In converation with Clem Chambers
As founder of London-based CRL Group, Clem Chambers was at the forefront of the Eighties software explosion in the UK. games™ sat down with today’s financial wizard to find out more
When did computers and videogames first grab you?
It was at the science museum. They had a guess the animal Eliza program running on a terminal. It wasn’t often working, but it was the first thing I headed to whenever I went there. You had to let the computer guess what animal you were thinking of. All it took was that screen and a cursor and I was hooked. These were the days of the first digital watches and calculators – anything digital was fascinating.
Your father gave you £10,000 to start up in business – did you start in the games industry immediately?
No, I did some other things and was down to £2,500 when I started CRL. But originally it wasn’t for software. You often rented TVs in those days, so I figured why not an expensive computer? However, Atlantic Computing had sewn up the market. But I wasn’t nervous about it all. There was no such thing as a ‘start up’ back then. You started a business and you likely failed; you couldn’t be shy you just had to give it a go.
Around the same period you also began writing for Popular Computing Weekly and Your Computer?
I just wrote them on a typewriter, sent them in and hoped. I think they were always hungry for content, but it was very laborious. I wrote programming articles and fiction, which I kind of enjoyed. It was mainly to achieve a goal of being published and paid, so it was a means to an end. Like a work-out you do to be fit, rather than enjoy.
With hardware rental not working out, you moved to software. What actually was your first ever game?
A nice fruit machine sim called Jackpot. It sold 20,000 copies at £4.95 a pop and probably made £30,000 profit. But even then it showed me that you could never guess what would be a hit. It was written in BASIC and could not have been simpler. Some of my best games never sold and the opposite was also true. Jackpot was one of a batch of six – another standout was Test Match as it went to number one in a leading computer store of the time. A lot of games only sold 2-3000 copies, the big issue being how to makes games and stay in business. You tried your best to make a hit and had a few misses along the way. Games had a six-week life, like a pop single. The best way was to fire and forget.
Where were you based?
I got the cheapest office I could find in London, 240 Whitechapel Road, a stone’s throw from the Kray brothers’ old home. It was over a clothes shop called Davis, which was on a slight tilt after a bomb had blown off the rear off it during World War II! We later moved to King’s Yard, Stratford.
How did CRL’s relationship with programmer Pete Cooke begin?
He sent in a game called Juggernaut. It came on cassette with a very short note in small and meticulous handwriting. I intuitively expected it to be a good game; long, descriptive letters generally contained abysmal games. As soon as it loaded up I saw a game that was very unique, and had cool vector graphics. As a game about manoeuvring a lorry, it was by definition quirky, and I wanted it. I called him, and sent him a terribly brief contract, which was simple and fair and that was it.
CRL also tried out a few licenses with various degrees of success.
The film rights to Blade Runner were all over the place, so we got the rights to the music instead. It was all a bit dodgy, but we got them from a company called Rocksoft who were trying to pioneer music licensing in games. We also worked on a licence for War Of The Worlds and the rights holders to The Rocky Horror Picture Show approached us as they were impressed with our work on that. The Rocky people were fun and we got to forge some good relationships such as Richard O’Brien and ZTT. Sounds nice now, but it was actually all about pizza, cashflow problems and coding death marches.
Why didn’t you do more licenced games?
Good point. I think Ocean’s saturation of that market had some effect. We had others that never made it out, but a lot of our games were freelance and that’s hard to couple with a licence. Meanwhile, the in-house product was hard to get out.
Perhaps CRL’s biggest and most well-known game was Pete Cooke’s space adventure, Tau Ceti. Was that your idea?
No – my tack was to always let the talent get on with it. Pete had got these flying saucers moving around and that was where he was going to take his next game. It looked cool and spooky, and something that was going to be awesome… or nothing at all. You couldn’t make payroll with demos, but you hope some will become great games. Tau Ceti was a great game; Pete was great, a real deliverer. He was clearly very talented; the game had it all. You could say it just didn’t look possible on the Spectrum. But the bloody stupid box we put it in was a disaster, a pentagonal card box that crushed and mangled easily. It was all alchemy, so you can expect to splash acid on something and we did 20,000 units of Tau Ceti on launch. I think we shipped 35,000 in total, and did fat royalties, 20 per cent of what we received as we didn’t do big advances. We might pop £2000 over for a game but we never went five figures. The key was to get Tau Ceti out for Christmas and get great reviews. It hit all the marks.
