Who is Gary Bracey?
Gary Bracey is widely regarded as having helped turn around the fortunes of Ocean Software. The developer and publisher flourished under his leadership, and a number of key movie licences and software deals ensured that the Manchester-based developer was a force to be reckoned with during the 8 and 16-bit period. He may not have made games himself, but Robocop, Platoon, Cobra and Batman The Movie are just a few of the games that he has been involved with.
We always kick things off by asking interviewees about their school days. Did you know what you wanted to do when you were at school?
When I was at school I toyed with the idea of getting into law, but I never really knew what I wanted to do. And I’m now on the wrong side of 50 years old and still I don’t know what I want to do. So nothing’s changed.
Was there any particular reason why you considered a career in law?
It was just a subject that interested me. I mean most of the school subjects to me were quite boring, fairly dry, and law was something I found interesting because it was varied and stimulating intellectually. I didn’t seriously pursue it, but my actual grounding in law – because I took it to a certain standard – stood me in good stead for some of the business dealings I had a little later on.
Were you into computer games as a kid?
No. Unfortunately, computers didn’t exist when I was at school [laughs]. I remember I went to college and one element of my courses was computer studies. It was punched cards, a bit of COBOL, that sort of thing. Certainly nothing to do with games. And I think once I had left college, or maybe just as I had left college, the ZX80 came out. That was my first entrée into computer games, but that was literally typing out listings from magazines and making these silly block graphics.
Would it be fair to say that you had a small understanding of programming before joining Ocean Software?
Not really. Later on, when I then got the Spectrum, as well as typing in listings and playing around with silly BASIC routines, I also got a couple of books on machine code for beginners, and it was beyond me. I have a certain aptitude for technical knowledge to a level, and that exceeded it. And it made me appreciate even more the people who could actually do it because I realised then how complicated it was, and it gave me a greater appreciation for those people I would be dealing with later on who were actually experts with it.
Gary on the set of Nightbreed with Clive Barker and David Cronenberg.
When did you first realised that you wanted to work in computer games?
Well, my interest stemmed from computer games, and computer games were still in their infancy when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. So I borrowed £1,000 from my uncle and rented a few shelves in a local video library and went to a distributor called Microdealer and bought as many cassette tapes of Spectrum and Commodore 64 games as I could. I used my own Spectrum, hooked up to a little portable TV, to demo the games in the video library, and within a year I had made enough money to open my own shop, called Blue Chip, in probably the most prestigious high street in Liverpool – Allerton Road. But retail wasn’t really for me. I felt a little bit jaded and disillusioned with retail, because you literally wait for people to walk in and buy stuff, it wasn’t really suitable to my temperament and wasn’t terribly stimulating to me.
Talk us through how you ended up getting the job at Ocean.
I was friendly with Colin Stokes, from the old Imagine days, and Jon Woods, the then-managing director of Ocean Software. And he [Jon] used to have a wine bar in Liverpool that I used to go to. And one day we were just chatting and I said I was a little bit bored, and he asked me whether I knew much about games? I said I played them and sold them and that I thought I understood what people liked and what made a decent game, and Jon said he was looking for someone to head up the development side of things for his company as he was doing it himself and didn’t really know a lot about games, and I said ‘yeah, okay’. I’ve actually still got the offer letter somewhere offering me £13,000 as software manager of Ocean. And that was it, I joined Ocean in 1985.
A young Gary in 1962. We know what happened to him, but not the monkey.
What state was Ocean in when you joined the company?
When I joined Ocean Software it was already an established company and had been going for a couple of years already. It was in the days of Street Hawk, Knight Rider and Miami Vice – three infamous games.
I came in during mid-development of those games and they were in a little bit of trouble, and I think my first task was to try and help sort them out, but they were pretty much lost causes by that time. They were with developers who didn’t really care that much for what they were doing and it was just a question of getting something out into the shops.
Were those games being developed in-house at Ocean?
No, they were freelance. The same developer in Brighton was developing both Knight Rider and Miami Vice, neither of which was even close to seeing the light of day in any decent form. I can’t remember how it was resolved; I was just chucked in at the deep end. I know those games weren’t anything to shout about, but they were released and that was the beginning.
