Steve Taylor treks from the land of Fosters to talk to LEE PADDON about kangaroos and computers. Meanwhile Mastertronic snaps up Melbourne House and a strangely sober MINSON investigates.
“I’d like to see games where you can create a world then see how it develops — especially if other people are competing with you.”
When Steve Taylor, wizard of Oz programmer responsible for many of Melbourne House’s recent Spectrum games, decides on a holiday he doesn’t do things by halves. His mammoth trek will take in most of the world, but the first stop after the flight from down under had to be... CRASH Towers! Naturally he was met at Ludlow International Airport by Lee Paddon, eager for an interview with the jet-lagged traveller.
But things happen fast in the software world. No sooner had Steve said, ‘Well, I hear there’s one or two other things I should see in England, apart from the inside of this pub,’ and Waltzing Matilda-ed away, than news came through that Mastertronic had bought the British end of the Australian company.
Luckily the connection with Beam Software, Melbourne House’s programming wing, remains. So while I donned my investigative hat to find out just what the takeover means, Lee pounded away, typing up his investigations into the Spectrum scene on the other side of the world.
‘Home computing amongst the young, isn’t such a big thing over there’, Steve had confessed. ‘There are a lot of Commodores, a few Amstrads, but virtually no Spectrums.’ What, you cry, we must start a collection to help these poor, deprived cobbers. But there’s worse to come. The size of the country and lack of computer magazines means there’s not the same excitement over new releases, and top arcade conversions can go by almost unnoticed.
The Australians suffer similar shortages when it comes to home grown software. There’s a small firm in Sydney, churning out strategy games, but that’s it..., apart from Melbourne House, which finds itself in the enviable position of having no real competition.
The company consists of several divisions. As well as Beam there’s Arcade Machine, which is dedicated to the noble cause of producing top-rate shoot ’em ups: Bazooka Bill has just blasted his way out of their offices and into British shops. Keeping It all under control is Fred Milgrom, who not only owns the company, along with his wife, Judy, but is also head of program development.
Fred had the pick of Australian computer talent when it came to recruiting Beam’s staff of 25 programmers, which makes it the biggest programming team outside Japan and the US. They work together in groups of four or five, taking responsibility for a game from start to finish.
Steve Taylor first came to Beam while studying Computer Science at Melbourne University. Though the mainframes were meant for more academic pursuits, Melbourne students relaxed by playing Rogue, a non-graphic, non-realtime adventure set in a huge and complex labyrinth, inhabited by monsters who have special powers and individual patterns of behaviour. While some of them may be out-and-out cowards, others can be sneaky and vicious.
Eventually the time came to say goodbye to the halls of learning — and to Rogue! — and Steve joined Melbourne House full-time. His first project will bring a murmur of recognition from Spectrum veterans — it was Horace to the Rescue. Unluckily this missing episode from the life of the small, blue hero was never completed because the project leader suffered a collapsed lung.
Steve’s next work did appear though, and with all apologies to Horace fans, it proved a much more exciting debut. Way of the Exploding Fist needs no introduction, and helped establish Steve as a conversion programmer. Next came Rock ’n’ Wrestle, a slightly controversial release, but the teletext style graphics didn’t stop Steve getting typecast as Beam’s Spectrum graphics man.
Just before he left Australia to see the world (and Ludlow) Steve had been working on Fist II. ‘I’ve finished my bit — the graphics. Now it’s just a question of putting in all the plot and checking the game play. I think that the graphics are an improvement on Fist with larger characters and more frames of animation, and I think they’re better drawn.’ Steve also worked on the database unpacking and the scrolling as well as the sprites — versatile fellow!
The popularity of the ‘serious’ micros down under means that Steve’s personal fave games include an Apple II title, Robot War. In this each player programs a robot, taking into account factors such as collision and damage detection. These android champions then do battle against each other, the smartest program producing a winner.
‘My friends and I would have great fun writing programs and testing them out against each other,’ Steve recalls. ‘That was the great thing. It was effectively a game with as many players as you like. One program would emerge as a front runner, then somebody else would come up with a program that could beat it, and so it went on.
‘It wasn’t particularly well presented,’ he adds, ‘but that idea, if it was worked on for a bit could turn into something really interesting. It’s certainly the sort of game I’d like to play. It’s rather like the craze for Life games, where you set up a colony and see what happens. I’d like to see games where you can create a world then see how it develops — especially if other people are competing with you. It’s one of the few really promising areas left, where there might be some interesting, unexplored ideas.’
