Mel Croucher was a significant figure in the early days of home computing. His company Automata made games that were nothing if not imaginative, and introduced a memorable character in the form of the PiMan. Mel's appearances at trade shows and his outspoken opinions on industry issues were legendary. In this interview from May 2001 he shared some of his memories of the time.
When and how did you first become involved in home computers?
I programmed my first computer in 1966 - punch-card technology - and got it to play 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star' after only six months. I reckoned computers were a total waste of time, and stuck to my day job. I was an architect, but I recovered from that illness in 1977 and got into broadcasting, which means I was into storing stuff on audio. When the Z80 machines came along they had amazing amounts of data stored on cassette, like 1K! It just seemed the natural thing to do to get back into computing.
When did you first see a Spectrum and what were your thoughts?
After the Z80, the ZX-81 was a dream come true. Four whole kilobytes of memory. We were bashing out two games a day at one point. And that was before opening time. Naturally, I bought my Speccy on day one of release, and we had our first game on the market pronto. Full colour, audio soundtrack, real time adventure. What were my thoughts? Let's have fun. Let's make money.
At the time, did you believe home computers were the future or perceive them as merely a curio?
Oh yes, I was celebrating and warning about the revolution from the outset.
How did Automata come about?
I was in the Channel Islands with my chum Christian Penfold doing some audio work. We had to take part in a fancy dress competition. We didn't have any costumes, so we stripped down and I wore a potato and he wore a tomato to cover our modesty (the Great Dick-tater and Awe-Tomato, in case you're interested). I had this ZX-81 with me and I remember the exact moment when we realised you could use primitive BASIC to make fun. We decided to set up as a computer games company then and there, and to name it after one of our "costumes". Automata sounded a bit more friendly than Dictator, so Automata it was.
Was it always your intention to explore new ways of using the medium, or was that more of a reaction against the way the industry was developing?
I had no idea I was exploring new ways of using the medium. I just assumed that all computer entertainment would be like making movies.
In the mid-80s, the market started to become stale and generic, in my opinion. Do you agree and why do you think this was?
There are only two games in the world - chess and ping-pong. All computer games are a varying combination of these same two elements. I think the market was stale and generic from the outset, my stuff included. All I did was try and involve the player more, and inject a bit of humour. Of course companies are only concerned with making money. That's what they're for. It's individuals that have the luxury of experiment and innovation.
How does today's industry compare with how it was in the early days? Has the sense of adventure returned, or is it still first and foremost a business?
Don't forget there were only a few thousand computer games players out there when we started, and they were all enthusiasts. There were a couple of computer magazines printed on toilet paper, most people in the industry were willing to help one another, and there was a feeling we were all on the same side. Producers and public alike. It was and always will be a business, of course. What has changed is the scale of finances. It's now very big business, and a business that is based on promoting violence and greed. Improved technology has merely allowed the suits to push higher-definition violence and greed to the hard-of-thinking.
Computers in the home are a practical reality and the internet has opened up a new world of information to us all. Do you have any thoughts on the next effects new technology will have on us?
24/7 communication and access to online data anywhere on the planet. Writers, musicians and artists will take control of their reputations by direct communication with their audience. And hoverboots.
Is there anything you miss about the old days? Those Microfair appearances perhaps?
The Microfairs were the very best bits, I suppose. But no, I don't miss anything about what happened back then, apart from my hair.
Any favourite personalities from the industry of that time?
Oh yes. Two dead ones, half a dozen crooks, several certifiable loonies and a saint.
Did you leave any projects unfinished from your Spectrum days?
Yes. Sheherezade was an A.I. programme who takes on the personality of the player. Two years of work down the tubes. And I always wanted to do an ever-lasting adventure game using sound effects only, so it could be played by the blind, as well as folk with their eyes closed. No language whatsoever. But they can both reappear for wireless internet devices.
Do you have any major gripes from then or now about the industry. Violent games perhaps?
You know how I feel about violent games. We have bred a generation that believes aggression is not only a justifiable option, it equates to winning. This is a tragedy.
Do you have any particular anecdotes from that time?
Loads. All of them unpublishable.
What are you up to nowadays?
I still write stuff like 'Zygote' in Computer Shopper, have been for the past 13 years, it's therapy. And I run www.my-reputation.com, probably the best client list in the galaxy. It's just like the very early days all over again. We can do anything!
My thanks to Mel for the interview. Check out his website, which includes information on his novels and some great photos of his Automata days.