Who Is Archer Maclean?
Archer Maclean started off making games on early 8-bit computers and soon found himself working with a host of different publishers. Known for the technical slickness of his games, he’s created hits like Drop Zone and International Karate; shaking up the beat-’em-up scene with his excellent sequel IK+. He’s also had great success with his numerous snooker and pool games that have often seen him teaming up with snooker legend Jimmy ‘The Whirlwind’ White.
Hi Archer, thanks for agreeing to the interview. To start with, we always like to ask our interviewees about their school days.
Summarising my school days or the dozen lives I lead won’t be easy, but hey, here goes! I went to various schools in UK, Hong Kong and New Zealand, and spent one year on a boat with no school at all, which was great! My earliest recollections of school as a toddler were in the late Sixties, early Seventies. Even at a very young age I can remember always wanting to find out how things worked, and to build stuff myself. I had a lot of Meccano, and a lot of Lego, most of which I acquired through various shrewd business deals in the school playground, often in exchange for my brother’s Action Man parts which he later donated. So I was always constructing things, breaking things apart, and occasionally I would disappear into a room for days and produce something amazing like a huge machine made out of Meccano that could actually weave me a Doctor Who Scarf as popularised in the mid-Seventies by Tom Baker. I later found out I had reinvented the Jacquard Loom done 200 years earlier. Even today I only sleep a few hours a night and I don’t tend to watch much TV, and instead I am doing something all the time, I’ve been like that all my life.
So were you the type of kid who would dismantle the family toaster just to find out
how it worked?
Oh yeah I did all that. I remember distinctly in 1972 taking apart a TV set and removing all these funny little coloured components that I later learnt were resistors, capacitors, diodes and various semiconductors. I didn’t really know what they were then, but around about the same time I remember my parents giving me a versatile electronics kit which consisted of a plastic board with discrete components mounted on it and clever little connectors on everything. You followed a wiring diagram to join them all up and make various projects, and if you didn’t kill yourself plugging it into the mains it might produce a beep or flash LEDs. I made all the usual things like an audio amplifier, then crystal radio, then hooked up the amp to the radio and wired in speakers, and so on. But within a couple of months I grew bored of building the preset gadgets and so started to try and understand how it all worked, and started reading masses of books on electronics. And I started buying the then popular electronics magazines and building the gadgets featured in them. One of the first things I built was a small radio, and then an even smaller one, and so on and on, until I eventually managed to cram one into a matchbox with a jack plug socket for the tiny earpiece. Having long hair at the time, I could hide the fact I was running a wire up under my school shirt and no one knew I was listening to Radio 1 in the middle of Latin lessons or something equally useful. This was ten years before Walkmans appeared!
So you were self-taught in electronics?
I guess so, but I did ask a lot of questions of a lot of people and probably drove most people mad. For various reasons in about 1975 I didn’t like being at home so I went out after school and got a part-time job working for a local company in Brentwood, Essex called Norman Miller’s TV Repair Shop. It was the first interesting part-time job I had had as a teenager and I learnt very quickly from its owner, Norman Miller, who was brilliant at teaching someone like me how to do things.
Anyway, one day a guy walks into the shop called William Poel. He lived locally and had just set up an entrepreneurial electronics company called Ambit International, which, a few years later, evolved into Amsoft – the Amstrad CPC games software guys. Ambit was in downtown Brentwood, within spitting distance of where Amstrad’s HQ now is, and the building where Sir Alan was (until recently) running his empire. So from ’76 onwards William Poel took me under his wing and was like a mentor. I used to work there all the hours I could, just learning and building things, including some pretty special gadgets for a certain government ministry. I was earning pretty silly cash for all this, which in turn allowed me to spend unfeasibly large amounts of money on computer hardware, as a school kid.
When was it you really started to take an interest in videogames?
I once wrote up an article for RG about my earliest religious moment playing an Atari Pong machine in 1972, at a seaside resort. Then, in 1973/4/5 whilst working as an overworked underpaid paperboy for £2 a week delivering heavy newspapers six days a week, I would ask the newsagent for a discount on all the electronics magazines he stocked. Anyway, about then they were regularly following the exploding market for arcade games and the earliest home computer consoles coming out of Atari in California, and often featuring its dynamic leader, Nolan Bushnell. I was just amazed that you could go into an arcade in ’72, ’73 and by ’74, ’75 you could play very similar-looking versions of those games at home on various Atari 2600 and Binatone black and white consoles. Looking back, it was ingenious how it all worked from an electronics point of view. So this all sort of coincided with my own interest in electronics.
