Andrew Davie / Beam Software,
Added on September 11th, 2010 (4895 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
I'm one of the early games programmers in Australia, having joined Melbourne House sometime in 1984. I was 20 years old, and I left home and moved interstate (from Tasmania to Melbourne) for the job. I was paid all of AUS$17,500 + $250 moving expenses. :)
Over the years at Melbourne House (which morphed into BEAM Software), I wrote about a dozen mostly forgettable games, and one which is consistently listed as among the worst NES games ever written. So, I'm not a memorable name... and I don't lay claim to memorable games. But that's the way things were for us back then; it wasn't about writing the greatest game ever. It was about getting something out the door which was (roughly) playable... and moving on to the next one.
I fondly remember my time at MH, but most particularly the people, atmosphere and culture rather than the work. For sometimes the work was incredibly stressful, and I was not a happy camper. We were all pretty young, and the industry was new. It was something special to be writing games and being paid for it. The work and people from back then was something that sticks in my mind as a period which was rather special and will never be repeated.
I stayed with MH/BEAM for almost exactly 10 years. I left to join a start-up, SEGA Australia New Developments, which had a pretty interesting concept of 3D interactive movies. We did end up making these work, but back in 1994, the computer hardware wasn't exactly capable of great 3D graphics.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
In 1976, my high school had a time-sharing console to a PDP 11/34 computer based at another school. Only the grade 9 and 10 students were taught computer studies. Being a lowly grade 7, I wasn't even allowed in the same room as the computer. So I asked some of the other students to print out the tutorials (TUTR01 etc) which I devoured. I don't even remember what programming language was used back then. I do recall some of the text editors, though – TECO being one of them.
Sometime around 1977, a friend (who also worked at MH later on) bought an Ohio Scientific Challenger 1P computer. A disk system, no less. One fortnight when he went on holidays, he loaned it to me and I had immense fun modifying his Asteroids (text-only!) game. The OSI C1P had a 20x20 text display, and a 6502 processor. So, I learned a little 6502 just to speed up the game, which was written in BASIC. I got it running pretty well. It used a full-stop for the bullets, a small "o" for the small asteroids, and a large uppercase "O" for the big ones. Sophisticated! OK, so this sounds pretty primitive, but the game was actually fun. Programming it was even more so.
Around this time, I bought a Hewlett Packard HP-41C calculator (with card reader). This was the bees' knees of calculators. It had numbers AND letters. I spent quite some time writing games on this machine. I wrote a pretty cool version of Mastermind, quite a complex programming task on a calculator. This machine satisfied my lust for programming for quite some time, but I came into some inheritance (just a few thousand dollars) when I was 16...
So I decided I absolutely HAD to have my own computer. Being rather more sensitive to visuals, I chose an Atari 800 (disk system, of course!) over an OSI. I liked the graphics that machine had to offer, and I embarked on a self-taught path to mastering 6502 assembly language. I didn't have a book, so I pretty much reverse-engineered many of the commands, learning how they worked one by one. My first game on the A800 was Pacman, written in BASIC. It was slow. About one frame every four or five seconds, but the A800 BASIC had a small area where you could put your own assembler code and call it from BASIC. So I literally translated the BASIC Pacman code line-by-line into assembler. And in the end, Pacman frame rate was so fast that the player would move from one side of the screen to the other in a small fraction of a second. I wrote many 'games' and graphical demos on the A800, but we didn't really have much of an idea what was a good game or not. I kind of borrowed concepts from the arcade games I liked, added a few original ideas and generally ended up with rubbish. Some of it was pretty cool as far as graphics demos go. Mostly all lost now, alas.
Now, although I had a disk system, the disk capacity was something like only 80K. My programs had to live on the disk, along with the binary, AND the assembler and editor. This meant that space was tight. Very tight. I ended up removing all whitespace from my code, and using single-letter variable names and labels. And no comments, of course. Mostly, I could remember every line of code anyway, and if a bug showed up I pretty much knew exactly where to look for it. This rather extreme programming (no comments, etc) was necessary in order to fit everything onto the one disk.
Compile times were roughly 15 minutes per iteration. If I decided to get a listing output then it was a 45 minute iteration. So I tended to make a LOT of changes, check things very thoroughly, then go and get a cup of tea. It was a tedious way to work, but that's all I had, so that's how I did it.
