2007 Interview with Stuart Goodwin

When did you first come across an Acorn machine, and what did you think of it?

The Acorn machine I ever saw was a BBC Micro during my last year of school, and all I got was a tantalizing glimpse of it as the physics teacher demonstrated it to the other teachers. During the next class I asked him about computers, and was told that "You ask a computer a question, and it gives you an answer". I asked if it could tell me how high the Eifel tower was, and he said "Yes, if you tell it how high it is". After a response like that it's amazing I got into computing at all!

I then saw BBC Micros at a local computer club in Newcastle Upon Tyne, and was so gobsmacked by the speed and colourfulness of Acornsoft's Planetoids that I decided I had to have one, so I sold my Sinclair Spectrum (48K) to one of my college lecturers and went and picked up a shiny new 32K BBC Micro.

At what point did you try your hand at writing a game for one of the Acorns? What did you think of the results?

Well, I wrote my first game only a few weeks after buying my BBC Micro. It was called 'Space Caverns', and the first iteration sold about 5 copies from a local software shop. It was written in BBC BASIC and was truly dreadful, but I was impressed that the development of games was so simple compared to the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 machines I'd previously experimented with.

I then wrote my first 'real' game called 'Caveman Capers' in assembly language, and this gave me my first exposure to the delights of fitting a game, graphics, and sound handling into the massive 10K of RAM left over once you take out your 20K of screen memory.

One strong recollection is the delight of only having a tape drive to save my code to. It was another few months before I could afford my first 80 track double-sided floppy disk drive!

What were your early experiences with software publishers?

Back in the early 80s the games industry was very naive, as were most developers. My first publisher was a company called Icon that ran from the back of a video store in Gosforth, and the owner was fair but not particularly competent. He was bought out and our software taken over by Audiogenic, run at that time by Martin Maynard, and that was my first exposure to the "pimps" of the software world.

Many BBC releases were also marketed as being compatible for the Electron. Were there any instances where having to write a game to be compatible on both proved problematic?

Ah yes, well with only 4 bit memory requiring twice as many cycles per memory access the Electron was a challenge :)

We generally had to switch down from the 16 colour 'mode 2' to 4 colour 'mode 5' so that the screen updates wouldn't grind to a halt, so speed of memory access was main issue, but only having a single sound channel meant that audio sounded choppy and any background music was muted for every beep or gurgle in your gameplay :)

How attached were you to the various software publishing houses you worked for? Was it a case of submitting a game to any publisher for consideration, or were you ever officially employed by any of the labels your games were released by?

I was actually a British Telecom apprentice at the time I was game writing, so although I was working with several games companies I was never employed full time by any of them. This arrangement suited me fine, as it put me in the position of not being financially dependent on some of the rather shady characters (mostly ex-record-producers) running the local software companies, and allowed me to pick and choose who I worked with.

In general though, the software industry in the north of England was a tight-knit community with everyone knowing and often collaborating with everyone else, so I just chose whichever publisher seemed the most applicable at the time.

You have to remember that games were so thin on the ground at that time that publishers would accept any game, as proven by games such as Merry Xmas Santa and Space Caverns, so it really was a seller's market!

In a interview with the Stairway To Hell website, you stated (following the release of Caveman Capers) "we didn't do very well from it, and we were eventually ripped off by the owner of ICON, so that was an unhappy period". Is this related to your brief point about Martin Maynard? Can you elaborate on this at all?

Well, the final dealings with the owner involved his selling out the company to Audiogenic without any negotiations with the developers, and without any consideration of their royalty situation on the games they had already produced. One programmer even got hold of the contracts for the games and destroyed them, muddying the waters even further, then the owner's wife stood up in our meeting with Martin Maynard and screamed obscenities at me (apparently she assumed I was involved, which I wasn't), so it was a slightly stressful period.

How were you paid for your games (assuming you were!)? Was there ever an advance involved?

I always took royalties, and never took advances. I always negotiated a per-sale fee (which I vaguely remember being about 25p), and this provided a nice little income. I also sold utilities and graphics routines to Tynesoft, which helped keep me in my lavish programmers lifestyle of KFC, McDonalds, and motorbikes.

Half of most royalties went to Kevin Blake who was my programming partner. I've never enjoyed programming alone, so we worked together on most projects.

At Tynesoft, who exactly were "The Art Crew", and what did they do?

That was me and Kevin. Kevin came up with the name one day, so we decided to use it for the next game. We also used the names ScrewLoose and BitBrain for another game. Programmers humour I suppose.

In Future Shock, various sprites from previous Tynesoft games appear (eg: Raj from Vindaloo; the duck from Ian Botham's Test Cricket). Was this a way of trying to carve out an identity for the company's games, or merely laziness?

Well I'm no graphics artist, and during this era the developers had to do all their own graphics, so these were my attempts at humorous icons. All the graphics were from earlier games I had written, so it was more as a joke than identity building, and yes... a bit of laziness!

Were you still involved with Tynesoft when the company went bust? What were your thoughts when you heard it was the case?

No, I'd moved to the South of England by this time, but my immediate thought was "A fire at Tynesoft...? How convenient". I believe they found that someone had poured some flammable substance into the drains then set it alight, and I understand that all records, contracts, and financial details were destroyed...

Also in the Stairway To Hell interview, you say that you sold "sprite, keyboard, and sound handlers" that you'd written to Tynesoft. Which other games featured these, and what is the most recent example of a game featuring input from you on the 8-bit Acorns?

Well, all of the games I wrote used my sprite routines that decompressed sprites on the fly (very important with about 10K or RAM for an entire game) and supported things like mirroring and flipping of sprites. I'm not sure which other games Tynesoft used them for, although Kevin's future games would have used them.

