Bitmap Books celebrates 10th anniversary 1
The NEOGEO: A Visual History team, from left to right: Frazer Rhodes (writing & design), Chris Daw (photography), Sam Dyer (designer & publisher), Steve Jarratt (editor) — Image: Frazer Rhodes

On Friday, March 15th 2024, at Four Quarters Arcade bar in Bristol, Sam Dyer of Bitmap Books played host to a fantastic party celebrating his publishing company's 10th anniversary.

Contributors from across its range of books were invited, with around 50 of the UK's leading journalists and some industry figures showing up. These included artist Ste Pickford, developer turned author Stuart Maine (I'm Too Young to Die), veteran journalists Steve Jarrat (EDGE) and Matt Bielby (Super Play), Frank Gasking (Games That Weren't), Chris Wilkins and co of Fusion Retro Books, Graeme Mason (The Guardian), Paul Monaghan (Pixel Addict), and numerous others. Your author was there, having contributed to the NES, SNES, Master System, and unreleased Mega Drive books from the publisher.

As Sam Dyer explained: "March marks 10 years of Bitmap Books. I wanted to celebrate this milestone by getting all the people who have helped along the way in a room together for a few drinks. My way of saying thank you."

Bitmap Books celebrates 10th anniversary 1
John Szczepaniak (hey, that's me! I'm on the left) with the legendary Ste Pickford (right) — Image: John Szczepaniak

It was well worth the four-hour car odyssey; Bristol is a beautiful city, replete with fascinating landmarks, unique street art, fine drinking establishments, and a dedicated indie retro store. The Four Quarters Arcade Bar was the perfect venue, providing food, game-themed cocktails, and an assortment of classic arcade machines. Sam's generosity was also abundant, with a free bar tab, food, and access to all the machines. (By the end of the night there were still stacks of gourmet pizza for anyone to partake). Your author made it a personal goal to sample all 7 of those game-related cocktails. For research, naturally. (By closing time at 01:00, I'd managed 5 of the 7; I will aim to do better next time, I promise.)

Given the jovial atmosphere, there was naturally a lot of pub banter on various projects, past and present, and as the evening progressed, the topics delved ever deeper into NDA-protected territory. The challenge, as a journalist, is immersing oneself in these fascinating anecdotes while resisting the urge to document them.

For example, finally meeting Ste Pickford having only conversed via email previously. It was an honour and a pleasure, and given his long career in games, he had so many stories to share. Hilarious anecdotes regarding the unreleased Waterworld game. Various aspects of pixel art and the evolution of technology (in the early days, there were no set rules – everyone had their own bespoke methods). Working on Nintendo, Sega, and Sony platforms. An incredible story of a colleague getting to grips with PlayStation 2 architecture (for Aqua Aqua) and how, when the offices were broken into, the dev kit was so huge it was moved but ultimately left behind by whoever had gotten in. Plus numerous other events I probably can't repeat.

As one stands there, transfixed and amazed by all of these accounts, there's a certain feeling of anxiety as all this wisdom, the knowledge, these experiences are being heard but ultimately are disappearing into the ether, thereafter existing only in the listener's memories. Impermanent. Almost like tears in the rain. Ste had expressed a desire to look to the future, not dwell on the past, and is currently working with his brother John on new projects. This is commendable and exciting. But we also hope that perhaps someday Time Extension can sit down with him and preserve these memories – and also scan the life sketch of the office he mentioned. That's a piece of history, showing the environment where the games we love formed. It all has value.

A lot of other interesting topics came up when chatting with everyone, to the point where we didn't play on a single arcade game. In fact, as best can be remembered, there wasn't much playing done by anyone there. This was too good an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet heroes for the first time.

It's just a shame some of the things said at Four Quarters have to stay at Four Quarters. But, you may be interested to know...

Stuart Maine worked on several unreleased games during his career and has been looking for a way to preserve them. For example, Andy McNab's Team SAS for the original Xbox. As he explained, a team of around 20 people spent three years working on that, only for it to be unreleased. That's basically 60 people-years wasted. He'd also explained it had an interesting feature where you could set all the multiplayer participants as bots, and just watch them duke it out. Given the planned release in 2003, is this the first example of such a feature?

Alongside this, Stuart also had the unreleased GameCube version of Go! Go! Beckham!, and one other title. All three of which were handed to Frank Gasking, one of the leading experts in unreleased games. I insisted both gentlemen pose for a historic photo of this handover. There's a powerful underground black market of collectors who buy up unreleased games to hide in their private collections, and so both gentlemen should be commended for wishing to preserve and ultimately share with the public such treasures. Keep an eye on social media – there was talk that perhaps the burned discs had succumbed to bitrot. We hope not.

Bitmap Books celebrates 10th anniversary 1
Stuart Maine and Frank Gasking performing "the hand over" — Image: John Szczepaniak

Given the number of industry insiders present, not just writers, there was also gossip and chat regarding various developer secrets and hot gossip rumours. We were asked not to disclose these, even anonymously, but they've been noted down for the future. (Just in case.)

There was also a lot of talk on future books from Bitmap. Your author is collaborating on one, though it's yet to be announced. Stuart is working on a second FPS book, plus another top-secret project. Frank Gasking, too, has another book in the works. Sam also chatted about the upcoming Run 'n' Gun and football books, due this year. There was, of course, also talk of the unreleased Mega Drive book. There honestly isn't much to add beyond the official statement, and everyone involved expressed a sense of disappointment at the cancellation. It was also interesting to hear Sam describe the challenges of publishing internationally, not to mention the time and effort invested in finding the perfect packaging solution so books aren't damaged in transit.

Speaking personally it was great to meet Sam after all these years, having only known him as an invisible patron, emailing to ask me to contribute to various projects. The third and final volume of my own Untold History series was completed in part thanks to Sam licensing my work, and for that, I will be forever grateful.

There's something wonderful about the fact a small independent British publisher can bring together such an eclectic and diverse cast of international contributors. Other contributors include Richard Moss in Australia, author of The Secret History of Mac Gaming, and Kurt Kalata in America, author of A Guide to Japanese Role-Playing Games. (Kurt actually mentioned he very almost arranged a holiday in England to attend, but commitments prevented it – next time!)

We'll finish by letting Sam describe the evolution of his decade-long venture.

Bitmap was initially created as a side-project, around my full-time job. Something to get my creative juices flowing away from my 9-5. In 2017, I took the decision to leave my day job, and do Bitmap part-time, around other freelance work. When covid hit, my freelance work pretty much stopped overnight, so I was forced into committing 100% of my time into Bitmap. This was a scary situation because I was concerned that once something becomes your 'job', there's a danger that it loses the excitement. This hasn't been the case, and I still love running Bitmap Books, and am full of energy and enthusiasm for what the future holds. It also feels right to mention my long suffering wife, Sally Dyer, who has put up with the ups and downs, piles of books in our home, and me not being around as much as I should be. Here's to the next 10 years!

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