Sheffield is still regarded as the Steel City, renowned for its heritage and reputation in steel production. After the city’s post-war manufacturing decline, the 80s witnessed an industrial revolution of information, and leading the way for British videogames were Alligata Software, Gremlin Graphics and a host of bedroom coders emerging from her womb. Mark Aldrich, Nick Aldrich and Richard Stevenson were the first, writing text adventures from a leafy Sheffield suburb.
There were no computers at all in school when Mark Aldrich entered his first year at Jordanthorpe Secondary School in 1977. On the cusp of the computer age an interested teacher, Mr Spencer, lobbied to obtain the school’s first machines. With the blessing of the Head Master he started the first computer club, and it became so popular with kids that bookings had to be taken in 20 minute slots to use the devices.
The club was to affect the lives of many youngsters at the school, including Mark’s brother Nicholas and friends Richard Stevenson and Phil Durbidge – all who lived close to each other in the Sheffield suburb of Bradway.
[Richard] Mr Spencer […] approached the Head Master, a Mr Cook, and asked if there was any space rooms were he could house the computers. The Head was interested, and allowed him on the condition that if any pupil showed interest they’d be allowed to use them.
[Mark] [The computer club] was a small room, full of NASCOMS, the original 16K black and white machine connected to a self-standing TV, no sound and extremely basic. In later years we got an Apple II, which was amazing because it had a floppy disk. It was the first time you turned off a computer and it remembered what you’d done. That was the bees knees.
During school hours the computer club was strictly devoted to blossoming Computer Studies and other related subjects that the school offered. After hours it was a different matter, and open to experimentation where to their delight, many of the pupils found that the mainframe machines housed games.
[Mark] [..] There was a teleprinter connected to a University. I remember Mugwumps [an early mainframe game where the player is tasked with finding four “Mugwumps” that are randomly hidden on a 10×10 grid] was on there, you could type GO NORTH AND GO SOUTH – it’d go down the line and you get back a [response]. It was a basic adventure. It may have had the original Colossal Adventure too, which I remember very fondly. In the after-school club you got the NASCOM versions of Space Invaders appearing. All of the space bars were at an angle because all of the kids were hammering the space bar to fire.
To fund the computer obsession the Aldrich brothers pursued a raft of entrepreneurial schemes to earn money. Taking orders for picked strawberries, mowing gardens, buying sweets form a warehouse and selling them door-to-door, and car washing were amongst the many wheezes dreamed up to earn an honest bob. With their money it was a trip down to Abbeydale Road in Sheffield and to a shop called Datron Micro Centre. They bought and upgraded their first Sinclair machines from the specialist.
[Nick] [Mark] bought a ZX80 and then a ZX81 when you had to make them in kit form. […] It had a shit keyboard because it was one where you put in the membrane yourself. Then we bought an original grey keyed Speccy where the paint came off from the keyboards – when they started them at 16K. When Mark upgraded I used to get them for Christmas.
With the Sinclair machine at home, Mark was soon bitten by the programming bug, and took inspiration from older pupils studying formal computing subjects at school. They were pushing the boundaries of the machines housed in the computer club, and even writing in exotic languages other than BASIC. But for Mark, it was a start.
[Mark] I never got past BASIC. I wasn’t taught how to program, it was all about learning from other people.
[Nick] I think what was interesting about [that] time was that [everything was written in] BASIC. […] People were only just starting [to] develop in Machine Code, [and the fact] that you sold games in BASIC was quite incredible.
[Mark] Everything was BASIC. There was one or two of the guys who were doing proper Computer Studies doing things like PASCAL and FORTRAN and stuff, but the majority of people were starting with 10 PRINT “Hello” 20 GOTO 10 – and some people never went beyond that. What I did do was watching and learning, and doing stuff, and I picked things up.
[Nick] You couldn’t go and buy a game you had to create a game.
[Mark] That’s so true. You bought a computer and there was very little content available and very few channels to buy things from. Shops like Datron were all business focused, they only sold business machines. […] You bought [a computer] and created with it.
It was a new and exciting way to be creative, and Mark’s enthusiasm rubbed off on best friend John Wigglesworth. As well as being industrious, they were both naturally creative, having engineered and produced small theatre shows as younger children. Now a little older, they took inspiration from something more mature, and it became the catalyst behind their foray into game making,
[Mark] I can’t remember how it precisely started. A love of games and wanting to create something? My best mate for many years was John [Wigglesworth] […] [so] it was natural we spent a lot of time together, and it was natural we [created games] together.
You could take something from your brain and create something. Historically you had to be good with your hands to do that – pottery or drawing or whatever, unless you were good at literature or poetry. For the first time, those that were mathematical or logical were able to go into creativity.
