segunda-feira, 23 de junho de 2014

Ocean Software, Rise and Fall of a Giant

Repeatedly named the Software House of the Year, Ocean Software was one of the largest and most respected producers in the gaming world, a company that adapted and converted, in a masterful manner, the most successful Hollywood flics and arcade titles for the various platforms, ranging from the ZX Spectrum to Commodore Amiga and also for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Mega Drive (aka as Genesis is the US).

We were, for fourteen years, bombarded with adds of their latest releases in all gaming magazines. Ocean’s logo stamped on the cover was all that it took for the game to sell millions of copies. This shows the strength and the quality of the brand.

It all started in the early '80s when its founder David Ward, after a visit to the United States, realized that videogames would be a good business to invest in, as shown by the emerging potential of the industry in that country. Thus, in 1982, he founded the company Ocean Software and slowly started hiring programmers for its headquarters at Manchester. At the end of the first year, Ocean had already achieved profits of 500 thousand pounds and more than 200 thousand games sold. Then, David Ward became president of the company and his partner, Jon Woods, commercial director. By that time, Ocean had already 60 developers from across England with an average age of around 19 years.

In addition to its talents within the company, Ocean was also proud of its external sources, including Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond, Denton Designs, Sensible Software and Digital Image Design.

David Ward said "The key to sell a lot of games is to make them identifiable to the public" and, thus, Ocean assured licenses for major film successes, television series and arcade games despite their first titles were total flops: Knight Rider, Street Hawk and Transformers were examples of bad conversions.
However, in 1987, profits of Ocean already ascended to £ 10 million with over three million games sold. By this time, Ocean acquires the "defunct" rival Imagine Software, the company responsible for two classic hits like Renegade and Yie Ar Kung Fu, cementing its international reputation through the Ocean brand with excellent conversions for Konami 8bit arcade machines.

Ocean grew exponentially and its influence reached its peak. The developers were able to create fantastic games and started having fun while doing them. 

By this time, Ocean decides to reward their employees putting their names in the credits of each game. Programmers, artists and musicians were now more motivated than ever and thus wanted the title to be the best possible, cause their name was now exposed to the world.

Obtaining licenses to create games from movies was, at that time, very easy and cheap. Movie studios did not have the perception of the potential that videogame industry had started to have. There were attempts, by Atari, to recreate the movie ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Spent £22 million and the results were much lower than expected. Ocean was determined to do it as it really should be done and Gary Bracey was responsible for acquiring the rights.

One of the best licenses was Robocop. This low-budget movie had a huge acceptance from the public and the game sold millions of copies in different platforms. It was probably one of Ocean’s most profitable games and its license was insignificant in monetary terms.

Between all this success and popularity, there was also room for failure. One of the worst acquired licenses was Hudson Hawk. The film, written and performed by Bruce Willis, was genuine garbage and the game does not go beyond that.
Anyway, more than 100 games have comfortably placed Ocean on top of the charts through the years.

However, tension began to rise. There was the need to release the game simultaneously with the premiere of the movie and, sometimes, that forced programmers to work 24 consecutive hours in order to obtain the final product on time to be sent to the duplicating machines.

The arcade licenses were also very important to Ocean. Between 1983 and 1992 half of the games published by the company were based on movies or on arcade games.

Simon Butler worked on many film and arcade successes, such as Total Recall, Platoon, Darkman, The Adams Family and Combat School, and recalls that the conversion to 8-bit machines – Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad – were always the most challenging and complicated to perform. One of the most successful conversions of arcades was Chase HQ. Bill Harbison, who joined the team in 1988, confessed that, to do an arcade game conversion, he needed to have the machine itself in the office and, while playing, he would draw sketches of the scenarios as reference.

There has always been competition and Ocean wanted to be the best. Its biggest opponent was initially U.S. Gold. Later, when the first consoles started to emerge, the extinct Acclaim also became Ocean’s largest rival. Even internally, healthy competition also existed. The various teams were always wanting to better themselves and exceed expectations.

The evolution and changing time eventually came with the 16-bit machines. Programming for these new machines now takes twice as long and Ocean was not afraid of the challenge. They were excited!

The early 90s were, for Ocean, times for reflection. Remained the question of how the industry would develop. Then, in 1994, a new company within Ocean, Tribe, was formed to meet future challenges that had to be overcome: the giant leap from 8-16bit for the 32-64bit.

Were then created separate teams, each comprising a team leader, programmer and main designer. Games began to be planned six months before any programming was initiated and, in 1996, Tribe was already composed by 80 members.

That same year, the company ended up bought by French Infogrames. The headquarters remained in Manchester until Infogrames also purchase Gremlin Graphics in 1999, which led them to change the entire base of operations to Sheffield. Shortly after, Ocean brand was extinguished. GT 64 Championship Edition, for Nintendo 64, was Ocean’s last game.

Who is between 30 and 40 years old, recall with some sadness and nostalgia the disappearance of Ocean. They left a remarkable legacy that, even today, still manages to impress.

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