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WHEN IT WAS COOL TO WEAR A BLUE HAT RED JUMPER YELLOW TROUSERS... AND BE NAMED ROLAND...

With a penchant for a blue hat red jumpers and yellow trousers, he looked like an American tourist at best and a cast-off clown at worst. But Roland was one of the greatest hits for Amsoft, a software firm set up by Amstrad to coincide with the launch of theCPC464. Amsoft was given the hard task of creating 50 head-turning games to be released when the CPC hit the shelves across Britain. David Crookes looks at the impact Amsoft had on the CPC market and why Roland, despite starring in some terrible games, was vital to the company's success

From the gleaming spires of a futuristic city to bucaneering adventures upon a pirate ship, a little ill-dressed chap called Roland was getting stuck in.

It seemed quite odd that this strange fellow would get himself involved in such daring missions. But he just got on with things, his expressionless face never frowning or even raising a smile - all the more surprising since one of his modes of transport was a red, time-travelling phone box similar to Doctor Who's Tardis. And if you can't smile with a cool contraption like that at your disposal, then there's something seriously wrong.

But for Amstrad, Roland was a godsend. He starred in numérous games, helping to boost the CPC's catalogue at a time when it needed it the most. For when Amstrad was gearing up to launch its new computer, the CPC464, it had no games, and that was understandably a major problem.
 
VIVE LE FRANCE

The French market was a brilliant one for Amstrad. Sales of the CPC topped the charts to make it the most popular 8-bit computer, and games were snapped off the shelves in droves-a particularly happy Parisian game shop owner said he sold 200 programs for the CPC each day in October 1986. Amsoft played some part in that. Many of the games released on the Amsoft label in Britain were exported to France and translated into French. Some of the educational entertainment titles were given complete overhauls too, among them was Les Lettres Magiques, a French version of Happy Letters by Bourne Educational Software. There were also solid text-based games such as L'Apprenti Sorcier.

But why was the CPC so popular in France? Roland Perry, Amstrad group technical manager, said: "France was a major market for the CPC machines, especially because we bothered to adapt them to have a French keyboard and French translation of the manuals. "I don't know what the actual impact of the games were, but the market was certainly an important one for us."

Amstrad began working on its new machine in August 1983. Boss Alan Sugar was keen to press on, so much so that he had set 11 April 1984 as the date to unveil the computer to an expectant press. With time at a premium, it was vital to make maximum impact, and without games Amstrad sensibly felt that any waves would surely be reduced to ripples if the computer was not launched with a catalogue of titles - particularly so in the face of competition from the likes of Sinclair and Commodore. The solution to this problem was to launch a software company to coincide with the CPC's unveiling and so Amsoft was born at the beginning of 1984.

The boffins behind the new software publisher were given the task of creating 50 games for the CPC. But there was not enough time for Amsoft to start from scratch and interview and hire its own programmers. So almost immediately, the team decided it would approach third party companies and ask them if they wanted to write and sell their games via the Amsoft brand. It would, they surmised, be the best way of enabling Amsoft to build up a sizeable catalogue of games in time for launch.

The advantages for the software companies were obvious: they only had to write the games and Amstrad would sort out the manufacturing and distribution; slapping on the Amsoft branding so that it was easy to spot a CPC game in the shops.

Amsoft's team went ahead and put out their feelers, approaching many small publishers such as Gem Software, Alligata Software and Indescomp. Eventually the likes of Tasket, Insight, Computersmith, and Postern were also on board and things were beginning to look bright for Amsoft.

Cliff Lawson, who worked on the Amstrad launch and also playtested many of the games, explains: "As has been proven many times since with consoles like the GameCube and N64, a computer, however technically brilliant, lives and dies according to whether there's actually any decent software available.
 
IN THE KHNOW

In brief: Amsoft was originally formed in 1984 when Amstrad wanted 50 games to tie in with the launch of its new CPC. With time at a premium it began hiring third party developers such as Indescomp. Tasket and Insight to create the necessary titles. One game by Indescomp featured a character that Amstrad's boss, Alan Sugar decided to call Roland after Amstrad's technical manager. Roland Perry. A string of games followed and Roland went on to become the CPC's unofficial mascot.

