and round, with no sharp edges
CRASH, February 1986
When Microsphere collected
another CRASH Smash, it was time to send ace investigative
reporter, Charles P Cohen along to see the dynamic duo of
Helen and David Reidy. They came to see us, while Skool
Daze was nearly finished, and spent the day taking us
round the classrooms while their car was being attended to
by the Ludlow Car Doctor. It was Walpurgisnacht (Halloween
to most of us) when Charles P set off on his trek across London
T'was the eve of Halloween. Looking carefully about I pulled
my coat closer around me and warily approached the building.
In the orange glow of the street lamps and the silver moon
I pressed the bell. A woman opened the door, and, summoning
up my courage I said "Hello. I'm from CRASH. I'm here
to do the interview. You are Microsphere aren't you?"
She smiled. On Halloween, a smile means many things.
'Yes", she said, "I'm Helen. Please come in."
So I left the night to its own devices, and stepped into
is a husband and wife team who have been writing some of the
most original and lasting games for the Spectrum since the
year dot (1982 actually), when the machine was launched. These
veterans of the industry have brought us such gems as Wheelie,
Skyranger, The Train Game, and the incomparable
Skool Daze with its follow-up Back to Skool
- their latest CRASH Smash. In early 1983 they also branched
out into the serious software market, when Dave wrote Omnicalc
- one of the first and best pro spreadsheets for the Spectrum.
If the Spectrum had caught on as a business machine then maybe
Dave and Helen would now be the premier business software
company ... But then maybe CRASH wouldn't exist. Perhaps things
are best left as they are.
Microsphere was set up in 1982 as a casual arrangement, while
Dave was working as a system analyst and Helen was working
as a Primary School teacher.
Naming the company was their first major task. Those were
the days when any respectable software producer had 'Micro'
in its name. "Microsphere" seemed to encompass all
that the company represented - little, and round with no sharp
edges. What's more, Microsphere sounds a bit more plausible
than "Hyper Mega Micro Big Ad Crummy Games Software Inc
At first, Microsphere was just a holding company, arranging
sub contracts for hardware manufacturers (Translation: Microchip
maker's middle man), and this also allowed Dave to do some
freelance work for other people. Soon, however, seeing a market
for high quality and cheap software for Clive's baby, they
branched out into the Spectrum, with The Train Game,
Microsphere's games are very original; different from the
rest of the market. This may have something to do with the
way Dave works. He doesn't play anyone else's games -just
reads about them in CRASH. What's more, he doesn't use an
Assembler or any other conveniences like that. I asked him,
Don't you get many bugs?
"Oh no", he replied, "Only one or two little
ones here and there". He writes the code out on paper
first, and then Helen keys it all into the computer (aaah).
The planning stage for games is understandably very long -
especially with the Skool games, which require oodles of complex
interaction. In Back to Skool for instance, there are
thirty-two independent characters, all doing their own thing.
of Helen, she's given up full-time kiddie bashing (sorry -
teaching) and now organises most of the administration, such
as licking stamps, writing letters, liaising with buyers from
the chain stores and taking care of minor matters, such as
keying in programs. These daze, she only teaches once a week,
to keep her hand in. The idea for Skool Daze stemmed
from Helen's experiences: Dave and Helen then sat down with
the basic idea and dreamt up a whole range of "Extra
Curricular" activities that skoolkids get up to - the
whole point of the games is to commit all these grievous crimes
and get away with it.
Microsphere plan to continue their original approach to games
design: there are no plans to get involved with licensing
deals, for instance. Helen believes that professionalism is
very important these days, and she and David agree that licensing
is a bad thing for Spectrum gaming, because it is generally
used as an excuse for publishing crummy games and clocking
up a nice little profit.
Neither Helen nor Dave feel that they are particularly well
blessed with artistic capabilities. So they have this professional
artist fellow, Keith Warrington, who comes in and does all
the graphics for them. (He teaches, too, so there's a fund
on background information to draw on for the Skool games.)
The Turbo Load is all theirs, though, and they spend many
hours checking every batch of tapes. Reliability is a strong
concern at Microsphere, and they are only happy with a 99.9%
success rate on duplicated games.
A lot of Helen's time is spent "running round in circles,
chasing people and being chased". Quite a few people
write letters to Helen you know. She tries to provide personal
replies to as many as she can, but everyone gets an answer
of of some sort... once she gave lines to a correspondent
for being impertinent. Can't win, can you?
With large companies getting more and more involved with
the home computer software market, doesn't life get difficult
for the small independent software house? "It's certainly
more of a struggle," Helen admitted, "there's more
hassle involved. Not so long ago, buyers from the large chain
stores were happy to take half-decent software from anyone.
Nowadays it seems they re more concerned with your advertising
budget and the size of your box - it's very difficult to get
a good game from a small software house into the large stores.'
market has changed radically over the past couple of years.
"I loved the happy jumble sale atmosphere of the early
Microfairs," Helen admitted, "With the large companies
entering the market and making a name for themselves with
blanket advertising in the magazines and TV coverage, things
have changed quite radically. There's no way we can afford
to approach selling games that way, but we're doing well enough."
Microsphere has no plans to expand. Licensing deals are simply
not considered, and while Dave and Helen have no shortage
of good game ideas the number of hours available to them in
any given day tends to limit their output to a couple of games
a year. "We won't be taking on programmers so we can
get bigger - we're happy where we are now," Helen explained.
But wait! There is more. I can exclusively reveal that not
only are Microsphere releasing a new game at Easter, ("If
you have your wits about you, you should able to work out
the title" Dave said.) Furthermore, Back to Skool
is the second program in a trilogy. Yes, more bad spelling
and late nights next summer! Gosh. Clues to the new Skool
game are hidden in BTS, so get looking.