In today’s retrospective we are going to be taking a look at the original incarnation of Imagine Software, particularly focusing on the fabled ‘Mega Games’.
Imagine Software was a UK video games developer based in Liverpool which although existing only for a brief period of time (in the early 1980s), had a major impact on the UK games industry. Imagine initially produced software for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC 20 and quickly rose to prominence. Imagine was noted, and respected at the time, for its ‘polished’, high-budget approach to both packaging and advertising (not then common in the UK). As we shall see in this retrospective, it was also known for its often exuberant self-promotion and over ambition.
Imagine the possibilities
Imagine produced a range of great games during its time, but it is the story of the ‘Mega Games’, games which were never released and who’s development quickly lead to the downfall of the company, that I want to concentrate on.
What are these fabled games? Well there were six planned, but many will have never heard of any of them.. ..even those with some knowledge of this story will have probably only heard of ‘Psyclapse’ and ‘Bandersnatch’; the former panned for the Commodore 64 and the latter for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. ‘Bandersnatch’ was to be written by John Gibson and Ian Wetherburn and ‘Psyclapse’ by Eugene Evans and Dawn Jones.
Imagine Software was riding high on a wave of success in 1983, they had a succession of hits with titles such as ‘Stonkers’ and ‘Alchemist’. But the constant specter of piracy plagued the company and they wanted to do something about it. Their concern lead to the development of a novel idea.. ..why not include hardware with the game? Hardware that would be needed in order for the game to run!
Imagine could have responded to this idea with a simple ‘dongle’ device.. ..but they were ambitious and really wanted to make an impact. It is rumoured it was Mike Butler (one of the founders) who suggested that the hardware could also contain extra memory, maybe even custom chips to make the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 do things they weren’t normally capable of. You could then create ‘Mega Games’ for each system.. ..the games would have to be really special to recoup the additional cost of development and producing the hardware. Indeed, it was estimated that each ‘Mega Game’ would need to sell for c. £30 to £40.. ..that might seem reasonable now (not adjusting for inflation), but in the mid-eighties this was an incredibly high price for games software.. ..most games retailed at c. £5, even the very best releases rarely ever eclipsed the £9.99 barrier.
The development of the games was typically (for Imagine) heavily promoted with several ‘teaser‘ adverts appearing in computing magazines of the time.
Only one of the planned six ‘Mega Games’ actually got coded.. ..it became clear during a very revealing BBC documentary (see below) that ‘Psyclapse’ was true vapourware, being little more than a simple plan on paper. It is also estimated that even ‘Bandersnatch’ was only ever c. 30% completed.
Although neither of these games were ever finished, they did leave their mark on gaming history.
Two other games were also planned for imminent development, but probably never coded; ‘Hero’ and ‘Startrader’, both for release on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. John Heap and Daryl Dennis were to code the Spectrum games and Dave Colclough and Marc Dawson the Commodore 64 ones.
Apparently not all employees at Imagine were convinced about the ‘Mega Game’ idea and it has been suggested that Bruce Everiss, a key employee at Imagine, had tried to stop them being made; suggesting “it was crazy” and “would never work“. But collectively Imagine decided to press on.. ..and things started to go wrong, very wrong, very quickly.
Insight – Imagine’s collapse caught on camera
At the start of 1984 BBC television director Paul Andersen was keen to extend his professional portfolio and was looking at developing programmes for the ‘Commercial Breaks’ series. These broadcasts were aimed at examining the struggles of individuals and companies who were trying to ‘break’ a new product into the market place. Anderson had noted the growing enthusiasm for a new generation of computer games that were appearing in high street branches of major outlets such as WH Smith and Boots and wanted to take a look at this exciting and pioneering new market.. ..as such, he started to investigate some suitable companies to base a ‘computer games’ programme around.
He didn’t need to look far.. ..computer magazines of the time were full of eye catching adverts from a software company called ‘Imagine’.. ..their adverts easily out classing those of other publishers. They were appealing and very professionally produced by Stephen Blower of ‘Studio Sting’, which in itself was an offshoot of ‘Imagine’. In addition, the national tabloids were also full of news about a teenage programmer from Liverpool who was being paid £35k a year (equivalent to c. £100k now, allowing for inflation) and owned a ‘supercar’ even though he was too young to legally drive it.. ..the programmer in question was called Eugene Evans, and worked for, you guessed it, ‘Imagine’.
