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Only Kidding
Your Sinclair, November 1988

Mamma Mia! Graeme Kidd goes Italian with Ocean's software supremo, Gary Bracey.

Gary Bracey is a busy man. A very busy man. As Software Manager for Ocean, he controls a team of 30 in-house programmers, artists and musicians, and a heavy weight of responsibility lies on his shoulders. Ocean is firmly into the licence business, as you might have noticed, and licences are expensive. Deadlines have to be met, and Gary Bracey is the man who oversees development, evaluates new projects and makes sure that everything comes together in time. Oh, and he also appears in numerous ridiculous press photos!

In the run-up to Christmas, he often works through the night (Aaaar! Ed) - perhaps staying at the tape duplicators until three in the morning, working with the programmers putting protection onto a master, or maybe tearing down the motorway on an urgent mission.

'The pressure is tremendous and the responsibility is incredible,' Gary agrees. 'There are always headaches, ulcers and heart attacks in this job. You're confronted with deadlines and have to meet them - there's an awful lot of money involved. I'm constantly waking up in the middle of the night.' Mr Bracey is a man who must thrive on pressure - the line about heart attacks is delivered with a wry smile, and is clearly not serious. Most of the Ocean team are members of a gym, a few blocks away from their Manchester HQ and lunchtime squash or swimming provides an outlet. 'We work out some of the aggression in the health club,' says Gary. He's not another Schwarzenegger, but keeping physically fit helps him cope.

Not that physically fit, mind you. We go to a trattoria round the corner, where they produce a mean pizza. Gary orders the speciality of the house, and as he tucks into his cholesterol-high Deep Baked Mushrooms, he smiles when I remind him of Knight Rider . . .

The days of Knight Rider, Miami Vice and Street Hawk are firmly over. 'We admit that they marked a turning point,' Gary explains. 'In those days we had a small in-house team, and games were produced by freelancers. We lost control. Ocean learnt its lesson the hard way, and though we didn't like talking about Knight Rider much at the time, we now recognise what went wrong and admit our mistakes - we lost credibility, but have scrabbled our way back up again. Nowadays, with the in-house team, we oversee progress and development on a day-to-day basis.'

Morale is high at Ocean - the company was voted 'Best Software House' in several magazine polls last year, and the quality of releases has improved dramatically over the past 18 months, with licences like Platoon. What is Gary's reward for the intense pressure of work? 'The rewards are there; we can now hold our heads up high . . . it's tremendous. I know it sounds corny, but Ocean is like a family - it's true - there's a very low staff turnover, and much of my social life is spent with other people from Ocean, having meals or going to the movies together. The way we work, each person from a different sphere pitches in, we're all quite flexible and help each other out.' So Gary gets involved in the PR side of the business from time to time, and wines and dines the odd distributor by way of light relief from running the development team . . .

My modest deep pan pizza arrives, and then the waiter staggers back with the House Speciality for Gary. It's humungous - the pizza I mean.

Back to Ocean. Licences are its speciality, but has it decided to avoid 'original' products? 'Well we've lost Jon Ritman to the arcade machines, but we're still in touch with the Dentons. We're not excluding original stuff, and actively encourage submissions, but an original game has got to be really good for us to take it on. It's difficult trying to sell a product without creating a profile for it, and licences have a very high profile. Weary to use our creative-resources and produce games to a specific theme - if you like, we're creating original games to go with licences.'

Quite a host of goodies are lined up for release between now and Christmas. On the coin-op front there's WEC Le Mans, Dragon Ninja, Operation Wolf, Victory Road and Guerilla War. 'The days of Athena and Legend Of Kage have gone, it's only high profile stuff now,' Gary explains. Away from the arcades, there's the new Daley Thompson game, (featuring a screen-high digitised Daley in the 16-bit versions) and a game based on the TV show Run The Gauntlet. While from the cinema look out for Robocop, Red Heat and The Untouchables.

The Spectrum plays a major part in the selection of licences. 'Every licence opportunity presented to us is evaluated as to how we could interpret it on computer - 16-bit machines present no problems as to game design, but because of the amount of money involved are not viable to market a game on the ST and Amiga only. So we look at the lowest common denominator, and graphically that's the Spectrum - we only take on licences that we can implement successfully on the Spectrum.'

But where do the ideas for possible licences come from? Ocean is packed with film buffs - including Gary - and they make suggestions for possible licence opportunities. Then John Woods keeps his ear to the ground and a finger in the trade that deals with licensing opportunities. But Ocean's track record of successful, highly competent games has built up to the point where people with a licence for sale approach Ocean saying 'we've seen what you're doing and would like you to make the game for us'. According to Gary, 'We consider ourselves to be an arcade-type company, and up till now have concentrated on action games, and have built our reputation around that. We wouldn't turn down an opportunity like Trivial Pursuit if it came up again, but at present there are no plans to move into the boardgame market.'

Pudding time. 'I've got a really sweet tooth: he says, persuading the waiter to let him have a slice of TWO gateaux on the sweet trolley. I settle for coffee, and decide to see if I can dictract Gary from the guzzling. (This is like having lunch with Phil South . . . Whaddya mean?! Snouty)

What happens straight after Ocean has signed a licensing deal with a film company? 'The first thing we do is watch the movie - we all go down to London and seethe film, have an ice cream and discuss it on the train on the way back to Manchester.' Then we spend along time storyboarding and designing the game and take it from there. Most of our film licences are going to be like Platoon - multi-section games - and it's like designing and coding three separate games. We'll spend six to nine months on development, after the storyboarding. And the Ocean programming teams are real perfectionists, 'they try to spend every second they can, polishing a game,' Gary explains, 'and although we meet deadlines, the programmers are always trying to add just that last bit of extra gloss, right up to the final moment,' which shows through, in the final product.

We stroll back to the Ocean HQ. It's a leisurely, trip back down YS land for me, and another hectic afternoon - for Gary - after two and a half years with Ocean, he still thrives on the pressure. 'David Ward and John Woods (owners of Ocean) give me the leeway and flexibility to do things and trust me to get the job done - which creates more responsibility,' Gary admits. But then he's going for quality games, games that will attract votes in the 1988 magazine polls and make Ocean 'Software House Of The Year' once again. Which makes all the hard work, stress and pressure worthwhile.

Knight Rider is history in Manchester... the future looks hot and Gary'll probably look five stone heavier!

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