On the top floor of an Insurance company office in Southampton, Rod Cousens is planning our future. As the ex-Managing Director of top software house Quicksilva, and the brains behind Soft Aid, the industry’s bid to help the starving in Ethiopia, he is well qualified to do so, some might argue. After a ‘period of exile’, as he puts it, Cousens is all set to launch a new software house, intended to take over where he left off at Quicksilva.
Rod Cousens didn’t become involved with micros until 1981, when he was introduced to Nick Lambert and John Hollis, Quicksilva’s original founders. The firm grew steadily and was responsible for a series of innovations — including the use of various ‘labels’ (such as Pixel), and the launch of a separate programming hothouse, Software Studios.
The Game Lords club was the brainchild of Loonie-in-residence, Mark Eyles, who also dreamt up the fantasy world of The Faluvian Empire as a backdrop for many of the firm’s games. In conjunction with Bug Byte, Quicksilva organised the Quick-Byte spoof award ceremony, at which Clives — busts of Sir Clive Sinclair, like the Oscars in another industry — were forced upon infamous industry figures.
These ideas weren’t wholly original, but they were all new to the software industry when they arrived, and demonstrated a professionalism and definite direction which most other software houses lacked. ‘At that time, with the greatest respect to all the other companies, things rather happened by accident — by luck, rather than judgement’, said Cousens.
Sadly, much of the pioneering firm’s identity was submerged when Quicksilva was bought by Argus, part of the massive BET group, last year. Cousens explained that the Argus deal came when the original founders of Quicksilva decided they’d had enough: ‘the structure of the industry was stifling their creativity — they wanted a complete break’. After a spell in the West Indies, Lambert and Hollis now live in the Channel Islands.
Rod Cousens left Quicksilva a while later, when Argus decided to move the firm to their London offices from Southampton. He attributes the lacklustre performance of the firm since the takeover to the trauma of eight months of negotiation. In view of the crisis that has overtaken the micro industry over the past year, we asked if he had sold out at the right moment: ‘... it may be viewed like that in some quarters — but I don’t necessarily subscribe to that view,’ came the reply.
At the beginning of 1985 Rod Cousens came up with the idea for the Soft Aid compilation tape to raise money for starving people. Ironically, the idea came at the Quick-Byte dinner at the London Hilton, when trade magazine editor Greg Ingham asked the industry to raise money for Ethiopia. ‘Like everyone else, I couldn’t fail to be affected by the television coverage of the famine. It seemed to me that the software industry should be in a position, as it projects high technology, to assist Third World countries.
‘It was a lot of work, but it wasn’t difficult, in that the software houses involved were willing to participate from the outset. But it’s not just the software houses — authors, duplicators, artists and distributors all have to be persuaded to work for nothing or at cost. That’s asking a lot from companies, especially in these times.’
The cover of the cassette, which depicts a starving person, has attracted some criticism, but Cousens is unrepentant about the picture. ‘What is happening in Ethiopia is very emotive and very harrowing — I think it would be wrong to do anything else other than to promote that on the inlay — that’s the point we are putting over.’
The tape, for the C64 and Spectrum, was originally intended to raise £100,000 for the appeal. In fact, it has dominated the charts all summer, and over £350,000 has been passed on to Bob Geldof’s Band Aid Trust. ‘The results of Soft Aid have surprised everyone — not least Bob Geldof. It’s a total credit to both the software industry and software buyers. It would be nice if we could do something — perhaps an Amstrad and a BBC version — to ensure we reach half a million pounds.’
Band Aid is not the only point in common between the software and music industries. Software is subject to its own fashions and hype; it has its own stars, and its own subculture.
At one point it was even reported that Rod Cousens was to become a Pop Star! ‘I was flattered — if someone wants to write a hit record for me then, if it’s profitable, I’ll contemplate it.’ The story probably stemmed from a bizarre Quicksilva launch hosted by Radio One DJ Anne Nightingale, at which a piece of music entitled The Game Lords was premiered. ‘I don’t think my voice is that acceptable’, Rod admitted.
I asked him if it was fair to compare music and game publishing. ‘In certain quarters, certainly. The software industry has now taken on charts, which do have an effect on the consumer, whatever their shortcomings.’ It was telling to hear him speak of the charts leading the buyers, rather than vice versa.
‘The software industry is fast becoming a “hits” industry in terms of commercial attitudes,’ he added. ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think authors can ever achieve the same status that recording artists can. There are other differences. Obviously one is volume — we do not achieve the same volume as the record industry, although there was a time when it was considered that we might do so, certainly in terms of cassette sales.’
Mr Cousens dismissed the present mood of doom and despondency as ‘mostly speculation — the novelty appeal has worn off, but it’s still an exciting, innovative industry.’ He predicted that games sales would continue to dominate the market. ‘People have suggested that we ought to look more to educational software, to applications and utilities, but the sales levels software houses are seeking cannot be realised in those markets.’
His new firm may well surface under the name Electric Dreams at the Personal Computer World Show this month. Programs will be chosen for release by Paul Cooper, formerly Quicksilva’s Software Editor — as Rod prognosticated, Paul sat in the background, chortling his way through a copy of the August issue of CRASH. In view of his past contacts, it would hardly be surprising if a few famous names from Quicksilva made their mark on the new label. It’s been twelve months since the last program from Ant Attack author, Sandy White, hit the streets for example.
Rod Cousens is enthusiastic about the future of the software industry: he is convinced that there is as much potential variety in entertainment software as in music. Future hardware developments will make a contribution, but existing computers are far from played out. ‘Pioneering programmers will come up with the next form of entertainment. We’re at the tip of the iceberg as to what we may achieve in ideas and designs.’