From the earliest days of the Spectrum, the name of M. C. Lothlorien has been synonymous with computer war games. Two of their titles, Johnny Reb and Redweed, are still firm favourites when it comes to voting on the CRASH HOTLINE. But M. C. Lothlorien’s history goes back further than the Spectrum, right back in fact to the misty days of the ZX81.
CRASH took a trip north to meet the people behind the software house with the intriguing name...
For a company that has unleashed the fury of Greek, Roman and Japanese wars on us, beset us with American struggles for supremacy, and swamped us in red Martian vegetation, M.C. Lothlorien operates from a curiously sedate street in Poynton, verging on Stockport, not quite Manchester. The day of our visit was stunningly hot and sunny until we reached the outskirts of Manchester when, of course, it began to rain. It was the day before Imagine collapsed — portentous weather perhaps. But Lothlorien should be used to portents since their earlier games were entrenched in a period of history well used to reading auguries and divining the meaning behind omens.
As if to underline this point the first object to catch the visitor’s eye in the outer offices is the large bronze Grecian warrior’s helmet — the living flesh, so to speak, behind Lothlorien’s well-known logo.
Who is M. C. Lothlorien and why the unusual name are two questions with one long answer. There are three partners, Mike Cohen, Roger Lees and Geoff Street. Geoff is a relative newcomer but he has known the others from when they were all at school together. Both Mike and Roger came to the software field from a background of finance and Mike has some legal experience, being a student barrister. For Mike the rot set in around Christmas 1981 when his wife bought him a ZX81 computer. At least, that’s Mike’s story. Roger Lees tells it slightly differently, Mike bought the computer as his wife’s present to him for Christmas. The truth is lost to history, as was Mike. History was and remains a major passion as it does for Roger. War games is another. The computer seemed to offer wonderful opportunities for developing war games and Mike set himself to learn BASIC programming, and the first result was Tyrant of Athens.
“Lots of people who looked at the result thought it was pretty good,” says Mike. “They said I ought to try and sell the game.”
The obvious choice of action was to take out a small advert for mail order and almost immediately an argument sprang up between Mike and his wife, who thought £95 for a quarter page in ‘Your Computer’ would be throwing money away. Geoff Street, who joined the team long after the incident smiles as Roger recalls the battle. “The game became known as Dishwasher because it was dangled as a bribe: ‘If it makes any money I’ll buy you a dishwasher out of the profits’.”
Mike won the argument. “We expected 20 replies,” Mike goes on, “which would have covered the cost of the ad. We got 200 replies within two weeks!”
Fired with enthusiasm, Roger bought himself a ZX81 as well and began work on Samurai Warrior and Warlord. They started placing quarter pages together in several magazines and business expanded. Of course it was just a sideline, almost a hobby, and at the time Mike Cohen was trading under the name of M. C. Associates Trading while Roger Lees was using a long-established family trading name — Lothlorien Trading. Later, when the Spectrum arrived, they realised that producing games was a full-time occupation and thus M. C. Lothlorien was formed between them.
As Lothlorien expanded it became clear that they needed someone else and last summer Geoff Street joined the partnership. Geoff has considerable programming experience having worked for some years previously in the commercial field as a jet-setting trouble-shooter for banking interests around the world, flying to exotic locations like Hong Kong and the States bug shooting.
When the Spectrum opened up the home computer market in a big way, Lothlorien transferred the war games to the new machine and added Johnny Reb to the Spectrum catalogue. This strategy war game based on events in the American Civil War has proved enduringly popular, although by the standards of later games like the Confrontation series of scenarios, it is very simple.
Talking about Johnny Reb brought up the subject of reviews for their games. We mentioned that Lothlorien war games hadn’t on the whole received very kindly reviews from CRASH, largely due to a lack of reviewers sympathetic to the type. Roger says, “There is a problem. Generally the magazines aren’t into war games and we do expect mixed reviews, who doesn’t? But we see good and bad ones, and those where the reviewer clearly didn’t understand the game at all. We never write in to comment on reviews though.”
We did remark that despite less than enthusiastic reviews in CRASH, the Lothlorien war games tend to sell consistently well on mail order. “Well I think that’s true,” says Geoff. “Retailers find that they have a sales explosion on a new game but if they haven’t got rid of it within a month they’re stuck with the stock. But that isn’t the case with ours — the war games that is — and they say they can sell them for much, much longer.”
Tackled on the fact that the type and presentation of the graphics used in war games might put off gamers used to arcade-style graphics, Mike says, “Maybe we let ourselves down over the presentation of games, preferring to let the game idea sell itself. Now we want to concentrate more on presentation and execution. We’re very conscious of the need to improve on that side of things and we’re also in a position to dictate the state of the art in our own area.”
Roger Lees adds, “As machines get bigger, we believe it is absolutely essential that the game element is developed. If you pinch too much for graphics you can spoil the game, and you also have to make sure that the graphics don’t get in the way of playing the game.”
