From The Ar­chives: Artic Com­put­ing

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

It only sur­vived for a gen­er­a­tion, but Artic Com­put­ing cer­tainly left a big mark

Set up 35 years ago by a bunch of uni­ver­sity stu­dents, Artic Com­put­ing may have been short-lived, but it in­tro­duced some of gam­ing’s most tal­ented de­vel­opens, as David Cnookes ne­veals

It was a glo­ri­ous sum­mer’s day in June 1982 and Richard Turner had been en­joy­ing the dan­ger­ous thrills of the an­nual Isle of Man TT mo­tor­cy­cle event. Along with tens of thou­sands of oth­ers, he had watched the bik­ers roar around 37.3 miles of un­du­lat­ing pub­lic roads, reach­ing speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. Yet, un­be­known to him, there was an­other drama tak­ing place on this self­gov­ern­ing Bri­tish Crown de­pen­dency: his mother had been ring­ing his ho­tel, fran­ti­cally try­ing to speak to him.

Richard was the co­founder of Artic Com­put­ing, a soft­ware de­vel­op­ment com­pany he set up in 1980 with a friend called Chris Thorn­ton. He had be­come in­ter­ested in com­put­ing the pre­vi­ous year when his school bought a Com­modore PET, but his most fond mem­ory was of pen­ning BA­SIC games in a jot­ter with Chris be­fore walk­ing three miles to the re­tailer Tandy and typ­ing them in on a TRS-80 to see if they worked. “It was a bit sad, re­ally,” he laughs. “But that’s the way we rolled at the time.”

When he turned 18, he was given a life-chang­ing choice. “I could ei­ther have a party at a lo­cal disco or £100 for a ZX80 com­puter,” he says. He pon­dered this for mere sec­onds be­fore blurt­ing out, “I’ll have a ZX80, please.” The Sin­clair com­puter en­abled Richard and Chris to write games on a ma­chine that wasn’t sit­ting on a shop shelf, and it led to his first pub­lished ti­tle. “I saw an ad­vert in one of the com­puter magazines which said they could buy games that peo­ple had writ­ten,” he re­mem­bers. “So we sent a tape with the game on – I can’t re­mem­ber what it was – and the guy of­fered us £50 to which I replied, ‘Oh yeah, thanks.’”

It wasn’t un­til a lit­tle while later that Richard realised this was a mis­take. He saw an ad­vert for his game in a mag­a­zine and no­ticed it was sell­ing for £5.95. “And I thought, bloody hell, he only has to sell ten of them and he makes a profit,” Richard re­calls. “It was then that we thought we should start pub­lish­ing our own games. We went to a ZX Mi­cro­fair at the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural Halls in Lon­don and set up a lit­tle tres­tle ta­ble. I took my first ever £50 note and around £1,000 that day.”

The ear­li­est ti­tles in­cluded the text-only grid-based dun­geon game Sword Of Peace for the ZX80 and ZX81, the prim­i­tive-look­ing Zom­bies for the ZX81 and the self-ex­plana­tory ZX Chess for the same ma­chine.

Artic had also be­gun dab­bling with text ad­ven­tures, de­vel­op­ing Ad­ven­ture A: Planet of Death in 1981 and – with the as­sis­tance of fledg­ling games cre­ator Charles Ce­cil – Ad­ven­ture B: Inca Curse. Richard and Charles met on a spon­sor­ship pro­gramme for Ford and they played ar­cade games to­gether in the evenings.

Charles’ sec­ond game was the rea­son why Richard’s mum was so keen to get in touch, how­ever. Called Ad­ven­ture C: Ship of Doom, it was an­other slice of in­ter­ac­tion fic­tion, this time start­ing in a space craft which had been swal­lowed by a gi­gan­tic space sta­tion. The player had to leave the ship, board the alien craft and find the trac­tor beam con­trol in order to fly free. It had a sim­ple verb-noun com­mand in­ter­face in line with the pre­vi­ous two ad­ven­tures and – as ex­pected with such games at the time – no graph­ics. But, as Richard soon learned, once he man­aged to phone home, The Sun news­pa­per wanted to talk to him about it.

