|★ GAMES ★ EDITEURS ★ ALTERNATIVE SOFTWARE|Amstrad Computer User) ★|
|A growing Alternative||Alternative Software: The Alternative Budget|Amstrad Computer User)||Alternative Software|
The alternative budget
If you buy a lot of games you will have noticed the name Alternative Software cropping up increasingly. Norman Doyle went in search of these people FOR a new, independent company to rise to the top of the charts and hold its own against the likes of Mastertronic, Code Masters and Firebird Silver is pretty remarkable. Alternative Software achieved this without big publicity gimmicks.
What's the secret? Perhaps Roger Hulley, Alternative's MD, can enlighten me.
"Alternative's success is mainly due to the sheer addictiveness and variety of the games", was Roger's rather unsurprising answer, "but having a good distribution company is just as important". This is something that he is well qualified to talk about. After all, Alternative is an offshoot of R and R, one of the country's biggest distributors.
Back in early 1986 R and R with its sister company, A1 Primary Distribution, realised that they were perfectly poised to enter the sharp end of games production instead of just being the interface between industry and retailer. So it was that in April of that year two games were launched to test the theory.
Despite inferior packaging - Hulley's own words - Henry's Hoard and Phoenix did well enough to prove the viability of the new company. What it now needed was a corporate image so that Alternative's games would stand out against the opposition. A graphic designer from the Design Council came up with the solution, a punk logo which reflects the modern outlook and sense of fun which pervades the company.
Just before the end of 1986 the new company was ready for launch and titles such as the re-released Henry's Hoard and Howzat! ensured that it was a very happy New Year.
What makes Alternative really stand out is Roger's enterprising attitude to the re-issuing of full-price hits at £1.99. The first one was Red Arrows, a flight simulator based around the display team of the same name, but the list is now growing with awesome speed.
The names of the companies to which Roger has access are legion. Among others, Ocean, Durell, Piranha, Martech, Incentive, Bubble Bus and Domark ensure that titles such as View to a Kill and Split Personalities, Saboteur, Trapdoor and Popeye, Moon Cresta and the Danger Mouse games have all appeared over Christmas.
Martech's Uchi Mata enjoyed greater success as a budget game than it did at full price. When it was originally released its name only conveyed the fact that it was a judo beat-em-up to those who had heard of the uchi mata at judo classes. Merely by adding the name Judo to the title it encouraged prospective buyers to pick it up off the shelf and examine it. Yet another example of Roger's down to earth attitude which he learned in the cut-throat distribution world.
Quick thinking is an essential quality for the high volume output of a major budget software manufacturer.
Such is the success of this approach that now one in every 10 games sold bears the Alternative logo. The big name games and bargains like the Triple Decker series - which offer three games for the price of one - have helped to attract attention to the other products which Alternative's team of programmers have produced.
Necris Dome's author, Charles Sharp, was one of the first. His Star Wreck proved that this genre of an adventure game doesn't have to involve caves, lanterns and wizards. It also demonstrated that adventures can be funny and the trek across space with Captain J.T. Kake has opened many a mind to the possibility that adventures aren't the preserve of chess fanatics or the Dungeons and Dragons fraternity.
The fan mail poured in after the release of Star Wreck begging Alternative to do another adventure. Football Frenzy was the response, but how was it chosen? "Simply by looking at the response to Soccer Boss. Despite the sales of Addictive's Football Manager, Soccer Boss proved that there is a vast market for games based around football. Whether the market was ready for a football adventure was the gamble we had to take, but it paid off well", claims Roger.
"Our inspiration came from the comic strip football heroes and their trials and tribulations. In Football Frenzy the player takes on the role of the manager of FA Cup finalists Grimsditch Rangers three days before the Wembley showdown. Everything that can go wrong does and the player has to cope with all these headaches and turn the nightmare back into the dream".
The strategy paid off handsomely once again and W H Smith claims that this is their top selling adventure of all time.
The programming team is based in Sheffield, not a million miles from Alligata's offices. In fact the head of the software section is ex-Alligata man Dave Palmer. Fellow defector and the team's Amstrad programmer is 19-year old Richard Stevenson, author of Dead or Alive and producer of Alligata's Amstrad conversions of Trap, Loco and Pub Games. Now enjoying the relative freedom of the Alternative regime, Richard has recently been responsible for Metallix, which incorporates the graphics of in-house designer Nigel Speight.
Richard started out coding Z80 games for the Spectrum for Dollar Soft, a company which had to be fronted by his father when Richard was still
Living in Sheffield resulted in him being snapped up by Alligata to do Super Sam for their Rhino label. After less than a year with them he has now joined Alternative on a permanent basis along with Dave, Nigel. Steve Evans and Peter Frith.
Alternative has a positive attitude towards Amstrad games, and Richard loves the user friendliness of the machine. "The really great thing about the Amstrad. is the fact that conversions to the Spectrum are so easy", explains Richard with an eye to doubling his money in his second role as the Spectrum programmer for Alternative.
On the negative side, the lack of hardware sprites disappointed Richard when the Amstrad was launched. "With such a large screen to scroll around, a few sprites would have made things a little easier".
When it comes to future plans Alternative has a top secret project running at the moment. What it is they won't say, not even a clue, but Richard is obviously very excited about the game and Dave Palmer has promised to keep us in close touch with its progress.
Although the company's major output is re-released material, an active interest is taken in the quality of the product. As an example of their attitude, Roger Hulley used one of his most recent releases. "We've just launched Confusion at £1.99 but it's not the game that originally appeared. We've taken the master, disassembled the code and added a few touches of our own so that the finished product is not only cheaper than the original but also ten times better".
Quite a few of the games exhibit a sense of humour, and one of the current projects is a straight send up of one of Roger's keys to success. A game based on a current craze will always capture the attention necessary to turn it into a potential blockbuster. If Ninja warriors or BMX bikes are popular you can expect games based on them to double their sales so why not produce a game based on them both for even bigger sales?
So it was that the idea for BMX Ninja was born! Imagine manly warriors racing from fight to fight on BMXs and you'll soon realise what a whacky game it is in the offing. The joke will be doubled when the game appears in the States because the latest craze is the BMX Ninja, a trick scooter derived from BMX bikes.
Alternative was named to convey the Hulley attitude towards what he considers to be the fairly staid attitude of the budget market where a large percentage of the games are either shoot-em-ups Or something simulators. A glance through the Alternative catalogue reveals everything from shoot-em-ups through adventures to the realistic, newly-released Flight Simulator.
Roger and his team want to knock Mastertronic and Firebird and Code Masters off the top of the charts, and they're pulling out all the stops to do it. Whether they will succeed or not, they're determined to have a lot of fun trying.