Interview: The Superior Software Years And The Future


Richard Hanson was interviewed by Crispin Boylan during Easter 1998.


I managed to get an interview with the man behind the Repton games, Richard Hanson. From a long e-mail conversation in which Richard helped me out more than I can say, I now have information on all Superior Software games and he has answered my questions admirably. You couldn't ask for a better interviewee!


Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Will you begin by telling me how you first got involved with computers and software?

From my youth I've been interested in mathematics and computers, and I decided to take a B.Sc. degree in Mathematics at the University of Leeds. Home computers were just starting to become available at that time; they were relatively expensive and very limited by today's standards. I gradually became more interested in computers, and switched degree course in my first-year at university to a B.Sc. in Computational Science.

The university courses provided a wide knowledge of programming techniques and methods. That knowledge later proved to be very useful to me in many ways when I was running Superior Software.

While I was at university I bought my first home computer, an Acorn Atom, which was the forerunner to Acorn's BBC Microcomputer. I wrote some games and other software for the Acorn Atom using Basic and a 6502 assembler, and 17 of my games and utilities were published by a Leeds-based software publisher called Program Power, which subsequently became known as Micro Power. Later I bought one of the first BBC Micros and wrote some games and utility software for that computer.

When did you form Superior Software, and what made you decide to get into the business?

I formed Superior Software in the summer of 1982 after completing my degree, and my first business partner was another graduate, John Dyson, who worked for the BBC in Leeds. I decided to set up in business because the software that I'd written for Micro Power had been commercially successful, and I felt confident that I would be able to manage the other aspects involved in running the business.

How did you go about setting up Superior Software and getting games for the new company? What was the initial reaction when Superior Software emerged into the BBC Micro marketplace?

Superior Software's first four games were published in the autumn of 1982; I wrote three of those games, and John Dyson wrote the other one. We set up Superior Software with just 100 - John and I each put 50 into a company bank account; and we placed a small black-and-white advertisement in one of the early home computer magazines - I think our first advertisement appeared in a magazine called Computing Today. All of our initial software was sold on cassette because very few BBC Micro owners had disk drives in those days. Apart from the cost of our computers, which we would have bought anyway, 100 was the most money that we would lose from the Superior Software venture if it had not worked out.

Anyway we received a very good response to our first advertisement, and the software sales which it generated covered the cost of the advertisement several times over. We started to place larger advertisements in a few magazines, and invited other programmers to send their software to us for evaluation and possible marketing by us.

Who thought of the name Superior Software?

That was my idea. Some key considerations for brandnames are memorability, snappiness and alliteration: Superior Software gave us a golden identity, and something to live up to. I've sometimes said that I might have chosen another name, but all in all I'm happy with that choice.

What was the first major success that Superior Software had? What were your feelings when it happened?

Our first big success came in the autumn of 1983, when we received some large distributor orders for about 10 of our games. I was very pleased and relieved by this success; a great deal of hard work had gone into building the company up to reach this stage.

By that time John Dyson had left the company because he enjoyed his work for the BBC and didn't want to join Superior Software on a full-time basis. Steve Botterill, a friend from schooldays, joined me before John Dyson left.

In the early days, who were your main competitors? How did you get on with your competitors?

Our main competitors in the early days were Acornsoft and Micro Power, and both of those companies produced some technically accomplished games. Another software publisher that came on the scene with some very good games was a company called Software Invasion. Those four companies pushed against the technical capabilities of the BBC Micro, and each company would regularly bring out new landmark games.

I didn't see very much of the Acornsoft management at that time, but I occasionally met the Micro Power and Software Invasion management, and everything was quite convivial. Although the four companies were in competition, we didn't abuse the professional relationships.