Things like fantasy and folklore [inspired me]. I loved The Hobbit, our father read it to us a couple of times. I’d read bits of The Lord of the Rings, and so I suspect there was always that love, but more about love of an adventure game.
Mark and John called themselves SpecSoft, and started to write adventures based upon their passions. It was postscript to his entrepreneurialism, and a way to say at 15 years of age that they had their own company. Alongside SpecSoft, they ran another imaginary business that traded from the Aldrich home – the Waxon Corporation. Their love of enterprise was reflected in several game screens and on some of the inlays where the publisher address referenced “SpecSoft (Department 1)” – Mark’s bedroom.
Their first game, Castle of Doom [sometimes referred to online as SpecSoft 64K] was bundled with an arcade game based on Missile Command, called, erm, Missile Command on Side B, was written for the 16K Spectrum [in four parts, hence 64K]. It was very simplistic and followed a traditional fantasy storyline where the player traversed countryside, mountains and towns looking for the keys to unlock their way into the Castle.
It was a rather hum-drum linear affair but earned a review from adventure guru Tony Bridge in the 30 June 1983 issue of Popular Computer Weekly. “I found the map-making enjoyable” beamed Tony, “but ultimately the game palled – not least because there is no point to the proceedings.”
[Mark] That sounds right. […] From memory it was very simple. You are here, north, south, east and west. There’s something here and you can pick it up and carry it.
After Castle of Doom came The Village of Death [perhaps just down the road from the Castle] – this time written on Mark’s brand new upgraded 48K Spectrum. It was described in the inlay as being “a pleasure for all the family” and a “marvel in computer programming”. It starts with a crudely drawn newspaper, and a teletype telegram to the protagonist [a Mr Scarisbrick] giving the background to a missing village where everyone perishes trying to find it.
[Mark] [We] did [the games] in the downstairs room, we’d get big A3 pieces of paper and draw out the [map] boxes. Every night after school, you’d do your homework, and we’d do three or four hours of this. I would be sitting there coding the stuff, and John would be drawing the pictures and working out the puzzles. For the graphics, John would draw the lines and I’d work out how to do the fill.
[When] creating a world, it’s really rewarding to create puzzles that someone unfolds. […] I’ve just started to play No Mans Sky. It’s that thing, [me as] the player, going somewhere and not knowing what I’m going to find. [This] reality is not much different [to No Mans Sky] – we set it up to get to the prize here, you needed one of those, and you had to have one of those, and to get that you had to open the door, and to do that you needed the key.
[Nick] Part of the drive to create this grid was when you got Crash or Zzap! And because we were brought up on Monopoly or Connect 4 or that was it. It was finite. To be able to create something that you were creating yourself and you could unfold, it was a journey.
[Mark] [And] a story. I loved The Hobbit when it first came out on the Spectrum. It was really the first graphical adventure I remember. Do you remember the speed of the drawing, with a line, a line, and then it would fill in? I almost felt that when you’d been brought up on the written word it was almost taking something away. It’s the difference between a book and a film, you’re immediately given what the book looked like. It was exciting from a graphic perspective, the wow, but in terms of the adventure in the mind it takes something away. Oh, I didn’t imagine it like that in the book – this is how I imagined it – it takes something away.
Village of Death contained a response time measured in days, a great selection of schoolboy spelling and grammar, and several strange characters [including Groucho Marx and Sir Clive Sinclair], but did demonstrate a lovely naivety of programming with a willingness to experiment, and some more sophisticated ideas such as hunger and sparse, primitive graphics [with the usual laboriously slow fill routine].
Once again, the game was reviewed in Popular Computer Weekly by Tony Bridge, who gave it glowing praise despite its flaws. “Descriptions are sometimes very well written, and the adventure looks as if it will be quite rewarding” he commented.
[Mark] [Magazine reviews were] very rewarding. We knew at the time we weren’t as good as others, but for magazines it made commercial sense to promote as much as possible. To get in there we sent free copies off and kept our fingers crossed we’d get a review. Everything was on such a smaller scale. The whole media was paper magazines that you would buy, and not every newsagent would stock them.
Given the good feedback, and positivity around the duo’s creativity and writing it is a shame that Gilsoft’s The Quill arrived just a little too late to provide the programming heavy-lifting and a platform for their undoubted talents.
[Mark] [Our games] were BASIC. I’d [use] routines [from] the magazines, and the worst thing about BASIC was that someone could break into it. You couldn’t break into professional [machine code] games so we learned a routine [that] would stop those keys working. It [made] them look cleverer than they were.
