Tucked away in the heart of Liverpool's Harley Street, down among the doctors, you can find Denton Designs. Not 'Denture Designs' as they're sometimes addressed by medical supplies firms, who can't believe that a software house could possibly set up shop in Rodney Street, Liverpool's medical heartland. Denton Designs.
As a Limited Company, Denton Designs came into being during September last year, and it consists of a nucleus of five people - John Gibson, Karen Davies, Steve Cain, Graham Everitt and Ally Noble. They first came together under the wing of the ill-fated Imagine where, amongst other things, they worked on the Megagames.
On 9th July 1984 the Imagine bubble burst. The crew that become Denton were made redundant, and suddenly found themselves embroiled in the wranglings over the rights to Bandersnatch. It seems the Receiver couldn't believe there was so little to show for the mega hyped games - little more than one disk existed, with most of the storyline and concept still inside the heads of programmers and designers.
Bandersnatch and Eugene Evans went to Fireiron, the company founded by Messrs Lawson and Hetherington, and after a few week's planning Denton Designs was set up by the Founding Five. The company's first, and major capital investment was in the Sage computer systems used by Imagine to develop games, which download code into the target home micro. An office, a telephone, some clean paper and a few sharp pencils later, Denton Designs were in business.
'We just sat down and rang round the major software companies offering our services,' Karen Davies explains. 'We were surprised at the reaction we got from companies - it was invariably favourable. Business-wise people were naturally a bit wary at first, because of the Imagine reputation, but as programmers and artists we had a good grounding and reputation, and people had heard of us through the Imagine name.'
Although Denton Designs was set up as a traditional company, which means someone has to be Company Secretary, someone else Chairman and so on, it is run very much as a co-operative. There are no immediate plans for Dentons to publish software in their own right - the company acts very much as a facilities house offering the full range of services from straight conversions, through game design to an all-in parcel including conceptualisation, game design, programming and package design.
'We all work together,' Karen told us, 'we're not frightened to criticise each other's work, and no-one's a prima donna. There's no laying down of laws, with someone saying "I'm one of the directors so you must do what I say".' Which would be difficult - everyone in the team is ranked equally as 'Director' on the Denton business cards, and nobody's absolute boss in the office. 'We enjoyed working together and writing games together at Imagine, which is why we decided to stay together and continue writing games - it's good fun,' she added.
Argument, discussion, debate are all shared, with everyone participating in the work of the company as a whole. Each program, whether it is a conversion job ('we try to squeeze them in between big projects as they pay the wages') or a major piece of work is treated as a project. Specific staff or freelance helpers are assigned to a project, but in reality everyone gets a say in the final product, passing comment as the work progresses.
So far Denton have converted Spy Hunter for the Spectrum and are currently working on implementing Roland Rat on the same machine. Gift From The Gods was their first large project, for Ocean. David Ward of Ocean wanted a new game in time for Christmas and went to Denton who put forward a couple of ideas. A choice was made, and Denton produced the game on schedule.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, previewed on the following pages by Dash Ed himself, was born from a very basic brief indeed: 'We don't want lots of Frankies running around, otherwise it's up to you' is the gist of what David Ward passed on as his requirement. And the end result is going to be pretty knockout, I assure you...
Shadowfire, commissioned by Beyond and reviewed fully this issue, is the first major piece of work executed by Dentons that's already in the shops. 'Lords of Midnight was one of the main spurs to Denton Designs - Mike Singleton is my hero,' Steve Cain explained, 'Lords of Midnight is one of my favourite games and it prompted us to approach Beyond. We did everything on Shadowfire including the packaging design, story and system.'
'We did the visuals and a full specification for the game and then talked it through with Beyond,' Karen added, 'then we went away and change a lot if it... Beyond were well impressed when we showed them the finished product.'
'We do what we want to a degree - and it's nice to be able to choose who we work for - before signing contracts we talk about how we like to work, taking responsibility for the end product.'
