The Story Of Superior Software
How £100 kick-started one of the greatest BBC Micro and Acorn Electron publishers of all time
The Eighties is held in reverence as a decade of great growth and development in the gaming industry, a time of genuine opportunity. Where modern blockbuster games are the result of hundreds of staff members working in large offices with multi-million pound budgets, in the early Eighties new developers and publishers could start-up with minimal investments and very limited teams.
It was in this scene that now famed game developer and producer Richard Hanson founded Superior Software with John Dyson. “I’d graduated with a B.Sc. in computational science, I’d written a number of games that were sold by software publisher Program Power, and I had some knowledge of marketing and business management,” Hanson shares with us. “I felt sure Superior Software would be an enjoyable, interesting enterprise.” The cost for setting up this legendary company? “John Dyson and I each put £50 into the business, and this was the most that we would lose if the business had not taken off.”
Being a time when a single-man developer could produce a complete game within a month, the talented duo of Hanson and Dyson quickly produced their first titles. “In autumn 1982, John and I coded Superior Software’s first four games ready for publication: I wrote three of those games [Space Fighter, Centibug, and Galaxy Birds], and John wrote the other one [Invaders].” So far from the days of multi-million pound marketing campaigns, Hanson and Dyson invested their budget in the most traditional of advertising spaces: the press. “We initially placed a small black-and-white advertisement in one of the early home computer magazines – I think our first ad was in a magazine called Computing Today.”
For the most part, those early games are not regarded as Superior Software’s best. They did, however, prove to Hanson that success within the gaming industry was possible. “We were delighted by the response we received to our first advertisement – the level of sales covered the cost of the advertising several times over,” says Hanson. “So we placed more advertisements, gradually increasing the size and taking more prominent positions in the magazines. We also started to invite other software developers to submit software to us for evaluation and possible marketing.”
Many of those submissions came from enthusiastic university students, such as Peter Johnson, who had taught himself to program games while studying at university. “I took a HND Computer Studies course at Newcastle Polytechnic (now Northumbria University),” says Johnson [game designer for Overdrive]. “The coursework used COBOL and BASIC running on computer terminals and teletypes, and trained students to become systems analysts long before anyone would consider providing a dedicated games course at University.” Johnson, however, was far keener to learn game design. “I had a BBC Micro, so I used the time I should have been studying to teach myself assembly language programming instead.”
Johnson had created a BBC Micro version of classic arcade game Q*bert, and decided to send it out to publishers to test the waters. “I sent the game to around ten publishers only a day or two before my final exams – expecting not to hear anything for a while. Almost immediately I started getting replies and offers, so I’d rush home from exams every day to find out what was in the post.” Johnson had different options available, but says “I chose Superior Software because it was run by Richard Hanson, who was a programmer himself with several games on the market. I figured that if I got stuck on a game in the future then at least he [unlike other publishers] would be able to help.”
Johnson’s Q*bert, however, was derailed when a disconcerting letter arrived in the post. “Within a week or so of launch we received a very scary letter from Columbia Pictures, who owned Gottlieb (the original manufacturers of the game) and were themselves owned by Coca Cola,” says Johnson. “They threatened legal action unless we withdrew the game. Unsurprisingly, we withdrew it. But it convinced me that there was definitely a market for games, and I continued to work with Superior on many more titles.”
The first of those titles, third-person arcade racer Overdrive, gave Superior Software one of their most important commercial successes. “I was working on another game at the time,” Johnson recalls. “It was only when Richard Hanson told me I had to do it – as he had already printed the cassette covers – that I knuckled down and got on with it. It only took a week, as the game was all about spotting the gaps between the cars as you raced past them, and didn’t push the BBC hardware very hard. It used colour-cycling to give a sense of movement from the trackside markers and grass, so only the cars needed to be moved and redrawn every frame.” The result was critical acclaim and commercial triumph. “This was probably my most profitable week’s work for many years,” says Johnson.
Adding to Superior’s commercial successes were such highly praised hits as Peter Johnson’s Deathstar – which Roland Waddilove, writing for Electron User magazine, called “a super fast, all-action arcade classic… the sort of game you can’t put down” – and Hunchback, of which Hanson himself says, “It’s an engrossing game. At first it can seem quite tricky, but after practice and perseverance most players find it becomes much easier to progress through the various levels of the game.” It’s Johnson’s Overdrive, however, that Hanson considers the most important of Superior Software’s early games. “I’m not sure how many sales Hunchback achieved in total, but it was certainly a helpful stepping stone for Superior at the time. Overdrive, however, was even more important as a major sales success.”
