Welcome Peter! Please feel free to introduce yourself to everyone.
Hi all and thanks for asking me for an interview Frank. I prefer Pete to Peter, but that's about my only concession to conciseness as you'll soon see from some of these encyclopedic answers!

How and when did you first get started in programming games?
I learned to program on my C64 at home and on an Apple IIe at school. The school projects were always so dire; stupid little accounting programs and the like. I knew I was never going to want to make a career out of that, but I really loved the programming side of things. So at home I used to write stupid little games. You know the stuff; ASCII Invaders in BASIC (with eight invaders!) and maze drawing programs with monsters that could solve the maze. My first completed project was Snail Race. I wanted to do a horse betting game but I couldn't draw a horse in a sprite grid and BASIC was just too slow. I think my compromise worked pretty well! :-)

Pretty much all of your C64 work was done with Bob Stevenson, the master of C64 pixelling. How did you both start working together?
I did some work for the company Nemesis who had released the Nemesis arcade conversion for the C64. It was just odd clean-up jobs on really awful Konami conversions at first, but I guess I impressed them because after a couple of weeks they offered me the Salamander conversion. About that time, they'd got hold of one of Bob's Compunet demos and had asked him to submit some art samples. We all sat and watched what was then a really nice series of animations and stills, with one of the coolest lightning/electrical bolt effects I had ever seen. It was obvious that Bob knew some programming himself, and the possibility of working with an artist who could not only draw good looking stuff (in 16 unchangeable colours) but would understand the technical limitations of the machine, was too good to pass up.

Two of your most famous games on the C64 are Salamander and Myth. What else have you done apart from these two on the C64? It almost seems like you came from nowhere and suddenly had these two awesome titles released.
Before I left Australia to return to England, I started a university degree in Computer Science. After a year in one Uni and six months in another bigger one, I knew that I was not going to be taught about the things I was interested in. At about that time, an old friend of mine pointed out an advert in the Melbourne newspapers which simply said "hackers wanted" and gave a phone number. He'd called it and been offered an interview for a job writing video games. Of course I called too and I ended up ditching University to work for Melbourne House with Phil Mitchell (of The Hobbit fame) on the C64 versions of The Lord of the Rings.

I worked there for exactly one year. It was a good company with a great atmosphere and I learned a lot of tricks from the other guys. But to get back to your question (finally), I did some C64 coding for The Lord of the Rings and then I was set to programming an original Mario-esque side-scrolling platformer named after an 2000 AD Judge Dredd story called Bits for Bizmo. It was a fair way into development when I left the company, but I guess that's where I got to try out all of the ideas I had about ways of making good games.

After that, Salamander was actually a pretty simple project. With no detailed collisions to worry about (they'd been a problem in Bizmo), I had plenty CPU power spare to do a full-screen tile-based rebuilding scroll, which is what gave us those awesome fire arches in level 3 and huge fangs in level 1.

I'm still working the video games field so I've done loads of games since then, but none have quite achieved the same kudos as my early efforts.

Myth has often been referred to as one of the greatest C64 games of all time. What was it like to work on such a title and achieve the status it so rightly deserved?
I must confess that although I have always been very proud of Myth and it got some pretty good reviews at the time, I wasn't aware that it has ever been referred to in quite such glowing terms! All I can really say is that after Bob and I ditched the really terrible game design we were handed and wrote our own from the ground up, the project became a very personal thing for the both of us. We put a lot of effort into the design decisions and implementation, much of which probably isn't obvious to the player but which I feel adds a lot of the immersive feel you can get from a long play session. I remember I ran up a £500 phone bill (back then this was a serious chunk of money) calling Bob in Scotland (I was in London at the time) to talk about the game and he had a similar bill from calling me. We were very keen to get it right.

It looks as if a lot of heart and soul was put into Myth. Did System 3 give you plenty of extra time to fine-tune the game to how you wanted it?
Yeah, as I said above, we put a lot into the game. We didn't get any extra time for the fine-tuning, but the game had been worked over so much during development that it didn't really need much more. Myth was originally designed to have six separate loads, each one based around a different era. When we got into the development, some of the levels started to coalesce around similar themes, so the first load became Hades (a greek myth), then Gladiators and the statue of Achilles (Roman with a Greek reference) and Medusa with the Hydra (Greek again). We realised it was more efficient to pack these similar levels into a single load if we could, so I wrote another run-length encoder (hopefully with no data errors this time!) and dynamically unpacked each section as you progressed through the three. At the end of the 15 months, we only had time to do four loads but each load had three levels in it. Of course, this didn't stop a dispute about payment towards the end of the project.

Myth has an almost movie-like story to it. Were rumours true that a movie was on the cards, or at least tossed around as an idea?
I did hear that rumour, however it was third or fourth hand by the time it reached me, and I suspect there wasn't much in it.

