Richard Branson has been involved in all times of business ventures, but one of his most interesting is the forming of Virgin Entertainment, formerly known as Virgin Games. It published a huge number of classic games, ranging from Broken Sword, to Aladdin and Command & Conquer, and worked with countless development studios.
Oxford University graduate Nick Alexander started his working life at British Rail in the Seventies, then quickly moved on to EMI and then HMV Retail, where he became the company’s marketing manager. However, retail marketing wasn’t really where he wanted to be, and as a new year dawned he started looking at the exciting new frontier of home computers and videogames.
“I got into the computer games business at the beginning of ‘82 when I started working at Thorn EMI Video Programmes,” he remembers. In the early Eighties Thorn EMI was developing ambitious video disc programmes for the VHD Video Disc System, which sadly failed to appear outside Japan. Thankfully, its home computer software division was producing games for more familiar formats like the Atari 400/800 and the Commodore VIC-20, but it wasn’t too long before Alexander began getting frustrated.
“I wanted to get more directly involved with creating products and I also wanted to do something international,” he explains. “In ‘82 the market was just beginning to take off, with lots of people starting to write games, and I started thinking about setting up a computer games company of my own. Everybody else was – why shouldn’t I?” In what turned out to be a career-defining moment, Alexander then received an unexpected telephone call from a very famous entrepreneur…
Nick poses alongside Virgin Games’ owner Richard Branson.
“I got a call from Richard Branson, who wanted me to become managing director of Virgin Retail,” says Alexander with a smile. “So I went to see him and had a very strange interview where he tried to offer me the job to run Virgin Retail, and instead I replied saying that I was actually thinking of starting my own computer games company.” Richard Branson’s response was quick and straight to the point, as Alexander remembers with some clarity: “He said, ‘Yeah, why don’t you come and do that, and perhaps you can come and help us with some other things as well.’” No further questions; just a simple ‘yes’ to what must have been an unexpected proposition as far as Richard Branson was concerned. “But that’s just the kind of guy he is,” says Alexander, remembering the moment fondly.
Alexander started Virgin Games in early 1983, on his own and with very little idea of what to do next. “It was my first start-up business, so I phoned Richard Branson and asked, ‘What can I get on with and what do I need to talk to you about?’ because I reported directly to him and he basically just said to get on with it and ‘I’ll give you a call every couple of weeks and you can tell me what’s going on’,” he recalls, laughing. Being given free rein to run the new company sounds like an ideal situation, but it wasn’t always like that.
“The drawback is that, on occasion, you do want to talk something through with somebody, and Virgin was diversifying into more and more things back then so it was sometimes a little frustrating,” elaborates Alexander. After a few weeks of solitude, he began recruiting additional staff. “I brought in Angela Fitzgerald, who organised the office, and Hugh Band came on board as marketing director, so initially there were just the three of us in the office working very long hours.”
The famous Virgin hot air balloon, as it’s not usually seen.
The office in question was at 61-63 Portobello Road in central London, but it wasn’t an ideal working environment. “Unfortunately we had no windows, so it often felt like we were completely cut off from the world. Sometimes we would go outside and discover it had been snowing, and other times we would realise it was a hot, sunny day,” remembers Alexander. “Virgin Publishing and Virgin Video were in the same building, and once we came out of the office and there was Boy George standing there, so it was interesting and all quite a laugh!”
With the office up and running, the next task was to get some product to sell. Virgin attracted submissions by issuing a press release announcing that the company was looking for titles to publish.
“We got hundreds of games sent to us,” says Alexander, “and most were from 14 to 18-year-old boys programming in their bedrooms.” A number of games were selected as Virgin’s launch titles, including a sheepdog trials game called Sheepwalk, which Alexander thought “was actually very innovative”; Golf; Starfire, which was a version of the classic unofficial Star Trek tactical game; Mission Mercury; Landfall; a graphical exploration game called Space Adventure; and Bug Bomb. Later titles included Dr Franky And The Monster, Angler, Ghost Town, Ambush and Bitmania, to name a few. In hindsight, the quality of some of those early titles was questionable.
“In all honesty, judging the games wasn’t really our forte,” admits Alexander. “We were very good at marketing but not so good at knowing what was a hot property and what wasn’t.” Despite the lack of high-quality titles, Virgin Games did very well in its first year, and it also had a slightly different slant to its marketing. “I had this idea of promoting programmers like recording stars, so we included a picture and a biography of the programmer with the game that they had written,” explains Alexander. “We had the program on one side of the tape and we got some specially edited music from Steve Hillage or other Virgin acts on the other.”
The front of the inlays were very colourful, using large diagonal stripes and different colour combinations for different formats – green and pink stripes for the Commodore 64, blue and pink for the Spectrum, and so on. The advertisements placed in magazines covered multiple games, and also featured a curious mascot called the Laughing Shark.
“I was pretty rubbish at drawing, but I used to do this cartoon character at university called Laughing Shark, so we used him as a mascot, although thankfully he was professionally realised for us by an artist called Dave Dragon,” says Alexander with a huge grin.
He also came up with the idea of a Virgin Games tour: “We bought a double-decker bus [the former Southampton #104], decorated it in black and white stripes with the Laughing Shark on the side, kitted it out with computers, and then took it round the country to shopping centres and schools, and that generated a lot of publicity.”
Other marketing ploys enticed customers to join a club called the Virgin Games Gang, which included a newsletter with competitions, news and offers. However, just as Virgin Games was making progress, the industry threw a serious wobble…
Notable Virgin Entertainments Games
Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars
Shuttle: The Space Flight Simulator
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