Video Games & Computers | Computer Firsts

One of the problems with being a pioneer in the business of computing and video games is that there are no benchmarks, no templates and no real rules. There's no doubt that Mel Croucher is a pioneer in this field, neither is there any doubt that in some cases he was so far ahead of the field that he was considered ambitious at best and a lunatic at worst. Once or twice he got the timing spot on, but more often than not he simply lost interest and moved on, leaving others to learn from his mistakes and do it right.

This is a very brief history, in chronological order.

1969 | First psychedelic computer game

Kitkat screensaver

There are no pictures of Mel's first psychedelic computer game, so here's an image of the player piano that he liked to program in his youth by punching a series of holes in a roll of old wallpaper, then feeding it through the ancient system of bellows and levers.

When he was an architectural student, he got his hands on a Ministry of Defence computer that was big enough to walk around on the inside and feel the glowing, hot valves. The fact that it could also be programmed via punched cards led him to the obvious conclusion. It took him six months to get it to produce a series of musical tones and play a children's nursery rhyme synchronised to an array of flashing coloured lights. It was all very silly, but it worked.

Mel then forgot all about computers for the best part of a decade, but when the first home models appeared already knew that computers were just another way of being silly.

1977-1981 | First Multimedia Travel Guides

Mel Croucher Pathfinder

When cheap package tourism got going in the late 1970s, Mel hit on the idea of force-feeding holidaymakers multimedia travel guides, paid for by spot advertising and discount coupons.

He produced location maps accompanied by humorous audio guides on cassette, and holiday reps would inflict them on their victims as they drove off ferry boats, or emerged from airports and car-hires.

Starting with the Sealink ferry company in his home town of Portsmouth, he ended up covering most of the popular resorts in Europe and America, working with the likes of Intersun, Sovereign and British Airways for his distribution partners.

The thing was, early home computers used the very same cassettes for storing and loading programs. The other thing was, you could sell cassettes with software on them, instead of giving away audio guides.

1977 | First UK leisure software house

the original Automata software team

Mel isn't completely sure that he founded the first videogames company in the UK, even though that's what the history books say.

For the record, it was called Automata and it was registered as a limited company on 19th November 1977 - Mel's birthday.

Here's a picture of the original Automata team, left to right: Robin Evans did all graphics and still works with Mel to this day. Next is Mark Bardell who first met Mel when they were aged 11 and was best Man at Jackie and Mel's wedding, he did research and wrote words. That's Mel sitting in the middle, which he was very good at. Then there's Christian Penfold, who did sales and became the programmer to keep him quiet. Geoff Roberts is on the right and he did photography and technical stuff.

They all had two things in common - facial hair and complete ignorance about the the video games business. Which is as it should be, seeing as it hadn't been invented until they came along.

1977-1981 | First computer games broadcast via radio

Mel Croucher Whitbread Quiz

Once upon a time, Mel's sister Karen was a newsreader on a radio station called Radio Victory. The head of that station was a character Mel went to school with. For some unaccountable reason, Mel landed the job of producing a lengthy series of radio pub quizzes, sponsored by a very bad brand of beer indeed. It so happened that there was nowhere for Automata to distribute their early computer games, because computer stores, magazines and clubs had yet to exist.

And that's how it happened. The first broadcast of computer software over AM and FM radio in the UK.

Listeners would have to record the irritating signal off-air using home tape machines, feed the noise into their primitive computers, fire up the resulting quest game and solve it, then phone the radio station with their answer. The first correct answer would win a crummy prize. Mel is still extremely proud of this achievement.

1981 | First video game stereo soundtrack

Can Of Worms - Mel Croucher

As soon as the first computer magazines appeared - usually printed in monochrome on toilet paper - Mel switched from radio broadcasting of software to mail order video games. They sold at ridiculously cheap prices in order to confuse the enemy. For example, the Can Of Worms collection contained ten games for three quid.

The thing about cassette tape is that there are two sides to play. So instead of leaving one side blank or duplicating the same games on each side, Mel would add a stereo soundtrack, usually with some music, jokes and sound effects.

Within a couple of years, each game carried its own full-blown audio production, although it was a bugger trying to get them to sync to the action.

1982 | First videogame mass merchandising

pimania video game

In 1982, Mel designed a real world computer quest called PiMania. It was probably not the first adventure game to offer a prize to the winner, but it was certainly the first to locate the adventure in the real world and require players to turn up at the right place and the right time to claim the prize - a sundial made of obsidian, gold and diamonds, commissioned from the De Beers Diamond Award Winner. This technique later became known as geocaching.

PiMania was also the first videogame to feature multimedia mass merchandising, with weekly comic strips, live appearances of The PiMan character on TV and at trade fairs, a series of rock albums, a membership club, a fanzine, a telephone hotline, t-shirts, calendars, and an entire series of spin-off video games.

For live appearances The PiMan was played by Christian Penfold in a horrendously tight pink jumpsuit, while Mel usually dressed up as Groucho Marx and insisted on playing live music to the bewildered masses.

1983 | First Cult Vlogger


This is a really obscure one, and it involves the very early days of getting text-on-demand to consumers via their television sets. The system in the UK was marketed under the name Micronet 800, running on the BT Prestel videotext service, and designed as a consumer magazine and news service.

