Your Spectrum
Issue 6, August 1984 - Circe
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Nick Alexander and Steve Webb are no longer virgins in the software field - Phil Manchester takes a stroll up Portobello Road to check on how Virgin Games have beefed up their act.

Virgin Games, synonymous with Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines, is exactly where you would expect it to be. Hippy entrepreneur, Richard Branson, rules his empire from a chaotic office at the fashionable end of the Portobello Road - all Mini Mokes and expensive mews cottages. You've got to be young and trendy and rich to cut it here.
Virgin certainly qualifies in the second two categories but its principals are not as young as they used to be. Born out of the swinging 'sixties London youth culture with the straightforward and uncompromising motto, 'Do your own thing, maan', Virgin was an obvious candidate for a computer games company.
"It's a serious business venture," claimed Nick Alexander, the 'maan' in charge of Virgin Games. "But there's no reason why that shouldn't be fun - we've always tried to mix entertainment and fun together." The latest 'bit of fun' that Virgin has on the cards is to set up a cheap and cheerful airline ferrying the poor and/or mean across the Atlantic.
When yours truly arrived at the Virgin offices, the computer room was being used by the Airline people for a conference discussing which T-shirt to use to promote the new venture. That's why technical manager Steve Webb and myself duly parked our behinds on the Habitat sofa in the reception area and chatted about Virgin's software development methods.
Webb is a Spectrum freak and, flying in the face of the established practice of using a flashy development machine, builds games using the machine itself. "I use two Spectrums side-by-side linked through Microdrives. I can put the assembler and monitor in one and the actual program in the other," he said. Virgin is in the established popular market with its games aimed at the Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Webb described the Commodore as "a lazy programmers' machine" and defended the idiosyncratic Spectrum as "frustrating but challenging".
He has just packaged up his knowledge of the device's innards in a book on Spectrum machine code, shortly to be published by Virgin Books (yes, another part of the empire). Webb claims that it takes you right through the intricacies of machine code programming. "There are some books on machine code programming that don't even tell you how to read the keyboard - mine does all that and lots more," he said.
But Webb and Virgin are moving on to pastures new and the conversation turned to the emerging Japanese home computer operating system, MSX. Webb sees it as the flavour of the year and Virgin is investing in developing software for it when it eventually arrives in the UK. An MSX emulator for the Spectrum? Webb didn't dismiss the idea.
The Airline people had finished the serious part of their conference and were now having fun looking at the various trendy designs for T-shirts; that meant we could go have a look at some of Virgin's product in action.
Rather than just employing spotty programmers fresh out of the fifth form, Virgin is following the US trend in staffing its development team. This involves bringing in artists, poets and musicians to package up the games ideas. Former graphic artist, Ian, explained why this helps produce better games. "Most programmers are mathematically inclined and when they get into designing graphics they get very symmetrical. I never use squared paper, for instance - it's too restricting."
Ian was working on a revamp of Virgin's Commodore 64 game, Falcon Patrol. It's a sort of airborne Tranzam with some pretty graphics and it sold well in the Commodore market. The Spectrum version is still under assessment - so don't look for it in the shops for a while.
Virgin's latest product for the Speccy is an item called Sorcery (see Joystick Jury) - a cross between an arcade action game and an adventure. "Arcade games are still where
it's at and I don't think the text adventure games are as seductive as this sort of thing," said Webb. Virgin is hoping to pull a bestseller out of it; in fact, desperately needs one.
"The market we started in 15 months ago has changed - it's very different now," explained the unbelievably nice Nick Alexander. "We've not been amazingly successful, though we made quite a lot of money in the first six months of business." Alexander reckons that if it had been any other company this would have been seen as pretty good. "We got quite a pasting because we were expected to come up with something different. We wanted to tap new sources of creativity - the home programmers who didn't want to spend their lives hunched over a keyboard but maybe had some good ideas," he went on.
The highly competitive nature of the games market has changed all that and Virgin's original plan to package up programmers like rock musicians failed badly. Games buyers are not interested in what colour socks the programmer's wearing. So Virgin has reverted to a more traditional approach - the in-house development team.
But Alexander is adamant that "the marketing of the author as an artist will become more important. In striving for that we have to recognise that the things that sell are good addictive games with good graphics." Virgin has tried some off-the-wall ideas - it brought out a computerised version of ye ancient chinese oracle, the I-Ching. "It was different, but it was a commercial disaster," opined Alexander. Perhaps Virgin should have consulted the oracle first!
Meanwhile, the Airline people have decided that they don't like any of the T-shirts and are telling the artists to go away and try again. Virgin Games is going through much the same process. Whether its second attempt is more successful than the first remains to be seen.

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