ZX Spectrum Games

ZX Spectrum Games

3 May 2011

Spectrum Games - Programmer Interview - Steve Turner

Steve Turner ZX Spectrum
Steve Turner was a fine games developer for the ZX Spectrum and various other platforms for many years.

He helped create many classic games for Graftgold which were in turn published by Hewson and his titles include many well known retro games such as Avalon, Dragontorc, 3D Space Wars, 3D Sieddab Attack, 3D Lunattack, Intensity, Quazatron, Ranarama and Zynaps.

The Seiddab trilogy is a particular favourite of mine, culminating in the technically excellent and fun 3D Lunattack - a game which I spent playing into the small hours.

Steve was more than happy to take me through his coding days on the ZX Spectrum...

1: What was the first computer you programmed on and how old where you at the time?
When I was 14 I joined a computer club at my school. We went on a coach to the Roral Liberty School Romford that had a computer. The main bit was the size of a desk and had 512 bytes of core ram. We used to type programs in a langauge called ALGOL 60 on computer tape.

Then you had to load  a huge tape that must have been some sort of compiler. A machine code paper tape was output. You then loaded another huge tape to program the computer how to execute the machine code.

After that you input the machine code tape and if you were lucky an output tape was produced. Feeding this into a teletype machine converted it to printed output. It was long winded but it was pure magic.

Later (1970) I helped write what was probably the worlds first dating program .It was a huge success at my school. You fiilled out a form with your details and likes etc and the computer matched people and we printed a big list of the matches.

Kids were buying loads of entries and filling them in for their friends trying to get bad matches as we had both good and bad options to choose from such as green hair.

2: Which game (on any format) was your first ever published title?
My first title was published by Hewson on the ZX Spectrum. It was such a neat little machine , it seemed like science fiction as I was used to huge mainframes at work.

3: What did you like about coding on the ZX Spectrum?
Z80 was a very good assembly langauge. It was very compact and extremely fast. It was simple to learn at first but there were many tricks to learn to speed things up.

4: And what did you not like about coding on the Speccy?
I started off without an assembler so rather than type in human readable instructions such as "ret"  for a return instruction.

I had to type in the machine code in hexadecimal which was "C9". So essentially I was assembling the program by hand. One mistake and the program would be very wrong. The lack of a decent storage media was a drawback for a long time.

I used to use a cycle of 10 cassette tapes to store versions of the program, as at any time one may not load.  The other bugbear was the ram extension sitting on the back of the machine. Hit a key too hard and it could come loose and you lost all your work.

I dont know how many times I felt like putting a hammer to the machine when it did that. I eventually bought a full size keyboard and mounted everything inside.  Eventually we were using IBM pc clones to write the programs using a cross assembler, connected to the Spectrum and C64 with our own hardware.

5: The sprite movement in intensity is incredibly smooth. How did you manage this considering the animations and shading etc?
It integrated Dominic Robinson's cell based code that he used for Uridium. It was a neat system that only built the character cells on the screen that changed. It kept a copy of the screen so it could rapidly copy any dirty cells.

Cells with sprites were built off screen then copied to the screen. This allowed the frame rate to be kept high. The sprites were all pre-rotated to horizontal pixel positions so they could be copied rapidly as cells. That saved having to use rotate instructions to move a sprite to the required pixel.

6: Out of all your titles for the ZX Spectrum, which one are you most proud of any why?
My favorite was Dragontorc. I still had lots of things to learn to improve plotting speed but I got the balance of arcade and adventure I was looking for. I really enjoyed programming it - I think it was opening up a complete new genre.

7: What was life like at Hewson during the Speccy era?
We didnt work for Hewson, he was just our publisher. Andrew and I worked from my front room which was very cosy. We had a couple of desks with big comfy office chairs. Hewson's was a small industrial unit on an estate.

It was a family firm, his dad used to control the tape copy machine, his brother used to help review and produce the games. We used to visit perhaps once every few months to show our latest work. They would give us feedback but we basically did what we wanted.

8: Where you given free reign to develop games or did concepts come in from other people?
Hewson used to let us do the game design and he did the publishing. We usually had a good idea about our next game while finishing the previous game.

Usually the technology preceded the game design and influenced it. For example we would think of a new way to speed up plotting that would have design limitations for the game so you designed to fit the new system.

9: Which other developers or software houses impressed you at the time?
I liked the Ultimate games. Very often it was individual games such as Lords Of Midnight or Jet Set Willy that impressed us. Whenever we saw a new technique we would work out how it was done and try to do it better.

10: Do you have any favourite games on the ZX Spectrum that were not written by you? !! :-)
Not really, the truth is I had no time to play games. I was too busy writing them or play testing our own games. Many people have no idea the effort that goes into a game. In those days we did all the music and graphics, programming, design, play-testing etc ourselves. I used to work 9-5 and then "go home" to my wife and small boy, so didnt get much chance to play other peoples games.

Occasionally a friend would visit and show us the latest games but I hardly played them.

11: How do you find modern games compared to those of the 8-bit era?
There are some really good games around but they are almost all the same formula. I tend to play Total War  games a few years old. The newer ones are so slow compared with their older game engines and I have a pretty good laptop.

I would like to see some new ideas. The cost of developing games is just too much to risk new ideas. What may start to happen though is new ideas start on iPhones or similar and then get re-developed on the state of the art games machines.

12: As the Spectrum scene began to fade what did you move on to?
At that time I was already writing for the C64 and pretty soon after that the Atari ST, Amiga and PC. It was really important to design game systems to run on several machines as no one knew what would be successful.

13: Can you tell us what you are up to now?
Ive been playing around with a Realms 2 for a long time. I retired at the end of 2010 so have been prgramming on the PC. I have Direct X 9 all up and running a landscape with thousands of men running in formations over it.

I would like to try an online game as I think there is a huge scope using human interactions.

14: With the retro gaming scene booming would you consider writing another Spectrum game?
I still got my Spectrum, Z80 manual and development system just in case. It would be fun to have another go if I get bored.

15: Finally - I remember the 'B' side of the 3D Lunattack cassette had a spoken piece between the mission commander and the pilot (I think) which set the scene for the game and was also pretty funny. Do you know who provided the voices?
I remember that; it was a professional voice mimic that Hewson knew. I think he used to do some of the voices for the Spitting Image TV show.

I was done like Q breifing James Bond  and pre-empted the jokes that the bond films put in later on with    Whats that? Its the cigarette lighter.

The voice thing was Hewsons idea and was done as we had included voice messages in the game if you had some voice add-on board (currah microspeech) that probably hardly anyone had bought. Everything that came up as a scrolling message on the HUD also had a voice message.

Thanks go to Steve for taking the time to do this - it is very much appreciated.
Many thanks,


Classic Games, Arcade Games and ZX Spectrum Games


Anonymous said...

Good interview. Have you missed off some of the answer for question 2).
Unless I've misread it he doesn't mention the name of his first game.

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Anonymous said...

That's "Graftgold" not Craftgold

Anonymous said...

It was quite an interesting interview, Martin ;
Steve 'ST' Turner is indeed a living legend !

@ Anonymous :
Maybe 3D Spacewars (only commercially, in 1983 that is…)
as read in Graftgold history (from ST himself).


Anonymous said...

3D Spacewars was the first game. I did sell 2 copies of a utility called HexAutoloader before that. Steve Turner

Anonymous said...

Zynaps was written by John Cummings at Hewson not by me... Seve Turner

Anonymous said...

Please fix the colours. I can't read dark blue on dark grey!

The Retro Brothers Favourite ZX Spectrum Games...

Jetpac Remake