Interview with El Mundo Del Spectrum circa 2012

Nodes of Yesod on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum ca. 1985

This is an interview I did with El Mundo Del Spectrum (original link in the Spanish language) in 2012.

The interview mostly discusses my early Sinclair Spectrum career and goes into my then-current (circa 2012!) work toward the end of the article.

Interview with JMV at El Mundo Del Spectrum, May 21, 2012

EMS: Thanks for your time. It's a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you.

Steve: Thank you! Always a pleasure to discuss the old Speccy days. :)

EMS: First of all, tell us about the present Steve and your job today.

Steve: I’m working at Petroglyph Games on the Rise of Immortals game. It is a “MOBA” style game in the manner of DotA and some of the other games that are based on DotA such as League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth, and of course DotA2.

EMS: How did you start in games development and what was the first computer you used?

Steve: My first game development job was at Software Projects, which was based in Woolton near Liverpool. I got the job at Software Projects by sending in a game demo that I had concocted on my Spectrum.

I think the first computer I used was a Science of Cambridge MK14 that belonged to a friend of mine. He had the kit version, and I helped him to assemble it. When I was at school, in the late ’70s, they had a computer, but we were not allowed to touch it. I think it was some sort of Research Machines computer. The first real computers I used were at Manchester University in the early ’80s where I was studying Electronics. There, I used a Commodore PET, a Research Machines 480Z (on which I learned Z80 assembly language), and the Cyber mainframe computer, which was very mysterious and scary, occupying as it did a whole room behind a set of glass panels.

EMS: Can you remember the first game you played? Or the first game that really impressed you?

Steve: The first games that impressed me on the Spectrum were Manic Miner (of course) and some of the Ultimate games, probably Atic Atac or Lunar Jetman. Timegate was another early Spectrum game that I remember being impressed with.

EMS: When did you decide to create video games? Do you realize at that time the creation of video games could be a good business?

Steve: To be honest, I kind of fell into video games by accident. I originally acquired a (16K) Spectrum because I was attempting to build a polyphonic music synthesizer, and interfacing with the Spectrum seemed like a good way to go. However, I inevitably ended up getting a few games, just to check them out, and then I became very curious about how some of those games were doing what they were doing, leading to developing my own games. So, it was definitely not a business move; it was more about satisfying my own curiosity as I tried to figure out the technical tricks needed to make smooth-moving games on such comparatively primitive hardware.

EMS: Your work in CPC versión of Manic Miner, was key for further projects? What did you learn from Matthew Smith's code and what part did you improve?

Steve: Mathew would come into the office from time to time, but as I recall, when Derrick Rowson and myself worked on Manic Miner for the CPC, at no time did we have the source code to the original Spectrum game. Essentially, we wrote it from the ground up, and we used a nifty little monitor/disassembler that Derrick had written to reverse engineer tricky parts of the original game.

Jet Set Willy: The Final Frontier on the Amstrad CPC 464 ca. 1984

EMS: You worked in CPC Jet Set Willy, which doubled the map size of the Spectrum version. Was it the origin of Jet Sel Willy II?

Steve: Oh yes! The CPC version of the game was ported back to the Spectrum and released as Jet Set Willy 2. Derrick & I added a ton of rooms in the CPC version just for fun so I suppose Software Projects decided to capitalize on that additional content by releasing it on the Spectrum.

EMS: How was the first contact with Odin (or Thor) and how that collaboration begins?

Steve: My friends and colleagues from Software Projects, Stuart Fotheringham and Marc Wilding, had already left Software Projects to go and work at Odin. I decided to follow suit when I saw some of the early Nodes of Yesod graphics that were being created by Colin Grunes and Stuart.

EMS: There is a big influence from Ultimate in your games (and that is great!). Was there any suggestion from Odin to develop the games this “Ultimate-like” way or was it simply due to your admiration for Ultimate?

Steve: I think we were just big fans of the Ultimate games, which were considered state of the art at the time. From a business point of view, it could not hurt to be compared to Ultimate, so we just went with it.

