The creation of a tape copier programme led to Brian Jobling creating his own company. A company that would become well known for its licensed games and sports titles. It’s still going strong today and is currently known as Eutechnyx. Here we speak to Brian and many others and look at how Zepplin Games first started.
Many stories of software houses from the Eighties include a teenager programmer buying a fast car, and this one is no exception. “At the age of 14 I wrote a ‘complete copier’ programme which allowed the user to copy any tape game,” recalls Brian Jobling of his start in the industry.
“At the age of 14 I wrote a ‘complete copier’ programme which allowed the user to copy any tape game,” recalls Brian Jobling about his start in the industry. “One publisher realised the potential and suggested that I use my cracking knowledge to create a protection system. I started writing protection systems for the major gaming publishers at a royalty of two pence per cassette. By the time I was 17, I had made enough money to buy my first Porsche.” Brian left school and started working for Tynesoft as a programmer. “During this time I met Derek Brewster, a renowned games programmer who was responsible for Codename MAT.” Derek had left his previous position as adventure columnist for CRASH. The pair decided to form their own development studio, Zeppelin Games, in November 1987. After working from home for years, the company opened for business at offices on Osborne Road in Newcastle.
The first wave of software set a high standard. Draconus featured excellent graphics and a main character who switched from fire-breathing beast to swimming fish. Duncan Scott Kershaw, who would later write games for Zeppelin, recalls, “I remember buying that game to check out the competition and was massively impressed. It really was a great game. It doesn’t look much today but, at the time, it totally raised the quality bar for budget games.” Zybex earned a prestigious ZZAP! Silver Medal and wowed fans with its horizontally scrolling shoot-’em-up action. Key members of the in-house team were programmer Kevin Franklin, graphic artist Michael Owens and musician Adam Gilmore. Brian himself continued to program for the Atari 8-bit machine.
The Jobling brothers are still in the industry. Zeppling Games being
now known as Eutechnyx.
Brian admits that things were pretty tough to start with. “I started Zeppelin Games with the mindset of giving it two years, but 25 years later Eutechnyx is still here! In the early days of the industry it was an extremely cut-throat market. Every game was piggybacked by a different studio’s take on the same idea – if one studio had success with a game, it was inevitable that soon enough there would be multiple takes on the same idea or style of game. It was a great time though – with Mastertronic, Ocean, Imagine, Codemasters, Quicksilva, Hi-Tec, etc – great British innovators leading the world in game development.”
After co-founders Derek Brewster and Martin O’Donnell left the company in 1989, Brian’s brother Darren would join full-time. The company moved to Houghton-le-Spring near Durham. Big name licenses including the hit TV show Neighbours required a bigger budget and were published on Impulze, a new full-price label. There were also games for the 16-bit Amiga and Atari ST. To stay competitive, new games were bought in from other developers to publish, and Zeppelin would often commission teams or programmers to complete a game to a design. One such programmer was Michael Batty.
“I contacted Zeppelin in spring 1990 when I was trying to sell Earth Shaker to a software company. It was good to find a Spectrum software company in the North East,” says Michael. “Unfortunately Zeppelin turned Earth Shaker down. They could see it was a good piece of work but were wary of publishing it because First Star had been threatening legal action against Boulder Dash ‘clones’ at the time. But they asked me if I would like to work on Full Throttle II instead.” This was a planned sequel to a game by Mervyn J Estcourt, as Zeppelin had re-released his Deathchase and Full Throttle games (through Derek Brewster’s contacts with Micromega). “Estcourt’s gameplay was spot on in both Full Throttle and Deathchase (which I preferred). I don’t think my gameplay was ever going to match that. I was reasonably pleased with it, as it was only eight or ten weeks’ work.”
Duncan Scott Kershaw takes an important phonecall.
