“I’m not a star. I don’t think so anyway. I still go round anonymous through the playground.”
The games software industry has long thrived on stories of teenage programmers. DAVID WESTERN travelled to the dusty streets of London’s Portobello Road to meet one of the youngest, 15-year-old MARTIN WHEELER, who has written two of VIRGIN GAMES’ most successful Spectrum games, DR FRANKY and SORCERY.
The interview took place on June 29 at Virgin Games’ office in the Portobello Road, West London. At the time Martin was still 14. He hails from Reading where he attends Meadway Comprehensive School. David Western’s questions are shown in bold text and Martyn’s replies in normal text.
When did you start with the computer?
When the ZX81 came out, when was that? Anyway, six months after it came out — 1980/81, around then. I got a ZX81. Sitting around the old black and white telly!
Did you do any programming at school — do they have computers at school?
Yes they do, but because I wasn’t in a high enough maths group, they didn’t let me into the Computer Studies group. So I was a bit cheesed off about that. You have to be in the two top groups and I was in the third one down. But then again, my friend was in the third one and he got in just because he flukily passed the exam.
You’re in the Computer Studies group now I presume?
(Laughs) No. I’m still excluded.
But do they know at school that you have written two games for Virgin?
Yeah, they know that.
How do your friends react to you?
I think they’re all pretty astonished.
What sort of computers do they have at the school?
Loads of BBCs like most schools do, and they’ve got two VIC 20s, I think. Pretty redundant I should think. I don’t know what else they’ve got because I haven’t been in the computer room much.
And what do your friends think of your success — are you a star at school?
No, not really, I’m not a star. I don’t think so anyway. I still go round anonymous through the playground — kids don’t know who I am. My success is confined to a small group of friends both inside and outside of school.
So did you teach yourself?
Yes, with the old ZX81 manual. I had the ZX81 for about a year and then I went onto the Spectrum. I got a 16K Spectrum at first. I did have a 16k RAMpack on the ZX81 and I thought that was plenty. But when you get to the Spectrum it all seems to go away and you want a 48K, don’t you.
Did you start to learn programming straight away?
Yes, it was my main interest and there weren’t many ZX81 games anyway, and the ones there were, were few and far between, so I was programming all the while. Started off out of magazines, copying other people’s programs from the listings, then you start to write your own.
How did you come to join Virgin?
Oh well, I saw an advertisement in a mag — ‘I want to be rich and famous department!’ I thought, oh great, I’ll send my game up. I had a few turned down though. It was ages ago — I sent them off a BASIC game first, then I moved onto the compiler and they gradually got better. And then I sent off Franky. I was at a friend’s house one night, and my mum rings up and she goes, ‘You would have to be at your friend’s when the man from Virgin phones!’ So I rushed home and she said they want to buy the game. And I was going, ‘Yes, yes’ and dancing around. Really, it was through that advertisement.
Did they buy it just as you had written it?
They made a few alterations, you see it was compiled from BASIC and I lost the BASIC copy of the game, so it was hard to make any major alterations. I’m actually learning machine code at the moment.
How long did it take you to write Dr Franky?
Not too long actually. They say I’m a fast programmer. It took two weeks to write the whole program and then for another week I was changing bits — you know — a brick here, a brick there.
What made you choose that particular idea?
I became influenced by something on telly — you see something and you think, ah that could be good as a game, and then you start to work something out. Dr Franky was originally going to be a sort of looking down game, a bit like Atic Atac where you look down on a room, and it was going to be a maze game. I changed it to have levels.
Now what about Sorcery, which is something different. How soon did that come after Franky?
It was Christmas Day that I started Sorcery. First of all what I did was draw a picture of a wizard, flying all over the landscape with mist and trees — you know, the Sorcery title page — that’s how the picture actually looked. I did the title page first, believe it or not. I always like that because it gives you a sense of having done something.
Funnily enough, some of the games I do, I make them up as I go along, because I find that instead of sitting down and writing out exactly what’s going to happen, you can experiment on the computer by saying, oh move it this way — and then you try moving it that way and you can experiment by making graphics. The graphics I’ve done on my games are simply done on the Horizons Character Generator.
