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The Mysterious Adventures of Brian Howarth

The tale of how one of Britain's prominent adventure pioneers started out and had a prolific run converting games and writing original ones, before relocating to the U.S. and giving up the adventuring life altogether. But not the joys of programming.

Brian Howarth, 2010
(private photo)

Brian Howarth should be a household name to anyone familiar with the early years of adventure game history. Apart from writing eleven Mysterious Adventures (which include Perseus & Andromeda and, to quote Edge Magazine, the "glorious stream-of-consciousness ramble" that is Feasibility Experiment), he ported a large number of Scott Adams' games to new micros and wrote games based on popular favourites, including Gremlins and the Robin of Sherwood TV series. You can find his entire list of adventure games here

Perhaps a few words about your background, because it's tricky to come by this information - it seems you were born in 1953 in Blackpool?

Yes, I was born into a working class family. After leaving Grammar School in 1969 with a handful of GCE 'O' level certificates, I started my career as a telephone engineer - that lasted until 1981. I had gotten addicted to computing with my TRS80 from Radio Shack. Having been introduced to Scott Adams' adventures, I was burning with the desire to create similar adventure games.

Since The Golden Baton was your first game, there must have been quite a learning curve getting it right?

The Golden Baton, C64-style. Yes, we were indeed prepared for just about anything!

I started coding The Golden Baton in BASIC. It was progressing OK but would have been very hard to fit into the memory available on the majority of TRS80s. Machine code was clearly the way to go, but this represented a steep learning curve to me. I found a good book, Microsoft Assembler, and then proceeded to burn many midnight oils learning how to code in assembly language and eventually stumbled toward a functional version of "Golden Baton".
I submitted it for publication and to my delight and surprise, Mr. A.J. Harding from Molimerx contacted me with a publishing contract proposal, along with a definite interest in creating a "series" if I felt the capacity to create more. As a backdrop to anything Adventure related, I was heavily involved with a local chemist in creating a prescription labelling software package which took up a good deal of my time. Mr. Harding was very eager to extend the "Mysterious Adventures" series and was eternally pressing me for more titles.

At some point, Brian spotted an article in a gamer mag where Mike Woodroffe, of Adventuresoft, was broadcasting his need for a programmer who could work on porting Scott Adams' titles to UK micros. Brian did a number of ports and games there and met Scott himself at CES around 1983-1984, but never had much contact with him.

I'm a little fuzzy on the creation of your adventure engine, as various sources seem to be at odds with each other. Did you reverse engineer Scott's code, or was your engine simply quite similar to Scott's?

A non-programmer friend of mine was very keen to be part of creating adventures and had come across an editor that could compile/create and interpreter that could digest Scott Adams' adventure data files. It became clear to us that if I could adapt my code to be able to interpret the Scott Adams data files, we would also be able to use the editor to allow non-programmers to write our own adventure data files, then package them up into my new engine and supply Molimerx with their voracious demand. My code was pretty compatible to the way the Scott's code worked and only required some massaging to be compatible.

A 1984 ad (click to view full image.
Image courtesy of World of Spectrum)

So the adventure series was now expanding nicely, but apart from the TRS80 platform, Molimerx only wanted me to port the code to IBM PC. He had no interest in any of the flood of new machines that were starting to saturate the market in the UK at the time.
My new targets for porting the engine were machines such as Atari 400/800, Sinclair Spectrum, BBC Computer, Commodore 64, Oric Atmos (seemed like a new machine appeared in the UK each month). From this, I became so embroiled in porting that forward motion on creating new titles ground to a halt.

After some difficulties with Adventuresoft over invoices, he decided to set up his own company, Digital Fantasia. Later on, he and Mike Woodroffe patched up their differences and decided to pick up their collaboration again. This lasted until 1988.

What was it like running your own company and writing & marketing games at the same time?

I was very bad at running my own company, maybe we were just under-funded, but we soon fell victim to an avaricious printer, who gouged us terribly for creating packaging that some distributors insisted upon. We committed all our money to fulfilling orders and trying to pay printer's bills - this house of cards collapsed utterly when one of our distributors went bankrupt, and were unable to pay us many thousands of pounds that we had committed to the printer. The publisher we had that was selling the Atari versions, Channel 8 Software, signed to takeover publication of the Spectrum, Commodore 64 titles in a royalty deal. Digital Fantasia went into receivership shortly thereafter. That was the end of my pathetic attempt to be a businessman.

