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Company Profile: Big Red Software

David Crookes

Feature


Paul Ranson is sitting in his living room, children charging around him...

Published on Jan 19, 2009

Paul Ranson is sitting in his living room, children charging around him, ‘Shall we leave you to it,’ we ask him. “No, I’m fine to talk,” he answers and launches into a potted history of his former company, Big Red Software, remembering the minutest of details and a host of names. “Is anyone actually interested in Big Red?” he inquires, laughing. “I was around 19 or 20 when I set it up. I’m 40 now.”

Grown up he may be, but his love of games remains. Having decided against joining the Royal Air Force, he left sixth form and began his career as a programmer for Binary Design. After three to four years, the firm was employing 40 staff, all managed by Paul. “I had to make a decision,” he says. “And at that time, setting up your own company and doing your own thing was the trend – so that’s what I did, setting up an office in a warehouse in Macclesfield and forming my own company, Big Red. I simply don’t know how the name came about.”

The firm started writing titles such as the Fun School series for Europress and began knocking out the likes of Double Dragon for the Spectrum and European Superleague for the Amiga. It wasn’t long before Big Red was on its way to success.

At that time, there were only a handful of people at the firm. Paul was manager and Spectrum/Amstrad CPC programmer. His brother, Pete, was the resident artist; Gary Hughes programmed the PC and Amiga; and all Commodore 64 work was outsourced to freelancer Andy Torkington. Freelance musicians sorted out the music.

“That was pretty much standard in those days,” says programmer Fred Williams, who joined shortly after Binary Design closed down in 1990, and brought Spectrum and Amstrad experience with him. Not only that, but he also took along half-completed Binary project New York Warriors. “That got me the job,” says Fred.

As well as games, the company also put together a few non-games: basically interactive puzzles for a Eurotunnel exhibition centre and a tutorial for a steelrefining plant. As the money rolled in from such projects, Big Red was able to move to plusher premises.

Things were looking good. “We were pretty much in cahoots with Codemasters by then,” says Fred, pointing toward the close relationship Paul had fostered with Codies founders Richard and David Darling. Big Red had been touting its Wacky Darts game to every budget Spectrum publisher it could think of, having been inspired by Binary Design’s darts game 180. That game had sold via Mastertronic and managed to shift 300,000 copies. Paul showed the Darlings the sales figures as an indication of how well it could do and Codemasters snapped up the game. From that moment on, the two companies were inseparable.

“The Darlings liked what they saw,” says Paul. “They were impressed by our output and our games and they asked me to run Codemasters Business Limted. It meant I had to commute between Big Red in Macclesfield and Leamington for my work with Codemasters. It also meant the Darlings could concentrate on their top secret projects, the Game Genie for the consoles and things like that.”

It was a relationship that was as integral to Codemasters as The Oliver Twins, the legendary creators of the Dizzy series. But because the Olivers were busy creating a Dizzy game for the NES, Big Red was asked to produce Dizzy IV, aka Magicland Dizzy. It was the biggest game in the series to date and was well received by the gaming press.

The fourth game in the franchise was so successful that programmer Jon Cartwright was asked to write Dizzy Prince Of The Yolkfolk. He had only joined the company in 1991 on a summer job, so to get that particular gig was impressive – so impressive that, following the completion of his computer science degree, the Spectrum and CPC specialist got a fulltime job with Big Red.

Dizzy Prince Of The Yolkfolk only really existed because Codies needed a title for a Dizzy V game pack to sell that Christmas but it did well, prompting Big Red Software to knock up a further Dizzy title in which the egg-shaped character was going to flit between movie plots in a Hollywood setting. It was to be called Movieland Dizzy.

It caused a massive argument between Codemasters, the Olivers (who created Dizzy) and Big Red. The Codies felt that Dizzy should remain in fantasy settings and should not be pitted in a realistic game. Big Red felt it would take the series in a fresh direction. Codemasters won the row and Dizzy was removed from the game. A new, chumpier character replaced him and Seymour was born.

“Codemasters and the Olivers preferred to keep Dizzy in his home fantasy environment,” explains Fred. “But we argued that the movieland design didn’t actually feature any real-world film studio stuff and was entirely set in the movies themselves. But there was no way we could persuade them so we tweaked the game so that we ended up with real-world studio stuff with a new character although we kept the Dizzy graphic adventure title engine. We thought if you’ve got a game mechanic that works, just keep using it.”

The result was Seymour Goes to Hollywood and it was followed up with Wild West Seymour, a game that had actually been pitched at the same time as Movieland Dizzy.

“Wild West Seymour wasn’t a graphic adventure at all to begin with,” Fred reveals. ”It was intended to be something like Feud, with two characters running around a maze collecting bits of, well, something, to throw at each other. The title, though not the design, later got reused for Seymour’s stab at the ‘episodic gaming’ genre.”

Big Red was proud of Seymour. It was keen to differentiate the character from Dizzy who was an egg and moved around by performing somersaults and leaping around platforms. Seymour had more puzzles, with the platforms taking second place. “We also made sure the plots were very different,” says Fred. “The Dizzies tend to be ‘Dizzy’s got everyone into trouble, and has to get them all out of the mess he put them in’, and set in fairytale worlds. Seymour’s plots were about everyone being let down by someone else. Seymour had to step in and make everything right by cheering people up.’”

Shortly after, Big Red was called upon to produce Dizzy III.V, a demo version of Dizzy IV earmarked for a Crash cassette. Codemasters had wanted the Dizzy game to consist of the first few rooms, but since Magicland Dizzy’s beginning is simply ‘walk left and jump the shark’, it wasn’t much fun.

Fred scribbled a four-room introduction design, Pete created new graphics (and with such a small adventure, he could include big animated objects like a teleportation machine), and two days later the covertape demo was complete. Unfortunately, Crash then decided to describe the newly introduced youngster egg as Dizzy’s son. “It got us into no end of trouble with the Olivers,” said Fred.

“He’s just a generic young egg, okay?” A similar demo was created for Seymour called Take 1. This time the design was completed over a weekend with a further two days implementing the film recording and playback work. It was used on Your Sinclair and Amstrad Action covertapes.

When Wild West Seymour was released in 1992, things changed even more. Big Red decided that people didn’t like the way the games were getting bigger and increasingly complicated, particularly because games in those days didn’t have a Quick Save feature and they had to be played through in one sitting. So it went for episodes.

Fred said: “The little covertape game, Seymour Take 1, had proved popular so we thought why not release a series of something sort of in between sized? It was an idea before its time and ended up being implemented oddly, with all of the episodes bundled into a single title.”

In the same year, travelling was proving quite difficult for Paul and so he decided to move Big Red again. It took residence on an industrial estate outside Leamington Spa, a stone’s throw from Codemasters HQ.

By day, Big Red produced 8-bit games while at night it found Game Genie codes. It meant the team burnt the midnight oil disassembling Z80 code and using logic analysers to work out when lives were lost. Jon laughs: “We had a writer called Keith Stuart who was writing the inane ‘30 worders’ for the Game Genie code manual. He wrote some stuff that cracked me up: ‘Doctor Mario: He’s the master surgeon of mirth, he’s the gynaecologist of giggles, he’s Doctor Mario’. Probably not the marketing line Nintendo would have used.” Keith Stuart currently writes for The Guardian.

With the move to Leamington, it was time for another recruitment drive. Lyndon Homewood and Chris Swan were taken on (both now working for Blitz Games. One of Lyndon’s major projects was on the PC port of Micro Machines which Fred and Jon also contributed to.

Fred also produced Micro Machines for the Game Boy. It was risky since Codemasters were still in Nintendo’s bad books and the company was debating whether it would be producing any Game Boy titles at all. Big Red went ahead regardless, using the Codie’s in-house manufactured Orac development kits that had been created alongside the Game Boy Game Genie’s Software. It was eventually released by Ocean.

In 1993, another move was on the cards. Big Red moved to Southam, sharing offices with a microscope distributor, while switching from last-gen development for Codemasters to PC development with Domark. But the company still created outsource-style artwork for Micro Machines 2 on Genesis.

Other new blood was brought in, including Mark Neesam, Paul Jennings, Brian Hartley, Rich Jones, Mike Procter, Tom Adams (all of whom were artists of various flavours since games were starting to become significantly more art heavy). The firm also employed its own musical talent rather than relying on freelancers. Enter Gez Gourley and a huge collection of keyboards and other mysterious devices with knobs on.