By 1984 Superior Software was producing some truly notable BBC Micro and Acorn Electron titles that were generating positive critical reception. Yet the future looked uncertain for the growing publisher and the company was in need of a commercial facelift and a marketing overhaul. It was then that Christopher John Payne, fresh from completing a degree in Business Studies at Leeds Poly, happened to bump into Hanson. “I bumped into Richard in the high street in Headingly in Leeds,” says Payne [former marketing specialist for Superior Software]. “We got talking. He was saying that things were [challenging] in the games industry at the time. He was thinking of doing something different, like opening a record shop. ‘Business is challenging at Superior’, Richard said. ‘I see it going downhill from here so I need to do something different.’ So I came onboard and we shared an office together.”
Payne saw weaknesses in Superior Software’s marketing strategy. “Richard’s advertising and packaging was very harsh and very angular – the logo was using Bauhaus typeface, and the illustrations we’re unattractive.” Payne had previously been working at competing games publisher Micro Power, and so had an inside view on what type of packaging and marketing was most successful in games at the time. “At Micro Power I had changed the packaging to a far more art-based style with an artistic looking title for the product, so there would be almost a 3D look to the artwork.”
Payne would redesign the logo and packaging for Superior Software and its games, and between the marketing know-how of Payne, the talent of independent game developers like Johnson, and Hanson’s own leadership, it was clear that opportunity was knocking right on the door of Superior Software’s office. Then, as luck would have it, there arrived through the post a package from a fifteen year old developer who happened to have created what would become perhaps the most important game Superior Software ever released. The developer was Tim Tyler. The game: Repton, a maze-based puzzler in which the protagonist hunts for diamonds in a maze while avoiding falling rocks and monsters.
“We were very pleased indeed to receive this software. It was clearly a beautifully designed, stimulating game,” says Hanson. “We knew it was destined to do well.” Payne shares similar sentiments. “[On receiving Repton] I thought ‘Oh my gosh this is similar to Boulder Dash [Atari’s classic arcade puzzler]’. I thought it would be a real hit.”
Being such a well designed game, the team at Superior Software changed very little of the program Tim Tyler sent them. “I brought in Mike Ellis [an artist Payne had worked with at Micro Power] and showed him the sort of illustrations I was looking for,” says Payne. “He produced a really nice piece of art to go with it. We gave it a spit and polish, but only changed about five to ten percent.”
With beautiful packaging and scintillating game design, Repton would become one of the biggest commercial successes on the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron, and would spawn multiple sequels on a variety of platforms. Amazingly, those sequels – which span thirty-one years – have undergone only the most minimal of changes, most notably with the inclusion of a level designer in Repton 3 – “I suggested to Richard to put in a level designer, and that really made the difference because people could create their own levels for players to solve,” says Payne.
It is testament to Tim Tyler’s original design that the core gameplay of Repton remains the same even today, and that Superior Software continues to develop and sell new versions of Repton on their website SuperiorInteractive.com. As Hanson makes clear, the contribution of one talented fifteen year old developer, Tim Tyler, became one of the landmark moments in Superior Software’s history. “The Repton series of games (Repton 1, Repton 2, Repton 3, Repton Infinity, and extra level sets for Repton 3) is Superior’s biggest success in both overall sales and rewarding customer compliments,” says Hanson. “Personally, I think the Repton games are the best puzzle-solving games I have ever experienced, and a number of our customers have given similar comments.”
Repton made Superior Software leaders of the puzzle genre, and that position would only strengthen with 1985’s Citadel, Michael Jakobsen’s puzzle-platformer in which players must find five crystals hidden in a castle and return them to their rightful place.
Citadel was a masterfully designed game, but managed to separate itself from the pack, thanks to its innovative use of the incredible voice generating software Speech. “Speech was originally a chip-based software synthesiser,” says Payne. “It was only going to be sold on chip. [The problem was] you had to lift the lid off the BBC Micro and carefully push the chip in, and if you weren’t careful you could break a leg – then you had a real problem. People were very wary about putting those in. I thought, ‘Why don’t we make it a RAM base, so you just load it in from tape.’ I got the inspiration from America with SAM [Software Automatic Mouth]. SAM was a cassette based software synthesiser and had been very successful.”
