How British video games became a billion pound industry

Creativity, ingenuity and global triumph

The global video games industry is estimated to be worth £110bn. While America and Japan dominate the market, the UK video games sector directly employs over 20,000 people, and is estimated to be worth £3.86bn.

From a handful of hobbyists coding in their spare time to big teams, big budgets and million dollar profits, the story of British video games is one of fantastical imagination, irreverent humour and the coding skills of some standout personalities.

February 1975

Games Workshop – Bringing fantasy worlds to British tabletops

The story of British video games can be traced back to humble beginnings some 40 years ago.

Keen gamers Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson founded Games Workshop to make and sell wooden board games, and bring the latest games news to like-minded Britons. JRR Tolkien’s novels had spawned the fantasy genre, and business grew after the pair introduced an American role-playing fantasy game, Dungeons & Dragons. The game transported players to open-ended worlds to invent stories and solve puzzles, stirring the imagination of future British video games makers.

Ian Livingstone revisits the site of his first Games Workshop store and shows the interactive worlds he created in his Fighting Fantasy gamebooks.

Autumn 1978

MUD – University students create the first computerised role-playing game

Meanwhile British engineers were leading the development of electronic computers. Some of the first software for the early machines were simple games.

Inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Essex University students Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw created MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) – a text-based adventure game in which players typed short commands to travel through a fantasy world. They found a way to exploit the memory of their huge mainframe computer so that several people could play together across the university network. The game’s popularity quickly spread as they shared it freely, encouraging other hobbyists to create their own versions.

MUD inventor Richard Bartle on how the huge popularity of role-playing video games today can be traced back to MUD (from Games Britannia, BBC Four).

September 1983

Manic Miner – Quirky bedroom creation becomes a home computer classic

Britain’s computing pedigree saw the release of home computers like the ZX Spectrum, which kickstarted a boom in the development of new software.

These computers were easy to program; 17-year-old Matthew Smith was loaned a Spectrum and in just six weeks wrote Manic Miner, a quirky, irreverent game that appealed to the British sense of humour. Players had to guide Willy – a miner – through caverns to collect flashing objects, avoiding poisonous pansies and other deadly traps. Pushing this early 8-bit computer’s capabilities to its limits, Manic Miner’s imaginative music, colourful graphics and enticing playability had the public hooked.

Why is Manic Miner one of the most quintessentially British 1980s games? (from Games Britannia, BBC Four).

September 1984

Elite – Revolutionary 3D space adventure sets new standards

By 1984 British home computer sales were reportedly the highest in the world. And two Cambridge students created one of the biggest hits of the year.

Experimenting on the BBC Micro, David Braben and Ian Bell wrote space trading game Elite in their spare time, just before their finals. Players journeyed across galaxies trading, defending and upgrading their spaceships. With just 22KB, Elite’s innovative 3D image outlines and open-ended gameplay rewrote the rules of video gaming. It also became the first non-American game to become a US bestseller.

See the early sketches for Elite and watch the pioneering gameplay in action (from Games Britannia, BBC Four).

June 1987

Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior – Video games target an adult market

Not all British video games received universal acclaim. In 1987 London-based Palace Software released a game that caused a storm in the UK and abroad.

Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior had players fighting gory battles on the Commodore 64 computer. It sparked public protest in Britain over its violent content and the use of a bikini-clad Page 3 girl in its marketing. In Germany, its sale to under-18s was initially banned. The media controversy only boosted the game’s popularity. Video games were no longer just child’s play, they were a lucrative form of adult entertainment too.

Page 3 girl Maria Whittaker and model Michael Van Wijk graced the cover of the Barbarian game box. Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, Palace Software.

June 1989

Populous – The first game that lets you play ‘god’

British game makers used the increasing processing power of home computers to create innovative new formats.

British video games pioneer, Peter Molyneux, wanted to make something intellectually challenging. He devised Populous – the first ever ‘god’ game. Players took on the power and responsibility of a deity, making moral choices to shape landscapes, inflict disasters and gain civilian followers. Populous sold over four million copies and created a genre that would encompass other big sellers, notably The Sims, and further open up the games market by appealing to women as well as men.

