Interview with Peter Gough - ZX Spectrum Programmer
Peter Gough was a fine developer of games on the ZX Spectrum.
He worked on classic games such as Vectron and Star Firebirds (along with Mike and Tim Follin) and developed quality budget titles (with Software Creations) such as Star Paws.
His solo list of titles included the excellent shoot em up Gunstar and the slick platform arcade adventure Scumball.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Peter who was more than happy to reminisce a little about his days working on the ZX Spectrum - and he tells us how he got into the games development scene....
My journey is probably similar to many other coders of the day in that it was born from a general interest from having a home computer.
I'd bought a ZX81 from a kid round the corner and somehow managed to sell it for twice as much two years later (probably because it was offered with a RAM Pack and some games).
I used the money to part-pay for the spectrum which I also bought in Wigan. I was so excited to bring it home, tune it into the TV and get typing. My dad got me a black and white portable TV which I used until the last day I ever worked on it.
This may sound strange but I rarely saw my games in colour until I'd nearly finished them. If they looked OK in black and white, they generally looked good in colour too.
I played a few games but got most enjoyment from typing in programs from magazines like 'Your Computer'. There was a growing interest in computers too and I remember sitting in front of the telly to watch 'The Computer Programme' on BBC.
On a trip to Smiths bookstore in Wigan, I found a Melbourne House book (Spectrum machine language for the absolute beginner) which became my programming bible - with easy examples of how to handle the different registers. Seems an age since I pushed 'HL' and 'DE'!.
Through my weekly visits to a games shop every Saturday where I spent the whole day (told my mum and dad I went swimming!), I got to know the owners and got a Saturday job selling machines and software. Each Saturday night I took home the latest games to play so I could advise customers what they were like.
I then got interested in making my own graphics using a paint program, again by Melbourne House. The owners of the software store offered me a job working on graphics for their new startup, Insight software. The new Amstrad CPC464 was difficult to develop for and we never made much impact.
We moved to St Helens to a new, bigger shop which had a first floor with just one window. We set up the machines there and before I knew it, I was working with Mike Follin, Mark Wilson and David Heaton.
Tim, Mikes brother was still at school but he would come over after school to do some music. Mike was the star programmer and he was a great help; Mark was the artist and I was OK with the graphics side too. Mike brought 'Subterranean Stryker' with him.
He had ran out of memory and couldn't find space to do a completion sequence so he made the game impossible to finish! We worked on titles like Vectron, Future Games, Star Firebirds and Agent X. Tim rapidly grew into a well respected speccy musician and wrote his own routines to make that little speaker sing.
Insight Software fizzled out a couple of years later as the owners appointed someone to set up a travel agency, only for him to single-handedly strip the business of its assets and failed to gain the ABTA licence they required to trade.
The owners said that I could never do a game on my own without Mike so that was all I needed for motivation. I worked flat-out to develop my first game on my own, graphics, code, sound, everything.
It was around this time I heard of Richard Kay who had worked at Ocean. I packed my Spectrum, microdrives and cables into a cardboard box and got the train to Manchester then another train to Whitefield near Bury. I met with Richard and he said he wanted to work with me to publish the game.
I travelled with him once to London to the offices of Firebird in Upper St. Martins Lane. I demonstrated Buccaneer to them and we signed the contracts there and then. I set about working on Gunstar but I had started college and had less time to work on it. I worked on a freelance basis for Richard Kay who was now well established with Software Creations on Oxford Road near the BBC in Manchester.
He provided me with a development system. A Tatung Einstein linked to a Spectrum and linked with an RS232. This made things a LOT quicker. I now had to just port over the code to the spectrum to test it, tweak a few settings then port over again.
Gunstar came on OK but was never what I wanted it to be; I was disappointed with it as it did not hold interest for long. It was slick but repetitive.
During the summer break from college I agreed with Richard on a publication strategy. I was given a completion deadline and a rather good incentive; for every day I finished early I got an extra £100, for every day late, a £100 penalty.
It was a push but I literally worked through the night to finish it two days early. I went without sleep for two nights and three days but I was young and fuelled by adrenalin and the thought of the money!
I still find that when I am interested in something, I can ignore time only to find daylight breaking behind me through the window and realise I have to go to work. Back to those days, I would sit in the garden through the day writing the code then Id just type it in at night while my parents were asleep.
I am easily distracted and the quiet helped me to concentrate.
My dad never saw me working through the night and thought I just dossed around all day. He tried to teach me the importance of hard work by getting me a job collecting glasses in a night club. I worked from 9pm until 4am for about £20 but it kept him happy.
