a Rare game
The Games Machine, March 1988
Articles and Interview
by Roger Kean and Nik Wild,
Photographs by Cameron Pound (with thanks to Tim's Hasselblad)
Ultimate Play The Game is probably
the most famous label in the annals of British computer games.
For over three years this mysterious company held absolute
sway over the Spectrum charts, and then abruptly retreated
and vanished, almost without trace. What happened to them?
Was their elusiveness a media ploy? Timely questions, for
the people behind Ultimate are about to rise spectacularly
from their self-made ashes like phoenixes, and they chose
to talk to THE GAMES MACHINE about their past and their
GETTING A FOOT IN THE DOOR
During 1984 and 1985 Ultimate Play The Game, the trading
name of Ashby Computers and Graphics, was the most sought
after interview. Computer magazine journalists and editors
clamoured over the phone, and even hammered at the front door,
for that all-important exclusive interview. But the harder
everyone tried, the more adamant Ultimate became about its
press silence. The nearest anyone got to a foot in the door
was CRASH. The magazine found some favour with Ultimate's
nearly invisible owners, they ran several competitions and
even promised an interview - but always only after the next
game was completed, and somehow the interview never seemed
to happen. Now, for the first time we can reveal some of the
past secrets and, more importantly, provide an insight to
the future - and the future looks like the Nintendo.
in the summer of 1983, two new Spectrum games called Jetpac
and Pssst appeared quietly in the shops, it took only
a few weeks for the name of Ultimate (Play The Game) to become
a household software word. The packaging boast "arcade
quality graphics" was certainly nearest to being the
truth for any game of the time considering the Spectrum's
display limitations; and the amount of gameplay and sheer
fun to be had from either game was all the more astonishing
for the fact that they were each packed into only 16K of memory.
Between 1983 and 1986 Ultimate had an unbroken chain of 14
Spectrum hit games, whose average overall rating (of those
rated by CRASH) totalled 93%, making Ultimate the most
successful software house of all time. During 1985 they turned,
with less success, to the Commodore 64 market, releasing six
games, the first two of which were massive hits. With Sabre
Wulf, probably Ultimate's bestselling game, Spectrum sales
alone, they claim, went over the 350,000 mark - almost unheard
of, and certainly besting the officially claimed 250,000 all-formats
best-seller, Activision's Ghostbusters.
Very little was known about Ultimate. Unlike other software
houses, the company never took stands at exhibitions (there
was one early exception), never gave interviews and generally
avoided any form of magazine coverage. It was frustrating
to the numerous fans, and yet, magically, Ultimate avoided
the opprobrium normally attached to stand-offish organisations
in the entertainment field. It was as though the games really
did speak for themselves. Each one was eagerly awaited, any
delay resulted in magazines being flooded with complaining
letters as though the editors could do something about the
situation. When rumours circulated, originating from an all-too-rare
(and all-too-sparse) press release, that Knight Lore
was to feature an entirely new three-dimensional concept with
superb animation called Filmation, anxious readers' letters
And Knight Lore was revolutionary. It heralded a new
genre, the forced perspective (or isometric) 3-D arcade adventure
game; which, as one CRASH reader claimed, became the second
most cloned piece of software after Word Star.
Ultimate ignored the other major home micro, the Commodore
64 until the very end of 1984, when to high expectations,
adverts announcing Staff Of Karnath appeared. With
a greater graphical capability at their disposal, Ultimate
made a feast for the eye in an arcade adventure where 3-D
really played a part. In mid-1985 they followed up with Entombed
(a Gold Medal in ZZAP!64).
By the end of 1985 there were indications that the magic
might be waning. Support failed first on the 64. The four
games following Entombed bombed critically. Because
they had always supported the Spectrum, and perhaps also because
of the aura of veritable hero-worship that surrounded Ultimate,
the company's profile remained good with Spectrum games until
well into 1986. Something had gone, though; the flair seemed
missing, had the originality ossified? we wondered, and letters
kept sadly referring to the "once-great software house".
It was always a matter of professional speculation as to
how long Ultimate could keep their supreme position and continue
producing original games that would go straight to the top
of the sales charts. Envy had been there from the start when,
in early 1984, staff at Imagine, while condescendingly admitting
the qualities of Jetpac, Pssst, Cookie
and Tranz-Am, still felt stung enough to emphasise
how much better their games were - reiterating that Ultimate
scored because theirs were like arcade games, not deep enough
to hold interest for long. Atic Atac may have been
one in the eye for that accusation, but nevertheless, detractors
almost eagerly awaited Ultimate's downfall.
