The gaming industry has become one of the most profitable areas of the entertainment industry, with a huge legion of followers hungry for the next installment in their favorite gaming franchises. This is not an industry that happened overnight. To trace its roots we have to go back to the ’80s, when the gaming boom first exploded. Not from huge corporate studios, but from young teenagers’ bedrooms. From Bedrooms to Billions is an upcoming documentary from Gracious Films that charts the rise of the gaming industry in the UK, following the bedroom game coders who helped to pioneer the video game industry as we know it today. Creators Anthony Caulfield and Nicola Caulfield very kindly agreed to an interview with Grizzly Bomb to talk about this enlightening look at the start of computer gaming.
Grizzly Bomb: Tell us a bit about the documentary and why the both of you decided to make a documented history of the ’80s gaming scene?
[box_light]Anthony Caulfield: The gist of the film is we are looking to tell the very long overdue account of the UK Video Games Industry and how the creativity and vision of a relatively small number of individuals allowed the UK to play a key, pioneering role in the shaping of the billion dollar video games industry which today, dominates the modern world’s entertainment landscape. We have wanted to make this movie simply because it’s been the culmination of over 10 years work. We have always wanted to tell the story of the UK Video Games Industry. Why is it such a unique story when compared to most other countries? Where did it come from? What was it like to be part of it and then where did it all go? What happened in that golden period is an important British achievement full of talented, brilliant people who inspired a whole generation of youngsters to follow in their footsteps, we’ve always felt that it simply must be documented while the majority of the key people involved are still alive to tell the tale. All through trying to get it commissioned we were being told by British Broadcasters that video gaming is too niche a hobby and no one would watch such a story. We believed this to be wrong so decided to try and crowd fund the film ourselves and it’s succeeding, people do want to see this film made.[/box_light].
GB: A lot of younger readers will be unaware that back in the early days of gaming, games came on tapes that had to be loaded up to play and the basic nature of the graphics meant more imagination was used on the part of the player. Do you think that is something that is lost now in more modern games?
[box_light]Nicola Caufield: I think the key thing about this is that you tended to plan for what you were going to play that little bit more in advance. Every gamer was faced with the same ‘press play on tape’ issue where you had to sit and watch a screen of flashing colors sometimes accompanied by bizarre sounds as the game loaded into memory, which often took 5-10mins. Once the load was complete it either crashed or ran. If it ran you played it…of course you did, because you just waited for 10 bloody minutes to play it! However, unless the game turned out to be dire you tended to actually stick at it until you discovered whether you really enjoyed it or not, because in the back of your mind you always knew that if you wanted to play something else you had that mammoth loading time to face. However, longer loading times (because that was all we thought existed at the time) were par for the course, they added to the whole experience of home computer gaming back then, believe it or not![/box_light]
GB: How difficult was it getting these game programmers on board with your project and was there one particular programmer you were excited about meeting?
[box_light]AC: It’s more us actually reaching people that haven’t been contacted about their contribution to the UK story in a very long time. It can also take time for us to communicate what we’re trying to do with this film, which is to make a feature film documentary that is a balanced and as accurate as possible account of what was a remarkable period in this country’s history. No one’s tried to do this before so it is convincing them that this is a professional film that is going to tell as balanced a story as possible. Regarding whom we were excited to meet, well without a doubt Matthew Smith. It took nearly a year to finally get the interview locked down so we actually made a mini-movie of our journey up to see him. We’ll perhaps use it as one of the DVD / Blu-Ray special features simply called ‘Meeting Matthew’. The interview itself lasted for well over 2 hours and was funny, shocking and at times incredibly sad. I think what our interviewees discover while filming is that we want to learn what really happened back then, how they got started, how it felt when the success started, but also the other side such as what was it like when the industry started to change, we really have heard some incredible stories.[/box_light]
GB: I grew up in this era of gaming and have fond memories of the consoles, especially the sound of an old tape deck loading up a game! What are some of your favorite games and game characters from this era and what appealed to you about them?
[box_light]NC: For both Anthony and I it is hard to really pick one or two games out, as so many games were part of our childhoods. I know Anthony is a huge fan of the C64 as that was his home machine whereas for me it was the ZX Spectrum 48k. He played Mercenary and Paradroid a lot, for me it was the ‘Ultimate’ games and various text adventures. Text adventures seem so strange nowadays, especially when you try and explain them to younger gamers. The idea that you stared at a small picture (and sometimes nothing other than a text description) with a cursor flashing and the words ‘Tell me what to do’, they seem light years away but they were and still are such fun!
