It’s not everyday that you see Dk’tronics hitting the software headlines. Dk’tronics has always been the household name for Spectrum peripherals. Recently however they stood in the limelight for clinching the title rights to the Thames TV series THE MINDER and rumour has it that their software production team are on a diet of spinach (straight out of the can!) in preparation for their POPEYE software (It certainly beats junk food). CRASH couldn’t resist an invitation and went to see the Saffron Walden producers...
“New marketing is required in the software business,” David J. Heelas, Dk’tronics managing director tells me, “today you need show business to launch a new software hit.”
David has strong views on software. Gone are the early days of high profit margins. Gone is the unique position of being on the market place at the right time and cashing in on the initial surge. The fools paradise did not last very long. The market has found its own level now.
“Software is overpriced! Too much is written about piracy. The punters will not save up for software between £5 to £10. The 80-90% of home computer owners who are dedicated games players are no different from the pop fans. There is a strong parallel to the record industry. The production cost for a game is far cheaper than for a single. And yet a pop hit is far cheaper. The life of a game is the same as for a record.” David believes kids to have a disposable income of £2 to £3.
High prices have contributed to the market bottoming out. So the current trend is for prices to come down. But David doesn’t believe that the quality of the games should suffer. He believes in a tight cost control. The hardware market with its tight margins would not exist without it and he should have some experience in that! Software does not escape from the usual cost management disciplines. Dk’tronics three new releases will be priced at £3.95 despite the expensive rights for the showbiz titles (the third game is still awaiting contract approval from a major British car manufacturer).
Of major benefit is their new development system, which allows them to cross-assemble a new game within weeks of conception onto any of the 5 or six systems. This makes possible the production of a low cost good quality game by spreading the development cost over several computer systems such as the Spectrum, Commodore 64, Memotech, MSX and Amstrad. To execute all of this there is an in house software team backed further by three to four good part-time software writers.
On the hardware front all is not quiet. “We are spreading the base,” Roger Barnard, Dk’tronics PR and advertising manager, informs me. Just launched is an Epsom version Centronics printer interface for the Spectrum, which obviates the need of loading software for copy and list, etc. Nearing a launch date is a speech synthesiser for the Spectrum and the Oric. Further afield is a secret new games control in development, which will allow the games player to sit in his armchair and play away (Why don’t people call the things by their name...). A lot more development is going on in the non-Spectrum range of products, as Amstrad, MSX and Commodore 64 are screaming for new peripherals.
To be fair, Dk’tronics seem to have covered all aspects of Spectrum peripherals and have proven to be the market leader in this area. Dk’tronics mainstay is still the Spectrum keyboard which has been selling well for over 3½ years now and must be in the homes of nearly 10% of all Spectrum owners. Strange enough, there were originally doubts on the viability of an aftermath keyboard for the Spectrum. In the end the improvement from the ZX81 flat membrane keys to the Spectrum moveable rubber keys did nothing to stop this lucrative market and Dk’tronics have never looked back...
The light pen followed the keyboard and the new range now includes the dual port and programmable joystick interfaces and the three channel sound synthesizer.
“We are in a unique position of being a hardware and software orientated company. We don’t need the software profit,” Neil Rawlingson, finance director, tells me and he should know. The software end of the business started 2½ years ago and has experienced successes such as 3D Tanxx which sold over 140,000 copies and Dictator, which is still a steady runner abroad (in Spain of all places!). Last September saw the launch of 267 programs. “That was to remind the market of our strong presence ... An error because of the problem of promoting any one title...”
The software turnover was averaging one third to two thirds of hardware when the software market plummeted this summer. The new releases should re-establish this side of the business. In the meantime customers may profit from a special offer of £25 worth of software free with every Spectrum add-on keyboard bought from a Dk’tronics dealer.
David is looking at the possibility of becoming a computer manufacturer. There is the advantage of using the expertise gained in hardware and software. But it would have to be a low cost processor-related consumer product for the leisure industry. Not along the lines of your standard home computer of today, but more towards a universal leisure machine. At present the hardware production is still at Great Yarmouth, only the admin and marketing are situated in Saffron Walden. Production accounts for 30 of the 52 personnel.
1985 will see the transfer of the production to Saffron Walden uniting the personnel in a specially built £300,000 factory unit. Quite a long way from the 8 x 7ft bedroom from where it all started back in April 1981.
David gets fun out of running the business. He finds there is a lot of amusement to be had out of what happens in this industry. Needless to say he thinks Dk’tronics will be around for a long time.