That's until Mel got involved. He thought it would be a great idea to create a cult DJ to act as a pop music reviewer, and transmit the reviews as soon as the track was released. So far, so normal, except for the fact that Mel created a mixed-race lesbian with Tourettes, named Doreen Hyndley. It was only when viewers read the TV text aloud that the full horrors of his scripts were revealed.

The most astounding thing about all this is the fact that Mel's series slipped past the editors for almost two years before he was fired.

1984 | First interactive movie

Deus Ex Machina Mel Croucher

Too much has been written about Deus Ex Machina and this is not the place to write a lot more.

In the early 1980s Mel Croucher believed that videogames were about to develop into full-blown interactive movies, with professional actors taking the lead roles, fully-orchestrated music scores, immersive graphics, and everything perfectly synced to the split second of gameplay. And he was determined to be the first to do it.

His Deus Ex Machina was a critical sensation and a commercial disaster, and after winning Game Of The Year it became one of the most heavily pirated games of all time.

It took about a quarter of a century for the videogames business to catch up with Mel's vision, and start producing interactive movies for real.

1986 | First interactive video album

first video album

As soon as the technology became available, Mel produced a series of interactive videos that merged the experience of music track, pop video and arcade game. His album See Me, Hear Me, Touch Me was exhibited at the National Exhibition Centre in the winter of 1986.

The hardware was simple enough, using off-the-shelf MSX computers with Microsoft architecture, linked to standard video players and stereo speakers.

The software was programmed by Colin Jones and the videos were produced by the likes of Godley and Creme.

The reaction of the public and the entertainment industry was one of total indifference.

1988 | First use of ADWARE

Mel Croucher - Adware

Mel has inflicted untold misery upon the peoples of the world and he wants to say how very sorry he is to be the idiot who started harnessing computers for the purposes of advertising.

When he first dreamed up the notion of force-feeding consumers embedded adverts for rubbish they didn't need, he never imagined the consequences. And when he coined the word Adware, he had no idea that it would come to represent a process of global annoyance and mass loathing.

Webster's dictionary defines Adware as 'computer software that is usually provided free but contains advertisements' and dates the first known use of the word as 1992. For the record, Mel registered 'Adware' in 1988, and ran a company of the same name for years before and after it passed into common usage.

1993 | First personal digital assistant

Sheherazade by Mel Croucher

When Psion produced their brilliant palmtops, Mel was commissioned by the Belgian company Pocket And Soul to reimagine an artificial intelligence program he had written a few years earlier, and he came up with the idea for a personal digital assistant, companion and entertainer.

Sheherazade was a precursor to Cortana and Siri, with a cutesy animated face, a wicked sense of humour, and the ability to reflect the personality of the user. She also had a thousand and one stories embedded in her memory, all written by Mel, which were automatically customised to the current player's location, time and mood.

Psion gave it the seal of approval, but it never came to market in it's original form. However, Mel has continued developing it during the intervening decades, and Sheherazade is still up for grabs.

1994 | First million-user viral marketing campaign

Duracell run the bunny

For once Mel got the timing right, and the timing involved a new phenomenon called emails and an old habit called software piracy. All he had to do was combine them with prize games, and appeal to the greed of the public and the willingness of corporates to part with their money. It can be argued that he helped invent viral marketing.

An advertising sponsor would offer a load of prizes buried inside a video game, in return for the players' email address. And the trick was to encourage players to pirate the game as widely as possible and distribute multiple copies tagged with their own contact. Then if a player of one of their tagged games won a prize they would gain the same reward.

The first of Mel's viral marketing campaigns to hit a million users was for Duracell, released in ten global languages on magazine cover-mounts and point of sale battery packs. It involved shoving virtual batteries up the virtual arseholes of virtual pink bunnies.

1995 | First interactive screen-saver

Kitkat screensaver

The next development of Mel's legal piracy strategy was to harness boring screensavers. He persuaded the Nestle marketing department that their slogan "have a break, have a KitKat" should be turned into a screensaver and freely distributed to build a massive database of consumer email contacts. Seeing as most computers were in offices, the campaign would be aimed at office workers.

The screensaver showed a spinning planet Earth, and Mel had it programmed so beacons of light appeared all round the world at random intervals. If the office worker got the locations right, they could win round-the-world holiday prizes, and so could whoever passed on their pirated copy to them.

The fact that one particular destination only appeared once an hour meant that office breaks became rather long, and Mel is under a legal embargo not to reveal what happened next.

1998 | First interactive soap opera

Surf Marina, Mel Croucher

It was called Surf Marina, it was an online soap opera, and even if it wasn't the first soap on the web it was the first interactive soap on the web.

It was set in the yacht marina where Mel had his offices at the time, and each daily episode was written by best-selling author David Benedictus with two alternative endings. The public was ecouraged to vote online for their choice of plotline, and the next episode would then be written accordingly.

The narrative was text based, the photographic images were animated, the cast included well-known actors and celebrities, it had a great theme song, and it was cancelled as soon as it failed to attract any sponsorship whatsoever.