“A mother had com­plained to her MP that she had caught her son typ­ing in ex­ple­tives which it re­sponded to,” Richard re­calls, “and The Sun wanted a state­ment.” The prob­lem, it tran­spired, was the pres­ence of an an­droid plea­sure room and the abil­ity to type crude

com­mands which the game would un­der­stand.

This sec­tion had been born out of a de­sire by Charles’ 19-year-old self to pan­der to gamers who got frus­trated when the game didn’t un­der­stand the text that they had en­tered. “Some gamers would start typ­ing ex­ple­tives when the parser didn’t un­der­stand the words that they had en­tered, so I thought it might be a nice idea for play­ers to get a re­sponse in Ship Of Doom,” ex­plains Charles. “In hind­sight, it was very puerile”.

Richard was un­con­cerned. “I told my mum not to worry,” he says of the phone call. But the next day, at the bot­tom of page three, iron­i­cally enough, The Sun printed a damn­ing re­port, com­plete with a quote from his mother who was Artic’s of­fice man­ager. “The head­line was ‘Com­puter Game Nasty Zapped By The Sun’”, Richard laughs. The mat­ter was even dis­cussed in Par­lia­ment in re­la­tion to the Ob­scene Video Act and com­puter games were al­most dragged into the leg­is­la­tion that were ap­plied to videos. “All of a sud­den, our ad­ven­ture games were be­ing sent back from Wh­smith and John Men­zies,” Richard says.

Al­though it makes for a good tale to­day (made lighter by a dis­grun­tled cou­ple who called Artic com­plain­ing that it had bought the game on the un­der­stand­ing it was naughty only to find it was a text ad­ven­ture), the sit­u­a­tion was po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing. While mar­ket traders clam­oured for Ship Of Doom fol­low­ing the furore (“We man­aged to sell them all,” Richard af­firms), it risked dam­ag­ing Artic’s solid rep­u­ta­tion for pub­lish­ing solid ad­ven­ture games.

Thank­fully, Artic’s re­la­tion­ship with Wh­smith and other high-street re­tail­ers was just as solid. Richard re­calls the early days of buy­ing a suit and skip­ping a lec­ture to go to the lo­cal branch of Wh­smith in Hull. “I said to the man­ager, ‘Look, we have these com­puter games, do you want to sell them?’ and he agreed to take them on a sale or re­turn ba­sis,” Richard says. But it proved to be some­thing of a busi­ness les­son for him.

“I re­call him ask­ing if I was Vat-reg­is­tered and him telling me I needed to be,” Richard con­tin­ues. “He then said the art­work for our games was rub­bish and that we needed some­thing a lot bet­ter. He put us in touch with some­one to do that and the ar­range­ment worked well.” The idea was to place the cas­settes in a heat-sealed bag and al­low Wh­smith to have 20 per cent of the game’s price. “I got home and re­ceived a phone call to say all the games had sold and could he have 100 more,” Richard says.

Rev­enues soared to some £150,000 within six months as the Wh­smith deal saw the sale of about 50,000 games. Artic bought a one-to-one high-speed tape du­pli­ca­tor which would copy cas­settes at ten

times the nor­mal rate, and Richard’s father and sis­ter would work late into the night cre­at­ing dozens of copies. The mail order side of the Artic busi­ness was also per­form­ing fairly well. “But even then it wasn’t a de­lib­er­ate plan,” Richard says.

“It was an op­por­tu­nity and some­thing we were in­ter­ested in but it was still very much a cot­tage in­dus­try and we were all young peo­ple aged around 20 hav­ing a great time.”

