The Hobbit - Smaug
The Hobbit - Smaug
The Hobbit (1983)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Nov 2007

Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world

ACMI Collection Australia History Preservation Videogames

Although the Australian games industry is over 25 years old, there is surprisingly little written about its history.

Beam Software was Australia's first electronic game company. With its publishing arm, Melbourne House, Beam Software was responsible for a number of seminal and internationally best-selling titles in the 1980s.

Few people are aware of the extraordinary contribution that this pioneering game studio in South Melbourne made to the global games industry. In the 1980s a dedicated handful of people at Beam Software created some of the most successful and memorable personal computer games of the era. Videogames were in their infancy and the home personal computer market barely existed. No one could have predicted then that videogames would grow into a multi-billion dollar industry and dramatically change our relationship with the screen.

Beginning Beam

Melbourne House, established by Alfred Milgrom and Naomi Besen in 1978, was a book publishing company with offices in both Melbourne and London. In 1980 they began publishing 'How To' books for home computers and quickly expanded into games development. Beam Software was born.

Initially using their Melbourne living room as offices, and employing students from the University of Melbourne, they began distributing overseas games into the Australian market whilst creating original games for the UK Sinclair market.

It was an era when hardware was evolving rapidly. In 1981 Beam's first game for the Sinclair ZX80 (1K RAM) was greeted with an upgrade to the Sinclair ZX81. In response, Melbourne House moved quickly to publish program books for the ZX81 and established a relationship with Sinclair. Beam Software's Horace games were some of the first for the Sinclair ZX81 and paved the way for its success in the UK during the 1980s.

The Horace game series

Smash Hits

In the 1980s, Beam Software created over 100 games including some that had an enormous impact on the industry. These included:

The Hobbit

The early 1980s are considered the 'golden age' of videogames. It was a time of immense creativity as the medium invented itself. In 1982, Sinclair released the ZX Spectrum with full colour, 48K of memory and an external expansion pack that allowed for another 16K. At the time, people in the industry wondered whether programmers would ever need so much memory.

The Spectrum provided the platform for one of Beam Software's most successful games. The Hobbit (1983) was the first major game produced in Australia and is considered to be one of the classic text adventure games.

Beam Software's The Hobbit (1983)

The Hobbit was inspired by Scott Adams's text-based Adventure International series that used two-word command logical puzzles. Not realising the difficulty of going beyond this, Beam Software built a far more complex 'parser' system - a program that enables the computer to deal with natural language (which is very ambiguous) by reducing it to a limited grammar-system. Philip Mitchell created this parser with Arts student Stuart Ritchie. Mitchell and fellow student Veronika Megler, who designed the game's puzzles, had answered Beam Software's advertisement for part-time programmers. Alfred Milgrom's instructions were to 'write the best adventure game ever'.

The Hobbit fit exactly into the 'massive' 48K memory of the Spectrum. Graphics were drawn on screen to reduce memory requirements. On its release it became a phenomenon in the gaming world. It was groundbreaking: running in 'real time' and allowing players to 'talk' to and direct the other characters. The Hobbit engendered a devoted fan culture and sold over a million copies.

At the height of its popularity, Beam Software received 50 to 60 letters a day from obsessed fans! Popular Computing Weekly, the UK-based magazine, ran a regular help column for players. Eventually Melbourne House published a dedicated guide with maps and tips - a then unprecedented development.

The Way of the Exploding Fist

Designed originally for the Commodore 64 in 1985, The Way of the Exploding Fist was the brainchild of Beam Software programmer Gregg Barnett. He wanted to create a sports simulation game where the moves were both modelled on real actions and intuitive to the joystick controller. Taking its style and title from realistically simulating Bruce Lee's fighting technique, it was the first ever 'beat-em-up' for the home PC. It also launched a new style of game play.

The Fist series by Beam Software

The character was one of the first created by graphic artists rather than programmers. The groundbreaking play involved special combination moves and used the joystick intuitively to flow the action. The game was also cutting edge in its 'realistic' graphics and use of sounds to dramatise the action. It hit number one in sales throughout Europe, helping Beam Software to solidify its position as one of the biggest games developers and publishers of the 1980s.

Beam Means Business

The appointment of financial director Adam Lancman to Beam Software in 1982 enabled Melbourne House to concentrate on games development, phase out book publishing and professionalise the company. Those were halcyon days. Beam Software generated its own game ideas and also owned publishing rights via Melbourne House. This began to change with the release of the Nintendo NES in the mid-1980s.

Earlier, Alfred Milgrom had brought back a couple of Japanese Famicom (NES) consoles to Australia and hired a student, Adrian Thewlis, to reverse engineer the systems. Using this as a basis, Beam developed a demo game, which they unsuccessfully tried to sell to Nintendo who insisted on rigid controls over development on their system.

Later, when Beam Software tried to sell their home-grown development system to the US, the American head office agreed to grant them an official Nintendo licence if they took their development kit off the market. As a result, Beam Software started developing for Nintendo platforms. The propriety nature of NES and console games radically changed the global gaming industry. This in conjunction with the sale of Melbourne House to Mastertronic in 1987 was the catalyst for major changes at Beam Software. No longer were they distributing their own titles, instead they were working on commissions.

Beam Software's staff remember the 1980s as a time of great creative freedom and camaraderie. It was an unusual work place: staff kept unorthodox hours, frequently coding late into the night. There was free pizza on Fridays and midnight snacks at the seedy 'taxi place' next door. They reverse engineered machines to understand the new platforms. They developed software that was innovative and pushed the hardware to its limits. They invented new jobs to meet the changing demands of the industry. Beam Software's games have left an international legacy, their staff laying the foundations of the Australian games industry.

– Helen Stuckey & Noè Harsel

This article was originally published in November 2007.

You might also like