Here’s our interview with Anthony Guter, who worked for the amazing Mastertronic during its heyday.
I’m Anthony Guter and I worked for Mastertronic (later Virgin Mastertronic) between 1985 and 1991. I was a Financial Controller until 1989 and then a Systems Manager thereafter.
Although there were a few games released for the Atari computer range, less so than the C64 and Spectrum presumably because Atari wasn’t then as popular in Europe, why didn’t Mastertronic convert some of their best titles from those platforms to the Atari counterpart?
The technical specs of any computer were never the issue. You could get games either directly converted or rewritten for any format. The problem was sales and in particular shelf space. Retailers will only give so much room to you – think about shops like GAME today (assuming they are still around by the time you are reading this) where there may be a rack of Xbox games facing PS3’s and Nintendo’s. Add a new format and the retailer takes space away from something else.
When Mastertronic sold to the big retailers in the 1980s (such as dear old Woolies), the more formats we put out, the fewer titles per format we would get space for. So we concentrated on the major formats. Mail order specialists did not have that sort of limit and the markets were different in each country, so all formats could be sold somewhere, but the Atari and similar machines, like MSX, were always going to suffer compared to the major formats.
We hated the plethora of formats because it put the brakes on the number of different titles we could issue and it increased the costs because if someone wrote a good game for the Spectrum then we had to pay someone else to do the conversion to C64 etc. The MSX was supposd to cut across this because it was a format most Japanese manufacturers supported but it came far too late to Western markets to make any difference.
I know everyone was always proud of whichever machine they happened to own but if you think about it logically and unemotionally, people who bought anything other than a truly mainstream format, but who wanted to have access to the widest range of software, were making bad decisions.
Things were so much easier with the 16 bit machines – you bought an Amiga or Atari ST and you had access to software being produced all over the world, and publishers could develop titles that could be sold around the world, not just in certain countries where a particular machine had a local following (like the BBC Micro, for example, a classic example of a doomed format).
Did you ever work for Virgin/Mastertronic? If so, would you like to share any amusing stories?
I did work for Virgin Mastertronic – Mastertronic was taken over by Virgin Games in summer 1988 and traded for about 4 years, with distribution of Sega products rapidly becoming far more important than the publishing of 8 and 16-bit computer games. In 1992 Sega set up its European HQ in London, bought Virgin Mastertonic, and hived off the games publishing section. I then worked for Sega Europe as European IT Manager for 4 years.
Funny stories? None that will make you laugh. I can give you some glimpses into life at Mastertronic.
The year we sponsored a car at the Le Mans 24 and it failed to start so we achieved no sponsorship value whatsoever and spent a wet weekend watching all the cars that did work.
The day that a couple of East End spivs, who were distributors in our early days and who owed us a fair bit of money, came in to the office and said they were awfully sorry, guv, but their van with all the games in had been nicked so they weren’t going to pay us and what were we going to do abaht it, all right? Short answer, as none of us fancied a right kicking, was nothing.
The day that one of our directors, at a time of cash flow problems (and we had lots of those) announced to our printer, who had brought some proofs in and was asking about payment, that there was an embargo on all cheques, whereupon our printer (who we absolutely depended on to do the inlays and labels) marched out of the building announcing over his shoulder “embargo on all printing”. Needless to say I was asked to pay him as a matter of priority.
The day that my boss Frank Herman told me he was buying Melbourne House and justified it by writing three numbers on the back of an envelope – the only financial planning that was done before we committed to spending £800,000 of money that we barely had.
When I was interviewed for my job with the company, I was told that they had a brand new product coming out and it was too secret for them to tell me. After I joined, I found it was a device to stream a video signal around the house so every television could pick it up. Commonplace now but not in 1985. We were due to launch it at a big show in Olympia in September. A few days before the show, the Department of Trade warned us that the device was illegal because it used a restricted radio frequency. Whoops. We cancelled our stand at the show, the product vanished and everyone kept very quiet about it afterwards.
We launched a few games under the brand MasterAdventurer, some records under the title MasterSound and some videos as MasterVision. There was much inhouse discussion about our branded line of maggots for anglers, MasterBait, but it was never launched for reasons I was unable to discover.
What do you think the best game Mastertronic ever released was?
I only played C64 games, because that was the machine I had at home, until I replaced it with an Atari ST. I disliked games where you lost your lives almost at once and because almost any movement meant a sprite collision. So games where you had to think and had some time to think were the ones I came back to, such as Finders Keepers, Curse of Sherwood, LA SWAT, Street Surfer, One Man and his Droid (with my favourite Rob Hubbard soundtrack) and some of the adventure games like See-Kah of Assiah. I loved Kane because of the 4 different subgames, each of which you could practise. I greatly enjoyed Speed King (though not one of our originals). But to pick the best game, I think for sheer ambition, and it’s great soundtrack (another gem by Rob), I would choose Master of Magic. It’s not my personal favourite but it pointed the way that RPG games were going, including an attempt at first person perspective, the overhead mapping and the inventory managing, and it was sold for just £2.99.
