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Ultimate

O Playing A Rare Game
   

Last updated
25 Jan 1998


sinclair@nvg.ntnu.no

Playing a Rare game

(The Games Machine, March 1988)

Articles and Interview by Roger Kean and Nik Wild,
Photographs by Cameron Pound (with thanks to Tim's Hasselblad)

Ultimate Play The Game is probably the most famous label in the annals of British computer games. For over three years this mysterious company held absolute sway over the Spectrum charts, and then abruptly retreated and vanished, almost without trace. What happened to them? Was their elusiveness a media ploy? Timely questions, for the people behind Ultimate are about to rise spectacularly from their self-made ashes like phoenixes, and they chose to talk to THE GAMES MACHINE about their past and their resurrection.


GETTING A FOOT IN THE DOOR

During 1984 and 1985 Ultimate Play The Game, the trading name of Ashby Computers and Graphics, was the most sought after interview. Computer magazine journalists and editors clamoured over the phone, and even hammered at the front door, for that all-important exclusive interview. But the harder everyone tried, the more adamant Ultimate became about its press silence. The nearest anyone got to a foot in the door was CRASH. The magazine found some favour with Ultimate's nearly invisible owners, they ran several competitions and even promised an interview - but always only after the next game was completed, and somehow the interview never seemed to happen. Now, for the first time we can reveal some of the past secrets and, more importantly, provide an insight to the future - and the future looks like the Nintendo.

When, in the summer of 1983, two new Spectrum games called Jetpac and Pssst appeared quietly in the shops, it took only a few weeks for the name of Ultimate (Play The Game) to become a household software word. The packaging boast "arcade quality graphics" was certainly nearest to being the truth for any game of the time considering the Spectrum's display limitations; and the amount of gameplay and sheer fun to be had from either game was all the more astonishing for the fact that they were each packed into only 16K of memory.

Between 1983 and 1986 Ultimate had an unbroken chain of 14 Spectrum hit games, whose average overall rating (of those rated by CRASH) totalled 93%, making Ultimate the most successful software house of all time. During 1985 they turned, with less success, to the Commodore 64 market, releasing six games, the first two of which were massive hits. With Sabre Wulf, probably Ultimate's bestselling game, Spectrum sales alone, they claim, went over the 350,000 mark - almost unheard of, and certainly besting the officially claimed 250,000 all-formats best-seller, Activision's Ghostbusters.


FILMATION

Very little was known about Ultimate. Unlike other software houses, the company never took stands at exhibitions (there was one early exception), never gave interviews and generally avoided any form of magazine coverage. It was frustrating to the numerous fans, and yet, magically, Ultimate avoided the opprobrium normally attached to stand-offish organisations in the entertainment field. It was as though the games really did speak for themselves. Each one was eagerly awaited, any delay resulted in magazines being flooded with complaining letters as though the editors could do something about the situation. When rumours circulated, originating from an all-too-rare (and all-too-sparse) press release, that Knight Lore was to feature an entirely new three-dimensional concept with superb animation called Filmation, anxious readers' letters ran riot.

And Knight Lore was revolutionary. It heralded a new genre, the forced perspective (or isometric) 3-D arcade adventure game; which, as one CRASH reader claimed, became the second most cloned piece of software after Word Star.

Ultimate ignored the other major home micro, the Commodore 64 until the very end of 1984, when to high expectations, adverts announcing Staff Of Karnath appeared. With a greater graphical capability at their disposal, Ultimate made a feast for the eye in an arcade adventure where 3-D really played a part. In mid-1985 they followed up with Entombed (a Gold Medal in ZZAP!64).


ONCE-GREAT

By the end of 1985 there were indications that the magic might be waning. Support failed first on the 64. The four games following Entombed bombed critically. Because they had always supported the Spectrum, and perhaps also because of the aura of veritable hero-worship that surrounded Ultimate, the company's profile remained good with Spectrum games until well into 1986. Something had gone, though; the flair seemed missing, had the originality ossified? we wondered, and letters kept sadly referring to the "once-great software house".

It was always a matter of professional speculation as to how long Ultimate could keep their supreme position and continue producing original games that would go straight to the top of the sales charts. Envy had been there from the start when, in early 1984, staff at Imagine, while condescendingly admitting the qualities of Jetpac, Pssst, Cookie and Tranz-Am, still felt stung enough to emphasise how much better their games were - reiterating that Ultimate scored because theirs were like arcade games, not deep enough to hold interest for long. Atic Atac may have been one in the eye for that accusation, but nevertheless, detractors almost eagerly awaited Ultimate's downfall.