I remember [The Quill], it was powerful, but it was too late. My code has nothing like that in it – the vast majority was long hand, the most awful programming imaginable – but it works.
Operation Roman Gaul was the final adventure coded by John and Mark. Popular Computing Weekly said “the graphics are simple but OK” and commented that it was “quite entertaining.” It had a comedic element, some excellent and maturing writing, and a touch of The Boggit parody with the main protagonist, a Roman character called Ajax – employed as a cleaner.
[Mark] We didn’t set out to do that, but it will have happened because we loved Asterix and Obelix [characters from a French comic series]. John loved Asterix and had all of the books, I had a few of them. John was heavily involved in the writing so the characters would have come from him. The others are more generic.
While Mark and John were courting fame, Nick was inspired by their enterprise and joined forces with Richard Stevenson in an attempt to follow in big brother’s adventuring footsteps. Mark’s enthusiasm and perceived success rubbed off on Nick and Rich who both dreamed of releasing games of their own. They began programming and joined the Computer Club, as well as hanging around in Sheffield’s Just Micro – a new computer shop that specialised in games software, and had a thriving coding community.
[Richard] Me and Nick had got into BASIC coding, we looked up to Mark and the way he was doing stuff. [In Just Micro] there were pockets of kids who were coders and they would congregate around the machines and knew each other really well. They would swap ideas – it would always be Commodore and Beeb. I’m sure of that. It was fast scrolling, sprites bouncing about, music and weird stuff, based on the kind of thing that Jeff Minter [a celebrated British indie developer] was doing. It would be “how did you do that?”, and you’d go away and try and do something better. You’d come back next week and show that. You’d try and suss things out.
Adventures were a popular type-in listing in magazines, and a growing genre on computer shop shelves. Their structure made a good introduction into programming covering the main topics such as inputs, variables, branching and looping. Nick and Richard began working on a game they called The Haunted House.
[Nick] We couldn’t do an arcade game in BASIC, so fundamentally it was about doing something that was straight-forward. Richard was into the code side and I was into the environment, and what was the story. The original adventures were literally “You are in a room, you can see a thing”. I couldn’t really code, my BASIC coding was, basic, my interest was in book writing or storytelling or drawing the maps. I used to like drawing maps.
[Richard] The plot was pretty poor. I remember there was a grid, 20 by 20 and we drew a path along it. If you come off that path, for example, if you went East, then you’d die. You’d have to memorise the route. If there was an object there it was quite a development. Go East – you can see the edge. Go East, bang, you fall of. It was very much like The Adventure Game on TV [a BBC children’s show that debuted in 1980 that featured crude augmented reality]. The objects [in Haunted House] were very much irrelevant. […] Nick designed an inlay cover – a winding pathway to the top of a hill, with black shadows as the cliffs fell away.
[Nick] I think there was a castle, and bats and stuff! […] We were having fun. What we were doing wasn’t about being entrepreneurs it was just about being fun.
Richard’s Dad had noticed the interest his son was taking in computers and began flicking through the pages of the magazines he was reading. Noticing several adverts requesting programs for publication he asked for a few copies of the finished game and began sending them off to be evaluated – under the moniker of SAA Software – Stevenson and Aldrich. Nestled in the returned rejection letters was a single acceptance, from Temptation Software.
[Richard] We had the game accepted, but we didn’t get it published because it needed so many changes. It’s the reason we stopped, it was exam time, and our parents said it’s an important time of the year so you can’t be doing that. They wanted lists and lists of changes. [One I remember was] we had “you are near the public house”, but we had put it as “you are near the pubic house”.
Whereas Richard and Nick approached a publisher, all of SpecSoft’s games were self-published, advertised in the small ads at the back of journals such as Popular Computer Weekly and Home Computing Weekly. Even at his age, Mark had the awareness to realise that his games weren’t of the same calibre of those that had started appear from publishers such as Artic and Melbourne House, despite the kind words from Tony Bridge.
[Mark] You had the classified ads, and you had the libraries that were hiring out tapes, and that was a good way of your money going further. From memory we did get a few direct sales from the public, but a large majority was selling packs of ten to the loaning libraries.
The volume of sales kept Mark busy, and he undertook the logistics of running his company from his bedroom – from creating the inlays to copying and testing the games for dispatch.
[Richard] […] What was bizarre was that you’d go in [to Mark’s room] and he wouldn’t be programming, he was copying the games he’d written. He couldn’t produce games quick enough. Ten copies [meant] having to produce ten tapes, [since] we didn’t have tape to tape at that point.
