Quality begins with an 'H'
By now you all know the score but for the new people and those who don't read these intro's this is where RGG goes in search of those who do all sorts of wonders in the indie scene.
We firmly believe that the explosion of home coding that fills XBLIG, Steam and the PSN game areas are directly influenced and connected by the greats that started a revolution way back in the 1980's in Europe especially because of the Micro Computer mania.
Today if ever you needed proof Olly023 brings a nuke to the knife fight...
Dear Childhood... With love, signed Everyone!
We won't appologise for this so don't sit around waiting for it to come and we won't lie as this really was a complete honour and privledge to do. What follows here is very simply a love letter to one of the greats, a master, an original in every single sense of the word and direct pioneer of what PC owners especially are enjoying now. This is us as gamers in one united voice saying 'Thank You'...
If you sit around and talk retro games as much as we do you find yourself actually reverting back to the pre-golden era known in many circles now as the Vintage era. I guess it's called that because like a fine wine things from this period just keep getting better and better and as technology moves forward it's even more noticeable how gameplay in many ways has gone backwards.
Whilst having said conversations the usual suspects like Ocean and US Gold, Codemasters and Gremlin etc all get talked about but eventually the focus of everything always turns to quality. You see it's all well and good to be a famous developer or publisher but in reality do some of these companies stand the test of time? Most do, absolutely they do however there is one company in particular who's light has always shone bright.
When you think of the Micro Computer's such as the Spectrum's, the C64's, Amiga etc and you focus your thoughts onto games that were light years ahead of their time in both looks, sound and above all else gameplay there's one company who's games jump right out... HEWSON CONSULTANTS!
Sit back and enjoy the RGG founders pay respect to the genuine article.
'H' stands for History, Heritage & Hello
RGG: I'd be shocked if the average RGGer were to be unaware of you, sir - alas, as per usual for how we do things, would you like to introduce yourself for the readers?
Andrew: Certainly. My name is Andrew Hewson, founder of Hewson Consultants, 21st Century Entertainment and the founding Chairman of UK trade body ELSPA, which goes by the name of UKIE these days.
RGG: When was it you first got interested in the world of programming, video games and bit-based awesomeness?
ANDREW: I suppose I was pre-disposed for it coming from such a nerdy family! My father and grandfather were industrial chemists and my mother took a degree in Maths and Physics, which was almost unheard of for a woman in her day. My parents met towards the end of World War 2 in a commercial laboratory when they were both working on developing new fluorescing materials for use with cathode ray tubes.
My ambition was to be a scientist and I got a job working in radiocarbon dating at the British Museum after university. It was there in the 1970s that I first got to use a computer – it was like a new toy for the museum. Being mathematically minded I took to it immediately and wrote my first programs in Fortran 4.
RGG: What was it like when you originally founded Hewson Consultants and how did you come to the decision to be a publisher?
ANDREW: My original ambition was to teach myself to write. I had discovered in my academic career that I couldn’t get my ideas down on paper, which is a crucial part of being a scientist, so something had to be done. I picked up a Sinclair ZX80 and a typewriter with the ambition to write about it and produced my first book, Hints & Tips for the ZX80, under the label of Hewson Consultants. Several books followed and the opportunity to write a column for Sinclair User magazine came up.
I think the Hewson Helpline column in the magazine put my name in front of people, and programmers began to send me software they had written asking if we could publish it. In that sense it was more like people perceived us to be a publisher, so we became one!
Some of our earliest products, aside from the books, included non-game software and even hardware in the form of memory expansion and so on, but as time went on it became clear that games were where it was at. It was clearly the birth of a new artistic medium.
RGG: You released many now legendary titles, especially for the Spectrum, back in the 80's spanning many genres with the strong majority gaining high praise from both fans and critics alike. Be it Avalon, Cybernoid or the much later Onslaught...Was there a strong focus on quality from an individual perspective, or simply happy accident? Obviously there had always been publishers that set out for one specific genre, style, etc. - what was the main goal for Hewson?
