The name won’t be familiar to everyone, but Mev Dinc has been involved in some cracking games over his 30-year career. He’s ported classics to the Spectrum and Amstrad, created original games like Gerry The Germ and helped form Vivid Image. In this classic interview, Mev tells us how his impressive career started off.
So how is it that you suddenly found yourself in the UK?
I was studying at my university in Turkey and by complete accident or fate, I ended up getting married to a lovely English girl, so that’s how I ended up in England. I was still at university so was having to go back and forth between England and Turkey to finish off the course. After university I had hoped to do some sort of higher education in England, but I found myself working in a cable factory in Southampton.
And how did you end up getting your first computer back then?
A close colleague of mine from the factory had a ZX81, and had been trying to tell me all about these games he was playing and how wonderful it was, but at the time I had no interest in games or computers whatsoever. Then in 1982 the ZX Spectrum came out, and he convinced me to put my name down for one. I had to wait about three months… And when our names came up my friend actually decided to drive to the Sinclair factory to pick up our Spectrums! That’s how excited he was, and I just went along with him. So that’s how I bought my first Spectrum… 16K!
Were you hooked right away with your purchase?
To be honest, I brought it home and left it in a corner because I still didn’t have any interest in games at all. Eventually I opened up my box and saw this little black thing and realised that on its own it didn’t do anything… I needed a bloody TV and a cassette deck, so I left it alone for a couple of weeks more. Eventually I set it all up, and started reading the rather big instruction book that came with it, which was all about BASIC programming on the Spectrum. But I couldn’t understand most of it… my English wasn’t too bad but it was nowhere near good enough to completely learn a new language. I’d only been in England for about four years working in a factory, so you can imagine the scope of my vocabulary!
So what was it that eventually convinced you to start coding?
I started buying some computer magazines… at the time the most important and influential for me was a weekly magazine called Popular Computing Weekly. It was good for the end user because there were articles about games themselves, but more importantly there were really decent articles on programming and game design. I started concentrating on understanding computing and programming which fascinated me even more. And in PCW someone had written a small article about programming that was very influential on my career. He said to become a good games programmer you had to forget about BASIC because it was too slow, and it was best to learn machine code.
How long did it take you to become proficient?
About two years… I ended up self-teaching from magazines and books. I started writing demos and trying things out… there is a board game called Nine Men’s Morris, which is a very traditional board game in Turkey, which I was very good at and actually grew up playing in my home village. So I thought maybe I could program this so that was my first project. And I realised that I had a knack for design and presentation.
Had you become more interested in other computer games by this point?
I started breaking into them and trying to understand how they worked, which was very crucial for my learning to program the Spectrum in particular. One of the games that was very influential for me was Arcadia by Imagine. I thought it was fantastic… it was beautifully designed and I was gob-smacked by all the different attack sequences. But because I was so bad at playing games I just couldn’t get very far in it… I wanted to get further so I could see the rest of the fancy sequences but my ship kept blowing up!
So it was around that time that you decided to take the plunge into a career as a videogame programmer then?
Yes, I decided to leave the factory to go into game programming professionally, so it was a huge risk. Then I saw an ad in my local paper from a C64 programmer [Paul Fik] looking for a Spectrum programmer and I thought ‘wow this guy’s obviously looking for me’ because I didn’t think there would be any other Spectrum programmers in Southampton! I responded to the ad and he told me he had been asked to convert 3D Ant Attack for the C64. I was really impressed with 3D Ant Attack on the Spectrum; it was one of the first 3D games ever. It was a great experience for me, helping on the game and getting to find out a little about the C64 too – all the pros and cons of the two different machines, which helped later on in my career when I started doing stuff on the 64 too. And then I did my first game – Gerry The Germ!
How did the idea for Gerry… er… germinate?
I think from day one I realised that I was technically very good, and I also realised I could be ‘different’ in terms of coming up with ideas. And seeing as most heroes are nice people I thought, why not make my player character a ‘baddie’? I thought the idea of playing a germ, entering and destroying a human body, was quite fascinating. It was also very risky, but I thought it would get people’s attention at least. I took the game to Mirrorsoft but they said: ‘you must be joking, we couldn’t publish this! We’re Mirror group, a respected group of companies!’ They literally threw me out of the room! At a computer fair I’d met Tony Rainbird, the managing director of Firebird, which was the publishing arm of British Telecom. At the time I thought BT was even more respectable than Mirror Group, they won’t accept this. But Tony was fascinated by the idea and said he’d love to publish it. And he was impressed with my coding ability so he gave me my first break.
