| I started out as ST Software when Hewson
agreed to publish 3D Spacewars written for the Spectrum.
This was a Space shoot'em up inspired by Space Invaders.
I had the idea of getting 3D into a game, the only game
I had seen using this idea were 3D maze type games on
the ZX81. I wrote the game code in about three months
in the evenings. My first few games were written without
an assembler. I used to write in hex code but with labels
using my own hex loader. This decoded the labels into
addresses. My code looked something like:
rem AAAA: 3A@LIFE
I wrote the code first in assembler on squared paper then
coded it by hand to the hex equivalent using a few look
up tables. I typed the code in rem statements and my "Hex
Autoloader" loaded the code into ram and replaced
all the labels with relative or absolute addresses. Grahics
were drawn on squared paper and coded into hex for loading
in a similar manner. The whole process was error prone
and long winded. When I look back its amazing how I ever
finished a single game.
I left a steady job as a commercial programmer so I already
had a great deal of experience in languages such as COBOL
and IBM Assembler. I was determined to keep to a regular
pattern of work so used to start religiously at 9.00 and
end at 5.00. I worked in the dining room using a Spectrum
and a black and white television. Working alone was a
lonely experience so I asked Andrew Braybrook, a friend,
to join me. This was quite a risk, because I had saved
about £10,000 before I left work so I knew I would
be able to survive. Taking on an employee meant that we
had to get royalties from our games within the first year.
Andrew had a similar history to me, he was a commercial
programmer at Marconi's and had programmed several games
on an IBM mainframe. He began by converting my first games
to the Dragon 64. This turned out to be a disaster as
despite being an excellent machine, the Dragon stopped
being produced. Sales of Dragon games almost immediately
ceased, only a few hundred of each game sold. This taught
us an early lesson, it was essential to back the right
machine. This was no easy thing to do as new games machines
were appearing all the time and it was hard to predict
which ones would survive. Andrew moved on the C64 which
seemed to be gathering momentum as a games machine despite
Commodores best efforts to disguise it as a business machine.
Andrew had the benefit of an assembler program on both
Dragon and C64. He wrote us a graphics editor on the Dragon
that allowed us to convert graphics into hex code automatically.
We still had to key the hex in by hand but it was a huge
leap forward. I still could not find a Spectrum assembler
that allowed large games to be input so improved my development
system by adding a disassembler. Then at least I could
get a listing of my program for debug purposes. We each
had a decent printer and would print off our entire programs.
We would then amend these listings by hand until they
were really messy and then print off another. Debugging
was done with a clever routine Andrew wrote called Abmon.
It allowed us to select any memory address and examine
its contents or change them while the game was running.
This allowed us to tune up gameplay while we played. Assembling
a program could take ages so the ability to change things
as the game was running speeded up the process. It also
helped in debugging.
On the Spectrum, programs were stored on cassette tape.
I used a cycle of five tapes. This was necessary as often
tapes would not read in properly, and ensured at least
five previous versions were kept. I bought some microdrives
when they came out but they were less reliable than tapes.
One of the problems with the Spectrum was that it was
more like a toy. Peripherals were supplied by many manufacturers
and often conflicted. Many had to be slotted onto the
Spectrum main board at the back. With a few of these devices
piggybacked onto each other the machine was unstable.
Hit the keyboard too hard and it would jog the machine
and it would crash losing everything inside. I eventually
bought a Beta drive. The software for the disassembler,
printer and disk drives were all incompatible. I had to
reverse engineer the object code and connect the programs
together. This system engineering could take as long as
writing a game but once done speeded things up.
In the early days we used to visit Hewson a very few months
to show Andrew Hewson our latest offerings. He was a small
independent publisher that had an edge over other publishers.
He had his own tape duplication facility that allowed
him to respond rapidly to demand and keep stock low. This
allowed him to produce low volume original product. He
became well known for the game content of his licensed
games. He supported many independent developers like us.
We would develop the game, he would market it. This division
of responsibility allowed for the optimum in gameplay
and worked well until the exponential cost of developing
games required a large up front investment by publishers.
Without an up front investment there was no guarantee
that a developer would get their game published successfully.
With Hewson we never used to ask for advances. This
meant we were under no obligation to produce anything
and gave us complete creative freedom. As long as Hewson
published our games to our satisfaction that worked
I formed Graftgold Ltd when royalties started to rise.
