Although he isn’t a games developer, Bruce Everiss nevertheless played an important part in the games industry during its infancy. From owning an early computer shop, he went to Imagine Software, and later Codemasters. Here he talks about those early days and the fall of Imagine Software.
Napoleon called the British “a nation of shopkeepers”, and in July 1978 that’s exactly what you became.
I’d trained as an accountant and, by then, I was the managing director of a computerised book-keeping company. I was getting computer trade magazines like Computing and Computer Weekly. I read these articles about microprocessors, these hobby computers and computer stores that were starting to appear in America. I thought, ‘If they can have them, why can’t we?’
So you opened Microdigital in Liverpool’s Brunswick Street, probably the first dedicated computer shop in Britain. Were there actually many computers to stock back then?
Finding something to sell was hard! We had the Apple II, pre-disk drive, just a cassette interface machine; the MK14 [Sinclair’s first home computer] that we got from Uncle Clive; and a kit called the Nascom 1. That had 1,200 solder joints on the kit!
That doesn’t sound like the sort of thing little Johnny was putting on his Christmas list.
It was hobbyists coming into the shop. The kind of people that had telexes at home. We imported huge numbers of books and that’s what gave us our daily turnover – books, books, books! We also made a lot of money selling blank cassettes.
Blank cassettes? So little Johnny could copy the latest games and swap them in the school playground?
In those days, there were no games to copy! They were for saving your own programs. I had C15s made with no leader, just straight into the magnetic tape, which was much more convenient. I invented those short-run cassettes and we sold mountains.
So when did games arrive in your shop?
In 1979, I travelled to Orange County, California, and visited a store called Computer Components. Along one of their walls was a noticeboard with polythene bags pinned to it, with cassettes in them. They were arcade games people had written for the Apple II. Space Invaders, Galaxian… I bought handfuls and brought them back to sell in Microdigital. I think they may have been the first commercially available games in this country.
Your shop must have become something of a hub for the burgeoning computer scene.
Yes, especially at weekends. I knew people who knew a lot about computers; people at Liverpool University and in the local computer club. There was a thirst for knowledge. I was doing a big trade in importing American computer magazines, like Byte and one called Dr Dobb’s Journal. It had in-depth techy articles and I thought, ‘Let’s do something like that!’ So we launched the Liverpool Software Gazette in 1979 and I got one of my staff, Carl Phillips, to edit it. You’ll find it all on Wikipedia!
Didn’t many of your staff go on to have careers in the games industry?
Tim Best was a salesman I pinched from Dixons and he went on to Imagine, Mirrorsoft and System 3. Mark Butler was one of my sales staff too and, of course, he was a director at Imagine. Paul Fullwood became head of studios at Hasbro and MicroProse. Andrew Sinclair went on to Ocean and US Gold and became a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Eugene Evans hung around the shop at weekends so we ended up employing him as a Saturday boy, to help the customers and make the tea. He went on to join Imagine as a programmer.
You ended up selling Microdigital to electrical retailer Laskys in 1981. Was that a difficult decision?
Oh no, no. It let me go nationwide – we had stores within stores across the country. Plus they put me through their management training mill, which was interesting. I left them when it was getting too corporate and started doing consultancy work, including some for Bug Byte. They’d employed Mark and Eugene, two of my ex-staff, and they had Dave Lawson.
So when Mark Butler and Dave Lawson left Bug Byte to set up Imagine Software, did you follow them?
I was there on day one and on day two they said, ‘You’d better join us.’ Dave had written Arcadia and that’s what we founded the business on. The rumour was he wrote both the Spectrum and VIC-20 versions in a day. Back then, you could only sell games direct by mail order. Most people were doing it out of their kitchens. We were the first to do this as a proper business. I put together a telesales team and we’d get the Yellow Pages from all over Britain, and we’d ring every newsagent, electronics shop and camera shop and try to get them to sell videogames. We created the whole retail structure for games in the UK. Then I got in two sales girls that spoke European languages and we started doing the same across Europe. We doubled our turnover every month. In our second year of trading, running up to Christmas, we were turning over a million pounds a month. In those days, that was quite a lot of money!