Unlike other successful companies of the time, in keeping with its tradition of reclusiveness, Ultimate never advertised for programmers, it never joined forces with other software houses in associations like GOSH (Guild Of Software Houses) and never became part of the 1986 merger wars, although there were well-founded rumours at one point that British Telecom, in the guise of Firebird, had bought Ultimate. In fact Ultimate licensed two of its Spectrum hits, Sabrewulf and Underwurlde to Firebird for Commodore 64 conversions.

Then there was a rumour that Ocean had bought the company, and finally a confirmed notion that in fact it was US Gold that had won out. Nevertheless, the terms of the sale were obscured, Ultimate games continued to appear, though to less and less acclaim and people wondered what had really happened. A clue, had anyone been able to penetrate the mists of corporate obscurantism, lay before all: the small, typically mysterious, concept and coding credit for some of the later titles - Rare Ltd.


RARE LTD

Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd - the famous ACG of keys and amulets - based in the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch - was wholly owned by one family: two brothers, Chris and Tim Stamper, and Tim's wife Carole. With one or two other programmers - or software engineers as they prefer to style themselves - this was the entire of Ultimate. At least all this was known to the enquiring public, so was the fact that the two brothers had started in the business as designers of real-life arcade machine programs - an exotic enough occupation in those heady early days, and considering just how many British-made arcade coinops there have ever been, still a past to be reckoned with. Two years ago, the Stampers formed Rare Ltd, sold off a minority interest of Ultimate to US Gold, moved from Ashby to the nearby village of Twycross, stopped programming Spectrum games, went to ground, and to all intents and purposes, disappeared. The following interview, recorded on a windy and gloomy December 17 [1988], goes a long way towards explaining what happened and why.

Twycross is a tiny Midlands village perched on the borders of Leicestershire and Warwickshire. Its main claim to fame is its reasonably well-known Zoo. Sitting on the western edge of the village is.a large Queen Anne-period mansion, part of Manor Farm. This is the home of Rare Ltd, protected by rambling outbuildings, barns and numerous - and very noisy - cockerels and chickens. It is an elegant, though rather dilapidated building, gradually being repaired by the Stampers. Its calm, very English country exterior belies the power of the technology within. The ground floor is a mixture of furnished, decorated and bare, untouched stone rooms. One of the first made habitable was the board room, where most of the interview took place, dominated by a row of clocks on the wall showing the different times in Japan and America - an indication of the Stampers' new market areas.

Tim Stamper, who looks after the graphics and was responsible for all the wonderful Ultimate packaging illustrations and on-screen images, is 26, fair-haired and more the business spokesman for the firm, although both brothers appear to be in complete accord about their direction. Chris Stamper, smaller, a bit quieter and darker-haired, is 29. He concentrates more on coding. But, as you might imagine from their arcade machine background, what illuminates their operation, is the intimate working knowledge of the hardware they use. Very little within the Rare building is as it came from the manufacturer, even the modest Amstrad PCs have been given vitamins. At this, the first interview the Stampers have ever given, there were many questions burning to be asked, but I started with the most obvious: why did Ultimate disappear about a year and a half ago? Perched on the edge of the massive desk, Tim thought for a moment and then offered a correction.

"I think for us, as the main development team, possibly two years ago was the time. It wasn't really conducive to company expansion to carry on producing on the Spectrum unless we went along the budget route..."

The way his voice trailed off was sufficiently eloquent to need no further explanation. But surely this underlined the constant fear that everyone had had that Ultimate could not keep up their run of successes for much longer. I wondered about some of the later, and more disappointing, games like Bubbler and Cyberun, and asked Tim when were they developed? "It must have been 18 months ago."

Chris agreed with him - at least that they were "really not really our involvement, they were developed by Ultimate engineers, trained and still functioning, but we concentrated two years ago on the Japanese markets and said, "Ultimate, if you're developing on the Spectrum, carry on doing that" - we're still the majority shareholders in Ultimate, so we still take an active interest in the company."

