Working at Micro Power / Program Power, Leeds
To set the scene…
Between the ages of 16 and 19 I wasn’t inspired by my studies at De La Salle College in Salford, England. I didn’t get the grades to study law at university, so my mum suggested I do a Business Studies and French degree at Leeds Polytechnic, now called Leeds Metropolitan University. I wasn’t that enthusiastic about that course when I started in 1979 but then the home computer boom exploded, and I bought myself an Atari 400, the junior version of the Atari 800, and learned to program it using the built-in BASIC. I was completely hooked.
In my final, fourth year, we had to write a 15,000-word project so I wrote mine on the blossoming games industry for the new home computers, and ended up writing 25,000 words. As part of my research I interviewed Bob Simpson, the Managing Director of a local computer shop called Micro Power, who also had a software publishing side called Program Power which was doing very well. (I also interviewed Jim Gregory at Mr Micro Software in Swinton, Manchester, and he also offered me a job.)
At the end of my interview with Bob, he offered me a job as marketing assistant when I graduated. All I had to do was write a review of a favourite computer game to see if my writing skills were good enough. I found a couple of review of Shamus, a great game for the Atari computers, and wrote my own review, incorporating sentences from these reviews. I got the job.
I loved the work. I wrote instructions for games, wrote the sales blurb for the full-page colour ads, briefed the graphic design company about the newest games so they could create the artwork, designed catalogues, and more.
I didn’t find the colour inlay cards very attractive: the horizontal and vertical lines on the front, and the uniform round-cornered boxes, and felt that the unprofessionalism might be hindering sales. Here’s the original packaging for Killer Gorilla (Wiki link) by Adrian Stephens…
…so I persuaded Bob to let me redesign the packaging. I followed the style I’d seen on the American packaging for the games I was buying for my Atari 400 computer, making the title into a graphic, and moving the company logo to the bottom left. When I joined Micro Power, Bob was using a design company called Ralph Senior Associates, so I drew the gorilla, tower, man, axe, etc in pencil and passed it over to Ralph, and this is what his team came up with…
Several months after I joined Micro Power, a guy called Mike Ellis came to see me with his portfolio. He ran a company called Ellis, Ives and Sprowell, consisting of him and 2 mates. Mike was the designer, Les Ives was the cartoonist/illustrator and Stuart Sprowell was the airbrush wizard.
I adored their work and set them to work on a new 6-page brochure promoting our range of 50+ games and utilities, and we ended up printing 150,000 brochures and distributing them through computer magazines and retailers like WH Smith.
(Mike and I became firm friends, he invited me to his wedding, and we’re still in touch now, 25 years later.)
Then a programmer called Tony Sothcott came to see us with a new game called Castle Quest. It was terrific. Alan Butcher, the manager in charge of software development, thoroughly tested it out, and played the game right through to the end. We all knew it would be a bestseller.
My idea for the packaging was to have an action-packed airbrush cover, and show lots of screenshots on the full-page colour ads, with detailed captions explaining the puzzles on some of the screens and asking people, “how will you guide our intrepid adventurer to get out of this tricky situation?”
Bob had been visited by a new advertising agency in Leeds called Kidd’s who had done some slick marketing for Kronenberg 1664 lager. He wanted them to design the ads and packaging.
They went for a black cover with a simple but nicely done logo in the centre. I wasn’t keen on this approach at all, and I also knew that Kidd’s prices would be far higher than those Ellis, Ives and Sprowell charged. This is a double-page ad they did for it which appeared in The Micro User…
Kidd’s went on to design the packaging and marketing for a Doctor Who game too. Here’s their full-page advert for it, with a headline which I find hard to read – and copy all round the outside of the clever image…
When I was attending what is now Leeds Metropolitan University, I lived during the second year (1981) in a shared house in Headlingley.
On the floor below me was a guy called Chris Terran. He had built an Acorn Atom computer from a kit, and he was an ardent book reader. Over time we became good friends.
Thee years later, in 1984, when I was working at Micro Power, I was visiting Chris one or more evenings a week. I would stay chatting with him until as late as 2 in the morning, then ride home on my pedal bike, and be up at 8am the next morning to ride to Micro Power for 9am. Chris bought a BBC Micro and started playing around with it.
I asked him if he’d like to write a Defender clone for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron. He had written an adventure game on his Acorn Atom for his own amusement, but never written an arcade-type game.
Despite this, he said he was up for the challenge, Alan Butcher came to meet him in his bedsit, and Chris got on with the programming. During my regular visits Chris would show me his progress.
Once Chris had finished the BBC Micro version, Alan Butcher gave him an Acorn Electron, and Chris worked out how to get the game to work on this lesser-powered computer, using a smaller playing area, fewer sprites on the screen, and so on.
I commissioned the artwork for the game packaging, I wrote the sales copy for the ad and software inlay card, and Micro Power published the game as Gauntlet (Wiki link). It was a great success. Here is the full-page A4 advert for it…
Chris Terran introduced me to science fiction author Philip K Dick (his books have been turned into the following films: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, and A Scanner Darkly) – and also introduced me to non-fiction books like Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, though I only understood a small fraction of it! (Chris and his wife have a site on the web, and as he was such a good friend and a great influence, I’ve tried to get hold of him recently without success.)
Trivia… I commissioned Ralph Senior Associates to design the packaging for the game Cybertron Mission, and this is what they came up with…
…and I really liked the illustration of the action figure firing his gun. A few months later I picked up a copy of the comic 2000AD while visiting the design company and realised that every detail of that figure was copied from a panel in that comic. I’m sure many other designers have done a similar thing!
After 18 months at Micro Power I was ready to move on.