Denton Designs : 1988

"Colin, let's take a day off from Denton Designs, get the train from Liverpool to London and clear up this Crosswize situation with Telecomsoft, face to face."

Crosswize was late. It was supposed to be completed in time for a Christmas 1987 release, but here we were in January 1988, and it wasn't finished. Not quite. It needed to be finished. For one thing, I needed the final payment from Telecomsoft. I was running on fumes, financially. For another, I had, with Colin Grunes, started work at Denton Designs in January and was working double time trying to wrap Crosswize at night and be present for my new job at Denton's during the day.

I had poured everything into Crosswize, I tried to make something special. The systems I had developed to deliver the smooth graphics and fast action were technically the best thing I had ever done. This came at a price though, and the ridiculous number of hours I had spent at the keyboard, eking out incrementally more and more performance had made the game late. My own fault for over-stretching myself. This was my first gig as an independent developer. Our agreement with Telecomsoft for Crosswize was a £10,000 advance, with £5,000 on-signing and the rest on final delivery of the game. Colin and I split this 50/50. For the latter part of 1987, this £2,500 was my sole income and considering that I had spent the first part of 1987 completing Sidewize unpaid as Odin wound down, my financial situation was dire.

In retrospect, and with 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that instead of trying to push the boundaries of what is possible on a Sinclair Spectrum, I should have done a light reskin of Sidewize. Water under the bridge now, of course.

Telecomsoft were not pleased. We were to go to London and meet with producer Tony Beckwith to figure things out.

Arriving at the Telecomsoft office at New Oxford Street, Colin and I initially chatted to Tony, who was friendly enough, but weirdly made the assertion that I might be the programmer for the Denton Designs Eco game (I am not). I did not understand this at the time, but things clicked with me later and may illuminate what was to happen next. After a while, Tony informed us that we were to meet with his boss, and we were ushered into the office of a stern fellow whose name I have forgotten, but who was evidently charged with the calling of the shots.

He didn't mess around.

"You're taking money from us for Crosswize, which is late, but you are working for Denton Designs. You are in breach of contract."

Somewhat flustered, and embarrassed about my dire financial situation, feeling backed into a corner, I responded, not quite truthfully, "We are talking to Denton Designs about working for them after Crosswize is done."

"I've talked to Ally Noble and John Heap at Denton Designs, and they say that you are working for them."

Well shit. To cut a long story short, Colin and I walked away from that meeting feeling like we'd had a good rollocking, and with a £2,000 penalty docked from our final payment for Crosswize due to late delivery. And we still had to deliver the game! I felt bad for Colin because his part of the work had been done months ago.

In retrospect, I'm of the firm opinion that Telecomsoft, for reasons unknown, believed that I'd been working at Denton Designs for a long time and that I had been dishonest about that. This might possibly explain the anger and hostility directed toward us in that meeting.

On top of this nonsense, we had to face Ally and John back at Denton's; thankfully, they were (at least outwardly) cool about the situation.

I did complete Crosswize (despite other distractions that were to arise - read on!), juggling that work with my Denton Designs responsibilities. Crosswize was shipped to little fanfare, magazine reviews were in the "good to high" range, and that was the end of that. No earth was shattered in the making of this game. At least it looked nice. It is bastard-difficult to play though, in my 2022 eyes!

Not the most auspicious beginning for my time at Denton's.

Denton Designs

In January 1988, I started work at Denton Designs, based on Rodney Street in Liverpool, right next to the Midland Bank. I was hired as a programmer to work on an original 68000 (Amiga or ST) game. It wasn't clear what the game was to be, so some brainstorming ensued. Various things were discussed, and we settled on a shoot-em-up game themed around Greek mythology. The working title was "Gargantuan", and the game was to run over several levels, each one of them paralleling a specific mythical labor of Hercules, but with a "spaceship" theme. I remember being responsible for the design (I volunteered) plus the technology. Xenon by the Bitmap Brothers had just come out, and I remember thinking, "we can beat that".

We decided to base the game on the Atari ST, which was winning out over the Amiga in terms of sales in the UK at that time (no worldwide market in mind here!). The game design was reasonable, and I set to work building a graphics system to support the multi-directional scrolling required by the game. There weren't too many games on the ST attempting that at the time (not Xenon). I pulled the Spectrum techniques across (using the stack, which was just another address register on 68000) and used pre-shifted blocks (fortunately, the 68000 gives you more registers to play with, D0 - D7, A0 - A7). I had the graphics system up and running pretty quickly and got to grips with the ST pretty quickly. Despite the situation with Crosswize, I was pretty productive during the initial months at Dentons; however, once the basic graphics tech for Gargantuan had been written, I ran out of steam.

Denton Designs was founded by a group of ex-Imagine employees and when I started, John Heap, Ally Noble, and Dave Colclough were in charge of the business day-to-day. Between them they'd delivered some great titles, including Gift from the Gods, The Great Escape & Frankie Goes to Hollywood. John and Dave were programmers, Ally an artist and I have a lot of respect for their abilities; however, something wasn't gelling for me at Denton's.