Despite it being published as a budget game, you still joke that your bank manager was very happy about it…
I did the Spectrum and Amstrad versions myself. I was surprised how easy the game was to translate to the Amstrad because the machines were so similar. Tony said that I could do the Commodore version too. In Southampton I met this amazing programmer, Edwin Rayner, who became my C64 programmer, and he did the Commodore version of Gerry. So we ended up with three versions of my first game. I did receive quite a lot of royalties, particularly from the US version. To this day I don’t know why, but the C64 disk version of Gerry The Germ has some kind of cult following in the USA of all places. [laughs] I thought the Americans would be even more conservative than the Brits! And Rob Hubbard probably did one of his best works for my game… in fact he did say as much in some interviews himself.
Mev was also responsible for the Amstrad conversion of Enduro Racer.
And your next game was your isometric adventure, Prodigy… quite a step up from Gerry!
Actually Tony and British Telecom wanted me to do my second game with them too. I’d also met Rod Cousens through my work on 3D Ant Attack, and Jon Dean, who at the time was setting up a software studio at Activision called Electric Dreams. I met with Jon and he was very impressed with my attitude and he said ‘Look, please do the next game with us.’ They gave me a very good offer, and because they were based in Southampton it made more sense that I worked with them. Of course Tony was disappointed, but he was very understanding.
And technically that game was remarkable for its time…
Yes, It was a very ambitious game, and very difficult to write. But those two early games, Prodigy and Gerry, helped me so much for my future projects. Prodigy was a landmark game, the first scrolling isometric game on the Spectrum. It did some really clever stuff – dynamic scrolling mazes with a very fast game engine – I was updating the whole game world all the time which was a very hard thing to do on the Spectrum. When you play the game you don’t realise all that’s happening in the background, and that game taught me a lot about not wasting resources unnecessarily.
In Prodigy you had a little baby to look after, change his nappy, feed and water. Another very unusual Mev Dinc concept…
Exactly, it was a very original idea for 1986! And he’d follow you wherever you went, even through the mazes. And there were all these horrible baddies coming after you all the time, they were very clever… and it was too hard. When you died you went right to the beginning so it was very frustrating. So that was a mistake, but the game world was so small, and I couldn’t do save game features or things like that at the time. Those were luxury things that came later.
Gerry The Germ remains one of Mev’s most popular games.
And then you ended up coding the Amstrad port of Enduro Racer…
I wasn’t really very keen on doing that to begin with as I wasn’t interested in conversions. But Rod and Jon really insisted because for whatever reason the original Spectrum programmers didn’t want to do it. The Spectrum version was an amazing feat of programming – one of the first very impressive arcade coin-op conversions. And they offered me really good money… So I decided to take it on the condition that I could meet the programmers and get some help from them. And I met the guys and they were telling me how they did the roads and track… they used some amazing techniques, far more advanced than me. And I was nodding my head, but I couldn’t understand a thing! So I said I really need the source code to finish this quickly. Luckily they said no problem. I ended up simulating the entire Spectrum code on the Amstrad, just adding a little bit of colour… not much. [laughs]
Why did you decide to return to Turkey in 2000?
We did another racing game called SCARS. But we had drastic problems. Ubisoft did the graphics in France, but unfortunately the tracks were too short and too difficult, and it ruined the game. I felt I’d reached the pinnacle of my career in the UK, and I wanted to start a games sector in Turkey which would make me feel proud again. I had to really start from scratch… I took on a few enthusiastic university students, and I really enjoyed the challenge. And considering the lack of resources here we’ve done some amazing things. There’s a very big games sector in Turkey now with 25 million players; mobile gaming has become really big here. I set up the world’s first digital games federation which I’m very proud of. We did a game called Istanbul, Turkey’s first MMORPG. Living in an amazing city like Istanbul I wanted to include a lot of local content and culture. We also did I Can Football, the world’s first 11 versus 11 soccer game, and more recently we launched the Süpercan games, based on Turkey’s first digital kids’ hero. In five weeks we reached over 5 million players.
How has the games industry changed over the years you’ve been involved? And what does the future hold for Mev Dinc?
Of course I’m one of the lucky people that witnessed the growth of the games industry from day one. There aren’t many people that started back in 1983 and are still in the game… even Raff Cecco! But today there are still some great opportunities… I’m advocating and encouraging all the young people here to get into mobile gaming. My next big project is setting up a digital games incubation and innovation centre where I can help enthusiastic and talented young people become mobile developers. Because with mobile gaming we are going back to the spirit of the early Eighties, with just one or two guys getting together and doing amazing things.