RVG Interviews Mark Hardisty.
Mark Hardisty is the main behind the amazing A Gremlin in the Works book published and supplied by Bitmap Books.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Mark, could you start by telling us a little about you and your gaming history?
Chequered! As a family we used to have the oddball early games machine in the house - I remember a malfunctioning Philips Videopac that appeared at some point. At a school friend’s 10th birthday his Dad plugged in his brand new Acorn Electron and loaded Elite. The moment I saw the 3D rotating Cobra I knew I had to own one. From there I moved to owning a Spectrum +2 that I kept that for some time before heading to University and a very cheap 386SX PC! It’s only in the past few years that I’ve started to buy original hardware again to catch up with those missing years!
When did you decide to create a book on Gremlin? Was this a long life ambition for you? Can tell us more?
Back in 2011 I met and started working with Ian Stewart and an ex-Gremlin, Jacob Habgood on a series of schools festivals called Games Britannia, in collaboration with Sheffield Hallam University. We aimed to get kids excited about coding and making games, and a big part of that was celebrating British games and in particular Sheffield’s gaming heritage. The more I worked with Ian, a wonderful man by the way, the more my interest grew in him and the Gremlin story. I delivered the last Games Britannia festival I was involved with in 2014 and with Ian’s blessing I set about writing the book as my next pet project! I think the first interview I conducted was in May of that year.
You started on the self publisher route heading down the crowd funding path, which you would have possibly raised a great amount to bring this to life, what made you go with Bitmap books?
The book began coming together at the start of several retro gaming books appearing on Kickstarter, including Read-Only Memory’s Sensible book, Chris Wilkins’ titles and Sam Dyer’s fantastic compendium products. It seemed like that would be the natural route to bring A Gremlin in the Works to life. I’d met Sam at Play Expo, thought his work was fantastic and we had an exploratory chat where I tried to wrest the dark arts of a successful Kickstarter from him. In the end Sam made the offer of exploring publication with Bitmap and I was only too happy to accept, delighted in fact.
Is there anything you'd of done differently with the book or something you might of missed?
I’d have probably got Mark Green, the Editor, on board earlier. His experience and skill was invaluable in organising the book structure and content, and he brought a really effective and meticulous workflow to the process. I don’t think I’ve missed anything, or I hope not! I do think it’s probably one of the most exhaustive look at a games company there’s been. Of course some games and employees aren’t interviewed or featured, but Gremlin was at one point employing over 300 people and published over 200 titles!
I believe your working on an "Expansion Disk" companion book, can you shed any light on this at all and give any details?
It’s linked to the previous answer really. During the edit plenty of content was trimmed down, and some we excluded all together as Mark focused the narrative of the book. The expansion will be a digital-only additional book that will grow and grow over time. I still want to try and cover other games and talk to new people so It’ll include brand new stuff as well as a selection of stuff that perhaps fell onto the cutting room floor. I think it’s a pretty unique idea in publishing, giving the original buyers of the book more and more content, and means the book is never quite finished … well, until I run out of steam!
The book in two parts both in a sublime slipcase, what was the thinking on this, did the amount of content just decide the need to split across two books or some other reason?
Spot on. With Sam’s experience he knew there would be a problem logistically with a hardback book of that size and he suggested splitting the book into two volumes. Luckily the Gremlin story did naturally break between 1989 and 1990 so we separate the book at that point. I think the finished product is fantastic, the slipcase is great as you say, and I am delighted with what I think is a thing of beauty and quality.
Back in the day, can you tell us what your favourite gremlin game was and on what format? Did you ever compare versions ?
I did admit on a podcast recently that I didn’t play a great deal of Gremlin games. They only released one game for the Electron, Footballer of the Year, that I bought. It was text-based, whereas all of the other versions had a graphical representation of a footballer shooting at goal - you had to press L or R on the keyboard in order to score. Shocking stuff! When I moved to the Speccy I kept it for some time, into the early 90s, so had Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge by the late Ali Davidson. It was a sublime conversion of the Amiga classic. I even sent my tips for the game into Your Sinclair!
What’s your Top 5 games and why for each game?
My top Gremlin games do change a bit! They’re probably Disposable Hero on the Amiga, a classic shoot’em up to rival R-Type and Project-X; Realms of the Haunting on PC - a fascinating game by Tony Crowther; Zool on the Amiga - just for its significance for Gremlin; Lotus on the Spectrum - what a version of the de facto arcade racer and; Wanted: Monty Mole by the wonderful Peter Harrap - again for what it meant to the company.
During production of the book, who did you find the most entertaining, during their interview sessions?
So many! There are a few “characters” I’d say in the contributions list! I enjoyed talking with everyone to be honest. Each had their own fascinating addition and insight, from Spectrum legend Peter Harrap, C64 god Tony Crowther through to the technical genius of Carl Cavers and James North-Hearn.
One of the most challenging interviews was with Bruno Bonnell as I talked to him on a speeding train in France on his way to film their equivalent of “The Apprentice”. Bruno of course is France’s version of our own Alan Sugar.
I love your Gremlin archive website, how long did it take for you to hunt down all that stuff, merchandise and memorabilia?
It’s the result of over two years of research and hassling Gremlins to go into their lofts! There’s only so many royalty statements, photographs or box shots you can fit into the book - so the archive is a great way of putting that content out into the wild, and people can access it if they are interested in it. I’m gradually buying Gremlin titles and putting decent scans on the archive too. One of the most interesting things to come from the exercise so far is someone picking up Anthony Clarke’s (Micro Projects - Monty on the Run) source code for the C16 and C64, and discovering a few unfinished demos and hidden messages.
Have you any exclusive unpublished content you'd like to share with us, or are you holding that back for the expansion book?
Apart from the archive, the rest of the unpublished stuff will more than likely find its way into the expansion book. I’ll let you into a little secret of what will be in the first DLC: Three completely new interviews - David Martin who is mentioned a lot in the physical book, and was instrumental in securing the Lotus licence and Chupa Chups tie-in for Zool; Steve Marsden, the Technician Ted coder who manned the Gremlin Lincoln studio for a couple of years; and Mark Gallagher, a member of freelance studio Warp Factory who worked on an unreleased mafia-themed game. Some really great new additions.
Any plans for a similar book on another Great British Software House?
To be honest I have a real passion for Gremlin, and I hope that shows in the work … but I don’t possess it for someone else, even though I am interested in other stories. I was disappointed that Tim Chaney’s recent Kickstarter for the Virgin story failed to reach its target - after talking with Tim (another character) I think that would be a very, very interesting read. Maybe Sam has some ideas, but I’d have to call on Mark Green again as editor, and I think he’s still recovering!
How do you think about all the retro books coming to market, will the bubble burst?
I hope not. There’s some cracking titles out there. As with most things, I wish that the media and mainstream book retailers gave them more coverage. There’s very little serious conversation about games going on out there - even the retro magazines don’t really review the books that are being released, they tend to pay them lip service, and that’s a shame but understandable.
Can we say a huge thanks to Mark for his amazing replies, I really hope we and the rest of the community can make you guys change your minds and produce a physical copy of the Expansion Book.. That would be amazing and I for one would pledge in some form of Kickstarter campaign. Lastly you really need to convince Tim Chaney as that's another story that deserves to be told.
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