A life on Ocean’s waves with Gary Bracey

Ocean’s erstwhile software development director and Amiga Power cover star, Gary Bracey, began his career as a business manager working for the now defunct retailer, Littlewoods, one of the major players in the British high street catalogue and betting markets.

When Clive Sinclair’s ZX81 emerged – in 1981 surprisingly enough – Gary immediately recognised its mass market potential as an affordable foot in the door for developers and gamers alike. That was all the impetus he needed, consequently renting a couple of shelves in a video store to serve as his shop front. Sourcing cassettes from a distributor he sold them directly to the public on a one to one basis until he outgrew his modest flagship operation and decided to branch out on his own.

For several years Gary ran Liverpool’s first dedicated computer retailer, Blue Chip, though just as his enthusiasm for retail began to wane he received the offer of a lifetime from Ocean’s co-founder and personal friend, Jon Woods.

As we know, in 1985 Gary jumped at the opportunity to nurture the promising tenderfoots into the licensed tie-in game and coin-op conversion behemoth it was to become by the early nineties under his esteemed leadership.

Capitalising on the cache of established franchises, Gary’s quest to secure the rights to produce accompanying games for the world’s best-loved ’80s and ’90s movie blockbusters and TV shows went into overdrive.

Jetting across the globe he smoozed some of the most exhalted Hollywood film directors and media moguls, and in the process transformed fledgling bedroom programmers into the eminently talented star developers who made fantasy playable.

Beginning with the memorable – for the wrong reasons – Street Hawk and Knight Rider, Gary went on to preside over the publication and/or development of classic titles such as Batman: The Movie (A500 pack-in game. Ker-ching!), RoboCop, Rainbow Islands, Midnight Resistance, Pang, Wizball, Worms, Parasol Stars, Toki, New Zealand Story, Wizkid, and my personal favourite, The Addams Family, an original game made all the more special because it was developed in-house, and on my doorstep.

While not everything he touched turned to gold, Ocean had enough chart-storming hits to establish themselves a revered reputation as one of Europe’s most prolific multi-platform developers/publishers, right up until they were acquired – and ultimately denigrated – by Infogrames in 1996.

Gary himself became a minor celebrity to regular readers of British Amiga magazines, being one of the most often quoted non-developers to feature. A firm believer in PR, he was always a gregariously entertaining special guest, and courtesy of the editors, not least due to his hyperbolic portrayal as piracy’s dark destroyer.

Leaving Ocean in 1994 Gary became Telstar’s development director. In 1999 they were bought out by Take 2 Interactive at which point he departed to found his own company, Digimask Ltd, with a view towards injecting 3D avatars of players into games. The technology was subsequently licensed to Sony in 2004 for implementation in their PS2 titles.

Gary operated as CEO of Techwear Ltd between 2011 and 2014 (who produce custom printed ‘Peels’, “the ultimate way to personalise and protect your gadgets and gizmos”), and is now the commercial director of Kuji Entertainment. Concurrently, for two years he served as a board member for TIGA, the UK gaming industry’s non-profit trade association.

Today he has kindly agreed to take time out from his new philanthropic venture to humour my nerdy curiosity by answering a (pushing my luck) barrage of questions about the good old days.

Arcade ports

Beginning in 1986 you forged strong relationships with some of the most esteemed Japanese arcade game developers and managed to convince them Ocean were the right team to handle the conversions of their precious IP. Were you well versed in the ways of the Jedi by any chance?

GB: In fairness, the relationships with the Japanese coin-op companies were driven by Jon Woods. My involvement with the coin-op conversions was mainly related to the development side. Licence-wise, I was more active with the movies.

You went on to develop and/or publish some of the industry’s best-loved arcade titles, and even dabbled with a spot of ‘reverse porting’ where RoboCop was concerned.

Which was your favourite and what do you think was the winning formula that made it such a success?

