Richard and David Darling used to be everywhere: on television, the radio, in magazines and newspapers. They were young, ambitious and talented and as the faces of a new company operating in an exciting new industry, the media couldn’t get enough of them. With the help of their father, James, they had become the well-educated teenage directors of the games publisher and developer, Codemasters. But in promoting their games, operations director Bruce Everiss had a very clear plan. He encouraged the pair to accept scores of interviews, making them the face of the company they had set up. “People identify with other people, not with products,” Bruce says. “So we created brand identity, brand differentiation and brand engagement all very quickly, very efficiently and very cheaply using the brothers.” It wasn’t long before the lads were being dubbed ‘whiz-kids’ and yet, in interviews, it became clear that they were very much adults.
The brothers had grown close by the time they set up Codemasters in 1986. Although they were chalk and cheese in many respects – David, the elder by a year, proving to be the impulsive one while Richard was more considered – the pairing worked well. David was able to use his personality to get things done while Richard was able to rein his brother back if he got too carried away. Together, they had grown to love coding. At school in Vancouver, they had been taught to program using punch cards, and a friendly janitor also allowed them access to the computer room outside of hours. They used their father’s Commodore PET at the weekends, creating a text version of Dungeons & Dragons. Meanwhile, school friend Michael Heibert, whose family had a VIC-20, joined them in their endeavours. The trio set up Darbert Computers and they made clones of games such as Galaxian and Defender.
Sent back to England to continue their education, the brothers bought a VIC-20 of their own, and they later created another company, called Galactic Software, with the help of Michael, who was still across the Atlantic. They placed a £70, half-page advert in the magazine Popular Computing Weekly which resulted in scores of orders being placed. Their efforts brought them to the attention of newly-formed publisher Mastertronic and the brothers’ careers began to take off.
Quitting their education and creating a host of budget-priced games including Space Walk, BMX Racers, Jungle Story, Orbitron, Sub Hunt and Pigs In Space, the brothers’ reputation grew. Helped by a self-written tool called The Games Creator which ended up being released commercially, Richard and David had made £200,000 between them by the time they were 16 and 17. In 1985 they also held a 50 per cent share in Mastertronic and yet they wanted to go at it alone. The brothers sold their shares in Mastertronic in March 1986 and by October they had set up Codemasters with the help of their father. While elder sister Abigail did administrative work and managed the front desk in a small, windowless unit at the Beaumont Business Centre on a light industrial park in Banbury, James dealt with the business end and David and Richard were involved in creating new games.
The brothers shared one of the three rooms and James took another, all working among copious amounts of packing boxes and assorted clutter. Richard had been writing the racer, BMX Simulator, a follow-up to BMX Racers which he coded at Mastertronic. It was an instantly recognisable title which the Darlings were convinced would sell. “Budget games would allow us to grow because it gave us a larger audience and people would start to collect them,” David says. The remit, as the hits stacked up, was that the budget games had to be of full-price quality. “The process of development was the same for us because we didn’t care about the price of the game – if it was a skiing game then we wanted to make the best skiing game and if it was a rally game, then the same applied,” says David. “But if Ocean did a game like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon then they’d have to pay for that license and they’d have to advertise and pay for that, so a lot of their money got used up in marketing.”
In order to make money with such tight margins, though, Codemasters needed a lot of games. Knowing that they couldn’t knock out so many themselves – not without a severe drop in quality – the Darlings looked to attract others on a freelance basis which not only avoided tying people into the company, but allowed them to test the wider talent base. G-Man and Danger Zone were coded by Mike Clark, Terra Cognita was programmed by Stephen Curtis and Super Robin Hood was produced by the combined talents of Philip and Andrew Oliver, aka the Oliver twins, who met the Darlings at a trade show in Hammersmith. Peter Williamson coded Super Stuntman which was based on a concept by David, and Mark Baldock took Codemasters’ soon-to-be-famed simulators down a popular, yet pointless, path when he wrote one based on fruit machines. The Oliver twins sprung up again with Ghost Hunters, while Gavin Raeburn created Lazer Force and Timothy R. Miller coded ATV Simulator. “Simulators appeared to sell ten times better,” David said.