The idea was to keep the royalties in the limited company
to finance future games and pay us a steady wage. Graftgold
was immediately successful with its first products of
Avalon and Paradroid. At last Andrew Braybrook's games
were selling in quantity. Conversion of the games to other
platforms was not done by Graftgold as it was decided
that it was best to keep generating new products. Hewson
was to find other developers to provide conversions. This
was slow to get underway and it was not until Dragontorc
and Uridium that successes were exploited on other platforms.
Looking back this was a mistake. The games market was
showing a distinct change towards being a commercial industry.
Heavily marketed titles that had a licensed name were
regularly charting higher than original product despite
very often being poorer games.
The Commodore 64 and Spectrum dominated the sales charts
but new 16-bit Amiga and Atari machines were launched.
Sales were poor but magazines gave more and more space
to the new 16-bit graphics. Developers such as Graftgold
were keen to move onto the new machines but smaller publishers
such as Hewson were reluctant to move on until the market
was established. Graftgold were asked to produce budget
games by Hewson. These were a new thing vastly undercutting
the price of standard games. To make them pay, we would
have had to sell them by the 100,000 or be able to produce
a title every four weeks. The formula just didn't work.
On the Spectrum I was still enjoying success but every
title seemed to sell less than the previous one, an ominous
sign as they were taking longer to produce. The public
expected the machine to be taken to the limits and beyond.
Graphics routines were constantly rewritten to squeeze
extra performance from the machine. After the success
of Dragontorc I decided to leave the final part of the
trilogy to later as sales were much less than Avalon.
I opted for a space adventure. I conside red Astroclone
to be one of my finest designs, integrating adventure
strategy and shoot'em up elements.
The product was misunderstood, it did not fit into a neat
category. It had some adventure sequences I was really
proud of. I came back with Quazatron with borrowed gameplay
from Paradroid and married this with a graphic engine
I had no game for. Ranarama followed which again used
ideas from Paradroid but in a magical context. The game
did well in Spain but was kept back awaiting an Amstrad
conversion that was late. I ended up doing the conversion
myself. Unfortunalely by this time, there were about four
top down dungeon type games on the market. Despite being
regarded as the best in a comparative review of all these
games, the game was not successful in the UK. Hewson however
agreed to convert the game to the Atari ST as an experiment.
The conversion was a copy of the Amstrad version and did
not exploit the features of the Atari very well. John
Cumming, a Hewson in house programmer, gave the conversion
a face lift by adding som 16-bit graphics. The four colour
ones were just not acceptable. The conversion taught us
that you cannot just port a game to another machine. You
have to consider the new platform and exploit its features.
When Graftgold undertook its own conversions, we did not
make the same mistake.
About this time I bought a couple of 8086 machines and
across assemblers to Z80 and 6502. I built an interface
to the Spectrum using my Kempston printer interface, rewiring
it as an input and output interface. The C64 was easy
to interface as it had a parallel port. We used the PC
parallel printer output to "print" the code
to the Spectrum and C64. This was an enormous step forward
and was our first really professional quality set up.
I was working on Magnetron, a follow up to my succesful
Quazatron, and Andrew was putting the finishing touches
when we heard Hewson was in trouble. Two of his programmers,
John Cumming and Dominic Robinson had decided to leave
thinking the company was finished. They rang me up and
asked if I was interested in employing them. I agreed
and Graftgold thus doubled its size and moved to its first
offices above a greengrocers in Witham. Debbie Silletoe,
Hewson's second in command, left Hewson to join British
Telecomsoft. She warned us that Hewson were falling apart
fast and introduced us to British Telecomsoft.
We decided to let Telecomsoft publish our games. Hewson
managed to survive and challenged us for the right to
publish the two existing games. As Hewson had not paid
us any advances or given us a contract, we felt we had
the right to change publishers. A court case followed
which for a time prevented publication, but generally
did noone any good. Eventually, Telecomsoft and Hewson
agreed to settle out of court, and Telecomsoft were allowed
to publish the games. Later they contracted Graftgold
to convert the arcade game Flying Shark to the Spectrum
and Amstrad. Dominic Robinson did a superb job in six
weeks with John Cumming doing the graphics.