In particular, I've always got on well with Bob Simpson, the Managing Director of Micro Power, and we've shared a mutual respect for one another. Bob was one of the first people in the UK to appreciate that home computer software was going to become a very big profitable industry. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, I had written some game and utilities for the Acorn Atom which Micro Power marketed while I was at university. I then wrote a further six games and utilities for the BBC Micro when it first appeared and I offered those to Micro Power for marketing. Shortly afterwards, I decided that I would set up my own business. When I told Bob Simpson about this, he asked me whether Micro Power could still publish the six titles that I had submitted to him. There had been no agreements signed for them at that stage, and those six titles would have been a tremendous start for Superior Software, but I told Bob that he could publish them. So our first conversation as competitors was gentlemanly, and that's how our relationship continued. A few years later Bob said to me: "I take my hat off to you," after Superior Software had surpassed Micro Power on the software publishing front. It was a very kind compliment.

When was it that you first realised how much of a popularity Superior Software had with BBC Micro owners, and how was that popularity reflected in Superior Software's overall chart performances?

Well, from the beginning I'm pleased to say that we've received many complimentary letters from customers and it soon became clear that people appreciated our software. All the same it was good to see that confirmed by the software charts. Gallup produced a weekly software chart, and one memorable week in January 1987 Superior Software's games were placed at positions 1, 2, 3 and 9 in the BBC Micro software chart; the top slot was filled by Repton 3, which held the number 1 position for 12 weeks, finally being overtaken by Ravenskull.

At the start of May 1987, Superior Software's titles occupied all of the top 5 positions in the chart:

BBC Micro Software Top 10 - 2nd May 1987
1 Grand Prix Construction Set Superior Software
2 Ravenskull Superior Software
3 Stryker's Run Superior Software
4 Superior Collection Volume 2 Superior Software
5 Superior Collection Volume 1 Superior Software
6 Cholo Firebird
7 Micro Power Magic Micro Power
8 Repton 3 Superior Software
9 Mini Office 2 Database
10 Winter Olympics Tynesoft

So it was evident that Superior Software games were very popular with BBC Micro owners, and we were very grateful for their continued support.

Why do you think that Superior Software has been so successful and has lasted so long? Do you think it is due to the way in which it has been run, the games it has produced, or some over reason?

I think there are several reasons:

In answering my previous question, you said that teamwork has been a prime factor in the company's success. Will you tell me about some of the people who have been on the Superior Software team?

Yes, I would like to acknowledge and thank everyone who has played a part in Superior Software's success:

In 1986 Superior Software obtained the rights to republish some of Acornsoft games. What was the main thinking behind that: were you looking for another name to consolidate Superior Software's market position, or were you motivated by lucrative Acornsoft games, such as Elite? With hindsight do you wish you had published Elite originally?

Acorn Computers approached Superior Software and some other software companies in 1986 because Acorn largely wanted to concentrate its activities on hardware rather than software. The Acornsoft label and software were worth obtaining for two main reasons: (a) Acornsoft and Acorn Computers were implicitly associated with the BBC Micro as manufacturers of the computer, and (b) Acornsoft had produced some very good software such as Elite, Revs, and some of their early games.

The Acornsoft contract could easily have gone to one of our competitors, and I felt it was very important that we gained this contract, so I designed a detailed and sophisticated business plan which we presented to Acorn. They decided to award the contract to us - however there was a potential difficulty: originally Acorn wanted us to republish most of their extensive range of games software. I thought that this would be detrimental to both parties because although Acornsoft had published some top-selling games, they had also published some fairly esoteric minority-market software as well. We talked this over, and eventually it was agreed that Superior Software would republish Acornsoft's most popular games.

Regarding David Braben and Ian Bell, the co-authors of Elite: I would have been delighted to have published Elite when it first appeared in 1984. However, at that stage Superior Software had not risen to great prominence, so understandably David and Ian did not originally offer the game to us. I was pleased to republish Elite under the joint Superior Software / Acornsoft label in 1986, and we achieved good sales figures for the game in its re-released form. David and Ian created a top quality game, and have deservedly earned a considerable amount of money from Elite, which has been published by several companies in many computer and console formats.

How many games and other software titles have Superior Software published in total?

We've published over 100 games and utilities of our own, and we've republished about 40 of the best games originally published by other companies.

What have been Superior Software's top-selling titles?

The Repton range of games has been the biggest selling series for us. There were seven BBC Micro titles in the Repton series, and the cumulative sales are over 125,000 units.

After the initial success of Repton, our customers were repeatedly asking us for more so we kept producing Repton sequels. I still receive enquiries from people asking whether there will be any more Repton games. I know you want to discuss some of my future plans later in the interview, so I'll come back to that subject.

I think Repton is the kind of game that appeals to many people who would not usually play computer games; it's a brain teaser rather than being one of those games that just require dexterity and quick reactions.

Away from games, our software-based speech synthesiser called SPEECH! was a big success, and a rewarding technical accomplishment for us. It also gave us our first major television exposure, when SPEECH! received a glowing review by Fred Harris on BBC TV's Saturday Superstore programme. It's always very gratifying to receive that kind of unbiased praise for our software.

There were about 50 other titles which achieved good sales figures, including Elite, Overdrive, Tempest, Citadel, Karate Combat, Thrust, Galaforce, Ravenskull, Stryker's Run, Crazee Rider, The Last Ninja, Predator, Ballistix, Sim City, Revs, Quest, Spycat, Exile, Superior Soccer, Ricochet, and Perplexity.

You mentioned The Last Ninja. That game was originally published by Activision for other computers, and it was one of several games which Superior Software published for the BBC Micro after the original version had been published by another company. Was that your idea, or did another company approach Superior Software with that idea? What was the thinking behind those business arrangements?

It was my idea. It was becoming increasing difficult for other companies to publish BBC Micro games because the companies needed to have considerable knowledge of the compatibility issues surrounding the BBC Micro. There were four major versions of BBC Micro available - the BBC B, the BBC B+, the BBC Master, and the BBC Master Compact - together with the related Acorn Electron computer. Not only that, but Acorn had produced several different versions of the BBC Micro operating system and two versions of BBC Basic, which was often used as a shell for some of the games. So it was often a complicated task to ensure that a new BBC Micro game would function correctly across that whole range of computers and operating systems.

I looked at some of the successful games that had been published for other computers, and we started to contact those publishers to ask if they would like us to create BBC Micro and Acorn Electron versions of their games. We offered to pay them royalties or an outright payment, and not surprisingly most of the companies we approached were agreeable as it provided them with extra income and entailed very little extra work for them. It was a good symbiotic relationship in commercial terms because they received payments from us, while we obtained rights to some well known games that had already achieved prominence due to the marketing of the other versions of the games.

Exile cover

The Exile Box cover - I asked Richard Hanson whether this picture shows someone wilfully gunning down some software pirates, and he assured me it doesn't.

In my opinion Exile is the best BBC Micro game ever published. How did you make it so good?

Thank you. Exile is certainly a brilliant piece of programming work, and the game's two programmers, Peter Irvin and Jeremy Smith, must take most of the credit for that. Separately they had previously written Starship Command and Thrust respectively; as very experienced programmers they seemed to be able to take the BBC Micro right to the edge of its capabilities.

Many of the games, including Exile, had prize competitions for players who completed challenges in the games. Whose idea was it to have prize competitions associated with some of Superior Software's games, and were those prizes always awarded?

That was one of Chris Payne's promotional ideas. Some of the prizes were quite substantial; for example, a 500 sports moped was the first prize in our Crazee Rider game; and I'm sure the prize competition was a very worthwhile promotional feature for our major games. Yes, we always awarded the prizes that we described, and we were careful to deter cheating by using mechanisms such as encoding messages within the games.

What is your favourite Superior Software game, excluding those games that had originally been published by other companies?

It is definitely one of the Repton games, although it's hard to say which one I prefer; if I have to choose just one, I'll go for Repton 3.

repton

The box cover for Repton, one of RH's favourites.

