From Beyond: John Wilson Interview
This interview is taken from issue 14 of Tim Kemp's Spectrum adventure fanzine From Beyond; orginally published in September/October 1992. It is presented here in its entirety as a historical source for academic use. The copyright remains that of the authors, as are any opinions expressed within.
AN INTERVIEW WITH: JOHN ‘BALROG’ WILSON
An interview with ‘The Rochdale Balrog’ was something I never thought I’d see, so it was with some surprise that I received a letter from John Wilson saying ‘Okay’ to the idea of an interview… but, only if the questions were controversial, he could swear a lot and the whole thing was reproduced in full. Well, the questions are hardly controversial, but they did leave lots of ‘spaces’ where this notorious adventure software mogul could rant, rave and elaborate on his philosophies. Some of the language is rather colourful, though as I said, the proviso for publishing the interview, as stipulated by the man himself, was that it reaches you ‘uncensored’. Naturally enough anybody wanting to have their say after reading it should write to me at the usual address.
Question One: Let’s start off with something nice and light and fluffy shall we? What got you started writing adventures, then publishing them, then publishing other peoples. And what did you do before doing that?
J.W. a) I started writing adventures because I thought it was a simple and quick way of getting all the stories in my mind down onto some sort of medium, thereby allowing greater access to the ‘tales’… how wrong I was. The ‘tales’ keep filling my head and it takes me months to get an adventure anywhere near half decent.
b) I started publishing them because I needed a larger ‘turn-over’ from which to generate a regular income and selling only my own games was totally incapable of producing the desired result… the only way to achieve the large ‘turn-over’ was to sell more titles, so I decided to publish the works of other authors as well as that of my own.
c) This is really the answer to part B of your question. I got mixed up a bit there. I started to publish adventure games because having been out of work for some time I found it necessary to attend a ‘what are your plans for the future’ interview at the local Job-Centre and in the course of the interview I replied… ‘Run my own software house’ – to a question about what I would like to do. Having committed myself I had to follow through the idea or risk having my benefit stopped. Either that or having to take any job they offered. So Ann and I held a family conference and the result was the formation of Zenobi Software.
d) Prior to all this I had held a number of different positions in life… I left school at 18 and joined the ROYAL AIR FORCE, serving as an Aircraft Electrician for five years. On leaving the RAF I spent the next ten years in the building trade. First as a QUANTITY SURVEYOR and then as a CONTRACT MANAGER, before being made redundant and finding myself on a ‘TOPS’ course. I did a twelve month ‘RADIO and TV’ serving course, obtaining my ‘City and Guilds’ with distinction and a credit. Then I spent the next FIVE years working as an ENGINEER with Rediffusion before they closed down. The rest, as they say, is history. Wrote my first game in ’86 and have been chained to the keyboard ever since.
Question Two: Er… let’s go a bit deeper now… what did you expect to ‘gain’ from starting up Zenobi Software – did you have any specific hopes or fantasies? I know when Jon Lemmon and Myself stated Compass Software we expected 20 orders a day (yep, we were mad) so I was kinda wondering what you wanted, and what the reality turned out to be in those early ‘formulative’ days? Also, did you ever have any dealings with the likes of Mastertronic, Melbourne House, or any other software house who showed interest in adventures at the time?
J.W. a) I had no hopes or fantasies when I first started ZENOBI other than to earn a living at it and to provide my family with the little comforts that they required… like a roof over their heads and some food on the table. The reality of it all was that there were weeks when a ‘turn-over’ of £50 was a major success and cause for celebration. How we actually survived in those early days I will never know.
b) Mastertronic turned down a couple of my early games but Alternative Software actually wanted to publish a couple… as did SMART EGG. The latter wanted to put together a compilation of my ‘SEEKER’, ‘FUDDO & SLAM’ and ‘ BULBO’ games and put the whole lot out as a package, complete with nice little booklet etc. In fact I still have the signed contract in my possession. However their rate of royalty payment was ridiculous and was one of the driving forces behind my decision to branch out on my own. I decided that I would give the authors of this world a fair crack of the whip and allow their hard-work to be given an airing whilst at least bringing them in a couple of bob in royalties. This has always been the guidelines behind ZENOBI and always will be.
Question Three: Sticking with the early days of Zenobi, did you ever envisage becoming as big as, say, Level 9? Did you have a solid ‘plan’ of any description, and if so what did it look like?
J.W. Never had any plans to become a ‘super-power’ or even in fact to make any sort of dent in the computer market. All I ever wanted to do was to get through each day as it came and to be able to hand over the ‘house-keeping’ at the end of the week and pay the rent when the man came for it. I have NO ‘ambition’ and there is nothing in this life that I WANT to do, so I am very easily satisfied. I am 46 years old and still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Question Four: Going all ‘light and fluffy’ again, have you got a favourite game – either a self-penned one, a Zenobi one or another by some other publisher? And… (changing the subject somewhat) what pets have you got an what pet would you most like to own?