The number and quality of games at this time meant Codemasters was well on its way to becoming one of the UK’s top publishers, and yet it wanted more and more talent. In mid-April 1987, Codemasters placed an advert in Popular Computing Weekly that not only flagged up its five number ones, but listed the conversions that it needed to be completed. It was certainly an eye-opener. The publisher wanted Grand Prix Simulator ported from the Amstrad CPC to the Spectrum, for instance, and it was willing to pay £3,000 for the trouble. It also needed Transmuter on the Atari and it was offering a willing coder £2,500. Codemasters promised that the successful completion of a conversion would lead to guaranteed work and so the number of young up-and-coming developers approaching the company for commissions boomed. “We were striving to create the highest quality we could because we were programmers who loved games, so from a creative point of view, we wanted to create fantastic games,” says David. It also helped enormously that Codemasters – and the Darlings – had become recognised across the industry.
In this respect, Bruce was doing a fantastic job. He had been in computing for eight years, first as the managing director of a computer store in Liverpool and then as operations director at Imagine Software. Shortly after Codemasters was set up, Bruce had decided to give the Darlings a call and invite himself down for an interview, offering to take on the responsibility for marketing. He was duly hired and one of his shrewdest moves was approaching the London PR company, Lynne Franks who got the young men on every children’s weekend TV programme and in every newspaper colour supplement, often as the cover story. “They were constantly recognised on the street, celebrities almost,” Bruce says. “Once the boys were all over the national press, it made life incredibly easy with the specialist press, who I then had eating out of my hand. For instance there were three Sinclair magazines, each with a circulation of more than 100,000. I used the boys’ fame to ensure our products had exactly the right presence in them all.
Yet the Darlings would soon have some internal competition as the face of Codemasters. In 1987, the Oliver twins had unveiled a new egg-shaped character which they called Dizzy, and they had placed it in an adventure that offered the same kind of puzzle-solving gameplay as age-old text-based equivalents. The Darlings weren’t pleased but, with the game written, they agreed to publish it anyway. They felt justified in their reluctance when the game failed to shift in large numbers. But then they noticed that as time went on, the sales were not really dropping off. Instead they were growing. Fan mail was arriving at the office and there were lots of letters from passionate players who were stuck. Dizzy was becoming a sleeper hit and so Codemasters and the Oliver twins agreed it would be a good idea to make a sequel. Treasure Island Dizzy was released in 1988 and a best-selling franchise began to emerge.They were good times. The publisher’s bombardment of the trade press with full-page adverts in CTW magazine had made their mark with retailers, and Codemasters fought like crazy for every millimetre of shelf space, even providing free racking when a retailer bought its contents. It put the company in a strong position. “The Darlings knew exactly what they wanted and where the business was going,” says Bruce. “They were tough negotiators and the interests of the business always came first.”
Andy Payne, who formed the games production specialist The Producers in 1988, saw that at first hand. “I didn’t really work with the Darlings brothers as such, back in the day but I did work with their father, who is a formidable man in so many ways,” he says. “We used to supply the boxes and plastic trays for cassette and disc-based products and he was a hard negotiator. He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get it, but he was always fair.” James’ diligence and determination was evident in 1990. Codemasters had released the Game Genie, a cheat system which was originally designed for the NES. Created over six months, it allowed players to modify game data in order to cheat or access functions that were not being used. Codemasters felt it would be a perfect way to enter the console market, allowing players complete control of other developers’ games.
