Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Collection Update - Something a Bit Different

No new games in this update but some commentary on the trials and tribulations of being a collector...

Buying those replacement tape cases has of course marginally increased my average game price – I’ve added 20p to the cost of any game where I’ve replaced the case.

Total games: 97
Average cost: £0.85

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

An Interview with Anthony Guter

As I’ve previously mentioned, one of my main inspirations for starting this blog and my collection was the article penned by Anthony Guter in Retro Gamer Issue 1. Anthony was Financial Controller at Mastertronic during its golden era and is responsible for the comprehensive history of the company that can be found on his website.

Anthony was kind enough to answer some questions about his time at the company and share a few personal memories too, so read on for an insight into the inner workings of the budget software giants...

How did you come to work for Mastertronic and what were you employed to do?
I answered a job ad in the Financial Times in 1985. I was a Chartered Accountant and was been working in the automotive parts industry for a large UK division of a very large US global company, and it was clear my career wasn’t going anywhere and that my interests were with smaller businesses. I was intrigued at the idea of working in the computer games biz.
Mastertronic employed me to run everything to do with day-to-day finance and accounts, including managing bank accounts, paying suppliers, running the payroll, doing VAT returns, preparing monthly accounts and cashflow forecasts and acting as company secretary. As part of this I designed and ran the systems for sales and royalty accounting which brought me into direct contact with every one of our games authors and rights-holders.

Did you have any familiarity with the gaming industry before you started there?
I knew nothing directly about it but I had been using an Apple II for 4 years and was the first person in my company in the UK to use any form of micro to do financial work. I was one of the first users of Visicalc in the UK and this made me a real rarity amongst my fellow accountants. I had also played the odd game on it (Galactic Empire, a strategy game, was the first one I bought with my own money) and had learned a little bit of BASIC by examining the code behind the free games that came with the computer. I read computer magazines and also looked at the games reviews. When Football Manager first came out I experimented with writing my own version on the Apple and I also fooled around trying to write adventure games and things like Monopoly. I was never going to be a games programmer but it gave me a little insight into how it was done. I sometimes used to take the Apple home at weekends to play on it, but I never bothered with a “home computer” – I thought tape-loaded games must be rubbish. The Apple of course only worked with disk drives, as did all US machines.

Anthony's early computing experience came on the Apple II

What were your initial impressions of the company and what they were trying to achieve?
My boss, Frank Herman, never disguised his ambition – to build up the business and the brand name and then to sell out either via a stock exchange listing or to an institutional investor. The business strategy was to forge strong links with retailers and to control the supply chain (i.e. manage each step from sourcing to manufacture to warehousing to wholesale distribution and to retail shelf stocking). Some of the money to start up Mastertronic came from some investors who I think had backed Frank or Martin Alper (one of the other directors) in the video distribution business. These guys also wanted to make a quick profit and had no interest in the long term.
The ethos in the early days was also very firmly fixed on budget games – we did not try to compete with full price publishers in terms of the depth of games, the packaging or the advertising. Judging by the feedback from the customers this made us very popular. But when the chance came to buy Melbourne House, much to my surprise at the time, Frank went for it. So it was always about business. There was no romance in it – it was make money or do something else. In this I’m sure we were no different to the corporates like Amsoft, Firebird, Mirrorsoft or Virgin. We were different to software-led businesses where they would start with an idea, create the game then try to market it. We never got hung up trying to make an unsellable product work because we did not create the products in the first place.  
However there was a fun atmosphere in the office and because we were answerable to nobody then whims could be indulged, such as sponsoring a car at the Le Mans 24 hour, which was arranged at incredibly short notice. And there can't be many businesses where if someone is not at their desk and is needed, you open the window and shout for them in the café across the road!

How much did it cost to produce each game and how many copies need to sell for it to be profitable?
You could duplicate a tape cassette and put a printed inlay in it for about 30p each provided you duplicated a few thousand at a time, and distribution into and out of the warehouse was say 10p. A £1.99 game might sell for 90p or maybe a bit more to the smaller distributors. Artwork and other programming such as a loading screen would be around £500. So a budget game could make money on very low sales – on 1000 units we would be just about breaking even on the production costs. But we would need a lot more than to cover our overheads. A sale of 5000 units would comfortably do that and that was easy to get in the early days.
Remember that we bought everything in – we employed no games programmers, only a couple of techies who assisted in testing and format conversion issues. So if a programmer chose to spend weeks and weeks of his own time writing a game, that was his problem. He still got the standard deal when he finally turned up at our office with the finished product.

