemmings by hand. British programmers had always had a huge fondness for procedural generation, which suited both the more limited hardware they had to work with in comparison to their American peers and the smaller teams in which they generally worked. Jones bucked that precedent by building a level editor for Lemmings as soon as he had the game engine itself working reasonably well. The gang in and around the clubhouse all spent time with the level editor, coming up with devious creations. Once a week or so, they would vote on the best of them, then upload these to Psygnosis.

Belying their reputation for favoring style over substance, Psygnosis had fallen in love with the game of Lemmings from the day of Jones’s first visit with his early demo in tow. It had won over virtually everyone who worked there, gamer and non-gamer alike. That fact became a key advantage for the work-in-progress. Everyone in Liverpool would pile on to play the latest levels as they were sent over from Dundee, faxing back feedback on which ones should make the cut and how those that did could be made even more interesting. As the game accelerated toward completion, Jones started offering a £10 bounty for every level that passed muster with Psygnosis, leading to yet more frenzied activity in both Dundee and Liverpool. Almost accidentally, DMA and Psygnosis had hit upon a way of ensuring that Lemmings would get many times the play-testing of the typical game of its era, all born of the fact that everyone was dying to play it — and dying to talk about playing it, dying to explain how the levels could be made even better. The results would show in the finished product. Without the 120 lovingly handcrafted levels that shipped with the finished game, Lemmings would have been an incredible programming feat and perhaps an enjoyable diversion, but it could never have been the sensation it became.

Just as the quality of the levels was undoubtedly increased immeasurably by the huge willing testing pool of Psygnosis staffers, their diversity was increased by having so many different personalities making them. Even today, those who were involved in making the game can immediately recognize a level’s author from its design and even from its graphical look. Gary Timmons, a DMA artist, became famed, oddly enough given his day job, for his minimalist levels that featured little but the bare essentials needed to fulfill their functions. Mike Dailly, at the other extreme, loved to make his levels look “pretty,” filling them with colors and patterns that had nothing to do with the gameplay. The quintessential examples of Dailly’s aesthetic were a few special levels which were filled with graphics from the earlier Psygnosis games Shadow of the Beast I and II, Awesome, and DMA’s own Menace.

Awesome meets Lemmings. For some reason, I find the image of all these little primary-colored cartoon lemmings blundering through these menacing teenage-cool landscapes to be about the funniest — and certainly the most subversive — thing in the entire game.

But of course the most important thing is how the levels play — and here Lemmings only rarely disappoints. There are levels which play like action games, demanding perfect clicking and good reflexes above all; there are levels which play like the most cerebral of strategy games, demanding perfect planning followed by methodical execution of the plan. There are levels where you need to shepherd a bare handful of lemmings through an obstacle course of tricks and traps without losing a single one; there are levels where you have 100 lemmings, and will need to kill 90 percent of them in order to get a few traumatized survivors to the exit. There are levels which are brutally compressed, where you have only one minute to succeed or fail; there are levels which you give you fully nine minutes to guide your charges on a long journey across several screens worth of terrain.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Lemmings is the way it takes the time to teach you how to play it. The very first level is called “Just Dig!,” and, indeed, requires nothing more of you. As you continue through the first dozen levels or so, the game gradually introduces you to each of the verbs at your command. Throughout the levels that follow, necessity — that ultimate motivator — will force you to build upon what you already know, learning new tricks and new combinations. But it all begins gently, and the progression from rank beginner to master lemming-herder feels organic. Although the general trajectory of the difficulty is ever upward as you work your way through the levels, there are peaks and valleys along the way, such that a level that you have to struggle with for an hour or two will usually be followed by one or two less daunting challenges.

All of this has since become widely accepted as good design practice, but games in 1990 were very seldom designed like this. Looking for contemporaneous points of comparison, the best I can come up with is a game in a very different genre: the pioneering real-time dungeon-crawler Dungeon Master, which also gently teaches you how to play it interactively, without ever resorting to words, and then slowly ramps up the difficulty until it becomes very difficult indeed. Dungeon Master and Lemmings stand out in gaming history for not only inventing whole new paradigms of play, but for perfecting them in the same fell swoop. Just as it’s difficult to find a real-time dungeon crawler that’s better than Dungeon Master, you won’t find a creature-herding puzzle game that’s better than the original Lemmings without looking long and hard.

If I was to criticize anything in Lemmings, I’d have to point to the last handful of levels. For all its progressive design sensibilities, Lemmings was created in an era when games were expected to be hard, when the consensus view had it that actually beating one ought to be a monumental achievement. In that spirit, DMA pushed the engine — not to mention the player — to the ragged edge and perhaps a little beyond in the final levels. A blogger named Nadia, who took upon herself the daunting task of completing every single level in every single Lemmings game and writing about them all, described the things you need to do to beat many of these final levels as “exploiting weird junk in the game engine.” These levels are “the wrong kind of difficult,” she goes on to say, and I agree. Ah, well… at least the very last level is a solid one that manages to encompass much of what has come before, sending the game out on a fine note.

Here we see one of the problems that dog the final levels. There are 49 lemmings packed together in a tiny space. I have exactly one horizontal dig at my disposal, and need to apply it to a lemming pointing to the right so the group can make its exit, but there’s no possible way to separate one lemming from another in this jumble. So, I’m down to blind luck. If luck isn’t with me — if the lemming I wind up clicking on is pointed in the wrong direction — I have to start the level over through no fault of my own. It will then take considerable time and effort to arrive back at this point and try again. This sort of situation is sometimes called “fake difficulty” — difficulty that arises from the technical limitations of the interface or the game engine rather than purer design considerations. It is, needless to say, not ideal.

To modern ears, taking this ludic masterpiece from nothing to finished in less than a year sounds like an incredible feat. Yet that was actually a fairly long development cycle by the standards of the British games industry of 1990. Certainly Psygnosis’s marketers weren’t entirely happy about its length. Knowing they had something special on their hands, they would have preferred to release it in time for Christmas. Thankfully, better sense prevailed, keeping the game off the market until it was completely ready.

As Lemmings‘s February 1991 release date approached, Psygnosis’s marketers therefore had to content themselves with beating the hype drum for all it was worth. They sent early versions to the magazines, to enlist them in building up the buzz about the game. One by one, the magazines too fell under the thrall of the Lemmings Effect. Amiga Format would later admit that they had greeted the arrival of the first jiffy bag from Psygnosis with little excitement. “Some snubbed it at first,” they wrote, “saying that they didn’t like puzzlers, but in the end the sound of one ‘Oh, no!’ would turn even the most hardened cynic into an addict.”

When a journalist from the American magazine .info visited Liverpool, he went to a meeting where Psygnosis showed the game to their distributors for the first time. The reaction of these jaded veterans of the industry was as telling as had been the Lemmings Effect that had swept through all those disparate magazine offices. “They had to be physically torn away from the computers,” wrote .info, “and crowds of kibitzers gathered to tell the person playing how to do it.” When an eight-level demo version of the game went out on magazine cover disks a few weeks before the launch, the response from the public at large was once again in David Jones’s words “tremendous,” prompting the usually cautious Psygnosis — the lessons of the Imagine days still counted with Ian Hetherington — to commit to an initial pressing that was far larger than they had done for any game before.

And yet it wasn’t anywhere near large enough. When Lemmings was released on Valentine’s Day, 1991, its first-day sales were unprecedented for Psygnosis, who were, for all their carefully cultivated cool, still a small publisher in a big industry. Jones remembers Ian Hetherington phoning him up hourly to report the latest numbers from the distributors: 40,000 sold, 50,000 sold. On its very first day, the game sold out all 60,000 copies Psygnosis had pressed. To put this number in perspective, consider that DMA’s Menace had sold 20,000 copies in all, Blood Money had sold 40,000 copies, and a game which sold 60,000 copies over its lifetime on the Amiga was a huge success by Psygnosis’s usual standards. Lemmings was a success on another level entirely, transforming the lives literally overnight of everyone who had been involved in making it happen. Psygnosis would struggle for months to turn out enough copies to meet the insatiable demand.

Unleashed at last to write about the game which had taken over their offices, the gaming press fell over themselves to praise it; it may have been only February, but there was no doubt what title was destined to be game of the year. The magazine The One felt they needed five pages just to properly cover all its nuances — or, rather, to gush all over them. (“There’s only one problem with Lemmings: it’s too addictive by half. Don’t play it if you have better things to do. You won’t ever get round to doing them.”) ACE openly expressed the shock many were feeling: shock that this hugely playable game could have come out of Psygnosis. It felt as if all of the thinking about design that they could never be bothered to do in the past had now been packed into this one release.

And as went the British Amiga scene, so went Europe and then the world. The game reached American shores within weeks, and was embraced by the much smaller Amiga scene there with the same enthusiasm their European peers had evinced. North American Amiga owners had seen their favored platform, so recently the premiere gaming computer on their continent as it still was in Europe, falling out of favor over the course of the previous year, with cutting-edge releases like Wing Commander appearing first on MS-DOS and only later making their way — and in less impressive versions at that — to the Amiga. Lemmings would go down in history as a somewhat melancholy milestone: as one of the last Amiga games to make American owners of other computers envious.

But then, Psygnosis had no intention of keeping a hit like this one as an Amiga exclusive for very long. Within months, an MS-DOS version was available. Amiga owners didn’t hesitate to point out its failings in comparison to the original — the controls weren’t quite right, they insisted, and the unique two-player mode had been cut out entirely — but the game’s charms were still more than intact enough. It was in MS-DOS form that Lemmings really conquered North America, thus belatedly fulfilling for Ian Hetherington, last man standing at Psygnosis from the Imagine days, the old Imagine dream of becoming a major player on the worldwide software stage. In 1992, the magnitude of their newfound success in North America led Psygnosis to open their first branch office in Boston. The people who worked there spent most of their time answering a hint line set up for the hundreds of thousands — soon, millions, especially after the game made its way to Nintendo consoles — of frazzled Americans who were hopelessly stymied by this or that level.

Britain was the country that came the closest to realizing the oft-repeated ambition of having its game developers treated like rock stars. DMA Design was well-nigh worshiped by Amiga owners in the wake of Lemmings. Here they appear in a poster inserted into a games magazine, ready to be pasted onto a teenage girl’s wall alongside her favorite boy bands. Well, perhaps a really nerdy teenage girl’s wall. Hey, it could happen…

There was talk for some time of polishing up David Jones’s in-house level editor and turning it into a Lemmings Construction Kit, but Psygnosis soon decided that they would rather sell their customers more content in the form of add-on disks than a way of making their own levels. Addicts looking for their next fix could thus get their hands on Oh, No! More Lemmings before the end of 1991, with 100 more levels on offer. This collection had largely been assembled from the cast-offs that hadn’t quite made the cut for the first game, and the reasons why weren’t that hard to sense: these levels were hard, and a little too often in that same cheap way as some of the final levels from the original. Still, it served the purpose, delivering another huge hit. That Christmas, Psygnosis gave away Xmas Lemmings, a free demo disk with a few levels re-skinned for the holiday season. They hit upon a magical synergy in doing so; the goofy little creatures, now dressed in Santa suits, went together perfectly with Christmas, and similar disks would become a tradition for several more holiday seasons to come.

This insertion of Lemmings into the cozy family atmosphere of Christmas is emblematic of the game’s appeal to so many outside the usual hardcore-gamer demographic. Indeed, Lemmings joined Tetris during this period in presaging the post-millennial casual-game market. Perhaps even more so than Tetris, it has most of the important casual traits: it’s eminently approachable, easy to learn, bright and friendly in appearance, and thoroughly cute. Granted, it’s cute in an odd way that doesn’t reward close thinking overmuch: the lemmings are after all exploding when they pipe up with their trademark “Oh, no!,” and playing the game for any length of time entails sending thousands upon thousands of the little buggers to their deaths. And yet cute it somehow manages to be.

One important quality Lemmings shares with Tetris is the way it rewards whatever level of engagement you care to give it. The early levels can be blundered through by anyone looking for a few minutes’ diversion — stories abounded of four-year-olds managing the training levels — but the later ones will challenge absolutely anyone who tackles them. Likewise, the level-based structure means Lemmings can be used to fill a coffee break or a long weekend, as you wish. This willingness to meet players on their own terms is another of the traits of gaming’s so-called “casual revolution” to come. It’s up to you to get off the train wherever interest and dedication dictate.

But those aspects of the Lemmings story — and with them the game’s full historical importance — would be clearly seen only years in the future. In the here and now, DMA had more practical concerns. David Jones abandoned the clubhouse above the baby shop for much larger digs, hired more staff, and went back to the grindstone to deliver a full-fledged sequel. He didn’t, however, neglect to upgrade his lifestyle to match his new circumstances, including the requisite exotic sports car.