J.W. a) Speaking as somebody who has not actually played a game in over four years… well not for any personal enjoyment anyway… all my favourite games are just fond ‘memories’, though I suppose I could shock everyone and say that my ‘all-time’ fave is ‘AXE OF KOLT’ but then I would by lying through my back-teeth, so I won’t!!! However I do have a fondness for the likes of… TERRORS OF TRANTOSS, WARLORD, SHADOWS OF MORDOR & a lot of the very early stuff like… ‘KNIGHT’S QUEST’ & ‘THE QUEST’. One author who has always given me a lot of pleasure (and you can take that as you will!) is CLIVE WILSON. I always liked his early stuff and still do.
b) Pets… my favourites are and always have been CATS. Over the years I must have had dozens of the little sods and every single one of them has brought me a great feeling of well-being and contentment. At present I have TWO… MOLE a tomcat aged 6 and ZENOBI a female aged 7.
c) The pet I would most like is a TIGER… it would be a complete travesty if this noble beast were to become extinct because of a man’s ill-regard for its natural habitat. At the start of this century there were more than 100,000 tigers roaming the earth and now there are less than 8,000… that is a disgrace! So if keeping one as a ‘pet’ meant that at least one such member of a proud race could still stalk the land, then there is nothing that would give me greater pleasure.
Question Five: Okay, fluffiness over for a while… When your name crops up in my conversations with people., I’ve found that they tend to find you hard to pigeonhole. Mainly they find your up-front comments, and downright bluntness on occasions hard to appreciate. You seem not to mind shaking things (and people) up… is that fair comment or not?
J.W. In my world there are no ‘greys’ only simple ‘black’ and ‘white’… therefore there is ONLY right or wrong, not a degree of rightness or an element of wrongness. With this in mind I am often accused of being harsh and critical but I see no reason to hide my feelings. If you are WRONG then I will chastise you and if you are RIGHT then I will praise you. This approach alienates me with an awful lot of people and there are very few members of the community that actually ‘LIKE’ me… members of my own family included. However I do no NEED to be liked by anyone other than my Ann and as long as she likes me I have nothing to worry about. My greatest fear is not ‘death’ (and god knows how I abhor the thought of that!) but of the inevitable fact that one day my Ann and I will be parted… the thought of that scares the shit out of me.
Maybe I don’t have the compassion for others that I should have but then again maybe I just show it in a ‘different’ way. Throughout the SIX years that ZENOBI has been in existence I have always placed the authors and their ‘rights’ first. It has always been the policy of ZENOBI to give the authors the best deal possible and always at MY own expense. Out of the last TEN games I have published not ONE of them has exceeded its advance sales-figures and until they do I do not stand to retrieve/recoup my original cash outlay. However I have, and will continue to do so, paid out ‘advance’ payments on EVERY game that I have ever published. If ZENOBI publish your game then you get your money ‘up-front’. You do not have to wait months before being told that you have not sold enough games to warrant payment. You get paid and I worry whether I am ever going to recoup the cost. ZENOBI also cover the cost of any play-testing, advertising, leaflets, conversions etc. none of these costs are ever met by those who write games. For the past twelve months ZENOBI has been running at a loss and yet the various authors have all received their respective ‘advance’ payments and any further ‘royalties’ that are due to them. They NEVER have to ask for them, they are sent out regularly and in full. This is MY way of showing I care and a way that I feel is a lot more worthwhile than a hastily-scribbled couple of words or some ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comments down a phone. I show my concern for you with good hard cash and a lot of time, sweat and effort expended by me on your behalf. For this I think I am entitled to be as ‘blunt’ as I want to be.
Question Six: Most people will have charted the Zenobi story from the start to the present day. Where do you plan to go next, what do you plan to do? Or, do you have any plans for the future of any sort? Naturally you must have some because Zenobi is your way of making a living. Any thoughts on that?
J.W. Just because ZENOBI is my ‘living’ does not mean that I naturally have some plans for the future… I treat ZENOBI the same as I treat my life and that is to deal with it as each day comes along. I have NO idea what the future holds for me or ZENOBI, or if indeed there is a future for either of us. That is all down to ‘fate’ and the weave of the cloth. I am quite content to get through each day and emerge into the next… that is enough for me and I see no reason to spend my future before I even get to it. Plans and wishes are only there to be broken, so I am quite content to play it as it comes. The PAST however is another thing and that should be enjoyed to the full. I place great store by my ‘MEMORIES’.
