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80s Memories

Interview with Hewson Consultants

With the recent release of Hewson Consultants book, Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers, I thought it would be a great idea to have a brief chat to original founder Andrew Hewson, and games developer Rob Hewson.

Andrew Hewson was the original founder of 80s publishing giant Hewson Consultants. Rob has been the lead designer and Game Director for TT Fusion, but is currently CEO and Creative Director for Hewson Consultants.

What were your earliest memories of gaming, and what was the game you returned to the most?

Rob: I was born in 1981 and the first games I remember playing were all Hewson games presumably because dad brought them home from work. We had a Commodore 64 and I used to play on it with my sister, who is a few years older then me. I remember that we were terrified of Seon the black crab in Gribbly’s Day Out and I remember dad pointing to the letters on the title screen in Uridium to teach me how to spell my surname. Later on we played a lot of Cybernoid, Nebulus and Stormlord but I think Gribbly’s and Uridium were the first ones I remember playing over and over again.

Andrew: My earliest gaming memory only came back to me recently while I was writing the book. When I worked at the British Museum Research Laboratory in the mid-1970s we took delivery of a Hewlett Packard 2100C, which was about the size of a modern-day fitted kitchen. A crude version of Star Trek had been implemented on the machine, presumably by the manufacturers. We used to gather to play the game on the VDU (visual display unit) which was located in laboratory’s library. It was a version of Battleships with the character S representing the USS Enterprise and K to represent Klingon ships.

How many of the original Hewson Consultants releases from the 80s can you play, and play well?

Rob: I reacquired a Commodore 64 a few years ago and Uridium is still great fun to play but my favourite is Nebulus – it has got such a great compulsion loop. I’m not sure about playing them well though, they were notoriously punishing games and I struggle to get very far in them at all. Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies, which I suppose are technically 21st Century Entertainment rather than Hewson games, are still massively playable too.

Andrew: I was never very good at our games the first time around to be honest. I used to think it was just me, so it has been something of a relief to hear so many people talking about how challenging our games were while researching the book. The one Hewson game I remember completing from start to finish was Avalon, and I also got really addicted to Dilithium Lift.

What was the process of releasing games? Did authors send you copies to review, or did you source authors yourself?

Andrew: It was definitely programmers sending us games rather than us seeking programmers. In fact we became a games publisher almost by accident because people started sending me cassettes in the mail after I wrote my early books and began to write my Sinclair User column. At its peak we were probably receiving 5-10 cassettes in the mail every day and, to be honest, most of them were not very good. Occasionally a gem would appear and we’d immediately seek to sign up the creator. That’s how we came to work with Mike Male, Steve Turner and other early programmers.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the original games authors?

Andrew: For the most part no, because everybody moves on with their lives. However, during the process of writing the book we’ve been back in touch with a number of programmers who have generously contributed their thoughts and analysis to the story. It’s been nice to touch base and hear about what people are up to.

Rob: Following on from the book I still get on the phone with Steve Turner every now and again just because he’s such an interesting guy to talk to and I enjoy hearing about his progress on the new game he is creating.

I would love to say I still have my original Spectrum. I think (and hope!) it is in my Dads attic. Do you have any original 80s hardware?

Rob: A few years ago I got hold of a C64 and we also picked up a ZX Spectrum and an Amiga during the Kickstarter campaign for the book. Unfortunately the Amiga didn’t work, so we were unable to offer that as a reward and the boxed Spectrum, which Steve Turner has personally signed, wasn’t claimed so we’ve still got that.

Andrew: I’ve got a couple of ZX81s in the attic for my grandchildren to gaze at in wonderment when they are old enough.

What is your view on the new Spectrums? (the Sinclair Vega, the Recreated ZX Spectrum and the upcoming Spectrum Next)

Rob: As long as the retrogaming community, who are the driving force behind these products, are respected and given a good product that they want at a reasonable price, then great. I’m not sure how many new Spectrums they will need though, so I hope the people making these products don’t get too carried away announcing more and more of them.

Andrew: More power to their elbows, I say. The Spectrum was a great machine. Mind you, I’d hate to be using it today for serious work.

What is your opinion Spectrum and C64 emulators? Is downloading a rom to play in an emulated system frowned upon?

Rob: I think it’s great that people are able to enjoy the games and share them with a new generation. It’s a bit different from the movie and the music industry because games are so intrinsically tied to the host hardware, so if people have put in the effort to get emulated systems up and running so others can enjoy these games, then great.

Andrew: I’m ambivalent. I will always think piracy robbed some great creative talents of their just rewards. If there was a steady trickle of funds today from the emulators to the creators it would be a small gesture towards making amends for a historic wrong. But maybe I’m just naïve.

Do you take part in any gaming conventions? Have you / Would you host any talks about your experiences?

Andrew: We’ve been to a few. We did a talk at Play Expo 2013, Revival 2014 and a Q&A panel at Play Blackpool 2015. We’ve been pretty busy with the book but I’d be happy to do some more in future if the demand is there.

Hewson Consultants recently won a grant and are developing a new game called Mechinus. Can you tell us any details about this new title?

Rob: We can’t talk too much about that project right now, because it’s still way too early. However, we do have another project in the works which is much closer to being announced, so watch out for more information very soon!

Andrew: Rob is being too coy. Mechinus draws inspiration from the past but strikes out in a new and highly original direction. At the moment we’re struggling to get the “rules” of the game environment nailed down – the current evolution does not feel sufficiently natural to be the basis of a satisfying game experience. That, I suppose, is the price to be paid for originality.
When we get over that hurdle we will start thinking about how to bang the drum for Mechinus – and how to get the games community involved. Our target, as it so often used to be, is have people saying, “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that before!”
In the meantime, as Rob says, there is another title which is coming close to release. Woo hoo. Here we go again!

Rob: Perhaps I was being too coy! It is the developer in me – we never want to show or talk about what we are working on until we know that it speaks for itself. Mechinus is going to be stunning once we’ve got that core experience properly nailed down.

How has the process of developing games changed for you since you started out?

Rob: The barrier to entry is so much lower. Even when I first started in game development a decade or so ago it was pretty standard to develop your own game engine, unless you were a huge company with a big budget, but these days anybody still developing their own engine in the era of Unity would have to be a little bit mad. This combined with digital distribution means we are in some ways coming full circle and seeing really creative games developed by small teams and individuals once again, but on the other hand the competition is really fierce.

Andrew: I remember programmers writing games in assembler and people like Steve Turner could even write in hexadecimal. There’s no question that the development process has been transformed with layer upon layer of middleware so that the games can be much more sophisticated. There was a decade-long dark age from the mid-1990s onwards when only big corporate teams with big budgets making sequels could create games, so it’s great to see an era of open platforms and creativity returning once again.

Your book has recently been released, entitled Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers. What was it like revisiting the past as part of the research for the book?

Andrew: Hard work! Much harder than I thought it was going to be. Not only because it is actually very difficult to recall events from thirty years ago, but also because there were some painful memories involved and I found it a struggle to work my way through them. On the other hand, some of the things that we discovered during our research were actually a relief to me, because it put a new perspective on our successes and our failures and made me appreciate just how passionate the people who grew up with our games still are about them. That really was a delight to discover.

To purchase Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers, or to read a preview, visit Hewson Consultants online shop.

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