Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen established Melbourne House as the London distribution arm for their general book publishing company in 1977. In the early 1980s, Milgrom read an article in the Australian Financial Review that discussed publishing ‘How To’ books for the emerging home computer market. For Milgrom, who has a background in computer science from The University of Melbourne, this was an opportunity to combine his two loves – computers and publishing. As a result, Melbourne House was one of the first publishers to put out books detailing the Sinclair operating system and machine coding. Books such as Milgrom’s “30 Programs for the ZX80” secured it a foothold in the UK computing market.
By the end of 1980, Milgrom and Besen moved back to Melbourne, Australia but maintained Melbourne House as a London-based publishing company. They had decided a logical expansion on computer book publishing would be the development of games. Code had to be written for the books and they may as well publish it as software rather than just words on paper. Using a combination of both their names, BEAM Software was born. Beam’s very first employee William Tang was a University of Melbourne Computer Science student who worked out of the Milgrom’s living room in his summer break.
Being geographically far away made software development for the UK market a challenge for Beam. In 1981 Milgrom travelled to London to present one of the Beam Software’s first games created by him and Tang for the ZX80, only to be met with the release of the Sinclair ZX81. It was an incredibly valuable lesson about the industry, and how fast things change for Milgrom. Melbourne House moved quickly to publish program books for the ZX81 building a relationship with Psion, a UK software developer who had an agreement to supply games to Sinclair Research. This relationship gave them the ‘heads up’ on all new hardware developments and enabled Beam to release the famous “Horace” series through Psion that were packaged with the Spectrum.
After the “Horace” games Beams next big success was the graphical text adventure “The Hobbit” which fitted precisely into it 48K on the Spectrum. It was based on J.R.R Tolkien’s book which came packaged with the game, a ploy Milgrom had used to secure rights to the licence. Designed by Veronkia Megler and Philip Mitchell Beams two Melbourne University students who were to be Beam’s 2nd and 3rd staff members “The Hobbit” was a result of Milgrom’s early fascination with Scott Adams’s Adventure International series. Milgrom suspected you could do more than two-word command logical puzzles of Adams games. For “The Hobbit” Mitchell went on to develop a sophisticated parser with a vocabulary of over 800 words and the ability to combine verbs nouns and adverbs and link commands. Megler created a fascinating persistent world where time passed, objects had simple physics and characters and creatures independently went about their business. the popularity of “The Hobbit” saw Beam porting it to over nine platforms. After a while Melbourne House choose to concentrate on games publishing, phasing out book publishing.
By the end of The Hobbit Beam Software had 6-8 employees. Realising that the colour platforms would become the norm, as a result of the success of the Spectrum, Beam decided they should hire someone who could specialise in graphics, which would allow for games to enter a new level of complexity. At this stage, however, there was no established ‘graphic artist’ position within the gaming industry, with most graphics being designed by programmers. Resolution on screens were small, a typical Spectrum game character may be about 32 by 32 pixles. Beam put out a call for graphic artists, telling them to create a very tiny flip-book as a way of attempting to explain this new industry position. Coming back with an expressive pixilated clown on a unicycle was Beam Software’s first graphic designer, Russel Comte. The business continued this way – deciding that someone has too much work to do, working out how to break it up and then hire for these newly defined positions. Suddenly Beam had project managers, story board writers, different level programmers and an in-house composer.
One of the most influential games created by Beam was “The Way of the Exploding Fist” in 1985 an early ’beat-em-up’ for the home computer. It was innovative in its intuitive mapping of movement to the joystick , its animated characters and the use of sounds that mirrored the action, such as thumps, cracks and cries when the characters were successfully attacked. It hit number one in sales throughout Europe and helped Beam Software and Melbourne House solidify themselves as one of the important games developers and publishers of the time.”The Way of the Exploding Fist” was the brain-child of programmer Gregg Barnett. Barnett also was a computer science graduate from The University of Melbourne. Beam had a policy of allowing programmers to take responsibility for developing new ideas, allowing Barnett a Bruce Lee fan the freedom to make a karate game. His interest in this game was primarily the sports simulation aspect. This autonomy given to the program designers meant that, in Barnett’s case no one at Beam saw the game during its initial development. Barnett remembers that aside from the programmers, it was about six weeks before the growing office had any indication of the game’s progress; “Everybody was starting to get a bit worried. And then one day, after a compile, the two-player game was working. It went from nothing to a two-player game basically straight away! [I] did the compile, it worked! Whew! I go and get a cup of coffee and there’s a line of people to play the game in the office at my machine! That’s when we knew that we were on to something pretty good.” [Gregg Barnett interview, 18 May 2006]
The creative freedom of Beam Software designs in these early days was solidified because they also owned publishing rights via Melbourne House. This assisted in the success of both companies, as money and copyright was not going off-shore. Additionally Melbourne House published games not designed by Beam, which enabled the company to broaden its profile.
Beam was concentrated on the development of games for the home computer market but they also kept their eye on what was happening with games consoles. When Nintendo released their first cartridge game console the Famicom in 1983 Milgrom initially looked at this release as an opportunity to enter the Japanese market. He return to Australia with the Famicom and Beams staff including a University of Melbourne student Adrian Thewlis, reverse engineered the console. Beam developed a demo game based on what they learnt from disassembling the machine and took it to Japan to show it to a publisher affiliated with Nintendo. The publisher explained that was not how it worked in Japan. That Nintendo held tight reins on games development limiting the number of games permitted to be developed for their system. Beam Software was not welcome.
In 1985 Nintendo released the NES in North America. Milgrom thought they would try again in this new Nintendo development market. The studio reverse engineered the NES, building on their knowledge of the Famicom. Through their good relationships with many American licence holders, Beam offered their development system to American developers and publishers. One of these companies, Acclaim, received a call from Nintendo telling them not to do business with Beam. Nintendo threatened to put Beam out of business if they continued to sell their development kit. Eventually after many some very tense days Milgrom was received by American Nintendo head office who told him to take the development kit off the market in exchange for an official Nintendo licence. As a result Beam got into the business of developing titles for American companies, for every Nintendo platform that came out, including Gameboy. This was the catalyst for major changes at Beam Software, overlapping as it did with the sale of the publishing arm, Melbourne House to Mastertronic in 1987. Without their own publishing house Beam could no longer call all the shots on the creative decision for their titles. Programmers, who previously had opportunities to develop games that interested them specifically, were now developing games that were commissioned by overseas companies. There were more tie-ins and less internally driven creativity. This changed the culture of Beam from pioneering creative game designers to a more globally responsible and corporatised workplace.
The global industry was changing from developer-based designer games, to multi-national corporate ventures. Forever pioneering Beam Software in 1996 was the first software company to be floated on the Australian stock exchange. It did not make it target but it paved the way for other software companies like the far less established Sausage Software . In 1999 Beam Software was taken over by the French company Infogrames (later Atari) and renamed Infogrames Melbourne House.
In the 1980s Beam Software laid the foundations for much of the Australian games industry. Adam Lancman the inaugural present of the Game Designers Association of Australia joined Beam in 1982 as an accountant, became a shareholder, a director and eventually Managing Director of Beam before leading the company through the Infogrames/Atari years. Bill McIntosh CEO of Torus games worked at Beam from 1986 – 1994 before establishing his own company and Trevor Nuridin and Andrew Bailey founders of Tantalus Interactive both started with Beam in the 1980s.
References: ACMI Alfred Milgrom interview, 28 April 2006: Interview text provided by Alfred Milgrom 1st March 2013. ACMI Gregg Barnett interview 18 May 2006