CRL courted controversy with its range of graphic horror adventures, the first games to obtain BBFC ratings. How did these come about?
Rod [Pike] sent in Dracula and I loaded it up, but adventure games were dying by 1986. I could have signed tons of them. Only Level 9 had a business in them on the Spectrum and that was dying too. However, I thought horror could work so I told Rod we needed graphics and I would spice it up with the first computer game rating and we gave it a go.
So it was a marketing ploy?
Absolutely, 100%. I had read an article in a newspaper about the video nasty bill. Some bright spark had added a computer game clause so I thought, excellent, that’s a reason to do one; the media will go mad, and we’ll get a million pounds’ worth of advertising. The BBFC’s eyes lit up – they saw a whole new business model. We pushed for an 18 certificate, but they refused, saying 15 was all they could give us as the graphics weren’t animated. So in the next game we made sure it had that. Moral panic is the most pathetic of media phenomena and it should be lampooned. I think we did that pretty well.
What was the Zen Room?
It was a place in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the name of our in-house development department. It was full of kids eating pizza and writing games. I was a kid too, and it was a lot of fun, but easy to forget the kind of stress we were all under.
Games magazines were very important in the Eighties. Which ones did you have the best relationships with?
I was too much of a nerd back then to understand that advertising budget meant good reviews. I wasn’t really the same age group as the publishers, who were in their thirties, so we had nothing in common. This hurt us. We used to get good coverage a month or two before a mag went bust and now I realise it was their last gasp hope of an advertiser.
Did you struggle with the move to 16-bit?
We always struggled, 8-bit or otherwise. Everyone was on the road to bankruptcy, only some took a longer route than others. We didn’t do brilliantly on 16-bit but we had a couple of nice games. By the time they came along, however, we were holed under the waterline by the Electronic Arts fiasco.
Could you elaborate more on that?
No, except I will say there were a lot of shoddy people in the games business back then, but I don’t believe in raking over old muck. But in June 1988 we had to make most of the development staff redundant as EA held back payments. We continued trading for a year or two after that. They paid out in the end, but it was too late for CRL.
What was next for you?
I formed On-Line PLC with Mike Hodges. We pioneered the use of multimedia CDs and also MMO games. Federation II was the main one and I had a lot of success in the US. We ran MUD II, Federation II and Air Warrior, as well as others, in the United Kingdom under On-Line.
You have also written several novels, some of them themed around the Eighties software industry.
I actually wrote those back in the Eighties, but I didn’t bother getting them published then because after a couple of years, what was in effect predicting the future was happening or had happened, making them obsolete as near-future SF stories. But now they are retro, so relevant again. That is both funny and ironic. Today I also run ADVFN, Europe’s largest stocks and shares website, and have written new thrillers such as The Armageddon Trade and The Twain Maxim.
Do you have any regrets, or wish you’d done anything differently?
As a stock market guru I can tell you, if you could see the future for even 30 seconds ahead, you could be the richest man in the world. You cannot see the future with any clarity beyond catching a tennis ball. If you can’t lament missing Apple at $1 a share, you can’t regret more complicated decisions… and no, I don’t regret missing Apple at $1 a share, even if it’s $200 now.
How is the games industry different today from the Eighties?
It requires a thousand times more money and sells a thousand times the volume. It’s mainstream; it wasn’t when I was doing it. It wasn’t even an industry when I started. What stands out to me now is the graphics. They are amazing. Personally, I don’t need graphics to love a game, but looking at the art of some modern games, I take my hat off to the artists behind them. With or without gameplay, the graphics on many games are just stellar.
For more classic gaming insight you should give Retro Vol. 9 a read. Get a copy now.