Was there a standard contract with the programmers or were deals done on an individual basis?
The standard deal for £1.99 games was 10p a unit royalty and anything from £500 to £2000 advance. We paid more to the Darling brothers and Mr. Chip Software and gradually the rates went up generally. When the MAD range started selling at £2.99 the basic royalty was 15p. When we moved into full price software a lot of the deals were based on a percentage of the sales revenue rather than a unit rate. I think we may have paid a little less for exports. We would have paid more for disk versions of a tape game but I can’t remember how much
In the later 1980s we dealt more with software houses like Binary Design, Icon Design and Palmer Acoustics and typically paid them £10,000 at a time as an advance for 4 or 5 titles.

The Darling brothers provided many early Mastertronic games

How much on average would a programmer receive for their game?
I can’t answer for the programmers who were employed by software houses, such as Mr. Chip or Binary Design. But if you were, say, David Jones, you would have received over £30,000 for Finders Keepers (in all formats) and £22,000 for Spellbound. Not bad for the 1980s. A typical game might well sell 40,000 units so we would pay at least £4,000.

Is it true that when word got around about Mastertronic, budding programmers would call into the offices to demo their games?
Yes it is quite true. People would ring the bell as well as send games in the post. Established authors would also call in with work in progress and of course they did not necessarily do a deal with us every time but a lot of them liked us because we gave them a very quick answer and we paid advances and royalties fairly and on time.

How did the deals come about with the likes of Activision and Ultimate to re-release their games on the Ricochet label?
The deals happened once our distribution deals with retailers like Woolworths, Boots and Toys’R’Us were in place. We could assure the other publishers of reasonable sales but also they were stuck because if they did not deal with us, it was very hard for them to get their own budget re-releases out there. We had a team of merchandisers who stocked shelves in many leading retailers, something I believe no other games publisher had. For the same reason we set up Rack-It for Andrew Hewson.

Did Mastertronic have any influence over which games were re-released or did the contributing companies dictate this?
I don’t know who chose the product but I am fairly sure that we would have had the last word – we were the ones putting the games out on to the shelves and we had to choose titles that would sell. So I guess that we cherry-picked the best titles.

The company released several arcade conversions of Namco games (Bosconian, Motos, Gaplus). How did the deal with Namco come about?
Probably via Martin Alper who had set up Mastertronic USA in California and was building relationships with arcade games producers. We released our own arcade machine in 1988 called “Arcadia” but I don’t know much about it since it was only sold in the USA.

How did the company change when Virgin took over, and why did you ultimately leave?
The first obvious change was that we became much larger and the new company had the full-price arm of Virgin Games, including six full time programmers plus the growing Sega distribution business as well as the Mastertronic budget business and Melbourne House. The working atmosphere was much the same for most people. I didn’t like it - having joined Mastertronic to work with a small company I was now back in the big company sphere and there was a financial hierarchy over me going up through Virgin’s video division. There was a lot more politics.
I was actually made redundant in 1990 but then when Sega bought out its distribution business I was offered the job of IT Manager of Sega Europe. So I did not really leave the games side, it was a case of the business had changed and I moved to the bit that was offering me continued employment. At last all that early messing about with Apples was paying off!
In 1995 I was again threatened with redundancy as Sega Europe got into difficulties but was able to move to the UK amusement arcade division of Sega as IT Manager. I finally left the Sega Group in 1998 when it was obvious that my job (and indeed much of the company) was not going to last much longer, and I left to work for a music management agency as Finance Director and have been much happier ever since.

What legacy do you think Mastertronic has left on the gaming industry?
No idea - budget games no longer seem to be relevant. Kids are now expected to pay £44 for a console game. But funnily enough the budget market has been reborn in the shape of mobile phone games where the standard price seems to be, oddly, around £1.99.
Perhaps also Mastertronic kick-started the careers of some of today’s programmers and helped encourage a generation of kids to regard coding and games design as worthwhile activities. It was all rather looked down on back then but today the industry qualifies for financial support on a par with the film industry, if I understand the Budget announced on 21 March this year correctly.

Two games that Anthony recommends... and one that he doesn't!

Which original game do you think offered the best value for its £1.99 asking price?
I think this is really asking me what were my favourites. Kane, Finders Keepers, The Captive, LA SWAT, Street Surfer and Curse of Sherwood were games I’d be happy to replay.

