Mark Tait / Tiertex
Added on October 13th, 2021 (691 views)
Hello and welcome, Mark! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, Andreas, and thank you. I'm Mark Tait, and in the 1980s and early 1990s, I wrote some games (but mainly music) for the C64 and later for other platforms.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
The typical way most people did, I expect: I saw computers in the shops (John Menzies, Woollies a.k.a. Woolworths, etc.) in the local shopping centre at the time and asked my parents if I could get one for Christmas. "What are you going to do with that?" was the first question. "Erm, type my name and address on the screen!" was the answer I remember giving, as I didn't really have any idea what else you would do with it.
My first computer (other than Pong, that you plugged into your old black-and-white TV) was a VIC-20. Cartridges were big at the time, and one of my favourites was Voodoo Castle by Scott Adams, a text-based adventure game. Gridrunner by Jeff Minter (Llamasoft) was another favourite. I wrote little programs in BASIC, keyed-in from magazines and so on, which invariably never worked due to typos or mis-prints.
The C64 was the natural progression from a VIC-20, and although some of my friends had Spectrums and some pretty good games for it, I was musical (piano, accordion, basic CASIO keyboards, etc.), so a combination of starting on the VIC-20 and my musical passion led me to the C64.
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?
As with the VIC-20, I keyed-in a few programs from magazines, but I wanted to actually know what all the HEX numbers meant. How could I give myself more lives or make myself invincible? You couldn't tell from the magazine HEX lists, so I looked into it and figured out that I needed to learn machine code. I ended up with the Zeus assembler. I bought a book on assembly language and started with simple code: how to change the screen colours, make simple bleeps, etc. I remember it had a section in it on sprites, and another on sound, so I learned how to get a joystick to move a sprite around the screen, detect collisions, etc. But I was mainly drawn to the SID. I started writing demos and uploading them to bulletin boards and got a few freelance jobs writing and programming music for small software houses. One of those was for John Prince and Donald Campbell, for their game 1943. Off the back of that, they offered me a job with them as a musician/programmer at their new company, Tiertex.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
There was a kind of snobbery, I think: you'd hear the bleep-bleep from Spectrum games, and the gameplay would be fantastic, but then you'd hear a game on the C64 that Rob, Matt, Martin, etc. had programmed music for, and it would just blow your mind. I never owned a Spectrum, so I knew nothing about its assembly language and just stuck with the C64. I had Zeus, I had learned how to write not just assembly but my own music program. I used to hack, if that was even a term back then, other programs and slow down the raster rate: that way, I could hear how other people used the SID chip to change the pitch, wave, filter, etc. to make certain noises. From there, I'd update my program to make changes every refresh, to change the sound on the three channels, to make it sound like there were more channels playing. So yes, I thought it was VERY special.
Before you got involved in doing music for games, you called yourself Snoopy, did music for demos and frequented Compunet. What do you remember about the Compunet days?
Compunet was fantastic. I wasn't just a programmer and musician, I was a fan of what other people were doing. I loved seeing the demos they'd come up with, particularly on the music side, but I was also interested in the visuals, and it was so easy to program something, upload it and get feedback and interest from other people just like me. The only problem in those days was that we only had one phone, so the cable had to be dragged through the house to my room in order to plug it into the modem. If my sister picked up the phone to call her friends, my connection would cut out: not great when it takes a couple of hours to upload a few kB. :) But we knew no different back then, so it was all good.
Did you get your first game commission through Compunet?
Yes! Bloid Bros, Better Dead Than Alien, etc. Then 1943, which got me the job with Tiertex. I saw lots of my music from demos being used in various games at the time, just by people like me, trying to write games. I saw it as kind of humbling that people would even consider using my music, even if I didn't understand they'd taken it without permission. I'm sure it happened a lot in those days, but it paid off for me.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them.
1943: The Battle of Midway was the first, and the one that got me the job at Tiertex. I didn't really know who John and Donald were, although John had written Mutant Monty before that.
Better Dead Than Alien! was, I think, from a Compunet demo. I did get paid, but not a lot. I do like looking at the videos of it on YouTube, though.
Black Tiger was the same as above.
Call Me Psycho was all written on two keyboards I had in my room, I remember, and with a little drum machine playing away: I felt like Howard Jones! Once I had the tune, I programmed it into the C64 and uploaded it to Compunet.
