Rainbird was the sister label of Firebird Software, a company first set up in 1984 by British Telecom. Here, Tony Rainbird explains how BT went upmarket with the release of its new and looks at the many key releases that helped build the Rainbird brand.
British Telecom recruited Tony Rainbird in 1984 to launch Firebird Software. Firebird’s first year was eventful – the successful launch, the purchase of Beyond Software from EMAP, bidding for and winning the rights to publish conversions of Elite – but Tony felt something was missing from the portfolio. What he came up with was a new publishing label that would be distinct from Firebird Software with regard to quality, content and price, as Tony recalls.
“I believe I proposed the concept of publishing cutting-edge adventures, simulations and utilities on a new label, complete with the Bluebird name and blue packaging,” he told us.
As before, Terry Finnegan was asked to create the logo. The large ice-blue bird with the huge wingspan was a perfect companion to the iconic Firebird emblem. However, mirroring the events that led to Firefly Software being renamed Firebird the year before, Bluebird Software was scotched by BT’s Intellectual Property Unit. A new name was needed, and Tony Rainbird is keen to point out that someone else came up with the alternative.
“I think it was chief executive Richard Hooper who suggested the name Rainbird,” he admits. The name was quickly agreed, but very little money was spent on promoting Rainbird compared to the huge amount BT splashed out on buying Beyond Software just a few months earlier. However, Tony extols the financial commitment that BT made to putting money into the best programming teams ahead of an extensive PR launch. “In order to be profitable it was essential to keep a lid on marketing costs, and so we relied on the PR effort, which often involved the programmers and the award-winning packaging to project the quality image,” he explains, before adding proudly: “It’s hard to describe the sheer enthusiasm that the programmers held in their own projects. So outwardly Rainbird was not a big spender, but was a solid investor in fledgling UK talent.”
Rainbird’s launch titles were an interesting mix of 8-bit and 16-bit products, spread across the genres that Tony felt they should be covering. The OCP Art Studio and The Music System were among the first to be signed, and it helped that they were both finished utilities that could be published and start earning money quickly.
Oxford Computer Publishing developed The OCP Art Studio after programmer James Hutchby saw an Apple Macintosh for the first time, as he remembers: “I admired the Mac but couldn’t afford to own one, so instead I tried to do the same thing on a 48K Spectrum.”
The OCP Art Studio was advertised by OCP, but when managing director Bill Richardson was contacted by Tony Rainbird, this all changed. A deal was struck to market and distribute the program through BT on the new Rainbird label, as well as produce versions for other platforms.
“BT didn’t really require me to change anything, except to add the Lenslok copy-protection system,” says James, remembering the unpopular, technically compromised and ultimately short-lived anti-piracy device. James went on to write the Amstrad CPC version, with Chris Saunders tackling the Commodore 64. Rainbird also initiated new ‘Advanced’ versions for the 128K Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. The 128K Spectrum version was upgraded by Dimitri Koveos, who had helped create the mail-order-only Extended OCP Art Studio, which allowed users to transfer the program from cassette to a Sinclair Microdrive, KDOS or SPDOS disk interfaces. Later, programmer Chris Hinsley approached Rainbird with a 16-bit art package that became the extremely popular Atari ST version.
To complement OCP’s art utility, Rainbird also sought out a music application. The Music System was originally developed and published for Acorn’s BBC Micro, but Rainbird’s deal with the developer Island Logic – a division of Island Records – was for Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC versions. ‘Advanced’ disk-only versions were developed for both platforms, featuring a few new features and some additional musical demos.
“The Art Studio and Music System were signed up as finished programs, but they both suffered from the heavy margins expected by games distributors and retailers at the time, combined with high royalties and low sales compared with games,” explains Tony. “They were excellent products so they were good for establishing the Rainbird reputation, but unfortunately they were not so good for making a profit!”
Sadly, this proved to be a contributing factor in OCP’s demise, and it went into liquidation in the summer of 1986, shortly after its art package was published.
On the games front, a handful of potential titles got Tony’s attention. The first was from programmer Jez San, who had recently helped David Braben and Ian Bell get up to speed on Commodore 64 development when they were writing Elite. As Argonaut Software, Jez and his team were writing what started as an homage to Atari’s Star Wars 3D vector coin-op, after his advances to Atari about writing home versions were spurned.