Peter Molyneux on how god-game Populous, and its follow-up Black & White, gave players both power and responsibility (from Games Britannia, BBC Four).

February 1991

Lemmings – Innovative computer puzzle tastes global success

In Dundee, a group of friends from an amateur computer club founded what would become one of the world’s most influential video games companies.

DMA Design’s first global hit was Lemmings. Directing a group of lovable, green-haired humanoid lemmings through obstacles at increasing levels of difficulty, this was their take on popular arcade platform games originating from Japan. It was initially released for the Amiga computer, exploiting its split screen capability and dual mouse inputs in the two-player levels. Lemmings sold 55,000 copies on its first day of release, and versions were soon released for other computers and game consoles.

BBC Reporting Scotland in 1994 announces Nintendo’s commission of DMA to develop its latest video games on the back of its Lemmings success.

September 1995

WipE’out” – 3D anti-gravity racer helps launch PlayStation console

Power came to the console in 1995, with the new 32-bit Sony PlayStation. Gaming had finally left its roots behind and entered the corporate world.

Unlike its 8-bit and 16-bit predecessors, the PlayStation had 3D graphics and a CD-ROM with revolutionary audio and visuals. Sony turned to a British developer, Liverpool based Psygnosis, to show off its high spec. It created a futuristic driving game Wipeout. With a techno soundtrack and stunning visualisations, Wipeout appealed to the clubbing generation and brought a cool, slick image to video games. It became the PlayStation’s best-selling launch title in Europe.

Benjamin Woolley looks at the alluring elegance of WipE’out”, and why its appeal still endures today – nearly two decades after its first release.

August 1997

GoldenEye 007 – James Bond turns video games cinematic

Two years later, a more powerful console was released – the Nintendo 64. Again, the manufacturers turned to British talent to showcase its power.

In a converted farmhouse in rural Leicestershire, developers Rare created GoldenEye 007, based on the Bond film. It took over two years to create, pioneering a more realistic style than games before it, with use of stealth and multiplayer gameplay. Its immersive, cinematic experience set the game apart. GoldenEye grossed $250m and won the first ever BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Award, a recognition by the British entertainment establishment of the increasing importance of video games.

GoldenEye 007 was a first-person shooter game that immersed players in the cinematic world of James Bond. GoldenEye 007, Nintendo Co.

October 1997

Grand Theft Auto – A world dominating game series is born

Following the success of Lemmings, Dundee studio DMA Design achieved another hit in 1997 with Grand Theft Auto for the PC and PlayStation.

Influenced by early games such as Elite, this open-world action-adventure saw players assuming the role of a criminal roaming freely around three fictional cities, able to go wherever they chose and do whatever they decided. Although the 2D, top-down graphics were considered somewhat limited, the game was praised for its sound quality, fun factor and playability. With over two million units sold, however, it was only a foreshadow of the global dominance that the franchise would later achieve.

Rory Cellan-Jones visits the DMA studio in 1996 as they develop a new game – Grand Theft Auto.

January 2001

Runescape – PC games revival as broadband connects gamers worldwide

The growth of broadband internet in the early 21st Century helped kickstart a new era of social gaming.

The multiplayer MUD game dreamed up by students in 1978 had become a new genre – the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Runescape was a web browser MMORPG made by Cambridge University student Andrew Gower with his brothers, who together founded Jagex Games Studio. Entering a fantasy world via an avatar, players interacted with each other by trading, fighting and cooperating on tasks. Runescape became the world’s largest free MMORPG, with 237 million users by early 2015.

What do the virtual worlds created in Runescape reveal about the players themselves? (from Thinking Allowed, Radio 4).

June 2001

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – Video game heroine becomes a global moviestar

Tomb Raider was the action-adventure game that introduced the world to fictional archaeologist Lara Croft – and in 2001, she went to Hollywood.

As one of the first ever female game protagonists, Lara’s launch in 1996 had already caused a media sensation. Her image had graced the cover of lifestyle magazines and TV adverts, from Land Rover to Lucozade. When Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie, was released, it topped the box office chart. But the British companies that developed this valuable franchise failed to hang onto it – Tomb Raider was later sold to Japanese publisher Square Enix, and development moved to the US.