Question Seven: I’m sure most ‘sane’ people out there realise that the Spectrum adventure scene, while providing them with a hobby (both writing and playing adventures) will not survive indefinitely… How will the end come do you think… and more importantly perhaps, when? Perhaps the end has come and gone already, but we refuse to see it?
J.W. Having spent the last SIX years doing nothing else apart from watch the state of the adventure market, you can take it from me that the ‘end’ has come and gone already. New games, even those written by the ‘darlings’ of the software pundits such as Laurence Creighton and ‘The Traveller in Black’, are not exceeding their ‘advance’ figures and it is common practise for a game to peak well before they would have done say TWO years ago. When ZENOBI first started it was quite feasible and common for a new game to sell in FOUR FIGURES. Not one game has done that in the last THREE years!! These days a game is a major success if we manage to sell one quarter of that. Whilst things have never been quite as bad as this, we have heard of certain circumstances where sales of 20-30 copies of a game were regarded as a commercial success. F****ng hell! I send out more than that in review copies alone.
We all love the little black-box called the SPECTRUM but surely our love cannot be that blind that we can continue to regard ourselves as major software suppliers when our total sales for a week can be counted on the fingers on one hand. ZENOBI needs to sell at least 200 games per week, 52 weeks of the year, in order to survive and in the past couple of months that figure is becoming uncomfortable commonplace and that is despite the fact that we have expanded our catalogue four-fold in the last year or so. We still sell enough to get by but where once that figure was attained with sales of only a dozen different games, it is now reached with sales of over 70 different games. That can only serve to highlight just how the market has shrunk and there is NO way it is ever going to grow again… at least not for the SPECTRUM anyway.
So I guess it is time to ‘bit the bullet’ and admit it is a case of being a large fish in a f*cking small puddle.
Question Eight: You probably won’t like this question as it is purely hyperthetical and wholly irrelevant but what, given a second chance, would you do differently? Is there anything you have done that you have regretted doing or just something that you should have done when given the chance that you didn’t do? Have you made any major mistakes over the years?
J.W. a) There is nothing I would do any differently to how I did it in the past because I honestly believe that I have been fortunate enough to have succeeded with what I have tried. A lot of that success was due more to good fortune than any careful planning, but all the same the end result is what I aimed for and for that I am extremely grateful.
b) My ONLY mistake was in publishing Mike Gerrard’s ‘ONE OF OUR WOMBATS IS MISSING’… not because it was a bad game or for any reason like that, but simply because it provided a lot of ‘back-stabbing’ twats with an opportunity to insert the knife and twist it. Mike wrote the game in all good faith and aimed it at the ‘beginner’ end of the market. It was his FIRST effort and should have been judged as such. But certain people saw it as an excuse to get in some very caustic and hurtful remarks and generally cause a fair bit of ill-feeling. All I can say to them is… ‘It was the last game to sell in anything that I would consider to be ‘reasonable’ quantities, and I still sell at least a couple of copies of it every week.’ (purely as a point of interest, I have sold EIGHT copies of it in the last TWO days!)
c) My only real regret in life is that I was born with a complete ‘lack’ of ambition. There is nothing I wish to achieve with my life and no driving force to push me on to better things. I tend very much to just drift with the current and to ‘colonise’ wherever fate decides to beach me. It must be nice to be ‘ambitious’.
Question Nine: Finally, if you were producing a fanzine what would it look like, what would the contents be like? Any thoughts on fanzines in general?
J.W. a) This may sound very condescending but if I were producing a fanzine I would like it to appear like ‘FROM BEYOND’. I actually LIKE the way that looks and feel comfortable reading it. There are on or two bits about the mag that get up my nose but then I have a big nose and most things tend to get up there every once in a while.
b) Initially when I first started reading ‘fanzines’ it was for the tips and help that they all USED to contain. However as I played less and less adventures and thereby needed less and less help I started to look towards these publications to keep me informed of the ‘comings and goings’, ‘toings and froings’ of the adventure scene. I have very little chance of good gossip because most people are too afraid to reveal any really saucy information to me in case I do my usual trick and announce it to the world in general, so the fanzines are/were my only source of such information… albeit in a watered-down form. So ideally their content should keep me abreast of all new releases, all future plans etc. and keep me updated on all the hot ‘scandal’.
c) My only thoughts on fanzines are this…
Question Ten: (This is a question that John himself has asked, mainly because all interviews should, according to him, have at least TEN questions). “Do you really hate Larry Horsfield, Tony Collins, Mandy Rodrigues etc. as much as public opinion would have us believe you do?”
J.W. The answer to this is simple… NO… but then again I do tell a f*cking good tale when I want to!!!!! The true answer I that I have NO bad feelings for any of them… they are all *BEEP* and have double-crossed me at one time or another in the past but as recent events have proved, I am perfectly willing to lend a helping hand to any of them… is that not true Mandy?
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