Do you still own and play any of the old Superior Software games?

I think I have all of our published games, plus a few that didn't make it to publication. An unusual game called Jeremy Goes Jumping is probably the one that was closest to publication, but it didn't quite make the grade. A few people have seen a basic demonstration version of a Peter Johnson game called VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing); in fact, VTOL only exists in demonstration form because the game itself was abandoned before completion. I occasionally play some of the old games, particularly when friends ask to see the games.

There are plenty of humourous touches in some of the Superior Software games. Which game do you think is the most amusing game among those you have seen from Superior Software and other companies?

That's not so easy to answer. Many of the Superior Software games have comical elements, such as the monkeys in Exile, and some of the scenarios in Spycat.

Of course a game doesn't need to be complex to be entertaining and humorous. For example, Micro Power published a simple little game called Sheepdog for the Nascom computer, which was one of the earliest home computers in the UK. Bob Simpson showed me the game and invited me to produce an Acorn Atom version of the game, and I agreed. The Acorn Atom version had to be simple too because: (a) for speed of conversion I was writing the game in Basic, and (b) the Acorn Atom was quite limited in its capabilities - its output was fundamentally black-and-white and sounds were restricted to a single simple tone generator. Although Sheepdog was quite basic, nevertheless it was an enjoyable and sometimes quite challenging game.

The same applies to Repton in comparison with some of the recent graphically-advanced software that is available for the games consoles. Computers and games consoles have certainly leapt forward in terms of the graphical capabilities, but that factor alone doesn't lead to the games being more enjoyable. Speaking again of Repton, that's a game that frequently creates a lot of laughter; some of the alternative ideas which we devised for the Repton sequels, such as Repton Thru Time, are often greeted with incredulity when the player meets them for the first time.

I don't know which is the most amusing game I've seen; there are so many games that can make people laugh at times. Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers and Psygnosis's Lemmings are definitely contenders.

Do you long for the Superior Software days of old, or just want to forget them?

Those days were often enjoyable, and sometimes very challenging as well. I'm happy with the software we published: some of our games continue to be played today, and I think Elite, Exile and Repton will still be enjoyed in 100 years' time.

While I'm sure I'll never forget some of the significant moments, I'm now looking forward to new challenges.

As a computer, how do you rate the BBC Micro compared to the PC of today - I don't mean in terms of power, but as a development medium? How much of a following do you think the BBC Micro still has?

One of the virtues of the BBC Micro is that it is relatively easy for novices to use for creating some software of their own. The manual supplied with the BBC Micro explains initial steps in programming, and it's clearly written. Immediately a beginner can type in a few lines of Basic and write a real program - a simple program perhaps, but nevertheless a start.

The PC has gradually improved over the years, and Windows 95 was a major and much-needed step forward in my view. In terms of software development, I think the choice depends on the particular software which is being developed. Clearly the BBC Micro now has some limitations compared to modern PCs, but it remains a very useful learning base.

There are still a substantial number of people who, at least occasionally, use their BBC Micros for games or programming. Some people have suggested that the appeal of the early home computers will be sustained and possibly increase, partly for nostalgic reasons. That may well be so; there seems to be a great deal of nostalgia around, and the "progress" of recent years has surely had its drawbacks as well as its benefits.

How do you think the software games industry has changed since Superior Software's heyday?

Clearly the graphics, sound and processing capabilities of the computers and consoles have increased by leaps and bounds, although the games themselves are not necessarily more enjoyable or challenging purely because of that. There are definitely some very good new games around, but many games seem to be re-worked versions of old ideas. Considerably more money is often spent on the development and marketing of new games nowadays.

The graphics in recent games are visually more realistic and lifelike, and that factor brings with it greater responsibilities for the games producers and publishers. For example, it's now possible to depict seemingly very lifelike human torture scenes and massacres in computer and console games. The responsibilities of games producers are similar to the kind of responsibilities that film producers have, but perhaps games producers face more complex decisions because games involve greater interaction. Usually the viewers of a film cannot affect the storyline and scenes of the film they are watching; but computer game players are able to interact with the programs, so a computer game can approach reality in a way that a film cannot. Computer game players may sometimes get close to feeling those real emotions they would experience if they were actually killing another human being.

