HEADING FOR THE CENTURY
Tony Leah reporting from one of the most successful Electron software companies
FOR six years the name Superior Software has stood for quality and quantity in the Electron games marketplace - a sector of UK computing that hasn't been overblessed with choice in entertainment, particularly in recent times.
Surprising, therefore, that the software house that has supported the Electron since the machine's earliest days has never been paid its due in a computer magazine until now.
While packing for his firm's recent relocation from Leeds to Brigg in South Humberside, managing director Richard Hanson found time to talk about Superior Software's history and its plans for the future. The company's long absence from the computer media spotlight may be explained by Richard Hanson's quiet personality and the fact that he likes his products to speak for themselves.
Few Electron User readers can be unaware of the enormous range of titles that Superior has issued for their machine starting with Centibug in 1983 and running through to this year'ss Christmas releases.
The number of games to come from the Superior Software stable is now approaching the 100 mark - most of them available for the Electron. It's a total that would have been unthinkable when Richard Hanson began programming on the Acorn Atom 10 years ago.
He first became involved with computers during a mathematics degree course at Leeds University in the late 1970s. By the end of his first year he realised micros had become more interesting to him than figures, and he switched to a course in computer science, learning languages like Basic, Algol and Fortran before graduating with a BSc.
The university didn't have any personal computers in those days, so to further his new-found hobby of programming, Richard bought himself an Acorn Atom.
The machine had just been launched and Richard describes it as "the best cheap computer around at that time - certainly it was the most useful, as the Sinclair machines with their tacky keyboards were very limited in their performance".
Richard wrote about 20 programs on the Atom - all eventually published by Micropower - ranging from a space invaders game, which was the first thing he had written in machine code, to a home budgets program and a star-tracking program for amateur astronomers.
When the BBC Micro arrived on the scene Richard wrote a further six Micropower programs of various types for the new machine, among them World Geography, which until very recently was still earning him royalties.
In mid-1982, at the end of his degree course, Richard decided to set up a partnership with fellow Micropower author John Dyson and Superior Software was born. By the autumn of 1982 the pair had released their first four products - Galaxy Birds, Space Fighter and Centibug written by Richard and Invaders written by John.
"It went very nicely right from the start", recalls Richard. "We had each put in £50 to start the company and I think we'd only spent about £20 of it before the money from sales started to roll in".
Richard (right) and Steve Hanson
Click here for larger image
In 1983 came Alien Dropout and Road Racer from Richard, Froggy and Hunchback from John. Early releases typically sold about 6 to 7,000 copies, but Hunchback with sales to date of 26,000 - propelled Superior into the forefront of BBC Micro software suppliers.
The arrival soon afterwards of the Electron sparked a feverish burst of activity as the firm's BBC Micro games were converted to run on the exciting new machine.
It is worth recording that a notable exception to conversion of the BBC Micro software stock was Road Racer, due largely to hardware scrolling limitations which ended hopes of several existing games being converted for the Electron. "Road Racer is an example of a game that was never converted. It could have been with a lot of effort, but it would have meant restructuring it and not using the hardware scrolling", said Richard.
"But by and large the games that could be were converted very simply, very few changes needing to be made. They tended to fall into one of two categories, those you could convert easily and those you couldn't without a lot of effort".
As a result of this, several games in addition to Road Racer that might have been popular with owners of the new machine didn't receive the Electron treatment. "At that time we weren't sure if it was worth the investment, and by the time the machine had established itself the games were too old to convert", said Richard.
In the event Centibug became the first Electron conversion, closely followed by Alien Dropout, Invaders and Fruit Machine which was the first game written for Superior Software by an outsider.
Because Richard Hanson retained the rights to non-BBC Micro versions of the Micropower products World Geography, Constellation and Disassembler, these were also converted for the Electron.
Also in the shops around this time was Overdrive, a car racing simulation for the BBC Micro written by Peter Johnson and later converted for the Electron. It was destined to become Superior's most successful game with nearly 40,000 copies sold across both BBC Micro and Electron versions.
Interestingly the Electron version of Overdrive eventually outsold the BBC Micro version by more than two to one. Richard Hanson explains: "I think the main reason was that it was until recently the only racing car game for the Electron whereas it had a lot of competition in the BBC Micro sector".
In fact Overdrive very nearly missed being an Electron best-seller. "It took a great deal of persuasion to get Peter Johnson to perform the conversion", recalls Richard Hanson. "Yet it was a very simple job - probably only about a day's work and with royalties from Electron version sales of around 28,000 he did very nicely out of it in the end".
Towards the close of 1983 business had grown to such an extent that more hands were needed at the pump. John Dyson, unwilling to leave his job as a technician with BBC TV Leeds, was bought out and Richard's older brother Steve - a globe-trotting food scientist up until that time - joined the firm. His arrival marked the start of a period of major expansion for Superior Software, a move into new premises Richard and John had been running the business from their own homes - and ongoing success in the Electron marketplace.
