At the age of eleven, most boys are into video games. The same was true for me, but in addition to playing them, I was interested in everything about them – programming, design and even distribution. For a few months I was convinced that being a video game tester was the best job ever, until I realised that future career prospects were not exactly impressive.
Growing up in Russia, computer games were passed around on tattered floppies. Sometimes files were missing, sometimes there would be two games mixed together, and almost always there would be no instructions and a strange file with details of a password. It was only when I came to the UK that I realised that these games were meant to be sold in shops in a colourful box. The concept of paying thirty pounds for something that was always free seemed strange.
The introduction of digital CDs as a form of storage led to what can only be described as a paradigm shift in the industry – the ability to store almost a thousand times as much data as on the previous medium, the floppy disk, meant that designers could create large amazing worlds which it would now be possible to deliver to the consumer. But in making that shift, another industry suddenly found itself in trouble. CDs were a read only medium of data storage, and copying them was at the time completely impossible.
It was around 1995, when I was eleven, that the first commercial CD writers were released. They were aimed at businesses which needed to back-up large amounts of data, and being a brand new piece of technology they were very expensive. Games, however, were expensive too, and at my school almost everyone was buying them. A business plan formed in my head, based on an innocent lack of understanding of copyright and licencing. The CD writer would pay for itself if I could only sell twenty games at half the price of the official version.
I realised I would need partners to increase the network of friends I could market my product to, so I brought in my two best friends, Nick and Zeno. Without any specific business knowledge, and being very excited about the venture, I opened Word 95 and knocked up a contract to explain what we were doing, and to determine how we would split profits between the three of us. It also included a very basic non-disclosure clause. “I agree to not tell my parents about this company”, it read.
I printed three copies of this contract and brought them into school the next day. All three of us signed each copy and took one home to keep. Motivated, we moved on to choosing the first game that we would sell, and preparing marketing materials.
The next day, I was called into the principal’s office, and duly told that what I was trying to do was illegal and that if I continued to do it on school property I would be expelled immediately. Zeno had shown the document to his mother, who – as I had expected, hence the non-disclosure clause – had freaked out and immediately called the school. And so ended my foray into computer game distribution.
Since then, I have never trusted non-disclosure agreements, I have always chosen my business partners carefully, and most importantly, I have always fully researched every business idea to ensure that it was 100% legal.