Interview with Don Priestley
May 1998


How did you get started in computers?

My son was at school in 1979 and I thought he ought to know about computers so I enrolled him in a nightschool class in (wait for it) Pascal programming with no computer in sight. I went along to keep him company. He understandably copped out, but I soldiered on.

My first program was a Basic translation of a program I was working on when the course finished. I bought a ZX81 specially to run it.

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

On it's launch at Earl's Court (?) after ZX81, Speccy was like going from Lada to Roller. I had to wait for it and only got one by threatening Sinclair with legal action for lost earnings if one didn't turn up sharpish. It did!

What was your first game?

On ZX81, a game called Damsel and The Beast. Sold it to Macronics for 75!!!

What have you done on the Speccy?

Dictator (OK),
Maziacs (OK),
Meteoroids (Crap),
Spawn of Evil (nobody could play it),
3D Tanx (commercially the best),
Jumbly (good but nobody bought it!),
Popeye (OK but slow, the first "Cartoon" game),
Benny Hill (less said the better),
Minder (Arfur Daley might sell it, but nobody else did),
Trapdoor (OK),
Through the Trapdoor (better),
Flunky (impossible),
Gregory Loses His Clock (eh!),
Up for Grabs (no working versions around),
and Around the World in 80 Days (never finished) plus a few demos and educational games.

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

Most people find them difficult. For some reason, except for 3-D Tanx and Meteoroids, I never wrote shoot-em-ups. My favourite is still one of the earliest - Dictator.

You are well-known for your trademark chunky, colourful 'cartoon' graphics. Did you develop the routine when you got the 'Popeye' license or did the publisher want a cartoon license for the first 'cartoon' game? What was the motivation behind this routine? How limiting was it designing a game around the routine?

DkTronics got the official King Features Syndicate (Inc) rights to Popeye. It was the first of the big cartoon character games and the whole genre of these games was started like this . . .

The fellow looking after Popeye's marketing in the UK knew nothing about computers or games, but was quietly insistent at our first meeting that the Popeye he wanted to see in the game was the Popeye he knew and loved so well. Popeye was to look like Popeye, complete with the right clothes of the right colour, and complete with pipe and (get this) an anchor tattooed on his arm.

With this tall order I went away and designed the smallest Popeye possible, bearing in mind the restrictions of Spectrum. He ended up about seven or eight characters high and just standing doing nothing used about forty screen cells (360 bytes). What's more, in about six strides he'd be across the screen. I had never seen such a big fully working character in a game before and had to get the old (getting older) thinking cap on to solve four problems.

One. How could a figure so big be put into a viable game?

Two. What would the game be?

Three. The Popeye graphics, with all his various movements were likely to gobble up all the mean Spectrum memory. How was he, the other characters, the backgrounds, and the program itself to be shoehorned into the machine?

And four, this thing had to look like a cartoon. Full colour backgrounds were a must, but what the hell was I going to do about colour clash?

When Mr King Syndicate saw Popeye march across the screen with no background he was delighted, but I didn't tell him that this was as far as it went.

Well, suffice to say, all the problems were solved. The colour clash was only solved by giving each graphic cell a code to tell it, if it ever became background, (that is, covered by "part" of another cell), whether its paper or its ink would be the paper of the overlying cell, (if you see what I mean!) A plan of the whole screen was mapped into memory layer by layer and then printed in its entirety. This made the whole thing grindingly slow. For later programs I used alternating maps and only printed any changes. This speeded things up considerably.

The whole of the graphics development was very hard work and although I wrote a variety of programs to help, there was never any substitute for pages (and pages and pages) of 8 by 8 graph paper. The reviewers were impressed by the result (Crash Smash) and seemed not to notice how slow it was.

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

I was working for Piranha (Macmillan) when they had the plug pulled on them, so I decided it was time to pack up. I wasn't sorry as I was feeling a bit burned out.

What are you doing now?

Nothing. I took early retirement from teaching and I live here in Ireland in rural isolation. You know, pottering about. The old horse turned out to grass.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

The best thing about Speccy is that a lot of bods had one!
The worst thing was the keyboard (curable), and the so-called sound.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

I only glanced at games to see if they had any innovations. If they had any I nicked them!

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

Don't know any, really. But then, I always was an unsociable old git.

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

I have most of my games on emulator but I don't play them. The only Speccy game I play is Psion's Scrabble. On level 4 I can, on average, just beat it. I'm on the 87th game and I'm 804 points up!

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 was sold to Alternative Software together with Up for Grabs. It was a bouncing ball game, hi-res monochrome, and consisted of about a dozen "rooms", with the player looking down. The ball bounced between the "screen" and the floor. I can't remember what it was called. I'd be very pleased to get a copy if anyone out there has ever seen it.

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

If someone paid me the usual rates (plus extra for inflation), I think I could get my brain back into gear again.

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

No idea at all. I don't think I've SEEN a modern game.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

The money, the cash, the wonga, the readies, and working 23.75 hours per day.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Trying to demo "Minder" (the most un-demo-able game ever written) at the Thames TV Headquarters. This being a Friday afternoon, practically all the people in the building turned out to watch this miserable performance, including a loud-mouthed drunk who did his best to mangle the wreckage by shouting "Anyone who thinks they can make money with THAT might as well piss into the wind". Mind you, he was right.

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

Chacun son gout.


Thanks to Don for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Don Priestley.