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Inside Ocean
ZX Computing, May 1986

Ocean have just transplanted their Manchester HQ to an unlikely setting. They are now sharing a building with the Quakers. Does this mean a new departure into religious computer games? ZX investigates.

"Nobody would be happier than me if someone walked in here with a game they had been working on for six months in an attic and presented us with the next big computer game."

So said David Ward (right), chairman of Ocean. There was no knock on the door at that particular moment but even now that computer games are big business anonymous programmers can still rocket to overnight success.

Although the stream of amateur "attic" games of marketable quality is dwindling to a trickle there are still lofts in faraway places humming with inspiration. The story of Ocean's bestselling game Movie is a case in point. Dusko Dimitrijevic, a Yugoslav programmer, appeared on Ocean's doorstep one day having come to England for an appointment with another software house which folded just before his arrival. Referred to Ocean he showed them the game he had completed and, recognising his potential, he was given a brief to produce a game in a Sam Spade vein. Some time later a parcel with a Yugoslav postmark, containing Movie, dropped through Ocean's letterbox.

Of course you don't have to scour Eastern Europe for top programmers and in the basement of ocean's offices can be found a team of in-house programmers assembling future releases. Paul Owen, who oversees the development of Spectrum games, gave us a guided tour of the cubicles sectioned off into banks of hardware devoted to the Spectrum and Commodore. Another room housed keyboards for writing music, while two other rooms concealed some secrets. One was the room devoted to clandestine software developments which was strictly off limits to all but programming personnel. The other, nicknamed the Socialist Room, was for purposes that could only be guessed at.

On the house

The average age of the in-house programmers is 19 and the qualities needed to succeed were summed up by Paul as being, "dedication, hard work and loyalty." "It's not all glamour being a programmer," he added.

One aspect of the Quakers' code of clean living seems to have rubbed off in that there's a total ban on alcohol on Ocean's premises. Paul explained that the reason for the ban was based on the need for efficiency. "Programming requires complete concentration, drink and coding just don't mix."

Upstairs in the spacious, whitewalled offices, David Ward spoke of Ocean's past, present and future.

"Ocean started three years ago and like many companies we concentrated on mail order. It's interesting to see that there's a move back to mail order as software for the more obscure machines doesn't make it into the mainstream retailers anymore.

"We are also finding a big mail order demand for our IQ utilities range and it's nice in a way to have come full circle with people waiting with bated breath for the arrival of their jiffy bags."

David stressed that Ocean was set up as "a publishing company rather than a software house.

"We took the view that software was a form of home entertainment just like records and books and as a publisher we wanted to cast our net as wide as possible so as not to exclude any creative forces.

"We are in the business of manufacturing and selling and unlike some software houses that were set up to simply develop software we used our business acumen to sell into the high street stores. The software houses that simply wanted to develop games have been the casualties in the past few years."

Even though Ocean has its in-house programmers it still relies on outside programmers to provide much of the work and fresh ideas.

"I don't think we could ever claim to determine what the next thing in software is going to be. We've got perhaps 50 or 60 software writers doffed around the country and I think that software development like any other creative process depends on inspiration and writers need different sorts of working environments to be innovative.

"Nowadays of course, many games for home micros are developed on much bigger machines but I still feel that in most cases the best games for, say, the Spectrum are produced and written on the Spectrum.

"I think that Sinclair themselves have been surprised at the capabilities still being found on the 8-bit machine and its life expectancy will exceed the estimates of the critics."

Just Imagine

Unlike some expanding software houses Ocean have not adopted a policy of devouring other companies. The exception was the acquisition of Imagine.

"We bought the rights to use the Imagine label and a couple of games like World Series Baseball which they were developing. Imagine was a well known name even if it was a notorious one and sales of Imagine games in Europe continued to hold up despite the changeover."

Imagine became the imprint devoted to arcade games, in particular conversions from Konami coin op games such as Yie Ar Kung Fu, Hypersports and the forthcoming Ping Pong.

Ocean have plans to create another imprint to put alongside, Imagine and the 19 series.

"We have some adventures in the Infocom mould for which we will need a separate label. What we try to do is create a brand to cater for a particular market. The last thing you want to do is disappoint customers who have come to expect a certain type of game from a particular label."

When it comes to licensing deals there is no waiting around for tempting offers to materialise. Ocean have a string of successful spin off games including Rambo and the soon to be released V and Batman.

"Once we've got a licensing deal we have to find a team to put it together and the problem there is that unlike straight conversions there are a hundred different ways of doing it. We leave as much to the programmers as possible in determining the best treatment but the real constraints as always are the constraints of the target machine itself:"

Even though the software industry seems to be evolving towards fewer and larger software companies, David believes there is still a chance for the independent small business to make it work.

"There is still room in the industry for a person to build a company on the strength of a single product:"

While at Ocean we were given a sneak preview of Green Beret, another Konami conversion which carries the idea of "one man against an army" to new heights. In the basement there were various versions on show, the original Konami game running as a constant reference point, a virtually complete Commodore version and the graphics for the Spectrum game. With comparison made easy it's evident that litile has been lost in the translation from the original to the Spectrum. All the game elements are present and only some colour detail has been dropped. Your task as alone Green Beret is to rescue four prisoners from the heart of the enemy compound. The enemy is an anonymous Eastern bloc country although the hammer and sickle symbols on the screen may give you a slight clue.

Armed only with a knife, rifle and a flamethrower which you pickup along the way you are faced with guards, man eating dogs, gyrocopters dropping bombs frorn above, and yet more guards. If you are in the mood for a massacre Green Beret will offer you the chance of maximum decimation for your money.

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