For this week’s Developer History, we chat to Mel Croucher, founder of the idiosyncratic Automata games. Expect a not-entirely serious account of video game development in the late 1970s and early 1980s…
Antstream Arcade: Hello Mel! Can you start by telling us how you got into computing and gaming?
Mel Croucher: I was aged seven when I reprogrammed my Sooty xylophone, then making punchcard software to feed an 88-key Victoria Pianola. By the time they let me loose on a giant valve computer in the late Sixties, I knew that these machines had been placed upon the Earth to facilitate fun.
AA: When and where was Automata formed?
MC: November 19th, 1977, my birthday. I’m not sure if it was the first UK video games company, but it was probably the first one registered as a properly structured corporate entity. I ran it out of a spare bedroom at home, which understandable p***ed off my wife when things began to hot up. So I rented some modest offices in Osborne Road, a local shopping centre down here by the seaside [in Portsmouth], and a few years later when we’d made enough loot to buy our own accommodation, our own little headquarters, a converted wool shop, with a garden and some living accommodation above. When we opened a video games shop downstairs, the amused and bemused came flocking.
AA: Who else worked with you?
MC: I recruited the wonderfully-bonkers Robin Evans as a graphic artist, because he was better at it than me. I already knew I was crap at sales, and asked Robin if he knew any tame and cheap salesmen. He introduced me to Christian Penfold, who wasn’t tame at all. But he was bloody cheap.
AA: How did you come up with the concept of Pi-Man?
MC: A friend of mine lived in a flat in North London, and there was a guy in the basement behind who we could watch from the kitchen window. He was a surrealist poet called Ivor Cutlor, and had been quite a major character in the Beatles movie, Magical Mystery Tour. I stole most of the Pi-Man’s character and all the voice from him.
AA: Pi-Mania was the first game to star this unusual character and it included a competition too?
MC: It seemed natural to include a real-world prize to bribe people to play it, and I’d always included real studio audio in my games, and not just crappy beeps. The cartoon strips were huge fun, I designed the game, Christian coded it, Robin drew the cartoons and Lady Claire Sinclive (AKA Carol Ann Wright) ran the Pimaniacs club, and just about everything else.
MC: Oh yes, I had the notion of introducing viral marketing in the form of a network of Pimaniacs. I’d like my next book to be their story, along with a sideways look at treasure seeking games throughout history.
AA: The game (and thus competition) was notoriously difficult – but it was solved. What do you recall of that occasion?
MC: I don’t know how they did it, but I do know they dedicated over two years to it. They were two teachers called Sue and Lizzy and hailed from the People’s Republic of Yorkshire. When they eventually turned up at noon on Pi-Day (the 22nd day of the seventh month), standing in the horse’s mouth of a giant chalk carving on a hillside, well, I didn’t quite have the heart to tell them I’d located the gold and diamonds in the horse’s back side. That would have been too cruel, and besides, it was time the prize was won.
AA: You mentioned your real audio – how did this come about?
MC: I usually started with the music because I enjoyed creating it a lot more than I enjoyed creating the games. I had been in crummy blues bands since my teens, and matching music with the games seemed like a neat way of force-feeding my compositions on an unsuspecting audience. Anyway, what was the point of leaving one side of the tape blank?
AA: Automata was particularly noteworthy for its non-violent approach to games. Did you feel strongly about this?
MC: I’m a bit more complicated than just a games designer, and my pacifism goes back a long way. I’ve written agit prop all my working life and spouted my view on violence, sexism and exploitation in games and in the living world whenever I get the chance. My answer is always the same: should parents encourage their children to simulate killing or kissing?
AA: We love Dartz! Crash magazine called it “Not really a game, more a drunken simulation of a night out at the pub!”
MC: Brilliant, and thank you, the music was fun to do too. All our games had their own studio music for added depth and disorderly conduct.
AA: In Groucho, players had to guess the identity of the final star in order to win a Concorde trip to meet them. Who was that final famous person?
MC: I always liked the idea of big rewards, and sending someone off in style to meet the star of the game with money in their pocket seemed like a good idea. A lot of players thought they would be jetting off to meet US president Ronald Reagan, but I hid an altogether more serious identity in the gameplay, Mickey Mouse. And Groucho Marx was one of my heroes, and having him as your guide gave me the chance to dress up and crack jokes at the [computing] shows, and on TV.
AA: Fellow Antstream Arcade Dev History star Jas Austin was one of your early programmers – what was your impression of him?
MC: I liked Jas immediately, he was a very serious soul back then, but there were the beginnings of anarchy beginning to show. He was by far the best bespectacled underage undersized over-talented entry we received when we thought it would be fun to give kids a chance to get ripped off and find fame. He still blames me for leading him astray into a lifetime of games creation, and he also claims I owe him almost a quid in unpaid royalties. I gained three lifetime friendships from the programmers I admired back them, and Jas Austin is one of them.
Our thanks to Mel for his time. For more on the story of Automata and its games, check out Mel’s book Deus Ex Machina – The Best Game You Never Played In Your Life, available on Amazon and all good book stores. And even some terrible ones.