|★ GAMES ★ EDITEURS ★ HEWSON: The friendly touch ★|
|Hewson - the Friendly Touch|Amstrad Computer User)||HEWSON|
While some software houses are constantly struggling to attract attention, others are quite happy to generate genuine affection. I've always had a soft spot for Hewson and it's a feeling I share with a lot of other people.
There's something about the company that creates a sense of loyalty, both from those of us who await each new program in the sure knowledge that we're not going to be ripped off, and from its team of top line programmers, who choose to stay with the people who have allowed their talents to develop at a natural pace.
That's why it was a pleasure to grab an Awayday ticket and take the Great Western Railway to Didcot, deep in the Thames Valley and only a few miles from Oxford. "Don't say we're based in Didcot though," Julia Coombs laughed, as she collected me from the station. "People only ever think of the power station. Say we're in Abingdon".
Actually the Hewson HQ is just outside the tiny village of Milton, on a trading estate, like so many medium-sized software companies. Its offices are already bursting at the seams, with shelves of files and computer magazines spreading into the reception area, so the programmers have been moved into a Portakabin round the back. Andrew Hewson's company hopes to expand into neighbouring premises to gain some breathing space.
In terms of staff, Hewson has grown incredibly since its early days, but retains a friendly feel as it's still small enough for everybody to know everyone else. There's a real feeling of people enjoying their work because they can see the results of their contribution to the company.
Everybody keeps busy too - in fact Andrew Hewson was so tied up with company matters that we only had time for a brief chat. But he left me in the more than able hands of Debbie Sillitoe, who has been with the company since 1982 and was only too happy to answer all questions.
"So tell me the history of Hewson," I asked. Debbie and Julia burst into laughter. "That's a nice easy one to start with," Debbie chided. However, she had a go. "Andrew started the company in 1980 from his back bedroom as a small, mail order, classified-ad type set up. And then he wrote his books, which were The Forty Best Machine Code Routines and Twenty Best Programs". This all brings back memories of those early days of home computing, before programmers had started to amaze us with incredible code. Then hackers would happily sit around typing in listings for a game of flickery Invaders. How things have changed!
"The first program was a toolkit for the ZX81", Debbie continues, "and Pac-Man ... no Puc-Man for the same machine". So don't ever let anybody tell you that you can't have games on a machine with no sound and block graphics. Hewson also sold packs for Sir Clives lk wonder.
Hewson was ready to move into a small office in Wallingford. It was still doing mail order business for the most part, but slowly the shops took over. 'Then Heathrow Air Traffic Controller and Night Flight came along", Debbie recalls, "and they were very big money spinners for us".
These were the first programs from Mike Male, who works as an air traffic controller and only programs in his spare time - "and not vice versa," Debbie was keen to stress. Heathrow International ATC followed, adding a second airfield. In fact Heathrow ATC is still bringing the tenners in to land, as it's just been released on the PCW. On the second side of that disc is Southern Belle, a more recent Male masterpiece, written in conjunction with self-confessed railways freak Bob Hillyer.
If you've ever dreamed of being at the controls of a steam train surging along the London to Brighton run, then this is for you. Mike Male is currently at work on another tribute to the iron horse, aptly entitled Somerset and Dorset. Debbie tells me it's known as "Slow and Dirty - Bath to Bournemouth."
In those days programs were just sent in for evaluation on the off-chance, but Hewson struck lucky with the people who came to them. There were a couple of adventures which were very highly regarded. Quest and Fantasia Diamond by Kim Topley. Only the second of these made it to the Amstrad, but if you're into the genre why not drop Debbie a line - she may still have a few copies hanging around on a dusty shelf. It's always been hard to pin Hewson down though. The company has never tied itself to any one genre and before it became labelled as a simulation specialist or adventurers'hangout, it had moved on.
The one thing that Andrew and his team have always looked for is quality, whatever the type of program. They next found it in a shoot 'em up called 3D Space Wars, which was sophisticated for its day. But perhaps more important than the program was the programmer. This was the start of Steve Turner's association with the company, a partnership which has resulted in a clutch of brilliant games.
It was autumn 1983, Andrew Hewson had joined the company full-time and the one office in Wallingford had expanded into two grotty little rooms, according to Debbie. But business was booming. Steve Turner completed his trilogy with 3D Seiddab Attack (try spelling that backwards) and 3D Lunar Attack. 3D was very much the buzz word at this period.
These three never made it to the Amstrad, nor did Mr Turner's next offering, the immortal Avalon. But we haven't been robbed of its sequel. Dragontorc, which again features the fantastic Filmation technique that lets you steer the wizard through a 3D landscape. It's a technique that has seldom been bettered for arcade adventurers. Technician Ted took a far more traditional approach. It was very much in the Manic Miner mould, but its quirky humour and some fiendish puzzles made it a real crowd pleaser. The loading routine animated some men while the rest of the program was sucked into ram, a neat trick.
