Nick Jones / Mikro-Gen,
Added on April 22nd, 2013 (3444 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Nick 'Captain of Coding' Jones, and I've been making video games for about 30 years now. I got my big break by making video games on the C64. I've made games for most of the gaming systems produced in that time.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
The first computer I got was an Oric-1. I didn't know anything about it or about programming in general, but I did know I wanted to make a video game. Little did I know, however, how hard it was going to be.
I chose the Oric-1 because I felt that the ZX Spectrum games scene was going to be inundated with titles, whereas if I worked on the Oric, it would be a smaller market and I could make a bigger mark. I didn't realise at the time that such a small decision would have such a profound effect on my career. It directly affected the games and machines I have worked on since, and directly led to me making C64 games.
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?
For me, the seed was planted when I was in 6th form (aged 17/18). I was still at school and had very little money, but by scrimping and saving, I managed to buy a 48 kB Oric-1. I hooked it up to my ancient cassette deck, bought myself a few pads of paper, and I was off.
My college had an arcade game called Moon Alien (a Galaxians rip-off) and I was hooked on it, so I decided that I wanted to make a copy of that for the Oric. The brains inside the Oric-1 was a 6502 processor, so I bought a book by Lance Leventhal on programming it. I really had no idea what I was doing, everything was trial and error, but I remained dogged. By simply mucking around with the computer, I completely figured out how it worked. After 15 months, I had completed my game. I sent it to a company called Tansoft, and they bought it for the princely sum of £400. Four hundred quid for 15 months' work! I didn't care, I had made a game and sold it.
Shortly after that, I picked up a copy of Your Computer magazine. A company called Mikro-Gen were advertising in it for programmers, so I sent my game to them and waited. They contacted me and asked me to come down for an interview. Shortly after that, they offered me a job making games for them, so at the tender age of 19, I went from the North of England to Bracknell in Berkshire, where I worked with three or four other games programmers. We were all in our teens or early 20s.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
After Mikro-Gen had hired me, they asked me to make a game called Herbert's Dummy Run for the Amstrad, so no C64 for me. However, they then found out I was musically-minded (I play the piano), so from then on, I was in charge of the music and sound effects for their games. The first thing I ever did on the C64 was therefore the music for Herbert's Dummy Run on the C64, which was one of David Perry's first titles.
Mikro-Gen also had a games store, so our boss would occasionally give us copies of the current best sellers to check out. I specifically remember Shadowfire on the C64. The game looked pure class. I still remember the music to this day. The quality of the machine clearly outshone the Spectrum. It also had the same 6502 processor as the Oric-1, so I felt very comfortable working on it.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
Well, I did my first two C64 titles, Frostbyte and Equinox, while working for Mikro-Gen. The rest were after I left, when I was working as a freelance programmer. My time at Mikro-Gen was an absolute blast! We were four or five guys (all about 17 to 21 years old) working in an office above a Hallmark card shop. My first boss, Andy Laurie, was awesome. He was in the office with us and mainly maintained the hardware, but he and the MD of Mikro-Gen (who worked in a different office) had a massive falling out over the Spectrum hardware they created called Mikro Plus, and Andy left. This basically left a bunch of young guys working in an office with zero management. Also, we didn't have a cleaner. It was utter chaos.
The days were punctuated with ad-lib wrestling matches, pull-ups competitions, ripping up the carpet, writing flippant and/or vulgar comments in each other's code, playing synthesisers (I was the go-to guy for teaching the others), playing Queen music at maximum volume – oh, and possibly a bit of games programming. Amazingly, we were actually quite productive. Then, the MD decided that we needed to work from his office (surprise, surprise).
He then made me the designated driver for ferrying everyone to the new office and bought us a 'company car', which turned out to be a van purchased for £100 from a farmer who felt it was no longer fit for his pigs. It had two seats, and the back was full of straw and petrol. There really weren't any gears as such, I would just put the gear stick in the vague vicinity of a gear and hope something caught. Waiting at traffic lights was a nightmare. As soon as the van stopped, I could see a grey-blue plume advancing from the rear and enveloping the van. Everyone got headaches each morning from the massive carbon monoxide poisoning we were obviously being exposed to. Oh, and sitting in the pools of petrol destroyed our jeans.
After Mikro-Gen, I mostly worked in a tag team with Raffaele Cecco. He did the Spectrum and Amstrad versions of the games, and I did the C64 version. One cool thing that came out of all of this was that as programmers, there was a distinct feeling of camaraderie. We would all share our ideas and tips on how best to program stuff, what DevKits to use, what tools were good for what purposes, which companies were offering work and how much they might be willing to pay, etc.
