Mikro-Gen Ltd

Founded By:Mike Meek, Andrew Laurie
Location:Bracknell, Berkshire, UK.
Year Started:1981
Year Wound Up:1987
Titles in Database:80
Rights Now With:Alternative Software
The company was formed by Mike Meek and Andrew Laurie in 1981, in order to capitalise on the growing boom of microcomputers in the home. The company had a solid reputation but became more prominent with its series of games featuring Wally Week and his family, all of which got excellent reviews in the highly respected computer magazine Crash. Later, the company invested £130,000 in producing the Mikro Plus, which shadowed the Spectrum 16K ROM with RAM, allowing 64K of data for games. However, only one title, Shadow of the Unicorn was produced. The company was brought out by Creative Sparks Distribution in 1987, which subsequently went into receivership.

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Company History


Added: 23 Apr 2015
Mikro-Gen was one of the success stories of the Eighties, creating the popular Wally series of games and producers developers such as Chris Hinsley and David Perry. It wouldn’t last however, with the company eventually imploding in 1984, four years after it had formed. Here Chris recalls those early, exciting times.

Programmers, eh? A boring lot whose eyes are filled with the reflection of code from a badly lit screen, doing nothing more exciting than reaching out for cold, festering pizza washed down with cola. Or so the myth goes. It certainly wasn’t like that at Mikro-Gen. “Some days no coding would be done at all,” confesses programmer Chris Hinsley. “There were times when we decided the day was going to be spent trying to beat the bendy bar record based around some exercise equipment Raf had brought in. Occasionally someone might put in a line of code.”

Quite how the core Mikro-Gen programmers – Hinsley, Raffaele Cecco, David Perry and Nick Jones – managed to produce top-rated games such as the Wally series is anyone’s guess under such circumstances. But they did. “Raf used to rub his feet on the office static carpet and zap Nick’s ears all the time,” Hinsley adds.

And what was the management doing while this madness was taking place at the office in Middlesex? Nothing. The programmers were left to get on with whatever they wanted. “I don’t think I’d describe it as a university atmosphere, more a raving frat house like in Animal House,” laughs Hinsley, who was taken on at the company by its managing director, Mike Meek. “There was the time I placed a life-sized poster of Linda Lusardi on the back of the gents’ toilet door. That was there for weeks until Mike’s wife got to hear about it. Thing is, we actually got stuff done, really good stuff too, in that atmosphere. Sometimes we would all be there for 56 hours, no sleep, crunch coding to hit deadlines, slapping each other awake. You wouldn’t be allowed to treat employees like this, but we did it to ourselves.”

Mikro-Gen was formed in 1981 by Meek and Andy Laurie. One of the earliest developments was Chess, which was published by Sinclair Research. But very soon Mikro-Gen became a publisher itself. Most of the early releases were either based on well-known concepts or otherwise derived from coin-op games that were popular at the time. For example, Stephen Townsend’s Creepy Crawler was a version of Atari’s Centipede.

It also published text adventure games – Saturn Developments’ Mad Martha came out in 1983 and included a few arcade sections – and it created simulations. And yet while these sold well, they didn’t set the gaming world alight. At the time, the company was tiny and yet it was ambitious. The bosses identified a strong need for a major injection of talent and so it was always on the lookout for new blood.

One of the ways in which it tried to secure talent was by going to the many computer fairs that were dedicated to specific machines in the 1980s. In August 1983, Mikro-Gen appeared at the ZX Microfair in London’s Alexandra Palace and it had a stand very close to a small mail order company called Crash Micro Games Action. The two companies soon began to talk and the conversation ended with Mikro-Gen handing over a copy of Mad Martha and being delighted at being given a good review. Little did anyone know that six months later, Crash Micro Games Action would become Crash magazine and the two companies continued the relationship it had built up. This ultimately helped Mikro-Gen to become known to programmers and gamers, which helped as the bosses tried to secure a winning team.

But before we continue with that story, let’s rewind and look at how the four key programmers began to make a name for themselves. We start with Hinsley who, like so many at that time, had become fascinated by games at a very early age. He would spend his dinner money at a cafe across the road from school, but none of his mum’s cash was spent on food. He would pump his 10p pieces into the arcade games and then, when the ZX81 was launched, he used pester power to ensure his mum snapped one up. Rather than start playing others’ games, he set about trying to re-create those coin-ops using little more than BASIC and a kilobyte of RAM.

