09th May2015

Play Blackpool Review: ‘From Bedrooms to Billions’

by Phil Wheat

The Play “Expo” events in Blackpool and Manchester are, in some ways, an attempt to recapture and relive the community spirit of video gaming in an age where keyboard warriors and faceless online gaming rule the roost. It’s also a celebration of the history of gaming, from the early years of arcade games like Space Invaders and Pac Man, thorugh the early gaming years of the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, all the way to the last-gen of consoles…

And Play are not the only ones interested in the history of video gaming. There have been a number of film makers have eleased documentaries  in recent years that look at gaming in a nostalgic light, many from a US perspective, including World 1-1: The Pioneers – which had its European debut at this years Play Blackpool; and From Bedrooms to Billions, (a big seller for Play sponsors Funstock.co.uk at this years event) which takes at look at the explosion of video gaming from a very British perspective.

With both films being available at last weekend’s Play Blackpool event we thought we’d take a look at what each documentary had to offer. First up is From Bedrooms to Billions.

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Written, Produced and Directed by Anthony Caulfield, Nicola Caulfield

From Bedrooms to Billions is the remarkable, true story of the British Video Games Industry from 1979 to the present day. Developments in computer technology in the UK of the late 70′s early 80′s helped inspire a generation of small team enthusiasts, hobbyists, school kids, bedroom coders and entrepreneurs to make and release some truly classic games. This documentary tells the story of how the creativity and vision of a relatively small number of individuals allowed the UK to play a key, pioneering role in the shaping of the billion dollar video games industry – featuring interviews with key contributors to the UK story such as Peter Molyneux, Jeff Minter, David Braben, David Perry, Mark Healey, Jason Kingsley and many others from across video game development, publishing and journalism from over the last 40 years.

It’s fair to say that, as an overweight kid growing up in the 80s, I spent a LOT of time holed up in my bedroom watching TV and listening to music. That was however until one year my mum bought my a second-hand Sinclair ZX81 from a family friend and I discovered the joys of “video games”. From that day I have devoured games as voraciously as I devour my food – though there has never been quite an exciting time in gaming as those early years… Reading the likes of Crash and Zzap64 like they were my religion, going to the local video game shop, drooling over the lurid cover art and then crying at the ridiculously expensive (at the time) prices, and then saving up weeks and weeks of pocket money, not eating school dinners to get that little bit of extra cash to buy that must-have game.

From Bedrooms to Billions presents that very same era but from the persepective of the developers, the distribution companies and the journalists. From the days of guys in their bedrooms (as per the title) selling games via classified ads through the growth of UK gaming powerhouses such as Ocean Software, US Gold and their ilk, to the rise of the journalists I admired and aspired to be like (Julian Rignall and Gary Penn), the change in the industry brought on by the birth of the 16-bit era and the reinvention of game development into what we now know as video game developing “teams”; and the rise of console gaming in the era of SEGA and Nintendo, all the way up to the birth of the Playstation and video gaming as a big-money business.

It’s the mark of a great documentary when you learn something new about the subject despite watching a myriad of similar films and reading a ton of books on the matter – that’s what From Bedroom to Billions does. It opened my eyes  to little snippets of information that I never knew before, for example who knew WHSmiths were responsible for the boom era of UK gaming – both in terms of selling games AND in terms of video game journalism? I didn’t. Who knew that US Gold were named, literally, because the early games were bought in from bedroom programmers in the States? I didn’t. It’s those nuggets of information and the little gems of “insider” stories that raise this documentary above others like it, and that’s on top of the fact this entire film takes a look at the boom and bust video game market from a UK angle!

Kudos to filmmakers Anthony and Nicola Caulfield for producing a documentary that is as informative as it is compelling Not only is this a nostalgic look back at one-man development but also a look forward to the rebirth of independent development through iOS, Steam and digital delivery. As such From Bedroom to Billions is probably one of the most comprehensive looks at gaming and gaming history in the UK that we’re ever likely to see.

***** 5/5

From Bedroom to Billions is available now on DVD or Blu-ray from Funstock.co.uk or digitally via iTunes.

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