Thunderbolt logo

Thunderbolt – an updated illustrated history

Today is Thunderbolt’s seventh birthday and like every year, it gives us an excuse to let nostalgia get the better of us and go back in time to see what Thunderbolt used to be like. We’ve got some logos, pages and prototypes from Version 1 all the way up to the present day. The first few versions aren’t quite functional and have a lot of image errors, but hopefully you’ll get an impression of what it was like back then. So this is our historical record, charting our rise from an embryonic state to the site we are today, which you’ll hopefully find informative and amusing. Just wait until you see Version 1!

The early days – Versions 1 and 2

It all started back in the Autumn of 2000, when I started to experiment with Microsoft FrontPage Express. I put together a site and on 20th November 2000, Thunderbolt Version 1 went online. The first, yellow Thunderbolt was my first website and covered films, games, phones and websites. It had reviews on all of these subjects, but soon the content was solely gaming related. The review submission form was one of the better parts of the site, as much of the design was inconsistent. Quite good for a first website I thought though!

Sure, it looks terrible when you compare it with the current site, but back then I had little skill in web design (that should be obvious!). Anyway, towards the end of 2000, Version 2 was launched, but was merely an updated version of the first one. It had a news section and a new front page, but not much had changed since the previous instalment. There was a small section full of humorous pictures, which was one of the smaller improvements.

Version 2 prototype

Version 2 – link mania!

To be honest, it wasn’t that different from the first one – only the front page changed, design-wise. Still, it was a step forward. Around this time, I started to update the site a bit more, maybe once every 2 or 3 days. Even though I was a bit more committed to the site, it was still little more than an experiment.

Version 3 and the arrival of other staff members

In the spring of 2001, I went back to the drawing board and decided to overhaul the whole site. I had just started to use the full version of FrontPage, giving me more freedom and flexibility. The result was Version 3, which was far better to the 2 previous versions. It had consistent design, better reviews, downloads, the news was updated regularly and it just looked and felt like a decent website.

Version 3 – don’t ask about the surfer…

By the way, the centre column on the screenshot you see was used for news, which was updated every couple of days. Version 3 was the first time that I thought it might become something more than an experiment. What triggered it was two guys, Jim and James, who contacted me on the same day about writing for the site. Their arrival gave me confidence and spurred on the creation of a new version of the site.

Versions 4 and 5 – Thunderbolt gains momentum

Version 4 prototype – very basic!

Another Version 4 prototype – looked good but wasn’t very stable or practical

Version 4 – a whole load of orangeness!

I had just acquired the forums, as the owner was re-focusing his efforts towards, which is our current host. I decided to launch the new version and change host simultaneously. The humour and download sections were dropped and the news would be updated daily. On October 1st 2002, Version 4 was launched. The new orange and white colour scheme was, in my opinion, better than the dull colour scheme of Version 3. Another addition – news and preview submission – was added after launch to the site.

A proper counter was installed on the site and it tracked a whole host of data. I noticed that the site traffic was starting to rise and the major search engines were starting to pick Thunderbolt up. There was also an influx of staff, with numbers reaching around 6-8 towards the end of Version 4’s life. I was getting more and more committed towards the site at this point, spending time every day updating it and adding content.

Compared to Version 1, Version 4 was far more advanced, but was still written in the same language. Html was the only language I’d ever used and it stayed that way for the first two years. However, in early 2003, a friend suggested changing the structure of the site, and we proceeded to making a version of the site which looked like Version 4, but database driven. The new version was christened Version 4.5 and we aimed to complete it by March 2003.

Version 4.5 prototype – the site that never was

So we started working on it, my friend writing the php code while I entered content into the database. We got it to the point where a few of the pages were fully working, but then fate struck and stopped development. My friend’s hard drive which all of Version 4.5 was on, broke. All of the data was lost, except the database which was thankfully safe on the web server. We sat down and wondered if it was worth bothering doing it again. After all, the basic design of Version 4 wasn’t suited to this sort of task. Why not make Version 5?

A good question I thought. Why not use the database from Version 4.5 and make a whole new layout for the site? The decision was made and soon work began on Version 5. This time though, my friend was doing the code and the design. It was a bad idea, and inevitably he got too busy to carry on with it. I took over and even though I had a big task ahead of me – learning a whole new programming language and designing a new layout – I ploughed on with development.

It was Easter 2003 and I had a two week holiday ahead. I set about building the site and by the end of the two weeks, Thunderbolt Version 5 was up and running. I couldn’t have managed the site build without help from others, who helped me code the pages to work with the database. The new site was a mix of php and html, using a database to store all of the site’s content. The forums were beginning to get busy, site traffic was soaring up, new staff were pouring in and we were getting noticed.

Version 5

Version 5 was all well and good, with everything run through a database, but visually it wasn’t as strong. The site didn’t make the best use of the space it had and to be honest, the graphics were fairly bland. It may have been an improvement on previous versions, but it didn’t feel like the finished article. There was still work to be done and the development of a new site was really inevitable.

Version 6

A Version 6 prototype

So earlier this year we set about designing a whole new website built almost from the ground up. A professional graphics design firm took up the task of creating the site’s visuals, while a couple of us set about designing a new layout and coding web pages. After numerous prototypes and trials, we settled with the design that you see now and we think that it’s now on par with other major game sites. Version 5 didn’t do justice to the quality of the writing on the site, but Version 6 does and that makes Thunderbolt a far better overall package.

The final Version 6 design

Version 6 was unleashed on the world on 29th July 2004, with a flurry of new content following it. One major new feature was a retro section covering Dreamcast, PlayStation, N64, SNES, NES, Genesis and Saturn games. Coverage for the PSP, DS and N-Gage, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii were also added, along with a news archive and a new management system for staff.

Version 7

From October 2005 to August 2006, I went working and travelling around Australia and New Zealand, so was in no position to work on the site. During that time, I had a number of ideas for a new version of the site, which I began work on when I returned to the UK. At Easter this year, I began work on the site which you see today, which took about 150 hours to do over a two week period.

The final Version 7 design

The idea behind Version 7 was to create a clean and uncluttered site, since most videogames websites are the exact opposite. I wanted to make a website which was quick, minimal and above all, made articles look good and easy to read. In these respects, I think it does extremely well and it should serve us well for at least a couple of years.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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