Tuesday, 31 December 2019

How long have I really been a games developer?

I'm using my kindle to read some old programming books.
Having got my new "TheC64" for Christmas, I started re-reading some of the old C64 programming books on my Kindle, and this started me thinking about just how long I've actually been programming for.

I originally started to program on the Sinclair ZX81 with my dad back in 1982/83. I mentioned in a previous post how my inspiration for becoming a programmer was playing Attack of The Mutant Camels on a friends Commodore 64. I started to get a magazine called Input that had a few programs in it for various 8-bit machines of the time, and this was my first introduction to programming in BASIC.

Input issue 1
I also had some story books, that could be used with the BBC computers at school, that would teach you how to program, but I mostly stuck to the ZX81 and started working through the ZX81 Basic Programming book that came with the machine. This was a great little book written by Steven Vickers and it was an invaluable resource in the early days. It also helped that it was pretty easy to understand at a beginner level.

ZX81 Basic Programming by Steven Vickers
After a little foray into the world of console gaming with an Atari 2600, I came back to programming around 1986/87 with the Commodore 64. Out of all the computers I've owned, the C64 is my favourite machine, and it's the main reason why I wanted to get the new "TheC64" for Christmas this year. Initially I was just going to use the Commodore 64 for games, but I started to get the programming bug after a couple of months with it and began reading the manual that came with it. Sadly, the manual wasn't as well written as the ZX81 Basic Programming book, and I couldn't get hold of a copy of the C64 Programmers Reference Guide, so I started getting books out of the local library.

Micro Wars was one of the books I got from the library.
Using the books from the library and the stuff that I'd learned previously on the ZX81, I was able to tinker around and get some interesting stuff working on the C64, and I started releasing games for it that I was mostly selling to the other C64 kids at school, until my dad decided to try selling games through mail order. There was also a small computer shop nearby that was willing to buy games from us. You just made a bunch of duplicates and took them over in a box. It certainly was a lot easier to get people to play your games then than it is now, and you could make a bit of cash from it too.

So, I moved on to the Amiga in 1993. By this time I'd been programming for around seven years, that's 1983 to 1993 minus two years of owning an Atari 2600 and another year from 1991 to 1992 when I owned a Sega Mega Drive. My first Amiga was an A500+ that I got from a local shop that was primarily a carpet fitters but had a little side room full of computers, games and peripherals. I traded in my Mega Drive to get a brand new, straight from the manufacturer, Amiga, a machine that I'd wanted for a long time but had never been able to afford before. I wanted one of these things so badly that I could taste it!

Amiga A500+
Sadly, I only programmed on the Amiga for about a year, as Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, so the rest of my time owning one it was used as a games machine. I made a strategy game called Legionus that I wanted to get published, but nobody seemed interested in taking it on. My local publishers were Ocean Software, and they were very supportive, but told me that they were looking more at teams working together for 16-bit consoles rather than solo developers on home computers. I went to a couple of other publishers and was told the same thing... So, I got a bit depressed with it all, quit programming and went to work in a second hand shop called Mike's Old & New. I was 19 when I first started working there and was 34 when I left.

Mike's - it's closed down now and has definitely seen better days.
Mike was pretty big into computers. He wasn't really a gamer, though we did often have games of Arcade Pool against each other on an Amiga CDTV that he kept in the shop, and he used to buy and sell all sorts of things in the shop. In my time there I got access to several PC's, Amiga's, a Neo Geo, Panasonic 3DO, Atari Jaguar, Nintendo 64, Atari Lynx and a whole host of other stuff. He used to buy and sell games too. Mike was also friends with Phillip Allsopp from Digital Image Design, because they'd gone to secondary school together in Oldham. I got quite friendly with Phil when he used to visit the shop in the 90's, and I could have had a job with DID, but I'd kind of fallen out with games development by this time. I stayed at Mike's until he retired and moved to Cyprus.

In 2009 I tried my hand at becoming an actor, and I was just gearing up to appearing in some small productions when my mother fell ill and I had to give up work to look after her. In 2014, as something I could do alongside my carer role, I decided to try games development again after I discovered Game Maker Studio on sale on Steam. In all it's been a bit of an up and down journey, as I've not enjoyed making games as much this time around. I think there's still a bit of baggage from my previous departure from game development and a sense that I didn't really want to do it, but I needed something to do to stop me going insane while I'm in the house looking after my mum 24/7. I am starting to get on with it a lot better now, though, and I'm definitely starting to enjoy it all a lot more. So here I am in 2019 going into a new decade doing something that I'd given up for dead twenty five years previously.

I'd like to be able to say that I'm a veteran games developer, because I started in 1983, but in all honesty most of that time has been spent doing other things. In all, the actual amount of time I've spent as a games developer has been around fifteen years if you take the original nine years on 8 and 16-bit machines and add on the time between 2014 and 2019 on PC. I did get to meet some fellow developers along the way, the Ocean Software guys could often be found in Microbyte, a game shop in the local Arndale Centre, checking out the competitions games. I probably could have made more of an impact if I'd tried to get published sooner and not just gone the easy route of selling games to kids at school and local shops, and maybe if I'd been smarter and hit Phil Allsopp up for a job when he was dropping hints, things would be a lot different. Who knows?

Anyway, none of that matters now. So here's to the 2020's and whatever they may bring for the indie game scene. I'm looking forward to working on some new stuff, and I'll have updates on it all soon.

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