ANDREW: We certainly focused on quality and would never put anything out if we didn’t think it was good, but it’s always seemed to me like that was common sense! Perhaps my programming background allowed me to appreciate the craftsmanship and creativity of titles more than others who merely saw them as a way to make a quick buck or even a fad – I don’t know.
It was very clear to us early on that this was the emergence of a new art form, not some passing phase. We were extremely selective about the games we published, and in all honesty the majority which were sent to us didn’t make the cut. Perhaps that’s what made us different.
Excellence comes as standard...
RGG: Hewson clearly stood in an opposite corner to the likes of an early Atari in that there always appeared a willingness, nay an importance to push the original developers of titles, their respective IP's (tied to Hewson in the process) and the programmers themselves. What was the reason behind doing so? Did being a smaller studio, being independent, make this a lot 'easier' to achieve? We're talkin' Raffaele Cecco, Steve Turner et al!
ANDREW: I don’t think it was any easier because we were small, but coming from a more technical background myself and having done some coding, it was always abundantly clear to me that the creativity and skill came from the programmers. I think I was able to appreciate the genius of our coders because I knew from my own experience that what they were able to do was actually quite extraordinary.
If you are coming at things from that point of view and understand that creating videogames was a new artistic medium, it just made absolute sense to promote the authors of those games in the same way you would promote the authors of a book or the director of a movie. Atari’s stubbornness to credit the creators of their games was utterly baffling to me, no wonder the coders rebelled!
By the late 1990s when the industry began to really hit its commercial stride you could see it was starting to overflow with people who had no appreciation of the technical craftsmanship of creating a game but were the gate keepers of the closed platforms which had now taken over everything.
Fortunately we’ve passed through that adolescent phase now and the re-emergence of open platforms along with digital distribution has given rise to the indie scene, which to my eyes marks a return to the kind of approach we championed at Hewson. I think the balance of power has shifted back towards the creative and technical people once again, which is how it should be.
RGG: If any in the long line of releases, what was your personal favourite published title from a gamer perspective from the early days?
ANDREW: I have a real soft spot for Gribbly’s Day Out, which was Andrew Braybrook’s first title and our first for the C64. It didn’t sell as well as it should have done, but it was just such a beautifully creative, off the wall piece of work. Andrew wrote an entire story to go with it.
Then there’s Uridium, which was an absolute smash-hit for us. We knew before we shipped it that it was going to be UK number 1, it just had that wow-factor and it made a big impression on me in terms of the structure of the game.
Nebulus is another personal favourite, it’s just such an original concept and I had the honour of helping John Phillips to figure out the design direction early on.
Nebulus was influenced by Uridium and these two games probably cemented in my mind the lesson that you should always be aiming to deliver something the player has never seen before. The silky-smooth scroll of Uridium and the rotation of the tower in Nebulus both had this effect and played a big part in their success.
RGG: Similarly, what system would you say was your favourite (if you have one)?
ANDREW: For me it was about where the market was – it had to be that way if we were going to be successful. From that point of view the C64 gave us a great deal of success. All of the open platforms, from the ZX Spectrum through to Amiga were where we liked to operate. We wanted to just get our hands on the hardware and see what we could make it do.
We did release the odd title on console, mostly conversions like Nebulus and Pinball Fantasies, but it grew quite tiresome having to do a song and dance for the gatekeepers of those platforms. We just wanted to get on and create.
Veterans and Rookies, old meets new
RGG: All us retrobates constantly refer to the 'bedroom coders' and obviously having the Indie Portal here on RGG, we always seek to highlight the similarities of the now and then. What do you feel are the most obvious correlations between the teams of the two distinct retro and modern eras? How do you feel about the emerging indie scene and what do you feel they could learn from the time bygone?
ANDREW: When I look at the indie scene today really I see it as a return to the approach we championed and helped to pioneer back in the 1980s, which is wonderful to see.
