Hi Steve and welcome! Please introduce yourself to the readers.
Hi, I'm Steve Collins, currently Chief Technology Office and co-founder of Havok. Havok is the leading physics middleware solution for games, as seen in Half Life 2 and Halo 2.

Starting the ball rolling, how did you first get started with computers and programming in general? Did you delve into demo creation on anything like Compunet before going into games production?
I remember reading about Cnet and the demo scene in magazines like ZZap64!, but I was never part of it. I didn't have a modem and pretty much relied on hacking game code to figure out the tricks of the trade. I started with a ZX80 back in 1980, upgraded to a ZX81 with an add-on pack which never quite worked - so guess I really had a ZX80.5 - and eventually moved to the C64 around 1983. I just started with BASIC, then Simon's Basic and then later assembly using a borrowed assembler.

What were the first and last things you did on a C64 programming wise?
First was definitely a set of sound effects routines in BASIC. It was the SID chip that captured my imagination initially for some reason, and it stuck too. I still use SID sounds in music production. Last thing was the development work on Plasmatak, a game that was never completed.

If possible, could you spool off a list of all the C64 titles you have worked on? Possibly finding credit for unaccredited work.
I don't have a huge portfolio like many of the other folks you feature on the site. It's pretty much just Herobotix for Hewson, Badlands for Domark, Tran (unreleased), and Plasmatak (unfinished and unreleased). I did contribute to some testing of games when at Domark, but no coding. Because I mostly worked from home in the earlier years, I didn't really have any interaction with other coders in the scene.

What would you say is the game you are most proud of producing on the C64 and other systems? And what games are you not so proud of, and why?
I guess Herobotix, just given that it was the first. It was a labour of love and it was how I learned to program in assembly. It also got a good review in ZZap64! which naturally at the time meant a lot. I'm pretty proud of the work I've done on all the games now. I really wish I could have finished Plasmatak though. I think I was starting to understand how to code and had reverse engineered some of the tricks of the VIC chip by then (by hacking released game code).

Out of all the games you have developed, what would you say was the most fun to work on?

Hard one that. I was obsessed with the first one, Herobotix. Whether that was fun or not is in retrospect somewhat debatable. I really enjoyed doing Badlands because it was the first time I'd worked within a team (Teque London), and also working with a real development environment on a PC.

Tran was one of your unreleased efforts, which was actually complete. It's not a bad game at all, and certainly would have made a good solid budget release at least. You pitched it at a number of companies, but no one took it on. Any ideas why a great game like this was never taken on?
Tran went through a few stages of development with Hewson. At one point, an overall of the graphics was requested which I did. In the end, Tran just came too close to another game they had in their roster (they never said precisely which one). I also pitched it to others like Codemasters, but rather than get a game contract, I got sent other games to convert to the C64 (like one of the Dizzy games, I think). At the time, I wasn't keen on conversions plus I had to return to college. Tran could have been a lot better with some good feedback (it's too hard for one), but I did think it was comparable to other budget releases at the time. I was a little disappointed it never saw a release. I probably should have been more tenacious on the business end though.

Plasmatak was another title that bit the dust, but this time at an early stage of completion. It certainly sounded promising with its Paradroid/Dynablaster ideas. What was the reason for it being scrapped?
Basically, I ran out of time. Again, most work was done during vacation from college. In this case, I really needed to get some cash together so I focused on creating a demo first and then went to the UK to pitch it. The guys I tried were Hewson and Thalamus. Ultimately, Hewson bailed (they were hitting hard times I think and not interested in taking on more folks), so then I tried Thalamus. I remember arriving at their offices and pitching it, but again, they were more interested in hiring coders to work on some projects rather than taking on new game concepts. While I was there, I got to see some early versions of Armalyte, so that was fun.

There was some to-ing and fro-ing about whether I'd work for them but ultimately, I ran out of money and went working for Pizzaland. Suddenly, summer was up, so I had to return to college. I didn't return to Plasmatak since then. At the time, I didn't see the coding as a career and was more concerned with making cash for the next college year, so I don't really think I felt particularly disappointed by the whole thing.

Recently you uncovered some tapes with remains of Plasmatak, but sadly were found to be some corrupted charsets from what we could see. What are the chances of the missing Plasmatak demos being found? Do you feel there is a tape somewhere still to be found?
It's there somewhere, frustratingly. Likelihood of being found is slim at this point though. It really existed, as I recall, as a portfolio of demos illustrating various concepts for the game. Principally, there was an eight-way scroller with parallax star field and rock steady split that I was real happy about (this also included the charsets, the main character design and the main character physics with collisions and inertia all implemented and working well). The explosion propagation routine was a sort of Bomberman concept with an explosion that grew down corridors. My memory of it is hazy, but I do think it was reasonably impressive at the time. Certainly, I hadn't seen anything like it in other games and figured it would be a really cool part of the game mechanic.