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?
So, I had this pretty cool game concept that I called 'Qb' (pronounced cube-eeee). I got the idea from the sliding-number puzzle, where you had to put the numbers in order. This game was a sort of isometric version of that, but with fewer pieces, and a different goal. The game is readily downloadable on the 'net these days so go have a play. It's still a very relaxing, quite challenging game. I'm quite proud of it. I even recently (well, 10 years ago) programmed a version of it on the Atari 2600, a really cool vintage game machine with just 128 bytes of RAM, 4K of ROM, and no video memory whatsoever.
But I digress. One of my first jobs was working as a technical assistant at a scientific organisation (CSIRO). My boss knew I programmed games at home for a hobby, and one day he pointed out an advertisement in the national newspaper calling for video game programmers. So, I got together a letter to apply, and sent along my Qb game. They hired me on the spot. As noted, a grand salary of $17500 + moving expenses. It was a pretty big leap for me, but I've never been afraid to take those and things worked out fine.
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 quite a bit of rivalry between the Atari and Commodore camps around 1984 when I joined MH. I was an Atari guy, but MH didn't do Atari games. So the first day I walked in the door, I was told that I was doing a C64 game, Mugsy's Revenge. I was given a C64 disk system and a Programmer's Reference Guide and an assembler. I learned the machine and wrote the game.
Was it a special platform? Well, I did become rather fond of it. The A800 has features which are better, and the C64 is better in other areas. They are what they are. I think the C64 was very well designed, in general, which is one reason for the great games written for it.
As noted, my first game was written on the C64 itself, but this was not the typical way we did things. Perhaps because it wasn't ready when I joined, perhaps for other reasons, but we had a BBC Microcomputer development environment. We'd program on the BBC (which had a much better parallel disk system and nicer graphics for text-editing), cross-assemble, and then download the binary to the C64. The BBC was a lovely system and very very fast to use. It looked professional.
So, I'd say that as a development platform the C64 was crap. Slow disk drives, very poor text editors, etc. About the same as an A800 for development, but both were minced by the BBC. But, as a games system to write for, the C64 was very nice. As I said, I became fond of the machine.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
Yes, well I don't remember. There are lists online. Mugsy's Revenge, Asterix and the Magic Cauldron (also released as Ardok the Barbarian with other charatcters), Street Hassle (a.k.a. Bop'n Rumble)... Super Pacman, and Pacman Junior. I may have missed one or two.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I worked for MH/Beam from 1984-1994 and for SEGA Australia from 1994-2000. After that, I left the professional games industry.
My tasks were pretty much complete game creation from the concept through to final delivery of the binary. I wrote the tools I needed and I also did much of the art. Although programmer-art is/was crap, often it was mandated by the art department's inability to adhere to requirements. For example, you'd ask for four colour sprites and you'd get 20 colours ("but they look great!") or instead of a four frame walk animation, you'd get a ten frame animation. In latter years, the art department improved a lot. In the early years, I think it was all a bit amateurish on both sides of the fence. Certainly they had terrible terrible tools to work with, and doing art of any sort on those machines was rather tedious. Still, programming was even more tedious so getting not-to-spec artwork sometimes drove me to doing my own and not even bothering to ask the artists. No hard feelings then or now; that's just the way I operated.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Get into work sometime. Whenever. Usually sometime after 11 am and before 2 pm. Work pretty much all day and go home sometime around 9 pm. That's for the first few months of the project. When things started to get behind schedule, then I'd end up working until 1-2 am. There was a great after-hours food place called the Taxi Place, where you could go anytime of the day or night. When things really came to crunch time, I'd work very long hours under high stress.
I recall working 36 hours non-stop on Street Hassle towards the end. I drove home after this; I could barely stay awake. It was a silly thing to do, but really I had no option. I couldn't afford a taxi and just wanted to get to bed. Working these sorts of hours was not typical but it did happen occasionally. I don't think I would (or could) do this sort of thing now.
