Design Design might not be as well known as other developers from the 8-bit period, but that doesn’t make its story any less interesting. Formed within the halls of Manchester University and originally known as Crystal Computing, it quickly delivered a string of entertaining games, from Halls Of The Things to Dark Star and Nosferatu. Here, co-founder Ian Stamp reveals how it all started.
Many people behind the booming games software industry of the early Eighties began their love of computers while studying at university and the men behind Crystal Computing were no exception. “Chris Clarke and I lived in the same corridor in halls of residence at Manchester Uni,” starts co-founder Ian Stamp, “and we came up with the name after seeing an advertisement for a similarly named company in a magazine.” Ian was in the middle of a computer course although, as was not uncommon for the time, did not own one himself: “But I bought a ZX81 once we started Crystal. I needed it then.” Officially Clarke and Ian were equal partners and attended several trade shows with two other colleagues, usually in Ian’s 1970 Ford Escort, tightly packed with bulky televisions, ZX81s and cassettes. “We spent a lot of time copying cassettes on our hi-fis” smiles Ian, “and would often still be copying the night before a trade show.”
Ian’s chief desire was to code games on the Sinclair machine. “But Chris wanted me to do it all while he concentrated on marketing. I didn’t have the time or inclination to do that once we had graduated from the ZX81 to the Spectrum.” With Ian more concerned with achieving his degree and disinterested in games and low-level coding, the young entrepreneurs parted company early in 1983 after just one year in business together. “I made quite a lot of money in that short time,” recalls Ian, “but it was obvious the industry was growing fast and we didn’t have the resources, time or skills to keep up.”
The ZX Spectrum was a big source of income for the developer, with the majority of its games being released for it.
Already working for Crystal was Graham Stafford, also of the same halls of residence at Manchester University. “Chris [Clarke] was the lab partner of Charles Cecil,” remembers Graham, “who was involved in Artic Computing at the time. Chris went to a trade show with Charles and thought ‘I could do this’ which inspired him to start Crystal. Chris approached anyone he saw that could code a game well, me included, as his view was, quite rightly, that the more we published the more successful we would be.” Then, shortly after Graham, another key figure in the history of the company would join who would go on to code some of the most technically brilliant Spectrum games of the Eighties: Simon Brattel. “I always dreamed about having a computer, probably from something like the Goodies where they had these bloody great things with huge tapes going round,” laughs Simon. At the university, Simon had already bumped into Neil Mottershead, who at this stage (1981) he readily admits was ‘a much better programmer than I was.’ Simon’s talent and main interest lay in computer design; he had created his own computers from what parts he could acquire and it was on one such homebrew machine that Neil Mottershead adapted an assembler utility called Zeus.
Around the same time, Simon bumped into a ‘strange chap’ at a local bookstore. “He was perusing the 6502 section and I was in the Z80,” he says with a smile. “We took the piss out of each other and then about a year later we ended up meeting again.” It was none other than Crystal’s Graham Stafford and the result of their meeting was Neil and Simon creating a version of the Zeus assembler for Crystal Computing to market. “They saw themselves as entrepreneurs, with their own software house and we were just two guys who happened to know a bit about programming.”
An early picture of the team hard at work.
After Zeus, Simon began working on his first game for Crystal along with Neil Mottershead. “We weren’t working for them, we were still students, pissing around; I remember Neil and I dimly thinking that we didn’t like any of the games out there, and wondering if we could do better.” Together with another student, Martin Horsley, Simon became fascinated by a game Neil was playing on his Nascom. “It was called Keys Of Kraal and was an early maze game, actually a very good game for the time, very much wandering around a maze and using magic.” Call it cockiness, or just complete faith in their own abilities, but the three students were soon thinking how they could improve the game with real-time combat and more monsters. “We tried to do things that had never been done before,” recalls Simon, “like having objects and creatures that actually existed off the screen and making sure the enemies had the same weapons as you did, which was quite rare then.” Halls Of The Things for the Spectrum became a huge hit for Crystal, catapulting it up the software house league. “We wrote it for fun, designing the game we would like to play,” says Simon, “and I remember one evening we took it up to one of the common rooms at the university halls of residence. Over the course of four hours it was full of people who were just blown away, fighting over the Spectrum to have a go. The three of us backed away, staring wide-eyed at this roomful of people and said to each other ‘we might have something here!’” Graham Stafford remembers seeing Halls for the first time: “The original version was on Simon’s homebrew machine in black and white, but quite well developed by the time Chris and I first saw it. It was fast, varied and had brilliant gameplay.”
