While it is universally recognized that games are not a “boys only” club, especially nowadays, it is difficult to deny an originally predominant male presence. Today, the situation is – fortunately – quite different, so much so that in certain countries, female gamers are quite more numerous than their male counterpart. Thus, it is important to remember the essential contribution of woman developers such as Roberta Williams and Carol Shaw (or others less celebrated, like Kathy Higby).
In Italy, well, history was quite different. Traditionally, there have been no important women developers, even though one of the very first adventure games, Avventura nel Castello for Apple II, was co-developed by Laura Tovena, her first and last unfortunately. But, in the Eighties, there was one important woman working in the industry, one who had quite an essential role in shaping the publishing and distributing of games in Italy. I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Laura Maestri of Lago Soft Mail about her experience in the business.
Laura's first steps in the industry
Laura describes herself as a lover of electronic and video games ever since a young age, so much so that the decision to create, together with her former husband Ugo Gradolini, the Lago publishing/distribution company felt natural. They saw the rapidly expanding market for software and games for home computer and decided to get in on the business. The company was originally founded in 1984, distributing software and hardware to customers and companies, a business that – Laura recalls – quickly went under because of difficult relationships with shops.
Laura mentions how Lago seemed to have much less problems interacting with big chains, rather than smaller shops. “They seemed to often complain about not being able to sell the goods they ordered from us. So much so that, many times, they would just not pay what they owed us altogether.” These negative experiences would convince the two owners to transform Lago into a mail order distribution company, pretty soon after 1984.
Among the first software houses that Maestri remembers getting in touch with, were Beyond Software and Amtex. “We made a quite long trip to the United Kingdom, to go and meet those people working in software houses. Some of them were in some quite absurd places, small country cottages, with ducks and chickens all around… you really got the feeling they were creating something completely new!” she remembers.
Among the titles published in Italy, Maestri remembers quite well the huge success of Dragon’s Lair for home computer: “that was definitely our top seller, at least the one that I remember being the smash hit in our years in Lago. People were so anxious to get their hands on it that, when they told us the game would be 2-3 months late, people started calling desperately our office all day!”
Lago managed to get an exclusive Italian distribution agreement with the original Canadian company which published the game, ReadySoft. Among other things, Lago was – for several years – the official distributor of Electronic Arts games in Italy, only to then be replaced by C.T.O. by the end of the 80s.
Surviving the pirates
Between 1985 and 1986, Lago Soft Mail was born: a huge catalogue that people could order from, published on all magazines of the time. “It was a business which evolved very quickly” explains Laura “by the end of the Eighties, we were the third biggest publisher in Italy, despite us being quite the small company! It was just me, my former husband, a warehouse worker and a couple of secretaries who would answer the phone. It was a small business but well organized for sure. I would take care of all PR, customer relations and, naturally, finding new games to publish for our catalogue.”
The Italian market, of course, had one quite peculiar characteristic as opposed to that of many other countries: the infamous “legal piracy“. Did Lago had issues with pirates? Yes, answers Laura with no hesitation. “The simple fact that anyone could reproduce games without much legal risk, to us it felt like a problem that we could not solve. It felt really like going to battle against huge dragons. People wanted their games as soon as possible and, in that regard, beating piracy was impossible, since games were just something you bought for fun. Still, we had customers who liked buying original titles, the pirates did not manage to defeat us!”
Laura also remembers some legal issues, “together with Leader and John Holder, we also tried to sue a company that had sold the SEUCK (Shoot Em Up Construction Kit for Commodore 64). We were the only company who could distribute it in Italy. Even what should have been a simple legal issue to solve, was a huge failure and a waste of time and money (for the laywers). Surviving as a publisher of original games, back in the 80s in Italy, was a real challenge.”
