Graeme Devine is one of the original bedroom coders. He briefly worked for Atari at the age of 16, formed Trilobyte, then rode the CD-ROM wave with The 7th Guest. He’s worked for id Software, been the writer for Halo Wars and even found time to port his classic games to iOS. Here he tells us about his impressive 30-year career.
How did you learn to program?
By looking through Byte and Personal Computer World magazines. I slowly learnt how to reverse engineer the ROM and I programmed a game called Space Junk 3D, which had these spaceships that would go across the screen in two dimensions but had a three-frame, three-dimensional attack. You had to press the space bar at the right time to make the spaceships blow up, in one frame of animation. To me that was just awesome: four frames of animation total.
As a teenager programming, were you thinking ‘yeah, this will be a career for me in the future’?
No. I was still thinking towards university and computers were just really in their infancy. The Spectrum was awesome but it didn’t seem like that was my career path at that time. I think like most 15-year-olds, you’re not quite sure what your career path is going to be, but I started to get more and more involved in that world and going to ECTS. I met Jeff Minter and hung out with him and made more and more friends – friends I still have today.
So it was quite a compelling scene?
The time when that very first band of people were making games was extremely good. We were sharing stuff and encouraging each other. They would frankly tell you when stuff was crap. It was a fun time but it still didn’t seem clear that it was my career path.
Your work got you noticed and joined Atari at the age of 16, didn’t you?
I saw a job advert for Atari in Computing Today. I applied and I took a demo of a 3D road to Atari’s headquarters in Slough. I got the job. The problem was I was still at school but they asked me to port Pole Position to home computers. I’d soon find out that Atari could have a very direct effect on the health of a 16-year-old.
One of Graeme’s first pieces of work was this Amstrad conversion of
Pole Position for Atari.
Why, was it quite intense?
They put a lot of pressure on me at one point to finish the game so I had to take a week off school to do it. When I came back I remember giving my chemistry teacher a floppy disk with the game on it. I was honest about it and I wrote a note to the school telling them I had taken the week off to work for Atari. Now, at this point I was a straight-A student, the guy who sat in the library at lunchtime rather than the one who hung outside and smoked cigarettes. I remember at the end of assembly being asked to see the headmaster. He said, ‘well, I’m sorry, this is a bit too much, I can’t have this kind of behaviour going on at the school, please hand in all your books. I’m going to have to expel you’.
Yeah. I was expelled from school for being honest. It was shocking for all the teachers and I was just so taken aback that I couldn’t believe what had actually happened. That was the point when I decided not to go to university. I was 17 and coming up to my A-levels at this point and I just wanted to continue my career in the games industry and start my own companies. School had betrayed me.
What happened with your exams, though?
I ended up finishing off my A-levels externally. I’d already applied for universities by the time I was expelled and I remember visiting the University of London and the guy who taught programming there taking me to one side and asking why I had put the others universities down. None of them had a good computer programming course, he said, and he was impressed by Pole Position. He took me around the computer rooms which had those Tektronix displays that you saw in Battlestar Galactica and I was saying ‘oh wow’. He actually gave me an FFF as entry level so all I had to do was fail my three A-levels. And still I didn’t go. I wanted to get right into making games.
Did things work out well at Atari?
When Atari got bought by Jack Tramiel, I’d started working on Ballblazer. Atari called everyone down – maybe 200 of us in Slough. Everyone but 12 people were called down and everyone was like ‘wow, they’re going to lay off 12 people’. Nope! It turned out they were laying off 188 people and 12 were staying. So my first experience was to not have a job anymore.
Graeme posing with his daughter and a selection of zombies.
But Ballblazer still got a release, didn’t it?
At the time Ballblazer had started out as an Atari game with Lucasfilm Games. Lucasfilm Games reached out to me through Activision, which published the Epyx games in the UK. It wanted me to continue working on ports because the Spectrum version was looking good and I was doing the Amstrad CPC version. I got to understand the game and the techniques well so when it came to the PC and the Microsoft MSX versions, I was kind of the advisor guy. I got more and more involved with Lucasfilm Games and Activision.
Where were you living at this stage?
London. I was working at Joan Collins’ apartment in London because that’s where the Activision headquarters were. It was awesome because they had beer in the fridge but I was the only person that actually made games there. Everyone else was in sales and marketing or PR. I remember they sent me up to Manchester at one stage but I went through Heathrow Airport and got food poisoning. I got myself to hospital and, of course, the nurses were on strike and I couldn’t get in but I fell down and eventually people came running out and I was really bad, I was in hospital for seven days. And Byron Turner, from Activision, came up and said ‘I just quit my job at Activision because they wanted me to bring you a Commodore 64 so you could keep working in hospital and I said no’. I quit working at Activision too.