Unlike the old guard of Imagine Software, Jones could actually afford his excesses. When all the sales of all the sequels that would eventually be released are combined with those of the original, the total adds up to some 15 million games sold, making Lemmings by far the biggest gaming property ever to be born on the Amiga and the biggest to be born in Britain prior to Grand Theft Auto — a series which, because the success of Lemmings apparently hadn’t been enough for them, the nucleus of DMA Design would later be responsible for as well.

Meanwhile Psygnosis, now The House That Lemmings Built, also found larger offices, in Liverpool’s Brunswick Business Park, and began to cautiously indulge in a bit more excess of their own. Ian Hetherington was the only Imagine veteran still standing, but never mind: games on the Mersey had finally come of age thanks to a game from — of all places! — Dundee.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson and Sinclair and the “Sunrise” Technology: The Deconstruction of a Myth by Ian Adamson and Richard Kennedy; the 1989 episode of Computer Chronicles entitled “The Commodore Amiga”; The One of June 1989, March 1990, September 1990, and January 1991; .info of November 1990 and February 1991; Amiga Format of May 1993 and July 1995, and the annual for 1992; The Games Machine of June 1989; ACE of April 1991; Amiga World of June 1991; Amazing Computing of April 1991 and March 1992; the online articles “From Lemmings to Wipeout: How Ian Hetherington Incubated Gaming Success” from Polygon, “The Psygnosis Story: John White, Director of Software” from Edge Online, and “An Ode to the Owl: The Inside Story of Psygnosisfrom Push Square; “Playing Catch Up: GTA/Lemmings‘ Dave Jones” from Gamasutra; Mike Dailly’s “Complete History of DMA Design.” My thanks also go to Jason Scott for sharing his memories of working at Psygnosis’s American branch office in the early 1990s.

If you haven’t played Lemmings before, you’ve been missing out; this is one game everyone should experience. Feel free to download the original Amiga version from here. Amiga Forever is an excellent, easy-to-use emulation package for running it. For those less concerned about historical purity, there are a number of versions available to play right in your browser.)

 
 

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Games on the Mersey, Part 4: The All-Importance of Graphics

The die for the first successful incarnation of Psygnosis was cast in the summer of 1987 with the release of a game called Barbarian. It was actually the company’s fourth game, following Brataccas, that underwhelming fruition of Imagine Software’s old megagame dream, and two other titles which had tried to evoke some of the magic of games from other publishers and rather resoundingly failed: Arena, an unfun alternative to the Epyx Games sports series, and Deep Space, a vaguely Elite-like game of interstellar trading and space combat saddled with a control scheme so terrible that many buyers initially thought it was a bug. None of this trio, needless to say, had done much for Psygnosis’s reputation. But with Barbarian the company’s fortunes finally began to change. It provided them at last with just the formula for commercial success they had been so desperately seeking.

Barbarian

Programmed by the redoubtable Dave Lawson, Barbarian might be labeled an action-adventure if we’re feeling generous, although it offers nothing like the sort of open-ended living world other British developers of the era were creating under that label. It rather takes the form of a linear progression through a series of discrete screens, fighting monsters and dodging traps as the titular barbarian Hegor. The control scheme — for some reason a consistent sore spot in almost every game Lawson programmed — once again annoys more than it ought to, and the game as a whole is certainly no timeless classic. What it did have going for it back in the day, however, were its superb graphics and sound. Released initially only on the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga, just as the latter especially was about to make major inroads in Britain and Europe thanks to the new Amiga 500 model, it was one of the first games to really show what these 16-bit powerhouses could do in the context of a teenage-boy-friendly action game. Reviewers were so busy gushing about the lengthy opening animation, the “strange-looking animals,” and the “digitised groans and grunts” that accompanied each swing of Hegor’s sword as he butchered them that they barely noticed the game’s more fundamental failings.

Barbarian became the first unadulterated, undeniable hit to be created by the Imagine/Psygnosis nexus since Dave Lawson’s Arcadia had kicked everything off on the Sinclair Spectrum almost five years before. Thus was a precedent set. Out were the old dreams of revolutionizing the substance of gaming via the megagame project; in were simple, often slightly wonky action games that looked absolutely great to the teenage boys who devoured them. If Lawson and Ian Hetherington were disappointed to have abandoned more high-concept fare for simple games with spectacular visuals, they could feel gratified that, after all the years of failure and fiasco as Imagine, Finchspeed, Fireiron, and finally Psygnosis, they were at last consistently making games that made them actual money.

Psygnosis’s first games had been created entirely in-house, with much of the design and coding done by Lawson and Hetherington themselves. In the wake of Barbarian‘s success, however, that approach was changed to prioritize what was really important in them. After the games already in the pipeline at the time of Barbarian‘s release were completed, future programming and design — such as the latter was in the world of Psygnosis — would mostly be outsourced to the hotshot young bedroom coders with which Britain was so amply endowed.

Psygnosis hired far more artists rather than programmers as in-house employees. They built an art team that became the envy of the industry around one Garvan Corbett, a talented illustrator and animator who had come to Psygnosis out of a workfare program in the very early days, before even Brataccas had been released, and who had been responsible for the precedent-setting graphics in Barbarian. Notably, none of Psygnosis’s artists had much prior experience with computers; the company preferred to hire exceptional artists in traditional mediums and teach them what they needed to know to apply their skills to computer games. It gave Psygnosis’s games a look that was, if not quite what one might describe as more mature than the rest of the industry, certainly more striking, more polished. Working with Amigas running the games-industry stalwart Deluxe Paint, Corbett and his colleagues would build on the submissions of the outside teams to bring them in line with Psygnosis’s house style, giving the in-game graphics that final sheen for which the company was so famous whilst also adding the elaborate title screens and opening animations for which they were if anything even more famous. Such a hybrid of in-house and out-of-house development was totally unique in late-1980s game-making, but it suited Psygnosis’s style-over-substance identity perfectly. “At Psygnosis, graphics are all-important,” wrote one journalist as his final takeaway after a visit to the company. Truer words were never written.

With the assistance of an ever-growing number of outside developers, the games poured out of Psygnosis in the years after Barbarian, sporting short, punchy titles that sounded like heavy-metal bands or Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, both of which things served as a profound influence on their young developers: Terrorpods, Obliterator, Menace, Baal, Stryx, Blood Money, Ballistix, Infestation, Anarchy, Nitro, Awesome, Agony. Occasionally Psygnosis would tinker with the formula, as when they released the odd French adventure game Chrono Quest, but mostly it was nothing but relentless action played over a relentlessly thumping soundtrack. An inordinate number of Psygnosis games seemed to feature tentacled aliens that needed to be blown up with various forms of lasers and high explosives. In light of this, even the most loyal Psygnosis fan could be forgiven for finding it a little hard to keep them all straight. Many of the plots and settings of the games would arrive on the scene only after the core gameplay had been completed, when Psygnosis’s stable of artists were set loose to wrap the skeletons submitted by the outside developers in all the surrealistic gore and glory they could muster. Such a development methodology couldn’t help but lend the catalog as a whole a certain generic quality. Yet it did very, very well for the company, as the sheer number of games they were soon churning out — nearly one new game every other month by 1989 — will attest.

Psygnosis’s favored machine during this era was the Amiga, where their aesthetic maximalism could be deployed to best effect. They became known among owners of Amigas and those who wished they were as the platform’s signature European publisher, the place to go for the most impressive Amiga audiovisuals of all. This was the same space occupied by Cinemaware among the North American publishers. It thus makes for an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the two companies’ approaches.

In the context of the broader culture, few would have accused Cinemaware’s Bob Jacob, a passionate fan of vintage B-movies, of having overly sophisticated tastes. Yet, and often problematic though they admittedly were in gameplay terms, Cinemaware’s games stand out next to those of Psygnosis for the way they use the audiovisual capabilities of the Amiga in the service of a considered aesthetic, whether they happen to be harking back to the Robin Hood of Errol Flynn in Defender of the Crown or the vintage Three Stooges shorts in the game of the same name. There was a coherent and unique-to-it sense of aesthetic unity behind each one of Cinemaware’s games, as indicated by the oft-mocked title Jacob created for the person tasked with bringing it all together: the “computographer,” who apparently replaced the cinematographer of a movie.

Psygnosis games, in contrast, had an aesthetic that could be summed up in the single word “more”: more explosions, more aliens, more sprites flying around, more colors. This was aesthetic maximalism at its most maximalist, where the impressiveness of the effect itself was its own justification. Psygnosis’s product-development manager John White said that “half the battle is won if the visuals are interesting.” In fact, he was being overly conservative in making that statement; for Psygnosis, making the graphics good was actually far more than half the battle that went into making a game. Ian Hetherington:

We always start with a technical quest — achieving something new with graphics. We have to satisfy ourselves that what we are trying to achieve is possible before we go ahead with a game. My worst moments are when I show innovative techniques to the Japanese, and all they want to know is, what is the plot. They don’t understand our way of going about things.

The Japanese approach, as practiced by designers like the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, would lead to heaps of Nintendo Entertainment System games that remain as playable today as they were in their heyday. The Psygnosis approach… not so much. In fact, Psygnosis’s games have aged almost uniquely poorly among their peers. While we can still detect and appreciate the “computography” of a Cinemaware interactive movie, Psygnosis games hit us only with heaps of impressive audiovisual tricks that no longer impress. Their enormous pixels and limited color palettes — yes, even on an audiovisual powerhouse of the era like the Amiga — now make them look quaint rather than awe-inspiring. Their only hope to move us thus becomes their core gameplay — and gameplay wasn’t one of Psygnosis’s strengths. Tellingly, most Psygnosis games don’t sport credited designers at all, merely programmers and artists who cobbled together the gameplay in between implementing the special effects. An understanding of what people saw in all these interchangeable games with the generic teenage-cool titles therefore requires a real effort of imagination from anyone who wasn’t there during the games’ prime.

The success of Psygnosis’s games was inextricably bound up with the platform patriotism that was so huge a part of the computing scene of the 1980s. What with the adolescent tendency to elevate consumer lifestyle choices to the status of religion, the type of computer a kid had in his bedroom was as important to his identity as the bands he liked, the types of sports cars he favored, or the high-school social set he hung out with — or possibly all three combined. Where adults saw just another branded piece of consumer electronics, he saw a big chunk of his self-image. It was deeply, personally important to him to validate his choice by showing off his computer to best effect, preferably by making it do things of which no other computer on the market was capable. For Amiga owners in particular, the games of Psygnosis fulfilled this function better than those of any other publisher. You didn’t so much buy a Psygnosis game to play it as you did to look at it, and to throw it in the face of any of your mates who might dare to question the superiority of your Amiga. A Psygnosis game was graphics porn of the highest order.

But Psygnosis’s graphics-über-alles approach carried with it more dangers than just that of making games whose appeal would be a little incomprehensible to future generations. Nowhere was the platform patriotism that they traded on more endemic than in the so-called “scene” of software piracy, whose members had truly made the computers they chose to use the very center of their existence. And few games were more naturally tempting targets for these pirates than those of Psygnosis. After all, what you really wanted out of a Psygnosis game was just a good look at the graphics. Why pay for that quick look-see when you could copy the disk for free? Indeed, cracked versions of the games were actually more appealing than the originals in a way, for the cracking groups who stripped off the copy protection also got into the habit of adding options for unlimited lives and other “trainers.” By utilizing them, you could see everything a Psygnosis game had to offer in short order, without having to wrestle with the wonky gameplay at all.

It was partially to combat piracy that Psygnosis endeavored to make the external parts of their games’ presentations as spectacular — and as appealing to teenage sensibilities — as the graphics in the games themselves. Most of their games were sold in bloated oblong boxes easily twice the size of the typical British game box — rather ironically so, given that few games had less need than those of Psygnosis for all that space; it wasn’t as if there was a burning need for lengthy manuals or detailed background information to accompany such simple, generic shoot-em-ups. Virtually all of Psygnosis’s covers during this era were painted by Roger Dean, the well-known pop artist with whom Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson had first established a relationship back in the Imagine days. “If you’re asking so much for a piece of software,” said Hetherington, “you can’t package it like a Brillo pad.”

Dean’s packaging artwork was certainly striking, if, like most things associated with Psygnosis during this period, a little one-note. Not a gamer himself, Dean had little real concept of the games he was assigned, for which he generally drew the cover art well before they had been completed anyway. He usually had little more to go on than the name of the game and whatever said name might happen to suggest to his own subconscious. The results were predictable; the way that Psygnosis’s covers never seemed to have anything to do with the games inside the boxes became a running joke. No matter: they looked great in their own right, just begging to be hung up in a teenager’s bedroom. In that spirit, Psygnosis took to including the cover art in poster or tee-shirt form inside many of those cavernous boxes of theirs. Whatever else one could say about them, they knew their customers.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the role that image played in every aspect of Psygnosis’s business. Some of the people who wound up making games for them, who were almost universally in the same demographic group as those who played their games, were first drawn to this particular publisher by the box art. “I was always a fan of the art style and the packaging,” remembers outside developer Martin Edmondson. “Against a sea of brightly-colored and cheap-looking game boxes the Psygnosis products stood out a mile and had an air of mystery — and quality — about them.” Richard Browne, who became a project manager at Psygnosis in early 1991, noted that “while many of the games they produced were renowned somewhat for style over substance, they just oozed quality and the presentation was just sheer class.”

