The Bitmaps go it alone|
Henriques d'Arbo talks to the team behind Xenon and Speedball about their part in forming Renegade, the software house that wants to be different.
The departure from Mirrorsoft of the Bitmap Brothers responsible for such ST classics as Speedball and Xenon's 1 and 2, has sent ripples throughout the game programming world. Is it true, as they allege that the ST charts are full of rubbish, that programmers are being treated as idiots and that the people who run the major software houses are interested only in making money? Is it true too, that the Bitmaps are just the first of many well known teams - rumours continue to surround the future of Bullfrog - who'll decide they could do it, and do it better for themselves?
Certainly something must be seriously wrong for the highly publicised Brothers - Steve Kelly, Mike Montgomery and Eric Matthews - to end what was widely thought to be one of the computer industry's most lucrative partnerships and set up shop with of all things, a record company. Does a stated desire to be "taken seriously" really justify all that?
"Renegade was established to reward people appropriately and give them control over what they do." says Martin Heath, boss of Rhythm King whose three year old company has a multi million pound turnover and current chart successes including Betty Boo (a keen ST games player herself) and S'Express. "It became apparent when I first met Eric that he was not too pleased with his publisher. Programmers are being treated as if they are idiots. I met some publishers, and most of the people running these companies are business men with nothing else at all to do but use their ability to make money." "They are sympathetic to the programmers, but the decisions they made were often very faulty. It was decided, as with Rhythm King Records, that the artists should get their just reward."
"I think that's too much of a generalisation," responds the man who original signed the Bitmaps to Mirrorsoft, Managing Director Peter Bilotta, "after all, the record business is older and more mature than the computer software business - though things are changing - I've seen changes since I've been in it in terms of things getting more mature."
"In fact, there are quite a lot of creative people from the record business moving into the software business" - though Bilotta declines the invitation to name any. "They're only gradually coming into Europe now."
Renegade claims to be different, to offer a truly creative framework for development with it's "Big Idea" the promotion of the programmer as opposed to the promotion of the company that produces the program. Artists and organisers share responsibility for decisions although Eric, Mike and Steve, the original Bitmaps, have final say on all programming matters.
It certainly seems as if Renegade has a collective downer on the software industry as a whole. "Publishers have not initially been interested in the classic big sellers." says Bitmap Brother Mike Montgomery, citing Sim City, Populous and Lost Patrol as examples. "Only after a great deal of trying were these games eventually accepted - this should never be the case!"Mediocrity rules, he says: "Looking at the charts, there seems to be a lot of Ocean and Codemasters games around, generally a lot of rubbish."
What about Mirrorsoft, are they as bad as the rest? "Mirrorsoft are actually better than most of the others," Montgomery is quick to reply. "We insisted on certain requirements while working for them and they agreed."
Aren't Mirrorsoft pissed off to be losing their star team? No, we're not pissed off." says Managing Director Peter Biotta, "not at all. We have a range of hot licenses, hot developers and hot labels. We do try to spread things, so we're not pissed off at losing a team."
Asked whether Mirrorsoft aren't watching a big investment disappear down the drain Bilotta argues forcefully that "Mirrorsoft always try harder than most to give programmers and developers a profile that's suited to their own requirements and not everyone wants a high profile like the Bitmap Brothers!"
Bilotta recalls that, at the time the Bitmap Brothers were originally signed up by Mirrorsoft, it was not only recognised that they were a highly talented team of individuals, but that they "knew what they wanted out of life. We knew how they felt about things, and that eventually they might well want to go independent. So we had a contract for a certain number of games only. After that they left to set up on their own to achieve their own independence, which is something we always knew they might do." "In fact," Bilotta argues, "the Bitmaps stayed longer than Mirrorsoft thought they might. Still, with Speedball 2 due to be wrapped soon in the contract between Mirrosoft and the Bitmap Brothers comes to an end."
How does Bilotta think Renegade will do? "It's to soon to tell. In theory I don't believe they are that much different from ourselves in terms of the way they conceptualise the marketplace - though they'd no doubt disagree!" "We wish them the very best. They really are a tremendously talented team and I'm sure they'll succeed. I think they may discover some of the constraints that publishers work under, now that they're doing it themselves."
And there we leave them, Mirrorsoft and the Bitmaps singing each other's praises. Yet the fact remains that the Bitmaps have now struck out on their own in direct opposition to the company with whom they made their mark. In the next year we can expect to see a good deal of healthy competition as both go flat out to prove they're better off alone. More importantly we can also expect more of the kind of game that only the Bitmaps seem capable of creating. Whats going to be interesting is talking a year from now to the programmers who work for renegade, and hearing how they think the whole business could be better run - or not, as the case may be...
What comes next?
What keeps the Bitmaps going? "Just solving the problems that occur writing a game makes it all worthwhile," says Bitmap Steve Kelly. "For instance, we set ourselves the goal making Speedball faster than Xenon, prducing big aliens on screen while still ensuring the progam run smoothly."
"We have some of the best graphics artists around. At the moment we feel we cannot improve dramatically on our graphics or programming, so we concentrate on the weakest element - sound."
Given that the Bitmaps are working closely with sound specialists, is this going to have any effect on their games? Are they going to pay more attention in the future? "At one stage we used to set aside very small amounts," Mike Montgomery admits, "but things have changed. Eventually we shall use STE facilities to their full potential. We will be supporting it more in the future. Gods, one of our next releases, will be using more of the machine's capabilities."
(ST Format #18 Jan'91)