Matthew Smith struck gold with Manic Miner. Chris Bourne beards him in his jet-set pit.
THE RECEPTION area is stylish. Sofas which engulf anybody foolhardy enough to sit upon them. Muted prints of Parisian posters. A small pile of neatly stacked brown paper parcels. Clean carpets. No empty gin bottles.
Matthew Smith, the creator of Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, seems light years away. All is order and calm. Where are the chaotic by-products of the mind which created the animated toilet seats, the pirouetting rabbits, the eternal off-licence or the kangaroo above The Vat. The madness is here, somewhere, beneath the surface. But where?
Alan Maton enters, tall and nervous, always in motion. He is the managing director of Software Projects, if such titles have meaning. His looks are faintly reminiscent of a youthful Jimmy Hill. He does not look like a managing director. Inside his office, chaos begins to surface. It is the usual office chaos of overflowing desks and not enough ashtrays.
"It's not a smokeless zone" says Alan. "I don't think it's even a nuclearfree zone. There should be an ashtray somewhere . "
Alan hunts for an ashtray. The coffee machine supplies a substitute in the form of a plastic cup. The coffee machine claims to be unable to produce coffee. "It's lying" says Alan. "How many sugars?"
Alan produces a cassette of Jet Set Willy for the Commodore 64, a new conversion of the program. The latest Software Projects cassettes are manufactured in blue plastic. "Nobody else does them" says Alan. "You have to get them ordered specially." The idea is to prevent piracy of the commercial sort which passes off duplicated cassettes under similar packaging to the original product. Alan rummages about for the finished product. Even the transparent section of tape at the beginning of the cassette has the magic words printed there. You may gather that Software Projects takes piracy seriously.
Alan's sense of humour becomes more overt as the conversation continues. Liverpool people are notorious for their sense of humour. It is a process of acclimatisation, of course. If reporters were directly confronted with Matthew Smith there might be trouble. Eventually, Alan decides that the time has come. "Let's go and see if they've cleaned the straw out of Matthew's cage" he says.
Matthew Smith lives in the zoo, along with the seven other contract programmers employed by Software Projects. The zoo is an area of the building set aside for the programmers. It is not at all plush, quite unlike the reception area. To reach it you must climb a concrete staircase, and then wait for someone to unlock the door. Alan has a key, of course. The animals respect him.
If Alan is the Head Keeper, Matthew is the star exhibit, the money-spinner. He looks up from a conversation with two other inmates as Alan approaches. Alan explains about the interview.
'Do you want to do the interview?' asks Alan.
'No' says Matthew, tossing back his head and laughing, his long black hair rearranging itself to hang down in the new position. He doesn't really mean it.
Matthew was born in Penge, in Surrey, that butt of a hundred jokes about suburban life. When he was seven his family moved to Wallasey. He attended the local comprehensive, Mosslands on the Marsh. He learned nothing about computers, and left at sixteen.
His first computer was a Christmas present in 1979, when he was a mere stripling of twelve or thirteen. "It was a 4K TRS-80. I had been asking for one every day for six months, because I wanted to take it to bits to find out how it worked. I was very into electronics."
Truth to tell, he looks today as if he was once into electronics. His lank hair hangs down to his collarbone. He wears a white, evidently drip-dry, nylon shirt and indeterminate trousers. He has no socks, just a pair of heavy sandals. He is clearly a one-time electrician. Or an off-duty journalist.
"I didn't take it to bits because it already worked quite well," says Matthew. "I learned Level One Basic on it, which was no use for anything at all. I started learning machine code. It was tough. There were virtually no books at all, except a really heavy one by Rodney Zaks."
Having discovered the delights of Level One 'Useless' Basic he gave up writing arcade games. "It was two years before I got anything out of it. The first games were shoot-em-up games. That was what everybody played then."
The break came in a shop. The local Tandy shop played host to teenagers on a Saturday morning in those days, encouraging them to come in and program or play with the computers. It was fun for the kids, and good publicity for Tandy, who could demonstrate that 'even' children could program their machines.
"People say software houses in Liverpool are to do with unemployment,'' says Alan. "It's not true. It's to do with people. Like the Tandy store, and Micro-Digital, getting people in there hacking away. Without them there wouldn't have been much in the Liverpool area."
Liverpool is indeed a sort of Silicon Valley of software houses, with Software Projects, Bug-Byte, the now defunct Imagine, Voyager and even personnel from companies not based in Liverpool, such as Ocean Software. Hit Squad readers will be familiar with Steve Kelly, Chris Urquart and Mike Singleton, all Liverpudlians.