Ian Livingstone reflects on how he helped to launch Lara Croft to the world and reveals the cultural, commercial and global phenomenon she became.

April 2008

Moshi Monsters – Online children’s game enthrals millions

Video game brands kept spreading through popular culture, especially with a young audience who had grown up in this new, always connected, world.

London-based Mind Candy launched Moshi Monsters as a website in 2008. The game allowed children to adopt a pet monster, solve educational puzzles and socialise with other children. By 2013, a staggering 80 million were playing the game worldwide. Moshi Monsters were featured in a wide range of merchandise, from books and bath soap to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and even had their own feature film.

Peter Jones meets Michael Acton Smith at Mind Candy's playful offices to see Moshi Monsters in action (from Peter Jones Meets, BBC Two).

November 2008

LittleBigPlanet – Connected consoles allow bedroom gamers to create

Games consoles were also becoming connected, driving further innovation in community gaming and reaching wide audiences.

Media Molecule’s puzzle-platformer LittleBigPlanet first launched for the PlayStation 3. The game was acclaimed for its beautiful visuals and social gameplay. Not only could users play together through the PlayStation Network online gaming service, they were also encouraged to create their own levels and publish them for others to explore. By 2012, 8.5 million copies of the game series had been sold, and over seven million community-made levels developed.

What sets ‘the Facebook of video games’ apart (from Games Britannia, BBC Four).

December 2008

Rolando for iPhone – Dawn of the mobile games era

In 2008 Apple opened its App Store for the first generation iPhone – a revolutionary smartphone which offered new opportunities for game developers.

In Rolando, the first game made by London studio HandCircus, players rolled ball-like creatures through obstacles by touching and tilting their phone. It was one of the first games to show how intuitive a smartphone was as a games platform. This opened up the world of games to a new audience. Rolando was many critics' iPhone game of the year, and won Pocket Gamer’s Platinum Award. A sequel was released the following year; together they have been downloaded 2.9 million times.

Watch some of the early demos of how to play Rolando on a touchscreen smartphone.

September 2013

Grand Theft Auto V – British franchise breaks sales records and new games territory

The release of the fifth episode in the Grand Theft Auto series broke new records and marked the franchise's global dominance.

DMA Design, now known as Rockstar, had in 1999 been sold to an American company for $11m. Foreign investment had propelled the game to new heights. Game development was still led by a Scottish team, but there were now 1000 people working on it worldwide. At a cost of £170m, more than most Hollywood blockbusters, it was the most expensive video game made to date. But within three days of release it broke the world record for the fastest video game to reach a billion dollars in sales.

Rory Cellan-Jones reports on the huge ambition and big business of Grand Theft Auto V.

April 2014

Monument Valley – Beautiful British mobile game sets new standards

Despite early successes, Britain fell behind other countries in the development of mobile games. But studios here were soon catching up.

Monument Valley was one of the standout mobile games to showcase British creativity once again. Made by London studio Ustwo, the mobile puzzler was critically acclaimed for its exceptional art and sound design. As of January 2015, the game has topped the paid app download charts in 68 countries, been installed on 10 million smartphones and made a $4.5m profit. Ustwo stands alongside many British studios now turning to mobile games.

News reporter Philip Hampsheir looks at how developers are hoping to find the next big hit such as Monument Valley to earn them huge rewards.

December 2014

Seabird - Government backs a new golden age of gaming

To boost the British games industry, and indicating its importance to the economy, the government offered tax relief on production of British games.

One early benefactor has been Seabeard – HandCircus’ latest role-playing game for smartphone and tablet. Players are charged with rebuilding a legendary pirate’s island, meeting quirky characters and trading with others. Praised for its console-like 3D gameplay, Seabeard has had over four million hours of play in just two months. British studios are applying their skill and flair to the newest technology as the UK industry continues to grow.

Ian Livingstone reflects on how video games have reached their widespread popularity today, and looks forward to a new golden age in Britain to come.