MIKRO-GEN have been around since the earliest days and have produced a high volume of software among which Cosmic Raiders and Mad Martha might be counted their only well known hits until the emergence of the unlikely character WALLY WEEK. With Wally in tow, Mikro-Gen’s dwindling fortunes took a dramatic upturn. MIKE MEEK and PAUL DENIAL took a trip to Ludlow and talked to ROGER KEAN.
You can’t help having a soft spot for certain people and companies, sometimes because of circumstances, sometimes because they are pleasant and sometimes both as is the case with Mikro-Gen. In August 1983 the fledgling mail order company Crash Micro Games Action took its first ever promotional step into the public eye and had a stand at that month’s ZX Microfair in London’s Alexandra Palace. Arriving early on the Friday afternoon the day before the show and staggering under the weight of our first ever mail order catalogue (a massive 16 pages of black and white newsprint) to take possession of our six foot by two foot table, we discovered that the whole end of the square block we were on was empty of tables. The only other early arrivals were busily filling it with their blue custom-built stand bearing the words MIKRO-GEN. Naturally conversations were struck up and one of our catalogues duly passed over. To their delight, Mad Martha received a good mini-review in it. At the time, none of us present knew that the humble little catalogue would turn into CRASH Magazine within another six months.
Little incidents like that meeting stick in the mind. In the intervening year occasion to review much Mikro-Gen product, some of it interesting, occasionally good, but never seemingly all that inspiring — until Wally happened.
With Automania, Mikro-Gen developed a game to change their fortunes with graphics and playability to match. But most importantly they developed a real character in Wally Week on which to build. Pyjamarama confirmed that success and went further, being a game which required thinking as well as playing skills. The third in the series, Life of Wally, affectionately referred to as Wally III, is nearly completed ready for release in February and Mikro-Gen are happy that it will be as much of an advance on Pyjamarama as that was on Automania.
I asked Paul and Mike who invented Wally and was firmly informed that they work as a team. Paul, technically labelled Sales Manager, actually visualised Wally, and to my surprise emerged as the man who actually draws the striking adverts. But if proof were needed that Wally has become a very real character, then it’s offered by the fact that good fictional characters start writing themselves after a bit.
Paul said, ‘We are already having difficulties in discussion about Wally’s character himself. There was something that came up in discussion last night which I particularly didn’t like, something that was to go into this new game, Life of Wally, because it seemed totally out of character. It’s not the sort of thing that Wally would do, and I was dead set against it. It depends on the interpretation — but it might suit one of the other characters in that game. But then again, you’ve got to be careful not to fall into a trap, because in a way you can do anything with Wally, which you can’t with, say, Jet Set Willy. Willy was a nicely drawn character but not a social character, so he’s more limited.
Mike added, ‘I believe Wally is one of the few humanised computer characters out there.’
So if Wally is the result of a team effort, who actually does the programming work? Mikro-Gen currently has five programmers on the team, Chris Hinsley, Del McLoughlin, Andy Lawrie, David Parry and Nigel Brownjohn. Who’s done the Wally programs? Paul frowned when I asked the question.
‘Eight or ten of us sit down and it’s an initial think tank. We don’t really believe in making a star, it’s not the way a software house should work. We cannot say that Chris Hinsley programmed Pyjamarama. Alright, David Parry did the adaption for the Amstrad, as far as hitting the keys, but it really is a team effort.’
So do they prefer to see a software house as more like a film unit than a publisher with star authors?
‘Yes, we do look on it like being a film,’ said Paul. ‘You see the thing is that certain routines or certain styles, Chris either didn’t know or was having difficulty with, so Andy Lawrie who is the technical director comes in. Andy oversees the whole operation, what Andy doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing. So you can’t say that Chris alone programmed it because there are things in there that wouldn’t have been in it if Chris alone had done it. No it’s more the film unit thing.’
A team effort would hardly be worth anything if the members were widely scattered, and in keeping with their think tank theories all the programmers work in-house. Mikro-Gen operates from two sets of premises, there’s Bracknell which houses the marketing, sales and despatch side, and then there’s Ashford in Middlesex which, in the words of Mike, is the nice hushed offices with the coolers for the computers going.
