The Great Rip-Off
The Games Machine, 1988

Back in the early 1980s, the computer industry was far less organised than it is now, which did at least mean that programmers were willing to take risks and produce stunning original games - something which now happens infrequently in an age of programming-by-committee. However, it also meant that the young programmers themselves were frequently at risk: some of the people who ran the industry were not very nice at all. This is Fergus McNeil's account of how he was ripped off, related in a 1988 interview with Mel Croucher.

MEL - Something happened to you in a toilet when you were 14. Tell us all the sordid details.

FERGUS - Ha! Ha! Ha! I name the guilty men - Limetree Marketing, now bankrupt. They offered me five hundred quid for all my programs, and everything I wrote for the next ten years, can you believe this? I took a day off school to go and see them. We met in Euston Station in the Superloo. I didn't know what a Superloo was. I do now.

MEL - Within a few months, when you were 15 years old, you'd written Bored of the Rings, and my old mate Ian Ellery [of CRL] told you to f*** off, right so far?

FERGUS - Almost, it already had a Sinclair User Classic, and we'd been doing well mail order with it, but yeah, lan said f*** off. Then he changed his mind. As a matter of fact Bored went to a different outfit altogether [Silversoft], the guy in charge was frequently to be seen floating a few feet above the ground. Know what I mean?

MEL - He was a stilt walker?

FERGUS - Something like that. I was very young, very impressionable, I couldn't believe that they picked me up from the station in a car for God's sake. 'Just enjoy yourself and we'll pay you money' was the message I got. And that's what happened. Number One! 15% royalties, 15% retention, no advance. I became a little star overnight. It was great. I even got my first royalty cheque.

MEL - What did you buy?

FERGUS - A coffee machine, to keep me awake, because they wanted a sequel by Christmas. We wrote it in under a month from conception to master tape. Things were pretty weird even then. It actually got to the stage of threats of violence between certain owners of certain companies. We also got a £400 advance . . . Big Money! I didn't know any better. Everything was great except for one thing.

MEL - They went bust!

FERGUS - Exactly! It got to the point where we were expected to run a nonexistent company. Manning the phones, doing the Microfairs, the PR, it was all brilliant stuff, but the money wasn't exactly coming in.

MEL - The contract?

FERGUS - Don't make me laugh. We were threatened, moral blackmail, then a certain person quit the country. **** did a runner overnight. We went to another company on the rebound, and our next game [Robin of Sherlock] flopped. God knows why - it got every accolade going, but it did really really badly. Pathetic. I could have done better myself. It fell apart. I had to start looking for advance payments just to cover myself.

MEL - Did you have any advice, or an accountant, a Limited Company anything?

FERGUS - I still haven't, Mel. But I'm just about to get all that organised. My parents were worried about me being liable for things. It's taken me four years to wise up. You get bullshitted all the time. My next big mistake was to take on programming of a licensing deal in a set time. I practically killed myself.

MEL - What do you mean by that, honestly.

FERGUS - I'd just discovered ProPlus [a (legal) stimulant]. Some sh**head said to me, 'If you take some of these, you'll be able to finish on time'. It was a very silly thing to do.

MEL - How old were you when you were being fed drugs?

FERGUS - About sixteen. The certain person tried to get me onto other stuff, but I've always been a good boy, Uncle Mel, I've never taken anything illegal, so I sit here in my ignorance saying that it's bad for you. I was getting suspicious, mind. I didn't sleep for about two weeks after finishing that program, I was so speeded up.

MEL - They pushed you too hard?

FERGUS - You're committed to something, you do it. I was also becoming a bit of an alcoholic at the time. It wasn't too much fun.

MEL -You said you didn't use drugs.

FERGUS -I said no illegal drugs. Alcohol was how I managed to keep going, the only chance for relaxation too pissed to type. Going from bad to worse. This sounds a bit melodramatic really, but it was quite bad at the time. It was happening to loads of young programmers. The magazines are treating you like you're somebody worthwhile, you're not getting paid for it, they say 'come on Fergus, buy us a drink, cos you're f***ing rich.' You keep up the appearance. You kid yourself that you'll get paid one day.

MEL - Who's buying lunch?


MEL - So I'm doing exactly the same to you.

FERGUS - No, I'm doing alright now, you're a friend anyway, so that's not fair. Besides you need the publicity you poor old sod, Mel Croucher folks, the man who started it all! Give him a job!! OK, basically, it was an awful lot of pressure. I wasn't ready for it. I couldn't handle it. They had to force me to program. I didn't look well.

MEL - You look well now, the love of a good woman does wonders.

FERGUS - I'm lucky to have her. I tried to keep up an act for the public but I like the publicity. I loved the autograph hunters. I thought I was a rebel, but inside I just wanted someone to please give me a rest. Um . .

MEL - How dare you eat, keep talking!

FERGUS - Sorry, Sir, I took a bit of badly needed time off. I'd dropped out of college by then. When I'd got myself back together I started to get four figure advances, nearly five figures to be honest. I looked at myself, I decided to run things like a business. Stop relying on other people's gear. Open a bank account.

MEL - Give THE GAMES MACHINE readers some words of wisdom. Suppose there's a kid out there with a good program.

FERGUS - Don't let the excitement of the moment get to you when someone shows interest. It's really exciting, but it blinds you to reality. Never sign, anything on the spur of the moment, sleep on it. Shop around. Remain polite, but keep firm. Nine times out of ten some guy will put his arm round your shoulder after blinding you with glitz, and say something like 'so that's OK then, we agree.' And you sign, and you're dead, and your product is dead to you. When kids phone me up I say 'shop around', for God's sake don't say yes to someone who offers you pie in the sky. A kid must respect the software house, but they must also respect a 13-year old kid, who might turn in something good some time in the future. Respect doesn't cost anything. Finally, only sign away the rights for a particular format for a particular country for a given advance. There's the merchandising, other formats, other countries, the book, the film . . .

MEL - The law suit.

FERGUS - You should know, Godfather.

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