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THE HAUNTED RAFTERS OF VIRGIN MASTERTRONIC by Stefan Posthuma

After some roaming around Portobello Road, which we found after
walking far too long a distance through the blazing noon sun, we
finally spotted a very small sideway called 'Vernon Yard'. In
fact, it was so remotely tucked away between the typical older
London suburbian-like houses that a Portobello Road resident
didn't even know where it was when we politely asked him. It was
like a small square with a couple of doors. One of the doors,
number 2-4, had a shiny plate next to it on which "Virgin
Games/Mastertronic" was engraved in written letters.
We were immensely hot and tired, and the backpacks were nagging
us as if they were soldier's bags filled with bricks. The sun was
treating us to some heat we accepted with a weary feeling, and
sweat was forming to make us feel even worse.
We were glad to step into the office and drop our bags in a
corner, sighing very deeply. The girl at the desk eyed us like we
were some lost campers and asked us what we wanted (though not
particularly in a way such as might be imagined by the
aforewritten line). When we told her we had an appointment with
Lesley Walker, she told us to wait a while and offered us a glass
of orange juice each, which we of course accepted gladly (and
quite greedily, probably).
We sat down and caught our breaths while looking awkwardly
through the office. We were quite nervous, as can be easily
imagined if one'd take into account that this was our first visit
in a long row. We hadn't any experience whatsoever and we really
had to rely on improvisation.
Slowly, our perspiring foreheads dried up.
So did the glasses of orange juice we had been offered. We drank
the fluid as if we were thirsty travellers straight from a lost
safari from the hell of the Sahara Desert.
The Vernon Yard offices actually used to be the original Virgin
Record office up until 1984 - yes, the Virgin Records of Richard
Branson, which was originally started in 1970.
This building was originally a series of stable and coach houses
dating back to the mid-nineteenth century and the story goes that
it is haunted. Two members of the original Gang of Five (five
people that were with Virgin right from the beginning) claim to
have seen strange apparitions, heard footsteps and doors opening
and closing when they were here alone at night. The other story
is that someone was hung from the rafters of what now is the
marketing department!
We needn'd wait long; Lesley, a woman with a sturdy Scottish
accent, came down the stairs and for the first time I shook the
hand of a British software official. She guided us up a flight of
stairs, and we entered the office of the general manager of
Virgin/Mastertronic: Brynn Gilmore. There, we interviewed both
Lesley and Brynn.

What is Mastertronic up to, or, Virgin Games in general?
Brynn: Let's start with Virgin. After we bought Mastertronic, we
assigned various labels to various areas. So the Virgin Games
label has now become the arcade/shoot-'em-up label if you like.
The first release on that label has been "Silkworm", and we're
very pleased about that - it's a good piece of programming.
So that was the first. We did a deal with The Sales Curve, and
there were five titles within this agreement, which were
"Silkworm", "Gemini Wing", "Continental Circus", "Shinobi", all
of which will be released this side of Christmas. "Gemini Wing"
will be released on the 24th of August.
Do you have any in-house programmers?
Brynn: We used to have the 'Gang of Five', a sort of in-house
team which tended to fluctuate between four and seven at a given
time. Apart from that we had three or four programmers, and we
generated all of our products mainly in-house. But now the image
has grown and we are no longer a cottage-industry. We've had to
increase the loads downstairs and bring in more programmers and
look to outside development houses who already has massive
resources and could do a good job. Someone in-house could do the
managing on day-to-day level. That way, we get a diverse range of
products instead of having the same style all the way.
We've done some great products downstairs. The programmers we
had then are now mainly project managers; they will work
alongside a particular development house on the product from the
beginning to the end.
We have now sort of increased everything we do on the ST.
'We', does that also include Melbourne House?
The Melbourne House label has now become a fantasy/adventure
role-playing label. Its previous past included "Xenon", "Double
Dragon", etc., but the new product is basically along the style
of "War in Middle-Earth", which was a role-playing game.
We're Tolkien fanatics and we really liked that game. Mike
Singleton (the programmer, ED.) always does these HUGE jobs -
like "Lords of Midnight" on the Spectrum and also "Whirligig" on
the ST. We would have liked to talk with him.

Lesley: The problem with Mike is that he actually isn't employed
by us so that we can't actually say to Mike to actually come down
because he has his own company.
You already mentioned "Xenon". The programmers who did that, the
Bitmap Brothers, why did they leave Mastertronic, or Virgin?

