Grand Thieves & Tomb Raiders book review

A fascinating account of British video game history.

Round about the same time I watched Micro Men, I picked up a book called Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders, which proved to be a compelling account of the story of British computer gaming from bedrooms to boardrooms.

Back in the mid-1970s when two chaps from Hornsea (East Coast, represent) were dabbling in the creation of the Multi-User Dungeon – the pre-precursor to what we now know as the MMO – home computing was just getting on its feet as the afore-mentioned Micro Men made their bid to corner the market. While Chris Curry grew frustrated at his inability to get into the living room from the classroom, Clive Sinclair was still pissing about with his C5 transport instead of taking advantage.

But both men benefited from the games created by a generation of coders who had emerged from their bedrooms with some very special programming skills, like the fun and addictive Dizzy series by the Oliver twins, or the mind-blowing possibilities of space travel created by David Braben and Ian Bell’s Elite.

Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders book

Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders tells the story of these men and women as they went from amateur status to running some of the UK’s most ambitious software companies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. As well as the successes of the likes of Codemasters, who made a lot of money by annoying Nintendo at one point, there are the failures of companies such as Imagine Software, whose strident over-ambition resulted in their shutdown – captured during the filming of a BBC documentary about the booming industry.

As the US took hold of the market by luring the best of British talent Stateside there were still some success stories to be written – the book’s eponymous featured games being just two of the Brits’ best from DMA and Core respectively.

What strikes me the most about reading this book is the reactions of the British public and press as they gaze upon these wondrous programmes with awe. I’m familiar with a good deal of the games covered during the late 80s and early 90s (he said, showing his age) and I would have had that same enthusiasm for the games myself. Shown these very same games, people just a couple of years younger than myself (he said snobbily) would’ve snorted with derision at the comparatively basic games being wowed over back then. But there was a massive leap round about the time of the SNES’ release, that jump to the Super FX chip which brought Starfox to our living rooms, and our jaws to the floor.

The guys who invented that chip? Yep. British. But you’d have to read the book to find out more of British video games’ fascinating history, which has great interviews with many of the industry’s major players, then and now.

Dungeons & Dreamers: a book about global gaming

You kids, with your Halo and your hip hop – you don’t know what real gaming is.

Well before you were telling your console to switch itself on, or before you could physically wave your controller like a tennis racket, or even before you were holding funny-looking pads with buttons in your hands, there was a kind of pad where the deepest, most immersive and imaginative kind of gaming got played – on a notepad.

Gaming legend Gary Gygax came up with the miniature wargame Chainmail in 1971, which was based simply in medieval times, and devised rules of combat among ordinary men. However, Gygax’s fellow gamer Dave Arneson would add elements of fantasy into the game, bringing spells and mythical monsters into the mix. One year on this modified version of Chainmail would be repackaged as a standalone game called Dungeons & Dragons, and the rest is history.

The unique combination of fantasy and role-playing elements was something that inspired video game designers and programmers through the years as advancing technology began to produce all kinds of weird and wonderful computer programmes. As computer gaming became more popular, it was the hardcore groups of D&D gamers of these times – close-knit communities brought together to slay dragons and forge long-lasting relationships – that tried to find a way to bring people together online to enjoy their hobby.

It’s this struggle to unite questing gamers from the 1970s to now which is covered in Dungeons & Dreamers: A Story of How Computer Games Created a Global Community – an extremely insightful book that explores the role of games in bringing together players from all walks of life to the same dungeons, space stations and virtual worlds to bring (massive) multiplayer fun.

Dungeons & Dreamers

The narrative of the book is seen in turn through the eyes of key figures in gaming history such as Richard Garriott of Origin Systems, and the two Johns – Carmack and Romero– at id software (whose Quake title was a character from their regular D&D games). It contains plenty of informative reporting on world events which shaped the industry such as the Columbine shootings that tried to vilify games as forms of violent escapism, alongside great insights on the industry itself whose users wanted the very best in technology and design to enjoy fresh new worlds – leading to innovations like Ultima Online, World of Warcraft and Second Life.

There’s also plenty of discussion going to show the dedication of the players who found a new calling in life through these offerings, like the annual QuakeCon events which continue to attract Deathmatchers from all over the world. Much as I enjoyed seeing from the creators’ point of view how their games matured and became new worlds of their own, it’s great too to read about how the players found themselves a part of these worlds.

One other thing which struck me was the great comparisons drawn in which two of the featured companies told the story of relocating offices across country as if living in Frontier times – changing their own landscapes in order to create more of their own, with Origin splitting their bases across Texas and New Hampshire, and id hitting the trail between Louisiana and Texas to form their company. (Romero also worked in New Hampshire for Origin at one point!)

Dungeons and Dreamers is a great read if you’re interested in how gaming got to where it is today in terms of reach and the pursuit of that killer multiplayer experience, written so knowledgeably and with real reverence for its subject matter.