Oh boy, it's hard to remember all of the titles, but I'll try.
Herbert's Dummy Run: for which I did the music.
Equinox: the first game in which I did multiplexing on the sprites.
Exolon: the main character was a combination of fat multi-coloured sprites to get the colour, overlaid with a hires single-colour sprite for added detail.
Beyond the Ice Palace: this was originally supposed to be Thundercats. It turns out that Elite had commissioned three separate companies to do Thundercats. One title became Thundercats, the other was cancelled, and ours became Beyond the Ice Palace which was an unofficial sequel to Ghosts'n Goblins.
Vixen: terrible game about a hot chick with a whip (Page 3 girl Corrine Russell) who turns into a fox.
Cybernoid: first game I wrote with Raffaele Cecco after we left Mikro-Gen. He created the game on the Spectrum and Amstrad, and I converted it for the C64. I remember, I was at his house once and he showed me how he could blow up the backgrounds on his Spectrum version, he laughed as he did so because he knew I'd be in trouble on the C64. He basically threw tons of sprites around when the explosion happened. The C64 has hardware sprites but can only draw eight on a line, so I got creative and started drawing small sprites in software, too. I was updating the software once at 30fps, which doubled the quantity I could draw. This was also the first game I had Jeroen Tel do the music for. I really wanted incredible music, so I initially gave them a lot of freedom, something like 12 kB for the music, and said they could use digital samples. What I got back from them was incredible, but playing the music consumed something like 95% of the CPU, so I clearly wasn't going to be able to play the music and the game at the same time. Jeroen Tel/Maniacs of Noise therefore remade the music without samples, and I think they actually improved the music second time around.
Cybernoid 2: basically, the sequel to Cybernoid, but this time, I scaled the main sprite to max-out a C64 hardware sprite. I also started drawing the hardware sprites in software when they stopped moving, which gave the illusion of many more hardware sprites than was actually possible. The switch was seamless.
Stormlord: we really wanted detailed, scrollable backgrounds for this game. It was a challenge on both the Spectrum and the C64. The C64 generally only allowed scrolling if you had the screen in character mode, which meant you only had 255 8x8 pixel character tiles to work with. This was far too restrictive for what we wanted. I needed hires scrolling, which offered us many more colours and unlimited graphics (within reason, anyway), so that's exactly what I implemented! It was definitely a technical challenge. The only limitation was that I could only do left-right scrolling, but that was all the game called for.
Deliverance: also known as 'Deliverance: Stormlord II' or 'Deliverance: Stormlord 2'.
Smash T.V.: this was really just a cooler version of Robotron. It always had a hell of a lot of action on screen at any one time, which was a huge challenge for the humble C64 with its eight (count them, eight) hardware sprites, so I supplemented the multiplexing hardware sprites with software sprites again (taken from the Cybernoid code and beefed up a bit). I was also given the arcade game when writing this. The problem was that I had to dismantle a couple of doors to get it into my home. It was in my family room for a few months, much to the annoyance of my wife. To replicate the gaming experience, I would play the game while she was video-recording it, and I would shout out the combinations of aliens coming on screen. This was about as perfect a conversion as I could get. The only thing missing was a snake boss. I had it fully implemented, but had to take it out because I'd run out of memory.
Dan Dare 3: this game called for 8-way scrolling at speed, but as I mentioned earlier, scrolling almost certainly meant you had to have the screen in character mode, which meant very few graphical tiles. I came up with an ingenious fix, though I say it myself, in which I basically had multiple character sets per level. In essence, I was multiplexing the character sets just like I was for the hardware sprites. The level-building function automatically worked out where the multiplexing had to happen, meaning we could design the levels without restriction.
