Novagen Software Ltd
By Bruce Jordan, October/November 2004.
NEW ATARI ONLY CENTRE OPENS
There has been quite a stir around Birmingham in recent weeks with the opening of the Birmingham Atari Centre run by Home Entertainments Ltd. The shop is believed to be the U.K.'s first dedicated Atari Centre selling Atari Home Computers and supporting software and peripherals. No Spectrums, no Orics, no Vics, nothing but the best!
Before embarking on this venture Home Entertainments did a lot of market research amongst existing computer owners and intending purchasers. They found an almost unanimous response, what people wanted was somewhere they could find detailed information on their computer, where they could ask questions and be confident of obtaining a direct and knowledgeable reply. In short, somewhere that dealt with their computer and their computer only. A specialist shop. With the Birmingham Atari Centre, Home Entertainments have set out to provide just that. All of their staff are Atari owners and enthusiasts headed by Retail Sales Manager Keith Mason whose whole philosophy is to provide a complete service for the Atari owner. Keith told me, " What we hope to do is build a reputation on service and knowledge of the whole Atari scene, so that any Atari owner, or prospective purchaser, will know that he can come to us in the full expectation of finding what he wants or having his questions answered." To this end, the company has been working closely with the local User Group and hope to establish a back-up service second to none. If the folks in the shop can't answer your question they should be able to put you on to someone who can.
At the moment the Company are concentrating on providing a first-class service for users in the West Midlands. They will shortly turn their attention to Mail Order but only when they know they can extend their service to this area. They have also introduced a Home Demonstration team, again staffed by people with Atari background, to provide you with a demonstration of the Atari Computers in your own home where you can see the machines to best advantage and ask whatever questions you wish. Here again the emphasis will be on after sales service as they are conscious that home computing goes far beyond just buying a piece of hardware. Once you have bought an Atari, you can be confident that the full knowledge and assistance of the people at the Atari Centre will be available to you.
The shop has only been open a few weeks but already Keith Mason has built up a considerable number of contacts in America and was one of the first in the U.K. to learn about Atari's new machines. With the phone lines buzzing between here and the U.S., there should be no more long waits for news to reach the U.K., which can only be to the good of all U.K. Atari owners.
(Source: Mark Wright at AtariAge forum and Page 6 magazine).
The origins of Paul's first game, Encounter, pre-date Novagen by a couple of years.
I think in 1980, inspired by the arcade game, Battlezone, and encouraged by his friend Martin Stallard, Paul viewed the origination of "something similar" on his newly acquired Atari 8-Bit (all of 16K) computer as being an interesting academic exercise.
They were both members of 'Bug' (Birmingham User Group), a club of Atari enthusiasts who, I believe, keenly monitored the progress of the game.
In 1981 (and not initially knowing of Bug), I opened a retail shop "The Atari Center (sic.)" in Birmingham as part of the activity of my newly-formed company "Home Entertainments Ltd.", which had commodious (and expensive) offices above. I should mention that this was very much a part-time 'future development project' for me.
If you have to ask, I'll tell you: As part owner of a very successful double-glazing company, I had identified the next big 'home sales' market as being for entertainment hardware, on which there were pretty small margins, which could be followed up by 'software' sales/rentals on which there were big margins. Planned hardware was any one of the three newly available formats of home Video Recorders, so I could have become an early Blockbuster. Only problem was I couldn't buy any hardware, as all the major stores were buying them up. Second choice was Atari home computers.
As I had a manager running the shop activity (no retailer, me – I hate the public), I wasn't initially aware that all of the staff were Bug members. (Tempting to refer to them as buggers!) The shop was doing a "bomb".
One day, when I was co-incidentally at the premises, and much engaged with the 'launch' of my homes sales force, I was called down to the shop to meet a couple of guys, Paul Woakes and Martin Stallard who wanted to show me their software game. I was told by staff that I should be impressed (so I probably was) and these guys asked me if I had any interest in publishing it. I said that, in all honesty, I knew nothing about publishing software and wished them luck.
In the event, Geoff Brown (he of US Gold fame later), at that time only an emergent distributor who was selling pieces of US published Atari software that he bought back from visit(s) to the States in his suit-case, and I believe was also a member of Bug, offered to introduce Paul's product to US publishers.
