Villordsutch talks with John Wilson (The Balrog) about Zenobi Software…
There was a time when us gamers didn’t require ultra-real graphics delivered in 4K resolution, nor truth be told did we actually require graphics, for our days were occupied with text-based adventure games and here we lost real time. Reading lines of an unfolding story whilst looking for a clue, direction or perhaps a item to help us on our journey; there’s a core group of people that still smile when they read, “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.”.One of the most well known “text-based adventure” software houses during the 1980’s and 1990’s – on the ZX Spectrum – was Zenobi Software; they delivered a few hundred titles to thousands of homes and a large chunk of those were from the Balrog himself John Wilson, the man behind Zenobi Software. It’s John Wilson who Villordsutch managed to chat with about Zenobi Softwares past, present and future…
Villordsutch: John how did you find yourself in the world of text-based adventure gaming? I know The Black Crystal was the first adventure game you played but what made you think, ‘I could do this!’ on the ZX Spectrum?
John Wilson: I’ve been a ‘storyteller’ all my life and after playing a few of the so-called ‘text adventures’ that were around at the time – they were mostly just mapping exercises with a very thin/loose ‘plot’ involved – I realised just how good a vehicle for my stories a half-decent text-adventure could be. It intrigued me that I could construct a believable world full of puzzles, quips and humour. It was then just a case of finding a means of producing such a thing. Luckily enough a pal sent me a copy of ‘The Quill‘ and the rest, as they say, is history.John Wilson’s go to for bringing Bulbo and Co. to life.
V: Did Zenobi become a full-time day job at any point or did it remain always a pleasant hobby? Did you find yourself tumbling towards the dangerous life of fast-women and loose-cars or did the text-adventure world keep you just about happy?
JW: The ‘hobby’ side of things lasted about six months before I realised that writing adventure-games might be a neat way of earning a living. So on one of my ‘job-centre’ assessments I casually told the girl interviewing me (in answer to the question “What do you intend to do with yourself?”) that it was my intention to start writing, producing and selling adventure-games. With that in mind I enlisted in the ‘Job-start Enterprise’ scheme and borrowed the requisite £1000 start-up cash from the local branch of Barclays Bank. This was all done in 1986 and for the next thirty years Zenobi Software was a full-time occupation and the only financial means to raising my family. At our peak we were selling (via ‘Mail-Order’ only) in excess of 1000 games per week and had over 100 different author on our books. All of which were in full receipt of regular ‘royalty’ payments on the sales of their respective titles. Not too mention the initial ‘advance’ payment(s) they had received upon their game(s) being accepted for sale under the Zenobi Software banner.
V: Under your pseudonym of The Balrog you released numerous titles for Zenobi, each with a rather excellent vein of humour coursing through them. Was it a goal to take the World of Fantasy and make it not so stiff and serious as certain authors like to paint it?
JW: My approach to the ‘World of Fantasy’ was based purely on my own approach to life … I do not do ‘serious’ and tend to go through life with a laugh/grin on my face at all times. Humour is a great ‘weapon’ and something I am more than happy to wield at any time.
V: Some of your adventures are rather grand in scale e.g. Balrog and the Cat or Bulbo and the Lizard King and then we have the one room genius titles like Behind Closed Doors, here we found “our hero” – the Balrog – locked in the toilet. Which for yourself did you find it trickier to write? Did you sit and wonder – for days – where journey would take Bulbo or did you find it yourself pondering for ages on how you would keep the player trapped within the smallest room in the house (or at the bottom of the path)?
JW: None of the above … I used to get a germ of an idea and then simply sit down and construct the game from that point. I am very lucky to be able to write the story as I go along … then it is just a case of sticking in a puzzle or two along the way. So none of the games were harder to write than any other. The difficult part for me was getting everything into the confines of the medium (The Quill) that I used to construct the game(s). ‘Bulbo & The Lizard-King‘ being the best example. I used to have to compress the entire database at the end of every day in order to leave enough spare space for thee next day’s programming. At one time I must have had about thirty or forty cassette-tapes with compressed databases on – all labelled accordingly. I never ceases to amaze me that the final game ended up as bug-free and playable as it did.
V: What game can you recall gave you the biggest headache when it came to Joe/Josephine Public requesting clues to help them get past a certain point?
JW: None of them, as I always prepared extensive ‘hint-sheets’ for each and every game. All the public had to do was send me a S.A.E. and I was more than happy to send the relevant sheet(s).
V: Was it yourself or A N Other who designed the artwork & loading screens for your titles?
JW: Over the years I employed the services of THREE graphic-artists (all of them brilliant in their own rights) and the ones they didn’t do I did myself. Sean Doran did the first couple and then Shaun McClure helped out before Kez Gray did the odd one. The vast majority of the rest of the loading-screens were down to me (with ‘bits’ borrowed from the ‘Big Three’. However ALL the ‘information-leaflets’ that accompanied the various games were produced by yours truly, as were the monthly newsletters and advertising-leaflets.
V: Since the doors closed on the Zenobi Adventure Cave for the ZX Spectrum what have you been upto? Have you kept busy writing more tales on other systems?
JW: I stopped producing NEW games for the ZX Spectrum in the mid 90s and then for the next few years I concentrated on the ’emulation’ side of things. Zenobi Software games have appeared on the likes of the Mac, Atari, Amiga, Nintendo DS, Iphone as well as offshoots of the Spectrum such as the Sam Coupe and Plus D. Now and again. when a good tale rattled around my head. I would try my hand at another medium and the likes of ‘Behind Closed Doors 5‘, ‘Behind Closed Doors 6‘ and ‘Bulbo’s Unexpected Journey‘ were produced. All three are ‘browser-games’ and were written more for fun than profit.
V: The ZX Spectrum Next is now on the horizon already nearly doubling its wanted target and Tim Gilberts has hinted that he may be bringing The Professional Adventure Writing System (The PAW) out for this machine. Do you think if this happens you would be interested in politely nudging the Balrog awake and defleaing the cat for another outing?
JW: Sadly the Balrog will never sit down and write for the ZX Spectrum Next … I am now in my seventies and what time I have is too precious to waste away on such a task. Together they have spent more than thirty years following their dreams and now it is time for them to put their feet up and enjoy their retirement.
V: Finally was there anything ever unreleased from your collection that you wish you could have actually published to the “Go North” typing world?
JW: “Ramsbottom Smith” was a game that never got completed – the first codings are still tucked away on a cassette in the drawer of my desk upstairs – but the only hard evidence of that particular game exists in the 3 or 4 pages of the cartoon-strip that Sean Doran drew. I would have liked to have completed that game but ‘The Quill’ was unable to accommodate all the necessary coding and I refused to work with any other medium. I tried ‘PAWS’ but never liked it and could not come to grips with it.
Flickering Myth and Villordsutch would like to thank The Balrog for this interview.
If you’d like to play a cluster of Zenobi games online now: Bulbo’s Unexpected Journey, Behind Closed Doors 5 & Behind Closed Doors 6. To keep updated with all the goings on and history of Zenobi Software – along The Balrog – then pay a visit to the official website and the Zenobi Games Blog.