Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers Book Review.
If you were a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 owner during the 1980s then chances are you'll not only remember Hewson Consultants fondly but that you'll also consider at least one of their games amongst your all-time favourites. Hewson wasn't the biggest software house around and they weren't the most prolific, but they were certainly one of the most consistent when it came to producing high-quality games for your 8-bit computer of choice.
From the very earliest days of the home computing boom Hewson was one of the few software houses that actually seemed to insist on quality rather than just publishing whatever they could get their hands on - if you picked up a Hewson title in your local software shop you could almost guarantee that it was going to be at least 'good', and in those early days when a great many terrible games made it onto the shelves it was a relief to have a name you felt you could rely on.
That wasn't the only thing that made Hewson stand out from the crowd, however. Unlike most other publishers of the time, the name 'Hewson' wasn't just the faceless brand on the front of the box - in this case it was attached to a man, company founder Andrew Hewson, who many gamers of the time both knew and recognised thanks to his regular technical helpline column in Sinclair User magazine. Andrew's writing revealed him to be both knowledgeable and approachable, and as a result Hewson didn't feel like a traditional business, it felt 'personal' - an approach bolstered by Hewson's insistence on pursuing high-standard original games in a market which were increasingly reliant on the safety net of movie licensing deals and arcade conversions.
It was an approach that helped them to flourish, and by the mid to late '80s, Hewson was at the top of their game, encouraging the by-then ageing 8-bits to punch way beyond their weight and making their first tentative steps into the new 16-bit market. And then, almost overnight, Hewson was gone. I always wondered whatever could have happened, and now, thanks to this book, I finally know.
Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign and written by Andrew Hewson himself (with assistance from his son, Rob), 'Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers' is a reflective look back at the dawn and early days of the UK computer games industry as seen through the eyes of a man who accidentally found himself right at the centre of it. Taking us from Hewson's very humble beginnings as a bedroom book publisher through the highs and lows of the '80s and into the big-budget boom of the '90s, the 250-page book covers both Hewson Consultants and its successor, 21st Century Entertainment, as seen from within.
Unlike many recent retro books, this is not a hefty coffee table volume full of glossy photographs of Exolon and Uridium, nor is it a fact and figures-heavy set of interviews with industry players. Instead, the book is basically a memoir, written in Andrew's own words almost as though he's recounting his experiences to you over after-dinner drinks in front of a roaring fire. There are occasional box-out memories provided by Hewson legends like Steve Turner and press pioneers such as Julian Rignall, but for the most part this is Andrew's one man show and he generally handles this exceptionally well - like his Sinclair User column, the book comes across as friendly and personal and the conversational writing style makes for a very easy and compelling read.
Andrew takes the reader through his early career, and how his early attempts at writing books for the burgeoning home computer market almost accidentally lead to him setting up as a publisher of other peoples' games. Through the early years as a struggling family business to the pinnacle of their success in the late '80s, he describes the thoughts and processes which lead him to drive his company in a very different direction to the ones taken by the other, often larger, software houses of the day. Throughout the early sections it's easy to feel his enthusiasm and fondness for the people and the games that they worked on together, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when, approaching the later sections of the book, everything begins to come apart. Although there are some fantastic stories and anecdotes about the 21st Century Entertainment years you can't help but feel that Andrew was never quite as happy as he had been in those earlier, pioneering times, and this comes across quite clearly in his writing.
As an insight into Hewson as both a company and a man, 'Hints & Tips for Videogaming Pioneers' is a tremendous success. The glossing over of some well-loved games and the lack of detail in parts may prove frustrating to the more demanding reader (if Andrew doesn't remember something he's not afraid to say so - no running off to Wikipedia to double-check for him!), and perhaps the opening chapter covering the Hewson family background is a little over-long when most readers will be eager to get into the meat of the tale, but I found the book both charming and engrossing in equal measures. The few criticisms I do have are slight - I felt it could have benefited from dwelling a little longer on the main Hewson years, and some slightly tougher editing in the 21st Century sections could have improved the flow towards the end, but these are minor gripes at best.
For the Hewson fan, this is quite simply an essential purchase. For those seeking insight into how the small-scale software publishing industry of the 1980s worked it's a fascinating account of one man's drive to lead his company not become the biggest or the richest, but to simply produce the best games they possibly could. Looking back at Hewson's softography, I suspect most people would say that they succeeded - and this excellent book deserves to do the same.
The book is available HERE from £4.99