Lago and games made in Italy
Along with distributing software made in the UK, in 1986 Lago was among the first companies to distribute a game made in Italy. It was the quite obscure semi-textual adventure 2030 Radio Killers for Atari 8 bit, developed by Doriano Benaglia, who would soon become the founder of publisher Lindasoft. The game took place in the near future, where the player was tasked with uncovering a plot against private radio stations. It got positive reviews, but it definitely does not seem the game sold very well. Luckily, the game has been recently recovered and released by Atarimania.
Still, the graphic adventure would not be the end of Lago’s experience in distributing games made in Italy. By the beginning of the Nineties, Lago would publish another two games developed by Paolo Pobbiati, vice president of Amnesty International. Laura remembers them quite well “it was a very interesting experience, RAI [Italian’s national TV service] also got interested because of how well they were made and how realistic these games felt.”
Pobbiati made the first game, Guerrilla in Bolivia, in 1991 after researching the Bolivian war and also visiting the country, immersing himself in studying history and the culture. The game was also published in the UK, among a selection of few early Italian games to be published abroad with a full English translation. Canton, in 1992, would be the second and last game published by Lago and developed by Pobbiati, a strategic game which took place in ancient China. Both games did not seem to sell very well, probably because of a limited market segment for such detailed strategic games which required reading the manual and learning how the game worked.
A woman working in the industry
What about the role of being the first woman to actually work in the industry in Italy? Laura laughs and does mention how, in her years working in the business, did not really see many other women. “I really felt like I was sticking out, and I think this also translated in how I would handle business,” comments Laura. “The other women I met, the few I remember meeting, were mostly just secretaries or assistants, except for one who worked at Electronic Arts. But the few I met were quite fantastic! Spending those years working with people was how I ended up choosing my current work, which is in communications.”
Were there any difference in how she felt treated? “I don’t remember any particular cases where I was treated differently for being a woman,” Laura says. Naturally the men she worked with did treat Laura quite differently from other men, but she mentions she always felt respected, especially after they got to know each other and could work together without any issues.
But, Laura continues, there were still some issues here and there. “I remember in particular, problems with Japan. Since we usually exchanged emails with the Japanese publishers, usually signed with the name of my business partner, they thought they were dealing with a man. When they saw me at a gaming fair, well, needless to say they were quite shocked and mentioned they did not want to do business with us anymore. In the end, they had to cave in though!”
Taking flight: the expansion packs
By the mid 90s, the market for games started changing quite fast, becoming much more complex and expensive than before, there was definitely not much space for smaller companies. Lago decides to undergo a transformation, as Maestri remembers a great period of success in developing and publishing expansions for Flight Simulator. “I think we were surely among the most famous studios in Europe for both the development and publishing of expansions for Microsoft’s simulation game. Italy 2000 was also adopted as an official simulator by various flight academies, and I also remember that Venezia 98 [developed by Paolo Pobbiati, among others] did sell quite well.”
Maestri also mentions that, beyond programming, they worked with quite expert collaborators from all over Europe, such as Andras Kozma and Enrico Stiratti. The publishing of Flight Simulator expansions, also because of the crisis of the mail order market, would quickly become Lago’s core business for the remainder of the decade, supporting the company into 2000.
The end of Lago
Laura also remembers there were positive relationships also with other Italian publishers, such as Leader and Marco Madrigali’s C.T.O. “We did work quite well with Leader, especially”. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, then, that when Lago starts having financial problems, mostly in the early 00s because of the digital market, it got sold to Leader. The Lago brand would survive a couple of years, mostly because Leader used it to promote games released under the Black Bean series (Alfa Romeo Racing), it was then quietly retired in 2003.
After Lago ended, Laura moved on to Empire Interactive where she worked for several years, before joining her current role in communication. Still, she feels she has quite some good memories of that period between the 80s and 90s, “it was a world constantly shifting and it was a pleasure to work in it. Honestly, I never had serious issues working in an industry that was 80% male. Surely, I always tried to also attract more female gamers, also with the selection of games we imported in Lago [such as Monkey Island 2], but I don’t think I had much success with it, unfortunately. Luckily, things have changed in that regard and surely for the better!” she finishes with a smile.