Wow. So what did you do?
I started my first company called Program Techniques with someone I knew from school. His cousin had a company in Covent Garden and we made the game Xcel. It was the first game I’d put out on my own so I learned everything about cassette tapes, publishing and advertising. I realised I was really good at making games but not really good at making cassette tapes. Our first royalty cheque was £28,000, though.
That’s a nice sum for a teenager at the time…
It was but my friend’s cousin took £25,000 out of the bank so that wasn’t too nice. And then my friend actually got addicted to cocaine and it got pretty bad so I had to fire him and that was kind of the end of that company.
Graeme was a firm believer in CD-ROM-based technology. His gamble paid off rather handsomely.
Time to move on then?
It was. I met someone called Paul Braithwaite in London. He was a PR specialist and he once told me, ‘Graeme, never, ever, ever say that you’re doing awful if someone asks how you are doing. When people ask, they want to hear that you’re doing awesome.’ I’ve always stuck to that advice. He introduced me to the people who helped me set up my second business, which was IC&D. That stood for Industrial Concepts & Design but always really Ice-Cream & Doughnuts. I was the person owning it and running it and he got me set up with good people to get the accounts and the VAT and everything going. I moved back to Crawley and back into my parents’ house and started my company there. I employed Tim Ansell, who later started The Creative Assembly, and we started to make games together. We made Metropolis, Turbo Champions, Enterprise and a gazillion ports of different things.
Did IC&D do very well?
IC&D was doing okay but I think it would have gone on in the UK and only continued to do okay because our competition at the time were companies like Codemasters. But one day a publisher called Martin Alper called up and said ‘we’re starting this office in California and we need somebody to go across there and tell them how to turn on computers – no-one has any idea at all how to run any of the games or how to look at anything or even check them out and make sure they work alright’. I was supposed to go for six to eight weeks, just help get the studio running. That was 1988.
Was it a culture shock?
Everyone was in their 40s which is my age now but then I was 22 and I remember thinking to myself I am going to be on the first boat back in two weeks unless I make some friends here who are in my age group. At that point I didn’t drink but across the road from my apartment there was a bar called Jasper’s. I went across, learned how to drink American beer and met my wife. We were making games like Spirit Of Excalibur and Vengeance Of Excalibur and J R R Tolkien’s War In Middle Earth. We did ports of Double Dragon and games like Monopoly and Scrabble and Clue. I think we were publishing a game a day at one point. I would get most of my money from Mastertronic by taking games that took up two floppy disks and making them fit on one floppy disk, because I was really good at compression. Then this thing started to come out to do with CDs.
The 7th Guest was massively successful, shifting millions of units.
Was this the moment you fell in love with CDs all over again?
Well, Rob Landeros and I started going to a whole bunch of multimedia conferences because CD-i was going to be the big thing. At that time on TV Twin Peaks was huge and we had the licence to Clue and so Rob Landeros and I started to plot around how we could go and make a David Lynch-like Clue game. I remember being at New York City Airport where we had a napkin and wrote the outline for this CD-based game. We went back to California and worked on the game design. It was turning out to be The 7th Guest. So we went to Martin Alper and said ‘we want to make this CD-ROM’. He took us to lunch and promptly fired Rob and I. He said he didn’t think it would make any money but that we should go off and form our own company to make it because it was important to embrace new technologies. For Mastertronic, CD-ROM was not the future. So we went off and founded Trilobyte.
So were you convinced that CD-ROMs were the key to the future at that stage?
At that point we had clear vision that we could make moving video come from a CD-ROM and that we could make puzzles that would be interesting for people to play. It would be unlike any visuals that had ever been seen before. When The 7th Guest came out, there was no game with graphics like it. It was a reason to go and buy a computer and we were convinced that this was, overall, the right direction.
The game did very well – it sold 2 million. Was that turning heads?
Yes, it did okay! Nintendo bought the rights to the game because they were very scared that Sega would buy it for the Sega CD system. We actually got to meet Miyamoto. He came out to Southern Oregon and I had a barbecue with him at my house, sitting out looking out over the Rogue Valley. At that point he didn’t speak any English, so there was also a translator.
Was Miyamoto pressuring you into a sequel?
No, he told us about his point of view on CD-ROM which he believed was never actually going to take off because a four-year-old could not put a CD into a console and be assured that it would work properly. Nintendo was all about four-year-olds being able to put a cartridge into their system and have that thing come on and be solid. For him CDs could go in upside down and that’s one failure. They scratch easily and smear. That was enough fails at the time.