The quintessential Psygnosis game of the period between 1987 and 1990 is undoubtedly the 1989 release Shadow of the Beast. The company’s most massively hyped title since the days of Brataccas and the Imagine megagames, it differed from them by rewarding its hypers with sales to match. It was the creation of a three-man development studio who called themselves Reflections, who had already created an earlier hit for Psygnosis in the form of Ballistix. Unusually among Psygnosis’s outside developers, Reflections created all of their own graphics, outsourcing only the music and of course the Roger Dean cover art. Martin Edmondson, the leader of the Reflections trio, makes no bones about their priorities when creating Shadow of the Beast:

For me, it was about the technical challenge of getting something working that was far beyond the theoretical limits of the machine. It wasn’t a story originally. It was a technical demonstration of what the machine could do — I suppose sort of a “look how clever we are” type of thing. So, yeah… less interested in the subtleties of game design and game process, more “let’s see if we can do what these big expensive arcade machines are doing on our small home computer.”

Edmondson describes the book that most inspired Shadow of the Beast not as any work of fiction but rather the Amiga Technical Reference Manual. Every element of the game was crafted with the intention of pushing the hardware described therein to heights that had only been hinted at even in Psygnosis’s own earlier works. Barely two years after Shadow of the Beast‘s release, Edmondson’s assessment of its design — or perhaps lack thereof — was unflinching: “We couldn’t get away with it now. It was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time. Apart from how many colors and layers of parallax and monsters we could squeeze on screen, no thought went into it whatsoever.” Its general approach is similar to that of the earlier Barbarian, but it’s a much more constrained experience than even than that game had been. As the landscape scrolls behind your running avatar, you have to execute a series of rote moves with pinpoint timing to avoid seeing him killed. It’s brutally difficult, and difficult in ways that really aren’t much fun at all.

But, as Edmondson himself stated, to complain overmuch about the gameplay of Shadow of the Beast is to rather miss the point of the game. While plenty of praise would be given to the atmospheric soundtrack Psygnosis commissioned from veteran game composer David Whittaker and to the unprecedentedly huge sprites programmed by Reflections, the most attention of all would be paid to the thirteen layers of parallax scrolling that accompany much of the action.

Parallax scrolling is a fancy phrase used to describe the simulation of a real-world property so ingrained in us that we rarely even realize it exists — until, that is, we see a videogame that doesn’t implement it. Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a busy highway on a flat plain, with a second highway also in view beyond this one, perhaps half a kilometer in the distance. Cars on the highway immediately before you whiz by very quickly, perhaps almost too quickly to track with the eyes. Those on the distant highway, however, appear to move through your field of view relatively slowly, even though they’re traveling at roughly the same absolute speed as those closer to you. This difference is known as the parallax effect.

Because the real world we live in is an analog one, the parallax effect here has infinite degrees of subtle shading. But videogames which implemented parallax in the 1980s usually did so on only one or two rigid levels, resulting in scrolling landscapes that, while they may have looked better than those showing no parallax effect at all, nevertheless had their own artificial quality. Shadow of the Beast, however, uses its thirteen separate parallax layers to approach the realm of the analog, producing an effect that feels startingly real in contrast to any of its peers. As you watch YouTube creator Phoenix Risen’s playthrough of some of the trained version of Shadow of the Beast below — playing a non-trained version of this game is an exercise for masochists only —  be sure to take note of the scrolling effects; stunning though they were in their day, they’re like much else that used to impress in vintage Psygnosis games in that they’re all too easy to overlook entirely today.


Whether such inside baseball as the numbers of layers of parallax scrolling really ought to be the bedrock of a game’s reputation is perhaps debatable, but such was the nature of the contemporary gaming beast upon which Shadow of the Beast so masterfully capitalized. Edmonson has admitted that implementing the thirteen-layer scheme consumed so much of the Amiga’s considerable power that there was very little left over to implement an interesting game even had he and his fellow developers been more motivated to do so.

Psygnosis sold this glorified tech demo for fully £35, moving into the territory Imagine had proposed to occupy with the megagames back in the day. This time, though, they had a formula for success at that extreme price point. “Shadow of the Beast just went to show that you don’t need quality gameplay to sell a piece of software,” wrote a snarky reviewer from the magazine The One. Zzap! described it only slightly more generously, as “very nice to look at, very tough to play, and very expensive.” Whatever its gameplay shortcomings, Shadow of the Beast became the most iconic Amiga game since Cinemaware’s Defender of the Crown, the ultimate argument to lay before your Atari ST-owning schoolmate. “Within a week or so of launch they could barely press enough disks to keep up with demand,” remembers Edmondson. For the Imagine veterans who had stayed the course at Psygnosis, it had to feel like the sweetest of vindications.

One can’t help but admire Psygnosis’s heretofore unimagined (ha!) ability to change. They had managed to execute a complete about-face, shedding the old Imagine legacy of incompetence and corruption. In addition to being pretty poor at making games people actually wanted to play, Imagine had been staggeringly, comprehensively bad at all of the most fundamental aspects of running a business, whilst also being, to put it as gently as possible, rather ethically challenged to boot. They had had little beyond audacity going for them. Few would have bet that Psygnosis, with two of their three leaders the very same individuals who had been responsible for the Imagine debacle, would have turned out any different. And yet, here they were.

It’s important to note that the transition from Imagine to Psygnosis encompassed much more than just hitting on a winning commercial formula. Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson, with the aid of newcomer Jonathan Ellis, rather changed their whole approach to doing business, creating a sustainable company this time around that conducted itself with a measure of propriety and honesty. Whereas Imagine had enraged and betrayed everyone with whom they ever signed a contract, Psygnosis developed a reputation — whatever you thought of their actual games — as a solid partner, employer, and publisher. There would never be anything like the external scandals and internal backstabbing that had marked Imagine’s short, controversial life. Indeed, none of the many outside developers with whom Psygnosis did deals ever seemed to have a bad word to say about them. Hetherington’s new philosophy was to “back the talent, not the product.” Said talent was consistently supported, consistently treated fairly and even generously. Outside developers felt truly valued, and they reciprocated with fierce loyalty.

As people interested in the processes of history, we naturally want to understand to what we can attribute this transformation. Yet that question is ironically made more difficult to answer by another aspect of said transformation: rather than making a constant spectacle of themselves as had Imagine, Psygnosis became a low-key, tight-lipped organization when it came to their personalities and their internal politics, preferring to let their games, their advertising, and all those gorgeous Roger Dean cover paintings speak for them. Neither Hetherington, Lawson, nor Ellis spoke publicly on a frequent basis, and full-on interviews with them were virtually nonexistent in the popular or the trade press.

That said, we can hazard a few speculations about how this unlikely transformation came to be. The obvious new variable in the equation is Jonathan Ellis, a quietly competent businessman of exactly the type Imagine had always so conspicuously lacked; his steady hand at the wheel must have made a huge difference to the new company. If we’re feeling kind, we might also offer some praise to Ian Hetherington, who showed every sign of having learned from his earlier mistakes — a far less common human trait than one might wish it was — and having revamped his approach to match his hard-won wisdom.

If we’re feeling a little less kind, we might note that Dave Lawson’s influence at Psygnosis steadily waned after Brataccas was completed, with Hetherington and Ellis coming to the fore as the real leaders of the company. He left entirely in 1989, giving as his public reason his dissatisfaction with Psygnosis’s new focus on outside rather than in-house development. He went on to form a short-lived development studio of his own called Kinetica, who released just one unsuccessful game before disbanding. And after that, Dave Lawson left the industry for good, to join his old Imagine colleague Mark Butler in modern obscurity.

A rare shot of Ian Hetherington, left, with his business partner Jonathan Ellis, right, in 1991. (In the middle is Gary Bracey of Imagine’s old Commercial Breaks companion Ocean Software.) In contrast to the look-at-me! antics of the Imagine days, Hetherington and Ellis were always among the most elusive of games-industry executives, preferring to let the products — and their superb marketing department — speak for themselves.

None of this is to say that there were no traces of the Imagine that had been to be found in the Psygnosis that was by 1989. On the contrary: for all the changes Hetherington and Ellis wrought, the new Psygnosis still evinced much of the Imagine DNA. To see it, one needed look no further than the Roger Dean cover art, a direct legacy of Imagine’s megagame dream. Indeed, the general focus on hype and style was as pronounced as ever at Psygnosis, albeit executed in a far more sophisticated, ethical, and sustainable fashion. One might even say that Hetherington and Ellis built Psygnosis by discarding all the scandalous aspects of Imagine while retaining and building upon the visionary aspects. Sometimes the legacy could be subtle rather than obvious. For example, the foreign distribution network that had been set up by Bruce Everiss to fuel Imagine’s first rush of success was also a key part of the far more long-lived success enjoyed by Psygnosis. Hetherington and Ellis never forgot Everiss’s lesson that having better distribution than the competition — having more potential customers to sell to — could make all the difference. As home computers spread like wildfire across Western Europe during the latter half of the 1980s, Psygnosis games were there early and in quantity to reap the benefits. In 1989, Jonathan Ellis estimated that France and West Germany alone made up 60 percent of Psygnosis’s sales.

Psygnosis knew that many of their potential customers, particularly in less well-off countries, weren’t lucky enough to own Amigas. Thus, while Psygnosis games were almost always born on Amigas, they were ported widely thereafter. Like those of Cinemaware, Psygnosis games gained a cachet merely from being associated with the Amiga, the computer everyone recognized as the premiere game machine of the time — even if some were, for reasons of that afore-described platform patriotism, reluctant to acknowledge the fact out loud. Even the most audiovisually spectacular Psygnosis experiences, like Shadow of the Beast, were duly ported to the humble likes of the Commodore 64 and Sinclair Spectrum, where they paled in comparison to their Amiga antecedents but sold well anyway on the strength of the association. This determination to meet the mass market wherever it lived also smacked of Imagine — albeit, yet again, being far more competently executed.

The South Harrington Building, Liverpool, home of Psygnosis for several years from 1989.

In addition to cutting ties with Dave Lawson in 1989, Hetherington and Ellis also shed original investor and Liverpool big wheel Roger Talbot Smith that year, convincing him to give up his share of the company in return for royalty payments on all Psygnosis sales over the next several years. Yet, and even as their network of outside developers and contractors spread across Britain and beyond, Psygnosis’s roots remained firmly planted in Liverpudlian soil. They moved out of their dingy offices behind Smith’s steel foundry and into a stylish gentrified shipping warehouse known as the South Harrington Building. It lay just one dock over from the city’s new Beatles museum, a fact that must have delighted any old Imagine stalwarts still hanging about the place. While an American journalist visiting Psygnosis in early 1991 could still pronounce Liverpool as a whole to be “very grim,” they were certainly doing their bit to change the economic picture.

Meanwhile Ian Hetherington in particular was developing a vision for Psygnosis’s future — indeed, for the direction that games in general must go. Like many of his counterparts in the United States, he saw the CD-ROM train coming down the track early. “The technological jump is exponential,” he said, “which means you have to make the jump now — otherwise when CD happens you’re going to be ten years behind, not two, and you’re never going to catch up.” With the move to the larger South Harrington Building offices, he set up an in-house team to research CD-ROM applications and develop techniques that could be utilized when the time was right by Psygnosis’s collection of loyal outside developers.

In this interest in CD-ROM — still a rare preoccupation among British publishers, where consumer-computing technology lagged two or three years behind the United States — Psygnosis once again invited comparison with that most obvious point of comparison, the American publisher Cinemaware. Yet there were important differences between the two companies on this front as well. While Cinemaware invested millions into incorporating real-world video footage into their games, Hetherington rejected the fad of “interactive video” which was all the rage in the United States at the time. His point of view reads as particularly surprising given that so many interactive-video zealots of the immediate future would be accused of making pretty but empty games — exactly what Psygnosis was so often accused of in the here and now. It serves perhaps as further evidence of Hetherington’s ability to learn and to evolve. Hetherington:

Interactive video is a farce. It is ill-conceived and it doesn’t work. It is seductive, though. Trying to interact with £400,000 worth of video on disc is a complete fiasco. We are looking for alternative uses of CD. You have to throw your existing thinking in the bin, then go sit in the middle of a field and start again from scratch. Most developers will evolve into CD. They will go from 5 MB products to 10 MB products with studio-quality soundtracks, and that will be what characterizes CD products for the next few years.

