Alternative Software have been making games for 30 years and are still going strong, with its most recent release being Jonah Lomu Rugby Challenge. Set up by Roger Hulley in the early Eighties, it has constantly involved in order to stay afloat in an increasingly tough industry. Here, Roger Hulley tells us how it all started.
It’s 1977, and in a classroom at Manchester’s Metropolitan University sits a young man with many things on his mind in addition to his lecture on Biological Sciences. The man’s name is Roger Hulley and he will go on to create one of the most enduring software houses of the last 30 years. But for now, he is more concerned about a different type of entertainment…
“I loved – and still love – music,” begins Roger, “and spent many evenings at University either DJing or writing for numerous rock fanzines.” It didn’t take long for Roger to realise that a career in biological science would be infinitely less exciting than one in the music industry, so in a moment that immeasurably changed his path, he obtained a place at Thorn EMI as one of their graduate trainees. “I was so passionate about music, and still thinking like a student back then,” Roger laughs, “and as EMI then owned HMV, all I could think about was working in a record shop.” And this being the late Seventies, HMV was still making big money just by selling records alone; Roger’s dream job of working at such a shop meant he had a huge record collection at his disposal. “I could basically take home any record and listen to it all night. To me that was more motivation than any amount of money!”
Roger was soon poached from HMV by a chain of record shops called Fox’s, becoming its general manager in the north of England. “At that time, record shops only sold records and music-related merchandise,” he recalls, “and eventually I thought we should be expanding into other areas as well.” Roger had noted the advent of the video cassette, a phenomenon that was taking over the UK. In due course Fox’s became the first record shop in Yorkshire to begin stocking a video library. With the arrival of CD technology shortly afterwards, he also negotiated that new music medium into his record stores as well, when supply for the format was exceedingly thin. “So then I thought to myself, what comes next?” ponders Roger, and there are no prizes for guessing what he did.
“At around this time, Atari were making waves with the Atari VCS so I thought, we could sell those as well, and before long we had Atari cartridges in the shops,” Roger tells us. Fox’s general manager could clearly see the parallels between computer games and his beloved music industry. “I just got the feeling this could be quite fun,” he explains excitedly, “and could accurately reproduce the buzz in the record industry when you had a hit.” So, with a host of connections in place, thanks to his enterprising expansion within Fox’s Record Shops, Roger packed in the day job in 1984 and headed for the golden land: computer game publishing, though not without a short detour…
“I started off by distributing games via a new company called R&R,” he explains, before we enquire as to the meaning of this abbreviation. Roger chuckles. “Er, rest and recreation, as the Americans say? I’m not too sure it stood for anything to be honest…” In any case, he had his foot in the door of the games industry and it wasn’t long before the next stage presented itself, as Roger describes. “Mick Robinson, who was the business partner of a guy named Martyn Brown, came to me to discuss distributing a game they had written.” The game was Henry’s Hoard, a Spectrum platform game starring the eponymous little gnome. Martyn (who would soon achieve fame by founding Team 17) and Mick had been selling the game under their own label, Alternative Software, and were keen to enhance sales. Sensing his chance, Roger Hulley offered to buy all their remaining stock, the masters and the intellectual property, including the software label name.
Alternative began by shifting the existing stock of Henry’s Hoard, utilising the original packaging, with one difference: the price. Each cassette inlay was now clearly marked £1.99 above a black square under which the previous price of £4.95 lay. “From the distribution side, I was always looking for games that were being developed by one-man bands or home coders,” explains Roger, “and as I was keen to expand, I started to buy these outright and re-release them under the new label.” Next was Megadodo’s classic arcade shooter Pheenix, which Alternative acquired towards the end of 1985, before ensuring both it and Henry’s Hoard were in the shops for the all-important Christmas market. This was not, however, the end for rapacious Henry or the arcade clone.
