Steve Turner’s name may not be as well known as Miyamoto’s of Molyneux’s but he remains an incredibly important figure in the games industry. Turner founded Graftgold, one of the most consistant software houses of the 8-bit era. Teaming up with his friend Andrew Braybrook, Graftgold delivered hit after hit, from Uridium, to the excellent Quazatron. Here Steve looks back at those early days.
What did you want to do as a career when you were still at school?
When I was young I wanted to be a scientist, then later a programmer. By the time I was in the sixth form I was playing in a local band and wanted to be a rock guitarist. I went to a teacher’s training college in London hoping to get into the London rock scene but decided to leave after the first term.
When did you discover videogames and which ones left a big impression on you?
I started getting into videogames when I lived near Southend seafront. There were many arcades there with all the latest games. Later I used to play the same game in the local pub every lunch hour. It was a simple game where a racing car went one way round a track with four lanes, and cars came in the opposite direction. I played with some workmates and we realised that we could beat the game if we learnt a pattern for each level. After a few weeks playing we cracked every level and the game just restarted. When the score reached 99,999 it just went back to zero. After that we didn’t play it any more. The machine was replaced by a Space Invaders machine.
I liked the addictiveness of these simple games and tried to work out what made them so playable. For example, when there were just a few Space Invaders left the frame rate increased, maybe by accident, but this put extra pressure on the player towards the end of a level. How many games get the balance wrong and as the level is cleared it just gets easier? Asteroids was also a favourite. I was no good at these games; Andrew was the expert and would play for ages on the same game. When Battlezone came out that became our favourite. You really needed tactics to beat it.
When did you get your first home computer and what was it?
I bought a ZX80 kit when they first came out and was amazed at how small it actually was. It was pure sci-fi. I was a bit disappointed that assembling it was so easy, as it did not give any insight as to how it worked. I became really interested in learning how the computer worked. I got many books on microchips and Z80 from the library and started to disassemble the operating system by hand. I worked out how they were getting characters on the screen without using a character generator chip. They used the CPU RAM refresh cycle. It was really clever but the machine’s downfall, as it used the CPU as well so you could not run code and display graphics. You could run code while the raster was off the screen if you timed the code to be exactly the correct number of machine cycles. That was really hard, as most code has many paths and each one had to be exactly the same length.
Steve has worked on a string of great arcade conversions, including the excellent Rainbow Islands.
When did you start coding and how did you teach yourself?
I learnt ALGOL 60 when I was about 15 in a school computer club; it was an easy language to learn and well suited to mathematics. Later I learnt COBOL on a government training course when I was unemployed in the Seventies. It was a good move and led to a programming job in the Civil Service. There I taught myself ICL Assembler. I also had an ICL Assembler training course in my next job. After that the ZX80 was really easy. Most assembly languages are very similar and it’s just a question of learning what registers they use and learning the mnemonic instructions. In most languages you use a handful of instructions for most code. The difficult bit is building big programs. The design experience I had in COBOL was a great help. I was taught how to break down a problem into little manageable chunks.
How did you meet up with Andrew Braybrook?
I was introduced to Andrew by a work colleague. He played in the same band as Andrew and later I joined as lead guitarist. Andrew used to write computer games to be played on terminals connected to a mainframe. Our mutual friend arranged for Andrew to supply a program on punched cards so we could try it on our work computer, but it was incompatible. One of his games was a forerunner to Doom. It was called Assassin and was a multiplayer creep-around-a-map-and-shoot-each-other game. The top-down map was built out of ASCII characters. The novel feature later used in Paradroid was that you only saw people if they were in your line of sight. We quickly became good friends with very similar interests. We would often play computer games at his house after a session at the pub. We would talk about games techniques and how to animate graphics. When he saw my first game he programmed bits of it on the Dragon 32 to show what he could do, and when I gave up work he was very keen to join me.
You mention the band you were in. What was it called and were you any good?
It was called No Class. We reformed after many years and got quite good until the singer and drummer left. At that time we were just doing rock covers.
Unlike a lot of your peers you actually started off as a commercial programmer. Why the move to games?
I had just turned 30 and felt I hadn’t done anything with my life and could see myself in another 30 years working at the same company. When I realised I could make money out of games I jumped at the chance. I wrote my first game while still working and saved like mad. When the first royalty cheque came in I handed in my notice.
Andrew Braybrook back in Graftgold’s early days. He’s behind such hits as Uridium and Paradroid.
So do you think being a commercial programmer gave you any advantages over your peers?
I learnt how to design and program large systems broken down into smaller components. Also I was taught structured programming. Both Andrew and I used that a lot to design our routines and to explain things to each other. It was better than flowcharting, as structured charting leads to structured programs without tons of GOTOs all over the place. This makes the code testable because it has fewer paths through it. It also taught us the disciplines of testing each part of the code. Andrew wrote a little piece of code we called ABMON that ran while the code was working and allowed you to look at or change any of the variables. That meant you could tune a game while playing it.
What was your early working relationship with Andrew like before you started Graftgold? Did you have a specific system in place?
Andrew was my employee but also a close friend. We worked 9 to 5 in those days with an hour for lunch. Sometimes he would work later but I had a two-year-old son waiting for me to ‘come home’ from work. We worked in my dining room, which just had room along one wall for two desks and comfy manager-style leather chairs.
Why did you move away from the Dragon 32 to systems like the Spectrum and C64?
