Jason C. Brooke / Binary Design,
Added on February 3rd, 2012 (5549 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi. Even those who remember me as the computer musician 'Jas.C.Brooke' may not be aware that my actual name is Jason and that I spent more time as a computer games programmer than a computer musician.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
While still at school, I had a friend who owned a ZX81. I had a go and found it fascinating that you could type a set of instructions into a machine and get it to do what you wanted. So I started to save up my paper round money and eventually bought a ZX Spectrum in 1983. At that time, the C64 was the Spectrum's rival so I kept well clear. Even in 1986 when I'd left school and started working for Binary Design in Manchester, the rivalry continued. We used to have three programmers, one on Spectrum, one on C64 and one on the Amstrad. There was little cooperation between coders and great competition between the Speccy and C64 lads; who would produce the best version of each game? Who would complete the task on time? It was only when I moved into writing music in 1987 that I had to befriend the 'enemy'.
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?
Before I encountered computers, I used to spend my spare time writing music. I wanted to be a professional composer but school told me that there was no way I would be able to do that for a living. When I got my Speccy, I became friends with another lad at school. He had written a game and sold it to Crystal Computing (later known as Design Design). We joined forces in 1984 and wrote a music composer utility. Melbourne House were interested in it and paid us a small advance. I saw that as the start of my career even though the product never got released. I went on to write a Christmas game called Plum Duff which a company was trying to sell on my behalf, but around Christmas 1985, I heard that Binary Design had started up in Manchester and were looking for programmers. There seemed to be loads of programming jobs in Manchester at the time so I went for an interview, got the job and moved over the Pennines in March 1986.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
I developed a sound driver on the C64 because Binary Design's original musician, David Whittaker, wanted somebody to write some new sound drivers for him. The processing power of the machine was rather lame but I loved a challenge, so I took up the challenge of writing a fast and powerful driver which would be usable by programmers who were already struggling to keep their game up to speed and within memory limits. In that respect, it was the C64's weaknesses which became attractive to me! However, in the common debates about which machine was best for games, Speccy owners could hardly boast that they had the better sound capabilities! The C64's sound chip was quirky but 'cool'.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
I won't remember them all. There were between 20 and 30. I think my first was the 10-pin bowling game Strike. This was an original composition. I imagined the ball rolling down the lane then hitting the skittles. A later part of the tune is supposed to sound like the machine re-assembling the skittles.
Then came Rasterscan, Bosconian and Inspector Gadget. I enjoyed writing the last of these because I always liked the music on the cartoon. These and others were produced while I worked at Binary Design. They had set up a division called Binary Sight and Sound. I was the 'Sound'. David Whittaker had left to set up Musicon Design, a sister company to Icon Design Ltd. I was producing in-house music and effects for Binary's games and some work for other clients. A game called Out of This World springs to mind, but few companies were passing work in our direction.
Meanwhile, David Whittaker was rather busy! He wanted me to join him. Eventually, when he offered me a joint directorship in Musicon, I handed in my notice. I teamed up with him in November 1987. Loads of companies were ringing us up urgently needing music for their games. We never saw the games but were given a brief description and a couple of days to complete each task. Outrun and Pac-Land spring to mind because I liked the music I had to convert from the arcade versions. They used to send audio tapes. I had to listen to them and reproduce them for the less capable sound chips of the home computers. As for original pieces, I remember writing Vixen for Martech. We also took on Icon Design's in-house work which included a game called Dreadnaught. I remember playing that one through Dave's huge loud speakers. Basslines on the C64 always sounded so much better through big speakers! I loved some of the thick sounds you could achieve on the C64.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I wrote music for many many companies. I worked on something like 180 titles in those early days! After Binary and Musicon, I continued to write music but I missed the challenge of programming. I was invited to work for Zippo Games, which I did for a while. I had started to write music for IBM PC compatibles at that time. In 1989, Digital Image Design approached me to see if I would write F29 Retaliator on the PC to be sold by Ocean. I worked freelance on that project, completing it in 1991.
The PC market was starting to grow and the graphics were improving. I wanted to design an original game, which I did with my brother, who is a graphic artist. I offered it to Psygnosis and they signed me up. The result was a game called Darker. As well as a 3D landscape, I programmed a 3D sound engine for that game. The game took ages to complete because the PC was advancing more quickly than I could handle as a solo programmer. It was eventually released in 1995.