Unlike other successful companies of the time, in keeping
with its tradition of reclusiveness, Ultimate never advertised
for programmers, it never joined forces with other software
houses in associations like GOSH (Guild Of Software Houses)
and never became part of the 1986 merger wars, although there
were well-founded rumours at one point that British Telecom,
in the guise of Firebird, had bought Ultimate. In fact Ultimate
licensed two of its Spectrum hits, Sabrewulf and Underwurlde
to Firebird for Commodore 64 conversions.
Then there was a rumour that Ocean had bought the company,
and finally a confirmed notion that in fact it was US Gold
that had won out. Nevertheless, the terms of the sale were
obscured, Ultimate games continued to appear, though to less
and less acclaim and people wondered what had really happened.
A clue, had anyone been able to penetrate the mists of corporate
obscurantism, lay before all: the small, typically mysterious,
concept and coding credit for some of the later titles - Rare
Ashby Computers and Graphics Ltd - the famous ACG of keys
and amulets - based in the Leicestershire town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch
- was wholly owned by one family: two brothers, Chris and
Tim Stamper, and Tim's wife Carole. With one or two other
programmers - or software engineers as they prefer to style
themselves - this was the entire of Ultimate. At least all
this was known to the enquiring public, so was the fact that
the two brothers had started in the business as designers
of real-life arcade machine programs - an exotic enough occupation
in those heady early days, and considering just how many British-made
arcade coinops there have ever been, still a past to be reckoned
with. Two years ago, the Stampers formed Rare Ltd, sold off
a minority interest of Ultimate to US Gold, moved from Ashby
to the nearby village of Twycross, stopped programming Spectrum
games, went to ground, and to all intents and purposes, disappeared.
The following interview, recorded on a windy and gloomy December
17 , goes a long way towards explaining what happened
Twycross is a tiny Midlands village perched on the borders
of Leicestershire and Warwickshire. Its main claim to fame
is its reasonably well-known Zoo. Sitting on the western edge
of the village is.a large Queen Anne-period mansion, part
of Manor Farm. This is the home of Rare Ltd, protected by
rambling outbuildings, barns and numerous - and very noisy
- cockerels and chickens. It is an elegant, though rather
dilapidated building, gradually being repaired by the Stampers.
Its calm, very English country exterior belies the power of
the technology within. The ground floor is a mixture of furnished,
decorated and bare, untouched stone rooms. One of the first
made habitable was the board room, where most of the interview
took place, dominated by a row of clocks on the wall showing
the different times in Japan and America - an indication of
the Stampers' new market areas.
Stamper, who looks after the graphics and was responsible
for all the wonderful Ultimate packaging illustrations and
on-screen images, is 26, fair-haired and more the business
spokesman for the firm, although both brothers appear to be
in complete accord about their direction. Chris Stamper, smaller,
a bit quieter and darker-haired, is 29. He concentrates more
on coding. But, as you might imagine from their arcade machine
background, what illuminates their operation, is the intimate
working knowledge of the hardware they use. Very little within
the Rare building is as it came from the manufacturer, even
the modest Amstrad PCs have been given vitamins. At this,
the first interview the Stampers have ever given, there were
many questions burning to be asked, but I started with the
most obvious: why did Ultimate disappear about a year and
a half ago? Perched on the edge of the massive desk, Tim thought
for a moment and then offered a correction.
"I think for us, as the main development team, possibly
two years ago was the time. It wasn't really conducive to
company expansion to carry on producing on the Spectrum unless
we went along the budget route..."
The way his voice trailed off was sufficiently eloquent to
need no further explanation. But surely this underlined the
constant fear that everyone had had that Ultimate could not
keep up their run of successes for much longer. I wondered
about some of the later, and more disappointing, games like
Bubbler and Cyberun, and asked Tim when were
they developed? "It must have been 18 months ago."
Chris agreed with him - at least that they were "really
not really our involvement, they were developed by Ultimate
engineers, trained and still functioning, but we concentrated
two years ago on the Japanese markets and said, "Ultimate,
if you're developing on the Spectrum, carry on doing that"
- we're still the majority shareholders in Ultimate, so we
still take an active interest in the company."
