Grant Harrison / Softstone,
Added on March 31st, 2015 (2645 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Grant Harrison, and I was programming games for the C64 and other computers and consoles from the early eighties to the mid-nineties.
How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
My first encounter with computers was at my friend Hughs' house who had access to a Research Machines 380Z (big black box) which I think had about 5 kB on board to play with! Hughs' father was the head of maths at a school and brought it home at weekends so Hugh could muck about on it. I remember us working on a sort of Star Trek game (turn-based) and being totally blown away at the H's and O's moving around the screen (very jerkily, it has to be said).
Anyway, I was hooked and decided to get my own computer. I went for the Acorn Atom with a massive 2 kB on board, which I expanded to 8 kB! I much preferred the processor, however, and started getting into machine code rather than the BASIC I had been using on the RM 380Z.
I spent many nights with my new Atom, getting back from work and sitting down in front of it at around 5 o'clock in the evening and then looking up and suddenly realising it was 4 o'clock in the morning and I had to be back at work at eight!
The company I was working for at the time had been given a Commodore PET by its sister company, and the boss knew I was into computers, so he got me to write a stock control program to enable them to track supplies and inventory, so I did! That was my first experience with Commodore, and it was great. I guess that was why, when the CBM 64 came out, I grabbed one.
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 working on an adventure game with a friend of mine. It was called The Magician's Ball. I wrote the passer and the rest of the code, and he did the music and graphics. I remember being really chuffed that we got the rights to use Tubular Bells as the sound track, and the SID chip did a great job! Anyway, a friend of my sister got wind of it who was just setting up a games company and put us in touch with a company called Global Software who took it and sold it. I think we only ever saw a few hundred quid for it, but it was a start.
Shortly after that, I was offered a job by my sister's friend to work for his new company Softstone up in London, as they were recruiting and had to put together the C64, Spectrum and Amstrad versions of A View to a Kill (not one of my best!).
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
Everything about the C64 was a dream, as far as I was concerned. It had a great graphics chip with hardware sprites, a great sound chip and a 6510 – I loved it! I wish I still had one... actually, I think I do still have an old C64 monitor in the attic somewhere.
What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
The Magician's Ball was an adventure game co-written with Kevin Grieve for Global Software. It was great fun to work on, and it was very much my baby at the time. I think the plot was pretty good, and I was really pleased with the end result, although I don't think it was marketed very well by the distributor at the time. It got good scores in all the magazines, though, and I am using some ideas from it for an app I'm working on at present.
Writing A View to a Kill for Domark left me spending many a night sleeping under my desk in order to get it in on time and, well, the less said about it the better, probably. I think the general idea was OK, but we had so little time and resources to put it all together. However, it was my first job working for Softstone, and it taught me a fair number of do's and don'ts!
A project came in at Softstone to convert Underwurlde for the C64, and it was my job to do the conversion. I actually quite enjoyed doing the project, as the original was a big success, so I wanted to recreate it faithfully. As was the case with most of the coding in those days, it was done in straight machine code (A9 00 60 FE etc.) with a bit of assembler here and there. I particularly remember doing the graphics (I am not an artist, I hasten to add). This was done by the company secretary reading out hexadecimal numbers to me while I entered them into data blocks in memory. This process took about two weeks and was extremely laborious. I think the game did well, despite one minor bug which meant that if you jumped up underneath the cuckoo clock right near the starting position, you got pushed down a level or two and could therefore bypass a lot of the hazards (oops!).
While working for Probe, I did Savage from home, using an Amiga as the code editor and then downloading to the C64 for testing. The big challenge with this one was the size of the main sprites, which meant a lot of work on multiplexing the sprites and careful timing to stop them going over various vertical boundaries which would cause ripping.
Super Bowl XX was a game for Ocean which I thought played well and which did pretty well both in the magazines and in terms of sales. I partnered up with Kevin Grieve for this one, he did the logic and I did the rest.
Knight Rider, also for Ocean, is another one I don't have much to say about. I didn't really like the series, so I wasn't that enthused from the start. I only did the interior stuff, I think Kevin did the driving sections.
By contrast, V (again for Ocean) was one of the games I most enjoyed working on. I loved the series and thought the concept for the game was good, though in hindsight I think we should have been a bit more explanatory about the code system used for opening doors, etc. Sometimes when you write games you can get too close to them and take things for granted.
Galivan, for Imagine, was a fairly simple conversion from the arcade machine – which we had in the front room to play on.
Raid 2000, for Mirrorsoft, was designed by me and I think I may even have done some of the graphics!
Dynamic Duo was also for Mirrorsoft, but they ruined it by changing all the graphics and the gameplay.
I did BraveStarr for Probe in 1987. It's been described as "relentless" and praised for its music (David Whittaker).
I loved doing Chase H.Q. II and was very pleased with how it turned out. It was also my first cartridge game.
Super Monaco Grand Prix was pretty much like Chase H.Q. but without the shooting. I remember writing this one very hot summer (I forget which year it was) in which I basically became nocturnal as it was just too hot in my office during the day.
Lastly, I did Beach Buggy Simulator in 1988.
What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
I was a C64 coder at Softstone (later renamed Kaos) and a freelance coder at Probe.
What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Lots of cups of tea, cigarettes and sandwiches. I think health and safety would have something to say about the general working practices in those days. I would generally get up late and work late, but that was pretty much the same for all the coders I knew in those days.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
It varied depending on the project, but I guess on average anything from eight to sixteen weeks.
What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
In the early days, it was just raw binary machine code (A9 #00 etc.), then we started using assembler cartridges. I wrote a character and sprite editor for the KoalaPad (remember those?) because the graphic artists wanted one. As time went on, I started using the Amiga as my development tool and downloading to the C64 via the parallel ports.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Jet Boat Simulator, which was similar to Beach Buggy Simulator but set on water!
Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
I think V was probably my favourite, as the storyboard was good and it had a nice mix of arcade and puzzle.
If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
Nothing springs to mind, although I did like Sentinel and The Hobbit, both great games and cutting edge at the time.
Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Yes, plenty, but not much time to play them! Mission Impossible, Uridium and Elite were my favourites, along with any of Jeff Minter's weird ones... oh, and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders.
Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
Oh, yes! Knight Rider and A View to a Kill at any rate, but time was against us on those...
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 remember meeting Tony Crowther once, who gave me some great tips about handling sprites.
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.
I do remember some friendly rivalry between the C64 coders and the Spectrum guys. Because the Speccy was released first, they would always cite how many great games there (already) were out there for it, but our response was always: "Maybe, but can it do this?", and then we'd get crazy amounts of nice hardware sprites to fly around the screen while playing some decent SID music!
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.
Apart from my work on the Commodore PET and Acorn Atom, I also wrote for the Commodore Amiga, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, PC and Mac.
What are you up to these days?
I run my own web design company called Design Lynx. We've just started to put together some game apps, check out for example Rubbish! for iOS and Android.
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.
I thoroughly enjoyed the many years I spent working on the C64, and I met a lot of great people, some of whom I still keep in touch with, such as Nigel Grieve (graphic artist), Garry Knight (coder), Hugh Riley (graphics), Simon Nicol (coder) and Joe Bonar (producer).
back to the list of available interviews