Britsoft: An Oral History book review

The birth and evolution of the British games industry is perfectly captured in Britsoft: An Oral History. Ryan reviews a great book...

Pick a page, any page, and you’ll find something funny, strange or informative. Ah, here we go: page 258, which talks about the time Palace Software hired glamour model Maria Whittaker to pose for the cover of its 1987 game, Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior.

“Steve made little breastplates out of ashtrays,” recalls Palace Software’s Richard Leinfellner, “which apparently kept pinging off for some reason.”

It’s an anecdote which aptly captures the 80s era of British software development: the wild, sometimes crazy marketing ideas and gimmicks, the hype, the great mountainous piles of cash for the lucky few, the financial disaster for the less fortunate. Britsoft: An Oral History, a two-inch-thick slab of a book, is a time capsule from a bygone era of innovation and eccentricity, as told by those with a ringside seat.

Edited by Alex Wiltshire, Britsoft accompanies From Bedrooms To Billions, Anthony and Nicola Caulfield’s feature-length documentary about the same subject. That two-and-a-half-hour film felt like a labour of love, and Britsoft is a testament to just how much work they put into it; this 420-plus-page volume contains transcripts from nearly 100 interviewees, each sharing their recollections of a rapidly evolving industry.

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Game design legends like David Braben (Elite, Frontier, Elite Dangerous), Julian Gollop (Chaos, Rebelstar, XCOM) and Matthew Smith (Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy) share their memories, from their first dalliances with the computers of the late 70s and early 80s, via their first published games to the increasing encroachment of consoles in the 90s. There are also contributions from Julian Rignall, the videogame champion who soon became one of the best-known journalists of the period, legendary chiptune composers Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway, and pioneering publishers like Rob Cousens.

Together, the interviews create a patchwork account of an extraordinary period of change. It’s remarkable to think that an industry that barely existed at the start of the 80s, with games largely sold via mail order, had exploded into a multi-million-pound concern by its end. Britsoft serves as a reminder of just what a leap into the unknown becoming a software designer actually was; when Tim Tyler (Repton) broke into the industry in 1983, then aged just 14, it was still widely thought that videogames were a passing fad like the hula hoop.

For those of us who actually remember the era of the Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum, it’s similarly interesting to learn just how small the seemingly established, slick companies of the time actually were. Quicksilva, one of the UK’s first game developers, was started up in a delapidated house (“There were bits of carpet, stuff jammed in the floorboards to plug holes…) by Nick Lambert in 1980.

Many outfits, like Codemasters and Bug-Byte, were started by young entrepreneurs who simply advertised their games in magazines and handled all the duplication and packaging themselves. ┬áIn the post-punk climate, youngsters up and down the UK were applying the do-it-yourself attitude to game development; when Peter Molyneux’s career began in 1982, he programmed and released a business simulation game which sold precisely two copies. Other budding designers got their start by typing in listings from computer magazines, tweaking them and honing their coding skills.

Britsoft’s published by Read Only Memory, whose previous books include the superb Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works and Sensible Software 1986 – 1999. Necessarily more text-heavy than those earlier books, Britsoft is nevertheless another clean and ingenious piece of design, studded with classic (and not so classic) magazine ads and cover art, reproductions of newspaper headlines and candid behind-the-scenes photographs. The whole volume’s bound in thick, cloth-bound boards which give it a sturdy, substantial feel.

That Britsoft is so easy to dip in and out of is largely down to the clarity of its layout. Each interview is broken up into chunks of a few paragraphs or so, which means that reading Britsoft from cover to cover is a bit like watching From Bedrooms To Billions; the narrative cuts from interviewee to interviewee, each one picking up the thread of the story from where the other left off. But at the start of each interview, you’ll notice page numbers picked out in green; the number on the left will take you to the last instance of that interviewee’s recollections, while the number on the right leads to the next.

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In practice, this means you can pick up a story thread just about anywhere, skipping ahead to, say, the next chunk of the David Braben’s tales of developing Elite, and then the next. It also means you can pick out your own favourite developers from the era and concentrate solely on their anecdotes if you wish; an appendix of the interviewee’s biographies at the back of the book also provides a list of the pages on which they appear.

From a 21st century standpoint, it might seem strange that games were once sold on audio cassettes, or that programming was once considered a niche hobby like bell-ringing or ham radio. But this is why Britsoft‘s such an important, valuable book; it provides a lasting collection of voices and memories from those who were at the ground floor of a unique and quite weird industry just as it was forming. As a snapshot of a moment in time that will one day fade from living memory, Britsoft is an essential purchase.

Britsoft: An Oral History is available now from Read Only Memory.


5 out of 5