Monday, May 16, 2022

Amstrad / Amsoft

Brentwood House, 169 King's Road, Brentwood, CM14

Brentwood not Brentford. Brentwood not Brentford. Brentwood. Brentwood. I've got a blind spot on the location of the Amstrad HQ which must be a result of reading too many Robert Rankin books.  I'd normally weed out mistakes before publishing but in this case I'm going to allow rogue Brentfords* to remain; to see how many there are. Let's call it a science experiment. Amstrad moved to Brentwood in 1984, 16 years after the company was founded and the same year the CPC 464 was launched.

Amstrad were a late arrival to the UK home computer scene. Pre-1984 it was a jumble of manufacturers. Dragon Data, Commodore, Sinclair, MSX, Jupiter Cantab, Acorn, Tangerine Computer Systems, Atari, Enterprise Computers; and probably more that I've forgotten. By the time the CPC launched on 12th April 1984 the market had (broadly) streamlined down to three, the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and BBC Micro. Bringing a new product into a market which had already winnowed out several unsuccessful machines might seem like an odd decision but arriving late allowed Amstrad to study the opposition and learn from their experiences. 

It's easy to mock Amstrad products [picture of Amstrad emailer goes here] but the CPC is well designed to capitalise on the perceived weaknesses of its competitors. It's a single unit; no confusing wiring or difficult setup for the new user. It comes with a monitor; no need to monopolise the family television set in the living room. It looks like a "real" computer; rather than some of the odd design choices of its competitors. It was also competitively priced. A basic level Amstrad CPC 464 with green screen monitor cost £229 or £329 for the colour monitor system. This compared well to the £129.95 for the ZX Spectrum -for which you needed to supply a cassette player and television- or the Commodore 64 at £199.99 or, if you went for a starter package (C64, cassette player, and joystick) around £255.

The other important, if slightly obvious, lesson was that consumers were more likely to support a successful machine and with this in mind, the Amstrad launch is as much about creating the illusion of a thriving software scene. According to RETRO GAMER magazine (issue 19 page 32) the company was given the daunting task of having 50 games ready for the CPC launch date; they managed 10 for the April launch date with the remaining 40 arriving by the time the CPC hit the shops in August. Amsoft's main tactic was to licence and convert third party games to the Amstrad format in the hope that this would;
1) convince consumers to buy the computer.
2) generate additional income for Amstrad beyond the sale of the computer.
3) demonstrate to software companies that an Amstrad market existed and was viable, so they would either start converting their own games to the format or, better...
4) approach Amsoft to publish their game.

There was also a magazine AMSTRAD COMPUTER USER (editorial address Brentwood House, 169 King's Road, Brentwood) to print news about Amstrad products, advertise hardware and software for your CPC, and review Amsoft games. The early Amstrad scene resembles a cargo cult. Amstrad was attempting to summon a successful market for the Amstrad by imitation.

 With this in mind, how did Amsoft do? Not badly, considering the tight timescale. The first issue of AMSTRAD COMPUTER USER magazine reviews five games; Code Name Mat (Micromega), Amsgolf (Computersmiths), Roland in the Caves and Roland on the Ropes (Indescomp), and Oh Mummy! (Gem). Amsoft's name is carefully not mentioned in the reviews, each game is credited to the original publisher presumably to create the illusion of a varied market. Looking down the list of games it's interesting to guess what sort of licencing deal Amsoft cut with each firm. Micromega supplied Code Name Mat, in 1984 a state of the art Spectrum title, and Haunted Hedges a less well regarded 1983 game. Likewise Mikro-Gen pair the brand new Pyjamarama with Laserwarp (1983, ZX Spectrum). Durell Software have licenced the well regarded, but older, Harrier Attack with two other games Space Hawks and Roland Goes Square Bashing by Simon Francis. These both appear to be original Amstrad games judging by a line in this AMSTRAD ACTION feature "Robert White [Durell manager] once brought him an Amstrad to consider, called back two weeks later to see how was getting on - and picked up a completed game." Spanish company Indescomp supplied three games The Galactic Plague, and Roland in the Caves and Roland on the Ropes (previously released in the UK on the ZX Spectrum by Quicksilva as Bugaboo (The Flea) and Fred, respectively). Meanwhile Incentive Software supplied only one game, Splat! as did Software Projects with Manic Miner. Amsoft's licence to sell Manic Miner seems to have been withdrawn because Software Projects later sold it under their own name, in an odd echo of the way Matthew Smith withdrew Bug-Byte's licence to sell the game on the Spectrum. 

You might have spotted a lot of games called Roland...does something. Roland was an attempt to create an Amstrad mascot along the lines of Horace on the Spectrum, or Sonic the Hedgehog. He appeared in about eight games of varying quality. In Roland in the Caves he was a flea (the name seems to have come from Amstrad boss Alan Sugar who thought it was hilarious to attach the name of Amstrad's group technical engineer Roland Perry to the main flea character), in others Roland was a regular person who worked as a pirate or on a building site, or in Roland Goes Square Bashing, he was a cube. 

