Steve Crow currently works at Blizzard, but his work with games goes back so much further. Like many of today’s British developers, Stephen cut his teeth on 8-bit machines like the ZX Spectrum, eventually going on to make classics such as Starquake. During the late Eighties and early Nineties he spent his time at companies like Probe and Shiny, where he helped breathe life into a fantastic number of games, including Earthworm Jim.
Can you remember when you started taking an interest in computer games?
I absolutely can. I remember very distinctly. I used to travel to school by train and it was in the very early Eighties, when I was attending grammar school, that Tonbridge railway station had just installed a Space Invaders cabinet. My best friend Chris used to play it on his way home in the evenings. Then a few months later the station installed a Missile Command cab on the side where I waited to go home and I was just hooked – it’s still one of my all-time favourite games. It got to the point where my mum would make me sandwiches for lunch and I’d sell them to my classmates so I could use the money to play Missile Command on the way home.
When was it you started to take an interest in programming?
That happened shortly after I started playing Missile Command. One of my classmates, Gordon, who played Missile Command at Tonbridge station, had an Atari 2600 at the time and I used to go to his house and play things like Space Invaders and Missile Command. I remember it was about my third or fourth year at school that I decided to take computer studies. I did it for a whole term but really did not get the programming at all; it didn’t click with me. Well that year my brother had gone off to university to do a degree in computer science, and when he came back at Christmas he just sat me down for an hour or two and explained how it all worked. Suddenly it just all clicked; suddenly I understood it. So after Christmas I went back to school and began writing my first games.
Can you remember the first game you ever wrote?
You probably won’t believe this, but back then our school didn’t actually have a computer. Instead we had a Teletype machine that linked to a mainframe at a local college, and you’d type in your program and it would be printed on ticker tape and you would feed the tape into the machine to load up the program. One of the first games I ever wrote was on this Teletype machine. You had this tank and this gun that you could change the angle of, and you’d try to hit the tank as it moved slowly towards you. You had to play it in rounds because the actions were typed out – it came out like a printer. So you’d see a picture of the tank, which was made up of letters, and then see your gun and where your shot went, which was displayed on the page using asterixes. I think it was probably around this time that I got a programmable calculator. I also programmed a game on that. It was based on the numbers generated by the calculator, and you would play the game on a traditional board that I created.
When did you get your first taste of programming on a conventional computer?
It wasn’t until a little while that our school got its first computer: a Research Machines 380Z. I wrote a version of Missile Command in BASIC, and instead of lines it had little blocks cascading towards you, and you could move the cursor around and shoot them, and it all happened in real-time. I remember spending every lunchtime and staying behind after school to program this thing. I seem to remember the computer had a floppy disk drive to save your stuff to and somebody made a copy of the game. People were still playing it two or three years later.
What was your first home computer?
Well, my dad was actually a computer engineer. He worked on mainframe computers for ICL, repairing and maintaining them, but it was a totally different thing to microcomputers. But my best friend Chris had a ZX80 and I would go round and program on that sometimes. Then one day my dad did some work for his dad, who was also in computers – he would buy and resell computer equipment. My dad tipped Chris’s dad off that a company he knew was selling off some computer equipment and so as a thank you he bought us a ZX81. Once I got that I was on it all the time programming.
When you were playing more games and programming from home, were there any games that really inspired you?
There was one game, a Defender-type game, and I can’t remember the name of the company who made it but somehow they took out the screen syncing. So instead of displaying everything on a grid, they did something that took over the screen display and displayed things smoothly. So I was playing those games, thinking they were amazing, while at the same time programming in BASIC and making games that weren’t as smooth.
Your first published game was Laser Snaker. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this game?
Well, I was playing lots of games and looking at games in magazines and as I was only a kid at school and wasn’t able to buy all of these games, sometimes I would just see pictures of games in magazines, not really understanding how they worked, but just base a game I was writing on those. After I had the ZX81, I started programming games in BASIC and use a BASIC compiler to compile it into machine code, and that would help it run much faster. I then got a ZX Spectrum and a compiler for that. The smoothness and the speed of Laser Snaker came from the fact that I’d written it in BASIC and had compiled it into machine code.
Both Laser Snaker and Factory Breakout were published by Poppy Soft. Can you tell us about this relationship?
I had a friend at school, Justin, and we were both into writing games. He actually went off and got a job from Atari. He had an Atari 800 and wrote a game called The Lone Raider, and then he did a conversion of Dig Dug, I think for the BBC. Well his dad wanted to set us both up in a company to do games. When I got the terms of the agreement my dad asked a friend at his golf club, a guy called Bill Laker, to take a look at the agreement. He basically looked at it and said it wasn’t a fair arrangement. As it stood, I got 49 per cent of the deal and they would get 51 per cent, and basically in a company once you have a commanding share of 51 per cent you can do what you want. Well this guy had a computer software business called Gandlake and said, ‘I’ll go in with your son and we’ll do it fairly. I’ll pay for all the publishing of the games and he writes the games,’ and that’s how we set up Poppy Soft.
Were you still at school at the time you set up Poppy Soft?
When I wrote Laser Snaker, I was 17 and in my second to last year at school. I remember the day I turned 18, Bill came over on my birthday so that I could sign the contracts for Poppy Soft. He came over in his Porsche, and he had all this paperwork to sign. It was totally fair; he and his business partner were so straight and fair with me. At the same time I went back to school, for my last year, and after a few weeks decided to leave to concentrate on games. So I left education and instead wrote videogames full time. I went to a local school in my town and finished up my last year at school as an adult student. That way all I had to do was go to the classes I had to and then I could go home and spend as much time programming as possible.
Where did the idea for Factory Breakout come from?
SC: The little robot guy was sort of influenced a bit by the Dalek in Doctor Who. The gameplay is split into three stages and one of the ideas was influenced from my friend that had written that Lone Raider game. He’d done a maze-style game where you were sucked through little doors, and to go up and down I added more to the idea with the use of elevators and gravity. The first stage where you’re a big circular head and you spin round shooting little lines coming in from the side was taken from Missile Command. I remember I was just walking to the railway station one day and I had this idea with these lines coming in from all around and you were in the middle, shooting at them.
Your games always scored highly in the press. Did you ever read the reviews of your games at the time?
I remember Factory Breakout received a Crash Smash. And I think it got that review before we’d even got the game manufactured. Once Bill Laker found out, he approach WHSmith and other retailers and convinced them to order copies we hadn’t even manufactured yet. I think it sold around 6,000 to 10,000 units in the end, which was really good considering, because I think Laser Snaker only sold about 1,000. It was very important to get that review because it was a turning point for my career.
How did you feel reading that review, and receiving a Crash Smash?
I was totally blown away. When you’re creating something you really don’t know how it’s going to be received. My personal way of working is I try to make something as good as I can make it, and something I would enjoy playing. I want it to be fun, I want it to look great, and I want it to satisfy me. So when I created Factory Breakout and somebody liked it and wrote positive things about it, I was blown away.
Notable Stephen Crow Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Stephen Crow in issue 72. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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