By 1996, I was exhausted and ready to leave the industry. However, Perfect Entertainment had set up a small office in Manchester. I went to work there, mainly as a PC programmer and mainly on low-level routines. My audio experience continued to be useful as I produced video and sound players for Discworld II and Discworld Noir. The company was in financial trouble so I was made redundant in 1998. That's when I moved to Software Creations and wrote Gameboy Colour games. I moved on to the Gameboy Advance but Creations went pop in 2001. I joined some of the ex-employees who became part of Acclaim Studios. Projects were much larger and the machines much less challenging for programmers. I worked on the Gamecube and X-Box, but the company was creating games which I considered to be unethical. So in 2003, I resigned and left the industry altogether.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
That depends on when it was. Initially, we all worked on Tatung Einstein computers with green screen monitors. The code was compiled on the Einstein (the computer was like a cross between a CP/M machine and the MSX, though that will not mean much to many people now!). We would then transfer the data to the target machine for testing. Same applied to writing music, though the Einstein had the same sound chip as the Amstrad, Spectrum 128k and ST so for those machines you could do most of the work and test it on the Einstein.
When I worked freelance, I worked from home. In 1995, I was once interviewed by the BBC because companies had named me as one of the last 'bedroom boys' as solo freelance programmers were called. Towards the end of programming Darker, a company were trying to bring a Virtual Reality helmet to market. I had agreed to make Darker compatible with the helmet. Now, I hadn't imagined what programming for a VR helmet would look like. I had to place the really heavy contraption on my head but then I couldn't see my actual screen for programming so I had to keep tilting my head back to try and see the screen under the helmet's visor, then visor back over the eyes to see the 3D effect. A day in front of the computer looked rather different at that point in time and caused a certain degree of neck ache by the end of the day!
A day in front of the PC at Perfect looked even more peculiar at one point: We were on the eighth floor of an office block in Manchester with large windows letting in lots of light. I was writing a video compression algorithm and the other office in London had reported a problem with darker colours on the screen. The only way of seeing the dark colours was to block out all the light in the room so I ended up programming with a cardboard box on my head! At least it wasn't as heavy as a VR helmet.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
In the early days at Binary, we had "eight week projects" and prestige "twelve week projects". No surprise then that many projects missed their deadlines, especially seeing as many of us were doing other projects called 'foreigners' in the evenings. When I first heard people saying that they did foreigners on an evening, I didn't have a clue what they were talking about! My own foreigner was the coin-op conversion Elevator Action on the Amstrad CPC. These projects were always low-budget. I got a grand and the development equipment cost me £700 of that! I could not pay for an artist and had to do my own graphics.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
Binary and Icon Design used very similar equipment and dev tools, the Einstein. At Zippo, they move on to PC's as development systems. I created loads of little utilities which would compress or organise data. I wrote my own music drivers (many of which David Whittaker also used) on Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, Einstein, MSX, Atari 800, Atari ST, Amiga, Tandy PC Junior and PC. The Spectrum and PC also had extra sound chips which I wrote drivers for. On the PC, there were various versions of the AdLib, Soundblaster and Roland cards as well as the internal speaker.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
The only one which got canned after completion was the music utility I mentioned. There were lots of partly-written projects, especially in later years when the industry became more nervous about investing in projects. Acclaim was terrible for canning projects.
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?
I was pleased with the look of Feud on the Amstrad CPC. I wanted to have the characters look more connected with the landscape objects so I designed a method of making them mask behind or in front of objects. The game played reasonably but I think it looked better than it played.
I was more proud of F29 because it was a programming achievement to get the 3D running smoothly on the slow PC's of the day. Darker was a real challenge and probably my best game, though even on that I had to cut corners near the end so I wasn't fully satisfied with the result. The biggest headache and failing was Defcom which I wrote at Binary. I wanted to have the craft fly over the surface of a 3D model of the Earth. My theory of how to achieve this failed and then I had to rush the game to complete it. It was a decade or so later at Creations that I came to write some similar code. By then I had the knowledge and experience to make it work.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I would have gone back to Defcom and made the Earth spin round!
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I did quite a few arcade conversions of music. I liked the Sega music and was asked to produce Space Harrier, Outrun, After Burner and Thunderblade, mainly on Amiga. I was far from impressed with the look of Outrun on many home computers. I always felt that I would have done a better job if I'd have had the chance.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I didn't play many for long. There was the coin-op of Pac-Land at Binary. I used to spend lots of time on that. There was also a game which was rather like Galaxians. I enjoyed some of those mindless arcade games, but spent much more time on puzzle games. One on the Amiga was like an advanced Boulder Dash. It looked awful and was badly written I reckon, but I played it for ages. On the C64 I remember playing that one where you were on a motorbike riding along a scrolling path of hurdles. You could play a two-player game. Me and my graphic artist brother Lyndon spent a weekend playing that one. Was it called Kickstart?
