FEW software houses have encountered the success that GARGOYLE GAMES has enjoyed and remained in the background of the industry. It’s not that the people behind the company are so secretive, just that they feel their market isn’t interested in them because they aren’t teenage whizzkids. So ROBIN CANDY and ROGER KEAN hitched a ride up the M5 to investigate the creators of such computer heroes as Cuchulainn the Great and more recently Commander John Kepler Marsh, GREG FOLLIS, ROY CARTER and TED HEATHCOTE.
King Street, Dudley is unprepossessing and busy. Far from being some gilded cathedral to computer art, complete with gruesome figurines attached to the high corners, the headquarters of Gargoyle Games is on the third floor of a modest, four-floor brick and concrete office block with an insurance company just below it and the smell of disinfectant haunting the cold stairways. The space consists of an office for Ted, who does the selling, a writing room for Greg and Roy, and a stock room with some games and boxes of toys. The toys are important.
The computer industry has always been associated with wizzkids who discovered computers overnight and made a fortune but Gargoyle Games’ graduation into the home computer market has been a different pan of chips altogether. It all started about seventeen years ago in a computer research department where Royston (his full name, though Roy will do) and Greg worked for a large services bureau. This entailed them working at the larger end of the computer market and gradually throughout the years they’ve come down in machine size, though Greg admits that the mini computers they worked on weren’t necessarily more powerful than the home micros today.
‘The first one I started on,’ he says, ‘had the same power as an Amstrad and wouldn’t have fit in this room, it was an 8K machine, an ICL 7901. It was very slow. We used to play Grandfather’s Abacus on it. That’s how it all started, I suppose,’ he adds, referring to games.
‘No you were hatched,’ quips Roy disproving the myth that Greg is the only one with an operative larynx. In fact listening to these two is like watching two stand-up comedians.
‘I started on computers at a company called Hewitts,’ continues an unperturbed Greg Follis. ‘I was employed by them as a programmer in the central computer. I worked as a programmer for a few years until they decided my talents might be more usefully employed in analysis. I asked ‘What’s the money like?” They said, “It’s better,” so I said, “I’m an analyst”’. Greg’s new job brought him more into contact with Roy. ‘When we started, we didn’t like each other very much, I can’t remember why — well I can, I can remember exactly...’
‘It was nothing to do with you at all,’ snaps back Roy.
‘You didn’t like me!’
‘That’s right, and you didn’t like me!’
Having established this hate relationship, they ended up getting together over a computer program and decided what everyone knew all along — they liked each other, and because they had a lot of fun working on the program they decided that if they could be in the same department it would mean that they could have a lot more fun. So they developed a brilliant scheme.
‘We invented this new department called New Products — Research and Development,’ continues Greg. ‘The management said, ‘What a great idea! You can make up new products,’ which of course we never did. We actually got our own office, I suspect simply because we had a lot of fun and made a lot of noise which never actually stopped us with the work we were doing, but stopped everybody else working. But we had an awful lot of fun, more fun than we have now. We did eventually write some very good programs for them in the end, one of which was fairly important, which they’ve just started selling, something that we felt should have been sold three or four years ago.’
They had been working for the company for around 15 years when press rumours that teenage ‘programmers’ were earning fortunes prodded their own feelings about getting on and prompted them to turn their attention to games outside daily business work. At this point Ted Heathcote, long term friend of Greg’s, was roped in to sell games for the envisaged firm and book advertising. Feeling that they could duplicate the standard of software presently on the market without any massive financial (or time) commitment of any sort they dived straight in at the deep end with their first game Ad Astra.
‘The thing that actually attracted us to games was that it was a method to make money that we could afford,’ says Greg. ‘We both have mortgages and commitments that you can’t throw away. We couldn’t have done it any other way because we simply didn’t have the backing. We had been involved in business, though, and knew some of the pitfalls. At the time we were still working in the New Products Department, so Ad Astra was developed in our spare time. Consequently it took nine months to develop which was an appallingly long time. We could put Ad Astra together in a few weeks nowadays.’
Ad Astra was released when CRASH was still a fledgling magazine and it was a mild surprise to find a young, promising software house so near to home. The game rated 80% with particular recognition of the Graphics, which at time were stunning. As soon as Ad Astra was released work on Tir Na Nog began. Contrary to popular belief, Tir Na Nog’s origins do not lie in Fighting Fantasy.
‘One day after releasing Ad Astra I wrote this routine which showed a character walking in a scrolling background, Roy recalls. Greg thought it ‘looked nice’ so then they looked around for a scenario which fitted the character.
‘Eventually we found Cuchulainn and so Tir Na Nog was born.’
With the exception of Ad Astra, all of Gargoyle’s games have carefully worked out plots which lend an almost unique atmosphere to the game. It is this atmosphere and the intricate problems that make games like Marsport classics.