The last one we developed as a team," added Chris, "was Gunfright. That was the last one that Tim and myself did. Everyone was copying our Knight Lore concept, so we thought we'd do one as well - and get a little bit of the action!"

The Spectrum games were mostly huge hits, but there seemed to be some reluctance to get in on the Commodore 64. Did they never feel like working for the 64?

We were interested in producing original games," answered Tim promptly, "and people wanted us to produce original product, so work for the 64 was really a job for somebody else. We could only have produced one type a year if we did all the conversions ourselves."

But there was always a feeling that Ultimate never felt much like getting to grips with the 64, a supposition partly borne out by Chris: " I never got to know it that much. You tend to focus on one area, and I think I was a Z80 programmer to start off with, and so I adopted the Spectrum. I had no trouble with 6502 or anything like that - the Nintendo 6502 - but I was working on the Spectrum and there were other people doing the 64."


COPING WITH AD MANAGERS

The mention of other people working for them prompted me to ask how many employees Rare has. Tim told me 13. "That's not including freelance teams. The company's fairly small. Most of the people here are development. We don't have any advertising people fortunately! Because we don't need to advertise."

They advertised quite a bit in the old days, though, and I couldn't resist asking if it had been a bother having to cope with the mags bugging them to book space. Chris laughed wryly: "It was a colossal problem, that was!"

But Tim was less adamant: "It wasn't so much of a problem when we decided which magazines we were going to advertise in. It wasn't worth advertising in a magazine if you didn't get any return, otherwise you're just funding the magazine. Which is good for the magazine, but after all, it's not what we're here for. I think Newsfield were always good for us, that's why we contacted you now."

"We never got on with a few of the other magazines," said Chris.

Ultimate hardly ever talked to anyone, though. Was there ever a conscious policy to be hidden away and mysterious; was it seen as good PR?

"No it wasn't," said Tim firmly, "that's the way it turned out. We were so busy, having only three or four development staff in-house, and having to produce a few products a year, and making sure they were right. I think while we were full-time Ultimate, we only had two Christmas mornings off, that's how hard it was. We worked, as we do here now, seven days a week, eight till one or two in the morning (whenever the last engineer leaves!). But the rewards are there, and everyone's really prepared to knuckle down to get the rewards, like you've seen out there," - pointing in the general direction of the parked Lamborghini with "T 19" registration (right) - "that's one of the rewards available, and if you want that you have to work to get it. I don't feel it's any good having engineers who only work nine to five because you get a nine-to-five game, you need real input."


PLENTY OF FANS

So no time for interviews. Most computer journalists at some time or other must remember the famous "Mr Stamper is in a meeting, he will call you back (next century)" telephone answer. But if they weren't present for the press, they were never there for the public either. Except for one very early computer show, had they ever been present at any exhibitions?

"Oh yeah, we have, " said Tim, laughingly. "We attend most of them anonymously! It was nice to be able to keep a low profile because otherwise you couldn't wander round watching the reactions of people playing particular products; which again is important. I think you get a true reaction if people think you're just one of the purchasers."

But in spite of the low profile, Ultimate provoked tremendous response from fans, and as Tim pointed out, their cavalier attitude towards computer journos did not extend to the purchasers of their games. "We had 50 or 60 letters a day, and it needed someone fully employed just to deal with this letter problem we had.

I think we had an opportunity, though, to capitalise on the sort of fan club Ultimate created - so many people wanted more information on Ultimate, and sweatshirts and caps and that, and we could have said - because Ultimate was Ultimate Play The Game products- "If you liked Ultimate: buy the games, buy the sweatshirts". So I think we could have expanded like some companies did, with a large fan club and giveaways and posters to buy, but in fact we gave them all away. If anyone asked us for a sweatshirt or a cap we said, well you can have it - or posters. We were just interested in seeing the software out there and getting fair reviews.


GETTING FAIR REVIEWS

Yes the "mysterious" Ultimate thing was because we hadn't got the people to do it," Tim went on. "I think we were fairly inexperienced then in running a company - we certainly knew how to produce software, I think we were more experienced in that than anyone else, and that's what we could do, so that's what we did. I was contacted by so many magazine people and reporters that we just had a list of people I wanted to speak to from the magazines and software houses - I always spoke to CRASH, but never to many of the other magazines. I think CRASH worked, they always gave us fair reviews; and some of the other magazines we didn't advertise with - which was another problem with the industry, and I'm sure it's still there now - if we didn't advertise, the product got a bad review. I think that's a really crazy way for it to be, but that's how it was. I was actually told by a few other companies that they thought the problem existed as well, but there was nothing tangible. So we steered clear of speaking to anyone, and if they liked the product great, and if they didn't then I wasn't bothered, because if the sales were there it meant people were buying it."

