Gari Biasillo / Interceptor Micros,
Added on January 14th, 2012 (6745 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
First, I'd like to thank you for asking me to participate in helping preserve the history of the Commodore 64 era. I only played a small part but had a blast developing on the Commodore 64! My first job in the games industry was in 1987 with Interceptor Micros fresh out of school. As I had a music background, I began as a musician but programming was still an integral part of the work day.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
The first time I used a computer was at my friends house where he had a BBC Micro that his dad had bought. We used to type in computer listings from magazines and books, as with most people, they never worked or they were very basic in terms of functionality. And of course, they were written in BASIC. If I recall correctly, this was around 1981. After pestering my dad for a computer, not really knowing what computers were available, one day he brought home a Commodore VIC-20 with a tape deck. After tinkering with that for a week, given my limited knowledge of computers, I thought it wasn't very good and asked for a better one. Luckily, my dad didn't complain and brought home a Commodore 64 the next day! My initial impression was that it was the same computer but different colour. Obviously, it wasn't and this is where my computer addiction began, mostly playing games.
But after a while, fed up with typing in crappy games from magazines, I slowly started to learn how to program. I knew that BASIC wasn't good enough, and knew that there was something known as 'machine language' that would give better results. After all, the better games would have "written in 100% machine language" plastered on the covers! The other option was to buy a piece of software, the name alludes me, that would take basic programs and compile them to machine code, which they claimed was up to ten times faster. So off to the local computer shop, Computer Link in Chester, I went intending to buy the BASIC compiler. The guys who owned the store told me to instead buy Zeus 64, an assembler that tokenized the source to save memory, and had a built in monitor, and a booklet on 6510 assembly language. Sold. I had no idea what it was but it sounded great! I also picked up a copy of Lords of Time by Level 9, which had just been released, so this must have been in 1983.
To cut a long story short, after reading countless books and magazines, and trial and error, I was able to write some rudimentary programs in 6510 assembler.
During this era, trading games was very big. I did it mostly for bragging rights as I only played them for half and hour or so to see what they were like. I ended up trading a few games with Rob Hubbard who sent me a couple of music programs, and Barry Leitch. I doubt either remember me! Barry put me in contact with a couple of great guys to trade with who lived close by in neighboring Wales. We met up one weekend where we did stuff that computer geeks do, drank and wrote some code. They had Tony Crowther's telephone number and as I wanted to know how to program side-border sprites, we gave him a call. I was talking to my hero on the 'phone, and he was telling me how to program side-border sprites. How cool was that!!! The prior year, at the CES show in London, I had the chance to speak to Jeff Minter who told me how to program top/bottom border sprites. So, if I had one claim to fame, it would be that I was taught how to implement border sprites by two Commodore 64 programming gods!
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
The first game I wrote, and I use the term 'game' very loosely, was as type-in listing for the magazine Computer Gamer called Game of Death. It was awful! It consisted of a single screen where you had to navigate a cave and pick up a few items, avoiding a couple of aliens. The collision detection was really flakey; it would sometimes think you hit an alien when you collided with an object that you had to pick up. Rather than fixing the bug, I just fobbed that off as being 'radioactive electricity', much to the despair of my physics teacher as no such thing exists. The best part was the music which ran off a raster interrupt and was written in assembly language. The listing for this consisted of DATA statements with hundreds of numbers that you had to painstakingly type in. To help with human error, each 10 or so numbers was paired with a checksum, which the program would output an error message if a mismatch was detected.
My first paid job was with Interceptor Micros which I applied for after reading their advert in a computer magazine. I went for my interview with a 5 1/4" floppy with a few demos on it, including a sound editor I was working on. This was very basic with no sequencing capabilities. It just allowed you to configure the SID-chip and play notes on using the QWERTY keyboard. They needed a musician, so I was hired.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
Most of my friends owned the ZX Spectrum which had a lot more games. I guess if my dad bought me that instead of a C64, I would have ended up developing for that, so I'm thankful that he made the choice he did. Along with many others, I just loved the sound of the C64. I would spend countless hours listening to the music in games and demos.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
I can't really count Game of Death, but I did work on a handful of commercial games for the C64. I produced the music and effects for Joe Blade, Target Renegade, Slayer, and Steel. I also programmed Basket Master, Slayer, Steel, and Shanghai Warriors. It's a small list as the Amiga and Atari ST were becoming very popular, so I began developing for those platforms instead.
Joe Blade: I was thrown into the deep end with this. I had three weeks to produce the music and sound effects for the C64, Spectrum, and Amstrad versions, which included time to write a music driver for the C64. It was a good learning experience but I wish I had more time to work on the tunes as most of my efforts went into writing the software. I remember listening to the music form The Last Ninja and Wizball at that time, trying to figure out how they created the sounds so I could write my music driver. Martin Galway later told me how he created the high pitched wooden block 'pop' sound, which was achieved by running the driver at 240Hz.