“We thought that perhaps part of the reason Henry’s Hoard hadn’t been such a great seller for Martyn and Mick was the packaging,” remembers Roger, “so we approached the Design Council [a government-funded body with an aim to promote and improve the design of British products] as we’d heard there were grants available for helping to design products. Eventually we got a small grant to put a design together for all of our game packaging.” Alternative’s two existing games along with a pair of new titles (cricket game Howzat! and Electron shooter, Night Strike) boasted fresh covers and an updated Alternative Software logo, now abbreviated to “AS” and bound within a blue box in the upper left hand corner of the cassette inlay.
With ex-Alligata man Dave Palmer handling the print and production side of the business, Roger concentrated on the development and sourcing of new product. “The wave of games at Christmas 1986 were very successful,” he remarks with pride, “and gave us a real fillip to expand our range.” Howzat! in particular was a good seller despite some terrible reviews, with Crash Magazine awarding the game one of its lowest scores.
Alternative began expanding rapidly in 1987, re-releasing a range of older games such as the Sparklers’ Danger Mouse series, the Mikro-Gen classic Everyone’s A Wally and a number of original games. The year also saw the introduction of another label which got its name from a strange source. “Back in the Thirties, my father, Frederick, had invented a card game called Sum-it,” says Roger, “and it sold very well. But he was selling the game in addition to his day job and one day he came home and outside his terraced house in Bradford was a posh car so big it stretched across several doors!” The car belonged to a representative of the famous game company Waddington’s and they bought Sum-it on the spot from Frederick Hulley for the princely sum of £1000. “That was quite a lot of money back then,” notes Roger, “and my father always suspected that the reason they bought it was because it was affecting the sales of one of their own card games in the area.”
Celebrating the publisher’s 20th anniversary in 2005.
Over forty years later, when Alternative needed an inspiration for the name for their new label, Sum-it fit the bill perfectly, albeit with a slight alteration. But what would be the role of the new range? “Doing budget games at £1.99 was fine, but margins were very tight, especially when you were buying old titles,” grimaces Roger, “so we decided we’d need another line as well.”
Summit’s original remit was full-price software, but the mixed success of its first product, Spectrum graphics package Art Master quickly persuaded Roger that big boxes and price tags of £9.95 were not a direction Alternative wanted to take at that point. The utility, which was an interesting precursor to future Alternative products, was soon dropped in price to £2.99 and this became the entry level for all Summit games. As well as re-released games Summit also published original games, although these were low-key releases despite Cannibals From Outer Space boasting not only a great title but also a renowned programmer in Charles Bystram of Brian Bloodaxe fame. “I already had a rough plan for the two labels,” says Roger, “and it was to separate our games into those designed for younger and older game players.” This was echoed in Summit’s release schedule of 1987 and early 1988 as Games Workshop titles such as Battlecars mixed with the likes of PSS’ Pegasus Bridge (a WW2 strategy game) and Electric Dreams’ Hijack.
A press shot for Alternative’s lucrative Thomas The Tank Engine deal.
With the original label also selling well, Roger plunged some of Alternative’s profits into what he considered a vital area. “Doing budget games was great fun – but tough,” he declares, “and as we were selling each cassette for less than a pound each, we effectively made only a few pence on each one. The physical cost was quite high compared to what we were selling the games for.” With distribution covered, they decided it was time to enter another part of the supply chain as Roger divulges.
“We were using a duplication plant based in Dewsbury, and I got the impression that they weren’t really focused on games. So eventually I bought their duplication equipment in order to have more control of the entire process.” Alternative was determined that no-one could stop their games getting from development to the shop shelves without costs being shaved as much as possible. “We were fortunate in getting that piece of kit when we did,” muses Roger, “and we were micro-managing the whole production, even down to the price of the pancakes of tape.”
By 1988, Alternative was also employing its own programmers who adopted the name Bizarre Developments. Initially consisting of Richard Stevenson, Paul Bellamy and Michael Lister they, along with Enigma Variations and Keith Goodyer, were responsible for coding many of the original Alternative games during this period. Also in 1988, Alternative published its first game on the 16-bit computers (the Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins clone, Night Walk) and realised the inevitable direction that 8-bit software was taking…
Notable Alternative Software Games
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