CRASH, January 1986
By Robin Candy, with
help from Roger Kean who held his CRASH cap and took
the pictures when told.
King Street, Dudley is unprepossessing and busy. Far from
being some gilded cathedral to computer art, complete with
gruesome figurines attached to the high corners, the headquarters
of Gargoyle Games is on the third floor of a modest four-floor
brick and concrete office block with an insurance company
just below it and the smell of disinfectant haunting the cold
stairways. The space consists of an office for Ted, who does
the selling, a writing room for Greg and Roy, and a stock
room with some games and boxes of toys. The toys are important.
The computer industry has always been associated with whizzkids
who discovered computers overnight and made a fortune but
Gargoyle Games' graduation into the home computer market has
been a different pan of chips altogether. It all started about
seventeen years ago in a computer research department where
Royston (his full name, though Roy will do) and Greg worked
for a large services bureau. This entailed them working at
the larger end of the computer market and gradually throughout
the years they've come down in machine size, though Greg admits
that the mini-computers they worked on weren't necessarily
more powerful than the home micros today.
'The first one I started on,' he says, 'had the same power
as an Amstrad and wouldn't have fit in this room, it was an
8K machine, an ICL 1901. It was very slow. We used to play
Grandfather's Abacus on it. That's how it all started,
I suppose,' he adds, referring to games.
'No, you were hatched,' quips Roy disproving the myth that
Greg is the only one with an operative larynx. In fact listening
to these two is like watching two stand-up comedians.
'I started on computers at a company called Hewitts,' continues
an unperturbed Greg Follis.'I was employed by them as a programmer
in the central computer. I worked as a programmer for a few
years until they decided my talents might be more usefully
employed in analysis. I asked "What's the money like?"
They said, "It's better," so I said, "I'm an
analyst"'. Greg's new job brought him more into contact
with Roy. 'When we started, we didn't like each other very
much I can't remember why - well, I can, I can remember exactly
. . . '
'It was nothing to do with you at all, ' snaps back Roy.
'You didn't like me!'
'That's right, and you didn't like me!'
Having established this hate relationship, they ended up
getting together over a computer program and decided what
everyone knew all along - they liked each other, and because
they had a lot of fun working on the program they decided
that if they could be in the same department it would mean
that they could have a lot more fun. So they developed a brilliant
'We invented this new department called New Products - Research
and Development,' continues Greg, 'The management said, "What
a great idea! You can make up new products", which of
course we never did. We actually got our own office, I suspect
simply because we had a lot of fun and made a lot of noise
which never actually stopped us with the work we were doing,
but stopped everybody else working. But we had an awful lot
of fun, more fun than we have now. We did eventually write
some very good programs for them in the end, one of which
was fairly important, which they've just started selling,
something that we felt should have been sold three or four
years ago. '
They had been working for the company for around 15 years
when press rumours that teenage 'programmers' were earning
fortunes prodded their own feelings about getting on and prompted
them to turn their attention to games outside daily business
work. At this point Ted Heathcote, long term friend of Greg's,
was roped in to sell games for the envisaged firm and book
advertising. Feeling that they could duplicate the standard
of software presently on the market without any massive financial
(or time) commitment of any sort they dived straight in at
the deep end with their first game, Ad Astra.
'The thing that actually attracted us to games was that it
was a method to make money that we could afford,' says Greg.
'We both have mortgages and commitments that you can't throw
away. We couldn't have done it any other way because we simply
didn't have the backing. We had been involved in business
though, and knew some of the pitfalls. At the time we were
still working in the New Products Department, so Ad Astra
was developed in our spare time. Consequently it took nine
months to develop which was an appallingly long time. We could
put Ad Astra together in a few weeks nowadays. '
Ad Astra was released when CRASH was still a fledgling
magazine and it was a mild surprise to find a young, promising
software house so near to home. The game rated 80% with particular
recognition of the graphics, which at time were stunning.
As soon as Ad Astra was released work on Tir Na
Nòg began. Contrary to popular belief, Tir Na
Nòg's origins do not lie in Fighting Fantasy.
'One day after releasing Ad Astra I wrote this routine
which showed a character walking in a scrolling background,
Roy recalls. Greg thought it 'looked nice', so then they looked
around for a scenario which fitted the character.
'Eventually we found Cuchulainn and so Tir Na Nòg
With the exception of Ad Astra, all of Gargoyle's
games have carefully worked out plots which lend an almost
unique atmosphere to the game. It is this atmosphere and the
intricate problems that make games like Marsport classics.
'The apparent literary content of our storylines comes about
simply because we enjoy reading stories,' Greg says modestly.
