Who is Geoff Crammond?
Geoff Crammond started off his career on the BBC Micro, and coded a Space Invaders clone called Super Invaders. After it was published by Acornsoft, Geoff began looking at more complex games, creating impressive titles such as Aviator and Revs. He’d occasionally dabble with games such as The Sentinel, but Crammond soon built a reputation for delivering amazing driving simulations that ranged from the excellent Stunt Car Racer to Formula One Grand Prix.
How did you become involved with programming?
When I left university I worked for Marconi and there I learnt the high-level language Fortran, which I used to do maths modelling optimisation work; that was my first experience of programming. The computer had 32K of RAM and filled a large room. It was replaced with something considerably more powerful during my eight years there.
What led you to work on the BBC Micro?
A couple of years before leaving Marconi I had noticed that home computers were starting to appear and had the idea of doing some sort of 3D flying program just as a hobby. I went to a show at Olympia where the BBC Micro was on display for the first time; I was so impressed that I ordered one there and then. It arrived about six months later, probably one of the first to be dispatched. I quickly got to grips with its inbuilt language, BASIC, which I found was very similar to Fortran, but also rather slow when running. Each line of code was being interpreted into machine code in real-time rather than having been compiled into machine code before running. I realised that I would have to program the computer using a low-level assembler language, which the BBC was able to compile to produce a fast-running program.
Super Invaders was your first game. Can you tell us a bit about this title?
I bought a book on the 6502 microprocessor assembly language and then had to decide what to do. I suppose Super Invaders just seemed like a good game to develop in order to learn how to write a game. I instantly became addicted to the whole experience; it was like discovering a new world. I remember that visiting cousins had a go at designing some of the aliens and I actually incorporated some of them.
How did you market the game when it came out?
As I worked on it I had the idea of maybe putting an advert in a magazine and sending off cassettes when people ordered it. By the time it was finished someone who saw it suggested approaching Acornsoft to see if they wanted to publish it. I was lucky in that although they had done versions of other popular arcade games, they hadn’t done a Space Invaders-style title. I took it to Cambridge to show them and they liked it and published it. My foot was in the door.
Tell us a little bit about your next game, Aviator.
Well, after doing Super Invaders, Acornsoft asked what I was going to do next, and I still had my original goal in mind of creating some sort of 3D flying game. I went away and started work, with the key difference this time being that I knew it would be published, which was quite awesome, really. I chose a Spitfire simply because that seemed like something that I would like to fly given a choice; I even got hold of a pilot’s manual for a Spitfire and other data so I could do the simulation.
Aviator was fascinating to work on. I hadn’t done a flight sim before so it was very interesting developing the simulation. Also, I hadn’t done 3D graphics before so that was all new. It was my first 3D world and took me a year to do it. I remember the game’s launch was good: we did it at the Hendon Air Museum next to a real Spitfire and we had an actual Spitfire pilot from World War II as a guest.
Revs came next and was your first experience of the genre in which you would later find worldwide fame. Were you a fan of racing beforehand?
To be honest, no, I didn’t follow motor racing. That would all change in the future once I had been introduced to the sport. Revs came about because Acorn Computers were sponsoring a Formula 3 racing driver by the name of David Hunt – the younger brother of the ex-F1 champion James Hunt. After the launch of Aviator, Acornsoft asked me if I could do a Formula 3 racing game given that I would have access to David and his team, who were, at that time, Eddie Jordan Racing based at Silverstone. This sounded great, so naturally I agreed.
This, of course, marked a massive turning point in your career…
True. It was then that I decided to leave my full-time job. Using up all my spare time on games while working at Marconi was no longer tenable for me, them or my wife, so I decided with this commission that I would go full-time into a new career doing computer games. A lot of people thought I was taking a big risk and that the computer games industry might come and go like a fad. Another consideration was that we were expecting an addition to the family within months. For me, though, it was a no-brainer. I had always wanted to have my own business in something, I really liked the work, and I could see incredible opportunities ahead. Besides my technical background, I also have an arty side; I had done some oil painting when I was younger and, just before getting my first home computer, I was experimenting with airbrush painting. Also, I have played guitar since the age of about 13 and used to spend a lot of time multi-tracking and building guitar effects equipment; I even played in a band briefly. So computer games with their graphics and sound and their potential for simulation were an ideal fit for my interests in art, music and physics.
What kind of research did you indulge in when you started creating Revs?
Well, one of the first things I did was to go round the Thruxton racing circuit as a passenger in a new BMW driven by David Hunt at a corporate event. That experience made me realise that racing cars on a track was unrecognisable as an activity compared with driving a car on the road. My recollection is one of incredible g-forces and the feeling of being continually in a slide all the way round the circuit – a bit like a theme park ride, actually. I was amazed at the way David was able to feel the balance of the car and he showed me how he could steer with the throttle instead of the steering wheel. When we arrived back in the pit lane I got out of the car and saw that the tyres, which had been new when we started, were now strangely worn such that each chunk of tread had a sideways bevel of 45 degrees due to the way it had distorted while on the limit around a predominately clockwise circuit.
Like Aviator, Revs was praised for its incredible realism and convincing physics. What was it like moving from a plane to a car?
Surprisingly, I found the physics of how a car turns a corner to be trickier – or perhaps less obvious – than the physics of flight. Also, the body of a car and its wheels have a more direct connection with the road than a plane’s body in air, and that makes the equations more sensitive to the attitude of the car. Refresh rates have to be higher in order to maintain mathematical stability. One of the things I did was to map the circuit in true 3D co-ordinates, which I hadn’t seen done before. Racing games at that time were like Pole Position where a bend seemed like a distorted straight rather than something you actually arrived at. I also put red and white striped kerbs at the apexes and exits. The combination of 3D-mapped co-ordinates, apex and exit kerbs, a physics simulation and analogue joysticks meant that, even though the graphics were really crude, the brain was able to perceive the reality present and many an hour could be enjoyed just trying to squeeze another 0.1 seconds off the lap time. David Hunt raced it during development and gave me excellent feedback, so I knew it was performing realistically. Like Aviator, Revs took about a year, but this time I was working on it full-time.
Your next project, The Sentinel, was something of a deviation. Can you tell us where the inspiration came from?
Well, the idea for The Sentinel came about because it crossed my mind that, although computers at that time were not powerful enough to do detailed real-time 3D action, there was a way that it could be done – albeit with some restriction on movement. With a slight tweak to the formula for 3D projection I was able to do 3D polygon rendering such that, once constructed, the scene could be scrolled without having to re-render except for the new bit that was coming on from the edge of the screen. That meant that I only had to render a small percentage of the scene when panning around. The panning was still done in jerks, but it was real-time enough to work, and I believed that the ability to explore a 3D world would more than compensate for that characteristic. Once I had the landscape system, I then needed to devise a game to play on it. I seem to remember that it took two or three weeks to come up with the initial idea of something on a tower that you had to defeat, but once I had that then the rest fell into place shortly afterwards. The first version took about six months from start to finish. I spent the next six months or so doing conversions to many other home computers of the day.
Notable Geoff Crammond Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Geoff Crammond in issue 69. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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