Up un­til 1982, ad­ven­tures had made up the bulk of Artic’s of­fer­ings and they were re­spon­si­ble for the com­pany’s great start. They re­volved around the player en­ter­ing a verb and a noun – such as ‘Go North’ or

‘Get Gun’. “But they were also in­fa­mous for their bad spellings, like ‘chizel’, ‘cant’ (with­out an apos­tro­phe) and many oth­ers, which Charles is also com­pletely re­spon­si­ble for,” laughs Richard, who is still very good friends with his for­mer busi­ness part­ner.

In­deed, Charles re­calls a man walk­ing up to him at ZX Mi­cro­fair and re­veal­ing he had man­aged to con­vince his wife to buy a ZX81 be­cause it would help ed­u­cate their son. “He said the spell­ing was so bad that she was be­gin­ning to be­come sus­pi­cious,” Charles laughs. But Charles was a great as­set. “He wrote many of those early ad­ven­tures, draw­ing out a big plan of rooms in­clud­ing what would be in them and how the ob­jects would in­ter­act and so on,” says Richard. “He and I had quite good imag­i­na­tions so we came up with some nice sto­ries. We also had a love of puz­zles and we liked stuff that you had to fig­ure out. That was of more in­ter­est to us at the time than ar­cade games – which I wasn’t that good at any­way.”

Other ad­ven­tures fol­lowed over the next few years in­clud­ing Ad­ven­ture D: Es­pi­onage Is­land in 1982, Ad­ven­ture E: The Golden Ap­ple in 1983, and both Ad­ven­ture F: The Eye of Bain and Ad­ven­ture G: Ground Zero in 1984. Ad­ven­ture H: Robin Hood was re­leased in 1985 as part of a com­pi­la­tion. The idea was that they formed a col­lectible se­ries. “A, B, C, D and so on,” says Richard, ex­plain­ing. “They were all clev­erly la­belled, weren’t they? When they started be­ing sold in the shops, though, we had to give them more imag­i­na­tive names which is why we came up with Inca Curse, Ground Zero and so on.”

By 1983, Artic Com­put­ing was based in an of­fice in Bran­des­bur­ton, a vil­lage in the East Rid­ing

“All of a sud­den, our ad­ven­ture games were be­ing sent back”

TURNER RICHARD

of York­shire. Al­though all of Artic’s games had been cre­ated for Sin­clair’s ma­chines, the team was also cre­at­ing ti­tles for other 8-bit sys­tems, no­tably the Com­modore 64 and Am­strad CPC. Artic had also be­gun tak­ing games from free­lance devel­op­ers and it had fos­tered a flour­ish­ing re­la­tion­ship with up-and-com­ing pro­gram­mer Jon Rit­man.

“I was work­ing at Ra­dio Rentals when I first bought a ZX81 and I taught my­self to pro­gram,” says Jon. “About three months later I had fin­ished Namtir Raiders and sent it off to a few com­pa­nies that ad­ver­tised games in the magazines. I got an al­most im­me­di­ate re­sponse from Artic of­fer­ing what I later recog­nised as far too lit­tle for it. But, like the naive fool I was then, I was so pleased to have been of­fered any­thing and ac­cepted.” The game was a fixed-screen shoot-’em-up that could be played on a ZX81 with a 16K RAM pack and it was based on what he could re­mem­ber from a coin-op game he’d seen in a pub.

“It was only at an ex­hi­bi­tion that Jon told us the name of the game was Rit­man back­wards – none of us had ac­tu­ally realised it,” Richard says. Artic then bought Jon a Spec­trum on which he pro­duced an un­re­leased clone of Space In­vaders. “At around this time I spoke with Richard about quit­ting work and go­ing full-time and my big­gest worry was that my car was sup­plied by Ra­dio Rentals,” says Jon. “Richard sup­plied a car and I quit my job.” Jon worked on an As­teroids clone called Cos­mic De­bris and the tank hunt­ing game, 3D Com­bat Zone for the ZX Spec­trum which was a clone of Bat­tle­zone and made use of 3D wire­frame tech­nol­ogy.

