Electronic Dreams was the brainchild of Rod Cousens CBE, who left Quicksilva to form his own company. Electronic Dreams quickly gained a reputation for creating interesting, often innovating games, before moving on to cover big movie licences like Big Trouble In Little China (bad) and Aliens (amazing). Here Rod talks about those critical early days.
Rod Cousens CBE may not be a name that immediately springs to mind from the history of videogames, but as the letters after his name confirm, the current Codemasters CEO has overseen the development of some of the best-loved games of the last 30 years.
Yet his career did not begin at Electric Dreams. Rod began work at Quicksilva in 1981, quickly becoming managing director of the Southampton-based company. “A close friend had introduced me to Nick Lambert,” begins Rod, “who had started the company with John Hollis, Mark Eyles and Caroline Hayon. I met Nick in manic circumstances, with schoolchildren coming into their office at 4pm to put ZX81 RAM packs into Jiffy packs to meet mail-order demand.” Quicksilva was one of the early adopters of the new Sinclair Research computers, and it wasn’t long before it began to develop its own software for both the ZX81 and its popular follow-up, the ZX Spectrum. “It was organised chaos to begin with and the energy vibe was magnetic,” smiles Rod, “and I was intrigued. I got on well with the team and felt I could bring something to the party, so it went on from there.”
“I certainly can’t program, but games and creativity were then, as they are now, compelling forces to me,” says Rod, explaining what he brought to the company. This, coupled with his astute business brain, meant he was soon an integral part of the famous software house.
The story of Quicksilva is one for another day; Rod left the company in 1984, a short time after overseeing its sale to the Argus Press Group. “There was a strong rumour going around that Argus wanted to relocate Quicksilva’s office to London,” he explains, “and I opposed this as I thought it went against the culture of the company.” Fortunately, Rod had a get-out clause in his contract that enabled him to leave Quicksilva under such circumstances, not that this was an easy thing to do. “Leaving Quicksilva was an emotional wrench; it was more of a way of life than a job and I was very close to the people who worked there,” he says. In addition to Rod’s mixed feelings upon leaving Quicksilva, the get-out clause didn’t come without a price: non-competition conditions meant he was essentially in exile until the period of his contract expired. Of course, being Rod Cousens, he did not rest on his laurels during this time.
“Quicksilva’s games were distributed by CBS Records, who handled a few other publishers, and I got a tip-off that they would be exiting the videogame business shortly after I left Quicksilva,” Rod explains. “One of the other publishers they worked for was Epyx, so I was about to fly to San Francisco and pitch to Epyx for European rights for a new company I was planning.” One fateful phone call the day before Rod was due to leave for the US changed his path immeasurably. “A head-hunter called me about a job for a leading multinational software house who wanted to establish a presence in the UK. I pretty much knew who it was, as there was only one company of that ilk at the time: Activision.”
With several high-profile Activision personnel already known to Rod from his Quicksilva days, he boarded his plane the next day to California with this key change to his US agenda. In a meeting with Activision’s Greg Fischbach, Rod explained his new venture, a software publishing house based in Southampton in the UK. “Greg called me the day after our meeting,” remembers Rod, “and said: ‘How would you like to be funded?’ And that was the start of Electric Dreams.” Rod never got to Epyx, and later that year it signed a deal with rival publisher US Gold.
With an office established on the top floor above Rod’s other business interest, an insurance brokerage, and with the backing of the US giant in place, Electric Dreams began to develop games, aiming for a strong line-up at the 1985 Olympia Computer Games Show. Joining Rod at the new software house were former Quicksilva colleague Paul Cooper (product development), Clare Hirsch (marketing) and ex-Atari employee Jon Dean, with the sales, distribution and finance departments all handled by Activision. Electric Dreams was in the enviable position of being able to concentrate solely on acquiring and developing its products.
This first wave of games, like the majority of Electric Dreams’ output, would be focused on the European market and its popular computers, as Rod explains. “Electric Dreams was geared to European platforms whilst Activision’s development was US-centric, and on Commodore 64 for the most part. Our role was essentially a local market imprint for Activision to gain a market share in this region.”