So it’s a fairly organic process?
And how long did that take?
A bit longer than Franky. About three or four weeks. There was a bit of a problem with the INKEY$ because I was using the IN command to read the keyboard and there was a muck up with the different issues of the Spectrum and I was having to put in IN values. I had the same problem with Franky. In fact, if you find that Franky has a problem jumping, it’s best to pull the EAR socket out. And on Sorcery.
If you want another tip, something nobody knows, if you actually do Sorcery and get to the end, the next round it will be a different weapon you need. But if you fail that time you go back to the original weapon.
There’s just the two choices?
No, it goes on for quite a while.
Do you have a contract with Virgin Games?
Yes, I do.
And what do your family think about it all? What family have you got?
It’s hard to tell what they think. There’s just my mother and father, yes the only child — story of the only child! They are encouraging me — secretly I think they’re very pleased. But they don’t seem to show it much! My mum still nags at me for not clearing up my bedroom and stuff like that.
This is a cheeky question. Are you making a lot of money?
Well I don’t know because I don’t know anyone else who makes games so I don’t know whether it’s a lot of money or not. Er, a substantial amount you know. I’m pretty pleased anyway. I get paid and I get a percentage.
Well, here you are, an established programmer for a large software house, but do you play other programmer’s games?
Yes I do play games. I’ve got quite a collection. I like the Ultimate ones, dare I say it! Sabre Wulf, I really like that. I’ve just done it in fact, and I’ve made a map.
I like Ultimate’s games very much because they’re all so professional, they follow a sort of pattern and all start off with the same sort of presentation. But the graphics are smooth and good. There are some other companies — Melbourne House. I like those quite a lot, adventures like The Hobbit and so on.
Have you used any of their utilities, like Melbourne Draw?
No. My screen drawing program was done with a very simple screen kit program that anyone could write really — just moving a cursor around the screen. I do the whole picture in big character square blocks and then I etch it out with a cutting pixel, as I call it. It rubs out blocks, you know, leaving a smooth edge for the drawing and then I print the colours.
Do you ever play on the arcade machines?
Yeah, I do. Favourite ones? Zaxxon, Xevious (I really like that one). But I haven’t been in the arcade recently. Haven’t seen anything new like Dragon’s Lair.
What about adventure games?
The Hobbit, I love The Hobbit still I haven’t done it yet. Close though, getting closer. I’ve killed the dragon and shot Bard with his own bow and arrow.
Would you like to write adventures?
I don’t know, I was writing one at one time and it went wrong so I thought, oh hell! I couldn’t get out of this problem, that’s why I pulled the plug out, and as soon as I pulled it out I thought, oh I could’ve done that! That would solve the problem. Uuurrgh! But I thought, I can’t tackle all that again!
What are you working on at the moment?
I did have a program, in fact I’ve still got it on tape somewhere. It’s about this fellow running through the streets with a gun. I don’t know whether you’ve seen Blade Runner. Pretty similar to that with dark streets and a man shooting the bad guys. This man is out hunting some evil being. That’s about all I’ve been working on as far as programming goes. A few other ideas I’ve churned out and then thought, no, I couldn’t start.
But I understand that you’re working on a board game. We’ve all seen the ads Virgin have put out about their new venture into board games. Are you doing it for them?
Yeah. I’m working on this board game with Andrew, he’s my friend. And we’re hoping to have some success with it. It’s a fantasy, fighting board game where you have two opposing sides, supposedly in conflict over this mystical land, each trying to destroy the other. You have various pieces each with their own characters — like there’s the cleric who’s got his cross and he’s very weak and can’t beat anyone up; then there’s the warlock who can kill just about everybody but he can’t swim across rivers and he can’t climb mountains, so he’s pretty immovable. It’s for two players but I suppose you could have two on each side working together, or you could have a third person acting as a referee. It’s a versatile board, you can play it longways or sideways.
Virgin seem to produce a very diverse number of things. Are you planning to do anything else within the company?