EMS: Who did the artwork of the cases? It was great.

Steve: The main artists @ Odin were Colin Grunes, Paul Salmon, and Stuart Fotheringham. I agree that the art was very good - it was definitely a huge part of the appeal of the Odin games.

Note: this question probably pertained to the artwork featured on the packaging and advertising. This distinctive art was created by Liverpool artist Gerry Fisher, examples of which can be seen herehere, and here.

EMS: Charlie was designed before you arrived at Odin. What was the story of the character creation as far as you know?

Steve: Charlie was originally derived from an animated Big Ears (from the Noddy stories) that Colin had previously created. That art was never used, so he was transformed into a space-suited astronaut by Colin.

EMS: Who was responsible for the idea of the Nodes of Yesod game? What did you change from the original game concept?

Steve: The idea for Nodes of Yesod was already cooking when I started @ Odin, though I don’t believe I ever saw a design document. There were a lot of loose ends in the design, and some of the stuff was impractical, so I suppose the main thing I did was pull all the loose ends together and get the game finished.

EMS: Is Nodes of Yesod your favorite work?

Steve: Well, I have worked on enough versions of it (Spectrum, Enterprise, Pocket PC, J2ME, iPhone, Java Applet, Flash)! I guess I must have a soft spot for it! It was the first original title I ever shipped, so I suppose that explains it.

Crosswize on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum ca. 1987

EMS: How was your relationship with Colin?

Steve: It was really good! Colin and I did several games together, including Nodes, Heartland, Sidewize, and Crosswize. We also worked together at Denton Designs after Odin’s demise, but nothing fruitful came out of that, unfortunately.

EMS: Tell us about the daily work with Nodes development. Which computers or tools did you use?

Steve: When I first started @ Odin, they were using Spectrums with Microdrives for development, which was a really bad idea! Pretty soon after I started, we switched to using BBC Model B computers, with Z80 second processors running CPM. We used Memo for text editing and M80/L80 for assembling/linking. The C64 programmers used BBC Model B’s too as far as I recall. We used all manner of methods to download the assembled code to the target machines, including various home-brewed parallel ports, and Sinclair ZX Interface 1’s using RS232. We’d constantly try to improve the downloader, so the hardware we used changed all the time.

EMS: Which was the most difficult part of Nodes creation?

Steve: For various reasons, the game needed to be completed very quickly. There were lots of late nights and lots of sleeping under desks needed to get the game done. It was a little challenging in that respect.

EMS: Playability of Nodes of Yesod is nicely tuned, and it´s very complex: interaction between Charlie, foes, precise movement, mapping ... it's a very playable game even today. Was all this easier in Robin of the Wood or Heartland?

Steve: Thanks! We spent a lot of time playtesting and tuning Nodes, it definitely shows. With Robin and Heartland, development was a bit more organized and we had better tools, so I think it was a little easier to build the maps, etc.

EMS: Did you start working in Arc of Yesod just after Nodes?

Steve: Yes - though Arc was just a very quick project using the Nodes engine.

EMS: Was it boring work for you? I mean, there are only a few changes except for the graphic part. What things did you try to improve?

Steve: No, it wasn’t boring. We added a few new features in there and finished the game very quickly. Arc went out on the Thor label at a lower price point, so we could not afford to spend a lot of time on it.

Robin of the Wood on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum ca. 1985

EMS: Robin of the Wood has one of my favorite Spectrum melodies. The sound was important in your games. Did you get involved in sound design or was it a “separate area”?

Steve: Though I had previously developed music driver code and composed music for Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, and though I wrote sound code for the Spectrum and other systems at Odin, a friend of mine called Andy Walker did the bulk of the original song creation for Robin of the Wood.

EMS: The Robin game changes a bit from one computer to another. In Spectrum is more difficult to get gold bags, for example. Did you develop all the versions or there were different people working with C64 or CPC?

Steve: Marc Wilding wrote the C64 version. We developed in parallel, and there were some slight differences between the games.

EMS: What do you remember about the creation of Robin of The Wood? Any problematic part?