GB: I often get asked this question about ‘my favourite’ and it’s like asking which of your kids do you like more – difficult to give a straight answer. Every game has positive (and some negative) associations and memories so they all have merit. If pushed, I would have to call out Robocop (first MAJOR success), Untouchables (first multi-stage design), Addams Family (excellent game) Batman The Movie (great game and amazing experience), Platoon (my first major license I was directly involved with) and Jurassic Park (I got to brainstorm concepts with Spielberg in his Amblin studio!).

Did Taito, Data East, Konami etc. insist that you followed a strict code of conduct in bringing their games to the home computer/console market? What sort of stipulations – if any – did they impose? Were they interested in the quality of your output or the review scores?

GB: I think we established ourselves early on as a company who could make quality ports, so they knew they were in safe hands. They obviously had approval rights but we very rarely had to change anything as we always tried to stay as faithful as possible to the source.

Why was it that in most cases they refused to provide the source code, or even lend you an arcade cabinet to allow you to acquaint yourselves with the original games? I’ve been told you had to buy these yourself if you were to stand a chance of producing an accurate facsimile.

GB: It was all run from Japan and we generally dealt with their European or US counterparts who had very little clout in obtaining materials or being able to give away the PCBs.

Was this lack of support a bone of contention with the developers, or did they take it for granted that they’d have to recreate the games from the ground up using extremely analogue techniques?

GB: I think everyone got used to it. It would have been better to have had those resources, but you work with what you’re given, I guess.

You released official ports of Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. for the Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. Did you also approach Nintendo to attempt to acquire the license to Super Mario Bros.? What was their response?

GB: No, it was never on the table. The game drove sales of the hardware (console) so we knew they would never allow it to appear on any other format.

Games That Weren’t

As with any major software developer, Ocean worked on a number of projects that were cancelled before hitting the retailer’s shelves. Can you shed any light on what happened to a little-known title called Teddy Bear that the French division were working on?

GB: Never heard of it! They worked on a few titles that never saw light of day, but I’m not familiar with that one.

Ocean France were also tasked with porting the arcade games, Snow Bros. and Liquid Kids to the Amiga, yet as you know they weren’t officially released according to the proposed schedule, despite being largely complete. Marc Djan is convinced this was because Toaplan/Taito declined your offer to purchase the publishing rights at the 11th hour. 

Is this the case, or is the true story more complicated? If so, what was it about the deal they didn’t approve of? Did something happen to sour your previously amicable relationship with the coin-op giants?

GB: Again, I have no idea (or recollection) of this. I was more involved in the original and movie titles than the arcade side at that point.

How did you feel about Liquid Kids and Snow Bros. being released unofficially many years later without their respective owner’s permission? Toaplan declared bankruptcy in 1994, but Taito are still around. Do you think they’d be concerned at all?

GB: Again, I have no view/knowledge of this.

Which licenses do you most regret missing out on, and which direction would you have taken them in?

GB: I think we would have liked a shot at designing a Simpsons game, rather than porting Acclaim’s own version.

I remember reading at the time that you were disappointed to have let TMHT slip through your fingers. How would your version of that game have differed from Mirrorsoft’s?

GB: Disappointed from the commercial perspective, as it was the BIG license of the day. We never considered the game we would make as it was academic.

Did you approach any TV or movie studios who flat out wanted no part in releasing a tie-in game because they thought it would tarnish the brand in some way?

GB: Quite the contrary. Movie studios were falling over themselves to get us to license their films as it not only became a significant marketing platform for them, but a pretty good revenue-generator also. I recall getting sent ridiculous scripts for such movies as Rain Man and Mississippi Burning for consideration to make a game from!!

One of my Amiga holy grails is to root out the rumoured early beta version of Addams Family which incorporated parallax scrolling backgrounds (which were cut in the final release to ensure a smooth frame rate). I don’t suppose you know anything about that?

