GAMESEDITEURS ★ COMPANY - Firebird's fortunes ★

Firebird's FortunesGames Editeurs
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Small may be beautiful, but is big necessarily ugly? Jerry Muir visited a subdivision of one of Britian's largest corporations to find out.

WHAT happens when a huge corporation gets involved in a bright, new, growth industry, such as computing? Is big money behind the software a guarantee of success ... or will the faceless bureaucrats foul up in a market that they just don't understand?

"This is a market where you have to be very flexible - where you have to respond to trends. And you can't always respond in a way that corporate thinking would like you to respond. There's always going to be conflict when that happens and that conflict is very, very difficult to deal with".
Tom Watson pauses for a moment. He knows all about the potential for tension - he's in charge of marketing for Firebird and Firebird Gold, both owned by communications giant British Telecom. But instead of launching into a tirade against his big business bosses, he smiles.

"One of the nice things about Tele-comsoft is that we're very autonomous. We're very well run, we have a very good management structure of people who understand the job They are BT corporate people, but they understand what we are doing and they let us do what we think is right".
So how did it all start? Shouldn't BT be concentrating on giving us a better phone service instead of diverting us with games?
"British Telecom is divided into five major divisions, one of which is British Telecom Enterprises, which involves itself in new areas of business. Now one of the divisions of British Telecom Enterprises is New Information Services which is a sub-division of yet another division".

It sounds like a classic recipe for corporate thinking so far, but eventually we reach Firebird.

"New Information Services has a brief to investigate areas of information technology - things like Micronet, MUD - Multi-User Dungeon, and Tele-comsoft, which started a couple of years ago, under the auspices of a guy called James Scoular. The first release was Gyron - the second was the famed Elite".

Not a bad start and press coverage was guaranteed - Elite was already a classic on the BBC and Gyron had a tie-in prize of a Porsche. But soon after the high profile launch, tragedy struck.

Despite being a young man, James Scoular died suddenly, leaving Tony Rainbird, Herbert Wright and James Levy to run the company between them. James moved on to another area of BT within months, then Tony went off to found Rainbird, leaving Firebird under Herbert's control.

Three way split

At this stage the label was divided into three areas. Gold included products like Elite; "A tradition that continues with products like Cholo," according to Tom.

"Then there was The Hot Range, which was supposed to fill the mass market gap - £7.95, fairly simple products but well-programmed, well-executed and well-presented. But for a number of reasons it never really worked".

One of these reasons could be that the first of the four releases, Rasputin, was fiendishly difficult. "A brilliant game, but nobody knew how to play it". Tom grins. "It's soon to come out on Silver though", he adds, making it a good bargain. (Note: The Amstrad version was written by Paul Hibbard who is now the boss of Rainbird).

While it's possible for Firebird full-price products to appear on the budget label, Silver is now run as a separate entity. "It probably suffered from being too closely involved with the full price range. So they redesigned it and put a lot more effort into getting a broader range of software. Then a guy called Chris Smith took it over to manage it autonomously".

But that still hasn't explained how Firebird manages to retain its own personality when it's part of such a vast combine. Tom disagrees with the basic line of reasoning, that it's an impossible situation.

"People see Firebird and the large corporations in terms of what was just a couple of years ago presented to the world as a cottage industry with all these whiz kids who were all going to set up their own companies and all drive Porsches. Most of that was hype.
"Imagine was responsible for a lot of it. They'd hire Porsches if the TV cameras came. These programmers would be on six or seven thousand a year, but they'd be given a Porsche for the day just because the TV cameras were there.

Growing up

"The industry held a sort of naive charm for many people. It was the individual struggling against big business and making a buck - all those wonderful Thatcherite ideals of small businesses and things like that. That's fine, but it was always going to be the case that other people would get involved in it and the large corporations have the financial and personnel resources to do it properly".

Tom Watson - marketing supremo  >>


Not all the corporations who came into this fresh, young industry have flourished. There was Thorn EMI, for example. Others have hung on; Virgin, Argus, which is part of a large publishing group, and Ariolasoft, part of a German combine, are just three.

But Tom believes that it can be diffi-cult for these large companies to succeed. "Part of the reason is the strictures placed on the software divisions by their overlords. But, of all the large corporations in the software market, I think we are the most successful."