Virgin’s been a very helpful company, so I don’t know. At the moment it’s the board game. They didn’t actually suggest it and they haven’t even seen it yet. I’m just unveiling it now, so I’m hoping they’re going to like it. I made the game up about six years ago on the back of a cereal packet. I thought it was quite a good idea so I thought I’d do it again professionally on a big board with better pieces.
Let’s move back to computer games again. What do you think about software piracy?
Well obviously it’s doing some sort of damage to the industry but then again, I get the sort of feeling that kids say, hah! I think this game’s quite good, I think I’ll pirate it but I wouldn’t buy it anyway. I think they just pirate it because they want a large collection, you know. If they didn’t pirate it, I can’t imagine them buying it because they probably haven’t got the pocket money.
You think the games are too expensive?
Yes, some are. Let’s see — Sabre Wulf’s gone up to £9.95 now. I don’t know why Ultimate have suddenly leapt up in their price range. That put me down a bit — I wish they would stick to £5.50. Yeah, I think some games are a bit expensive — I think the price should go down.
Apart from programming, what other things are you interested in?
I like art and as you can see I’ve illustrated the board game. I like drawing things like that. In fact before I was on the ZX81 I was drawing cartoon comics. I did a book, it was quite thick, with a cartoon story about these space adventurers blasting off to another planet because they had stolen some gold. I’m doing art at school.
You must have lots of friends of your own age who are games players. Are they going to grow out of playing computer games — is the bubble going to burst?
I don’t think so — things like The Hobbit are very intellectual. No you don’t grow out of computer games. I can see some software houses going but maybe, like Imagine has done, and games aren’t selling as well as they used to, just not so many people buying. From my own experience I can tell you that my friends have stopped buying games quite a lot, and they’re only buying very few, ones that get fantastic ratings in magazines or that they’ve seen in shops. So I don’t know whether the slump’s going to go down or escalate. And in the end I think more professional software’s going to come through with superb graphics. It’ll be not so much games as animated adventures.
Do you want to be a part of that?
Yes, I would like to be. I’d like to tackle much more ambitious things.
On your own, or would you be happy to work in a team?
I don’t really mind. I do like working on my own though. I get along on my own quite well, you see, being an only child you get used to it. But I wouldn’t mind collaborating with other people on things.
How about some general things now. What kind of music do you like?
Let’s see. I like the Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Howard Jones, Police — an endless list. I don’t go to concerts. I haven’t had the money until my games were published! But I just buy their tapes.
Any girlfriends, or no time for that?
Yes, well I did have, but they seem to go very quickly, Don’t know why maybe because I’m weird or strange or something. Different from everyone else.
What do you think of CRASH? I suppose we’d better have that down on tape!
I think it’s a really good magazine. I like it, apart from you got my age wrong. (We made you 16 I think?) Yeah and I’m 15 in July. I did notice on your last cover (June, No. 5) you had a spaceship flying down a canyon of cassettes and I noticed my tape was in there. That pleased me!
I think the reviews are very good, especially the colour photographs, they are really outstanding. Quite large as well, that helps. I think CRASH is a very popular magazine. It is amongst my friends anyway. You’ve got three people doing all the reviews, haven’t you? I think that’s a very good idea and gives a different view for each game. Well, I really like CRASH. I always get it.
What other magazines do you get?
I buy Your Computer, but that’s too full of adverts. Computer & Video Games — I’ve got quite a few of those and I quite like that, but there’s too much about video games and less about computers. I hate program listings and I never type them in anymore. So that’s why I like CRASH — you can look through and not a listing in sight! And I like magazines that stick to one thing, like CRASH is all Spectrum software, so if you see something that really catches your eye, you can think, wow, that’s a Spectrum game and not go oh, it’s not for my computer.
What about the other programmers who work for Virgin, have you met any of them?
Well I met Andy Green briefly. We were doing a sort of cock up TV interview that went wrong. That was the first TV interview I ever did. We did it on the back of a bus! It was just before Franky came out, but it was never shown on telly.
Finally, anything you’d like to say to your fans out there?
Fans! I wish I did have fans. Fans — where are you?
After this you will have fans!
Will I? Well, I’ve still got four years to go to get Matthew Smith’s reputation, haven’t I?