The finished product, Starglider, set an early high standard for Rainbird on the Amiga and ST with its fast and colourful 3D vectors, arcade action, sampled music and stereo sound effects. “Originally I wanted to have a glider in space that flew through stargates to propel itself along, and part of the strategy was gliding from gate to gate,” explains Jez. “But then I figured this wouldn’t be fun if you weren’t under your own power because you couldn’t just fly anywhere, so I dropped the gliding bit but kept the Starglider name.”
The Pawn was a text-only adventure game that had already enjoyed critical, if not commercial, success on the Sinclair QL. Developer Magnetic Scrolls, led by Anita Sinclair and Ken Gordon, was naturally keen to port the game onto a platform that had a bigger chance of making a profit. The Amiga and ST computers were based on the same 68000 processor used by the QL, so porting the adventure wasn’t a huge technical challenge. However, at Rainbird’s suggestion the addition of sumptuous illustrations on most versions for key locations gave Magnetic Scrolls’ adventures a much broader appeal.
Tony Rainbird was the key to Rainbird Software’s success.
“The development costs for The Pawn were too high for a single product, and it was always going to be the case that the subsequent adventures using the same system would be cheaper to produce,” explains Tony. This forward-thinking approach resulted in five adventures from Anita Sinclair and Ken Gordon’s company over the next four years, adding The Guild Of Thieves, Jinxter, Corruption and Fish! to the success of The Pawn.
Gary Sheinwald joined Telecomsoft’s games development department in May 1986 and was involved in almost every Rainbird title that Telecomsoft produced, including a futuristic Commodore 64 racing and action game called Tracker from new developer Union Software.
“Tracker was in a disastrous state,” laughs Gary. “It didn’t fit into the Commodore 64’s RAM and was incredibly buggy. The pseudo-3D trench portion was practically running at seconds per frame, rather than frames per second!” The original development team had disbanded, so Gary brought in Fouad Katan to rescue the project.
Foo remembers the task quite clearly. “I had to free up around 10K, then finish putting in all the missing bits, fix numerous bugs and put all the pieces back together. I spent about two or three months working on it in the end.” Thankfully, the 16-bit versions by Mindware had no such problems. Developed by Nick Leaton, Tony Lambert and Chris van Es, they created an impressive game for the Apple Macintosh, ST and IBM PC that was far better than the original. “Mindware were Mac-centric for their development environment,” recalls Gary, “and the 16-bit versions were based on the core concept of the C64 original – node-based, with multiple enemy AI units – but they diverged quite a lot and went their own way.”
Level 9 Computing was a well-established family-based developer and publisher of 8-bit text adventures when it signed a marketing and distribution deal with Telecomsoft in late April 1986. The deal included four titles spread across 8-bit and 16-bit formats, including updated versions of three existing Level 9 trilogies. Originally known as the ‘Middle-earth trilogy’, Colossal Adventure, Adventure Quest and Dungeon Adventure were bundled together as Jewels Of Darkness. Level 9’s science fiction trilogy containing Snowball, Return To Eden and The Worm In Paradise was published as Silicon Dreams, while the final trilogy compilation was Time & Magik, featuring Lords Of Time, Red Moon and The Price Of Magik.
The fourth title in the deal was Knight Orc, a three-part adventure written using Level 9’s new 16-bit KAOS development system. Unlike its previous games, KAOS – which, bizarrely, stood for ‘Knight Orc Adventure System’ – intended to emulate the experience of games like MUDs.
One of Rainbird’s game testers was an adventure enthusiast called Paul Coppins, who had previously been a voluntary member of Keith Campbell’s Adventure Helpline, helping to resolve adventure queries for EMAP’s Computer & Video Games magazine in print and in person at the various public computer shows. Rainbird recruited Paul because he was notoriously tenacious when it came to testing adventures, and he regularly inadvertently upset the Austins at Level 9.
“Paul Coppins drove them bonkers!” laughs Graham Wayne, who at the time was in charge of the testing team at Telecomsoft as well as being responsible for liaising with Level 9. “However, he was the best tester I ever worked with. What I remember best were the enraged phone calls from the Austin brothers, complaining about the ridiculous things Paul was doing with their games. He had a way of breaking games in general that was as elegant or mad as it was ingenious. I think he was at his best on the text adventures, but he could break pretty much anything if he put his mind to it!”
Various problems frayed the working relationship between Rainbird and Level 9. Jewels Of Darkness, Silicon Dreams and Knight Orc were all published, but they parted ways before Time & Magik could be finished. Internally, Rainbird cited bugs and constant delays as the reason for the premature end, while Level 9 remained tight-lipped about the experience and quickly moved on to another publisher…
Notable Rainbird Software Games
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