Much has been said about the history of game development in North America and Japan, but British developers were just as busy as their international counterparts back in the day; we just rarely get the chance to hear about it. From Bedrooms to Billions, a film about the pioneer days of game development in the UK from Nicola Caulfield and Anthony Caulfield, aims to set the record straight. The enthusiast developers who forged ahead and paved the road for future generations have shared their stories, and though some of the interviewees developed successful careers in gaming, many of them failed to turn their passion projects into commercially viable products under the pressure of financially driven publishers. Regardless of the individuals' outcomes, at the start, Anthony says they all had one thing in common: "it was never for the money, only for the love." This is the story that From Bedrooms to Billions aims to tell.
The creative passions of the film's subjects inspired the Caulfields, who want to bestow these tales of love and loss to a wider audience, to preserve the early history of their corner of the industry. "We both feel this is a long overdue story," Nicola said, "and while most of the main protagonists are still around to tell the story in their own words, the time had to be now. We want a permanent record of a remarkable and creative time in UK history."
The "Billions" in the film's title isn't a reference to the financial success of the champions featured within, but to the budgets and profits that drive modern-day game development. Almost no one the Caulfields interviewed saw the industry of today coming. After all, in the beginning, they were working on passion projects, not blockbusters. "I know that sounds a little melodramatic," Anthony said, "but...they all tended to stare off into the misty-eyed distance and say the same thing. However they have all mainly said they had no idea it would become this, just some little geeky hobby that only they enjoyed, and then, whoosh!"
The love they speak of led to some inadvertent success, which is something the indie scene of today has experienced on occasion. The problem is, once critical and financial success arrives, you have two options: use your newfound assets to continue as you were, or, use them to expand your horizons. Of course, when publishers come into play, your passion no longer dictates your schedule, your boss does, and the shift to playing by the corporate ruleset sent some developers careening off course. According to Anthony, "If there is one common thread that runs through the interviewees, it is to have unwavering belief in what you are doing. It was when the love seemed to go from what they were doing that many people lost their way. Also as a publisher you have to understand that for a developer to do what he or she does best they must be given time, space and security to do that. Yes, keep them on track if a deadline is looming, but when those with no experience of game design in a position of power start dictating to a developer what makes a good game and how they should change what they’ve done, it usually ends in tears. However today a lot of those mistakes (often made in the late 90’s) have been learnt the hard way and remembered."
If there is one common thread that runs through the interviewees, it is to have unwavering belief in what you are doing.Anthony Caulfield
You could say the industry was healthy when it began to grow and generate record sums of money, but the developers featured in From Bedrooms to Billions aren't revered for their ability to rake in dough. They're remembered, first and foremost, for their iconically British design philosophies. "The core of a UK title is the rather bizarre humor, or the 'different' game design. Not better than other countries, mind…just different. We have many stories during the mid-90’s of our game designers trying to explain their game ideas to overseas corporate-minded publishers who would shake their heads in amazement at what they were being pitched. The film industry often says that British crew are among the best in the world and our game designers are exactly the same, yes we can be eccentric but we are very workmanlike when we need to be and can always get the job done!"
Defeat can be crushing, and regret can leave a sting that lasts a lifetime, but even though careers may have fallen apart when publishers began to dictate content, the the early indie successes from the UK have had a lasting impact that continues through today. "I’m not saying there’d be no games industry without us," Anthony said, "but, as with the US and the Japanese and other countries, we all form strong spokes on a big wheel and we all offer different qualities. We needed each other as it started to gather speed. In the mid-90’s our publishing dropped off at an alarming rate and financially we weren’t able to keep up, but as game designers I’d like to think that the overall industry might be a little more sane and straight without us…as I said our at times oddly wired brains came up with some remarkably original stuff. In fact that was where our decline started to come, suddenly when our greatest first wave designers were having game formats thrust on them by formulaic publishers eagerly trying to follow on someone else’s success they threw in the towel…and that’s a common story!"
As common as the stories within From Bedrooms to Billions may be among the interviewees, the film itself is an uncommon retrospective that focuses on an oft-neglected part of the industry's past. Gaming is an international business that began in disparate, and very different, corners of the world. In order to understand how we got to this point, we have to look back, and considering how little has been said about the origins of the industry in the UK, From Bedrooms to Billions offers a glimpse into the past that would otherwise have been ignored, and at worst, forgotten.