We suppose that explains the fast cars and wanton excess that became synonymous
We were selling cassettes at a trade price of £2-something and they cost us 15p. We had a lot of money. To buy a £30,000 Ferrari was not a significant purchase!
That reminds us of the story published in the Daily Star about your teenage programmer Eugene Evans being on £35,000 a year and having a flash car, even though he was too young to drive.
We did buy him a Lotus Esprit, but remember, in those days you only had to put down the deposit and pay for it in monthly instalments! He did drive it for a few weeks… before he wrote it off.
One of Imagine Software’s infamous MegaGames ads.
You sound like you were trying to create a brand image for Imagine of money and glamour…
Absolutely. Sex, drugs and rock and roll! You’re selling a dream with intellectual property products. If you treat them like vacuum cleaners, you’re not going to sell any. Dave Henry Lawson said to me: ‘Bruce, I want you to create a cult.’ Those were his very words.
So, in 1984, you were approached by the BBC’s Commercial Breaks documentary team, who wanted to capture this booming British success story in this exciting new industry.
My thought was that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so get ‘em in!
It didn’t end well, though, did it?
A triple whammy killed off the company. First, we got a contract to make games for Marshall Cavendish, and when that collapsed we should have gotten rid of staff, but Dave Lawson was greedy and said: ‘Let’s keep them on to make games for us.’ Suddenly our overheads shot up with paying all these people, but they never produced anything. The second was we kept moving offices to these prestige places in town and kept the old ones on. Thirdly, piracy came along and sales just stopped. The kids discovered tape-to-tape copying and they weren’t paying money for games. Our turnover collapsed. If you look at a list of Spectrum companies from that time, they all went bust!
What about Bandersnatch and Psyclapse, the two megagames that Imagine was promoting and supposed to be developing?
They started as an anti-piracy measure, like Lenslok. It was my idea. Put a dongle in with the game that you had to plug into the back of the Spectrum, with just a resistor or capacitor on it, and the game had to look for it before it would play. But David Lawson always wanted to do things bigger and better and said: ‘Let’s put more memory on it and do a bigger game!’
Did the idea get very far?
We put a ROM on it and you could page lumps of code in and out of the Spectrum’s memory, virtually instantly. If it had been produced, it would have been pretty damn cool.
Paul Anderson was the creator of the infamous Commercial Breaks episode that featured Imagine Software’s public meltdown.
What about the games themselves? How near were they to release?
The actual teams writing the games weren’t doing any work. They were coming in, messing about, having a laugh. There were fire extinguisher fights. David believed in creative freedom and didn’t believe in managing creative people. It was a failure of management. When he had one person making a game, like with John Gibson, that was fine, but put four together and you didn’t get four times more productivity; you got less.
Yet you kept hyping the games up in the press, with all those full-page adverts promising the earth.
Great adverts, but they were bullshit. There was nothing underneath. I had no screenshots available, so what could I do? I had to do something to fill the gap.
You were actually there when the bailiffs arrived, unlike the owners of the company, who were conspicuous by their absence.
Mark and David had gone off to America to try and do some deal and never told me.
Did you feel like a captain going down with his ship?
Listen, when I was a kid, my mother said to me: ‘Bruce, one day, you’re going to die. You’re going to die if you worry or you don’t worry.’ I was brought up with that philosophy, so I don’t worry.
There’s something quite liberating about going through life with that kind of fatalism.
She’d also say, ‘A hundred years from now, no one will know you existed,’ so when something like [Imagine Software collapsing] is happening, I quite enjoy it. Relieves the boredom.
After Imagine went bankrupt, you wrote a lengthy article in Your Computer magazine, identifying many factors that destroyed the company in your view. Notably, you don’t mention software piracy. Why have you changed your mind?
I was bitter and twisted and was trying to put the blame on people I didn’t like. Everyone knew piracy had ripped the heart out of the industry. That was a given and there was no point putting it in.
Notable Bruce Everiss Projects
You can read the rest of our interview with Bruce Everiss in issue 98. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop