The Art of Selling a Spectrum Game

Let’s face it, graphics were not the selling point of a ZX Spectrum game. It wasn’t often someone would pick up a cassette box and shout out “WOW, look at the graphics on this game!!” – Spectrum gamers knew what kind of graphics they were probably going to get even before flipping to the back of the box.

What made it worse was that a lot of the times on the back of a box the publishers had provided screenshots of not only the Spectrum version, but alongside them screenshots from the rival Commodore 64 version, and even the Atari ST and Amiga versions which were streets ahead with graphics capabilities. Some cassette inlay’s took it a step further with a complete disregard for false advertising as they showed screenshots from a completely different system (one of the ones with the much better graphics) and decided not to show any Speccy screenshots at all! Admittedly, there were times I would look at these comparison screenshots and think “Why can’t my game look like *that*”. I’d still buy the game anyway, because I knew what to expect and of course I could always use my imagination to make the game better. No matter what version of screenshots I was shown, I had a feeling of what was going to be fun. But what made the Spectrum owner pick up the box in the first place?

In a time without YouTube or the internet, and television advertising for games was unheard of; it was the cover art that had to grab your attention. Yes there were Spectrum magazines filled with screenshots and reviews but when you turned the page to reveal a full page colour advert for a game, it was dominated by incredible game cover art, and only a few small screenshots of the game (if any at all) usually subtly placed at the bottom with the other unimportant stuff.

When I’m talking cover art, this was not computer designed 3D CGI at the standard seen these days; these were beautifully drawn or hand painted – this was real talent, and time and effort spent – nothing computer aided or digital. In some cases you could see the felt tip pen strokes, brush marks or pencil lines. This was real art. Walking in to a computer shop and looking across the shelves at a sea of cassette boxes, each one with their own cartoon cover, painted hero scenes, or movie poster style art – you knew you were in for a treat, even if the treat was the time you spent in the shop looking at them. There were titles you had never heard of, title’s that didn’t even show a single screenshot on the back of the box! But this added a mystique to the choice of this week’s game purchase. Even without screenshots, the cover art told you it was worth taking the gamble as you stared at the picture on the front of the box on your bus journey home (..sometimes the gamble didn’t always pay off, though.)

These sometimes breathtaking illustrations would pull you in, and they tempted you. Like the art on the cover of a book, you wanted to open the pages and dive in to the story to be the character emblazoned on the front; the cover set the tone for the incredible adventure you were about to embark on… which of course ended up being a number of basic looking pixelated shapes awkwardly moving around a screen to the soundtrack of a few bleeps and white noise, but that’s not the point.

Today graphic artists could simply take a frame from the photo-real texture mapped game sprite and place them in any position or pose, and that alone would be enough to sell the game. However, in the days of the Spectrum, in it’s place would stand an actor in action poses dressed up in full costume as characters from the game! I, of course, refer to the very memorable cover of “Barbarian”. It gave it an extra dimension of realism to the point of sale rarely seen today – oh, and boobs. Protesters focused so much on the risqué (although not by today’s standards) cover art, that nobody pointed out that in the game you chop peoples head’s clean off with a sword, for it to be then kicked across the screen! To be fair, the type of person to make complaints about a girl wearing a bikini on the front of a computer game box, probably didn’t know how to load the game up in order to be outraged by the beheading.

Grand gestures and attention grabbers were needed in the early days of computing, of course this was mostly to counter the incredibly unrealistic game and sometimes pitiful gameplay of a title – usually the movie-licenced ones, to be fair.

If a movie was a big hit, any kind of game of any standard would do – sometimes with no actual relevance to the plot of the movie, and forget screenshots – not needed! 
Get the license to publish a game of the worldwide epic movie “Jaws”, put the famous Shark on the front emerging up toward the swimming girl; then it’s going to shift a considerable amount of units. Oh wait, what about the game? OK just swap the X’s and O’s for Shark Fin’s and Girls Face’s in a game of sharky Tic-Tac-Toe – that should do it! (That wasn’t the game version of Jaws, by the way, I just made that up for an extreme example – the actual game was *much* less relevant to the plot). The point being, as long as it had the big Hollywood cover art, then it was going to sell by the bucket load no matter what. Gamer’s did feel let down however, and through the years would become wise and double check the screenshots and reviews of movie-licensed games, just to make sure they weren’t being conned.

There were good games, and bad games, correct screenshots, deceiving ones, and no screenshots at all; but one thing was certain when you purchased a Spectrum game – you were going to have a new experience (good or bad) that started the moment you set eyes on the cover art.

What’s This Digital Television Thing All About?

What is DTV?

Digital television is the next generation of video broadcast technology. The old system, called analog television, was created in the 1950s. DTV was created for the 21st Century by a working group of programmers, broadcasters and engineers, so that consumers will get the best product. The same way computers scan photos into data files (literally turning your vacation pictures into a series of 1s and 0s); DTV changes the film and video into digital images (those same 1s and 0s) and transmits them.