The Myth speech samples, which are somewhat famous, were rumoured to be from Bob Stevenson's girlfriend. True?
Yep, it's true. I think I mentioned that Bob had a lot of technical savvy for an artist and he proved it here by hooking up a really old games machine (an Atmos Oracle maybe?) with a mike and recording the sample data from his girlfriend. I heard later that he was a bit of a tyrant about it and made her do takes and retakes until she was really fed up. :-) I only ever got to hear the final few cuts, but I was delighted and we worked an extra weekend to get them into the game right on the deadline.

When the C64GS console was launched, System 3 saw a perfect opportunity to release a lot of their back catalogue to cartridge. One of the very few games they did in this format was Myth. Did you play any role in producing this or even receive any royalties for the game being produced on cartridge?
We weren't on a royalty deal of any sort for Myth. At that time, it was already becoming increasingly difficult to get enough money to live off and royalties too. I vaguely remember the cartridge version, I think I was called in to do some minor coding changes (on a flat fee again), and at the time I would have been grateful for the work.

Following on... There were some very minor presentational improvements to the cartridge version. Would you have liked to add extra features if there was time?
Only if the money was there, and it wasn't. :-)

In the past, there have been various stories from people who worked at System 3 about non-payments and various problems. How was your experience working for System 3?

I don't want to go into much detail for legal reasons, but there was one dispute with System 3 where I was extremely grateful to have an agent (Jacqui Lyons of Marjacq) to represent me. She was amazing and really controlled the situation well. Most of the time however, Bob and I were given a completely free hand and we just sat at our homes and churned out the data.

Salamander was yet another awesome creation, and turned out to be one of the perfect arcade conversions to be seen on the C64. How did you get to do Salamander, from initial contact to finished product? And what part of the game was most challenging to code?
The monster at the end of the first level was the most challenging by far. On the arcade version it had two segmented arms (each segment about the size of a sprite) which could move freely around the screen chasing the player's ship. The player's ship could have up to four multiples following it around, and the beast itself was a giant brain which was five sprites wide and four sprites high.

Sprite plexing technology was pretty good by then, and I'd worked out a pretty good one for Salamander already, but with an eight segment arm, five sprite brain, ship and four multiples possibly sharing one horizontal line... It seemed (at first) impossible. I'm still kind of proud of my solution so I'll bore you with the details. I wrote a software sprite drawer which could draw the arm segments into the user defined character set in real time. It handled transparency so the segments were true sprites, and dynamically allocated new character slots whenever a segment went outside the previously used character areas.

With the arm done using no sprites at all, I then had a five sprite wide brain, the ship, and I alternate frame-flickered the four multiples using the remaining two sprites. The only downside of this was that no matter how hard I hacked it, I could not get the software sprite drawing to run in a single frame while the sprite plexor was doing a last-line data copy (to get the five by four sprite grid for the brain). In the end, and against my will (the time and money was running out, as usual), I made this part of the game run every second frame and I doubled all motion values to compensate.

One gripe that a few people had about the game was that it was rather easy to complete, especially with its four levels to battle through. What are your views on this?
Oh, I agree totally and can only apologise. Although I'd spent years mucking around with computers and games, I had very little experience playing them competitively. I saw a guy clock a Space Invaders machine once and was suitably impressed, but I thought he was just a one-off freak. I now know that to set a game's difficulty curve correctly I should be just about able to beat level 1 and wipe out in level 2. Of course, this makes it tough to judge the later levels, which is why I now use games-testers!

A slightly techy question, but Salamander was found to have some bad data, due to the packer used to pack the levels (an equal character packer?). Do you recall anything about this?
Hmm... *Someone's been playing in My Code!* I remember being quite proud of that run-length encoding system at the time. I hadn't heard of anyone else using one for games (I was told it would be too slow) so I wrote it to be really fast. I also made it so that the compressor scanned the data-set it was compressing and looked for any single byte value that was unused. This would then become the key flag to indicate sequences. If there weren't any such values, then it would use the least used byte value instead. But this meant there was an overhead when that number actually occurred in the data. You have to flag it with another code to indicate that this time it's not a key.

I suspect that any data errors were caused by bad hackers, who didn't understand my non-standard implementation of this algorithm, or who had inserted their own altered graphics or strings into the packed files and thereby invalidated the key value for that file.

If you could remake Salamander on the C64 today, what are some of the things you would improve over your original conversion?
Definitely harder. I'd take the time out to optimise the brain software sprite engine down to one frame. I'd really love to add in the missing two levels. They were originally scheduled to be added but Nemesis (the company) closed down unexpectedly, and Ocean were all about getting the product out of the door when they eventually picked up the rights.

