Meet Read-Only Memory, the book publisher celebrating videogame culture’s rich heritage

Read Only Memory

Read-Only Memory’s second title, a Mega Drive retrospective, is set for publication in June.

Videogaming’s rich history isn’t quite matched by the industry’s ability to record and reflect upon its achievements; attempts to preserve our heritage exist, but they’re scattershot and far from comprehensive.

A vital thirst for what’s next and the extraordinary technological advancements of the past forty years has left old hardware and software outdated, ignored and ultimately discarded at a staggering rate. Videogame museums will continue to claw back some of that history, restoring old computers, consoles, cartridges and discs to their former glories, but what of their cultural impact, and the tales to be told of their creation?

Enter Read-Only Memory, the book publisher delving into the past to celebrate videogaming’s achievements through a new line of luxurious coffee-table books. It is the brainchild of founder and director Darren Wall, a former designer at Faber & Faber and Simon & Schuster who had been itching to record the industry’s achievements for years.

“I wanted to document and showcase the best games, developers and publishers in the same way that Phaidon or Taschen might do with an artist or architect,” Wall tells us. “I’d shopped the idea around a few of the big British publishing houses without any luck, so I decided to try and do it myself – my background is in publishing so I had some grounding in how to make it all happen. All that being said, I honestly had no idea how to raise the not-inconsiderable sums required to start a publishing company – it was all a bit ‘Field of Dreams’ for a while to be honest.”

The official book documenting Sensible Software’s storied past was put together with the studio’s co-founder Jon Hare.

Like so many in game development, it was the spectacular amount raised for what was then known as Double Fine Adventure through Kickstarter that first alerted Wall to the idea of crowdfunding. Around the same time, he’d been speaking to Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare about making a book celebrating the UK studio’s work, and they agreed that Kickstarter would be a neat way to gauge demand for a retrospective. It went on to raise $39,493 (£23,630) and work began on the book in earnest with Hare instrumental in its creation, offering up game design documentation and contacts for ex-staff members and relevant industry figures from the time. They enlisted veteran game journalist-turned developer Gary Penn to write the tome, and took a “Sensible Software approach” to the book’s design, says Wall – “something deliberately unconventional”. Game imagery was kept in a separate section to the text, design documents and photographs within and the intention was to balance a slick aesthetic with proper insight into Sensible Software’s history, its motivations and, ultimately, its demise.

“For the later parts of the book – covering Sensible’s failure to grow beyond 16-bit – Gary flew down from Scotland and stayed at Jon’s house in Essex for several red wine-fuelled reminiscence sessions, unearthing memories that had hitherto been locked away in their collective subconscious,” says Wall.

Sensible staffers contributed alongside Bitmap Brothers co-founder Mike Montgomery, Gary Bracey, Peter Molyneux, David Darling, Stuart Campbell and Dominik Diamond to recapture the spirit of the age, and its release spurred Wall onwards to begin his next project: a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis retrospective with a similarly reverential coffee table aesthetic.

“We actually spoke to Sega about producing a documentary title on the Mega Drive during the Sensible Kickstarter campaign,” says Wall. “They’d seen what we were doing and asked us to pitch on a book for them. The Mega Drive seemed like an obvious choice – Sega was at the height of its powers at the time and the console was host to so many groundbreaking titles. They liked the idea and we started the research process with Sega of Japan shortly afterwards.”

A scene from Streets Of Rage’s design document, part of Read-Only Memory’s Sega Mega Drive/Genesis retrospective.

Written by The Guardian’s games editor Keith Stuart, it’ll include over 20 interviews with figures from Sega’s golden era, including Yu Suzuki and Yuji Naka, plus a foreword written by former Shiny founder (and current Gaikai boss) Dave Perry. It smashed its Kickstarter £30,000 funding target, raising £98,725, transforming scope of the book. On top of increasing the page count and bumping up its production values a little further, access to Sega became easier, too. “Within days of launching the campaign I was swamped with messages from passionate ex-Sega employees, offering to put us in touch with big names like Hayao Nakayama, Tom Kalinske and Shinobu Toyoda,” says Wall. “David Rosen even pledged for a special edition book and kindly got in touch to offer his assistance.”

After Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works’ publication in June this year, Read-Only Memory aims to publish its third title without relying on Kickstarter. “It would free up a lot of time to get on with actually making the books themselves,” says Wall. “Ultimately, we are striving to move beyond crowdfunding, but we wouldn’t rule it out entirely for future projects. The exciting thing is that we don’t need to exclusively depend on it any more.”

Wall is already in dialogue with a number of companies and writers for book three, his ‘field of dreams’ vision having become reality. “Our primary focus in the next few years will be to build up a really strong lineup of titles on subjects we’re really passionate about,” he adds. “We’re also working on a few slightly unusual things which I hope we’ll be able to announce soon.”