The move to RAM made Speech much more accessible and gave Citadel a mark of distinction. As Payne says, “[Thanks to Speech], the loading screen said ‘Citadel’ with a digitised voice, which was something you very rarely got in the Eighties, so that made it look like it was going to be a really good game.”
Technical innovations like Speech helped to set Superior Software apart from rival publishers and led to an influx of talented personnel and game designers eager to work with the company. As Hanson recounts, “Superior’s personnel included Steve Botterill, Chris Payne and Steven Hanson. And there have been many key [game designers] including: Tim Tyler, Peter Johnson, Martin Edmondson and Nicholas Chamberlain (Ravenskull and Codename Droid), Chris Roberts (Stryker’s Run), Kevin Edwards (Crazee Rider and Galaforce), Matthew Atkinson (Tempest and Repton 3), Peter Scott (for some very skilful conversions), David Braben (for Zarch soon after the launch of Acorn’s Archimedes computer), and in later years David Bratton, Darren Izzard and Ian Rees.”
Thanks to this growing roster of game designers and Hanson’s own direction, Superior Software came to dominate the Micro and Electron scenes in the late Eighties, putting out six of the top ten bestselling BBC Micro games of 1987, and releasing Exile in 1988, which, as Matthew Atkinson [programmer on Repton 3] says, “has been described as the first ever computer game to employ a physics engine.” But the team would face a significant challenge at the birth of the fourth generation of video games, when consoles like the TurboGrafx-16 and, later, the SNES and Mega Drive, led to a complete change of landscape for the gaming industry.
Hanson and his team had always been fully committed to Acorn development – “We published several titles for other computers, such as the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore Amiga… but we kept coming back to the Acorn computers – at that time they were the computers that we really enjoyed and knew best,” says Hanson. But time was running out for the BBC Micro and Acorn Electron, and as Atkinson says, “The writing was on the wall for the 8 bit machines in the late Eighties.”
Throughout the fourth generation of video games, developers and publishers were forced to close shop, unable to compete with the larger developers and the escalating price of games development. “The games were becoming more sophisticated, it started to take longer and longer to make them, and [larger companies] were using in-house teams with salaries,” says Payne. “The business changed. The sheer cost of development of 16 bit games was probably what stopped Superior Software [from creating games on 16-bit systems].” However, Hanson states, “If Acorn Computers had produced their own games console we would have created software for it.” That, however, was not to be.
Superior Software had been born in a time of great opportunity in the gaming industry. In 1982 it was possible to put £100 into a bank to kick-start a games company, and to see that company go from strength to strength through a combination of business acumen, hard work and ingenuity, even growing to such a height that, as Atkinson states, “Superior Software can justifiably say they were the best BBC Micro and Electron games company in the country at that time.” By 1990, those days were gone and a new era of large-scale developers with much higher budgets had taken over.
And yet, even despite the almost insurmountable competition, Superior Software has survived to this day. The team, rebranded under the name Superior Interactive, continues to create new versions of their old games. “Our current games have a keen following of fans, particularly for the Repton series,” says Hanson. “There are currently PC and iOS versions of Repton games available, and we are planning to release an Android version of Repton 1 soon.”
Through it all, Superior Software has consistently defied the odds and survived the fiercest of climates. But what is most poignant about Superior Software’s story is that it wasn’t the scale of the developer, nor their budget, that made the publisher a success. By all accounts, the principle factor in Superior Software’s rise, dominance, and enduring survival, was the professionalism and honesty of one man: Richard Hanson.
What was Superior Software’s winning strategy? “Choosing the right games to publish for the public, and behaving in a trustworthy manner for developers,” says Johnson. “You heard plenty of horror stories from this time of publishers that would treat developers badly, although I saw very little of it myself.” Payne agrees. “It was a matter of we do business with people we know, like and trust. People liked Richard and trusted him. He was very straight forward and honest. He was very efficient at paying royalties. And so he had a loyal set of people. Richard trulywas one of the good guys in this business.”
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