The ill-fated 'megagame' Bandersnatch

The origins of Psygnosis can be found in Liverpool based software company Imagine. In early 1984 the Imagine team were working on a spectacular project known as Bandersnatch. The game was to come in an A4 sized box containing around 30 'goodies' including a required additional piece of hardware for your Spectrum computer. The retail price of Bandersnatch was expected to be around £40 and it was to be a completely new concept in computer games. Apparently 10 professional artists were working on the graphics alone.

Bandersnatch was never released. On the 9th of July 1984, Imagine went bust after only 18 months of operation. Interestingly, its demise was documented by a BBC television program. It would certainly make for interesting viewing now.

Later that year, ex-Imagine director Ian Hetherington started a new company known as Psygnosis. Many Imagine employees moved to the new team including David Lawson, Eugene Evans, John Gibson, and Jake Glover. Their first game was to be Brataccas, which was essentially a rebadged version of Bandersnatch on the new Amiga and Atari ST. Unfortunately it never quite lived up to the lofty ideals of the former game but it was the catalyst for what was to come.

So what was Psyclapse all about then?

Psyclapse was actually the name of a Commodore 64 game that was never released. In 1984, Imagine began working on the game and even produced a simple demo showing the hero walking while the walls of a castle scrolled behind him. The object of the game was apparently to escape from the castle where an evil villain had transported warriors from the past. Sounds like fun eh? Unfortunately it was never to be, but Psyclapse was to live on as a division of Psygnosis. It is unclear why certain games were released under the Psygnosis banner and others under Psyclapse. As far as I can tell Psyclapse does not pre-date Psygnosis. They seemed to evolve simultaneously, with larger more ambitious titles being released as Psygnosis while 'simpler' shooters and arcade games came out under Psyclapse. One distinction is that Psyclapse boxes were usually smaller. I don't believe any games were released under Psyclapse after 1989, but please correct me if I'm wrong.

Roger Dean

Roger Dean's involvement in Psygnosis can be traced back to Imagine when he was commissioned by Hetherington to create a visual identity for the company. This included the design of a new logo and the distinctive 'owl face'. When Imagine became Psygnosis, the collaboration continued and Dean's artwork and typography was used heavily on subsequent games. For those that don't know, Roger Dean is best known for his album covers and logos for 1970s and 80s bands such as Yes and Asia. He has also released two spectacular books of his work, Views in 1976 and Magnetic Storm in 1984. He is currently working on a third. Roger Dean is not the only artist to produce artwork for Psygnosis. Other notable contributors include Peter Andrew Jones, Melvyn Grant, Ian Craig, Tim White, Tony Roberts and Ian Miller.

The Psygnosis Years
Big boxes: Shadow of the Beast
The first thing you noticed when you bought a Psygnosis game was the amount of cardboard they gave you. For releases such as Shadow of the Beast 1 & 2, and Awesome the box size was about double that of most computer games. Ok, so it might not be environmentally sound but it did make you want to go out and buy the game rather than make a copy from the kid down the street. Often there would be goodies inside, like posters and t-shirts. These have already become quite collectable on the second hand market so take good care of them if you still have them. Many titles came on two floppy disks (3.5" DD) This was usually to accommodate the stunning introduction sequences.

The emphasis at Psygnosis was always on high quality graphics. Their motto infact was 'Seeing is Believing' which appeared on many of their magazine advertisements. In the late 80s, Psygnosis employed four full-time artists in-house. Games development and programming however was usually given to freelancers. What's remarkable is that there were no time constraints placed on the artists. The game was considered finished when everyone agreed it was the best it could be. Artists were given complete creative control over the look of the graphics and it was not unusual for them to work for over 6 months on a project. The game graphics, including sprites, backgrounds and loading screens, were created on Amigas running the popular Deluxe Paint software and saved to disk in the standard IFF format ready for inclusion in the game code. All of the artists employed had a conventional art training and none had used a computer for drawing before they joined Psygnosis, although they had to give up conventional art practices fairly quickly when learning to use the software.

The company had some notable early successes with games such as Barbarian, Chronos Quest and Obliterator and Psygnosis quickly developed a reputation for combining large animated sprites with detailed and complex backgrounds. Many subsequent Psygnosis games were created by small external units such as Reflections (Shadow of the Beast), DMA Design (Blood Money, Lemmings), and Art & Magic (Agony). Often these units would consist only of a programmer and graphic artist.
The game over screen from Shadow of the Beast 2
The first major hit for Psygnosis was Shadow of the Beast in 1989. This was the game you would wheel out for your friends when you wanted to show them how truly great the Amiga was. No longer were Amiga games slightly enhanced versions of their C-64 or Spectrum counterparts; there was now a benchmark for all future Amiga titles to aspire to.

More classics followed including Shadow of the Beast 2, Awesome and later the excellent Agony.

A criticism often levelled at Psygnosis games was that gameplay was sacrificed for the sake of graphics. To an extent I would agree, but I always found that beautiful and imaginative graphics created a sense of being in the gameworld and thus their effect would generally enhance the gameplay rather than detract from it.

