Nigel Spencer / Beam Software,
Added on January 4th, 2011 (8660 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Nigel Spencer and I programmed C64 games for Melbourne House from 1985-1989 including Rock 'n Wrestle, Fist II – The Legend Continues, Bedlam 64, and Sgt. Slaughter's Mat Wars.
How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
I played bass in a synth pop band in the early 80's called The Name (www.girlscanswing.com) and the keyboard player Ken Stephenson built his own digital drum machine and programmed the VIC-20 to trigger it. I was so impressed I bought a C64 and Ken and I wrote a Yamaha DX-7 Editor/Manager for it. Although we never marketed it, we and our friends used it for our Yamaha DX-7 and TX-7 synths. We also wrote an 8-bit sample playback and editing system which had never been done before. It wasn't really marketable because it required Ken's custom built DAC electronics that plugged into the cartridge expansion port. But it gave me a great start in C64 development!
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?
After playing seven days a week for three years in The Name, we all simply got very tired of living on the road without much income. We used to open for well-known Australian bands such as INXS, Divinyls, The Church and The Models. During our extensive rehearsals, we used to play video games all the time in the local video arcade. While I decided that playing music for a living and playing video games for a hobby was fun, switching it around and making video games my job and playing music my hobby would be the way to go.
As I had the C64 for writing music software, I was also playing video games on it. I played The Hobbit and The Way of the Exploding Fist by Melbourne House quite a bit, but I didn't realize they were called Melbourne House because they were based in my own home town until I one day saw them advertising for programmers in the local newspaper. I applied for the job, but after they asked me what pro experience I had programming the C64, I had to admit I was just a home enthusiast and they passed on me. Eventually, they advertised again and so I applied again. They had been unable to find machine code programmers for the C64 so they finally agreed to interview me. I went in to their offices with the sample playback system that Ken and I had written, and although it wasn't the type of software they created, they were impressed at what we had achieved. They offered me a three month probationary position working there and that is how I started my five years with Melbourne House. Obviously, after the three month period was over, they decided to keep me on.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
Yes, it was very very special. At the time, I heavily researched buying my first computer looking at all the features that the different computers offered. The C64 was the obvious winner with superior sound and sprite support. Plus it had a much more comfortable keyboard feel than the Sinclair Spectrum or other computers at that time. It was really the king of home computers in the early 80's! Unfortunately, Commodore's marketing department was very poor because the Commodore Amiga that followed was an awesome computer and the Amiga 500 really should have taken over from the C64, but that didn't happen, simply due to inadequate marketing. So very sad. The Amiga was an awesome games computer but never really got the chance it deserved.
What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
Rock 'n Wrestle: Rock 'n Wrestle was the first game I worked on at Melbourne. The lead programmer on the game was Gregg Barnett who had developed The Way of the Exploding Fist and the earlier Hungry Horace games. We were so tight on memory (as we always were with the C64 games) we even put data in the black areas of the in-game screen. It is not visible of course.
Fist II – The Legend Continues: The next game was Exploding Fist II that was basically the Exploding Fist fighting engine combined with a platform game consisting of 400+ screens that made up the volcano that you had to climb to complete the game. I wrote a screen editor to build the scrolling levels and then made all the levels using it. We had to switch character sets frequently during gameplay to keep the graphics varied. The only thing all the character sets had in common was a blue brick. So in the game, whenever the screen was filled with a blue brick wall, we could switch over the character set without the player noticing. Though you will notice, whenever walking past a blue brick wall, there is a very slight pause while the character data is being switched over.
While working on these levels I actually printed them all out on a dot matrix printer and had the entire volcano laid out on the floor of my office so I could check how it all fitted together. There were a number of really annoying holes in the levels that matched up with holes in the levels below them, so the player could accidentally drop from near the top of the volcano right down to the lower levels. Yeah, it was pretty mean, but at the time we thought it was a cool element.
Bedlam 64: This started as a Xevious type clone and I used my level editor I wrote for Fist II to create vertical scrolling levels for a space game. It was pretty much left up to me and my programming buddy Trevor Nuridan to come up with a good shooter for the C64. I did most of the gameplay, level design and sound programming while Trevor was responsible for the cool alien formations and boss monsters. I think this is the game I had the most fun programming on the C64. If any of you readers haven't played it, it really is worth loading up into a C64 emulator and taking a look. I have noticed that some C64 emulators aren't able to recreate the sprite multiplexing for the big boss monsters we implemented, but VICE does emulate it faithfully.
