Ocean Software: The History [Book Review]

history of Ocean cover

If I were feeling trite, I could argue that the history of early video gaming in the UK is the history of Ocean software. It’s a far from accurate statement, but there’s no doubt that Ocean played a crucial part in the development of the industry as we know it. From their use of film and TV licenses through to their slick advertising and packages, Ocean were pioneers in the 8 bit era. This book charts its rise from humble origins through to its acquisition by Infograms.

As with so many books that chart the early years of the software industry, this makes for a fascinating read about a time when the rules were essentially being made up as they went along. The text has an informal but informative style interspersing a chronological history of the company with observations taken from interviews with some of the key players behind Ocean’s success. The book captures the sense of excitement and gives real insights into what it was like to work for Ocean at all levels, from the programmers in the infamous Dungeon through to the managers of the company.

You could argue that the book (and its contributors) are sometimes guilty of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, with interviewees mostly recalling the good days and forgetting the bad. But let’s be honest: as retro gamers that’s exactly what we want from this type of publication. As a young gamer in the 80s, these guys were my gaming gods, the people I aspired to be like. I WANT to hear that working for Ocean was a fantastic experience; I don’t want my fond childhood illusions to be shattered.

In terms of content, no-one could accuse the book of not being comprehensive. It starts off with a fascinating 80+ page history of Ocean told through the eyes of Ocean founders, Jon Woods and David Ward and key employees such as Gary Bracey. Based on extensive interviews with key personnel, it’s a fascinating glimpse into what life was like as part of Ocean’s management team.

To counter-balance this top-down view, the second part contains the reminiscences of ordinary employees from the programmers to sales and marketing staff. If anything, this is even more interesting, since it’s the programmers with whom we perhaps identify with most closely. Authors Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean (one of the brains behind early UK computer magazines Crash and Zzap!64) have clearly invested a massive amount of effort in tracking down and interviewing former Ocean employees and their interviews make for really interesting reading.

I’d have been happy enough with a straight text history of the company, but the authors haven’t skimped on the presentation. The book is littered with full colour illustrations and photographs of every type: screenshots from famous Ocean games, artwork from their boxes, photos of the Ocean team in their heyday and so on. From a fan point of view, it’s fascinating to see pictures of your gaming heroes then (all big hair and Miami Vice style clothing) and now (often balding and middle aged). This is as much a pictorial history of Ocean as it is a textual one.

History of Ocean splash screen

At around £25 for a paperback book, it’s not the cheapest, but I think it was worth every single penny. It’s a high quality publication, well written and full of fascinating insights and anecdotes. If you were a gamer in the late 80s or early 90s, you need a copy of this book.

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