'People are often a bit taken aback when they come and see us for the first time,' said Ally as we stumbled into their offices after the drive from Ludlow, made near-fatal by an utter nerd who nearly had us in a ditch, 'we're all a bit of a mixture... we're all different.'
Wacky and zany, zany and wacky? Well not really, just not quite fully paid up members of the collar and tie brigade. Steve Cain could be described as a 'cyclical hippy' - he can't make his mind up whether he should grow his hair or keep it short. Every so often he scampers out, gets a super smart haircut and buys up half of Liverpool's mens outfitters' stock. Then his hair grows, and the image slowly changes back.
Karen, Ally and Steve all have an Art College background. Karen and Ally are the design mainstays who, like Steve, got involved in computer screen design when they joined Imagine. Karen, who was working on the C64 screens for Frankie when we arrived, trained in textile design which led her to a job in France. This was followed by a spell freelancing in Italy, then she returned to this country and was 'headhunted' into Imagine.
Ally Noble, on the other hand, the Queen of the Spectrum Screen (she'll murder me when she reads that) was a community artist type person who was working on a travelling video workshop project before going to Imagine for an interview. Ally met Steve Cain in the interview room and immediately started chatting to him about old times when they were at Liverpool Art College together - and despite their unusual approach to formal interviews, they were both hired!
Of the quintet, John Gibson's progress into games programming is probably the most spectacular. He was working in Cornwall installing suspended ceilings in offices when he decided to give it all up, move to Liverpool and enrol on a TOPS computer programming course. Newly qualified when he finished the course, John seemed destined to serve his time in the data processing bowels of some large company's mainframe installation.
The 'cyclical' hippy - Steve Cain (top) with longer hair in an earlier publicity shot
Then, over a pint, he was asked by an Imagine person if he was a machine code programmer. 'Yes,' John replied, and he was hired on the spot. A few weeks later he was zooming round the streets of London in a company Porsche, getting paid a handsome salary for writing code on the Spectrum and watching the fire extinguisher fights in Chateau Imagine with amazement.
'I couldn't believe it,' he said, 'suddenly I'd got the kind of job my Mum was always on at me to get.' Sadly it didn't last too long - now there's not even a company C5 at Denton, and serious work is going on all day (and into quite a few nights).
Graham Everitt - 'Kenny' to all his friends, including his wife - was originally a carpenter. Like John, he changed trades and worked on a freelance basis for Imagine writing their systems software and developing utilities for the Sage machines. Now with Denton, Kenny is still the Main Man when it comes to sorting out the Sages, but he's started work on games programming too, and is currently working on Frankie.
Dentons have no plans to publish software in their own right just yet, although Karen admitted 'the more we get into it, the more we want to see a game on the shelves with the Denton Design name on it.' It's a matter of economics ultimately. Denton is not in a financial position to publish just yet. 'We had originally planned to sit down at the start of this year and assess our progress and make decisions about where the company should be going,' Kenny explained, 'but somehow we never quite had the time. In the longer time we would like to bring out our own titles.'
Shadowfire 2 and a high speed, arcade-action sports game with detailed animation are the next two projects on the Denton Drawing board. A complete system, which could be used for educational programs as well as for games, is under development at Denton. Shadowfire, with its icons is part one, Frankie with the windows is part two and Shadowfire 2, which will have animated graphics controlled through icons will form part three.
A churlish observer would point out that icon driven software and windows zooming out of the screen are hardly innovative in themselves, having been well-established in business software. But it's the implementation that counts, and the way these features are incorporated into the game design which makes the Denton product outstanding. Anyway, no-one else had the programming or conceptual skills to incorporate windows in an arcade-adventure type of game, nor did the idea of having a non-text adventure see the light before Shadowfire.
Not surprisingly, the Five at Denton get a little peed off with the 'Ex-Imagine' label that is so easy to apply them. After all, they're just as much ex-ceilling fitters and ex-community artists. No. Given the standard of their product, the innovative qualities of their game designs together with the enthusiasm they have for the job they do (which shows through in the software they produce) it's much fairer to say that Imagine was 'Pre-Denton'. So there.