Dynasty Wars was written for Tiertex, and I remember trying to get some flute-type sounds right for this one. I think it turned out alright, but I'll let others make the final judgement. :)
E-Motion was my last game for Tiertex. I completely rewrote my music routine for the C64, so that it used a constant raster/processing, as a handover to the musician who was replacing me (I was leaving, I wasn't pushed). :) I don't know if he ever used it.
Galaxia 7 was a game I really loved. It was very much like Defender or Dropzone, and the soundtrack was me experimenting a little with the filter, which invariably differed between C64s, making it sound different on different computers.
The Game of Harmony is one I don't honestly recall anything about.
GTI Simulator does not ring a bell either.
Human Killing Machine was my attempt to write a soundtrack that sounded like Martin's Comic Bakery. Depending on which review you read, it was either pretty good or the worst music anyone had ever programmed on the C64. :)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a special one. I had a (photocopy of a) handwritten score by John Williams. I loved doing the music for this. I also started writing the C64 game which, due to other music pressures, was taken over by another programmer at Tiertex. While I was programming it, I remember having a fight (well, a lively discussion, though I was pretty peeved at the time) with the graphics artist. He wanted an extra sprite for Indy's whip when it was fully extended, just to use for the tip (maybe two pixels). I thought this was ridiculous: why would we waste a sprite on that? Suffice to say, I lost. :) But I still loved the music!
Last Duel was written around the time that Tell It To My Heart by Taylor Dayne was out. I loved that song, and the bassline in Last Duel is based on the bassline in that song. True Story!
Protector is another one I don't really remember, it may have been taken from a demo, but I don't recognise the game.
Spacebike is one of my all-time favourites. I think this came after Tiertex, or was based on an earlier demo, but it's not one of Tiertex's games. The actual game itself I think looks pretty good, even today.
Strider and Strider II are interesting in that the latter started out as a game they were working on called TOR, for which I did this whole sampled soundtrack based on an Akai S700 (I think) that I had: sampled voices and everything. I left before they finished the game, but looking at videos now, it looks they just reused the original Strider soundtrack I did.
Thunder Hawk was from a demo I uploaded to Compunet. If I recall, the programmers liked it and asked if they could use the music, and of course, I said yes!
ThunderBlade is another favourite and one I loved doing. We got the proper arcade machine into the office to play with. The title music was a little different, no four-to-the-floor, a little more fluty. Then the in-game music just takes over. I also programmed the title sequence with the stars, sword and twinkly bits, too. I was very proud of that.
The game was written by Chris Butler (not Tiertex) and was going to have a demo on the cover tape of Zzap!64, so I had a night to program it and have it ready. I remember the guy from US Gold coming to the office (big wig to me at the time), and he held out his hand, no introduction. I went to shake it, thinking he was introducing himself. He pulled away and said: "Where's the disk?" (referring to the music for the game). I've rarely felt so small and insignificant, and I vowed never to treat anyone like he did that day.
Anyway, the game was pretty good, and I made the music sound as much like helicopter blades as possible. I was really pleased with it, and as I recall, ZZap!64 gave it a pretty good score, too.
You worked for Tiertex, and there's very little known about the company, so please tell us everything you remember: where it was located, who started and owned it, who was employed there, etc.
It was owned by John Prince and Donald Campbell and based in Barlow Moor Road, Didsbury, Manchester. When I joined, there were only five of us (Donald, John, Chris Brunning, Mark Haigh-Hutchison and myself). Chris put me up for a few nights while I found somewhere to stay. We grew quickly, though, taking on more programmers and artists, a receptionist, etc. It was good fun. Andrew Ingram and James Clarke (Blue Turtle) joined as graphic artists.
What other companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
That was the only games company I worked full-time for. Others were just freelance projects, mainly through Compunet and word of mouth at the time.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
At home (at my flat in Manchester, anyway), I'd have my keyboard on the floor, with my headphones, and play it there. In the office, I'd have my C64, an Atari ST (which had a Steinberg Pro 24 sequencer), an Akai keyboard/sampler and a small Casio keyboard. I also had a guitar that I'd occasionally sample for various things. I didn't go out much, so I stayed late most nights, just programming and learning Pro 24 (which came in useful when I moved back to my home town and started a band).
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
I remember we had around six weeks per game, and that involved a few programmers working on different versions such as the C64, PC, Atari/Amiga and later SEGA/SNES. It wasn't a lot of time, but games were different back then. People like Donald, Chris, Mark and others were very good at quickly porting games to other platforms.
