Interview with Ste Pickford
November 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

My older brother John was always into computers from being at school, I was just into comics and drawing when I was younger. John got a ZX81 for Christmas in 1981. I was quite interested and had a go at a little programming, but was most excited when he wrote a little drawing program that I could use to draw pictures of comic characters on the screen. I think we both had computer pictures we had done printed in 2000ad comic in those days.

John started working at a developer called Binary Design as part of their very first team, and I was allowed to do two weeks work experience there (two weeks off school!). I loved it and they offered me a job when I left school, which I took.

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

John saved his pennies and got a Spectrum one or two years after the ZX81, not long after they came out. Obviously we were amazed by the hi-resolution, colour and sound! I was initially amazed by Bug Byte's Invaders, which had pixel movement, and the two Quicksilva games, Invaders and Meteor Storm, which claimed to have real speech. I could never really make out what they said though.

What was your first game?

The first game I worked on professionally was the Amstrad version of Ghosts & Goblins for Elite. I was still at school and the programmer Nigel Alderton (who wrote half of Commando on the Spectrum) got in touch and I did the graphics for him freelance. They were pretty poor but the title screen I did (also used on the C64 version) was good, and I'm still proud of that now.

I did the title screen for an adventure game John sold to Software Projects called Ziggurat, and I did about five or six title screens during my two weeks work experience, including Hocus Focus on the Spectrum I think. The first proper graphics I did for a Spectrum game were for 180 by Mastertronic. This was my first project I worked on when I started at Binary full time. The hand which moves about is actually copied from my own right hand, but it was really difficult to do 'cos I also needed my right hand to control the sprite editor I was using! I had to plot a couple of pixels, bring my hand up again, memorise it, plot a couple more pixels etc...

What have you done on the Speccy?

1985 Ziggurat Title screen only Software Projects
1986 Death Wake Font only Quicksilva
1986 Max Headroom Font & title screen only Quicksilva
1986 Glider Rider Font & title screen only Quicksilva
1986 Hocus Focus Title screen only Quicksilva
1986 Omega Mission Title screen only Quicksilva
1986 Glass Title screen only Quicksilva
1986 180 Graphics Mastertronic
1986 Xeno Graphics Grand Slam
1987 Zub Graphics Mastertronic
1987 Defcom Most graphics Quicksilva
1987 Hyperbowl Graphics Quicksilva
1987 Feud Graphics Mastertronic
1987 Motos Graphics Mastertronic
1987 Raster Scan Graphics Mastertronic
1987 Amaurote Graphics Mastertronic
1987 Duet Title screen only Elite Systems

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

I'm proud of 180. It was my first real project and I was involved in the design. We set out to make the best darts game there was. It doesn't sound much now but we succeeded and the game was a big success. People still remember the hand sprite!

I'm most proud of the trio of games I did with my brother; Feud, Zub & Amaurote. These were all designed by John, and it was a real struggle to persuade people to give us a go at developing our original ideas (and it's still the same today...). They all have flaws, but they were all high quality with interesting gameplay.

What's the story behind 'Zub' originally being called 'Zob'?

John originally called the game Zob, and that was its title all the way through development, up until we were ready to master the game. I think the word came from an episode of Blackadder or something like that, but it was chosen just because it sounded funny.

As we were finishing up Andy Hieke (the boss of Binary) got an angry phone call from Ron Harris (I think, someone high up at Mastertronic anyway). He'd been in a meeting with the French distributors showing them his list of titles for the next quarter, and they were all outraged by this title Zob. I turns out that its French slang for a penis!

Ho ho, we laughed for about two minutes, then we realised that we had to somehow change the title of this finished game in about an hour before it was sent to the duplicators. Zub was the easiest to change it to. I think on one of the title screens, maybe spectrum, the top of the 'o' was just masked out with a black attribute to make the 'u'.

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

I wasn't part of a Spectrum scene, I was a video game artist / designer, and I still am. As new computers came out, we started developing for them. I wish still had a real spectrum to play about on, but I bet no tapes would load anymore. I certainly don't miss microdrives!

What are you doing now?

My brother and I have our own development studio called Zed Two, specialising in high quality original video games, the same thing we've been aiming for since 1987! Our first title, Wetrix, will be launched on N64 & PC at around Easter time 1998.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

The best thing about the Spectrum was its flexibility. Unlike the C64 which could only do scrolling sprite games (brilliantly though) the Spectrum hardware didn't push you in any particular direction. There was just a processor & some memory. The result was such a variety of game types, from Jetpac, to Tau Ceti, to Lords of Midnight, to Elite and Knight Lore.

The worst thing without a doubt was the lack of a disk drive. I spent about a year working with Microdrives as may main storage medium. I used to lose about 30% of my work each and every day! It was madness.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

All the ones mentioned above, certainly. There's a list of my top 10 have games on our website, http://www.zedtwo.com

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

Other than people I worked with at the time...

Chris & Tim at Ultimate were a league ahead of everyone else at the time. Both Jetpac and Knight Lore were quite unbelievable when they were released.

The guy who did Tau Ceti and a few others was quite an inspiration.

Mike Singleton, Lords of Midnight is one of my all time favourites.

The games from Hewson were always imaginative & innovative.

I was absolutely amazed by the graphics on Tir Na Nog. Wonderful animation. I didn't like their later stuff as much though.

There are probably loads more I just can't remember right now...

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

We've only been able to find Glider Rider! I've had a quick five minute go, but just for a laugh really.

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

To continue the answer from the last questions, I don't really think many old Spectrum games do stand up any more. There are loads of very bad games around today, and there are certainly less and less new or interesting ideas around, but the good games are fantastic.

Games like Zedla, Starfox, Quake, Mario World are just a class above anything from eight or nine years ago. There are old games I would still play, but the best games now are so much better.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

We got things done a lot quicker then. John had eight weeks to develop his first game from scratch, he was four weeks late. Twelve weeks to develop a complete product! You'd be lucky to write a simple tool in that time now. Projects can just run and run now. We're seriously aiming to keep development time under a year for a project at Zed Two, but that's almost impossible. If you're working on a project now that isn't brilliant, then that's a big chunk of your life, or your career, spent on something you won't be proud of in the future.

Why the name 'Zed Two'? Better than 'Zee Two' anyday... :-)

If you look on our website you'll see that when we left Binary we set up our own development team called Zippo Games. We did quite well for a while, and produced some great games, but probably let ourselves down on the business side.

Zed Two is a kind of resurrection of the spirit we had then, the desire to make our own, original games. We were originally going to name it Z2 or Z2, but we knew the Americans would all call it 'zee' two, so we spelt out the Zed.

Any plans to update Zub, Feud, Amaurote, etc on the consoles/PC?

Like all the games we did in those days (and most of the games we've done since), we don't own any rights, so wouldn't be allowed to do updates or conversions or anything. I think there were some great ideas in all those games, and when you design new games you often take concepts that you've used before and try to develop them or use them in new or different ways.

I think we could make a really fun multiplayer game that would be a progression of Zub...

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Nothing that would be funny if you didn't know the people involved...

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

I do find it a little strange. The sort of people who got into computers in the eighties, most of the people I have and do work with, are the sort of people who are into new gadgets and technology. That's what the Spectrum was all about, and why it was so exciting. It doesn't fit into that category any more, so I guess it must be a different sort of person who is into the Spectrum now.

It's nice to be recognised though, and appreciated for work which didn't really earn that much credit at the time. There was a period when I would be laughed at if I told someone that my job was doing computer game graphics.

 


Thanks to Ste for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Ste Pickford.