Interview with Mike Lamb
December 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

My dad was a university lecturer and he took me into work during the summer of 1980. They had a Commodore PET computer there and I got programming in BASIC. During the next two years I hacked about with the school computer - also a PET. I couldn't afford a ZX81. Well I could have, but I bought a motorbike instead.

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

I ordered a Spectrum as soon as they were advertised, but there was a long wait before I got it. I nearly cracked and asked for my money back. I guess my life might have been quite a bit different if I had. The first one I got to see was at a friend's house. William Wray got his from Artic because he had written some ZX81 games for them - he went on to write Space Invaders and Galaxians, two of the best early games. I was really impressed with it. It was obviously a big jump up from the ZX81 with colour and a bitmap display. The keyboard was way better too.

What was your first game?

The first game I wrote was Pool and was published by CDS computing. I had heard how well William had done with SI and Galaxians - he made a few thousand quid, big money back then. He was a bright guy, but I was arrogant enough to think anything anybody a year younger than me could do, I could do.

The game went on to sell reasonably well and CDS were one of the few companies that actually paid the royalties they said they were going to. I later met a lot of people who had written games as successful as mine who ended up being ripped-off. I guess I was lucky. CDS had me write Steve Davis Snooker the year after and I did loads of conversions. Each slightly less successful than the last (Amstrad, MSX and Enterprise)

What have you done on the Speccy?

I had done pretty well out of writing games part-time at university, so I tried it full-time when I left. I didn't do too well working from home -too many distractions I guess, so after a year I joined Ocean and was thrown onto Topgun. A bloody awful game. I'm rather glad I haven't seen it on any download sites. It wasn't all my fault. Ocean needed the game finished for Christmas and I'd had a family emergency halfway through. Of course it sold fairly well so they kept me on.

I went on to write Arkanoid (1 & 2), Renegade, Target Renegade, Combat School (the last two sections), Wec le Mans (the track rendering code), Robocop and Batman.

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

Mostly crap. Looking back we didn't spend enough time on gameplay. The way you got respect from the other programmers at Ocean was to do clever technical stuff. That's important because it's a lot easier to get good gameplay if you aren't restricted by your technical abilities but it wasn't enough. Renegade was OK because I was copying the arcade games gameplay. Target Renegade was better, probably because there was a bug I couldn't find and I had to play it an awful lot to find it. I was fed up with it by the end but it probably made a better game.

Wec le Mans could have been good. It seems that getting good frame rate is relatively important for racing games and I was displaying a larger area of track a lot faster than anyone else, but Ocean took me off the project to work on Robocop and the outside team didn't do as good a job as I thought I could have at finishing it. Robocop was OK (and very successful commercially) it was a good movie for a video game. Batman was bad though, which is a shame because it was my last game for the Spectrum.

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

Ocean were trying to break into the Nintendo market and so I wrote Robocop for the gameboy. It was pretty satisfying because I got to work on the hardware to interface Ocean's dev system to the Gameboy and my degree was in Electronics. I didn't realise it at the time but I had said goodbye to the speccy.

What are you doing now?

I left Ocean to come to the States in 1991. I wrote some boxing games before setting up Left Field Productions 4 years ago. We've had some ups and downs but things are going really well now. We're finishing a basketball game for Nintendo and are going to do a couple more games for them next year.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

Best thing Z80 CPU much better than the 6502 in the C64. I used to think the worst thing was the lack of hardware scrolling and sprite but now I'm not sure it wasn't better for the programmers to have to work harder. It made the spectrum programmers better than the 64 guys, even if the games weren't as flash.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

The one I played the most was Chuckie Egg. I had three mates at university and we used to get pissed on Sunday nights and come back to my room to play 4 player games. We got so good I had to chuck people out of my room, because I needed to go to sleep.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

Jonathan Smith worked at Ocean during my first year there. He was really smart and I learnt a lot from what he was doing. Jon 'O Brien was at Ocean for 3 years with me he wrote the CPC Wec le Mans game and did the driving parts on Amiga Batman. I mostly worked with Ronnie Fowles as my artist. He was a bit of an oddball but I got on well enough with him and I liked his Renegade graphics. After he left I worked with Dawn Drake and she was pretty cool.

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

Yeah I've got an emulator. I use it so I've got all my old games archived somewhere. I don't play them a whole lot because I consider them a bit of an embarrassment by todays standards, but sometime fire them up to remind me of the times I had when I was writing them.

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!)

Like I said Batman the Movie. It wasn't very good. I've always finished everything I started (sometimes on time).

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

I doubt I'll ever write a spectrum game again but recently Nintendo asked if we could write Gameboy version of our basketball game. I guess it could be close to writing a spectrum game. Z80 CPU monochrome graphics. I would really like to do the project myself. Games these days take large teams and you seem to spend a lot of time communicating what you want to other people and listening to their ideas. The end result is better but you don't feel it's yours as much. I'd like to do the Gameboy thing because it would be small enough to do as a single programmer. However, I guess I'll get stuck working on some huge N64 game for Nintendo (life sucks ;-) )

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

Back in the early days there was a lot more scope for originality (not that I ever risked doing much in that line!). Chuckie Egg was the first platform game I saw and as such you do feel a bit nostalgic about it, but to say todays games are all presentation is unfair. Mario 64 not only looks better, but plays a lot better too.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

We had a pretty good thing going at Ocean for a while with some talented people. A lot of people were pretty snotty about Ocean doing nothing but movie licenses but I put that down to jealousy because our games sold ten times as many as theirs. It's a shame the management let it go a bit. About the same time I came over to the US a lot of people left Ocean. I didn't leave for the money, (I started on less over here than I was making), but I guess I saw Ocean as being a dead end. Nobody made an effort to find out what the programmers and artists wanted to do. Now I'm running a company, I have a bit more sympathy for the managers at Ocean. I'd like to think that I won't make the same mistakes they made. But I'll probably be too stupid/lazy/greedy to realise what I'm doing.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Nothing that comes to mind. Not that nothing amusing happened but it probably wouldn't be all that amusing to anyone who didn't know the individuals involved.

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

I'd say "get a life", but that might be too drastic a step for most of you so how about buying an N64 instead.

 


Thanks to Mike for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Mike Lamb.