Matthew knew a friend who frequented the Tandy shop, Chris Cannon, now a Software Projects programmer. Chris Cannon knew Eugene Evans, who was writing programs for Bug-Byte. Eugene was later to become the star programme at Imagine.
"Chris managed to con one of the new-fangled Spectrums out of BugByte," says Matthew who, unable to afford a Spectrum, asked for one on loan too and said he would write a game. He showed the company what he had done on the TRS 80 and was offered a freelance contract for three games. The first was Styx.
"Trouble was, I ran out of memory halfway through. It was only a 16K Spectrum. That's why there are lots of empty gaps in the game. It was a shoot-em-up game loosely based on Tutankhamun. I wrote it on the Tandy for the Spectrum, and wrote a routine to make a Spectrum read Tandy tapes. I kept dreaming of a disc drive."
Thus the Manic Miner legend was born. Alan Maton, then despatch manager for Bug-Byte, wanted a game similar in concept to Donkey Kong, which had been an enormous success in amusement arcades. Matthew suggested a game with eight or maybe even 16 screens. Such an arcade game had not been attempted before, not with fixed layout screens. "The name was Alan's," says Matthew. "Eugene said 'I don't think it will work,' which proves what he knows."
Yes. Sick. Matthew's games are distinctive for their sense of humour. "It started with a skit on Eugene Evans," says Matthew, reclining on his yellow foam mattress and smiling benevolently at the thought of Eugene. "The animated toilet seats were my little brother's idea. He wanted toilet seats in the game." Anthony Smith was three at the time.
Matthew's modesty is disturbing. Is that all there is to it, a few ideas borrowed from elsewhere? "No. I was fed up with little green monsters."
Alan decided to leave Bug Byte and set up on his own account. For six weeks he ran Acme, part of the Creative Technology Group set up by Imagine overlord Bruce Everiss. He still receives letters from lawyers as to who owned what and who was paid what. "I was only there for six weeks," moans Alan, plaintively.
Matthew also wanted to leave Bug Byte. According to him, there was a small matter of royalties owing. "I would have been quite happy to leave Manic Miner with them but they bent the contract," he says. Alan explains. "The royalties were to be paid for the duplication of cassettes, not their sale. The contract was only a few sentences. They were almost verbal agreements in those days."
"They ran up a huge debt," says Matthew. "It was £25,000 at one time. I kept asking for some of it. Whenever I called in they either fobbed me off or refused to see me. Eventually we agreed to cancel the agreement. I had sold Styx to them but they only had a licence to produce Manic Miner, which I cancelled."
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the business, and business in Liverpool certainly seems unnecessarily complicated, Smith joined up with Alan Maton and his wife Soo to found Software Projects. Liverpool entrepreneur Tommy Barton joined them and later Colin Stokes moved over from Imagine, following the notorious bugging incident in which his telephone was tapped.
Alan is anxious to dispel ideas that Liverpool is a sort of Silicon Dallas. "It's a very friendly industry. There are no hard feelings between me and Tony Badon at Bug Byte, for instance. As a matter of fact, we're having a meal together. We're good friends."
Matthew settles back and talks about Jet Set Willy. Jet Set Willy is said to be the biggest selling computer game in Britain. Work on Jet Set Willy began even before Matthew had left Bug-Byte. He does not like giving away many of his programming secrets, but it will be a surprise to some to learn that the music, which plays continuously throughout the game, does not use an interrupt.
"The first instruction in the program is 'disable all interrupts' " he claims. "It's just move-a-tiny-little-bit, BEEP-a-tiny-little-bit. Have you noticed, the more lives you lose, the worse the music gets?" Few will have noticed. The music is unutterably disgusting anyway, a maniac, stunted version of If I Were A Rich Man, even worse than the original.
Bugs include the double score for some of the objects and the major problem which relocates quantities of monsters after a player has passed through the Attic. Software Projects originally announced that this was a deliberate ploy to make the return journey through the house much more difficult. "Great, isn't it?" grins Alan. "There's no such thing as a bug in a game."
The humour became wilder. Some of the names for the rooms are obscure to the point of perversity. Was it true that 'We must perform a Quirkafleeg' derives from a cartoon in that comic beloved of hippies, The Furry Freak Brothers? "Yes" says Matthew. "I've been reading those comics for years, Furry Freak, and Fat Freddy's Cat. So does Alan."
"You told me it was a Norwegian Folk Dance," says Alan, accusingly. He does an impression of a massage from the Swedish Prime Minister.
It is indeed the zoo, and no matter how involved the conversation becomes one is inescapably drawn back to it. Some people never leave the zoo. Stuart Fotheringham, a punkish leather'n'studs programmer, has not been home for days. "They know their job's on the line," says Alan. "People see everybody wandering around and think, they're idle. But as long as they produce a program, we don't care how they do it. Some of them sleep here. Come on, Stuart, when did you last go home?"