The last one we developed as a team," added Chris, "was
Gunfright. That was the last one that Tim and myself
did. Everyone was copying our Knight Lore concept,
so we thought we'd do one as well - and get a little bit of
The Spectrum games were mostly huge hits, but there seemed
to be some reluctance to get in on the Commodore 64. Did they
never feel like working for the 64?
We were interested in producing original games," answered
Tim promptly, "and people wanted us to produce original
product, so work for the 64 was really a job for somebody
else. We could only have produced one type a year if we did
all the conversions ourselves."
But there was always a feeling that Ultimate never felt much
like getting to grips with the 64, a supposition partly borne
out by Chris: "I never got to know it that much. You
tend to focus on one area, and I think I was a Z80 programmer
to start off with, and so I adopted the Spectrum. I had no
trouble with 6502 or anything like that - the Nintendo 6502
- but I was working on the Spectrum and there were other people
doing the 64."
COPING WITH AD MANAGERS
The mention of other people working for them prompted me
to ask how many employees Rare has. Tim told me 13. "That's
not including freelance teams. The company's fairly small.
Most of the people here are development. We don't have any
advertising people fortunately! Because we don't need to advertise."
They advertised quite a bit in the old days, though, and
I couldn't resist asking if it had been a bother having to
cope with the mags bugging them to book space. Chris laughed
wryly: "It was a colossal problem, that was!"
But Tim was less adamant: "It wasn't so much of a problem
when we decided which magazines we were going to advertise
in. It wasn't worth advertising in a magazine if you didn't
get any return, otherwise you're just funding the magazine.
Which is good for the magazine, but after all, it's not what
we're here for. I think Newsfield were always good for us,
that's why we contacted you now."
"We never got on with a few of the other magazines,"
Ultimate hardly ever talked to anyone, though. Was there
ever a conscious policy to be hidden away and mysterious;
was it seen as good PR?
"No it wasn't," said Tim firmly, "that's the
way it turned out. We were so busy, having only three or four
development staff in-house, and having to produce a few products
a year, and making sure they were right. I think while we
were full-time Ultimate, we only had two Christmas mornings
off, that's how hard it was. We worked, as we do here now,
seven days a week, eight till one or two in the morning (whenever
the last engineer leaves!). But the rewards are there, and
everyone's really prepared to knuckle down to get the rewards,
like you've seen out there," - pointing in the general
direction of the parked Lamborghini with "T 19"
registration - "that's one of the rewards available,
and if you want that you have to work to get it. I don't feel
it's any good having engineers who only work nine to five
because you get a nine-to-five game, you need real input."
PLENTY OF FANS
So no time for interviews. Most computer journalists at some
time or other must remember the famous "Mr Stamper is
in a meeting, he will call you back (next century)" telephone
answer. But if they weren't present for the press, they were
never there for the public either. Except for one very early
computer show, had they ever been present at any exhibitions?
"Oh yeah, we have, " said Tim, laughingly. "We
attend most of them anonymously! It was nice to be able to
keep a low profile because otherwise you couldn't wander round
watching the reactions of people playing particular products;
which again is important. I think you get a true reaction
if people think you're just one of the purchasers."
But in spite of the low profile, Ultimate provoked tremendous
response from fans, and as Tim pointed out, their cavalier
attitude towards computer journos did not extend to the purchasers
of their games. "We had 50 or 60 letters a day, and it
needed someone fully employed just to deal with this letter
problem we had.
"I think we had an opportunity, though, to capitalise
on the sort of fan club Ultimate created - so many people
wanted more information on Ultimate, and sweatshirts and caps
and that, and we could have said - because Ultimate was Ultimate
Play The Game products - "If you liked Ultimate: buy
the games, buy the sweatshirts". So I think we could
have expanded like some companies did, with a large fan club
and giveaways and posters to buy, but in fact we gave them
all away. If anyone asked us for a sweatshirt or a cap we
said, well you can have it - or posters. We were just interested
in seeing the software out there and getting fair reviews."
