Interview with Mark Haigh-Hutchinson
November 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

When I was 15 or so I started getting interested in computers... home computers were virtually non existent of course. So I taught myself BASIC out of a book and started writing programs on paper and dry-running them by hand...

Later I used my school's TRS-80 and then got hold of a ZX81, taught myself machine code from the back of the manual (there were no books), and that was that :-)

I started going to the ZX Microfairs from the very first one onwards and got to know a few companies, like Artic, Carnell, and Vortex.

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

I first saw one "in the flesh" at the ZX Microfair in Manchester (the first one outside of London). Was that in '83? I was blown away by the fact that it had colour! And seemingly hi-res graphics... And 48K of RAM for goodness sake -- how could you ever use all of that! :-)

What was your first game?

Commercial? That one was ANDROID ONE for the Amstrad CPC. Before that I'd some some stuff on the ZX81 like m/c toolkits and an adventure/action game based on Alien, which didn't get published. Those were for ARTIC Computing.

Is there any chance of your unpublished Alien game being resurrected? (Topical question eh?) :-)

Hehe. You mean the third one in the series? Maybe, who knows. Time is the enemy, as always.

What have you done on the Speccy?

ALIEN HIGHWAY, OVERLANDER, INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, ITALY 1990

Plus I helped out on a number of other titles too (e.g. REVOLUTION, THUNDER BLADE, etc.)

Plus a load of stuff on the many other platforms (about 32 games by now, I think.)

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

On the whole I liked them. Obviously I was trying to do the best job I could at the time. My favourite from the 8-bit stuff was probably HIGHWAY ENCOUNTER on the Amstrad CPC (shock!).

How did you leave the Spectrum scene? Were you sad to leave?

Basically I was shafted by a software house in Manchester... not worth naming them, except to say that I won the court case even though it took a year. I then moved on to do a little Atari/Amiga stuff and then moved out to sunny California to work on console games :-)

What are you doing now?

I'm a Project Leader and Senior Programmer at LucasArts Entertainment Company in San Rafael, California. I've been out here for 6 years and it's the best thing I've ever done. Some of my work includes:

Zombies Ate My Neighbours (SEGA Genesis, sole programmer)
Rebel Assault (IBM PC, SEGA CD, 3DO -- assembler optimisations)
Shadows of the Empire (Nintendo 64 / IBM PC, Project Leader, misc. programming)

Currently I'm working on a new secret project. Shhhhh :-)

Is it easier to write for the PC/consoles than it was on the Speccy - less hardware restrictions etc?

Well every platform has it's own restrictions... especially the 8/16-bit consoles, although at least they had such things as hardware scrolling and sprites....

The PC is getting to be quite a powerful machine but the main problem there is the HUGE variety of hardware combinations that we have to deal with. Everyone's machine is different. Consoles on the other hand have the advantage of fixed, available hardware.

It's easier to write these days, even on consoles, because most of the game can be written in C rather than assembler. We still use assembler, of course, but now it's for mostly optimisation of a few core functions. Actually all my games were completely assembler until Shadows, which was surprisingly all in C.

Since we were graphics bound there was no need to optimise the CPU code (the graphics and main CPU work in parallel so your speed is governed by whichever takes the most time).

What was the last Speccy game you wrote? Did you leave anything unfinished? (and if so is there any chance we'll ever get to see it!)

The last game would have been Italy 1990. I had a *terrible* experience writing that game, don't even get me started about that :-(

As for unfinished things, well I have Highway Encounter for the Atari St, Amiga, and PC knocking around...

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

Sometimes :-) It wouldn't be so hard, either. The assemblers would take a fraction of a second to build the entire game! If I could only find the time...

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Nice simple, straightforward machine. Attribute-based colour was *bad*. Lack of any kind of scrolling or sprite hardware was a drawback, too. On the other hand, it was easy to write games for -- in fact, anyone could do it. Screen arrangement was a little weird but had it's advantages, too.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

ANT ATTACK -- very innovative.
HIGHWAY ENCOUNTER (of course) - Any of Costa Panayi's games, really.
KNIGHT LORE -- by the masters of the Spectrum, ULTIMATE, aka RARE. Anything by them was *great*. KL Opened my eyes as to what was possible on the Spectrum.
TAU CETI -- very nice.

I could probably mention a load more...

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

Costa Panayi
Ultimate (Stampers)
Pete Cooke.

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

Hell yes! I *love* the emulators!

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

Games on the whole are better these days, yet the simplicity of design of some of the early games was very elegant. My favourite all time game is DEFENDER, for example. In some ways the modern games *can't* compete, because the older "classics" are a product of their time which is more than simply the gameplay, etc.

We'll probably find the same about games nowadays when we look back at them. There are good and bad games being made all the time.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

Well, the ease of making a game. Literally no game took longer than 4 or 6 months to do, so it was always very fresh. One conversion I did actually took just SIX hours...

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Too many to mention! I can remember going around to the house that Vortex was working out of and seeing 35,000 cassette tapes there (CYCLONE). Next week, they were all sold...

Finding out that Toni Baker (who wrote Mastering Machine Code on your ZX81, etc..) was really a man (at least before the operation)!

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

Keep the faith! And thanks for all your support over the years. I only hope you had as much fun playing the games as we had making them :-)

 


Thanks to Mark for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Mark Haigh-Hutchinson.