Sgt. Slaughter's Mat Wars: After starting my C64 game career programming Rock 'n Wrestle, it is cool that my last C64 game was also a wrestling game, though this was very different in style. It required taking a wrestler through many fights to become the top dog. It involved earning money and it even let you bribe other managers to throw the fight. The main ring in this game consisted of three character sets so it looked almost like a scrolling hires multicolour screen. It used real-time scaling of hires screens which was a first on the C64 and it simply added a lot more eye candy to the user interface without the long painful load times. Nowadays, no one would even notice, but back then simply loading and displaying a single hires screen from the floppy disk was a long painful process.
Although the last game I worked on for Melbourne House wasn't a C64 game, it was a conversion of Cinemaware's C64 Rocket Ranger for the NES console.
What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
Most of my C64 work was done for Melbourne House. Though, during that time I did do some freelance work developing medical tutorial cartridges for the C64 that demonstrated how the heart and digestive system worked. These were custom 256 kB carts that medical salesmen could use on the road instead of bringing disk drives.
What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Not really much different today than it was back then. Sure, the computer speeds have changed and also the amount of data involved, but the job itself is much the same designing the code structure, implementing it and debugging it. Probably the biggest change is the increased size of teams that are needed to develop a modern game.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
Back in the C64 days, a game would take around nine months to design and complete. The teams would generally be so much smaller than today e.g. two programmers, one artist and one part-time musician. The costs were much lower. This is why there were so many original titles back then as there was not nearly as much money being gambled on the game's success. Nowadays, with huge teams and multi-million dollar costs, publishers aren't about to gamble on original titles returning their development costs. That is what I miss the most about those days programming for the C64 and why there were such a huge amount of original games developed for it.
What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
Originally, we used Acorn BBC computers to program the C64 as they had much faster drives that also were dual disk and dual sided. They had the assembler and linker apps onboard on ROM's which meant they didn't have to load these programs from disk (we used the BBC ADE assembler back then). They were connected directly to the expansion port on the C64 to send code and data at high speed. Eventually that changed to the PC XT with a hard drive. It seemed huge at the time compared with floppies, but it was only 20 MB at first. The PC with a hard drive wasn't all that much faster than the BBC's with their fast floppies.
As I mentioned before, I created the level editor for the scrolling C64 games like Fist II and Bedlam. I also wrote a synth editor and a sound effects manager for our in-house musician Neil Brennan.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Nope. All my games were eventually published. The only game I remember Melbourne House cancelling was Inspector Gadget (for the C64) which had overrun its schedule and was very buggy. I didn't work on that project, thank God!
Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
I loved working on them all for different reasons. Trying to pack in so many levels into Fist II in so little memory was a real challenge, but I still had a ball getting the atmosphere for the levels right. I still think that was an awesome game that added so much more than the original. I just wish it had a "save game" feature because completing it in one sitting really was a mammoth task.
Bedlam was also a favourite of mine. It is so easy to pick up and play, yet so very challenging to complete. I always loved scrolling shooters so I was so pleased to be able to make my own.
If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
There is nothing I would remove from the games I worked on, but I wish that some of them supported game saves so they didn't have to be completed in one sitting. On the other hand, to incorporate features like that meant cutting down on graphics and gameplay. Melbourne House was always more focused on graphics and gameplay, and that is also why none of our games had credits in them. We simply weren't prepared to cut other features to cram credits into memory. Of course, we got credits on the box art but in-game the closest I ever got to a credit was having my name "Nigel" show up on the initial high score screen in Bedlam.
Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
I loved The Hobbit by Melbourne House and wish I had been working there at the time they did that. The lead programmer Phillip Mitchell (a very smart guy) was still working there when I was hired in late 1984 but was working mainly as a producer then. Certainly I loved the early Namco and Atari arcade games but at least I got to work on the Namco games like Pac-Man and Dig Dug later on in my career.
Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
There were other C64 games by other companies that I loved including Lode Runner, Elite, Pitstop II, Monty on the Run and Thing on a Spring. I really liked the Gremlin Graphics games and also any game with music by Ben Daglish and Rob Hubbard.
Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
Nope, if I had felt that way I would have made sure to fix the problem before they were released. Melbourne House simply wouldn't release a game that would reflect badly on their reputation for releasing a quality product.
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 think the programmer that had the most influence on me was Gregg Barnett who programmed the Fist games and Rock 'n Wrestle. He was not only a talented programmer and producer, but he also knew how to get the very best out of programmers that worked under him. Plus he was just a great guy to know personally. I will always think well of Gregg.
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.