When I got my first cheque for Gunstar, I didn't tell him but took him out and bought him a bandsaw, cash! I took my mum out next day and bought her a new outfit and lunch. That night I told them there were other ways of making money and I was allowed to quit the glass collecting job.
As part of the deal, I received a shrink-wrapped set of 10 Gunstar cassettes. I gave them all away to friends and relatives. I did a few conversions of other games such as Mad Nurse (yeah, I know) and some lightgun games that sold about 10 copies each!
I had been playing Starquake by Steven Crow and was well jealous; it was a gem of design, efficiency of code and beautiful to look at for an 8-bit. The sounds were quirky and fitting (especially the Cheops Pyramid I seem to recall). I liked the flick screen method as it made for a quicker game.
Arcade games such as R-Type had dedicated scroll ram to move the screen smoothly and to do this on a spectrum asked much of the Z-80 (Having said that, Mike nailed it in Ghouls n Ghosts).
I decided I wanted to have a go at the theme and played around with the game physics first, tweaking the gravity of the main character. 'Scumball' was on it's way.
A local kid offered to be a tester and was never away from the house. He was a poor choice as he never found fault with anything, he was just too excited to be in game design and to have his name on the high score table.
The development speed had been doubled by now as some code such as scoring, high scores, controls were already written; think of an early cut and paste scenario.
The mapping was the hardest part as I wanted variety in each room and to force the player to the absolute extremes of the tolerances of where you could jump from and too.
I created a series of graphic tiles and then each room was simply a sequence of 48 numbers (8 by 6). This allowed me to make quite a sizable map. I printed each one out on a Sinclair ZX-Printer and pasted them onto a big piece of plywood in my bedroom to make the map. The game got to number 18 in the national chart and I was chuffed to bits.
The main character, LINDA was my girlfriend and I remember taking a copy of Crash! to her house and showed her name printed in the review.I was now nearing the end of my course at polytechnic and I was programming less and less.
The strange thing is, my best work was never published. I had been working on a game with a working title of Parasite which used the flick screen method again but this time with a space theme. Things would grow on the environment (parasites) and make it more difficult to move around.
The gravity varied depending on the size of the planet so the control system varied too. I was about 90% done before I shelved it and powered down my spectrum for the last time.
I never was one for eye-candy over playability, even if my games did not reflect this. There seemed to be a growing trend for titles to look nice regardless of playability.
This was directly associated with the size of available ram that had kept on growing.
The two were linked; the greater the ram, the less the playability.
Did you have any favourite games on the Spectrum?
I had favourite Spectrum games with some predictable ones and some that you'd not expect!
I was a big fan of 'Match Point' by Psion and of course 3D Starstrike. Like everyone, I waited for the next Ultimate game to come out. I don't think anyone expected 'Knight Lore', it was a breath of fresh air and defined a whole new generation of games with the isometric viewpoint.
Platform games were done to the n'th degree (I added to it!) but one that stands out for it's sheer quality, speed and gameplay was 'Dark Star' by Design Design. They were based really close to where I live now in Denton, Manchester.
Of my own crop, I guess 'Scumball' is my favourite.
Are you still active in the games industry?
I'm no longer active in the industry but I do website work as a hobby / distraction / excuse for staying up late.
I'm still not a true gamer but I must admit that Quakelive has caught my attention. Online gaming is awesome but strangely humbling when some 14 year old from Wisconsin batters you 8 games to nil before you've even realised where you are. I guess I can blame it on ping latency!
I'm now a Mac guy and will never cross back to the dark side (even though W7 seems a decent build).
You mentioned 'Star Firebirds' and that reminded me of something else. Our boss at Insight said he wanted a nice slick shooter so we (Mike, Mark, Dave & Tim) convinced him that it would be good to go and do some research in the arcades of Blackpool.
We were given funds to go to Blackpool and play games (how awesome is that?!). Mark Wilson knew where all the best machines were and we set out to find a Star Firebirds' cabinet and succeeded in the Pleasure Beach arcade where we also found an Empire Strikes Back game which was vector just like Star Wars.
I still associate those days with great affection. Some really decent, talented people and a snowballing gaming scene. Its so nice to find there is still genuine love for the machine and the games.
Once again Peter - thanks for taking the time to do this with us. It's greatly appreciated.
Many thanks. Good luck and well done with the blog.
Classic Games and Arcade Games
13 Nov 2009
Interview with Peter Gough - ZX Spectrum Programmer