Incentive Software is best known for a set of revolutionary 8-bit games that utilised the Freescape engine. Games like Driller and Castle Master were huge leaps forward in gaming, giving a brief insight into the future. Here, founder Ian Andrew reveals what happened before those classic games made Incentive Software a success.
Speaking to Ian Andrew, founder of Incentive Software, it’s obvious he has always been a man in control of his own destiny. From the headquarters of his present company, Traffic Names Ltd, in Fleet, Hampshire, the former 8-bit entrepreneur exudes a sense of calm authority that was no doubt advantageous during the turbulent early years of the computer software market. Dressed in a light, tie-less suit that betrays the mild October weather outside, we start by asking him about the birth of one of the most successful and influential software companies of the Eighties.
“It began with my shop in London Street, Reading, selling stamps and collectable picture postcards,” he explains with an obvious sense of pride, “which was an expansion of a business I had previously been running from my parents’ house.” Opening this type of dedicated shop may seem strange today, but as Ian notes: “There was no internet or eBay back then, so selling stamps and picture cards by mail order and then from the shop was big business.” Not as big as the growing computer game industry, however, and so I Andrew (Cards), the first shop in Britain to specialise in the selling of Post Office postcards, which had opened early in 1983 with a buffet reception attended by 60 fellow enthusiasts and the curator of the National Postal Museum in London, was transformed shortly afterwards into the home of Incentive Software.
Ian Andrew in the early years of Incentive Software.
It’s easy to conclude with the benefit of hindsight that this was a natural step for Ian: he was one of the first people to buy a ZX81 following an advertisement in the Daily Mail and also purchased one of the earliest ZX Spectrums. Ian had quickly put his computer to work as well, masterminding the cunning strategy title Mined-Out, which was published by Quicksilva in late 1982 to good reviews and solid sales. His idea with the game was to create something original and playable that stood out from the rest of the market, a theme that would remain as his career – and Incentive’s rise – progressed.
The royalties received from Quicksilva for Mined-Out swiftly eclipsed Ian’s regular income and persuaded him to sell the postcard business to a fellow deltiologist and enter the burgeoning game software market with his own label. The genesis of the name of the company itself was simple: “Basically, I chose Incentive as the company name because I decided we wanted to offer an added incentive to our customers,” he explains. To this aim, the company’s first title, Splat!, programmed by Ian himself along with machine coding from Ian Morgan, who was recruited via an advert in the Reading Post, offered a reward of £500 to the person who achieved the highest score. “It may not have been the first game to offer a prize, but we prided ourselves on offering achievable prizes,” notes Ian Andrew, “and it was very successful in promoting the game.”
The company slowly expanded, with the office still based in Ian’s old card shop. Darryl Still was recruited to help with marketing, administration and accounts, while Dave Baines – “fortunate” recipient of the Incentive-embossed company Sinclair C5 – looked after the technical side as well as more manual tasks such as packing cassettes and filing. “At this stage there were no staff programmers,” says Ian. “All the games were written by freelancers who were paid royalties. It worked pretty well.”
Tom Frost wins the ‘Britain’s Best Adventurer’ award.
Next for Incentive was The Ket Trilogy, a set of three text adventures and an interesting nod to future projects. Written by Richard McCormack, a Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed friend of Ian Morgan’s, it also offered a prize for the first person to complete it: a top-of-the-range video recorder. The competitions were already a promotional boon: pictures of a beaming Ian Andrew handing over the fulsome rewards regularly adorned the news pages of most computing magazines.
The idiosyncratic shop was proving to be an interesting base of operations. “It was £80-a-week rent and a five-storey building that was about to be demolished,” remembers Ian with a smile, “the only drawback being that we only had it for two years until the demolition order and no rights to stay.” The building was an adequate, if unconventional, base for the new software house: a shop front – which, in time, began to house several of Ian’s arcade machines – led through to a back office and kitchen, while on the first and second floors were several bedrooms, a bathroom and a lounge. “To be honest, it was very run-down, but we had some good parties there,” says Ian, and one such occasion almost led to disaster. “One night, seeking respite from a particularly raucous party, I came downstairs and noticed the ceiling in the shop visibly bulging from the goings-on upstairs! We had to get an acro prop up pretty quickly to avoid any unfortunate accidents.”
Darryl Still’s key memories during his 18 months at Incentive were also of the building: “It wasn’t really fit for its purpose. The basement was filled from ceiling to floor with magazines and a potential firetrap,” he notes, “but it was fun working with some very talented coders in what was a very haphazard environment by today’s standards.”
The Incentive Software team in 1985.
Ian Morgan recalls: “Incentive was my first job after leaving school and I started officially in September 1983. I used to love playing on Ian’s collection of pinball and arcade machines, especially my favourite, Tempest. There was always a steady stream of visitors into the shop, all eager to play our games on the computer we had set up.” With Splat! done and dusted, Morgan spent much of his time handling the mail order side of the business, and many days involved nothing else but packing the tapes and shiny covers of Incentive’s debut effort, before having the honour of personally delivering the first order to the local distribution centre.