Now onto one of your known unreleased titles, Devious Designs. It was mentioned a fair bit in magazines and looked an intriguing puzzle title for the C64. With the game looking quite awesome and special, what went wrong?
The usual things... We had an over-ambitious design with insufficient time scheduled for sorting out the game play consequences. After Myth, we felt that we could do pretty much anything. We both got a huge buzz out of that project and we wanted to continue it by doing something uniquely original to us. The design looked good on paper, but didn't immediately translate well into game play. We spent three months fiddling with level design and user controls but the problem was more fundamental than that. Later we ditched over half of the special abilities and moves, but by then the C64 was fading fast and we transferred our main development thrust onto the Amiga. When we finally had levels that were playable without two weeks intensive practice, Mirrorsoft was urgently interested in releasing a product, so they allowed us to finish the two 16-bit versions first. Of course, one week after the master disks hit their offices, a certain major tycoon took an unexpectedly long swim and the whole pension scandal came to light. The game was thrown out onto the shelves with sub-standard box art and packaging. And the C64 version was written off.

The conversion of the early C64 version to Amiga demo happened over one weekend (I resampled the graphics at a higher resolution, fixed the Amiga palette to match the C64, and did a direct code port where each 6510 Assembler instruction became an equivalent 68000 instruction). I knew that reversing the coding process to make a C64 version would only take a week at most, I can't remember how much time Bob allocated for doing the same to the graphics, but I know it wasn't long. Unfortunately, the Mirror Group bankruptcy prevented us from attempting these changes, and although the rights to the game reverted to us five years later, by then it was hopelessly outdated.

What are the chances of the game's remains being uncovered today?
Pretty slim, although I have still got a box of disks in the attic which I really must lift down and go through. The technology of the day was a PDS kit on an old 386 PC, so the source code would be on 5.25" disks. I think it's pretty unlikely those will be readable without some expensive data recovery gear, and even then it will be tough to assemble it into a useable format. I'll dig through the box and let you know if anything still exists of the C64 version.

Were there any other games you worked on which never saw the light of day, either on the C64 or other machines?
Bits for Bizmo as I mentioned earlier. I think everything else I've worked on has been released.

How did you do all your C64 work?
For Salamander, Myth and Devious, I used a PDS PC based kit. I supplemented the PDS debugger with one of those hacker cartridges which let you freeze the box state. It was very handy for hard-to-find bugs! At Melbourne House, they had an ancient (even then) Pillar mini-computer that would spend two hours assembling 16K of code. That's where I first learned the value of huge amounts of debug information. You want to learn as much as possible from each failure to avoid repeating the mistake two hours later! For my home projects, I used to hand code the machine codes on paper and then POKE them using a BASIC FOR loop. I actually did know the entire 6510 machine language in both decimal and hexadecimal (which is an old programmer myth for many people). Eventually, I typed in an Assembler from a book and learned the joys of a two week debugging session while I found the mis-types and bugs.

Out of all your creations, what are you most proud of and why?
I'm proud of all of them except one which I'll get to in a second. Salamander was my first solo full product, and it was pretty damn good for a first try. Myth was my first foray into game design and I think Bob and I got it just about right there. Devious was a totally original project. I'm proud that we sold the idea to a skeptical room of managers and got paid for 18 months to produce it. I did a bunch of stuff for BITS, none of which was particularly exceptional (poor game designs mainly – at least that's my story) but it all got released, and some of it made money, and I'm sure that some folks got some fun out them. Wolverine: Adamantium Rage (SNES) was my favourite there. The game has about 25 different moves for Wolverine and they all made sense on a four directional, two button joypad. For The Golf Pro (PC), I wrote an AI system for the voice-over. This was my first attempt at using the stuff I'd just learned doing my MSc in AI. The system I designed was massively over-powerful for the job but it meant that the dialog was diverse and interesting. Stratego (PC) extended my AI work and brought me back to full games development. Play it a few times and you might get a surprise or two from some of the tactics it can use. Sheep (PSX) was just plain fun, Monopoly (N64) was highly polished and had a great UI again, Who Wants to be a Millionaire (iTV) is a huge money maker for Sky GameStar... I could go on, but I suspect I've already lost half of your readers. :-)

And which are you most disappointed with?
Last Action Hero (Sega Genesis). This game had so much promise, I was really fired up about it. I'd been given a very early design document and asked to fill in some of the blanks. Here was a chance to really put some innovation into a big licensed game. We were well into development and starting to add some awesome action sequences, and then the hammer came down from the licensees: we weren't allowed to use any weapons on the main character. It left us with a fighting game with three combat moves, no weapons, no specials, no effects. We had to redesign all of the encounters to permit hand-to-hand fighting and spent so much time doing the level revamps that all of the interesting sequences got ditched. I celebrated finishing that project by spending £200 on a night in a posh hotel in Leicester Square, and £60 getting so drunk that I couldn't even see the film premiere the next day.

