John Holder was the founder of Leader, in 1987, which would go on to be among the major publishers of video games in Italy. But Holder had been working earlier than that, being the first to bring Mastertronic games in Italy and trying to organise a legitimate distribution of software, something that – at least until 1992 – seemed to be very difficult in the country. John would leave the company in 2009, with Leader then closing down in 2012. For the sake of the interview, I was curious to ask him especially about the early years of the Italian gaming market, from 1984 to 1987, along with discussing software piracy, as John was one of its fiercest opponents.
John, how did your relationship with the Italian market first originated?
I was already working in Italy in the early Eighties, doing import and export, while still having my family in the UK. Moving back and forth several times a year, I had noticed how the first generation of consoles (Atari, Intellivision) had created a pretty interesting market in the UK, especially when, later, gamers moved on to home computers. One day, while in a shop in Varese (near Milan), one of the shopkeepers mentioned if, the next time I was in the UK, I could bring back some of those “new and interesting video games”. That’s how it all started: despite many people seeing video games as little more than a fad, I actually thought they were a new revolutionary form of entertainment. No one seemed to really care about that market in Italy, so it was up to me to see what could be done.
Did you get directly in contact with English publishers and software houses?
Yes, I usually bought all the magazines I could find and contacted them directly via their advertisments. Among these early studios, I remember closing agreements with both Quicksilva and Imagine software. Finally, in 1984 I became the official distributor for Mastertronic UK and, after initially only selling games in the area around Varese, pretty soon, through agreements with other sellers and shops, we were covering the whole northern part of the country.
How was the market for video games in Italy in the early eighties?
Since, already in the mid-80s, piracy had become quite a big problem for us, we were forced to think outside of the box. Initially, I thought I could just stick to distributing low budget titles, at a reduced price of 7.000 Italian lire (10 €). Within a few months, I soon realized it had been a mistake to just focus on the low budget tier, especially because this left the whole of the mainstream market to the pirates: they would sell more attractive (mainstream) titles at the same price of our low budget legitimate ones. It just wasn’t going to work.
Thus, you began also distributing other software houses, even though this caused Mastertronic to complain, if I understand correctly?
Yes, we soon began distributing important studios, like Ocean, US Gold, Activision and Domark. By that point, Mastertronic told me: “John, we understand your need to expand your business, but you cannot continue to use our name to distribute our competitors’ products”. Indeed, it was their warning that prompted me to create a new company! It was 1987 and I was racking my brain trying to figure out what to name it. In Italy most people just name companies using the initials of the various stakeholders, but I did not like the idea and wanted something a bit more effective. So I thought: we are actually the leader of the market now. So “Leader” it was, this also forced our competitors to recognize our role as such! (laughs)
Going back to the years of software piracy in full swing, how could you convince the shops to carry legitimate titles and people to buy them?
I remember we had something like five hundred customer shops all over Italy, but we would always sell the same amount : a thousand copies, no more no less. Regardless of the title, the quantity would never change. This, in a way, came to my advantage since it meant I did not have to rack my brain trying to find out which genre would sell best or even the average quality of a title, but then I realized what was happening. Each shop was buying only two copies for a specific reason: one they would leave on the shelf, the other they used to make copies from. The only way we could fight this is by making sure that legitimate games provided a superior overall experience: instruction booklet in Italian and a nice cover art. We also had to convince publishers to stick to sell their games at a low price, no more than 15.000 lire (20€). In the end I think it worked, we managed to convince most shops that carrying the originals was just safer. Or, at least, it seemed to work until the Amiga and the 3 and a half inch floppies came around, from that point on it became a no man’s land.
So, you decided to start suing the companies that were distributing pirated software.
Yes, a choice that – thinking about it now – I deeply regret. I think it would have been better to just wait for the storm to pass, but I was young and inexperienced. Unfortunately we had no way of defending ourselves in court, since the law offered no real protection for our software and games. Naturally, things would get slightly better in the 90s, especially after the 1993 law that specifically protected copyright on software. Still, with some of the companies we sued, we then managed to reach some interesting agreements.
Can you talk a bit about these lawsuits and what happened?
In the lawsuit against Fermont publishing company, we actually managed to reach an agreement, in order to begin publishing a legitimate gaming magazine. At the time, in Italy, there was basically nothing in print form that would be strictly dedicated to gaming, the company clearly needed some kind of advertising space to reach the customers. So I decided to take matters into my hands and get the Zzap! license from Newsfield in the UK and bring over the magazine to Italy, thanks to Roberto Ferri of the Fermont company. I would later also do the same for The Games Machine.