He also cre­ated an­other 3D game called Di­men­sion Destruc­tors but ar­guably his best game for Artic was the ad­dic­tive sin­gle-player scaf­fold-climb­ing plat­former Bear Bovver. “It was my favourite be­cause it was just very, very good,” says Richard. For Jon, the job was easy. There were no dis­cus­sions and he sim­ply wrote what he felt like. “Only when Bear Bovver was be­ing fin­ished did I talk to them about im­prov­ing their ad­ver­tis­ing be­cause pre­vi­ous at­tempts had been sim­ply a photo of the cas­settes for all the games they pub­lished,” Jon says. “I com­mis­sioned a bit of cover art and got Artic to do A4 ad­verts of that art with no text ini­tially to cre­ate a ques­tion­ing pub­lic fol­low­ing up with the same pic­ture with the ap­pro­pri­ate text. It might have worked well, but Artic failed to get the game in the shops to co­in­cide with the sec­ond wave of ad­verts.”

Al­though he had dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing a foot­ball game with Chris Clarke, a found­ing mem­ber of Crys­tal Com­put­ing who had joined Artic to work on the busi­ness side of gam­ing, Jon moved to Ocean Soft­ware. But Artic was, by now, in a good po­si­tion, tak­ing on new staff and grow­ing. At the be­gin­ning of 1983, Sin­clair Re­search had taken Planet Of Death, Inca Curse, Ship Of Doom and Es­pi­onage Is­land un­der its own wing and Artic was build­ing up a huge li­brary. By Septem­ber 1983, it had taken its range to 62 ti­tles with the likes of Chess II, Jig­saw, Raider, 3D Quadracube, Road Rac­ers and Snake be­ing re­leased within a stag­ger­ing batch of 21 games. A deal was also struck with Arnold Wheaton Soft­ware to be­come its sole dis­trib­u­tor.

Com­pared to some other com­pa­nies, though, there was a feel­ing that Artic was be­ing left be­hind. While

Jon Rit­man went on to cre­ate the sem­i­nal Match Day for Ocean, Artic ended up with World Cup Foot­ball. It wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly good game, in the crit­i­cal sense – in­deed, Jon had pointed to Artic’s ren­di­tion at a com­puter show at Alexan­dria Palace while he was chat­ting to Ocean boss David Ward and de­clared that his own soc­cer ti­tle would be “loads bet­ter” – so while it did be­come Artic’s best­selling game of all time, the re­views stung.

Even so, Artic was far from dead. Its trio of Humpty Dumpty ti­tles for the Speccy and C64 traded on a recog­nised char­ac­ter and they were sim­ple, chal­leng­ing and lots of fun once play­ers got the hang of the con­trols. Mu­tant Monty was a de­cent riff on the Miner Willy style of plat­former and there were sim­i­lar games that at least had in­ter­est­ing ti­tles – al­beit of a type that may raise eye­brows to­day: we’re look­ing at you, Mr Wong’s Loopy Laun­dry. Third-party devel­op­ers work­ing for Artic were happy enough, typ­i­cally pick­ing up be­tween £5,000 to £10,000 per quar­ter. “But Ocean and the likes were em­ploy­ing large num­bers of peo­ple to cre­ate games and dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies were do­ing bet­ter than us in get­ting ti­tles into the stores,” says Richard. “The shops wanted to buy from a whole­saler and deal with one source and that made sense.”

In Artic’s favour was a work­ing en­vi­ron­ment that was low on over­heads. There was a ma­jor blow out on a TV ad­vert – “that was a huge blun­der but an ad agency con­vinced me to spend £120,000 on it and it was per­form­ing so poorly for us that we had to pull it,” says Richard – but gen­er­ally it was a case of pay­ing 20 per cent to the de­vel­oper and hav­ing a small ad­min team to sort faulty tapes and an­swer the phone. “When you’re sell­ing 50,000 foot­ball games at £3, it’s pretty much all profit,” Richard adds.