Anderson travelled to Liverpool to meet with the young bosses of ‘Imagine’, David Lawson and Mark Butler, to see if they would take part in the series. Lawson had written ‘Arcadia’ a fixed shooter, combining elements of both ‘Gorf’ and ‘Galaxian’, which was well received and had gone on to become a massive hit. Butler, for his part, had sold the game in huge quantities over the Christmas period of 1982. Upon their initial meeting with Anderson, the pair were a little reluctant. In addition, their Operations Manager, Bruce Everiss, further surmised that they had far too many commercial ideas in development to let the BBC tell ‘all and sundry’ their plans.
However, upon further reflection Everiss began to become beguiled by the enormous amount of free publicity that the BBC programme could give them. This turn of heart was cemented by Dave Lawson’s nostalgia.
Liverpool has always seen itself as an underprivileged and neglected city, not without some merit.. ..but also a city with imagination, guts and talent. Some of this had come from the amazing success of ‘The Beatles’ in the 60’s; literally taking the world by storm and some from the optimism that always comes with deprived backgrounds. Lawson saw ‘Imagine’ as the new Beatles, in that it would completely change the nature of computer software in the 80’s. It has been stated by Blower that Lawson “had a greater vision of what could be produced in software than anyone else I’ve ever met”.
The timing of Anderson’s pitch to ‘Imagine’ was critical as it has just started to work on the ‘Mega Games’. Lawson had become frustrated with the technical limitations of the computers they were developing games for and had been pushing the concept of developing additional hardware that would enable fantastic new games; like nothing seen so far.. ..he was envisaging a new Beatles era, but for software rather than music and in Liverpool no less! What better way to record this literally ‘game changing’ development than to allow a BBC documentary team record it. The ‘Mega Games’ were a great ‘hook’ for Anderson and perfectly suited the intended nature of the ‘Commercial Breaks’ series.
In fact, when the BBC film crew arrived they could not have envisioned a more perfect environment to film in.. ..luxurious offices, hundreds of computers, youthful staff and a parking lot filled with a fleet of Ferrari’s and BMW’s. It was almost too good to be true.. ..Anderson quickly started to realise that maybe it was.
Beneath the veneer of success and energy there were too many anomalies and splits were immediately evident within the senior management team. He also finally met Eugene Evans who was obviously not being payed anywhere near what was being quoted in the papers and had not seemed to produce anything that Imagine even wanted to publish.
Evans and Butler had previously worked together at Microdigital, which was probably one of the first ever computer stores in the UK. Everiss was also associated with the store, as were many of the other programmers.. ..’Imagine’ had an immediately evident in-bred atmosphere, just the type that breads personality clashes.
None of this was helped by the fact that Butler and Lawson had been instantly successful with the sales of ‘Arcadia’ after setting up ‘Imagine’.. ..due to them abruptly leaving another famous software studio, ‘Bug-Byte’; over disagreements with the management. Of course, they had little knowledge of running a large company and needed help. Everiss was brought into manage the day to day running of the company, but financial control and directorship was given to Ian Hetherington. Everiss seems to have attached himself more to Butler and Hetherington to Lawson.. ..the splits started to grow.
To produce the ‘Mega Games’, ‘Imagine’ had set up a deal with the publishers Marshall Cavendish in 1983, which could have been worth as much as £11M. Early in 1984 the contracts were signed, but even before Andersen had received the co-operation of Imagine to start shooting his documentary, there were signs that all was not well with the deal. By the time the BBC crew arrived the problems with the ‘Mega Games’ were evident.. .. Andersen noted that whilst John Gibson was working hard developing ‘Bandersnatch’ with Ian Weatherburn, ‘Psyclapse’ was nowhere, nothing more than an idea on paper. This had not gone unnoticed by Marshall Cavendish who were becoming frustrated by the lack of progress on their games and were unhappy with what was ready. But as described in their ‘teaser’ adverts, ‘Imagine’ had already taken on more people to cope.. ..programmers, artists, musicians, etc. Just as ‘Imagine’ were spending money like there was no tomorrow, Marshall Cavendish wanted theirs back.
But this was not the only issue with the ‘Mega Games’.. ..they required a piece of dedicated hardware to run. To make this financially viable the games would either have to have been prohibitively expensive or manufactured in enormous quantities. ‘Imagine’ did not have the money to do this, or to source cheaper manufacturing in the Far East. At one point Everiss revealed that they had talked to Sinclair Research to see if they would acquire ‘Imagine’, whole.. ..but they weren’t interested, never really being into the games side of the industry. Ironic really, as it was games that had [in reality] put Sinclair as a company on the global map.