Time Machine: this was a game design from Vivid Image. It was very creative. It represented basically the same world in five different time periods; making something happen in an earlier world affected what the later worlds looked like. The 'look' of the game was pseudo-3D. The screens were rendered using technology that John Twiddy created for Last Ninja 3. This was the first time I'd used somebody else's code, and it worked great.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I worked for Mikro-Gen, then Hewson Consultants, Elite Systems, Martech and Probe Software, and my final C64 title (Time Machine) was for Vivid Image. Probe Software weren't publishers, though, they were contracted by publishers, so through Probe I've technically also worked for Activision, Ocean and Rainbird.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Hard, hard work. It certainly didn't make me rich either, but it was fun. Most of the time was spent just programming a game. The code had to be clean and simple, mainly because there was no debugger to find out why the code had gone wrong. In order to debug, we would have our code constantly change the border colour. When the game crashed, you could look at the border colour and that would give you a basic idea of where the crash happened. It's laughable now. At that time, games were not tested like they are today. The only person who tested mine was me. I also made a lot of trips on my bike to Rafaelle's house to see how he was doing.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
With the early titles, I got three months or so to do them. The later C64 titles started to become a lot more complex. They would typically have three different loads: an intro load, the game itself, and an outro load if the player completed the game. The final game could take up to six months.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
My DevKit was a cheap CPM machine I bought on the Edgeware Road called a Philips 2000. It was supposed to be portable but weighed around 30lbs (over 13 kg). I made custom cables to hook it up to the C64. The tools I used were a CPM compiler called the Avocet 6502 Cross Compiler, which did work but was unbelievably slow. It took about 40 minutes to build the game after making some changes. I also used a custom level editor tool written by Chris Hindsley called Art Studio for the Atari ST (he was one of the programmers at Mikro-Gen). I then heard about a company making a new DevKit for IBM-compatible machines. I was the first person I knew of to try it out. They offered game compile times and downloads of around two to ten seconds. Considering it used to take about 40 minutes to build the game and about a minute to download, these times looked ridiculous to impossible, but they were real! Soon after I bought my DevKit, almost every other programmer I knew of had bought one too.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
No, every title I worked on was published. That's a record I'm still proud of today, after making games for 30 years – everything has been published! There are a few associated materials I wish I'd kept, such as the original audio tracks with samples that Jeroen Tel did for Cybernoid.
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?
Cybernoid 1 and 2, Stormlord, Smash T.V., Dan Dare 3 and Time Machine were my favourite games to work on. One of the biggest problems I encountered while making a game was during Beyond the Ice Palace. I was coming up to completion and arranged to work on Vixen as soon as Beyond the Ice Palace was finished. I'd also previously worked on a Spectrum/Amstrad budget game called Mr Wino which I had just sold to Rainbird, and I was then scheduled to work on Cybernoid 2. In the midst of all this, a really bad bug cropped up in Beyond the Ice Palace – once in a blue moon, the game would randomly decide to lock up. Elite were desperate for me to fix it, so I worked constantly on getting to the bottom of it, but to no avail. I then temporarily moved to Brighton to start work on Vixen, but I was still haunted by the unresolved bug in Beyond the Ice Palace, so I was actually working on two games at this point. I then ran out of time on Vixen and was scheduled to start work on Cybernoid 2. I still couldn't figure out what was wrong with Beyond the Ice Palace, and then Rainbird were asking me to make some modifications to my Mr Wino game before they would publish it. I think I almost had a nervous breakdown at this point. I was working about 20 hours a day, seven days a week, on five different games. I got myself out of this predicament by finishing Vixen first (not my proudest piece of work), hiring a friend of mine (Jim Gardner) to finish off Mr Wino, and then finally managing to figure out what was wrong in Beyond the Ice Palace. It was a crazy bug in my sprite multiplexing code. In all the games I'd written, the bug had never revealed itself.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I was always pretty happy with all my games. If I could have more memory, I would of course like to revisit them all and make them bigger and better. I guess the one thing I really would like to have fixed would be the snake boss in Smash T.V.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I was asked to program Turbo Outrun on the C64, but I didn't have the time to do it, so I passed it on to my friends Mark Kelly and Steve Crow. That would have been fun to do.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Shadowfire on the C64 literally took my breath away! I still know the music now. Monty on the Run, too. Hmmm, similar theme there. Basically, any games that had great music. The Way of the Exploding Fist, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Bruce Lee (because of the second player option) too.
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
My own Vixen. :-)
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?
A lot of the guys I looked up to were Spectrum programmers. Steve Crow, who programmed Moonquake (and then became an artist), and Raffaele Cecco who was a really good friend. As for C64 programmers, Mark Kelly whom I always had a friendly rivalry with, and Simon Nichols and his game Mega Apocalypse. My motivation was simple, I just wanted to make great games. I couldn't believe I was being paid to do it.
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.).
Well, the first time I saw Invade-a-Load, I was super-impressed. Basically, you played Space Invaders on the C64 while it loaded the real game. I'd often stop the game loading and continue to play Space Invaders instead! Why stop there, I thought, so I wrote my own tape loaders. They worked like a dream, so I started to work on a simple Galaxians game. Suddenly, things started to go wrong. The tape loading went from 100 percent reliable to randomly flaking out. At first, I didn't get why. The problem was hardware sprites: drawing them screwed up the timing of the C64 processor, so you couldn't use them. I looked more closely at Invade-a-Load and discovered they hadn't used any sprites at all, the entire game was done with characters. So that was an entire month's work down the drain...