'We make stories that we enjoy. We make stories that seem
to be the tip of the iceberg, so you always have the impression
that there was a lot more going on that you didn't know about
and the resultant effect is that you are completing the story
as you complete the game, something like a movie where the
outcome is up to you. That is what we're aiming for, a true
computer movie that is realistic. And we like to think that
we achieve that in our games. I think a lot of adventure type
stuff needs a story behind it, and fantasy material like Lord
of the Rings can provide an ethos to build problems and
work out a taxing game. '
Greg and Roy work closely together. 'We get an idea for a
scenario and then make up the problems as we go along, two
thirds of the game's ideas are my creation the rest come mainly
from Royston. Our next game, Sweevo's World, however,
is aimed more at the arcade market but it still fits into
the Marsport/Siege of Earth trilogy scenario. The game
is intended to a bit of fun. If people play it and say "that
was fun" then the game has achieved the purpose for which
it was designed. The industry is far too serious now. It needs
more fun injected into it, after all it is an entertainment
On the thorny subject of piracy Gargoyle Games have been
almost alone in preferring to concentrate on perfecting a
program rather than spend the time developing protection routines
for it. Roy is quite forceful on this point, especially when
it comes to discussing how many potential sales are lost through
illegal copying. 'I would suggest that we lose 50% of potential
sales on every game not through piracy but by not having adequate
PR. That's a fairly reasonable figure. Protection routines
are obviously directed towards the odd few hackers that are
around, but who cares if they know what your code is? I can
't see that it is that important if someone knows what your
code is. There is no way of stopping tape-to-tape copying.'
After Sweevo's World Gargoyle intend returning to
the more serious game with the second instalment in the Siege
of Earth trilogy, Fornax. The format for this will
be totally different from anything that Gargoyle have done
before. Although there will be still be various problems which
have to be overcome to complete the game, the presentation
will be radically different Greg suggests that Fornax
will probably end up as a mixed media game, perhaps using
icons and / or sentence input using semantic analysis of sentences
rather than syntactic - this will be quite new. Before starting
Gargoyle they had been sent on artificial intelligence courses
where they learned certain elements of AI which Greg and Roy
now hope to incorporate into later games to form what Greg
calls a sort of cross between Dun Darach and 'Crossroads'.
But whatever turns up in Fornax you can be sure that
it will have plenty of animation and beautiful graphics along
with intricate puzzles. Fornax should turn out to be
innovative while still being fun, the ingredients Gargoyle
feel are necessary to make a hit game.
'There's a lot of new ideas about at the moment,' says Greg.
'It's very difficult, but you have to constantly learn from
previous hits released by other software houses. I would be
quite happy to turn out Dun Darachs but there's a market
out there and, say, 50% of it is buying Daley Thompson's
Decathlon, so you've got to go with the market trend.
We have plenty of ideas which we know we could develop but
time isn't on our side. We've got to release a game every
few months in order to live. If we had six months to develop
a game we could turn out something at the end of that time
that would demolish the competition but we've all got mortgages
to pay. In order to translate our ideas into software form
we would probably need a Spectrum 349!
'Before we can develop true mega games we have to expand,
to employ a few people to take away the things that take up
so much of our time - a person to answer the phones would
be a real boon, as would someone to write some of the less
complex but time-consuming routines in our games. There is
also the possibility of us stopping the manufacturing side
and becoming a development house similar to Denton Designs,'
he says, looking wistfully at Roy and Ted. 'That isn't a bad
idea, it would take out the task of PR straight away.'
Mention of Denton Designs leads us to talk about the old
Imagine and the state of the post-boom industry. Gargoyle
entered the games industry shortly before the crash of Imagine
but even though doom and gloom is spouted by the media they
believe computer games are here to stay.
'I don't think that computer games are a fad, they're an
industry,' Roy claims. 'It's like TVs and videos are not a
fad, it is all encompassed by the electronic entertainment
industry and will always be maintained. Eventually Newsfield
may not publish magazines but someone will. The industry may
change, for example video shops may become laser holograph
lenders, the medium will change but the concept of electronic
entertainment will continue because it's big business and
you can be sure that we will be helping it along. '
To relieve the tension of programming and planning ahead,
the backroom of the office is dedicated to toys. The remnants
of their programming days with Hewitts litter the floor in
boxes of varying sizes, guns of differing calibre wait to
be fired once in a while at passing security guards.
'We used to have terrific fun with these,' Greg laughs, holding
up a tatty football boot.
'Tell them about the football boot, Greg,' Roy prompts. Greg
glances at it as though surprised to see it in his hand.
'Ah, the football boots. A professor friend of ours sent
us a pair of football boots (don't know why), which we promptly
sent back. He then gave us a load of clues as to their whereabouts
which eventually led to us going to Ibiza to dig up a football
boot. We will have to hide this one and give him a set of
clues to find it again.'
Leaving the tiny offices, with their disinfectant-smelling
stairways and a playroom full of mechanical fly swatters,
whoopee cushions and toy guns, I am left with the distinct
impression that it is their creators and not Cuchulainn and
Marsh who are truly the heroes. The spirit of the software
industry lies in such small but professional outfits who,
by hard work and excellent products, are leading the way towards
an electronic environment where reality and fantasy will be
indistinguishable. It may not have been a world-shattering
event, but for the Spectrum and computer games in general,
the hatching of the Gargoyle was a truly remarkable event.