And which do you think was the worst?
Pigs in Space, Bionic Granny and any game where you lost your lives almost at once, such as 1985 or Human Race.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Game Review - Rockford: The Arcade Game (1988)

Here’s a curious one - a home conversion of an arcade game that was never released, and one of the most ridiculous game inlays I’ve encountered thus far...

Game Review – Hollywood or Bust (1986)

All the fun of the movie industry in my latest game review!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Collection Update – Starship Delivers The Goods!

If you thought the last update was big, this one’s even bigger…

The video goes into more detail, so to keep it brief, this batch came from Retro Gamer forum member StarshipUK and basically features 36 new games for a derived cost of 62p each. As you’ll see from the photos some of the boxes are going to need replacing as they are in poor shape or covered in stickers, but there’s no denying this is another bargain bundle.

The majority of titles are on the main Mastertronic brand but there are offerings from all the other variants as well, with some of the rarer games included. There’s not really much more to say other than a big thanks to StarshipUK and here’s a full list of all those games:

1985: The Day After, Agent X II, Bionic Granny/Jungle Story, BMX Racers, BMX Trials, Chiller, Dark Star, Duck Shoot, The Election Game, Excaliba, Hyperbowl, Kane, Kane 2, Kikstart, Milk Race, One Man and His Droid, Orbitron, Sailing, Se-Kaa of Assiah, Skyjet, Speed King, Starforce Nova, Storm, Zzzzz

Mastertronic Plus
Rescue on Fractalus and Tetris

Con-Quest, Raw Recruit, Sport of Kings and Voidrunner

Crazy Comets, Eddie Kidd Jump Challenge, Hacker, Tau Ceti and X-15 Alpha Mission

Entertainment USA
Los Angeles S.W.A.T.

In addition to that massive bundle, another small packet arrived with four games purchased from Ebay – they were 75p each plus an incredibly specific £1.46 for postage.

This lot consisted of Finders Keepers, The Last V8, Speed Zone and City Fighter. I’m now edging close to 100 games in total!

Total Games: 97
Average Cost: £0.80

Friday, 23 March 2012

Game Review – Bomb Fusion (1989)

My next review features a single-screen platformer that reminds me of a couple of arcade classics...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Game Review – The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1987)

My first review of a game on the Ricochet brand, and an early example of an eBook!

Game Review – Formula 1 Simulator (1985)

Mastertronic’s biggest-selling game, but was it worth all those purchases?

Apologies for the wonky camera angle on this one - unforeseen tripod issues!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Collection Update – Monster Ebay Bundle!

The Ebay seller Rockrabilia is one that I’ve bought quite a few games from over the years. Whilst browsing the almost endless C64 Ebay listings last week I happened upon a bundle of 33 games for a Buy It Now price of £19.49 including postage. Closer inspection revealed that 23 of the games were Mastertronic or Ricochet ones, and amazingly none of them were already in my collection! Needless to say, these were snapped up and arrived the other day...

Discounting the non-Mastertronic titles completely, the average price of the games works out at just under 85p each, and of course I have ten free games as well! A massive boost to the collection and at a great price too. Additionally most of these games are ‘new old stock’ meaning they are in great condition!

Breaking the lot down into chunks, firstly there are four M.A.D. games – Countdown to Meltdown, Energy Warrior, Ice Palace and Rockford.

In the Mastertronic packaging there is Dynamix, Gaplus, Knight Tyme, Majik, Nonterraqueous and Sweep.

On the Mastertronic Plus label is a selection of original and re-released games, including Advanced Basketball Simulator, Gemini Wing, Jonah Barrington’s Squash, Raster-Runner, Sidewinder II, T-Bird and Xenon.

Last but not least come six re-releases on the Ricochet brand – 5th Quadrant, Dan Dare II, Erebus, Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Knightmare and Rock’n’Bolt.

That takes me comfortably past 50 titles in the collection, so I better get playing some of them!

Total Games: 57
Average Cost: £0.90

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Game Review – Legend of the Amazon Women (1987)

Very much a case of all style but no substance in my latest game review. Apologies for the camera position during the gameplay footage on this one - no idea what happened there!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Game Review – Video Meanies (1987)

Next up for the review treatment is Video Meanies, one of many Mastertronic games developed by Mr Chip Software...