Still, despite sympathetic management, there are some odd constraints, such as the plush, first floor offices overlooking New Oxford Street in London's West End. 'These offices are hid-' eously expensive, but because British Telecom has its own ways of accommodating its assorted businesses, we have to have them.

"We can't wander off and do our own thing and that makes some of our costs quite high. But it's a tiny, tiny thing -it probably makes a difference of point one of a penny to a £25 game. It's a minor stricture which doesn't affect us that much. We really do quite well within a corporate situation".
Noticing the two PCs sitting on a nearby desk, I suggest that one advantage must be that they can buy whatever hardware they want. Not so, says Tom.

"People often see companies like Telecomsoft as having open chequebooks. They see it as guys in blue suits sitting in anonymous offices saying, We'll keep on writing cheques until we've succeeded'. But you can't just buy yourself into an industry like this.
"If we need a piece of equipment, yes, we can go and buy it, but we've got to pay for it at the end of the month - and the only way we can do that is by selling units". To adapt a popular proverb, there's no such thing as a free Mac, - even in BT, it seems.

There is structure

The need to pay for its office space and equipment hasn't stopped Firebird growing into quite a complex structure itself. As well as software development there's production, marketing and sales, which has to cope with both England and the rest of Europe.

The task of keeping all these elements working together falls on the shoulders of Herbert Wright, who faces such brain-bending problems as a European sales deépartment almost entirely populated by people called Jane! There's also a Sue in there, but Tom tells me that they're trying to per-
suade her to change her name by deed poll.

Despite the potential for confusion, European sales are very important to Firebird. Exports to the States are handled by a separate division, Firebird Licensees, based just outside New York. This is obviously another advantage of having an international parent company.

Herbie Write keeps Firebird flying >>


The international interchange works both ways, and more and more software is being written overseas, in countries as far apart as Finland and Spain. Even Hungary is getting in on the act with the ever-busy Andromeda development team. Recent Amstrad release Kinetic was programmed in Berlin and Mystery of the Nile, a forthcoming title has Hispanic origins.

Mystery will sell under the Firebird banner, which flies over the £7.95 titles. "People can look forward to a wonderful arcade-adventure", Tom promises. Meanwhile the next current Gold release is Cholo, and Tom says that, "It epitomises the Gold tradition."

It's a vector graphics game, set in a deserted city after the atomic holocaust, where you take on a number of increasingly powerful droids. The game comes complete with a novella, which made me wonder if there was ever rivalry between Firebird and Rainbird for the top titles. Isn't it a bit irritating to have a label just down the corridor which is constantly laying claim to state-of-the-art programs?

Rain and Fire

Tom assured me that any rivalry is on a friendly basis. Allocating programs is determined by the format of the original version. Rainbird takes the ST and Amiga titles, while Firebird sticks with 8 bit, apart from the PC.

Any 1512 users out there should be glad to hear that the classic Elite is about to appear on their monitors, around September, in a conversion by Real-Time, who wrote Star Strike II.

September is a very important time in the computer industry, of course, because that's when the new products are rolled out for the PCW show. Tom says that, "There are a few changes on the way, but we can't tell you about them yet".

Despite trying everything from bribery to threats, he refuses to say anything more, but my suggestion that they could involve a new price structure seems to hit home. But don't expect Firebird to take the path towards the fiver game that some people are following. Tom holds strong views about this latest development in software.

'These people are, not putting too fine a point on it, cutting their own throats. And they're not doing the consumer any favours either.

Okay, if you drop the price to £5.95, or even £4.95, you're giving the consumer a cheaper product. It's not in the budget area, it's still full price, but it's cheaper. At that sort of price point it competes directly with records and other areas of leisure spending.

'That, on its own, is a valid point. Another argument is that because of the budget phenomenon there's a natural tendency towards lower prices. Again, just taken on its own, it has a certain validity. But I believe that it's a limited view.

"Taking the price down to give the consumer a better service is pitched towards the pocket. Competing directly with other areas of consumer spending, doesn't hang together".

Tom then went on to explain how reducing prices means less money for the retailers. "The multiples - the Boots and the Smiths - make their profits per inch and per foot of shelf space.