I worked on one project for nine weeks without a break. Not a day or weekend off. I was extremely stressed and tired and on a Friday I asked Fred (the owner/boss of MH) for the weekend off. Yeah. So, of course he said OK, but a short time later came by my desk and said he's sorry but he'd have to ask me to work the weekend because the project was overdue. I don't think he even knew I'd been working so long and so hard. But it was the last straw for me, and I resigned on the spot. Taken aback, Fred and finance officer Adam called me into their office, gave me two weeks holiday then and there, nearly doubled my salary, and convinced me to stay. I think I ended up resigning from MH about five times; each time (except the last, of course!) there was some pay rise or inducement to stay. If they'd only given regular pay reviews/rises during the normal course of things they could have saved a lot of money and I would have been much happier. Oh well... 20/20 hindsight.
We'd generally work in pairs, as programmers. It seemed to work well. I had a good friend (yes, the OSI owner) who I could bounce ideas off, and we worked in a somewhat antagonistic fashion. At least I think our arguments were memorable. But we were good friends for something like 20 years. I got him the job at MH (he joined about six months after I did), and I got him a job at SEGA after he left MH. He's still with them (what, something like 14 years now!) although it goes by a different name as the company has morphed into something different.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
Games seemed to take nine months. Early on we didn't have a time schedule. We didn't even have a design! We just kind of got a single paragraph about the general idea/concept of the game. Then we'd brainstorm all sorts of silly things we could do. Then we'd start to design systems to see if we could start to get something that would look like working. These things all took immense amounts of time, so it was generally months before we had anything to show. MH never did get the concept of re-using code and systems. Everything was inevitably a completely different type of game where you had to start from scratch again. Nine months seemed to be about the best I could do, personally, from go to woe.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
We nearly exclusively used in-house tools. Particularly, assemblers and linkers were in-house, and all of the graphics design tools were, too. All of the conversion tools were in-house. There were few things we didn't do ourselves, with the exception of text editors. I spent a lot of my time writing tools and utilities for both myself and the artists or designers to use on my games.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Well, dozens of aborted attempts on my A800. One or two nearly complete games. The only one which wasn't released from MH/BEAM was Way of the Exploding Fist on the NES. I didn't take any source code or binaries with me when I left the company (much to my regret now) so anything that I'd written was pretty much lost. There was no backup regimen. In fact, I recall having to go to Fred one day and tell him I'd accidentally wiped my work disk – the single floppy on which I'd been doing my stuff. It was two weeks of work which was not backed up and I had to do it all again. Naturally, Fred was not a happy chap and rightly so. But, this was the norm. Nobody backed up anything, and when you left, your stuff disappeared.
So, Way of the Exploding Fist never found a publisher and after I left, that was the end of it. Lost. But a few years ago someone posted on an online forum that they'd found a demo cartridge labelled Exploding Fist. It turns out to be my unreleased game, on a cartridge which was made for the USA agent of MH/BEAM (Dick Lehrberg). Somehow this cart had found its way to a market in England. I was delighted to see it again! Demos of it are on YouTube.
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?
Without a doubt the worst game (from all sorts of perspectives) I ever worked on was Bad Street Brawler for the NES. Back in 1988 or so, MH/BEAM reverse-engineered the NES. We bought a unit from Japan, disassembled it, and figured out how it worked. Sort of. The crack team did a great job of figuring out the processor and how the graphics worked. Sort of. While they were doing that, I was writing Street Hassle on the C64. As a parallel sort of "How would the NES do it?" thing, one of the reverse-engineering guys was writing a testbed demo based on the C64 version. How would we do big sprites? How would we scroll? The testbed was very basic, basically a big hack, and the comments weren't about how the code worked; they were about how the NES worked. So they'd be, like, "Load the accumulator with 1." Useless. But OK for reverse-engineering.
So I finished Street Hassle and what happened? Fred said: "Congratulations, you're writing our first NES game!", and he wanted Street Hassle ported to the NES. I was told it would only take a few weeks because we already had the testbed software which was basically the same game. All I needed to do was finish it and I was given that code and the NES programming "manual". This manual was full of – and I'm not making this up – "Don't know what this bit does." Most of it. We had the basics of how to write stuff to the screen, how to do sprites, but not much more. So the nightmare began. I spent months and months learning how the NES worked, many months reworking the "nearly complete" testbed from a piece of... testbed, into a properly organised game system. And much more time writing tools to do the graphics editing, etc.
At some point, and rightly so, the game was shelved and I began work on something more sensible. All breathed a sigh of relief.
