US Gold Information/Interview Simon Hadlington 14/01/06
What was the thinking behind US Gold and how did it run?
Geoff and Anne Brown started the company as CentreSoft in Birmingham (and not Liverpool as reported on some websites!) in 1984, distributing UK (predominantly Ocean) and American games as they had seen how they were starting to take off both sides of the Atlantic. My personal view was that Geoff, a keen musician, had the ideas and Anne had the business skills to make it happen. They divorced a couple of years later, but CentreSoft remains the largest distributor of video games in the UK today. Due to the distribution links with Jon Woods and David Ward from Ocean, they then joined forces to do the marketing as well as distribution for some of these US companies, thus creating US Gold. This collaboration may come as a surprise to many who followed the games industry for years afterwards, as they would have seen a kind of rivalry between the companies! Initially, the sales and marketing were predominantly for a company called Access with the first games being Zaxxon followed by the Carver brothers’ BeachHead for the C64, but then conversions were written for the Spectrum as well. Later, all home computers were catered for, but only a few games (such as Flashback) were ever written or converted onto consoles by or for US Gold. I remember there being some comments in the national press about another of the Bruce and Roger Carver Access classics, Raid Over Moscow, which was another of the multi-sectioned (but not multi loader!) games where you had to blast miniscule stick-men Russians in the Kremlin. Geoff just said In response that kids know the difference between reality and fiction. This was back over 20 years ago - things don't change in terms of scrutiny over games!
The US Gold office area was linked to a huge warehouse where CentreSoft distributed from. I still remember some of the fun the guys working in there had with the fork lift trucks, tape guns and the polystyrene packing balls which came down 20 feet from a huge hopper through a flexible pipe like a bigger version of a tumble drier extractor – someone was boxed up and put on a shelf on his birthday!
Finance was on the far side of the ground floor in the “quiet area” furthest from the warehouse, headed up by Norman Brown, a ferociously astute accountant, one from the "old days" where you still received a pay packet in a little brown envelope directly from him each week. There were around 15 people that worked in that area, but to be honest, I only ever spoke to one or two and those were so I could get money to pay for expenses and so on!
Right next to the warehouse was an area which housed the production, PR and development/testing departments. Production was managed by a down to earth, pragmatic chap called Bob Kenrick who looked after retuned games that didn’t load and the physical production of games onto tape or disk. The duplication of both US Gold and a lot of other companies’ games was done at Ablex based in Telford, near Wolverhampton, where they also used to press most of the countries 7” singles.
Testing and development (which is where I worked) was managed by Tony Porter and Bob Armour (who did the original spectrum version of Gauntlet) and then later Steve Fitton. Tony was the most senior producer. Testing initially consisted of Martin Smith and couple of others, but later built into a team of around six as the number of in-house developed games grew. No programming was done on-site, but mostly in peoples’ own homes and often bed sits with the exception of a few teams such as Tiertex (a large converted house in Didsbury, Manchester), Probe (small office in Croydon), Creative Materials (office Bury) and Climax (small office in Fareham high street). With the exception of Tiertex, all also had programmers based at home. This is a world away from where Climax is now, with over 400 employees across 5 sites worldwide! Testing happened predominantly on-site at US Gold or sat right next to the developers, wherever they were based. The latter was used both at the start and at the end of projects, particularly where timescales were tight. We videotaped everything we did and wrote (and latterly typed) exactly what we had done when we found a bug or playability problem, prioritising as appropriate from crashing the game to a cosmetic issue. We had to repeatedly test to see if the issue was reproducible every time, sometimes or very sporadically – obviously this was to assist the programmer to look through their code to find the problem. We employed lots of different methods: as one would normally play a game, deliberately try and do things wrong, stress testing by pressing all keys and buttons, soak testing by moving slightly and leaving the game for a few minutes were just some of them. It all took a very long time and really differed depending on the programmer and issues found so far – testing adaptability was crucial. Certain games arrived which were a joy to test as the programmer had taken great care, attention and pride in their work. The Assembly Line Games (E-Motion and Vaccine) were good cases in point. Without sounding derogatory to Tiertex, they were probably the worst offenders in terms of buggy code. This is because the teams had a different focus. Tiertex, like Probe and others were very much about turning over high profile conversions or tie ins during a short development timescale to maximise profits and minimise costs for both themselves and US Gold, whereas the Assembly Line were under less time pressure by their own choice – they got paid the same amount either way, and chose to build their name for good coding instead. Tiertex are still in operation, Assembly Line is not, so who was right?