“I quickly realised that it was going to be impossible, so I managed to convince my mum to part with more cash to get a 16KB RAM pack,” he recalls. “That helped as far as memory space was concerned, but BASIC was proving way too slow to do anything like I wanted. Try doing a sideways scroll on a ZX81 in BASIC for a Scramble rip-off. Forget it. So I started to look into this ‘machine code’ stuff I’d heard about, with all its strange words listed in the back pages of the ZX81 manual. I had no clue what was going on. I was so dumb I thought that each instruction did quite high-level things, I remember thinking that the ‘djnz’ instruction did something like display the screen for a frame or something. The Sinclair manual for the ZX81 just had a few pages at the back that listed the opcodes but didn’t say anything about what they did.”

At around the same time, the other programmers that were set to make up Mikro-Gen were also furiously trying to learn how to code. Cecco was playing around with computers and creating demos and Jones dabbled with programming on a ZX81. He wrote his first machine code videogame, Galaliens, on an ORIC-1, doing everything including graphics, programming, sound effects and tape mastering. It was based on the arcade game MoonAlien that was itself a clone of Galaxians and it took 15 months to write. He sent it to a company called Tansoft, which offered him a choice of £250 cash or £400 worth of equipment. Jones didn’t receive anything in the end – the company went bankrupt before any kind of payment came through.

Irish-born David Perry was also a schoolboy coder but he harboured ambitions to become a test pilot. That soon fell by the wayside after he sent some of his programs to Interface Publications, which printed them in magazines and books, one of which was called Astounding Arcade Games and sold 13,000 copies. “In those days, you had to actually type the entire game in from a book – without mistakes,” he said. “Hours later, you finally got to play, or start looking for your mistakes! This looking at program code and fixing mistakes was a great way to gently learn programming.” Perry then sent one of his games, Drakmaze, to Mikro-Gen and it was accepted.

With Hinsley having honed his programming skills on a Commodore Pet during school lunchtimes, he was starting to become more au fait with the 6502 codes that the Commodore CPU used. Those lunchtimes were crucial for him, and he recalls the penny dropping when he figured what registers and instructions were all about. His first ever machine code program on the Pet drew lines using the block graphics character, but he decided to go back to the Z80 on the ZX81 to write small subroutines.

Before long he had coded a clutch of commercial games for the Spectrum, which included Laserwarp, Paradroid, Scramble, Centipede and Missile Command. “This is when I first had contact with Mikro-Gen,” says Hinsley. “I bumped into a chap called Paul Denial who was a sales rep for the firm and he was desperate for content because all they had at the time was Mad Martha and some other fairly sucky titles like Chess. He offered me fame and fortune even though I had yet to finish my O-Levels and the company took all of my games.”

Very soon Hinsley began to drive around in fast cars and he bought his clothes from the very best tailors in the land… or so he wishes. “Guess what?” he asks. “I didn’t get rich out of this.” And so on to college he went, bagging himself a place at university, but after the first term he was offered a full time job at Mikro-Gen. He wasn’t sure what to do.

“Most of my mates on the computer course said I should take the job as it was a solid offer and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the course,” he recalls. “So I quit to join Mikro-Gen and I was the first hire they had done. At that point Mikro-Gen was Mike Meek the MD, Andy Laurie the Technical Director and me, and I lived with Andy for the first few months while finding a place for myself.”

Hinsley was introduced to new tools such as an Editor and an Assembler and he felt his creativity being unleashed. He converted his Laserwarp code into assembler and it formed the code base for Automania. And, in doing so, Wally Week was born. It was the start of a really successful period for Mikro-Gen.

The character was visualised by Denial, and Meek would go on to say that Wally was “one of the few humanised computer characters out there.” Indeed, Week was an average worker who toiled on a car assembly line, and the idea with Automania was that you helped him build a series of cars. His work wasn’t easy, as bouncing tyres and robots that lurked around the factory killed the little fella. Couple these with falling ceiling fans and you had a situation that today would be outlawed under health and safety laws.

