Matryn Brown’s passion for gaming helped him turn Team 17 into one of the UK’s most successful development houses. While he’s no longer at the company, his ability to spot classics like Worms and Alien Breed ensures that he’s left behind an impressive legacy there. Here he looks back at the early days of Team 17.
So Martyn, what did you want to do when you were still
Other than go home and play on my VCS and muck about with ZX80s, I think for a while I was convinced I’d become a chemist. That sounds pretty dull, and I guess it was a ton of films with bubbling, fizzing liquids, colours, smells and explosions that attracted me. But that changed when I did O-level chemistry and began to learn about bloody valancy and all that molecular weight and structure theory – it was no fun at all, as I soon discovered, and there was much more to chemistry than lobbing chunks of sodium in water and seeing it fizz and pop. Since there was no real videogames industry back then there wasn’t really any opportunity for any careers in it. People didn’t really have computers at home – there wasn’t even one at my school – and we were still in the era of very basic videogame systems like the Atari VCS. So, in 1982, when my five minutes with the careers woman came, my career was “an office job”. I had no idea what I’d be doing.
When did you start becoming interested in programming?
It wasn’t until I’d finished and got told I could do a BTEC in electrical engineering/microelectronics – that had a section on low-level programming – that I plumped for that, although it still wasn’t a career; it was just something I could do that involved programming on a formal basis, and not the ad hoc self-teaching route I’d begun on the early machines. Even then, when I’d done my BTEC course, I was still unsure about what I was going to end up doing, despite developing a game with my mate while at college, as it still wasn’t a career or anything. I went to work in a games shop over Christmas and ended up working with the guy who owned it for going on 25 years.
And when was it that you first became interested in videogames?
I think it was just a fascination when I first saw the early Pong games. My dad brought one home and that was that. I later got an Atari VCS and avidly followed the development of arcade machines. I vividly recall seeing both Space Invaders and Galaxian for the first time and I was just hooked; totally and utterly obsessed. I was always designing my own board games and, as a single child, videogames represented a real opportunity to play games that didn’t need someone else. That was quite a thing for me.
What did your parents think about your move into the videogames industry?
Well, it took probably 15 years of being ‘in it’ for my mum to realise that it was actual work, as such, and not something I was pottering about at. I remember quite poignantly calling home from the hotel in Hollywood, and just the fact that I was in LA was a bit much for her, but that kept me pretty level about everything. My dad was very enthusiastic. He takes huge pride in the fact that he bought me my Spectrum and he’s an avid consumer of games, gadgets and consoles himself. My parents divorced when I was young, so I possibly got spoilt a little bit with the likes of the Spectrum from my dad, since my mum couldn’t afford such things.
Martyn’s keen eye for great games saw Team 17 acquire Worms and Alien Breed.
Most people we’ve interviewed often started off programming on the ZX81. Were you the same?
My friend up the road had a ZX81, but I couldn’t afford one so I used that and at the weekend would go into Leeds to the computer enthusiast stores like Micropower, where they’d let you use the new home computers – cool ones with sound cards, colour and real keyboards. We used to buy the programming magazines and type in the listings. I learned BASIC first and later moved on to machine code and assembly language. My own real programming and creative bent started when I got the Spectrum in 1982 at 15.
What games did you used to enjoy playing back in the day?
All the classics really, from Ultimate’s Spectrum stuff, to the Beyond games like Mike Singleton’s Doomdark’s Revenge and Lords Of Midnight. As a footy fan, I remember obsessing over Football Manager and Match Day from Ocean before I got International Soccer on the C64. One of the proudest things for me was going out on the piss with Mike Singleton and meeting people like Jon Ritman a few years later.
Can you tell us a little about some of the early Spectrum games you made?
I didn’t make too many. My first large title was created with the Adventure Game Creator and was a game called FOT. It was an adventure game with just two rooms, but with tons of objects, which you could do anything you could think of with – and plenty of stuff you couldn’t imagine. It was a very silly, juvenile and obscene game that never got released. Then, while at college, I worked with a pal on a game called Henry’s Hoard, which was based on Jet Set Willy. I did all the graphics, level design and some of the code, including the music player. We eventually managed to sell it to the owner of a local game store – the same one who, a few years later, I started both 17Bit and later Team17 with. I used to get a great deal of pleasure writing spoof Ceefax systems – my first elaborate one was called The Spadge Factory and was planned to get released with Henry’s Hoard but never did.
You originally started off as 17Bit Software and specialised in the Amiga’s public domain market. How did you decide to go down this route?