All the games we published in the 80s and 90s were made by small, creative teams making innovative and highly original titles. In fact our biggest hits, the likes of Uridium, Paradroid, Nebulus and Cybernoid were all more or less created by individuals. When we discovered the team behind DICE and launched their first game with Pinball Dreams they were still a four-man student team.
As we talked about earlier we had an appreciation of their creative and technical genius and so we promoted them accordingly, meaning players could admire and follow their favourite creators, which is another similarity with today’s indies.
But for me the biggest similarity is the development philosophy. If you imagine the games market on a graph, where the horizontal axis is the breath of innovative and original experiences and the vertical axis is production values, is was all about horizontal expansion in the 1980s. We had been around from the very beginning of the industry and everyone was exploring creative game designs and constantly inventing new genres.
It began to change in the 1990s when the 16-bit machines took hold and by the late 1990s the industry was much more about the vertical axis. Development costs were rising and rising and the open platforms of old really struggled against the consoles. By the turn of the century the era of small teams getting hands on with the hardware was all but over and to survive you had to embrace big teams, big budgets and big production values - arguably at the expense of that breadth of innovation and creativity.
To be fair it was probably necessary and inevitable that games went through this kind of adolescence. It was at a time when more powerful hardware was constantly delivering more incredible graphics and perhaps the industry needed to demonstrate that it could do big production values too. Certainly the original PlayStation did a lot to enhance the cultural significance of games and that continued with PS2, so that period of vertical expansion was a good thing. It just wasn’t our thing anymore.
Today open platforms have returned alongside the arrival of digital distribution and it’s clear that the breadth of ideas is expanding once again thanks to the indies. It’s fantastic to see the likes of Sony recognising the importance of this, and they are right to do so. Innovative ideas were always what excited us at Hewson and we are still a long, long way from realising the potential of games to be the most important art form of the 21st century. If we are to get there then it’s crucial that we embrace the kind of fresh experiences that small, creative teams bring.
RGG: How important do you feel it is for the industry to continue to embrace the idea of open platforms that forged much of the success of the microcomputer era? The likes of Ouya, XBLIG, Steam, etc?
ANDREW: Open platforms are crucial. Closed platforms are naturally insular, and we’ve seen the corresponding decline in the breath and variety of experiences which can occur in that environment. I know this is a bit of an over-used example, but 10-15 years ago the likes of Minecraft would have really struggled to get going, such was the stranglehold of the closed platforms.
I’m not saying that AAA on consoles is wrong and open platforms and indie developers is right, but we need a balance so we’re increasing the breadth of ideas along with the productions values of the medium. Thankfully it looks like we’re finally getting towards that balance.
long live the king, 21st century style...
RGG: What was the deciding factor to close the original Hewson Consultants during the dawn of the 90s?
ANDREW: Costs were going up, our overdraft was growing and then our German distributor dropped a bombshell on us by saying they couldn’t pay what they owed. I personally felt a weight of responsibility for the people who worked for me and we decided the right thing to do was to close. In hindsight we probably could have ploughed on and recovered, but I was feeling very emotionally drained by this point.
RGG: Speaking of the new decade, you obviously didn't just stop with the closure, as yourself along with much of the management went and opened 21st Century Entertainment. What drove this?
ANDREW: A few weeks after closing Hewson I was at a social event when a friend came up to me and asked how much it would take to open the company up again. He became my new business partner and I learned a great deal from him.
I decided to call the re-formed company 21st Century Entertainment as a statement of our conviction that games are the art form of the 21st century. I still believe that today, so I was pretty proud of that name!
RGG: When you mention 21st Century Entertainment, one particular genre and series immediately springs to mind: PINBALL! Pinball Dreams is by far my favourite Pinball game of all-time, which is a big reason I snagged this interview from Megs! Considering the strong mix as discussed under the Hewson banner, how come with the new studio the focus shifted firmly to the one genre (one perfected, no less)?