Apart from Tran and Plasmatak, were there any other titles you worked on which never saw the light of day?
No, since then I focused more on graphics technology and did a PhD on radiosity and ray tracing. But now I guess the company I founded has been involved in the development of very many games (100's at this point).

With Herobotix, this did get a release that it deserved. Were there any inspirations when developing the game? Were you happy with the results?
I was very happy with the results! It was my first game and while I had huge expectations for it's design that I never met, it was still a fun little game for those of a mapping persuasion. Inspiration at the time was Paradroid. Andrew Braybrook's diaries were something I kept reading over and over. It was a unique aspect of Zzap!64 that actually had articles about the coders and how they did it. At the time, it was my only real insight into game development so I drew a lot of inspiration from that.

Badlands is one of my personal favourites on the C64, doing battle against my nephew for many years in its two-player mode. How did you get onto doing this particular project?
I went to London after three years of college, and wanted to try game development as a job to see how that worked out. Teque London had advertised (can't remember where), I went for an interview with the lads which went well, and Dean Lester (manager) hired me. Incidentally, Dean is now running the Microsoft DirectX team. They had just landed the Badlands conversion and I was the C64 coder along with Barry Costas (on 68000, both ST and Amiga) and Jim McLeod on Spectrum. That was a great three months or so. I ended up leaving to return for further studies at university.

How long did Badlands take to convert? Were there many problems with its development, possibly things you had to drop or squeeze into a single load? Any other stories about it's development?
Three months pretty much. Probably less in fact, because I spent first month developing some routines and a bit of an engine which I really should have been pulling from a previous game, but I'd arrived with nothing of my existing code from previous games. It was a reasonably straightforward port. I remember that we just had the arcade machine from Tengen on free-play, but no cheats. If we wanted to check out the last level, we had to play it all the way through.

I remember Jim and Dean were very good at playing the game, so if we wanted to check out some details of the implemented, we'd ask one of them to start playing. Once they hit the appropriate point, we'd race over and take a peek. Barry had to reverse engineer the graphics by sucking them directly out of the EPROMs with a logic analyzer. We had no support at all from Tengen. I also remember some serious naiveté on my part when asked by Domark about how much memory I had left for music and FX (this was about 60 percent way through the project). I said something like 12 kB, and Barry nearly had a fit! He warned me to low ball the number at this stage, and in the end I ended up with only 4 kB. Luckily, the music and FX came in a 3 kB or so, so I dodged that bullet and learned a valuable planning lesson. I spent a long time squeezing the game into the space available. We had to use compression techniques for the graphics and level data, and in the end even some of the code (which was uncompressed on the fly as needed).

The pain about all this ultimately was that we ended up being the very first (new format) cartridge release on the C64, I think, so we had loads of memory which we just didn't use. Right at the end, it was decided to make it an NTSC release as well, so I had to find out some way of squeezing lots of extra performance out of the game. I actually recorded the development of the game in a diary which I occasionally go back and read for a laugh. It was a fun project.

Some of Domark's back catalogue was converted onto cartridge for the ill-fated C64GS. Did you have any role in the cartridge work; in particular the porting of Badlands to cartridge?
Badlands was ported to cartridge, but I wasn't directly involved in that. No change to the game was made to my knowledge and no extra graphics added, but I couldn't be 100 percent sure about that. I had returned to college by then.

One thing is that Domark seemed to just port the cassette version to cartridge without any real new features to take advantage of the instant loading. Would there have been anything you would have liked to have added to take advantage of the instant loading features?
Well, it would have been great to have a whole heap more memory for the graphics. The diversity of the different tracks in Badlands meant we had to really squeeze down the graphics to fit. Barry had written some neat software to look for similarity in charsets taken from the levels to reduce them all down to the memory budget of the various machines we were developing on. Other than that, the job was to make it as close to the arcade machine as possible. It would have been good to have more sprites for smooth car turning and also a bigger TAN table for smoother trajectories for the cars and rockets. Ultimately, I was pretty happy with the conversion and haven't really given much thought to adding additional value through the cartridge.

How did you do all your coding? Did you use just a C64, or did you use a PC/Amiga to code on before porting down to a C64?
For all the games except Badlands, I used the C64 itself and an assembler. I also didn't have a disk drive which was a pain, so testing was a little tough (I had to suffer tape load times after each crash). The assembler wasn't great and also was unfortunately one-shot only. No assembly code was stored. You typed in the assembly, it got converted to machine code and you ran the game or saved to tape. Of course, this was a crazy way to develop. For Domark, I used an Atari ST and a decent cross assembler. Luxury.

Are there any C64 games which you felt were so appalling and bad, that you wished you had worked on to do a much better job?
I never really looked at games that way. I wasn't so much into playing games as I was into looking at the technology behind them, the graphics routines in particular. I also never really felt strong at game design and tended to start with some graphics effect and reverse engineer a game concept, so I was never really critical of the gameplay. I will say that I wish Parallax was a more spectacular game, because the music for that game was so incredible!