A year or two later, Fred called me into his office with: "Good news! Remember Bad Street Brawler?! Dig it up, we've sold it to a publisher!" All I had to do, apparently, was finish it and add some downloading code to setup codes for Mattel's Power Glove. I worked with the prototype Power Glove. The idea was that Bad Street Brawler would come with preset configuration gestures for various games, so you'd plug it in, download the code to the glove, then plug in the other game and play it with the glove. Crap idea, really. Matched Bad Street Brawler perfectly.
So, the game has regularly been reviewed as one of the worst NES games ever written. I agree. But it's not my fault. It's only recently I've been able to laugh at the absurdity of it all, put on a grim smile and acknowledge... Yes, that's my baby.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
Obviously, Bad Street Brawler would be erased from history! There are many things that with hindsight I'd change. For example, Mugsy's Revenge used a rather arcane graphics packing system. The graphics were drawn by the artist using line, pixel, and fill tools. Then the final art would run through a utility which would un-draw the picture trying to reverse-engineer the artist's drawing process. That is, it would un-fill, and un-draw lines and pixels. Keeping a track of the process the whole way. And this set of instructions would be the "packed" picture. So when we wanted to draw something, we'd simply follow this by doing pixels, lines, and fills. And voilŕ! I'm astounded even today, looking back on it, that this worked. But it did!
See, we didn't really know the best way to do things. We didn't know much about how useful character graphics could be. The artists had no tools to draw with character graphics, just bitmaps. So that's what we used. Character graphics had lots of advantages over bitmaps, so in hindsight I'd probably revisit some of my games and rework for character graphics.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
No. I liked doing original stuff. My favourite arcade games were Dig Dug and Defender. I loved the A800 version of Defender and I once played it 17 hours straight. At the end I just let it kill itself time after time. I think I had something like 153 lives. But no, I don't have any regrets about not working on other games.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
As mentioned, the games I liked playing were before I started work as a professional programmer. Once I was working and stressing on a professional basis dealing with games every hour of every day, the absolute last thing I'd do for fun or relaxation would be play computer games. In fact, to this day I do not enjoy playing video games. They bring back stressful times.
One amusing (to me) aspect is that I have a teenage son who is totally addicted to games. It's a bit of karma, really, that I'm now one of those parents worried about the effects that video games have on my kids. Back then I was the pusher. Now I'm the concerned family of the user. Ironic.
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
No, I didn't really compare other games other than Bad Street Brawler, which should have been blown up. I didn't spend too much time worrying about the quality of other games.
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?
No, I had no inspiration. I programmed because I enjoyed it. I wrote games because they were simply not available for the machines I owned, or were prohibitively expensive. Inspiration came out of love of programming and love of games.
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 went to a few computer shows. It was a bit of a perk, really. Adam and Fred, the two bosses of MH/BEAM, regularly went to the shows to spruik up business. One or two of us would generally get to tag along. I went to a few of the early CES shows around the late '80s. They were pretty cool.
I recall a few of the artist smoking joints in the ladies' toilets! The artists were kind of the cool guys, and us programmers were the nerds. I was pretty inexperienced in ways of the world so I didn't fit in much with these guys and girls. Not unfriendly, just a bit clueless. Computers were my life. I never did the drugs or drinking or partying.
There are dozens and dozens of stories! I recall one fellow who broke into the finance officer's computer to check out what everyone was paid. Adam, our finance officer, used his wife's name as the password so it wasn't exactly a feat of remarkable hacking. This incident destroyed office morale for months.
I recall a fight after work between a programmer and an artist over a very pretty girl/artist. The artist decked the programmer (who was being particularly obnoxious) and sitting at the next table just happened to be half a dozen off-duty police officers who promptly arrested and charged the artist with assault. Despite our protestations and the programmers' wish not to press charges, I believe it was only the artists' father being an ex-copper that prevented more serious consequences.
Then there was T. T was not happy. He was given a larger cartridge allocation (from 8K to 16K) on a NES game towards the end of his project, so he filled the space with cartoons/caricatures of people in the company. I'm told the first picture was captioned: "This is T. He is not happy," and then it went on to mock just about everyone. I never did see the one about me... I still like T, so perhaps it's best that I don't ever see it. I do know that some of it was pretty callous/vicious. But as he said, T. was NOT happy.