Your text adventures usually had fairly brief in-game text descriptions, and you stuck to this model while the machines were getting more powerful. Did you ever want to write more elaborate texts, or did you think that the shorter descriptions actually worked in favour of the games?

Perhaps I could have fleshed things out more, but it seemed to me that gratuitously increasing the verbosity without essentially changing the flow, the puzzles etc. had only limited appeal. Additionally, it seemed like the only games that were selling were those with graphics, so I basically put all my extra efforts into satisfying that need. We were always fighting a battle to squeeze everything into the woefully low memory on all those 8-bit machines. We had been given a taste of translating some titles to German, which immediately caused those titles to no longer fit in memory.

Speaking of your games...were you particularly pleased with the way one or more of them turned out?

Circus comes to mind as the effort that satisfied me most. (Nobody collaborated with me on the one BTW - entirely my own effort). Can't think exactly why it's my favourite, but I did think it was cool that a number of people felt it was somehow reminiscent of "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury. I also enjoyed Gremlins - loved the movie and was overjoyed to be allowed to write an adventure game based upon it.

The Mysterious Adventures series was supposed to continue with two more games, After the Fire and Midwinter, but none of these ever made it past the ideas stage. After a period Brian describes as quite stressful, loaded with family and work obligations, he wrapped up the 1980s with the arcade game Theme Park Mystery and work on SSI's Heroes of the Lance.
In 1990, after applying for a job at renowned publisher Cinemaware and landing it, he decided to relocate to the U.S. and quit having a public adventure profile (which he insists he never had in the first place)

Brian in 1983
(Image courtesy of World of Spectrum)

"An amusing anecdote: Before I got into the adventures, I was in a band and on a foraging trip for gear. I was in the Midlands and found a guy who was looking to swap a keyboard - we swapped and he mentioned that his name was Jezz Woodroffe and that he had been the keyboard player for Black Sabbath. Imagine my surprise when I first met Mike Woodroffe at his family's music store in Birmingham where he was running the Software company from. He introduced me to his brother Jezz and we both recognized that we already knew each other!"

How did moving to the US work out? For starters, suddenly you were part of Cinemaware, which had quite a name at that point, but they were probably going downhill by then.

As a general overview of my post-adventure existence, I should explain that since my teens, I had been trying to get somewhere in the music business - first in a band, then as a composer of electronic music. By 1986, synthesizers had MIDI, and a love affair ensued...I spent the rest of the 80s chasing a dangling carrot that a famous movie library music publisher in London put out. 1990 saw me dispel that dream and answer Cinemaware's job advert. The move to the US came at an opportune time - I was working on a game that an artist and I were co-creating. We were contracted to Mirrorsoft, but some weird things were happening there so I got the Cinemaware position and emigrated from the UK in July 1990, leaving my wife and kids to sell the house and everything and follow when able. Cinemaware went bust early the following year. [Co-founder] Bob Jacobs took me and a handful of Cinemaware people and formed a new company that was destined to be working on console titles, (Super NES, SEGA Genesis). So, that set the scene for the nineties in which fortunes fluctuated, but I never went back to working on anything remotely adventure related.

Seeing how you're coding for tablets and iPhones these days, what is it like developing software for the current market, as opposed to being a one man operation / hired gun back in the 80s?

I've done some unbelievably varied programming in the 23 years I've been here, most of it not game related. As far as tablets and iPhones go, while I've contracted to work on some apps for various companies, my main passion is writing apps of my own design. I love the simplicity of Apple's App Store/publishing - I simply submit my finished app, as long as it doesn't break any of Apple's guidelines, they publish it and each month, they tally the sales, send me 70%. Effortless! The risks are the same as always, i.e. if not enough people buy your product and you don't earn sufficient to pay the bills (Apple don't give royalty advances). I certainly see it as a fairly solo effort, more so since my youngest son is my Graphic Artist and we just work from home.

A final question: what are you playing these days - if anything?

For the last five years I've been a pretty dedicated MMO player. World of Warcraft mainly, but I've played several other titles to high level, including Lord Of The Rings Online, Guild Wars 2, TERA and The Secret World.

Well, I suppose MMOs have a slight whiff of adventure to them! So that wraps up the interview. Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to answer my questions, and best of luck with your App Store efforts (one of which can be found here)!

- Jacob Gunness, August 2013