The Foxx Fights Back

I added an upper parallax layer for FoxxFoxx is built on Crosswize tech

Notwithstanding the above, after I'd been at Dentons a short while, and overlapping with both Crosswize and Gargantuan (!) the idea of doing another Spectrum game, "on the side" as it were, came up. Don't get me wrong - this was to be developed for Dentons, it wasn't so much me doing the project on the side as it was Dentons. Honestly, I did it for the money, and the additional £5K I was offered to do this made it seem like a no-brainer for me (and I think no brain was involved when I blundered into this arrangement, but I needed to eat and pay bills, what was I to do?) Thus was the idea for Foxx Fights Back spawned. The basic idea for this game was that the poor, persecuted fox would take a stand and fight back, against the fox hunters, or dogs, or somesuch. Foxx was armed with a gun. The game was a sideways scroller, and I built a neat editor to allow artist Paul Salmon to assemble maps using the complicated shifted block scrolling technique, an iteration of the Crosswize tech. This was a good thing because it was difficult to explain how the shifted-block thing worked: this tool allowed artists to experiment. I believe Foxx was one of the last games Paul ever worked on before he left the industry.

Eldritch The Cat

Eldritch, the cat

During this multiple-product mayhem, my jet black cat, Eldritch (possibly named after the singer in an 80's goth band), had developed a nasty-looking swollen eye and I was concerned. Being in the perpetually poor financial state that I seemed to be in during that period, and being without transport (I still hadn't learned to drive - not that I could have afforded a vehicle) I had to think carefully about how I'd handle this. I decided to blow the £50 I had to my name and ordered a cab to take Eldritch and myself to the vet. I figured I'd have enough for the fare and the vet fee.

I didn't own a cat carrier, and trying to get an unwilling cat into a taxi can cause said cat to perform contortions that you might not believe possible. Not to mention that cats have claws, human flesh-ripping, hot knife through butter claws. Especially when trying to climb up your back in a bid for freedom. And I was trying to take Eldritch to the vet for his own sake! Perhaps his cat buddies had warned him about other procedures that happen to male cats at veterinary clinics.

In any event, we finally situated ourselves inside the taxi and made our way to the vet's surgery. Upon arrival, I handed over the fare to the cab driver, and, with a firm grasp of Eldritch, gingerly opened the cab door. Not firm enough! With a couple more claw-induced gashes into soft human flesh, Eldritch made a bid for freedom, vanishing off in the twilight into the field behind the vet's surgery.

Cats don't respond to their name at the best of times, and I must admit to feeling foolish roaming around in the dark in the field behind Alder Hey Hospital shouting, "ELDRITCH! ELDRITCH!", visions of Bruce Forsyth meets Ozzy Osbourne.

I never did see Eldritch again, despite extensive searching.

A Farewell to Denton's

After a few months at Denton's, I came to the conclusion that this job was not for me. Ally and John came to the same conclusion, and I was summarily fired. I felt terrible for letting Ally and John down, and I'm sure they were pretty unhappy with the situation. The "termination" letter they made me sign, in which their opinions were noted, couldn't have been more candid. But the move was in the long-term best interest of all concerned. I didn't know it at the time, but I've since come to understand that I was experiencing burnout, and I am certain that this was caused by trying to work on way too many projects simultaneously. That, and the ongoing financial pressure and anxiety caused by the Odin collapse and the Firebird fiasco.

Gargantuan was shelved, Foxx Fights Back did make it to completion (John finished that title). I played it recently and don't have much to say about it, even though it does represent the pinnacle of my Spectrum programming in terms of the maturity of the technology. I think there is a recurring theme here somewhere, but we'll see about that later on. I generally don't include Foxx in my biography because I did not see it through to the end. It had good scrolling tech though.

20/20 hindsight Steve realizes that I should have milked that scrolling tech as much as possible and churned out a bunch of games with it, it was really cool and could have dug me out of the financial pit I was in. I should have basically done as many "Foxx Fights Back" games as possible in 1988. That's 20/20 hindsight Steve speaking, though.

There's nothing (to my knowledge) remaining of Gargantuan, save the learning about smooth scrolling in 68K assembler that I was later able to apply to Projectyle (I'll hopefully go into that in a future post). I have one odd memory of it though, which is related to a self-running demo that I had been asked to make. The demo booted from a 3.5" floppy disk on the Atari ST and cycled through various scrolling graphic levels. It would load graphics, scroll them around the screen, then move on and load the next set of graphics, ad infinitum. Later, Ally received a phone call from the prospective publisher (I forget who that was, Logotron? Image Works?) who called to say that they had left this demo running, and it had destroyed the disk drive in the Atari ST they were using, the demo had "burned out the drive". This was followed by all those conversations about, "are you sure your code was reading the disk correctly?" There’s no punchline to this yarn, just another day in the life of.

Sadly, Denton Designs was to be the last time I would work with Colin Grunes. We did make an attempt to get something going a year or so later (more on that here), and once again years after that (perhaps I'll cover that in the future), but alas it was not to be. We are still in touch on a personal level, but Colin also left the games industry after Denton Designs.

Other Avenues - Eldritch Returns?

And so it was that Eldritch The Cat was born. Not my erstwhile feline companion, but a new software development company, Eldritch The Cat. Marc Wilding (then Dawson) and myself had been tossing this idea around for some time, and over a beer in the Mardi Gras club in Liverpool we decided to give it a shot. Stay tuned to learn what happened next!

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