Brynn: They actually left Mastertronic as such. I think it
actually was a clash of personalities. "Xenon" was very, very
good indeed. I think it was partly a political thing, it was an
inevitable break.
What is going on here in this room?
Brynn: This is the Marketing Department. We still do development
work downstairs; we also have interactive video and CD/CDI/CD-ROM
work going on downstairs. But we're basically a marketing
company. That's what we wanted to do: Marketing the products as
opposed to the laborious job of developing.
The storyboard is kicked around to several people within the
organisation and that is sent to a development house. That is
then followed very closely. Time will bring it back in and then
we'll start marketing.
When was Virgin Games started?
Lesley: Eighty-three. This used to be the original Virgin
Records office but when they ran off to Slough Virgin Games was
put here. As each company grows, the smaller company gets in.
Brynn: We're actually a fairly large company now. Virgin games
does about 55 million pounds a year now - we also have offices in
the United States, France and Germany, and this UK office
generates about half. I'd say this office does 30 million of it.
That is quite a substantial amount. Are you hurt by piracy?
Brynn: Obviously, there is piracy. And we do intend trying to
combat that as much as possible. The newly founded ELSPA
(European Leisure Software Publishers Association) are working
closely with FAST, which is the Federation Against Software
Theft, and bring together a campaign and ways to highlight the
piracy problem to people.
When will that campaign start>
Brynn: The groundwork has all really started and you will start
seeing some articles in magazines, etcetera. The idea is to
create the awareness in the populous who actually buy products,
and try to condition them to say "we know you're gonna pirate but
the more you pirate the more you'll gonna pay at the end of the
day, and the more you take out of the industry the less we can
put back in. So if you want good product you'll have to play the
game a bit." Schoolkid piracy isn't the big part of it. The big
part is the multi-national organisations that are selling
counterfeit products all over the world. Spain is actually
getting better; Italy is getting a little bit better; Greece is
still very very bad.
It's still very very bad but it is actually getting better a
little bit. But all the stores sell illegal products. We had a
case which was highlighted to us because we released a product,
"Dan Dare", on a Friday. On the Monday morning, when the guy from
Greece got back to us, "Dan Dare" was already in the shops.
Photocopies...inlays....the whole thing.
We also had....I wish I had a copy of it here....we had "Double
Dragon" in Italy, which was the most professional job we'd ever
seen. It was found in one of the major stores, and we couldn't
tell without very very close screening which was the original.
Absolutely brilliant. Just to hold two packs, including the
copyright notice...just identical. There were about 40-60,000
copies of that floating around Italy. To lose that revenue... It
is very professional. We were amazed at how much people put into
it. It was excellently done - no doubt about it.
Can you bring up some respect for people that do that?
Brynn: No. No. I am just really highlighting how professional
they are. It is not the schoolboy copier; it is big business
which is costing the industry hundreds of thousands and possibly
millions of pounds.
Let's get back to the other labels rather than Virgin Games.
What are they up to in the future?

Brynn: Virgin will also come out with "Double Dragon II" at
around November. Melbourne House will come with "Demon's Tomb",
"Dreadnought" and "Space Salvage", which are all part role-
playing part adventure. "Demon's Tomb" is similar to "Lord of the
Rings".
Lesley: It's all set on Exmoor, which is one of the Moors in
England. You're in present daytime and you go back about three
generations to where your ancestor is entombed in this tomb under
Exmoor. And he knows there's going to be no way to escape - he's
going to die in his tomb. He hides all these clues to what's
actually happened to him and then the next part takes you to
present day where you're his great-great-great-grandson and
you've discovered that this happened to your ancestors.
What about Mastertronic?
Lesley: (Comes in with two "Well 'ard" Mastertronic T-Shirts)
These are the new Mastertronic T-Shirts. Please wear them when
visiting other software companies - especially U.S. Gold.
What do you think of people like Jeff Minter, who has a very
personal view on things, and who really can be regarded to be
'non-standard'?

Brynn: I don't see any problem at all. Jeff does what he wants
to do and when he wants to do it. He is not controlled by any
outside forces, and does when he wants to do it. His overheads
are fairly low, so he can afford to do it. I don't think he needs
a great fortune - I don't think that's one of his ideals anyway.
If someone sits at home and writes a game, would you be prepared
to market that?

Brynn: Possibly. We're open for all products. First and foremost
I already mentioned that this is no cottage industry anymore.
We're in the business to pay the salaries of forty young people
in the building. If something is viable and marketable, if it in
some way generates cash back, we'll do it. We rarely take
something on that we feel we're going to lose on. We may do the
odd charity thing as a benefit, but generally we're here to do
the best products we can, and get something to invest back in the
company.

After Lesley went and came back with a company profile, we went
downstairs and had a look through their games testing office.
Someone was repeatedly getting load errors on a Spectrum 128K,
and various other computers were located there as well. We played
around on a very dusty 1040 ST for a while.
I couldn't resist my arcade urges and played on one of the
arcade machines present there as well. We left approximately at
one.

Disclaimer
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.