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Archer MacLean


Over the past fourteen years, Archer MacLean has created five titles that have been converted into twenty-one different versions for machines as diverse as the Commodore 64, Amiga, PC, and Super Nintendo. What's most impressive is that he wrote thirteen of those entirely by himself--all the code, all the graphics, all the sound. Eleven of those games have been number one hits.

A genuine game superstar in the UK, Archer MacLean has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and on TV. In the States, he's primarily known for "Dropzone" for the Atari 800 and "International Karate" for the C64, both of which are considered classics for their respective machines.

How did you get involved in programming?

I started off in the mid 70s building electronic gadgets. I made dozens of weird things like little robot devices with wheels which could follow a white line on the floor, radios in matchboxes, and even a very complex hand-held digital oscilloscope using a lo-res, handmade grid array of LED's as the screen. Around 1977 I started building up simple microprocessor boards based on either the Fairchild F8, the Motorola 6800, or the Zilog Z80. These were incredibly simple systems in retrospect. They had maybe 2K or 4K or RAM and perhaps a 2K operating system. But programming them in machine code was the order of the day.

I soon homed in on the knack of squeezing programs into small RAM spaces and making the code very tight and also very efficient--vital ingredients to so many games programming problems. By about 1980 I was writing code on S100 and CPM machines in either Assembler, or by then, a certain BASIC from a certain strange company called Microsoft. I remember writing huge programs for the electronics company I was working for. These handled invoicing, stock control, payroll ledger, and some control software for electronic assemblies we were experimenting with at the time. I was only 17 or 18 years old and remember being regarded as the original whiz-kid programming guru, simply because no one else seemed to be able to do this programming stuff!

What led you to writing games?

In 1980-81, "Space Invaders," "Asteroids," and the like started appearing all over the place: pubs, clubs, restaurants, and our front reception area. I found myself hooked like so many others, determined to beat the highest scores anywhere, and maximize my time for a 10p coin.

I was fascinated by how they must have worked from a programming point of view and started trying to write my own games. This became an obsession. Not long after, I was putting together quite large games in assembler. I would have a go at an "Asteroids" clone and such and actually manage to come up with smooth playable versions after a week or three of intense late night programming. I developed a mental ability to look at arcade games and analyze the mechanics of them and then focus intensely on how to make some poor 1MHz 8-bit micro do the same thing in 8K of RAM

I was a great admirer of all the Eugene Jarvis games: "Robotron," "Defender," and so on. I would love to meet him even now and have a brainstorm session about the good ol' days! His talent for producing smooth flowing graphical effects and superb game play with excellent attention to subtle details really inspired me to go for maximum quality.

In 1981 I got hold of an Atari 800, a "Star Raiders" cartridge, and a joystick. I remember being absolutely hooked on this for weeks at a time. No one had seen anything like it before, as we had all been spoon-fed black and white "Pong" and "Tank" style games up until that point. People would drive miles to come and have a look and play with it. I think I broke two or three joysticks and a couple of chairs ridding the universe of enemy star fighters!

I realized straight away that there must be some real clever hardware inside the Atari 800. It could not have been done with just software. But Atari remained very tight lipped about what exactly was inside their machine. My lucky break was to obtain a bible written by Chris Crawford on how to access the hardware bits. Once I read it there was no turning back. For the next year or two I became obsessed with pushing the machine to the limits.

What's the story of your first published game, "Dropzone"?

After getting my degree with the minimum amount of work--too much game programming, aided by copious liquid inspiration--I eventually decided to try and produce a game which at least equaled the quality, speed and gameplay of the arcade games of the time. So I took inspiration from "Scramble," "Defender," "Stargate," "Galaxian" and many others and went for it. It took me about six months to come up with something looking so good it could be an arcade cabinet, and I started showing it. It was a great feeling to see big crowds build up, blocking the aisles. around at various computer shows. It wasn't long before pioneering publishers/sharks were making offers to publish it. In those days, publishers and contracts were mutually exclusive terms, but I did strike up a contractual deal with one of the big UK based publishers.

The name "Dropzone" wasn't applied to my effort until it was nearly all wrapped up and ready for duplication. It was very colorful, ran at a constant 50Hz, had masses of lumps of graphics flying around everywhere, lots of explosions, and stacks of tiny animated touches that I didn't expect anyone to notice. But It was a huge hit over here in 1984-5 and deemed well ahead of its time. It was number one for months and remained available for five or six years.

Trouble was, the publisher had told me it was no longer in production about eighteen months after releasing it and stopped paying royalties. But they didn't know that I traveled a lot and saw it for sale all over Europe and in Australia, and I used to buy copies of my game, get receipts for it, and often take photos on site too. And my contract with them prevented them selling it outside of Europe. Then in 1987 or 1988 I saw a double page ad for it in a U.S. magazine and bought a copy to run on a U.S. machine. It didn't look or play too good because it was tuned for a European machine, and it looked real bad, almost embarrassing.

On returning to the UK I sought legal advice on the subject. After four years of "we've done nothing wrong"-type defenses from the publisher and masses of leg-work by myself, I got them to settle out of court for copyright infringement. Once I had recovered royalties rightfully due to me, I bought my first Ferrari. I still have one now, a 288 GTO.

What was your favorite part of "Dropzone," on a technical level?

Squeezing the hardware in the Atari 800 to its limits and making it better than anything else then available. What was more amazing to me was the challenge of making it work on the less capable Commodore 64. It was a real nightmare implementation, but I did it.