AC: I played ‘Mercenary Escape for Targ’ for a very long time, also ‘Shadowfire’, ‘Uridium’ and ‘Elite’ there were so many brilliant games. I was rubbish at platform games though, I tended to like strategy but I was okay at shoot em ups. ‘Xenon’, ‘Alleycat’…don’t get me started you’ll run out of print![/box_light]
GB: With the technology advancing every day, is there any retro game from your childhood you would love to see given a more modern make over or do you think modernizing retro games takes away some of the appeal?
[box_light]AC: I don’t think we have an opinion either way on this one; a game is a game so if it’s fun to play whether it’s a reboot of an older title or a 100% original new one then it deserves attention. Of course, some reboots or franchise games have that legacy, and like a movie franchise gamers returning to a game world or experience they may have enjoyed previously or even perhaps as a child can be a lot of fun. I think with so many great UK developers who felt kind of ‘frozen out’ of the games industry come the mid-90’s perhaps because they just wanted to remain a bedroom, or as is known today ‘indie coder’ and didn’t want to join a larger team. Whatever the reason may have been, they are now finding themselves in a new development scene where they can dust off their old titles and franchises and make them work again on the new platforms currently available. I think because graphics and sound were more basic back then the imagination of the player seemed to fill in the blanks and make the experience that much more exciting. I think the problem anyone has with rebooting an old title today is they have to address the fact that nowadays technology is so advanced that the sky really is the limit, developers are no longer held back by the technology of the time so it is quite a challenge.[/box_light]
I loved reading Crash magazine when I was a child. Was there a magazine from your childhood that influenced the style of your documentary or one that you have fond memories of?
[box_light]AC: Well as you may have noticed from the film poster and the brand new ‘Special Edition’ poster we’re both huge Oliver Frey fans so ZZAP!64 and CRASH were always being read by us as we were growing up. Commodore and Sinclair User, C&VG were also favorites but it had to be the Newsfield mags that captured our imagination the most. In fact, we intend to feature a whole section of the film on the importance of those 80’s video games magazines in expanding the very industry they were writing about. The mags were written by school children and teenagers and were completely independent, the reviewers really did have the power to make or break a game. If you are interested check out our free to view documentary on the Newsfield Magazines called ‘The Newsfield Years’ here; https://vimeo.com/31517101[/box_light]
GB: Oliver Frey, one of the most iconic artists of this period has done some art work for your DVD release. I always found his work amazing, giving an almost magical feeling to the games he was makign art for. Many of the games artwork released in this period were also equally fantastic to look at. How do the both of you feel about the game artwork of that period?
[box_light]NC: We are exploring game artwork in the film and are featuring interviews with Oliver and also the likes of Bob Wakelin and Simon Jones. With often primitive graphics available a game cover often relied on eye-catching artwork to really pull someone in and ideally make a sale![/box_light]
GB: Did you find any shocking or interesting information about this period of gaming while making the documentary?
[box_light]AC: Yes, there are a few, more to do with the fact that many developers were poorly looked after or nurtured during this period. Though we were successful for a while there is a little bit too much of a ‘take as much now and don’t worry about tomorrow attitude’ so many developers simply gave up because of not being well enough paid…as they had to make a living from what they did. Without a steady stream of new talent and game ideas flowing through publishers have fewer games to publish and subsequently struggle, look for a buyer and sell up. During the mid-90’s we saw a drastic drop off in UK owned companies being sold to overseas buyers. We are looking very closely at why this happened.[/box_light]
GB: So this is a bit of a controversial one, but everyone has their favorites and I just wondered which one you two preferred. Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum? And just so you know I am not on the fence on this issue, mine is ZX Spectrum every time!
[box_light]AC:We have splinters in our backsides from sitting on the fence on that one, but for me it has to be the Commodore 64!
NC: We don’t agree on everything and this is an example… ZX Spectrum ruled supreme in my book![/box_light]
GB: This is just one of many documentaries you two have made together. After this what does the future have in store for the two of you and what other projects are in the pipeline?
[box_light]NC: Hard to say at this point, we’re not being evasive but we’re so immersed in this film it is hard to say really at this time.
AC: There’s a few ideas, but I agree with Nic, we want to finish this film first and then sit back and have a think.[/box_light]
Nicola and Anthony have managed to get this dream project up and running through Kick Starter and there is still time to help them release a whopping two disc DVD set. If you are interested in donating then go to their Kick Starter page here. They are also on Facebook and have their own website www.frombedroomstobillions.com telling you more about the documentary and includes exclusive clips. So if you fancy finding out what the appeal was of playing a game like Attack of the Mutant Camels or if you just want to see what the great grandparents of games like Batman: Arkham City looked like then this may be the film for you.