It's all a question of balance of course. I remember a few years ago an MP proposed that the Tom & Jerry cartoons were unfit for children to see because of some of the violent scenes in the cartoons. Well, I think the vast majority of people, including children, can fairly readily appreciate the difference between real violence and cartoon violence, so I don't tend to agree with that MP's view. However, some modern computer graphics are photo-realistic and often depict humans rather than imaginary cartoon-style characters. It's been said that dramatic films simply mirror society, but there have been some extreme films that have shown entirely fictional gross acts of torture created by the scriptwriter's mind, and dramatic licence used in films sometimes effectively distorts by focusing on the specific without regard for the whole. Major film producers have the power to insidiously affect society as well as just mirroring society; that power, and the responsibility which it engenders, is increasingly being put in the hands of games producers now.

Would you describe your major strength and major weakness as a businessman?

That's the kind of question that is often used in job interviews nowadays. Well, I'll do my best to give you a straightforward reply:

I have a good analytical and financial business brain; I'm a very good financial manager. The logical, analytical reasoning required to construct complex computer programs frequently comes in useful to enable me to quickly analyse day-to-day business situations and make good financial decisions.

My major weakness is that I have sometimes been too soft with people on occasions when it would have been preferable to have exerted my authority instead.

Photo of Richard Hanson

The man himself, Richard Hanson - could his success be something to do with the fact his name rhymes with Branson? Probably not.

What aspect has given you the greatest satisfaction while running Superior Software?

The gratifying comments that we've received from customers about our software and our service. The customers are always the final judges; and the complimentary letters, phone calls and e-mail messages that we've received from them over the years have been very rewarding.

What forthcoming projects and ideas do you have? Will there be anything with a Superior Software badge on it, or is your other company, Utopia Software, the way forward for you? Can we expect to see a reunion Superior Software game for the BBC Micro's 20th anniversary in 2001?

In some respects a 20th anniversary game for the BBC Micro sounds appealing, but the remaining BBC Micro software market is now very small. Eventually BBC Micro emulation on the PC might represent a new way forward for BBC Micro software.

The good news for people who love Repton is that a PC conversion of Repton 3 is in progress. At this stage I'm not sure when the conversion will be finished, but I expect that all of the 144 levels from Repton 3 and the three sequels will be made available. It's envisaged that the PC version of Repton 3 will carry the Superior Software brandname, and I hope to be able to publish some new levels, which would be our first new Repton 3 levels for 10 years. I should stress that all of this is provisional, and depends upon the progress made by the developer. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who might like to be involved in designing some of the new Repton 3 levels, or programmers who might be interested in converting other BBC Micro games into PC versions. To contact me, my e-mail address is: richard@utopiasw.demon.co.uk

I have plenty of ideas for other PC software products; first it will be important to gauge the response that Repton 3 generates in its PC form. My plans for Superior Software and Utopia Software mainly revolve around the PC and the Internet now, although of course I will always have a soft spot for the BBC Micro.

Finally, what would you say to budding entrepreneurs who are thinking of setting up their own businesses?

There are some comments I can make based upon my own experiences:

