Carleton Handley / Walking Circles
Added on February 17th, 2021 (578 views)
Hello and welcome Carleton! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi, I'm Carleton Handley, a 49-year-old programmer living in the north of England.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My older brother was into video games, so we had an early Pong console and an Atari VCS. Then the C64 was all the rage in the playground. I wanted one so badly, I sacrificed my school trip to France and combined a birthday and Christmas present into this one gift. Even then, it was a lavish gift, but one which has shaped the rest of my life to some extent.
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?
I taught myself 6502 BASIC in my bedroom at home. I'd left school at the earliest opportunity and was idly looking for any job I could find. I went with a friend to a meeting with a careers officer and very fortuitously, he had information on a small government-backed training scheme for video games programmers near where I lived. It was run by a company called Icon Design, formerly Lothlorien. I went along for an interview there and was placed as a trainee at Walking Circles. After a few months, they needed a programmer to work full-time on Wanderer, so I left the training scheme to become the programmer on that.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
It was the computer I owned when I decided to learn to code. The C64 is very poor for BASIC programming, but you can get a lot done quite easily with some of the hardware features like sprites, etc. It also had a much better keyboard than other similar home computers of the time.
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.
This was the first game I worked on, but the second one to get a physical release. As I was still a trainee, it was mostly converting some Z80 and a lot of help from the more senior programmers at Walking Circles. It's a game completely unsuited to the C64 and runs at a terrible framerate. I think the poker-style game between the shooting sections works quite well, though.
This was an official licence of a big UK comedy show of the time. The game design was effectively written by one of the writers of the show, based on a story about six world leaders fighting for supremacy. Beat-'em-ups were still in their infancy, but that's not to say this was a leader in the pack. We'd already had the likes of IK and Exploding Fist which were much better games for the C64.
We only handled the 8-bit versions of the game; the Amiga/ST version was done by Ste Bak, who was prolific at the time. So much so that when we visited him, he was working on about four games at once on different STs.
This was a conversion of an Atari/Tengen coin-op. We had the cabinet in the office, and it was a fun but hard game to play. I think we did a pretty good conversion of it, but looking back, there are a couple of dodgy bugs.
Skull and Crossbones
Another Atari/Tengen arcade cabinet, but much less well-known than APB. It's possible it wasn't even released in the UK arcades. Again, we had the cabinet, so quite faithfully represented all the levels, etc. by playing the game a lot. My conversion suffers from not having the two-player mode and rather pedestrian gameplay, although that can be said of the arcade original.
Rugby: The World Cup
This was an unofficial game we made to piggy-back on the Rugby World Cup of that year. I think England had a good team at the time, so there was a lot of public interest. I was playing a lot of Kick Off 2 at the time, so we tried to replicate that style. Unfortunately, the C64 hardware doesn't lend itself to the sport of rugby. There was a much better rugby game released at the same time by Audiogenic which reviewed better in Zzap!64, but my game oddly got the better review in rival magazine Commodore Force. I've since heard rumours that CF actually printed the review scores the wrong way around.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I did all of my C64 games whilst hired as a programmer at Walking Circles, which was a developer-for-hire company. Four of my five published games were for Domark, and the other was for Elite Systems. I was mostly a C64 programmer, but back then we didn't have QA or designers as such, so some of the work involved doing those kinds of tasks. You'd also create things like map editors and other tools to help with each project. Usually, these were written for DOS.
Walking Circles also self-published a compilation of games for a word processor made by Amstrad. It was called Distractions and contained quick conversions of Graham Stafford's Spectrum games On The Run, 2112 AD and N.E.X.O.R. We'd often get orders in over a couple of weeks, and then we'd spend an afternoon hand-mastering the disks and sticking on labels, folding inlay cards and packing them.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
Much the same as any office job, I guess. Sitting at a desk typing, having chats with colleagues, making brews, etc. If we were working on an arcade conversion, we might spend some time playing that.
At lunchtime, we'd often play games. Stunt Car Racer on two connected Amigas was a favourite. We also had a TV in the office and on Friday afternoon would watch a UK kids' TV show called Knightmare which was quite good fun.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
Most of my games were developed over a four-to-five-month period, I think. As we were such a small outfit, most of the company would be working on the same game at the same time, with different people on the C64, Spectrum and 16-bit versions. We even did a few PC games back then.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I was lucky enough to use the Programmer's Development System which was a quite sophisticated bit of kit which attached to the C64 from a PC. This allowed for rapid assembling of the 6502 and great debugging features. It also meant you didn't use any of the C64's limited memory by having to have the assembler itself in the memory. Also, you didn't lose a lot of work if your code crashed badly.
