From The Archives: Artic Computing
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”
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.”