Don Priestly wrote the weird and wonderful Trapdoor. He also wrote Minder, Popeye, and a few other games which you’ve probably never heard of, but which were classics in their time. BILL SCOLDING talks to him, and travels back to the future
LOOK. There’s this big blue furry monster called Berk, and he lives in a castle. He spends his time feeding ’im upstairs, and trundles around his dank and gloomy kitchen collecting the fried slimeys or worms or squashed eyeballs that his master demands. And there’s a large trapdoor covering a subterranean zone where nasties of every shape and size lurk. Berk doesn’t get on too well with some of these.
It sounds exactly like some of those cute little games which featured stunted animals climbing up and down levels and ladders, and which sank without trace about two years ago. The kind of game which now gets crucified whenever it inadvisedly raises its cute little head.
Berk, however, didn’t get crucified. Maybe it was something to do with those huge animated sprites, with not a hint of colour clash, smoothly rolling around the screen. Maybe it was the ingenious problems posed, asking you to think laterally as well as logically. And maybe it was just the plot itself, bizarre in the extreme, and the well-rounded character of Berk, with all his endearing clumsiness.
Whatever. Trapdoora, the exploits of Berk, got astounding reviews right across the board, with CRASH almost Smashing it with 88 per cent — surprising enthusiasm for a game which is based on a kids’ TV series, and could be mistaken for an under-fives educational program.
And probably no-one’s more surprised than its author Don Priestley, who’s been cheerfully ignoring lukewarm reviews for the last year or two, all the while refining a graphics style that has become a personal trademark.
Like the games he writes, Don is far removed from the public’s conception of what a programmer should be. Gangly and bearded, he looks like one of those people that hangs around science fiction conventions. He is also, well, old. ‘I have been described in the press as,’ he pauses, ‘a pensioner. Well, I’m not, though I am getting a bit long in the tooth. Not long enough, however, to worry about it.’
Neither is he, as you might imagine, an ageing systems programmer who tinkers with home computers for light relief. Until 1979 Don was a teacher, and he first saw a computer in 1981. It was just about then that Clive Sinclair was beginning to bring technology to the masses, and Don thought that his teenage son ought to learn something about this new science which, as he puts it, ‘was no longer the dabblings of a cracked minority’.
They both enrolled in a night school to acquaint themselves with programming in Pascal, and though his son dropped out after a month, Don stayed on, immersing himself in the abstract delights of developing a life-type program, one of those mathematical puzzles where an organism grows within memory according to a certain set of rules. Don’s subsequent purchase of a ZX81 was simply to convert this program to BASIC.
His first commercial game was the result of delving through the archives of the Lancashire Public Library, where he came across a program called Mugwump. In bar code. He played around with the idea, and it eventually saw the light of day as Damsel and the Beast, bought by Bug Byte, a young company then in its ascendancy. Those of you who are almost as long in the tooth as Don might remember it.
Don now began a brief but fruitful freelance association with Bug Byte, which included the two classic ZX81 games, Dictator and Mazogs. Dictator was the first of the banana republic trading simulations which people went, um, bananas over in those heady days. It was later converted to run on other machines, and is still hailed as a minor masterpiece.
For those unfamiliar with the ZX81, it is perhaps difficult to see why Mazogs created the stir that it did, back in June ’82. Don explains; ‘I was trying to get away from all those games which revolved around a dollar sign being chased by an asterisk. Mazogs featured large mobile sprites in a solid maze, all constructed using Sinclair’s sugar cube graphics. It was my first game which got itself a full page ad. Bug Byte went over the top on that one...’ The game was later converted to the Spectrum, and retitled Maziacs, published by DK’Tronics.
The days of the ZX81 were numbered now, with everyone going do-lally over the Spectrum, and Don joined DK’Tronics as a director, in March 1983, where he stayed for over a year, writing 3D Spawn of Evil — ‘too smart for its own good’ — a ‘bog-standard’ Meteoroids, and 3D Tanx.
‘3D Tanx was one of the most successful games ever written,’ says Don. ‘It sold at high levels consistently over nearly 15 months, averaging about 5,000 a month. Levels unheard of now,’ he adds, ruefully.
And then there was Jumbly. Remember Jumbly? Of course you don’t. It was a sliding puzzle game, and even now Don still thinks of it with a sense of achievement. He remembers a letter in a magazine which went something like: ‘Dear Ed, I’ve been playing Jumbly for three years and I’ve only completed five of the pictures... ’ ‘At least one person got value for money,’ Don laughs. ‘I really thought it was good, but puzzle games are not too acceptable to the public, and it didn’t do very well.’
Which brings us on to Minder.
A game based on the most popular TV series since Coronation Street should have been a record-breaking hit. It wasn’t. Minder landed like a blue whale dropped from eight miles high. A resounding flop.
Here’s what one CRASH reviewer said about it, in June ’85: ‘I was disappointed. I found it difficult to get on with... Time-consuming and annoying... A tenner’s a bit steep, ain’t it?’ So, what went wrong?
‘It got out of hand, there were too many things going wrong — in fact, the game was written twice.’ Don elaborates, ‘The whole structure of the game was built on sand, not rock. Short of tearing it down and replacing the foundations, there wasn’t much I could do about it.’
