Who is Jon Ritman?
Jon Ritman is a classic 8-bit coder from the early Eighties. He’s best known for his excellent work on the ZX Spectrum, which includes classic isometric adventure games, Batman and Head Over Heels, as well as the football franchise Match Day. He soon teamed up with graphic artist Bernie Drummond and the pair had an extremely successful freelance career at Ocean, before moving onto Rare and other classic developers.
So, Jon, what did you want to do while you were still at school?
I had absolutely no idea, apart from not wanting to be at school, so I didn’t go a lot of the time [laughs].
So when you did eventually leave school, what job did you find yourself in?
I joined what was then part of the post office, which in fact they eventually turned into BT. So I was a telephone engineer. I started training, and the training was brilliant, but the block release at college was just unbelievably tedious.
So I then messed around for quite a few years doing lots of crappy little jobs. I was at Courts, the furnisher, in their warehouse, where I used to be the assistant manager. Then, after another extended period of unemployment and being harassed by my father, I signed up to a government training course to become a television engineer.
And what was that like?
Well the main attraction was that the course wasn’t due to start for nine months, so I could lounge around for the next nine months knowing I wouldn’t get harassed as I had a job to go to [laughs].
So I went on the six-month course, learnt to be a television engineer and eventually joined Radio Rentals. I was there for about a year and then they decided that they were going to rent out the old Atari 400s, and I thought to myself: ‘well, they’re going to need engineers’, so I thought it would be a good idea to find out something about computers.
So were you self-taught as a programmer?
Oh, totally. Probably the biggest luck of my career was that the ZX81 manual was so well written and as a result I was basically able to teach myself BASIC in a week.
I then picked up a book on machine code from my local shop and spent the first night trying to get a piece of code to work. Basically, it said, ‘put these numbers into the memory and then run them’ and it just didn’t work. I spent all night trying to work out what I had done wrong and it turned out that the very first line of code they had written in the book was a mistake. That could have been the end of my career there and then, but luckily I picked up another book that was far better [laughs].
So you particularly enjoyed the problem-solving element of programming then?
What you have to remember is at the time I was still a television engineer. Now the thing you do when mending televisions is you think of the signal path. It’s coming in at the aerial socket and it’s coming out of the tube. So the first thing you do if you’ve got no idea where to look for the problem is to go halfway along between the two and go: ‘Is it working as it should do at this point?’ And if it’s not then you look before and if it is you look after it. And you basically dissect and search for the problem until you find it. It’s exactly the same process for programming.
So, once you had the correct book how did things progress?
I can still remember the first thing I wrote from that book. There was a little spaceship sitting at the bottom of the screen and basically you had a left and right control and it was meant to go left and right, but mine either went to the far right or far left [laughing]. I eventually worked out what the problem was, but only by working out how to slow everything right down.
So how did you end up getting in touch with Ocean?
Ocean actually got in touch with me. I went to a show with somebody who worked at Artic Computing [my publisher at the time] and we were talking to some of the distributors that were around to find out what they were interested in. They were all totally unanimous; they all wanted International Soccer on the Spectrum. I’d seen International Soccer over and over again in Dixons shop windows but I had never played it and I deliberately didn’t play it after that show.
I’m not interested in football, hadn’t been since I was a little kid, as it bored me senseless but there was obviously a market for it, so I went to work. I had been writing this game for about two weeks and went to another show at Ally Pally where we were showing Bear Bovver and I found myself looking at World Cup Carnival.
David Ward of Ocean was standing next to me and I said to him: ‘My football game’s going to be loads better than that’. Which was pretty brash considering I had only just managed to get the sprites on screen.
Anyway, round about nine months later, I got a phone call from David asking how that football game had turned out. I was literally in the middle of closing it up and there were only a few days left to go on it. Anyway he offered me more money than I’d ever considered having in one hand.
Can you say?
It was £25,000. That was a down payment. Bearing in mind this was 1983 or something; my previous wage for a year at Radio Rentals was £7,500, so £25,000 in one go was amazing, and that was just the advance. Add to that the fact that I was paid in dollars, which at the time was considerably more and that was that. Match Day was released a short while later.
So, it was all smooth sailing from then on?
Well we did have a few problems with it. I had been working with Chris Clarke and basically he was hiding his mistakes from me. He was only doing the front end, but when you put it in the game it just didn’t work properly. It turned out that he had never tested it all put together; he had only tested little bits of it. I then basically locked him in my house and wouldn’t let him leave for three days. We just hammered through this code, got it working and finally got it out.
So you always worked on the Spectrum first and then went over to the Amstrad?
Initially, with Match Day and Batman. After that though I was pretty much doing both simultaneously.
So how did you get in touch with Bernie Drummond?
I had some friends who had formed a band and they were advertising for a drummer and Bernie Drummond was that drummer. Anyway I knew that he doodled a lot, so I invited him around and said: ‘Do you think you can do anything on the computer?’ And I gave him a little program that I used for drawing with – a joystick driven thing.
And did it work?
Well, I watched him do absolutely nothing for two hours. He was scribbling as far as I could see. Then all of a sudden he said: ‘Look at that eye!’ and he found a little spot in this mess that he had randomly created. And suddenly he started to be really careful. He got rid of everything else and drew a matching eye next to it and it was really strange to see this total chaos suddenly become calmed and controlled. And then he drew a character out of it and that character became known as Budweiser and he became one of the first characters you come across in Batman.
We then discussed the fact that we could actually work together and do this and tried to think about what to actually do and at some point I kind of randomly suggested Batman. Bernie did a little character and I took it up to Ocean. The engine wasn’t written at this stage and we just had Batman running around in an environment similar to the Knight Lore screens. Anyway we showed it to David Ward and he immediately started singing the theme tune and Ocean set to work getting the rights.
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