Steve: It was a fairly large game for the time (320 screens I think), and I spent a good amount of time making sure all the screens would fit in memory, and that the update rate was fast enough. I also spent a good amount of time creating a map layout tool that Paul Salmon used to layout the game. I think we had a few arguments about how close the C64 version of the game should be to the Spectrum version, but in the end, it worked out OK.

EMS: There is a special appearance of Charlie in Heartland as a “baddie”. Maybe it is the most beautiful Odin game in visual terms. Where did this project come from?

Steve: Haha - yeah, the astronauts. :) The game was really driven by Colin’s visual design, and I just had to write the code to make it all look good! I always wished we would have had time to add vertical jumping and platforms to Heartland, but there really wasn’t any time.

Heartland on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum ca. 1986

EMS: Is Heartland a resume of all Odin hallmarks? The highest point in Odin´s trajectory?

Steve: I think the CPC version of Heartland is the best one (there was a disk and a cassette version). I was pretty happy with that one, and it came together really quickly. I think visually, Heartland was the best Odin title, but I don’t know if we ever really beat Nodes for playability (though, Nodes was very difficult to complete).

EMS: All your games are high-quality ones. Is there any game that you regret?

Steve: There have been a couple of clunkers. Not gonna name names though. :)

EMS: When and why did you leave Odin? Did part of the team stay there?

Steve: Odin closed in 1987. I went to Denton Designs after that and then went on to found Eldritch the Cat. There was really nobody left at Odin after I left.

EMS: Many Spectrum programmers left video games because the working procedure with 16-bit computers or consoles was very different. Larger teams, larger budgets, less freedom, less fun. Was it your case or did you prefer to change your professional activity?

Steve: Well, I’ve been in video games continuously since 1984, 28 years or so. I suppose I must be a glutton for punishment. :) Of course, development is very different today. My current team is 10-15 people, and that is considered very small for PC game development.

EMS: Where did the idea of iOS Nodes remake come from?

Steve: Well, I was in mobile development from 2002-2010 and had a lot of experience developing games for mobile devices. We originally created J2ME versions of Nodes of Yesod, but it proved too difficult to get those games out to market due to its fractured nature (too many different handsets - often porting games was more expensive than developing them). When the iPhone came out, we saw an opportunity to use the graphics, etc that we had created for the J2ME version, and so even though I had left the mobile development scene, it was a labor of love for me to complete the game for the iPhone in the evenings, once I got home from my day job @ Petroglyph.

Note: the iOS version is no longer available due to Apple's 64-bit app requirement. In fact, in 2017 I did complete a 64-bit iOS version of the game, and I even localized the game into French, German and Spanish; Sad to say, however, I ran out of momentum and never released the updated version. The tvOS version remains available and may be found here.

EMS: Will you do anything else on this platform?

Steve: It is possible, though I am very busy at Petroglyph! :)

EMS: If you could manage now a great videogame production, could you imagine how the game would be? What genre, platform game, RPG, strategy, FPS? What aspects would be important?

Steve: Currently, I am really excited by the MOBA and Action RTS development scene. I think there is a lot that can be achieved in this genre and the current market leaders (such as League of Legends, and even the upcoming Dota2) are really only scratching the surface. The “eSports” aspect of these games has become really important, but it is also important not to leave casual players behind.

EMS: Your work is loved among fans of the Spectrum. What do you think when you see people remembering your programs 25 years later?

Steve: Thanks! I do get a kick when people remember playing these games from 25 years ago. It also makes me feel a little old. :) But mostly, I feel proud that I was able to develop some of those early titles. Those were good times.

EMS: Which are your favorite Spectrum games (not made by you, … and not Ultimate-made LOL)?

Steve: Manic Miner was probably my fave, just in terms of the sheer ingenuity and sparseness of the design. It really was very well done. I was also very impressed by Joffa Smith’s games, especially Cobra. His scrolling code was second to none.

EMS: Thanks from all members of EMS and all the Spanish fans. And sorry for my horrible English!

Steve: My pleasure, and don’t worry, your English is way better than my Spanish. :)

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