GETTING FAIR REVIEWS
"Yes, the "mysterious" Ultimate thing was
because we hadn't got the people to do it," Tim went
on. "I think we were fairly inexperienced then in running
a company - we certainly knew how to produce software, I think
we were more experienced in that than anyone else, and that's
what we could do, so that's what we did. I was contacted by
so many magazine people and reporters that we just had a list
of people I wanted to speak to from the magazines and software
houses - I always spoke to CRASH, but never to many
of the other magazines. I think CRASH worked, they
always gave us fair reviews; and some of the other magazines
we didn't advertise with - which was another problem with
the industry, and I'm sure it's still there now - if we didn't
advertise, the product got a bad review. I think that's a
really crazy way for it to be, but that's how it was. I was
actually told by a few other companies that they thought the
problem existed as well, but there was nothing tangible. So
we steered clear of speaking to anyone, and if they liked
the product great, and if they didn't then I wasn't bothered,
because if the sales were there it meant people were buying
Ultimate never indulged in exclusives - the method whereby
a software house grants a particular magazine early sight
of a new game in return for benefits such a cover illustration,
or a prominent article on the grounds that the magazine is
the only one to have the latest news. The Stampers never sent
out review copies until the game was due in the shops thus
ensuring fair treatment for all. Organising it was a problem
though, and the headaches were Tim's . . .
"I had to make sure the copies hit all the magazines
exactly the same day. And with new releases - with a distributor
- if they knew they were the first one, they would be up at
six in the morning and on the phones to the other distributors
and jumping their accounts... I hated that situation. And
the day a product was released the phone would just be red
hot. It was really bad."
"I prefer it here without those sorts of pressures,"
added Chris. "The atmosphere for development we have
in this place is excellent. It's a nice rural setting with
chickens all over. It's a farmhouse and we want to keep it
that way because it gives you something to refresh yourself.
It's good for development rather than stuck in the middle
of some suburb or city centre."
THE PRICE SHOCK
After a run of six games priced £5.50, Sabrewulf
was something of a shock when it appeared costing £9.95.
I asked Tim whether he thought they were taking rather a gamble
on their undoubted popularity at the time by almost doubling
the cost of their games.
"We were having a severe problem with the number of
(illegal) copies. And I think it was a bold step we took.
The price of stuff was was gradually creeping up - Imagine
set the price at £5.50, without a doubt - and it was
gradually creeping up, and I thought we might go the whole
way and put the product out at a price which was realistic
for the time involved in creating it. £5.50 was a little
low. Perhaps we could have sold more, but we were trying to
create an incentive for the person who paid £9.95 to
say, "Hey you're not copying my game" - I mean,
alright, they may have traded it for X number of pounds, but
at least they said if you want it you buy it. And that was
successful because we still kept the number one position for
quite a while, and it didn't make any difference to sales.
"I think they were still good products for the time...
I think possibly Knight Lore was ahead of its time,
and in looking back at the market now, there doesn't seem
to be any vast improvement in the two years since we left
it. I don't know whether we could have made any more of an
THE KNIGHT LORE SHOCK
The more I talked to the Stampers about their past, present
and future, the more struck I became by their extraordinary,
calm planning. But never more so than by what I was about
to hear next; and this example indicates only too clearly
the kind of long-term view they take, and took and explains
better than anything else the fact that Ultimate's "demise"
was no random accident of fate as we may all have imagined.
Yes, few people would argue that Knight Lore was ahead
of its time, but in fact it was more ahead than anyone at
the time ever dreamed. It was Tim who quietly dropped the
bombshell that turned history upside-down:
"Knight Lore was finished before Sabrewulf.
But we decided then that the market wasn't ready for it. Because
if we released Knight Lore and Alien 8 - which
was already half finished - we wouldn't have sold Sabrewulf.
So we released Sabrewulf which was a colossal success,
and then released the other two.
"There was a little bit of careful planning in there.
They could have had Knight Lore possibly the year earlier,
but we just had to sit on it because everyone else was so
In fact this startling piece of information fits well into
Tim and Chris Stamper's basic philosophy about creation and
marketing. I rapidly gathered that while they rate the level
of British talent very highly, they hold a much lesser view
of the corporate software houses when it comes to seeing the
big picture. Tim again: "There are a few really good
companies out there - Jeff Minter, we would have loved to
have had him with us, he has a lot of talent - but it always
seems to be misdirected. You occasionally see a really amazing
game for the time and you think, Christ, it kills the games
after; and if they had had a little careful planning they
would have avoided that. It's bad for the industry.