  1. Before you get involved in business, speak to some people who already have their own businesses, and ask them to tell you openly about the drawbacks as well as the benefits. It seems that many prospective businessmen and businesswomen often tend to see the rewards without fully realising the hard work and dedication that most businesses require. By all means consider getting into business, but go in with your eyes open and seek out a full panoramic view.
  2. Integrity and honesty in business are paramount considerations. It's certainly possible to make money by cheating, manipulating and misleading people; but can money made in that way really be enjoyed by the rogue entrepreneur? Look at two well-known businessmen, Robert Maxwell and Richard Branson: two men who created considerable wealth in different ways. Robert Maxwell, who had a business empire, died in 1991 - after deceiving and fiddling money from pension funds. Did Robert Maxwell look happy and contented with his life in the later years? In contrast, consider Richard Branson with his enthusiasm and zest for life. He is widely acknowledged as being a trustworthy and honest person, and his rewarding legal cases against British Airways and GTECH demonstrate his committed views against deceit and bribery. One of the 20th century's leading business tycoons, Lee Iacocca, said: "I have found that being honest is the best technique I can use. Right up front, tell people what you're trying to accomplish and what you're willing to sacrifice to accomplish it." When I mention integrity and honesty, I'm sometimes asked whether I have always been honest and fair in business. Well, my record of integrity is comparatively high - ask anyone who has worked with me - but I have definitely fallen short at times. Never has that been beneficial to me in the long run; it may have resulted in a very short-term transitory gain, but always a long-term loss.
  3. Look at your potential business from the viewpoint of what you are going to give - the products or services you will provide - in preference to what you are intending to receive from the business. You are far less likely to succeed if you approach business with a money-grabbing, insincere attitude. I think it was the American business coach, Napoleon Hill, who said: "If you don't look after your customers, someone else will."
  4. Preferably base your business around what you enjoy doing. After all, if your business proves to be successful, you may be spending many years in your chosen business field so it's important to be happy in your work. If you don't really enjoy creating the products or services you're providing, it will often show through to your customers in terms of lack of quality in the products or services, and they will tend to avoid your business in the long run.
  5. Be cautious about getting involved in business with family or friends. First and foremost, working together in business can sometimes be highly detrimental to those personal relationships. The business environment is often quite different to the social environment: critical decisions, sometimes very harsh ones, frequently have to be made in business; and business management is seldom easy. Understandably a member of the family or a friend may have more difficulty in accepting your managerial decisions than another employee would. Provided there is a totally clear and precise understanding of the working relationship, it may succeed - assuming of course that everyone involved keeps to that understanding. However, people and circumstances change, so that understanding can rarely remain static.
  6. Put agreements down in writing. For major agreements I think it's important to have a solicitor at least oversee the agreement, but many agreements do not necessarily need the involvement of a solicitor; just a very simple written statement signed by everyone involved can be a great help. Two people involved in a verbal conversation will later tend to have different recollections of their conversation - sometimes their recollections will be widely different - and this differentiation effect increases as time passes. Writing down agreements has three other benefits: (a) it serves to clarify what is being agreed because we have to decide how to express the concept clearly in writing; (b) the process of writing down the concept will sometimes spark off new business ideas or possibilities; (c) a written agreement helps to discourage fraud, although it's thankfully relatively uncommon. If fraud occurs despite having the written agreement, the agreement makes it more likely that the case can be proven and due compensation received.
  7. Have great respect for risk. Business is frequently about risk-taking since we can rarely be sure of the outcome that will result from a particular business decision. Good business management involves controlled risk-taking: assess the options, estimate the gain from each option, and evaluate the risks associated with each option before making a major decision. It's often best to start small and build your business on your profits. I know of several businesses where the proprietors put considerable money into their businesses, sometimes even borrowing money by re-mortgaging their houses, only to see their businesses quickly fail. A business venture is an exciting prospect for many new entrepreneurs, and their vision sometimes becomes distorted by a kind of false optimism or rose-coloured glasses. There's certainly no point in being pessimistic about a new enterprise, but look at everything rationally and realistically - do some serious "what if?" thinking. For example, many shopkeepers see their profits decline when a new large supermarket or chain store opens nearby. If you are considering setting up your own shop, it's naive to ignore those possibilities - that might seem obvious, but some people do that. Research carefully before you commit any money to a new business, and take limited risks at each stage of expansion.

Thank you for answering my questions.

You're very welcome. I hope that reading about some of my experiences will be useful to other people.


Copyright Richard Hanson, 1998-2004