On the marketing side, there were the usual influx and outflux of marketers from various backgrounds - I remember one of the teams previous history was marketing car tyres - which, from the infamous calendars gives a good insight into the slickness of the ideas. Headed by Tim Chaney, his marketing team, along with PR manager Danielle Woodyatt (who for those working for the magazines, "Woody" was the face of US Gold) blasted the name of the company across first the UK and then Europe. Cross-marketing was something that US Gold did best, linking brand names to their product, sometimes making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! My favourite was the World Cup Carnival game, officially celebrating the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where they re-released almost identical code from a 1984 game from a company called Artic called World Cup Football. Games moved on in that time, making the playability massively outdated, but putting the game into one of the first double sized cardboard boxes with plastic inserts which allowed two tapes and adding a couple of posters, a patch and world cup guide allowed US Gold to up the asking price from £6.95 to £9.95! The game signalled a link between US Gold and creation of a company called Tiertex, based in Manchester, where previous Artic cheese and programmer, Donald Campbell linked up with John Prince. It sold much better than the original, but the magazines picked up on it and quite rightly thought it was a bit of a con.
How receptive did you find magazine were to US Gold and its products?
I think that it really fluctuated from product to product and dependent on the timescale spent on writing the game, along with the programming team involved. My favourite US Gold game was a fairly unknown one called The Gold of the Aztecs (written by David Lawson who most recently was involved in the THQ game Juiced, but also did Barbarian by Psygnosis). Martin Smith and I used to battle on two machines head to head in order to complete the game in the quickest time. I travelled with Woody to demo games to the major publishers such as Newsfield, Future and EMAP, particularly with games such as gold of the Aztecs which was viewed as being pretty hard to complete. As many of the magazines were multi format but by the same publisher, there could be two or three reviewers from different magazines in attendance. Woody would go through her irresistible schpiel and then let the reviewers’ play, with either her or myself answering questions as appropriate. Quite often, after around half an hour a gut reaction was given by the reviewer, and we would try and if not entirely favourable we’d try and persuade otherwise. This was particularly the case with The Gold of the Aztecs – I remember we left one reviewer at EMAP (mentioning no names!) with the game whilst we went out and had lunch with the editor. When we came back, he was cursing at the game saying it was impossible. I took great pleasure in showing him an almost flawless completion in less than 20 minutes. I think he actually gave the game a review score of around 90% in the end, but had I not been there, who knows what would have happened?
There were some superb arcade conversions such as Forgotten Worlds (Arc developments - ex Elite programmers) and LED Storm (Software Creations) - the latter coming under the US Gold Go! label, which was created to try and deflect some of the flak which followed the company around once the marketing and cross selling was at its peak to a certain extent. To be fair, after World Cup Carnival there was very little in the way of poor code and the biggest issues were caused by trying to ensure product was on the shelves in time for Christmas. I vividly remember working down in Bristol on "The Godfather" with some brilliant programmers from Creative Materials, knowing we had to get the game on the shelves for Christmas 1991, manically driving up the M5 to Ablex around 5 days before Christmas at 6 o'clock in the morning, tired after testing all night to ensure we hit the deadline to ensure it would be in the shops two days later to maximise sales.
Which games did you work on?
Olympic Gold (aka Barcelona 92) - fact - Doug Anderson of AnF software wrote the Master system/Game Gear version!!
Gold of the Aztecs
Cruise for a Corpse
Technocop (NES by Simon Nicol!)
The Games : Summer Edition
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Secret of Monkey Island
Line of Fire
Thunderblade (both this and 720 degrees I only did the C64 version and still didn't meet one of my heroes, Chris Butler!!)
94 Lillehammer Winter Olympics
How did you get involved in the championships?
I replied to an advert in ZZap! (as I was a proud C64 owner) in 1988 to enter the US Gold/Boys Club games championship. There were local heats up and down the country, and as I lived in Stourbridge, this was the heat I went to. As US Gold were local, they had a big presence there, including Woody. I remember playing Bionic Commando on the C64 and Roadblasters on the Spectrum and you played a single credit in each game. Your scores were added together and the top couple went through to the final in London. I got through, but lost out in the final Stuart Campbell (whom a lot of readers know of). I think Zammo Mcguire from Grange Hill gave out the prizes, but speaking to Stuart recently for this article (gamers reunited?) he honestly can’t remember! On the back of this I got the job at US Gold and Stuart and I were asked to go to Paris (I think sponsored by EMAP as I think there were photos in C&VG) for the 1989 European Games championships with Julian Rignall and Paul Glancey, and soundly beat the French, Italians, Germans and Dutch. Playing alongside one of my boyhood heroes in Julian was brilliant – only beaten in 2003 when I finally met Rob Hubbard at Back in Time live in Brighton (thanks Chris Abbott!)
How did you feel when offered the job at US Gold?
It was unbelievable. My mates at school were really jealous – even more than they were when I did the ZZap! Challenge for the magazine in Ludlow, playing and winning at my all-time favourite game, Wizball. Playing games for a living was great, and I do often wonder what would have happened should I have accepted when I was offered a producer role by Tony Porter in 1991 rather than returning to university after my year out working for U S Gold for the second time. I still did testing for them, roping in mates to help whilst at Swansea University (which I went to purely because they had an Amiga lab, filled with 30 of them!). At the end of the degree, I decided that I had to get a proper job, and so started working for British Gas. I’m still there 12 years later, managing the customer demand forecasts – if we get it wrong, the lights could go out!