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 any 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.
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 programmer, 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 Loco, 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.
‘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.’
Chris is the baby of the team at 18 (19 in December), but of the team he has the longest list of credits to his name. He wrote his first game at 16. It was called Gremlins and no one wanted it. Computers first cropped up on the second year computer course at school, but failed to catch his interest. Then in the third year he joined a computer group. ‘We just used to mess about, but I became interested in how they actually worked. Then the ZX81 came on the market and I got me sister to buy me one, and I learned to program machine code on that. When the Spectrum came out I got one and spent a year trying to figure out how to do the screen because it’s got a right weird way of storing things. In the end, I really learnt to program by listening to other people and by reading magazines.’
After writing a Galaxian type game, Chris turned out Jack and the Beanstalk which Thor accepted and released. ‘It wasn’t very good, but you learn from your mistakes. The screen pictures were good, but the graphic movement was terrible!’
Chris wrote two more follow-ups to JATBS, Giant’s Revenge and The House that Jack Built. All these games featured heavily and brightly coloured backgrounds which distinguished them from almost every other program on the market. It was a trademark he kept when he moved over to Gremlin Graphics and produced the second Monty game, Monty Mole is Innocent.
Chris is now finishing off Metabolis, which is a departure graphically for him. The way the character is used in the game is quite comical, and there are what Ian Stewart calls ‘some nice, silly little touches to it.’ You play one of the last human beings free of the evil influence of aliens that have taken over the planet and are turning people into monsters. You haven’t entirely escape the effects of their plans, however, being a bird with a still-human brain. It is a giant, colourful maze, full of hazards of course, through which you just guide your birdman until discovering the potion that returns you to a human form. Having once again become human, you still possess the abilities of a bird, so you can fly as well as walk. One of the nice little touches is the reference to infamous Gremlin crushers, but these do not kill you outright — they just flatten you for a while. Metabolis looks like being the most unusual program Chris Kerry has written.
At 28, Shaun is the oldest of the bunch. His introduction to computers came through his previous job as a chief video technician for a certain TV rental company. ‘I had to know a lot about digital logic circuitry,’ says this softly spoken native of Sheffield, ‘so we were taught about microprocessors long before computers took off. I knew all about ANDing and ORing, so it didn’t come terribly difficult.’
Shaun came to Gremlin Graphics through Just Micro as well, buying games for his Spectrum, but a friend who works in the shop had also worked with Ian Stewart at Laskys, so they got to know each other. The first job was Potty Pigeon on the Spectrum. ‘It wasn’t really a conversion, everyone says it was a conversion, but it wasn’t. We thought we couldn’t really do the scrolling screen on the Spectrum like we did on the Commodore, so we thought we would extend the story a little bit. It was the first full length games program I’d ever done, and of course, I had a lot of things to learn, and I think if I’d done it now I could have made a far better job of it.’
Shaun’s technical background stands him in good stead when it comes to some of the team’s programming problems, and he is responsible for the disc system they use with the Spectrums. ‘We had to convert all the programs which meant breaking down the code used by the assemblers to get the disc system to run — we had that much trouble with microdrives it were unbelievable.’
Since he is more inclined to the technical side of programming, I asked whether he considered the programming or the games design more important. ‘The game, definitely. I wake up in the morning thinking, how am I going to do this next bit, but not from a program point of view — from the final effect, to get the game to a standard whereby people will really enjoy it when they play it.’
For his project, Grumpy Gumphrey — Supersleuth, Shaun has developed a masking technique for the moving characters so that they appear to pass behind objects. This type of thing takes a lot of testing to get it right. ‘When you write a routine for a certain part of a program you must test it to the full before going on to the next one, because otherwise if a bug crops up you can be in right trouble. What’s more, one part of a program can interact with another part and you can end up with such a mess you don’t know where you are.’
Some programmers use the technique of writing all the algorithms for a program and then slot in the graphics right at the end, but Shaun prefers to design and fit in graphics as he goes along. ‘The sprites aren’t as important but on the screens you’ve got to know where things are. Like the lift buttons in Supersleuth — if we wanted them, say, in a square instead of a line, we’d have to rewrite part of the program to make that happen because the program has to know where the buttons are for it to work.’
Shaun’s next project is a 3D version of a platform game, ‘like Monty Mole in 3D, but probably not Monty Mole.’ Meanwhile he is busy finishing Supersleuth, not the first ever program to be set in a Department Store (Herbert’s Dummy Run), but certainly one of the most frenetic. Grumpy Gumphrey is a store detective at (not surprisingly) Mole Brothers, an establishment with many departments on four floors. A central feature is the lift which may be directed to the desired floor by pressing the appropriate button. The lift is actually a ‘room’ which stands still while the floors whizz past. Shoplifters are abroad and it is Gumphrey’s principal task to apprehend them. If he makes a wrong decision about who it is, then a warning letter is issued and after three it’s the curtains dept. for Gumphrey.
