20 years of a Video Game Developer’s Career - Part 1
Since a young age I’ve always had an interest in making computer games and I’ve been very fortunate to have supportive parents who worked hard to get what I now understand to be very expensive bits of hardware over the years. I thought I’d share some background of how I ended up where I have today with some luck and some foresight…
I used to spend hours lurking around the only computer shop for miles around, playing with the Jupiter Aceand the ZX80 in the shops marvelling at what they could do.
I was extremely fortunate to get a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas one year but it didn’t come with any way of getting games into it other than the usual way of typing in listings from magazines such as Sinclair User. I learned a tremendous amount during this period as I played around and adapted these early programs into something unique and my 1st game was one about avoiding a monster for as long as possible so there was even a tiny amount of AI in there (not that I knew that).
I seemed to be on the periphery of the generation of Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 owners as I managed to get a BBC Micro Model B, which was awesome for programming. I started to write 6502 assembler on the Beeb and migrated towards hacking ROMs and reverse-engineering other people’s games as well as writing my own home-brew games.
My background in 6502 (not Z80) made for a natural progression to the 68000 series used on the Atari ST/Amiga whilst my friends who cut their teeth on the Z80 used in the ZX Spectrum ended up going more towards 8086 used in PC. This was my most active programming period when I absorbed so much info and I started specialising in the Atari ST via the demoscene groups as I started to really push what was possible on the ST as I desperately tried to prove the ST was just as capable as the Amiga (which it wasn’t). For those of you on the scene I wrote tracker players, full-screen scrollers, bitmap emulators, hi-colour displays, border busters, highly optimised sprite renderers and much much more. All of which emulated what could be achieved easily in hardware on the Amiga but I had to try very hard and be inventive to get the same out of the weedy ST. Everything I knew was entirely self-taught.
The demoscene was super cool and underground, it felt like we were on the bleeding edge of computer software and there are a lot of game developers who have been involved with the scene at some point or other in their career. I still keep in touch with some of these people but most have moved onto other things.
I was also teaching other people how to program these demos & elements at my local computer clubs, all of which were the core components of games. I found out later that some of these people were professionally making games and were secretly bringing their problems to the computer club and presenting them as challenges that I’d help them solve, then they’d go back into the game. They were quite surprised when I turned up later and they were shown for what they really were.
Being Paid To Make Games!
So, this is where my professional career started as I was approached at the computer club I’d been attending for nearly 2 years and asked if I’d like a job making games! No interview, no test, just a job offer from a bloke who’d been lurking around in the background at the club for weeks but I only recognised this in hindsight.
Alligata Software - 1987
My first job was at Alligata Software in Sheffield where I was programming both the Atari ST/Amiga versions of a C64 classic vertical shooter called ‘Trap’. There were 5 of us bottled up in an office in Sheffield churning away at making games the best we could. I know for definite that 3 of us are still making games today in 2010! We’d all work really hard during the day, we’d got to the pub together then we’d go home and do some more for ourselves. It was an addiction really and I can still see this happening in motivated, committed game developers today and I can sympathise with them.
I was writing hardcore 68000 assembler code for ST and Amiga in a professional environment and this was going to be my first commercial game, to be honest, I would have done it for nothing ‘cos I loved doing it so much. I wrote most of the early stuff on K-Seka, which was pretty hard-core low level stuff as it was all written on the target machine and there was no mouse interface. Crashes and lost work were just part of life but it was always better the next time around.
There was no debugging other than to put coloured borders on your game and then figure out which colour was showing when it crashed.
What came as a surprise was when we turned up to work one day to find the office doors locked and all of the furniture gone! Yup, the company had folded overnight taking our jobs with it and the boss didn’t have the decency to tell us, we were left to draw our own conclusions. Jonno (there’s always one) hunted down the boss and we got our last wages and that was that. Just when I’d got my favourite job doing what I love it all went pop overnight.