During its long history Superior has occasionally dipped its toe in the water of other computer makes - though never to any great effect. Its first attempt to break out of the BBC/Electron market came at the end of 1984 when seven titles were released for the C64.
"They didn't sell particularly well", said Richard. "We did a little better the next time around, and some of our releases for other machines have done quite nicely while others have not been so well received. Overall there has been little encouragement to move our major effort away from the Acorn marketplace".
Tempest, released for the BBC Micro and Electron early in 1985, is regarded as something of a milestone for Superior because for the first time it inspired full page, full colour advertising. And it marked the point when the price of Superior games for the Electron went up for the first time - from £7.95 to £9.95.
In the summer of the same year came Repton, another tremendous success, swiftly followed by Deathstar. Christmas saw the release of Repton 2, Citadel and the software synthesiser program, Speech.
With sales of 35,000, Repton 2 is the bestselling of the famous series of captivating reptilian adventures. Counting Repton 3 and the three sets of additional screens, the series has so far notched up total sales of 120,000.
Mid-1986 saw another major event take place - an agreement with Acorn to take over publication of Acornsoft games titles. These included the mega hit Elite - which has since enjoyed sales of 17,500 in its Superior Software version - a repackaged Revs including Revs 4 Tracks, and two Acornsoft Hits compilations.
Christmas that year marked the release of Repton 3, Ravenskull and Strykers Run. "Although Repton 3 did not sell as well as its immediate predecessor, all three titles were big successes which helped us to expand the company further", said Richard.
At the start of 1987 Superior produced the first three of its famous Superior Collection series - two for the BBC Micro and one for the Electron.
"It was a year for consolidating our success", said Richard Hanson. "One notable event, however, was our first game for the Archimedes - Zarch by Elite co-author David Braben, the most skilful author I've ever come across".
Games tester David Blackburn checks out Network by Peter Scott for inclusion in a new Electron compilation
Christmas saw the release of Life of Repton and the first Play It Again Sam compilation, both hits.
"Since the start, the Sam series compilations have always contained four titles, initially our own but more recently including games from other software houses", said Richard. "Play It Again Sam has been a great success story - we're now up to version 10 with versions 11 and 12 lined up for release before Christmas this year".
However, Richard Hanson notes that Electron disc version sales have not always come up to expectations. "Superior Collection 3 and the first Play It Again Sam have been the only Electron disc products that have sold really well", he said.
Last year Superior broke more new ground, for the first time approaching a third party developer for the rights to license a title. The result was a BBC Micro and Electron version of Palace Software's hit release Barbarian, followed soon afterwards by Last Ninja from Activision and A Question of Sport from Elite Systems.
"The move into licensing has been a success", said Richard, "though it hasn't always been plain sailing. We also tried to get permission from US Gold to produce a BBC Micro and Electron version of Outrun but couldn't pull off the deal. We'd love to produce many more conversions under licence like Barbarian and Last Ninja and the reason why we haven't done so is not for the want of trying on our part".
Superior's biggest sellers at Christmas were Exile - the result of a two-year project by Jeremy Smith and Peter Irvin - and Last Ninja.
During 1989 Superior has been busily adding to its Play It Again Sam series, as well as releasing licensed titles Barbarian II from Palace Software, Predator from Activision and Ballistix from Psygnosis. "In fact Superior Soccer, which has only just been released, is our first original program in quite a while and we expect it to do very well", said Richard. "This isn't the result of any deliberate policy - it's just the way things have fallen into place this year". Superior produced some titles for the Master Compact as part of its original deal with Acorn, its products since Repton have been BBC Master compatible, and it has since gone on to release programs for the Archimedes. "Sales of our Archimedes products have not been good overall, Zarch being the exception", said Richard. "Conqueror and Archimedes Repton 3 have been disappointing when compared to the sales we have achieved for BBC Micro and Electron games.
Has Superior ever considered producing "serious" software for the Electron? "Not really", says Richard. "Our experience is with games, a sector of the marketplace which is still very profitable for us, so there is no great urge to branch out into unknown territory.
"Having said that, we have just formed a second company called Superior Microcomputing which may lead to other projects within the computer field.
"Although our software sales have gradually declined over the past year or two from their peak, it has been a slow decline and nothing either sudden or damaging has taken place.
"There remains an enormous BBC Micro and Electron user base and I feel there is still the market to sell up to 30,000 copies of a really good product. Even during the past two years sales of our best titles have topped 20,000.
"We've dabbled with software for Amstrad, Commodore, Spectrum and Amigo machines, but the Acorn market remains the best for us.
"Our commitment to it will be seen again this Christmas by which time we'll have Superior Soccer and at least two other original games in the shops. I don't even contemplate a day when Superior Software doesn't have at least three or four new Electron games in the pipeline - if that day ever comes I'm sure it will be a long way off".
This article appeared in the February 1989 edition of the "Electron User", published by Database Publications.
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