From The Ar­chives: Gil­soft


Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by Graeme Ma­son

We go be­hind the scenes of the Welsh pub­lisher that re­leased The Quill and other es­sen­tial util­i­ties

There’s no doubt ar­cade-style games ruled the roost through­out the life of the 8-bit home com­put­ers. Yet there was an­other genre, one that em­braced the tech­ni­cal re­stric­tions of the time, one that re­quired sim­ply a vivid imag­i­na­tion and log­i­cal mind in or­der to en­joy: the text ad­ven­ture. This was the genre where the player could roam free, solve puz­zles, at­tack en­e­mies and res­cue fair damsels; or pi­lot a space­ship, save a planet and still be home in time for tea. But for Gil­soft, the ad­ven­ture genre wasn’t the start of its story. “I phoned my dad from the Mi­cro­fair where they an­nounced the ZX Spec­trum,” re­mem­bers Tim Gil­berts, co­founder of the com­pany that took its ti­tle from his fam­ily name. “And he agreed to

‘put his money where his mouth was’. I was sure I could write some games for it, hav­ing taught my­self as­sem­bler on the ZX81.”

Tim’s main hobby through­out the late Seven­ties and early Eight­ies was elec­tron­ics, build­ing com­put­ers such as the ZX81 from kit form. “But I loved pro­gram­ming as much as elec­tron­ics, and that ZX81 came on the fam­ily car­a­van hol­i­day to France, screwed into a ply­wood base, and at­tached to a 12V black and white tele­vi­sion.” As soon as the Gil­berts fam­ily ac­quired its first ZX Spec­trum, Tim set to work. “The first [pro­gram] I think was John Con­way’s Life, us­ing as­sem­bler to make it gen­er­ate sev­eral gen­er­a­tions a sec­ond. I was also de­ter­mined to do a colour 3D maze game as I loved 3D Mon­ster Maze.” Both games used tech­ni­cal tricks to in­crease their speed, be­fore

Tim was in­spired to write a clone of a much-loved ar­cade clas­sic. “I wrote a ver­sion of Pac-man, and I don’t think we’d ac­tu­ally sold a copy be­fore Atari wrote us a nice let­ter,” he re­calls. Small ad­verts in the mail or­der sales sec­tions of sev­eral mag­a­zines had been spot­ted by the ar­cade giant, yet de­spite this un­wanted at­ten­tion, these ad­verts were crit­i­cal for any soft­ware house sell­ing its goods via mail or­der. “Dad used to joke that he had a chart with stars for all the mag­a­zines,” smiles Tim. “And each time we got an ad­ver­tis­ing call, he added a star. Mag­a­zines with the least stars had an ad­vert the next month.”

Tim was just 17 when the first Gil­soft prod­ucts be­gan to ap­pear. Ini­tially it was just Tim and Howard, the lat­ter help­ing out in ad­di­tion to his day job. It wasn’t long be­fore Howard’s wife,

Pam, was in­volved too, of­ten help­ing with the as­sem­bly and pack­ing of games. “We also had a lot of help from friends on art­work for both early pack­ag­ing and load­ing screens,” says

Tim, name-check­ing Steve Har­bron and Andy Grif­fiths for the for­mer and Huw Jones for the lat­ter. And as Gil­soft grew, Tim’s school life in­evitably suf­fered, or at least from one point of view. “I didn’t think so, but the school did!” he laughs. “As they did not

of­fer A Level com­put­ing, I was split­ting my time be­tween the com­pre­hen­sive and col­lege. I think it was af­ter the week­end writ­ing Softlink [a pro­gram that Kemp­ston used to adapt games to its joy­stick in­ter­faces], that I was sum­moned to school to ex­plain what I was do­ing when I wasn’t there or at col­lege. They felt I was jug­gling things not con­ducive to the school goals. So I said, to rap­tur­ous ap­plause from the com­mon room, that I was only study­ing to get a job, and I al­ready had one that was earn­ing plenty. So school was not con­ducive to me stay­ing!” Work­ing just be­fore his A Lev­els was not the best tim­ing, and Tim caught up at a later date with his re­main­ing ex­ams. But Gil­soft was keep­ing him busy in the mean­time, and mainly thanks to one soon-to-be-fa­mous util­ity pro­gram that al­lowed the na­tion’s febrile imag­i­na­tion to fi­nally be set loose.