To Geoff's credit, he successfully did effect an introduction, and I believe that Encounter for Atari 8-Bit was the first UK-authored games software to be published in the States. Also, part of this 'deal' (on which it should be stressed, Geoff Brown had no further direct involvement) was for Paul to develop a Commodore 64 version, which he did. Paul got a modest 'advance' and, on the evidence of the game being a chart-topper,
got screwed on any royalties thereafter.
Encounter! for 8-bit Atari
I have to say that, given this experience, the event had a profound effect on the future Novagen company in that Paul would not be enticed into any further royalty deal for a long, long time.
Paul had apparently been impressed with my 'honesty' at our first meeting (amazing, I wouldn't buy a second-hand car off me) so, two years later (1983) he called at The Atari Center a second time and asked if I would be interested in helping him publish Encounter (for all markets other than the US, of course). I was.
A couple of weeks after the C64 release, I had a caller from a magazine, who said, "how does it do that?" I said "do what?" Well, I didn't know that it did it, or what it was doing. The C64 cassette was loading ten times faster than was apparently expected.
Initially, Novagen was formed as Paul's own company, and my company was engaged on a 'percentage' for publication, sales and distribution on Novagen's behalf.
Encounter was released (early 84? – so, you'll note that Paul and I celebrated our 20th anniversary of association this year, 'though we had no formal event) and, contrary to your impression, it did sell well, although Atari charted higher and longer than the C64 in the UK (Commodore were bundling mountains of free software at the time), 'though C64 did extremely well in Germany.
Then, an interesting, sideline developed: You'll need to remember my Atari background (and the fact that I've never played games – other than Novagen's).
Paul told me that he had "heard somewhere that it could be done, so he had done it".
Apparently it had taken him a few hours, and Novaload was born. Once I knew that, it didn't take me at all as long to know that it could be sold, well, licensed and for a royalty (some justice for Paul there then). Provided the royalty was pitched at the cost-saving of around 90% of the tape in the cassette, it was a no-brainer.
It did take Paul a week to embellish the product to put up a display screen and even attempt some limited (not exactly polyphonic quality) 'music' tones and also provide a disk 'utility' with (only some possible) piracy protection, to enable publishers to use it.
To avoid a one-sided story... Paul Hughes (Ocean) remembers.
Remember the original Ocean Loader, the one used on the like of Hyper Sports and Rambo II? (...) At that time, Bill did all the mastering, though I'm not sure who actually "wrote" the Ocean Loader. I do remember looking at the source code to the Hyper Sports loader and thinking it looked more like a disassembly than a piece of traditional source code. The labels were just numbers (just like an address oddly enough) (...). One thing lead to another, Bill left and I ended up doing the mastering using my own Freeload system for many, many years.
Then moving on to around 2002, I was interviewing candidates for a programming job at Warthog, when who should appear but the great Paul Woakes! We started chatting about "the good old days", about Encounter, Mercenary and of course Novaload, to whit he dropped a bombshell... Prior to Hyper Sports, Ocean used Novaload for every title they shipped, and then suddenly stopped using it, and thus cutting off a lucrative revenue stream for Paul's company Novagen. He was absolutely convinced that someone at Ocean had ripped off his Novaload load and save routines, so much so that there was a monument in Mercenary called "NovaBill". "The symbol of my old adversary Novabill."
Now, I've no idea if Bill was to blame for this alleged borrowing of code, after all, he was a decent and very clever chap. However, it did make me wonder (...) whether someone had "borrowed" a big chunk of the Novaload mastering tools in order to save some money.
Anyway, several years on, (...) I came across a bunch of articles by Tom Skauen. It was all about the archiving of the old C64 tape loaders (it was then I realised just how many people ripped off my Freeload code!), and amongst all that data was information about the pulse timings on Novaload/Novaload Special and the original, short lived Ocean Loader. In that document he points out that the data format and pulse timings in those old loaders were virtually identical to Novaload. I don't know what is the truth about it, but it surely looks fishy all these years on.
(Source: an excellent interview from C64.com website)
Novaload Ltd. was formed and I got on with selling and administering it. Over the next three years it was to earn a respectable six-figure sum. Highlight was, I guess, selling it to Commodore, and low point was seeing it pirated and blatantly used (barely into year two) by the well-known Manchester publisher who had, in fact, been its first customer. Their chap was named Bill, who, foreshortened, gained anonymous notoriety as Novabil.