Ultimate never indulged in exclusives - the method whereby a software house grants a particular magazine early sight of a new game in return for benefits such a cover illustration, or a prominent article on the grounds that the magazine is the only one to have the latest news. The Stampers never sent out review copies until the game was due in the shops thus ensuring fair treatment for all. Organising it was a problem though, and the headaches were Tim's . . .

"I had to make sure the copies hit all the magazines exactly the same day. And with new releases - with a distributor - if they knew they were the first one, they would be up at six in the morning and on the phones to the other distributors and jumping their accounts... I hated that situation. And the day a product was released the phone would just be red hot. It was really bad."

"I prefer it here without those sorts of pressures," added Chris. "The atmosphere for development we have in this place is excellent. It's a nice rural setting with chickens all over. It's a farmhouse and we want to keep it that way because it gives you something to refresh yourself. It's good for development rather than stuck in the middle of some suburb or city centre."


THE PRICE SHOCK

After a run of six games priced 5.50, Sabrewulf was something of a shock when it appeared costing 9.95. I asked Tim whether he thought they were taking rather a gamble on their undoubted popularity at the time by almost doubling the cost of their games.

"We were having a severe problem with the number of (illegal) copies. And I think it was a bold step we took. The price of stuff was was gradually creeping up - Imagine set the price at 5.50, without a doubt - and it was gradually creeping up, and I thought we might go the whole way and put the product out at a price which was realistic for the time involved in creating it. 5.50 was a little low. Perhaps we could have sold more, but we were trying to create an incentive for the person who paid 9.95 to say, "Hey you're not copying my game" - I mean, alright, they may have traded it for X number of pounds, but at least they said if you want it you buy it. And that was successful because we still kept the number one position for quite a while, and it didn't make any difference to sales.

"I think they were still good products for the time... I think possibly Knight Lore was ahead of its time, and in looking back at the market now, there doesn't seem to be any vast improvement in the two years since we left it. I don't know whether we could have made any more of an improvement."


THE KNIGHT LORE SHOCK

The more I talked to the Stampers about their past, present and future, the more struck I became by their extraordinary, calm planning. But never more so than by what I was about to hear next; and this example indicates only too clearly the kind of long-term view they take, and took and explains better than anything else the fact that Ultimate's "demise" was no random accident of fate as we may all have imagined.

Yes, few people would argue that Knight Lore was ahead of its time, but in fact it was more ahead than anyone at the time ever dreamed. It was Tim who quietly dropped the bombshell that turned history upside-down:

"Knight Lore was finished before Sabrewulf. But we decided then that the market wasn't ready for it. Because if we released Knight Lore and Alien 8 - which was already half finished - we wouldn't have sold Sabrewulf. So we released Sabrewulf which was a colossal success, and then released the other two.

"There was a little bit of careful planning in there. They could have had Knight Lore possibly the year earlier, but we just had to sit on it because everyone else was so far behind."

In fact this startling piece of information fits well into Tim and Chris Stamper's basic philosophy about creation and marketing. I rapidly gathered that while they rate the level of British talent very highly, they hold a much lesser view of the corporate software houses when it comes to seeing the big picture. Tim again: "There are a few really good companies out there - Jeff Minter, we would have loved to have had him with us, he has a lot of talent - but it always seems to be misdirected. You occasionally see a really amazing game for the time and you think, Christ, it kills the games after; and if they had had a little careful planning they would have avoided that. It's bad for the industry.

"Games should be developed and be released at the correct time. And again, some games have been really good and were released too early and people haven't been able to appreciate them; or released too late and it's already been done. So I think careful planning there would sort that out."

Chris cited the example of Elite (not the original BBC version), a game he rated very highly, as being one that actually might have killed off Firebird games sales after its release, because it raised expectations, and when nothing could match it for ages people felt let down.

