Shortly before the first ever issue of CRASH, Ian Andrew of MINED-OUT (Quicksilva) fame, was promised a CRASH profile in the mistaken belief that at 21 he was among the youngest Spectrum programmers of the day. A month or so later he politely informed editor Roger Kean that he was quite a bit older than 21 — but that wasn’t the reason the profile never happened! GRAEME KIDD now puts the matter to rights...
Betcha don’t know what a deltiologist is? No? Well Ian Andrew of Incentive Software does, because he used to be one! That was a few years ago, mind, when he had his first business — selling postcards to collectors. He started out with a couple of filing cabinets in his bedroom and then moved into shop premises in his home town of Reading as the volume of trade grew.
Ian was amongst the first people to buy a ZX81 — he saw an advertisement for the machine in the Daily Mail, and rushed his money off. He played around with the computer in his spare time, and without any formal training he learnt the ins and outs of BASIC. By the time the Spectrum was launched he was hooked on programming.
Ian was an early Spectrum user — his machine was Number 638. He was an early Spectrum games programmer too, writing a number of fairly simple games for his own amusement — which he’s still got copies of, for sentimental reasons. Ian’s first commercial game was the sixth or seventh program released by Quicksilva; called Mined-Out, it was written entirely in BASIC.
‘Mined Out was deliberately different to the games available for the Spectrum in those days,’ Ian told me, ‘generally games only had one level and just got faster the longer you played them. I wrote Mined-Out as a one-level game originally and my mother tested it out for me. Quite soon she had mastered it, so I added another level and it went on until there were eight levels in all.
‘The games industry was just taking off then, and when I saw an advert placed by Quicksilva for programs I sent them Mined-Out. They published my version for the Spectrum, and soon my brother had written a version for the Dragon; Ian Rowlings converted it for the BBC — and versions for the Lynx and Oric were also written.
Ian decided to get involved in the software business, and quite soon he was running Incentive Software from his shop premises, having sold off his postcard interests. An advertisement in the Reading local paper for a machine code programmer brought Ian Morgan into the Incentive shop, and work began on Splat! — the first Incentive game.
‘Incentive was chosen as the company name because it was decided to offer an added incentive to people who bought our games. Splat! had a £500 prize for the highest scorer, and the program included a score validating routine. We’ve continued to live up to our name, offering extra incentives with our games in the form of attainable prizes. I get annoyed when people accuse us of jumping on the prize-giving bandwaggon. Splat! was the first game to offer a prize. ‘All Incentive’s prizes are attainable, and they are all won’, he added, making an implied reference to certain whizzo super-prizes that have been offered in the past and never won. ‘I did the design for Splat!, and wrote the BASIC elements, while Ian Morgan took care of the machine code. For about three months Splat! was the only Incentive game. Then we published 1984, a political simulation written by Rob Carter who is an economist, and Mountains of Ket which was written by Ian Morgan’s friend Richard McCormack who is a bit of a Dungeons and Dragons freak.’
Mountains of Ket developed into a trilogy while Incentive’s shop premises developed into a slightly unusual software company HQ. Apart from Ian, there are two other full-time members of staff at Incentive: Darryl Still who looks after the shop (which doesn’t really sell much!) and fights with the administration and accounts; and Dave Baines who is the resident technician-type who loads up the computers and generally helps out packing up cassettes for despatch etc.
‘There’s a very informal atmosphere in the shop’, Ian explains, ‘and it has been a definite advantage having a shopfront. Programmers tend to wander in and hang around drinking coffee and playing our arcade machine, which means that the place is a melting pot of ideas. If someone’s having difficulty getting a certain routine to work, they can ask around and get a bit of assistance. For instance, the Spectrum version of our latest game Confuzion — which was devised by Paul Shirley on the Amstrad — was written by Brendan Kelly. Brendan just popped into the shop one day when he was in town, and we got talking...’
