A culture of bedroom coders throughout the 1980s, brought on by the popularity of home computer systems such as the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, allowed a generation of kids and adults to write some of history’s most beloved video games. Jon Hare’s Sensible Software titles. The Bitmap Brothers’ Speedball and Chaos Engine. Gremlin’s Zool. Tim and Chris Stamper, to name but a few.
“The British story is unique, and very different from the subsequent video game expansion stories from other countries. It really does stand separately as its own legacy.” Filmmaker Anthony Caulfield remembers those halcyon days, and has spent more than a decade with his wife and partner Nicola trying to accomplish a seemingly simple goal - to document the UK video games industry in From Bedrooms to Billions.
After a string of failed TV pitches, cancelled DVD projects and botched BBC broadcasts, the couple have taken matters into their own hands. An indiegogo crowdfunding page, established to help fund the project themselves, has nearly reached its $35,000 target with ten days to go. They’re on the home stretch, and need all the support they can get to finally realise their dream.
But with all the trouble the pair have had in reaching this point, it begs the question: why go to all this trouble for a single project? Despite forming a solid production company on the back of music and entertainment documentaries, Anthony explains that “gaming has always been a big part of our lives.
What really cemented the couple’s decision was a 1999 television programme called Thumb Candy. Hosted by Iain Lee, it was a one-off show that briefly explained the history of video games in general. “It was a fairly good stab, too,” recalls Anthony. “What caught our eye was a 12-minute segment that looked at the UK industry. It was this that reinforced our belief that people wanted that small sequence opened up into a larger documentary.”
It was a concept that many TV broadcasters have had trouble grasping. While Anthony and Nicola would spend time working on various other films and programmes to earn a living, they’d keep pitching the UK games documentary to anyone who would listen. “Every so often when we’d finish a work project, we’d go in with new ideas for TV,” Anthony recalled.
“If we went in and said we wanted to do a documentary about George Michael - something music based - we’d stand a much better chance of it getting commissioned. Whenever we pitched a proper show about the games industry, the response was always the same - ‘the games industry is just too niche.’ In some cases, we even had people say, ‘Oh no, not that video games thing again.’
“We started to wonder if it was just us and gaming really was too niche. Of course, when the hand that feeds you says they’re not interested, you don’t tend to push the point horrifically hard.”
Salvation for the project came when a record label in 2006 was looking to expand its DVD portfolio to contain suitable subjects for impulse-buy, supermarket-shelf fodder. “The company heard about our idea and approached us about it, but suggested that instead of a TV show it should be a DVD made up of ten or fifteen short films, each looking at different aspects of the UK story,” Anthony said.
Production reached around 25 per cent completion - with a developer’s commentary by Impossible Mission coder Dennis Caswell recorded and all - before Anthony heard some bad news. “Unfortunately, in roughly 2007, the record label got taken over by a very large company, and all their non-music related projects were immediately cancelled. Our DVD was essentially killed overnight.”
The setback left Anthony and Nicola with no idea what to do with the recorded footage already completed. After a two year break, the BBC agreed to commission a three-part series on the UK games industry as part of a season of themed programming on BBC Four. The Caulfield’s project - then given the name From Bedrooms to Billions - was set to complement the BBC’s own Micro Men documentary, a retrospective of the BBC Micro computer.
But trouble struck again. “We were moving forward with production, it looked great and we had started shooting interviews... then we received an email out of the blue that said that they couldn’t proceed further with the project. This was confusing, because the people dealing with us at the BBC were completely supportive and understood the project - but the controller of BBC Four felt that video games was, again, too niche of a subject.
“We had to accept it, really. At the end of the day we got commission work from the BBC so we couldn’t complain. We certainly didn’t agree with it though. What rubbed salt into the wounds was what was aired in our place after Micro Men - a three part series on the history of flags.”
“Without being patronising, I think it comes from a lack of understanding of games altogether. I can’t answer for the US industry, but certainly over here, commissioning editors don’t actually know what to do with games. First of all, it’s a threat. If you’re playing a video game, you’re not watching television. It’s direct competition, but the silly thing is that’s also true of listening to music or reading a book.”
The potential lack of a category for video games is also a contributor. Indeed, when a commissioner doesn’t know specifically how to classify a pitch, it makes it very difficult to justify the expense of production. 1990s TV show GamesMaster - the most successful video games programme to date - was only given the green light when pitched under the sports category.
“If there was an unanimous decree which said, ‘from now on video games are classified as art’, then you might see more shows dedicated to the industry because it satisfies a channel’s particular art quota,” Anthony continues. “Categorisation for video games floats around constantly.
“The other thing that broadcasters can’t get their head around - what’s the demographic? Broadcasters don’t have a clue who to target video games programmes for. I don’t mean that as horribly as it sounds, they just don’t know the demographic properly. It’s too spread. Do you aim it at the older generation, or the younger generation? What time slot is appropriate for that? What channel?”
The problem certainly isn’t with obtaining audience figures or lack of interest, Anthony argues, pointing to the many successful game-related shows being produced by amateurs on the internet. “There are some fantastic films on Youtube and similar places. I saw a fan film someone made about David Braben’s Elite some six months ago - it’s had over a million hits. Another chap’s covered International Karate, with 3 and a half million hits.
“The people are there, and if you give them the material that they want to see they will come to you.”
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This is fantastic to be mentioned by you guys, I uh excuse me, my trousers are too tight...ahh,thats better...uh sorry, my boxers are a little tight...