"But that's how it is," Tim said pragmatically. "I think there's enough UK talent to rule the world on the arcade and home computer market, but it's not being really well directed. Hopefully we can solve a little bit of that, but there again, we're not that strong in UK. Very few people know we're here, very few people know what we're doing. And I'd just like to make people aware of the fact of the very large market out there and they can take advantage of it through us."


TURNING TO JAPAN

Which brings us very neatly to what the Stampers have been doing in what has seemed to the rest of the world to be a sabbatical. But far from it, and again, it rests on a piece of information, staggering in its implications, casually dropped into the interview. It also makes very clear why Ultimate was to change direction so radically. All I asked was what machines they were now so busy programming for.

"Mainly the Nintendo. We had a Nintendo four years ago." I stopped Tim to question my hearing. Four years ago? Around the time they were conceiving Lunar Jetman and Atic Atac!? The first time I heard anything much about the Japanese wonder-machine was shortly before the 1986 PCW Show. But Tim confirmed the date, then added: "Well, Rare Ltd is already competing with the big names in Japan, Konami, Nintendo, Sega and Taito.

"When we got the machine, that was the beginning of Rare. We knew a market was going to boom in Japan and America and we set Rare up to handle that. Obviously we didn't want to give too much away because we needed time to develop our associations - which fortunately we managed to do - before everyone really became aware of it.

"We managed to get just about all the software available for it, and we're still receiving software now. And the machine, for the price it was available in Japan then, had colossal potential - we looked at this and we looked at the Spectrum - and then the Spectrum was hot stuff, but this was incredible. So we spent possibly eight months finding everything out about this system - its custom chips, and it takes a fair bit of work - we managed to do that and then started to write on the machine."

Chris added: "There was no information on the Nintendo at all, but because of our previous arcade experience we had hardware knowledge of the arcade boards, and so a very shrewd idea of what that machine was. That enabled us to produce the first product, and were able to make a presentation to Nintendo, and they said, "Okay, you can do it"... "

"..."And here's the information you already found out!"," quipped Tim, laughingly. "It was a sort of introduction process. We had to show Nintendo that we had the capability before they could give us the rights to go ahead and produce for their system."

I said I had heard that Nintendo are notably very finicky about their marketing deals for third-party software, a point Tim considered very understandable: "They're a very big company. The majority of companies like Konami, Taito, construct a deal with Nintendo to produce a product for Nintendo to market it. But they are limited to the titles they can produce a year. We license product to Nintendo, and we are not limited to the number of titles. So that's why we are going to take advantage of the situation that we've got now, that we can produce an unlimited amount on that system, which no-one else has got at all. In fact we've licensed more product this year than any other company. So we're very proud. And I think it's an affluent market."

It sounds it; with some 10 million machines in Japan, and 15 million worldwide, Rare enjoys sales of its licensed product there far higher than their highest ever British figures for Ultimate games.To date there are four original products on cartridge and two others just written for an outside party which will be shown at the CES in January. In addition, another eight are in development.

"We actually act, I suppose," Tim added, "as Nintendo's development team. If they feel they are lacking a product on a machine, they tell us, we develop it, and so we are sure of licensing product to them."

So far, releases in Britain that THE GAMES MACHINE has seen have not resulted in much above average confidence. Have they been very impressed with the British Nintendo cartridge releases to date?

"No," said Chris. "I think Nintendo are so busy in the States, and I feel as soon as they resolve that problem the UK will receive the support it deserves. And when that happens Nintendo will take a much higher place. I think they're just so incredibly busy. It's going to be a banner year."

Certainly, looking at some of the games Rare has just finished, it is going to be a great year for them. At about this point in the interview, we were beginning to get onto their real reason for granting it.


OF CARTRIDGES AND COIN-OPS

Having decided, several years back, that the Stampers' Ultimate had probably gone as far with the Spectrum as it was possible for them to go, and having receded quietly into the background to devote time to mastering the Nintendo system and producing their first games for it, they have now arrived at a point when, ironically, they could do with some publicity. Why?

"I think there are a lot of UK companies that are beginning to look overseas, and to look at machines which are not available in UK," Chris began to explain. "We did that two years ago. And it puts us in a very unusual situation. We have four freelance teams who are really trying to take advantage of the situations we developed. There is not another company in the UK that has the opportunities that we do at this stage, basically because it all takes time and we're two years ahead."