There are no staff programmers at Incentive — all the code is written by freelances who are paid royalties. ‘It seems to work very well’, Ian commented, ‘people are perhaps more enthusiastic if they are in effect working for themselves, and the company helps to get them work too. One of our team, Tag (also known as Philip Taglione), comes from Bradford and he wrote the Powerload code for the Spectrum which is used on Moon Cresta. We have done licencing deals with other software companies which has meant more money for Tag; Powerload is used on Doomdark for instance, and a conversion written by Malcolm Hellon for the C64 is used on Beach-Head.
Mooncresta, Incentive’s CRASH Smashed implementation of the arcade game is officially licenced from Nichibutsu, the Japanese creators of the arcade shoot-em-up. Incentive bought the rights to Mooncresta for all home computers: ‘rather than compromise, and change the game around to avoid license problems, we decided to go the full way and create as perfect a copy of the original as possible and acquire the licence through the proper channels,’ Ian explained. And versions for the Commodore 64 and Amstrad are already underway.
The Incentive philosophy is to give people as many reasons as possible for buying their games — which accounts for the prizes offered — and also help to reduce piracy. Splat!, for instance had a very unusual cassette inlay, which was very eye-catching in shops, and attractive in itself, as well as the high score prize. ‘A tie-in to a TV series, arcade game, or film obviously helps sales’, Ian said, ‘and we have a literary agent who advises us of what is available.’ Does this mean that Incentive will be moving into the tie-in market? ‘You are only as good as your last game’, Ian commented, ‘and some companies have done themselves no favours with games-of-the-film. Our tie-ins will stand on our reputation, and will be good games in their own right. If we use the name of a book, film or whatever on one of our programs, it will just be an added reason for people to buy it, another part of the marketing strategy. We won’t put any less effort into the programming’.
The software industry has grown into big business, from the early days when a few people started out selling games from their back bedroom. There were plenty of opportunities early on, but now it looks as if the bigger producers will be the only ones to survive. ‘All aspects of a new game have to be right nowadays’, Ian pointed out, ‘in the older days you could have a winner which had a couple of good points in the mix of marketing, packaging, sales, programming, artwork etc, but now you have to get everything right. Every aspect has to be “Good”.’
Incentive are about to move into new premises — but ‘quietly’. There still won’t be deep pile carpeting throughout, and it is likely that the coffee machine will be the most important piece of equipment to be loaded onto the van. No VAXes will need to be moved, and they won’t be looking for garage space for the company Porsches either! Ian Andrew and Incentive have a modest approach to what they are doing, and their enthusiasm and hard work shows through in their products.
‘We’re constantly looking for new ideas, new approaches to games,’ Ian explains, ‘we want our games to be playable and addictive, but we also try to make things a bit harder — something different. We wouldn’t do a new platform game for instance, after Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. It makes our life harder, but when we get there we all get a great buzz.
‘By making our games different from the start we run the risk of some initial friction from games players; we have to generate initial interest in playing the game so that people get into it, and then get addicted — this isn’t a problem with established formats, like shoot-em-ups, so Mooncresta was straightforward.’
Confuzion, the latest from the Incentive stable, follows this innovative tradition. While I was writing this, Jeremy our software review supremo, took a break from looking at the game to open a tin of condensed milk with my letter-opener, and dodging the fine spray of milky mist which threatened to envelop me, I sought his opinion. ‘Yes, it’s an intriguing and perplexing game’, he said, scampering off to the coffee machine, ‘it’s good’. Hmm. The full review appears elsewhere in this issue.
Incentive certainly seem to have got the mix right and Ian feels himself to be very lucky, based in Reading where there is a good pool of talent to draw on.
‘Personally, I’m more keen on the design side of games programming,’ Ian said, ‘and I’m hardly doing any coding myself at the moment — apart from the odd little machine code routine. I’d like to write a game myself again, but it’d be a matter of sitting down for a couple of months and proving I can still come up with the goods! In effect I’m now acting as ‘producer’ on our games, liaising with distributors, freelance programmers, dealing with the advertising and publicity and sorting out license deals etc. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from doing things yourself, but I’m booked up solid, seven days a week for the next fortnight. At times it’s difficult to find time for the ‘normal’ things in life. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding.’
And on that note, Ian Andrew, the CRASH-Styled ‘Big Cheese’ of Incentive Software had to leave, piloting his humble Fiesta homewards....