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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".
"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".
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.
"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 >>
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".
"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.
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-
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 >>
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".
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.
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.
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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