If you were a gamer back in the ’80s or ’90s, lived on planet earth and had a pulse, you’ll know the name ‘Gremlin’. It’s extremely likely too that you’ll have played several titles the Sheffield based firm either developed or published. After all, there are a prodigious 217 to choose from released between 1984 and 1999; a staggering figure that should give you a clue just how prolific and influential they truly were prior to their purchase by French publisher, Infogrames, in a deal worth £40m.
We Amigans most fondly remember them for delivering the Supercars, Premier Manager, Switchblade, Lotus and Zool series, though Gremlin were equally active before and after the 16-bit era.
‘Pootz’, later rebranded as Zool is Ian Stewart’s personal favourite, not least because he had a hand in devising the lead ant, sorry, I mean Ninja from the Nth Dimension. Designed by Switchblade II coder, George Allen, Zool was intended to be the Amiga’s antidote to Sonic the Hedgehog, though is perhaps best known for its sponsorship deal connection to Chupa Chups lollies.
What isn’t commonly known is that the tie-in arrangement was only forged by Marketing Director, David Martin, a couple of months before the game’s release. Prior to this, the sweet level – which would have featured regardless – didn’t incorporate paid for product placement of any kind, despite being littered with Smarties, Licorice Allsorts and other confectionery. An early preview playable demo given away with CU Amiga’s July 1992 issue neatly rings the changes. Had it not been for David’s commercial nous you wouldn’t have received one of two million complimentary Chupa Chups lollies in your Zool box either.
It all began back in 1981 in the ‘City of Steel’ while the UK computer games industry was still finding its feet.
Five years into his role working as a retail manager for the high street Aladdin’s cave of video and hi-fi equipment, Laskey’s (later to be acquired by the now defunct Comet), out of the blue Ian received a shipment of computers to be added to the catalogue. He spotted a gap in the market to supply accompanying games, and so along with Kevin Norburn – who later would become the financial director of Gremlin – founded a tiny software shop known as Just Micro situated on Carver Street close to the city centre.
A hallowed rarity in an area not known for its hi-tech credentials, it attracted a number of promising young developers who would visit regularly to buy or try out software, as well as to socialise amongst like-minded customers. Such bedroom coders and artists had abundant talent to produce games people would eagerly pay to play, while Ian had the means to get them onto the shelves of retailers around the country, and later, the world. It was a honey pot match made in heaven.
With retro gaming royalty such as Pete Harrap, Shaun Hollingworth, Chris Kerry and – company director to be – Tony Crowther on board, Gremlin Graphics was formed in 1984; a name that emerged from a Just Micro loyalty bonus scheme whereby ‘collect ‘em all’ gremlin-like creatures were awarded in exchange for purchases.
This being the same year the blockbusting movie Gremlins hit theatres across the globe, Warner Bros. soon got wind of the potentially conflicting company registration. Despite the word ‘gremlin’ dating back to 1923, a term used to describe a “small imaginary creature blamed for mechanical failures”, the studio felt it necessary to bring pressure to bear on Ian’s outfit. Not wishing to get embroiled in a legal battle with a much bigger fish, he very sensibly capitulated, agreeing never to release any games involving gremlins of any kind.
The crowd-pulling shop continued to operate while the offices above – known affectionately as ‘the prison’ for architectural reasons – played host to the development of a number of in-house titles that would be published under the Gremlin moniker. Gremlin’s humble studio gave rise to acclaimed gems such as Wanted: Monty Mole, Thing on a Spring, Monty on the Run, and Jack the Nipper. In those days you could actually purchase a game created on the premises, and talk to the developers who brought it to life; quite possibly a unique proposition back then, and certainly now.
Ian reached out beyond the local area to freelancers who were keen to gain exposure for their fledgling games, and the business grew from strength to strength, opening a second office in 1986 in Derby, which would two years later become the hub of operations for Core.
US Gold founder, Geoff Brown, was drafted in to become managing director, allying Gremlin with sister company, CentreSoft (a division of the Funsoft Group), one of the UK’s largest independent distributors of interactive entertainment who later set up bases in France and Germany. Extending their latitude into the global market, Gremlin’s wares were published in the US by Interplay.
Any doubts concerning leaving behind a tool-making career following a five year engineering apprenticeship embarked upon at the age of 16 must surely have faded into obscurity for Ian. He had hit upon his true calling; sales and marketing director to the gaming equivalent of a talent scout agency.
In 1987, Tony Kavanagh, Peter Harrap and Shaun Hollingworth parted company with Gremlin to form Krisalis Software (originally Teque Developments), remaining in the Sheffield office while Gremlin branched out into larger premises, and in 1991 created the budget label GBH under which they re-released some of their older titles.
Gremlin Graphics became Gremlin Interactive in 1994 as they shifted towards specialising in publishing titles for the PC, consoles and Amiga, most notably spawning the Actua series amongst other sports-centric titles. Snowballing success led to the acquisition of DMA Design in a deal reported to be worth around £4.2m, and thus the rights to Lemmings, though unfortunately not Grand Theft Auto as the franchise had already been sold to Bertelsmann by that stage.
Now represented by a team of 300 people split across three sites, 1999 ushered in the acquisition of Gremlin Interactive by Infogrames, and as with Ocean, they did precisely nothing with the valuable and much-treasured IP. Not only did they shut down the Devonshire Green studio in 2003, they demolished it!
Having sold his shares in Zoo Digital – the TV and movie localisation and digital distribution services company he founded in 1999 – Ian is once again running his own company, Urbanscan, having clawed back from Atari the rights to the games he first championed all those years ago. As luck would have he’ll be joining us at some point in the near future to share a mere smattering of his extensive insight into the life and times of Gremlin and its founders. You’re in for a real treat!