And it is that talent capable of ruling the world on the arcade and home computer market that the Stamper brothers are thinking of, they want to extend their advantageous position in the world market to other programmers - software engineers and it was Chris who came out with the bald statement.

"It's so easy just to focus on your own little world and never look outside. Well we're out there, we've put in a lot of effort, we've made a lot of - not sacrifices - but not the best business deals just to gain a relationship, and I think now we're in a position to take advantage of that and we would like as many people as possible to come to Rare and see what we can offer."

So you're actually saying you would like to start a recruiting programme?

"You're here to start it!" said Tim brightly. Chris expanded further:

"That's right. We try to get as many good engineers as possible - we're certainly looking for freelance teams. We've just finished designing our own arcade hardware, and, for the right team, we would be able to provide the hardware for them and then give them the opportunity to write for the coinop market. That would certainly be a worthwhile gamble for any competent team to have a go at, because if.they can get a product in at the top, and if it takes well in the arcades, it's going to filter down through Nintendo and all the other associated products. If you start only half way up the ladder, then there's only one way it's going to go afterwards and that's down. And it's very hard to get it converted up."

Tim had the last word on this subject, when he said: "I'm pleased about the direction Rare is taking, because 100 percent of the revenue received by Rare comes from overseas, and I think that's good for UK and it's good for the image of British software in the world. I wish more people would take the incentive and do exactly the same as we did."


TRAVEL AND THE JAPANESE STYLE

With all the work they do for Nintendo, I wondered whether they have to travel a lot. Are they in Japan every other weekend?

"No," said Tim, "not Japan, usually to the States. We do most of our dealings with Japan through the States. We have an associated company called Rare Coin-It. The Coin-It companies are mainly arcade and ours is an exclusive arrangement and that gives us a base in the States. Plus the fact that most of the big Japanese companies have built offices in the States, and they speak the same language as us, and the food's better!"

Traditionally coin-op themes have travelled from Japan, often via America, to arrive in Britain. It has hardly ever happened the other way round. Is that because British games are not suited to the Japanese or even American, mind? And if there is a difference, how have they at Rare overcome the problem? Chris: "I think when we look at British games now we can understand the difficulties that UK companies will face trying to get into the market, because there a difference in style and there a difference in what makes a good game for the US and Japan. And I think we understand now what that difference is. Our success rate proves it - that and the fact that we have licensed cartridge games.

"When we first started in the arcade market quite some time ago, we found we were very good at producing games which did very well in the UK and that was it."

Tim took up the story: "It seems that Japanese games sell very well in America and American games sell well in Japan, and in England, but English games don't do well in America and they don't do well in Japan. It's taken us a few years just to find out why. Even Japanese and American conversions wouldn't sell well in America because they're converted to suit the English taste. There's a big difference, and obviously English teams have not discovered what the difference is."

"We must realise that the Japanese produce the number one games and they always have done," Chris went on. "I find it surprising that with all the talent in the UK, it isn't British companies producing the number one arcade games and then everyone in the world following that. Because Britain's got the best talent without a doubt. This country's very conducive to that - it's cold, it's damp and everyone's sitting indoors programming - we should be producing the number one games, and it's not happening. Rare is the only company beginning to get somewhere towards that."

And as Tim pointed out, it is only through examining Japanese-made games and then putting the theory into practice through their painstakingly built contacts that they have reached the point they have.

"Throughout our arcade career, we must have licensed 16 or 17 products to Japan, and every time they've asked for more, and after doing so many you think, I know exactly what they want now, and then you can produce games that you know will suit their taste. It's taken a long time to do it, and indeed we're trying to train all of our engineers to realise the difference."

But paradoxically, Tim and Chris believe Japanese tastes in game themes follow the British. Tim: "The Japanese market's possibly two years behind UK. It's easy to look at UK trends and see what the trends will be in Japan. They've just had a really really big arcade adventure type. I think they're possibly just getting on to the sports aspect now, which is where we were at a while ago."


THE SYSTEM OF THE FUTURE?

Turning from the orient to western concerns, I asked whether we would be seeing any Rare games for the 16-bit computers, and promptly ran up against the Stampers' scepticism of catering for a market whose sales do not yet run into the hundreds of thousands.

