One-time reviewer and Playing Tipster ROBIN CANDY returns to the pages of CRASH to discuss the arguments for and against a software industry run by distributors and large software houses.

Flicking through the pages of the very first issue of CRASH (February 1984), it soon becomes apparent that the number of software houses in operation in those far off days was greater than today’s. Such names as Abacus, DJL Software, Starzone and Doric graced the pages. That month’s top game (this was the pre-CRASH Smash era) was 3D Death Chase by Micromega, a company which went on to produce several top-notch games, but disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

Many of today’s big names were either in their infancy or non-existent — for instance, a fledgling Ocean had recently changed their name from Spectrum, and Firebird were a long way from their first release. The only really big software house of the time was Imagine, a company armed with the marketing power we take for granted nowadays (however the Liverpudlian company were wound up for failing to pay their substantial advertising debts, and the rights to Imagine’s name and logo were eventually purchased from the Receiver by a rapidly growing Ocean). In general, the software industry was a home-run affair controlled by enthusiasts rather than businessmen.

One of the advantages of a software industry run by larger companies is that there’s no longer a need to sell via mail order; they have the power to get into the chain stores and create a shop-based market. During the early Eighties most software was purchased through mail-order. Numerous classified advertisements festooned the pages of magazines, promoting games with ‘High Res Graphics’, ‘Amazing Sound’ and the infamous ‘100% Machine Code.’ Having sent the cheque or postal order, the customer then waited the customary 28 days... but all too often it took slightly longer for the game to appear.

When your box of delights did finally arrive, it often turned out that the product didn’t live up to the advertisement’s boasts — in fact the game was inevitably some clone of the Pacman or Donkey Kong type that were so popular in the arcades. One particular product which springs to mind is the motor racing simulation Formula One (Spirit Software) which was advertised as including a steering wheel for extra realism. When the game eventually turned up, after inquires by the police into the software house’s background, the so-called ‘steering wheel’ proved to be nothing more than an ashtray-shaped plastic bowl, which was rolled along the top row of keys to steer the car from left to right.

Of course the real problem with mail order was the worry about whether you would actually receive your goods at all. Tales of companies folding after cashing customers’ cheques were not uncommon, and there was little the public could do in this event. After the computer sales boom of 83/84, more specialist software shops opened and the big chain stores joined the market. This led to the eventual decline of the mail order market.

Some of the main Spectrum games-producing companies which existed in 1984 but that are either no longer with us, have been bought out, or have otherwise changed their circumstances dramatically:

In August 83 Ian Sinclair of IJK (a company that produced games for the Oric and BBC) wrote ‘... the public loves arcade games, while reviewers hate them, and original games have the opposite effect.’ Things haven’t changed much, and although the success of many original games has proved that there is a niche for them, many of today’s best-sellers are arcade conversions or variants on that theme. Arcade originals are designed to entice the player to part with money and flash up the ‘Game Over’ message as quickly as possible, ready for the next unwitting customer. When translating a program to a home computer format, the programmer strives to emulate the features that made the original successful. These usually consist of outstanding graphics, superb sound and an overall impression that a lot is happening on screen. Naturally such features swallow up memory, leaving little room to create any game ‘depth’. Many arcade games lose their atmosphere when translated to a home computer; for instance, one of the attractions of Gauntlet was trying to find one more 10p before your character died!

Thus many arcade conversions sell well on appearances alone. Conversely the more complex arcade adventures, like those produced by Gargoyle Games and Hewson, manage to create a game with more behind it than zapping everything in sight — but usually at the expense of the graphics. This type of game can achieve a reasonable standard of graphics, but rarely as good as their arcade rivals. A case in point are two games by Gargoyle/FTL. The first, Marsport, was an arcade adventure of great depth, and while its graphics were quite good, they eventually became boring. An arcade game by the same programmers, Lightforce, produced outstanding graphics and animation, while the game itself was quite straightforward.

It seems that outstanding gameplay coupled with great graphics is almost unobtainable. What this is all leading up to is that the bigger software houses seem to produce games that catch the eye rather than striving for originality. Any new idea that sells well is quickly done to death by the numerous clones that follow hard on its heels — just look at the number of martial arts titles available. When Ultimate’s Knight Lore first appeared, it introduced an ingenious method of presentation. Since then the same style has been used on many games, ensuring a certain level of sales. Games which use these graphics are playing safe in much the same way that the Pacman clones of yesteryear did.

Much of the software industry is now run by highly efficient corporations, who control the interests of smaller software labels. This means that the direction which new software takes is in the hands of a relatively small number of people. This includes the main distributors, who have selection boards to decide whether a game is worth distributing — after all, you can only buy what’s been released...

When Deus Ex Machina (a program devised by Mel Croucher) was released, the selection boards rejected it because it couldn’t be easily categorised — despite the rave reviews it received from many magazines. Consequently the game did not do as well as it deserved. These large companies are in the business to achieve maximum market penetration of their products. To do this money is poured into lavish advertising campaigns to promote products which often don’t live up to the expectations raised by such marketing strategies.

Licensing deals are currently all the rage, particularly if they’re tie-ins with the latest hit movies. The product has to be released while the film is still firmly fixed in the public’s mind, and by the time the advertising has been booked and the deal bought, there’s little time or money left to be spent on the actual product. As a result, the end product has had to be put together hurriedly, and is often a rather poor game with little connection to the film. Rambo was an average game which sold well because of the film tie-in; in reality it was nothing more than a variant on the well-worn Commando-type game.

The smaller software houses that do specialize in original games without the need for tie-ins don’t get the financial rewards they deserve because they can’t afford the lavish advertising campaigns needed to promote their products. Micromega was a software house that created original high-quality games, but their parent company felt the returns were not high enough to justify continuing in the games software market — a case of a company disappearing despite producing popular games. Smaller companies just can’t compete with the marketing skills of the likes of Ocean and Fire bird. In order to ensure financial success, some software houses have resorted to selling their products through a third party. This is usually one of the bigger software houses, as in the case of Firebird and Realtime, Level 9 and Rainbird — in both cases, British Telecom are the driving force. To be fair to the larger companies though, this does allow the design teams to concentrate their skills on the end product rather than on how to sell it.

The advantages and disadvantages of this industry structure are easily summarised: software is now more easily available at specialist shops and chain stores; there’s little risk of not getting your product after parting with your money; programmers don’t have to worry about how to market games. There are of course disadvantages: hype can lead to raised expectations for a product which turns out to sub-standard; smaller companies find it hard to compete; originality sometimes suffers because software houses don’t always want to risk putting out a new game concept.