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What led up to the programming of your first commercial game, "Andes Attack"?
Oh, bloody hell, that goes way back. My first encounter with coding was at sixth form college where they had a Commodore PET, and I taught meself BASIC on that and started writing games for me mates. When I ran out of steam with BASIC I turned to 6502 machine code, hand assembled, by God. The first machine I actually owned was the ZX80, and in fact I did a few pre-Llamasoft games for the ZX80/ZX81 for an outfit called dk'tronics in the U.K. However, they treated me spectacularly badly, and so the founding of Llamasoft coincided with my getting my hands on the Vic. Games were just something I did in my spare time before that.
Andes Attack was coded during a period of illness and, to my surprise and delight, sold pretty well when I'd finished it, despite being painfully jerky and buggy now that I look back on it. I think learning to write games as a hobby, just for the benefit of your mates, is a pretty good grounding; your mates don't hesitate to tell you if they think you've made a shitty game! I always knew if I'd done a good 'un because all the chipheads at the college would be staying after hours playing the games and writing their hi-scores on the walls of the computer room--for which I got shit.
How did you find a publisher for "Andes Attack?"
In the U.K., we published it ourselves. I was at a Commodore show in Hammersmith where we were demonstrating and selling the game for the first time and got spotted by a guy from HES who subsequently published the game in the U.S.
How well did "Andes Attack" do commercially?
Not too bad, considering how shitty it actually was. But my God, you should have seen what the competition was like at that time in the U.K.--some really diabolical stuff that made "Andes Attack" look great by comparison. It was published in the U.S. as "Aggressor","with some minor cosmetic changes, and did okay, but nothing compared to "Gridrunner." It was good enough that it got Llamasoft into the market and got us the hook-up with HES that later proved to be pretty lucrative.
The limitations of the Vic 20 seem severe today. Did they feel constraining at the time?
Well, after using the PET, which had 8K, was monochrome and had no bitmapped graphics or sound, and the ZX80/ZX81, which had 1K, was monochrome, had a membrane keyboard, no sound--Ugh! Bleachh!--the Vic, with a proper keyboard, a sound chip, programmable bitmaps and, above all, color and joystick ports, seemed like the very lap of luxury!
How was your company, Llamasoft, founded?
Basically I was motivated by seeing "Asteroids" by Bug Byte on the Vic 20, by S. Munnery. That name is branded on my brain. It was so bad, I mean, unbelievably bad. You only had one spaceship, and the program would poke your ship on the screen, then randomly poke on the asteroids, and fully half the time it would poke a rock right on top of your ship before you even had a chance to move or fire, and it would be "Game Over" before it even started. When you fired, instead of individual bullets that actually moved, you just got this chain of full stops that stuck out of the end of your ship while the Vic made a sound like a vacuum cleaner. Shudder. They were charging seven quid for that pile of wank, and I thought, hell, I could do better than that, so I started work on what would eventually become "Andes Attack." Originally Llamasoft was founded to sell that. After a brief period of misguided partnership with your archetypical dodgy geezer, my mum came into the partnership, we kicked him out, and Llamasoft proper came into being in 1982.
I guess I have to thank S. Munnery for something, even if that game he wrote was execrable!
What were the early years of Llamasoft like, say, 1982-1986?
Absolutely brilliant. It was totally like a dream come true. After a fairly slow start, things went ballistic when "Gridrunner" became a big hit in the U.S., and we made some silly money for a while. Meanwhile, in the U.K., we started to get a reputation for games that were weird, but playable. We used to go to five or six big shows in the U.K. every year, and they were a total blast. I got to meet a lot of great people, sell a lot of games, and drink a lot of beer! I also got to do a lot of stuff I would never have dreamed possible before it all started: go to Peru to be with llamas, get a new car, go skiing every year. It was just great. I was a bloody lucky git to have such a good time!
Was there ever any temptation to sell out?
Not really. I was perfectly happy to do my own thing. We never had any ambitions to become a big software empire. I'm sure we could have done it if we'd wanted to, but me and my mum liked it the way it was, just me coding, my mum and dad doing the administrative stuff. I'm afraid I was much more interested in having a good time than getting seriously commercial. People have called me a fool for that, but I don't care. I had a great time and don't regret it for a minute.
When did you start to feel that the "golden age" of home computer gaming was drawing to a close?
I guess around 1987 things started getting a bit thin. The biz was becoming more serious, with arcade and movie licenses dominant instead of just a bunch of rogue coders all trying to come up with original stuff. That's what I really liked about the early scene; there was a very high premium placed on originality in a game. Now you tend to have your genres: driving, bloody endless fighting games, bloody "Doom" clones. No disrespect to id, "Doom" is a fantastic game, and they created the genre. It's just that now every flipping game, apart from the aforementioned fighting and driving ones, tends to look like "Doom." You wait, I'm going to do something about that one of these days!
You've written quite a few "Defender" inspired games. What is it that fascinates you about "Defender"?
"Defender" is just a beautiful game design and the effects, for their time, were astounding. It broke a lot of new ground, introducing the scanner and the smart bomb; it was the first game to provide a coherent play area larger than the screen within which one had complete freedom to maneuver. In playing "Defender" one is not just memorizing a pattern, one has to think and respond dynamically to a threat that is constantly changing. You had to take the time to actually learn to fly your ship, but when you'd learned, you could pull off the most beautiful moves. A wonderful game to play, and one that I still play, surrounded though I am with awesome next-gen tech. The game stands the test of time. It's a true classic.