“We wanted to create a character that could be used in several games,” says Hinsley. “Having a mechanic building cars in Automania was pretty much my idea but I don’t claim it was anything great by later Wally game standards. It was a very basic collect and return game. It was quite nice to see the cars take shape as you placed pieces on the build ramp, but I don’t think anybody thought this was a major event in game design.”

It was Hinsley’s first time using professional development tools. All his previous efforts while at school and uni were put together with hand-coded pokes into memory and a listing of Z80 opcodes from the back of the Spectrum manual. “This was the first time I had an on-screen editor – I used Wordstar – and an assembler,” he adds. “It was quite a change from manually listing out and poking in opcodes.”

The new tools allowed Hinsley to put much more into the game designs because the grunt work of just getting the code into the machine was automated. The company continued to improve its tools, creating sprite editors and download programs where it could transmit the game down to the Spectrum via a parallel port build on the back of the machine. “Andy was very good with that type of hardware tinkering,” recalls Hinsley, “and he kept improving that side of the tools. The tools allowed us to start to build a library of game functions and so each game could build on the code base of the previous game and be extended.”


Softography

Crash (Issue 20)
Added: 23 Apr 2015
Crash Issue 20 had an article on the Shadow of the Unicorn game along with the Mikro-Plus:
"OF SHADOWED ROMS AND UNICORNS

John Minson is despatched to the land of Wally Week to discover what Mikro-Gen have in store for the Mikro Plus.
Shadow of the Unicorn: The first ever Mikro-Plus game

Last month, CRASH revealed the secrets of the Shadow ROM, Mikro-Gen’s astounding add-on which transports the Spectrum into a 64K machine: the Mikro Plus. But what about the software? This month we reveal the secrets of the Shadow of the Unicorn.

Shadow of the Unicorn, which is to be the first game in the Mikro Plus range, is scheduled for release in mid September and will sell for £14.95. For your fifteen pounds you’ll get an innocuous-looking black box, (in appearance very much like any number of Spectrum peripherals), a tape containing the bulk of the game code, a map and a seventeen-chapter illustrated novel. Mikro-Gen have commissioned the book-with-the-game from program author, Dale McLoughlin, and it sets out the background to the adventure. Oh ... and five pee change!

The book tells a tale: long ago, far away in a land where peace had reigned since before living memory, an ancient locked book was found. When its key was turned all manner of evils were loosed and two hitherto peaceful nations were plunged into bloody war.

As the novel ends, the game begins. You have a cast of ten characters to guide towards the completion of ten separate tasks that will return the land to its former idyllic state. Prince Mithulin; Avorath, the wizard whose staff has been lost; Holdin, a military commander, and Queen Rolquin. Ulin-Gail is a satyr, part of a race whose members normally shun humans, while Sharmek is a dwarf leader; Guinol belongs to a race of subterraneans and Vilyan is a woodman. Kielmath, the sorceress, and Lairmath, an apprentice wizard, were turned evil when the book was opened, but will come over to your side as the game progresses.

The land itself is vast, with six and a half thousand locations, each one looking onto three more distant ones. There are towns and castles to contend with, as well as the Nalesh — unpleasant half-sized creatures which have to be killed swiftly.

All this has taken 500K of source code, developed on a six-user HM Systems Minstrel. Obviously there isn’t room in the Spectrum to develop it all until the shadow rom is connected — and as this must be dedicated to the game it’s a chicken and egg situation. Certainly all 64K will be packed with code, and the programmers are currently busy trading off features to make best use of that memory. There may still be alterations to both the game as I saw it and the characters shown here before the final version for release is completed.
Screenshot

Mikro Plus offers more than just larger programs. On connecting the unit you’re immediately presented with a menu that allows you to load the game from tape or microdrive, or you can enter the tape alignment routine. Previous tape-based Azimuth adjustment routines, as well as costing extra, have depended on you getting the program into memory in the first place — from tape! As this one is contained in the firmware, all you have to do is enable the routine and then play a tape into it; obtaining maximum tape head response is simplicity itself.

