Dominic Wheatley: My 'Eureka' moment in computer gaming

Knowing little about computer games but having a keen eye for the next big thing, Dominic Wheatley set up his computer games business - Domark - from scratch in 1984. Luckily for him the gaming industry was about to take off.

It was 1984. Dominic Wheatley, then 24, had returned home to spend Christmas with his family. "My little brother's present was a console and he spent the holiday glued to the machine." Wheatley realised that "computer entertainment was about to become a big industry". When he returned to his advertising job in London, he and a colleague, Mark Strachan, agreed to start a computer games publishing company. They worked on their business plan at lunch times and then approached the banks. "I think banks were more eager to lend to small businesses back then." Between the banks, friends and family, the pair secured start-up capital for their new firm Domark.

Accepting that they did "not know that much about computers", they outsourced the design of the first game and "focused on the marketing". Thanks to cheap designers in Hungary, 'Eureka' was developed for £50,000. The mystery puzzle game was played on early home computers, such as the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum. They offered a £25,000 prize for the first person to complete Eureka in its first year and spent tens of thousands more on full-page advertisements in the national press.

The prize was eventually claimed by a teenage gamer. By then Eureka had covered its costs with "decent sales of about 15,000 cassettes". Domark quickly released two more games. These did less well, however, and the pair realised that in a "more competitive" market they couldn't rely on advertising alone.

They decided to refocus on converting successful board game Trivial Pursuit into a computer game. They also switched to UK programmers to "keep a close eye on how the software was developing". Trivial Pursuit was released in 1986 and proved a big hit. Domark used the cash to buy licences for successful franchises, such as James Bond. A string of games linked to Bond films followed during the 1980s. "Working off an established title worked well for us. It meant that we could get a push from the hype surrounding a film." Domark also started buying up the licences for popular arcade games, which they then converted for the PC market. This highly successful tactic allowed Domark to beef up its in-house programming team. "It was nice finally to be able to develop our own games."

But the industry was already changing fast. New manufacturers, such as Nintendo, were carving up the games console market. Brands such as Commodore suddenly fell out of favour. "One of our biggest challenges was to pick the right platform. There was no point making a game if no one bought the machine that played it." Nonetheless, by 1994 Domark was selling £11m worth of games a year. With interest in the city "picking up", Domark went public via a reverse takeover of Eidos a listed software company. The new firm then snapped up smaller competitors. "Computer gaming had undergone a revolution. When we started, maybe one kid in the playground had a console. By 1995, they all did."

Wheatley served as CEO of Eidos until 1997, before "taking a sabbatical". His latest venture, SocialGO, sells social network software. "People think social media is big now, but we are just at the tip of the iceberg. It is going to be massive."

Recommended

Larry Fink: the undisputed king of Wall Street
People

Larry Fink: the undisputed king of Wall Street

Larry Fink survived two big financial crises and went on to build a massive asset manager, doing for investing what Henry Ford did for cars. He has hi…
23 Oct 2021
Bernard Tapie: the man with a thousand lives
People

Bernard Tapie: the man with a thousand lives

Bernard Tapie, who has died aged 78, was a colourful French entrepreneur, star of screen and stage, politician, sports icon, press baron and convicted…
10 Oct 2021
Xu Jiayin: the tycoon behind Evergrande
People

Xu Jiayin: the tycoon behind Evergrande

Xu Jiayin became a wheeler-dealer in China’s muddled transition to capitalism and his connections helped him to enormous riches. Now, he seems to have…
2 Oct 2021
The legacy of Angela Merkel
People

The legacy of Angela Merkel

German leader Angela Merkel is leaving office to spend more time with her family after 16 years at the helm. But what has she got to show for it?
1 Oct 2021

Most Popular

Properties for sale for around £1m
Houses for sale

Properties for sale for around £1m

From a stone-built farmhouse in the Snowdonia National Park, to a Victorian terraced house close to London’s Regent’s Canal, eight of the best propert…
15 Oct 2021
How to invest as we move to a hydrogen economy
Energy

How to invest as we move to a hydrogen economy

The government has started to roll out its plans for switching us over from fossil fuels to hydrogen and renewable energy. Should investors buy in? St…
8 Oct 2021
Emerging markets: the Brics never lived up to their promise – but is now the time to buy?
Emerging markets

Emerging markets: the Brics never lived up to their promise – but is now the time to buy?

Twenty years ago hopes were high for Brazil, Russia, India and China – the “Brics” emerging-market economies. But only China has beaten expectations. …
18 Oct 2021