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Richard Alexander - quantum leaps and adventures

From 1987 till 1991 (give or take, memories are getting a bit hazy), Richard Alexander ran CGH Services, a small company publishing software for Clive Sinclair's ambitious undertaking, the Sinclair QL. We've talked to him about running an adventure zine and working with a machine which might not have gotten the attention it deserved.

What is your background (from a work/personal/game related perspective)?

At the time I started CGH, I'd been a wargamer for many years, played tabletop wargames at school, played the cardboard Avalon Hill style games later, kept an interest in gaming generally. When the first home computers came out I was keen to see if they were a viable platform for wargaming. However, early mchines weren't too hot graphically, so text adventures seemed a fun way of passing the time. None of which had much to do with my work background, which was as a librarian. I also had an interest in history though, which I followed academically to get my degree (in part). The degree (which I took part-time whilst still working full-time) also had IT components which gave me an appreciation as to how they might be used for purposes other than solving mathematical and statistical problems.

What made you decide to start a company?

I was unemployed having left my previous work (my job was disappearing from under me, and indeed was re-organised the minute I left into 2 part-time posts from one full time one,) There was an option to get government funding of £50 a week (IIRC) for the first year if you set up a business and started trading, so as I was having no joy finding work locally, I took that option and started scratching around for a business idea. Eventually I came up with the idea of QL Adventurers Forum - I was going to publish a zine (originally on microdrive) about playing and solving adventures on the Sinclair QL. (At this point most people would have done some elementary market research and found there wasn't much of a market for such a zine.) However, I thought I'd give it a go for a year and see how it turned out.

After that it just grew, there was enough interest to keep me busy playing and trying to solve the adventures, and then people asked if I was interested in publishing their games and it went on from there. The zine became a photocopied one, and I added the public domain library. The work-load grew, the income not so much.

What kind of operation was CGH?

CGH Services was just me. I did the publishing. Various other people helped with technical issues, (credit to Rich Mellor without whom the business would have have struggled to keep going, his technical expertise was most valuable) and of course there were the authors who actually wrote the programs. I also did the publishing of the zines and ran the public domain / shareware library. I didn't do much programming, apart from the odd bit of debugging. It was run on a shoe-string and never made much money.

What was your proudest/most amusing moment as publisher?

I suppose the proudest moment was when we got our first review in a QL magazine. Or maybe Computer Shopper. Amusing - maybe playing Nick Ward's "Anelpum Quat" adventure set inside a QL. Very clever and droll. And possibly writing clues to help solve adventures in QL Adventurers Forum, without giving the answers away completely.

QL Epic Adventure

To what extent did the QL users manage to connect and form a user base? Zines will usually manage to connect like-minded people to some degree, and there were pre-Internet options such as Compunet in the UK, but still - finding other QL fans and keeping in touch would be a challenge in those days I'd imagine?

Well we had, and still have I understand, a user group called QUANTA. Which had a peek membership of over 2000. Now probably somewhat less. Plus a newstand magazine QL User / QL World. There were various user groups as well. And even back in the day we had internet, I had a 300 baud modem stuck on my QL which I could use to access bulletin boards. But you had to know where they were. As for being a coherent user base, there was a core group of tinkerers, enthusiasts, hardware and software designers who drove the QL scene after Sinclair effectively abandoned it. Some of those people are still around. But beyond that I wouldn't say there was a coherent user base.

What did you think of the way Sinclair handled the QL in a, then, rather crowded marketplace?

The QL was, in some respects a good machine. It had a reasonable spec, and plenty of options for expansion. Unfortunately it was saddled with the microdrives as the default storage devices which were never that reliable. Floppy disk drives were then becoming the mainstream storage devices, and if the QL had started with one of those it would have made a lot of difference.
The other big problem was that technically it was overtaken on 3 fronts - games machines, business machines, home computers. It wasn't good enough to be better than any other machine in any of those categories. The Atari ST and Commodore Amigas totally outclassed it as home computers, the early PCs with their disk drives were much better for office uses, and games consoles were better for playing games. The QL couldn't match the sound and graphics qualities for the STs and Amigas or games consoles, so developers didn't waste too much time developing games for it.

I think it was just unfortunate that it was developed and released just as the market place changed dramatically, which left it stranded. The choice of main processor, the 60008, limited things as well. After the initial problems with the machines they became more reliable but the damage was done. If it had been released a year or two later it might have benefited from a more reliable platform incorporating floppy disk drives. (You could always add them from the start but to begin with they were horrible expensive.) Improved graphics would have been a help, midi sound output etc etc. What the QL did have was excellent programmability, options for expansion and a hardcore user base who enjoyed messing about with them. (But that itself proved to be a nightmare for actual software developers.) In short it was, and for a few people remains, an excellent hobbyist machine.

Are you still noodling around with the QL these days - maybe via emulation?

No, I haven't touched a QL in anger for many years. I graduated to an Atari STE as soon as I shut down CGH Servcies, and then eventually got a PC. And then another, and then another.

- Jacob Gunness, July 2016