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 - 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
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
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
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?
FERGUS - Me.
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.