Interview with Bob Pape
November 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

When I left school I worked in Mettoys (they made Corgi cars and later went on to make the Dragon home computer) as a production trainee, basically going around the factory and offices learning everything for a couple of years. I got a job as an operator in the computer room there on their mainframe and that got me hooked. I bought a TRS-80 when it came out, then a Jupiter Ace because I wanted to learn Forth, and then a Spectrum because it was in colour and had so much software available for it.

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

Probably through an ad in the mags. I'd bought Sinclair kit before - Radionics electronic set, a Cambridge programmable calculator so I knew that they were an OK company. I'd missed out the ZX80\81 because my TRS-80 did what they did only better but of course it was in black & white.

I'd worked in a shop selling home computers and Atari VCS's for a while so I knew that the Spectrum was a better machine than the VIC 20 or Atari 400\800 even if the software at the time was a bit ropy. To be honest I liked the idea of a computer you could slip in a pocket - even if it was a pretty big pocket!

What was your first game?

The first that got published was RAMPAGE for Activision but I'd written some stuff before that to get to grips with machine code. I did write an add on to The Quill adventure system that gave you all kinds of smart things like text compression, split screen scrolling, 42 CPL display etc. and showed it to them but they weren't interested. I put that and a few other things on a demo tape, sent it off to Catalyst Coders and got the job. I found out later just why they were prepared to take on a complete novice for a major product like RAMPAGE - it was Activision's big Xmas release that year - when I was interviewed by the Fraud Squad about 'certain irregularities' the company got up to.

What have you done on the Speccy?

RAMPAGE, R-TYPE, TUSKER (groan), DRAGON BREED and a few bits and pieces here and there. I did 4 educational games for a friend as well which few people have seen and I also wrote the code for an add-on keyboard and music synthesizer called the Echosoft which Curry's sold a load of one Christmas.

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

I'm still amazed people paid good money for them! RAMPAGE really opened my eyes to what people would accept : the AI of the monsters is non-existent and the sound was done in a couple of hours but people still went out and bought it thinking they were taking home a real arcade game. I suppose it's like going to the theatre, the people only see the lights and colour in front of them while behind the scenes it's all held together with string and sticky tape and everyone's having a nervous breakdown.

Spectrum R-TYPE was my favourite game, it was a real laugh coding it with the guys doing the other version all of us banged up in an office in Fareham for 3 months. TUSKER was a nightmare though and most of that was down to Mark Cale at System 3, just about everyone in the industry worked for them once and never worked for them again, with good reason.

Who came up with the idea of making R-Type so colourful? It certainly looks better than a monochrome version ever could! :-)

Well I certainly didn't want to see another monochrome shoot-em-up because I thought that was a real cop out. I'd seen LIGHTFORCE so I knew it was technically possible to do and moving everything on characters meant you got the colour but also the speed as well.

I really hated the Hewson games because they boasted super-smooth movement but when you actually looked at them they only ever had about 4 or 5 sprites on the screen at once, which of course you couldn't do with a game like R-TYPE. The trick of course was to have the background scroll on pixels at the same time, it gives the overall illusion that everything is running smoothly as well.

Why did the first release of R-Type have two level 7's instead of a level 7 & 8?

That's down to David Aubrey Jones I'm afraid, Mr. Speedlock himself. Originally I wrote my own high speed tape loading routine for the game but it was just too fast for the duplicators and they couldn't get a reliable master made so they passed the code onto David for him to do his magic. I know the final copy I sent off had 8 different levels because I'd written a program to create the game and levels automatically to save time and what's more I'd tested the whole game before sending it off thanks to a Multiface and an invulnerability POKE.

Unfortunately after David did his stuff the game ended up being sent to the duplicators with two level 7's - if you've ever seen David Speedlock his games then you'd know that the whole process was done in his bedroom and things could get very complicated as he messed about with his ST to get things right. I think he just got mixed up at the end but nobody ever sent me a sample copy from the few they run off before bulk duplicating to test so it ended up in the shops that way.

