Liverpool is a city renowned for its musical, sporting and political history. All reasons to be proud, but they don’t quite tell the whole story. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy ‘I Am The Walrus’ as much as the next man. Coo coo ca choo. But there’s a rich part of our creative heritage too often overlooked: computer games. Many games created right here on Merseyside have gone on to claim a place in the annals of silicon history.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember the heady days of the 1980s when home computing first took off. Companies like Sinclair and Acorn told us we could calculate our tax returns, create sophisticated graphics or even write a novel from the comfort of our own homes. Perhaps we could have, but of course we didn’t. Instead we took our new found computing power and did the only sensible thing: we played games! And we also created them.

I fondly remember watching my brother type endless lines of code into his ZX Spectrum when he probably should have been doing his homework. In those days some games were published on the pages of magazines and it was down to us to type them in. Sure, it was painful, but it taught a whole generation to code and spawned a rapidly growing computer games industry in bedrooms up and down the country. Our fair city played its part in this new industry.

Imagine Software was set up by Mark Butler and David Lawson in 1982. Though relatively short lived – closing it’s doors in 1984 – they paved the way for many successful Liverpool gaming houses who followed. The Imagine brand was bought up by Manchester rival Ocean Software but from the ashes two new contenders arose, Psygnosis and Denton Designs. I discovered while researching this article that Denton actually published one my childhood favourites, The Transformers video game. I remember rushing round to my mates house to play it on his Commodore 64 but I never knew it was published just up the road. Well, it did have Optimus Prime on the cover and you can’t blame an 8 year old for being more distracted by that.

Denton Designs quickly fizzled out but Psygnosis is undoubtedly a success story to this day. Founded in 1984 in the Port Of Liverpool building, the company have produced many seminal titles. They branched out into more publishing with titles like the Lemmings franchise. How many of us spent hours glued to that? Then in the mid 90s as the Sony Playstation took off, Psygnosis was right there again, producing classics like the best-selling futuristic racer Wipeout (pictured) and its sequels. Today, they’re still based in Liverpool at Wavertree Technology Park but are now known as Studio Liverpool, rebranded under the Sony Entertainment Europe umbrella in 2001.

There are many other important Liverpool games developers to mention. Rage Software had a good run with titles such as Rage Rally and a successful Rocky game. Speke based Bizarre Creations also had great success. Starting with the official Formula One titles, they made the Project Gotham Racing series, the frustratingly addictive Geometry Wars and even a James Bond title called Blood Stone in 2010 (featuring the Daniel Craig incarnation of the famous spy).

One worrying thing links these companies apart from their geographic location though: the volatility of the games industry. We’ve seen in this brief overview that it can be a fickle mistress. Companies often pop up and disappear again in a very short space of time. Rage went out of business in 2003 after a couple of unsuccessful titles and last year Bizarre Creations also sadly closed their doors. They were bought up by games giant Activision in 2007 and subsequently discarded. Given these facts, you could well be pessimistic about the future of games development in Liverpool, but if history has taught us anything it’s that the demise of one company often triggers the birth of another. It’s already happening in the case of Bizarre Creations, with new companies like Lucid Games, Hogrocket and Grubby Hands all founded by former employees. With new found opportunities to publish via the internet and the boom in smartphone gaming one thing’s for sure. Whatever direction the games industry takes Liverpool will be involved somehow. We’ve got form.

Dan Lynch (danlynch.org) hosts popular tech podcast Linux Outlaws, co-hosts FLOSS Weekly on the TWIT Network and produces Rathole Radio. He also develops software, plays music and organises events.

36 Responses to “Console yourself: Liverpool’s contributions to video game history”

  1. Rich Cooper

    Great article – very nostalgic! Also don’t forget the early solo-coders from Merseyside:- Matthew Smith (Manic Miner / Jetset Willy), Ade Sherwin (Birds and the Bees/Antics), Mike Singleton (Lords of Midnight).. And I’m sure there were more. What became of them?

  2. @Rich Cooper Very good point, how could I forget Manic Miner (facepalm). What a classic. Famously it contained a bug that made it impossible to finish but still it was a hit. I also played JetSet Willy a lot as a kid. I too wonder what became of those early solo coders. Maybe I can track them down. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Thanks for the video link. I read about it during my research but I don’t remember the programme from the time, I was probably too young. They filmed the company from inside as it went spectacularly bust apparently. Watching it now!

  4. @Rich Cooper Maybe you’re right. I remember Charlie Brooker going on about a bug in Manic Miner that made it impossible to complete. He used to be a games writer. I could be wrong though. Looking up the interview now. Thanks.

  5. IndieShowcaseL1

    Nice article. Always good to see people flying the flag for the city. Lots of work to be done to make sure we don’t just rest on our laurels from the past though.

    You should come to this event next week to see what’s being done to inspire and school the next generation of game developers from Liverpool:

    http://ilovegaming.eventbrite.com/

  6. @IndieShowcaseL1 Looks great thanks, just went to sign up for the event but I don’t fit into any of the categories. I was going to choose “delegate” but I’m certainly not aged 11-18. I might stand out a bit hehe. Is it ok to come along just to grab some photos and information to report back on? Cheers

  7. IndieShowcaseL1

    @methoddan@IndieShowcaseL1 I would have thought so. AFAIK there’ll be press there too. Best get in touch with them through lpoolstudio to make sure though (it being a school and all).

  8. I often cite as a claim to fame that my Dad helped one of the local games companies back in the 80s. He helped them with an algorithm for a swinging rope, he says it was for (a game like) Hunchback but I saw one in Jet Set Willy and like to think that was down to him too ๐Ÿ™‚

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