Mike’s feelings about Lothlorien’s position to dictate the state of the art in war games is echoed by a young programmer who works with them, Steve Hughes. He also thinks they need to improve the look of the games, and is currently working on one for the C64, a game which he describes loosely as “Sophisticated like a Lothlorien war game but with a raised visual standard.”
With M. C. Lothlorien established as a full-time working software house, games started coming in for consideration from hopeful programmers. “We get good and bad stuff through the door,” says Roger, “but we haven’t always got the time to check it out! It’s easier with arcade games. After twenty minutes or so, you know whether you like it or not. Not so with war games and adventures (very much the problem reviewers have). Sometimes we have to make a favourable response to the author before it’s all properly played through.”
In addition to the range of war games, Lothlorien have added adventures and arcade games. The first two arcade games were Bedlam and Beetlemania by Steve Hughes. Originally these were marketed by Steve’s own firm A.W.A. Steve, who is 24, ran the company with a partner, an airline pilot, who has now retired from the software business. In addition to the two games they marketed Orion, a monitor/assembler for the Oric computer. At the time Lothlorien were doing some Oric versions and wanted Orion so they went to visit A.W.A. in their Manchester offices. Steve says that things were not going too well with A.W.A. but Mike Cohen and Roger Lees were impressed by the arcade games. A deal was struck and Lothlorien repackaged Bedlam and Beetlemania and released them under their new Actionmaster banner.
“I was very chuffed with the games at the time,” says Steve. “But they’re very dated now. Jetpac came out at the same time as Beetlemania and put a stop to that sort of game.”
Steve Hughes is not a full-time employee, preferring to remain freelance, but everything he writes is marketed by Lothlorien and he spends a lot of time in their offices working. The latest release is Chock a Block Charlie for the C64. “I don’t have a favourite computer. I like chopping and changing between the Spectrum and the C64.” At 24 is he over the hill as a programmer of games? “No!” he replies, shocked at the question. Has he any programmer heroes? “There’s so many good programmers around now — hard to choose one. Don Priestly perhaps (Maziacs) and he’s in his forties!”
Steve blames Sir Clive Sinclair for his introduction to computers (who doesn’t!) and programming. He won a competition in the Manchester Evening News sponsored by Sir Clive. The first prize was a ZX81. “So the rot set in and the eyesight’s getting worse,” he says cheerfully.
Unlike Steve, Simon Cobb is a full-time Lothlorien employee. 17-year-old Simon was responsible for Grid Patrol, the game that broke a CRASH joystick! The first version of Grid Patrol he sent to Hewson Consultants and they renamed it Di-Lithium Lift. “I wrote a second, more complicated version of it but they said it was too similar to Di-Lithium Lift. However, Lothlorien were interested. Luckily they wanted to expand their in-house programming and they offered me a job. I took it!”
Before Grid Patrol, Simon had written a game for the Aquarius called Astranoids. “I had a friend who worked on the Aquarius for C.C.I. and I got mixed up in it. The game wasn’t much good but I wrote another one for the Spectrum. After months, C.C.I. paid me £100 for it, but it wouldn’t work on series 3 Spectrums. I made some corrections and sent it back but it never got released anyway.”
Simon is now at work on a new arcade shoot em up provisionally titled Lifeline. Simon showed us some screens of what looked like a hard and graphically attractive game. It has three phases with 14 screens in all. No release date yet.
M. C. Lothlorien are in the midst of expansion plans. Including the three partners, there are now ten people working together in offices bursting at the seams. More space is available to them soon and they can’t wait to get into to. Even as we were taking photographs another young hopeful programmer arrived for an interview with Geoff.
Mike Cohen says, “We’re planning to release three new titles each month for eight months of the year, plus translations of existing games to other machines.”
On the list is Redcoat, a war game set during the American War of Independence. Described as a cross between Johnny Reb and Confrontation, it will accommodate different scenarios like the latter game but is designed to be much simpler in concept and playability like the former.
Another new game is Masters of Serebal (its working title) from the same author as Special Operations, a strategy/adventure role playing game with arcade elements. There is also an interesting project, two separate games based on the Battle of the Bulge. Written by two different authors, the games look at the battle from both points of view, German and Allied. “We’re looking at how to present them both,” says Roger.
On top of that there is a naval Greek war game, a strategy simulation. They are looking for a name although the game is described as being similar to the well-known board game Trireme. All these games will be graphical and incorporate Lothlorien’s new thinking on visual presentation.
As we left Lothlorien to the rest of their busy day, the rain came down afresh and stayed with us all the way to the M6. As soon as the car turned south the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was Roger Lees who explained the phenomenon. “Everyone says it rains more in Manchester than anywhere else in England, but it isn’t true. We get just the same amount of rain as anyone — it just does it more slowly and for much longer in Manchester.”
Whatever the weather, it’s doubtful the staff of M. C. Lothlorien have much time to worry about it — they’re too busy at the keyboards planning more wars.