"Electron User" Magazine Article

This article originally appeared in the November 1988 edition of the "Electron User", published by Database Publications.


Nic Outterside reports on the history of Heyley, the adventure software creators

THERE can be few adventure software houses supplying the Electron market that have enjoyed the kind of growth that has been the fortune of Heyley during the past year. What began as two schoolboys' hobby has developed into a respected software house producing some of the most original and addictive adventures available.

Heyley is still based in the converted front bedroom of a large Victorian semi. When I visited the company recently I was ushered to this nerve centre and was surprised by the array of various micros which littered the room, perched on old kitchen tables and ancient desks.

An aura of organised chaos reigned as 20-year old Howard Roberts and 16-year-old Tony Heap were putting the finishing touches to their next and sixth adventure, Rising Crime, a 400 location graphic epic designed for the omniscient Archimedes.

Howard's first encounter with a micro was in 1982 when his father bought him a Sinclair ZX81. Despite a lack of anything approaching computer studies at the high school he attended, and with a ZX81 plagued by annoying power surges and a wobbling ram pack, Howard soon taught himself Basic programming.

Meanwhile, a street away and unbeknown to Howard, nine-year-old Tony Heap was getting to grips with a Hewlet Packard HP85 and soon experiencing the delights of an early text adventure called Gnome. Both boys became addicted to microcomputing and were determined to buy the prince of the stable, a BBC Micro.

Tony saved furiously and by early 1983 had bought a BBC Micro with monitor and disc drive - this was shortly before the launch of the Electron. Back in Ley Hey Road, Howard, supported by his father, forked out 335 for an early BBC Micro. For two enthusiastic youngsters this simultaneously opened the door to the world of text adventuring.

A few months later Howard happened upon an early Level 9 advertisement. Subsequently he ordered a copy of Colossal Adventure.

He played this on and off for almost a year and soon ordered more Level 9 games, including his all-time favourite, Lords of Time. A contemporary article by Pete Austin in a computer journal outlined the Level 9 writing system.

Pete explained the importance of a good start game, sectionalisation of the adventure, easy movement and close puzzle relationship. Howard was hooked, and read the article again and again. It lit a spark of desire to write his own text adventure.

Tony by an equal stroke of luck had discovered that graphical stunner Twin Kingdom Valley, and was shortly making inroads into Sphinx Adventure and Castle of Riddles. For both boys these early experiences were to shape their writing method for the future.

During 1985 Howard was studying for his A levels and came across an adventure writing utility called Adventurescape. He painstakingly typed in the listing and had soon written his first 50 location adventure, Treasure Chest. It was purely an experiment and though Howard still keeps a copy of the game, it did not warrant publication.

Christmas 1985 found a heavily Level 9-influenced 18-year-old scribing a cliche ridden 254 location text epic titled The Ultimate Prize. Howard admits that Colossal Adventure and the Jackson and Livingstone Fighting Fantasy books were in the forefront of his thoughts as the first Heyley adventure took shape.

This period was also to provide the meeting with Tony Heap which was soon to be forged into an inseparable writing partnership. Howard explains. "Tony was the nearest BBC Micro owner who also had a disc drive and was keen and willing to play-test The Ultimate Prize for me".

Together with Howard's family, Tony helped iron out a number of bugs and supported a decision to market the adventure for the BBC Micro under the trading name of Heyley. Howard's father loaned them 120 which they gambled on a quarter page advertisement in a national periodical.

They were rewarded by 15 orders for their adventure, which just covered the advertising costs. More importantly, reviewers and adventurers were introduced to the name Heyley - a name which was to appear again and again in the computer press during the next two years.

Spurred by the hint of recognition, Tony also got hold of a copy of Adventurescape and wrote his first adventure, Mayhem Mansion. It was too blue to market, but helped ferment ideas which Tony would later use in the Heyley blockbuster, Dreamtime. Meanwhile Howard had left school and was facing the real world.

Between the dole, a temporary job in a museum and a BTEC college course, he was to put together Heyley's second game, Pirate's Peril. It was a vast improvement on its predecessor and featured some well developed and excruciating puzzles.

