2007 Interview with Stuart Goodwin

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

I first saw an Acorn machine in the computer mags I bought relentlessly and continuously. I went through every machine that's probably graced your pages - in order (I think) ZX81, Vic20, Oric 1 and Dragon 32. Our school then got some Beebs in and I loved them. The easy access to assembly language was a key for someone as keen on writing games as me, although the lack of sprites, the difficult-to-master hardware scrolling and the very small memory weren't that good.

However even though I was having the odd program published in magazines for fifty quid here and there, I simply couldn't afford a BBC. But, luckily for me, my third Dragon 32 broke just as the Electron came out and as they didn't make it any more I got a full refund. And bought a 'Leccy with it.

I sort of felt all the 'proper' programmers worked exclusively on the BBC, shunning the half-price Electron as it didn't have all the bells and whistles. It was also half-speed in high-res or colourful modes like 0, 1 and 2, didn't have Teletext (I didn't meet anyone who cared about that!), had single-channel sound and lots of other small things that made porting games across from the BBC difficult.

As I started out programming on the Electron, I always bore the differences in mind and tried to write games that worked fine on both. It did mean some of my games didn't push the BBC to the limit (like Firetrack, Revs, Elite and the like) but it meant the majority of players got a good game out of it, rather than one great version and one constrained conversion.

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

I'd written bits and pieces on other machines, learning to program from typing in listings and trying to improve things - or fix the bugs that usually littered them! My first Electron game was a caterpillar-type one but on a grid, so it looked a bit like Jeff Minter's Gridrunner game (even if it was an 'eat-the-mushrooms' one not a shoot'em up). This got me £500 and a cover, and I soon started to write other games, mixing BASIC and assembly and using lots of tricks to save on memory. Rambling Robot was one, Ambling Android another, Haunted House yet another - what I tried to do was to look at what was doing well on the bigger markets - Spectrum, C64 etc. - and do something of a similar ilk but with different gameplay on the Electron.

That first £500 cheque got me my first BBC B computer, and a disk drive, so I was up and running properly then.

What were your early experiences with software publishers?

My early experiences with publishers were, er, somewhat mixed. Lots of them were Arfur Daley types, the occasional hit game here and there and lots of rip-offs; of games, players and authors. The bigger ones weren't that interested in Acorn games by the time I was writing them, leaving Acornsoft and Superior Software as the biggest players. Oddly, even though Tynesoft was on my doorstep up North, I never worked for them. Maybe it was because people I knew did and complained about them all the time heheh.

ASL were my first publishers, and I kinda worked for them until I left games writing behind in 1992, even running a team of (mainly ex-Tynesoft) people up in Newcastle for a while, writing games for Nintendo NES, SNES and PC. They were straight forward, even if they couldn't afford big ad spends or marketing, and they let us programmers get on with it. My first game for ASL was Thunderstruck, which they liked so much they bought the prequel, Last of the Free. However, it shows how dodgy other publishers were - I'd sent an early version of Last of the Free to other people and not heard back, along with other games of mine. One then sent a generic contract for what I thought was my first platform game (Hunkidory, for years unreleased). I signed it - and later it turned out they thought it was for Last of the Free.

So to avoid all kinds of legal problems I rewrote Last of the Free again for ASL, and renamed the original Quest for Freedom. It was touch-and-go though - one magazine ran comparisons of the two games side-by-side. All publicity was good publicity though in the end, and everyone did OK out of it.

ASL's original owner left at some point (I wouldn't like to repeat what I heard at the time about the circumstances…) but he'd signed me to a five-year exclusive contract, something I later found out wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

My games weren't doing too well so I approached Superior with a few ideas and they really liked my platform game (no surprise there!) based on the then current Spycatcher controversy - Spycat. But I couldn't sell it to them due to my contract - so I wrote it under a pseudonym, the one-word 'Dylan'. I had a bank account and cheque book in that name, and signed it with a flourish. Only my local bank would cash my cheques though…

When the contract expired, I worked for Superior full-time, and after a lot of original games, I ended up being dubbed The Conversion King. If a game needed to be converted from one machine to the BBC and Electron, I normally got the gig. Often only a disk and a photocopied instruction book would turn up; sometimes reams of info and the source code - it didn't matter, the game usually had to be squeezed down from a machine with more memory and hardware into the Acorn machines. I did Last Ninjas 1 and 2, Barbarians 1 and 2 (see a sequence there…?), Predator, Hostages, Sim City, Ballistix and, er, probably loads more I've forgotten.

