Friday, July 11, 2014

It’s Behind You: the making of a computer game (Bob Pape)

Those of us of a certain age grew up in “the home computer generation”. Hours were spent playing games on our ZX Spectrums: first Breakout (which came on Sinclair’s original tape and was easy to re-programme), Jet Pac, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the Live Aid compendium tape ... These and many other titles filled our portable TV screens and taught us to use double-deck tape recorders until we grew up and longed to programme BBC Micros with their built in assembler and floppy drives to write more efficient and faster running machine code.

The wizards of those days wrote games. While many of wrote adventure games in BASIC and typed in listings from magazines, the read nerds overcame the limitations of these tiny computers with a mere 48 KB of memory – about the same your SIM card has to store 250 contacts! – to shoe horn craft amazing games that seemed to cram more and more into the black lump of plastic.

Their trick was to write the code and compile it on other machines – TRS-80s and PCs – and then squirt the finished product down a serial cable to the ZX Spectrum to play and test before mastering on a tape and getting them duplicated.

Over the last 25 years, software has become bloatware, growing in size with each new release of word processor, spreadsheet or internet browser. Even the arrival of smartphones with their more modest on-board memory hasn’t quite nipped the swollen codebase problem in the bud.

But back in the days of 8-bit computers, ingenuity and cunning had to be employed to squeeze games into the limited memory. Everything was compressed and reused; code was self-modifying to make room for extra features and sound tracks.

Bob Pape has recently written up his account of working in the software industry in the 1980s. It’s Behind You is freely available for Kindle as well as PDF and can be enjoyably read in a day. Bob wasn’t a Matthew Smith (programmer behind Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy … though not the sequel JSW II). He didn’t earn megabucks. But despite being underpaid and underappreciated, he did push the early 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer to its limit, and went on to write games for a number of other platforms.

In the book he describes his route from mainframe programmer to creating Rampage (an arcade conversion) and later R-Type. There are a few typos throughout the book – much like my blog posts – but they don’t distract from the personal and technical tale.

It’s a first person account of talent combined with a determination to complete, exploitation by seedy managers and an unreliable web of companies, sleeping on the floor of software offices across Wales and England, and the less than transparent computer magazine industry. Sadly, it’s one tale of many, and the poor pay and conditions of the 1980s will have been common place.
… again like most of the others it was mainly a rewrite of the instructions that came with the game and a couple of sentences of observation thrown in to personalise it a little

… one more ‘review’ that for all intents and purposes just reprinted the instruction manual.

As teenagers all we knew about the computer industry was what we read in computer magazines, and that was terribly sanitised. It’s only know that accounts are available from survivors like Bob Pape that we realise that magazine reviews were being written before games were complete, often publishing early artwork and giving usability scores based on demos rather than full versions.

Battling his way through the 8-level arcade game conversion onto the ZX Spectrum – using a video of the arcade version being played along with a few hours of looking at the real thing – Bob produced a better-than-expected reproduction that was well received by the industry and players alike.
… and another quote guaranteed to increase sales – “This game blows away almost every other shoot-em-up on the Spectrum to date.” To paraphrase the American journalists H.L. Mencken: “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the British computer game magazine buying public” …

Frustratingly, Bob discovered – through a reader’s letter in a magazine – that the Spectrum version of R-Type that went on sale got stuck at the end of level 7, meaning that his final level and congratulatory scrolling message were not seen by players until later releases.

I’m really glad Bob Pape took the time to write up his recollections and experiences. It’s reminded me of the addiction of writing programmes that I oddly shook off at some point ten or fifteen years ago, and the satisfaction of overcoming limited technical resources through guile and slyness to construct pleasing solutions and useful or fun programmes. And it’s provided new insights into an industry that I was too young to appreciate or doubt … and demonstrated that software testing was as bad back then as it continues to be in some teams today.

1 comment:

marysummer said...

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