GB: Sorry, my braincells aren’t yielding any recollection there…

Piracy

Perhaps more than anyone in the Amiga games industry you made it your crusade to tackle the piracy epidemic which plagued the system. In doing so you spearheaded a number of innovative measures such as the Robocop 3 dongle that unfortunately failed to curb the problem, and as a result you took the brunt of the flak. Given your time again would you take the same approach to at least keep a lid on casual playground copying, or concede that some people would never be prepared to pay for your software?

GB: At the time, the dongle was presented to me as ‘crack-proof’ so I thought we should give it a shot. Of course, this was like a gauntlet thrown down to the hackers so it didn’t take long to crack. It was a failed experiment but at least we tried.  For some reason I had the rep of being the major anti-piracy crusader, but the truth was that although it was an annoyance, it was never a major focus for me.

Did you devise any novel anti-piracy systems that never left the lab, so to speak?

GB: No, we left that sort of stuff to the specialists. We just wanted to focus on making games.

In those days you’d often hear people complain about the price of games and use that to justify piracy. One argument ran along the lines of, “if it costs 50p to buy a floppy disk, why does game x cost £25?”

Was your reaction to bury your face in your hands and weep, or try to educate people about the other costs involved along the way? There’s a very enlightening breakdown in Amiga Format, which makes you wonder why developers/publishers didn’t jack it in and do something more lucrative instead.

GB: Piracy existed long before videogames and I think the film business was hit harder than we were (videos) and piracy pretty much wiped out the music business in the late 90s. People were aware of the damage they caused but human nature always favours the opportunity to ‘get something for nothing’ without really considering the consequences. Just a fact of life, really.

Miscellany

Why did you decide to leave the iconic Quaker meeting house HQ and move to Castlefield?

GB: Ocean was doing pretty well and expanding so we simply outgrew the Church/Dungeon.

I recently wrote an article on how difficult it is to establish accurate sales figures for Amiga games and speculated on the possible reasons for this. Was it your belief that these were best kept close to your chest, and if so, for what reasons?

GB: Normal business practice. Even today it is extremely difficult to find out how particular games have sold. You can find info but they are normally estimates, rather than factual. No-one wants their competition to know how well ? or badly ? their games are performing.

Ocean were struggling financially towards the end. Was this the only factor that influenced the decision of Jon Woods and Dave Ward to sell the company to Infogrames in 1996? With hindsight, was it the right move?

GB: I had left the company by then so am not qualified to comment.

I noticed you never missed an opportunity to promote Ocean’s upcoming releases in the most popular magazines, and I seem to recall you having a full size carousel set up at a trade show one year. What’s the wackiest stunt you ever pulled off in the interests of PR?

GB: We had a really creative PR and Marketing team who dreamt up all manner of stunts. I remember we had an actual military tank on one of our booths at the PC show.

Gary’s cameo as Dracula in Wizkid. No, really.

Where did the name ‘Ocean’ come from? I can see why you switched from ‘Spectrum Software’ in the very early days, but not what the watery significance might be, especially being based in central Manchester where our nearest beach is at Brighton-le-sands.

GB: I honestly don’t recall the origin of the name. I did know but since completely forgotten!

What was the most unpopular decision you ever made at Ocean?

GB: Total Recall. Nuff said.

Back in the early ’90s I had a lovely navy mug with a pearly white Ocean logo printed on it. I can’t find it anywhere now. Any ideas?

GB: I stole it. You can have it back for £1.99.

You left Ocean in 1994 and joined Telstar Electronic Studios to take on a similar role. Why did you decide the time was right to move on, and how did it compare to working at Ocean?

GB: One day I’ll reveal my reasons for leaving but the time isn’t right just yet. It’s quite a story! 😉

Can you tell me a bit about your current position at Kuju Entertainment?

GB: I’ve just started a new company called ‘Scary Puppies’, formed to mentor and help talented fledgling development studios realise their potential. It’s about time I gave something back to the industry which has given me such an amazing life.

Thank you! I know your time is as valuable as it ever was so I’m very grateful to you for sharing it with the Amiga community. Merry Christmas! 🙂

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