Russel Comte / Melbourne House
Added on March 25th, 2013 (2465 views)

Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
I am Russel Comte. I was the first artist hired by Melbourne House, back in 1984 or thereabouts.

How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
Well, I wasn't really into computers before joining Melbourne House. I was actually looking for a job in the design industry, but I was playing a lot of arcade machines at that time.

Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit work samples to various games companies looking for jobs, or did jobs come to you?
I was pretty lucky, actually. Melbourne House had advertised in the newspaper for an artist, but by the time I'd seen it and called them, Joy, the secretary at the time, had to tell me, "Sorry, we've had enough applicants already, the job vacancy is closed". It didn't break my heart exactly, but I was genuinely interested, so I asked her about how it all worked, and after a brief discussion, Joy granted me an interview after all.

They had a test in which we had to make an eight-frame animation of a circus character, and I chose a clown juggling on a unicycle. It looked alright on paper, so I translated it onto graph paper, probably 32 by 24 pixels or something similar. Then, the leading candidates went into Melbourne House and keyed-in the artwork using the HURG program written by William Tang, to see the final animation. It wasn't too bad, except everyone kept looking over my shoulder and saying, "That looks great, let's see it animate", and of course every time I did that, I would forget to save and then lose a frame or so. Anyways, my clown apparently worked out better that the seal with a ball on its nose or the sword swallower, etc., so I got the job.

What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
Well, after working for a year or so on the ZX81, what attracted me was having a few more colours and not being so tied up in the character sets. With joysticks, KoalaPads, disk drives, etc., it was all amazing stuff!

What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
I worked on The Hobbit (disk-loading version), Fist 2, Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo, Rock'n Wrestle, Asterix and the Magic Cauldron, Bop'n Rumble (Street Hassle), Shadows of Mordor, Fighting Warrior, and Sgt. Slaughter's Mat Wars.

What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
During my C64 days, I was working in-house at Melbourne House. There was a bit of a crew of us there, all mates, and we would typically be working on one title each, so we all did character design, animation, background design and splash screens, using a variety of both in-house and commercial tools.

For the most part, from my memory, we were driving around a cursor on the screen using a joystick! This of course was a massive technological leap from steering the cursor with the keyboard, which was what we had previously done on the ZX81. But on the Asterix game, for example, I know we used the KoalaPad for the background graphics, and the inherent noise in the signal kind of became part of the style of the cartoon animation, really.

What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Well, the first thing we used to do was fill out the Daily Diary. This started out as a timekeeping book, i.e. for clocking in and out, but the art team turned it into a kind of visual journal of what was going on. I think we at least initially had to load the programs off cassette tape, so you would wait until the trams had passed, start to load her up, then go and get a cup of coffee or nip to the shop for a ham and cheese toastie, and then maybe get into it. Guys were developing tools and graphics systems all over the place, so there was always a lot to look out for. The screens, as you know, were pretty small in those days, so we would all be there leaning in, squinting at the screen, with one hand anchoring the base of the joystick and the other waving about trying to produce the graphics. There was no Internet of course, so research in those days involved a trip to the local library or bookshop, then gathering materials together and making some sketches. Some of the guys continued to use graph paper to translate their work into the C64, but mostly we just keyed it in by sight.

When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
Actually, I don't think we ever spent more than six months on any one C64 game, though I might be wrong, because The Hobbit disk-loader actually had a lot of images on it, and Exploding Fist incorporated a lot of tech.

What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
As I mentioned earlier, we used the KoalaPad for some of the background work, but it was a bit of a nightmare controlling the noise distortion from the tablet. (Boy, the kids today really don't realise, eh?) For the most part, we had a great philosophy towards tools, and Fred was always keen on developing a toolset for each of the platforms as we moved along. A lot of our thinking was based on the idea of character sets, which came from the ZX81, and this allowed us to set-up re-useable components, both for character art, animation and backgrounds. I do recall how we always had to decide on the limited palette, single pixel or the multi-palette, double-pixel display. I believe someone, probably Phil Mitchell, wrote a tool to allow us to have both, using the multicolour underlay, then a hires (yes, well) black outline. This was the sort of stuff that was great fun to figure out.

Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Yeah, I think so, and some of them were amazing! I think everyone in the games industry has suffered this fate, but it wasn't too bad back then, because you were only losing a few months. I was on a bit of a roll at the time I left Melbourne House, and I was working on the splash screens for a wrestling manager type game. I don't think it ever made it out.

Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
Well, one which I was pretty proud of was actually on the ZX81. It was called Mugsy, and I was proud of it because we turned a gangster finance manager type text thing into a sprawling graphic adventure with cut scenes and everything! I also liked the disk-loading Tolkien games, because we developed a kind of style for the graphics which we thought was pretty swell. I liked the side-scrolling combat games like Usagi Yojimbo because they had a nice mix of background and animation. I can't recall any real headaches, at least not until we started using external publishers, then of course it started to get serious. One of the biggest technical challenges was the Exploding Fist character system. Even worse was the one used in the Rock'n Wrestle game, simply because it was so complicated, but you can ask Greg Holland all about that.

If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
Oh, I would add another 64 Kb and read the Tolkien trilogy more thoroughly, as we spent quite a few years doing the graphics for those games, and I have since been humbled by the amazing love and passion for it that Peter Jackson has more recently displayed. In some of our games, one of our more amorous artists used to hide a nude figure somewhere in the pattern of the forest or whatnot, but I guess you would keep that in.

Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
Sure, I mean, the C64 lagged a fair way behind the arcade games of the time, so for example, I would have loved to have done Afterburner or even Pole Position or Galaga. But we were actually lucky in a way, because we had a relationship with Cinemaware, and they were producing excellent graphics on the Amiga which we were doing pretty good conversions of on the early Nintendo.

Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Yeah, we played the games quite a bit. My most enduring memories from the C64 era are of Friday night beer and pizza and a few games of One on One basketball. I also quite liked International Soccer. We were always looking around at what was being done elsewhere, and one early instance of getting blown away was brought to me by the Revs racing game, courtesy of the great Geoff Crammond and crew. Of course, as the years went by, he just kept producing the best cutting edge racing stuff, which inspired me greatly.

Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
Looking back, I would say most of them!

Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly gave inspiration to your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
I was inspired by Geoff Crammond, since racing was a passion of mine and pretty much my whole life I had wanted to make a kick-ass racing game. Will Eisner was a visual influence, he had this cracking cartoon style that we tried to get into our game style. Alfred Milgrom and Phil Mitchell were also big influences, as they were both major creative forces at Melbourne House, and to be honest, despite the limited technology in those early days, the feeling of possibility at that time was massive, and Alfred fostered that very effectively. Even then, we all aspired to and loved the Sega stuff, and the guys at Cinemaware were seen as gods! Inspiration often came from a walk to the local park or a glance across the road to the casting agency office.

Share some memories from the old days! It could for instance be something you remember a colleague did or said, about your time in the demo scene, about crackers stealing development disks, or about going to computer shows.
Greg Holland has a good story about riding his motorcycle flat out to the airport to get a master disk onto a flight.

There were a lot of things going on, and my pervading feeling of that time was that we were pioneers in terms of what we were producing and how we were producing it. It was much less formulaic and market driven, and it had a certain freedom as a result of that.

Initially, it was quite a laugh, sitting around over coffee listening to the guys going "mine's got 32K, mate" as opposed to the traders across the road going "mine does 180 miles per hour, mate". There was a really great sense of fraternity at Melbourne House, and we all got along very well. One tradition was the Christmas party, which always left the office a complete write-off.

We also used to customise our C64 machines. I painted mine all over in a camouflage style. I still have that machine somewhere. I think Greg did some robot treatment on his, and Frank Oldham probably painted nudes on his, like nose art on WWII bombers.

We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. Share with us the software and/or hardware you created on other systems.
The ZX81 was the first console we developed for at Melbourne House. My involvement included The Hobbit, Mugsy and a bunch of other stuff. We had our original set of art tools developed on the Spectrum, including HURG and Melbourne Draw which were both available for commercial release.

After the C64, we moved on to the Nintendo and our earliest jobs on that were conversions of Cinemaware games. Again, we had a cracking set of graphic tools, but for these projects, a lot of our input was more 'repair' work after the tools had converted the Amiga graphics to 8-bit format.

From my memory of that time, there were only three platforms I worked on before I left to work in the US.

What are you up to these days?
I am still in games, working for a company in Singapore called RealU. I'm currently working on an MMO called Otherland.

Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any last comments to leave a final impression on the audience? Feel free to send any greetings to anyone you know.
Well, I think it's great that folks still look back on those days. It wasn't real easy to get the work done, what with tape saves and primitive tools, but I always enjoyed the challenge of trying to get something out of the limited technology. Personally, I get a little disappointed when I fire up the old games because the nostalgic feeling is stronger to me than the actual quality of the product. But in other ways, they were better days because there were no formulas, no 'typical' anything! We were finding our way unguided, which you don't really have now.

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