When Microsphere collected another CRASH Smash, it was time to send ace investigative reporter, Charles P Cohen along to see the dynamic duo of Helen and David Reidy. They came to see us, while Skool Daze was nearly finished, and spent the day taking us round the classrooms while their car was being attended to by the Ludlow Car Doctor. It was Walpurgisnacht (Halloween to most of us) when Charles P set off on his trek across London ...
T’was the eve of Halloween. Looking carefully about I pulled my coat closer around me and warily approached the building. In the orange glow of the street lamps and the silver moon I pressed the bell. A woman opened the door, and, summoning up my courage I said “Hello. I’m from CRASH. I’m here to do the interview. You are Microsphere aren’t you?”
She smiled. On Halloween, a smile means many things.
“Yes”, she said, “I’m Helen. Please come in.”
So I left the night to its own devices, and stepped into the Microsphere.
Microsphere is a husband and wife team who have been writing some of the most original and lasting games for the Spectrum since the year dot (1982 actually), when the machine was launched. These veterans of the industry have brought us such gems as Wheelie, Skyranger, The Train Game, and the incomparable Skool Daze with its follow-up Back to Skool — their latest CRASH Smash. In early 1983 they also branched out into the serious software market, when Dave wrote Omnicalc — one of the first and best pro spreadsheets for the Spectrum. If the Spectrum had caught on as a business machine then maybe Dave and Helen would now be the premier business software company ... But then maybe CRASH wouldn’t exist. Perhaps things are best left as they are.
Microsphere was set up in 1982 as a casual arrangement, while Dave was working as a system analyst and Helen was working as a Primary School teacher.
Naming the company was their first major task. Those were the days when any respectable software producer had ‘Micro’ in its name. “Microsphere” seemed to encompass all that the company represented — little, and round with no sharp edges. What’s more, Microsphere sounds a bit more plausible than “Hyper Mega Micro Big Ad Crummy Games Software Inc Ltd VIP”.
At first, Microsphere was just a holding company, arranging sub contracts for hardware manufacturers (Translation: Microchip maker’s middle man), and this also allowed Dave to do some freelance work for other people. Soon, however, seeing a market for high quality and cheap software for Clive’s baby, they branched out into the Spectrum, with The Train Game, and Omnicalc.
Microsphere’s games are very original; different from the rest of the market. This may have something to do with the way Dave works. He doesn’t play anyone else’s games — just reads about them in CRASH. What’s more, he doesn’t use an Assembler or any other conveniences like that. I asked him, Don’t you get many bugs?
“Oh no”, he replied, “Only one or two little ones here and there”. He writes the code out on paper first, and then Helen keys it all into the computer (aaah). The planning stage for games is understandably very long — especially with the Skool games, which require oodles of complex interaction. In Back to Skool for instance, there are thirty-two independent characters, all doing their own thing.
Talking of Helen, she’s given up full-time kiddie bashing (sorry — teaching) and now organises most of the administration, such as licking stamps, writing letters, liaising with buyers from the chain stores and taking care of minor matters, such as keying in programs. These daze, she only teaches once a week, to keep her hand in. The idea for Skool Daze stemmed from Helen’s experiences: Dave and Helen then sat down with the basic idea and dreamt up a whole range of “Extra Curricular” activities that skoolkids get up to — the whole point of the games is to commit all these grievous crimes and get away with it.
Microsphere plan to continue their original approach to games design: there are no plans to get involved with licensing deals, for instance. Helen believes that professionalism is very important these days, and she and David agree that licensing is a bad thing for Spectrum gaming, because it is generally used as an excuse for publishing crummy games and clocking up a nice little profit.
Neither Helen nor Dave feel that they are particularly well blessed with artistic capabilities. So they have this professional artist fellow, Keith Warrington, who comes in and does all the graphics for them. (He teaches, too, so there’s a fund on background information to draw on for the Skool games.) The Turbo Load is all theirs, though, and they spend many hours checking every batch of tapes. Reliability is a strong concern at Microsphere, and they are only happy with a 99.9% success rate on duplicated games.
A lot of Helen’s time is spent “running round in circles, chasing people and being chased”. Quite a few people write letters to Helen you know. She tries to provide personal replies to as many as she can, but everyone gets an answer of of some sort... once she gave lines to a correspondent for being impertinent. Can’t win, can you?
With large companies getting more and more involved with the home computer software market, doesn’t life get difficult for the small independent software house? “It’s certainly more of a struggle,” Helen admitted, “there’s more hassle involved. Not so long ago, buyers from the large chain stores were happy to take half-decent software from anyone. Nowadays it seems they re more concerned with your advertising budget and the size of your box — it’s very difficult to get a good game from a small software house into the large stores.”
The market has changed radically over the past couple of years. “I loved the happy jumble sale atmosphere of the early Microfairs,” Helen admitted. “With the large companies entering the market and making a name for themselves with blanket advertising in the magazines and TV coverage, things have changed quite radically. There’s no way we can afford to approach selling games that way, but we’re doing well enough.”
Microsphere has no plans to expand. Licensing deals are simply not considered, and while Dave and Helen have no shortage of good game ideas the number of hours available to them in any given day tends to limit their output to a couple of games a year. “We won’t be taking on programmers so we can get bigger — we’re happy where we are now,” Helen explained.
But wait! There is more. I can exclusively reveal that not only are Microsphere releasing a new game at Easter, (“If you have your wits about you, you should able to work out the title” Dave said.) Furthermore, Back to Skool is the second program in a trilogy. Yes, more bad spelling and late nights next summer! Gosh. Clues to the new Skool game are hidden in BTS, so get looking.