What about the lawsuit against Ital Video? The “legitimate” company of Mario Arioti, of Armati pirate cassettes?
That was a much more complex issue. Basically, Arioti first came to us, proposing that he would make pirated copies of our games and we could split the revenues. Naturally I could not agree to that, I could not even if I would, so instead I tried to make a different agreement: we would buy licenses of games released in the UK and together we would legitimate copies produced by Ital Video. He soon started complaining that he could not compete against the pirates in this way, since they had a much bigger selection, so he backed out after a few months. Then I discovered that Ital Video had actually started duplicating our games and selling them on the market as their own, with a low-quality cover art reproduction and a fake barcode to boot. We tried suing them but, again, the law did not help us and the court dismissed the case outright without even looking at the samples we provided (June 1989, -ed’s note). Ital Video then countersued and, almost thirty years later, actually won and I was forced to pay them damages…
While Leader was the main publisher in the 80s, in the early 90s another challenger would soon come up: C.T. O. founded by Marco Madrigali. While they mainly represented Electronic Arts in the 80s, in the 90s they would get another important player: Lucasarts. But I do know that Lucasarts games (via US Gold) were previously distributed by Leader, what happened?
Curiously enough, Lucasarts had two commercial agents in Italy. By the end of 1989, we had already begun working on the localization and packaging of Loom, but the translation was coming along very slowly. Already, we have had problems with the localization of Zak McKracken, which many people still remember as being – let’s say – far from perfect. In the end, they were supposed to hand it in by the end of November, but by January 1990 we still had no deadline nor they had sent us anything, and they were being very evasive about it. We could not tolerate this any longer, so I decided to write directly to their boss to voice my unhappiness and, instead of replying, he decided to drop Leader and bring Lucasarts to C.T.O. I guess the two agents had his full trust! (the event actually caused Loom to suffer an untimely death on the Italian market, never being officially distributed – ed’s note)
For someone with a clear vision who helped create the video game market in Italy, what would you say are the main differences between the Italian and a much bigger market, like the one in the UK?
Some games that would actually enjoy good success in the UK, could end up being mostly ignored in Italy. A great example would be the wrestling genre, which was all but ignored in the Eighties, and would then go on to enjoy a brief period of popularity in Italy. Then, after 1995, wrestling went back to being ignored. Even compared to the UK, the average Italian user has always been much more interested in home computers, they are a much more “specialized” kind of gamer. There was no real “casual gaming” in Italy either, at least not until the Nintendo Wii debuted. Also, regarding the eighties, if we managed to sell 10k copies of a game, that would have been the best seller of the year, for sure. But there were also exceptions, like for example Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix 2 which managed to sell an astounding 50k.
As mentioned in the article on Nintendo’s marketing in Italy, Leader also distributed some titles for the NES, and later, also on Gameboy. What was going on with Mattel at the time?
Well, with the success of 8-bit consoles, we as publishers of titles were working only on home computers, thus were basically cut off from that console market. Nintendo was running a monopoly together with Mattel, while Sega was doing the same with Giochi Preziosi. At one point, in 1991, I remember I was approached by someone from the UK studio Mindscape who told me that they were not being allowed, by Mattel, to sell their NES games. So, they asked us to try and get them on the market, and we decided to give it a try. But things would not last for long beyond 1992, especially because Mattel was trying to blacklist us with all the toys shops (which was a market we had no experience in) by badmouthing Mindscape: their titles were bad and they should not carry them. With Mega Drive things went a bit better, and we did carry some of Electronic Arts titles late in the life of the 16-bit console, like EA Sports titles (Fifa 96).
Finally, Leader also had a hand in creating an important software house, Idea Software, which would later lead – by the way of his CEO Antonio Farina – to the creation of Graffiti/Milestone.
Yes indeed, I met Antonio Farina at a fair, liked his way of doing things and got him on board to work with my other company, Software Copyright, which was actually originally created for the Ital Video publishing agreement. While the games were being developed with the name Idea Software, it was still Software Copyright the company behind them. Idea would develop several important titles during their first years, up until 1993, some of them were also exported to the US, like Clik Clak. (it was released in the US as Gearworks, the only title developed in Italy to have been released for both a Sega and Nintendo console, the Game Gear and Game Boy – ed’s note)