February 2022

Brentford (there's one) is a short hop on the train from London Liverpool Street. It takes just over 37 minutes, unless you do what I did and unwisely try to travel the Monday after Storm Eunice. The journey out was fine but the trip back was delayed by a tree which decided to wait until after the weekend to fall over. Brentwood House is an undistinguished building which I could have believed was new when Amstrad moved in, in 1984, but according to the Amsprop portfolio it was built in the 1950s. It's set back so it doesn't loom over King's Road but its visible from the station, and the train if you are facing the right way. It's a Premier Inn today but adjust Google Maps to 2008 and you can see the building in the last days of its Amstrad branding.

Amsoft's biggest mistake might have been selling it's games at £8.95. If you're selling games into a smaller market it makes sense to try and earn more money but it made the games look expensive at a time when £6 was the average cost of Spectrum games. Amstrad versions of software routinely became the most expensive as other companies copied Amsoft's price, as seen here where Frank Bruno's Boxing by Elite sold for £6.95 on the Spectrum, £7.95 on the Commodore 64, and £8.95 on the Amstrad. Plus, because of the pressure to have 50 titles ready for launch, some of the titles represented very poor value for money. You have my sympathy if you spent £8.95 on Grand Prix Driver or Bridge-It. Of course over time the rising tide of prices meant games across all formats eventually cost the same.

Issue two of AMSTRAD COMPUTER USER (October/November 1984 page 6) carries the first advert for a third party game, Flight Path 737 by Anirog and by October 1985 CPC hardware and software sales were strong enough to support the launch of AMSTRAD ACTION magazine. But 1985 was also the year Amsoft begin winding down. Software companies had done the maths and worked out they could licence their games to the Amsoft and receive a cut, or they could sell the games themselves and receive all the profits. Option two was obviously more attractive, especially at the already established £8.95 price point. Mobygames lists twenty six Amsoft games released in 1985. Still an impressive number but down on 1984's total, and then only two in 1986.

The CPC 464 attracted positive reviews on launch and took the wind out of Sinclair Research's sails as the company struggled with the launch of the QL. "Amstrad are the first people to offer better value for money than Sinclair -for around the price of a QL , you will be able to get a CPC 464, disc drive and b/w monitor in a shop , without the delay of ordering by mail order," wrote Andy Pennell in POPULAR COMPUTING WEEKLY (19-25 April 1984 page 17). "I think the Amstrad will give a lot of sleepless nights to Sinclair, Acorn and Commodore, and nightmares to Memotech and Enterprise/Elan. I think it could turn out to be what the QL could, and should, have been -a terrific home micro, with an awful lot of potential as a business machine."

Amstrad France, 143 Grande Rue, 92310 Sèvres

The CPC 464 sold around two million units across Europe and was very popular in France where Amsoft and Amstrad were based on the outskirts of Paris. Ironically (for me) I've driven past 143 Grande Rue, when I visited Paris and took the bus to Versailles along Grande Rue. I could have grabbed a picture and made this the first international entry.  If only I'd known, four years ago, that I would be writing this blog.

Amstrad Spain, Avda. del Mediterráneo 9, 28007, Madrid

Meanwhile, in Spain, Amstrad and Amsoft games were distributed by Indescomp until the company was absorbed into the Amstrad empire and given the more prosaic name of Amstrad Spain. I have never been to Madrid and so I have never had the opportunity to not take a picture of this building.

If you are interested in becoming the Madrid, or Paris correspondent of Where Where They Now? then please grab a picture and send it to

Although 1986 was the last year Amsoft published any games, Amstrad continued to sell the CPC range until 1990. The home computer was the first step of several which led to the successful Amstrad PCW. The PCW was primarily a business computer but Amstrad still had a role to play in the home computer world. On Monday 7th April 1986 Amstrad announced it had brought "the manufacturing, marketing, and brand-name rights to all Sinclair computer products worldwide," for £5 million. POPULAR COMPUTING WEEKLY (10-16 April 1986 page 1). I remember the news felt like a failure for Sinclair and the Spectrum, and headlines like "Sugaring Sinclair's bitter pill," CRASH (issue 28 page 10) didn't help. Neither did the fact that the two hardware iterations which followed, the +2 (ready for Christmas 1986, an astonishingly fast turnaround) and the +3 (1987) unsurprisingly followed the pattern of Amstrad's existing hardware and turned their back on "classic" Sinclair design.  The +2 came in a case like the CPC 464 with a built in cassette deck and the +3 matched the CPC 664 with a fitted 3-inch disk drive. Longer term it extended the Spectrum's shelf life but there was no way I was prepared to be mature about any of this at the time. When my 48k Spectrum expired, I grudgingly got** a +2 (what was I going to do? Not play Elite?). The +2 manual with its line that 48k basic was "not recommended for anything other than a history lesson for the curious," was less a quick and easy way of swiftly glossing over something too expensive to properly document, and more clearly a mortal insult direct from the desk of Alan Sugar himself. There was, however, no excuse for rewiring the +2's built in joystick port to avoid paying for Atari's industry standard patent, which meant I had to retire my trusty Quickshot II for the crummy SJS1 joystick.

* I managed to type Brentwood rather than Brentford here. I would have left it in but it made the sentence more nonsensical than usual.
** It would be more honest to type "I grudgingly asked for and was generously given..."

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