Although Mastertronic cornered the budget market with your releases across most 8-bit platforms, what were the company’s feelings based on the reactions, if any, of full priced software developers (US Gold, Ocean, etc..) marketing their software at the same time?
I don’t fully understand what this question is asking unless you mean how did we react when the full price houses began releasing their own budget lines? It was something we had expected but for a time (1985-7) we were not really bothered because we were the exclusive suppliers to most of the UK high street.
What many people may not know is that we also distributed full-price titles to the main High Street shops, shifting them through our dedicated warehouse in Dagenham, so we had close working relations with US Gold and the like even though it may have appeared that we were deadly rivals.
Why were so few Mastertronic titles released for the Atari ST & Amiga computers, other than the re-releases? Had the company at that time not got in-house developers to do exclusive Mastertronic games for them?
I think this is a very good question and I don’t have a proper answer. Mastertronic never had in-house developers. Everything we published was supplied to us either by freelance authors /software houses or bought from other publishers. I think perhaps there was a lack of experience in the UK because when the first 16-bits appeared (1985?) everybody was busy coding for the C64 or the Spectrum.
Some of our freelancers, having learned and mastered the 8-bits, may have preferred to go on writing for what was an established market rather than retrain on the 16-bits. We were fully aware of the 16-bit market and one of the reasons why Mastertronic USA was set up was to take full advantage of the greater expertise of the US software houses.
I think another reason for the lack of titles was simply the lack of sales – we produced titles at £4.99 on disk which seemed to us to be a very fair price but they did not sell in any significant volume. So it was much harder to justify splurging out paying advances. There was no boom as there had been with the 8-bit market.
I also recall a conversation with Geoff Heath (ex-boss of Activision) who was our marketing director – this was around 1988 when we were merging with Virgin. I thought we should be investing in PC titles. He thought the market was far too limited. So we did very little. I regard that as a missed opportunity, although we did produce some classics such as Wonderland, designed inhouse by the Virgin team.
Mastertronic games were known for their great artwork. Which game had your favourite artwork?
I’m pleased you think that the artwork was good – it was something that the company prided itself on in the early years. My favourite picture is probably Journey’s End, the original of which hangs in my study. A picture that just pulls you into the story. I also loved The Captive but my wife said it gave her the creeps and wouldn’t let me hang it up. You can see these two, and some of the other originals I used to own, HERE.
There are some brilliant examples of our original style on Mark Brady’s website – Mark worked for the design firm called Words & Pictures who supplied the majority of our artwork at that time.
Why do you feel the budget market declined so rapidly at the end of the 1980’s when the 8-bit machines were still selling well in Europe well into the early 1990’s?
This is another excellent question that I really can’t answer properly, mainly because I was much more involved with the company’s IT systems at the time. I didn’t know that the budget market as a whole had declined – certainly Mastertronic (or Virgin Mastertronic as we were at that time) declined due to the increased competition from Codemasters and from the fullprice software houses.
I think we may have ceased to be the exclusive suppliers to the leading UK shops at that time, and I believe that the quality of our games was falling as we ceased to rely on individual authors and tried to do deals with software houses for a number of titles at a time – there is some anecdotal evidence that they in turn put enormous pressure on their programmers to come up with the finished products on time and inevitably corners were cut.
The first example is Feud, potentially a brilliant game but the C64 version was not properly finished and has bugs that make it hard and frustrating to play. The author, who was working for the software house Binary Design, has been quoted somewhere (I forget where) as saying that it was a rush job so as the meet the deadline agreed with Mastertronic for the publishing date.
One final comment on Virgin Mastertronic – by 1990 our Sega distribution business was growing so fast, and was so profitable, that the budget business was no longer seen as particularly important. So we didn’t invest much in it and I dont think it lasted very long after it was demerged into Virgin Interactive Entertainment.
In hindsight what do you feel Mastertronic could have done to turn their fortunes around when the console boom hit its stride?
Well, in a way, Mastertronic was partly responsible for the console boom – we made Sega a success in Europe and we were the company which became Sega Europe, the HQ of Sega’s UK and European operations. So the answer is there was nothing we could have done because the people running the business had chosen to go with Sega and let budget games wither away. I rather think that some of our competitors in budget, like Firebird, also went into extinction at this time, and of course Codemasters transformed themselves by writing console games.
Do you ever meet up with any of the old dev team? It must be a huge part of your life and I wondered if you still have connections with the people you worked with?
We held a Sega reunion only a couple of years ago, hosted by Nick Alexander (boss of Virgin Games and the Chairman of Sega Europe until 1994.). But there is not much of the original Mastertronic team left. Sadly the founder of the company, Frank Herman, died a couple of years ago and probably the last get-together was at his funeral.
In the end, you know, it was just a job. It may sound glamorous, and I loved the idea that I could legitimately play games at work (“research”, as we called it) but I was employed to work on the accounts, the payroll, the royalties and stock-control systems and all the rather dull stuff behind the scenes that you find in any business. So it was not really a huge part of my life, as you put it, but it was a wonderful company and fascinating industry to work in.
Well that’s the end of our interview, again thanks to Anthony for taking part.
Retro head and key holder of RVG.