One thing I remember from those days was when Sgt. Slaughter was about to be released. Because it had a large number of hires screens, we hired a programmer who knew the 1541 drive inside out to program us a high speed disk loader. It worked great loading hires screens in just a few seconds. But just a day before the final release was to be delivered to the duplicators, we found a strange bug. Occasionally, the wrong wrestler sprites were being loaded. I debugged the code, but every thing looked good. I then realized what was happening. The names of the sprite files were something like "1spr", "2spr", "3spr", etc. While there was error checking on the data being loaded from the disk drive, there was no error checking on the filenames being passed at high speed to the drive. So for example, when a name like "1spr" was sent, bits could get corrupted and the name could arrive as "zspr." That was OK because it did not exist and would get sent again. However, if it was just a bit that got screwed up on the number so that "1spr" became "3spr", then that file would exist and so the wrong file would get loaded. We tried to get in touch with the disk programmer but he couldn't be found in time. In the end, I changed the names to use two numbers e.g. "11spr", "22spr", etc. The chance of both numbers corrupting was very unlikely so when "11spr" became "31spr", the file just couldn't be found and a reload was attempted. It was a kludgy fix but it worked and allowed us to release the game on time. So when you look at the disk data for this game, you will notice the duplicate numbers in the file names – and now you will know the reason why!
When System 3 released International Karate in 1986, it suspiciously looked like The Way of the Exploding Fist. We pulled all the sprites out of their game to have a look. They all matched the sprite animations from Fist with minor art tweaks to make them look a little different. They sure were close enough in all regards to make us think that they had ripped off our game! We contacted them about this but it simply wasn't worth the amount of money and effort required to make a solid legal case against them. We at least made a formal complaint. It really was very suspicious.
There is a very funny story about how Andrew Pavlumanolakos got his job with Melbourne House. This is how I was told it went down:
Andrew was an engineering student who wanted some part time programming work so he answered a newspaper ad looking for C64 programmers. He rolled up to the interview with Melbourne House owner Fred Milgrom (who was also a very capable programmer) with the C64 technical manual under his arm. He sat down in front of Fred who proceeded to ask him questions about programming and the C64. From time to time, Andrew would open the manual, read for a minute, and then answer the question.
Fred: "You don't seem to be so familiar with the C64." Andrew: "No, I'm not, just what I read on the train ride on my way to the interview." Fred: "Well, why should I hire you to program the C64?" Andrew: "Well, it seems pretty straight forward to me. Just tell me what you would like me to program and I will go home and do it for you."
This was when most C64 owners couldn't afford the expensive 1541 disk drive and were using the datasette to load games. Anyone that is familiar with cassette loads know a full game took about 15 minutes to load. Fred wanted a custom fast loader for cassette games and asked Andrew to look into doing that. The next morning Andrew walked back into the office and gave Fred the first version of Pavloda, which loaded games off cassette at a similar speed to the disk drive. Pavloda was used on all Melbourne House cassette games after that and was also licensed out to many other C64 developers. Of course Andrew got the job!
This reminds me of a cute little trick that some C64 owners knew about to cut the datasette load times down to half. When a C64 program was loaded from cassette, it was actually loaded twice and the second load was compared to the first to validate that it was a good load. So with a game that took 15 minutes to load, you could simply hit the run/stop key after seven and a half minutes and type 'run' and press return. The game was already in memory and would run without problems. Of course, fast loaders like Pavloda abandoned this approach.
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.
The last game I did for Melbourne House was a conversion for Cinemaware of their game C64 Rocket Ranger for the NES. On completing that game, Cinemaware offered me a position working for them in Los Angeles. While Cinemaware has long gone, I still work with many people from that company at Mass Media in Los Angeles.
Other games I have worked on since Melbourne House include:
Amiga: TV Sports Baseball
PC: Bo Jackson Baseball
Super Nintendo: Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball
Super Nintendo: Sports Illustrated Championship Football & Baseball
Sega Genesis: Tecmo Super Hockey
PlayStation: Jimmy Johnson Football
PlayStation: Civilization II
Nintendo 64: Namco Museum 64
Game Boy Advanced: Pac-Man Collection
Game Boy Advanced: Namco Museum
GameCube: Namco Museum
PlayStation 2: Namco Museum
Xbox: Namco Museum
PlayStation 2: Metal Arms – Glitch in the System
Game Boy Advanced: Rock 'n Roll Racing
Game Boy Advanced: The Lost Vikings
PlayStation 2: Full Spectrum Warrior
PlayStation 2: Full Spectrum Warrior Ten Hammers
PlayStation 3: Stuntman Ignition
PlayStation 3: Saints Row 2
PlayStation 2: Marvel Super Hero Squad
PlayStation Portable: Marvel Super Hero Squad
PlayStation Home: Midway Carnival
What are you up to these days?
I'm currently converting True Crime Hong Kong (Xbox 360) to the PC. If you like 3D sandbox games, you will like this game.
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.
Andreas, thanks so much for all your work keeping the history of the C64 alive! It really is something all video gamers should be aware of. It really was a very special time for me. /Nigel Spencer, Synth Zone (www.synthzone.com)
back to the list of available interviews