"Games should be developed and be released at the correct
time. And again, some games have been really good and were
released too early and people haven't been able to appreciate
them; or released too late and it's already been done. So
I think careful planning there would sort that out."
Chris cited the example of Elite (not the original
BBC version), a game he rated very highly, as being one that
actually might have killed off Firebird games sales after
its release, because it raised expectations, and when nothing
could match it for ages people felt let down.
"But that's how it is," Tim said pragmatically.
"I think there's enough UK talent to rule the world on
the arcade and home computer market, but it's not being really
well directed. Hopefully we can solve a little bit of that,
but there again, we're not that strong in UK. Very few people
know we're here, very few people know what we're doing. And
I'd just like to make people aware of the fact of the very
large market out there and they can take advantage of it through
TURNING TO JAPAN
Which brings us very neatly to what the Stampers have been
doing in what has seemed to the rest of the world to be a
sabbatical. But far from it, and again, it rests on a piece
of information, staggering in its implications, casually dropped
into the interview. It also makes very clear why Ultimate
was to change direction so radically. All I asked was what
machines they were now so busy programming for.
"Mainly the Nintendo. We had a Nintendo four years ago."
I stopped Tim to question my hearing. Four years ago? Around
the time they were conceiving Lunar Jetman and Atic
Atac!? The first time I heard anything much about the
Japanese wonder-machine was shortly before the 1986 PCW Show.
But Tim confirmed the date, then added: "Well, Rare Ltd
is already competing with the big names in Japan, Konami,
Nintendo, Sega and Taito.
"When we got the machine, that was the beginning of
Rare. We knew a market was going to boom in Japan and America
and we set Rare up to handle that. Obviously we didn't want
to give too much away because we needed time to develop our
associations - which fortunately we managed to do - before
everyone really became aware of it.
"We managed to get just about all the software available
for it, and we're still receiving software now. And the machine,
for the price it was available in Japan then, had colossal
potential - we looked at this and we looked at the Spectrum
- and then the Spectrum was hot stuff, but this was incredible.
So we spent possibly eight months finding everything out about
this system - its custom chips, and it takes a fair bit of
work - we managed to do that and then started to write on
Chris added: "There was no information on the Nintendo
at all, but because of our previous arcade experience we had
hardware knowledge of the arcade boards, and so a very shrewd
idea of what that machine was. That enabled us to produce
the first product, and were able to make a presentation to
Nintendo, and they said, "Okay, you can do it"...
"..."And here's the information you already found
out!"," quipped Tim, laughingly. "It was a
sort of introduction process. We had to show Nintendo that
we had the capability before they could give us the rights
to go ahead and produce for their system."
I said I had heard that Nintendo are notably very finicky
about their marketing deals for third-party software, a point
Tim considered very understandable: "They're a very big
company. The majority of companies like Konami, Taito, construct
a deal with Nintendo to produce a product for Nintendo to
market it. But they are limited to the titles they can produce
a year. We license product to Nintendo, and we are not limited
to the number of titles. So that's why we are going to take
advantage of the situation that we've got now, that we can
produce an unlimited amount on that system, which no-one else
has got at all. In fact we've licensed more product this year
than any other company. So we're very proud. And I think it's
an affluent market."
It sounds it; with some 10 million machines in Japan, and
15 million worldwide, Rare enjoys sales of its licensed product
there far higher than their highest ever British figures for
Ultimate games.To date there are four original products on
cartridge and two others just written for an outside party
which will be shown at the CES in January. In addition, another
eight are in development.
"We actually act, I suppose," Tim added, "as
Nintendo's development team. If they feel they are lacking
a product on a machine, they tell us, we develop it, and so
we are sure of licensing product to them."
So far, releases in Britain that THE GAMES MACHINE
has seen have not resulted in much above average confidence.
Have they been very impressed with the British Nintendo cartridge
releases to date?
"No," said Chris. "I think Nintendo are so
busy in the States, and I feel as soon as they resolve that
problem the UK will receive the support it deserves. And when
that happens Nintendo will take a much higher place. I think
they're just so incredibly busy. It's going to be a banner
Certainly, looking at some of the games Rare has just finished,
it is going to be a great year for them. At about this point
in the interview, we were beginning to get onto their real
reason for granting it.
OF CARTRIDGES AND COIN-OPS
Having decided, several years back, that the Stampers' Ultimate
had probably gone as far with the Spectrum as it was possible
for them to go, and having receded quietly into the background
to devote time to mastering the Nintendo system and producing
their first games for it, they have now arrived at a point
when, ironically, they could do with some publicity. Why?