When we find a machine that sells extremely well to warrant us producing on it," said Tim, "then we'll produce for it. If a 16-bit machine is going to sell about three or four million, you can be sure we'll be out there with products for it. But if it sells 250,000, I don't think any 16-bit owner is going to buy two of one product, so the maximum you can sell, if you reach 100 percent of users, is 250,000." He shrugged eloquently: "When we've got over 10 million Nintendo units in Japan . . . "

So no Ultimate-style Rare games for the Amiga and Atari ST?

"We do have those machines around, but we do focus on the Japanese machines, mainly because of the number that are out there," Chris replied. And Tim went on to explain that, rather like the problem encountered with converting Spectrum to Commodore 64, they would need to train people to do the 16-bit conversions in-house. "If we didn't handle the conversion ourselves, I'm sure it would turn out differently. I think if we can train enough people to produce for us, rather than license another company outside to produce, we should get somewhere there - if the machine sales are really good. But I think you see conversions of our products on certain machines.

"The trouble with most of those machines is that they have got incredible graphics and sound, but the processor is just ticking over - you can't do anything really stunning with it."

Chris agreed: "I'm surprised that we haven't seen any incredible games on the 16-bit machines. But a game's so slow with disk option, terribly slow and boring. That's one of the major advantages of Nintendo, you just bang in a cartridge, and if you don't want it, you bang in another. You can play through 60 games in a few minutes! And the cartridge sizes on the Nintendo now are quite colossal, there are two megabyte games. It's a fair-size game. And the price of memory is coming down all the time, especially just the silicon chip. I think it's the system of the future."


PAST AND FUTURE

Tim and Chris Stamper have always planned for their future. They refuse to get stuck in any ruts, and wholeheartedly refuse to be merely what people expect of them. And indeed, they were unexpectedly generous and patient - considering their press reputation - but they clearly do not tolerate fools easily. They have resisted the temptation be be drawn into the razzamatazz of public shows, and yet have been unfailingly helpful to members of the public who, having got the Ultimate phone number, rang up in the old days, usually receiving a T-shirt, sweatshirt or cap for their trouble.

In short, they've been successful, so I asked Chris whether there had ever been any regrets. After a short hesitation he replied: "I think the thing we regretted the most was not doing Atic Atac II when we did number one. We should have done that because it was so well accepted and it sold so well, and for some reason we didn't and I don't understand why."

In retrospect it seems a harmless enough sorrow to bear, and one suspects there are probably numerous other problems they have suffered which are just forgotten in the onward rush. Rare doesn't strike as being an express train of ideas on the verge of being out of control, but rather a streamlined sports car in the hands of a capable and determined driver with his eyes on the road ahead.

Outside, there is a vast barn in good repair. It is the next stage of development and will be refitted with studio gantry lighting. In its spacious interior, the Stampers intend to build what might well be the world's first computer graphic film studio. They believe that with silicon technology as it is, with the ever decreasing cost of memory and flat cathode ray TV screens, real movies done by computers are just around their corner.

The past is the platform from which they build, but not a temple to their success to be enshrined. Of the many ways in which Rare differs from other software houses I have visited, one of the most striking was the lack of old artwork, framed, and hanging on the office walls. When I commented on this, Tim Stamper replied typically.

"When you've spent five to six months developing a game, you've really seen enough of it. You fulfil your aim and then you go onto the next product. I think our best product is yet to come. I probably haven't even got a full set of Ultimate games here. They just disappear! Anyway, we're all looking to the future for what we can produce, and that's where the excitement lies for us. It's not worth looking back. I'd like to hang pictures of games we will produce on the walls."


RARENGINEERING

The programming - or engineering - area is on the first floor of the large Rare headquarters. The first room is Tim Stamper's graphics office, equipped with several computers, two large drawing boards - one bearing a giant game logo being prepared in expanded pixel form with a title we are not allowed to mention - a video area with studio lights to help with digitising complex three-dimensional shapes and a closed rack containing all the past, famous Ultimate packaging illustrations.

It was in Tim's graphics area that Cameron photographed screens of three of the games Rare has already finished for Japan, one as long as two years ago. For some 40 minutes he crouched under a long black shroud stretching from camera to monitor (intended to keep stray light off the screen) while Chris knelt in front of the set ducking his head out of the camera's way, playing the games.

Along a corridor there are several rooms off: a general office, the play room - equipped with much coin-op cabinet paraphernalia - the music room and a string of further software development areas.