I think it was second half of '84 that I first saw Mercenary as an exercise in free flight viewing a green horizon against a blue sky with an economically representative vector road network and a rotating (later to become Sabin's) vector graphics cube.
Although in the interim, I had of course seen much of Paul and was routinely 'accounting' to him on (his/our) business progress, I guess I hadn't been too concerned with what he had been doing. As it turned out, it was another 'academic' programming exercise.
Actually, I've lied earlier. I had played previously, some years earlier, one computer game on a 'Commodore Pet' that I had principally used for business. "Concorde Lander" was a primitive flight landing simulator with a single white vector horizon and a lit runway, that had engaged me and a number of friends for many hours, often.
I could see merit (and our next product) in, as then un-named, Mercenary.
Given that I had still got other businesses, how (or why) the hell did I get involved in computer games design?
The on-board flight simulation element of the demo was fully functional, but that, as I remember it, was it. So, yes nice, but where was a game?
I do believe that Paul already had quite advanced ideas of what should be going on here, but it certainly wasn't in his nature to rattle off a presentation of his thoughts.
He did say that he planned to generate a 'cityscape' as a backdrop to the flying experience and that he was taken with the idea of simulating a 'real environment' in which the player could go anywhere and choose to do anything. And to that end, he was going to develop a routine where the player could land and get out and walk.
So began my interest in Paul's ongoing work, which he has always done from his home. And so began, for me, the beginnings of what was to become literally many hundreds of visits to review 'work in progress' which in a short time thereafter was to become meetings in consolidation of out joint work in progress. Oh for the web then!
I should just divert here to say that, other than the for the Atari Center, which was flourishing, my wider Home Entertainments concept didn't get anywhere and the Novagen/Novaload activity was (remuneratively) occupying more and more of my time. I sold the shop and vacated the expensive offices above in favour of more modest premises in Mosley, Birmingham, near to my home. The 'Novagen' offices were three first floor rooms and a storage/despatch room on the ground floor at the back of an Estate Agents. All as accurately depicted in Damocles, except that the 'lift' was a flight of stairs.
Gary Walton tells his story.
Most people first met Paul at the Atari B.U.G (Birmingham User Group) club in the early 80's which is where I first got to know him. He used to come to quite a lot of the meetings as I recall and it was always well attended and very vibrant.
At the time, he was working on Mercenary and was looking for someone to develop some geometric shapes as he was bogged down with the actual game play. Having came from a maths background, I said that I would happily help out. I'd come home from work and get out my pad and start drawing as many different shapes as I could think of. Once a week, I'd go over to his place. At the time, he ran a video rental shop and lived above it. I think it was 837 Alum Rock Road Birmingham. We'd go into his computer room and plug in all of my co-ordinates and move around it on-screen. Quite often, I got it wrong and would need correcting but he was very patient and never got annoyed. This went on for several months. Unbeknownst to me, I had created a big 'W' shape for no particular reason. When you destroyed it, a message came up on screen saying that you had destroyed the Walton (me) monument. I never realized he had done this and came as a bit of a shock when I found this out. So it's fair to say, he had a sense of humor. After the success of Mercenary, he moved a couple of miles away and we still kept in touch as I had this desire to write a game. As a reward for doing many of the Mercenary shapes he bought me an Atari ST. A very generous thing to do.
(Source: Gary's post on Retrogamer.net forum)
In order to 'move the product along' I got involved in the design and data origination of Mercenary. Paul explained the principle of 'adventure games' and gave me a 'utility' version of the program in which to plug in data for 'objects' and 'rooms'.
So began my next ten or so years of spending half a day running the company and the other half working in an 'alternative reality'. Rooms were later to become 'solid' structures and buildings and vector objects and vehicles were to be solid, textured, priority-ordered facets built floating above the ground in the 'real' game environment.
Other than Paul and myself, Mercenary has only one other origination 'credit'. Gary Walton, a friend of Paul, designed all of the surface 'city' structures.
The 8-bit Atari version was released in November 1985 with the C64 in March 86.
Gratifying critical acclaim heralded a product life extending to four years with various format and language conversions consolidated with the 'Second City' dataset and the Targ Survival Kit 'add-on goodie' enabling various issues and re-packagings to a total of 44 individual product releases.
OK, that's the end of the really verbose bit. Now to your specific questions:
Gary Walton on Battle Island.