Many in the gaming world did not know of Psygnosis until Lemmings hit in 1991. This was a highly inventive and playable game that spawned several sequels. It also represented the end of an era for the company.

In 1993, Psygnosis was bought by Sony and assigned the task of creating launch titles for the up and coming Sony Playstation. Formula 1, Wipeout and Destruction Derby were the results and helped establish the Sony machine as the hot new console.

Psygnosis continued to develop titles for the Playstation as well as PCs but Amiga development stopped in 1994. It is sad and somewhat ironic to think that one of the last titles they produced for the machine that made them was The Last Action Hero.

It is virtually all over for Psygnosis now. In 1998 Eidos Interactive bought Psygnosis' European operations and Psygnosis' US operations were folded into Sony's own development outfit, 989 Studios. As of 2000 the company does not exist. We have seen the last of the purple owl.
Psygnosis and Psyclapse were two sides of the same coin
The Psygnosis Team

The original Psygnosis team were: Philip Brackburn, David Canham, Garvan Corbett, Jonathan Ellis, Eugene Evans, Tom Flannery, Jake Glover, Ian Hetherington, Steve Lavache, David H. Lawson and Colin Rushby.

Ian Hetherington

As the director of Psygnosis, Hetherington's name crops up alot, but little is actually known about him. One thing is for sure, he has a shrewd business sense and no doubt made millions from Psygnosis. In a rare 1997 interview he expressed Psygnosis' strategy was always to 'foster the talent, and yield the product, not buy the product'. No doubt this nurturing of the creative talent paid off and Psygnosis never lost a developer.

Hetherington also had some programming experience himself and was credited with coding the early Psygnosis game, Terrorpods. Before Psygnosis, he was one of the four directors of the ill-fated software giant Imagine. He was put in charge of the company's finances, but the management became factionalised with Hetherington and Dave Lawson on one side and Mark Butler and Bruce Everiss on the other. It was obvious to Hetherington that Imagine was in trouble and he secretly drew up plans with Lawson to set up a new company for acquisition of Imagine's assets. The company was called Finchspeed and its first task was to complete the Imagine 'megagame' Bandersnatch. It seems that Finchspeed somehow became Psygnosis in 1984.

Despite the terrible problems at Imagine, many of the ideals of the former company were adopted by Psygnosis including Lawson's insistence on allowing the programmers and designers complete creative control (and producing large expensive game boxes with extra goodies!) Hetherington, to his credit, stuck with Lawson's vision and turned Psygnosis into a major player in the 16-bit market. When Sony acquired Psygnosis in 1993, Hetherington was made managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. In 2003, he formed Real Time Worlds with Dave Jones (DMA Design/Rockstar North) and Tony Harman (Nintendo U.S.) The development studio is rumoured to be working on multiplayer online games and similar titles to Grand Theft Auto.
Lemmings was the hit Psygnosis had been waiting for
Dave Jones

The early 16-bit games industry was very different from the one we have today. In the late 80s and early 90s, games were usually turned out by small dedicated development houses of only a handful of people. Back then it was possible for an individual to design, program and market a top-selling game almost singlehandedly. All you needed it seemed was an idea. Dave Jones is often held up as a kind of pin-up boy of the games industry. As the driving force behind Scottish outfit DMA Design he was responsible for seminal Psygnosis releases such as Menace, Blood Money and of course the phenomenally successful Lemmings. Originally programmed for the Amiga in 1991, Lemmings would later be ported to every major computer platform and sell over 20 million units. In 1994 Jones got on board with Nintendo and helped to establish the short-lived Nintendo UK. While working on the N64 title, Body Harvest, there was a fallout with management which led to DMA Design's departure. Fortunately however Jones had already finished work on what was to become DMA's best known franchise, Grand Theft Auto. The game involved, and actually seemed to encourage, indiscriminate mayhem and killing on the road, and for many months was the focus of international media outrage. Of course this did nothing to dampen sales and the game was a huge success. In 1999 DMA Design became Rockstar North and continued to develop a number of popular GTA sequels. Dave Jones now works at Real Time Worlds with his ex-boss Ian Hetherington.

Today the games industry is bigger than ever but there are fewer games being made. Development houses are run more like Hollywood studios and with more people and money involved, there is sometimes less emphasis on innovation and more on pushing a tried and tested formula. Certainly the general quality of games has improved but perhaps we have sacrificed ideas somewhere along the way. The days of the rockstar-like lone programmer pushing the boundaries are long gone.

A Legacy?

When Psygnosis was swallowed up by Sony they stopped producing the kind of games featured on this site. But there have been some wonderful games emerge from other companies that feature similarly atmospheric visuals. On the Playstation these include Oddworld, Devil May Cry and Ico.

Some of the better (non-Psygnosis) releases for the Amiga were Marble Madness, Paradroid 90, Turrican, Speedball 2, and Captain Blood.

© 2004 The Purple Owl