And pigs will fly . . .
Graham Taylor talks to Matthew Smith and Alan Maton of Software Projects
Alan Maton is not merely the only man in Liverpool to wear white shoes, as a sideline he manages Software Projects - home of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy. Between them, the two games have been responsible for more terror, anxiety, adrenaline, insanity and (probably) broken relationships than Crossroads.
Legends abound about the author of the Miner programs, many of them very silly indeed - what sort of mind could it be that conceived of the bouncing, beckoning fat ladies, clockwork penguins, moon faced, slightly famous, computer programmers and flying pigs as appropriate obstacles in a computer game. In fact, on close examination, Matthew Smith proves to be not only humanoid, but apparently, perfectly sane.
The story of how Alan Maton came to form Software Projects, with Matthew Smith as part owner and main programmer is, however, suitably odd. As most people know, Manic Miner was originally issued by Bug-Byte, a well respected software house also based in Liverpool. What may be less obvious was the fact that Software Projects was being set up by Matthew Smith and Alan Maton quite independently from Matthew Smith's work on Manic Miner - they never expected to issue it themselves.
"Everyone thought that we had always planned to take Miner away from Bug-Byte, but it wasn't like that at all,", explained Alan. "The idea of Software Projects had been kicking around for a while."
Alan worked at Bug-Byte, in which capacity he met Matthew, whose first program Styx had been accepted for marketing by the company. The original idea for Manic Miner was Alan's. "The name and the basic idea of a miner collecting objects in a series of caves was mine, but I was thinking of something fairly straight - I had not expected Matthew to come up with cases populated with Penguins, Eugenes, kangaroos, and toilet seats. They aren't your standard aliens after all," he added, slightly ruefully.
To no-one's surprise, Bug-Byte accepted the program and within a month of release it was possibly the most highly regarded Spectrum arcade game ever. Manic Miner was successful for dozens of reasons, but two seem particularly important. Firstly, each screen was carefully designed so that there was only one or perhaps two ways of getting through - one false step and you got the boot. Secondly, it was very funny and proved that obstacles didn't have to look macho and threatening to raise the adrenaline (I shake at David Attenborough wildlife films featuring penguins . . . but maybe I always did). Finding a genuine wit within a game was a revelation.
What, in retrospect, appears obvious may not have always seemed so when first released. Manic Miner was just one program in a batch of several - not especially segregated or differentiated from the rest. Indeed, for a long while it didn't even appear first in the adverts. Needless to say, Matthew was not pleased: "I really didn't feel any sensible attempt at marketing the program was taking place at all - the cover of the cassette was pretty awful too."
A few months after it had been released and was beginning to do really well, Software Projects was ready to be launched as a company. Matthew discovered that a clause in his contract with Bug-Byte enabled him to issue the game himself and take it away from them. "Basically, there was a clause which said that should a game be withdrawn from the market upon written request, it would be returned to the programmer - I don't think anyone had expected that a programmer would withdraw his own game!"
Bug-Byte had sufficient reserves of the game to see them over the Christmas period and only recently have Software Project's copies become the more widely circulated - the two games are the same, but for a few changed graphic shapes.
Technically, Manic Miner did several things supposedly impossible on the Spectrum - flicker free sprites, no colour resolution problems and, in some ways most spectacular of all, continuous sound. I asked Matthew how these were achieved, but anyone hoping for amazing technical innovations will be (somewhat) disappointed.
"The answer to all those problems is simply care. Flicker free sprites are perfectly possible on the Spectrum, if the coding is right. Equally, whilst you can't solve the colour resolution problem, you can ensure that colour conflicts do not occur simply by planning everything carefully."
Worth remembering next time you're looking at flickering, oddly coloured shapes in games. Although Miner showed that continuous sound was possible, few other software houses have risen to the challenge of providing it. "The sound is not difficult to do in terms of complex coding, but working out the tune takes ages - you simply interrupt the action very frequently to send a signal to generate a tone - the skill comes in making it sound like a recognisable tune. I use a little Casio to help me work out the notes."
What about the actual structure of the game? How does Matthew make each screen just possible to do (if Willy stands on his head whilst grabbing a rope and jumping twelve fat ladies)? "The answer is I spend ages and ages working it out - there's no easy solution, I wish there was!"
The only help Matthew does have in the development of his programs is a special macro language which is chiefly concerned with storing the character position of the aliens. "It means that each alien position can be stored in two bytes, so it's very economical on memory."
From the moment the word on Manic Miner went around, people were eagerly anticipating its follow up. In the end, it was well over six months before it arrived. Alan agrees it was late. "Matthew kept saying to me, 'It'll be finished on Monday' - a lot of Mondays came and went. Quite simply, the program grew and grew, Matthew kept adding more and more rooms until, at about 50, I decided we had to stop."
The arrival of Jet Set Willy saw major distributors acting with a lack of their usual decorum - after all, sales of the program were absolutely guaranteed, provided no other shop beat you to it.
Alan remembers the night well when the first copies arrived. "It was a bit like the first bottle of Beaujolais. Everyone went mad trying to rush them into the shops. We had people turning up at our offices all through the night - one guy flew up from London by plane, rushed in with his docket, collected his copies and flew back on the same plane which he had waiting for him." Most people who rushed in to buy several hundred copies were back within the week for more.
Matthew's computer expertise began with a Tandy he had had since 1979. "I taught myself machine code programming using it and now I use a TRS 80 as a development system hooked up to the Spectrum."
He is doubtful about the Spectrum's future. "I really think we've reached just about the end of what's possible on the machine. We have sprites on a machine that doesn't come with any, some attempt at continuous sound when the hardware doesn't allow for it, 16 colours when there are only supposed to be eight, and games nobody would have dreamed you could have fitted into 48K - that's the limit I think."
Matthew sees the games he produces as adventures, which use only three simple commands. "The twists and skills required for Jet Set have much more in common with adventures than arcade games and if you get reasonably competent, an average game could last an hour or more - it's just that there's nothing to type in.
"It's an area I plan to explore more, but not on the Spectrum."
Matthew and Alan are waiting for a clear contender to emerge to replace the Spectrum. "I'm uncertain about the QL. People rave about it, but the 68008 chip is not so far different from the 6809 which is in the Dragon. It might not be good enough, but obviously I'm waiting to see a machine close up - I like the look of the MSX machines and perhaps the new Amstrad."
As to future plans for Software Projects, the most welcome news must be that, like all the best epics, the Willy saga is to be a trilogy. Matthew is understandably reluctant to put a date on part three, but it won't be soon.
What can be revealed is that it will almost certainly be called Willy and the Tax Man and will involve Willy trying to find his way through a maze of inland revenue offices in order to pay his income tax (probably capital gains too, given all that gold he found). However, Matthew promises a series of three games before Christmas. "They'll be basically space games, although with some special features," he added mysteriously.
From Alan's point of view, Software Projects is at an important point. "We need to build up a large range of respected and popular titles. We can't just rely on Matthew - we are developing an in-house programming team, with Matthew acting as sort of overall supervisor and technical advisor. Anything that's good, we'll issue. I don't want us to become just the 'manic miner' software house.' "
Photo and story taken from Popular Computing Weekly, Vol 3, No 14, April 1984.