"I think there are a lot of UK companies that are beginning
to look overseas, and to look at machines which are not available
in UK," Chris began to explain. "We did that two
years ago. And it puts us in a very unusual situation. We
have four freelance teams who are really trying to take advantage
of the situations we developed. There is not another company
in the UK that has the opportunities that we do at this stage,
basically because it all takes time and we're two years ahead."
And it is that talent capable of ruling the world on the
arcade and home computer market that the Stamper brothers
are thinking of, they want to extend their advantageous position
in the world market to other programmers - software engineers
and it was Chris who came out with the bald statement.
"It's so easy just to focus on your own little world
and never look outside. Well we're out there, we've put in
a lot of effort, we've made a lot of - not sacrifices - but
not the best business deals just to gain a relationship, and
I think now we're in a position to take advantage of that
and we would like as many people as possible to come to Rare
and see what we can offer."
So you're actually saying you would like to start a recruiting
"You're here to start it!" said Tim brightly. Chris
"That's right. We try to get as many good engineers
as possible - we're certainly looking for freelance teams.
We've just finished designing our own arcade hardware, and,
for the right team, we would be able to provide the hardware
for them and then give them the opportunity to write for the
coinop market. That would certainly be a worthwhile gamble
for any competent team to have a go at, because if.they can
get a product in at the top, and if it takes well in the arcades,
it's going to filter down through Nintendo and all the other
associated products. If you start only half way up the ladder,
then there's only one way it's going to go afterwards and
that's down. And it's very hard to get it converted up."
Tim had the last word on this subject, when he said: "I'm
pleased about the direction Rare is taking, because 100 percent
of the revenue received by Rare comes from overseas, and I
think that's good for UK and it's good for the image of British
software in the world. I wish more people would take the incentive
and do exactly the same as we did."
TRAVEL AND THE JAPANESE STYLE
With all the work they do for Nintendo, I wondered whether
they have to travel a lot. Are they in Japan every other weekend?
"No," said Tim, "not Japan, usually to the
States. We do most of our dealings with Japan through the
States. We have an associated company called Rare Coin-It.
The Coin-It companies are mainly arcade and ours is an exclusive
arrangement and that gives us a base in the States. Plus the
fact that most of the big Japanese companies have built offices
in the States, and they speak the same language as us, and
the food's better!"
Traditionally coin-op themes have travelled from Japan, often
via America, to arrive in Britain. It has hardly ever happened
the other way round. Is that because British games are not
suited to the Japanese or even American, mind? And if there
is a difference, how have they at Rare overcome the problem?
Chris: "I think when we look at British games now we
can understand the difficulties that UK companies will face
trying to get into the market, because there a difference
in style and there a difference in what makes a good game
for the US and Japan. And I think we understand now what that
difference is. Our success rate proves it - that and the fact
that we have licensed cartridge games.
"When we first started in the arcade market quite some
time ago, we found we were very good at producing games which
did very well in the UK and that was it."
Tim took up the story: "It seems that Japanese games
sell very well in America and American games sell well in
Japan, and in England, but English games don't do well in
America and they don't do well in Japan. It's taken us a few
years just to find out why. Even Japanese and American conversions
wouldn't sell well in America because they're converted to
suit the English taste. There's a big difference, and obviously
English teams have not discovered what the difference is."
"We must realise that the Japanese produce the number
one games and they always have done," Chris went on.
"I find it surprising that with all the talent in the
UK, it isn't British companies producing the number one arcade
games and then everyone in the world following that. Because
Britain's got the best talent without a doubt. This country's
very conducive to that - it's cold, it's damp and everyone's
sitting indoors programming - we should be producing the number
one games, and it's not happening. Rare is the only company
beginning to get somewhere towards that."
And as Tim pointed out, it is only through examining Japanese-made
games and then putting the theory into practice through their
painstakingly built contacts that they have reached the point
"Throughout our arcade career, we must have licensed
16 or 17 products to Japan, and every time they've asked for
more, and after doing so many you think, I know exactly what
they want now, and then you can produce games that you know
will suit their taste. It's taken a long time to do it, and
indeed we're trying to train all of our engineers to realise
But paradoxically, Tim and Chris believe Japanese tastes
in game themes follow the British. Tim: "The Japanese
market's possibly two years behind UK. It's easy to look at
UK trends and see what the trends will be in Japan. They've
just had a really really big arcade adventure type. I think
they're possibly just getting on to the sports aspect now,
which is where we were at a while ago."