Fernando Martín Basket Master: I joined Ocean as a musician but asked if I could write a game first to help improve my programming skills. This was the first real game I wrote which was a port from the Spectrum version by Dynamic Software. I had no code to go from so I had to just play the game and come up with my own interpretation. I was actually first asked to port a game by Denton Designs and was sent to their offices in Liverpool to take a look and talk to the guys there. The game was Where Time Stood Still, an isometric game, which would have been too complex for a green programmer like myself to undertake, which I told the boss, Gary Bracey.
Target Renegade: I produced the music and sound effects for the C64, Spectrum 128k, and Amstrad versions. Jonathan Dunn handled the 48k Spectrum version which was a completely different set of tunes. I really enjoyed working on this. Paulie Hughes wrote a new C64 driver as Martin had just left Ocean, and nobody could understand how to use his driver. Paulie spent countless days fine-tuning it to shave off cycles here and there and I learned a lot about optimization from this.
Slayer: I programmed and produced the music and sound effects for this game which was the first for the company I set up with my friend Mike Williams called Imperial Software. I had learned a lot of techniques from the talented guys at Ocean and put them to work in this game. 32 sprite multiplexing, near full-screen colour scrolling, and sampled sounds.
Steel: Again, I programmed and produced the music for this title. I wish I had made this a left/right scroller instead of a flip screen game. I had all the code, so I have no idea why I didn't write it this way!
Shanghai Warriors: This was a Double Dragon style fighting game. I don't really recall much about writing this game. I think I wrote it in four or five weeks and interleaved writing it with Slayer.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
Interceptor Micros: In-house musician and programmer (I coded my own audio software). Ocean: In-house musician, although I did code Basket Master as I wanted to hone my programming skills. Imperial Software: Co-founder with my friend Mike Williams. I programmed, produced music, and helped with the everyday running of the business. We worked with a number of software houses, including Interceptor Micros, Hewson Consultants, and Accolade.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
It was pretty normal and nothing out of the ordinary. I'd spend my lunch scouring for information. There was no real Internet as we see today, so getting information about programming and what was going on in the industry was through word of mouth, reading books in the library and bookstores, and flipping through magazines in the stores.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
Music related work would usually take two to six weeks. Programming was a lot longer, three to four months, but remember these were a lot simple games compared to what you see today.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
As mentioned, my first development 'kit' was a C64 with the Zeus 64 Assembler, which I also used at Interceptor Micros. At Ocean, we had a proprietary system that used an Atari ST connected to the C64 which was great. It was very productive having a separate computer to write and compile your code on, and if the C64 crashed, you just reset it. They also had a modified version of Zeus that did the same thing but they no longer used that when I arrived. I then had a PDS which was the same kind of setup but was hosted by a PC. With this setup, you had eight files with filenames c0-7 which you couldn't rename and were limited to 32k each.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
No games that were cancelled, but I did work on a few prototypes when trying out new ideas. One that I recall was a top-down scroller that had puzzle elements like standing on stone switches to open doors, etc.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
That would be Slayer as it was the first game I wrote that combined several features that I had never written before: near full screen color scrolling, multiplexed sprites, and sampled sounds. I learned these techniques by word of mouth from the brilliant guys at Ocean, but had never actually put it into practice before.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I wouldn't really change anything, but it would have been interesting to see what I would have created if I was a little older and started out a few years earlier in the C64 lifetime.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Star Wars would have been fun!
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Absolutely! A few of my favourites, in no particular order were Wizball, Impossible Mission, Winter Games, Paradroid, and The Hobbit.
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
Did I mention Game of Death? LOL!
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
Musically, Martin Galway was by far my favourite composer. I liked the patches he created where he would often double-up voices, add lots of pulse-width modulation, and even more low-pass filtering. Programming-wise, Tony Crowther, as I liked his style of games.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
I was never really involved in the demo scene, although I did write one demo that I posted on Compunet which was very simple: a screenshot with music and a scrolling sprite message. I traded games with people from all over the world which started out by advertising in C&VG. As was the trend then, I didn't really play the games that much; it was more for the prestige of have a gazillion games in my library. In the early 80's, Barry Leitch put me into contact with a couple of guys in Wales so that I could join them on a coach trip they had organized to a trade show in London. I'd never heard of Jean-Michel Jarre until I met these guys!
I don't really have any crazy stories to tell. Some time after I left Interceptor, they stopped overtime due to abuse of the system. At that time, we literally clocked in and out each day and got payed for whatever time we put in. One night, the guys decided to play lazer tag, clocked in, and were caught red handed. At Ocean, the Roland D50 synth went 'missing' and the boss was running around frantically trying to find it. One of the guys had borrowed it to lay down a track but neglected to tell the boss. It was back safe and sound after the weekend.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
The Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were taking the larger part of the games market, and the C64 was fading out, so I jumped ships. Companies were paying significantly more for 16-bits titles, so it was an easy decision to make really.
What are you up to these days?
I moved to Canada in 2000 to work for EA Canada on the NHL franchise. I'm now a Technical Director for an internal technologies group working on ANT, an animation toolkit, which is used by pretty much all of EA's sports games, as well as non-sports games including the amazing Battlefield 3.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
Hey, thank you! I also enjoy reading about this era that I am privileged to have been a tiny part of.
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