If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you feel you'd add/remove to them? Maybe looking back there were features in some games that you ran out of time to include?
I'd re-do tons of stuff for sure. Herobotix needed better and more varied AI for the robots (and I've always hated respawning, so why I tolerated it in my own game I don't know), more background sound FX and more varied gameplay. Tran definitely needed to be easier and should have had much more varied enemy formations. I also think the ground/running section was underutilized. Badlands was fine. It was close enough to the arcade version, but I would like to have had smoother car turning and handling. Currently it's a little aliased because of a low res TAN table and some non-ideal coding.

I would have liked to have finished Plasmatak. Of all the games, Herobotix probably had most effort in design and I ended up throwing out a huge amount of stuff because of time and lack of coding skill. I had originally wanted the environment to have loads of incidental stuff going on, a city of robots each doing their own thing. I always loved the way that Paradroid gave you that sense of robots trundling around doing their own thing.

Was there a particular programmer, graphic artist or musician who influenced you and possibly gave you inspiration with your own work?
Andrew Braybrook was easily my biggest influence. I also loved Jeff Minter's stuff. Sheep in Space still remains a big favourite. On the graphics side, I think that Bob Stevenson did some great work! The Pawn was really beautiful. I also think that Braybrook revolutionized graphics display on the C64. The bas-relief thing was pretty much all him. While Rob is clearly the king of C64 music, I still preferred Martin Galway's stuff. One of these days I'm going to remix Parallax for the sheer hell of it! Master of Magic was pretty great also as was my own Rob Hubbard favourite, Phantoms of the Asteroid. My interest in the music side has continued. I love to occasionally pop onto RKO to check out the remix stuff, some of which is truly excellent. Major kudos to all involved, and particularly Chris Abbott.

Did you get much chance to actually play games as well as create them? Any particular favourites you had at that time?
I played lots of games, but was still more interested in watching others play. I had a good mate who ended up being playtester on all my games, so I'd spend ages watching him as he played the games. Favourites are Paradroid, Uridium, Impossible Mission (one of the few games I've completed), Beach Head, Sheep in Space and Elite (all time favourite). I also loved some of the two player stuff like Pitstop II and that great, great motocross game Kickstart (I and II).

What are you up to these days? Are you still developing on machines of today? If so, has development changed much since back in your C64 days?
I'm CTO of Havok and we develop for all the current and next-gen game machines. It's just a different universe completely for the old days. Team sizes now are routinely 80+ with development budgets of $20m+. We provide tools and engines for creating physics and animation in games, and the amount of technology behind some current games is just mind boggling. It's great to still be involved and I've a feeling I will never leave the game industry. It's a tough one from a business perspective, but it can be incredibly rewarding.

Do you still own a C64 today, maybe digging it out on occasion to relive old memories?
I do still own my original C64. It doesn't work because I fried it a long time ago doing the reset hack on the cartridge port (third time frying it). If the wires slip, you kill the SID chip and they are pretty hard to replace now. I never got around to it. I've always meant to pick up a second hand one, but today I use CCS64 or VICE instead.

What are your thoughts about the whole concept of retro gaming? Are we a bunch of sad gits desperately trying to cling on to our lost childhoods, or do we genuinely have a point that sometimes you can't quite beat some of the golden oldie games?
I'm undecided! Seriously, there is a strong historical relevance to the retro gaming scene which is great to preserve. Gaming is no longer a cultural oddity or an underground pass-time, it's very much a big business and in time will have lots of significance as it merges with other forms of media and entertainment. It's good to look back and remind ourselves of the genesis of the industry, but I don't buy that the oldies were better. Some were great games, some were appalling games, just like today. I still had a better time playing Half Life and Halo than any game I played in the 8-bit era, apart perhaps from Elite, but the point is that I would not enjoy playing Elite now.

Talking of the present for once, what games do you enjoy playing these days?
Last game I completed was Half Life 2 (I was a huge fan of Half Life 1). I also completed Halo. I loved the Jak & Daxter series on the PS2. Right now, I'm not playing any games but would love to finally get the time to really play Knights of the Old Republic and Halo 2.

To conclude things, is there anything you'd like to say or maybe any questions you would have liked to have been asked, but we forgot to?
I think I've rambled on for long enough. It's fun to have been involved even in a small way in the C64 scene, and I still get a kick out of the C64 emulators and the music remixes. I continue to be amazed at the levels of effort that folks put into this. Big thanks to Frank & CO for getting Badlands up and running. It was sweet indeed to see it after so long.

Thanks for your time Steve, and for releasing the lost Tran! We really hope Plasmatak soon surfaces. And thanks for Badlands, a game that has left battle scars after all the two player matches won and lost.

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