THE SYSTEM OF THE FUTURE?
Turning from the orient to western concerns, I asked whether
we would be seeing any Rare games for the 16-bit computers,
and promptly ran up against the Stampers' scepticism of catering
for a market whose sales do not yet run into the hundreds
When we find a machine that sells extremely well to warrant
us producing on it," said Tim, "then we'll produce
for it. If a 16-bit machine is going to sell about three or
four million, you can be sure we'll be out there with products
for it. But if it sells 250,000, I don't think any 16-bit
owner is going to buy two of one product, so the maximum you
can sell, if you reach 100 percent of users, is 250,000."
He shrugged eloquently: "When we've got over 10 million
Nintendo units in Japan . . . "
So no Ultimate-style Rare games for the Amiga and Atari ST?
"We do have those machines around, but we do focus on
the Japanese machines, mainly because of the number that are
out there," Chris replied. And Tim went on to explain
that, rather like the problem encountered with converting
Spectrum to Commodore 64, they would need to train people
to do the 16-bit conversions in-house. "If we didn't
handle the conversion ourselves, I'm sure it would turn out
differently. I think if we can train enough people to produce
for us, rather than license another company outside to produce,
we should get somewhere there - if the machine sales are really
good. But I think you see conversions of our products on certain
"The trouble with most of those machines is that they
have got incredible graphics and sound, but the processor
is just ticking over - you can't do anything really stunning
Chris agreed: "I'm surprised that we haven't seen any
incredible games on the 16-bit machines. But a game's so slow
with disk option, terribly slow and boring. That's one of
the major advantages of Nintendo, you just bang in a cartridge,
and if you don't want it, you bang in another. You can play
through 60 games in a few minutes! And the cartridge sizes
on the Nintendo now are quite colossal, there are two megabyte
games. It's a fair-size game. And the price of memory is coming
down all the time, especially just the silicon chip. I think
it's the system of the future."
PAST AND FUTURE
Tim and Chris Stamper have always planned for their future.
They refuse to get stuck in any ruts, and wholeheartedly refuse
to be merely what people expect of them. And indeed, they
were unexpectedly generous and patient - considering their
press reputation - but they clearly do not tolerate fools
easily. They have resisted the temptation be be drawn into
the razzamatazz of public shows, and yet have been unfailingly
helpful to members of the public who, having got the Ultimate
phone number, rang up in the old days, usually receiving a
T-shirt, sweatshirt or cap for their trouble.
In short, they've been successful, so I asked Chris whether
there had ever been any regrets. After a short hesitation
he replied: "I think the thing we regretted the most
was not doing Atic Atac II when we did number one.
We should have done that because it was so well accepted and
it sold so well, and for some reason we didn't and I don't
In retrospect it seems a harmless enough sorrow to bear,
and one suspects there are probably numerous other problems
they have suffered which are just forgotten in the onward
rush. Rare doesn't strike as being an express train of ideas
on the verge of being out of control, but rather a streamlined
sports car in the hands of a capable and determined driver
with his eyes on the road ahead.
Outside, there is a vast barn in good repair. It is the next
stage of development and will be refitted with studio gantry
lighting. In its spacious interior, the Stampers intend to
build what might well be the world's first computer graphic
film studio. They believe that with silicon technology as
it is, with the ever decreasing cost of memory and flat cathode
ray TV screens, real movies done by computers are just around
The past is the platform from which they build, but not a
temple to their success to be enshrined. Of the many ways
in which Rare differs from other software houses I have visited,
one of the most striking was the lack of old artwork, framed,
and hanging on the office walls. When I commented on this,
Tim Stamper replied typically.
"When you've spent five to six months developing a game,
you've really seen enough of it. You fulfil your aim and then
you go onto the next product. I think our best product is
yet to come. I probably haven't even got a full set of Ultimate
games here. They just disappear! Anyway, we're all looking
to the future for what we can produce, and that's where the
excitement lies for us. It's not worth looking back. I'd like
to hang pictures of games we will produce on the walls."
