It was 1984. Dominic Wheatley, then 24, had returned home to spend Christmas with his family.
“My little brother’s present was a console and he spent the holiday glued to the machine.” Wheatley realised that “computer entertainment was about to become a big industry”. When he returned to his advertising job in London, he and a colleague, Mark Strachan, agreed to start a computer games publishing company. They worked on their business plan at lunch times and then approached the banks. “I think banks were more eager to lend to small businesses back then.”
Between the banks, friends and family, the pair secured start-up capital for their new firm – Domark.
Accepting that they did “not know that much about computers”, they outsourced the design of the first game and “focused on the marketing”. Thanks to cheap designers in Hungary, ‘Eureka’ was developed for £50,000. The mystery puzzle game was played on early home computers, such as the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. They offered a £25,000 prize for the first person to complete Eureka in its first year and spent tens of thousands more on full-page advertisements in the national press. The prize was eventually claimed by a teenage gamer. By then Eureka had covered its costs with “decent sales of about 15,000 cassettes”. Domark quickly released two more games. These did less well, however, and the pair realised that in a “more competitive” market they couldn’t rely on advertising alone.
They decided to refocus on converting the successful board game Trivial Pursuit into a computer game. They also switched to UK programmers to “keep a close eye on how the software was developing”. Trivial Pursuit was released in 1986 and proved a big hit. Domark used the cash to buy licences for successful franchises, such as James Bond. A string of games linked to Bond films followed during the 1980s. “Working off an established title worked well for us. It meant that we could get a push from the hype surrounding a film.” Domark also started buying up the licences for popular arcade games, which they then converted for the PC market. This highly successful tactic allowed Domark to beef up its in-house programming team. “It was nice finally to be able to develop our own games.”
But the industry was already changing fast. New manufacturers, such as Nintendo, were carving up the games console market. Brands such as Commodore suddenly fell out of favour. “One of our biggest challenges was to pick the right platform. There was no point making a game if no one bought the machine that played it.” By 1994 Domark was selling £11m worth of games a year. With interest in the city “picking up”, Domark went public via a reverse takeover of Eidos – a listed software company. The new firm then snapped up smaller competitors. “Computer gaming had undergone a revolution. When we started, maybe one kid in the playground had a console. By 1995, they all did.”
Wheatley served as CEO of Eidos until 1997, before “taking a sabbatical”. His latest venture, SocialGO, sells social network software. “People think social media is big now, but we are just at the tip of the iceberg. It is going to be massive.”