As for the music, I generally tried to program for all the different platforms and convert for each sound chip, and I was the only musician/programmer, so although the music was similar, it tended to be programmed separately for each platform. The Amiga had samples, the PC had tones, the C64 was my favourite. I eventually used the Akai and Pro 24 to record the notes and wrote programs to convert the MIDI data into the format I needed for each platform's music program. There was a lot to strip out of the MIDI data!
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
There weren't really any tools or kits back then. There were MOD players for the Amiga, but they were literally that: to get music into the different computers, it needed to be programmed specifically for it. I do remember writing various routines for scrolling (Indiana Jones, for example) and parallax scrolling, which I did on the Atari ST. I also wrote some graphics programs to shift bits within character maps, to create variations on images or sprites rather than plot them out on graph paper. Other than that, we just used the assemblers and pure machine code: no C#/VB back in those days!
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Yes. Some came out under different titles, but I tended to work (at Tiertex, at least) on games that had already been commissioned by US Gold, so they had to be delivered, although there were exceptions like TOR which became Strider II.
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?
Musically, my favourites were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and ThunderBlade. To be honest, they were all fun to do, from the earliest demos to experimenting with the SID to the freelance commissions to the full arcade conversions for US Gold. I loved doing them all, and none of them were a particular challenge or a headache. Donald and John were very good at letting me take care of the music and sound. It was a very good working environment to be in.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I would have loved to have got more into sampling with the PC, Amiga and ST: I think I only scratched the surface with them. Learning what I did shortly after leaving Tiertex, I think I would have bought a few more MIDI keyboards and done proper, fully sampled soundtracks using Steinberg and then Cubase. After all, the Amiga at the time was only really playing samples, so why couldn't that one sample be a sample of a fully synthesised soundtrack?
I would also have rewritten my music routines to allow for sound effects to be triggered over and above the music. I think I concentrated more on the music and didn't spend enough time on the atmospheric sound effects, so that's probably one thing I would have changed. With later machines, it was easy to have full music and sound effects at the same time, but in the early days...
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Defender or (Archer Maclean's) Dropzone. They just looked great, fast and exciting.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I wasn't actually a fan of playing games at all. I used to have golf for the C64, which me and my dad used to play in front of the living room TV. I did get a thrill out of writing scrolling, parallaxes, star fields, etc., but the main enjoyment for me was in overcoming the challenge of how to write them, not in how to get the highest score in something or figuring out the strategy to get to the next level. That didn't interest me, I just wanted to program.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
Not really. Tiertex games tended to get slated in reviews, but six weeks isn't a lot of time to turn things around. I never worked directly for US Gold, but I now understand that as a corporation, they would have pressured Tiertex to deliver quickly and cheaply, rather than having the foresight to invest in creating something special. I may be wrong, but I always thought that Ocean (who were just up the road from us) did seem to have that luxury, and it showed in their games. Going back the other way, to the Mastertronic days, there were also no big boys controlling what the little darlings were doing, and I think that was reflected in the games they produced, so I would have liked Tiertex to have had a little more time, resources and freedom, but that was never within my control.
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've mentioned Archer Maclean already. I followed the diaries of programmers like Andrew Braybrook and loved getting an insight into the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Jeff Minter was always a favourite, too, just for being so independent and original. I admired anyone who could see a game through to completion, really. Musically, the obvious usual suspects such as Matt Grey, Mark Cooksey, Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, Ben Daglish, Jeroen Tel. There's a whole list of people, particularly around the C64, I aspired to be as good as.
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 remember once we all (though there were only a few of us at the time) did a "photo shoot" for a magazine article. I think it was Zzap!64, but I could be wrong. It featured Chris Brunning, John Prince, Donald Campbel, Andrew Ingram and me. This was the one thing I didn't really enjoy: as creative people, artists, musicians, programmers, etc., I personally thought we should have been free to express ourselves, wear what we wanted, and so on, and I disagreed at the time with the shirt and ties they made us wear, though looking back, I suppose it wasn't my company, so it wasn't my decision how we presented ourselves.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
I ended up working on the C64, SNES, Atari ST, Amiga, PC, Spectrum, Amstrad CPC 464 and Gameboy. I was a little too early for the PlayStation or Xbox.
What are you up to these 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.
Thank you, Andreas, and you're welcome. I can't believe something I was part of way back then still has people interested today. I was passionate about it and always looked up to others, many of whom I've already mentioned, none of whom I expect would know who I was. I would just like to send my greetings to everyone who has helped keep this part of our gaming history alive. I hope I've been able to add a little insight into what small part I had in it all. All the best!
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