Interview with Ian Oliver
January 1998

 

How did you get started in computers?

When I was about 9 my parents bought me an electronics kit one Christmas. I spent hundreds of hours building various things and learnt a fair amount of electronics from this and then picked up digital stuff from reading magazines. The electronic hobbyist mags of the time started covering early computers such as the SC/MP based machines and I decided I urgently needed one of these things! Now, having a computer at home was totally unheard of (certainly in the UK) but I had various jobs at weekends and after school, so I had a bit of money lying around (too young to drink!).

So with a little help from my parents I bought a Ohio Scientific Superboard II which had a 1MHz 6502, an early Microsoft Basic and 8K of RAM. After several thousand hours pounding away I turned out to be a good programmer and ended up working mainly in assembler for speed/space reasons. Well I say assembler but it was actually typing in hex!

As my school didn't do a Computer Studies course worth mentioning my first educational exposure to computers was when I started a degree in Computer Science at Leeds University in 1980.

When did you first see a Spectrum and what were your first impressions?

At University many of my friends were also hex heads and some of them bought Speccies. I went for a Dragon as I couldn't wait for the Speccy. Must admit the Dragon didn't get much use. My first impression of the Speccy was that it was a neat design but the keyboard was disgusting. I never got to like the keyboard as even my Superboard had proper keys!

I didn't get on too well with Z80 to start with but picked it up after a few days and we wrote a few different languages etc. before deciding that we'd have a go at writing a game.

What was your first game?

I wrote many, many small games on the SuperBoard, Dragon and then Speccy but nothing worth mentioning until Tank Duel. This was written by myself, Graeme Baird and Andy Onions in my student bedroom using a single Speccy and a tape recorder during our final degree year in 1983/1984. We borrowed enough money from various sources to get a batch of 1,100 tapes made (we stuck all the labels on by hand!) and we then started calling all the distributors and telling them about the forthcoming Crash! review. We sold all the tapes very quickly. Armed with our invoices and orders we borrowed enough money from the bank to make more tapes and carried on from there. We ended up selling about 7,000 copies of Tank Duel and shipped them all from our student hall of residence with distributors calling the 'phone on the stairs and asking for Andy or Ian in flat F5! As we made about 2.50 off each tape we suddenly had more money than we knew what to do with so ...

About a year later we sobered up. All the money had gone and it was time to do something else. We were all playing the StarWars arcade game a great deal and people told us it couldn't be done on the Speccy so we wrote StarStrike. And as we put the price up we got 3.50 a copy. And we sold about 60,000 copies! Sadly after this we started employing people and paying accountants, so profitability plummeted. But it was ace while it lasted!

What have you done on the Speccy?

Tank Duel
StarStrike
StarStrike II
conversions of StarGlider to Speccy and Speccy 128
StarFox
Carrier Command
Battle Command.

What do you think of your games? Which is your personal favourite?

I think Tank Duel and StarStrike were both excellent games, but as I loved the arcade originals of both this is understandable. I think StarStrike is still my favourite. StarStrike II was visually stunning (for the time!) but I never really had much confidence in the game play. But others told me it was great.

How did you leave the Spectrum scene? Were you sad to leave?

Well we started doing Amstrad CPC464 stuff, PCW8256 stuff, and then Atari ST, Amiga and PC games. As we were *always* 3D oriented the more power the better. We just drifted away from the Speccy. Yes, I was sad to leave and it was great being around and in the business at the time, but I couldn't go back.

What are you doing now?

I started to specialise in tools for games programmers and we founded Cross Products in 1989. This was bought by Sega in 1994 so now I'm running an R&D subsidiary of Sega Enterprises. I do less programming but my Japanese is better!

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Best was it was priced so low that everyone could buy one. You can't say that about the PC.

The worst was undoubtedly the keyboard. I know people get all misty eyed about it but it really wasn't nice to use. Oh, and Microdrives! Really, really nasty, but better than tape.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

Chuckie Egg - great game play. Oh, hell, I can't remember the rest. Anything and everything.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

We always had some friendly rivalry with Design Design - good guys. And Jon Ritman has always been a good mate - understood gameplay when we were all just writing games to suit our own whims.

Do you use an emulator to play your old games (or any others)?

Yes, but mainly to see my old stuff (sad, sad, sad). As a 3D head modern stuff trips my trigger better than the old Speccy products.

What was the last Speccy game you wrote? Did you leave anything unfinished? (and if so is there any chance we'll ever get to see it!)

Battle Command was the last Realtime Spectum title. I didn't work on this personally though. The last one for me was the Spectum conversions of StarGlider. After doing this for Rainbird they pushed for us to move to the Atari ST. We also did StarFox for Ariolasoft but it wasn't widely released due to their prompt demise - as close to the one that got away as you could like. I started a vertical scrolling game for the Speccy that could do 50fps, but it never came to anything.

Don't you ever feel like writing another Speccy game nowadays just for old times sake? ;-)

I'm sure I'll move back to games writing but not Spectrum. Mortgage!

What do you think about modern games? Can they compete with the classics? Aren't they all presentation and no gameplay?

Some modern games are all presentation and hype with no gameplay. But the same was true in the Speccy days! There are some great modern games; currently I'm giving MotoRacer some hammer.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

Everyone was doing it because they were enthusiastic and loving every minute. Nowadays it's big business. Crash! was truly excellent and the Newsfield guys really helped us out. And I don't think the fact that Andy Onions' father was their landlord made any difference at all!

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Far, far too many to list. One people still remind me about is when I stole a Sinclair C5 off a stand at a show in Olympia and managed to evade the security guards despite being rather too large for it and *much* too drunk.

Have you anything to say to people who still use the Speccy today?

Buy something else immediately and make VERY sure it says "Sega" on the box!

 


Thanks to Ian for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Ian Oliver.