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Collection Update - First Ebay Purchase

A week ago I won a bundle of 20 Commodore 64 games on Ebay for the opening bid price of 99p, plus £5 postage. That works out at less than 30p a game! I picked up the package yesterday and recorded the opening…

This bundle actually only contains five Mastertronic titles but at the price it went for, I couldn’t resist! Cost-wise I’ve allocated a value of 75p to each Mastertronic game with the remaining 15 games being valued at £2.24 altogether. Some of those will be kept, others sold on or given away, so the cost of the five significant games may be reduced depending what I get for the remainder.

The games in this lot are Bomb Fusion, Formula 1 Simulator, Mindtrap, Shinobi and Night Racer. The latter game is in pretty poor shape – the inlay is a mess with the back cover torn off – so I will look to replace that when the opportunity arises.

So I’ve only been collecting for a matter of days and already I’ve passed the 30 games mark and the average cost still remains lower than a quid!

Total Games: 34
Average Cost: £0.93

Game Review – Double Dragon (1990)

One of the later titles this time, the 1990 re-release of Melbourne House’s critically-panned arcade conversion on the Mastertronic Plus label.

Apologies for the picture and sound quality on parts of this one – I’m still working on getting the lighting and sound right when recording these videos!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Game Review – Hektik (1984)

Another early Mastertronic release reviewed here, one of a number of blatant arcade game clones that made up the company’s launch range...

First Game Review – Challenger (1984)

For my first Mastertronic game review video, I decided to choose one of the earliest releases, 1984’s simple yet addictive ‘city bomber’ offering. Enjoy!

Friday, 16 March 2012

First Collection Update

Well I’ve got my first batch of new games for the collection courtesy of a couple of deals done on the Retro Gamer forum, so I marked this event by recording my first ever ‘package opening’ YouTube video…

The first bundle consists of ten games from RG forum member Shinobi, and cost me £10 including postage. This is a mixed bag that includes five of the early grid-style packaging releases - Bionic Granny, Hektik, Hollywood or Bust, Space Walk and Spooks!

Also in this batch are a couple of M.A.D. releases from the ‘Magic Knight’ series of games, Spellbound and Stormbringer, plus Legend of the Amazon Women and two re-released games in the form of Camelot Warriors and Double Dragon.

The other package came from RG forum member simes and consists of two games based on classic 80’s toy franchises – Action Force and Transformers. The latter is a re-release of the Activision game. This bundle was a straight trade for two unwanted items from my collection which originally cost me a total of £3.50, so I’m valuing these two games at £1.75 each.

One thing I’ve already noticed is the inconsistency of the packaging for re-released Activision games. For example Ghostbusters comes in the Ricochet packaging, Pastfinder comes on the M.A.D. label and Transformers has the Mastertronic Plus branding. As yet I see no obvious reason for this!
Adding these to the games I already had brings the collection summary up to:

Total Games: 29
Average Cost: £0.96

Thursday, 15 March 2012

There is Another!

I was already aware of this before starting my blog, but would you believe that somebody else is already doing the exact same thing that I planned to do, and has a blog all about it?! Alex Aris’s All Things Mastertronic details his attempts to complete a collection of all Mastertronic releases for the C64, and he’s now fairly close to completing his task.

I must admit I was a little surprised and disappointed to find that somebody had already had the same idea as me. I even considered switching to a collection of Codemasters games instead, only to find that Alex has started doing that too!

In the end I spent a few days thinking about it and decided that I could take a different approach by documenting each game in a YouTube video. Also, because Alex is so far down the line we’re unlikely to be in direct competition for many games and in fact if I find anything that he’s desperate for then at this point I’ll happily pass it over to him to help him complete his collection.

What started out as a minor disappointment has now turned into inspiration as Alex’s efforts give me a stronger belief that it is possible to accumulate a collection of all the games.

First YouTube Video

Here's my first Mastertronic Chronicles YouTube video, which basically summarises everything I've written on this blog for those that can't be bothered to read! ;-)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Story So Far

At the time of writing I have not officially started building my collection, but I do already have some Mastertronic games for the C64 as part of my general games collection:

My collection thus far consists of 17 games, which span all of the different types of branding…

From the early wave of Mastertronic releases with the signature grid-style packaging I have Action Biker, Challenger and Hunter Patrol, while the in the later packaging style there is Video Meanies, P.O.D. and the brilliant Kikstart II. Also under the regular branding is Pipeline 2, which reverts to the grid-style design for some reason despite being a much later release.

In the M.A.D. (Mastertronic Added Dimension) packaging comes a mixed bag, including shooters Kromazone and Motos, action adventures in the form of Flash Gordon and Droids, and a re-release of Activision’s classic Pastfinder.

