Who is Nick Jones?
Nick Jones might not be as well known a name as Hideo Kojima or Peter Molyneux, but you’ll have played plenty of his games. Like Dave Perry, Nick started his career at the British 8-bit coding house Mikro-Gen, where he was involved with various games, but he’s perhaps most known for his work at Shiny Entertainment, which included the likes of Earthworm Jim. He still works in the industry today, some 30 years later, and we were keen to go back with Nick to the very beginning, to find out how it all started.
Tell us about your first experience with computers.
Initially I wanted to be a civil engineer because my best friend’s father was one. I didn’t really know what the job entailed. And then somebody told me that computers were a good thing and that I should probably do something around that, so I took a course and hated it. Then one day I went into my classroom and on this really crappy school computer I saw somebody playing a Space Invaders-style game, and it had a real profound effect on me. It was terrible, there was no sound, no colour, but it was clearly recognisable as Space Invaders. After seeing that, I bugged every single person I could about anything related to computers. I wanted to know how someone could make something so cool on this computer that I thought was a bit rubbish really. That was probably the driving force, the moment I went from being disinterested in the classroom to having the real strong interest in computers.
Space Invaders sparked your interest in computers, but when did you realise you wanted to make a living from videogames?
At my sixth form there was this guy who was really interested in the BBC Micro and was writing stuff for a computer magazine and making a bit of money. He wasn’t making much, but the fact that he was making money from an entertainment means was shocking to me, and without actually admitting it to anyone I knew then that what I wanted to do was make videogames. At that point I knew I needed to buy a machine and I ended up settling for an Oric-1, which was probably a really bad idea. I bought this thing and didn’t know anything about what was in the heart of it. It was a 6502 machine, and luckily this proved to be very beneficial for me in the long run. But I got this machine and decided I would create a computer game. It took me 15 months to write it because everything I wanted to learn about the machine I had to figure out for myself. When it was finished I sold it to a company called Tansoft, who offered me £450 worth of computer equipment for it, including a hard drive. Unfortunately, before my hard drive arrived the company went bankrupt.
Clearly that didn’t discourage your plans, so how did you land your first job in the industry working for Mikro-Gen?
Well, what I did do with that Oric-1 game I wrote was send it off to Mikro-Gen. I was hoping they’d look at it, but I really wasn’t hopeful. Anyway, they phoned me up, invited me to London, and offered me a job on the spot. I couldn’t believe it. My foot was in the door and I was getting paid to write videogames. £5,000 a year was what I was getting paid and I just couldn’t believe people were paying me to write videogames.
What was your first project when you started working for Mikro-Gen?
Well, I lied to them when I got my job. I said I could program in every assembly language known to man, but the reality was I didn’t know Z80 all that well. So the first thing they did was give me Herbert’s Dummy Run to do on the Amstrad, which is a Z80-based machine. I had three months to do it in and it was kind of my probation project. I sensed that if I didn’t pull that off then I was out the door, so for those first three months I really felt a pressure to just knuckle down and learn this Amstrad machine. One thing they realised quickly when I got there was that I had music experience. So as well as doing this Amstrad version of the game they also had me doing the music for their games. They had this little device that could play very basic notes, and I had been playing the piano since I was a kid, so I just went away and wrote the music for them. From then I was lumped into writing all sound effects and music for their games. It wasn’t my forte at all, but I didn’t mind. In those days you had to do everything; you were doing the graphics, the programming, the level design, the product testing.
Nick poses with the Shiny Entertainment team
It was during your time at Mikro-Gen that you met and worked alongside some prominent developers like David Perry, Chris Hinsley and Raffaele Cecco. Did you all get along?
I remember Raffaele specifically. He was a really interesting guy. He was very creative and really into his programming, and I remember his machine code routine for drawing sprites on the screen. And he never did anything except kept looking at this one little bit of code every day and just optimising it. And I basically said to him that he needed to buckle down otherwise he was going to get fired. After that he did and produced Equinox, which was a great game. He had a really good eye for visuals and after Mikro-Gen he and I worked together and ended up becoming really good friends.
I remember Dave and Raf would play Queen all day long. They’d put it on full volume until the walls were shaking. And by the end I couldn’t stand it. I hated Queen for the longest time. I couldn’t stand them. In fact, Dave and I almost ended up in a fist fight over it. We didn’t actually get to striking blows but I remember one day he turned it on and I turned it off because I couldn’t concentrate. And this went on backwards and forwards until eventually he turned round to me and said something like: ‘If you turn that off again I’m going to put my fist in your face!’ [laughs]
So I went over and turned it off and he grabbed my back, and I grabbed him by the throat and everybody just ran out of the office. We came to our senses before we ended up hitting each other.
Tell us what you know about the ill-fated Mikro-Plus add-on from Mikro-Gen, and the infamous Shadow Of The Unicorn.
The idea behind it was simple. It was a 16K game-dedicated ROM chip that came with a cassette game. It basically allowed us to write 64K games that couldn’t be pirated. However, the way it was brought to market was absolutely disastrous. The guy who did Shadow Of The Unicorn kind of half did it and then left, and we found all these massive design issues with the game. Well, we looked at what he’d left us with and it was terrible. Eventually they put out Shadow Of The Unicorn and it just killed the Mikro-Plus. The reality was they should have just canned the game. Dave was doing Three Weeks In Paradise at that point and was writing it for the Mikro-Plus. It was a really great game, and in the last second we realised the Mikro-Plus was dead, so we had to take the game and rip it to pieces to get it down to a regular 48K. Ultimately, I think that was the beginning of the end for Mikro-Gen.
Who was the first one to leave?
I think Dave was the first one to abandon ship, and then Raf and then Chris. I think I was one of the last engineers to leave. But before that we’d all seen that the writing was on the wall. So what we did is buy our own development systems, and basically just started doing the same thing at home. I actually wrote a couple of budget games in my spare time and sold them to Bubble Bus.
When Mikro-Gen closed, I took advantage of a scheme set up by Margaret Thatcher whereby anyone who was unemployed and wanted to set up a business for a year could take themselves off the unemployment register and be given £2,000 to start up their own business. They paid me £40 a week, which covered my rent and everything. I was literally living for nothing while I was making my games, and it really helped get me on my feet. I think the first thing I did was Cybernoid with Raffaele for Hewson. It was an informal agreement between us. Raffaele was the creative genius behind it and I would just go over to his house and help him out with technical things on the Spectrum, as I was always thinking about how we could push the hardware, but ultimately I was doing the Commodore variants.
Notable Nick Jones Games
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