Hetherington also differed from Cinemaware head Bob Jacob in making sure his push into CD-ROM was, in keeping with the new operational philosophy behind Psygnosis in general, a sustainable one. Rather than betting the farm like his American counterpart and losing his company when the technology didn’t mature as quickly as anticipated, Hetherington used the ongoing sales from Psygnosis’s existing premium, high-profit-margin games — for all their audiovisual slickness, these simple action games really didn’t cost all that much to make — to fund steady, ongoing work in figuring out what CD-ROM would be good for, via an in-house team known as the Advanced Technology Group. When the advanced technology was finally ready, Psygnosis would be ready as well. At risk of belaboring the point, I will just note one last time how far this steady, methodical, reasoned approach to gaming’s future was from the pie-in-the-sky dreaming of the Imagine megagames.

The Psygnosis Advanced Technology Group in 1991. Standing second from left in the back row is John Gibson — the media’s favorite “Granddad” himself — who after spending some years with Denton Designs wound up rejoining some other old Imagine mates at Psygnosis.

As the 1990s began, then, Psygnosis had a lot going for them, both in the Amiga-dominated present and in the anticipated CD-ROM-dominated future. One thing they still lacked, though — one thing that Imagine also had resoundingly failed to produce — was a single game to their name that could be unequivocally called a classic. It was perhaps inevitable that one of the company’s stable of outside developers, nurtured and supported as they were, must eventually break away from the established Psygnosis gameplay formulas and deliver said classic. Still, such things are always a surprise when they happen. And certainly when Psygnosis did finally get their classic, the magnitude of its success would come as a shock even to them.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; the extra interviews that accompanied the documentary film From Bedrooms to Billions; Retro Gamer 50; Computer and Video Games of October 1987; STart of June 1990; The One of July 1989, March 1990, September 1990 and February 1992; The Game Machine of October 1989 and August 1990; Transactor of August 1989; Next Generation of November 1995; the online articles “From Lemmings to Wipeout: How Ian Hetherington Incubated Gaming Success” from Polygon, “The Psygnosis Story: John White, Director of Software” from Edge Online, and “An Ode to the Owl: The Inside Story of Psygnosisfrom Push Square.)

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Games on the Mersey, Part 3: The Phoenix

Ian Hetherington made for a strange choice as the guy to clean up Imagine Software’s confused finances. Brought in very late in the day to serve as the company’s financial director, he had no background in accounting whatsoever. Ironically, Bruce Everiss, who was serving as Imagine’s marketer and operations manager, had gone through an accounting program — yet he was, according at least to his own telling, always kept well away from that side of the business.

Hetherington, for his part, had worked at British Oxygen as a mainframe programmer before trying and failing a few times to get his own computer companies off the ground. The most recent and prominent of such efforts had been DAMS Business Computers, a partnership with DAMS International, a manufacturer of office furniture. The venture produced a number of hardware add-ons for the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 that added memory and features to the machines, but it never took off, and was wound up late in 1983 after lasting barely a year. It was at this point that Hetherington moved on to Imagine.

The trio who had run Imagine to this point were, with the possible partial exception of Everiss, a little in awe of Hetherington. Though he was a Liverpudlian like them, he came from a different social strata; he was a polished, charismatic fellow whose public-school education helped him to talk a very good game indeed. Despite his checkered entrepreneurial career to date, he knew lots of people in the local business community, and knew in the broad sense how business worked — the very connections and competencies his new colleagues so conspicuously lacked. Indeed, it was likely his business connections, and the potential sources of desperately needed financing they could represent, that convinced the others in their naifish, literal-minded way to name him “financial director.” By this point, they were ready to clutch at any straw that might offer an exit from the mess they had created for themselves.

Of course, any hopes along those lines were doomed to be forlorn. No businessperson with an ounce of sense would invest in a company in Imagine’s state, no matter how silver a tongue Hetherington might possess. As we saw in my previous article, each of the principals dealt with the situation in his own way as the death spiral continued; the one consistency in their responses is a heaping helping of denial. Bruce Everiss tried to work his way out of the crisis, believing that if he stayed the course, showed up every day, and kept trying to get the megagames completed it must all work out in the end. (Such optimism may have had its roots in his lack of access to Imagine’s real finances.) All of the others simply checked out, spending less and less time at the office in proportion to Everiss’s increasingly long work week. Mark Butler, perhaps the most likable but certainly the most benighted of the group, adopted a “what I don’t see can’t hurt me” posture, spending his days out and about behind the handlebars of his racing motorcycle or behind the wheel of his BMW. Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson also disappeared — but they, it would only slowly materialize, were busying themselves with something far more devious.

They made for an unlikely team. Initially, Hetherington, the smooth, cultivated businessman, hadn’t taken at all to Lawson, the plain-spoken Scouser. Hetherington may even have been moved once or twice to deploy the dreaded middle-class epithets of “common” and “peasant” to describe his working-class colleague. Over time, though, they bonded in a growing conviction that the ship of Imagine was going down, and that they didn’t want to go down with it. They would happily cede to Everiss the captain’s role; let him remain on the bridge until the bitter end.

Hetherington, being the more worldly of the pair, evidently came to the conclusion that the Imagine story could only end one way somewhat earlier than Lawson. When Paul Anderson of the BBC first came out to discuss making his television documentary about the company, probably in March or very early April of 1984, it was actually Lawson who carried the day for him, convincing his skeptical colleagues that the publicity was simply too great a chance to pass up. When cameras started to roll a few weeks later, however, both he and Hetherington wanted as little as possible to do with them. We can theorize, then, that reality hit home for Lawson at some point during those intervening weeks.

The plan Hetherington and Lawson were soon hatching was a bizarre combination of guile and naivete. They would form a new company, which they would name Finchspeed. They would quietly go about among the current Imagine staff, offering jobs to those they deemed both personally loyal to them and necessary to finish up the megagames, a total of about twenty people. This group would most definitely not include Everiss, whom both men by now openly loathed; the passive Mark Butler, on the other hand, was a question mark. Once they had the personnel lined up, they would transfer all rights and all ongoing work on the megagames to Finchspeed, leaving Imagine to crash and burn while they enjoyed that most precious thing in life or business: a second chance. So, that covers the guile. Where the naivete comes in, of course, is that neither life nor business usually makes it quite that easy to wash one’s hands of one’s past choices.

The pair did finally decide to include Butler in the conspiracy. The hard fact was that they needed his vote to go forward with the plan; Lawson owned just 45 percent of Imagine, with another 45 percent belonging to Butler and the other 10 percent to the deeply embittered Stephen Blower of the former Studio Sing, who could be expected to vote against anything proposed by the other shareholders as a matter of principle. Although Butler was fond of Everiss, Hetherington and Lawson believed — rightly, as it transpired — that he would be a fairly easy mark if given the choice between having a second chance as a software mogul or going back to selling computers in some shop somewhere. With the pliable Butler on board, they now had an overwhelming voting bloc for anything they might choose to do.

Before they did anything publicly, though, there was other secret business to take care of. Hetherington claimed he had investment contacts in the United States that would let Finchspeed raise £1.5 million to finish up the megagames and get them published. Therefore, after secretly forming Finchspeed and recruiting Butler and the other loyalists, Hetherington and Lawson flew across the Atlantic to try to secure the money. Thus they weren’t in the country for most of that fateful June of 1984, as the writs flew thick and fast and creditors pounded at Imagine’s door. Rumor back in Britain had it that they had fled the country in a panic, perhaps permanently; the real truth, as we’ve now seen, was far more devious.

One of those in the know inside Imagine finally leaked said real truth on June 29 — truly a bombshell of epic proportions for Bruce Everiss and everyone else remaining at the old company who hadn’t been invited to join the new one. An enraged Everiss walked out at midday, threatening all sorts of public consequences. Hoping to put a lid on the situation before it blew up in the press, Hetherington and Lawson rushed home from the United States the very next day. They hadn’t, needless to say, secured the financing Hetherington had so confidently predicted they would. He would later blame Everiss and the anonymous leaker of the bombshell for this failure, saying they had been about to seal a deal when forced to cut their trip short — truly an audacious attempt to play the aggrieved party, given the unconscionable dereliction of executive duties the pair’s leaving the country just as their company was collapsing represented.

Despite the lack of financing to see through their plans, on Sunday, July 1, hours after landing back in Britain, Hetherington and Lawson called an emergency meeting of the three-person Imagine board. Here they officially transferred the copyright on the megagames from Imagine to Finchspeed, who would also be allowed to use Imagine’s offices for free, for however long they still existed. In return, Finchspeed would need to pay Imagine £40,000 for the equipment they would use to develop the megagames, and would have to pay 50 percent of net profits from the games to Imagine after their release, up to a total of £625,000. These last stipulations may sound generous, but it should be remembered that Imagine was already a company well past the point of no return; as Hetherington and Lawson were in a position to know better than anyone, it was exceedingly unlikely that Imagine would still be around when any of the payments came due. Thus these stipulations were more about creating a veneer of plausible deniability than they were a good-faith business negotiation. After the entity that was Imagine no longer existed, Finchspeed could expect to walk away free and clear with the megagames.

Meanwhile Everiss was venting to anyone who would listen in the press, spawning an ongoing soap opera which the public could follow via magazines like Popular Computing Weekly and Home Computing Weekly. “They have set up Finchspeed in order to own Imagine’s megagames and assets for themselves,” Everiss said. “Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson [were] in the States to raise funds for Finchspeed. Imagine will not see this money.” Everiss claimed that, incredibly, even the pair’s supposed partner Mark Butler hadn’t known they were going to the United States. “The only person they told,” he said, “was Andrew Sinclair [no relation to Clive Sinclair or the computer company of the same name], who basically is just David’s gopher, and Andrew had been spying on Mark and myself and reporting on a daily basis to them in San Francisco.” To add more fuel to the fire, Everiss noted that Hetherington and Lawson had taken their significant others with them to the United States, and claimed they had all traveled in high style, at a final cost of some £10,000 that was charged not to Finchspeed but to Imagine — presumably in the expectation that the whole trip could be written off once the latter went bankrupt.

Hetherington and Lawson’s defense was, to say the least, unconvincing. Speaking from the United States on June 29, Hetherington had claimed that “Dave Lawson and myself have been in Silicon Valley to try to raise money for Imagine for the last two weeks. We set up Finchspeed as an off-the-shelf company to get money into Imagine. There is no point in discussing Finchspeed since it is dead and burned. It’s forgotten.” But if it was “dead and burned,” why were they suddenly transferring Imagine assets to Finchspeed two days later? Hetherington said that “it is important that the megagames go out with Imagine’s name on them, and I will do anything to ensure that they do.” Did that “anything” for some reason need to include transferring their copyrights to another company? At least one of his comments, at any rate, rang true for anyone who was aware of the petty infighting that had been going on for the past several months inside Imagine: “Staff will have to be sacked who are now loyal to Bruce Everiss.”

In the end, this attempt to pull a fast one, like just about everything anyone at Imagine ever touched, turned into an embarrassing failure. When hatching the scheme, Hetherington and Lawson had neglected one stipulation of the law: that any contract entered into by a company that already had a “winding-up” petition filed against it — which Imagine had had since April — could be set aside by the liquidator after said company is declared bankrupt. The law, in other words, had already foreseen the possibility of bright young sparks attempting exactly what Hetherington and Lawson had been trying to do, and had made provisions to prevent it.

It was announced in August that the arrangement between Imagine and Finchspeed dating from July 1 was null and void on these grounds. The megagames, like all of Imagine’s other assets, passed to the liquidator for disposition in whatever manner would most benefit Imagine’s creditors. Dave Lawson, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, tried to claim this had been understood all along: “There was never any doubt that the megagames were with Imagine’s receivers because the contract between the two companies was not honored.” And again, it wasn’t entirely clear what some of these words were supposed to mean. In what way was the contract “not honored?”

But still the pair refused to give up on their dogged pursuit of the megagames. Whatever else one can say about their business ethics or lack thereof, it’s clear they were deeply, genuinely passionate about the concept, and so attached to it that they were willing to expend enormous effort trying to finish what they had started at Imagine.

In light of such passion, the question of what the megagame concept actually was arises yet again. As I noted last time it reared its head, that was always very difficult to say. Perhaps the best description of the megagame dream was ironically provided by Hetherington and Lawson’s arch-enemy Bruce Everiss, many months after the Imagine collapse. He made them sound much like the “interactive movies” that would soon become the signature products of the American publisher Cinemaware, describing them as a “film which you, the player, take part in”:

You become one of the cast of characters that each have separate and identifiable personalities. What happens when you meet them depends on their personalities and also on what you do, as in real life. Characters then remember how they have been treated by the player and act accordingly on subsequent meetings.