I then had 14 days to convert the Spectrum version to
the Amstrad. This was an interesting experience and our
first foray into commercial conversion. Telecomsoft wanted
to finance Graftgold's growth and specifically wanted
Graftgold to start work on the 16-bit machines. However
after a few months they expressed a need for Spectrum
and C64 games. Programmers Gary Foreman, David O'Connor
were taken on. Jason Page was taken on as a trainee and
soon produced all Graftgold's sound and music. Dominic
started work on the Atari Jaguar 64 and the Amiga producing
some stunning demos. These eventually evolved into Graftgold's
16-bit operating system kernel and the 3D game Simulcra.
By the time the first round of 8-bit games Intensity and
Soldier of Fortune were finished, Telecomsoft did not
seem to have any interest in 8-bit original product. Dismal
sales followed and Telecomsoft was bought by Microprose.
This was a good move as far as Graftgold was concerned
as the people who originally been behind Telecomsoft sponsored
Graftgold's entry into 16-bit product, Paul Hibbard and
Pete Morley, had moved to Microprose. Thus Simulcra was
finished, but by this time Dominic had become disillusioned
and burnt out being Graftgold's only 3D programmer. I
finished Simulcra off redesigning the gameplay to fully
utilise Dominics excellent 3D engine. The game got excellent
reviews and could have been a massive hit if properly
funded in the early days. At this stage Graftgold were
increasingly reliant on publisher advances and had to
program the games the publisher thought they wanted.
Graftgold's best success with Telecomsoft was
the conversion Rainbow Island's. Using Dominic's
16-bit engine Andrew masterminded one of the best conversions
ever made. David programmed the Spectrum version and
Gary the C64 version establishing Graftgold as a master
The trouble was that Microprose bought the game before
it was published and fell into dispute with Taito the
owner of the game. Thus it was Ocean that finally published
the game. John Cumming did a tremendous job converting
all the in game graphics as did Jason on the sound. Although
everyone could program it was clear that specialists were
needed to achieve the best products. Developing a game
had become a team effort. Graftgold took on Michael, another
artist to help John who excelled in pixel art. He had
tremendous patience and would painstakingly build up detailed
bit maps pixel by pixel. He worked with Andrew on Paradroid
90 a long awaited 16-bit version of the old favourite.
Graftgold had gradually reestablished relations with Hewson
and had provided music and graphics for various products.
Paradroid 90 was also the companies first venture into
the ever growing console market. Gary Foreman developed
a PC Engine version. Unfortunately it was not to be. Hewson
foundered again and this time went into liquidation selling
Paradroid 90 publication rights to Activision. Graftgold
were already developing "Realms" a 3D strategy
game for activision. It was a bleak time when Graftgold
heard that Activision was closing down its operation.
Graftgold did not receive any royalties for Paradroid
90, had its first console game canned and a major product
with a defunct publisher.
Those were desperate times but such was the reputation
of Graftgold that help was already at hand.
Graftgold had developed both 8-bit and 16-bit conversions
of Off Road Racer for Virgin. The conversion business
was providing bread and butter funding for Graftgold.
Original product was becoming increasingly expensive
and risky to develop. Publishers were not keen on investing
in original product unless it was finished. It took
huge subsidies of our own money to pay for the experimental
work that original product needs. The problem was for
a run of products not one of these had produced any
royalties. Virgin changed this with Realms. We bought
back the product from Activision and licensed it to
Virgin. They trusted us and gave us a realistic managed
advance. The game worked well but was only moderately
successful. Graftgold came back from the brink of extinction
but at the price of being wholly reliant on publisher
The console era took the market by storm. Graftgold
completely missed the Nintendo 8-bit boom period due
to its other commitments and a licensing policy that
meant that few could develop for the machine. Virgin
had to get another company to do the 8-bit conversion
of Off Road. They made a fortune using Graftgold code
developed for the Spectrum. Graftold with Virgin's
sponsorship became a Sega developer and converted a
series of games to the Master System and Gamegear including
Offroad Racer and Superman.
This was a second boom time for Graftgold and profits
were ploughed back into state of the art 486 pc's
and new development systems. The conversions allowed
Andrew to undertake an original product, in part financed
for Mirrorsoft. Graftgold had learnt the hard way to
survive it was necessary to split funding across several
publishers. When Mirrorsoft went down Graftgold had
two products with them, Fire and Ice and a console conversion
of Total Recall that was canned. This double blow could
have hit Graftgold hard but Renegade stepped in to publish
Fire And Ice. This began a long relationship with Renegade
and the Bitmap Brothers who in part owned and ran Renegade.
