Although he now works for The Blast Furnace, Martyn Brown is best known as being one of the founders of Team 17. Martyn had been involved in game long before the Amiga however, having started off coding Spectrum titles. Here he talks about those early days before he got into gaming and the initial founding of Team 17.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Similarly, many of your titles would have special editions or a director’s cut. Was this just a cynical marketing ploy of rehashing an old game, or a way of giving the definitive title to your fans?
Well the easy option would have been to just stick out the original game at a budget price point and move on, but we saw an opportunity to effectively remaster the titles based on user feedback, extend the content and, in some cases, give a radically different game experience. Alien Breed Special Edition had a bigger and much wider scope than the original game and managed to stay at number one for 33 consecutive weeks, Project-X was much easier, and Assassin saw his boomerang replaced with a gun.
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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