One artist liked to put naked women in the background graphics. Frank was his name. We found out about one of them by reading a kid's letter to one of the magazines. He claimed that in the woods of one Spectrum game there was a naked lady lying down. Sure enough, there she was. Nobody had noticed it before, and I recall Fred just smiling when he found out.
One guy was a genuine drug pusher. He kept getting phone calls all day and was a very very shady character. One day he up and left, stealing some of our development systems. Our very tough musician/tech guy Gavan was sent after him and returned with the goods.
When we were in Park Street, we were situated between a brothel, on the left, and the Salvation Army, on the right. I'm not making this up! Often people visiting the brothel would use our carpark spaces, so Gavan would go into the brothel and drag them out to move their cars. One of our artists (Hi Grant!) delighted in putting up little notes from the prostitutes on his wall. They generally said stuff like: "You're such a dickhead and think you're wonderful but you're not." He loved them. :) The notes. The girls. Both! Nice guy.
Then there was Dave. Dave was not a people person. You were either a genuine person – in which case he would do just about anything to help you. Or, you were not a genuine person (and I must say, Dave had a pretty good take on genuine-ness). If you were in the second camp, then he wouldn't give you the time of day. One day I was sitting with Dave and Fred and a certain not genuine person came up and said: "Excuse me Dave, could you help me with..." at which point Dave turned to him and said: "Fuck off!" Right in front of our boss. That was how he operated. I have fond memories of Dave. I liked him a lot.
Carl turned up to work in a pair of shorts. Nothing else. No top, no shoes, or thongs. Just aqua coloured shorts. This was actually a bit much for Fred and soon after we had a dress standard which consisted of a minimum including a t-shirt and shoes. Not sure what happened to Carl...
Mostly though, MH/BEAM was a continual stream of unforgettable people. I am extremely fond of them and my days working in the games industry. We were pioneers, in a way. Things will never be the same; the environment and challenges we had are gone for good. It was a unique and interesting period of time. I wouldn't say I'd want to go through the same again, but I do appreciate the experience and the friendships, some of which continue to this day.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
The Nintendo NES. That's where the money was for the company, so the C64 simply fell by the wayside and we moved onto developing for the new platform.
What are you up to these days?
These days I'm married to Ann, who was a producer for one of my games. She worked in Chicago for Mindscape, and we fell in love via fax. This was years and years before the Internet love thing. I'd get secret faxes from her as well as project-related faxes. We married in 1990 so I do have that to thank MH/BEAM for. We have two teenage kids, a girl and a boy.
I work for the CSIRO, Australia's premier scientific research organisation. In particular I work as a software/research engineer on an autonomous robotic submarine. I'm trying to get the vehicle to automatically classify and map the features and species on the sea-floor. I put myself through university (college) after I left MH/BEAM and obtained a formal degree in computing. Now I'm working at a higher degree. Hopefully in a year or so I will have completed a doctorate. It's difficult with a family and a full-time job, so you have to be motivated.
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.
As I look back on my early career as a video game programmer, it is with somewhat mixed feelings. It seems almost like it was someone else's life. I've moved on to other things and it was, after all, so long ago. In some ways, it's almost like a shameful past. That wasn't a ”real” job, so I tend not to mention I programmed games for a living.
We were not ”special” people. We were just every-day ordinary guys and girls (well, OK, not so ordinary given some of the people I worked with). But we were all trying to make ends meet, and programming games was just a job. I don't think we were doing anything any less or more difficult than those working in the industry today; just different by degree. The focus has changed. Now there are commercial tools and the Internet, and readily available code to share. We had to roll our own tools and utilities, and develop every single system, script and feature of a game all in isolation without any assistance from others. But the games now are immense, and people have to specialise. We had ”small” games and certain limitations. No doubt some people these days spend their carreers just animating hair.
It was a place in time where there was a demand for people like myself, essentially ”bedroom programmers”. A guy who sat in his bedroom all day with his computer and churned out video games because he couldn't afford to buy them. That time is gone, and most of us have ”grown up” and now have teenage children who are playing the modern day equivalent of the games we were writing 25 years ago.
But, if you are truly interested in understanding what it was like to program games back then, particularly the limitations and system architectures we had to work with, there is still a very active community programming the Atari 2600. I still write stuff for this machine, just for fun. And if you do look up that machine, you'll understand why I can claim that my idea of fun is a very strange one indeed.
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