Stuart considers. "Saturday," he says, uncertainly. Today is Tuesday. "They've all got keys," says Alan. "I haven't got a key," says Matthew. "Well go and get one," says Alan. Matthew snorts.
Rumours abound that the next game is Willy Meets the Taxman with Willy forced to pay up for his Jet Set Willy lifestyle. No decisions have been taken, says Alan. Certainly the new game will be based around the further exploits of Willy. Matthew wants to have a hardware-based game, involving some sort of extra ROM chip which could be used for programming applications as well as forming an integral part of the new game.
In the meantime the company is releasing a new game, Lode Runner, for the Spectrum. It will be another levels and ladders game but with the facility to design your own screens as well as use the ones provided. The graphics are clear but simple, with blocks to be collected and white ladders connecting layers of brickwork. Alan explains how wonderful the game is. It is being marketed under licence from Broederbond, an American software house which has had a great success with the game.
For most people, however, the success of Software Projects centres around Matthew and his unorthodox imagination. He is now the most famous programmer in the country, the embodiment of the otherwise spurious myth of the schoolboy millionaire. What does it feel like to be a cult? "A what?" frowns Matthew. "Am I? You only become a star when people ask for your autograph."
"They do," Alan informs him. "They ask for signed posters." Matthew pretends to look puzzled. "I forge your signature," explains Alan, helpfully. "I try not to be conscious of it" says Matthew, self-consciously, eyes glued to the table. "Stardom doesn't really appeal. Too much hassle. I happen to be doing something that sells well. Anything that is really interesting to do should make money."
Alan explains his ideal game is something like MUD, the Essex University Multi-User Dungeon in which many players can participate simultaneously and interact. Matthew says he thinks we are approaching the sort of game he would like to write. "It won't be written on the Spectrum first," he says. "We'll get someone to convert it."
Matthew's lifestyle is experimental. Alan says Matthew has discovered the sixties. "I don't do a lot" says Matthew. "Computing was my only hobby but I don't do that any more. I like partying, getting drunk and falling over a lot." He explains how he went to a nightclub recently dressed in a toga, 'as an experiment'. "Will they let you back again?" says Alan. "Not in a toga," says Matthew darkly.
Unlike many programmers, Matthew is still a fan of computer games. "If I had to be shut in a room with one Spectrum tape it would have to be Atic Atac" he says. "It's closer to what Jet Set Willy should have been than Jet Set Willy as it is." Unusually, Matthew does not entirely approve of games, although he plays and makes a living from them. "I think it is harmful playing games - as well as writing them. Computers are going to have to stop giving out gamma radiation, keyboards have to go. Computers should be totally adaptable machines. I can see them being used - well, in a toothbrush, to keep the bristles at the right angle."
Matthew expands on his view of the future. "Things get hairy when we get machines which are more intelligent than us," he says. "I keep going on to Alan and Tommy when they are planning to take over the world. I want to lead a simple life. I think a lot of people do. The world can't sustain itself. The time comes when we can't all be comfortable and happy and warm and fed. We have to blow ourselves up or find a way of being contented. There is not enough land. True communists are people who live in communes, villages, tribes. I'd like to live like that, but always with the communications we've got. There should be an end to cities. Cities should have walls around them to keep the city in."
Matthew contrasts himself with that other star programmer, Jeff Minter, whose Grid Wars series for Commodore machines rapidly achieved cult status. "What I don't like about Minter games is they're not a simulation of any kind of real problem. I'm not into simulated violence. It's not really that much fun . "
Minter claims Matthew's games are boring because there is a single route to success. "The single route doesn't present new problems," says Matthew, "but one fixed problem allows it to be a real scorcher. It's bad to encourage violence . " What about the foot that crushes Willy if he loses? Is that a violent image? "No" says Matthew, firmly. "The foot is comedy. Comedy is important to negate violence."
Matthew returns to his work, and we take our leave of the zoo. Alan telephones for a cab. The coffee machine produces one last cup of murky instant. Alan answers a call. "No," he says, "there's nobody here. You'll have to call again in the morning.". "I have to be my own security guard," he jokes, replacing the receiver. "Here's the cab. It should only take fifteen minutes to the station. Nice to have met you. Goodbye."
Sinclair User, December 1984
Matthew Smith's Softography:
Styx (Spectrum) - Bug-Byte, 1983
Manic Miner (Spectrum) - Bug-Byte, Software Projects, 1983
Jet Set Willy (Spectrum) - Software Projects, 1984