Discussion rapidly moved onto Wally III and the innovations they are developing. As Mike pointed out, Life of Wally is being worked on by the same programmers as did Pyjamarama, so the graphics will be of a similar quality. The real advance is being made in the way the game will play.
‘What we are doing,’ said Paul, ‘is we’re having several characters on the screen and they will be sabotaging Wally, or maybe helping him. On the whole we’ve taken a very logical progression, whether you call them arcade games or adventure games which have become tied together as arcade adventures, doesn’t matter. Now, what has happened with adventure games is that instead of controlling one central character, in things like Lords of Midnight you’re controlling several characters, but in an adventure game. What we’re doing with Life of Wally is we’re taking Pyjamarama one step further into adventure whereby you’re controlling five central characters. You’ve got Wally, his wife Wilma, Tom, Dick and Harry. All of whom are different characters, and will operate different ways.’
‘Wilma is amazing,’ Mike interjected.
Paul laughs; ‘I have to tell you this — Wilma is amazing! I always had it in my mind — and we had great fights about this — that Wilma would be the archetypal dragon. She’s not, she’s gorgeous, she’s a real dolly.’
‘Dolliest woman you could wish to see on the computer screen,’ said Mike, modestly adding, ‘within that size character.’
Paul: ‘And all these different people are going to have different tasks to complete within the game. We’re not telling you what they are, but as you progress through the game you are going to have to find out what those tasks are.’
The outline for Life of Wally is that with in a town the five main characters have to perform certain tasks to keep the town functioning. Repairing the clocks, repairing the jail and so on. Mikro-Gen are not telling people which of the five characters has to do what, and neither will they tell people in what particular order things have to be done.
This increasing complexity in games is what helps keep everything alive, and the interdependence of characters and objects and actions makes for a more enjoyable game, but it also makes it harder for lots of players too, and the proliferation of playing tips is an indication of how much effort these games need. I asked whether magazines were spoiling the fun by printing tips and maps too soon.
Paul: ‘To some degree, yes, if they are printed too early.’
Mike: ‘During the Pyjamarama launch in London in September, someone from Computer & Video Games said to David Parry — he’s only a teenager, handled himself incredibly well — have you got a map? He said yes, of course we’ve got a map. They said, are you going to let us have it? He said No. And they said, well you know we’ll only draw our own. He said Okay you can do but it’ll be wrong, and just that one statement precluded them from printing a map.’
‘Yours was the first to come out, but that was great timing, especially with the tips that went with it, because you didn’t give the whole game away,’ said Paul. Mike went on, ‘We are outlining roughly the main tasks but it’s up to them to find out the rest of those tasks. If somebody wants to say, yes, for those of you having difficulty Tom’s got to do that, then why not? Fine and help them along. But the longer shelf life stems from the fact that nobody is solving it. The difficulty is in making it simple enough for a seven year old kid to play as well as keeping the interest of an eighteen year old brilliant guy. You see, we had a problem in that Pyjamarama was good, but it would have been better if we could have stopped people solving it quite so quickly. It’s frightening how good they are — our programmers thought it would be a considerable period of time, but there you go. So what we’re doing is splitting it up so that Wally gets a morning tea break, then he gets his dinner, then his afternoon tea break. You see there is a great conflict between making things too difficult so that the players feel they have not accomplished anything that day, and making people want to keep on and on and keeping a sort of mystique in that area. And we feel we’ve got over it by introducing this tea break idea. ‘I’ve got to the morning tea break.’ ‘Have you? I’ve got up to dinner!’ This keeps people talking about it all the time. We believe people will want to go on wanting to play if they’ve reached a certain point. We’re open to constructive criticism in this area, if that’s the way people don’t think the game should go then we are quite willing to accept that. But certainly with these breaks people will have a level of achievement that they didn’t necessarily have before and it should make it last for a longer period of time than Pyjamarama lasted for.’
Any sensible hero likes to see his line perpetuated and Wally is obviously no exception, for Life Of Wally will see the introduction of his son and heir — Herbert.
‘He’s the only character that can’t be controlled,’ said Mike. ‘Wally and Wilma’s son — he’s crawling about, and keeps getting in everyone’s way. But the interesting thing is that in our next piece of software which we are already planning for after Wally III, Herbert has actually got to the stage of walking.’
So the Week family is spreading out. I couldn’t resist asking whether Herbert will have a flat cap like Wally.