Yet relations between Big Red and Codemasters had become strained, leading to a parting of the ways in 1993. Despite that, Codies founder David Darling, who recently sold his remaining shares in the firm, has fond memories of Big Red. “They did a lot of games for us,” he said. “They were very productive, hard working and a fun bunch of guys to work with. For Paul to became our development manager and still manage Big Red must have been quite hard work. They had some impressive staff: Fred, one of their programmes, is very, very good and the developer’s strength was that they concentrated on gameplay and were original and innovative.”

Big Red Software continued without Codemasters and began working on three-dimensional games, among them Tank Commander. It was the most expensive title Big Red had ever produced, costing £80,000 and it was earmarked for a Domark release. Paul had been approached by Domark and later had been invited out to the E3 show that year, spending time on the flight sitting next to Philip Oliver.

It was to be a disaster personally for Paul – his baggage had gone missing so the only clothes he had were the ones he was wearing – but professionally, it worked out well. He was introduced to the men behind Eidos and a series of lengthy meetings followed. They let him in on the secret that Eidos was going to float the business on the stock exchange and they said they were impressed by Big Red’s work. Tank Commander was well received on its release, in particular for its use of local area networks.

At the time Big Red was also working with some of the very early 3D graphics cards from Yamaha and a variety of the VR headsets. Jon recalls: “I had a visit from the Yamaha guys and Paul was out of the country so it was down to me to entertain them. They were quite keen to go sample some local beer so I took them to a pub in Leamington and then asked where they’d like to go to eat. I took them for a curry.”

Soon, Big Red was working on Big Red Racing, producing it from the firm’s new office in Southam. It was another massive title for the firm and was released in 1995. Fred says: “I’d written the map-renderer and editor for Tank Commander, and wrote a split-screen jeep-racing game demo using the same engine. Mark Neesam put a level together, and it grew from there. It’s the last game that I can claim to have both designed and coded. There’s a fair amount of programmer art in there too. Games are getting too big for that wide a job role these days, though downloadable games look like reviving the idea.”

Artist Brian Hartley says Big Red Racing was his first real 3D game. “Creating 3D models of the vehicles was something that has stayed in my memory. I used graph paper to draw out the initial design, then typed the relevant co-ordinates into a text file. It seems almost surreal when you consider the advances in technology over the last ten years or so.”

Domark, which had loved Tank Commander so much it bought Big Red for £300,000 of shares and £100,000 in cash, released Big Red Racing. But in 1995, Domark was taken over by Eidos which wanted Big Red to produce Tank Commander 2. “That game was canned,” says Paul. “It’s a real shame because as time went on Eidos kept forgetting we existed. We became more marginal and, as they bought more companies, it became clear that we were not really going anywhere. So I left.”

Brian recalls starting work on the ant-based Swarm Troopers following the Eidos takeover. “We moved to offices in what used to be a large Victorian country house but is now, sadly, a business park on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon,” he says. “Although it was an amazing place to work, the projects that we worked on never really took off. The company expanded slightly, and work started on what ended-up being Assault Corps.

“It was about this time Paul Ranson left, and Jon Cartwright took over as studio head. We then moved to premises on The Parade in Leamington Spa, where work continued on Assault Corps. Sadly things didn’t work out… I eventually left and joined Silicon Dreams in 1998.”

Jon adds: “The problem was Eidos bought US Gold and thus Core and also snapped up Domark, Big Red and Simis. Unlike the Codemasters years though, when we could produce more or less anything and they’d cheerfully release it on the grounds that the vast majority of it would float, Eidos weren’t interested in anything we put together.

Out of that spending spree, they’d got Tomb Raider, of course, which took quite a bit of living up to. We were in the slightly bizarre situation of being paid by Eidos, but pitching our games to Mindscape and Acclaim, and having them pull out, often quite late into development. After rather too much of this, Eidos pulled the plug.”

Big Red Software changed its name to Corrosive Software and Jon attempted a management buy-out to allow the team to finish the PC/PSone game Hard Corps with Acclaim. It didn’t come off and the Big Red story ended, many of its staff managed to get jobs with Blitz Games, which was run by the Oliver Twins. Still, one thing is for sure, the Big Red Software name will not be forgotten...

 

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