How did you end up doing all of your own ports?

From experience I found that if it wanted the job done to my standards I simply had to do it myself. Also by the time I had explained and cajoled another programmer to do it, and redo it, I might as well of done it myself anyway!

What was the inspiration for International Karate?

The first Karate game happened because I was asked to help out with improving the graphics in the early development game being handled by a team. I ended up taking the whole project over and redoing most of it from scratch.

Are you surprised that since "Street Fighter II" was released in 1991, fighting games have become such a major part of gaming?

I am surprised that they weren't just a passing fad and that they are stronger now than ever before. But nowadays it seems to be more about technology and complex button sequencing than gameplay quality.

Was there ever any thought to reviving either of the "International Karate" games?

I understand that there is something happening along those lines by the original development house, but I have no part in any of it whatsoever, despite any publicity you might read.

I would quite like to do my own new Karate-themed game, but unlike any of the normal design ideas. Sure, it will use state of the art technology and motion capture but a whole lot more gameplay and ideas than currently seems to be the norm.

What got you interested in writing pool/snooker games?

Believe it or not, this was because of a very colorful dream I had way back in 1981 of flying over and around the surface of a snooker table with all the balls rolling around. I desperately wanted to do a full 3-D snooker/pool game like you’ve never seen, on my original Atari 800, but despite all efforts to do speedy and horrendous maths and 3-D, I had to give it a miss then.

One day in 1988 I saw something on TV which triggered the memories off. After a few experiments I realized that Amigas and Atari STs were now capable of handling the processing and began to code up an engine to do it. It took two-and-a-half years to complete, partly due to even more legal issues. The publisher went bust halfway through but wanted to sell my copyright as a company asset! It ended up with Virgin games in 1991, and it was their biggest hit up until then. I think it shipped over 300,000 units just in the UK. I then did "Pool" and numerous conversions and improvements to it over the next two years.

I am sort of working on a sequel to end all sequels now. But it's not what anyone is expecting, and it's not a deathmatch pool game spread across fifteen doomed planets!

What's the story behind the 16-bit revival of Dropzone?

There was a retrogaming phase in the UK in 1993, and many publishers asked about the possibility of massively updating the original. So that's what we did. It brings a smile to my face to know that we used the 90% of the original 1984 6502 code, but bolted on three megabytes of additional graphics, four times as many aliens and bosses, and spread it across four of Jupiter's moons, ending up with a battle to the death within a weightless Jupiter atmosphere. It was designed to be damn difficult, almost unfinishable, but some kids wrote in saying how they had mastered it without cheating and could we do an even harder one please!

Of all the games you've worked on over the years, which was your favorite?

Hard to say. Each has been a major project which builds in intensity and focus almost to the point of excluding vital life maintenance things like eating. I have always gotten so emotionally locked-in during the last months that it's a huge relief when I eventually stop adding things and refining it and give birth to my creation. I then seem to take months off recuperating on some desert island or whatever.

I like all of my games for different reasons. I have done a couple of shoot-em-ups, a couple of beat-em-ups, and a couple of games about balls. I don't want to do any 2-D role playing games, but would love to have been responsible for something like "Doom" or "Quake"--like everyone I suppose!

Were there any 8-bit games that you started but never finished? Any designs you wish you had gotten around to writing?

Yeah many, but mostly stopped at the experimental stage. I often reuse any evolved technology in a published game and rarely let anything go to waste. I still have a couple of original ideas I would like to work on right now. But I am finding that no longer can a one-man band just go off and try something out. Instead you become focused on meeting your next deadline and running a team and office. Only a few big publishers like to invest in future research and development or take the longer term view, which is a great shame, since it reduces the chance of something completely fresh coming through.

You hung onto the "one-man band" method of game development longer than almost anyone. What made you finally give in?

Things have simply got too big, and I am getting older. You can no longer compete at the top end of games unless you have 2/3/4 programmers and 2/3/4 graphics people too. I don't necessarily think you need all this talent overkill, but the big publishers won't consider anything less anymore. They are also becoming ridiculously corporate and bureaucratic and expect developers to work like a clockwork production line facility and being a slave to a schedule set in stone denies much of the old innovation and creative spontaneity which founded this industry. This could be their undoing longer term.

I would greatly prefer to still be a one-man band, the lone inventor. I always get a kick out of seeing something that is solely my work making it to the top of the charts and being well-received.

Which have you enjoyed working with more, classic or modern systems?

Overall I prefer to have total control of the hardware of the target machine. I don't like having to use operating systems, and I don't like having my game's quality compromised because some revoltingly inefficient OS prevents any low-level hardware access.

I therefore prefer the old days of early home computer hardware, and dedicated games consoles to any PC system. But PCs usually solve everything with pure grunt and the latest 225MHz Pentium MMX chipsets combined with, say, a four megabyte 3dfx card are looking rather attractive. If only Windows 95 could be cut out!

Do you ever drag out a Commodore 64 or Atari 800 and play your old games?

Yes, every now and then I get the Atari 800 out and play some of the classics. Three years ago I showed the original "Dropzone" to a games journalist on my PC's monitor, without him seeing the old machine. He said "this is a nice and simple great blast, really addictive! When's it coming out?"

What is it that keeps you interested in writing games?

Earning more to pay the taxes on the past success!

I always remember seeing reviewers saying in 1981 that they actually went out and bought an Atari 800 just to play "Star Raiders"! I felt a great sense of accomplishment when the same was said of my 3-D snooker game in 1991.

Archer MacLean's favorite games