Mike Woodroffe’s software company has been known under several different names over the years, but its the moniker Adventuresoft that many remember most fondly. The company has been responsible for giving the world Simon The Sorcerer, dabbling in horror titles and ensuring Scott Adam’s early adventure games reached the UK. Here we discover how the popular company was first founded.
There is a series of shorts on YouTube called Kids React, in which children are shown technology products of yesteryear and are asked to interact with them. The producers film the kids’ reactions while their faces contort with confusion as they stab their fingers into the holes of a phone’s rotary dial or fumble around trying to work out where chunky cartridges go in retro consoles.
If we were to tell such children that Scott Adams’s game Adventureland caused a sensation when it was released in 1978, their brains would likely explode. They’d be amazed by the first adventure game to be playable on a home computer, particularly because it threw players into an imaginative fantasy world and asked for it to be navigated by typing two-word, verb-noun phrases.
As readers of Retro Gamer know, that is the nature of what has come to be known as interactive fiction and Scott – back then a 26-year-old fledgling BASIC programmer born in Miami, Florida – was an early master. Inspired by Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave, written a couple of years earlier on a PDP-10 mainframe machine, Adventureland was a major success. Scott came to be seen as one of the earliest founding figures of the entire computer gaming industry.
Mike Woodroffe was one of the first industy figures to
realise the importance of licences.
Indeed, Scott was on a roll as the Seventies turned into the Eighties, his brand of simple descriptions, first-person storytelling, creative worlds, clipped commands and a reasonable vocabulary of 120 words making for rather playable non-graphical games. He sold them under the brand Adventure International, placing adverts in computer magazines such as Byte and fulfilling the orders himself. He also coined a catchphrase of sorts. ‘What should I do?’ his games would scream.
The firm’s name was something of a misnomer, however. It wasn’t quite global. While Scott was effectively a developer and self-publisher and there was potential to sell his games around the world, they were being ported to machines such as the Atari 8-bit series, Apple II and Commodore PET, which were distinctly more popular in the US. At the same time, he was writing titles that were proving to be highly sought after. One after another, the likes of Pirate Adventure, Secret Mission, Voodoo Castle, The Count, Strange Odyssey, Mystery Fun House, Pyramid Of Doom, Ghost Town and Savage Island were snapped up by players. Only they were not getting the international airing Scott’s talents deserved.
In the UK, the text adventure scene was also growing, boosted by the lack of processing power and memory of the early computers. Among those enjoying having his imagination pricked by words alone was Mike Woodroffe, who owned a popular shop in Birmingham called Callisto Computers, one of Britain’s very first. It was based within his family’s music store, but Mike had started to see the money-making potential of gaming and realised there was a wealth of top-quality games being produced in America that were ripe for import.
“The computer shop was the catalyst really,” Mike explains. “Although we were selling Apple IIes, we found that there was a very big demand for software, but the only place we could really get a good supply was in America. We started to import games from companies like Instant Software under a brand called Callisto Software. One of the firms we approached was Adventure International. I had a good talk with Scott and we struck a deal.”
The game of Scott Adams were very popular and Adventuresoft UK published them, bringing his games to a wider audience in the process.
The initial deal was to simply import Scott’s games. Mike figured that it would be cheaper and more effective to manufacture the games in the UK than have bulky boxes shipped across the Atlantic. But merely importing Scott’s titles was failing to capitalise on a growing home computer market in the UK: Scott’s games had not been ported to the ZX Spectrum, Dragon 32 or BBC Micro and it was leaving a gaping hole.
A computer gaming magazine raised concerns about this in an interview with Mike, who admitted he did not have anyone to work on these conversions. Mike’s words were spotted by a budding programmer called Brian Howarth. Having already been inspired by Scott’s work and motivated enough to write adventures of his own on the TRS-80, “I contacted Mike and offered my services,” Brian says.
At this point, Brian was already making a name for himself. His first game had been The Golden Baton which, initially programmed in BASIC, then rewritten in machine code, had been published by Molimerx in 1981. It sold so well that Molimerx wanted to turn the game into a series called the Mysterious Adventures and Brian was pressured to create more. The Time Machine and Arrow Of Death parts one and two followed. As fate would have it, Brian was making use of a self-coded interpreter based upon Scott’s Adventureland source code which had been published in Byte magazine. It put him in the perfect position to be able to convert Scott’s games.
Mike welcomed Brian with open arms. “Meeting Mike was interesting,” recalls Brian. “I had already met his brother Jezz, who had played keyboards with Black Sabbath, and I had bought a used electric piano from him.” Mike formed a new company called Adventure International UK (AIUK).
Scott Adams in an early publicity shot for the Questprobe games.
Brian began work in AIUK’s offices above Mike’s computer shop. The interpreter would pull in data from Scott’s existing databases and with the core reproduced, the rest would slot into place. “Brian was tasked with creating the engine [I had produced to make my games] on the UK systems,” Scott says. “Once the engine was transferred over, the game databases would then run.”
Brian’s passion for the project was clear. “I had fun playing Scott Adams’s games,” says Brian. “I liked the ‘split screen’ format where descriptions were displayed in the top portion of the screen and the responses of the player and computers were displayed in the lower half, which scrolled without scrolling the top half.” But the games being converted for a UK audience had one addition: graphics. Mike figured that pure text-based adventures would not provide the larger sales he was after and that the extra memory of the British machines should be used to the max. He hired talented artist Teoman Irmak.
Suddenly Adventure International was a global player, split into two separate companies, one run by Scott and the other Mike. In 1984, Adventure International began to license games based on films and comics. It struck a deal with 20th Century Fox to create The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension. It also partnered with Marvel Comics to deliver text-adventures based on The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Human Torch and The Thing in a series of three games under the banner Questprobe.
Red Dwarf’s Chris Barrie would lend his voice to
Simon The Sorcerer in later years.
“I travelled to the UK to do a promotional tour,” says Scott. “At a convention, Marvel supplied Hulk and Spider-Man actors for the promotion. When I was writing the plots for the comics to go along with the Marvel games, I was also asked for suggestions on how I wanted the chief villain Chief Examiner to look. I suggested they use me as a template.”
But Mike noted that Scott, despite heading a 12-strong team, was unable to satiate a growing demand for adventure games. So AIUK began to produce its own titles, using the same system that had previously been utilised to port Scott’s titles. Among those were Brian’s Mysterious Adventures. But, like Adventure International, the UK arm sought to snap up licences, one of which was Gremlins, based on the classic Eighties movie.
“By working with a licence, we could open up the market and get journalists to talk to us,” says Mike. “People wanted graphic adventures so we started to make approaches.” The Gremlins tie-up came out of a meeting with a licensing company from America. Mike had travelled to London merely looking to put out some feelers, but he was shocked by the response.
“I came out with the Gremlins licence thinking ‘how did I do that; what am I doing? I’ve got the Gremlins licence. This is insane,’” he recalls. “And at the same time the same people asked me, ‘Do you fancy Robin Of Sherwood’? I said ‘yes’! It was purely and simply because nobody else was looking for licensing and hadn’t realised licences were good news. It changed soon enough when everybody cottoned on and then crazy money was involved. But at that stage, it was mind-boggling.”
Gremlins: The Adventure was a winner. Teoman infused this tense game with great animation as Gremlins met sticky ends in microwaves and blenders. Brian had no issues with creating text adventures out of film franchises either, welcoming the chance to widen the audience of interactive fiction. Unfortunately for Adventuresoft UK, the good times weren’t going to last forever…