When the company that made the Dragon went bust the market ceased overnight. This was as much the fault of retailers. They wanted to sell off old stock so wouldn’t accept new titles. Just because a machine goes out of production doesn’t mean there is no one to buy games. People want the latest games rather than old titles. We had just released three titles and they only sold a few hundred through mail order; it was a disaster. We only got about 70p a game, so that wasn’t going to pay the wages.
How did your relationship with Hewson come about?
I answered an ad that said ‘games wanted’. I sent my first game to three publishers and two offered me a contract. I went to see them and chose Andrew Hewson, who seemed to have a better company. He manufactured his own cassette tapes, which kept costs down.
Can you remember what you received payment-wise for your first Hewson game, and how did it sell?
My first game sold about 32,000 copies at a royalty of something like 70p a copy. That was a lot of money for six weeks part-time work. If I was able to repeat that I would be a millionaire. Each game took longer to write and many didn’t sell as well, so you could say it was downhill ever since!
Do you think the fact that you and Andrew were proficient with different computers helped in the early days?
Not really. It was more the similarities such as the background of professional programming that helped us. We used to write routines in each other’s games so pretty much knew each language. The 6809 assembler language on the Dragon 32 was perhaps the best language, and in some ways very like the 68000 we later learnt for the Amiga and Atari ST. We had very different approaches to game design, though, which did help. We were always bouncing ideas off each other. Andrew was very much into new control modes and would like to quickly get a character moving around so he could experiment with the control. He would design graphics and fonts before the game. I used to design a game, get it working, then put the pretty bits in.
Steve poses in an early shot from the Eighties.
What did your family think about you moving into the videogame field? Did they take your career change seriously?
I think most of them didn’t think it would last long, but they knew I was sensible and had saved up enough to keep going for a year. My wife was very supportive and quite liked having me at home. She would make tea for us and sometimes key data in. My son was only two and had to learn that 9 to 5 except for a lunch hour I was ‘at work’. He had no trouble with this.
What was your relationship with Hewson like?
I liked Andrew and Gordon Hewson very much. Gordon left soon after we started working together. Hewson really got it right with his relationships with his developers. He let us basically do what we wanted but fed us market comments and made constructive comments. He had a good relationship with magazines, which really paid off. He would always think of an angle for a product launch. The press used to enjoy them and it was fun having the chance to show the games personally.
Were there any other publishers you considered?
I very nearly signed with Silversoft, who were one of the first publishers to get product into the big stores.
After your initial success with Hewson, were there offers from other publishers? If there were, why did you decide to stay?
We did occasionally see other publishers. This was later on when we realised it was important to get published in other territories that were opening up with the new machines. Hewson started getting interested in the budget market and we couldn’t see how we could make enough money out of that unless we only spent a couple of months on each game, which meant we wouldn’t be able to push the edge.
Why did you eventually decide to leave Hewson?
We found out he was going bust and trying to sell our current games for cash. This would mean substantially less royalties, as we would only get a percentage of the cash deal rather than the wholesale price. If we had been approached properly about the situation I trusted him so much that perhaps we could have worked something out. We also knew the in-house programmers at Hewson and they confirmed the situation and asked us for a job. Hewson was imploding and his staff abandoning him. It was like every man for himself. We just didn’t know what to think. We had a phone call from his ex marketing manager who had moved to Telecomsoft and asked if we could meet. Telecomsoft offered to publish our current games and fund us so we could employ Dominic Robinson and John Cummings from Hewson. The press sided with Hewson over this and slated our games when they came out. We felt it was us that had been betrayed, as Hewson had not told us what was happening. We funded our games entirely ourselves so were in a vulnerable position at the final stages of two games. We had no contract with Hewson so he was not obliged to do anything. Just about all the company’s money was tied up in those games, so I didn’t see we had any choice at the time but to leave him.
Your Hewson games were famed for their originality. Where did the ideas for games like Paradroid and Uridium originate?
After Gribbly’s Day Out Andrew was working on his scrolling engine so it could run at half the frame rate. I gave him a brief to do a cute robot game. I liked the little robot in The Black Hole and thought a timid robot would make a good character for a game. I eventually used that idea in Quazatron. Andrew had a think about it and next day came back with a scrap of paper, which outlined Paradroid. It said something like cute and high-tech don’t go together and had the idea of displaying the dreadnoughts as high-tech computer maps. The game grew as he programmed it; that is how he worked. The inspiration for the sub-game came from an idea I had. I was playing around with a freebie I got with a new Spectrum. It was a digital circuit designer with logic gates. I thought you could do a kind of puzzle game where you had to unlock the circuit by switching the gates to get the correct output. He turned this into a shooting game, which was a touch of genius.
Immediately after Paradroid was finished, Andrew went back to his scroll routine. He put in some optimisations, limiting the scroll to horizontal so he could scroll at full frame rate. That is the secret for a really fluid game. I only know a few games that have managed that on the Spectrum, two by Graftgold staff. The dreadnought graphics were an extension of the effect Andrew had used for the Paradroid walls. Andrew was playing a game down the pub, which was a diagonal scrolling shooter where a fighter attacked a huge spaceship. I think that was the inspiration. Andrew wanted to get the true arcade feel in a game and knew full frame rate was the answer. The sub-game was my idea and it was similar to the double or nothing that was on a slot machine down the pub. I did the music, but I never got round to doing Paradroid as I was so busy. That’s why Andrew made his own ‘music’ with my music engine that sounded like robot chatter. I thought it was brilliant and set the mood for the game, so we kept it.
Notable Steve Turner Games
Ivan Stewart’s Super Off Road Racer
You can read the rest of our interview with Steve Turner in issue 92. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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