The Incentive catalogue was growing now as more programmers sent in their work or ideas. Splat!, 1984, The Ket Trilogy and Millionaire all gave evidence that Incentive was going to be no ordinary games company: an arcade maze game; a government simulation; a trilogy of text adventures, not forgetting McCormack’s ambitious RPG-style combat system; and a software house simulator. Unlike many of its peers, it was apparent that Incentive had no plans to produce arcade rip-offs, which brings us to the next game in its canon.
Daryl Still would later go on to work for Atari.
“I noticed that a lot of companies were bringing out games that were simply clones of either existing games or, rather, arcade machines,” remembers Ian, “so I set out to do something different again and actually try and get the official rights to an arcade game.” His gaze fell upon the classic arcade shooter Moon Cresta from Nichibutsu, which he approached for the rights on all the home computer systems. “They seemed quite surprised because they’d never been approached by anyone from the home computer industry before, so had assumed that there wasn’t any money in it.” Sensing a potential deal, Ian asked the company’s UK MD what price he had in mind for the worldwide home computer rights. “He said it had to be at least £1,000 to make it worth all the paperwork – so £1,000 it was!”
Moon Cresta became a top seller, with versions appearing on the Amstrad CPC, BBC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Dragon 32. Timothy Walter and Philip Taglione produced the accurate conversion by just playing and studying the arcade original with Taglione’s brother, Anthony, and C64 expert Malcolm Hellon supplying the powerload code that reduced loading times and made the game harder to pirate. Licensing out the powerload code also provided another string to Incentive’s bow.
At this point in time – spring 1985 – Incentive was being forced out of its home for the first two years and moving to a more practical business park located in nearby Aldermaston. Some of Ian’s earlier colleagues had moved on – including the ambitious Darryl Still, who formed his own development company, and Ian Morgan to an IBM dealer two doors down from the London Street office – and the success of Moon Cresta had him in two minds as to which direction to take. Ultimately the decision was clear: Incentive’s policy of producing challenging and original software meant artistic control was a necessity, so the fledgling console market was a no – as was the licensing of other properties, whether it be further arcade conversions or movie and TV adaptations.
Chris Andrew now works at Traffic Names.
With Paul Shirley’s classy puzzle game Confuzion selling well, Incentive was now looking for the next genre to explore, and its links with Reading University now paid dividends as a relationship was forged with first-year student Sean Ellis. As Sean himself explains: “Just before Christmas ’84 I was attending the Reading University Computer Club and they had an evening with these guys from a local software company. I met Ian and told him about an adventure game system I had been playing around with on the Amstrad. Full credit to him as it wasn’t in the best state, yet he was able to see through this and visualise the potential.”
The reason was simple: always with one eye on his competitors’ products, Ian’s attention had been drawn to the adventure-creating utility The Quill. This popular program enabled users with little programming knowledge to create their own adventures – albeit with no graphics. These were possible, however, with the aid of another utility, The Illustrator, which predictably made the process much more complex. “We were quite aware of [The Quill’s] shortcomings, in terms of it being a bit cumbersome to use with The Illustrator,” says Ian, “and having spotted this we encouraged Sean to write his utility combining the two aspects.”
It was certainly a departure for Incentive that surprised many, not that it affected sales, remembers Ian happily: “It was very successful for us, actually, and a lot of this was down to our good relationship with Book Club Associates.” The BCA had been operating for some time distributing books via a mail-order club when the Swindon-based company decided to open a division selling computer software. The remit was identical to its book club: a hugely tempting opening offer with dozens of titles at a fraction of their RRP, followed by a regular magazine with somewhat less awe-inspiring savings. To make program of the month almost guaranteed a title’s success thanks to the high profile it would receive in the magazine, and The Graphic Adventure Creator’s relatively high price of £22.95 compared to £8-9 for most games was, in Ian’s mind, a key factor in the BCA selecting it for this honour.
Messing around for the Castle Master promotion.
The Graphic Adventure Creator was a huge success. Budding adventure enthusiasts up and down the country took to its simple, intuitive system, and Incentive created the Medallion label to publish some of their games. As Ian states: “One of the edges of the GAC was that you could be a non-programmer and create games, so I thought it was important for us to publish some of these games to show publicly that it could be used to make decent adventures.” Several fan-produced games appeared on Incentive’s Medallion label, with the best-received being Karyssia, Queen Of Diamonds by Darren Shacklady and Peter Torrance’s Legend Of The Apache Gold. Yet despite these two titles, many of the other adventures published by Incentive were not the most original in concept and marked a nadir in the quality of the company’s releases.
Everything was about to change though, as Freescape, an innovative new type of game engine was just around the corner…
Notable Incentive Software Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 87 from GreatDigitalMags.com
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