"If they make less profit they'll become less inclined to stock a wide range of products. They'll only stock a top 30, say, or they may well crop the space down to a top 20, or even a top 10".


Part of Firebird's West End offices >>

Another effect could be to cut down on the number of stores carrying software. "In either case, that's not giving the consumer a better service.

"The second point is our own investment in the product. Time is money. Programmers are becoming more and more sophisticated; they work on larger development systems and push the boundaries of programming in games like our own Sentinel, or even Thrust on Silver.

"People don't just sit down with an assembler and knock these games together in a matter of weeks. If you take away the investment you take away the time that you've paid for. Which means that if you're developing a product, suddenly you find you can't afford to develop it over four months because the money won't allow it. You can only develop it over three".

But surely lower prices will increase sales and profits will remain the same. Tom's already thought of this one.

"There's so much software out there that there isn't the market to take it all. A drop in the price point won't increase sales because there's too much competing". All in all, Tom puts down the move towards lower prices as a move of desperation and an inability to work well in the traditional price points.

Future products

So, we won't be seeing Firebird products at a cheaper rate, but what will we be seeing? Well, in addition to the other titles, mentioned above, there's the company's first arcade license, the highly addictive Bubble Bobble.

Shoot-'em-up addicts should chase the Flying Shark, with its simple weapons exchange system. There's more arcade adventuring when you light the Black Lamp and play a jester. It's being developed on the ST with a conversion for the CPC by Software Creations.

The programmers of Black Lamp also worked on Star Trek, one of two long-awaited Mike Singleton titles, the other being Dark Sceptre. They've been in development for so long that they're gaining an almost mythical status. Tom promises that they are on the way.

"Dark Sceptre has presented the programmers with enormous difficulties. We're still not quite there on the target machine, which is the Spectrum". The adventures of Kirk and Co. have been developed on the ST, but they're causing even bigger headaches in scaling down to 8 bit. "There's a new development team who started a couple of months ago and they're very confident after a full feasibility study".

I couldn't help wondering whether all this meant that Mike Singleton is designing beyond the capacity of the Z80 and 6502 processors. "Star Trek was beyond the capabilities of the Amiga", Tom confided. Even Commodore's miraculous micro couldn't provide enough processing power for the original spec.

The problem was the revolutionary Multi-Vision technique, which was to have provided one main screen, surrounded by smaller windows which could be pulled into the area as required. Unluckily things overreached themselves when they tried to keep the action going in the small windows, and now only the main areas will be "live".

Tom can't promise that the program will beam up in time for PCW - but he does promise that they won't re-use last year's USS Enterprise-styled stand at the show. So what will they be showing? That would be telling, but you can be sure that it will hold some pleasant surprises.
Back on sunny Oxford Street 1 was still wondering about Firebird. Yes, it is different from those long-established "cottage industry" companies, and perhaps it does present a more anonymous face to the public. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Firebird's manned by middle-management zombies.

The atmosphere in the offices is keen, and the plush surrounding are cluttered with all the paraphernalia that you'd expect in a lively software house. There's a sense of enthusiasm, a belief in what everyone is doing, and an undoubted desire to put out great, innovative games.

This is certainly one Firebird that has risen from the flames of a corporate background.

