by Helen Stuckey
How Nintendo threatened to destroy the early Australian Game industry and Beam Software became an accredited developer for the NES.
Japan and the Famicom
In 1983, when the Famicom was first released in Japan, Beam Software co-founder and CEO Alfred Milgrom travelled to Japan and acquired some machines. He brought them back to the South Melbourne offices of Beam where Adrian Thewlis, disassembled them.
Milgrom took Beam’s Famicom demo and approached a Japanese publisher, offering to develop games for them. He recalls, “They laughed at us. They said, you don’t understand, the Japanese system isn’t the same as in the western world … The way it works is that Nintendo says, you’re allowed to develop three games a year, or you’re allowed to develop five games a year, and that’s it…”(1) Nintendo had strict controls over who made games for the console and the games they made. Japan was obviously not going to work out and the whole exercise was written off to experience.
USA and the NES
In 1985 Nintendo entered the US market with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) a revamped Famicom, Beam looked to the US. Adrian Thewlis now reverse engineered the NES, building on his previous research on the Famicom. The resulting development system was entirely derived from their disassembling of the hardware and did not use any of Nintendo’s information or steal any trade secrets.(2) It was, Milgrom stated, more user-friendly than Nintendo’s development kit for English speakers and much cheaper. Beam planned to sell their development system to other developers and then take a small royalty on games developed, using it as a revenue stream.(3)
Milgrom took it to the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to demonstrate it to American developers. They had just made their first sale when the heavy arm of Nintendo came down on them. Milgrom recalls “The word was that any publisher who signed up with Beam for development systems would lose their licence, and that Nintendo would ensure that no-one used Beam for development.”(4) Nintendo made a threat to put Beam out of business. Milgrom recalls it was a very dramatic time. He desperately tried to meet with Nintendo to discuss the situation, eventually flying to a meeting at Nintendo’s Seattle office, organised thanks to support from friends at US publishers Acclaim. Remarkably, at this meeting it was agreed that Beam would take its development kit off the market and, in return, they would be signed up as a Nintendo-accredited developer. This made Beam Software one of the first western development companies directly accredited by Nintendo.
Beam Software’s cultural change and the rise of the new formalised era of Games Development
Nintendo’s expressed concerns about Beam’s NES development system were that it breached copyright and might offer developers inaccurate information. But Milgrom believed that issues of control dominated Nintendo’s approach to business and played an important part in their actions. Nintendo liked to control all aspects of their business, dictating to licensees how many games they could make a year. Nintendo made publishers pay for the manufacture of the game cartridges, thus ensuring Nintendo’s profit even if the games did not sell. They controlled release dates and had rigorous ideas about quality control.(4)
“In terms of game testing they revolutionised the concept.” explains Milgrom: “They said zero defects – we will not allow you to release a game that has any bugs in it whatsoever. Now zero defects was an unheard of concept on any other software or on any other gaming platform. Nintendo knew if they were going to sell it in supermarkets and sell it to mums and dads it had to work off the shelf and had to be flawless. They didn’t want returns. We had to change our programming attitude and the way we developed games.”(5)
Beam’s relationship with Nintendo formed part of a cultural change to the way the studio did business at the end of the 1980s.
Bill McIntosh, who left Beam Software in 1993 to establish his own studio Torus Games, recalls that when he arrived at Beam in 1985 “the culture was great” but “productivity could be low”. These were early days and there were no real production processes, many of the programmers were self-taught and there were “very messy coding standards”. The lack of schedules, libraries and clear processes led to a ludicrous amount of overtime. Long hours of overtime led to errors. There was no sense of being part of the beginning of a bigger industry: “…at the time we were just making games” recalls McIntosh.(6)
According to McIntosh, the NES changed everything for Beam. He recalls Milgrom “a cool dude with a leather jacket going off on a business trip and returning in a suit”. Beam was now in the business of developing for American publishers. Publishers expected there to be a producer to talk directly to. They expected to see comprehensive design documents, schedules and milestones. Nintendo issued clear demands, recalls McIntosh, one was that games had to be ‘complete-able’. Previously games would not necessarily be completed. Some, like the arcade game Space Invaders, just kept throwing enemies at you. Beam Software’s Fist II had a trapdoor in the floor of the last level that killed the player instantly.(7) Beam’s Asterix game shipped with a bug that left one of the collectable puzzle pieces invisible to players, making it unwinnable.
Nintendo also had strict control over what could be shown in a game. McIntosh recalls, “No religious symbols, no innuendo and no political messages”. Games historian Tristan Donovan compares Nintendo’s guidelines to The Hays Code that policed Hollywood film from the 1930s to the 1960s.(8) Beam Software had previously not had to consider such issues. Rock’n Wrestle included an image of a bare-breasted woman. Artist Frank Oldham hid a naked woman in the background shrubbery of Fist II for the Spectrum. This was a surprise to Melbourne House marketing, who only discovered the existence of this inappropriately shaped foliage when one young player enthusiastically wrote to a magazine about it.(9) The relationship with Nintendo meant those days were over.
McIntosh credits the completion of Beam’s transformation from its experimental early days to the more professional and commercial approach required for working with Nintendo, with the hiring of two new staff members at the end of the 1980s. Andrew Carter joined Beam in 1989. He had been previously employed at Proteus Development in Norwich, UK on Commodore 64 games. Hired as a programmer, Carter was influential in enforcing coding standards, revolutionising the graphics and animation systems and instituting a more structured workflow. Andrew Bailey also hailed from the UK and arrived at Beam in 1990. McIntosh considers the highly effective software toolsets created by Bailey to have transformed the studio. “turning Beam on its head”.(10)
The early industry Beam Software first entered (as Melbourne House) was built around the possibilities of home microcomputing. It cultivated an audience who, in their fascination with the hardware and software, were not that far removed from the game designers themselves. This industry model was now replaced with the business of developing for videogame consoles with their more onerous barriers of entry and stricter protocols.
- Alfred Milgrom, Interview Transcript 1 March 2013, Provided by Alfred Milgrom
- Alfred Milgrom, Interview Transcript (2013)
- Alfred Milgrom, Interview Transcript (2013)
- Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Yellow Ant 2010) 168. Bill McIntosh recalls that at the time a games publisher who wished to work with Nintendo had to prove to have significant in assets.
- Milgrom quoted in Tristan Donovan, Replay: The History of Video Games (Yellow Ant 2010) .p169
- Bill McIntosh Interview 26 April 2006 ACMI Helen Stuckey & Noe Harsel
- If the player was committed enough to play through the entire game again and jump the trapdoor they then encountered nine warriors who were undefeatable. Bill McIntosh Interview (2006)
- Story told to author by Russel Comte and Frank Oldham at the bar at the launch of Hits of the 80s: Aussie Games that Rocked the World.ACMI.(2006)
- Bill McIntosh Interview (2006)