My life - from an 80s bedroom coder to now

My earliest memory of playing games is on one of those old games consoles that had a shed load of Pong variants on it named after sports like basketball, Football, Tennis, etc. I started making games back in 1982/83.

A lifelong story of games and coding - by Pete Ainsworth

My parents bought me a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas when I was 8 years old. Being a poor family I couldn't get many games out of it and would often have to type them in from magazine listings.

During the summer holidays I was bored and you can only play Mazog's so many times, so I decided to pull out the ZX81 BASIC Programing book by Steven Vickers, that came with the computer, and I began working my way through it.

Invadrz

I already had some understanding of the code from typing in listings from magazines and learned that I could tinker with the code to get it to do different things.

I completed my first game with some trial and error and some help from my dad. It was a fairly simple Space Invaders clone called Invadr and it used ASCII symbols to represent the graphics.

My Dad mananged to persuade a friend of his who owned a computer shop in Manchester to sell it for us, and that was my first foray into making games. The next few games were fairly simple arcade affairs, still using ASCII because I'd not mastered graphics yet, and I sent them into Sinclair User and made £25 on each one. I carried on like this for a while, until my game making came to an abrupt halt. We kept the ZX81 in my bedroom. But my older brother was going through a phase of listening to loud music in his room and I found it hard to concentrate. I decided to move the computer into the dining room where I could concentrate better.

Rather foolishly, instead of boxing up the ZX81 and taking it down the stairs safely, I took the cassette deck, power supply and wires down in a bundle, then came upstairs and tried to carry my chair downstairs with the ZX81 sitting on the seat. Being a wooden chair and a bit shiny, the poor ZX81 slid off about half way down and fell to its demise. Needless to say my Dad wasn't impressed.

To replace the ZX81 my parents got me an Atari 2600, with the express orders that it stayed in the living room. However, I didn't really get that much into the 2600. The North American games market had crashed, and this meant that Atari games were hard to get hold of, because nobody was importing, and those shops that did have them were selling them at ridiculous prices. I did get to play the excellent Star Raiders and Empire Strikes Back on it, which I borrowed off my cousin, and I also got to play ET and Pac-Man *ahem*. I don't actually know what became of the 2600. I think I simply just stopped playing with it and it got left behind when we moved.

Screenshot C64

I was 13 when my Dad bought me my all time favourite computer ever, the Commodore 64. It was my birthday and I'd just come home from school. He told me and my mum he was going out and an hour later he game back with a huge black bag and a cardboard box. The bag contained the C64, boxed and with instructions, and the box contained 150 games, including Pit Stop 2, Impossible Mission, Sky Fox, Wanted Monty Mole, Zoids, and loads more. I could play games again, and they were more available, and I could make games again.

Screenshot1

I quickly re-aquainted myself with BASIC (which was the same but ever so slghtly different on the C64 as opposed to the ZX81.. If that makes sense) and also learned how to work in machine code. I produced a few games for it that my Dad sold through a mail order company that he'd set up and we were doing really well. The biggest sellers were Blastermax and Cybertonoid.

Screenshot4

Now you may be wondering why at this point I'd not approached a publisher? I had Ocean Software just down the road from me, but I was sticking with my dad and just doing the mail order stuff. Eventually, though, the mail order business started to dry up. I think it was due to more computer games shops opeing up in Manchester.

By this point we had Microbyte and The Computer Shop, Game had just opened, Toy and Hobby and Beatties were stocking games, and so were some supermarkets like Morrisons. Things were looking grim, so we started doing the computer fairs.

Screenshot2

Doing the fairs was great! I even got to occasionally bump into people like Kevin Toms, Jeff Minter, and a few others. But we couldn't really travel too far afield and often stayed in the Greater Manchester area.

I sold the Commodore 64 in 1992 to buy a Sega Megadrive. I liked the Megadrive but, like the Atari 2600, I couldn't program on it and part exchanged it a year later for a brand new Commodore Amiga 500+. I loved the Amiga almost as much as the C64 and quickly started to get to grips with making games with it. I designed an ancient Rome strategy game called Legionus, and I was really looking to get this one published.

So I went to Ocean, who told me that they were looking for teams of developers and weren't that itnerested in kids working alone anymore. So I tried Codemasters and US Gold and got a similar story.

It seems that while I'd been busy messing around with mail order, the rest of the world had jumped ahead and, now that I wanted to get a game published, the chance had passed.

I tried to follow jeff Minter's lead and go down the shareware route, but I became disillusioned and quit making games in 1994. I got a job in a small second hand shop (among other jobs I've done including acting) called Mikes Old & New. The owner, Mike, was interested in computers and often sold second hand ZX Spectrums, Commodore 64s, Amigas, Mega drives, SNES's...

You name it and he'd probably sold it at one time or another. I bought my first PC off him, an IBM 100mhz PC with 8MB RAM and a 1MB graphics card. I actually didn't like the PC, though, because I preferred the Amiga.

However, Commodore had gone bankrupt and things were moving on. I sold the PC in the end to buy a Playstation. Incidentally, Mike had gone to school with and was friends with Phillip Allsopp, of Digital Image Design fame, and he'd often visit the shop. Phil and I hit it off right away, and we often tallked about games and computers. I still don't know to this day why I never tried to tap him up for a job. Another example of me being a bit slow off the mark I guess. Sadly, Mike retired and moved to Cyprus and I've not seen Phil for a number of years. In 2014, I started again.

The rise of the indie scene has really opened the door for small developers and I started a small studio called BritBitGames. Sadly my Dad is no long with us and I'm having to do all the business stuff myself (which is new).

At the moment I'm making retro styled 2d games that are excercises towards working on bigger projects. These early games I'm releasing for free on itch.io and I even made an updated version of my very first game Invadr, with a few changes. The industry has changed a lot and it's now a lot harder to get noticed than it was in the 80's, but I'm enjoying what I do and have no idea what the future holds. It's going to be fun finding out.

A cool development that happened recently was while I was viewing Clive Townsend's new Saboteur Facebook page. He was talking about redesigning some of the graphics in-game and I said that I could do that (rather foolishly the words I used were "I can do that easy!"). I didn't think I'd get a reply and was pleasantly surpised, when I logged back in a few hours later, that Clive had messaged me asking what I could do.

Saboteur 2000 Bbg

This led to me working on the environment graphics for the unlockable Commodore Amiga mode of Clive's Saboteur re-release for iOS and Android as well as contributing a new logo and a gameplay trailer.

Saboteur Returns Trailer:

Working on the griaphics for Saboteur actually turned out to be a bit harder than I was expecting, so it took me slightly longer than I thought it would.

However, I'm happy with the results and you can see the finished graphics in the new version of the game at Clive's website www.clivetownsend.com

So, that's me in a nutshell. A sort of tiny blip on the 1980's bedroom coder radar.

Article by Pete Ainsworth

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