Then, around about ’75 to ‘76, I started building microprocessor based computers myself, which was a long way from matchbox radios. They often ended up as great big boxy things the size of a television with hundreds of 300-400 logic chips in them. However it’s all very well building something that clever only to find you can’t actually do anything with it or buy any software whatsoever. Anyway, around the same time the USA magazine Byte was running articles on the Altair 8800 – the world’s first home computer/homebrew kit, and Ambit International got one of these machines in for a closer look. As usual, there was nothing to run on it, but in 1976 we purchased an 8K BASIC interpreter program from a previously unknown company called Microsoft, and written by a certain Mr Bill Gates (and this was back when Microsoft had 15 people). This suddenly meant almost anyone with a Z80, 8080, or 6800 based computer could actually write something sensible, and make all this computer hardware do something more interesting than just flash a cursor on a B&W monitor.
And whilst I’m building computers, and learning BASIC work I’m also having fun down the arcades playing games, so the first thing that occurred to me was to try and replicate a Pong game on one of the Z80-based computers I had built. And I did just that. BASIC just wasn’t fast enough to mimic an arcade game, but Machine Code / Assembly Language was 10,000 times faster so it should be able to. I soon learnt how to create assembly code, but had to write all my own tools to do it, including a compiler in BASIC! There were NO software tools of any description. So, one Sunday afternoon in 1977 I had reproduced on the screen what I had seen in the arcade the previous week. Of course, in 1978 there was just a huge explosion in arcade games due to Space Invaders, then within a year or so Asteroids, Missile Command, Tempest and loads of other iconic mega-famous arcade games were released, and whatever came out in the arcades I would just sit at home and try and re-create it.
So who were your biggest influences when you first started to write games?
Well Dropzone was obviously heavily influenced by Stargate and Defender. I actually met Eugene Jarvis for the first time recently and we chatted about similarities (he’d seen it on an emulator) and someone standing next to him said, “Yes, and it was better than Defender,” but Eugene just laughed. Seriously though, I was heavily influenced by everything I saw in the arcades and studied visually exactly how Robotron, Defender and Stargate worked, and concluded that he must be a coding genius even in machine code to get so many bitmap lumps flying around. I promptly set about trying to replicate the look and the speed, in machine code, on my Atari 800, and you couldn’t have written faster assembler code than I was producing. And then of course, years later I discovered it wasn’t all down to efficient software, because the arcade electronics were in fact using an early form of hardware acceleration for graphics! And there was me trying to bust my back trying to make it happen at home, which is where my drive came from to make code run as fast as possible. And that really carried on right the way through to Jimmy White’s 3D Snooker – who would have thought a snooker/pool game would do so well? It looked visually impressive for the time because there wasn’t an awful lot of 3D games moving fast available.
So do you think that it was the 3D look of Jimmy White’s Snooker that really made it the huge success it was?
Yup. And it was a damn good snooker simulation. Jimmy White’s was originally called 147 up to the point of launch, and it was very fast (for the time), was great fun, and it had a lot of detail – all the usual stuff I try to put into a game. And the maths were about as pretty damn spot on as anyone had ever seen before. But it wasn’t until right at the very last minute that Jimmy White got involved, and there is a story behind that. Me and a couple of guys from Virgin Games were exhibiting 147 at a London games show and of all the people in the world, Jeremy Beadle strolled right on up to the stand where 147 was being shown on big overhead TVs, and said, “You know, you guys need someone like Jimmy White endorsing that.” And we were like “great, got his number?” He then produced the telephone number for a guy called Barry Hearn, who was a big sports promoter at the time, and within two days we all drove over to Romford and met this JR Ewing lookalike character. He was immediately very arrogant in his style, and he sat there leaning back in his chair, legs on the desk, occasionally giving his nuts a good scratch, and drinking a whisky. [Laughs.] We showed Barry this game and he really seemed to like it with his exact words being “Blimey, it plays like Jimmy White.” And we said, “That’s the man we want,” and a few phone calls later we met up with Jimmy himself. I got on with Jimmy really well from he off, partly because I’d spent a lot of my time living in Essex and find myself dropping into an pseudo Essex/Cockney accent with ease, and we ended up getting quite drunk, having a curry and all the rest of it, and that was repeated for the next 15 years.
So do you and Jimmy still keep in touch?
Funny enough, he rang up the other day because one of his youngest kids has got a Wii and wanted to know whether we would consider releasing one of the older pool and snooker games for it. And, of course, we’re in discussions. [Laughs.] But there’s so many ideas out there I can’t do all of them, but that would be a nice one to do. One final last go with Jimmy.
Notable Archer Maclean Games
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