Making silicon chips for microprocessors isn’t an easy life as the new HEWSON CONSULTANTS game Technician Ted shows. ROGER KEAN talks to ANDREW HEWSON and STEVE MARSDEN who, together with DAVE COOKE, wrote Technician Ted, a CRASH SMASH this month.
SINCE their emergence from the early days of the arcade copy, Hewson Consultants have been noted more for their thoughtful programs like NightFlite and Heathrow ATC. Even the more arcade-like games in the Seiddab trilogy by Steve Turner have been thinking games as well as shoot em ups. So it comes as a surprise to see the latest release from Hewsons, Technician Ted, which is an exciting platform game.
The two young programmers of Technician Ted are Steve Marsden (21) and Dave Cooke (23). Dave was unfortunately at work on the day that Steve and Andrew Hewson came up to Ludlow to see us. I started off by asking Steve how many games he had written.
‘It’s the first commercial program. We’ve written an assembler, which is for our own use really, and in fact we’ve written this game with our assembler.’
‘Have you written any other games before that haven’t been published?’
‘No, this is really the very first game. We’ve been writing machine code routines over the last four months before we wrote this game like the music routines for it.’
‘The music is quite prominent.’
‘The main interest we’ve got is in the hardware side and in electronic music, so that’s quite important.’
Both Steve and Dave work for a giant electronics firm which, as Andrew explained, is where the game idea first came from.
‘It’s based on the chip factory where they work in Marconi in Lincoln, a place where they make micro- processors, and one of the rooms where Steve and Dave work is the silicon slice store so they’re in deep with these chips anyway and so machine code is nothing new to them.
‘So you make chips for Marconi?’ I asked, and then wondered whether Marconi was aware that two of their employees were ‘leaking’ trade secrets through a computer game. Steve gave a laugh.
‘Yeah, that was a problem! We had to present the processes as they are but without letting any secrets out.’
‘What do you actually do at Marconi?’
‘I make silicon chips, transistors and diodes. Computers aren’t a major part of my work. I’m more of a Jekyll and Hyde, with the chemicals! I didn’t really have much experience of computers before we started. I’ve been there about two and a half years now, and Dave’s been there since Christmas 83. He’s an engineer.’
‘Getting back to Technician Ted, I suppose there’s an inevitable comparison to be made between it and Jet Set Willy. Do you mind that?’
‘Well out of all the games I’ve ever played on the Spectrum, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy were the best two games I’ve ever played. I wanted more of that. It wasn’t a question of copying those, just that those — platform games — are the sort of games I like to play, so naturally I went that way.’
‘How long did it take to write?’
‘Part time work we started it in March, got it finished at the end of August.’
‘Do you think that like JSW it will lead to a rash of POKES? Is it even possible?’
‘Well we tried to put the best biasing protection in such as the tape loading routine. Somewhere in the region of 80000 calculations are performed while it’s actually loading to check that the machine’s just switched on. The program’s calculated so even if you manage to get the coding, which you can do with a tape copier, it’s not the actual code anyway. That’s the system, but there’s still lots of people who can break that system.’
‘Do you think they will?’
‘I’d like to think they could do, yeah, because then we’ll know where we’re going wrong,’ he said, adding a laugh.
‘Have you got anything else in line following on?’
‘Yeah, we’ve got a follow up to this game using the same character in a different situation, and we’re developing techniques as well. We’ve talked about this back and forth, and we’ve already got material that’s ahead of what’s in this one.’
‘How do you share the work out between the two of you?’
‘Well, per byte, you can’t say can you? I’ve looked at about 25% of the code of all the sprites and Dave’s done all the rest of the code. It was a complete mixture, I would do some of the graphics and Dave would say, I’ll write some of this and some of that and I would do the same thing, and I would say, well I need the code for this and he would do that. The next game is going to be a more highly organised affair, this one was a bit haphazard really. With the next one, hopefully, we can put a bit more design into it. So we don’t go off at a tangent and then we can produce the best material at the start.’
‘How was Technician Ted programmed?’
‘It was all done on the Spectrum. The graphics drawings aids are all our own programs, we assembled our own toolkit which we’ll probably use again. I think digitising it would be better for graphics but on this particular game we worked completely on the keyboard.’
Andrew added, ‘He takes a sheet for a routine and then the routine is written out on that sheet and the interface is at the top, you know, what it’s got to do, and then all that goes into a folder. Whereas Steve Turner is all hex, I don’t know how he does it. Most of it’s carried up here,’ he said, tapping his head wonderingly.
Steve drew out a long slim sheet of paper and waved it tantalisingly at me. ‘We’ve got the solution to the game worked out, here it is.’
Refused permission to see the top secret document, I asked Andrew about playing tips.
‘It’s very difficult really. What we’ve done in the instructions is that we’ve actually told them the first three tasks are in a certain area to get them going, because there is a definite threshold that people have to get over — not the real aficionados, but you’re not selling tied to them, you’re selling to everyone and you want everyone to get going. With Avalon we’ve dribbled out bits here and there. We had two sorts of people, those who couldn’t get off the first level, and those who were so far on we thought, My God, we didn’t expect this, not so quickly.’
Talking of Steve Turner, I asked Andrew how the follow up to Avalon was coming along. It’s called The Dragontorc of Avalon.
‘Dragontorc? Yes it’s coming along quite well. I’ve got a couple of screen shots here. As you can see it’s mostly developments isn’t it? No doors this time, instead you have stone circles and trees coming in. In a sense it’s Avalon Mk II — there’s Maroc sitting in the middle and there’s other characters. He’s still got his servant spell, and you’re going to be given a few other spells to begin with. And this time the scenario is set rather later on. It follows on from Avalon, but you’ve got to reunite the five crowns of Britain. The enemy this time is Morag the Shape Shifter. It should hit the streets about March the 1st — that’s the target date, but we’ll see,’ Andrew added with a hopeful shrug.