The main development room, large and airy, has desks, computers and monitors around the edge where the software engineers all work. Different types of Nintendo machines lie everywhere as well as stacks of cartridges, cards and Nintendo disks. As we arrived, a new package of games had just been delivered from Japan as well as Rare's first PC Engine - the latest machine in the range and all the rage in the homeland. The package was ripped open and its contents eagerly loaded. Rare also receives several of the Japanese Nintendo magazines, and despite the indecipherable Japanese pictographic script, these appeared to be as much in demand as either CRASH or THE GAMES MACHINE.

In talking to several of the engineers, a strange thought occurred. While they are obviously aware of the British software scene around them, it is as though they see it through a dark glass. I was often asked questions about the latest games in the manner of interested people from the Moon - they'd heard about them, possibly even seen and played them, but knew nothing much about how they were doing. Rare is like a time capsule, its people on a nodding acquaintance with their neighbours, but their eyes all fixed on a distant goal no-one around them can see. When I asked Tim if he had any contact with other software houses, he said: "Yes, a lot of contact with the Japanese." But what about British software companies? "Zero," was the short reply, "I don't think they even know who we are."

In this sense, there is no doubt that the Stampers are training their people to think Japanese. It doesn't seem to be such a big difference when you look at the games themselves, but it is undoubtedly a very crucial difference, and one on which most of Rare Ltd's resources are being gambled.


COIN-OPS FOR ALL

The development room is dominated by a veritable tower block of stacked plastic component boxes, full of chips, capacitors, mini-PCBs and other electronic oddments - a reminder that this company has a vested interest in developing hardware as well as software. In the room next door, we were showed their proud achievement of 18 months of hard work - the new coin-op arcade board, working on this day for our benefit.

Named - they always have a name - the Razz Board, and based around the Z80 processor with a lot of hardware assist, it is extraordinarily fast. They had set up a running demo consisting 33 large, full-colour knights bouncing around the screen so fast you could hardly make. out the individual shapes. But these were not simply moving sprites. Each shape, as it passed behind another, was being cleared and redrawn. We were told the board was moving 1,300,000 bytes around per second.

"That is an intelligent drawing up of characters," Chris said, "which most machines - like the Amiga - say, "Oh, they can do a million". But that's just a dumb fill, and this is actually 64 colours in full separation. I think it will enable us to start competing with the big Japanese and American coin-slot companies now. The first time we've been in this position to go up against them, and I feel we have a piece of hardware that will allow us to do that. I think it's going to knock spots off Mastertronic and the Amiga coin system. I mean, this is redrawing this every 50th of a second."

The Razz Board is available to anyone who wants to go into writing games for the coin-op industry. Rare provides the board/hardware, graphics and sound utilities. And the sound quality is intended to be very powerful, too. Using Yamaha synth chips, there are 14 available voices altogether, with three of them being top of the range quality. Prototypes should be ready any day now, and as Tim told me, they have had a bit of interest in the board from other British companies. "Companies that would like a piece of hardware like this but can't devote 18 months to develop it. I mean it's cost a fortune to develop but as you see it's all fully working."

"Then there's the graphics editor. It's our own software image editor. It's rather an unusual method which we've patented, and I'm sure an awful lot of arcade companies will want to use it because it's so memory-efficient, and we can move such a large amount of memory around quickly."

People with a desire and matching ability to design coin-op games should probably be getting in touch with Rare right now.


Ultimate Softography:

  • Cookie (Spectrum) - 1983 *
  • Jet Pac (Spectrum) - 1983 *
  • Pssst (Spectrum) - 1983 *
  • Tranz Am (Spectrum) - 1983 *
  • Atic Atac (Spectrum) - 1984
  • Lunar Jetman (Spectrum) - 1984
  • Sabre Wulf (Spectrum, C64) - 1984
  • Staff of Karnath (C64) - 1984
  • Knight Lore (Spectrum) - 1985
  • Underwurlde (Spectrum, C64) - 1985
  • Entombed (C64) - 1985
  • Alien 8 (Spectrum) - 1985
  • Cyberun (Spectrum) - 1986
  • Gunfright (Spectrum) - 1986
  • Bubbler (Spectrum) - 1987 (pub. US Gold)
  • Martianoids (Spectrum) - 1987 (pub. US Gold)

* Also released on Interface 2 ROM cartridges