However, for a small period of time, Sinclair were interested in purchasing some finished games, but the ‘Mega Games’ would have to ditch the extra hardware and be designed to work on their new Microdrive. Eventually’ Sinclair Research did indeed buy an option on ‘Bandersnatch’ for their new QL ‘professional’ computer.. ..where it was completed. It was never released, however, as the QL was somewhat of a commercial failure and immediately dropped when Amstrad brought Sinclair out in 1986.
‘Imagine’ were also trying lots of other ideas to ‘out smart’ and out compete their industry rivals, but some of them back-fired spectacularly. One of their more infamous schemes was verified by Anderson’s own film crew.. ..in an attempt to ambush the competition they booked the entire duplicating capacity of Kiltdale, one of the biggest UK cassette duplicators in 1983. On paper this seemed like an elegant piece of industrial sabotage. However, mainly because of the delays with the ‘Mega Games’ they had more blank tapes than software to duplicate on to. They weren’t getting the income they hoped for and they owed the duplicators and the storage depots for the unused cassettes they still owned. The few games they did release did not sell in nearly high enough numbers, so ‘Imagine’ suddenly lowered the prices of their games in a last ditch effort to recoup costs.. ..this crippled their relationship with wholesalers, who were then expected to sell the software for less than they had paid ‘Imagine’ for in the first place.
Anderson and his BBC film crew had recorded the whole thing.. ..‘Imagine’ collapsed right in front of them.
What happened to the ‘Mega Games’?
Although never finished the ‘Mega Games’ did in some ways live on in other games produced by both Denton Designs and Psygnosis. If you play ‘Gift from the Gods’ or ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ you can see the type of game play that was intended for ‘Psyclapse’. But we should concentrate on, and talk about, ‘Bandersnatch’ as this was at least partially coded.
The rights to the game were acquired by company called Finchspeed, itself formed by Dave Lawson and Ian Hetherington from Imagine. It was initially offered to Sinclair Research, as a working version had been coded and completed on the Sinclair QL, but with their usual wisdom Sinclair eventually passed (and they had their own problems by this time).
Bandersnatch begat Brataccas as Psyclapse begat Psygnosis
After the rejection and collapse of Sinclair, Lawson and Hetherington formed Psygnosis, adapting the name of their new company from the name of the abandoned ‘Psyclapse’ (indeed some initial Psgynosis games were released under the Psyclapse label). The game was renamed ‘Brataccas’ and ‘ported’ over to then emerging Motorola 68000 based machines that were coming to prominence at the time, a relatively easy task as the Sinclair QL was based on similar architecture.
You control the protagonist, Kyne, a genetic engineer. Kyne is trying to clear his name after being framed by the government for refusing to assist in the creation of genetically assisted super-soldiers. The evidence he needs can only be found on the distant asteroid ‘Brataccas’. The asteroid is a law-less place (sort of a ‘wild west’) and Kyne needs to talk to many characters to gain the evidence, many of which of are highly corrupt. In many ways I think this story leans towards some of the Mars colonies described in the excellent ‘The Martian Chronicles’ novel by Ray Bradbury.
The world is displayed as a series of rooms, some with lifts and other with teleports. It pre-dates side-scrolling games and is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Impossible Mission’ by Expyx in appearence. The graphics are clearly derived from its Sinclair QL origins and you actually feel like you are playing it on a QL, even the distinctive QL colour palette was retained. Kyne could move, pick things up/drop them and talk to NPC’s, who were completely controlled by the computer and often had their own agenda’s. If Kyne fell from one level to another he would drop what he was carrying, only for it (more often than not) to be picked up by another NPC.. ..this was extremely irritating and ruined the game play.. ..it was also not the only issue.
Moving Kyne around was achieved by moving the mouse in the direction you wanted him to travel, but the control was imprecise and the game notoriously difficult to play. In addition, talking was achieved via speech bubbles, giving the game a cartoon-ish look. Unfortunately the speech bubbles could quickly fill up with text and it was difficult, often impossible, to read what was in them.
As such, the game received very mixed reviews.
The cover artwork was painted by fantasy artist Roger Dean, who would go on to provide artwork for many of Psygnosis’s titles. The same image was also used as the album cover for Uriah Heep‘s 2001 album ‘Remasters: The Official Anthology’.
A happy ending?
So there we have it, the story of how an ambitious software house was brought down, largely by their own ambitions.. ..only to then go on and spawn probably one of the best software houses ever seen the the UK.. ..that was until Sony Computer Entertainment got involved.. ..but that’s another story!
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