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

The Spectrum just died out, it was the age of the 16 bit Atari and Amiga and the old 8 bit machines with lousy sound and colour handling just couldn't cut it any more. I don't know if the right word is sad, regret might be a better one, I'd spent all that time learning to get the best out of a machine and then had to chuck it all in and start again on another machine.

What are you doing now?

Looking for a job! I think I'm one of the last one-man-band programmers around and work has just about dried up because people now want rendered FMV's, 3D engines, motion capture, CGI graphics and all the rest.

I've been offered work in London but I've got the cat and house to look after in Swansea and I really hate London so it looks like I'm staying here. The joke of course is that people are getting all these wonderful eye candy effects in modern product but with playability tacked on almost as an afterthought!

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Best : The price meant everybody had the opportunity to become a programmer for a relatively small outlay. The simplicity of the hardware also meant that you could concentrate on writing game code not having to fight the machine at every step. Even the low cost of software meant that you could take risks with game designs safe in the knowledge you weren't going to have to risk investing millions in cartridges. Can you see games like FAT WORM BLOWS A SPARKY or TRAPDOOR or CHAOS appearing on a Playstation or N64 today?

Worst: Attribute handling, absolutely. This had such a knock on effect with coders it meant that you had to write the games around the attributes rather than just decide on an idea and go with it. That and crap tape loading which is almost like a rite of passage for those of us who grew up with the machine!

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

TRAPDOOR, it made me laugh out loud when I first saw it and there's some very clever coding going on in the game.

POGO, the Q-Bert clone from Ocean which even today I'll play if I feel like a challenge - the colour handling on that is amazing and the sound is so crisp and clear.

DYNAMITE DAN 1 and 2, lots of multi-channel sound effects, music, jingles and much better gameplay than Jet Set Willy.

Least favourite I suppose has to go to MR. WIMPY which has got to be the most bug-ridden piece of rip-off software any major company has ever put out. And you have to play that annoying sub-game before you even get to the Burger Time screen!

A lot of people think of Jet Set Willy as the ultimate Speccy platform game - why do you disagree?

Basically it's Manic Miner with more rooms and I'd put MM way ahead of JSW when it comes to gameplay and originality (even though MM itself "borrows" heavily from MINER 2049'er).

It's seriously bugged in that you can't finish the game without hacking the code, I'll draw a veil over the "feature" of visiting the wrong room at the wrong time and of course there's the multiple death syndrome if you fall into a room in the wrong place.

I'm not saying it's the absolute pits - I'd put KOKOTONI WILF and TECHNICIAN TED below it - just that something like the DYNAMITE DAN series is more enjoyable to play at the end of the day.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

The only artist I ever rated was Mark Jones who did all the graphics for my games and was probably the best in the business. I have seen some real awful stuff from other graphic artists, usually they know nothing about the machine itself and supply graphics that look great but could never be used due to size and colours. Music-wise is a bit more difficult as I don't think the Spectrum ever managed to compete with the C64 when it came to tunes so in the best Oscar traditions I'll say "No award".

Other coders would be people like Mike Singleton, Don Priestley, David Webb and Rob Hylands - people who made the Spectrum do things you thought it couldn't.

For my benefit (and others) could you 'remind' me what David Webb and Rob Hylands wrote (I recognise the names...)?

David Webb is perhaps more famous for the books he wrote rather than games though he did write STARION for Melbourne House. 'Advanced Spectrum Machine Language' was where he published the code for things like high resolution colour graphics, drawing on the border and some very nice screen and keyboard addressing programs. He was doing technical stuff with the Spectrum that no one had ever done before.

Rob Hylands wrote only one game for the Spectrum, SUPER WONDERBOY ON MONSTER ISLAND I think it was, but he was writing routines for people like me behind the scenes for years. He wrote the multi-channel sound driver for R-TYPE for me and I know he had a hand in about 15 other games. Technically he is a superb coder and can pick up a machine and start coding for it nearly straight away.

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!)

The last game was DRAGON BREED (with the terrible ad-line "Take heed, it's Dragon Breed" <ouch>) and there's nothing left I'm afraid.