Sim City turned up with loads of info, and I loved the challenge of fitting the massive disk-based C64 game into the 20K of the Beeb. My proudest programming achievement I think, even if it didn't sell too well as the BBC and Electron market was in decline by then. Terminator turned up with nothing - I played it and couldn't get anywhere, especially with the odd invisible end-of-game baddie. I basically made it all up - the game had to be written in six weeks to be out for Christmas. It was an OK game, with a few techie things I was proud of, but the original wasn't too hot to play. But it sold by the bucketload… I learnt a big name meant more than a good game - the way the games industry is still now.

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?

I always set out to write games that would work on both machines, as my Electron heritage meant I felt I'd be letting down the 'Leccy owners if I didn't.

The differences between the hardware meant getting a game that really pushed the limits on both machines without totally rewriting it was impossible. However the market was too small to afford to do that, especially towards the end. Due to the nature of the games I wrote - conversions, platform games that needed lots of memory for levels and graphics - I rarely used the high-res, memory-hungry graphic modes that slowed the Electron down to a crawl. That meant my games ran at almost the same speed on both machines. If you used an interrupt on the BBC, you could change the colours at a certain point, meaning you could still have 8 colours on the screen but be in a 4 colour mode. Again this wasn't possible on the Electron but didn't make much of a difference.

The next obstacle was sound - the BBC had 3 channels, the Electron 1, and the Electron (as with graphics) would slow down occasionally when you made a sound. I have to say I was rubbish at music and sound, often resorting to playing generic tunes backwards as they sounded slightly musical, so it didn't affect my games much. It'd mainly mean taking the background music out, which often was a blessing not a curse.

The Electron wouldn't do hardware scrolling so any games that used that had to be rewritten, or simply not appear on the Electron. I simply avoided it and used software scrolling or other solutions. And finally, a lot of Electron games ended up with messy data on the screen. The BBC had a different video chip meaning the screen could be reprogrammed to be any width and depth. This was often used to save memory, meaning Electron games would look messy.

I ended up designing all my games around a standard-width 20 line screen (instead of 32 lines) as it was discovered the Electron had an interrupt that happened at this point on the screen, and you could then set all the colours to black to disguise the data held on line 21 down. It wasn't too much of a hassle to work around and meant I could port the game from one to another with minimum of rewriting. The only small problem were multiload games like Last Ninja loaded in new data, and the interrupt would wander all over the screen, revealing the mess. A small price to pay I think!

Did you ever use the BBC B+ and/or Master machines? Were you ever tempted to make use of the improved specs that these machines offered?

I had a Master soon after they were issued, mainly to add to my lineup of 2 BBCs and an Electron to make sure games were compatible. I didn't ever use any of the Master's extra features in my games - although I used a lot of them when developing the games; all that extra memory was very handy for compiling assembly language and debugging.

A mixture of really tight deadlines and the software publishers' view that it wasn't worth the extra effort meant I didn't get a chance to do much with the Master. A pity really - Sim City would've really benefited from the extra memory and colours.

What was the point that you would class as being the BBC and Elk's heyday?

Good question - I'd say the high point was when Elite was released, it created a real buzz everywhere. People with other machines were, for the first time, jealous of BBC owners. I'd say the fall off started after Firetrack came out - that was the last really amazing technical achievement on the Beeb (in my view) with beautiful scrolling and great gameplay.

What was your best-selling game on the Beeb/Elk? Approx how many copies did it sell?

The final sales of a game are difficult to remember as they tended to keep on selling and selling for ages, albeit in small numbers. I think that Predator probably sold the most - it was over 10,000 at full price I seem to recall. And then it went to the Play It Again Sams and (sometimes) at budget price, so the figures went higher still. By the end the games were struggling to cover the advances though, 3000 or so copies. That's when I knew I had to move to a different machine, with a very heavy heart. Mind you I was one of the last ones left!

Money aside, did you prefer working on conversions, or games of your own making?

They were very different beasts. The pluses of conversions were that they tended to come with a cachet, a prestige attached, and therefore sold well no matter what. I also relished the technical challenge of squishing big games into small memory, or making a good version of a game that seemed dependent on hardware the BBC and Electron simply didn't have. I remember when I first got Last Ninja, I hadn't seen the original and thought it was a different game, a kung-fu beat'em up, which would've seemed straightforward. So I said yes on the phone. Then this hundred-screen multi-level 3D sprite-based adventure puzzler turned up - and I had three months to do it in. It was quite an intense three months!

