A Gremlin in the works
(CRASH, July 1985)
ROGER KEAN hurtles up the A68 to visit GREMLIN GRAPHICS in Sheffield
Quietly sitting at home one evening last summer, watching the evening news and with computer games far from my mind, the peace was shattered when this platform game suddenly appeared on the screen. Startled with injured surprise that some upstart new company should dare to feature a new game on telly before letting CRASH know, all I caught of the item was that it had something to do with Arthur Scargill, flying pickets and a mole. It seemed trendily topical - another cheap bunch jumping on the games bandwagon with a rip-off idea timed to catch the miners' strike? The company's name was Gremlin Graphics. In the event CRASH wasn't missed out. We got an early Spectrum version doctored so we would could visit an room in case none of us were able to withstand the flying pickets or the infamous crushers, and thus we were introduced to the delights of Wanted: Monty Mole, and became acquainted with Gremlin Graphics, the company that won the 1984 CRASH Readers Award for the best platform game - far from a rip-off. That was in July. Gremlin Graphics has now been going for a year and it seemed time to visit Sheffield and find out how things were going.
HOW TO GET A GREMLIN GOING
Alpha House, Carver Street is a gaunt Victorian office block that might once have been fashionable but now lies virtually, though tidily, empty. The Gremlins refer to it as 'the prison', an impression reinforced by the long, narrow corridors painted in institution maroon and cream. Gremlin Graphics has two rooms which for some obscure reason are situated high up in the building and quite some way from the ancient lift which no-one seems to use. When I spoke to Ian Stewart, Sales and Marketing Director, about the visit he told me to stop outside a shop called Just Micro. This turned out to be a thriving and very busy computer shop which is owned by Ian and his partner Kevin Norburn, the Financial Director of Gremlin Graphics. A phone link between the shop and the office, soon brought Ian down to greet me and drag me away from the beeping, squawking screens that lined three walls of the shop's interior.
The corridors of Alpha House may have been prison-like, But once through the door and into Gremlinland, a different atmosphere pervaded. Of the two rooms, one is a general office, and the other, larger, room is equipped with desks, computers and screens for the in-house programming team. The programmers had gathered specially for my visit (more to give a third-degree on CRASH reviews than in my honour I suspected - the usual reason programmers want to talk to magazine people), and were busy falling over the ubiquitous C5, which seems to have taken over from the Porsche as a software house vehicle. I never did ask what it was doing up there on the third floor.
Before founding Gremlin Graphics Ian Stewart had already accumulated 12 years retailing experience culminating in a group managership for Laskys, but the itch to work for himself proved too strong and he joined forces with Kevin Norburn to open a computer shop. 'When Kevin and myself had opened Just Micro, we always said as soon as the shop got rolling and we found the time and the necessary programmers, that we would like to have our own software house.'
The shop did get rolling and the first necessary programmers transpired in the form of Peter Harrap and Tony Crowther. Ian and Kevin were well aware from the start that they would have to put together a professional team to get safely off the ground. Tony Crowther, already well known for his Commodore programs, Son of Blagger and Killerwatt, was made a company director and went on to write Potty Pigeon and Suicide Express for Gremlin before differences on the board led to his leaving the company.
Looking around to ensure good distribution, Ian reckoned Geoff Brown of US Gold, who had just started Centresoft distributors was going to be a power and invited him to become managing director. But it was with young Pete Harrap that Gremlin really got going.
GOLD COAL DIGGERS
'Peter Harrap first came to us with a complaint,' Ian recalls, 'which was that his Currah Microspeech had blown his Spectrum up.' At the time Pete was at university. He was into hacking and programming to some degree and had written a program that allowed you to redesign and rebuild the city in Quicksilva's Ant Attack. He sent it to them, but Quicksilva declined to use it. Over the protracted matter of Currah getting the damaged Spectrum repaired, Pete visited Just Micro a lot. As Ian says, 'We got to know him quite well, and although I think he got aggravated on a number of times, we made a friend more than anything else. We said to him, 'well you're into programming, why don't you spend a bit more time on it and develop a game? So we got talking and I came up with the idea of a mole, and we decided it would be a platform game. Pete's father is a mine training officer, so we decided to use that and put the game underground - a mole can go above or below ground, which adds variety. As he was writing it the miners' strike developed, so we introduced different criteria into the program to tie in with the strike like the flying pickets and the effigy of Arthur Scargill.'
It was the caricature of Scargill that gave Ian a hook upon which to hang his launch. Eight radio stations, national newspapers and national television news gave the game coverage. 'It was a useful boost, but it was a lot of hard work, it didn't just happen - wheels within wheels to see the program got the exposure it did. Really, from that point we've grown to the stage we're at now.'
With so many software houses finding themselves in a dodgy condition lately, I asked Ian what he felt about Gremlin's position in the market after one year.