As mentioned earlier, we did write the odd tool depending on the project's need. These were mainly map editors.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Over the years, there have been loads. With regards to the C64, Behemoth was the only game I worked on at Walking Circles which was cancelled, for various reasons. A work-in-progress build and more background is available on the Games That Weren't website.
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?
The answer to all of these is APB. It's based on a fun arcade game which I enjoyed playing during development, but we really went to town in putting the whole of the arcade map into the 8-bit versions. This meant we used up quite a lot of memory just for that, and sadly ended up making the game a multi-load, something which I'd try to avoid now. It's still a pretty decent game with some rough edges.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
In APB, I'd get rid of the multi-load parts using today's better compression tools. I'd also improve the collision detection and add a couple more aids to help the player know what to do. Due to the large maps, I'd also probably add a free-driving mode so people could move about in the world.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
One of my favourite arcade games ever is Wonderboy. I think the conversion was out before I'd even left school, though. The C64 version isn't too bad gameplay-wise, but the graphics are pretty poor. I reckon there's scope there for a much better version.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Yeah, I was a big gamer. Thrust was often played in my lunchtime. Other favourites are Dropzone, Pitstop II, Delta, Leader Board, IK+ and for something a little more leftfield, I'll pick Piracy, a fun boardgame-type thing. I got an Amiga quite early on, so the later years of the C64 are lost to me. Somebody was amazed the other day that I'd never played any of the Last Ninja games.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
I always look back at work and see what I could have done better. Some things, like Wanderer, could have been made with a better frame rate by more skilled programmers, but it's still a poor game beyond that. The gameplay in Spitting Image is really basic; the same goes for Rugby. These would be done better today, as you'd have a dedicated designer making much better choices.
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?
Andrew Braybrook's diaries in Zzap!64 magazine fascinated me, but I never thought I'd be capable of such a thing. Then a friend who did some coding encouraged me and lent me an assembler and gave me some advice, and I found it tricky but doable. Once I started at Walking Circles as a trainee, all the programmers there were really helpful with their time and knowledge.
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.).
My Walking Circles days weren't very rock-and-roll. When I started, I was too young to drink, and by the time I was 19 and had a child, most of my attention went there.
One nice thing we used to do was to have a team meal upon completion of a project. This was often at the Dutch Pancake House in Manchester, which I loved. Another time, Graham drove us to a lovely pub in the Pennines, where I had too much to drink and was sick in the back of his car on the drive home. Not my finest moment.
My friends were impressed that I played arcade cabinets at work, we had several different ones during my time there, so we'd often get the bus into the office on a weekend and play whatever game we had in at the time. Race Drivin' and Hot Rod were a couple of the better games we'd go to play.
How long were you active for? When and why did you quit, or did you just move on to other machines?
I never quit. I worked until about 1991 on the C64 and then did some PC and Amiga work for Walking Circles. They closed, so I moved to Tiertex and then Software Creations, both companies with a C64 pedigree, but by the time I worked for them, they were doing console stuff. The lead programmer on the FIFA games I worked on at Software Creations was Ste Ruddy, who wrote some of the best C64 games around. I still work as a programmer for a living, but on iPhone apps.
You have returned to the scene after a number of years and are active again doing games, which I'm very happy about. How did that come about, and what drew you back in?
I consider myself a games programmer, but it's not something I've been able to do a lot of in my working life for the last few years, so I initially coded some things for the iPhone, but they made zero money.
One day, I was looking through some of my old C64 source code and modified the Behemoth code so that it assembled in Kick Assembler, so I could see it running again. I enjoyed coding 6502 so much, and the quick turnaround of code to something on screen, so I decided to write a Picross game for the C64. This turned into Grid Pix which will be published by RGCD and Psytronik.
I then took some more time off from the C64. A project I was going to work on in my spare time fell through, and at the same time I got injured which stopped me running, so I had the mindset to code a game and the spare time to do it. This led to me starting Millie and Molly.
Developing for the C64 is dead easy these days. What tools are you using?
You think it's dead easy? Modern tools and progress in game design make some things easier, but it's still quite a challenge to pull it all together into a meaningful whole. I use Kick Assembler along with Sublime Text and a plug-in. I test on the Vice emulator. The debug functionality in there is the only thing which is worse than my original set-up back in the 1980s. The artist provided his work in CharPad, and the musician just sent me SID files. I write the occasional tool (like the Millie and Molly level exporter) in Visual Studio using C#.
Dead easy compared to the old days I mean. :) Anyhow, thank you very much 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.
Thanks to anybody who is helping keep the Commodore 64 alive!
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