‘The apparent literary content of our storylines comes about simply because we enjoy reading stories,’ Greg says modestly. ‘We make stories that we enjoy. We make stories that seem to be the tip of the iceberg, so you always have the impression that there was a lot more going on that you didn’t know about, and the resultant effect is that you are completing the story as you complete the game, something like a movie where the outcome is up to you. That is what we’re aiming for, a true computer movie that is realistic. And we like to think that we achieve that in our games. I think a lot of adventure type stuff needs a story behind it, and fantasy material like Lord of the Rings, can provide an ethos to build problems and work out a taxing game.’
Greg and Roy work closely together. ‘We get an idea for a scenario and then make up the problems as we go along, two thirds of the game’s ideas are my creation, the rest come mainly from Royston. Our next game Sweevo’s World, however, is aimed more at the arcade market but it still fits into the Marsport/Siege of Earth trilogy, scenario. The game is intended to be a bit of fun. If people play it and say “that was fun” then the game has achieved the purpose for which it was designed. The industry is far too serious now. It needs more fun injected into it, after all it is an entertainment industry.’
On the thorny subject of piracy Gargoyle Games have been almost alone in preferring to concentrate on perfecting a program rather than spend the time developing protection routines for it. Roy is quite forceful on this point, especially when it comes to discussing how many potential sales are lost through illegal copying. ‘I would suggest that we lose 50% of potential sales on every game not through piracy but by not having adequate PR. That’s a fairly reasonable figure. Protection routines are obviously directed towards the odd few hackers that are around, but who cares if they know what your code is? I can’t see that it is that important if someone knows what your code is. There is no way of stopping tape-to-tape copying.’
After Sweevo’s World Gargoyle intend returning to the more serious game with the second instalment in the Siege of Earth trilogy, Fornax. The format for this will be totally different from anything that Gargoyle have done before. Although there will be still be various problems which have to be overcome to complete the game, the presentation will be radically different. Greg suggests that Fornax will probably end up as a mixed media game, perhaps using icons and/or sentence input using semantic analysis of sentences rather than syntactic — this will be quite new. Before starting Gargoyle they had been sent on artificial intelligence courses where they learned certain elements of AI which Greg and Roy now hope to incorporate into later games to form what Greg calls a sort of cross between Dun Darach and ‘Crossroads’. But whatever turns up in Fornax you can be sure that it will have plenty of animation and beautiful graphics along with intricate puzzles. Fornax should turn out to be innovative while still being fun, the ingredients Gargoyle feel are necessary to make a hit game.
‘There’s a lot of new ideas about at the moment,’ says Greg. ‘It’s very difficult, but you have to constantly learn from previous hits released by other software houses. I would be quite happy to turn out Dun Darachs but there’s a market out there and say 50% of it is buying Daley Thompson’s Decathlon so you’ve got to go with the market trend. We have plenty of ideas which we know we could develop but time isn’t on our side. We’ve got to release a game every few months in order to live. If we had six months to develop a game we could turn out something at the end of that time that would demolish the competition but we’ve all got mortgages to pay. In order to translate our ideas into software form we would probably need a Spectrum 349!
‘Before we can develop true mega games we have to expand, to employ a few people to take away the things that take up so much of our time — a person to answer the phones would be a real boon as would someone to write some of the less complex but time-consuming routines in our games. There is also the possibility of us stopping the manufacturing side and becoming a development house similar to Denton Designs,’ he says looking wistfully at Roy and Ted. ‘That isn’t a bad idea, it would take out the task of PR straight away.’
Mention of Denton Designs leads us to talk about the old Imagine and the state of the post-boom industry. Gargoyle entered the games industry shortly before the crash of Imagine but even though doom and gloom is spouted by the media they believe computer games are here to stay.
‘I don’t think that computer games are a fad, they’re an industry,’ Roy claims. ‘It’s like TVs and videos are not a fad, it is all encompassed by the electronic entertainment industry and will always be maintained. Eventually Newsfield may not publish magazines but someone will. The industry may change, for example video shops may become laser holograph lenders, the medium will change but the concept of electronic entertainment will continue because it’s big business and you can be sure that we will be helping it along.’
To relieve the tension of programming and planning ahead, the backroom of the office is dedicated to toys. The remnants of their programming days with Hewitts litter the floor in boxes of varying sizes, guns of differing calibre wait to be fired once in a while at passing security guards.
‘We used to have terrific fun with these,’ Greg laughs, holding up a tatty football boot.
‘Tell them about the football boot, Greg,’ Roy prompts. Greg glances at it as though surprised to see it in his hand.
‘Ah, the football boots. A professor friend of ours sent us a pair of football boots (don’t know why), which we promptly sent back. He then gave us a load of clues as to their whereabouts which eventually led to us going to Ibiza to dig up a football boot. We will have to hide this one and give him a set of clues to find it again.’
Leaving the tiny offices, with their disinfectant-smelling stairways and a playroom full of mechanical fly swatters, whoopee cushions and toy guns, I am left with the distinct impression that it is their creators and not Cuchulainn and Marsh who are truly the heroes. The spirit of the software industry lies in such small but professional outfits who, by hard work and excellent products, are leading the way towards an electronic environment where reality and fantasy will be indistinguishable. It may not have been a world-shattering event, but for the Spectrum and computer games in general, the hatching of the Gargoyle was a truly remarkable event.