Writing about the longer established software houses always brings our own short history to mind. I can very clearly remember sitting down with a list of games drawn up by Franco Frey to decide which we should order for the first CRASH MICRO GAMES ACTION mail order catalogue. One of the games quite high on the list was 3D DESERT PATROL by Computer Rentals Limited. The company has become better known simply as CRL.
CRL’s list of software releases is impressive, their chart successes less so, but as a producer of games they have strenuously avoided a ‘house style’ and kept a low profile, which means that it’s easy to forget the quantity of releases and the ones that were very good. Just look at the mixture; there was the 3D Omega Run, the terrible pair of releases Caveman and Lunar Lander, the attractive under water Glug Glug, the TV tie-ins Terrahawks and Magic Roundabout, the musical tie-in War of the Worlds, the driving tie-in Highway Code as well as some of their most successful early programs, the sports simulations like Test Match, Derby Day and my favourite among the golf programs, Handicap Golf. CRL was also the first out with an Olympics tie-in last year, modestly named Olympics. It wasn’t one of the best by any means, something tacitly admitted by Clement Chambers when he says with some surprise that people still ring in asking for help on it!
CRL was founded by Clement Chambers, a young man who received a fair bit of media attention in the early days of the computer boom for being a teenage whizzkid. Perhaps the unusual photographs helped — ‘I usually have me finger stuck up me nose when I’m photographed,’ he said, but his easy-stream-of-conscious style of talking made good copy — it still does! He’s no longer a teenager, but at 21 must count among the youngest in the ranks of business moguls who run Public Limited Companies. He is the first to tell you that CRL was able to go public because in the early eighties it was a simple matter to make a lot of money from selling computer games. Those days are over, and any software house now has to watch the pence per unit margins with extreme care.
The Chambers public image is one of attractive, slightly remote superiority, but it breaks down quickly enough in the office, especially when he tells you with some pride that for two years running he has won the Quick Byte Award for ‘The Person Most Renowned in Computer Knowledge’. The byte in the tail being that these awards mean the opposite of what they say! Tongue firmly fixed in cheek, he describes himself officially as Managing Director and assistant programmer, which is to say he tests the joysticks each morning.
Recently, CRL has joined forces with another of the older software houses — Silversoft. It’s a purposefully mysterious alliance, and when I asked about it Clement, who was sitting cross-legged on the office floor, sat upright, hummed for a moment and then in a ‘press release’ voice announced, ‘You can describe us as Affiliated Companies and we wish we were half owned by US Gold...’
CRL House sounds impressive enough. Actually it is rather like a house, set apart from the other business premises in the East London industrial complex between Hackney, Bow and Stratford. Kings Yard is a quiet enclave in this vast area, surrounded by high walls and protected on one side by a canal. The two-storey CRL building houses the administrative offices of the company as well as the software development and programming areas.
On the morning of the day I arrived, Clement was fast asleep on the sofa in his office. There had been a burglary somewhere which had done something to the alarm system, so he had slept in the office as they had just taken delivery of a vast quantity of Rocky Horror Shows which were going on to Germany that day. Still rubbing sleep from his eyes, Clement led me upstairs to Ian Ellery’s office. Ian is CRL’s Software Development Manager, ‘The man who released Caveman!’ Clement whispered in my ear as we went through the door.
Unlike his boss, 23 year-old Ian Ellery looked very awake, and confessed to me that he hadn’t had any desire to sleep until Rocky Horror Show was safely released and on its way. As we sat down the phone rang with a call from someone who had just completed Rocky Horror and wanted to say how good it was. Ian asked me to take the phone and speak to him. ‘It’s brilliant!’ said the young voice at the other end, ‘It should be a CRASH SMASH!’ The caller was 13 year-old Stephen Day.
‘It’s nice to get calls like that,’ Ian told me. ‘I get really nervous before a game comes out, and then — phew, it finally gets into the shops.’
Clement coughed and unkindly said, ‘He thought he might have released Caveman 2!’
