From The Archives: Gilsoft
IN THE EIGHTIES, HOWARD GILBERTS BEGAN A SIDE-LINE BUSINESS IN LEAGUE WITH SON, TIM, SPURRED ON BY THE LATTER'S ENTHUSIASM FOR THE ZX SPECTRUM. NEVER A BIG PLAYER, BUT FONDLY REMEMBERED TODAY, THIS IS THE STORY OF GILSOFT WHAT NOW, BRAVE ADVENTURER?
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.
I WROTE A VERSION OF PACMAN, AND WE HADN’T SOLD A COPY BEFORE ATARI WROTE US A NICE LETTER”
“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
I LOVED SHOWING WHAT WE HAD DONE TO PEOPLE AND CHATTING TO OTHER ENTHUSIASTS”
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.