When we got paid for the game – I got £250 – I went straight out and bought a Commodore 128D, which had a proper 5.25” floppy drive rather than the shitty Microdrive on my Spectrum. I also ended up on Compunet, which was an online bulletin board that had live chat, and I got to know a lot of programmers, artists and musicians. On Compunet, which preceded the internet by a good few years, people would post demos, music and artwork, and this was terribly exciting. Quickly I became a huge fan, even if my time with a Commodore machine was fairly short-lived. It wasn’t long before I upgraded again to an Atari ST and very soon after that, after seeing the infamous demo of it on Tomorrow’s World on BBC One in 1985, a Commodore Amiga.
Martyn is no longer at Team 16. Alien Breed: Evolution was one of the last games he was involved with.
So what happened next?
Through collecting all this stuff I had the idea of forming an Amiga enthusiast club, we did a monthly ‘update’ disk, which demonstrated the best underground art and music, gave tips on the system, distributed freeware tools, and encouraged users to send in their own work and helped mentor a few people such as Rico Holmes and Allister Brimble. The club, 17Bit – so called since it was ‘that bit better than the rest’ in a 16-bit computer world – became quite successful and eventually the group of regular contributors, who I became firm friends with, became the basis of the team that got started on the Team17 games.
What was it that attracted you to the Amiga, as opposed to other systems of the time?
I think that there was just something very ‘cool’ about the machine. It just seemed to do it all, even if it did have digital sound and not the ‘soul’ of the C64 SID chip. It put capability and power into the hands of normal folk and suddenly you could create things that looked great; it was a real level playing field. My interest from the demo, audio and art scene on the C64 naturally moved on to the Amiga, where it was far more impressive. I started collecting and communicating with a lot of the demo scene guys and many are still friends to this day, either still working in the industry or retired.
So when was it that you decided to turn your talent for programming to the Amiga?
Assembly on the Amiga was perhaps a step too far for me and I was too impatient to learn, so I spent a lot of time with things like Francois Lionet’s fabulous ‘AMOS’ programming language and made lots of applications and tools with that, but no real games as such. Some of my utilities got quite popular and I enjoyed that an awful lot, although they were never really meant to be of any commercial value.
I also just loved the vibe of the Amiga-only games, and that got me going and wanting to put an end to the stream of Atari ST ports that really didn’t make the most of the machine. We wanted to put the enthusiasm of the underground demo feel into our games and I think we pretty much succeeded.
Martyn currently runs a consultancy company called Insight For Hire.
How did that transition from writing applications to making full, technically impressive games for the Amiga go?
Looking back, you have to concede that it went really well. None of us had really developed commercial games to that kind of level before and there was no plan; everyone kind of just got on with it with various levels of excitement and fortunately a good general direction.
It was difficult in some respects, because programmers Andreas, Peter and Stefan lived in Sweden; Rico (artist) was based in Oxford; and Allister was down in deepest, darkest Devon. I was up in Wakefield and because the internet was still a twinkle in someone’s eye, we had to phone each other up and send game builds, music and art either in the post or using modems. It wasn’t really until 1992-93 that we had ‘speedy’ 14.4Kb modems.
Needless to say, it was slow going. There was no email and it was a lot of time on the phone, or the train, or the plane – and hovercraft, such was the trip to southern Sweden via Copenhagen, before the impressive bridge they’ve build to the Swedish mainland since those heady days.
But – and this is the key – it was fun, exciting, bleeding edge and totally ad hoc. And it felt great. We were just young guys with little to no experience, simply wanting to create something of value and worth. And we liked a beer, so new games were discussed in the pub. I liked those days a lot – we still try to hold strategy talks in the pub, especially now we’re fully independent again, since it reminds me of the roots and that feeling again.
Many of your early games were extremely similar to classic arcade games of the time. Was this a conscious decision to copy the designs of popular games, or was it just a case of wanting to make fun arcade titles?
It’s certainly a case of the latter. There was very much a conscious decision to try to deliver a standout title in most of the popular arcade-style genres rather than copy titles, as such. It’s fair to say that there was a lot of influence from classical titles – both Sonic and Mario in Superfrog, for example – and we put a Team17 spin on them. We felt the Amiga was a really capable machine and just wasn’t getting ‘arcade-quality’ editions; just the usual ST/Amiga 16-colour, 512Kb ports from other publishers.
We spent a lot of time looking at the classic titles that inspired us and we tried to emulate, but it was never a case of going anywhere so close as to contravene any legal issues. I mean, we didn’t do anything like Great Giana Sisters or Katakis, which were pretty close to Super Mario Bros and R-Type, and I believe injunctions were sought on both those titles.
Notable Martyn Brown Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Martyn Brown in issue 73. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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