Did originality die beautiful and young? Has the back bedroom given way to the corporate boardroom? MIKE DUNN takes a took at homegrown software and wonders whether creative flair is in danger of becoming
WAY, WAY BACK in the early days of Spectrum computing, there were an awful lot of people voicing fears about big business killing individual creative imagination. Everybody in the industry — programmers, journalists, the general public was aware of the slow but steady increase in the domination of companies like Ocean.
Ocean’s rise wasn’t particularly fast, and didn’t attract much attention in its early stages, but now no-one can deny that Ocean is one of the very few ambitious companies which ‘bestride the narrow world like a Colossus’.
And as you look back through early Spectrum mags — not just CRASH — you notice in editorials, interviews and programmer profiles that many computer people foresaw this. Some realised, though, that the best games were created by freelance programmers who worked on their own and were often quite young and inexperienced in big business.
These lone programmers had many defenders. After all, Matthew Smith was one such when he conceived and developed Manic Miner (Bug Byte, later Software Projects), one of the all time Spectrum classics, in 1983.
And other aspiring young superstars were hurriedly learning to program machine code, hoping to repeat Smith’s megabuck success. But while they spent their nights fumbling away on rubber, big companies were going places.
Were industry giants like the original Imagine taking away the creativity of the Spectrum market by producing games to strict designs?
Imagine promised two games which would change the world, Psyclapse and Bandersnatch. And even after Imagine collapsed in the summer of 1984, Ocean purchased the label for arcade conversions, and software houses went on buying each other or being bought.
Creative genius had had its day, and the amateur businesspersons were trampled into the dust by the Italian leather and Gucci shoes of the software giants.
Since then, the novice has had a harder and harder time of it. Really original games are getting more elusive in the high-street stores, replaced by more arcade conversions, more 3-D shoot-’em-ups, more forced-perspective arcade adventures. The Sentinels and Knight Lores are few and far between.
But where does that leave our teenage computer freak, trying to learn to program in between going to college and doing the other vital things in life (food, drink, music, women...)?
He can buy a commercial game-writing utility, put his concept into playable form and send it off to a software house for assessment and possible publication. He can spend a year learning machine code and the next year trying to master it, and run the many risks of offering it to major houses as freelance work. Or he can start his own company, in a small way, and maybe try and persuade some small local newsagent to stock his product till he has enough to put his game out into the real world.
Several software houses have tried their hands at DIY games utilities: Gilsoft’s Quill and Illustrator, Incentive’s Graphic Adventure Creator, Melbourne House’s ancient H.U.R.G. and more recently CRL’s 3D Game Maker are the major products. And these packages are the simplest ways to get into writing games, though it isn’t programming in the usual sense of the word.
If you have the idea for a game but don’t know machine code, this is the solution for you.
And companies like Delta 4, responsible for the excruciatingly funny Boggit and Bored Of The Rings, must be thankful for the utility programmers who helped them let their imaginations run riot. But unfortunately not all Quilled games reach that level. A lot of them are very similar and a lot of them are very boring, and that’s probably why a lot of them don’t get any commercial success.
Freelance programming has its risks, and its rewards. Success depends on the skill of the programmer; software houses are unlikely to take much interest in a Pac-Man game written mainly in BASIC.
And software houses have to be impressed if they’re to take on freelance work. Obviously their standards vary; the giants are likely to be more selective than most budget houses (though I sometimes wonder when playing games for review!).
Going it alone, starting your own software house, is probably the riskiest route (see Derek Brewster’s practical comments in this section). If you start a company of your own, you’ll have to stand up in court if anything goes wrong. The risks are high, and so is the initial cost. Make sure you can handle it, or stay out.
But there is a market for home-grown software. It’s like the market for fanzines — while most people would rather pay more for a glossy professional piece, there are still a lot of people who would prefer a cheaper, if less flash, homemade sort of game.
CRASH would like to help homegrown software come out of the bottom drawer, with the occasional roundup review of what’s being produced. Send your home-grown Spectrum games and details about your company, price, etc to: Homegrown Software, CRASH.
IT’S DIFFICULT to know where the dividing line between professional and home-grown software lies, but for the sake of argument let’s draw it between professional and homemade covers. (Some might move the line to the availability of the software in the shops — a little extreme?)
A home-based group should stick to a plain oft-the-shelf inlay, rather than the scruffy alternative of scrawled artwork or, even worse, handwritten instructions. Quality printing is hard to fake.
On to the cassette, and the important point here is to label the cassette with the full name of the game. Cassettes often come adrift of inlays, and abbreviations can be infuriatingly obscure.
The tape itself is the next stumbling block. Home-recorded tapes create loading problems, so put at least one copy of the game on each side, using different cassette recorders for each. This increases the chance of a match with the player’s cassette-head alignment.
And always try your very best to mimic the professionalism of the larger houses. Software houses run by more than one person should make clear each person’s responsibility (eg secretary, writer, ideas, graphics) on their inlays and letterheads.
Provide some concise instructions for the game and not a wordy sixth-form essay, and include a line or two on innovative features (list them in a one-two-three format).
Practically, remember a small house should not confuse reviewers and the industry with many addresses, one for mail, another for phone calls, and another to contact someone’s mum. One is quite enough.
Also, send review copies to the editor of each magazine, not to your
favourite writers — and don’t hassle them constantly about when the review’s
going to appear and how well your game did. It can have a negative effect on
harassed magazine offices, and when you’re selling homegrown software you
need all the help you can get.