MAGAZINES

Amsoft was not just a games developer. It also ran the Amstrad User Club which offered discounts on computer products ana software and launched a magazine called CPC464 User. It came out at around the same time as the CPC hit the shops in August 1984. It could hardly have been described as impartial - it's pages, aimed at the serious user, lavished praise on Amstrad - but was useful in offering hints and tips, news and some type-ins (ironically, the standard of type-ins grew so high they were better than Amsoft's earlier releases).

By January 1985, the magazine went on general sale and was retitled Amstrad CPC464 User. Again, type-ins featured but there was greater coverage of games too. Among the consultants for the magazine was Rolana Perry.

The official Amstrad publications were based at Amstrad's head office in Brentwood. The top brass, including Sir Alan Sugar, were on the top floor of the builaing. The magazine staff were four floors below. Eventually, the magazine was sold to a publisher. It retained its official status and eventually became Amstrad Computer User when the CPC664 was released, shortened much later to ACU.

The magazine eventually closed in May 1992, when Amstrad decided not to renew its licence as official magazine. It became CPC Attack for six issues before fizzling away.

"When the Amstrad sales people went to large retailers like Dixons to try and sell the CPC as an item worth stocking, they wanted to be able to say, 'oh and here's 30-40 games you might like to stock'.
"It made the whole proposition more attractive to the retailer and it took the marketing nightmare out of the hands of the individual game developers."
Amstrad sent a total of 50 prototype CPCs to the various software developers interested in writing Amstrad games. The programmers then began delving into the new system, discovering how it worked before attempting to create the games that would be released just months later.

Some of the programmers merely ported existing Spectrum and Commodore 64 titles whereas others wrote new games. Amsoft then acted as the publisher for these games, printing packaging, manuals and duplicating the tapes in order to help them become widely available. Each game, which had a loading screen stating "Amsoft presents...", would be sold for £8.95 on cassette.

Among these goodies emerged a game which starred the aforementioned character, Roland, but it came almost by accident. Programmer Paco Suarez had created a game for Spanish publisher Indescomp in which a character landed on an alien planet at some point in the future and somehow managed to mutate his human form into that of a flea. As the character explored the planet Ivorus, he fell down a pothole into a cave - the task for the player was to get him out while avoiding flesh-eating plants and a menacing pterodactyl.
 
FINEST HOUR
SORCERY+

An utterly superb adventure title that proved the CPC was no slouch when it came to pushing around impressive looking sprites. Whilst the first half of the game is basically the original game Sorcery, the second half is greatly improved and sees the player seeking out four golden hearts. Utterly compelling.

Alan Sugar had been looking at the game, eyeing it up for a possible giveaway with his new computer. He thought of Amstrad's group technical manager at the time, Roland Perry - and decided it would be fun to name the game after him.

Within a short space of time, Roland became a sort of unofficial mascot for the CPC. Following the game which impressed Sugar, named Roland in The Caves, came a host of other titles: Roland Ahoy, Roland On The Ropes, Roland In Time, Roland Goes Digging, Roland on the Run, Roland In Space and even Roland Goes Square Bashing! And Perry was immortalised forever in pixellated form even though Roland hardly looked the same from one game to the next.

Perry laughs: "Being used as the inspiration for the Roland games was a little joke by Sir Alan. I never thought there'd be such a long series after that."

But there was far more to Amsoft than Roland. The company wanted to cover all gaming genres so that there was something for everybody. The ideas for games came from the software houses, but Amsoft had an idea of the number of games from each genre needed. It was therefore a simple case of putting more effort into encouraging the ones it wanted the most.

Amsoft's approach annoyed some software houses, however, and the firm began to gain a reputation - however unfairly earned or not - of being hard-headed, tough and aggressive- It was accused of being less interested in the quality of games and more about making money - it certainly didn't spend thousands of pounds buying up prestigious titles, instead preferring cheap and cheerful games which Amsoft believed it could market well and subsequently rake in the cash.

Peter Roback, Amsoft's software development manager, admitted as much when he told Amstrad Action magazine: There is no way I could go out and spend £50,000 or £75,000 on a product like Elite just because it's prestigious to have a title like that on our machine. It's got to be profit making. That is the extent to which we are hard-headed toward software companies. We won't buy programs off them if they aren't going to make us money."

Mike Mordecai, the man in charge of distribution and sales, said the Amsoft team had to source quality software that covered a broad range of interests and highlighted the machines capabilities.