As TV spin-offs go, though, Minder wasn’t too awful. Unlike many other games written around licensed titles, bearing little or no relation to the source material, Minder ambitiously attempted to translate typical plot, character likenesses and even language from the TV to the computer screen.
Don laughs again. ‘That’s fair praise. I was pleased with the format of the game, but I can also see what it should have been. The trouble is, a game like that really needs artificial intelligence, and I don’t believe in AI. In order to get a machine to have AI you have to define intelligence, and that’s rather like defining mood or personality.’
Don’s next program for DK’Tronics was another licence — Popeye — and suddenly it looked like the company had a chart-topper on its hands. Certainly, it woke up a few comatose games reviewers who’d fallen asleep over Roland’s Rat Race, another TV-am spin-off.
The first thing reviewers noticed about Popeye — in fact, its main attraction — were the colossal graphics. Here’s another CRASH reviewer, getting excited: ‘For the first time masses of colour have been used and with no colour clash. I’ve never seen anything like it ... A very well finished game that proves even the impossible can be done with a clever bit of programming. Brilliant! Buy it to believe it.’ Not surprisingly, it got a CRASH Smash.
The game had been a long time coming, though, and more ads for it appeared in the twelve months previous to its release than after. Don fills in the background: ‘a version of Popeye had been already written by A N Other, and it was duff — a platform and ladders game. I was asked to do it again.
‘The graphics happened by chance. The licensors, King Features — were at pains to point out that any game had to include fair representations of the central cartoon characters, so I sat down with a large grid and came up with a figure of Popeye which was seven characters high and six wide — 42 characters to move for each frame!
‘I nearly abandoned it then. It was just too big! What could I do with it? The game really developed in the way it did because the figures were so big. I found the reviews pleasantly surprising. Unfortunately, DK had lost interest in software by this time and the bottom had fallen out of the market. They were ready enough to offer it to Macmillan.
Despite the ecstatic reviews, Popeye soon vanished from sight, to resurface recently in versions for the Amstrad and Commodore. By this time Don had left DK’Tronics, though he was to write one more game for them, Benny Hill’s Madcap Chase. ‘But I don’t want to talk about that,’ grunts Don. Why not? ‘The less said about Benny Hill the better.’ Do you think it fails as a game or as a TV spin-off? Don pauses, ‘Yes’.
With Trapdoor, Don’s latest game on the new Macmillan label — it looks as if he might, at last, have that elusive best-seller. It’s yet another computer game based around a TV series, though in this case it’s a series which has yet to appear, so if the game sells well now then it is doing so entirely on its own merits.
With three other TV titles under his belt, is Don getting a reputation for specialising in this field? ‘Well, I’ll have a reputation so long as I don’t do too many Benny Hills. But yes, I suppose so, and I think Trapdoor will enhance that reputation.’
Converting successful formulae from one medium to another has its own advantages and disadvantages. Often Don is given a video to watch, and then he spends the next few weeks just walking around thinking about how best to capture the spirit of the programme in a computer game. Sometimes it’s easier than others. ‘The main character in Trapdoor was given to me on a plate. Berk was large, easy to draw, and best of all, he’s entirely blue. He’s almost exactly like the TV character. All the other monsters are mostly my own design.
‘But the trouble with TV series is that they’re essentially narrative, whereas arcade games are not. The end of a game is not an end, but a level of attainment. What I do is convert from narrative to competitive.’
Programming is an essentially lonely occupation, and Don spends much of his time shut away in the study of his Mortlake flat, often for 48 hours at a stretch, while the trains and planes pass noisily around and above him. ‘It’s a bit like being a novelist — you just have to get your head down and get on with it. Thank God, I still consider it a paid hobby.
‘What drives me on is the mystery element — will this program work? Is it going to appeal? Will it be too easy, too difficult? I don’t work from storyboards, but instead constantly change things while I’m programming. If you plan something from beginning to end then you fall into the trap of doing the same thing again and again — like Agatha Christie or Barbara Cartland.’
Don regards himself as a storyteller; dreaming up ideas. He maintains that he knows very little about the technical side of computers — ‘all that’s a big hassle to me’ — and remembers reading articles about using interrupts and thinking ‘What are these interrupts? Why does everybody keep talking about them?’
This results in a rigid technical censorship, and to overcome it, Don usually approaches other people. The music on Trapdoor was done by someone else, and all Don’s protection routines are programmed by someone who then sends back a master-maker. He relies on a small clan of young users, who he’s come to know over the years, to test and criticise his games. ‘At the PCW show two more were recruited — they came up and asked for my autograph!’
Don’s next game for Piranha is, for once, not a licensed TV tie-in, though it does include some characters which will be instantly recogniseable. Apparently the screen presentation is unusual, but he’s unwilling to divulge any further details.
For all his technical shortcomings and advancing years, Don Priestley is a walking microcosm of the ever-changing software industry. His career spans the monochrome days of the limited but lovable ZX81, right through to the technicolour glory of today’s bigger, cheaper, games machines. That he has survived, and produced both classic and innovative programs into the bargain, is a continual credit to his willingness to accept and overcome each new challenge.
Long may your teeth continue to grow, Don.