Doug Burns worked as a games programmer during the 1980's for Imagine Software and developed the classic arcade game Hypaball and the also developed the excellent arcade conversion of Konami's Ping Pong.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Doug who was more than happy to take us through his days of game development on the ZX Spectrum...
1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on? And how old were you?
When I was about 14 or 15 one of my friends got a ZX80 and we spent a while on that, but just very rudimentary BASIC stuff (although I do remember my Dad talking to me about computers and flowcharts when I was maybe 10?).
Then when I was 16, I got a ZX81 and a Memotech 16K RAM Pack for Christmas and spent the next year or so faffing around with disassemblers/assemblers and playing games. 3D Monster Maze, Psion's Flight Simulator and Quicksilva's Defender stand out in my memories. The latter was what I spent most of my time disassembling.
2: How did you get into developing computer games?
While I was 17 and on the dole in Edinburgh (I'd used up my full allowance of two YOP scheme roles by then!), I was reading one of the magazines and saw an advert for Imagine. They were obviously taking on shed-loads of people to take care of the Marshall Cavendish contract so I applied even though I had no commercial experience and went down to Liverpool for an interview with a guy called Tim Best and probably one of the developers or artists (memory a bit hazy here).
I had absolutely no relevant experience beyond having disassembled commercial games and nothing to show them but they were desperate for bodies and I think my enthusiasm won them over so they wanted me to start the following Monday. At that point I became a sort of house mascot, I think. I was one of the youngest employees - a bit younger than Eugene Evans - and not doing an awful lot but helping people out with bits and pieces and entertaining people with my youthful naivety! Had the highest score on the Vanguard arcade machine in the office, though . God, there are some stories I could tell you about my time at Imagine, but it would go on for days.
3: Apart from developing Ping Pong and Hypaball, did you work on any other titles on the ZX Spectrum?
I helped out with bits and pieces during the Imagine/Marshall Cavendish period and eventually made a start on a games designer, in the mould of HURG and Games Designer (not sure if I've got those titles right) but was laid off by Imagine about a month before they went bust and everybody else went the same way.
After a short stint getting over being laid off and kicked out of the company-rented house, I started work on a C16 game for Quicksilva, but then they were bought out by Argos and so I started work on a Grog's Revenge conversion for the ZX Spectrum on a freelance basis for U.S. Gold/Ocean. Although I made a good enough start to get me a permanent job at Ocean, it really wasn't going anywhere fast so got canned.
Then, after Hypaball, I worked on something called P.L.O.D on a freelance basis for Odin/Firebird. Title courtesy of Jof, graphics by Dawn Jones. By now I was thoroughly disenchanted with games, software houses and life in general and I suspect PLOD reflected that although I fortunately don't have a copy to confirm that!
4: After you left the ZX Spectrum scene what did you do next?
I spent ages on the dole, to be honest. One of the things about getting a job in games so early was that you grew up really quickly because it was quite a dynamic environment but didn't grow up at all, because it was sheltered. So it took me a while to sort myself out in the midst of Thatcher's Britain.
I did some weird jobs, including being a Light Jockey (yes, I'm serious) in a big nightclub in Edinburgh but eventually I worked for a PC dealership who had some pretty big commercial clients and found that some extremely basic dBase III+ and Foxbase+ 'programming' was considered some sort of genius.
I thought people were having a laugh, but those fairly low standards continue to this day (the industry's I mean, not necessarily mine, but you do get lazy ....) From there, I eventually got my first proper job with a big grown-up business because I was lucky to be interviewed by someone that thought assembly language programming might be a *touch* trickier than CICS/Cobol and, from there, I got into Oracle and got landed with all the low-level stuff which ended up with me being a DBA. That was 20 years ago and I've been happy working in the same area since then (much to my surprise).
5: What did you like about developing on the Spectrum?
Well, it was so basic, with a CPU and a memory-mapped screen and not much else, that it was just about moving tons of data around quickly, which is still what I do in a way. The 6502 crowd always had chips and stuff to program, but I reckon that was a pile of b*ll*cks - just give me some CPU and memory. As for different machine ROMs - LOL - like we would ever call a ROM routine!
6: Conversely, what did you not like about programming the Spectrum?
The classic thing that I suspect everyone else didn't - attribute clash and lack of colours. Of course people learned to get around that very effectively, but it would have been nice to have the pallette to go with the processor.
7: Did you work on any of the other 8-bit machines during that era?
Well, I worked on the ZX81, but not commerically. I also had a stint on the C16, but 6502 wasn't for me really. Other developers swore by the 6809, but who could stand those two Dragon pallettes! LOL
8: Were you given 'free reign' to develop games, or did other people come up with gaming concepts too?
Oh, game designs were never my work. I'm the most uncreative person I know, it was all just coding to me really and I suppose that's one of the many reasons I wasn't destined to be a great games programmer. But, in general, there was definitely tons more freedom than today. Yeah, the bosses might say 'we're not sure about that' (when they bothered to take a look) but there was none of that nonsense where big console vendors mould it into something completely average.
9: How was life at Ocean / Imagine at that time?
We don't have time, really! So I'll limit myself to .... exciting ... brilliant people ... chaos ... not like a proper job.
10: Which other developers or software houses impressed you at the time?
Jof, obviously. Steve Weatherill. Ultimate
11: Do you have any favourite Spectrum games? Do you play any games today?
Ultimate games, first and foremost. The Manic Miner stuff. All the usual suspects, I'm afraid. When I first encountered ZX Spectrum emulators, I was pleased beyond belief, as was my Dad who was an absolute Spectrum games nut! So I went through a phase of digging out loads of things to play and thoroughly enjoyed it.
They all seem pretty playable to me to this day, but I'm not the greatest games fan at the best of times, so it was predominantly nostalgia.
12: How do you think todays games compare to those from the 8-bit era?
I think they're brilliant and have no time for bitter nostalgia although I suspect I haven't come across the really bad ones because I don't buy or play many and just follow the crowd. But, really ... Half-Life 2, Fallout, Gran Turismo stuff? I would have murdered my granny to have those possibilities at my disposal.
Although I think it's fair to say that the lack of limitations maybe means people don't have to be quite so creative with gameplay and addiction because the sound and pictures make up for it.
13: I take it you are working with Oracle at the moment. That's a lot different to 8-bit machine code and assembler! Any chance you could write another game at some point?
Absolutely no chance. When I first found emulators and an on-going Speccy scene, I was severely tempted for about 2 weeks, but once I started disassembling Ping Pong and realised I couldn't work out how the f*ck it worked, I realised that was it for me!
But I would definitely say my entire career grew out of those Spectrum experiences and those skills have been remarkably resilient to different systems, applications and new things I need to take on. I wish there were a few more games programmers around because the business apps world might be a lot better!
Once again many thanks to Doug for taking the time to do this for us.
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22 Jan 2010
Spectrum Games - Programmer Interview - Doug Burns
Posted by The Retro Brothers at 11:38 am
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No, thank *you*! It's always fun to be reminded of that stuff - good times :-) - and thanks for your passion, keeping it going
I would absolutely LOVE to read a book about the programmers' experiences and all those stories from the Ocean/Imagine days.
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