By the New Year of 1987 orders for both games were trickling in, but with the likes of Robico, Level 9 and Epic controlling the BBC Micro adventure market, success for the boys from Marple was small.

However, Electron User discovered that their disc-only adventures would run on Electrons fitted with Slogger's Master Ram board. Almost by accident, Heyley had now entered the Electron market. Then with the release of Tony Heap's Dreamtime, Electron adventurers really began to take notice.

Tony had worked hard on this multi-levelled jaunt which reeked of Douglas Adams' excellent Hitchikers' Guide to the Galaxy. The game also included one of the most difficult introductions to be found in any adventure.

Reviewers heartedly applauded this latest release and warmed to the sense of humour which pervades all Heyley games. Howard and Tony explained that humour is important to them both and is refreshing in a world where most computer programmers are as dry as a dog's bone.

For instance, if an adventurer examines some sleeping pills in Pirate's Peril the game responds with "Sshh, you'll wake them up". While in Dreamtime there is a metal grate with the name Alfred inscribed upon it - Alfred the Great, get it?

But perhaps my personal favourite is the vampire with a bad heart. If you feed him a raw steak filled with collesterol he dies from a major coronary. This type of humorous injection has now become almost a Heyley hallmark.

As Tony began to learn machine code programming he brought more influence to bear on the coding of the ensuing Heyley adventures. The Taroda Scheme became a family effort, with everyone chipping in an idea or puzzle.

The whole concept of this particular game came from Tony's father during evening tea. From this sprang five pages of pencilled notes which gave grounding for the boys to sit down and plan out the whole framework for the adventure.

At this time, Howard was enduring a boring college placement where much of his time was spent staring at blank VDU screens. In such moments of daydreaming he formulated many suggestions for the Taroda Scheme.

Meanwhile, Tony's ideas were propagating during lessons at school. It was while studying Macbeth for his GCSE English exam that the inspiration was gained for a puzzle in Stranded. Consequently they both keep a pad and pencil with them at all times, for as Howard said "You never know when a brilliant idea might come to you".

They both also admit to cribbing some ideas from the plethora of science fiction novels they read. Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat is Born had a profound effect on some of the scenarios introduced in their games.

It is certainly true to say that all of the Heyley adventures, incorporate some of the most original and tightly structured logical puzzles you will ever find.

Thanks to favourable reviews of their first four adventures Howard and Tony were seeing a part time hobby developing into a small profitable business. However, in March 1988 they made their second successful gamble when they paid 500 to book a stand at the Manchester Electron and BBC Micro User Show.

Howard tells the story of their breakthrough into the big time, "We set up our stand with our five adventures, including our new game, Stranded!, alongside a stock of Level 9 and Robico games which we had negotiated to sell for the respective companies.

"The Friday was terrible, as we sold about three games all day and were seriously thinking of packing up and going home. However, for no apparent reason Saturday and Sunday were different as hundreds of customers flooded to our stand.

"We were really in the public eye and selling our own games alongside established Level 9 and Robico adventures had the desired knock-on effect". Orders started to flood in, and now Heyley was being mentioned in the same breath as giants like Infocom and Level 9.

The show also gave Tony and Howard the chance to establish important contacts with people like Geoff Larsen of Larsoft and Dave Hitchins of Pres. It was this contact with Dave which was to lead immediately to Pres marketing standard 32k Electron conversions of all the Heyley adventures. It was a deal that Heyley has never regretted.

What of the future? Both Howard and Tony have grown with their adventures and show a writing maturity which belies their years. They offer different skills and freely criticise each other in attempts to produce the adventure which will perhaps provide their ultimate prize.

Rising Crime is almost ready for release and should be a smash hit. Tony is currently working on his own machine code adventure writing system with a full multi-sentence parser and hopes to utilise it for a supernatural-based adventure which he intends to complete for the New Year.

Despite the time restrictions imposed by Howard's day job in technical support and Tony's impending A Level course, the ideas continue to proliferate and future adventures are promised for the Electron.

A hobby has truly developed into an all consuming business success. They have youth on their side, experience under their belt and promise to be with us for many years to come.