Renegade was very much a developers publisher and was
set up to give the developer a fairer share of revenue.
Gary Foreman converted the Bitmap's Gods to the
Megadrive before leaving to join Sega.
Graftgold was signed by Sega to develop Ottifant, its
own product. Ottifant was a cartoon program featuring
an elephant family that aimed at a similar market, but
never achieved the success of the Simpsons. Most TV networks
did not buy the tv series so the game only had a minimal
publication rather than being a major licensed product.
John Kershaw organised the background graphics. Colin
Seaman joined the company as an animator and did most
of the animations. Eldon Lewis programmed the Megadrive
version and Kevin Holloway programmed the Master system
version. Many a late night was spent trying to keep to
an impossible schedule. We were initially given three
months to complete the game to a standard rivalling Sonic
the Hedgehog. Half of this was wasted waiting for a signed
contract. Experience had shown it was folly to start without
the contract being completed. New starter Emma Cubberly
was the companies only female employee, apart from my
wife who eventually did the payroll. Emma provided some
of the background graphics and was one of several trainees
taken on by Graftgold. We often trained staff from scratch
unable to afford experienced staff.
Fire And Ice was a big seller on Amiga and plans were
made to convert it to PC, Megadrive and Gamegear/Master
System. Unfortunately Virgin wanted to publish the Sega
versions and beat Renegade in approaching Sega. Eventually
Sega Virgin and Renegade agreed to publish the Master
system/Gameboy version but the Megadrive version despite
being completed was never published.
All of a sudden 8-bit console versions were not required
anymore and conversion work dried up.
Graftgold made a late entry into the Nintendo 16-bit market
programming a football game for Empire intended for the
1994 World cup. We also converted the game to Amiga and
PC and Acorn. The Nintendo version was never published
despite being finished in time thus failing to recoup
Graftgold started a series of original games for Renegade.
Andrew developed a CD32 version of Fire and Ice that
was not published. He went on to develop Uridium 2 an
Amiga version of his hit C64 game. Iain Wallington programmed
Virus Alert borrowing KLP2 as the hero from Quazatron.
It was the end for Commodore and Amiga sales plummeted
despite constant interest from the public. A Motocross
game was canned on the Amiga and a PC version started.
During this period game content and development costs
went through the roof with the advent of the CD. Instead
of 2 megabytes around 20 megabytes at least were expected
increasing costs by 10 times. The quality of graphics
steadily improved as advanced graphics workstations
became the norm. The Playstation was in its early days.
Graftgold was signed as a developer but the costs of
Playstation development kit were prohibitive.
As time went by all resources were concentrated on
Motox, a dangerous but necessary tactic. The company
just could not afford more than 1 product without major
financing. Renegade increasingly extended advances for
Motox to enable the program to converted to a CD quality
product. A playstation product was signed funded by
Coconuts of Japan. This allowed Graftgold to buy Playstation
developer kit. Many staff moved on to other companies
in this period. Experienced programmers and artists
were being offered big money to join companies such
as Psygnosis. Many small developers were disappearing
or being bought up. Most were dependant on publishing
funding at this time. If a publisher chose to can a
product it could mean the death of a company. Renegade
was a good partner during these years of increasing
commercial pressure. However in the end Renegade decided
it could not compete with the giant publishers dominating
the market with multi million pound budgets. Renegade
was bought by Warner, a move welcomed at the time by
Graftgold looking for investment to finance a new round
of state of the art games.
At this time Graftgold were wholly reliant on monthly
advances received from Renegade. Profits had been hit
by the failure of Empire to publish their Nintendo soccer
game, and the non publication of Sega Fire and Ice and
CD32 Fire and Ice and Uridium 2. Motox was being funded
by Renegade but was costing far more to develop and needed
to sell well. Ominously Bitmaps had chosen not to let
Warner publish their own games. Graftgold showed Warner
a new major game prototype based on the Avalon gameplay.
The demo stopped work in the Warner Office as all the
staff came to see the demo. The game was immediately signed
up and work started. The project would have been Graftgolds
largest and staff were recruited and the first few months
milestones worked and paid. Then Warner changed their
mind about their whole position in the industry. Our project
was one of the many that were canned as budgets were pruned.