Michael was studying mathematics at Edinburgh University and only occasionally went to the offices. “I found Zeppelin’s offices in Houghton relaxed and friendly and enjoyed going there. It was quite small, compared with Eutechnyx anyway. Two or three of the staff had their own offices and there was a programmer’s room and a big store room full of tapes which I’m sure led down to deep underground caverns full of even more tapes. Brian and Darren had bags of enthusiasm and a professional manner about them.” Zeppelin presented Michael with another game to work on – Tai Chi Tortoise. “That was a name they came up with along with the (somewhat bonkers) plot about the future of cheese. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles [was] popular at the time so I assume it was based on that. Like Full Throttle II, I was given a half-finished piece of code someone else had been working on but I found it easier to start from scratch myself and use my own library of routines. I used Zeppelin’s game concepts but did my own graphics and music. I had lots of spare graphics kicking around from half-finished games.”
Ninjas were also popular with budget companies – Mastertronic had Sculptured Software’s flick-screen Ninja and Firebird released Ninja Master with its Decathlon-style events. Zeppelin jumped onto the ninja bandwagon with two releases of its own. Ninja Commando stood out with its tiny well-animated sprites, the ninja leaping onto bad guys to earn extra weapons. Robert Toone, part of the Gremlin team based in Derby that became the core of Core Design, contributed his personal project Bionic Ninja.
“Bionic Ninja was one of the first games I ever programmed, it was a spare time effort with graphics by my good friend Simon Phipps. I had the design down and used this game to really learn how to program whole games with all their complexities,” says Robert. “We found Zeppelin after we finished it, as we needed a publisher and they were advertising for games to release. They were very professional and my dealings with them were without incident, which is always a nice thing. I do remember very clearly the displays they had in the computer games shops at the time, and being very proud to have one of my own games on their list.”
Looking back at the game for this feature, Robert found a video playthrough online. “I have to tell you, it made me a little sad. People just come along and demean your game, one that you poured yourself into for a small portion of your life. I still believe the basic design to be good, learn each bad guy who has particular weaknesses and then on later levels mix and match them to create a more interesting gameplay experience.”
Some early development disks that were kept by Drew Rogers.
Among the programming teams that worked for more than one budget publisher was Reflective Designs, based in Bradford’s Wool Exchange and headed by programmer Duncan Scott Kershaw and musician Gerald Gourley. Duncan first got into programming in 1983, and talks about his first project for Zeppelin, completed in 1990. “I was a freelance coder and just finished off Cobra Force for Players Premier, and wanted a quick project to pay for a lad’s holiday to Corfu. I called Zeppelin and signed up to do Kick Box Vigilante for £750. A month later I sent them the finished game, received my cheque and went on holiday. Back in the day, nobody did any QA on our titles; you coded them, got your mates to play the game and often sent them directly to the duplication factory. I could have put anything on the tape…”
Duncan describers how tough it was to get into the industry. “It was a matter of sending off dozens of floppy disk submissions to publishers and hoping they’d like what you’d made. After eventually getting my first game published, it became easier to sign up new projects. To get work, you’d just call publishers asking if they had any games they wanted making or converting. Most deals were done on the phone, followed by a contract a few days later.” Zeppelin approached Duncan with an idea for another title.
“Zeppelin asked for a ‘Christmassy type game’ – I agreed and re-skinned a scrolling shoot-’em-up I was working on (later to be released as Steel Eagle for Players Premier). A good friend of mine, Mark Wilson, wrote the music for the game, which gave it a nice cheesy Christmassy vibe. Believe it or not, that game (Santa’s Christmas Capers) went to number one.” The story has an unhappy ending, with Duncan taking legal action to get full payment – something that happened with many companies at the time, making such freelance work precarious. He talks fondly about his haunted office, the bizarre moment a gun was pushed through the letterbox one lunchtime and how he misses coding. “The industry has changed massively over the years, but I still enjoy making games and feel privileged to work in such an exciting business. You knew where you were with 64K of RAM, the SID and VIC chips, and 6502 assembly.”
Zeppelin continued to make 8-bit games into the Nineties, but it was obvious that a new plan of action was needed for the company…
Notable Zepplin Games Games
To read the whole feature you can download issue 119 from GreatDigitalMags.com
Retro Gamer magazine and bookazines are available in print from ImagineShop