Skip to main content

Britsoft: An Oral History is comprehensive and fun

The way we were.

Only a few years ago, retro gaming was the very definition of a niche, clustered around web forums, fanzines and with the venerable Retro Gamer magazine as its only notable mainstream outlet. Then, around 2012, something changed.

This was the year the ZX Spectrum celebrated its 30th anniversary. Mainstream news covered that milestone, and it seemed to unclog the nostalgia pipes, leading to a rush of renewed interest not just in the classic games of yesteryear but the iconography of 1980s gaming in general. From retro-themed T-shirts served up by dozens of new online stores, to a flurry of competing crowd-funded hardware revivals and documentary films, it was as if the floodgates had opened. If not quite "big business", retro gaming was definitely becoming commercial.

This is most obvious in an ongoing wave of books documenting gaming's distant past, from tomes dedicated to specific publishers and developers, to art books lavishing glossy praise on the pixel artists of old. Now there's Britsoft: An Oral History, a book that is chunky, exhaustive and academically robust.

It's a companion piece of sorts to the excellent documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, which you can currently find on Netflix as well as DVD and Blu-ray. That 150-minute opus traces the sprawling journey from Britain's teenaged bedroom coders to a billion-pound industry in which our country still punches far above its weight. Rather than simply cram the same info into book form, editor Alex Wiltshire instead dips into the reams of interview material that didn't make the cut of the movie and assembles a parallel narrative, told entirely by those who were there at the time, in their own words.

Much like the film that inspired it, this is a hefty creation. In terms of size, it's roughly equivalent to two 48k Speccys stacked on top of each other, and weighs about the same as an Amiga power brick. It's a beast, and a visually appealing one as well. The cover design opts for Joker-friendly purple and green, with a functional typeface and design that makes it look not unlike a school textbook from 1985. I suspect this is not an accident.

Inside, the book's structure is, for the most part, rather clever. The book breaks down into eight sizable sections. Part one is First Contact, in which the interviewees relay their initial exposure to gaming as a medium, through early arcade machines and Pong consoles. Part two is Money Makers, as this core group of code pioneers begins writing and selling their own software in the early 1980s, while the third section, Going Pro, follows them as an actual industry begins to coalesce around their efforts.

The fourth chapter is Booming Business, as the serious money starts to roll in and programmers are suddenly appearing in local newspapers with Ferraris, bought with their six figure salaries. This segues into part five, which explores the relationship between the new wave of games entrepreneurs and the embryonic gaming press.

Next is the self-explanatory The Coming of 16-Bit section, navigating the tectonic shift from the doughty old home computers to more powerful hardware that really started to tug gaming out of reach of the solitary bedroom coders, and this leads organically into a section on Maturing Business, as the big international publishers start to make their presence known and hundreds of indies are swallowed up. The book ends on a melancholy and poignant note, as End of an Era takes us up to the late 1990s, and the dispersal of Britain's programmers to backroom roles at US publishers, or out of the industry altogether.

If you want to digest this journey in linear fashion, you absolutely can. Publisher Read Only Memory previously put out a fascinating history of Sensible Software, and it uses a similar anecdotal method of compilation here. Those taking part include obvious titans such as Molyneux and Braben, as well as mavericks such as Mel Croucher and Jeff Minter. Superstar coders such as Archer Maclean, Geoff Crammond and Dino Dini are in here, as well as unsung stars like Mo Warden, one of the first women to work in UK games development, supplying the groundbreaking 3D graphics for Mercenary 2: Damocles.

The business side of the equation is covered by the likes of Codemasters' David Darling, Quicksilva's Rod Cousens and retailer Mike Montgomery. Julian "Jaz" Rignall, Chris Anderson and Gary Penn are on hand to supply the media perspective. And there are loads more. It's not an exhaustive list of every 8-bit name you remember, but it's damn close.

One of the book's only major weaknesses is that it offers no context up front for who many of the contributors are. It's assumed that if you're reading a doorstop book called Britsoft that you know the key players, but it's still inconvenient - especially for a hardback book of this size - to have to flip to the appendix at the back every time you need a potted biography of someone whose name you didn't know.

A similar problem afflicts the otherwise brilliant Photo Scrapbook section, made up of candid snaps from the era. Heroically mullet-haired programmers in Noel Edmonds jumpers slump over keyboards in scruffy rooms adorned with woodchip wallpaper. Wide-eyed kids with pudding bowl haircuts pose, stiffly and proudly, next to their first computer. It's a treasure trove, but one that requires you to skip the very last page of the book for captions explaining who you're looking at.

Mostly, however, the book organises its info in a very clever and accessible manner. Rather than walls of text, each contributor's anecdotes are broken out as standalone sections, often several to a page. This makes it a great book to dip into, as you can flip to any page and find a selection of self-contained reminiscences. If you're particularly fond of a particular interview subject, each anecdote has a little page number at the top, leading you to the next contribution from that person. It has obvious echoes of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, which only adds to the nostalgic glow.

I doubt a definitive history of the British games industry will ever be a feasible reality, but Britsoft comes incredibly close. By opting for a more conversational, and occasionally confessional, style the book manages to be intimate and fun, even when discussing aspects of the business that should be dry and tedious. If you have even a passing interest in the chaotic and ingenious seeds that sprouted into the games you play today, this belongs on your shelf.

Read this next