ZX Spectrum Games

ZX Spectrum Games

16 May 2014

Spectrum Games - Programmer Interview - Jason (Jas) Austin

Jas Austin
Jas Austin worked on a number of games for our beloved ZX Spectrum back in the 1980s.

Most of his output was through Automata and Martech, and from early beginnings with Bunny he went on to work on well known titles such as Slaine, WAR and Nemesis The Warlock.

Jas was kind enough to share a trip down memory lane with me and answered some questions about life as a coder on the greatest ever 8-bit machine to have graced these shores...

WAR by Martech

1: What was the first computer you ever programmed on? And how old were you at the time?

Although not strictly a computer, my first experience of programming was on the Sinclair Cambridge Programmable calculator. It was a pretty simple device, you had a small number of programmable steps you could enter, and then run. It came with a book of programs, and one of them was a Lunar lander game. It was very crude and basic, but I think it was what piqued my interest in games programming. As for how old I was at the time? It's difficult to remember exactly, but I think I would have been about 12 years old.
The first real computer I programmed was an ancient Pet computer at school. One of the earliest programs I wrote was a version of John Conway's Life. It ran incredibly slow, each frame took about five minutes to generate. It was written it as a project for my O level computer studies.

2: Which game was your fist ever commercially published title?

My first commercial game was back in 1983. It was the Spectrum game 'Bunny' for Automata. It was part of a double game tape along with ETA. ETA Was written by Automata's Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold. Bunny was a simple maze game written almost entirely in Basic. I did both the code and the graphics for it, and to be honest it was not a particularly great game. But I look back at it fondly as the start of my games career.

3: Automata were a pretty big name in the industry during the early 80's. What was it like having work published by them?

It was fantastic to have games published by Automata. Mel Croucher and the rest of the team are incredibility talented people. It's an honour to have some of my games sitting alongside all time classics such as Pimania and Deus Ex Machina. They were also an incredibly fun bunch to work with, as they had a very laid back attitude to making games.

4: After Automata you worked on many games for Martech. How did this differ from your time with Automata?

Before Martech I was only working on games in my spare time. I was studying at sixth form and working in a shop part time. But Martech was when I took the plunge and started making games full time.

Initially, I was employed by a company called Catalyst coders, who in turn were making games for other companies. 

The other change was working in an office along side other coders and artists, rather than in my bedroom. For my Martech games I was working with two very talented artists, Mark Jones and Dave Dew. Then for later Martech games Dave, myself and another ex Catylist coder, Neil Dodwell formed our own company Creative Reality.

5: What did you enjoy about developing on the ZX Spectrum?

Interesting question... Part of the enjoyment of the Spectrum was simply the sheer challenge of writing games on it. 

Compared to machines like the Commodore 64, it had no hardware to handle sprites and scrolling. So on the Spectrum this would all have to be written in software. 

We were constantly coming up with new and inventive ways to squeeze an extra bit of speed and memory efficiency from the machine. As a coder this was hugely satisfying when it worked.

6: Conversely, was did you not enjoy when working on the Spectrum?

The only real annoying part of developing on the Spectrum was working with the limited hardware and software of the time. Particularly early on when I was using a tape system and a very basic compiler, where it could take about half an hour, and many tape swaps just to make a build. 

Although it could be said that this also promoted better coding, as you had to be pretty confident that your code was correct before building. 

This became less of an issue later on with the advent of Micro drives, and then ending with a PC dev system. Using the PC would take less than a second to compile a version. Very different from when I started.

7: Of all the Spectrum games you worked on which are you most proud of and why?

While I'm proud of all my Spectrum games, my favourite would have to be Rex. For a number of reasons... It was a 100% original design and I felt most of the gameplay held up very well. Later on I developed a love for playing Bullet Hell shooters. And even though Rex at heart was a platformer, it also had elements of a Bullet Hell shooter way before they became mainstream. 

It also had a lot of elaborate programming techniques to enable us to get so many sprites active and still keep the game full screen and speedy. And all this with no colour clash. So I was very pleased with what we achieved. Even to this day I still see a lot of positive comments about the game. It's almost become a bit of a Spectrum cult classic.

8: Were you given free reign to develop games or did other people come up with gaming ideas too?

Yes, luckily we were always given free reign over game designs. Even with the licensed titles such as Tarzan and Nemesis the Warlock. As long as we stuck to the spirit of the subject we could do as we pleased. 

For Nemesis and Sláine it was also fortunate that I was a huge 2000AD fan, so I was already fully versed in the characters and stories. Sláine in particular was great for a comic geek like myself, as I got to speak with Pat Mills the author, and run my ideas past him. And I'm happy to say he loved them all, and didn't want to change a thing.

Nemesis The Warlock on the ZX Spectrum
9: The Planets was something that was really different and was a very ambitious game. What was it like working on such a huge title?

I can't comment too much on Planets... You're correct it was a very ambitious project, but I didn't really have any involvement in the actual game. I had a game written much earlier that I had been unable to get published. It was a very odd game called 'Colour Scape' and loosely based on John Conway's game of life from the 70's. By pure coincidence the levels in my game were based around the planets in our solar system. I must have mentioned it at some point to the guys at Martech, as it was decided that it would be a great idea to incorporate it into the Planets project as a bonus game. So a few additions were made to tie it in, and it became the stand alone game called 'Weird' on the Planets tape.

10: Which other software houses or developers impressed you most at the time?

I was a great admirer of any developers that were pushing the boundaries or trying something different. Like a lot of others at the time, I was a huge fan of all the games by Ultimate. Others that impressed and certainly influenced me were developers such as Design Design, Sandy White, Mike Singleton, Jeff Minter, Jon Ritman, Mathew Smith and of course Mel Croucher.

11: Do you play any current game?

Yes, I still play a lot of games... Possibly too many. But I've always seen it as very important to keep up with current gaming trends. I mostly game on consoles these days, purely for the convenience. A particular favourite of mine in the past few years has been Dark Souls. I've sunk many many hours into it, and am currently on my 3rd play-through...

12: Can you tell us what you are up to these days?

Since 2008 I've been working as part of the indie games company Origin8. We are a small creative team, that collectively has more years in the games industry than I care to mention. We've developed many games on the iOS, Android, PC and Mac. Most recently I've worked on the iOS/Android remake of the classic 90's game, 'Transport Tycoon' originally by Chris Sawyer.

You can find out more about Origin8 at www.origin8.com. And you can find me chatting about gaming and gamedev on twitter @IamXERO.

13: Finally, with the retro-scene booming, would you consider creating another game for the Spectrum?

I love the fact there is still a huge retro scene, and I think it would be great fun to develop a Spectrum game. But while I'm still making games full time, it's hard to find the spare time. Although a side project I started back in 2013 was a 're-imagining' of Bunny. It's a very different style of game, most likely using Unity. The idea was to release it in 2013 as it would have been 30 years old. One day I still hope to finish it...

Classic Gaming with The Fury:

The Retro Brothers Favourite ZX Spectrum Games...

Jetpac Remake