In 1985, the main local rival to the Commodore machine was the ZX Spectrum, and Electric Dreams initially concentrated on this computer. “I was a huge fan of Sandy White and Angela Sutherland’s work,” continues Rod, “and had built a close relationship with them over the years, so they followed me to Electric Dreams where we published the brilliant I, Of The Mask.” The developers of the massively influential Spectrum game Ant Attack appreciated Electric Dreams’ support, creating a special piece of artwork depicting Rod’s face in place of the iconic mask. “I hold both of them in deep affection,” he says with obvious emotion, “and it was a privilege to work with such technically and creatively gifted people.”
One of the adverts Electric Dreams used from back in the day.
Despite the innovative I, Of The Mask and the well-received maze game Riddler’s Den, it was Electric Dreams’ initial move into the world of movie licences that would first bring its name to attention. The hot hit movie of 1985 had been the Michael J Fox time-travel extravaganza Back To The Future, and Electric Dreams successfully secured the licence to produce a videogame adaptation on the 8-bit computers. Yet despite a faithful re-creation of the film’s plot, the game failed to spark much excitement with the press and public alike. “Licensed properties of those times were often very constrained by artistic controls and had little interest in the game side, which invariably came after the release of the film,” says Rod. “We liked the concept but felt we were too constrained and were unable to overcome the shackles.”
Another former Quicksilva worker, Mark Eyles, worked freelance as lead designer for Back To The Future. “It was one of those absurd rush jobs where everything had to get done within a couple of months,” he recalls with a grimace, “but, in my opinion, although the game was not great, it was still fun to play thanks to the tight feedback loop we generated as you tried to rebuild the photo of Marty.”
Notwithstanding this inauspicious start to licensing, Electric Dreams and Mark Eyles would soon acquire and develop another movie licence with considerably more pleasing results.
Before then, more original games would appear, with varying degrees of success. Paul Shirley’s excellent Marble Madness clone, Spindizzy; the intriguing action-management game Hijack, which was again designed by Mark Eyles; and The RamJam Corporation’s commendable Gauntlet clone, Dandy, were all released in 1986 to generally positive reviews. In the same year, Rod had the idea of releasing another charity compilation of games after having previously enjoyed success in organising Quicksilva’s Soft Aid in support of the starving in Africa. “Having started the fundraising, it seemed to me important that we continue,” says Rod, “and as computer games had a largely male teenage demographic, I believed we should give back to the young, disadvantaged people. Therefore the area we targeted was those who needed help to kick drug habits.”
The result was Off The Hook, a compilation of ten games from several software houses that supported various charitable organisations. “We had all been stirred by the Ethiopian famine appeal and the efforts of the music industry via Band Aid,” says Rod. “We were the coming industry and I felt we should contribute, and continue to do so.” A strong cover image was the final element. “We were very fortunate in that we had Dave Rowe do the artwork, as he came up with a cover that really helped to sell the compilation, and we were all passionate about the cause because we wanted to make a difference. Fortunately so were the retailers and wholesalers, who all got behind Off The Hook to make it an outstanding success.”
Alas, these early days in the life of Electric Dreams harboured the occasional misfire. Winter Sports was a lacklustre attempt to mimic the success of Rod’s near-miss, Epyx; The RamJam Corporation’s Explorer was a beautiful tech demo without the game; and Prodigy was a barely above average isometric title. “There’s no doubt those games had plenty of potential,” says Rod, “but I admit they didn’t always live up to it, especially Explorer.” These lapses in its output and the changing way games were being made soon instigated a change within Electric Dreams.
“The market was moving on,” Rod explains, “and the idea that you could simply place an advert in a magazine and attract programmers was not valid any more. Development costs were rising and the teams were getting bigger. We were wary of the risks, so wanted to have ownership ourselves of the IP.” As a result, Rod formed Software Studios, a development team that, as part of his desire to merge Electric Dreams’ and Activision Europe’s game production, reflected the globalisation that was beginning to take place in the gaming market. The team was initially led by Jon Dean and then later by Charles Cecil and would go on to produce numerous arcade conversions for both Electric Dreams and Activision. It was time to shift over to licensing full time…
Notable Electric Dreams Games
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