The programming - or engineering - area is on the first floor
of the large Rare headquarters. The first room is Tim Stamper's
graphics office, equipped with several computers, two large
drawing boards - one bearing a giant game logo being prepared
in expanded pixel form with a title we are not allowed to
mention - a video area with studio lights to help with digitising
complex three-dimensional shapes and a closed rack containing
all the past, famous Ultimate packaging illustrations.
It was in Tim's graphics area that Cameron photographed screens
of three of the games Rare has already finished for Japan,
one as long as two years ago. For some 40 minutes he crouched
under a long black shroud stretching from camera to monitor
(intended to keep stray light off the screen) while Chris
knelt in front of the set ducking his head out of the camera's
way, playing the games.
Along a corridor there are several rooms off: a general office,
the play room - equipped with much coin-op cabinet paraphernalia
- the music room and a string of further software development
The main development room, large and airy, has desks, computers
and monitors around the edge where the software engineers
all work. Different types of Nintendo machines lie everywhere
as well as stacks of cartridges, cards and Nintendo disks.
As we arrived, a new package of games had just been delivered
from Japan as well as Rare's first PC Engine - the latest
machine in the range and all the rage in the homeland. The
package was ripped open and its contents eagerly loaded. Rare
also receives several of the Japanese Nintendo magazines,
and despite the indecipherable Japanese pictographic script,
these appeared to be as much in demand as either CRASH
or THE GAMES MACHINE.
In talking to several of the engineers, a strange thought
occurred. While they are obviously aware of the British software
scene around them, it is as though they see it through a dark
glass. I was often asked questions about the latest games
in the manner of interested people from the Moon - they'd
heard about them, possibly even seen and played them, but
knew nothing much about how they were doing. Rare is like
a time capsule, its people on a nodding acquaintance with
their neighbours, but their eyes all fixed on a distant goal
no-one around them can see. When I asked Tim if he had any
contact with other software houses, he said: "Yes, a
lot of contact with the Japanese." But what about British
software companies? "Zero," was the short reply,
"I don't think they even know who we are."
In this sense, there is no doubt that the Stampers are training
their people to think Japanese. It doesn't seem to be such
a big difference when you look at the games themselves, but
it is undoubtedly a very crucial difference, and one on which
most of Rare Ltd's resources are being gambled.
COIN-OPS FOR ALL
The development room is dominated by a veritable tower block
of stacked plastic component boxes, full of chips, capacitors,
mini-PCBs and other electronic oddments - a reminder that
this company has a vested interest in developing hardware
as well as software. In the room next door, we were showed
their proud achievement of 18 months of hard work - the new
coin-op arcade board, working on this day for our benefit.
Named - they always have a name - the Razz Board, and based
around the Z80 processor with a lot of hardware assist, it
is extraordinarily fast. They had set up a running demo consisting
33 large, full-colour knights bouncing around the screen so
fast you could hardly make. out the individual shapes. But
these were not simply moving sprites. Each shape, as it passed
behind another, was being cleared and redrawn. We were told
the board was moving 1,300,000 bytes around per second.
"That is an intelligent drawing up of characters,"
Chris said, "which most machines - like the Amiga - say,
"Oh, they can do a million". But that's just a dumb
fill, and this is actually 64 colours in full separation.
I think it will enable us to start competing with the big
Japanese and American coin-slot companies now. The first time
we've been in this position to go up against them, and I feel
we have a piece of hardware that will allow us to do that.
I think it's going to knock spots off Mastertronic and the
Amiga coin system. I mean, this is redrawing this every 50th
of a second."
The Razz Board is available to anyone who wants to go into
writing games for the coin-op industry. Rare provides the
board/hardware, graphics and sound utilities. And the sound
quality is intended to be very powerful, too. Using Yamaha
synth chips, there are 14 available voices altogether, with
three of them being top of the range quality. Prototypes should
be ready any day now, and as Tim told me, they have had a
bit of interest in the board from other British companies.
"Companies that would like a piece of hardware like this
but can't devote 18 months to develop it. I mean it's cost
a fortune to develop but as you see it's all fully working."
"Then there's the graphics editor. It's our own software
image editor. It's rather an unusual method which we've patented,
and I'm sure an awful lot of arcade companies will want to
use it because it's so memory-efficient, and we can move such
a large amount of memory around quickly."
People with a desire and matching ability to design coin-op
games should probably be getting in touch with Rare right