Elite software had great successful with Capcom's Commando conversion and had acquired the rights to Commando 2 for the home systems. Somehow, Paul got the contract to do this and Paul offered me the chance to write it which I took. I would go to his house in the evening and not leave until 6 or 7 a.m. It's fair to say that Paul was a very nocturnal creature! What was completley amazing was that Paul developed a system, where I could write the source code on the ST - and transfer to a C64 via a cable he had knocked up. This was something akin to voodoo and amazing. A lot of people don't know this but he was something of an electrical engineer.
Anyway, I recall glorious summer days going over to his and this was a happy time for me. He had this massive air-con system upstairs which worked constantly! Paul had developed some very cool graphics routines for the Commodore 64 which he called 'Super Characters'. Basically, an 8x8 grid of characters could be represented in the world map by a single byte. Then, his display logic would decode the single byte into its target 8x8 grid when it needed to be displayed. This allowed huge worlds to be created taking up little memory. A very clever system which proved Paul was ahead of the game in terms of innovation. Sadly, for reasons I never fully understood, the game got cancelled. However, it subsequently got released as 'Battle Island' from Novagen and it's still something I'm proud of and have very fond memories.
(Source: Gary's post on Retrogamer.net forum)
(Sorry Simon, no have questions or list – BJ)
Your list is complete (except there was an ST Encounter also), and in correct order.
(Failures? was the question, I think)
Hellbent and Battle Island were not a great success. They came from an attempt, around 1987/8, to expand the company beyond Paul's solo programming output. The idea was to have his technical input benefit others coding and, of course, put out more products.
Hellbent had an excellent and fast 'smooth scrolling' ability, particularly given its graphical intensity, and would have done better if it hadn't been so hard to play.
I take the blame for not seeing that. My play-testers got so bloody good at it from over-familiarity and were able to reach some really rewarding upper levels (10 in total) with some apparent ease. The reviewers didn't have either the ability or enough patience to persist.
Battle Island, yes a 'Commando' clone (but then it was 'commissioned' as Commando II on a deal that then went egg-shaped) had a data-layering technique that gave it a massively detailed play area (for a C64 game), but clearly didn't grab the attention in the first few minutes. See above!
And in Novagen's own publishing 'concluding' period, neither 16-Bit Encounter or Mercenary III had good sales distribution. More to do with (a diminishing) market over-supply than them being poor product, I think.
Note from Simon: regarding Mercenary III sales, my vote would go for diminishing market in 1992. In France, the game was listed in adverts, but when trying to buy it, money was sent back with no explanations. Finally bought the game in UK, from ads in UK magazines sold in France.
Otherwise: (Sales/Revenue achievements)
Encounter – Good
Mercenary – Excellent
Backlash – Good
Damocles – Very good, but suffered some from being promoted for too long in advance of (eventual) release.
Influence on other games? (Moi !!)
List of Novagen games from Wikipedia:
- Encounter (1983) Atari 8-bit, (1984) C64
- Mercenary (1985) Atari 8-bit, C64, C16, Plus/4, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Amiga, Atari ST
- Mercenary: The Second City (1986) expansion pack for Mercenary
- Mercenary Compendium Edition (1987) Mercenary + The Second City
- Backlash (1987) Amiga, Atari ST
- Battle Island (1988) C64
- Hell Bent (1988) Amiga, Atari ST
- Damocles: Mercenary II (1990) Amiga, Atari ST
- Damocles: Mission Disk 1 (1991) Amiga, Atari ST
- Damocles: Mission Disk 2 (1991) Amiga, Atari ST
- Damocles Compendium Edition (1991) Damocles + Mission Disk 1 + Mission Disk 2
- Encounter (1991) Amiga, Atari ST
- Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis (1992) Amiga, Atari ST
I'm not particularly aware of any. Paul, of course, much admired and was always willingly helpful to those (a few of, well-known) programmers that sought help.
Leave Games Industry?
Smallish in-house publishing, whilst a good route in the 'early' days, became harder to compete as industry tie-ups and licensing deals became more prevalent. We did, of course, attempt the shift to becoming a 'small' development operation. See later!
No. The next game would have been 'Continuum', which was commissioned by Philips (now who knows that?) and I still have the Storyboard. Brilliant! But then I would say that, wouldn't I?