I'm afraid I have no idea what the last game would be with my sticky fingerprints on it. I guess it might be Kevin's Spy-vs-Spy, but I can't say for sure.

Was there any particular software house on the Acorn scene that you would've liked to have worked for, but didn't get the chance?

I would have liked to meet up with other developers form the larger gaming houses such as Acornsoft. There were a number of very smart guys working in all software houses at this time, but very little communications between them. There was no internet and no email during the 80s which meant the only means of meeting and chatting tended to be at the computer shows.

Which other programmers for the BBC and Electron did you rate?

I was more impressed by technical developers than the traditional "financially successful" developers because the science of finding optimal solutions to complex technical problems has always fascinated me. Dave Mann (Contraption, MouseTrap, Jet Set Willy?) was my first experience of working with a strong technical developer, and we worked on several projects together, while Peter Johnson was the most adept financial developer I knew, with a stream of successful hits with major software houses.

What are your favourite games for the BBC/Electron? And what's your favourite game featuring input from yourself on the BBC/Electron?

Planetoids was my first. I played this for so long, and the "weeeoooooowwwwwwww" noise as your ship appeared, and the muffled explosion effect as you died still stick in my mind. That was an awesome piece of marketing that I'm sure was a key reason the BBC Micro took off. I also liked Peter Johnson's DeathStar and Space Pilot, but then I always was an Asteroids fan.

Frak! By Aardvark was a great platform game (and one of the few Mode 1 games released), but Elite was by far the most impressive, being the first game I remember to incorporate missions, and was probably the first game ever to have people hooked for weeks on end trying to find new 'missions' and upgrades such as 'military lasers'. I had that docking technique down to a T.

The favourite game that I worked on was Future Shock. That was a case of fitting a mountain into 20K, and it had interrupt driven screen colour changes (for the eyes at the top of the screen) and was the only Mode 5 game I ever saw with more than 4 colours. It had dozens of huge sprites, drop-down menus, sliding block puzzle sub-plot, and a storyline written by Kevin about a character called 'Glob' [see below]. Mind you, it also had the most annoying sound, a terrible plot, and was quite difficult.

"Having rather a lot on his hands at the time, the Supreme Being decided to sub-contract the job of human evolution to GAL-CORPS of the Planet Maltron II.
Well, it was the sixth day and getting towards closing time at the Drog and Pallette Ale House, so the contractors decided to celebrate with a few pints of Thargsberg Special Brew.

The following morning they turned up for work in, let's say an unwell state. Their work obviously suffers, and as a result the Scroll containing the plan for the Evolution of human life on earth is scattered to the four winds.

So 42 billion years later (could this be relevant), whilst exploring the confines of an empty beer bottle, our hero, GLOB, found himself transported to the presence of the Supreme Being.

"GLOB" said the Mighty One.

"I have chosen you to search human memory for the Scroll of Evolution".

"Why me?" said GLOB glumly!

Find the 16 pieces and reassemble the Scroll using a sliding block method."

The story of the Electron version of Ian Botham's Test Cricket in which it's impossible to hit the ball has long since become the stuff of Acorn legend, but I notice that the "Art Crew" are credited on the advertising hoardings around the pitch in-game. Did you have any involvement in that game, and do you recall who was to blame for the cock-up?

Well, I vaguely remember that as being Kevin's first solo game, so there's no doubt as to where the questionable gameplay came from, but it doesn't say much for Tynesoft's testers to not find that one. One interesting piece of trivia is that the 'direction of the ball' routine on the BBC version was a random number generator, so it didn't matter when you hit the ball, the number of runs scored was completely random, but this didn't stop people writing into magazines with hints on "when to hit the ball to score a six".

A few programmers I've spoken to apparently used the BBC B+ for their code, while others I've spoken to saw the machine as a pointless waste of time that was nothing but a stopgap. Did you ever use one of the machines, and if so, what did you make of it?

Well, nobody really cared about the BBC B+, and the only point of note was that it used the ADFS chip instead of the regular DFS. Since there were thousands of BBC Micro B's out there, nobody was going to release a game that didn't run on that platform.

One game called Dr Who and the Mines Of Terror came out with a plug-in sideways ROM with the maps on it, so I suppose that could easily have been ported to the B+, but I never really understood why the B+ was released.

Did you ever program anything for the BBC Master Series?

Not specifically, no.

Do you still own any of the old Acorn machines? When was the last time you used one?

Yes, I have an old BBC Master Series 'Compact' that I was given about 12 months ago. My original machine was left in a house in Reading in 1988, and I've always been sorry not to have kept it for nostalgic reasons. Having said that, I'd replaced the main board several times as new revisions were released, and the innards were strewn with modifications, soldered in static RAM chips for sideways RAM, stacked ROMS to increase the number of sideways ROMS, and video modifications for things like audio through the UHF output.

When you think of the BBC and Electron, are your first thoughts fond, or less so?

Very fond thoughts. It was a fantastically thought out and designed machine, and it taught me all the basics of digital electronics and hardware programming. Since those early days I've programmed everything from 4bit microprocessors to Pentium systems, designed modems, created monitors for power lines, and developed custom databases, and almost every one of these projects has called on skills that I learned on my BBC Micro.

About 12 months ago Chris Crawford (author of Broderbund's Lode runner) visited Melbourne University where I lecture here in Australia, and we actually sat and reminisced on the 'good old hex codes of the 6502', and discussed the undocumented ones we used in games to improve performance. The flexibility, built-in compiler, and excellent documentation for the BBC Micro (remember the 'Advanced User Guide'?) makes the BBC my all-time favourite machine.

Interview by Stuart Goodwin, Autumn 2007.