ANDREW: One of the things I talk about in the book is that we were actually really struggling before Pinball Dreams came out. We’d met this four-person student team at a show and the game was immediately striking. Everyone was telling me how great it was ahead of the release but I almost didn’t want to let myself believe it. In contrast to Uridium, where I just knew it was UK number one ahead of the launch, with Pinball Dreams I actually tried to convince myself it wasn’t going to sell. It was a tough industry at times and you have to try and maintain your sanity!
However I needn’t have worried because it was a smash and it was clear that there would be appetite for a sequel. The DICE guys wanted to re-write the whole engine but I convinced them that we needed to get the sequel out first – it was too hot an opportunity to delay. I told them we just need three new features, three things we could put on the back of the box. They added more flippers, a dot-matrix display and more colours.
Pinball Fantasies was a massive success and I decided that we should just take ownership of the Pinball genre. We’d delivered so many innovative, original titles with Hewson but it was constantly a struggle to find the next hit. By being the company which did Pinball games you could focus on excelling at one thing and generate a reputation for doing so. I think we were one of the first to adopt that sort of strategy but you see it quite often today.
RGG: Pinball Dreams/Fantasies have both had major re-releases through iOS and are still highly regarded - what does their legacy mean to you? Were you involved personally with the re-releases at all?
ANDREW: We weren’t involved but it’s great to see they continue to be enjoyed by a new generation of players. In fact the passion and enthusiasm which still exists today for the games both Hewson and 21st Century Entertainment published is quite extraordinary. We certainly never imagined people would still be talking about what we did 20-30 years down the road, but here we are.
RGG: Digital Illusions CE (or DICE) while starting with 21st and pinball, still exist as a developer today pushing out massive titles under the EA banner (o hai, Battlefield). What do you feel has been the key to their continued success, when so many from the era got swallowed up, left behind or simply faded away?
ANDREW: Like all the best teams they were focused, professional and technically astute. Their games always came to us highly polished and with a clear determination to perfect every detail. These are the kind of qualities all the best teams had so it’s no surprise to see they went on to achieve so much.
Experience brings wisom, leaders should lead...
RGG: Any gamer in the UK knows of the ELSPA rating system (or UKIE as it is now known, but we're retro like that), but what they may not know is that you were one of the founders of the project. What was the importance of bringing about a ratings board for the games industry from your viewpoint?
ANDREW: I was the founding Chairman of ELSPA. It all came together during an industry conference where there was a lot of concern about the need for an age ratings system. Government had been debating the impact of violent games in Parliament and it was clear that if the industry didn’t come together to create a ratings system then eventually government would. I’m a pretty outspoken, confident sort of character so I guess I was encouraged during the conference to take the reins.
It was hugely important that we got a ratings system organised. Firstly because it was the right thing to do but also for the benefit of demonstrating that we are a responsible, mature industry capable of self-regulation.
It’s great to see that the trade body is still around today to represent the industry as UKIE.
RGG: How did ELSPA help combat piracy and equally track sales success for truly the first time across platforms? Especially as a means to help show that Sega was grippin' dat ting! (Personal preference, yeah - but some Ollyisms gotta shine through here!)
ANDREW: The central issue was the age ratings system and this was always going to be important to the likes of Sega and especially Nintendo with their family-friendly image. As a result we were able to bring them to the table and unite as an industry. It was obviously important to bring in these big players in order to make ELSPA a legitimate trade body, and everything else we were able to achieve came from there.
RGG: Back to a publishing aspect, many of the major publishers from back in the day, still have a stronghold now, especially American giants Electronic Arts and Activision..Any comments as to the reason for this? From a industry legend perspective, of course!
ANDREW: There’s no doubt that US companies know how to scale their organisations and being UK based also had disadvantages in terms of market reach. The European market is pretty big, but there are so many territories with different sets of regulations and different languages that it becomes a lot harder to tap into it.
We did setup US offices to try and get more of a foothold over there but we were never really able to crack that market unfortunately. So to answer the question I think it’s a combination of US companies being able to tap into a huge market more easily and being very good at scaling their organisations to take advantage of that.
