From humble back-bedroom origins to the biggest adventure-game publisher in the world, Zenobi Software set a precedent for high quality text-based gaming across the home computers of the day. The fondly remembered ZX Spectrum and Atari ST both enjoyed Zenobi’s love of storytelling and for over a decade this developer / publisher released a couple of hundred titles via the ranks of its many authors, often these people stalked around Derek Brewster’s Adventure Trail or shared YS Adventures with Mike Gerrard.
Fans with a penchant for postal orders, cassette tapes and fondling issues of Your Sinclair, CRASH etc will doubtless recall classics such as Behind Closed Doors, a series which recently saw parts 5 and 6 released http://bcd5.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://bcd6.blogspot.co.uk/ respectively.
At Zenobi’s helm, the mighty Rochdale Balrog – alias Mr. John Wilson – creator of excellent fiction (or fictional excellence) and lover of Fox’s. Officially a year into retirement, I was lucky enough to grab a few words for the TpSUK website.
Stella: 2013 marks the first anniversary of the Balrog putting his ‘shiny boots’ up. So, where did it all go wrong?
John: It never went ‘wrong’, it was simply time to put my feet up and enjoy the years I have left …. I felt that 65 was old enough to know better and that it was time to put aside the ‘games’ and concentrate on what I love best – my Ann!!!
Stella: I’m hesitant to use the word retro within grammatical distance of Zenobi, you still continue to develop titles. Behind Closed Doors certainly, tell us about your adventures in Twine… sounds like a complex string?
John: ‘Twine’ was suggested to me as a ‘tool’ for producing ‘adventure-games’ by a nice friend of mine from Greece (the Gnome) and once I had taken a look at it I just had to give it a go. ‘Behind Closed Doors 5′ was the logical game to produce because the ‘BCD’ saga had always been my ‘testing-ground’ in the past and I thought I might be able to come up with something mildly original. I think it worked out quite well and ‘BCD6′ and ‘Bulbo’s Journey’ were written simply to see what sort of things I could do with ‘Twine’ … my old head is getting ‘slow’ these days and I have most probably just skimmed the surface with regards to the depths that ‘Twine’ can go but nonetheless it produced a couple of games that provided a few moments of enjoyment for one or two people.
Stella: Bulbo’s Unexpected Journey http://bulbosjourney.blogspot.co.uk/ is quite a new development, can Zenobi fans expect such releases to continue every now and again?
John: I highly doubt if there will be any more games as ‘retirement’ has meant that I suddenly have so much more time for all those other things that I have missed out on over the years – nearly thirty of them were spent running Zenobi and very little else. However you never know how the fancy takes me – I am very much a creature of impulse and if an ‘idea’ pops into my head one dark and dreary morning then it might just have to see the light of day.
Stella: There’s always a clever app around, and now most pockets can house a Balrog, what can you recommend for Zenobi mobile emulation sir?
John: There are so many ‘emulators’ around these days but my own particular favourite platform for such things has always got to be the iPad, with the Nintendo DS in close proximity. I would like to see more for the Android ‘tablets’ as I find them to be great little beasts – currently have 2 or 3 of them of my own and love the way they operate.
Stella: What influences has Zenobi seen, or what inspires you personally. Any admiration for those gaming peers past and present?
John: My influences were vast and many – though not always in the same field as I was trying to make a living – but basically it just boiled down to the ability to tell a good tale. Over the years I have been described as a ‘writer’ on many occasions but nothing could be more further from the truth. I am no ‘writer’, I am a ‘storyteller’. My grammatical errors would make my old English master turn in his grave but I am sure he would forgive them all if the story I was ‘telling’ gripped his attention and made him believe – if only for a moment or two.
As for those whom I admire … well, the likes of Mike Singleton, Fergus McNeill and the others who pioneered the early Spectrum games are right up there but most of all I admire anybody who can get an ‘idea’ from out of their head and into something that can be shared with other people.
Stella: I suspect one or two pseudonyms may have possibly snuck in? But folks like Jack Lockerby, Laurence Creighton et al were highly prolific writers for Zenobi Software, the 80′s and 90′s saw some fantastic adventure games produced for our rubber-keyed friend and (later) the Atari ST / STE.