But quality was not always apparent, although even this didn't seem to matter to the firm at first. Some CPC buffs even suggested that because the Amstrad was targeted more at business users who wanted to use the machine for word processing, it was only important for users to see that there were lots of games available in case the parents who bought the machine had children who may want to play them. If the quality wasn't great but the games sold regardless, then so be it. That notion seemed to be confirmed by Peter Roback. When asked if

Amsoft was happy to push out a game if they thought it would sell quite well, even if the quality wasn't great, he replied: "We're in this to make money. If it will sell enough to make a profit, we'll sell it."
 
ROLAND IN THE CAVES
AMSOFT/INDESC0MP (1984)

» Trapped in a cave, Roland changes his entire appearance and becomes a flea! And like all good fleas, he has to flee in a bid to save his life. This platform games looks cheerful enough but the game is frustrating. There are some neat touches: the strength of your flea is determined by timing your pressing of the fire button just right. But despite being quite addictive Roland in the Caves is far from a classic. 6/10
 

ROLAND ON THE RUN
AMSOFT/EPICSOFT (1984)

» The best game in terms of story
- yet the worst for gameplay. Roland and his pals are held captive by Amsoft and end up on a 4.45pm freight train leaving Brentwood station. The graphics are great
- colourful and with good detail. But trying to get your 254 mates off the train by making them jump to safety into passing lorries just goes on and on. Amazingly for a chase game, Roland on the Run is just boring! 2/10

ROLAND AHOY
AMSOFT/COMPUTERSMITH (1984)

» Roland commands a pirate ship for this instalment of his many adventures, zipping to Golden Harbour to pick up goodies before taking them to Treasure Cove where they are deposited in a secret cave. Fast, with basic graphics and a lame attempt at a sea shanty, Roland Ahoy is tricky at first, but rapidly becomes repetitive once you get the hang of it. It has to be said, a low point in the Roland discography 4/10

ROLAND GOES SQUARE BASHING
AMSOFT/DURELL (1984)

» Another woeful display from Roland. This 3D puzzler sees Roland
- who this time has become a square (there were many blatant attempts to capitalise on Roland's name)
- travelling from one block to another until they all disappeared from beneath his feet. It looks good, the premise sounds challenging but it's slow and you never feel as if your using your brain, just trial and error. 2/10

ROLAND ON THE ROPES
AMSOFT/INDESCOMP(1984)

» Our intrepid explorer becomes lost at the bottom of a tomb and he has to find his way back up to the top, collecting treasure along the way. Helping him in his quest are many handily placed ropes strewn across 31 difficult, badly scrolling levels, only part of which are displayed on-screen at any one time. Use the terrible control system to avoid the ghosts, mummies, vampires and skeletons. 5/10

ROLAND IN TIME
AMSOFT/GEM (1984)

» In his Doctor Who guise, Roland whizzes backwards and forwards through time to any one of ten time zones. Cue phone box and whooshing time travel noise. This sci-fi homage (or rip-off) looks terrible, plays just as bad and yet was highly successful. The ten lives are nowhere near enough and the frequent deaths as you played this platform game means it will soon be put away under a pile of clothes in the attic. 4/10

ROLAND GOES DIGGING
AMSOFT/GEM (1984)

» After his adventurous jaunts on pirate ships and in tombs, the title of this offering sounds rather more mundane. And it is. There's nothing new here. Pitted amid aliens, you have to dig holes so that the enemy drops into them. The screen has five platforms, connected by ladders, and the action is crazily fast at times. It's made even harder since the aliens, if left, fill in the holes and continue to pester you. 5/10

ROLAND IN SPACE
AMSOFT/GEM (1985)

» Things get a little better with this time-travelling sequel. The colourful graphics are a slight improvement and there are some good speech synthesis giving you advice - "don't panic" being one pearl. You have to visit seven planets while searching for 158 pieces of a super weapon. And like most Roland games, it is difficult, which means the game took a long time to finish, yet, in this case, poses a challenge. 7/10

AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE
BRIDGE-IT

Everything about Bridge-It stank. The cover was atrocious the ungainly looking sprites were an absolute eyesore and it suffered from some of the worse controls ever. Even the fact that it was given away free was little commiseration to the poor sods that got to play it.