They say ev­ery­body has a good novel in them; maybe the same can be said of ad­ven­ture games, and in 1983, Gil­soft gave ev­ery­one the chance to re­alise that oth­er­wise dis­tant dream. With Tim’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the genre lim­ited, it was left to nearby cus­tomer, Graeme Ye­an­dle, to help him cre­ate his­tory. “It was an ac­ci­dent of ge­og­ra­phy; Graeme had bought some games from us by mail or­der, and when he saw he only lived ten miles away, he came to our house to see them be­fore buy­ing,” ex­plains Tim. An em­i­nently sen­si­ble ap­proach given the haz­ards of pur­chas­ing games via mail or­der, and the pair were soon deep in con­ver­sa­tion. “He was im­pressed enough to buy a copy of 3D Maze Of Gold, and men­tioned he’d writ­ten an ad­ven­ture game called Time-line.” In­ter­ested in putting his own imag­i­na­tion to use, Tim bor­rowed some of the tools that Graeme had used for Time-line and at­tempted to write his own ad­ven­ture game. “But it was fairly la­bo­ri­ous, so I sug­gested he cre­ate some­thing that any­one could use.” The Quill Ad­ven­ture Sys­tem – a pro­gram that al­lowed even the most tech­ni­cally chal­lenged user to cre­ate a work­able ad­ven­ture game, was the re­sult, and Gil­soft’s break­through hit. As

Crash mag­a­zine noted in its re­view, “The Quill opens up a huge area of com­plex pro­gram­ming to thou­sands of peo­ple. At £14.95, it is al­most lu­di­crously un­der­priced for what it does and, more im­por­tantly, what it al­lows oth­ers to do.”

But be­fore The Quill had even been com­pleted, Tim recog­nised the sig­nif­i­cance of the util­ity.


Tim Gil­berts

“We re­alised how un­usual it was, as we weren’t aware of any­thing like it, other than as­sem­blers which helped, but only other pro­gram­mers.”

There was a step-up in pack­ag­ing, as not­ing the po­ten­tial re­tail ca­pac­ity of the util­ity, Tim hired a lo­cal com­mer­cial artist to cre­ate a strik­ing black and gold im­age. “We also had to have a card­board box to re­place the plas­tic bag, which was driven by re­tail, who needed eye candy for the shelf.” The suc­cess of The Quill was vir­tu­ally in­stan­ta­neous; now it was pos­si­ble for pro­gram­ming neo­phytes to cre­ate their own ad­ven­tures, with only their imag­i­na­tion to limit the re­sult. Con­ver­sions to other for­mats fol­lowed, with its au­thor han­dling the Com­modore 64 and Am­strad ports, while

Tim took care of the Oric and Atari ports, now fo­cus­ing full-time on Gil­soft and us­ing The Quill’s suc­cess to fund fu­ture re­leases. He re­calls, “We sold many tens of thou­sands of copies but even at £14.95 there wasn’t a lot of profit, con­sid­er­ing up to 70 per cent dis­count for large whole­salers and re­tail­ers, plus the large man­ual and outer box to pro­duce along with tape du­pli­ca­tion.”

The main draw­back of The Quill was its lack of graph­ics ca­pa­bil­ity. Graphic ad­ven­tures, buoyed by the suc­cess of games such as The Hob­bit, were be­com­ing the norm, even by 1984. Tim says, “I had been pon­der­ing how we could fit [graph­ics] into the Spec­trum when I re­alised we would have to store how they were drawn, and that lent it­self to a data­base, and an edi­tor sys­tem to be able to amend the draw­ing.” The re­sult was The Il­lus­tra­tor, cre­ated by Tim on the ZX Spec­trum and Com­modore 64, and tai­lored specif­i­cally to run side-by-side with The Quill. By now, games were firmly in the back­seat as far as Gil­soft was con­cerned. “Ac­tu­ally, I think we had al­ways been a bit util­ity-fo­cused,” says Tim, “with pro­grams like CESIL and HAL [two ed­u­ca­tional lan­guages], The Vis­ual Pro­ces­sor, Softlink, and the Elec­tron­ics CAD pro­grams from Peter Ar­mitage. Much of it was be­cause I liked cre­at­ing an ef­fect, like a sprite sys­tem, but then turn­ing that into a game seemed less in­ter­est­ing than over­com­ing the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.” Quilled games ap­peared rapidly, and Gil­soft, hav­ing en­cour­aged them to be sub­mit­ted, were del­uged with ef­forts from fans. Com­mer­cial re­leases also ap­peared from other soft­ware houses, with CRL and Pi­ranha in par­tic­u­lar hav­ing de­cent suc­cess, usu­ally adapt­ing the ba­sic Quill en­gine with Gil­soft’s own mod­i­fi­ca­tion soft­ware such as The Press (text com­pres­sion) and Char­ac­ter (a font mod). Then, af­ter pub­lish­ing a hand­ful of ti­tles it­self Gil­soft turned its at­ten­tion to a quasi-se­quel for the pop­u­lar util­ity.

