Updated: Mar 27, 2020
In the ultra-competitive videogame era of the Eighties, Hewson Consultants – latterly, Hewson – produced solid hit after hit to cement its reputation as a home for quality computer games. With Antstream Arcade about to unleash many of its classic titles on a new audience, we sent Graeme Mason to have an exclusive chat with founder Andrew Hewson.
Antstream Arcade: Hello Andrew. So tell us how you got into computers and games?
Andrew Hewson: In the late Seventies I was working in the radiocarbon dating lab at the British Museum. When they acquired a computer, I jumped at the chance to work with it. I’d written some code at sixth form and had a week of Fortran tuition at university, but that apart, this was my first real hands-on experience with a computer. First game was a Star Trek-themed game running on that machine. It used characters such as asterisks to represent stars, Ks for Klingon ships and an E for the Starship Enterprise.
A: Many people thought video games were going to be a fad – what made you think different?
AH: After the museum, I got a job in flood statistics at the Institute of Hydrology. When out with my boss one evening, we wandered past a TV shop that was proudly displaying teletext TVs. I thought, from a technical point of view, that it was very limited, but my boss took the opposite view – he was immensely excited and desperately wanted a teletext TV. I realised then that the novelty of new technology at an affordable price would always be exciting to people.
A: So you bought a ZX80…
AH: Yes – I knew that despite the fact it was very crude as a computer, there would still be plenty of people who would be very excited at the prospect of an affordable computer they could use at home. I didn’t have much money at the time, so set a rule for myself that if I was going to buy one then I was going to make some money from it. I borrowed £500 from the bank – I think the bank manager thought I was mad – and bought a ZX80, black and white television, typewriter and an old desk. Then I got to work.
A: How did you make money with your new acquisition?
AH: My initial plan was to write a book of programming tips called Hints & Tips for the ZX80. I wrote some notes, my wife typed them up and I found a local print shop. It was saddle-stitched together and sold via mail order through small adverts in magazines like Personal Computer World.
A: When Sinclair released the ZX81, you wrote a follow up book called (unsurprisingly) Hints & Tips for the ZX81. Then came a fateful phone call…
AH: I had a call out of the blue from a company in London asking me to write a column for a new magazine called Sinclair User. It was called “Hewson’s Helpline” and it got my name in front of people, and then a steady stream of cassettes from programmers around the country began to flow my way.
A: Aha! I think we can guess this was the start of your games publishing business?
AH: I didn’t know I was a publisher before then, but people had obviously assumed I was. And so, from then on, I was! We were receiving maybe 5-10 games a day at the peak, and we loaded up and played every single one, picking out the cream of the crop. Many of them were not up to scratch, but we would occasionally find a gem. Mike Male was one of the earliest programmers I remember identifying as exceptional, and Steve Turner was spotted by my brother not long afterward. Steve was doing things in very clever, precise and creative ways. His games stood head and shoulders above the others. When he showed me Avalon for the first time it was a revelation…unlike anything anybody had seen before which was, I later came to believe, the key ingredient for a hit game.
A: And along with Steve you published games from his partner, Andrew Braybrook?
AH: Andrew began by converting some of Steve’s games to the Dragon 32. Then he cooked up Gribbly’s Day Out, a truly magical game and fantastical world pulled straight from his imagination. He followed it up with a series of completely original titles: Uridium, Paradroid, Alleykat. Each one of them distinct and innovative. It was this flair for creativity and imagination that made Andrew such a superstar.
A: Hewson’s second phase included a bunch of famous games by another legendary coder, Raffaele Cecco.
AH: Raff more or less fell into our lap, to be honest. Mikro-Gen were going through a difficult time, and the upshot was that he wanted to write some games in a freelance capacity. I suppose Hewson had a good reputation and a track record of working with freelance developers.
A: His first game was the beautiful Spectrum run ‘n’ gunner Exolon…
AH: It was immediately clear that Raff was another exceptional programmer who knew how to get down to the metal and extract every ounce of power from the aging Spectrum. The explosion effects were particularly impressive, and I loved the backpack missile launcher which fired off with a satisfying fizz. Cybernoid followed the formula in the sense that it maintained those spectacular effects, and the flip-screen format, which is nice as it breaks the gameplay down into satisfying chunks. Every time you get to a new screen, you get a little hit of relief, although having said that, both games were brutally difficult!
A: How did Hewson maintain such a high level of consistency?
AH: From the beginning we only selected the best games we were sent, which meant we ended up working with exceptional programmers. I think my technical background helped, because unlike other publishers of the time, I understood the immense difficulty of developing a game, and admired the people who could do it. I really enjoyed geeking out on the technical details and encouraging our programmers to follow their instincts.
A: Which did you prefer – Spectrum or Commodore 64?
AH: I think the Spectrum was where my heart was because I had cut my teeth on the ZX80 and ZX81 and built the business on the back of the Spectrum. But the C64 from Gribbly’s onwards was where my head was from a business perspective.
A: When did things begin to get harder for 8-bit development?
AH: After we shipped Uridium in 1986, which was by far our biggest hit, I remember slumping onto the sofa and falling into an emotional pit. It had been such a colossal effort and it was such an exceptional game, that I simply couldn’t believe we could possibly replicate the success. A year later it was beginning to dawn on me that the business model was not sustainable because the ever-escalating costs of producing a hit game could not be covered by the profits which were, of course, being plundered by rampant piracy. But I was too inexperienced to do anything about it, and I didn’t have anybody with business acumen to turn to for support, so we drove on as best we could.
A: The leap from 8-bit to 16-bit was a tricky move for many 80s publishers. How did Hewson fare?
AH: We struggled. A number of our titles were ported, but we didn’t have anything new coming through which captured the potential of the new machine as we did at the dawn of the 8-bit era. I’d become too focused on selling games and failed to realise that we’d lost the thread of what we were doing, and were no longer cutting edge technically.
A: The era became dominated by licensed product – whether it be from arcade games, TV or movies. Why didn’t you consider this avenue?
AH: To me, computer games were the birth of a new medium and should be treated as such. I was hooked on working with people who pushed the technical boundaries and came up with brilliant, creative, inventive experiences. Doing tie-ins would have sucked all the energy and enthusiasm out of the process.
A: You were ELSPA’s founding chairman. How did this come about?
AH: The impetus for ELSPA [known today as UKIE] was driven by a desire among my peers to create an age ratings system for the industry. Violent games were beginning to make the headlines and foster concern in Parliament, so it was clear if we didn’t regulate ourselves, the heavy hand of the government would eventually swoop in and do it for us. Most of the industry was at an event in Jersey when these discussions were going on, and as somebody who has never been shy in sharing my opinions, I was probably speaking the loudest. I don’t recall the details, but it was decided I would be the founding chairman and it went from there.
A: Finally, in retrospect, is there anything you’d have done differently?
AH: Oh yes. We could have pivoted to working our back catalogue much sooner, or sought to take the company public as others did. Most importantly, I should have reacted decisively when I realised the business model at Hewson was not sustainable. But I was young and inexperienced, and we were very much making it up as we went along.
Our special thanks to Andrew for his time, and also Rob Hewson for helping set up this interview. For more on the Hewson story, Andrew’s book, Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers is available from Huey Games at www.hueygames.com along with Hyper Sentinel, the blistering modern-day homage to the Andrew Braybrook classic shoot-‘em-up, Uridium.