Once you’ve loaded a Mikro Plus game, you’ll encounter another feature: a second menu allows you to copy the loaded code onto tape or microdrive automatically. It’s all most sophisticated, and when you consider that there’s also a built-in joystick port, it really does look like Mikro-Gen have made a breakthrough in user friendliness. This is of course totally alien to the doings of their previous hero (hero?!!) Wally Week. Does this voyage into the realm of fantasy signal an end to the Wally clan? Not a bit of it. Some more downloading and it’s time for a special early sneak preview of the Christmas Wally game, Three Weeks in Paradise. Sworn to secrecy, I can’t say more than that it takes the Wally format another step forward and features W Week in a loincloth! And of course it’s a Mikro Plus game, but if I reveal more they’ll send Harry the Hippie round to play me his Grateful Dead bootlegs!

Another quick download and I’m watching some of the fastest, smoothest 3D vector graphics I’ve seen on the Spectrum. They’re part of the next Mikro Plus release which is a science fiction adventure.

Mikro-Gen have invested the greater part of £130,000 in this breakthrough and ordered 25,000 units of Unicorn. I don’t think their trust in it is misguided — in fact it could take the home micro world by storm. If you can’t wait until the official release date — 17th September — you can enjoy a preview of Unicorn at the PCW Show in London a couple of weeks earlier."
The Retro Isle team
Added: 22 Nov 2017
Click here to view a list of titles we have in the database here at Retro Isle.


From Then To Now



Interviews


Added: 23 Apr 2015
Mikro-Gen and Skyway
Dec 5, 2007

An article by Chris Smith, author of Skyway and ex-Mikro-Gen employee.

Back in October this year (20/10/2007) at the 2007 WOS meet-up, I happened to show the assembled ZX Spectrum enthusiasts a copy of an unfinished game I had been writing for Mikro-Gen back in the mid 1980's. The story behind it and why it was never finished is slightly convoluted, involves money, mystery and contracts; a brief affair and madness.

I did not think that any of this would be interesting in the present day, so it never occurred to me to tell anyone about it. See here for the exact quote.

Anyway, I've put together a complete archive of information, but first the background behind me, games programming and Mikro-Gen:

Days of Wonder

In the Winter of 1981, I came across a ZX81 in the local W H Smith store. I was 11 years old, and out shopping with my Father. The ZX81 was mounted on a dark grey vaccum formed plastic console, itself mounted beneath a 12inch blank and white television. The ZX81 was sunk slightly into the console so that its left hand connectors were covered, and the whole display unit was recessed into the shops wall shelving, so that the television did not protrude too far into the shop; the ZX81, resplendent on its sleek grey mounting, stuck out like a thumb.

A customer was typing something into the ZX81 with his young daughter, which he finished doing as I approached. The computer asked the girl to type in her name, which she did dutifully, and then the computer replied "Hello Lucy. Pleased to meet you.". I was amazed!

The customer re-ran the program and turned to me, encouraging me to have a go. I typed my name, slowly, on the keyboard and pressed Enter when instructed. The computer said "Hello Chris. Pleased to meet you.". I was speechless. How did the computer know my name? I knew I'd just typed it on the keyboard, but to have it read back to me, well, that was fantastic! There had never been anything like the ZX81 before.

I was hooked.
Learning to Batch Program

Many months later, towards the summer of 1982, a friends father bought a ZX81. After much nagging I was given a loan of the ZX81 Programming Manual. I read it repeatedly from cover to cover, piecing together my own programs that used more and more BASIC constructs like IF THEN and FOR loops, which I would write out and take into W H Smith on Saturdays to try out on the store ZX81. In the intervening week I would modify and improve programs ready for the coming Saturday.

I had independently invented Batch Processing.

My First Computer

My parents presented me with my first computer, the ZX81 in November 1982 (I can still recall the smell of the machine, fresh and sterile). The ZX Spectrum had been available for six months, but the ZX81 had for me been an object of focus for such a long time, it was a dream come true.

It was also my first experience of computer games, outside the games arcade. These were so exciting, or rather, the concept of playing games on a computer, my computer, was exciting.