Tim ex­plains, “It seemed log­i­cal to draw to­gether the range of pro­grams we had now, The Quill, Il­lus­tra­tor, Patch, Press and Char­ac­ters into a sin­gle tool to sim­plify things again. It was also the chance to in­crease the power of the sys­tem, and make use of disk units that were ap­pear­ing.” By this point, the Gil­soft boss was busy run­ning the com­pany and sup­port­ing its prod­ucts with help sheets and let­ters – even run­ning a late-night tele­phone sup­port line ev­ery Tues­day evening. Then, just prior to re­lease of The Quill’s fol­low


Tim Gil­berts

up, The Pro­fes­sional Ad­ven­ture Writer (or PAW, for short), In­cen­tive Soft­ware un­leashed The Graphic Ad­ven­ture Cre­ator. “That was a sur­prise,” re­mem­bers Tim. “We did buy a copy to look at, but I think we de­cided that the lower amount of me­mory and more com­plex pro­gram­ming lan­guage wouldn’t be too much of a chal­lenge for PAW. I’m sure we dis­cussed that maybe peo­ple would buy both any­way and it would only grow the mar­ket in gen­eral.” Un­for­tu­nately, while the ap­petite for cre­at­ing ad­ven­tures ap­peared con­sis­tent, pub­lic de­mand, at least in the eyes of soft­ware houses, col­lapsed. By 1987, a year af­ter the re­lease of The Graphic Ad­ven­ture Cre­ator and PAW, the genre was vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent, save for out­put from spe­cial­ist pub­lish­ers such as Level 9 and Zenobi, and the odd bud­get re­lease.

In or­der to con­tinue and de­velop more ti­tles, Gil­soft needed to ex­pand. But the rapid change in the mar­ket, as 16-bit com­put­ers ar­rived and de­vel­op­ment costs bal­looned, meant Tim could no longer keep its re­lease sched­ule busy enough to main­tain a rea­son­able in­come. “I think in 1986 we were still hope­ful that re­cently re­leased prod­ucts such as QL Quill would be­gin to in­crease sales,” ex­plains Tim. Of course, that par­tic­u­lar horse never re­ally left the sta­bles, and Gil­soft re­lied on Tim’s con­sult­ing work for com­pa­nies such as Konix in or­der to sur­vive. The Pro­fes­sional Ad­ven­ture Writer re­mained a Spec­trum/am­strad ex­clu­sive as Com­modore 64, Amiga and Atari ST ver­sions were aban­doned at var­i­ous stages. “I stayed in Spain in March 1989 to work with Aven­turas AD,” says Tim. “Sales for Gil­soft were rapidly fall­ing with­out any new prod­ucts. It was also a change in the in­dus­try as you needed a team, and we could never have that as a loose col­lec­tion of peo­ple work­ing re­motely all over the UK.” Yet de­spite the an­ti­cli­mac­tic end, Tim looks back warmly at Gil­soft’s early days in par­tic­u­lar. “The Mi­cro­fairs were great as I loved show­ing what we had done to peo­ple and chat­ting to other en­thu­si­asts. It put you on the front­line, as it can get a bit lonely just writ­ing code in the mid­dle of the night. And I was very proud of The Il­lus­tra­tor; it worked re­ally well and added to the games.”

In 2018, 36 years af­ter the re­lease of The

Quill, ad­ven­ture games are still be­ing re­leased us­ing Gil­soft’s use­ful soft­ware. “The whole era was a lit­tle bit of im­mor­tal­ity for our fam­ily and col­lab­o­ra­tors,” Tim con­cludes. “I was lucky enough to have a good group of friends and the busi­ness pro­duced enough in­come to give me some­where to live and to en­joy my tran­si­tion from a teenager, even though I didn’t get to go to uni­ver­sity. I al­ways say it was prob­a­bly the best decade of my life.”

» The launch of the ZX Spec­trum in­spired Tim Gil­berts to set up his own com­pany with his fam­ily.

» [ZX Spec­trum] Ad­ven­ture writer Peter Tor­rance cut his teeth on Fire­bird bud­get ad­ven­ture Sub­sunk and its se­quel, Se­abase Delta.

» [ZX Spec­trum] A tricky sit­u­a­tion in Gil­soft’s The Curse. » (Top) Graeme Ye­an­dle and Tim Gil­berts proudly dis­play­ing their re­spec­tive creations The Quill and The Il­lus­tra­tor.

» An early cover by Steve Har­bron… and an even ear­lier pencil sketch of the same cover.

» Pam and Howard Gil­berts share a mo­ment. The poster con­ver­sion of Ram­page, for Ac­tivi­sion’s places this pho­to­graph at around 1988.

» [ZX Spec­trum] CRL pub­lished a bunch of Delta 4 ad­ven­tures, in­clud­ing amus­ing spoofs such as The Bog­git.

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