Steve Turner >>
Hewson was now firmly on the map and a force to be reckoned with, but resisted the temptation to throw a lot of product at the public in the hope that some would stick. Quality still ruled, okay!
The company did maintain a high press profile though. Launches took place in such exotic locations as The Museum of London, where Dragontorc was revealed to the waiting journalists among real Roman and medieval remains. They even brought along a golden tore for the occasion. With some software houses, accusations of hype would fly thick and fast, but not with Hewson. As Debbie says: "There's no point spending months producing a game then hiding it from everybody, is there? We're producing good enough stuff to get good reviews for it. I mean, if you've got something to hide about your product, you don't want anyone to see it, do you?"
That friendly approach isn't restricted to journalists, either. It can't be every software company that gets fan mail, but Julia receives regular letters from satisfied customers requesting information about future releases.
Another thing that's striking about Hewson product is that it appears on time and isn't beset by the bugs that suggest a last minute panic. Debbie says that everybody is extremely conscious of this. "That's what's given us a good reputation and it's because we're using top quality programmers. We're using the people who know the machines. And they are top quality programs." There's also a safety-valve built into deadlines, because, as Debbie confesses, there are always going to be problems.
Astroclone, Paradroid and Gribley's Day Out were the next releases to swell Hewson's reputation, but sadly they never made it beyond the Spectrum and Commodore. In fact, if there is a reason to grumble about Hewson it's that some superb programs never get converted. One reason is that they wouldn't want to put out a substandard product, just to cover all the machines. But there is good news for anybody who feels deprived of that ace, fast flying shoot 'em up, Uridium. Now that the Spectrum version has been so successful, there aren't any technica' reasons why an Amstrad version shouldn't appear. The bad news for all us Amsters is that the next version will be for the ST. Andrew Braybrook was on his way back from the States, where it's being programmed even as we spoke.
Recently Hewson has added some new programmers to its roster. Steve Crow produced the amazing Firelord with its scenes of trading and trickery, while John Phillipshas driven everyone dotty with Impossaball, a brilliant piece of problem solving as you try to steer a sphere along a complex 3D course. Meanwhile old timers Steve Marsden and David Cooke, of Technican Ted fame, took time off to produce City Slicker. At this stage Julia suggested I should take a look around, and I jumped at the chance, because I was fascinated by what sounded like a mechanised guillotine going about its gory business in the next room. Is that the secret of their quality, I wondered. Does Hewson execute programmers for sloppy work?
I had to wait for the answer though. The first stop on our whistle stop tour was the programmers Portakabin. It was fairly empty when we called in, with only three people there, but as Dominic Robinson, one of Hewson's full timers assured me, it gets pretty crowded when freelance programmers come to visit.
The Joyce of coding
I've seen lots of programming rooms in my time, but this one took me by surprise. The first thing that caught my attention was a line of Joyces. The Hewson in-house hackers all work on PCWs, interfaced to CPCs, Spectrums and even Commodores via their RS232s and various interfaces. This gives them reliable disc drives, plenty of memory and a choice of editors and assemblers to compile their code. Next we stepped into the warehouse, working overtime with the mailout for Ranarama, Steve Turner's latest program. Its shelves hold stocks of every program - even the extremely obscure Countries of the World for the BBC.
Phone calls still come in from people wanting copies of those early programs too. Though most of Hewson's business is now through the shops, there's still a fair volume of mail order, in particular for Southern Belle, which rather took the company by surprise.
That noise ...
Finally we stepped into a small side room, and I learnt what was making all that clunking. Hewson does all its own duplicating and the noises were emanating from a strange piece of machinery in the production process.
First the tapes are duplicated from a master on to huge "pancakes" of cassette tape. Next that tape is fed off its spool into the noisy machine, which is constantly fed with C-0 cassette cases - so called because they hold no tape. The machine takes the tape, automatically splices it onto the red leader, cuts it to length and makes a second join before dumping it into a box ready for labelling.
Apart from Ranarma and Somerset and Dorset, which is scheduled for September or October, there's Zynapse, a zapping game which is still being written, but which should be out in summer sometime. Perhaps it will make amends for the absence of Uridium.
Then Debbie and Julia treated me to a sneak preview of Exolon, a new game from Rafelle Cecco, who first came to fame with Mikro-Gen's Equinox. You take the role of a heavily armoured humnoid, blasting, battling, bounding and blundering through several hundred screens of action with an amazing array of weapons. There's a straightforward, front firing laser, and a back-packed missile launcher.
From my brief look, two things were obvious. Rafelle's graphics are every bit as good as they were in his previous program; the explosions are probably the best I've ever seen. The other thing is that, from the way everybody crowds round to have a go at the demo game, it's terrifically addictive.
If only all software houses could remember that!