ZX Spectrum Programmer Lee Tonks
Lee Tonks developed a number of text adventure games for the ZX Spectrum back in the 1980's and has continued to create both adventure and arcade games on the machine well into the 2000's.
Lee still develops games to this day, not only on the ZX Spectrum but also on other formats.
We were lucky enough to talk to Lee who was more than happy to discuss his passion for coding on the greatest ever 8-bit computer.
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on, and how old were you at the time?
The first computer I ever programmed on was also the first computer that I ever owned - a 16K Spectrum that I got for Christmas back in 1983. I was 11.
2: How did you get into the games development scene?
I didn't, really. From the very beginning I loved games and always wanted to make my own, but I was never actually particularly good at it. Games programming has always been something I've done 'on the side' rather than a main hobby, mostly because I tend to lose interest in projects half way through and never pick them up again (you'll note the rather large gaps in time between my various projects if you check my WOS profile). So I don't really consider myself part of 'the scene', I just call in from time to time when the mood takes me.
3: You have worked on adventure games as well as arcade style games. Which do you prefer to create?
I do like to work on adventure games, mostly because as well as being a programmer I'm also a frustrated amateur writer. Doing adventures allows me to mix the two hobbies together in interesting ways. The main problem with adventure games is convincing people to actually play them, though - they're pretty much a niche audience these days.
Most of the arcade-style games I've worked on have been created in some sort of game-making package so I've never really been truly happy with any of them because you're always having to limit what you wanted to do somehow. I'd love to do a kick-arse arcade game, but I don't think I have the skills - looking at some of the amazing stuff that's come out for the Spectrum in the last couple of years sort of puts me off even trying!
4: What was the first game you worked on?
My brother and I used to spend hours typing games into the Spectrum from magazines like Sinclair Programs and would quite often try to make our own so that we could get them printed and become famous. That never quite worked out! Because we weren't very good at programming back then I turned to Gilsoft's "The Quill" and began working on adventures, because back then it was still possible to get an adventure game published commercially.
The first game I ever completed was a mini-adventure called School (it's in the archive), and to be frank it's bloody awful! Several experiments followed, but the first 'proper' adventure game I ever finished writing was called 'Attack of the Mutant Bumpries', which I actually submitted to Atlantis Software for publication (they sent me a nice 'sorry, we're not interested' letter after a few weeks). Sadly that's now lost to the mists of time, although I still hold out hope of rediscovering it (and it's sequel, 'Revenge of the Mutant Bumpries') on an old tape somewhere one day.
5: What did you/do you like about programming on the Spectrum and what was your impression of the machine the first time you used it?
The thing I liked best was how quick it was to get going. Switch it on, do some stuff. Spectrum BASIC wasn't super-fast but it was quite easy - even as kids we could get something out of it. Of course, it wasn't nearly as easy as we'd imagined it - I remember before we had our own Speccy I used to sit and design all the games I was going to make once it arrived, but of course they all proved far too ambitious once reality set in. I wasn't too disappointed once I discovered Jetpac, though. Basically I was never off it, my parents had to physically throw me out of the house to get some fresh air.
6: And what did you/do you not like about programming on the Spectrum?
Tapes! I really, really hated tapes. They were fine for loading your favourite game, but when you're working on something and want to try something out which may or may not work, it's furiously irritating to have to wait for everything to save out to a cassette. And you're always living in fear of the dreaded 'tape loading error' too - I remember losing a 95% complete adventure to a chewed-up tape, and the only other copy I had was only about 50% done. Mortified.
7: Of the games you have created, which is your favourite?
My last game, On Reflection. I set out to do a modern-style adventure on the Spectrum and I'm pretty pleased with what I achieved. I wanted to create something which wasn't just 'you are in a room, it is empty, what now' and instant deaths every five seconds because you couldn't guess the exact keywords to use. Ideally I wanted something more akin to modern interactive fiction but with the ease-of-use of a point-and-click adventure like Monkey Island.
The game reads more like a short story than a traditional adventure, and that's on purpose. I also went out of my way to highlight things of interest, exits, etc. so as not to frustrate the player. Frustration is the single thing that puts people off text adventures, I think, so that's precisely what I wanted to avoid. I hope I succeeded for the most part, although I'm not sure how many people have actually played it. It does pretty well in WOS's Top 100 Adventures list though, which is very flattering.
8: How did Manic Miner III come about?
Back in '96 I was helping to maintain the NVG Spectrum archive and someone uploaded a file called 'Manic Miner 2'. I presumed this was Jet Set Willy, but it actually turned out to be a hack of Manic Miner with different levels. It was a bit wonky - the levels weren't very well designed and I seem to remember it glitching quite often, but it got me interested.
I remembered a listing in an old Your Sinclair for a Manic Miner editor program, so I asked around and managed to get a copy of the pages sent over in the post from a friendly comp.sys.sinclair reader. I typed the programs in and got to work, wondering if I could do any better. The editors were pretty basic (actually they were literally BASIC!) and didn't allow you to do things like change the positions of the bad guys, so I came up with the idea of using a 'parallel universe Willy' to explain why the levels were sort of familiar but slightly remixed.
In all I think it took about three months to complete a set that I was happy with and unleash it to the public. It seemed to go down pretty well, I think - the levels have been included in several PC-based remixes over the years too, which is always nice.
9: Which other programmers on the Spectrum impressed you most?
We always noticed the companies more than the individuals back in the day, but I used to love Raff Cecco's games and Ocean/Imagine had a fantastic set of guys at one point with the likes of Joffa Smith, Mike Lamb, etc. Don Priestley's big-sprite games were always wow-inducing for me, though, and I have a particular soft spot for David Jones and his Magic Knight series - I always wanted to do something similar to those.
These days things are even more impressive, I think - there have been some amazing new Spectrum games in the last five years. Jonathan Cauldwell, Bob Smith, The Mojon Twins - I'd take my hat off to them all, if I had a hat! A special mention to Colin Woodcock too - his 'Blink' adventure game was what inspired me to consider returning to Spectrum adventure-writing.
10: Do you develop games on any other platforms?
Quite a few in the past. I've done stuff for the Atari ST and the PC, and I've also dabbled with Gameboy stuff. Most of my coding projects over the years have been utility or productivity software, though - the games are definitely in the minority, sadly. These days I'm pretty much PC and Spectrum only as far as development goes.
11: Any current projects you can tell us about?
I have a long-running maze-game experiment called Dex which I sincerely hope to complete one of these days. I think I've been working on it since about 2003 though, so don't hold your breath. It's actually completely playable now but there's only a single level and it's pretty unpolished. I also have about a third of a sequel to Tales From A Parallel Universe (created with much better tools), but that's been in the works since the late 90s - I doubt it'll ever get completed now, but you never know.
Other than that I've been kicking around a few ideas for another adventure, but nothing concrete as yet - I want to do something smaller and leaner that doesn't take quite so long to get done (On Reflection took nearly three years, on and off).
12: Finally, Cheese Freak Software must go down as one of the most impressive company names I've ever heard of! How did it get named as so?
Heh. I'm a terrible artist, but I'm a doodler - just about every book I own is covered in scribbled drawings. One of my most popular doodles from as far back as high school is a chunk of Swiss cheese, so the company name comes from that. It also serves quite nicely as the company logo.
Once again many thanks to Lee for taking time out to talk with me. Cheers mate.
Arcade Games, Classic Games and ZX Spectrum Games