Gary was hugely responsible for Ocean’s success in the industry.
Did you have concerns at the time about these games being released into the market, knowing they weren’t really up to scratch?
They were well into development at that point, but the developers had obviously been spending far too much time on these things than they had any right to do, so it was a judgement call. We had three choices basically: do we top and tail them right now and get them out, do we actually indulge the developer and fund him for another few months to try and polish it (but the old expression polishing a turd comes to mind), or do we scrap them and start again. But that wasn’t practical, nor something you did in those days. You never, ever scrapped a project.
What caused that shift in the quality of Ocean’s output in the late-Eighties, with classic titles such as Robocop, The Untouchables and Chase HQ?
Well, a lot of things changed. When I joined Ocean there was a handful of developers, and because of the negative experiences of the likes of Miami Vice and Knight Rider – and I hadn’t really analysed it until now – it made me realise that perhaps exercising a little bit more control in-house is the way to go, and by expanding the in-house team we would have a greater observation of the progress. So it was my plan to grow the in-house team and that seemed to work. We got some incredibly talented people, and it really wouldn’t have worked without the development talent. We got the most fantastic programmers and the most creative artists and musicians. I’m terrified to mention names because by mentioning some I’ll exclude others. We were really so proud of the people we had, and the enthusiasm grew from them. We had a certain level of quality that we were very proud of.
Can you talk us through your role back then?
I had a personal interest in films and so I was sourced with trying to identify some properties that might be useful for computer games. It was great, I was being inundated with movie scripts, stills and studio visits, and we were able to cherry pick because not many people were doing it in those days. We had a narrow window of opportunity in which to develop them, but we got the scripts, and then had to formulate a rough design and I think the quality of the product demonstrated the enthusiasm and abilities of the people who were developing it. If they were keen on the material and they had confidence in the design and the movie itself, then inevitably it would turn out to be a more superior product than those they weren’t quite sure of. And you know, we certainly didn’t have a 100 per cent hit rate in terms of quality, but the good ones were very good and there are many I’m particularly proud of.
This is all that remains of The Watchmen game Ocean was planning.
Were most of Ocean’s staff avid film buffs, and if so, was there competition to work on the more enviable licences?
Absolutely, I mean everyone wanted to do Batman. I don’t think anyone wanted to do Robocop at the time – obviously then it was an unknown and reading the script it could have gone either way. It could have been a completely crap B-movie, or a really good cult science-fiction film. Fortunately it was the latter, it became a classic and we did a good job on the game. It became the most successful title in Ocean’s history at that point, and one of the most successful titles globally for any company, so that gave us a lot more credibility, and also with the movie studios who early on simply saw computer games as another marketing vehicle for their films. But I think after Robocop they actually realised that they could make money out of computer games. So, all of a sudden we got a lot more pro-active touting from the film studios, who were pushing their films for us to make games of because they wanted a bite of the cherry. I was inundated with film scripts, which was great because I love reading them anyway, and there were a lot of interesting properties around.
What was the best script you ever read?
The single best script I ever read – and bearing in mind I read everything from The Silence Of The Lambs, to Terminator to Top Gun – was Hudson Hawk. It was outstanding. What eventually appeared on the screen, though, was a completely different film, and from what I understand, the star simply decided to improvise and go his own way, but Shane Black – who wrote the original screenplay – was an amazing writer. But it was completely ruined. It was such a fantastic script, which is what made us get it in the first place.
Were you ever handed any scripts that made you think ‘this could never be adapted into a computer game, why are you even sending me this?’
Would you believe Orion – whom we’d done business on with Platoon and Robocop, and therefore had a really good relationship with – sent me the script for Mississippi Burning, which was about racism in the Deep South. I couldn’t conceive of how you could begin to make a computer game of it let alone the principle that even considering it would trivialise the whole issue that the film’s about.
Notable Gary Bracey Games
Batman The Movie
You can read the rest of our interview with Gary Bracey in issue 68. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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