RGG: Mentioned above about other things on your CV, you can also be credited as an author having written Hints and Tips for the ZX80 and you were also a columnist back in the day, too (Sinclair User, ooohhh yeeaaahh); what is it you love about writing?
ANDREW: I actually started out with a ZX80 and a typewriter because I wanted to learn how to write. I had discovered to my dismay that I wasn't very good at it in my academic career, as I mentioned earlier. If you are going to get ahead in the world then being able to express yourself on paper is crucial – so it was my desire to do that which opened the door for me into the games business.
I still enjoy writing today as you say. What do I enjoy about it? I don’t know, expressing myself I suppose. I’m the kind of person who gets a kick out of getting up and delivering a speech, but you don’t get to do that very often. Writing allows you to say “here I am and this is what I think!”
There and back again, going full circle
RGG: Speaking of writing and your past, that's now having an impact on your present. Hewson Consultants is back as are you with an all new book about your industry experiences. Fancy letting the RGGers in on your new project?
ANDREW: The book is called Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers, in honour of my first two books, and it’s the story of my journey through the early games industry with Hewson Consultants, 21st Century Entertainment, ELSPA and so on. It’s not just a walk through the history though, I’m going under the skin of what happened and explaining the insights I’ve gained.
I’m hoping many of the lessons will be directly applicable to the pioneering indies of today, because as we have already discussed there are so many parallels between what they are doing and what we did back in the 80s, hence the title of the book.
I’m delighted to say that we have also got contributions from many of the coders, creators, musicians, artists and journalists of the time. People like Steve Turner of Graftgold, Raffaele Cecco, the DICE founders and Jeroen Tel. Their own insights will provide deeper context and help to thread the whole thing together.
RGG: Kickstarter being a place that we're all familiar with due to so many indie games being crowd-funded that way, what have your personal experiences been with it for Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers?
ANDREW: First of all it’s a huge amount of work and we’ve learnt a great deal by doing it. You try to do as much research as possible before hand but ultimately you have to be prepared to adapt to the situation you find yourself in. For example everywhere we looked the advice was to make sure you’re doing frequent updates for your backers to keep them engaged. However after the first week a friend told us we were updating too much and it might start to feel like we are spamming people!
The overwhelming feeling though was one of delight. The passion, enthusiasm and positivity was quite astonishing. I know it’s a cliché to say that, but I think the retro-gaming community in particular is one of respect, appreciation and mutual support.
All the retro Kickstarter campaigns – From Bedrooms, The History of Ocean, Sam Dyer’s C64 book – we all try to support each other and help to spread the word.
RGG: What was it like to bring back many of the greats you've worked with over the years to contribute to the new book? What can fans expect from their involvement?
ANDREW: It’s been an honour to have them involved. Everyone has been so supportive and positive about the experience and from my point of view it’s fantastic to have the voices of so many great coders and creators giving their perspective.
I went to meet Steve Turner a few weeks before the Kickstarter campaign. I hadn’t seen him in decades and it was just a pleasure to catch up. He’s much the same as he always was and just as passionate and knowledgeable as ever. He’s been hugely supportive of everything we’re doing I’m massively grateful to him and everyone else who has agreed to be involved.
RGG: Where can the retro gaming fanatics go to pre-order Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers, also when will it be released? Is there a release date yet?
ANDREW: They can go along to our website at www.hewsonconsultants.com to pre-order the book and we’ve also got a retro Hewson Consultants T-shirt available.
As for a release date, we haven’t tied that down just yet. I suffered a minor heart attack back in March and while I’m on the mend now and pretty much back to full health, it’s naturally caused a delay in the book so I’m in the process of regrouping and getting back onto it.
The details and the future book sales
RGG: Okay, lets switch things up a bit. We love to do a desert island discs thing here at RetroGameGeeks with all we interview...And no escape for you either!! So, any five games, for any system, from the retro days. What would they be and why? Get yo' gamer cap on!
