My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.


Should have seen it coming

Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum computer (1982) Türkç...

I can’t remember exactly how old I was. Probably 12 or 13. Mum had dragged me round to her friend’s house. I hated going to her friend’s house. For one thing, it was the most interminably boring thing in the world sitting there whilst they drank tea and talked about what were, to me, the most mundane subjects in the universe. Not only that, but I wasn’t keen on her friend either. She was nice to us when mum was around, but unpleasant when we were alone. So, as you can imagine, it brought out the worst in me.

On this particular visit though, I learned that they had just bought a computer. I was intrigued. I’d never seen one. I’d heard about them on John Craven’s Newsround – sure, but never had I seen one in the silicone. I asked if I could have a go, and I was left to it in front of a pristine Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was plugged into an old portable TV and there was a tape machine to one side. I took the only tape they had, “Horizons”, read the insert and followed the instructions. I was completely enthralled. I went through every program on both sides of the tape and played with that machine for hours. For once, it was Mum who wanted to go home and it was me that wanted to stay.

I didn’t think too much more about it and before I knew it, Christmas had arrived. Bleary eyed, myself and my brother headed downstairs at some ungodly early hour to open all our presents. I remember dad had taken up position with a camera to capture our expressions as we came through the front room door. We groaned as he captured us in our unkempt, half awake state and descended upon our presents. I was initially disappointed – was my pile smaller than usual this year? The first present I opened turned out to be a tape machine, which I thought was a great present and I spent a few moments thinking about what I could do with it before moving on the next present.

It wasn’t long before I could make out the box inside the wrapping paper and my heart sang! It was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum – fantastic. I couldn’t wait to get it open, plug it into the TV and explore the possibilities. Again, I spent hours in front of that machine, being physically pulled away for Christmas Dinner.

After the Christmas break, back at school, the playground talk was all around what we had been given for Christmas. Amazingly, my small circle of friends had all been given Spectrums! We were told off more than once on that first day for talking incessantly about computers.

I remember a BBC TV program called “Me and My Micro” where they explored the possibilities of these new microcomputers that were spreading like wildfire. I remember watching the presenters program the computers, showing you the BASIC language and what you could do with it. I decided that I wanted to learn how to do that and fished out the orange book that came with my Spectrum and read it cover to cover whilst trying things out on the machine.

A little later that year, mum was pregnant with my sister. I know they talk about women “blooming” during pregnancy, but that’s not exactly how I would describe mum’s experience. I used to arrive home from school, walk in the door and ask dad how mum was. Invariably, he would say “the same as yesterday”. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I would lock myself away in my room programming my ZX Spectrum. I don’t think the time was wasted – I wrote a number of games, at least one of which was published.

So – it’s no surprise that I ended up in a career in software development. I guess I should have seen it coming.