|★ GAMES ★ EDITEURS ★ PALACE SOFTWARE: The secret of success ★|
|Palace Software - the Secret Of Success (Amstrad Computer User)||Games Editeurs|
Palace has always produced the best graphics on the CPC — Cauldron, Antirad and Barbarian. Jerry Muir went to discover why one of the smallest software houses is also one of the most professional of them all ONCE upon a time there was a Palace, and even though it was a very small Palace, it wanted to become bigger. So first it tried witchcraft: and the supernatural, and after that it used a Barbarian and an Outlaw, until it became a much bigger Palace. And that's where our story really starts . . .
That little fairy tale sums up the Palace Software story. But as I sit with Pete Stone, head of the company, and Paul Norris, half of Binary Vision and co-author of Stifflip and Co, outside a pub just off the Pentonville Road, fairyland seems a long way away. The nearest thing to a palace is the Victorian architecture of St Paneras station.
"The very first part of the Palace group was The Video Palace, which I originally set up", Pete told me. This was London's first video mega-store, and it's still going strong in Berwick Street, right in the heart of the British film industry.
Though it's now solely devoted to videos, it wasn't always so. "When I was involved we were selling a lot of computer hardware and games. That's where my involvement started - from the retail end, right back at the start of computer games, in '82-'83.
That's a far cry from today's highly organised industry, and Pete was one of the people who realised that things had to change. "I'd originally come from the record industry and I was interested in taking computer games and doing it in a slicker, more professional manner.
"I was viewing it from a marketing point of view. The first problem I came up against was that you can devise slick packaging and a marketing concept, but it means nothing unless you've got a good game inside it". So Palace had to find a programmer and it took surprisingly little searching.
So Richard became the Palace's programmer, with Pete providing graphics. For a plot they looked to a film that Palace Pictures had just released in the cinema and on video -the notorious Evil Dead! "By today's standards it was rather awful", Pete confesses, "but it was good experience because we saw the direction that we needed to follow".
When work started on the program, the movie was just another horror film which had gathered a cult following, but by the time of the game's release it was the height of the video nasties storm, and Evil Dead was being confiscated all over the country. But there's an old saying that no publicity is bad publicity, and the outrage helped ensure good sales for the game.
"We realised that the best way to create a successful program, at least for us, was as a team effort. Principally we wanted an artist, a programmer and a musician". This specialisation is now common, but Palace had to search out a graphics expert and eventually contacted Steve Brown.
Toil and trouble
With the working group established, they decided to continue the horror theme and hit on the idea of a game based around Halloween. "Initially we thought of the movie, but soon realised that it didn't make a good scenario. But out of the idea of witches and pumpkins sprang Cauldron.
Cauldron's success merited a sequel. Cauldron II was based almost solely on Steve's ideas. "We began to spread a bit further during this period though. The Commodore 64 was growing, but we found that it was difficult to convert to other machines from it, so we started to work on a number of versions simultaneously". This meant a sideways move for Richard from the C64 to the Amstrad, which he soon mastered.
Another aspect of their expansion was to develop more than one game at a time. "We discovered Dan Malone, who started work on Sacred Armour of Antirad. We got a sort of production line going, whereby we had Steve and Dan as the main instigators of the games, both working on the graphics, and we had a team of programmers for the different machines".
Keeping the production line going is now part of the Palace plan, so Steve started work on Barbarian while Antirad was still under development. The result is a steady flow of programs, but the company doesn't intend to put out products for the sake of it.
However the number of releases is about to undergo a hundred per cent increase as Palace branches out with a new label, Outlaw Productions. "Within Palace Software we're moving towards arcade style games more and more, instead of arcade adventures. We're veering more to faster games that get the adrenalin going.
"But we wanted to spread our wings a bit further and to bring in different styles of game. And that's where the Binary Vision connection comes in. They made Stifflip for us, and we were very pleased with the way that went.
Pete Stone and Paul Norris ... palace professionals
Outlaw breaks out
"So we decided to launch a second label. Palace can continue to do what it's doing, but we can also start to do other things. In a way Stifflip is possibly the first and last game like that. It's a sort of junction in our history. From it springs Outlaw.
"The reason we've chosen now to start the label is that there are a lot more very good programming teams around. People have got more experience - people like Paul and Rupert (Bowater, his partner in Binary Vision) who've been working in the business for four or five years". The first release is from Sensible Software, who did Wizball and Parallax, but sadly Shoot 'em up Construction Kit is only appearing on the Commodore.
The moment seemed right to talk to Paul about the company he and Rupert formed after they left Electronic Pencil Company, designers of The Fourth Protocol. At the time of the interview work was still underway on the Amstrad Stifflip, but Paul assured me that it would be almost identical to the
"The idea came from two directions. Pete and Matthew approached Rupert and I and said they were interested in doing this sort of a game. So we looked at their ideas and the sort of company that they were, because we tend to like smaller, independent companies who we can work with and trust to do justice to the game.