ANDREW: I’ve always had an appreciation of 3D Monster Maze, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played it, so maybe not. Space Invaders would be on there, along with Outrun – I used to love playing that in the arcades. I’d have to have Uridium, because it was just a spectacular hit and left a lasting impression on me. Then there would be Nebulus for its originality and finally Pinball Fantasies. I mean, the sound, the visuals, the music and the opportunity to keep improving my high score until I’m rescued? I’d come back to civilisation with a new world record!
RGG: What does the future hold for Hewson Consultants and yourself? A return to publishing, maybe? What can fans expect for tomorrow and beyond?
ANDREW: I’m 100% focused on the book at the moment. It’s been quite astonishing to see how much passion and enthusiasm there still is for what Hewson did and what it stood for, and our Kickstarter backers deserve the best book we can produce. I’ve always believed that the consumers are the most important people in the games industry, so delivering quality products is paramount. Beyond the book anything is possible.
RGG: I'll get this thing wrapped up now, as surely taken enough of your time! But is there anything you'd like to add at all? Any comments, anything you'd fancy hyping or just about...well, anything on your mind? That's a lot of anythings. But, let loose!
ANDREW: Just to say a big thank you to our Kickstarter backers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers and everyone who has supported us whether in a big way or a small, simple way. I had no idea there were so many passionate and enthusiastic people all around the world who still cherish what we did at Hewson and 21st Century Entertainment and it’s been a real pleasure to get to know them.
RGG: Thank you so much for speaking with us, it means so much when any true hero of RGG's is up for an interview! So, it's finale time...Originally this space was reserved for Mario or Sonic, but has since evolved...To continue that evolution? Let's get Hewson-specific...Paradroid or Astroclone!?
ANDREW: I’d have to say Paradroid. Astroclone was a great product but Paradroid was just phenomenal. The elegance of the design, the originality, and the balance of the game – no wonder people still consider it as one of the greatest games ever.
RetroGameGeeks Final Thoughts...
Yowzer! That was an avalanche of information right? Well come on now Retro lovers, what on earth did you expect here?
You see when you are a former writer, turned programmer who became a developer then publisher then did it all over again and gave the world some of the greats it's only fitting someone else should come along and be the first to start the standing ovation. The word legend is massively over-used in this scene, believe me it really is but let me once again be very clear, Andrew Hewson is a Legend.
Forget the games for a second, put aside the knowledge about how he unleashed upon the world some of the most enduring and magical moments of the Micro Computer era if you can. Take the fact about setting up the industry standard of self governing responsible management of content for the protection of gamers of varying ages and swiftly glide past that and the truth that his company was directly responsible for the initial launch of DICE upon the gaming industry and what is left?
Possibly the single finest C.V. would be the first thought that jumped into my mind and a reason to always get a free drink and a hug at any gaming convention I think is fair to say the least this visionary has earned. Joking aside however what is clearly left is the desire to still do all this, to keep giving. If ever there was a person to write a hints and tips book about being successful in the games industry, if ever there was a set of memoirs to read about how all of this wonder we call videogaming played out during the 1980's and early 1990's it absolutely has to be this man's.
If gaming has a top table this is the man giving the toast and once again I remind you that we here at RGG will absolutely never appologise for any and all remarks of total respect, admiration and love for a man who helped craft our childhoods. That's our biggest compliment we can give as gamers, to reach out and simply say 'Thank You' two small words that may just seem like a generic statement however when you look at the meaning here is what lies beneath...
For the hours spent looking at pictures on a box inlay, waiting till school finished so we could come home and load this up. For the times we were treated to wave after wave of quality that other studios couldnt even get near, for the memories we hold so dear that to us they are like best friends we are forever grateful. Hewson Consultants as well as 21st Century were not just another couple of publishers because when it came to consistent quality of game design, gameplay and memory making experiences at times it seemed like they were way above the rest, floating on air.
Andrew Hewson... Two words... 'Thank You'