The man given the task to run Firebird Software in the long term was James Scoular, who had worked at VNU Publications. Amongst other titles, VNU published Personal Computer World magazine and James had only recently been promoted to Publisher when he resigned and joined TelecomSoft.
Soon after James arrived, he began to assemble his own team to move TelecomSoft to the next phase. The next phase depended upon Firebird out-bidding rival publishers to the conversion rights of one particular game, called Elite.
Elite for the BBC Micro was a landmark title because of its open-ended design and 3D wireframe graphics. The co-authors – Ian Bell and David Braben – initiated a UK games industry frenzy when agent Jacqui Lyons at Marjacq announced that the rights to publish the Z80 conversions of Elite would be auctioned, in September 1984.
TelecomSoft saw Elite as their chance to become a big player, and a sealed bid of £100,000 was submitted. Rumour has it that this was three or four times larger than the next nearest bid. Inevitably they won, but there’s some mystery around the auction and the outcomes that meant TelecomSoft had costly additional negotiations with Acornsoft to use the name ‘Elite’ and to be able to reproduce some of the documentation that accompanied the original BBC version, including the novella by Robert Holdstock, called “The Dark Wheel”.
The original programmers wrote the Commodore 64 version of Elite, but they had no experience coding for that machine and required a little help to get started. This came in the form of programmers Jez San and Fouad Katan, who had begun creating what was later called PDS (Programmer’s Development System). This tool quickly became used throughout the industry for cross-platform development, and it evolved over the next four to five years.
Ian Bell and David Braben used code created for PDS to get Elite working quickly. As a result, Firebird was able to demonstrate an early version for the Commodore 64 at the February 1985 LET Show in London, just weeks after they had acquired the rights. The sight of the Commodore 64 on the stand being discretely connected to a BBC Micro running PDS did confuse a few onlookers at the time!
The 16-bit rights to publish Elite were negotiated in 1986, with a CGA IBM PC version – courtesy of Realtime Games – appearing soon afterwards. However, it was a couple more years before Elite was available for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
Sadly, James Scoular didn’t get to see any of the success that Elite ultimately brought to TelecomSoft. Shortly after work had begun on the Commodore 64 conversion, James was taken to hospital with a coronary. He never came out and died 3 weeks later. Everyone at Firebird was stunned. James was only 27, and a fitness fanatic who would get up early to go rowing on the Thames before work.
Herbert Wright had only recently joined TelecomSoft on James Scoular’s invitation, having been a colleague of his at VNU Publications. Herbert project managed the Elite conversions and some other Firebird Gold titles. After the untimely and tragic death of James Scoular, Firebird needed reorganising. Joss Ellis came in as Contract Development Manager and gave vital support to Herbert on Elite and other projects. Herbert was made acting Head of Firebird and four months later was confirmed on a permanent basis. His mission was to maximise Elite and build-up Firebird’s reputation on the higher-priced Gold range of which Elite was the flagship.