By the time Halls was released Simon was busy working on his next game, a fast shoot-’em-up, slightly influenced by a famous arcade game. “I always liked Defender,” he admits, “but could never bloody play it. It was too fast and I didn’t like the controls. But I thought it was brilliant, a great piece of programming.” Simon’s goal was to create a frame-locked version on the Spectrum with as much speed as possible to show that such games could be created on the Sinclair computer. Already utilising devious tricks and techniques to get the most out of the machine such as using code fragments rather than character-drawn routines and graphical data to save memory, Invasion Of The Body Snatchas! was a more defined indicator of what lay ahead for the coder.
The popularity of Halls Of The Things ensured it received a sequel.
But despite these successes, all was clearly not well at Crystal with a division existing between the development team consisting mainly of Neil, Simon and Martin and the publishing and marketing arm controlled by Chris Clarke and Graham Stafford. Unsurprisingly, the latter two were keen to ensure that the Crystal brand remained at the forefront of all packaging and programs; the coders operated under a name that Simon had coined in the early Seventies. “I had been making amplifiers as a kid, and had this vague idea of setting up a design commune… I was very naïve,” he laughs. “So I came up with this name, Design Design.” The two names ensured there was a strange relationship between coders and publishers. “They didn’t want our names to appear anywhere as they wanted the games to be Crystal products – which was fair enough. But Neil and I wanted to ensure they couldn’t take us out of it, so we snuck ourselves into the code in various ways. But we actually quite liked them and it made sense to write games as that’s what the market wanted.”
The company began to gain momentum: Martin Horsley’s excellent Battlezone clone, Rommel’s Revenge, was a notable hit as was the Currah MicroSpeech-supporting text adventure, The Island. More importantly, a chance meeting within Manchester’s Deansgate branch of Comet led to a publishing deal with Steve Jackson and Penguin Books. The initial game of this relationship would be a videogame version of the first of the famous Final Fantasy books.
A Design Design’s ad showing that its games needed to be played.
“We had a meeting and all trooped down to London to see them,” remembers Simon. “They had essentially seen Halls and wanted something similar only without the magical element. They also wanted a bigger maze, more varied enemies and, funnily enough, a warlock.” Simon and Neil Mottershead set to work on increasing the size of Halls, despite the maze already being determined by the Spectrum’s memory capacity. “Halls actually had the whole map stored in memory which made it easy to do things like moving monsters. It was limited because of the big map which took up 16K of memory, so we had a problem; the consequence was that Firetop Mountain was rather sparse.” Ultimately the game’s similarity to Halls earned it few friends in the press, despite it being almost exactly what Crystal’s partners had requested. “That annoyed us because the code was completely different as we started from scratch,” says Simon. “But we were under pressure and basically pushed the memory capacity to the limit to get this damned huge maze in.”
By late 1983, tension between the disparate parties reached breaking point. Everyone had graduated (or dropped out) from university and was living in a three-story house on Cheetham Hill, Manchester; literally on top of each other. The result is what Simon refers to as ‘The Night of the Long Knives’. “It was essentially when Design Design took over Crystal,” he notes, “because we were getting fed up with Chris trying to stamp his name over everything. It was all very childish, but Neil, Martin and I fell out with him, and it ended up with Chris leaving to join Artic.” Graham Stafford, who remained, explains succinctly: “We had a ‘disagreement’. Chris left and Crystal’s sales doubled every month for the next five months.” Things were going well for the team, but sadly, it wouldn’t last forever…