Interview, September 2000
The author of Bug Bomb, High Rise Horror and Microbe (perhaps the NOISIEST Beeb game out there!) recounts his time spent in the computer games industry, in particular as a programmer with Virgin Games.
I was given a BBC Model B by my parents when I was 16, before that I had been programming a Commodore Pet in the school's "computer room", in reality a cupboard under the stairs. I had been pestering them for a Vic 20, and had mixed feelings when I was told about the machine I would be getting as a present. Of course I soon fell in love with the BBC, and I'm sure it improved my extremely primitive coding techniques.
It's a while ago, so I don't remember how long I'd had the Model B, but I set to work on a game called "Alleyways". The day I finished the game I saw an ad in a computer magazine by Virgin, announcing the establishment of Virgin Games, and asking for submissions. Naturally I sent in a tape of "Alleyways", and was called soon afterwards by Nick Alexander, the head of the new company. I had been hoping for 100 pounds, maybe even 150, so I was blown away at being offered 1000 pounds + royalties. He predicted selling 100,000 copies, which sounded optimistic even to my naive ears. He also wanted to change the game's title to "Bug Bomb". My Dad had to sign the contract as I was too young. I think I was their first "sign", and therefore their first ever programmer.
Virgin had already made a name for themselves in records, and to a lesser extent in books and films. They saw games as a natural extension, and I remember the interviews and press releases Nick gave, claiming that games programmers were "the new pop stars". Virgin quickly realized its mistake, of course, but for that short, glorious period around the launch of the first titles, myself and the other spotty unattractive youths were treated like stars! We were put up in great hotels, interviewed on TV (I have a particularly embarrassing video of a TV-Am appearance), by newspapers and magazines (I remember the Sun asking me if I had a girlfriend...) and the whole craziness culiminated in a launch party on the Kensington Roof Gardens.
Branson was there, and played Bug Bomb (I have a photo!). The place was packed with second-rate celebrities, the programmers, families and media. It was orchestrated by publicists from the record labels who were still hoping to create some kind of social phenomenom. I remember a sinking feeling when I saw for the first time the other titles being launched. Most of them were dreadful, which deflated the feelings of pride I had been nurturing over my own game. I think it was "Sheepwalk" that you had to load, run a program, then manually delete some lines, and type a GOTO start the game. The early titles quickly became something of a joke in the computer games magazines. I remember there was a BBC title called "Space Adventure", which wasn't bad.
Back at home, I used some of the loot to buy a disk drive for the BBC (I had written Bug Bomb using a tape drive). Obviously, my first thought was to write a new game asap. Next up was Microbe. This was inspired by a Vic 20 game called Myriad shown to me by a friend. My aim in writing it was to have the noisiest, fastest game ever written with the most explosions. This quickly brought in another 1000 pounds advance, and was the only game I ever wrote where the adavnce was actually recouped and surpassed. I earned another 600 in royalties. I was one happy teenager.
Times were changing though, and High Rise Horror didn't meet the automatic acceptance at Virgin that I had come to expect. They said they liked the game, but needed a C64 version. They shipped me a C64 and I set to work. While I missed the "cleaness" of the BBC and was annoyed by the chaotic and unprofessional nature of the new platform, I recognized that it was better for gaming. That was the end of the BBC for me, at least as far as commercial work was concerned.
High Rise Horror was eventually published on the Rabbit label, which Virgin had just acquired for the sake of the name. I can't recall whether it was the BBC version, the C64, or both that were released. Being 18, I had a year off before university. I moved to London and worked for Virgin for a year as an in-house programmer. I wrote a C64 game, my best, called "Strangeloop". This was a free adaptation of a Spectrum game of the same name, written by a guy who later became a close friend. It was the first game where I didn't do my own graphics. (I just downloaded a copy off the net that was cracked in 1985 and played it in an emulator!)
While at university I wrote another C64 game called "Slideways". Virgin weren't interested, and I sold it to another company whose name I forget. I was paid 2.5k I recall, but promised royalties never appeared. Indeed they more or less rewrote the game, releasing it as "Traz", without giving me a credit. Virgin had always treated me perfectly, and this was an unpleasant surpise. After leaving university, I wrote a last game called "Groovy Electric Death", which nobody wanted, and which is unreleased.
I ended up running software development at Palace Software for some three years, and then moved to Spain when that company collapsed. I worked at a virtual reality company for a few years, where I got to program again. Now I have an Internet company in Madrid, and for some unexplained reason, we've started doing online games written in Flash. This is really nostalgic, as the games are exactly the sort of thing I might have done once on the C64 or BBC. The only difference is that these take maybe 2 weeks to develop. I don't program, but occasionally I do the design document for one, just to keep my hand in.
Myriad (VIC 20 game, inspiration for Microbe)
Pfau Zeh (VIC 20 emulator)