'I see it as being very healthy. As far as other software houses are concerned, their approach must be to be very careful about who they deal with and make sure their advertising expenditure is reasonable but not too low-key. They will also have to be careful about the quantity of games released through the year, with the fear of damaging the sales of one product up against another. I don't mind marketing my product against someone else's, but not against my own. It's a waste of advertising for one, and obviously the programmers don't get the rewards they should do from the sales their programs achieve.'
Ian reckons the business has got much tougher over the past twelve months and that it is no longer easy for people to set up a software house and make a success of it. 'If we were starting this July instead of last July, it would be a totally different story. We came in at the right time with the right product and the right marketing and it worked for us. Now you have to have a track record, and the way you go about presenting games to a distributor has got to be professional. The way you market the product has got to be sensible and you must have your programs ready well in advance. I think we're hitting a happy situation at the moment where we're able to backlog software so we can release it when we want, but we propose to keep releasing right through the summer to keep the name in the forefront. I would like to think that Gremlin will be one of the top five software houses by the end of the year.'
On the Spectrum there are several planned releases kicking off with Beaver Bob (In Dam Trouble), followed by Grumpy Gumphrey - Supersleuth and Metabolis, and then onto October and the pre-Christmas release of Monty on the Run. In addition there are releases planned for the Commodore 64, some conversions and some originals, as well as games for the C16 and Amstrad. All of which must be keeping Gremlin Graphics very busy, and it seems that Ian is thumbing his nose at the traditional summer slump.
'Obviously the sales figures that you achieve over Christmas are double those you achieve for the other times of the year, but I think keeping the market buoyant for the rest of the year is very important. I don't mind getting lower sales through the summer - it keeps the Gremlin name prominent; and it keeps the programmers busy - it's important for them to be able to work twelve months of the year rather than six and it's important for us to have revenue coming in for twelve months of the year rather than six! I would hate to think I was holding product back just for Christmas.'
Looking at 'the prison' there is obviously plenty of room to expand, should they wish to. At present Gremlin employs four full-time in-house Z80 programmers all writing for the Spectrum, Pete Harrap, Chris Kerry, Shaun Hollingworth and Christian Urquhart. A company called Micro Projects consisting of three programmers write Gremlin's Commodore games and conversions, and Ian is investigating other talent. 'I would like to see our in-house personnel double this year, to a maximum of ten, so that we have at least one programmer who is competent on one of the major machines, by which I mean Spectrum, Commodore, Amstrad and Atari. That means we are on the look out for more programmers and more product.'
Although the in-house team are employed full time, few of them work consistently at the offices, preferring to spend some time there but more at home working. 'Programmers tend to work rather unsocial hours and as the time required might mean them working all day and then into the small hours they find it easier to work in the comfort of their own homes. But they do come into the office at least once a week.'
With this sort of working flexibility, I wondered whether there was any sense of 'team spirit'.
'Oh yes,' Ian replied instantly, 'each programmer will discuss each other's work and they'll discuss various routines that they're using. the gameplay elements within the game and various graphics - Peter Harrap does a number of the graphics for other people. He has a bent towards designing graphics and he's very quick. The bulk of the ideas for games come from the Gremlin office', Ian continued, 'we have brain bashing sessions, sit down and discuss the types of program we would like to put out I'm the culprit as far as the characters go. What tends to happen is that general ideas are thrown about and then the programmer goes away and draws up a plan of the way the program could work. Then we discuss that again before the programming starts, so we end up with a sort of storyboard. It works very well. because you can identify the areas that you could make within the program or the improvements you can make before it actually gets started. There's nothing worse. and it has happened to us, to be halfway through a program and find that it's not going to work. If you had sat down and spent a little more time at the outset you would have identified all the problems and saved a lot more time. I refuse to continue with something that I may not be happy with at the end.'
Before moving into the programming room to have a look at the new games coming along, I asked Ian, thinking of Monty on the Run, whether he thought platform games were a played out genre. 'Oh no. definitely not. Hopefully with Monty on the Run you'll see a different element enter platform gameplay. We have introduced some further exciting elements which I think the public will like. We see it as a great improvement on Wanted: Monty Mole and I think it will get a bigger following.'
Is he irritated when other companies try to jump on the success bandwagon of Monty Mole, or. as Software Projects has suggested, that platform games like Monty Mole are jumping on the success bandwagon of Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner?
'Artic's Mutant Monty was a direct hype of a number of games. We didn't feel inclined to do anything about the fact that they had used 'Monty' and were obviously hyping off the success of Monty Mole. As to Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, Miner 2049er was the first, and as to whether the people that originated that program feel the same as Software Projects, I don't know. I see no reason to diminish our own glory when they've had such a nice success with both programs, and they are both very good programs. Perhaps it's a case of being a little bit jealous, I don't know, maybe Monty Mole's better.'
One thing for certain is that Monty on the Run is very much better than Wanted: Monty Mole. The mean elements of the first game have been made even meaner in the second. As Ian comments, 'That is Pete Harrap's sheer bloody-mindedness. If people thought the first Monty was bloody-minded, they'd better look at the next one! He's done some very funny things on it.'