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The golden years of gaming

The halcyon days of computer games during the 1980s saw a massive boom in sales and the making of several fortunes for young whiz-kid programmers. But every boom has to bust, and the spectacular rise and fall of Imagine tells a salutary story.

Gordon Laing, Personal Computer World, Personal Computer World, 23 Jun 2001

The early 1980s were great for teenaged gaming addicts. Not only were these the golden years of home computing, but previously sceptical parents were often found persuading their square-eyed offspring to play more games.

It was in the hope that they too could become multimillionaire programmers, like teenager Eugene Evans. He was earning £35,000 a year and owned a flash sports car, despite not being old enough to drive it.

Back then, barely a day went by when the papers weren't talking about the latest whiz-kid programmer and, looking back, a large proportion of them (including young Evans) worked for a Liverpool-based games company called Imagine.

In terms of games, Imagine had a fine pedigree. Arcadia, a shoot 'em-up classic first written for the ZX Spectrum, kicked off the company's good fortunes, selling by the bucket load over the Christmas of 1982. Within a short period came Ah Diddums, Molar Maul, Schizoids, Stonkers, Zzoom, Zip Zap, Leggit, Pedro, Alchemist and Evans' own Wacky Waiters.

Most exciting of all, though, were the promised Psyclapse and Bandersnatch, possibly the most hyped and yet doomed games ever. So where did it all go wrong?

Interestingly, Imagine's rise and fall was almost accidentally documented by a BBC2 film crew working on a series called Commercial Breaks. Director Paul Anderson was looking for companies successfully working in new markets, and Imagine seemed to be the perfect subject to illustrate people making a quick fortune from computer games.

The story began at Microdigital, a computer store in Liverpool, where Mark Butler and Evans worked. Butler left to become a sales manager at Bug Byte software, where Dave Lawson was a programmer. After disagreements with management, Butler and Lawson set up Imagine and Lawson wrote Arcadia.

All in the imagination

So far so good, but in just 18 months several things secured Imagine's fate. First it founded a design and advertising agency that could offer discounted ad rates for the games company. The final details are uncertain, but the agency was eventually lumbered with unpaid magazine debts and a stake in a games company worth nothing.

Imagine also signed a deal to produce games for publishing giant Marshall Cavendish's Input magazine, but this later fell through, apparently because the software wasn't delivered fast enough.

The third problem was rumoured industrial sabotage that, if true, eliminates any sympathy you may have had for Imagine. In 1982 there was a shortage of games in the shops, and the projected demand for 1983 was enormous.

Thinking it would cash in on the desperate Christmas market, Imagine allegedly booked up the entire facilities of Kiltdale, then one of the largest software duplicators.

The idea was that Imagine would have plenty of software for sale, and its competitors would be left with next to nothing. Sadly for Imagine, and indeed many others, the home computer market collapsed after Christmas, leaving one huge warehouse full of unsold cassettes and a large bill.

While all this was going on, Imagine was staging its biggest publicity stunt yet, with the incredible hype campaign for Psyclapse and Bandersnatch.

The advert featured a group shot of its star programmers geekily standing around a terminal. These titles were going to be so amazing that Imagine coined the term mega-game to encompass their wonder.

As if the photo wasn't enough to whet the appetites of young consumers, the games were also going to be sold with additional processing hardware, and might be delivered in breakfast cereal-sized boxes.

The beginning of the end

The required investment, coupled with Imagine's debts, proved too much, and on 9 July 1984 a petition presented to the British High Court of Justice (by Personal Computer World's publisher VNU) went unopposed and Imagine was officially finished.

So where are they now? Several of Imagine's programmers ended up at Ocean or startup Denton Designs. Psyclapse never got beyond the drawing board, but Bandersnatch appeared as the poorly received Brattacus on the Atari ST and Amiga, via development on the Sinclair QL.

As for Evans, he worked at Viacom New Media then formed his own company, Infinite Ventures, which produces DVD-video games and Shadowgate for a variety of platforms. We don't know how much he earns, nor what car he owns, but one thing's for certain: at least he's now old enough to drive. Rock and roll.

See also:

XboxBill Gates has unveiled Microsoft's Xbox games console, the high-performance gaming machine that threatens the dominance of Sony and Nintendo.
08 Jan 2001
Forget PlayStation 2, the hot gaming platform of the future is your mobile phone, according to market analysis company Datamonitor.
18 Oct 2000
Hasbro Interactive delivered the first glimpse of its online gaming initiative.
12 May 2000

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