Wise Owl Software - 1988
I quickly got a job working for another game developer setup in Rotherham called ‘Wise Owl Software’, which was initially setup to provide educational software but we had better ideas. :)
My 1st job was to make a game on Atari 2600 called ‘Oops’, yes the first home console, which suited me down to the ground because it was all about getting the most out of the tiny bit of hardware. It meant pulling on all of my demo & 6502 experience and it was a real test. As a synopsis, it had 4x1Kb memory, no DMA for the display, 8 pixel wide ‘playfields’ that only covered 1/2 the screen width, 1 pixel wide ‘ball’ and that was it. It took some real skill to get anything like a game out of that thing but I loved it. This was the 1st time I worked on a PC and had my work sent to the target ‘2600’, which saved me a lot of time an meant I didn’t lose my work 1/2 as much.
My next few jobs were working mostly on Amiga/ST where I made a few games that never really saw the light of day with the exception of ‘War Machine’. All written in 68000 assembler along with some optimisation for the various flavours that were starting to appear such as the A600, 68020/68030 Amigas. Modular scalable code was starting to be a necessity.
Things were going well and we decided to ditch the edutainment connotations of the Wise Owl name and after some jiggling about we re-formed the company as ‘H2O’ and I joined as a director. Sadly, the other directors didn’t really do anything so I made off over the horizon onto my next venture.
Teque Software / Krisalis - 1989
I joined Teque Software as a Amiga / ST programmer and I continued to work on those platforms, gradually working on larger and larger projects with the biggest one being, Amiga+St+C64+Spectrum+Amstrad by 6 people for 17 weeks! Wow! Yes, that’s how long it took us to make a game back then.
We were always trying to push what the St/Amiga could deliver and my best commercial game on those platforms included streaming from floppy disk, borderless full-screen scroller with loads of sprites. That game was Shadow Warrior.
Dev-Kits, QA, C and networks - a new ERA
Not long after that a new bit of kit appeared called SNASM, which was a remote development kit that plugged somewhere into the target machine. This meant we all worked on fast Atari ST machines with hard-drives, remember it had all been on floppy up to now, and we could send our code down to the target machine and debug it! Wow! You can imagine what a difference this made to our working lives.
Along with these changes came the use of ‘C’ language for games but it was too slow for what we wanted but it promised great things and I began to use it for tools and whatever else I could get away with.
We also got out 1st network around this time too as we’d previously been copying things around on floppy disk. Again, this was a massive improvement over what we’d had before and enabled us to pass artwork and builds around quickly.
I vaguely remember this is when we actually had a ‘tester’ in the studio too, whose job it was to just play the games and tell us about bugs. It was about this kind of time anyway.
So, as you can imagine things were changing amazingly quickly and if you didn’t adapt quickly you were dead both as an individual and a business.
The Realisation of the need to plan a Career
This is the time when I worked with some great people but I also worked with some significantly older people who I really didn’t get on with. I felt these people were holding me back and I also didn’t want to be like them. I don’t know what happened but something didn’t feel right and a change was required.
It was around about this time when I remember stopping and thinking “Do I really want to be a 50-year-old programmer like them? Having younger people running rings around me?”. So I made an active decision to plan a long-term career and actively avoid being swallowed by the wave of change that follows us around constantly.
I envisaged being some kind of technical manager or owning my own game company at some point in the future and if I was to do that I needed to make some changes. These were the days when there were seemingly infinite opportunities and adverts from Ocean proclaiming your Ferrari was waiting for you if you made games.
I started to push to what we’d now call a Lead Programmer role, still focusing on Amiga/ST at the time and I worked on a lot of football games then too so I was gaining genre and management experience. I started to manage more and more people and started to purely focus on management and tech direction.
Everything was changing around that time too, the SNES had taken off and the Saturn and PlayStation were looming and I had to be on those platforms.
So, what did I do next? Lets find out in Part 2… where I’ll continue the story along with some analysis on things like salaries, roles and events.