[Nick] Two tape recorders with a phono jack between them. You had to check your levels, in those days when you played form one to the other, it was all about volume. If it wasn’t on 7 you were fucked. It
[Mark] We weren’t good at our quality control. To check anything, you’d have to take each copy and load them – it’d take five to ten minutes each tape. We sent a whole set of tapes to a library, and got them all returned, they’d not been able to load. We’d been sloppy about checking them.
[Nick] We used to draw the [inlay] artwork and then we used to go down to Pront-a-print and they could only print in black and white, but you could have coloured cardboard. So each game would have different coloured cardboard – green, yellow and pink for example. A lot of them were neon and we used to sit and copy the cassettes, write on them, put them in jiffy bags and send them in the post. We were very entrepreneurial [and] there was a bit of professionalism about doing things right.
[Mark] [Printing] cost about £50. […] Because [it was] so expensive John found [another guy] and he printed from home. He ran a small print business and we went to his house and talked him through [each game], gave him the blurb, and he came up with something. It was a fifth of what it cost us. For the whole time we probably made a few grand between us.
The coffers were buoyed a little more when Mark was contacted by a speculative computer company in Scotland, offering him a smart sum for the rights for the three adventures as content for the new platform. The machine never materialised, but the cheque did.
In the end, it was the call of University life and the lure of an academic career that ended Mark’s adventure coding. John went to Portsmouth to study Philosophy, and the two naturally drifted apart into the atmosphere of student life – with computers a minor attraction.
[Mark] I was academic and always going to university. I wanted to do law – someone said I quite enjoyed an argument. […] Writing stuff, that did takes hours and hours of hard work, and was physically and mentally hard [didn’t appeal]. You then get on that conveyor belt of life. I do think what would it have been – but at the time you didn’t look to computers to make money, nobody had any idea of where it was going. It was a hobby.
For Nick and Richard it was the end of their creative relationship after just one game. Another member of the Computer Club, Phil Durbidge started to work with Richard, and Phil had one advantage that Nick didn’t – he could program in machine code.
[Nick] Phil came round and three became a crowd. Phil had skills that I hadn’t. I wasn’t a programmer. Richard looked up to Phil. All I was the guy that made pictures and drew things, it was my creativity that Richard brought alive. I became the crowd. Richard started developing with Phil, and he became the new Nick, but better. It was great to be an early part of it, but I was only an early part of it.
The duo became Dollarsoft [named by Richard’s coin-collecting Dad] and started work on a brand new game, this time an arcade clone of Bombjack called Bombscare. Whilst he was working with Phil, Richard continued to write adventures.
[Richard] I felt I’d do another [adventure] and did a game called Suicide Island. The format was the same as The Haunted House, and was based on a grid where you had to get from A to B. It wasn’t the same code but was the same methodology, with the odd added bit. I was looking at other adventures and saw they added objects and characters and things, so I added a character, called Josh. I tried to make it sound medieval and mysterious, Josh must have been a mysterious name to me!
Suicide Island appeared on the ZX Spectrum, but strangely had a port to the Acorn Electron and BBC Micro – computers that Richard didn’t own. It was another member of the Computer Club called Chris Hallatt who was paid a small fee by Richard’s Dad to produce it.
[Richard] I met Chris at School. He wasn’t a co-author, he was part of the computer club, not quite as advanced as me, but he had an Electron. He wasn’t interested in adventures, we just agreed he would convert it to the Electron.
It seemed to be a straight-forward conversion, but since Richard has never played the Acorn versions their accuracy hasn’t been established. Hallett didn’t contribute any further puzzles, and ommitted the graphics that the second version of Suicide Island included.
[Richard] The inspiration was The Hobbit. It was a case of picking draw routines, something like a door, and fill routines I took from a magazine. It would have been an x and y coordinate and fill above it. I’d be taking these routines, I’ll put that in, it might improve things. It was quite easy to build locations, I wasn’t a creative writer. I didn’t picture it, I just thought, well, the woods is a good location, where can you go from the woods. People like Charles Cecil came with a storyline then the game, I went the other way around.
Suicide Island was reviewed by Micro Adventurer in July 1984 who said that “Suicide Island lacks in atmosphere, [and is] aptly named as it constantly self-destructs.” Tony Bridge, in Popular Computing Weekly, gave the game a dose of particularly stinging criticism. “The game […] is awfully dull”, he commented, saying “after a while, I just couldn’t be bothered.” The bad press wrangled with Richard’s father, especially as he’d paid £75 [a considerable sum at the time] for several small adverts to be placed with the magazine.
[Richard] The reviews upset my Dad, and he had a bit of a written argument with the [Popular Computing Weekly] editor. In those days, because of his line of work, he didn’t understand reviews, that people could slate a game and it was an opinion. He didn’t want to place any more adverts with them. Looking back, adventures advanced and people were playing each others games for ideas. I wasn’t. It was irrelevant what anyone else was doing.