There are no lives or score. It is a matter of trying to achieve what you, the player, wants. There is no status line to ruin the realism. The whole screen is action.

The Commercial Breaks episode dealing with Imagine included a brief, tantalizing glimpse of Bandersnatch, the first of the megagames, in action, and it did indeed seem to conform to this rough description.

Hetherington and Lawson’s hopes of reviving the megagames were given new life when word went through the industry that Sinclair Research was interested in funding and publishing software for their new QL computer. The QL had made its debut at the beginning of 1984, the first machine available to British users that was built around the powerful new Motorola 68000 processor line instead of the old 6502 or Z80. Unfortunately, it was able to beat the competition to the market only through being released months before it ought to have been, with both hardware and operating system still in a shabby, untested state. Sinclair had been struggling ever since to rehabilitate the machine’s image. One way to reverse the QL’s fortunes, they decided, would be to make it play games that would never be possible on a Spectrum. By way of getting that ball rolling, they were ready to fund a number of such projects and then publish the results themselves.1

There was a certain synergy here which it didn’t take Hetherington and Lawson long to spot. The megagames had needed to add new hardware to the Spectrum because they would have been too big and ambitious to contemplate otherwise. That, anyway, had been the old Imagine company line. Now, much the same argument could be used to justify porting them to the QL, without all the complications of the hardware add-on they had planned for the Spectrum version; the QL had 128 K of memory, more than the Spectrum’s 48 K of internal memory and the 64 K of the proposed hardware add-on combined. The advertising practically wrote itself: the megagames are made possible only by the 16-bit power of the QL!

The tireless Ian Hetherington worked out an arrangement and got Sinclair to agree to it. First, Sinclair bought the rights to the megagames at the liquidation auction; these cost them the princely sum of £700, plus a stipulation that Imagine’s creditors be paid a portion of any income they might eventually generate. Then, Hetherington and Lawson and a handful of their loyalists from Imagine set up yet another company, for the older Finchspeed was too beset with questions, too mired in the scandal of the Imagine collapse to continue with — and then there was also the problem of the now-superfluous Mark Butler, who had been given a third of Finchspeed; he would be cut out of the new company, thus ending his brief but colorful career in games.

Hetherington and Lawson’s latest company was named Fireiron. The day it was formed, Sinclair signed a contract with its owners, paying them to port the megagames-in-progress to the QL and then to finish them off on the new platform.

So, Hetherington and Lawson were seemingly back in business, picking up where Imagine had left off. This included, unfortunately, the same tendency toward wildly overambitious pronouncements. “Originally at Imagine we were working on seven megagame titles,” said Lawson. “I see no reason why we shouldn’t continue with them all.” In reality, only two megagames had progressed far enough to have titles, and only one, Bandersnatch, had had significant programming done. Given these realities, it was perhaps dangerous to trust too much in Lawson’s assertion that the old Speccy version of Bandersnatch was “90 per cent complete, ” and could be ported to the QL and completed there in very short order. Still, the new arrangement didn’t seem a bad one, all told. There was even something in it for Imagine’s long-suffering creditors, should the megagames prove successful.

Of course, all of Hetherington and Lawson’s efforts were still dogged by the sorry collapse of Imagine, and the less than standup way they’d responded to it. Judging a good offense to be the best defense, Hetherington took to calling up the most aggressive journalists to throw a mixture of bluster and threats of libel suits back in their faces. He was, he said, “sick to death of people insinuating that anything untoward happened at Imagine.” Sometimes his efforts could lead to uncomfortable juxtapositions, as when he called Crash magazine to push back against a lengthy article on the Imagine collapse they were planning to run, only to be connected with the accounting department, who were more interested in finding out whether the magazine stood any chance of ever being paid for the £5825 advertising bill that the bankrupt Imagine still had outstanding.

For understandable reasons, Hetherington and Lawson wanted more than anything to put the whole Imagine debacle behind them and focus on the future. Ian Hetherington in January of 1985:

My attitude has always been that it’s all over now, and what we’ll do is quickly get our lives back together again. I don’t want people bringing back something that happened six or seven months ago. What we’re doing now, Dave and I, is improving on megagames to produce something quite startling. We want to bow out at the top.

The many creditors who had had faith in Imagine, only to be bilked out of many thousands of pounds — not to mention the many dozens of employees who had lost their jobs — weren’t quite so willing to declare the events of just six months previous to be ancient history. “The lying and deception” Hetherington and Lawson had engaged in, Bruce Everiss said, “were almost boundless.” Assuming he was correct, it certainly did seem like those actions ought to have consequences. Still, there was only so much outrage to be generated; the scandal of Imagine did gradually fade into the past, giving at last to Hetherington and Lawson the fresh start they looked for.

Yet their new life as Fireiron showed every initial sign of following the same pattern as their old one with Imagine. Relations with Sinclair steadily worsened in 1985, with the latter claiming Fireiron was spending far too much of their money in the course of missing deadline after deadline. The original plan had been to release Bandersnatch in the first quarter of 1985, a goal that would most definitely not be met. Meanwhile the Sinclair QL’s position in the marketplace was going from bad to worse, such that it seemed highly unlikely that Bandersnatch or anything else could save the machine. Sinclair unceremoniously dropped Fireiron in the spring of 1985.

But still Hetherington and Lawson refused to give up on their megagames. They hatched yet another scheme, this time to port Bandersnatch to the new Atari ST computer, a machine based on the same 68000 architecture as the Sinclair QL — thus making the task of porting the work-in-progress QL version to it dramatically easier — but one which looked to have a much brighter future. The only problem was that Sinclair still owned the copyrights to the megagames. To get around that issue, Fireiron simply renamed Bandersnatch to Brataccas and dropped the old “megagame” buzzword entirely. (Good riddance, said an exhausted industry!) This move introduced all sorts of new legal jeopardy for the Fireiron folks, but they were fortunate in that Sinclair, who would soon sell off their entire extant computer business to Amstrad, never seemed to pay enough attention to realize what Fireiron had done. Ditto the Imagine liquidators and the creditors, who would no longer be receiving their cut of any royalties the rechristened megagame might generate.

In lieu of Sinclair, Hetherington was able to scare up some alternate financing, this time from one Richard Talbot Smith, a big wheel in the world of Liverpool business, owner of the only steel foundry and the only Mercedes dealership in the city among other ventures. Also coming aboard at this time, perhaps at Smith’s insistence, was an experienced businessman named Jonathan Ellis, who could hopefully serve as the steady hand at the wheel in terms of finances and day-to-day operations that Imagine had never had. The company got yet another new name in the process of making these changes, this one destined to stick. When the rejiggered Fireiron brought a prototype of the Atari ST Brataccas to the Personal Computer World Show in September of 1985, they did so as Psygnosis. The name, according to Hetherington, “just happened.” Beyond the obvious echoes of Psyclapse, the planned second megagame from the old Imagine days, the only clear logic behind the made-up word was an intimation of “knowledge of the mind” in badly garbled Greek.

Roger Dean’s iconic Psygnosis owl logo, one of the most immediately recognizable in the games industry.

Having earlier made a deal as Imagine with the well-known pop artist Roger Dean, only to see it collapse along with the rest of the company, the new Psygnosis now reached out to him again for help in crafting their visual identity. “They kept throwing names at me, and wanted something that said ‘knowledge,’ ‘the future,’ ‘wisdom,’ and ‘fun,'” Dean remembers. What he came up with in response was one of the more enduring logos in videogame history: a slightly robotic-looking owl, rendered in his trademark airbrushed style. It seemed, to him anyway, a perfect representation of “knowledge,” “the future,” and “wisdom”; as for fun, it was after all to be attached to games, so presumably that would be self-evident.

In a way, it was starting to feel like old times again, with the old hype machine once again kicking in. Brataccas was given pride of place inside Atari’s own booth at the Personal Computer World Show, running on four screens in order to be sure it wasn’t missed. Even Eugene Evans was there, hired by Psygnosis to serve as a temporary spokesman, doing the charming PR thing he had always been so good at as smoothly as ever. Rumor had it that even Bruce Everiss had been seen skulking about the Atari booth with a sour expression on his face.

That said, life at Psygnosis wasn’t quite all it had been at Imagine. The company’s new offices, located in a disused warehouse behind Roger Talbot Smith’s steel foundry in the midst of Liverpool’s downtrodden dock district, were a far cry from the old digs. One former employee describes the setting as “a dirty part of town,” remembering how he’d return to his car every evening at quitting time to find it covered in the “crap” spewed by the foundry’s smokestacks. Speaking of cars: the Ferraris, BMWs, and Porsches that had been the company cars at Imagine had been replaced by a fleet of Vauxhall Cavaliers. But Hetherington and Lawson’s megagame dream was still alive, even if it could no longer be described using that word. Against all the odds, it looked like they might just manage to finish Bandersnatch — woops, Brataccas.

Brataccas for the Atari ST shipped in the first week of 1986 in an elaborate oversized box painted by Roger Dean. Hetherington and Lawson had kept the faith through two years of hype and rumor and scandal and conspiracy, through four separate company names, had violated ethical norm after ethical norm in order to reach this fruition of the megagame dream. With a buildup like that, the end result was perhaps doomed to smack at least a little of anticlimax.

What was surprising, however, was just how thorough the anticlimax was. There was no kind way to put it: Brataccas was a hot mess. The unabashedly high-concept game attempted, as its billing had always suggested it would, to be a genuinely new, more dynamic and emergent approach to an adventure game, including context-sensitive conversations and action-oriented combat. Sadly, though, it was just about unplayable. The control scheme was based on mouse gestures; in this it was, like so much about the legacy of Imagine, ahead of its time in conception but atrocious in execution, making things the game seemed to expect you to do with relative ease all but impossible. This alleged animated adventure turned into a slideshow every time other characters were on the screen — if it ran like this on the 68000-based Atari ST, one shuddered to think how it would have performed on the 8-bit Speccy! — and the design of the puzzles and other adventurey bits were even worse than one might have expected from a development team that had never made an adventure game before and had never thought deeply about how to make a playable one. It was impossible to know how to even begin the task of solving the quest, impossible to know what the game really expected of you. And, despite or because of all the time spent in development on all those different platforms, it was horrendously buggy to boot. Even the graphics, in marked contrast to the Psygnosis games that would follow it, weren’t much to write home about.

A cynical observer of Imagine’s history would have said before the release of Brataccas that it was doomed to be a disaster, that no one at the company had ever demonstrated the ability to pull off a concept like this one — and, it was now clear, said cynical observer would have been exactly right. Computer and Video Games magazine wrote that Brataccas “still bore all the scars of its unenviable pedigree. Brataccas is definitely a game whose origins are more interesting than the end product.” Oh, well… Roger Dean’s box sure looked nice.

“A space fugitive walks into a bar….” The unique thing about Brataccas in contrast to contemporary adventure games is its dynamic nature, its focus on simulation. In other words, the young lady whom our hero appears to be chatting up actually will go to Calypso foyer. It’s only a shame that it’s all executed so poorly.

Brataccas’s one saving grace was timing. It hit the market at a time when few games were yet available for the Atari ST, and most of those that were ports of older 8-bit titles. Despite its own 8-bit origins, Brataccas was, whatever else one said about it, something unique, something you couldn’t play on a Spectrum, a Commodore 64, or a BBC Micro. This factor drove what modest sales the game was able to rack up on the Atari ST, as it also did sales of the Commodore Amiga version which appeared shortly thereafter. The same factor helped Psygnosis set up distribution to North America through a deal with the publisher Mindscape — something Imagine, notwithstanding their stated goal of becoming the preeminent name in computer games “throughout the world,” had never managed.

Still, the “success” of Brataccas, dwarfed as was the game itself by all the hype that had surrounded it for so long now, based more on historical happenstance than the game’s intrinsic qualities, didn’t portend a stable, prosperous, or for that matter lengthy future for the company that had made it. Our aforementioned cynical observer doubtless wouldn’t have hesitated to note this reality as well. In this case, though, the observer would be unexpectedly proved wrong. Psygnosis was about to make a pivot from such high-concept fare as Brataccas to something else entirely. And in doing so, Ian Hetherington and Dave Lawson, along with their new partner Jonathan Ellis, would evince a rare and precious quality, one that few would have dreamed that they had in them based on their record to date: they would demonstrate an ability to change.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Popular Computing Weekly of April 7 1983, July 5 1984, August 16 1984, September 27 1984, October 11 1984, and September 19 1985; Commodore User of June 1983; Home Computing Weekly of July 17 1984; Your Computer of January 1985 and October 1985; Sinclair User of October 1984; Personal Computer Games of September 1984; ZX Computing of February/March 1985; Crash of January 1985, February 1985, and October 1985; Computer and Video Games of August 1986; The One of May 1991; Retro Gamer 50; the online articles “From Lemmings to Wipeout: How Ian Hetherington Incubated Gaming Success” from Polygon, “Dams Double at Nemo” from Channel Info, and “The Psygnosis Story: John White, Director of Software” from Edge Online.)