All of this meant that by the time Sugar was ready to unveil his new pride and joy to a salivating press, there were ten Amsoft titles available, with the remaining 40 out in time for the day the CPC was sold in the shops. Some of the games were bundled with the Amstrad for free, including the mediocre Roland On The Ropes, the notable Harrier Attack, the decent shoot-'em-up The Galactic Plague, the dire action arcader Bridge-It the passable Fruit Machine and terrible puzzler Xanagrams.

But the games that were sold, sold well - particularly the Roland titles, despite their varying quality. When Amsoft published its October 2004 chart in issue one of Amstrad User magazine, Roland games made up three of the top five games {Caves, Ropes and Digging).

As time went on, the quality of the games got better once games programmers discovered the best ways of working with the CPC. After the initial 50 games were released, software developers began to take more time over their games. And whereas, the original line-up of releases were primarily conversions of games created for other computers, with more time, software houses began to write specific Amstrad games from the ground up.

"WHEN ASKHED IF AMSOFT WAS HAP PY TO PUSH OUT A GAME IF THEY
THOUGHT IT WOULD SELL QUITE WELL, EVEN IF THE QUALITY WASN'T
GREAT, HE REPLIED: "WE'RE IN THIS TO MAKE MONEY, IF IT WILL SELL
ENOUGH TO MAKE A PROFIT WE'LL SELL IT" "

Shortly after the launch and prior to unleashing the second generation of Amsoft titles, Roback said the firm had no choice but to spend six months asking for games to be knocked out to its specifications. He went on to say: "We've now earned the reputation to allow people like US Gold to launch stuff under

the Amsoft label. People like Beyond Software wouldn't give us products like Lords of Midnight to bring out under the Amsoft label if they didn't think they were getting a very good deal and were doing better by bringing it to Amsoft than by doing it themselves."

Mordecai added: "Taking it to the extreme, we've proved what we can do with rubbish. Imagine what we can do with good titles."

To be fair, this second wave really did produce some classic games. Sorcery was a wonderful example of an adventure game, only bettered by Sorcery Plus which was a disc-only enhanced title of the original released for £13.05 on the Amsoft Gold label. Both were produced by Virgin and released by Amsoft and had a quality unseen in previous Amsoft titles.

Later, Doors of Doom, a decent action game was also re-released on disc with enhancements and Amsoft did a deal with top dogs Ocean, releasing games such as Hunchback under the Amsoft brand - many of these were given away with the CPC6128.

But as time went on, Amsoft took more of a back seat. Other software companies were coming on to the scene, creating games not just for the CPC but for other machines too. Top coders such as Ocean and US Gold were growing at a phenomenal rate and were churning out polished titles that wiped the floor with much of the competition. With the emphasis now on quality gaming, Amsoft eventually left them to it and the name disappeared into gaming history.
 
ROLAND PERRY
(EX-GROUP TECHNICAL MANAGER, AMSOFT)

Roland Perry was Amstrad's group technical manager at the time of the launch of the CPC and Amsoft He also lent his name to Amsoft's infamous series of Roland games. As he was the "father" of the CPC and responsiole for supporting a lot of the game developers, it was quite natural that Amstrad would pay homage to him.

RG: What was it like working for Amstrad at this time?
Roland Perry: The main difficulty we had with everything leading up to the launch of the CPC was the time. We only had three months to go from concept to first working prototype of the machine but I had a great team and we made it. It was easier than it might otherwise have been because we learnt a lot from the mistakes made by earlier designers.

RG: Who came up with the Amsoft idea?
RP: Sir Alan Sugar. The idea was that the CPC should launch with 50 games, because no-one would buy it unless there was a reasonable catalogue available from day one.

RG: Was Sir Alan difficult to work for?
RP: No. It was good to work with Sir Alan Sugar. He had very strict standards, but you always knew were you stood."

RG: The software development manager at the time, Peter Roback, said there had been complaints from developers that all Amsoft was interested in was wiping third party software houses out and taking the market for themselves. Was this the case?
RP: There were third-party games for the CPC, but most software houses preferred to have Amstrad do the manufacturing and distribution, ana part of that deal was the Amsoft branding.

RG: What were your favourite Amsoft games?
RP: The CPC project was quite an adventure in itself but my favourite games were Roland In Time ana Harrier Attack.

RG: Why did the Amsoft branding fizzle out in the end?
RP: The third party software houses became bigger.

RG n°19 (2005)

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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.