Scotland’s digital revolution began in a gloomy corner of the Kingsway Technical College, better known to Dundonians as “The Kingsway Tech”.
It was there, in 1984, that four slightly nerdy young men — Dave Jones, Mike Dailly, Russell Kay and Steve Hammond — started frequenting the less than glamorous sounding KACC, the Kingsway Amateur Computer Club. The ZX Spectrum computers they used were part of the fabric of the city — the Sinclair-made models were made at the old Timex plant and more than a few were appropriated for home use by enterprising workers.
After three years, during which the KACC sipped cans of Top Deck shandy while experimenting with programming, the friends formed an independent computer games company. DMA Design started life in a tiny office, lent to them by the owner of the adjacent Deep Sea fish and chip restaurant, in the city’s Perth Road.
It was there, above The Gooseberry Bush baby shop, that the quartet gave birth to Lemmings; the game that would change their lives for ever.
One day, Dailly used his lunch hour to create a screen of tiny creatures marching helplessly to their doom. Some were squashed under a ten-ton weight, while others paraded into the gaping maw of a fang-toothed beast.
He recalled: “It was actually Russell [Kay] that first laughed and said: ‘There’s a game in that.’ It was also Russell that coined the phrase Lemmings when talking about these little guys.”
His fellow DMA founder Dave says it was the game’s originality that turned it into a global sensation. “In a world dominated by killing stuff, it definitely flipped the tables. I didn’t know if it was going to be good or not but I knew it was different.”
Lemmings was released on Valentine’s Day 1991 with the disclaimer: “We are not responsible for: Loss of sanity. Loss of Sleep. Loss of Hair.”
The fiendishly addictive game, where the object is to save dozens of tiny disaster-prone characters, sold an astonishing 15 million copies between 1991 to 2006. More than 50,000 copies were bought on the first day alone. The game spawned 25 different versions and generated more than £1.5 million within 18 months.
The irresistible march of the Lemmings cemented Scotland’s status as a hub of darkly irreverent creative excellence in a brand new art form. It gave pride back to a city that had been battered by decades of industrial decline and, occasionally, murky municipal misrule.
Success allowed the team to start work on their long-term project of creating a virtual 3D city. Their vision, dreamt up in the city of jute, jam, journalism (and joysticks), became Grand Theft Auto, the controversial, record-shattering games behemoth that has sold more than 220 million copies around the world.
DMA is now the mighty Rockstar North, which, after leaving its home city in 1999, is based in the former Scotsman headquarters near the Holyrood parliament in Edinburgh.
Almost quarter of a century after the launch of Lemmings, the game is celebrated in public art in the city of its birth. At about the midway point in the Perth Road, opposite the main campus of Dundee University, you can spot three curious creatures clambering over a stone pillar above the city’s Digital Media Park.
To the uninitiated they might appear to be a trio of whimsical aliens, or tousle-haired trolls, but to tens of millions of computer games enthusiasts, from Stromness to Rotorua, they are unmistakably Lemmings.