Interview with Ste Cork
December 1997

How did you get started in computers?

A couple of the lads at school had Spectrums, they looked like fun, so I asked my folks to help me buy one at Xmas as I was in the last year at our school not to have computers provided there.

When did you first see a Spectrum and what were your first impressions?

1983. Seemed like a good laugh, but the fact that the programming language seemed so easy and you could get results up on screen really fast impressed me. Many a night was spent writing useless and highly simple "games" back then.

What was your first game?

Erm... ahem, cough cough, er, actually it was a rather embarrassing budget thing called CaGara. It actually had some pretty good features in it and needed a lot of thought to play, unfortunately it looked and sounded so awful that only people who knew me bothered to look at it for more than a couple of minutes, and since I'd been writing it for about a year (with a friend at school) we'd got really good at it, so made it hard enough to be challenging to us, which meant new players just got slaughtered. Most of the good bits on the maps were hidden in places that you'd never find in a million years, and there was a fatal bug in one maze screen caused by some tosser who worked for the publisher "cleverly" hacking off our turbo loader and putting their own loading screen, forgetting the fact that since the game had stuff stored all over the system area as well he corrupted a lot of the data. Oh well, it was pretty embarrassing anyway.

What have you done on the Speccy?

Errrr... of the top of my head, CaGara, Wibstars, Colony, Rescue, Canyon Warrior, Deadzone, Psycho Pigs UXB, Star Paws, Sector 90, Elephant Polo (very few people would even have heard of most of those), and a couple of aborted wargames.

Nothing famous really, almost everything I did on the Speccy was employer-controlled, and the company I worked for did loads of projects for people like Argus Press and the then Mastertronic. Hardly Crash-Smash stuff. Argus Press was a weird company, they paid for us to do loads of games, then almost never released them, or only sold them in about 2 shops in the whole country. We vaguely joked about them being some kind of tax loss or money-laundering operation since there was no way we could see them making money at it. Still, it paid our wages.

What do you think of your games? Which is your personal favourite?

I think they're fairly playable, well, the ones I had development control over anyway, not the contract ones (which were awful). Several times I'd find people playing my games after hours or during dinner breaks at A&F and Icon..... which was nice <g>.

My personal favourite is easily Rescue, it got loads of letters in magazines, and sold quite well (around 35,000 copies). I later ported it to the MSX and Einstein computers under the name Starbase, with the permission of Virgin who'd taken over Mastertronic by then.

How did you leave the Spectrum scene?

I was lured back from Software Creations after only being there 6 months (I'd done Psycho Pigs UXB and Star Paws on the Spectrum there) to work for Icon Design again, but this time on the PC. Software Creations weren't interested in doing PC work, and even now they're mainly into Nintendo, so I jumped at the chance, I re-joined Icon and did the PC conversion of Nebulus, from there I never worked on the Spectrum again, other than doing a couple of quick shoot-em-ups (Deadzone and Canyon Warrior) as private royalty jobs.

Were you sad to leave?

No, the format had just about died out by then. It was a nice machine while it lasted but you couldn't really make much money out of it by then.

What are you doing now?

Working on PC and Playstation. Just finishing off the networking on a first-person perspective job for Psygnosis.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Best - very good display for the small amount of memory it used, good cpu power to screen size ratio as regards the amount of data you could move, good price, well-written tape routines.

Worst - why on earth couldn't they (on the 48k) have piped the sound through the TV cable? By the end of the Spectrum era people like Tony Williams and Tim Follin were doing things with the sound "chip" (ha ha!) that people couldn't have dreamed of in '82, but having that tiny speaker was stupid, especially when most people probably had their Speccies on the carpet right in front of the telly, so it was all muffled anyway.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

Lords of Midnight, Rebelstar, and Nether Earth. Good long strategy games that just had so much in them. Of the arcade games, probably Atic Atac, Halls of the Things, and Starquake - lots of things going on at once and plenty of action.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

No-one in particular. I may really like a game by someone, then not like anything else they do.

As regards artists, Mark O'Neill, Martin Holland, and Peter Gough (when you could get work out of him) were pretty good.

I guess Tony Williams and Tim Follin that I mentioned before would be the musicians I most respected.

Do you use an emulator to play your old games (or any others)?

I don't tend to play my own much on any format, (including the latest 3DFX turbo-nutter-speed PC games), because by the time you've spent all the time coding it you know it in and out, and have played it thousands of times while writing / testing. I did use Gerton Lunter's Z80.EXE emulator a lot though to play Rebelstar ( a great game), and Nether Earth, but I haven't loaded one up now for a couple of years.

What was the last Speccy game you wrote?

Canyon Warrior, for Virgin Mastertronic.

Did you leave anything unfinished?

I think everyone does, there were several earlier games that got put to one side for a while because of work demands on other projects, then they were never picked up again. There was a huge starship-deck-plan type strategy wargame that would have been quite good (provisionally entitled Encounter), but that got "temporarily" shelved many years ago.

... and if so is there any chance we'll ever get to see it!

No.

Don't you ever feel like writing another Speccy game nowadays just for old times sake? ;-)

No. I can't be bothered doing even reasonably-paying PC shareware games (eg a follow-up to "OverKill") out of hours nowdays, never mind a spectrum game.

What do you think about modern games? Can they compete with the classics? Aren't they all presentation and no gameplay?

I really like about 2 or 3 games a year, the rest I can take or leave. Comparing modern and old games isn't really that relevant IMO, the old 8-bit machines couldn't do games like Quake, and no publisher would release something the equivalent of (say) Boulderdash or Galaxians nowdays because they couldn't compete, and people expect so much more for their money. In the early 16 bit days of the Amiga and ST there was certainly a lot of stuff with all graphics and no gameplay, all padded out with fancy intro FMVs, but nowdays I think things are ok.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

It was a much nicer industry to work in back then, the suits and bean counters have taken over though nowdays, and the whole thing is far too corporate IMO. Working for an external developer studio is certainly better than working in-house for a publisher (albeit for less wages probably), but even then there's still too much hassle given to you, like having to produce demo disks every week, making sure every last sentence and/or WAV in the game is multilingual, supporting (on the PC anyway) umpty-9 million different hardware configs, not putting in anything that anyone objects to, having people sticking their oar in when they don't know their arse from their elbow, and certainly know FA about games as a whole, things like that.

I suppose one of the other nice things of the old days was having a standard machine (without extras such as super sound cards or video accelerators) which gave you a chance to judge other programmers on their merits since it was a level playing field, whereas nowdays if something's too slow, just wait a year and the hardware will get around it for you.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Not really, though I gather Mike Fitzgerald (the F of A&F) got let off for speeding on the M1 years ago when the traffic cop found he had a whole boot full of Spectrum Chuckie Egg tapes he was taking to a show or something, apparently it was the only thing that had kept the guy's kid off the streets the last few weeks, and he was so pleased that Mike got let off with a caution (dunno how much of that is true).

Have you anything to say to people who still use the Speccy today?

Not really. It's nice in a kind of eccentric-Britishness way that people still are, and at the end of the day a Spectrum (or most other 8-bit machines) is still perfectly capable of doing things like encoding morse for radio hams, or operating simple switches / relays / alarms etc with a hardware port out the back, so anyone can get hold of a (simple) computer for about a tenner if they really want to. If I want to play the odd game of Rebelstar or something myself though, I'd just do it on the PC in a window. I haven't even unboxed my speccy for many years now (though I do still have it, modified rom and all).

 


Thanks to Ste for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Ste Cork.