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Minson, Minson on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Well before Robert Maxwell and Sir Cilve came to their arrangement, we despatched the intrepid journalist and playwright John Minson to MIRRORSOFT'S headquarters in London to find out what was going on in Robert Maxwell's Software publishing company. It's not all educational programming - DYNAMITE DAN has just been awarded a CRASH SMASH....
Not every publisher of educational software can boast as high a profile as Mirrorsoft, but then again few software houses belong to organisations as large as Mirror Group Newspapers. Jim Mackonochie, their development manager, is the man responsible for bringing the Mr Men and others to the micro, and when I met him recently my first question was how he had brought a newspaper publisher into the software market. He explained that it was a logical progression:
'In June 1983 it became apparent to me that the way technology was moving was that by the 1990s most homes would have a terminal, based on a home computer. We're basically a communication company, and it was essential for our long term objectives, moving to the turn of the century, that the Mirror Group Newspapers had an association with the home computer software market - not necessarily for what it was in 1983 or even 1984 but for what it's going to develop into by 1990.'
However there was a vast gap between the new technology of Fleet Street's electronic information gathering and the humble Spectrum, so why go for an initial position primarily in educational and serious material? The option in mid '83 was between going into games and having a major buying-up spree; or again looking to the future.
'Games will always be important in the market but it's going to start shifting in the next five years and education will become more important. When more powerful computers are in the home, serious applications will start coming to the fore, so a cold decision was taken - "Let's build up our strength in the early learning section of the market to begin with."'
From the start Mirrorsoft were able to draw on the resources of the parent group. Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men, who appear in a daily strip cartoon in the Mirror, are unquestionably popular with the junior school age group. 'Characterisation can go in fads but the Mr Men are proven over a number of generations of youngsters. If the Mr Men characters can be used in the software effectively it makes sense to use them. The trap we assiduously try to avoid is saying, "we have the Mr Men characters; how can we create a program to use them?" We prefer to have a sound programming concept and if we can use the Mr Men on that storyboard, we'll do it.'
When a decision was made to provide an introduction to directions, the result was Here and There with the Mr Men, replacing the Logo turtle with the cartoon characters. The Logo similarity hasn't been pushed in public, but schools in which the program was tested recognised it immediately and commented favourably. As yet there are no plans for the Mirror's other cartoon characters, such as The Perishers or The Fosdyke Saga, to make their micro-chip debut though.
Mirrorsoft have tried to cover a broad range of topics, with adult education, games and creative computing for a range of machines. While Jim Mackonochie admits that their current strength is in early learning, this year should see reinforcement in other areas. Recently two new games have appeared, aimed at the under-tens market who can't yet cope with the complexity of Knight Lore. Phineas Frog and Ancient Quests are both arcade adventures, but with learning undertones. First impressions of the latter indicate that it should keep the intended age range entertained. Jim firmly believes that adventure simulation is the best way to bring creativity into this market.
Ideas come to Mirrorsoft in a variety of ways, from basic concepts to a finished program in the case of Caesar the Cat. There are also in-house creative meetings which can result in communications from development teams. One long standing collaboration has been with Ivan Berg Software who have been responsible for most of thi Home Discovery titles. These include Know Your Own Personality and the Joffe Plan diet program, aimed at the broad (no pun intended) adult market. Jim agrees that they reflect the mass-market popular approach of the group's papers.
All the market surveys showed that the main users of home computers were in the 12 - 17 year old age group, who primarily used them for games. We thought, there are all these Spectrum computers in homes - let's see if we can produce a range of software which may not necessarily have mass market appeal. There will be parents who'll be interested in looking at a diet program, or software such as Starseeker which is particularly relevant this year with Halley's Comet coming through.
'It was a calculated decision to build up a reputation for producing entertaining software for adults. But it's an error to have too high expectations of this market. If you're looking for the long term you have to recognise it's a very young industry and the non-games market is a minority area. One has to build up a reputation and not go mad over-playing it. It's a long-term market with a long shelf-life. If you promote over a long time you generate sales.
In the case of Know Your Own Psi-Q and Personality the basic idea comes from the successful books by Hans Eysenck with Carl Sargent forthe former, Glenn Wilson for the latter. The computer versions avoid the tedium of scoring, and more importantly remove the temptation to cheat - some questions are repeated to test consistency! In all of these programs, the authors have not just lent their names to the product, but have been closely involved with the development of the software.
Mirrorsoft have also used the group's resources to ensure high standards of presentation, conscious of the fact that their image reflects back on the image of the newspapers in the group. They've drawn on the journalistic talents contained within the organisation to produce properly edited documentation. 'Voluminous manuals that are badly written just turn everybody off the product,' is their maxim.
As the group was created with the future in mind I wondered what lies ahead. Of course the Mr Men will be back later this year with more animation and arcade adventure elements, and there are also plans for in-house programmers as part of general expansion, but the real excitement lies in the coming generation of computers. Jim looks forward to an increased use of disks, though he admits that there could be problems of response time when interacting with microdrives.
It's when Mirrorsoft is seen as part of the mighty Pergamon/BPCC/MGN Corporation that things really happen. Robert Maxwell, chief executive of the empire, takes a great interest in the technological revolution and the family of companies of which Mirrorsoft is a part includes information services with massive databases and the Rediffusion cable network. As Jim Mackonochie says, 'The implications for the next decade are very interesting. There's some very interesting potential'.
It's quite a relief to come down to the individual level again and find that Jim himself began computing with a ZX81 and now has a Spectrum, QL and BBC at home. His knowledge and enjoyment of games goes beyond mere business awareness. 'I enjoy playing games. I enjoy using computers. It's more than a job - it's a little bit of a crusade element.'
Shortly after this interview was conducted, Robert Maxwell's involvement in Sinclair Research was announced. No doubt there will be a number of ramifications for Mirrorsoft as a result - will they become another Psion? Are they going to preserve their independence fiercely?
Answers to these and other questions had not been obtained as these pages were prepared for the printers, not least because Mirrosoft were in the middle of moving premises. Cast an eye over the NEWS INPUT pages for an update on the position.