PLATINUM PRODUCTIONS are a quintet of canny Scots who have made a specialisation out of converting existing games to run on the Spectrum. Hand them a game which is not available on the Spectrum, wait a couple of months, hand them a fee and you’ll have a Spectrum game. Software Projects, US Gold and the new Imagine have done just that and reaped the benefits.
Anyone who can get three consecutive CRASH Smashes with games they’ve converted to the Spectrum deserves to be checked out. Graeme Kidd ran up the CRASH phone bill doing just that...
NO DOUBT statisticians throw their calculators up in the air in horror every time they hear about someone taking an average of a list of percentages: so beware of falling calculators. Platinum Productions have an average Overall rating of 79.5% on the nine games they’ve had CRASH reviews for. Not a bad track record, and if you remove the low rating they won for Zaxxon (58%) from the averaging, they creep up a few percentage points more to achieve a programming average over 82%. (Perhaps we ought to start a Software Wisden’s Almanac!)
When we were offered the job of converting Zaxxon to the Spectrum we knew it wouldn’t look the same’, David Anderson of Platinum Productions admitted in defence, ‘we agreed to do it, despite the fact that we knew it wasn’t going to be as good. It got the reviews it deserved — rather unfortunate, but it wasn’t entirely our own fault.’
David Anderson and Ian Morrison are the main men behind Platinum productions, with ‘New Boys’ Robin Muir helping on the music, Alan Laird working as a programmer and Mark Craig taking on the role of Programming Assistant.
They have a pretty impressive track record: discounting Zaxxon all PP games have ranked well in CRASH reviews, For the record books, here goes — Exterminator 82%, Brain Damage 69%, Beach Head 79%, Lode Runner 81%, Raid Over Moscow 92% (SMASH), World Series Baseball 91% (SMASH), Tapper 87% (SMASH), Dambusters 75%.
Platinum Productions began with David Anderson and Ian Morrison on computer keyboards, aided and abetted by Robin Muir on synthesiser keyboards. Essentially, David and Ian write the code for conversions while Robin works out the music on his synths and presents the appropriate data to David and Ian for incorporation into the final work. The trio are all eighteen years old, all live in Ayrshire, all programmed the ZX81 and met up at school.
‘Four people at school all had ZX81s early on and there wasn’t much in the way of commercially produced software at the time’, David began, ‘we were learning machine code and started writing games on the 1K ZX81. One guy emigrated, another went out on his own ... so the original quartet wasn’t long lived.’
‘I started programming in BASIC on a Pet and then got involved in machine code on the ZX81’, Ian Morrison explained, ‘and pretty soon, with 1K of memory, I was forced into machine code. I started writing games, as we all did, for my own amusement — we were just normal computer hackers.’
Robin Muir’s entry route to computing was fairly traditional too: ‘I knew David and Ian from school and my Dad got a ZX81. He lost interest and I picked it up from him and did some programming — typing in listings and the like. Then the Spectrum came out and the programming fell off as I got into playing games.’
Gradually, the programming duo of David Anderson and Ian Morrison expanded its horizons, and moved onto the Spectrum. ‘We worked out that 16K rampacks were catching on and wrote a 16K game in the autumn of 1982 which we took to the ZX Microfair that Christmas. We came back with a Spectrum and converted our first game for the Spectrum — Galactic Trooper,’ David explained.
Games for Romik and Silversoft followed, and the team developed new routines for user friendliness, including a menu screen. In those days, skill levels and user definable keys were something of a rarity — Rabbit Software, for instance, produced games which allowed you to define keys at the start of a game, but to redefine the keys you had to reload the game.
But the money wasn’t exactly flooding in. They re-wrote Exterminator as a full blown version of the arcade game Robotron and decided to tout it round software houses. ‘We went to see people, rather than sending the game through the post and waiting for a response, which takes ages’, David said, ‘and when we went to Ocean they were impressed, but said they didn’t want an arcade copy. However, they showed us Beach-Head on the Commodore and asked us if we could convert it to the Spectrum’.
Off they went, and produced a demo of the planes phase of the game in a fortnight. Ocean gave them the job and an eight week deadline to finish the conversion. They made it with two days to spare, and thus began a long term liaison.
Software Projects were interested in releasing the Robotron game, but nothing came of it in the end, and the program never saw the light of day. Platinum Productions did the Lode Runner conversion for Software Projects instead.
Then came Zaxxon, about which the least said the better, followed by Raid Over Moscow, which became the first of a trio of CRASH Smashes. ‘We think we did a good job of it’, says David, ‘we feel that it is the best shoot em up for the Spectrum — generally such games either have good graphics or are fast. Raid has both.’
