He’s widely regarded as one of the Commodore 64’s greatest coders and has made a strong of great games, including Paradroid, Uridium and Gribbly’s Day Out. In short he’s something of a 8-bit legend, and like Jeff Minter, had a knack of capturing the thrills and spills of the arcade. Here Andrew talks about his early days before the big hits came along.
What did you want to do when you were still at school?
I didn’t have much idea of what I wanted to do when I was at school. My dad said airline pilot or bank manager were the best jobs. I’d have been happy driving a JCB. The grammar school I went to was university-oriented. The careers office just had brochures for the universities. By the end of A-levels I’d had my fill of education and was keen to earn some money to buy a nice bass guitar. I went to the careers office and asked about jobs. They said: ‘Just apply to some universities and they’ll help you when you’ve graduated.’ Computers hadn’t really made an impact at that time. They had a desk that contained a 1K RAM computer with a card reader and a printer. There was no video screen, so I never twigged the importance of that. The Electronics Club had a Commodore PET, but I wasn’t in it so that passed me by too.
So what was your introduction to videogames?
It was probably the guys I worked with at GEC Marconi – Robert, Richard and Keith – in my first job, who introduced me to Attack Of The Mutant Camels on the Commodore 64. We’d meet up at the weekends and play computer games. Robert had a VIC-20 as well. It wasn’t until some years later when I met Jeff Minter that I realised some of the tricks he had to do to get that complex a program written in 3K of RAM, with all the graphics and sounds too. My smallest game ran to about 24K.
Is it true that you’re a big shoot-’em-up fan?
We definitely got our money’s worth out of Jeff Minter’s early games. We played Matrix, Attack Of The Mutant Camels, Revenge Of The Mutant Camels… At that stage I still hadn’t got any ambition to write on micros, but I was playing the arcade games of the day: Breakout, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Battlezone, Galaxian and Pac-Man. Each pub had a different game, so we would tour round them all on a Friday evening to play each game. We were quite competitive and always ended up in the chip shop playing Asteroids. We liked the challenge and the speed of the games.
What was the first computer you owned?
It was quite a lot later when I bought a computer. It was my dad who bought a ZX80, then a ZX81, and a Dragon 32. I started writing games in BASIC on those to start with. I was also staying late at Marconi and writing games in COBOL by that time. So the first computer I owned… that would have been a Commodore 64 that I bought about five years later. Up until then I had only used the Commodore 64 at Graftgold and I was still visiting the guys from GEC.
Andrew’s impressive credits include Uridium and Paradroid.
How did you learn computer code? Were you self-taught?
Steve Turner was writing for the ZX Spectrum in 1983 in machine code – not even assembler at that time; he was writing code in hexadecimal. We must have talked about me joining him writing games a few times. We decided that I should support a different platform and cited the Dragon 32 as the second most popular machine. So I bought a book on 6809 assembler and started to write some simple routines to interface to BASIC. It was slow going because I didn’t have an assembler either. I wrote a plot routine to display a spaceship on the screen; I was working in hexadecimal too. That was too much like hard work so I bought an assembler for the Dragon 32. That made life a lot easier. I had learnt the power of assembler from the Marconi technical support team. Assembler was so much faster than COBOL, but they always hid the assembler books when I went to visit them. I had a rather idealistic approach, though; it takes a while to get a grip on how little you could do 50 times a second on those computers.
What do you enjoy about coding?
Coding is an almost endless repeat cycle of finding and fixing problems, and they are self-created! Only at the very end does it work without any problems. If we could just write error-free code then there wouldn’t ever be any problems to solve. I do get a great deal of satisfaction from fixing problems, though, as it brings out the detective in me. The creative side can be a bind too when you can’t think of something interesting to do, but it is rewarding trying to impress people. The best bit for me, though, was the variety of the work because every day is solving something different or creating something new. Taking a game right from initial design through to promoting and demoing the final game gives you an insight into a lot of different aspects of the business.
Like Steve, your initial programming skills weren’t in gaming. How did this help with game design? Did it make you more methodical?
I’d had a good, thorough training at GEC Marconi and knew how to work independently and with other team members. I think we both had good methodical approaches to solving problems. I have come to learn that IT is all about getting things wrong until the very last change when you finally get it right and the program is done. Don’t stop until you’re sure you’ve got to that point. With games, once it was released it had to be right; you suddenly have a lot of people testing the code and you can’t fix it if they find a fault. Maybe nowadays that doesn’t apply with the hotfixes that are available. Of course, the code is much bigger and more complex so there’s bound to be mistakes. Coding never got quicker because the games got bigger, and even though we reused old code, we always added more. Gribbly’s Day Out took about three months to write, and I did the graphics and level design in that time too. Intensity took nine months to write and design. Uridium 2 took 18 months to code with probably about the same time spent on graphics, and that’s just such a long time to be working on one title.