Jerry Muir, Amstrad User October 1987

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CATEGORYTITLES (116)YEARS
GAMELIST Mr Freeze 1984
GAMELIST Fighter Pilot 1985
GAMELIST Elite 1986
GAMELIST 3D Pool
Maltese Joe's Pool Challenge
1989
GAMELIST Enlightenment: Druid 2
Druid 2
Druid II
1988
GAMELIST Rasputin 1986
INFOFirebird: Two Game Disk
GAMELIST International Speedway 1988
GAMELIST Gi Hero 1988
GAMELIST On the Run 1985
GAMELIST P47 Freedom Fighter
P-47: Thunderbolt
1989
GAMELIST Night Gunner 1986
GAMELIST Hive 1987
GAMELIST Oriental Games 1990
GAMELIST Starstrike 2
Starstrike II
1986
GAMELIST The Sacred Armour of Antiriad
L'armure Sacrée d'Antiriad
Die Heilige Rustung des Antiriad
La Armadura Sacrada de Antiriad
1986
GAMELIST Rick Dangerous 1 1989
GAMELIST Dynamic Duo 1988
GAMELIST Usagi Yojimbo
Samurai Warrior
1988
GAMELIST La Banda Salvaje
The Wild Bunch
1985
GAMELIST Spaced Out! 1987
GAMELIST Cylu 1985
GAMELIST The Willow Pattern 1985
GAMELIST Chimera 1986
GAMELIST Savage 1988
GAMELIST Beach Buggy Simulator 1988
GAMELIST Skateboard Joust 1988
GAMELIST Raging Beast
Ole!
1985
GAMELIST Caudron II: The Pumpkin Strike Back
Cauldron 2: La Citrouille Contre-Attaque
Cauldron II: La calabaza contraataca
Hexenkuche II
Hexenkueche 2
1986
GAMELIST Here And There With The Mr Men
Here & There With The Mr Men
1986
GAMELIST Don't Panic 1985
GAMELIST The Ninja Master 1986
GAMELIST The Comet Game 1986
GAMELIST Demon's Revenge 1988
GAMELIST Flying Shark 1988
GAMELIST Ultima Ratio 1987
GAMELIST Willy Wino's Stag Night
Mr Wino
1988
GAMELIST Helichopper 1986
GAMELIST Mission Genocide 1987
GAMELIST Mermaid Madness 1986
GAMELIST Imagination 1987
GAMELIST Pogostick Olympics 1987
GAMELIST Collapse 1985
GAMELIST Realm 1987
GAMELIST Spiky Harold 1986
GAMELIST Seabase Delta 1985
GAMELIST Warhawk 1987
GAMELIST The Plot 1987
GAMELIST Dark Star: A Time of Changes 1985
GAMELIST Park Patrol 1986
GAMELIST Harvey Headbanger 1986
GAMELIST Think! 1985
GAMELIST Gunstar 1987
GAMELIST Parabola 1987
GAMELIST Bomb Scare
Bombscare
1986
GAMELIST Empire! 1986
GAMELIST Chickin Chase
Poule Position
1985
GAMELIST Megabucks
Mega-bucks
1986
GAMELIST Star Firebirds 1986
GAMELIST Thrust 2
Thrust II
1987
GAMELIST Thrust 1 1986
GAMELIST Pneumatic Hammers 1987
GAMELIST Rock'n Wrestle
Rock'n Lucha
1985
GAMELIST I Ball 2: Quest For the Past 1987
GAMELIST Booty 1986
GAMELIST Druid 1 1986
GAMELIST Gothik 1988
GAMELIST Rebelstar 1987
GAMELIST Thunder Zone 1987
GAMELIST Buggy Blast 19xx
GAMELIST I Ball 1 1987
GAMELIST Runestone 1986
GAMELIST Costa Capers 1985
GAMELIST Cholo 1987
GAMELIST The Sentinel 1987
GAMELIST Action Fighter 1989
GAMELIST Cauldron 1
Hexenkuche 1
Hexenkueche 1
1985
GAMELIST Kinetik
Kinetic
1987
INFOBleepload198x
GAMELIST Bubble Bobble 1988
GAMELIST Mr. Heli 1989
INFOArmourloc
GAMELIST War Cars Construction Set 1987
GAMELIST Thunderbirds (Firebird/Silverbird) 198x
GAMELIST European 5-a-side
Five-a-side Footy
Five a Side Football
1986
APPLICATIONSThe Advanced Music System1986
GAMELIST Zolyx 1987
GAMELIST Video Classics
Blip
1988
GAMELIST Peter Pack-rat 1989
GAMELIST Dark Sceptre 1988
GAMELIST Nodes Of Yesod 1986
GAMELIST Brainstorm 1987
GAMELIST Skateboard Kidz 1988
GAMELIST Bio Spheres
Biospheres
1988
GAMELIST Biggles 1986
GAMELIST Sub Sunk 1985
GAMELIST Muggins the Spaceman 1987
GAMELIST Blacklamp
Black Lamp
1988
GAMELIST Demons Topaz 19xx
GAMELIST Ninja Scooter Simulator 1988

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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.