  1. One other company to benefit from their largess would be the text-adventure maker Magnetic Scrolls; Sinclair would wind up funding much of the development of their in-house adventure system, and would publish The Pawn, the first game made using it, first for the QL. 

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Games on the Mersey, Part 2: Last Days in the Bunker

The first sign that something might be seriously wrong at Imagine Software greeted game buyers in March of 1984, when the company unexpectedly started slashing prices. They announced that their games would go from the current £5.50 to just £3.95, cheaper than all but the cheapest budget titles currently on store shelves. In doing so, they ignited more than a little consternation in their industry.

Like most industries, that of computer games operated within a framework of tacit agreements about how business should be conducted, and some of the most sacred of these had to do with pricing. Games were arrayed in tiers, with standard full-price titles of the sort sold by Imagine expected to be priced at over £5. From the industry’s standpoint, the danger of going lower was bound up in the stark business reality that prices are always easier to cut than they are to raise again. If one publisher chose to cut their prices below the £5 threshold, they could then force the rest of them to do likewise in order to compete, igniting a dangerous price war that would almost certainly end with the new average prices for games considerably lower than they had been before. And the end result of that situation, most believed, would be lower profits for everyone. Imagine, with their penchant for combining mediocre games with extravagant claims of success, had never been terribly well-liked among their peers. This latest move, it seems safe to say, did nothing to improve their popularity.

But the move made them most unpopular of all with the shopkeepers who sold their games, the very people Bruce Everiss had worked so assiduously and successfully to cultivate the previous year. The Imagine games already on their shelves had been purchased at a wholesale price which assumed they would sell at retail for £5.50, yet the shops would now be expected to price them at just £3.95 — a money-losing proposition. Imagine had done nothing to address this situation; certainly there had been no talk of compensating the shopkeepers. They were, it seemed, expected to eat their losses with a smile and say thank you.

Of course, the deeper question about the price cuts wasn’t the what or even the how of the thing but the why of it. When asked why Imagine was making this move now, Bruce Everiss trotted out a couple of different answers. One was that the games Imagine would be releasing later in the year would be so spectacular that they would render everything that had come before them obsolete; thus the price cuts were a way of clearing out the old to make way for the new. But Everiss also alluded to software piracy, the industry’s ever-present bugaboo, expressing a hope that a lower price would make customers more likely to buy Imagine’s games than to copy them from their mates. This response struck many as the more honest answer, and pointed clearly to a company whose sales weren’t quite as healthy as they claimed them to be.

Indeed, Imagine was focusing more and more on the real or theoretical effects of piracy, throwing around heaps of eye-opening but unsubstantiated figures on the subject, such as the claim that only one out of eight people who played the average Imagine game had actually bought it. To this day, Everiss blames a sudden onslaught of piracy for a collapse in sales, but, given that Imagine’s peers experienced nothing like the same collapse, it stands to reason that there was at the very least a lot more to the story than that age-old software-industry bogeyman. The fact was that whatever cachet the Imagine name still held among ordinary gamers was fast draining away in the face of so many underwhelming releases. When a magazine ran a poll to determine the top-ten worst games for the Sinclair Spectrum, three of Imagine’s made the list. This was one chart Imagine would have preferred not to top.

The questions surrounding Imagine only multiplied when, just two weeks after cutting their prices, they suddenly raised them back to the original £5.50. Pressed again for a reason, Everiss claimed they had listened to the discontent of their peers. “We knew that dropping the price would increase sales, but what we hadn’t bargained for was the industry reaction, which was universally unfavorable, from both the distributors and other software houses,” he said. “The feeling was that if we did do it, it would upset the marketplace to such a degree that it would put many smaller software houses out of business.” Such concern about the fates of other software houses had never been a notable aspect of the Imagine character before, and rang more than a little false now. Far from protecting their competition, Imagine looked more and more like a company searching for a way to save themselves. When the rest of the industry looked at Imagine now, they saw a company with shrinking sales who had tried to remedy the situation by slashing their prices, found it only made their bottom line worse, and hastily reversed course. Once so eminently self-assured, Imagine now seemed to lack the courage of their own convictions as they flailed about in search of the magic bullet that would fix their problems overnight. Some began to make jokes about what they called Imagine’s “nervous pitching,” invoking the name of one of their games: Schizoids.

Had they known the full story behind the pricing schizophrenia, Imagine’s competitors would have been able to enjoy their full measure of vindication along with a heaping dose of schadenfreude. Going into the 1983 Christmas season, which Bruce Everiss had ebulliently declared was going to be huge beyond belief, they’d hatched a plan to squeeze out other publishers by buying up literally the entire production capacity of one of the industry’s biggest cassette duplicators. After all, whatever games they manufactured but didn’t sell that Christmas they’d easily be able to move in 1984; Everiss claimed that year was bound to be twice the year for games that 1983 had been.

It all backfired horribly. Imagine sold far fewer games than they had expected to that Christmas, and then their sales dwindled to the merest trickle in the new year, leaving them with hundreds of thousands of aging games that had never been all that great in the first place piled up in warehouses. When thieves broke into one of the warehouses and left with an alleged £200,000 worth of Imagine cassettes, it came almost as a relief; at least they wouldn’t have to pay the storage bills for them anymore.

The full story of the backfired tape-duplication plot — about as clear-cut a case of karma being a bitch as you’ll find in the history of the games industry — wouldn’t surface for many months. But, try as Imagine might to hide them, other cracks in the facade were continuing to appear in the here and now. Late in 1983, they had signed a high-profile deal worth a purported £11 million with Marshall Cavendish, a major publishing consortium, to provide cassettes full of games and programming tutorials to accompany Input, a slick weekly computer magazine which their new partner was planning to launch in 1984. Imagine had purportedly hired many staffers just to work on the Input project. Yet in that same confounding March of 1984 the deal unexpectedly went away. Once again, Everiss spun like crazy:

The original concept was that these would be average, run-of-the-mill games. As we started developing the games, we put them out to be play-tested, which involves comparing them against the reviewer’s favorite game. So the games were enhanced and so on, so that in the end they became so good that it wasn’t worth our while putting them out through Marshall Cavendish.

Everiss’s claim that Imagine’s games were just too good for the magazine was belied by the rumor that it was Marshall Cavendish who had nixed the deal, after Imagine persisted in missing deadlines and delivering substandard work.

Other unsavory stories swirled around Imagine and the Guild of Software Houses, an industry advocacy organization similar to the Software Publishers Association in the United States. GOSH, it seemed, had inexplicably rejected Imagine’s bid for membership. Everiss claimed it was because Imagine was “too big” for what he described as a “small, mutual-back-slapping organization really.” Still, size hadn’t prevented the likes of Thorn EMI from being accepted by the Guild. Did GOSH know something about Imagine that most people didn’t?

Commercial artist Stephen Blower, one of the many whose dealings with Imagine left him feeling bitter and betrayed, at work on one his trademark pieces of slick, airbrushed-looking art.

Still other past events were cast in a different light by these developments. Just after Christmas, Stephen Blower’s Studio Sing, the advertising agency formed to manage Imagine’s public relations, had suddenly gone bankrupt, leaving behind some £90,000 worth of Christmas advertising bills that were still unpaid to them by Imagine and that thus also now went unpaid to the magazines which had run the spots. A healthy and ethical Imagine, it seemed to the magazines who were being stiffed, might have made the payments directly to them. But they did no such thing.

Word on the street in Liverpool had it that Imagine’s managers had contrived to starve Studio Sing in an attempt to force Blower to relinquish his 10-percent stake in their company, only to find that Blower preferred to let his agency die rather than give in to the bullying. It all sounded plausible enough — but maybe the real reason Studio Sing had been starved, murmured a few, was far simpler: maybe Imagine just hadn’t had the £90,000 to pay out in the first place, and had engineered the agency’s failure as a way to dodge their debts. Whatever the reasons behind what transpired, an embittered Blower was left holding the bag:

Imagine tried to accuse me of certain things that I didn’t do. For instance, they said I was detrimental to the company’s image and that I was booking advertising that wasn’t wanted. I was accused of stealing, or misappropriating, £10,000, and my wife was accused of being incapable of keeping the books at Studio Sing.

They were obviously after my 10 [percent]. Imagine owed Studio Sing £89,000, so the way I see it is they attempted to brush that debt under the carpet. The allegations were just an attempt to condone their actions. I was probably the only one at Imagine who stuck to what he was best at doing.

With the stubborn Blower refusing to exit the scene, Imagine now had a shareholder at open war with his colleagues — although Blower, owning just 10 percent of the company, couldn’t do much to affect its direction. He would soon have cause to wish he had given up his stake when asked and gotten out of Dodge while the getting was good.

Behind their public image of cheeky Scousers who had made it big, Imagine was developing a reputation as a very nasty place, replete with fractious infighting and rampant paranoia. When Alan Maton, a Bug-Byte veteran who worked briefly for Imagine as well, left to start a software developer of his own, Dave Lawson allegedly subjected him to such a campaign of invective and harassment that he was forced to seek the protection of a restraining order. After Colin Stokes, a sales manager for Imagine, left to join Maton’s new company, he claimed that Lawson and Mark Butler had bugged his phone upon classing him as an “unreliable,” then thrown into his shocked face verbatim transcripts of his betrayal in place of a conventional exit interview; he was forced to run for the door amidst a hail of insults and legal threats. Incredibly, the one and only issue of Imagine’s fan newsletter — another initiative that was launched with great hoopla and then abandoned as too much trouble to be worth continuing — published samples from the telephone transcripts, claiming that there were 60 more pages of same where these had come from, a petty and potentially actionable public airing of dirty laundry.

Legal threats were becoming something of a way of life for Imagine. When Your Computer magazine — who, perhaps not incidentally, had been among those hounding Imagine for unpaid advertising bills — printed a listing for a game that Bruce Everiss judged to be too similar to one of Imagine’s, the latter whispered darkly that he had his solicitors “looking into the matter.”

Bruce Everiss and Dave Lawson. Do I sense a certain tension in the room?

Rumors spread that the company as a whole had been split into two camps, with Everiss and Butler leading one faction and Lawson and the recently hired Ian Hetherington, Imagine’s financial director and emerging fourth principal power, leading the other; this split accounted for much of the mixed messaging on things like a pricing strategy. When a journalist from Crash magazine spent a day at Imagine for a profile piece, Lawson and Hetherington never showed up for work at all and Butler only popped in for a few minutes, leaving their would-be interviewer to spend most of the day in the company of Everiss. When the final piece appeared, filled for understandable reasons mostly with Bruce Everiss quotes, the journalist got an irate phone call from a jealous Mark Butler, asking why his article had made it sound like Everiss ran the whole company.

Through it all, Imagine’s hype machine was still cranked up and spewing. Hype was, after all, the one thing Imagine had always done best. Almost drowning out all of the other mixed signals in the press was a new campaign for what Imagine liked to call “megagames.” These were nothing less than the amazing new things that Imagine had, according to one of Everiss’s accounts anyway, slashed prices to make room for. They now took center stage in Imagine’s advertising, a publicity blitz for as-yet nonexistent games the like of which the industry had never seen. The magazines, not wanting to be left out in the cold if the megagames did indeed blow up huge, accepted these latest advertisements even after having been stiffed the last time around.

Imagine started running advertisements like this for their upcoming “megagames” very early in 1984. Featured from left to right are programmers Ian Weatherburn, Mike Glover, John Gibson, and Eugene Evans.

It was very hard to determine from the advertisements, or even from talking to Imagine directly, exactly what a megagame would be. Everiss claimed they would be packaged far more elaborately than was the norm in Britain at the time, more in keeping with the games companies like Infocom and Origin were selling in the United States. (He was keenly aware of the state of games across the Atlantic, having been a regular visitor to American trade shows since the late 1970s.) Yet improved packaging was by no means the sum total of the megagame proposition. More intriguing was the prospect of some sort of machine-enhancing hardware add-on that would be included in the box. “We’ve gone as far as we can on these machines given their hardware capabilities, and we have come up with a way of increasing the power of the machine,” said Everiss. “It is not done through software.” Imagine’s games were hardly noted for pushing the capabilities of existing machines all that hard; games coming from competing houses regularly gave the lie to Imagine’s claim of having gone “as far as we can” with current hardware. Nevertheless, this hybrid software/hardware approach was certainly intriguing.