So at the age of 12, I realised that I could create my own games, and spent most of my time doing that and playing 3D Monster Maze, which was fantastic at the time. Then at Christmas, I was presented with a ZX Spectrum 48K.
The ZX Spectrum

The ZX Spectrum's colour and sound opened up new possibilities, as did the improved graphics, and was a whole new learning experience. Generally I was far more interested in writing games, terrible ones to begin with, instead of playing games. If anything I usually preferred to watch other people playing; I was mostly interested in the new games, how they looked and how much better technically they were from those previous.
In the Beginning there was BASIC

Within six months of owning a ZX Spectrum I was writing simple games in BASIC. Graphics, and there movement let me down of course, as BASIC was very limiting. I bought a few books, some dipping into machine code - but none with enough explanation to be accessible by a 13 year old. My graphic skills did improve though, inspired by the quality of such producers as Ultimate Play The Game, Ocean, BubbleBus and others.

Then, in early 1985, after a year or so of Spectrum ownership, some of my graphical designs gave me an idea for a game, and I produce a number of 'demo' screen shots to show how the whole thing would look.
Mikro-Gen

My first contact with Mikro-Gen was at the 16th ZX Microfair, June 22 1985. I had taken my demo screen designs along with me to show to various games producers. Mikro-Gen were probably the most recognisable name at this Microfair, and so I spoke to who turned out to be the Managing Director Mike Meek, waving my silver ZX Printer screen prints in front of him. We talked about about the game I had in the pipeline, and he wrote his name on the inside of a large cardboard format copy of Herbets Dummy Run, asking me to send him a demo copy of the game.

This was fantastic encouragement, but I knew I needed to improve my graphics programming, and where else to buy a book or two on the subject than at the ZX Microfair! I bought Machine Code Sprites And Graphics by John Durst / Sunshine Publications, and Machine Code Applications for the ZX Spectrum / Sunshine Books

My graphics programming improved immensely with the help of these books, and the game 'Cybex' went through several changes before being presented to Mikro-Gen in it's final form in late summer 1986.

Shortly after that I was invited up to London to meet the team at the Annual Mikro-Gen Games Playing Championship Final held at the Savoy Hotel, 5th November 1986. The final saw contestants playing Raffaele Cecco's new game "Cop-Out" to the last man standing.

There I met Keith Goodyear and Raffaele Cecco.
A New Wally

A few months later in the spring of 1987, whilst I was at the Mikro-Gen offices in Bracknel finalising some details of 'Cybex' and poking about with the Amstrad CPC conversion of Dynamite Dan II that Keith was doing, I began to talk with the then Managing Director Rod Cobain about a new Wally game. I took away some graphic fragments left over from previous games and the seed of an idea.

Over the spring and early summer months I worked on the Wally game, doing graphics in a similar Mikro-Gen style, and based around a prototype graphics engine. I could have taken some sprite code from Mikro-Gen, but it wasn't clear what would be best to take as they had a habit of rewriting it for each new game anyway.

Goodbye Mikro-Gen

Time moved on and Mikro-Gen's parent company, Thorn, ran into financial difficulty and folded taking Mikro-Gen with them. This was during the Summer of 1987, the receivers had been called and time was marching on. Cybex had still not been released, and I knew I was going to be left with a Wally game I could do nothing with.

So during the summer I took some of the more 'spacey' graphics I had lying around from the Mikro-Gen work, combined them with the more spacey graphics I had done and turned the game into a "run around shooting" effort - Skyway. This is probably why it bares a resemblance to Exolon - written by Raffaele Cecco, post Mikro-Gen, for Hewson Consultants.

The Mikro-Gen fold became final in October, and as I was free of my contract with Mikro-Gen I sold the by then very dated Cybex outright to Software Publishing Associates - over a year after I had written it.

Skyway hung about for quite a few months due to studies, but in June 1988 I submitted it to Hewson for evaluation. They liked it (7/10 for a playable demo), and of course they thought the graphics were too like Exolon. This was all fixable, but the games market for the Spectrum was slowing down and I started getting interested in other things such as precise timing loaders, hardware and fast sprite engines. In the end, university was around the corner, and that finaly drew me away from games programming.

Skyway was never completely finished. Two different levels were constructed - The World and The Moon, several reaction sub-games included to spice up the gameplay and most of the sound effects added.

The sprite engine was still being worked on, and I would have liked to replace it as I had some performance and animation issues. The main character was supposed to have an optional shoulder mounted gun - but that never appeared in the game, except for the gun icon in the status area, and the collectable gun 'bonus' during play. Also, some graphic 'doors' which block access to rooms until a task is complete are corrupted.

Edit: [Lookup Skyway in the game search box to see more details]


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