Paul replied, ‘No, but he’s got a little curl of hair. And he’s going to get lost in the apartment. You’ll see Wally and Wilma stuck just inside the door. It’s going to generate another character.’
Wally has helped Mikro-Gen create more than just more characters. They believe they are going against the current trend of adapting well known books, TV series or films to computer games by crossing Wally over from computer games to other media. As Mike explained; ‘We don’t know if we can pull it off, but we’re going to have a damned good try — we’re going to try to promote Wally and make him strong and go in from the computer side. It’s interesting to note that everyone is trying to ‘cross over’ from films or TV to the computer, but not the other way around.’
Paul added, ‘We’re working from a very successful computer game and then taking it across via music, instead of doing it the other way round like Ghostbusters. They’re playing on the hit film and pop single, Tripods, they’re playing on the BBC thing, we’re doing it the other way round.’
Music? I asked where music came into their plans.
‘What we are doing with Life of Wally,’ said Paul, ‘is that on the reverse side of the cassette there will be a piece of music by a pop star, can’t say who yet because the contracts haven’t been signed yet, and at the moment someone is writing a piece of Wally music which, if it’s good enough will be performed on the reverse side by this pop star and promoted in its own right as a single. The other alternative is that we have a record which does slot perfectly into the Life of Wally and neither is an adaption of the other, which the same pop star will perform, depending on how the music turns out.’
In addition to the pop single, Mike and Paul are discussing several other ideas to extend the ‘crossing’ over effect of Wally. He naturally lends himself to a cartoon strip both drawn and possibly even animated. and the popularity of the character has already led to other demands on Mikro-Gen from the general public. Mike — ‘As you probably realise we never hide from the public every advert that we carry, every jacket, we put the phone number on, so if there’s a problem we like to hear about it. We have a girl on the end virtually non stop — and we’ve had some incredible responses — ’
Paul interrupted, laughing, ‘Yeah, you were rotten to that guy last week! He rang up and said, ‘Hello, I’ve just solved Pyjamarama,’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Oh, am I the first?’ ‘No, not quite the first — we’ve had about 10,000 so far!’
‘I wasn’t that bad! But we certainly have had thousands ringing up to say they have completed it, and demands for a club too. I never realised that people would want to join a Wally club, but we’ve had people wanting to know if there is a Wally club. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. What we will be doing is some Wally badges.’
Has Wally eclipsed any other ideas, I wondered? But it seems not. With their newly rediscovered confidence, Mikro-Gen’s team is trying out some varied ideas, as Mike explained.
‘Well there’s Witches Cauldron which is a sort of very light hearted super-graphics adventure. You’re a frog and you’ve got to turn back into a human being. Then there’s ATC which is an incredibly technical program. Then there’s Treasure Island — that’s only a convenient working title, it won’t be called that of course. We’re trying different things in the market place now. Witches Cauldron is a program that has reasonable graphics in it, but if you put a lot of animation in then you sacrifice the actual adventure. Because the memory that the animated graphics take up you prohibit the writing of the actual adventure. What exactly does the general public actually want? Do they want a complex text adventure with good graphics, or do they want something like Pyjamarama that has no text in it but is a sort of graphical adventure? And by marketing programs like Witches Cauldron we’ve got to let the ball have a fair run in order to see how programs like that actually sell. We’re happy with the quality of the program, but what I’m scared of is people saying that it hasn’t got the animation we’re used to seeing from Mikro-Gen. I think at some point a reviewer is going to say that.’
It’s always a problem if you set a standard to stick to it, and sometimes the standard isn’t suitable to the product. But I wondered whether they were looking seriously at microdrives to increase available memory and thus include Pyjamarama style graphics with text adventures.
‘We’re so unhappy with the microdrive in our software house,’ Mike replied. ‘The cartridges are so expensive. For several months now we have the Timex disk drive and it’s gorgeous. You will be impressed with them believe me. The only problem is that it’s the three inch drive and you can’t get them easily, but I would see more chance in the long term of a company like Timex capturing that market.’ At that point we had to conclude the chat because Ludlow is quite a stretch from Bracknell, and the afternoon was wearing on rapidly. So Paul and Mike headed south again, back to the think tank, badges, pop songs and Wally character development. The results of their endeavours will soon be evident when Life of Wally is released on February the 17th at the LET show.