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
Outrun springs to mind because I've just mentioned it!
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?
I can't think of any which influenced my work, but if David Whittaker hadn't asked if I'd write some sound drivers I probably would not have spent those years writing computer music. I remember the point at which it dawned on me that the career choice I had made in my early teens had actually come true and I had not noticed – I was composing music for a living! Now what?!
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 do remember we used to go to the big show in Earls Court each year. The first time I went down I thought it was great to see all the companies on display under one huge roof. I remember the Electric Dreams stand which looked like a pyramid and they had the music Electric Dreams blurting out. There seemed to be such a bright, energetic and positive atmosphere. Subsequent shows seemed to really go downhill until one year I remember going down on the train, walking round the place for about half an hour then setting off back home.
A lad who called himself HAL and wrote C64 Compuserve demos wanted to make the sprites go round in circles so I wrote some code to make that possible for him. Some C64 owners may remember his demos but I didn't actually know what Compuserve was at the time.
And on the question about inspiration... I was often given the task of reproducing music from Sega arcade games. Their music was often fast paced and driving and an inspiration to some of my own creations – the fast paced and driving ones!
One of my worst memories of writing music was having to post the disks. Companies would quite often ask for them sending "Red Star" which meant I had to personally journey down to the railway station. After sending the disks, invoices were seldom paid on time and required a lot of chasing up.
Before Dave Whittaker used my drivers, he had his own but people had complained that they took too much of the processing time, especially on the C64. We used to check the speed out by changing the border colour on the fly, which meant "as the picture started to be drawn at the top of the monitor." The border colour was changed again when the music or whatever else had been processed so you could see how much of the 1/50th of a second was being used by your routine. As the music took more processing time, it would "bounce down the raster", which was bad! Dave's early music was very 'bouncy', even when the tune wasn't! The routines I wrote were more optimised, made typing the music in easier and added features such as chords. Dave had previously had some kind of ADSR (Attack Decay Sustain Release) envelopes for his instruments. My new drivers provided envelopes which could be much more accurately defined, allowing notes to reverb (echo) for example. You will hear the bubbly chords and instruments which echo in much of our music.
While still at school, I remember I had a Casio PT-30 keyboard which was like an advanced VL Tone. It allowed you to save a number of tunes, with chords, to tape and reload them. I decided that it would be good to be able to load these into the Spectrum so I wrote to Casio asking about the tape format. They replied that it was 'top secret' (that's how I understood it!) and they would not tell me. So I set to work examining the noise on the tape and within a few days I had written a loader and worked out how the data was stored. I could then load the music off tape and play it on the Spectrum. I don't think I realised what an achievement that was at the time.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
My first game in-house was called Miami Dice. I was rather disappointed at having to develop something based on such a dire concept when other people were working on titles like Max Headroom. After a couple of Spectrum games, I upgraded to the Amstrad CPC, then became Binary's musician. At Zippo I programmed the Nintendo 8-bit, but the game I did for Rare was canned. Then came my PC days. I actually wrote a Spectrum Emulator around 1988 which ran Speccy games at full speed on a 286 PC. People working at Amstrad were impressed by it, but their managers turned it down. I thought it would have been good bonus for Amstrad, moving Speccy owners onto Amstrad PCs rather than other PCs. I did some work on Sega Saturn and Playstation at Perfect Entertainment. At Creations, it was on the Gameboy Color to begin with, then on to the Gameboy Advance. My last game there was Super Monkey Ball. I did the optimised 3D physics code for that. I enjoyed the move to handheld machines because they were more of a challenge for me. I had always enjoyed pushing machines beyond their presumed limits. Further stuff didn't get published. At Acclaim, I think the only thing which got published was some Gameboy Advance to Gamecube linkup code I wrote.
What are you up to these days?
In 1996, I started training to be a Methodist Local Preacher, having become a Christian in 1993. Just before I left the industry, I was studying the Gospel of Mark examining the structure of the work in the same sort of way I would have used to diagnose a problem with some code or data. Eventually I have worked out how the narrative is pieced together. One finding has led to another until I can now explain the stages of development of the Gospel narrative, its structure and the impact on the other Gospels and New Testament writings. This is a major breakthrough in Biblical Studies which has been made possible because I have applied the logical debugging and decoding skills which I gained from my programming days. My life's work will now be to present and explain my findings through a series of books and other forms of media – but probably not music.
All of my achievements in the games industry may have seemed impressive in their day but now are worth little. In contrast, the outcome is an achievement which will have an immense impact on Biblical Scholarship and the way people approach the Gospels for the rest of time.
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.
Hi to all those I have worked with over the years!
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