Shards Software

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Shards' diary - Dragon User magazine, September 1984

Gordon Ross tracks the movements of adventurers Shards software

CLOADM... and enter the world of Shards software, the family entertainment specialists. With 16 games under its belt, including the best-selling Pettigrews Diary, Shards is the third largest producer of Dragon software - following on the heels of Salamander and Microdeal.

The man behind the mysterious adventures and founder of the Shards empire is managing director, Stephen Maltz. His interest in programming stems from a competition he won in 1980 to rank 10 different business computers in order of preference. Stephen won a Superbrain micro, a case of champagne and the opportunity to take time off from his job as a Systems Analyst with Berger Paint to write programs.

Early days

The Superbrain gave Stephen an appreciation of micros in general and, in the summer of 1982 he purchased a Dragon 32. His first programs appeared four months later competing for his attention with a blaring TV set and a noisy child.

In September of 1982 Stephen approached Dragon Data at the Personal Computer World exhibition and asked them to look at two of his programs. The response was less than enthusiastic - they lost his tapes twice. Nevertheless, Stephen persevered with his programming and the two games that Dragon Data ignored later tumed up on Shards' Fun And Games tape - a compendium of 10 games for children's parties.

A two-centimetre high classified advertisement in a well known popular computer weekly magazine was the first indication that Shards was on the go. For almost a year Stephen ran Shards as a mail order venture. ln June of 1983 he gave up his job to run Shards full-time, and took on two staff to help with the packaging and processing of the maiI-order business.

One of the first successfully marketed adventures that Shards had on the Dragon was one that Stephen actually wrote on the Superbrain and converted to the Dragon - Empire. At the start of the game the world is shown as consisting of 39 neutral blocks to be divided up between the player, the Dragon Empire and neutral countries. Having allocated your forces the idea is to strengthen your hold on the world, forcing the opposing forces into submission.

This was followed shortly afterwards by the release of Shards most popular adventure, Pettigrews Diary, which has sold upwards of 10,000 copies. The adventure is in three chapters, each being an adventure in its own right and loading separately. Clues gained in each section, however, are essential to the following part. The first part takes place in a burning farmhouse - you have to extract vital clues to escape the flames and continue to the second part of the quest in London, collecting more clues and outrunning a clock ticking away at the top of the screen. Finally, the last stage of the adventure takes you around Europe, piecing various puzzles together in order to successlully end the search.

The triumph of Pettigrew has led to a series of new releases over the last year and a half, including Puzzler (a computer simulated jigsaw puzzle); Mystery of the Java Star (a four part "educational" adventure which has you searching for the fabled ruby), North Sea Oil (a simulation program that puts you ln the role of Offshore Installation Manager in charge of a drilling rig); Shaper (a sound utility program with accompanying 36 page booklet) and most recently Operation Safras, the "prequel" to Pettigrews Diary.

Most of these titles have had only limited sales success, averaging approximately 2.000 sales per title. Thus, the recent collapse of Dragon Data couldnt have happened at a worse time for Shards, coming as it did when sales are traditionally low over the whole spectrum of the micro industry.

As a result, many shops are reducing prices, notably Boots and Dixons, in a bid to sell off unwanted stock. And, according to Stephen, since Dragons collapse Shards has had trouble in getting its new stock into the hands of distributors and retail outlets leading to a fall in revenue and rise in the importance of mail order - a situation that sees Shards going back to its original position.

Operation Safras for example, has had very disappointing sales, although Stephen believes it to be a better adventure than Pettigrews Diary. "The public believes that it is all plain sailing," said Stephen, "yet if they saw that companies were in trouble they would support them." Stephen said that recent titles that Shards has been working on have had to be shelved. This includes Time Travelling, an adventure written entirely in graphics, incorporating a sprite utlilty in the program, and Shards major project for 1984 which was to have been an educational adventure, using music, graphics and coming complete with books and instructions.

Shards has put its faith in the family market. Stephen believes that it is preferable to have several members of a family or group playing and discussing an interesting adventure, rather than seeing a single person blasting away, zapping aliens, and hogging the TV set. ln addition, says Stephen, families are less likely to pirate tapes.

Hand in hand with this goes the belief that more adults will join in the playing of adventure-type games. "My philosophy is that the market will change - we are aiming at families and mature audiences now, so that when the market does change we will be in a strong position."

The ideal micro

At present Shards employs five full-time staff and several part-time programmers, "most of whom are 30 year old rnen with two children" says Stephen, belying the whizz kid image of the industry. It takes about three months to write an adventure, according to Stephen, who says that an original idea and sound technique are the two most important facets of an adventure. Stephen, who does most of the programming for the Dragon - his other staff members are mostly concerned with writing adventures for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum - claims that the Dragon "with its amazingly powerful Basic is the ideal micro for the programmer." Indeed lt's only lately that Shards has diversified away from the Dragon, Stephen believing that the road to the future depends on small companies specialising in one area - such as adventures, rather than producing software for one particular micro.

Although the immediate outlook is gloomy, this is not necessarily the end of Shards associations with the Dragon. Recently several people have approached Shards with the possibility of developing adventures on the Dragon. Come October the time for decision making and the launch of new products will begin. Only then will a decision be taken on whether or not to continue with the Dragon.