I remember when the phone systems changed over from pulse dialling to tone dialling. The old pulse-dialling phones required you to use a rotary dial phone which produced clicks. The tone-dialling phones beeped instead. It was very early days, but I noticed that the tones were actually two notes. There was a note for each 'row' on the phone and a note for each 'column', so each key had its own unique combination of two notes. Analysing the notes by ear, I figured out the various frequencies. I then programmed my home computer to play the different frequencies for each number key I pressed on the keyboard, i.e. I could press the keys 0-9 and hear the different tones. I then realised that I could use this in a game, in that when a player completed the game, I could switch to a screen that played a phone number. I could ask the player to pick up their phone and place it near the speakers, and it would connect them to an unknown number. I figured the first person to do this after a game had been released could be awarded a cash prize or something. It was an ingenious idea.
Once I was ready to try it out, I picked up the phone and dialled my friend Rafaelle's house using the computer. A couple of seconds later, the phone started to ring. "Excellent", I thought, "this is ingenious". A few seconds later, someone picked up. I was expecting Raffaelle, but instead, a strange voice said "Emergency Services, which service do you require?". I crapped myself, immediately hung up the phone and scrapped the idea completely.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
Well, after working on the Oric-1, with its 6502 processor, working on the C64 was in hindsight a very obvious next step, since it also had a 6502 processor, but was also a huge help to me when I worked on my next system after that, which was the SNES. It had a 65816 processor, which was basically a 16-bit version of the 6502, so working on the SNES was also an easy move. Also like the C64 in its day, the SNES had incredible hardware, too. My first title on it was Alien 3. I programmed the game, and Nick Bruty did the art. I had really wanted to work with Nick, having been really impressed by his art. Originally, it was meant to fit on a 512 kB cartridge – eight times the memory of a C64! But then Nick went completely overboard with his animations, and they looked so good, I didn't want to cut any out. Probe Software, who had contracted me to make the game, came to me and said they wanted to increase the memory to 1024 kB. I told them I needed more money to make them a better game, though in reality, I needed that extra memory just to make what I already had fit. Anyway, I got the extra money and the extra memory. The game was published by Acclaim and was a huge success.
After making Alien 3, I got a call from David Perry. He was working at Virgin Interactive in California and had just made Aladdin on the Sega Genesis. He wanted to set up his own company, Shiny Entertainment, and wanted me to come on board as Programming Director. Nick Bruty was there as Art Director, so I hopped on a plane to sunny California. When I landed at the airport, Nick Bruty was there to greet me in a stretch limo, and he whisked me off to the ocean. Within one hour of landing, I was out on the ocean with Nick and Dave Perry, blasting around on jet skis. It just seemed so surreal (and fantastic). Anyway, Shiny consisted of about seven or eight people, and we made Earthworm Jim. David Perry mostly programmed the Genesis/Megadrive version, and I did the SNES version.
What are you up to these days?
Well, the Shiny days were great to start with, but I think there was too much pressure on such a small company, and it ultimately fell apart. I left and came to work for Visual Concepts. Initially, we made a Dreamcast game called The Floigan Brothers, but now I work exclusively on their sports titles. I've been doing this for the past 16 years and have worked on every sports title they've made: NFL, NBA, NCAA Basketball, MLB and NHL. Our latest title is NBA 2K13, and I believe we've sold around 7.5 million copies this year alone – a far cry from the C64 days.
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.
Yes, hopefully I can give some inspiration to budding programmers out there. There wasn't really any money to be made in the industry when I first started out, but then I wasn't looking to get rich or be famous, I just wanted to make games. Basically, the motivation was correct. You didn't need expensive hardware, massive budgets or big teams. Games were made by small teams (typically an artist and a programmer, possibly with some music help). In short, the games industry that I walked into is very similar to the indy scene now. Anybody who has access to a PC can basically make games. Microsoft supply you with most of what you need with their (free) XNA development tools. If you are motivated to make games for the right reasons, you absolutely can do it right now. Also, a glance at the industry today reveals a lot of development heading towards smaller, social gaming, which is exactly where young programmers might be able to make a mark. So get to it, and if you do make a game, mention me in your thanks list. ;-)
Greetings to all the old-school programmers I've worked with, such as Raffaele Cecco, David Perry, Chris Hindsley, Chris Wood, Nick Bruty and anyone else who knows me. Oh, and to my son Dominic who can easily kick my butt at Halo.
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