Calling all teenage mutants

Nintendo has paid tens of millions for a stake in a video game company run by a university drop-out. His story could give cause for hope to the despairing parents of every teenage game addict. James Bethell reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When boyish curiosity drove Christopher Stamper to break into the computer codes of Nintendo's early games machine, he could not have realised that clever detective work would bring him a fortune beyond a university drop-out's dreams.

Eleven years later, Nintendo, the world's largest video games company, has demonstrated the importance of Stamper's games to the ongoing success of its business by buying, for several tens of millions of pounds, a stake in his 80-person company, Rare.

The Stamper story is an inspiration to every parent whose child plays computer games and who fears that the addiction will lead to nothing more than failing eyesight and failed GCSEs. Now, parents might even dare hope that their child's amateur interest might one day turn into a bankable asset.

It is not an entirely forlorn hope. Thirty-five per cent of games sold worldwide are designed in Britain, in the main because a generation of eccentric computer programmers who played with Clive Sinclair's earliest home computers went on to carve themselves a significant niche in the computer games market. The market is now worth £14.4bn a year and the opportunities for the next generation in this growing industry are vast.

Christopher Stamper's story is typical of the generation of "bedroom programmers" leading the revolution in home entertainment. While his friends were playing on Sinclair's ZX80s, he decided to build his first computer. The slightly shy, mildly introverted science student, an undergraduate at Loughborough University, immediately fell in love with the new technology. He designed a traffic lights programme and soon he was working day and night on new ideas. Two years later, aged 22, he teamed up with Tim and Stephen, his younger brothers; Carole, Tim's girlfriend (now wife), and John Lathbury, a college friend.

The new venture was supported by the brothers' father, who had moved the family from Hayes, Middlesex, to Bristol and then to Warwickshire in his search for jobs, which included postman and, finally, running his own corner shop.

"My parents were self-employed, so we always wanted to try it ourselves," said Stamper. His father provided premises next-door to his shop and his mother cooked the meals (she still does). The family's entrepreneurial flair extended to buying a dilapidated Queen Anne hunting lodge and decorating it room by room as the company expanded.

Their first game, called Jet Pack, was produced in 1982; since then they have made 70 different games and sold 30 million worldwide. Battle Toads was their other major hit besides Donkey Kong and their next, "a futuristic 3D fighting game", is Killer Instinct - bound to be a blockbuster.

Within their offices is a dimmed room with huge screens on to which three- dimensional images of their characters are projected. Elsewhere in the building is a computer of such power and sophistication that only Boeing and one other aircraft manufacturer have one to match it. The brothers work almost insanely hard - junior doctor hours and then some - but continue to play their own games obsessively.

The Stampers' strength seems to lie in their attention to detail. While other companies rush to meet tight deadlines and licensing agreements, the Stampers' close association with Nintendo gives them the time and money to devote more than 10 man years of time to each game. The balance between Christopher's technical mastery and Tim's more artistic skill is also significant.

The brothers cut eccentric figures. Highly secretive, they normally eschew any press interviews. Christopher says he has few interests outside the world of computing, though he does have a girlfriend, Nicki Wilkinson, who is a solicitor in Birmingham. His brother is a skiing enthusiast.

In this they are typical of the maverick geniuses who wrote the earliest programmes that brought video games into the front room. These figures include Jeff Minter, the writer of Revenge Of The Mutant Camels, whose obsession with llamas led to him calling his company LamaSoft. There is Dominic Wheatley, the ex-public school boy and Guards officer behind Domark, who leads his staff to the local wine bar after work on a Friday. There is Tony Crowther, the programmer at Gremlin Interactive behind the hit game Knightman, who apparently thinks it is funny to wear a T-shirt that reads, "Yes, I am Tony Crowther." Then there is Steve Bell, co-writer of Elite, who became deeply interested in martial arts following his research into Ninjas.

The time of the maverick genius may, however, be over. As computers have become more powerful, programmers have been forced to specialise in skills such as sound effects, three-dimensional graphics, fast-moving objects and artificial intelligence. As the industry has matured, teams of these specialist programmers work together in large laboratories, such as the Stampers', on computers worth millions of pounds. The opportunity for the iconoclastic individual working alone at home is over.

The aspirant programmer is now advised to forget the introverted, dark- bedroomed individualism of the former generation. Instead, he or she should study for a good maths or quantitative science degree and develop a well- rounded creative talent. Early breaks to the industry are offered by the games testing teams that spot the flaws in every company's product. From there the determined tester can wheedle his or her way into the programming side. The message to parents is: let 'em play.

Age:15-35.

Sex: Predominantly male. There are signs that girls are playing more games as the more sophisticated publications develop a better narrative structure. There are successful women graphic artists but few among the top league of programmers.

Pay: Promising graduates now receive £30,000 starting salary. Top programmers with successful hits can sell their companies for tens of millions of pounds.

Outward appearance: Pallid complexion from too much time spent indoors. Bloodshot eyes from long nights spent tackling stubborn software gremlins. Curved spinal posture from hundreds of hours craned over the keyboard. Spectacles resulting from VDU-damaged eyes. Functional haircut. Spots due to overdose of junk food.

Clothes: Expensive jeans bought from top designer following sale of first program which have subsequently deteriorated through lack of washing. T-shirt from Venice Beach following VIP visit to Los Angeles headquarters of America computer giant. Running shoes (never used for running). Anorak hidden at back of wardrobe since purchase of biker-style leather jacket.

Music: Mainly heavy metal bands from Seventies, such as Rush, Iron Maiden and Yes.

Car: Hey, who needs to drive when you've got the Internet?

Education: Typical computer programmer took Maths A-level aged 12, discovered computers and then never looked at a school textbook again. Possibly did a degree in maths or a quantitative science, but probably dropped out. Graphic artists include computer boffins with artistic tendencies (which interfere with the clear, machine-like thinking needed in a programmer). Story engineers, who work on the mechanics of the game (movement, velocity, 3D effects, etc), were the daydreamers who told unbelievable stories at school.

Social life: Often introverted; social circle limited to like-minded boffins. Speak their own language, read the same magazines, compete in the same esoteric games. Business partners include friends from the computer club joined at age 15. The solitary years of teenage programming in the bedroom have been transformed since plugging into the Internet: best friends now include people they have never met.

Work habits: Obsessive. Programmers miss meals, classes and sleep to unravel problems and meet deadlines. Slackers simply do not succeed.

Family background: Parents should be rich enough to buy a few hundred pounds' worth of basic computer equipment, but not so aspirational that they scorn their children's harmless but geeky hobby.

Geographical background: Emphasis on the Home Counties (that's where the top-pocket money is).

Likely bedroom decor: Desk piled high with listing paper covered in indecipherable computer code. To one side are all the household's coffee cups with fungus growing in the bottom. Ashtrays filled to the brim with cigarettes and the odd pre-sleep joint. Lying on the floor is a Nintendo or Sega computer with the top lifted off and the wires flowing out into a black box interchange. Nearby is the family telephone in a similarly disembowelled state. Huge reference books of computer codes fill bookcase.

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