The frenzy sets in, however, not because of thieves but because of all the other jobs Gumphrey has to do. These include taking the manager his 10.30 cup of tea, recapturing gorillas escaped from the pet department, clearing ducks and bugs out of the food hall, finding lost babies (Herbert perhaps?), fixing the lift when it breaks down, emptying the flooded boiler room, putting out fires in waste paper baskets and so on. All these jobs need specific tools which may be in obvious places or not at all — or they may have been stolen by shop lifters! No wonder Gumphrey is grumpy at times.
When asked his age, Peter replied somewhat uncertainly, ‘Ooh, er, 20’. The son of a mining training officer, Peter studied at Sheffield University and was doing quite well until a Currah Microspeech unit decided to destroy his Spectrum and thus plunged him into a life of games designing. Like so many other young programmers, Pete started with ‘a little ZX81’ and then skipped a big ZX81 by selling some camera equipment to buy a Spectrum. He taught himself machine code programming on the 81 and ‘basically transferred that to the Spectrum’.
Until meeting Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn in Just Micro, Pete used to do some hacking and design programs to alter existing games. His city redesigner for Ant Attack was sent back because Quicksilva told him they were already developing something themselves; although this never appeared, Zombie Zombie did allow the player to rebuild and change the city.
Peter Harrap hit the headlines (literally) with his first game, the CRASH Readers Award winner, Wanted: Monty Mole. A wicked sense of humour was apparent in the game, and it is this angle that is most noticeable in the follow up. Apart from programming entire games, Pete is responsible for many of the Spectrum graphics in other Gremlin games, he has designed the main character in Beaver Bob, for instance. This led to some ribald comments on Bob’s suggestive style of walking — the irrepressible Harrap humour sometimes verges on the — well, naughty.
Monty on the Run is the true successor to Wanted: Monty Mole. Like its forerunner, it is a platform game with many and varied elements. Perhaps the most significant is the fact that Monty can now somersault rather than just jump. When asked whether the Commodore game Impossible Mission might have been a (forgive the pun) springboard, Pete just smiled.
The story, as we know, so far: Monty Mole, suffering from a shortage of coal owing to the miners’ strike, enters a mine to steal some. After many misadventures he meets Arthur Scargill and is sent to prison for theft. His friend, Sam Stoat, has a go at rescuing him, but fails in the attempt, so Monty is left to complete his sentence. With time on his hands he takes to the prison gymnasium and becomes super fit, learning to somersault in the process. He gets out of gaol and tries to flee to Brazil. This is where the action of Monty on the Run takes place, as he boards a ship and tries to escape to France. Money is of the essence, and fortunately there are gold sovereigns to be collected, but in order for the ship to sail, Monty has to perform several tasks, all of which require the right tool for the job. On top of that there are hosts of malcontents trying to stop him.
The ’orrible ’arrap has programmed in numerous devious traps, some of which are so mind-bogglingly cruel it’s mind-boggling. There are lifts with nasty habits, teleport beams which are only safe if they are a certain colour and some of which can deposit you in a lethal situation. Objects to be collected are placed in almost impossible positions, and often, after hours of trying to reach them, they turn out to be useless or, worse still, positively dangerous. This is not a game for the squeamish! Peter, who is quietly spoken, tends to a calmness that is belied by the mischievious delight he takes in setting the hapless player up for a pratfall. But I’ve no doubt that thousands will be queueing up for a custard pie in the face by October when Monty on the Run is released.
Christian, now 19, moved to Manchester to join Ocean, and then onto Sheffield with Gremlin Graphics. His first program, Transversion was a fast grid game which Ocean marketed. Afterwards he became an Ocean in-house programmer and worked on Hunchback, Cavelon and Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. Since joining Gremlin, Christian has been working on Beaver Bob in Dam Trouble, which was the subject of a loading screen competition run in CRASH.
CRASH readers who visited two of ZX Microfairs last year, will probably remember seeing Christian on the CRASH stand, holding court with gamesters wanting to know how to win at Hunchback, and having a programmers’ battle with David Shea (Quicksilva Frenzy and Snowman, who now works at Mikro-Gen).
Beaver Bob in Dam Trouble is described by Ian, as a game for the slightly younger player, which isn’t to say that it’s easy. Above the surface of the river, stands a wooden hut with several floors. This platform section of the game sees Beaver Bob collecting dynamite. Below the surface of the river are the beaver’s two dams, and a secret hideaway where he keeps food and is able to take a breath. The river is infested with crocodiles which not only eat beavers, but also steal dam logs. The object is to replace the stolen logs to keep the level of the reservoir up, whilst avoiding crocodiles, schools of piranha and hunting scuba divers.