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In the early 1980s, Mark Eyles teamed up with friends Nick Lambert and John Hollis to form Quicksilva, a pioneering force in the computer gaming industry. In this interview from May 2001, Mark discusses those days and what he has been doing since.
Had you ever come across a computer before helping out Nick Lambert?
Yes, I'd used one a little at college. Not even sure what sort of computer it was. I wrote a couple of simple programs in Basic.
How long was it until the rest of the original Quicksilva crew joined the cause?
John Hollis was already working with Nick in his spare time, designing the hardware and working on games. The next full-time member of staff was my girlfriend Caroline Hayon (now Caroline Eyles - we eventually got round to marrying). Caroline later became the Chief Game Lord. Soon after this, Quicksilva started to earn enough to employ John, so he packed in the day job and started working for Quicksilva full-time. After this we moved out of Nick's back room and into a small shop in Northam Road [Southampton], though Nick and John continued to work from home coding, while Caroline and I ran things day to day.
Around this time we were getting a lot of orders from abroad, so invited Rod Cousens to join us. He had tried to sell Nick insurance and seemed to know more about business than the rest of us. He was specifically brought in to handle overseas sales - though Caroline and I found his coffee making skills of special use. Rod now runs Acclaim Europe.
You're quoted as saying there was nothing romantic about those very early days. Do you still feel that way?
Romantic is how you might feel about them looking back. At the time it was both very exciting and extremely hard work. I remember paracetamol being essential equipment for getting through the days.
Did any of you ever believe that there was a future in what you were doing?
Yes. It never seemed like it would ever go away again.
Did you feel like a pioneer, that what you were doing was significant, or was it just a convenient alternative to the dole?
It did feel pioneering. It was all so new. We were inventing the industry day to day. There were no guidelines, no existing business models to copy. Very few games to draw inspiration from. The only way we could see if something would work was to try it out and learn from what happened.
I understand you were the inventor of the game inlay blurb. You must be proud!
Oh yes, that was me! This was a time when very few games were story-led. They tended to be more abstract. When we were putting together the cover for QS Defenda, I suggested to Nick that I write some copy for the inlay to spice it up a bit and give the game an added dimension. We were tapping into people's fantasies, giving them the opportunity to pretend they were that starfighter pilot, adventurer and so on. The cover blurb was a way of enhancing that fantasy - another way of putting Quicksilva ahead of the competition.
This found it's ultimate expression in a tag line I put together for one of our adverts: 'Free Universe with Every Tape' (at this time all our games were supplied on cassette tapes). Another part of selling these fantasies was the superb artwork we commissioned for the covers of our games, our main artists being Steinar Lund, Dave Rowe and Rich Shenfield.
Was the computer industry as cosy as it was sometimes portrayed, or was it actually bitterly competitive and incestuous?
Fairly incestuous and, in the early days at least, we were all chums. Companies were in friendly competition with each other. The industry was growing incredibly fast, so at this time there was a big enough demand to keep everyone in the black. I guess things started to become less cosy around the time Quicksilva was sold. The market was becoming more competitive, more 'suits' were arriving.
What prompted the sell-out to Argus Press, when Quicksilva was in a relatively strong position?
As the two major shareholders, it was Nick and John's decision. Personally both Rod and I would have been happy to keep going, but with Nick and John keen to sell that wasn't possible. Rod negotiated the deal, and did a brilliant job of it. No one else around at the time got as good a deal as us, though some tried later when times got a little leaner. In retrospect it was a good time to sell, right at the peak of the first wave of the industry's success.
People don't always realise that we had our hands tied at Quicksilva for almost a year during those negotiations. We were unable to make decisions without referring them to Argus Press first. I guess they were worried we'd run off with all the good bits and leave them with nothing. This made running the company very difficult and meant that we were losing ground during that year rather than growing at the rate we would otherwise have done. I guess if things had been different then it would have been great to have continued to build up Quicksilva, but then if things had been different maybe there wouldn't have been a Quicksilva.
How did things change after the takeover?
Things continued under their own momentum for a while. But it was not the same. In the end Argus Press closed down the office in Southampton and absorbed Quicksilva into their London offices.
When did you finally get out and what have you done since leaving Quicksilva?
I left Quicksilva soon after it was sold and set up a holography studio. I made holograms for a couple of years, also doing some freelance design work during this period, including going to Holland for a week a month to design games for Aackosoft. I went on to do much more freelance game design work for companies like Sega, Electronic Arts, SCI, Melbourne House, Activision, Microprose, and Hasbro. While doing this, I also found time to write a couple of series for 2000AD (Wire Heads and ParaSites) and spent 2 years scripting strips for Sonic the Comic, worked on a comic proposal for Fleetway for a comic called Alternity (a name I came up with).
I ran a company with Nick Cook (now of Pivotal Games) called Focus Creative Enterprises supplying design and graphics to games companies. A little before its time this was. We eventually called it a day, Nick went to head up graphics at Microprose and I went back to freelance designing and script writing.
More recently I teamed up with John Hollis (ex Quicksilva) for a while and, among other things, we worked on some interesting blue sky technology for some international companies - massively multiplayer games and also a board game system that interactively commanded your video recorder. Then I came to Rebellion as Head of Design, combining designer and producer roles.
Is there anything you miss about the old days?
Being able to create a game in a couple of months. The small 'cottage industry' style of the industry.
Did you have a favourite Spectrum game?
No, I have four games:
The Sentinel - A completely original classic and graphically breathtaking on the Spectrum.
Ant Attack - Still a classic and you could tell that it was created by a sculptor. Written by Sandy White.
Time Gate - Atari's Star Raiders on the Spectrum, predating Elite. Written by John Hollis.
Though my overall favourite is a game I designed for Activision/Electric Dreams: Aliens. Claustrophobic and scary. To my knowledge the first use of a 360-degree wrap around background to give an illusion of playing in a 3D world. Incidentally Nick Cook did the graphics for this.
Did you have any favourite industry characters?
Mel Croucher's PiMan.
What became of Nick Lambert? Do you still stay in touch with him or the rest of the team?
Sadly Nick died a couple of weeks ago (April 2001). Though he did go out in style. After windsurfing and swimming on a sun-soaked beach in Bonaire (in the Caribbean) for a couple of hours, he laid down at the edge of the water and died (of a heart attack). He was 49. We will all miss him. I still see John and Rod. Sometimes we reminisce :)
Do you have any anecdotes about your Quicksilva days that you can share?
Well there was that time when we got chased around Singapore by software pirates after discovering the Sinclair distributor was pirating our games...
And on a personal note, Alien vs Predator gave me the willies like no game before or since, so keep up the good work at Rebellion.
Keep a look out for Wardog, a new RPG we're working on at Rebellion. It's also going to be a comic strip. Oh, and also on a personal note can I say hello to my boys Joe and Tom?
My thanks to Mark for the interview. You can find his website here.
Read Mark's first-hand account of Quicksilva's birth and early success here.
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