‘Seeing Is Believing’ is Firebird’s catchphrase, and since they’ve had no less than three CRASH SMASHES in the few months they’ve been operating, we thought it was about time we went to their London HQ and saw for ourselves. Accordingly, the tea kitty took yet another pounding to fund a trip to the heart of London’s theatreland where ‘The Boys from Buzby’ have their perch...

AS A SOFTWARE HOUSE, FIREBIRD is a little unusual on two counts: first it has a complete range of ‘budget’ games which sell at £2.50 and are rather more polished than a lot of the software at the cheaper end of the market, secondly, they are owned by British Telecom. It’s not immediately obvious why BT should wish to be ‘The Power Behind the Joystick’, but given their involvement in electronic publishing via Prestel (where there be Micronet) and Gamestar, actually producing software for sale in shops is not that illogical a move for the company. Dr Ederyn Williams, the General Manager of BT’s New Information Services Division set up Firebird in the Spring of 1984, and in May they started advertising for programs. The rest is rapidly becoming history.

Nearly two thousand programs arrived for evaluation during the first three months of Firebird’s life, and Tony Rainbird was persuaded to leave his own software label (Micro-Gold) and join Firebird to get the ball rolling in June. James Leavey, who came from within Telecom, was signed up on internal transfer (he’s very coy about the fee!), and began work in July on the Public Relations / Promotion / Advertising front.

During the summer of 1984 a lady by the name of Theresa Jackson, a marketing analyst, profiled the software market on behalf of Firebird. The early ‘gut feeling’ that a two tier pricing policy, with a Gold and Silver range would be the right approach was proved to be sound by her research. Firebird had to decide whether to jump into the market in time for Christmas, or wait until the 1985 season. They jumped in, having made decisions about prices, distribution and promotion during July.

From the start, Firebird has taken an honest approach — a ‘Plain Jane approach’ as one of the sexist pigs (who shall remain nameless) described it! None of this £2.99 lark to try and lull people into thinking they are buying a two pound game when they’re really shelling out three quid.

‘We could see that customers were getting disillusioned by some games, with hyped up artwork on the cassette inlay, and over the top claims in the blurb. Often, when you go into a computer shop the sales assistant won’t let you load a game before you buy it, and it’s clear that people could be disappointed by games they bought once they’ve got them home and started playing them. We decided to feature actual screen shots on the front covers of our Silver Range cassettes — our budget collection — and it is the distinctive mark of the Firebird range. Other people followed our lead,’ James Leavey explained.

And there is little doubt that Firebird have had quite a marked effect on the budget software market. ‘Affordability’ is the underlying principle of the Silver Range, and each title within their portfolio is carefully polished before release. ‘We feel that budget software opens up the market,’ Tony Rainbird chipped in, ‘we realised that there are two ends to the market, and that budget software is going to be a growing area. Just because a game is cheap doesn’t mean it has to be tacky — and it should still be good value for its price’. With Booty, a twenty screen arcade adventure, Firebird hit it right — their first CRASH SMASH was included in their initial handful of budget games released for the Spectrum, and has just passed the hundred thousand sales barrier.

‘We took the initiative with budget software. Having decided that last summer was the best entry point to achieve sales turnover and promote the Firebird name, we set about creating acceptance with the retail trade.’ Any software company which achieves sales of a quarter of a million titles within ten weeks of launch, can clearly claim to have ‘created acceptance’ with the shopkeepers and games players. The team behind Firebird are naturally well pleased with their efforts.

‘Obviously on a £2.50 game there’s not so much money available to the retailer per tape sold as there would be with a £7.95 or £9.95 game’, Tony continued, ‘but we pointed out that a smaller profit per game, when it was achieved on a high volume of sales, could result in a larger profit overall.’ It’s the Supermarket versus corner shop principle, in effect. If you can sell a hundred tins of beans and make 1p profit on each one, it’s better than selling ten cans and making 5 or 6p a time.

But was it just another case of a megacorporation realising the potential of getting involved in the games market?

‘Just because we’re part of British Telecom people have this image of us as faceless bureaucrats, having endless meetings. If that were the case, we’d just never get anything done. We are serious about the business side of things — but not always about the software,’ James Leavey explained. ‘We’re a profit centre, not a British Telecom Flagship,’ Tony added, ‘obviously we’ve got the backing of British Telecom, and are part of a very large company, but we still have to work within budgets. We have to make money, not pour it down the drain.’

The Silver Range will always contain games for the non-specialist, non-dedicated games player, and the aim is to keep twenty-four different titles in the portfolio of budget software at any one time. Every three months or so, Firebird plans to change eight or twelve of the Silver games, replacing the titles which are selling least well — or just introducing better games to improve the overall quality of the range. (Lloyd Mangram should have details of the latest changes scheduled in ‘Merely Mangram’ this issue.) With versions of some games available for more than one computer, it won’t be long before Firebird has a product range of some fifty items.

‘We have no plans for compilation tapes in the future apart from a one-off which we’ll tell you about later, but we may well take on games produced by other software houses which haven’t achieved their full potential — perhaps games which have been sold at a higher price, and have exhausted the market at that level. We will continue to promote our budget range positively as budget titles, continuing with our ‘full frontal’ approach,’ Tony explained.