Analog still works, so why switch?

They used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but 8-track tapes were replaced by cassette tapes, which were replaced by CDs and so on. New technology does the same thing, but does it better. By changing the way TV signals are broadcast, the signals use less bandwidth, meaning more programming can be sent out over the airwaves. According to the FCC website, “That means better quality, more choices, and more control over your television.”

Using less bandwidth also means parts of the broadcast spectrum will no longer be needed by the TV industry. This spectrum is limited, like a series of pipes; there are many, but only so many. DTV means television needs fewer pipes. The others can be reassigned to public safety–police, fire and paramedic services–or wireless phone service providers or other uses.

When and how did the switch happen?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started setting up the switch-over in 1996. Starting March 1, 2007, all televisions built in or imported to the US must have a digital tuner as well as an analog tuner. Many stations launched digital broadcasting in addition to analog broadcasts in late 2008 or ’09. On June 12, 2009, all major TV stations ceased sending out analog signals. A few small, local TV stations will continue using analog.

Consumers who purchased TVs built March 2007 or after didn’t need to do anything; they were built switchover-ready. In fact, the switchover went smoothly, most people probably didn’t even notice it was happening. Those with older sets can buy a new TV or a converter than translates digital back to analog signals.

Analog-only TV sets built before March 2007 may still be available for sale; if so, retailers must to post a notice clearly stating which sets are analog-only.

Will consumers need a special antenna to get digital television programs?

Consumers who currently use an antenna, either on-the-set ‘rabbit ears’ or a roof-mounted antenna, should receive digital signals as well as they received analog signals.

Is this related to high-definition television?

No, HDTV is a separate issue. HDTV audio and video signals were always digital, this action means that regular TV (sometimes called ‘enhanced’ television or ETV) are is also now digital. Consumers do not have to buy an HDTV to see digital-TV programming. Broadcasting programs in enhanced and high-def formats is called ‘multi-casting,’ which will be one of the big advantages of the digital switch.

Other useful facts:

Consumers who decide to buy a new television don’t have to send their old set to a landfill; many communities have recycling programs.

Cable systems are not required to switch to digital; many cable companies offer digital and high-definition program packages as well as analog. Some may eventually choose to switch to all-digital programming. The FCC’s DTV rules apply only to broadcasters–those who use the public airwaves to deliver programming to consumers.

Parental controls (like the V-chip) will work as well with digital signals as they have worked with analog.

Like all consumer electronics, televisions have changed a lot over the past fifty years. With few exceptions, these have been changes for the better. Digital television is simply the newest member of that list.

The History of Scented Candles

Not many people seem to know this… By the end of 2012 the UK will have been the only country in the world to have totally made the switchover to all digital television. The digital switchover starts in 2008 – less than 2 short years away.

A recent Which Report (Which is the major consumer champion in the UK) shows that in many areas the awareness of the digital switchover is less than 2 %. Even in the Borders Television region – the first to make the change – only about a third of the people surveyed knew what was going to happen.

It really does seem that the UK is sleepwalking in to the Digital Switchover.

Not surprisingly, the whole switchover programme is being watched with keen interest by other nations around the World. The benefits of digital television for broadcasters, manufacturers and programme makers are pretty clear. The new media is already changing programme making – Planet Earth, currently showing on the BBC – is a prime example of what can be achieved. And of course the manufacturers are positively drooling at the thought of all the new televisions, video recorders and set-top boxes they expect to sell.

Consumers are set to benefit too – better pictures and sound, high definition television, interactivity, movies on demand… The list goes on.
Governments have a keen commercial interest too. They own the air waves. And digital television takes up much less band width than conventional analogue signals. So the move to digital frees up precious broadcasting capacity that Governments are keen to sell to the highest bidders. The sale of the mobile telephone spectrum for 3G providers raised over £20 billion. Who would bet that the sale of the television spectrum won’t raise significantly more?

The move to digital television benefits us all. So why do so few people know what is happening?

Simply being able to receive digital television is only part of the issue. Just about every television bought more than 12 months ago, and a good percentage of those being sold now, are effectively obsolete. All of them will need a separate satellite receiver or set top decoder box to receive digital signals. Every video recorder will also need an additional decoder.

The UK Government puts the average cost per household to upgrade to digital television at £132 ($210). I feel the real figure is likely to be 4 or times this level. Most homes in the UK have upwards of 4 televisions – each and every one will need significant investment to receive digital television signals.

In the UK 68% of homes already receive digital television in some form- satellite (which means BSkyB – the only UK satellite television provider), cable or terrestrial freeview. In almost all cases digital television is only watched on the main television in the house. The other sets are still restricted to the main analogue, terrestrial stations. From 2008 this has all got to change.

It’s time to wake up. We are at the threshold of the biggest change in the television experience since it was first invented.

Start planning your own digital switchover now.