Did any of your work cause any particular headaches, or even result in disagreements with anyone?
Almost constantly. I have some very strong ideas about how games should be made and I am not shy about making my case when a suggestion is put forward that endangers a good project. Most managers can take this on board and make their own case (even if it's just "the client demands it" – in which case the argument stops there), but a few seem to want to employ drones who will blindly code as ordered. Then they wonder why all their projects suck so bad.

Most of the time, developers had some kind of "hero" they had particular admiration for and which inspired them in their own work. Was there anyone in particular who had that effect on you?
I always hated the culture of hero worship. sportsmen, musicians, artists or writers. Some of them are good, some of them are incredible, but I've never hankered to emulate any one person or live any life than the one I'm living now. (Pretentious, moi?)

As well as actually making games, you must have had the chance to play some too! What titles did you burn the night away with and did any in particular influence you?
I played a lot of Lode Runner on the Apple at school and eventually on the C64. Fort Apocalypse was the first game that kept me up all night. I just had to see what was behind that big wall of shootable bricks! A friend had a VIC 20 and we used to play a game (can't recall the name now) with vector graphics, walls that would bounce you in, and the centre of the play area was another walled area with the score inside of the walls. These spiky balls would float around and attack you while you struggled to control your ship using Asteroids type thrusting. If you can name that game, I'd love to try it again! (Frank: It's Omega Race! A real classic.)

What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? What would you say impressed you the most about the machine at the time?
At the time I started there just wasn't any other choice for gaming. Once you'd met VIC and SID, paged out the kernal and paddled in the memory ocean, you could never turn back. I played around with a Spectrum for a while, but although I liked the CPU speed, I hated the (Z80) assembler format and found the graphics restrictions absurd.

Do you feel that your time developing games on the C64 was a past experience or a major inspiration for where you are today?
The C64 was where I learned my trade. I still practice that same trade 20 years later, so I could never write it off.

Do you still own a C64, and if so, do you still play it occasionally?
I have every machine I've ever written games for in the attic, but I never play them.

What are your current activities these days? Are you working on systems of today for anyone?
I'm working on iTV games for digital satellite receivers at the moment (press the button for Interactive and select a game, a lot of them are mine). The boxes are powerful but bogged down with middleware, so the actual useable resources are about equivalent to a C64 (full circle – hey!) although the overlay sprites really suck up the CPU and the sound effects are very limited (bring back SID!) I'm quite keen on getting back into modern consoles (my last console game was on the N64) at some point, but for now I'm having fun pushing these strangely restrictive devices as far as I can.

The whole concept of retro gaming is becoming a particular new craze at the moment, with the spotlight being shown once again on these classic machines of our gaming past. What is your whole take on retro gaming, and is it something you might find yourself taking an interest in?
I think the retro gaming movement has two motivators. One is pure nostalgia, just thinking about Fort Apocalypse, Raid on Bungling Bay or Lode Runner, brings back some great memories. I'm sure playing them would bring back even more. The other is that a lot of those early games had genuinely great game play which stands up even today. It's particularly true of the really early games when it was all about function because the form was so very limited. The titles are obvious: Pac-Man, Invaders, Donkey Kong. But by the time Donkey Kong came along, the emphasis was changing; make it prettier, faster, noisier. The purity was already fading.

Every now and again since then there are rare games which regain that level of originality along with the purity of game play; Bubble Bobble, Lemmings, Elite, Doom, Half Life. There are hundreds of them buried amongst thousands of fine games which are buried amongst tens of thousands of mediocre, uninspired or derivative games. People always compare our industry to the movie industry. In this regard, it's a perfect match.

I love the fact that people are taking an interest in the old games, I don't think they are fundamentally any better or worse than games today. They were more limited by the platforms, but that alone doesn't make a great or awful game. The best games have always been the ones where you walk away and realise you just lost three hours but you enjoyed every minute of it. Retro or modern, good games can still do that to me.

Pete, thank you for your time and for some great childhood memories which still last today in your games! Please feel free to pass on any greetings or messages to anyone.
Ancient history: Hey Craig S in oz! If you're out there reading this, look me up (google ‘pete baron'). David B: Are you still at Kodak? G'day to Don H and the rest of the old (1986/87) Beam guys. Are you all working in banks now? Hi to Fouad and the BITS teams 1990-94. Hope it's going well for you! Hey Bob, if you got this far down, shouldn't you be working?

Go back to the interviews »

» F.A.Q. - look here before you send off an email.

» Credits - the list of people who made all this possible.

» Links - to the top C64 sites out there.

Scene interviews - C64 sceners answer 20 questions about their time in the scene.