Also in the collection to date are two classic games re-released on the Ricochet label – Ghostbusters and Way of the Exploding Fist, while on the Entertainment USA brand there is isometric shooter Panther and Street Surfer, which is inexplicably one of my all-time favourite C64 games! Last but not least is split-screen helicopter shooter Protector from the Mastertronic Plus range.

So that’s not a bad starting point, with some of the best games Mastertronic had to offer already in the bag. None of these games cost me more than £2 to purchase and the majority came in a job lot purchase from the Retro Gamer forum a couple of years ago, which means my average price per game at this point is under a quid!

Total Games: 17
Average Cost: £0.85

The Rules

As I said in my introduction, I aim to follow some specific rules as I try to build my collection, so here’s a summary:

  1. The aim is to obtain a collection of Mastertronic budget games for the Commodore 64. This will include the M.A.D., Entertainment USA, Mastertronic Plus and Ricochet packaging but exclude any sub-labels that don’t explicitly mention Mastertronic (for example Bulldog and Americana).
  2. Each game I obtain will be played on the original hardware with a short video produced for each one – these will be collected at my YouTube channel.
  3. The average price paid per game (including postage costs) should not exceed £1.99, the original RRP for most Mastertronic titles.

Welcome to Mastertronic Chronicles!

Welcome to my new blog, documenting my attempts to collect a set of Mastertronic budget games for the Commodore 64 home computer.

This blog came about because I was looking to build an interesting collection of games at a relatively low price, one that wouldn’t take up too much room and would look cool on a shelf (or two) in my games room. A collection of budget 8-bit computer games fitted the bill perfectly as the tape boxes are small, the artwork has a nice consistent theme to it and these games can usually be picked up for no more than a couple of pounds each from Ebay and other retro game suppliers.

So why Mastertronic? Well, it was actually due to a coincidence of seemingly unrelated events that all occurred during the last month or so...

In February I hosted a Q&A with Codemasters founder David Darling at the GEEK 2012 Expo, and while researching David’s history in the industry I happened upon Anthony Guter’s History of Mastertronic. This mentioned the early success of the games David and his brother Richard produced for Mastertronic that ultimately led to them forming Codemasters.

A couple of weeks later I received my copy of Retro Gamer magazine’s landmark 100th edition through the post, and bundled with it was a reprint of the very first issue of the magazine. In that issue was an overview of Mastertronic (pulled primarily from Anthony’s aforementioned site) which again proved to be interesting reading.

More recently still, I was browsing Ebay listings and happened upon a large bundle of 60 of the earlier Mastertronic games (which I ultimately decided not to bid on due to all the duplicates) that appealed to me because of their iconic grid-style packaging.

Ebay Bundle Inspiration

On top of all the above is the nostalgia factor – like most people that grew up during the 80’s home computer boom, I have fond memories of walking into a local newsagents or supermarket and browsing the racks of budget games trying to decide which title to spend my pocket money on with only the cover art and a couple of grainy screenshots to guide me...

So the seeds were sown. A little more investigation revealed that while many Mastertronic games were rightly written off as a load of rubbish (the company was nicknamed ‘Masterchronic’ amongst my school friends back in the day) there were some genuine classics amongst them and the company gave early opportunities to many great game programmers and musicians. I wondered to myself how many of these games were actually worth their nominal asking price of £1.99, so my aim became not just to collect all these games, but play each one and give some short critique in the form of YouTube videos.

Going for a full set of games covering all systems would be very hard work, so I’m focussed on the Commodore 64 releases because that was my 8-bit computer of choice back in the 80’s, and is a system I own today too. I’ve decided to only collect the games that specifically mention the name Mastertronic on the cover, as the company had a number of ‘imprint’ labels to re-release games from the likes of U.S. Gold and Hewson. Excluding these, there are still over 200 games for the C64 according to the list I’ve compiled, and of course there may be omissions so the final collection may be bigger than that.

Finally there is the issue of cost. In order to stop myself just buying as many games as possible straight away and to make things a bit more interesting, I’ve decided that as I accumulate the games I will try to maintain an average game price of no more than £1.99, which was what the majority of the titles originally sold for. This average price will include postage costs, which means I will need to try and pick up bulk lots off Ebay, trade on gaming forums and scour charity shops and car boot sales to try and keep below the threshold.

All in all it should be a fun, inexpensive and educational journey and I hope you’ll enjoy following my progress!