Sean Masterson goes to see PAULA BYRNE (She’s wonderful) and GEOFF HEATH of Melbourne House

For some reason, British Rail and I just don’t get on. It’s something I haven’t quite managed to put my finger on yet, but it seems that they know whenever I’m going to catch a train. I amble down to the station (any one, it doesn’t matter) and their look-outs see me coming and warn their superiors. Then, just as I enter the station, they announce late departures which inevitably include my train. I suppose I’ll just have to learn to live with it. This particular morning, I was patient. I got a coffee and waited for another announcement. Soon I was on my way, regardless of their pitiful attempt to prevent me.

Actually finding the Melbourne House office, when I arrived in London, was fairly easy. It’s one city I never seem to get lost in even though I can’t claim to be familiar with the sprawling metropolis. Catching a couple of tubes to Richmond Park followed by a brisk walk in the autumn sun, and I was at their door.

The company occupies a spacious ground floor office in a well hidden, but new block. Gold tinted windows guard secrets of upcoming games from over inquisitive eyes. Impressive. Almost as high-tech looking as CRASH Towers.

‘Melbourne House are an independent sales and marketing team.’ That was a fact repeated several times by Paula Byrne, the company’s publicity manager, determined from the start to make me understand just what Melbourne House is. She typifies the strong sense of teamwork that pervades the Richmond offices.

Geoff Heath, the man who makes a ritual out of pizza consumption

I had arrived there just in time for lunch. That meant pizzas or chicken salads. Somehow I managed to have a chicken salad without the chicken. Sat at a massive table with everybody tucking in to steaming hot pizzas, their eyes all glued to the food, I felt part of some pagan ceremony — out of these pizzas great games do come. I felt really guilty telling them I was allergic to cheese. Ex-Activision man, Geoff Heath now runs Melbourne House UK. I realised that I was dealing with a dedicated business man when he decided that lunch was no excuse to stop working. He began quizzing everyone present (including myself) about what they thought of the PCW show. I thought I’d take advantage of the situation. What did he think of this year’s show. ‘We see it as a success,’ he assured me. Paula added, ‘We got an amazing feedback from the people who actually buy the games, not just the dealers.’

Mind you, it’s easy to understand why they did think of the show as a success. Way of the Exploding Fist zooming up the charts and a promising looking product called Fighting Warrior on constant demo. That hasn’t done too badly either. But then again, as members of the team are quick to point out, Melbourne House rarely make mistakes. This air of self confidence was the next thing to strike me about the atmosphere in their office.

They’re a funny bunch, who look at life very matter of factly. ‘I don’t think we’ve ever had an unfair review,’ said Paula. That sums them up. Mind you, working for MH, it’s not a difficult boast to make. Most of their reviews have been praising rather than critical. They have always been known for coming out of the void every now and then to produce a classic game. Then they disappear again, out of sight. Now they see that as changing. Quantity and quality are two factors they want to combine. The Hobbit allowed them to achieve fame and strength while the English computer games market was still young and very healthy. Situations change, however. No company can afford to wait most of the year in the hope that the next title will pull in a fortune. Even so, the company still has one of the largest research and development budgets in the UK.

Few people are aware of the way that the company works, but all was soon revealed. As Paula had already told me: the English Melbourne House is an independent outfit. They contracted a software development team called Studio B. From here, Fighting Warrior had emerged. They work at the rear of the main office, partitioned off and existing, for most of the time, in a kind of techno-squalor. A brand new C128 and disk drive lay sprawled almost un-noticed on a table, while a Sargasso Sea of power supplies, peripheral leads and other paraphernalia defied anyone to pass without risking life and limb.

The Studio B band gave me a look at Gyroscope while it was being developed. There wasn’t much to see at the time, however. I did catch a more interesting glimpse of Mugsy’s Revenge though. Now this was something interesting. An incredibly well animated sequence of a murder in a club as seen from a nearby office block. Apparently, the plot is that Mugsy is out of prison after his last series of escapades and this time he has to start from scratch to build his hoodlum empire. The new animated sections will really make your eyes water.

When they work on putting one of their games onto another machine, they don’t see themselves as just converting it. Each different machine has something to take advantage of and this is a factor they bear in mind constantly. As a result, fast conversions may not always be possible. But each one stands on its own, in no way looking derivative. It’s the work of dedicated programmers. Often burning the midnight oil to see their ideas turned into reality, they prove Paula’s point about teamwork perfectly.

The company also work closely with their Australian and American sister companies, who deal mainly with Commodore software because of the markets over there. Even so, it was the Australians who came up with Way of the Exploding Fist, the biggest success on the Spectrum so far, this year. Then of course, there is the book publishing section of the company. They have produced more technical and games books for the whole range of modern micros than could possibly be mentioned here. Yet, like the software side of the company, they keep a very low key.

‘Some games material comes from outside sources,’ said Paula, talking about Gyroscope, ‘but then our people work on it.’ Fine, but what about Lord of the Rings? Ah, well. I couldn’t see the game working at the time, but I was given a little appetiser. At the time of the visit, it had not been decided what the graphics proportion of the adventure would be, but there was plenty of quality material ready for the game. Not only that, but there would be an improved parser, much like Level 9’s improved interaction device. The game is presented in a thick video case package with two cassettes, the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, a guide book to get you started if you’ve never played The Hobbit and game specific instructions. Gimme, gimme!

Between Paula’s desk and the Studio B hovel, was Andy Wood’s domain. Andy, a refugee from Activision, came to Melbourne House to become their National Sales Manager. He already had the experience needed, gained from promoting Ghostbusters last year. With Melbourne House he had his Christmas work cut out for him. Massive emphasis on point of sale presentation for the new games was required. For Andy, that meant a lot of phone calls and no mean amount of co-ordination. An unimposing and genial man, it’s hard to imagine anything worrying him. He just does his job and enjoys it.

To complicate matters for Andy and everyone else, the company are aiming for simultaneous release for their new games. It makes advertising easier, stocking easier and stops the kids from becoming frustrated. This however, will probably be achieved gradually rather than with the very next game.

But what of the next game. Everybody is aware of the imminent release of Lord of the Rings and Mugsy’s Revenge but there are others. Although, Paula explained that a release date has not been set, there is Big Daddy’s Rock and Wrestle, a departure from the boxing look-alikes that could well spawn a few clones of its own. Gyroscope a maddening game in which you guide a gyroscope across a scrolling course, should be in the shops by the time you read this (certainly is. There’s a review in this issue — ED). Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race promises to add something new to the sports simulation scene while fans of the ‘cartoon adventures’ currently being developed should enjoy the smooth and colourful animation in Asterix. Like they said, quantity and quality are the company’s targets from now on.

Further into the future, and company strategy isn’t quite so apparent. The sixteen bit revolution is just around the corner (so they tell us) but when it does come, Melbourne House should be able to take it in their stride and come out showing a profit. They are a friendly bunch who work in a subtle but amicable atmosphere. That comes over from the moment you enter the office. I doubt if anything the future holds bothers them too much.

Originality is one quality the company never seems to have lost. The know the strength of a good idea and the kind of marketing it will require to reach the top. They are open minded and will consider anyone’s ideas. If they’re sound ideas, they can and do make the most of them. Although nobody mentioned it, the level of professionalism in their office is difficult to surpass. Perhaps that’s why they are so successful.

Must be all those pizzas...

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