This month, we send John Minson into the dark recesses of Activision, one of the country’s (nay, the world’s) most successful software houses. There’s more to the company than just Ghostbustin’ as Activision President Greg Fischbach explained — Leslie Bunder asked the supplementary questions.
ONE OF THE more recent developments in software has been the ‘American Invasion’. Just when we Brits thought we had it sewn up with our Manic Miners and Technician Teds the Yanks were coming. Only that invasion never really seemed to happen as time and time again the trans-Atlantic threats revealed themselves to be shoot em ups that were two years out of date.
Activision intend to change all that. Sure, they were responsible for the frantic blaster River Raid and the caverns and ladders Pitfall II but as their President, Greg Fischbach, admits, those games are old, but they’re classics.
‘Activision’s approach is to move the state of the industry. You can only have so many platform games. Yes, you can revisit them or have them as part of another game, but to repeat doesn’t add value for the consumer.’ Which has led to Activision refining some older ideas to look and sound better on one hand while on the other, developing totally original ideas. There was Zenji, for instance, a love it or hate it attempt to do Zen and the art of computer gaming. ‘It was an attempt to do things the audience hadn’t seen.’
Activision itself was formed in 1979, becoming Activision International Inc four years later when Greg joined. He’s had a wide and varied career including Assistant US Attorney before entering private practice as a principal in his own law firm. Acting as a consultant to Activision started his involvement with the company and he’s also been an advisor in the entertainment industry. It came as a pleasant surprise therefore to find how open and friendly this youthful and enthusiastic 42 year old is.
One aspect of Activision that he was keen to emphasise is its truly international nature. Operating units were established here and in France in ’83 and Activision Germany has just opened. Since last year they’ve also achieved substantial sales in the Japanese market via licensing deals. It seems that the much poo-poohed MSX standard is more at home in the land of the rising yen, where games are available on ROM cartridges. However, Greg doesn’t see it succeeding here — yet! The threat to the Spectrum, et al, will come with MSX II or III, he thinks.
Returning to Europe, a product acquisition and development group has been formed to translate software for this side of the pond and, perhaps more importantly, to originate games here. One of the first fruits is Tour de France (for some obscure machine called the Commodore) which despite its Gallic theme and garlic atmosphere was developed in the UK. This is all part of the recognition that different parts of the Activision empire need different approaches.
‘In the USA our strategy is to deal with larger computer memory. In Europe and Japan it’s different.’ Greg puts this down to radically different markets. ‘They’re going in two different directions. The USA is not a games market — it’s a niche market.’ By which he means mostly home and business applications like Printshop or Music Maker. ‘For Britain, with its established distribution and marketing, the distributors will branch out and have other types of software but the user will determine what the new uses are.’
One of the company’s most recent successes has been Ghostbusters, which has already sold over half a million copies in its various versions. It led me to ask Greg about his attitude to tie-ins and it transpires that he has a somewhat privileged position. Based in Los Angeles and with many contacts in the Hollywood entertainment community, he gets to see scripts before they’re even filmed. ‘But since Ghostbusters I’ve only seen one film I thought suitable for a computer release. A game has to stand alone, and a tie-in can help sell it, but a duff product won’t sell. Ghostbusters was sensational. It had the music, the voice — four or five hooks.’
Some people would disagree — were those hooks quite so sensational when translated to the Spectrum’s limited sound capabilities? A good chunk of criticism has been levelled at the Spectrum version of Ghostbusters, but nevertheless over 100,000 Spectrum copies have been sold since its release last December. ‘I think there was a lot of unfair criticism from the press,’ Greg commented, ‘what they expected was a bit hopeful. There was no way we could incorporate the Ghostbusters music in the Spectrum software because of the way the Spectrum’s sound output works. It isn’t able to produce three voices, like the Commodore, so without additional hardware it’s not possible to get three voices out of the Spectrum. As far as gameplay is concerned, there’s no major difference between the Commodore and Spectrum versions. We’ve kept all the hooks people enjoy, such as the graphics, speech and the way the game is played. Apart from the music, I wouldn’t say there was a major difference between the two versions.’
Some people felt that Ghostbusters was overpriced at £9.95: ‘Yes, but again that came from the press. If people thought the game was overpriced, do you think we would have sold over 100,000 copies? The public seem to have loved the game; as far as the pricing is concerned, we didn’t get one single complaint from the public. For £9.95 you have a game you can play again and again.’
Naturally I was interested in Activision’s attitude to conversions. Talking with the members of the British end of the operation, I got the idea that they too were worried about bad comparisons with Commodore versions (that thing again — I must ask Ed what it is) and are not averse to originating software for Sir Clive’s brainchild.
As the occasion of the interview was a preview of pre-Christmas releases, it was interesting to see that only three out of seven will be available for the Spectrum. Too many games have proved impossible to convert. ‘We look upon the Spectrum as a games machine. It’s popular because of the machine and software prices. Programs went into the marketplace quickly and kids were soon writing for it. So despite the limitations of sound and colours, I don’t think it is going to go away.’ We can guarantee that, Greg!
Of these three releases, Mindshadow is an illustrated adventure in which you awake on a deserted beach having lost your memory. Though I didn’t see enough of the game to be able to evaluate its originality, it claims to contain a special help character to assist and entertain the player, as well as the more usual logic puzzles.
Activision are pledged to adding depth to their games, so their forthcoming addition to the spate of boxing games comes with a strategic element as well as Barry McGuigan’s name attached. There are different fighting styles and training routines as well as more basic matters like the colours of your man’s trunks (I always choose red — less likely to show the blood). It’s been written by Sportswar Productions, a specialist house noted for such simulations, and Greg told me that its writer even went a couple of rounds in the ring to ensure accuracy! Your opponents even boast limited AI, changing techniques as the fight progresses.
Sport of the future is the theme of Ballblazer from Lucasfilm Games. It’s the Hollywood connection again as the people who gave you Star Wars (the movie) let their software wing create an ultra fast-moving ball game, taking place over the surface of one of those odd checkerboard planets with split screen views and lots of one or two player action. It looks great on the Atari, so let’s hope the Spectrum version doesn’t lose out.
Sadly, the innovative Somebody’s In My Computer, which opens a window on Lilliputian micro-squatters, is far too complex to convert, but The Great American Cross-Country Road Race, a release which adds route planning and speed-trap dodging to the driving game, will appear as The Great European ditto. This has created its own problems though. In America you just drive West till you fall in the Pacific — Europe isn’t such a neat shape.
Possibly the most intriguing program not at the preview is provisionally titled Music box. While the joke at Activision’s HQ was ‘How do you get stereo sound out of the Spectrum?’ ‘Hold one up to each ear’, valiant efforts have continued to provide our beloved if a trifle quiet machine with an equivalent of the Commodore success, Music Studio. While its capabilities are still to be finalised, being a matter of trading off features against each other as memory allows, it’s 90% finished and sounds fascinating.
Meanwhile, Activision moves into its second five years with a positive approach voiced by Greg Fischbach: ‘We try to push ourselves as leader and sometimes we stub our toe because we’re willing to take the chances, because we’re willing to offer the consumer something they’ve not seen before.’
Following our interview with Rod Cousens in the September Issue, news breaks that Rod’s new company Electric Dreams is signed to Activision. As this is being written, Activision are remaining tight lipped — the official announcement is due in a couple of weeks. They would reveal, however, that the tie-up fits in with Activision’s long term strategy, which looks towards starting a second or maybe a third label, and Rod approached them some months ago...
Two titles for the Spectrum are well underway, and should be revealed at the Personal Computer World Show. With luck, and a following wind, there should be further details on the news pages of this issue.