But Nintendo had other ideas. It felt the Game Genie was contributing to copyright infringement and it sued Galoob, the seller of the device in the US and Canada. This was a setback for David and Richard’s ambitions to enter the console market. They had been to CES in Las Vegas and noted how big Nintendo was becoming. They were keen to take a slice, yet Nintendo wouldn’t talk to them. James, however, believed that Codemasters had done nothing to infringe Nintendo’s copyright. He said the team had been diligent in ensuring everything was above board and he was confident Nintendo would lose the case. He was right. Although Nintendo initially prevented Galoob from selling the cartridges, its case was ultimately unsuccessful in court. Codemasters responded by pumping more resources into the device and creating it for other consoles too. By the start of 1993, more than half of the company was devoted to developing the add-on and it proved to be a massive hit.
The Nineties was a period of great growth for Codemasters. Now operating from a converted farm in Warwickshire and expanding rapidly the company saw their games flying off the shelves. There were more Dizzy titles, notably Fantasy World Dizzy and Magicland Dizzy and while Codemasters was starting to leave its simulators behind, it was also delving into its back catalogue and reselling its older titles within four-game compilations that retailed at £2.99 and later £3.99.
Dizzy spin-offs such as Kwik Snax, fun cutesy titles including Turbo The Tortoise and a new character in Seymour kept the pennies rolling in but there were some mishaps along the way. The Codies got a bloody nose for releasing Pro Boxing Simulator when it became apparent that it was a rerelease of an old Superior game called By Fair Means Or Foul. It was also starting to look over its shoulder as the stalwarts of full-price such as Ocean and US Gold were releasing games on their own budget labels including The Hit Squad and Kixx. “But they were old games at budget prices whereas we were doing new games at budget prices and more people were interested in the new games,” says David.
Codemasters had dabbled in the full-price market itself, particularly on the 16-bit home computers but found it was a tricky one to crack and so it had started to pull back. Instead, more and more attention was being given to the consoles: Micro Machines had been released in 1991 for the NES and it had performed phenomenally well. “It was a great multiplayer [game],” says David, “It built on the concept of BMX Simulator which was the first four-player game that we were aware of on home computers.”. By 1992, Codemasters was turning over £3.5 million in 1992 and it is understood to have rocketed to £10 million the following year. It had 75 employees and lots of freelancers. “I was 20 when I started working at Codemasters in 1992, and most of the developers were freelance,” says coder Ashley Hogg. “There was a fair amount of structure but it still felt a bit ‘Wild West’ and loose at times. It certainly grew over the next few years whilst I was there.” Programmers worked in their own rooms, allowing them to concentrate on their work and they tended to graft on their own projects, sometimes doing more than one thing at once. Ashley, for instance, was a coder on CJ In The USA and on The Fantastic Adventures Of Dizzy but he was also a musician. “I think it was fairly common back then,” he says. “I always wanted to do C64 music so had to learn programming to produce my own audio drivers. In the end I felt I had more of a knack for programming but enjoyed doing music when I could.” There was cross-pollination of ideas and code between everyone and the hiring policy asked managers to only take on staff who had better skills in some areas than they did, making for a more equal environment. The innovation also continued. In 1994, Codemasters introduced the J-Cart for the Sega Mega Drive, a hugely innovative product which placed two additional gamepad ports on the cartridge. It made its debut with Tennis All Stars but it came into its own with Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament. “It was obviously such a great idea,” says Ashley. “It suited the next Micro Machines game perfectly. The whole thing was only possible due to being able to make their own cartridges outside of Sega’s licensing model.”
Such innovation fostered a can-do attitude and for the developers at the top of their game, the rewards were great. David said some of the top developers – paid on a royalty basis – were earning £300,000 each year. Codemasters’ expertise saw it sail into the 32-bit era as some of its rivals either folded or sold up. The company certainly had no problems with the move to CD – it had dabbled with a compact disc compilation for the Spectrum in 1989 and Ashley had worked – albeit alone – on a Micro Machines conversion for Philips CD-i in 1994 – “Philips approached Codemasters as they were trying to turn around the failing multimedia machine into more of a gaming system,” he says. “Codemasters weren’t really that keen, but Philips were offering some modest cash.”