And yet the question remained: what would the megagames be like to actually play? Imagine was frustratingly vague, leaving one with the impression that they were either incredibly cagey or that they themselves didn’t quite know what they were making. All they ever clearly said was that the megagames would be great. Bruce Everiss:

The thing about it is that the game is so big and complex and involved — and it contains several new areas, things that have never been done before. We aren’t going to release it until it’s perfect. The only analogy we can use without giving the game away is that it’s going to make anything that’s gone before look like Noughts and Crosses.

No one’s even seen them yet! They’re so secret that most people at Imagine know nothing about them. Even the people who are working on the project only know sufficient to do their own piece of the work. We give them information on a “need to know” basis. What we’re worried about is somebody else finding out what we’re doing and emulating it.

You don’t have a score, you don’t have levels, you’ve gone completely beyond all that. You wait and see. You’ll be phoning me up when you get them, saying “Brucie was right!”

The price Imagine planned to charge for all this awesomeness just kept going up. Starting at £15, it rose to £20, then to £30, then to £40 — almost eight times the price of the typical new game. “It’s got to be something extraordinary to sell for that price,” said one skeptical distributor. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” “Imagine are claiming these programs are completely innovative,” said another. “If that’s the case, it’s marvelous and good for the industry.” The problem, of course, was that very big “if” which began his thought. Once you cut through all the hype, Imagine’s track record at making innovative games wasn’t very good. Undaunted, they said that the first megagame, to be called Bandersnatch, would be out that summer, and that the next, Psyclapse, would ship well before Christmas.

Many years later, Bruce Everiss would admit to much of the real thinking behind Imagine’s drive to include hardware with their games: “The megagames were an attempt to make our games copy-proof by incorporating a ‘dongle’ that plugged into the back of every customer’s computer.” Only afterward did Imagine’s programmers hatch a scheme to build 64 K of ROM memory into the dongles to supplement the 48 K of RAM in the Sinclair Spectrum, allowing them, theoretically at least, to make games that were much bigger than the norm. Unfortunately, the company, not being home to any hardware engineers, was very ill-equipped to see such a scheme through.

Then, in the midst of all this swirling chaos, the BBC arrived on the scene.

Commercial Breaks director Paul Anderson had first taken note of the emerging computer-game industry very early in 1984, judging it to be a natural subject for an episode of a television series about British entrepreneurs and emerging markets. Flipping through the computer magazines, he saw that one company had the slickest, most elaborate, and most extensive advertising campaign of any of them: Imagine Software. It didn’t take long to connect Imagine with the minor media celebrity Eugene Evans, whose story Anderson, like just about everyone else who had picked up a newspaper during the previous year, had already read. Choosing Imagine as one of his two case studies — the other would be Manchester’s Ocean Software — he made the trip to Liverpool to discuss the idea in person with Butler, Lawson, Everiss, and Hetherington. He didn’t anticipate a lot of problems getting them to agree. Anyone who knew anything about Imagine knew that they loved publicity, and the publicity possibilities for a British computer-game publisher in 1984 didn’t come much bigger than a starring role in a BBC television program. Much to Anderson’s surprise, though, the foursome proved initially reluctant to commit themselves. They had, as we’ve already seen, plenty of reasons not to want to allow any outsider unfettered access to all that was going on internally. It was Dave Lawson who finally turned the tide in Anderson’s favor. Whatever concerns his colleagues might have, he couldn’t resist the lure of having Imagine strut their stuff as Liverpool’s next Beatles on such a grand stage as this. This opportunity, he said, was just too huge to turn away.

The Imagine racing team

When he showed up with his film crew some weeks later, Anderson’s director’s eye was first struck by what a great shooting location Imagine’s spacious accommodations were. The bustling warren of offices and cubicles smacked more of a well-heeled stockbroker than a small 18-month-old technology company. The BBC crew took the requisite time to gawk at and to shoot video of the Ferraris and BMWs that filled the parking garage alongside the star of the vehicular show, Mark Butler’s hand-built Harris racing motorcycle. Butler, Anderson learned, had formed a motorcycle-racing team along with some other like-minded Imagine people. The film crew dutifully followed them out to the Isle of Man for the TT Race, where Butler promptly crashed his bike attempting a reckless maneuver and was carried off to the hospital.

In the beginning, Anderson had no reason nor any desire to be skeptical of the success his subjects claimed to be enjoying. Not being all that plugged-in to the home-computer scene, he knew nothing of the rumors about Imagine. And anyway, the whole point of the program he worked for was to tell positive stories of modern British entrepreneurship, not to scandal monger. Yet it didn’t take him long to pick up the feeling that, despite all the outward trappings of a booming company that surrounded him, something here didn’t quite add up.

His suspicions were first aroused by Eugene Evans, Imagine’s alleged wunderkind programmer. In an episode whose associations must have thrilled the Beatles-obsessed Dave Lawson — and that, indeed, may have been planted in the press by him or Everiss — Evans had been in the news recently for supposedly leaving the Imagine band to make a go of it as a solo artist, only to be lured back into the fold by the entreaties of his mates; shades of George Harrison walking out on the Beatles for a few days back in 1969. Asked whether the rumors about his brief departure were true, Evans, still playing his role superbly, had said in his best cheeky Beatle fashion, “I may have done. There again, I may just have gone on holiday.”

Anderson was naturally eager to spend time with Evans, whereupon he immediately noted the discrepancy between the teenager’s hype and his reality. His treatment around the office hardly fit the profile of Imagine’s star coder; in reality, he didn’t seem to be regarded by the other programmers as all that important at all. And, the leased Lotus in his driveway notwithstanding, he didn’t seem to live like a young man who was earning thousands of pounds every month.

Imagine’s official line had it that Psyclapse, the second of the megagames, was essentially Evans’s project. Perhaps Anderson shouldn’t have been surprised, then, that not much of anything seemed to be happening on that front. John Gibson, Imagine’s other star programmer, did seem to be working hard on Bandersnatch, but few others seemed to share his dedication. In fact, very few of the technical and support staff seemed to be working all that hard on anything at all. Management, meanwhile, was most focused, predictably enough, on all the PR trappings that would surround the megagames. Sitting in on meetings, Anderson learned of a scheme to have Imagine and their megagames commemorated forever via two marble slabs that would be laid in London’s Hyde Park; one couldn’t help but wonder what opinion the authorities who ran the park, whom Imagine had apparently not yet gotten around to contacting, might have thought of the plan to immortalize Imagine Software alongside the likes of the Duke of Wellington. Anderson heard far more discussion about what the megagame boxes should look like than he did about the actual games the boxes were to contain. Imagine had managed to contract with Roger Dean, an artist quite famous in certain circles for the surrealistic album covers he painted for Yes and other progressive-rock bands, to do the box art for the megagames. They were thrilled to have him, as they were thrilled with any public connection they could foster between their company and rock music. Still, there was considerable grumbling that Dean had demanded his £6000 fee be paid up-front. Anderson, by now thoroughly suspicious of his bright young sparks, remembers thinking that Dean was a very wise chap.

Imagine, Anderson was gradually coming to realize, was living on a diet of denial and wishful thinking. Already on April 16, 1984, before the BBC had even started filming, Cornhill Publications had submitted a petition at court to have Imagine forced into bankruptcy if they continued to leave unpaid a massive advertising bill. That June, just a few days before the BBC followed Butler out to the Isle of Man to watch him living his fantasy of the daredevil playboy, Imagine had been in court to argue against the petition, with scant evidence to hand to support their claim that this was just a bump in the road and they would soon be a viable business again — if, indeed, they had ever been a viable business in the first place. Shortly thereafter, Butler, Lawson, and Hetherington all disappeared entirely. The first of these had an excuse, being in recuperation after his motorcycle crash; rumors swirled that the latter two had actually fled the country to dodge the fallout from Imagine’s imminent demise. Only Everiss was left, still coming into the office every day out of some sense of duty.

By this point, those who remained were spending their working days watching videos, playing games, and generally goofing off, apparently determined to enjoy their brief taste of the good life as much as they could before the inevitable. Anderson would later compare these last days of life at Imagine to the desperate decadence of the final days inside Hitler’s bunker as the Soviet tanks closed in on Berlin. When he was asked why no one ever seemed to be available to talk to the BBC cameras anymore, Everiss answered thus:

Well, there was a whole pile of people just playing games there, and they’re hiding from the camera. If you go round the corner here, by the exit, you’ll find there’s a big pile of fire extinguishers because there’s been fire-extinguisher fights all week. That’s been the main event.

The only outsiders still knocking at the door all seemed to be trying to get someone to pay them the money they were owed. Anderson’s film crew captured a man from the cassette-duplication plant whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas wandering forlornly about the premises, trying to get someone — anyone — to at least talk to him about the £60,000 his company was still owed. Trying to put a stop to the stream of dark-suited, grim-faced men who lined up to knock at their door each day, Imagine sent out a letter to all their creditors claiming they expected a windfall of £250,000 from some unspecified source within three weeks. The creditors, naturally, didn’t believe them, and the grim-faced men just kept coming, asking fruitlessly for face time with someone — with anyone.

The creditors had still more cause for alarm when it was announced that Beau Jolly, a publisher of discount game compilations, had bought the entire extant Imagine games catalog. This may have been the windfall Imagine had vaguely referred to in their letter to their creditors, although it seems doubtful that Beau Jolly paid them anywhere near £250,000 for their collection of aging, unimpressive games. The transaction prompted alarm rather than hope in the hearts of Imagine’s creditors because the games were assets that in the event of what now seemed the certainty of an Imagine bankruptcy could be sold off to reimburse said creditors. It all rather smacked of a management team trying to get what they could out of the company for themselves while they still had the chance, especially as no offers came forth to pay any of their bills in the aftermath of the sale. In what had long since become a typical scenario for anyone who got into bed with Imagine for any reason whatsoever, even the catalog’s purchaser was soon left feeling disappointed and betrayed. Colin Ashby, Beau Jolly’s managing director:

To be honest, I’m not very happy with the deal. We’re still waiting for the master tape of PC Bill, and I’m not convinced we’ve got everything we agreed to. We weren’t paying over money just for old stock. The idea was to invest in the new games as well, but I think something’s gone wrong. I’ve been trying to get Lawson, Butler, or Hetherington for weeks because we thought we were doing the new games as well in this deal. But I can’t get hold of them.

It really did seem like everyone who was ever foolish enough to make a deal with Imagine wound up in a plaintive state like this one. When someone mentioned to Ashby that the shareholders’ real motivation for selling off the catalog may have been to get money out of the company while they had the chance, it all suddenly made more sense to him: “What a revelation! I hadn’t thought of that.”

Despite his prominence, Bruce Everiss owned no stock in Imagine, and thus was somewhat insulated from the slow-motion car crash happening around him. With his colleagues having abandoned him to the creditors and the BBC, he was increasingly willing to dish the dirt, even as he endeavored to distance himself from what was now looking more like a full-on financial scandal than just another failed company. He made the incredible claim that Imagine had never paid any tax whatsoever on their earnings — indeed, had never even filed a tax return. That was supposed to be the department of financial director Ian Hethrington, but the latter had always been — perhaps, it now seemed, for good reason — the most inaccessible of all the principals to Anderson. And now, like Butler and Lawson, Hetherington had simply disappeared. Everiss declared all three of them “cowards.” “It makes me sick,” he said, “to think that the people who have worked so hard to make the wealth of Imagine have been left high and dry while the directors of the company have stripped it bare and got away scot-free. They did everything to line their own pockets.”

Everiss was plainly protesting a bit too much, given that he too hadn’t hesitated to drive a Ferrari on Imagine’s dime, and given that the “wealth” of Imagine had never really existed in the first place. The story of Imagine Software wasn’t that of a company that was hugely successful and then collapsed so much as it was that of a company that had been built on smoke and mirrors — verging on outright fraud if not crossing that line — from the very beginning. Still, at least Everiss was here, facing the music after a fashion — not to mention those ever-present fish-eye lenses of the BBC. Or he was for a while anyway: on June 29, he quit. With him left the last semblance of Imagine Software as a functioning company. Those who remained behind did so only because it was more fun to hang out here than it was at home.

On July 9, 1984, Imagine was forcibly dissolved by order of the court; the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a relatively modest advertising bill for £10,000 to VNU Business Publications, publisher of a short-lived magazine called Personal Computer Games. The long list of other unpaid creditors included Kilsdale, the Gloucestershire cassette duplicator whose capacity Imagine had bought up the previous Christmas; Marshall Cavendish, who were still waiting to be paid back some £250,000 they had given Imagine at the beginning of the cancelled magazine deal; the Liverpool City Council; Henry Matthews and Son, a printer; United Arab Shipping, who owned Imagine’s posh downtown office space; Scalchards, the wine merchant who had catered Imagine’s lavish private parties; G.D. Studios, the agency that had created Imagine’s advertising after Studio Sing had died or been killed; and most of the Spectrum magazines, all clamoring for payment for said advertising. Some of these last, most notably the widely beloved Crash magazine, would later claim that the money they didn’t receive from Imagine very nearly forced them to go under as well. In all, Imagine owed more than £500,000 to the aforementioned entities. When unpaid bank loans, back taxes, and other outstanding government obligations were eventually added to the total, it would reach more than £1 million. Those of you needing help putting these figures in perspective might wish to consider that a typical Liverpool dockworker at the time might earn a salary of about £4000 per year.