Richard did forge on, and his next game was called The Black Tower. It was a game inspired by the staple teenage stories and influences of Knights, Castles and Princesses. It’s adolescent and innocence was reflected in the inlay blurb: “Meet exciting people, visit interesting places and solve difficult problems in your quest to find the scroll.” Though the text was somewhat naive, the quality of the Dollarsoft inlays had improved, as Richard’s Dad began to adapt to what retailers were telling him they wanted. Out went Richard’s own designs, based on the split-screen contrasts using in games such as Imagine’s Zzoom [“with another function from a magazine for double-sized text”] and in came piece of professional work.
[Richard] My Dad [had taken previous games] to Just Micro and another shop on Ecclesall Road that had racks of [budget] games. They told my Dad that the game artwork wasn’t up to scratch so he contacted an artist in Totley. He didn’t want the commission but did have a couple of pieces he’d done previously that suited.
Alongside the new artwork, computer pixeler Marco Druroe provided the game with a decent loading screen. Marco was part of the Just Micro demo scene – a group of teenagers that would come into the shop on a weekly basis showing off their latest creations to each other. The work Marco produced for Black Tower had always been a topic of discussion and confusion given the choice of prominent character central to the design.
[Richard] We congregated in Just Micro and [Marco] brought lots of [examples of] artwork. […] Phil and I went over to his house and he showed us a graphic of a man, who I later found out was George Orwell. Marco wanted to add bits, so asked what was in the game. We said a graveyard, etc – and so he chucked them in.
The Dollarsoft sales ledgers show that the games were far from successful, selling in tens of units rather than thousands. It was a huge investment for the Stevenson family with little return, but the disappointing sales figures only told half of the story. Aside of the financial outlay, Richard’s Dad was constantly trying to evolve his own business acumen and Richard and Phil’s approach to game development in order to succeed.
[Richard] It was a case of trying to work out what the sales formula was. Other people were making money, [so] what are they doing they we weren’t? Companies like Gremlin and Alligata were way ahead. [My Dad] had to try and learn about them, and distributors such as Menzies and WHSmiths, who for the majority took a game by looking at a cover.
But Richard and Phil’s true love lay away from adventures and firmly in the arcade. They utilised Phil’s machine code programming and created a Bomb Jack clone called Bombscare – eventually gaining their break after a publishing deal with British Telecom’s Firebird label [who renamed the game Short’s Fuse]. But there was one last hurrah with the genre, and the last official titles from Dollarsoft were conversions of several Artic Computing adventures for Paxman Publications for the Amstrad CPC464 computer. It wasn’t a commission, but a quirk of fate that Richard and Phil were able to obtain the business.
[Richard] That came from a magazine type-in that would load Spectrum code on an Amstrad. We didn’t believe it, but it worked. It couldn’t do graphics, so it had to be text-based because the displays were different. Phil had a couple of Artic adventures that we’d played a couple of weeks earlier. We loaded Adventures A and B using the type-in routines and we looked for Spectrum-specific functions. There was a PRINT statement, INPUT routines and a SAVE routine, that was about it, so we replaced it with the Amstrad versions. It worked. We tested it for an hour and just like that, we’d just converted them.
Popular Computing Weekly and Home Computing Weekly magazines ran articles that covered converting BASIC and graphic screens between the two similar Z80 based machines. With a little bit of tweaking here and there, Richard and Phil had working Amstrad versions of Planet of Death and Ship of Doom. Richard’s father again saw the commercial potential of these ports.
[Richard] […] He gave Artic a ring and asked if they’d be interested in us converting their games the Amstrad. They asked for a cost and he said £200 a time or something [the recovered ledger from Dollarsoft shows that Artic paid just £25 each for the conversions]. We agreed that we would do them all, but stopped at D because E introduced graphics. There was Planet of Death, Inca Curse, Ship of Doom and Espionage Island. We paid my brother Ian to reformat the text to make sure they fitted on [the Amstrad] screen.
Sadly Phil Durbidge passed away in January 2018 after a period of illness. He spent some of his attempted convalescing getting back into Spectrum programming. He was looking forward to the Spectrum Next arriving and there was even talk of Dollarsoft reforming to create a new version of Bombscare and further adventures. Richard hopes to honour that commitment.
[Richard] I want to write another adventure, but properly this time. I’ve three or four partial ideas that I’m going to code from scratch. I want to play with a type of Cluedo-approach where there could be four or five outcomes, with multiple locations and multiple characters.