Stiff upper lip
'They said that they were thinking of doing a game based on certain characters from the 1920s and '30s. From our own point of view we'd been thinking of comicy, filmy, cartoony effects, so instead of merchandising a character from the period we decided to create our own and get a very strong element of satire in there.
"Then we asked what we didn't like about the way games are and what we could do that would be a little better than that. We wanted to combine an arcade game and an adventure game, because that's where so many people have tried and, for our money, come up with such samey product. We wanted to get something that was different in that combination.
"We'd already got a strong theme, and that's when we decided to have several characters, to add an element of characterisation to it. We all felt that the main difference between a book or a film and a video game is that in the former you get involved with the various characters. But when you are an amorphous blob or an anonymous spaceship it's much harder to feel that identification, that empathy.
"It also gave us the opportunity to explore the visual effects that interest us. If we do have any advantage it's that most games designers aren't actually programmers. As we combine both skills we wanted to explore the effects you could do with programming and graphics combined".
The result is a game jam-packed with ridiculous effects such as dissolves, wipes and page flips. The initial reaction from outsiders was that it would never transport across the systems, but with the exception of one or two small tricks, Binary has found a way of converting it.
During the birth of Stifflip, Paul was studying, which is why he worked with Rupert. Now that he's free from the pressures of college they'll both be working on separate projects and Paul's is already settled a new title for Outlaw. Work's just started, so it'll be a long wait before we see the results.
Turning back to Pete, I ask about his recent American trip. "There are several trends over there that excite me and one is the coin-op. It's been traditional for home computer companies to license coin-op titles, but it's now getting to the point where the two are beginning to merge.
"There's a big crossover starting to happen. Some of the arcade machines actually have Amiga hardware inside them, so it's getting to a state where it's possible to have the standards of the arcades in the home. That coincides nicely with the direction that Palace is starting to go, with more fast and furious arcade games. I can foresee a situation where we're actually writing for both".
Pete expresses interest in the idea of a possible budget label one day, but says that at the moment Palace aren't geared to the volume of releases required by the £1.99 market. Instead they're putting their efforts behind the state of the art 16-bit machines.
"We're beginning to do quite well in the States now and really the American market is going over to 16 bit very quickly. The UK and Europe will almost certainly follow on in the not too distant future. If we want to stay involved in full-price software we have to follow.
"In terms of games though it's very exciting because you're going to be able to get that much more out of the machines". Though Palace will be following the Amiga and ST, Pete doesn't rule out the PC. "It's rather limited in its games capabilities, but having said that, already in the States there are lots of people with PCs.
"I have a PC at home for word processing and that sort of thing, but I might as well be playing on it as well, even though it's not the ideal games machine. In fact, the PC is probably the biggest machine for games in the States, believe it or not."
Pete won't be drawn when I ask him to describe a Palace game. "It changes" he says, then adds "and it depends on the person doing them. It's more a case of there being a Steve Brown game, a Dan Malone game and in future other names will come in on that.
Go for graphics
"Pure Palace games tend to be very graphics-orientated though. We put a lot of emphasis on getting the best graphics and the best sound. Richard Joseph is our current musician and he's provided a lot of input ever since Cauldron II".
At this point Paul interrupts: "He worked on Stifflip and I think he managed to bring across that same atmosphere on the soundtrack from the Commodore to the Spectrum. People just start laughing when they hear it.
"He is so conscientious. We came to him with a list of what have to be the most absurd sound effects of all time. It was before we showed him the game, and he looked through this list of everything from arrows hitting targets to chimpanzee noises, and looked slightly bemused. But when he saw the game everything fitted together and he got really enthusiastic".
Sex and violence
By now we seem to have covered most of the bases, but there's one question still outstanding and I've saved it till last. "Tell me about Maria Whitaker," I ask. The curvaceous page three star and cover girl from Barbarian created quite a storm, with Boots banning the original inlay card. Pete is unrepentant.
Then Pete becomes more serious. "People who complained that it was a sexist cover seem to forget that it was an idea set in a certain genre, which is all about men with huge muscles and women with rather large bosoms. We were slightly upset that people didn't see the funny side of things.
It looked like we were about to get into heavy areas of sexual politics, so I switched off the tape recorder and we set off back down the dusty London road to Palace's office above the Scala cinema. As we went I asked Pete and Paul whether they think software will become more "adult".
Paul believes that the structure of the industry sets up a stereotype consumer which it then caters for. But in doing so it cuts itself off from anybody who doesn't conform to that stereotype. The way forward, to develop more games as original as Stifflip, is to break those artificial boundaries.
But Pete smiles. "I hope we'll never grow up. I hope we'll always be Peter Pans." And for a moment there was a magic of sorts, thanks to the Palace on Pentonville Road.
Amstrad User December 1987