Mark Butler, right, with another of Imagine’s racers on the Isle of Man. This picture was taken just before he smashed up his bike and wound up in the hospital, giving him an excuse to avoid being present for much of the final phase of Imagine Software.

Still swaddled in bandages from his motorcycle escapade of a month earlier, Mark Butler chose the day of the bankruptcy order to return to Imagine’s offices. That same day, when the remaining handful of employees and the BBC film crew had all nipped off to the pub for lunch, the bailiffs showed up. When the Imagine people tried to reenter the premises, they found the door locked to them, and Anderson hastily signaled his crew to start rolling video. The offices and everything inside them, they were all informed by the bailiffs, were being forcibly repossessed right now for the benefit of Imagine’s many creditors; Anderson had considerable trouble convincing the bailiffs to let him come inside and extricate the rest of his film crew’s equipment from the jumble. The bailiffs also took that most conspicuous of all signs of Imagine’s alleged success: all of their fancy cars. According to Anderson’s recollection, Butler seemed more stunned and dismayed by the loss of his BMW than by anything else that was transpiring. He stood in a daze in the midst of of it all, seeming for all the world like he genuinely had no idea how the situation had reached such an impasse.

Which isn’t to say that the rest of the Imagine crew reacted all that much more cogently. If the enduring image of the company’s brief heyday would always be that parking garage full of exotic cars, that of the collapse would be a few dozen confused young men milling around outside a door that had just been locked in their faces, trying to figure out what was happening and what they should do about it — all of it as captured by Paul Anderson’s remorseless cameras. He hadn’t known quite what he might be getting into in making his documentary about the British computer-game industry, but he had certainly never dreamed it would turn out like this. But then, it seems safe to say that those who still worked for Imagine felt much the same way.

Facing a court order, Lawson and Hetherington resurfaced at last for the final winding-up meetings, huddling together in a small room while creditors lined up in the hall outside to state their grievances and request financial redress. In the end, the court managed to recover about £300,000 for them by selling Imagine’s office furniture, computers, and all those exotic cars. Meanwhile the accusations continued to fly among the Imagine principals. Stephen Blower, the one-time head of Studio Sing, filed a criminal complaint against Butler and Lawson for ignoring a court order, issued back in February as a result of the fallout from his agency’s bankruptcy, to remove his name from a £100,000 bank guarantee. Asked directly about the matter, a police spokesman replied in terms that weren’t entirely reassuring if you were Butler or Lawson: “The Commercial Squad does not have warrants of arrest out for any of the directors. It is, however, looking at the case in a wider sense.” Butler and Lawson were eventually found guilty of being in contempt of court, but the judge ruled that he wouldn’t send them to prison or fine them if they would now remove Blower’s name as previously agreed and pay his legal fees. This latter they presumably finagled a way to do, as the matter then disappeared from the press.

As the fallout from Imagine’s messy end continued, Paul Anderson had retired back to London to put his documentary together. The finished product, which first aired on BBC2 on December 13, 1984, is as fascinating as it is frustrating. This being an era well before video became ubiquitous, we have precious few similar glimpses into the vintage British games industry. The documentary would thus be of interest even had it not involved such a storied crack-up as Imagine’s. Yet Anderson’s hands were tied to a large extent by the strictures of the Commercial Breaks series for which he had shot his video, with its 30-minute running time and its brief of presenting an essentially positive, upbeat take on modern British entrepreneurship. These factors dictated that he include barely ten minutes of the reported many hours of footage he had shot in and around Imagine; Ocean Software, a far less high-profile but also a far more successful operation, got the balance of the program’s running time. (The television critic for the Times of London hilariously described the two companies in Commercial Breaks as a contrast between “much skin cream, little aftershave” on the one side and “receding hairlines, spreading waists, grit of experience” on the other.) It’s likely that the rest of the Imagine footage, which would have been seen by the BBC’s management at the time as the leavings of a minor episode of a minor, ephemeral program, was destroyed long ago. So, we must content ourselves with what we have.

Few would shed any tears for Imagine Software. Competitors, creditors, and even more than a few ordinary gamers who had been burned by the mismatch between Imagine’s hype and their games’ reality rejoiced to see the company’s humiliating comeuppance on national television. As a final ironic note, Ocean Software, Imagine’s companion company in that episode of Commercial Breaks, wound up buying the name, which they judged to still have cachet in some Continental markets. In British gaming circles, however the name of Imagine was destined to remain synonymous with hubris, greed, tomfoolery, and plain old dishonesty, and for very good reason.

In the wake of Imagine’s collapse, people were left to wonder how it could possibly be that this group of clueless, vindictive naifs could have enjoyed the trappings of success for as long as they had — could, for that matter, have ever enjoyed the trappings of success at all. Imagine’s story is one of those which come along every once in a while to illustrate how much of business — and, indeed, society — is ordered not so much by rigidly stipulated, explicit rules as intuitive, implicit norms of behavior. When a company like Imagine comes along, willing to violate all of those norms, it can take the people around them considerable time to catch on. Imagine’s name proved ironically appropriate: the entire company, the entire Imagine “boom,” was a supreme act of imagination on the part of those — and by no means does this group consist entirely or even mostly of those who actually worked at Imagine — who desperately wanted the dream to be true. Imagine told people they were successful, and people believed them, and so in a sense they did indeed become successful — for a time.

Anderson’s own final take on what he had witnessed over the course of his weeks in Liverpool was far less harsh than that of many others:

It was a fascinating time in a city at the focus of the software business. It’s a shame it all fell apart. There were a lot of talented people there who were let down. It’s a bit like a movie that never got made, all the technicians and all the energy, but the producers failed. It’s going to be interesting to see what will come of them all.

After such a spectacular fiasco as this one, you might expect the people who had made Imagine to hide themselves away in shame. But of course they weren’t that sort of people. On the contrary: most of the people who built Imagine and then burned it to the ground were destined to remain around the games industry for a long time to come. Only Mark Butler, something of an innocent soul at bottom, a fellow who had always seemed almost as over-matched as had been Eugene Evans for the role that was thrust upon him, went at all quietly into that good night, starting a non-gaming software business with his father.

Out of everyone involved with Imagine, it was Eugene Evans who seemed most doomed to fade back into obscurity. He had already entered the media’s “where are they now?” file by the beginning of 1985, when Your Computer reported that he had been forced to trade his famous Lotus for a second-hand Volkswagen Beetle; on the plus side, he could at least actually drive his latest car, having finally gotten a license. But Evans wound up surprising everybody. He went into the management side of the videogame business, a role for which he was far better-suited than that of programmer, and rose through the ranks to become a vice president at Electronic Arts, his brief period of celebrity as Britain’s Teenage Hacker Extraordinaire a mere footnote — an anecdote to share at parties — to a long and successful career.

Some of the other members of Imagine’s old programming staff, including John Gibson, went on to form a development studio of their own called Denton Designs. Without, as they put it, “people of the caliber of Bruce Everiss to cock it up for us,” they established a pretty good reputation, particularly as a maker of the British specialty that was action-adventures, surviving well into the 1990s.

For his part, the indefatigable Bruce Everiss wasn’t about to relinquish the spotlight, even if his choices in business ventures often remained problematic. He first reemerged as an enthusiastic spokesman for the Oric Atmos, an ill-fated attempt to challenge the likes of Sinclair, Acorn, and Commodore in the British home-computer market. After that effort went bust, he formed his own software company, Everiss Software, for just long enough to release a single mediocre game — the unfortunately named Wet Zone — for the BBC Micro. He then moved on to the new budget publisher Code Masters, whom he helped to create a new image for what used to be the dregs of the games industry, the titles on the £1.99 racks. But he remains most proud of having founded the All Formats Computer Fair, a series of events that ran for many years in Britain and helped to reconnect him to his roots as a tireless promoter of computing for the people — an aspect of his makeup that had, like so much else, rather gotten lost amidst all the hype of Imagine Software.

So, Bruce Everiss’s real achievements both before and after his involvement with Imagine are considerable. Yet even before the final collapse of Imagine he began engaging in an often-tortured exercise in triangulation with regard to what still remains for many — fairly or not — his most memorable legacy. He wishes to take credit for the new standards of presentation and advertising he installed at Imagine and for the distribution inroads he engineered, all of which had a major impact on the British games industry as a whole, while separating himself from the excess, waste, foolishness, and sheer incompetence that are an equally indelible part of the Imagine story. “Comparatively little was spent on advertising,” he stated in 1984 in an attempt to minimize his own culpability in Imagine’s legendary profligacy. One suspects that the many magazines who were stiffed for tens of thousands of pounds each by Imagine might beg to differ. (Then again, since Imagine for the most part never actually paid their advertising bills, maybe his claim is perversely true…)

Threading the needle of innovation and complicity at Imagine has led to changing messages over the years. In an opinion piece that took the form of a letter to Eugene Evans which he wrote for Your Computer in 1986, Everiss tried to disavow his role in sculpting the latter’s persona for public consumption, blaming it on his colleagues at Imagine in the abstract whilst indulging in a cruel and pointless critique of Evans’s coding skills while he was at it:

Imagine seized on you as a PR opportunity. The story of a working-class teenager earning a fortune in Liverpool was a natural for the mass media. You had a fleeting fame in newspapers and on television, with strong undertones of John Lennon involved. What you didn’t seem to realise is that Imagine didn’t do it as a favour for you, they did it for themselves. In fact, what they did for you was the exact opposite of a favour.

Back in reality, you wrote a simple game on the 3 K VIC called Wacky Waiters that was just tolerable. Catcha Snatcha which followed was unplayable. Frantic was so bad the company had to withdraw it. Then you converted to the Commodore 64 with an attempt to put Arcadia on it; it was a travesty.

The last few months at Imagine were wasted playing around while pretending to work on a game called Psyclapse. All these attempts at programming were on the relatively simple 6502. You never could handle the more complex Z80. The 68000 must seem as difficult as playing Rachmaninoff backwards on a mouth organ.

Yet, when interviewed for a 2012 book-length history of the British games industry, Everiss was back to being the proud Svengali, thrilled to take all the credit for his greatest personal marketing creation. He claimed that all of the aspects of the Eugene Evans persona that the media latched onto were consciously crafted by him and him alone to make them do just that. Tellingly, the only person who ever publicly compared Evans to John Lennon was Everiss himself. All these decades later, one does have to wonder why Everiss and his colleagues won’t simply admit that they were foolish lads who got carried away and made heaps of awful choices. Few would continue holding a grudge; given similar circumstances, I and plenty of you reading this today likely wouldn’t have done any better at their age.

But, again, neither Eugene Evans nor the rest of the deceptions Everiss indulged in with his colleagues at Imagine should be taken as the sum total of the man’s long career. Something that can easily get lost in an article like this one is the extent to which Everiss did succeed in turning humble Liverpool into one of Britain’s biggest hotbeds of game-development talent. Evans’s replacement in the popular press became Matthew Smith, a Liverpudlian programmer and Microdigital regular who had the advantage over his predecessor of being every bit as brilliant as his press notices would have him be. His games Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the former published by Bug-Byte, were a sensation in Spectrum circles at the very time Imagine was imploding, and Smith himself became almost as big a mass-media celebrity as Evans had been. Imagine may have died, but Liverpool-based game development would live on.

As would the final two major players in the Imagine saga. For even as Imagine was burning down around them, and even as Everiss was already working to lay the blame elsewhere, Dave Lawson and Ian Hetherington were also working hard — working on a scheme to birth a phoenix out of the ashes.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Videogames Conquered the World by Rebecca Levene and Magnus Anderson; Computer and Video Games of February 1984; Home Computing Weekly of March 20 1984, April 3 1984, December 4 1984, and February 13 1985; Personal Computer Games of March 1984, May 1984, June, and July 1984; Your Spectrum of June 1984; Crash of August 1984, January 1985, and February 1985; Popular Computing Weekly of July 5 1984, July 19 1984, August 9 1984, October 4 1984, December 13 1984, and December 12 1985; Sinclair User of September 1984, October 1984, January 1985, and July 1985; CU Amiga of September 1992; Your Computer of November 1984, March 1985, and January 1986; Times of London of October 16 1984 and December 13 1984. See also Bruce Everiss’s “A History of the UK Video Game Industry Through My Eyes,” parts 1 and 2. The Commercial Breaks episode on Ocean and Imagine is available on YouTube.)

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2017 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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