Moments later the phone rang again with an Andrew Murphy to speak to Roger Kean. It was Stephen Day’s friend ringing to say that if Stephen got a mention, so must he, because they completed the game together.
To many people, Ian Ellery might be better known when he’s wearing another hat, that of computer artist, author of many drawings and cartoons in various magazines, notably C&VG. Ian produced all the photo-drawing montages on these pages. He also designs a number of CRL’s cassette inlays, and it is his artist’s eye that keeps a careful watch on the games’ graphics as they develop. He’s an outspoken sort of guy, and managed to startle Clement momentarily out of his post-burglary lethargy by telling me that he doesn’t like Oliver Frey’s artwork in CRASH. ‘That’s how you go round making friends and influencing people,’ Clement told him sharply.
CRL has an in-house programming team who work on Spectrum, Commodore and Amstrad games. There’s Jay Derret (17), graphics designer and programmer, Andy Stoddart (20), Ian Foster (17) who works on both the Spectrum and the Commodore, and Jeff Lee (18), who did Rocky Horror Show, although Jeff is giving up programming to became a photographer (he took the photos for this article). Richard Taylor, who did CRL’s famous Hi Res program (and Rocky Horror on the Amstrad), works with CRL but not as an in-house programmer.
Every company has to have its administrative back-up, which at CRL comes in the shape of Yvonne Walters, Guy Spooner, stock boss Tim Vernon and Clement’s personal assistant Belinda Carling.
Belinda accompanied Clement, Ian, Andre Posumentov (Silversoft) and myself to a nearby Italian restaurant where, between discussions of whether the ‘live lobster, split down the middle and grilled’ would actually scream when it was split down the middle, Clement went into a stream-of-consciousness about the software industry and Ian Ellery told me about CRL’s plans for future releases.
A lot of the programs in preparation are being worked up on the CBM 64 with Spectrum conversions being done on some of them. One of them, Skyship 6000 (it’s a working title) is planned only for the 64, but looking at the storyboard graphics (not unlike the 3D effect achieved by Vortex in TLL and Cyclone) I thought it would convert to the Spectrum rather well. It’s a simulation based on the new British air ship and involves the player in ferrying goods and people between islands set in a rough and dangerous sea, while rescuing stranded sailors from their sinking ships. Another CBM only game which is on the ‘semi-secret’ list, so I won’t say much about it, is Blade Runner. The kind of graphics involved look like the sort that might not travel onto the Spectrum too well, but we’ll see. It’s a 3D graphic adventure shoot em up, where you play Rick Deckard as he chases Nexus 6 Replicants through the untidy streets as they seek out the scientist who created them. One game that will definitely appear on the Spectrum is Space Doubt. The action takes place on a huge spaceship with animated backgrounds, and it has an unusual way of presenting the 3D. It’s as though the ship had been chopped through in the middle so that each room you enter is seen like a stage set. Walking off ‘the front’ switches you into the other half of the room. There are null gravity lifts and room doors that slide up and down, but as most of the ship’s workings have been badly affected by a space storm, their working is very erratic. The object (not unlike Silversoft’s Worse Things Happen at Sea) is to get the ship and cargo safely to its destination against all odds, which include plenty of nasties as well as external influences. Through the various window ports the stars can be seen in movement, which tells you which way you are going as well as giving an indication of your orientation on the vessel.
These games are intended for release along with other ‘secret’ projects in the pre-Christmas run up, and what with the in-house team hard at work and some licence deals being set up, CRL look like continuing their spate of releases for some time to come.
Not having heard any squeals from the kitchen, everyone settled down to their ‘live lobster’ with relish, much to the relief of the waiter who had already supplied Clement with a year’s supply of Italian bread sticks to keep him going until the main course arrived. Under cover of the gunshot noises of cracking lobster claws, Ian Ellery asked for an art job on CRASH and Clement proved that big ears are what get you to the top. Still, I accepted Ian’s offer to provide the illustrations for this piece, and after lunch everyone went back to the perennial worry of ‘what next?’ and I headed west for Ludlow.