There is a three quarters finished copy of Colossal Cave I wrote for The Quill to show off the add-on I wrote but that's on a C90 tape somewhere in the attic and that's where it's staying!

(Shame!)

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


I still have the PDS development kit so there's nothing to stop me if I wanted to but I've forgotten all the technical stuff I'd need to make it worthwhile so it's a bit of a non-starter. I did write a sort-of Spectrum program the other day for the PC, it's a Screen Saver for Windows that loads in Spectrum SCREEN$ complete with flashing borders, loading bars, attributes and sound. That was done just for a laugh with the graphical help of Mark Jones. I gave a copy to a friend at Codemasters who tells me it's spread to most of the computers there, which I think is only fair after all the budget games of theirs I bought!


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

No, I hate playing my old games because I know where all the bugs and glitches are. That and after coding a game every day for several months the very last thing I want to do is sit down and play it again.

I'm currently playing old PC Engine games on an emulator though which is a lot of fun, with limited space but decent sound and graphics the quality of gameplay in some of these old games is incredible.

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

As you've probably worked out by now I think that gameplay in a game is everything, an idea that a lot of modern game designers seem to have forgotten. Look how many driving and fighting games there are today, they only exist because the last driving and fighting game made money so it's a safe bet to go with another one.

The only modern game I've seen which actually has a soul and is not afraid to be different is PARAPPA THE RAPPER which was obviously written by someone who didn't care what the Suits said and wrote it just for themself.

To be honest the vast majority of Spectrum games aren't worth playing again and it's only through hindsight you realize how bad they really were (and I'm including some of my own stuff here). But I have the feeling that people will be saying the same thing about Playstation games in 10 years time.

Unfortunately a lot of the presentation that is tacked onto a modern game is there because the players want it, even though that 5 minute rendered FMV sequence that took 6 months to prepare will only be watched once when the game is bought, then never again.

Is it easier to write for the PC than it was on the Speccy - less hardware restrictions etc?

No, it's easier to write for the Spectrum because you know everybody's Spectrum is going to be exactly the same as yours so you don't have to make allowances anywhere. There's more hardware for the PC but that just makes programmers lazy in that they don't have to stretch themselves to achieve results. A good example of that is processor speed, why bother optimizing your code to make it run faster when you can put on the side of the box that the minimum hardware spec for the game is a Pentium 200?

True story...the testing for DRAGON BREED was done by Charles Cecil (now head of Revolution and producing the BROKEN SWORD games) who played through it once then said "that's it, it's finished" and sent it off to be duplicated. The last PC game I did not only had to go through 200 hours of bug testing but something called 'compatibility testing" in the U.S. where they run it across as many different PC setups as they can, and it has to work on every combination of hardware before they'll pass it.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

I suppose I miss the simplicity of it all, that if you had an idea no matter how weird for a game then you actually did stand a chance of seeing it developed and on sale. Which of course is impossible today unless you have a PC and\or a Yaroze and the money to go with it. And when "Full Price Game" meant a selling price of 9.99. <g>

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

I was owed a payment for TUSKER from Mark Cale at System 3 so I asked him for a cheque. He pulled out his cheque book to show only one cheque left and that, he explained, was to pay the rent on the offices this month so could I hang on until he got a new book from the bank? I agreed and when I left someone asked me if I'd been paid. I told them what happened and he said "Mark does that to everybody. He keeps a cheque book with one cheque in and shows it to people who ask him for money and gives them a sob story about how he can't pay. The real cheque book is in his desk".

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

If it does the job you want it to do then why change? There's a lot of computer snobbery around today fuelled by the component makers - if you haven't got the latest processor, 3D chip, soundcard, make of RAM, software version etc. then you can't do the job properly.

If you're using a Spectrum to do a job - be it running some hardware, keeping records, developing software - and it does exactly what you want it to do then stick with it. The same for goes playing games, if you can play the games you want to on a Spectrum or an emulator then why bother buying a console and the games that go with it for 50 quid a pop?


Thanks to Bob for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Bob Pape.