Previously part of the Post Office, the Telecommunications giant British Telecom (BT) was due to be privatised in late 1984. Amidst the uncertainty, Dr Ederyn Williams – General Manager of Information Systems at BT – speculated where the telecoms business was heading.
Both Ederyn and Richard Hooper (Chief Executive for BT’s Value Added Systems and Services division) had been involved in discussions regarding the issue of network versus content on Prestel.
Prestel was an interactive videotex subscription service, originally developed by the Post Office Research Station in the late 1970’s. It looked similar to the free teletext service provided by CEEFAX and ORACLE for suitably equipped UK television sets.
Ederyn and Richard both felt that over time, network services would become cheaper and the true value would be in content, so the decision was made to go into software publishing. In Richard Hooper’s own words, he wanted a software publishing business “just like Penguin” – referring to the successful and long-established Penguin Books publishing empire.
This strategy included the creation of a service called Gamestar (pushing downloadable content to modified Sinclair Spectrums through modems), Program Express (a company that created hardware to be installed in shops that would enable customers to buy software via modem links) and the creation of two new companies – TelecomSoft Business and TelecomSoft Entertainment. Both were to become part of BT’s ‘New Information Services’ division.
Out of those new ventures, only TelecomSoft Entertainment ultimately survived. Gamestar was never officially launched, failing because of the slow start-up of cable TV in the UK and the fact that cable systems were not as interactive as BT had hoped. Also, a similar service in the United States (called the ‘Games Network’) failed miserably, persuading the BT hierarchy that Gamestar wasn’t worth pursuing. TelecomSoft Business officially lasted until 1987 (see the 1987 organogram above) before disappearing, leaving just the entertainment division to be the definitive ‘TelecomSoft’!
The contracts that TelecomSoft continued to use clung on to the idea of digital software distribution via cable. In the end, that was the only link to BT’s mainstream business.
James Leavey was working for the Post Office’s Data Processing Executive and was assistant editor of their in-house magazine ‘Database’. He was also the Post Office’s official film and art critic and had regular columns in a raft of other publications connected to BT and the Civil Service.
In late 1983, Dave Laycock read one of James’ articles and rang him to ask if he would put a piece in ‘Database’ magazine, inviting games testers for Gamestar. James signed up immediately and was sent a load of early Spectrum computer games which he tested with his young family. This was followed by James being invited to Dave Laycock’s office to meet Trevor Havelock. The meeting concluded with James being offered the job of PR and Marketing Manager for a new venture. Although he didn’t know it at the time, James was TelecomSoft Entertainment’s first official employee.
Recruited on a temporary promotion in July 1984, James was immediately sent on a course to learn more about marketing. Meanwhile, Micro Gold owner (and coder of their game ‘Run Baby Run‘) Tony Rainbird was approached by Dr Ederyn Williams and offered the job of starting TelecomSoft on the proviso that someone would assume full control further down the road.
Attention quickly turned to finding an identity for TelecomSoft’s publishing label. About thirty names were considered, with ‘Firefly’ emerging as the winner. Soon afterwards, a full-page Firefly Software advert was published in a number of computer magazines promising to explain ‘HOW TO TURN YOUR SOFTWARE INTO HARD CASH’.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before BT received various complaints relating to the Firefly name. James Leavey had just returned from his training when he discovered that the name Firefly Software was already registered. An emergency meeting was quickly convened, and assuming that the ‘fire’ bit of the name was important, they brainstormed for alternatives. James Leavey suggested Firebird, simply because he’d been listening to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite earlier that day.
Steps were immediately taken to register the name and get a logo, designed by Terry Finnegan, Creative Director at graphic design company Simonson Finnegan Ltd. What Terry came up with was bright, bold and striking and was accepted without any alterations. The classic red Firebird logo with the outstretched wings would have a few tweaks as the brand changed during its six-year life, but otherwise it remained pretty much untouched.
Terry went on to design all of the initial Firebird layout and artwork for TelecomSoft and worked on some of the other publishing labels that emerged later.
There was a huge response to the original Firefly advert. Tony and James were determined to find twenty games to launch in time for Christmas that year. To help, James even drafted in his children and their friends to evaluate some of the games that were sent in.
Whilst the game selection process was in its early stages, marketing consultant Theresa Jackson recommended two labels, with a ‘Gold’ range retailing at £5.95 and a ‘Silver’ Range aimed at the budget price of £2.50.
With their launch titles ready, James and Tony took samples directly to the distributors. The quality of the games, the pricing structure, the trust associated with the Post Office and the BT flotation generated huge interest.
The titles shown below were chosen for Firebird’s launch. They covered a variety of formats, including 16k/48k Spectrums, the Commodore 64, the Commodore Vic 20 and the BBC Model B.
The first batch released in early November 1984 included The Wild Bunch (Sinclair ZX Spectrum), Booty (Commodore 64) and Bird Strike (BBC Micro). These three were rapidly followed by the remaining titles over the next few weeks.
The early Firebird adverts used ‘Seeing is believing’ as part of the campaign. This reflected the decision to go with screenshots on the inlay covers, as BT’s Richard Hooper explained in an early Firebird press release.
You can now judge a game by its cover. In a market where quality and prices tend to be variable and complaints of misrepresentation frequent, Firebird is setting new standards.
Of course, as the market matured, Firebird switched to using artwork on the inlays like everyone else, but at least the original intention was sincere!
Firebird’s crucial first couple of months saw them rack up sales of over 250,000 units without the aid of a Sales Manager. All of the hard work put in by James Leavey, Tony Rainbird and the rest of TelecomSoft paid off, but that was just the start.