The decision almost killed Graftgold, indeed it seriously
wounded it. Later a friend at Warner told me they did
not expect Graftgold to survive. We managed to sign a
conversion of Rainbow Islands to the Playstation and Saturn.
A second conversion fell through after a few months work
due to problems of the publisher obtaining the licence.
Graftgold was surviving but only just. Monthly income
paid the bills just but the company had no finance for
working on new product and still had Motox to complete.
Motox had been "finished" for about 6 months
but Warner kept asking for upgrades and tweaks. Such was
the market, only a triple A product was required. Finally
another advance was negotiated for extra work on Motox.
We signed a game with Coconuts called MBT, a 3D tank combat
game. By this time Warner were being sold and it seemed
that Motox may not be published. Motox was finally accepted
by Warner and published. I do not think it had any marketing
spend at all, an astounding decision in a market dominated
by big spending publishers. We could not see any prospect
of Motox getting any royalties above th e advances already
spent. It eventually sold very well recuperating all advances
and became Graftgolds biggest profit making product. I
can only wonder what the result would have been with a
marketing spend in scale with the development spend. Delays
in the production of MBT prompted Coconuts to attempt
to reduce our monthly advances to one third. As the company
was absolutely dependant on this income there was no way
this could be accepted so I decided I would have to lay
all but a skeleton staff off. I was sitting ready to tell
everyone when the phone rang, it was the MD of Perfect.
Perfect had enjoyed considerable success with their Discworld
products and had the finance to assist Graftgold. I sold
Perfect the majority of the company, and they started
negotiating with Coconuts. We had to lay off our musician
and all but one of our graphics artists as Perfect were
to provide these functions. Over the next two years the
MBT project was remodelled by Perfect designers to become
Hardcorps. The idea was to add loads of high quality movie
graphics to make the game blockbuster. Perfect installed
a network at Graftgold but the company never regained
its momentum. Perfect funded the day to day activities
to keep Graftgold going. The idea was for Perfect to get
extra funding from a publisher. This was eventually done
but delays in the game development caused funding to cease
before the game could be completed.
So 15 years of developing games came to an end. In all
I believe Graftgold achieved my aims of producing high
quality entertaining software. We made a lot of money
on the way despite the ending and most of the time had
a great deal of fun. We became known and respected in
the industry. One day who knows I may rejoin the industry.
For now only having to work 37.5 rather than 80 hours
a week and having a cheque at the end of the month rather
than worrying how to pay the staff, is a nice change.
I would recommend the games industry to anyone wanting
an exciting career buts its certainly not an easy ride.
Most publishers we worked with either went bust, sold
out or simply did not publish the game to our expections
despite tight contracts. The trouble is the developer
does their bit first then the publisher can choose the
level to do their bit. Unless you can get real commitment
by way of big advances you cannot rely on a publisher.
The problem is finding a publisher who is willing to commit.
There are more games than publishing opportunities so
publishers can cherry pick. I have heard of publishers
over subscribing product by a factor of many times. For
every game they publish many more are deliberately canned
sometimes killing the developer. Which game will they
can? Unfortunately they tend to can the game they have
invested the least in, not the one that has the least
prospect of making money.
Publishers do take the lion share of the risk when they
put up the finance, but they take the lion share of
the profit. What I found was a reluctance to reinvest
this in the fabric of development. The developer is
expected to do this out of their share of the profits.
The economics of the industry means that the publishers
income is 4 or 5 times as big as the developers. Out
of the developers 10-20% not only the successful games
have to be developed but the investment in new ideas
made. Publishing is expensive but not five times as
expensive as games development. One of our publishers
paid more for each of their desks than they would loan
us for a network server.
Still all in all I have fond memories of all the people,
staff and publishers alike I have worked with over the
years. I would like to say thank you to all those people
who believed in me and made the products what they were.
I still dream of games as yet not written. Maybe one day
I will again realise one of those dreams.
An old employee?
If anyone reading this ever worked for Graftgold, or indeed
produced any games for them, feel free to let
us know your experiences of working there.
back to the articles
|» F.A.Q. - look here before you send off an email.
» Credits - the list of people who made all this possible.
» Scene interviews - C64 sceners answer 20 questions about their time in the scene.