In 1985, Artic’s mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Jeff Raggett an­nounced that it was slash­ing the price of its ad­ven­tures, bring­ing them down to £1.99. It also looked to make the ad­ven­tures more ap­peal­ing which is why Robin Hood (cre­ated us­ing The Quill ad­ven­ture cre­ator just as Ground Zero was) was cut from 100 text-only lo­ca­tions to 40 with graph­ics. At the same time a deal was struck with Im­pe­rial Soft­ware. “Any­thing that does not fol­low our nor­mal theme will be re­leased through Im­pe­rial,” Jeff told Micro Ad­ven­ture mag­a­zine.

One game that didn’t get a price cut was World Cup Foot­ball but, in 1986, it did end up be­ing re­pur­posed. US Gold had won the rights to pub­lish a foot­ball game to co­in­cide with the World Cup in Mex­ico that Sum­mer but its de­vel­op­ment slipped, and it realised that it might miss the win­dow. To avoid re­leas­ing late or not at all, US Gold snapped up the li­cence to Artic’s World Cup Foot­ball, added a poor train­ing mode, popped posters and a badge into the pack­age and whacked it out as World Cup Car­ni­val for £9.95 – £2 more than the orig­i­nal. Crit­ics went bal­lis­tic – Am­strad Ac­tion gave it 0% – and Artic got much of the flack. US Gold, mean­while, went on to se­cure FIFA’S of­fi­cial li­cence for Italy 1990 and USA 1994.

“Yes, it was con­tro­ver­sial and Charles shoul­dered the blame,” laughs Richard, throw­ing his friend un­der the bus. But it wasn’t the end. In July 1986, hav­ing re­leased games such as Paws, Web War, In­ter­na­tional Rugby and Aladdin’s Cave the pre­vi­ous year, it started its own bud­get la­bel called An­tar­tic, sell­ing games for £2.99 at a time when other com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing US Gold, Fire­bird and In­ter­cep­tor were go­ing down the same path. These games in­cluded the plat­form shooter The Mas­ter For The Spec­trum, Woks and a Hunch­back clone called The Great Wall for the Acorn Elec­tron and BBC Micro.

But then things fiz­zled. “All of a sud­den the bot­tom dropped out of the mar­ket for us,” says Richard. “Hun­dreds of soft­ware com­pa­nies were be­ing con­sol­i­dated and the likes of Cen­tre­soft were dom­i­nat­ing dis­tri­bu­tion. In mov­ing from full price to bud­get and in con­cen­trat­ing on com­pi­la­tions, we found fewer peo­ple want­ing to write games for us – they wanted to cre­ate for the big boys, quite un­der­stand­ably. We could tell the com­pany was on its way out and let it go. The fun times of the games in­dus­try, for me at least, had come to an end.”

» This early cat­a­logue high­lights a range of games, in­clud­ing Jon Rit­man’s Bear Bovver.

» An early Artic ad­vert fea­tur­ing a range of with an older it­er­a­tion dif­fer­ent games and of the com­pany’s logo. util­i­ties, com­plete

» [ZX Spec­trum] En­gi­neer Humpty starred the iconic wall-fall­ing egg.

this ad­vert shows. range of games avail­able as » Artic cer­tainly had a wide

» [Am­strad CPC] Ar­cade-style ad­ven­ture Aladdin’s Cave looked nice enough, but it sounded aw­ful and played slowly.

» [ZX81] A Planet of Death was the name of Artic’s Ad­ven­ture A, start­ing the ball rolling for text ad­ven­tures.

» [ZX Spec­trum] Mother­ship was a de­cent shooter that was heav­ily in­spired by the likes of Star Wars. Check out the ob­vi­ous TIE fighter in the left ad­vert.

» [Am­strad CPC] In­ter­na­tional Rugby was an early adap­ta­tion of the sport and was a bet­ter ef­fort than Artic’s mis­er­able foot­ball game.

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