Beyond Machina: Mel Croucher’s Duracell Bunny years

When I turned my back on Deus Ex Machina in 1985, I thought all I had to do was wait a couple of years until technology caught up with what had been in my head, so I could recreate it properly. I was wrong. Instead, I had to wait a quarter of a century, first for the internet to be invented, and then for games machines to go portable.

Meanwhile, the mirror declared I had grown old. During that quarter of a century I produced things which were not great innovations, but neither were they a complete waste of time. I suffered from the dreadful compulsion to Do-It-First, and it’s weird how compulsive Do-It-Firsters never learn what a fundamental error it is to pioneer anything. Looking back, it’s clear that the beneficiaries from innovation are developers who wait for the pioneers to cock it all up, extract the essence of success, ditch the crap, and cash in.

In the early 1990s, I produced a video game called Run The Bunny for Duracell. It exploited something new called ‘email’, plus a novel strategy called ‘let’s stick a floppy disc on the cover of a rubbish magazine in a desperate attempt to attract readers’. It also exploited the age-old concept of piracy, where I actively encouraged players to copy the game.

Today, the industry calls this viral marketing; 25 years ago they called it bonkers. I called it fun. Gameplay consisted of shoving virtual batteries up the virtual arses of virtual Duracell pink bunnies. The incentive was that if you copied the game and someone you seeded it to won a prize, then you too would win the same prize. Provided I knew who you were, your email address, what hardware you owned, what hardware you wanted to own, and whose oxen you coveted. I produced Run The Bunny in eleven languages, mounted it on half a million computer magazine covers for ‘free’, and I think it was the first viral marketing campaign to go global. Duracell seemed even more pleased than my bank manager.

The faintly nightmarish Run The Bunny, a combination of 3D maze game and viral ad for Duracell batteries.

Going viral

My favourite viral marketing campaign for a bunch of multinational capitalist bastards involved booze, which was how I squared it with my conscience. One of my clients back then was Bass Breweries, and one of my duties was to encourage students to abandon their studies in favour of the pub. Obviously, Bass had a strategically located pub within puking distance of every university campus, so instead of entertaining the student community with yet more video games, I offered them free beer.

All they had to do was tell me when their next drinking session was going to be and which Bass boozer they were going to inflict themselves on, and there would be a free pint waiting for them behind the bar. Well, that was not quite all they had to do. I also needed their email address and those of a dozen mates, to plague them with future offers. And their mates had to attend the drink-up so Bass could sell them enough beer to recoup the bribe of the freebie.

I launched the campaign in Portsmouth on Saturday 5 October 1996 by emailing every student union in the UK. By Sunday night, I was getting sign-ups from as far away as Christchurch. That’s Christchurch, New Zealand. Hey, this internet thingy had potential. So I got sidetracked applying it to the careers of various superstars by using the web to harness their fans. Most of the superstars I worked with were nuts, apart from the likes of Prince, Eminem, and Frank Zappa, who were genius nuts.

New gods

One morning, a few years after I hit my 60th birthday, I’d got back home from attending yet another funeral, and my dog went out the back yard for a sniff but dropped dead instead. I was not yet dead, but the clock was ticking, and it was time for a reappraisal. It was time to get back into the video games business. That’s what it was. So I decided to reimagine Deus Ex Machina for the 21st century.

Well, you’d think the video games world would have changed beyond recognition in the time since I’d quit, but the only things that had really changed were the numbers. When I started out, there were a few thousand video gamers across the globe. When I came back, there were a billion of the little monkeys. Before I quit, I was trying to sell products at a premium price. Then when I wanted to return, most games seemed to be free. But guess what, I wasn’t in the slightest bit surprised to discover the games themselves were still nothing more than a load of chess, dice, ping-pong, and bullshit. The graphics were great, though.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Deus Ex Machina returned in 2013, and it was just as surreal as ever.

There had been the little matter of a mainstream game released in June 2000 by Eidos, the software company founded by another old fart of a UK games veteran, the sainted Ian Livingstone. His company’s title was voted the ‘best PC game of all time’ and it sold more than a million copies, netting a fortune.

It was called Deus Ex, and no sooner had it been released than I was asked by an eager member of the legal profession if I was going to sue them for trading on the name, goodwill, and legacy of Deus Ex Machina. I was not. A legal spat would have generated some great publicity, of course, but I had absolutely nothing to publicise. Besides, I would almost certainly have lost. The name of their game was undeniably a truncated version of mine, but their theme was the usual malarkey of kill or be killed, which could hardly be confused with my hobby-horse of non-violence.

Spookily, Ian Livingstone quit Eidos in September 2013 after 20 years at the helm, the week that preview copies of my remake of Deus Ex Machina were loosed into the wild. A bizarre coincidence.

Another bizarre coincidence was the key image used in the marketing of their Deus Ex. Like the cover of my Deus Ex Machina, it was in dark monochrome and featured a solitary face with surrounding hints of a dystopian world, but whereas my artwork had narrow beams of light coming out of one machine, their artwork had narrow beams of light coming out of several machines. Well, sod that. This time around I resolved to wheedle and bribe the greatest actors on the planet, an enormous symphony orchestra, massed celestial choirs, rock legends, plus a programmer or two, and I resolved to make the definitive interactive movie. What’s more, I resolved to do it all with other people’s money. Which is exactly what I did. But that’s another story.

Another piece of mid-nineties viral marketing from Mr. Croucher, this time for Nestle’s KitKat.

Break time

Another of my viral marketing games was called Take A Break, for the two-fingered chocolate-mongers at KitKat. Essentially, groups of office workers would stare at a dopey screensaver of a branded planet Earth. As the planet revolved, cities appeared as illuminated beacons, and the idea was for these office workers to eat a whole load of KitKats in order to win a world trip to all the cities they had identified. Again, it was based on the “please pirate me and pass me on” viral principle, and I probably bankrupted several essential corporates due to non-productivity.

You can read the earlier parts of Mel Croucher’s series here:

Part 1: Automata and the birth of the UK games industry

Part 2: How to grow a raspberry Pi

Part 3: How I made Deus Ex Machina

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