Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Why I make games.

Video games have been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. My earliest memory of playing games is of myself and my older brother playing Galaxian on a table-styled arcade machine in the local barbers when I was five years old. We also used to play Asteroids in the local supermarket. But games were something that other people made, I had no idea that anyone could make them at home. My vision of the place where video games were made was some massive complex filled with supercomputers and people in white uniforms with electronic clip boards and Star Trek style communicators and robots running around. It sounds silly now, but I was only a very young kid and I had a very fertile imagination.

It wasn't until I was a bit older, and my parents had bought me a Sinclair ZX81, that I started to get some idea that games were made by code that you typed in on a keyboard. I was interested, but I didn't really understand all the strange text that was in the books and magazines I was reading. I'd type something in, and I knew why it worked, but I didn't understand how it worked, or didn't work as the case may be. It also still hadn't fully occurred to me that this stuff could be used to make my own games. That was to change when I went to a friends house and played on his Commodore 64.

My friend was called Dominic and he had a game called Attack of The Mutant Camels. He loaded it up, and I instantly recognised it as being very similar to The Empire Strikes Back on the Atari VCS, as I'd recently played the game with my cousin. However, there was something different about this one. It had camels in it instead of AT-AT's, and I got the impression that this was created by someones imagination and not thought up inside a massive computer complex full of boffins in white uniforms. I still sort of had this idea that somewhere there was a place like this that made all the games that got into the shops, but I quickly learned that this wasn't the case.

I learned that many of the games you could play, especially the ones on home computers like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, were coded by people from home, some of them not very much older than I was. I became quite interested in finding out who "Camel Man", as Dominic and I came to know him, was, because I wanted to know more about how you made games on computer.

It turned out that he was called Jeff Minter, and he lived at home and made his games from there under the name of Llamasoft. This really shattered my imaginary vision of how games were made, and I thought that I'd like to have a go at it myself. So, I pulled out the ZX81 BASIC Programming manual that came with my computer, and I started to work my way through it during the summer holidays.

I didn't get it at first, and I almost gave up a number of times, but I was able to understand more and more of it over time. My dad would try to help me out with the stuff I was struggling with, and between us we started to work out how things functioned in this strange language of numbers and symbols, so much so that I managed, with much trial and error, to make a functioning Space Invaders clone that I called INVADR. It wasn't very good, but it was my first proper game.

Over the next couple of years I upgraded from a ZX81 to a Commodore 64 of my own and discovered even more Llamasoft games, like Revenge of The Mutant Camels, Batlyx, Ancipital and Sheep in Space. I was always fascinated by his unusual take on games. Where most people were putting planes, space ships, tanks and aliens into their stuff, he was using goats, sheep, camels, llamas and other four-legged beasties. It fired up my imagination to make more of my own stuff.

After I got my Amiga in 1993, I lost sight of Jeff Minter's games (I missed out on Llamatron) and I thought that he'd probably gone the same way as some other bedroom programmers did in the early 90's. It wasn't until I bought an Atari Jaguar from the second hand shop I was working in at the time that I discovered Tempest 2000 and realised that Jeff was still producing games.

Tempest 2000 was a great game. Sadly, though, my own adventure into making games had quietly fizzled out in 1994, and even though I was happy to see that Llamasoft was still around, it wasn't quite enough to get me back to wanting to have another go again. I sold the Atari Jaguar a year or so later and lost track of Llamasoft again, until I got a PC and got it connected to the internet.

I was doing a search for Llamasoft and came across their website. I also found that Jeff had a Twitter account, so I followed that and learned that he did something called Sheep Time where he'd take his mobile phone out into the fields of his farm and feed digestive biscuits to his sheep, donkey's and llamas. Ten year old me never conceived of a future where I could sit down having my breakfast in the morning while using my phone to watch a guy who made some of my favourite games feed digestive biscuits to sheep!

When it came time for me to try my hand at making video games again, I decided to use some influences from Llamasoft in my own stuff. I'm not going to be putting llamas or sheep into everything (the sheep in UFO and the camels in Retr0ids are a one off and I don't want to be trying to rip off someone else's ideas), but I do try to let my games be influenced by some of the visual styling of Llamasoft's early games, with flashing imagery, particles and arcade styled sound effects. I'm not very good at it, but at least I try. I've also recently taken to listening to the music that he shares on Twitter, which he listens to while coding, because I find it's a big help with getting on with my own games. I've had a bit of a problem with getting back to grips with games development, as I quit it under a bit of a cloud and only really wandered back into it to stop myself going stir crazy while being a 24/7 live in carer. I've found that following Jeff's approach of having some cool music pumping away and not taking everything so damned seriously really helps.

So, yeah. I admit that I am a massive Llamasoft fan boy and I probably wouldn't have even tried to create games if I'd not seen Attack of The Mutant Camels way back in 1983. I'm never going to be a big name in games, that boat sailed a long time ago when I didn't jump on the bedroom programmer bandwagon and get a publisher when I could, but at least I can have fun making slightly odd arcade inspired games with my own twist and add a little pinch of Llamasoftie-ness to them here and there.

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