Have you ever met Eugene Jarvis?
Yes, at CES in 1994. He's a lovely bloke, witty and intelligent--very much so--and not at all big-headed, 'specially as he's a god! It was a real case of hero worship for me! Mind you, I have to say I think he made me tone down the difficulty on my Jag implementation of "Defender" a bit too far. He was the guy we had to satisfy for approval from Williams on "Defender 2000." I played "Defender" on "Williams Arcade Classics" the other day, and it kicked my ass by comparison to Classic mode on "Defender 2000."
What's the story behind your long series of "light synthesizer" programs?
That's a long and strange story that's not over yet.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, or at least in Basingstoke, the fourteen-year-old proto-Yak got invited to a party where he had his first taste of alcohol. Not knowing any better, he went on drinking the stuff all night and ended up having a pretty bad time involving a lot of throwing up and feeling rotten. On the way, however, he met a really nice girl who he totally failed to get off with and also saw these really primitive disco lights that the DJ had and thought to himself, in a drunken, twisted kind of a way, that there had to be a better way of interpreting music visually than that. This was before I had even seen a computer, but a lot of listening to Pink Floyd and watching the patterns on the backs of my eyelids in a darkened room kinda made me think there would be a better way, and somehow that it would involve large projection screens.
The first lightsynth was finally created after a particularly enlightening trip to Peru, hanging out in the Andes with lots of llamas and returning home inspired. We've been through a lot of incarnations since then, most recently with the "Virtual Light Machine" for the Jag CD-ROM. And it's not over yet. I am about to get involved with some hardware that could do a lightsynth so amazing that just owning the software could get you in trouble with the DEA! My ambition is to have Pink Floyd use one of my systems. I better hurry though; Dave and the boys are getting to be old geezers.
How do you feel your 8-bit games hold up today?
Hell, I don't think they're too shabby. I look at some of them and think, "My, wasn't I a rotten coder back then," especially some of the earlier ones. But most of them were fun to play and it always used to make me happy when I'd see some geezer at a show with baggy eyes and a sore thumb from playing all night. The very idea that I could do that to someone with my game! It still does give me a buzz when I hear of people getting addicted to my games. I like it if someone feels they got their money's worth out of my game.
Are there any that make you think "Ugh! I can't believe I wrote that!"?
Yeah! The bugs in "Andes Attack" on the Vic, abominations like the, thankfully rare, "Ratman" on the Vic and "Rox 64" on the C64. Hey! It was written in one night, and that night happened to be the first night I actually owned a 64.
What's your philosophy of game design?
Gameplay Uber Alles. And if you can make it psychedelic too, great!
My idea of fun is not so much creating a realistic world with the computer, so much as creating a surrealistic one. Rather than use the machine to emulate reality, use the machine to go to places that no-one ever imagined before. I think that's the real potential of the new generation of ultra-powerful machines, at least as far as my future designs are concerned. I have things in my head that you could create with the power of, say, five PlayStations, that'd have to be made illegal, they'd be so trippy.
How did you hook up with Atari?
I kinda fell in with Atari U.K. back in the 1980s and, when it was getting impractical to publish our own stuff, did the odd contract for them--"Defender 2," "Photon Storm." Then I hooked up with Atari U.S. and my old boss, John Skruch--a lovely bloke, you could not ask for a better producer to work for--to work on the Falcon and subsequently on the Jaguar.
I met my first Tramiel shortly after the ST came out. I was at Comdex with "Colourspace," my ST lightsynth, and Leonard T. brought his Uncle Jack over to take a look at it! I was pretty awestruck to meet the guys who ran Atari and who founded Commodore, the company that had made the machine I first learned to code on!
Do you prefer reworking classics or creating original games?
I have greatly enjoyed reworking the likes of "Defender" and "Tempest." Those two are probably my fave arcade games, ever. But I would like to do some original stuff now, I think. However, I do count bringing those old games to a new generation of players as one of my proudest achievements. Those designs were so cool.
Do you still program in assembly language or have you switched to something more fashionable?
Assembly all the way so far. I know the day will come, but for now, there is still a demand for true assembler coders if you know where to look.
What games, from either the 1980s or 1990s, have you been most impressed with?
"Star Raiders." "Defender." "Tempest." "Rescue on Fractalus!" "F-Zero"--and "Wipeout" on the PlayStation, "F-Zero's" logical successor. "Thrust" on the C64. "Doom." "Robotron." "Tetris"--pure elegance! And, of course, the Mario canon on the Nintendos; no denying Shig his greatness.
What do you think, in general, of the games currently on the shelves?
There are only a few must-have games around. There are a lot of technically great games around, but very few have that real spark of gameplay excellence that just makes you drool and need to play all the time. "WipeOut" on the PlayStation is great. Not only did I love it, but it has managed to addict all my brothers, even those who do not usually play video games--always the sign of a great game if it can do that.
Any chance of a Llamasoft game that doesn't feature yaks or llamas or other furry beasts?
Now what possible reason would I have for giving up my love of beasties?