Magnetic Scrolls Memories

by Rob Steggles

[...] Ken and Hugh and I were all in the same class together at school together in Woolwich. Ken and Hugh were the computer whizz-kids and I used to tag along and do Dungeons&Dragons scenarios which they and several others would play. We all played Zork too and some of the Scott Adams adventures and loved them. As I remember it, Hugh started designing his first parser on an old TRS-80 and Ken was heavily into the Apple side of things where (I believe) he met Anita Sinclair. As she had money and contacts, they decided to start writing games for the Sinclair QL and employed Hugh for his programming skills and knowledge of parsers.

They were in an office in Eltham, South East London in the summer of 1983 when they called me up and asked me to write a scenario to run on the system before I went off to University in the autumn. The scenario was The Pawn. What we did with The Pawn was get together as a group and talk for hours until we came up with a whole bunch of disparate, bizarre ideas. We wrote them all on several A1 sheets, put them on the wall and looked at them for a while. Then I sat down and wrote a story around them. Most of the ideas became modified over time and some were left out (I can't remember, but I think the ones that were left out of the adventure proper were put in the very last room...) but characters like the Horse with No Legs were as they were from day one.

There were a few things that we had decided to do which became a sort of house style over the years:

1. A lot of adventures were FULL of cliches. We tried to take those cliches and turn them upside-down. Hence you get the handsome prince who doesn't really know much at all, the princess who's a bit fat and ratty with everyone, the dotted red line across the bottom edge of the map saying you can't go any further and so on. Of course, some of these have now become cliches too....

2. We got fed up of adventures that constantly said 'YOU CAN'T EXAMINE THAT' meaning that no-one had bothered to write any text for it so we tried to describe everything that was referenced in the room descriptions and elsewhere. This is why you end up with a description of a pocket as a 'Loose bag inserted into your trousers...' and the carrott described as 'A conical orange vegetable, don't you know anything?' (this one was Ken's favourite)

3. We wanted to have several 'correct' ways of completing the adventure so that, if you got stuck on one puzzle you could go elsewhere and explore. Not being terribly clever ourselves, we were always being frustrated by adventures that you couldn't get any further with because there was one puzzle you couldn't solve. We felt it was important that if someone had paid good money for a game they should at least be able to solve some things and explore a wide area to get a feel for the situation.

4. As best we could, we wanted to have Characters that spoke and acted on their own, rather than just objects. This makes for a nightmare in programming terms and a lot of the character responses have to be stock answers (cop-outs) but I think for the time, we did a good job.

Anyway, having written the scenario, I went off to University and thought nothing more about it until I came back home at Christmas and Easter and found that Ken, Hugh and Anita had added a load of pictures drawn by Geoff Quilley which took the game onto the ST and onto a different level. Rather than just a dull text adventure we now had colour and pictures - these were what really caught the public's eye and made a big success of the game. The pictures were perfect for the setting and the timing couldn't have been better with the ST being launched.

By the way, the name 'The Pawn' was dreamed up by one of Ken's friends from the Apple user group called Tony Lambert (aka Betty Normal) as he felt the player in the game was constantly in a totally bewildered state and being manipulated by events all around him. We all agreed.

In the summer break of 1984, I went back round to the office, and asked if I could earn some cash writing another scenario. Ken & Anita said sure, do another scenario, but this time we want a straight, fantasy adventure with loads of puzzles, less people (too complicated) and absolutely no room descriptions that start with 'You find yourself in...' or 'You are in...'. I was a bit annoyed with this as I wanted to do something different from fantasy, but I told them I'd come back tomorrow with an idea. I then went down to the pub with a friend of mine and told him what had happened and that I was getting fed up doing fantasy and I didn't want to do sci-fi either (I was going through my frustrated artist phase). Anyway, that afternoon I sat down and wrote the whole of the Guild of Thieves scenario with all the puzzles and the sequence of events on four sides of A4 and it pretty much stayed as it was until released.

I didn't have a great deal to with Maggot Rolls then apart from working on Guild of Thieves during holidays until I left university in the summer of 1987. I phoned them up for a reference for a job I had applied for and Anita asked me if I wanted to come and work full time in the new office in London Bridge. Guild of Thieves was selling really well and getting rave reviews so I accepted and Hugh and I started work on Corruption. With Corruption, I wanted to do a 'thriller' and hit on the idea of setting it in the City. By the time it was complete, Wall Street had been released, Ivan Boesky had done his bit and City scandals were all the rage in the British press, so quite by accident it turned out to be topical. I was extremely proud when Corruption won the PCW award for Game of the Year. At the time we started Corruption, Jinxter was nearing completion. Jinxter was supposed to be our answer to Infocom's Enchanter. I believe the original text was written by Anita's sister (I think her name was Georgina) but they had a falling out and it was eventually re-worked by an extremely talented bloke called Michael Bywater who was a friend of Douglas Adams and, at the time, Assistant Editor of Punch magazine.

Though Jinxter was an excellent game, the cost of producing it had been too high and, from where I was sitting, highly unprofitable. To my mind, it signalled the beginning of the end for Maggot Rolls. By contrast, Corruption which sold roughly the same number had been a fraction of the cost to produce as only myself and Hugh had worked on it. At this point in time (late 1987 - 1988) Tony Rainbird who had been the accountant/business adviser left to form Official Secrets, the mail order games company and commissioned Myth as a mini-adventure. Myth was written by Paul Findlay who had joined as a programmer for, I think, the C64 versions of the earlier games. As far as I'm aware there never was any artwork done for Myth as it was only sold through Official Secrets.

Once Corruption was finished, another game was nearing completion - Fish! - which had originally been brought to Mag Scrolls by John Molloy (another Apple-buddy of Ken's), Richard Huddy and Bob Coles. I spent some time helping with the text of this adventure, basically acting as a sub-editor to bring the writing into house style.

By this time (late 1989), Wonderland had already started and seemed to be going the way of Jinxter in that it had a large team on it who seemed to spend vast amounts of time reinventing the wheel. I seem to remember Ken and Doug spending months writing a complete Windows system and Paul writing a program to animate our pictures - all stuff you could buy off the shelf for a fraction of the cost. David Bishop did the plot lines and text and it looked like it was going to be a great game if it ever got released. With Corruption and Fish finished, and virtually everyone else working on Wonderland, I started to lose interest a bit and couldn't generate a great deal of enthusiasm in house for my next project which was not a straight text adventure at all. At this point I asked for a raise and had a storming row with Anita and Ken one morning in December '88 and walked out. It was all very unprofessional on all our parts. And that's really where my involvement ended. I think it was another year or two before Wonderland was ever released during which time I saw Hugh, Doug, Paul, Richard Huddy, Bob and John Molloy a few times but I haven't seen Ken or Anita since.

I don't know for sure but I think Wonderland basically bankrupted the company. The last I heard of Ken he was still calling himself Magnetic Scrolls but working at Virgin (I think), programming games. Hugh and Doug went to Logica a few months after I left and Paul Findlay joined them too. I'm pretty sure they left Logica but I can't remember who they went to. Richard Huddy went to work for IBM I think. John Molloy was working as a record producer in Stoke when I last saw him a few years ago. I don't know what happened to Anita. For my part, I went to work on a computer help desk in the healthcare market and am now Deputy Customer Services Director for Reuters Health Information. [...]

Rob Steggles