Game Developer Interview: Roger Hulley
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
West Yorkshire’s Alternative Software is an amazing story of longevity, persistence and good value gaming. With many of its releases from the eighties available on Antstream Arcade, we thought it was about time we caught up with the man behind the name, Roger Hulley.
Antstream Arcade: Hello Roger! So how did your interest in videogames begin?
Roger: I was working in a chain of record shops in the north called Foxes. After the debut of CDs I started to think ‘what’s next?’ and decided to bring in Atari VCS and Colecovision cartridges. Then, computer games started coming in and we sold those as well. I got the feeling this could be quite fun, so packed in the job and started working in games, initially in distribution.
A: What was Alternative’s first game?
Roger: It was called Henry’s Hoard. Its author came to see me as the game hadn’t been doing that well. They were trying to retail it at £4.95, so I offered to buy all their stock, the name, masters and so on, and with it came the name, Alternative. We re-did the packaging with the help of a small grant from the Design Council and put it out for a budget price of £1.99, along with another game we acquired called Pheenix, a cricket game called Howzat! and Night Strike on the Electron. That was Alternative’s first wave of releases.
A: How did they sell?
Roger: They were a good result, so I went out and acquired more back catalogue, initially from companies that were smaller, but by the end I was buying from Activision, Durell, Incentive and so on, often entire back catalogues. I went for games I particularly liked, for example Skool Daze and Trap Door, and sometimes I’d be approached when a publisher was getting out of the business such as Piranha.
A: Did you ever make your own games?
Roger: Oh yes, we started getting programmers coming up with games, and at one point had a development studio set up in Sheffield called Bizarre Developments. One of the first games was BMX Ninja, where we combined two popular games, Ninja from Mastertronic and BMX Simulator from Codemasters.
A: In 1986, Alternative expanded and appeared to focus more on the younger end of the market?
Roger: That was a definite plan, I was aware of Mirrorsoft being the only publisher really doing children’s games but they were often priced at £9.99, which I thought was a lot for a parent to invest in for a computer game for a young child. So we reasoned there was a market for children’s games at a much lower price point. I approached the BBC, who at the time controlled Postman Pat, and we did this game where you could just drive the van around if you wanted to, as I wanted to create this world where children could just play it without being destroyed or whatever. And kids loved it, and on the back of that we did a few more. The Spectrum was becoming a bit of a younger kid’s machine by that stage.
A: How did the Summit label begin?
Roger: Back in the thirties my father invented a card game called Sum-it and it sold very well. But he did it on his own and had a day job, so one day there was a guy from Waddingtons outside our house, and they bought the game from him for £1,000. It was a lot of money back then, I think just because it was affecting sales of another game in that genre. So, when we wanted a £2.99 label with slightly maturer games, we used an adaptation of that name with titles such as Theatre Europe, Art Master and Mini Office.
A: Was publishing budget games tough?
Roger: Yes, but great fun. We were buying games, developing games and eventually bought a duplication plant to keep the costs down, as the physical cost was quite high compared to what we were selling at. But it was all about having a range of titles, which was why I was acquiring more and more back catalogues and being selective of what we were choosing.
A: What are your personal favourites from the eighties?
Roger: We bought all the Microsphere titles, and Skool Daze was a personal favourite. Another was High Steel, this game where you constructed a building with girders and bricks. I took a copy home one night to playtest it, and when I looked at the clock it was 5am!
A: What happened at the end of the 8-bit era?
Roger: We were releasing 8-bit games into 1993, but the situation came to an end pretty much overnight when WH Smith decided they weren’t going to stock them anymore, which meant our biggest customer disappeared. To be honest we didn’t have enough 16-bit products coming through when this happened.
A: Alternative still survives today, however – what’s the secret?
Roger: We’ve always kept our overheads very tight and never over expanded. We specialised in various products at different times, such as paint studios and other creative software, and have done a lot of sports titles, mainly cricket and rugby. I decided back in the Nineties that as I had a young family, I didn’t want to take a big gamble on one particular title on the Mega Drive or PlayStation, so we stayed in the home computer sector at that tricky time.