The minus side of conversions were the aforementioned compressed schedule and the lack of being able to do what I felt was best for the game. I must say we had almost no interference from the original publishers (or if we did Superior handled it and didn't tell me!) so that was OK.

Original games were much more creative to think up, design and start playing with, but damn hard to put in the final work and finish. The trouble with being able to do anything you like is that (a) you need inspiration to think up the right stuff; (b) you might like to go to the pub instead; and (c) no-one might buy the result. I was lucky in that I could sell concepts and demos to publishers before having to finish an entire game. Often they'd come to me and say "hey, we need a football game" and I'd go off and develop one, so it was a two-way street.

So each had their good points and bad points.

Although it's a good game, I've always thought that Hostages was a slightly random game to convert - was there any particular reason why that release came about?

Well, not sure if it's known, but we had to do Hostages otherwise we couldn't get Sim City. It was a two-game deal the publishers of Sim City in Europe, Infogrames, insisted on. Not a game I'd have picked to convert, and blinkin' hard work - three full games in one, totally different engines and graphics in each - but quite good fun to play in the end.

Looking back, were there any games ripe for converting to the Beeb and Elk that you'd liked to have attempted?

I'd have loved to do Paradroid from the C64 - many of my unfinished games (that are on the website if anyone wants a look) were inspired by that one. But at the time they weren't interested. It didn't help that myself and Gary Partis met the programmer of Paradroid and Uridium once at a show and were a bit drunkenly rude to him.. Gary got him to sign a game which turned out to be Psycastria, Gary's shoot 'em up that was, er, somewhat inspired by Uridium heheh.

What were your experiences of working for Superior Software?

Superior were a breeze to work with, always paying on time (something that didn't happen much then!), good royalty rates and a fantastic management team in the Hansons. They'd be supportive during development, patient when things didn't go to plan and really great at marketing and selling the resulting game. I haven't heard anyone say a bad word about them.

How much attention did you pay to the titles other programmers on the Acorn machines were coming up with? Any particular favourites?

Me and Gary Partis would look at all the other games being released, across formats as well as on the Acorn machines, as it was important not to spend months working on something and then see a game with the same idea in the shops. I'd keep an eye on all the other platform games as it was an area I specialised in. Kevin Blake at Tynesoft did some great platformers, and we'd all await the latest game from Orlando with baited breath.

Which are your favourite games on the Beeb and Electron?

My favourite game ever has to be Chuckie Egg - poor graphics, technically OK, occasionally annoying gameplay but fantastically playable and superbly structured. Not really an Acorn game though - Revs would be my pick of Acorn-developed titles, a great programming feat, incredibly rewarding and one of the most playable driving games of the era. I was never that fond of Elite, incredible technical achievement though it was. All that endless to'ing and fro'ing to trade stuff bored me to tears.

You've said in the past that you're proudest of what you achieved with Sim City. Is this your favourite from your own Beeb back catalogue, or do any others stick out?

I think it comes down to three games I'm proudest of. My biggest programming achievement was a conversion (Sim City), my most playable game was original (Omega Orb) and my personal favourite to play was a mindless shoot 'em up - Ransack!

... And which of your own games are you least enamoured with?

Heheh always a tough one - I suppose Predator wasn't my kind of game from the start and I found very repetitive. Of the originals, Superior Soccer did very well but I wish I'd have had more time to work on it as it wasn't as playable as I'd have liked.

As the BBC and Electron games markets started to slow down, were you ever tempted to work on games for the Archimedes?

I did a bit of Archie work - some educational titles for Richard Hanson in-between projects whilst I was working for Audiogenic and Europress - but lovely though the computer was I didn't ever like it as much as the Beeb. It was almost as if the advances in hardware it had weren't attuned to the type of games people wanted. I did some game design for a big platformer but I realised I couldn't make a living writing games for it, always the bottom line. I moved off onto the Amiga for some boring word processing stuff, then to PC and Nintendo NES for Audiogenic. I left the industry when I was offered a job on Gamesmaster, the TV show about games - hey, at least I knew the area - and have worked in the media ever since.

Interview by Stuart Goodwin, Autumn 2007.