The tricky part was picking the right machine to work with – “We had a strong feeling the PlayStation would work well,” says David, “it was a brilliant console,” – but Codemasters appeared to take its time, still working on Mega Drive games into 1996. But in 1997, it made Sampras Extreme Tennis, Micro Machines V3 and TOCA Championship Racing for the PlayStation. The following year, it launched Colin McRae Rally and it also created tune creation software called Music, a franchise which continued until 2004. With the exception of Micro Machines 64 Turbo which was released for the Nintendo 64, Codemasters had become loyal to Sony’s console and it was picking up awards from leading videogame bodies and magazines for its output.
“It all felt pretty exciting to be involved in an industry that was really beginning to approach the mainstream for the first time and at a British company that was leading the charge,” says Natalie Griffiths, who had joined as the senior designer in marketing and promotional materials. “I think it was only in retrospect that I really began to appreciate the formative impact that Codemasters was having on the growing UK games scene.” At the start of the millennium, Codemasters was in a great place. It won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise while David Darling was named the UK Entrepreneur Of The Year. Colin McRae Rally 2.0 was outselling Pokémon Red & Blue by three units to one, topping the charts after just three days on sale and doubling the launch weekend of its predecessor. The publisher also announced that it was going to be making games for the Xbox, which was due for release the following year, and it unveiled Insane, a 4×4 off-road racer for the PC which was going to be the first game to utilise the Codemasters’ multiplayer network for online play.
Success continued for the British studio. In 2001, Operation Flashpoint became the 60th Codemasters game to get to number one. The development of the MMORPG Dragon Empires was also announced: Ted Carron, now studio head, was put in place as its producer (although, after a series of delays, it would never see the light of day). For the next few years, it continued to rely on its big hitters, from Operation Flashpoint to Colin McRae. It even buried the hatchet with Nintendo by announcing it would start developing for GameCube in 2003.
Yet by the mid-Noughties, Codemasters was being slowly taken over by Balderton Capital which was amassing an ever-larger share in the publisher and there were also some changes at the top. In 2004 – the year Codemasters allowed the Commodore 64 version of BMX Simulator and Treasure Island Dizzy to be downloaded online to celebrate its 18th anniversary – David took over as chairman from James, who remained on the board of directors. In 2005, Rod Cousens joined as CEO and Tony Williams as COO. The Darlings eventually sold their shares to Balderton Capital and left the company in 2007.
But even though Codemasters had lost its founders, the publisher continued much as before. At Gamescom in Leipzig, it promoted playable premieres for Clive Barker’s Jericho, Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty, Colin McRae: DIRT and The Lord of the Rings Online. The company also reached an agreement in 2008 to take over the Sega Racing Studio in Solihull, welcoming more than 40 people to the company. Over the past eight years, it has pushed more and more into the production of racing games. There was much excitement surrounding Race Driver: GRiD and it secured the worldwide publishing rights to the next-gen racer Fuel from Asobo Studios which had been in development for more than four years and had a playfield which stretched for 5,000 square miles. It was making such great inroads into the racing genre that it was handed the Grand Prix Award by Develop in 2009.
Codemasters was taken over yet again in 2010, this time by Reliance Big Entertainment and it began to restructure two years later, converting £21 million of expensive debt into equity to put it on a sounder financial footing. It was also decided to transfer Lord Of The Rings Online to Turbine but since then, the greatest emphasis has been on its racing games including the F1 series, Dirt and Grid and new regular iterations of these franchises are proving popular.
In many ways, its reliance on driving games is no surprise. It’s how the company began and it’s the staple genre that it has relied upon time and time again. Codemasters has carved a niche for itself and it looks set to continue this way for a good while to come. It is, we have to say, absolutely brilliant to see.