The story behind Alternative Software, 8-bit budget game pioneers on C64, Spectrum and Amstrad CPC.
In the first part of our fan club series, we cooed over Codemasters and Zeppelin. From a business park in West Yorkshire, though, one publisher consistently undercut both budget giants by a quid. They got so big so quickly that a manufacturing plant was set up on its premises to churn out enough cassettes to meet demand. Their success is down to the shrewd observation of a guy who was once set for a career in biological science. Here’s the Alternative Software story.
WHO? Alternative Software founder Roger Hulley was always more of an indie kid than a scientist. Instead of cracking on with his coursework at university in ’70s Manchester, he became hypnotised by the northern city’s thumping music scene. Roger wrote for the first wave of punk fanzines and made a few bob as a club DJ; after uni HMV were so impressed with his side hustle that they made him a graduate trainee. Soon, he was poached by record shop chain Fox’s. Music and merch were all that they sold, but by now Roger was thinking about how a music business could diversify.
Hulley liked how the fledgling games business replicated the music industry with its “hits”. They seemed easy enough to market and create a buzz around. So soon, Atari VCS products were in all Fox stores and selling very well. Eventually breaking out to buy and distribute game in his own right, Roger was approached by Martyn Brown – who’d go on to form Team 17 – and business partner Mick Robinson. They’d formed a label called Alternative Software to sell their Speccy game Henry’s Hoard, but found it tough getting the software to market. Seeing his chance Roger bought the name, intellectual property and existing Henry’s Hoard stock. It was 1985, and now Roger had to decide what to do with his new, Yorkshire-based software business next.
In the music biz of the early ’80s, bargain price re-releases of old albums were pretty common place. Alternative thought that there had to be a market for the same thing with computer games. Roger bought in the back catalogue of games from Creative Spark (notably the Danger Mouse series), Mikro-Gen (Everyone’s A Wally) and Activision, re-releasing them at pocket money prices on the C64, Speccy and Amstrad CPC. This was successful enough that by 1988 Alternative was ready to start making games of their own. They became especially well-known for their affordable titles aimed at small children.
“It was my thinking at the time – having a little family – that there were no real children’s games available that were retailed at the right price point”, Roger told industry mag MCV back in 2015. “So the public was going out to buy a game for their child and had to spend £10.”
“Parents are going to cough and splutter at that price – in those days it was a huge amount. So we brought out children’s games at a sensible price point. We targeted £1.99 and figured we’d get people picking up those titles much quicker. Parents thought that if their kids didn’t like it, they had only lost £1.99 not £10. It was a good spend.”
Instead of creating their own characters, Alternative splashed money on licenses for popular kid’s television shows of the day. The hunch was that if a series was already popular on Children’s BBC, a big chunk of the marketing had already been done – and for free. The low price point and the “pester power” plan worked: Postman Pat was number one in the charts for six months, followed by Sooty and Sweep and Thomas The Tank Engine. By the end of 1988, Commodore Computing International was reporting that Alternative was one of the most successful budget software houses in the UK:
By 1990, the company was churning out cassettes at such a rate it had bought its own duplication equipment in order to control costs right down to the pancakes of tape spool. The price per unit eventually crept up to £2.99 – still a quid less than the likes of Codemasters – and by late 1992 a separate mid-price label, Admiral, was set up to put out premium licenses like the Doctor Who adventure Dalek Attack. It was ambitiously supported by late night television commercials in parts of Britain, but the writing was on the wall for the 8-bits that same year when WHSmith followed Boots and told the industry it wasn’t going to stock C64, CPC or Speccy games anymore. It effectively shut down the sector overnight, but Alternative were proudly one of the last standing publishers for the C64. Their final release Suburban Commando arrived alongside Mayhem, Alien 3 and Lemmings in late ’93. Had Alternative had their way, they’d have kept going: at least one game, Alvin and The Chipmunks, was finished and ready for release. Other titles including a bizarre platformer based on BBC wartime comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo had been started, too, but the shops no longer existed to sell them in. Sad emoji!