Tell us a little about Assassin.
This was my first multiplayer game, written in COBOL. It was set in a multi-level dungeon and the last player alive wins. I wanted it to be in real-time, which meant getting a bit of help from Tech Services to allow one computer to monitor the game and collect information about all the players as they move and fire. There were doorways between the levels and players could only see other players by line of sight. It was a top-down view, so certainly a prototype for Paradroid. We added computer-run ‘assassins’ that walked around the level and were quite adept at killing the players. So we tended to have to gang up on the assassins before taking each other out. Come five o’clock we’d occupy most of the terminals and set up a session. One player, Splodge, worked out a technique for rapid firing that I hadn’t anticipated. He was winning every game until HR showed us how he was doing it. Once we all knew the trick it evened things up a bit. I was always impressed with his lateral-thinking ability.
Andrew worked for his friend Steve Turner at Graftgold, they became well known for slick arcade conversions and challenging shooters.
How did your friendship with Steve Turner form?
I first saw Steve when our guitarist, who worked with Steve and is also called Steve, got him an audition with another band in our town. We went along to watch. He got the job and played with them for some time. There was a fair amount of equipment-lending in those days and Steve T lent us some gear for a gig we were doing. It’s difficult to remember now, but we both had an interest in the early arcade games and used to tour the local hostelries to play the different games on offer. We also liked similar music and got interested in the home computers of the day. At some point Steve T joined Steve R and I in our band: No Class. We then decided to think up a new band name. I don’t think we ever did finalise a new name, though. Much later we recorded a couple of demo tapes and naturally put No Class on the label. I think it’s rare that you meet someone that has such an important effect on your life – maybe only four or five people in a whole lifetime. I owe a great deal to both Steves, as people who influenced me a lot in my life choices. We all still keep in touch and we know that if we ever needed some help then we’d all be there for each other. I don’t suppose we’ll ever have a Blues Brothers moment and try to get the band back together, but we all love music.
What sort of music did you play, and how serious were you?
I used to work the sound desk, then the bassist had to leave to concentrate on his studying, so they auditioned a couple of people, and then someone said that as I had long hair I should have a go. I learned a couple of songs and got the job. We started off playing rock covers: Hawkwind, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. We did play some original songs too. I think it was quite instrumental – pun intended – in me wanting to get a job to pay for equipment rather than going off to university. My first gig was in a marquee in a field. We got complaints about the noise from one and a half miles away, and driving out of the field caused my car’s exhaust to fall off. We used to rehearse once a week, which is not often enough. We did take it seriously and everyone wants to be a rock star, but it was just a fun thing for me to do. I never expected it to be my day job.
Do you still jam with Steve now?
Steve comes over and my guitars get played properly from time to time. We’d need a drummer to keep the beat, though. Actually Steve’s the improviser; I tend to want to know exactly what all the notes are before I start. I must make more time to figure out how to play guitar properly now that I have some six-strings. I’ve started a small collection of guitars and basses. People say they come to my house to die, but I’ll get there.
Like Steve, you started off as a commercial programmer. Why did you move into games?
There was a fairly hostile takeover of the computer centre where I worked, fuelled by a personal vendetta between upper management. The whole place got reorganised and it became clear that we were going to get shut down; everyone was unhappy, so I was looking for another job. Steve had a similar experience at his place, and left to start writing a game. After a couple of months, Steve found a publisher and was on his third game. He had started earning royalties but was finding it boring working on his own. I didn’t have to think twice about the chance to write a game for a home computer. I had written some BASIC games on the Dragon 32 and was keen to try some assembler. Writing games is part creativity and part programming, which suited us both.
What was it like having one of your best friends as your boss?
I never really thought of it as a boss/employee situation. We worked on our own games, but it was always Steve’s business and my job. It was a pretty good democracy, and as we had both worked in big companies we kept working a normal nine-to-five day. We usually both went off to the publisher together. We worked in Steve’s dining room and just got on with the job. When the royalty statements came in we were quite competitive about who sold the most tapes that month.
Notable Andrew Braybrook Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Andrew Braybrook in issue 100. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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