Interview with Bob Smith
November 1997

 

How did you get started in computers?

At school. In 1979 I took a class at the local technical college. It was fortran with punched cards. The course was for the Computer Science 'O' level, and we were supposed to write three programs. I wrote one, and that didn't work. However, just before the exam I found a really good text book, and I did well enough on the theory part of the exam to scrape through with a grade C. This remains my sole computing qualification.

While my programming debut was less than brilliant, I saw the potential for gaming pretty much right away. The next year my school bought a mini computer, which I used to teach myself basic, and wrote a few simple games. The first I remember doing was a variant of lunar lander, where you had to land on a small platform (representing a planet orbiting the sun) which was moving from side to side with simple harmonic motion.

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

The first one I saw was the Christmas present from my parents in 1982. This was the machine I used to do most of my development with. Last time I looked, it still worked.

What was your first game?

The first one that was published was Confrontation, which was published by Lothlorien in the autumn of 1983. I sent them off a copy to look at, they called up the next day to say they liked, and I met up with the guys at a microfair the next weekend.

What have you done on the Speccy?

Confrontation (Lothlorien)
Arnhem (CCS)
Desert Rats (CCS)
Biggles (Dalali / Mirrorsoft)
Vulcan (CCS)
Cyberknights (CRL)
Ancient Battles (CCS).

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

Looking back I feel pretty good about them. The game algorithms would still stack up pretty well against most of the wargames being done now. It seems that the main advances over the years have been in graphics and user interface.

My favourite would be either Desert Rats or Vulcan. They both used pretty much the same game system, although being the second of the two, Vulcan was a bit more refined. However, Desert Rats covered a big campaign, and I was pleased to able to fit it all in. The best game I ever wrote was Armada 2525, but that was on the PC.

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

I guess the last game came out in 89 or 90. As for being sad about it, I think I it was more a case of being excited by the possibilities of the new wave of 16bit machines.

What are you doing now?

I had to give up writing my own games, when a publisher failed to pay me one time too many. After that I did some contracting work, mainly for Linel in Switzerland. In 1994 I moved to America to work for Crystal Dynamics on console games.

Now I live in Silicon Valley and work for a company called Alliance Semiconductor that makes
( amongst other things ) video chips for PCs. I am mainly involved in helping design and write software for the 3D accelerator parts of these.

What were the best/worse things about the Speccy?

The Spectrum was kind of like a Volkswagen Beetle. The limitations ( the keyboard) was pretty obvious from the outset, and if you could live with that, then you had a pretty dependable well designed machine.

The single best thing about the Spectrum was the price. When it came out, you got 48K for less money than a 3 1/2 K Vic 20. My original machine was only 16K as thought that'd be enough. I learned my mistake there pretty fast.

Other good things. A decent basic, a good cassette interface, and the attribute system was a good compromise. Personally I also liked the microdrives.

Two things I think could have been improved. The speaker should have been louder, and it would have been nice to have had a proper cursor cluster on the keyboard.

What were your favourite Speccy games and why?

The game that really stands out for me looking back was Lords of Midnight. It had an original graphic look, packed in a lot of game, and was fun to play.

Favourite Speccy coders/artists/musicians?

A lot of people did good stuff. I've forgotten most of their names.

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

No. There's plenty of interesting new stuff to look at.

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 Spectrum game was Ancient Battles, which was actually a port from a game I wrote on the PC. There are no unfinished works on the Spectrum.

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

No. It'd be an awful lot of work.

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

Even on the Spectrum, people were oohing and ahhing over the latest graphics and sound effects, so nothing much has changed. There are modern games that are all flash and no game, but there are also some excellent games being written. I've been very addicted to Panxer General 2 the last couple of weeks, but I think I've got it out of my system now.

Is there anything you miss about the old days?

It was nice having my independence, doing the games I wanted to do, and doing them the way I wanted to do them. I do miss that. What I don't miss is being the last one to get paid for my work, which too often meant I didn't get paid at all.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Well quality control wasn't all that it could have been. Due to a last minute change, the first version of Arnhem shipped with a rather obvious bug that meant you couldn't play the campaigning game.

I also finished Desert Rats about 2 hours before the courier came to take it to be mastered, after an all night session. It's very hard to stay awake for these, when your program takes an hour to assemble.

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

Well if it makes you happy. Personally I think nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

 


Thanks to Bob for doing the interview.

Interview conducted by Philip Bee.
Text Copyright (c) Philip Bee and Bob Smith.