John: To the best of my knowledge there was only ever ONE pseudonym and that was ‘Palmer P Eldritch’, everybody else used their real name – except me of course.
Stella: I always thought the Commodore 64 was king of the Americas at the time, rather than the Sinclair Spectrum. I suspect that’s not quite true.
John: You are possibly correct as even though Zenobi sold games in America, it was never on the same scale as the rest of the World and we did only ever produce for the Spectrum.
Stella: The company enjoyed huge success worldwide, can you share a few anecdotes or give us a snapshot of your international fandom?
John: Over the years little brown ‘jiffy-bags’ have been sent far and wide .. we used to have a regular customer in Pakistan who was a Captain in the Pakistan army. We also had a ‘Sheep-farmer’ in New Zealand and an airline pilot in Australia, not to mention a Doctor in Cardiff and a police-inspector in the Hebrides. But the best of them all was the guy with the nice shiny shoes who turned up announced and asked about our ‘Deep Waters’ compilation tapes. It turned out he was from the Birmingham Vice-squad and thought we were selling tapes dealing with the sexual practice of the ‘Golden Shower’. I gave him a copy of the two tapes (free of charge – of course) and sent him off with a list of all the other available titles. Sadly no further sales ever resulted from his visit.
Also had a visit from the Manchester vice-squad once. There were two of them, a female officer and a male officer. The male asked to use my toilet and whilst he went about his business the female officer asked me a few questions. However when I heard the floorboards squeaking in the vicinity of my ‘office’ I shot upstairs and found him rooting amongst my cassettes. I quickly pointed out the error of his ways and directed him to the toilet – which he had walked straight past on his way into my office. After he had relieved himself they made their excuses and left.
Stella: Programs such as The Quill and its sequel PAWS – Professional Adventure Writer – brought ‘bedroom enthusiasts’ to the fore, offering the odd truly terrible game. You must have filtered a fair few surely?
John: To be honest I turned very few games down – reckon you could have counted them on the fingers of one hand – as most of the stuff I was sent held ‘promise’ and a bit of constructive ‘play-testing’ usually knocked them into shape. I used to have about six regular play-testers and they were damn good at their job.
Stella: I would have sent in my own proud (rubbish) effort but I never could introduce game to loading screen successfully. Quick community question, if that’s alright John…
DsonicX: What are some of your fondest memories of that era?
John: Selling my first game … and cashing the cheque for £1.99 … absolutely brilliant feeling.
Being awarded ‘Best Commercial Adventure Company’.
Receiving my first ‘YS Mega-game’ status.
But basically just waking up every morning to see another pile of orders on the doormat .. it was so great to see that the public at large enjoyed the stuff we were producing enough to keep buying it.
Stella: Thank you for taking the time out to chat John, where do we find you on social media, where can Zenobi Software be sought and what sites should we bookmark sir?
John: The only ‘social-media’ place you can find me is on ‘Twitter’ @RochBalrog. However, there are loads of other places to enjoy the ‘Zenobi-experience’. Just head over to http://zenobigames.blogspot.co.uk/ and – the above linked – Bulbo’s Unexpected Journey, Behind Closed Doors 5 and 6 blogspots. Also Zenobi Software’s website www.zenobi.co.uk.
Stella: Final question, your a bigger fan of music for pleasure but does the odd gaming itch take hold?
John: To be honest I have ‘gamed’ very little since I started ‘Zenobi’ as there was basically so such thing as ‘spare-time’, however I used to sneak an hour or two each just to try out the latest releases and one or two of them caught my eye enough to find me playing them to completion … ‘Gears of War’ was one.
A massive thank you to John Wilson, a gentleman and my ZX Spectrum hero. A very big thank you to The PlayStation Show UK and the TpSUK crew – ZonalRipper, The-Big-Don and Here-Comes-Bod.
And of course, thanks to legends – DsonicX, Gnome’s Lair & Your Sinclair: A Celebration.
Written by StellaKing Si for The PlaySation Show UK