So how does the team work on a game? ‘We approach each game as a project’, David explained, ‘sometimes we work together and sometimes separately, depending on the deadline we have been given. First we examine the game and decide which is the most important bit — on Lode Runner for instance, we had to get the screen and the little man runing about.’
Generally David begins work on the graphics while Ian gets on with developing the program. If there’s not a lot of graphical work to be done, then the work is shared out. ‘One of us might say ‘that’s a bit I can do easily’ and take it on, or maybe one of us will have finished something and then take on the part of the other’s workload’ David explained. On Raid Ian did most of the graphics and a lot of the game. And there are no fancy development systems at Platinum Productions. Everything is written straight onto Spectrums, supported with microdrives, printers and lots of paper — and the ‘New Boys’, Robin Muir, Mark Craig and Alan Laird!
Robin Muir, unlike David and Ian, doesn’t program full time. He’s about to start the second year of an accountancy course at Glasgow University. He’s a musician, playing keyboards in a band — Locozip — and uses a Moog Prodigy and Sequential Circuits’ Pro One. ‘David and Ian aren’t very good at working out music on the Spectrum, so they asked me to get involved. They used me on a couple of programs, first of all on a piece of educational software.’
World Series Baseball was the next conversion undertaken by the team, this time for the new Imagine label. Robin explained his method of working: ‘I got a tape of the music from the Commodore version of Baseball and played around with the tunes on a synth, working out the notes. Then I worked out the duration and pitch of the notes and handed over data to David and Ian which they incorporate into their program.’
‘We felt World Series Baseball was our best game’, said David, with some justification. It was their second CRASH Smash. Tapper was their next project — ‘we didn’t think we were going to be doing Tapper,’ he continued, ‘we had another urgent job. With Tapper the problem was the constant tune, and the number and speed of the graphics. We used routines from Raid to run the graphics, and finished the conversion in five weeks.’ Another Smash in the bag.
Dambusters is their latest conversion, reviewed in this issue. The team is not so pleased with the end result — a couple of bugs crept in... ‘the conversion was done a bit quickly’, David commented, ‘we could have made it better with more time. It was just one of those things — we got to the point where it was dragging on and we had to finish the task.’ Nevertheless, they added a couple of features, like the optional digital display, and sorted out a couple of problems that can be found on the C64 version.
Currently, the team is working on a conversion of Beach-Head 2. They’ve got the first screen half developed, are about a quarter of the way on the second and have worked out the graphics for the third screen. With luck, there should be a demo version at the Personal Computer World Show, and the finished game should be quite slick with constant sound, border colour effects and sprite quality graphics according to David.
Have they ever thought of designing and writing a game from scratch themselves, rather than always working on contract conversions? ‘We have thought about publishing our own software’, Ian says, ‘but it would limit the amount of time we have available for actually programming. Besides, the market is dominated by big companies nowadays — a lot of programmers started off with their own companies and have ended up working for large firms.’
‘Getting the go-ahead for a project is quite difficult’, David adds, ‘we don’t want to take the financial risk of sitting down and doing three months work on our own project and then finding that distributors don’t want to buy it or it won’t sell. We don’t really feel confident enough about the industry to go out on our own.’
Whatever happens, the team have no plans to desert the Spectrum. ‘We don’t have time for Amstrad conversions, which might be seen as a logical step for us to take’, David stated, ‘if anything it is more difficult to write for the Amstrad, given its higher resolution graphics and sound capabilities.’ The Spectrum 128K is on its way, and PP will stick with Sir Clive. ‘The Spectrum is a machine that still sells,’ adds Ian, ‘there’s not much that holds it back really. A good programmer can get good graphics out of the machine, and while the sound is poor, in the end it’s up to your imagination as to what you can get out of the machine.’
Ian and David have both been offered places at Strathclyde University on a double-degree engineering course, which lasts for five years and is very intensive. They’ve both postponed starting the course — but this year Ian has decided to get an education. ‘I’ve enjoyed programming, it’s been fun and has made be a bit of money, but I think it is time I got an education and expanded my mind. I’m not sure whether I’ll have time to carry on with much programming — the course is going to require a lot of effort and I’ve got to get industrial experience during the vacations. I’ll just have to wait and see what I can fit in.’
David, on the other hand, may not be going to university after all. ‘I’d like to get involved in Super Zaxxon. Things have progressed to the point where I think I should be able to avoid the minor disaster of Zaxxon and it’s possible that I’ll be doing a lot of work for US Gold...’
Rambo, the game of the film is on the cards. They’ve already seen the film and work is underway on a lookalike of the Commando arcade game. ‘A good shoot em up, which is basically going back to the Robotron idea with eight directional firing on a scrolling landscape’, David explains, ‘A good shoot em up.’ And they will be doing this one from scratch for US Gold. It looks like they may have got the go-ahead for a project of their own at last.