With the advent of Shuttlesoft, sat up by Mastertronic to specialise in distributing budget software, Firebird is likely to continue going places in the budget software market — other than Mastertronic, Firebird is Shuttlesoft’s only supplier. Mastertronic’s M.D., Martin Alper, has gone on record as saying that Firebird is the only budget software company likely to stay in business — apart from his own firm, of course!

Firebird’s Gold Range, which so far has seen two CRASH SMASHES in three releases (Gyron and Buggyblast) seems set for success. Herbie Wright joined Firebird in the New Year to become Project Manager for the Gold Range, leaving James Leavey as Mr Silver.

‘A Gold game has to be special,’ Herbie stated. ‘it’s got to have Ingredient X. We’ve not got a schedule of releases for the Gold Range — each program is a one-off, and we will release as many or as few as are justified by the quality of the programs.’

Demons of Topaz for the Commodore 64 and the CRASH Smashed Buggy Blast for the Spectrum were the first two Gold Editions. Retailing at £5.95, they are low-priced games, given many of today’s prices. Gyron, the latest addition to the Gold Range will sell for £9.95 — and there’s a Porsche up for grabs for the first person to complete the puzzle. Elite, which should be on the streets as you read this, is available for the Commodore 64, on disk, at £17.95. (Full details of this whizzo game can be found in our sister magazine, ZZAP 64!.) Elite should be available on the Spectrum in late summer, but the price has yet to be fixed, and the conversion completed.

Herbie has responsibility for the production and marketing of the games for the Gold Range, having joined Firebird from VNU. Each Gold Game is treated as a separate project. ‘We polish each Gold Game to a very high level before we release it, and use expensive artwork to promote it,’ Herbie explained, ‘Some will include prizes, like Gyron, which has to be reflected in the price. We haven’t set a uniform price for the Gold Collection in the same way as we have for the Silver games — each game will be priced according to its value and the level of effort involved in programming it. Gyron, for instance, was written by a team of programmers, and took the equivalent of four man-years to complete. At £9.95 including the chance to win a very expensive motor car, it’s hardly overpriced.’

‘We won’t put out anything that’s half-baked in the Gold Collection,’ Herbie assured us, ‘each and every program must be full-baked.’

So how does Firebird get its programs written? British Telecom has vast experience of working with computers in the business and telecommunications fields — does Firebird have a pool of Telecom talent to draw on?

‘We haven’t any in-house programmers’, James explained, ‘all our programs in the Gold Collection come from software houses or groups of programmers working together on a project. The Silver games generally come from freelance programmers. We will back programmers with loans for equipment, and by paying them a proportion of the royalties for a game in advance — but we have no plans at the moment for staff programmers.

‘Some programs come in as storyboards rather then completed programs, others are virtually complete. If we’re commissioning a program from storyboards, we’ll monitor the design while the code is being written. From the original design stages to about half way in the coding process, we leave our programmers to get on with the job. At the later stage we become involved in the run-up to the final product.’

Firebird’s plans do not include utilities in the short term: ‘At present we don’t have the staff to support technical enquiries, which is vital if you are going to publish utilities properly,’ Tony Rainbird commented, ‘obviously we’ve got people in the office who can write code, but they’re busy enough as it is!’

‘Alternative Entertainment’ and Educational Programs are the two directions in which Firebird plans to move over the coming months. Despite being pressed, Tony wouldn’t reveal what he meant by ‘Alternative Entertainment’ — so we’ll all have to wait and see! He did, however, let slip that Firebird will probably be publishing a certain music program the rights to which have been acquired by the Big F — possibly in slightly different form to the one it’s Xoready in! Check this month’s Tech Niche and place your bets...

Stumping out of Telecom Towers into a grey drizzle after the interview was over, I was left with a distinct impression: the reality behind Firebird is quite the opposite of the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ image that it is easy to associate with a large corporation moving into the software market. James and Tony have become used to working long hours, and the whole team’s commitment and dedication shows through. There’s the same atmosphere of enthusiasm and interest in Firebird’s offices as you would find in any small software house. And they have a lot of fun too!

They don’t lack a sense of humour either — the release of a tape called ‘Don’t Buy This’ is imminent. A compilation, containing a number of games which didn’t quite make the Silver Range, DBT is going to be a masterpiece of anti-hype. The cassette inlay blurb suggests that the tape would make an ideal blank, if you cover over the lugs, and reminds potential purchasers that Firebird takes no responsibility for the total unplayability of the games it contains. Ironically, the mob at Firebird have still put a lot of effort into putting their polish onto these rotten games. Well, not so rotten, just a bit Naff as the trendies would say.

What the big cheeses at the top of the Telecom Tree are to say when they see ‘Don’t Buy This’ is anyone’s guess.

Shortly before this piece was written, James Scoulur, the head of Firebird, died in hospital of a heart attack. Before joining Firebird, James was the publisher of Personal Computer Games magazine. His contribution to both sides of the software business has been considerable. His expertise and ready sense of humour will be deeply missed, net least by the members of the Firebird team, who attribute much of their success to James’ drive and ambitions for the company.