Game Developer Interview: Clem Chambers
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
This week, we delve back to the Eighties once more to highlight another star of the Antstream Arcade catalogue. With a whole range of its classic games available to subscribers, we thought it was about time we caught up with CRL founder, Clem Chambers, to hear how the software house began and prospered throughout the decade.
Antstream Arcade: Hi Clem! So how did your interest in gaming, and then CRL start?
Clem Chambers: When I was 17, I wrote a few articles for the early computer press such Popular Computing Weekly and Your Computer. It was £140 for an article, which seemed like proper money back then. Then, I started CRL in 1982 with ten grand from my father that he’d given me to start a business. I was 18, going on 19, and by the time I got CRL going I was down to £2500. I rented the cheapest office I could in London, on Whitechapel and Vallance Road, a stone’s throw from where the Kray twins used to live. It was above a clothes shops called Davis, and was on a slight tilt after a bomb had blown the rear off it during World War Two.
AA: Crikey! Why the name CRL and the tagline, The Dream Makers?
CC: It stood for Computer Rentals Limited, as that’s what I had initially planned to do – but I couldn’t get it off the ground. I had never considered a career in writing, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and in any case my grammar and spelling has always been eccentric! The jump to software was a fall back position and, in this case, the last throw of the dice. As to the tagline, Hollywood were the Dream Sellers, so I thought we could be the Dream Makers.
AA: What was your first game?
CC: A nice fruit machine simulator called Jackpot. It was written in BASIC, and sold a ton, proving that you could never guess what would be a hit. Some of my best games never sold, while Jackpot sold 20,000 copies at £4.95 a pop.
AA: How did you see the early software market?
CC: A lot of games only sold two to three thousand copies. Piracy was absolutely rife; we used to joke that you sold one copy to each pirate, and that was that. The big issue was how to make games and stay in business. Games had a six week life span, like a pop single, so the best way to stay alive was to fire and forget.
AA: CRL published a number of games from Pete Cooke. How did you come to work with Pete?
CC: He sent in a demo cassette, and I immediately knew it could be good from the letter that came with it. A terse letter meant a good game, while a long letter usually meant a poor attempt. People who knew that they had a good game didn’t tend to go on, and that was the case with Pete. The game was called Juggernaut, and it was vectorscan, which was cool in a Star Wars/Asteroids way. It was also a tricky and fun game. Hell, it even had physics!
AA: A lot of CRL’s games were developed in the Zen Room – what was that?
CC: It was named after a place in the Rocky Horror Show, and was the name of our development department, full of kids eating pizza and writing games. And I was a kid too, it was like dot.com but ten years earlier, a lot of fun but easy to forget the extreme stress we were all under, programmers and management alike.
AA: You moved to an area in Stratford that’s now the London Stadium – was this due to CRL expanding?
CC: Yes, for space. I leased what must have been the gatehouse of an old mint factory as we went from 500ft in Whitechapel to 2000ft in Stratford. The Zen Room was another 5000ft on the second floor across the yard, it was a sugar drying space which we also used for stock warehousing. It was a big giant clubhouse for talented teenagers trying to make games. Quite a few of them basically lived there!
AA: Jack The Ripper (available to play now on Antstream Arcade) became an infamous game thanks to its gory text and graphics. Did you deliberately seek a BBFC classification for the game?
CC: Absolutely yes, it was 100% a marketing ploy. I had read an article in the tabloids about the video nasty bill. Some bright spark had added a computer game clause, so I thought, excellent – that’s a reason to do one. It was written by St. Bride’s School, they were nice people, very unique. Dressed in Victorian garb and ran an Irish pseudo-school for adults for those that wanted to go back to school for a holiday.
AA: Did CRL focus more on the Commodore 64?
CC: Yes, we brought out a few more on the C64 because it was an international market, the UK, Europe and US. The Spectrum was only really the UK.
AA: Did you have any favourite games, and what sold well?
CC: I liked Glug Glug. Everyone else hated it, but I felt that was grossly unfair. Foundations Waste on the Amiga was brilliant, too. Sales-wise, Test Match on the Spectrum was big, as was The Image System on the Commodore 64, Berks on the Commodore 16 and Tau Ceti on virtually every format.
AA: Many classic Eighties software houses struggled as the 16-bit computers strengthened – was this true of CRL?
CC: We always struggled – 8-bit, or otherwise. Everyone was on the road to bankruptcy, some just took a longer route than others. We didn’t do brilliantly on 16-bit, but we had a couple of nice games. A lot of projects died on the vine. Getting the right programmer was tricky, and it was a volatile business.