ANORAK CORNER Price wasn’t Alternative’s only secret weapon. Ex Alligata Software (and future Hi Tec founder) David Palmer was the company’s other founding director. He focused on the print and production side of each game, and was firmly of the belief that most software had lousy covers which negatively impacted sales. Government grants were available in 1986 to help promote some British products, and David managed to get one to redesign the packaging for everything they were planning to re-release. One particular game – the legendary Skool Daze – was totally rebranded in homage to The Beano’s Bash Street Kids. It was such a crazy seller that to this day it’s often confused as an Alternative original (in fact, it had already been a 50k hit in 1984 through Microsphere).
GAMES TO PLAY Mike Berry’s Reckless Rufus is one of Commodore Format’s best rated budget games – we’ve got a whole article on 1992’s gem of a puzzler here. The original Count Duckula is a hell of a good looking platformer. And if you fancy something a bit different, Father Christmas has you assembling your sleigh in time for Christmas Eve. For some reason the elves don’t help him in this flick screen adventure. Instead, er, they nick presents and try to hurt you (guy’s got to sharpen up his interview process – Ed)
THE FAN CLUB Alternative invited you to “join their club” from the very beginning, but writing off for more details only really seemed to get you on a mailing list that didn’t ever send you mail. Until, that is, March 1993 when The Great Alternative Software Club was launched. It was free, and boasted over 1000 members according to the PR. Every quarter, you got a glossy mag with, erm, “unbiased” reviews and previews of their own games as well as a poster and badge. It’s unclear how long this club lasted; the only evidence for it we currently have at all is a mention in issue 89 of ZZAP! 64, who are so specific describing the mag that it has to be for real. There’s no mention of the club or how to join in any Alternative game’s packaging post March 1993 that we can find, and here’s the real kicker: in 1997, fire broke out in the unit next to Alternative Software in Pontefract. Huge swathes of their valuable archives were lost when the blaze spread, so that’s where we are today – still looking for anything at all to do with this club. Did you join it? Have you got a mag or badge? Hit us up with whatever you’ve got, ‘cos everyone – Alternative Software included – would love to see it!
WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM? They carried on. Alternative Software are still making games today, and are the oldest British software publishers still on the go in their original form. Roger is still in charge, too! Their involvement with major film companies has, over the years, resulted in it producing software titles for huge films such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Shrek, Ice Age, Madagascar, Wallace & Gromit, Transformers, Marvel Heroes and many more. More recently, they’ve revisited the game they bought the rights to back in 1986: Skool Daze has been reimagined for iOS and Android. “It was one of the first sandbox games, you didn’t have to go A to B to C or even play the whole thing”, Roger told The Retro Hour podcast. “Kids just liked writing on the blackboard, or using a catapult or skiving off and they related to it. It was well ahead of its time.” With that appeal in mind, Skool Daze Reskooled lets you do everything you did thirty years ago – and get on a scooter. Trigger warning: it’s got Spectrum branding (oh for f… – Ed) CF
ONE MORE THING…DOCTOR WHO?
Alternative’s penultimate C64 release, Dalek Attack, is the subject of a rare bit of CF controversy. The game was reviewed by Doctor Who fanboy Dave Golder – later of SFX magazine and many others – and he unexpectedly savaged the platform ‘n’ shooting adventure. The game’s actually quite slick, with some colourful graphics and a nice tune. It’s not groundbreaking, but it isn’t terrible either. What seems to have irked Doctor Who purist Dave is the violence. So much so, he showed the game to the actual Doctor of the time, Sylvester McCoy. The interview runs alongside CF‘s review, which rates Dalek Attack at 28%:
“When I got the job on Doctor Who I didn’t want to be violent in the role. I didn’t want to beat the monsters to death. I wanted the Doctor – because he comes from another world – to be much more intelligent than humanity and he would know that violence is not the answer. If my Doctor is doing anything violent I’m really saddened by that.”
OK, we got so excited about Alternative that we’ve run out of room for anything else. But in part three, we’ll talk Thalamus and their Newsfield-based fan club from the ’90s. We’re also going proper old school with techie club ICPUG (bless you – Ed). It’ll be here on August 10th – keep up with us on social media for updates!
- Thanks to The Retro Hour podcast, MCV magazine and Frank Gasking for their help with this piece. Roger Hulley image copyright Alternative Software.