Given this emphasis on strategy and depth, it should come as no surprise that Steve is also an Elite addict. ‘I think that is just about the ideal sort of game, It introduces strategy in a really subtle way. So subtly that the average arcade freak doesn’t realise he’s playing a strategy game. If he likes he can just hang around outside a station and blast the cops.’
A mention of Starion, which came from Melbourne House’s British arm, is met with similar enthusiasm. ‘The arcade sequence was far better than Elite, but the plot mapped round it was rather silly. Solving crosstix made a nice rest from all the frantic blasting, but it didn’t add to the atmosphere. You just weren’t fooled for a minute.’
But his choice of software, and a fondness for Empires of the Middle Ages, a leadership boardgame, don’t mark down Steve as an out and out strategy freak. At Bondi Beach he’s less likely to be sunning himself amongst the surfers than in the shade of an amusement arcade, playing Rampage.
In Rampage you take the part of Godzilla, tearing down buildings and picking up pretty girls — literally! ‘All the things you’ll find in a really bad Japanese monster movie are there,’ Steve chuckles. He also retains a nostalgic fondness for that ancient smash, Battlezone. ‘There are still a few machines lurking in corners of amusement arcades and I still find them hard to resist.’
When we asked Steve to gaze into his crystal ball, he voiced the desire of many programmers, to see a move from 8 bit, 64K machines. This was just before news of the Plus 3, with its disk drive, leaked from Fort Amstrad, but that’s sure to please him.
“I wouldn’t say that there are no good ideas left on the 8 bit machines, because every time somebody does say that, somebody else comes up with something to prove them wrong.”
‘Having more memory allows you not only to put more plot into a game. You can also get smoother animation, by using more frames, and you don’t have to spend most of your time writing data compression routines. You can also use faster buffers, and so make the game run faster.’
Of course, future developments will eventually depend on what sort of game is considered commercially viable, but Steve remains hopeful. ‘I wouldn’t say that there are no good ideas left on the 8 bit machines, because every time somebody does say that, somebody else comes up with something to prove them wrong. But,’ he adds, ‘I do think that great new games are going to be few and far between. We’ll see a lot of variations on the same old themes.’
With that, Steve downed his pint and, stopping only to ask directions to ‘Europe’ from a passing Ludlovian, started his holiday proper. Nobody suspected that business deals taking place between Australia and the East End of London would mean a change in ownership for Melbourne House, UK.
“Melbourne House will retain its own identity. We will be raising the company profile and ensuring that the product is as exciting as possible, but it will remain a separate entity from Mastertronic.”
There’s a neat twist to all of this. Geoff Heath left Melbourne House to join Mastertronic. Now he’s to be reunited with many of his old colleagues.
Geoff is keen to emphasise that, ‘Melbourne House will retain its own identity. We will be raising the company profile and ensuring that the product is as exciting as possible, but it will remain a separate entity from Mastertronic. It won’t be producing budget titles, and Mastertronic won’t be going full price. It has a terrific reputation, and we intend to keep it that way.’
But there is one rather sad change. Though Melbourne House will retain most of its editorial and marketing staff, it looks certain that they will be leaving their delightful HQ in leafy Hampton Wick for Mastertronic’s offices, which lie in a rather dingy City sidestreet. However there could be a stay of execution on this move.
With all the Mastertronic labels, Bulldog, the new Mastersounds record label and Mastervision videos, and the Arcadia arcade machine specialists in Paul Street, there’s scarcely room for the legendary Mastertronic pinball machine — ‘Which is responsible for keeping us all sane,’ according to Geoff — let alone more staff.
But, apart from the fact that most Melbourne House Spectrum titles will now sell for £7.95, you’re unlikely to notice any other major changes in the near future. The link with Beam Software and the Australian operation will remain for at least the next two years. Products will also continue to be commissioned from British programmers, which includes Mike Singleton’s Lord of the Rings arcade game.
This is set during the War of the Ring and you control the Fellowship of the Ring, plus the armies of good. Meanwhile the computer controls the evil armies and the independent characters.
According to Melbourne House’s Jane Denning, who had just seen the initial sprites, it looks great, and though it’s officially scheduled for July, is likely to be held back, to take full advantage of the hype and razmatazz generated by September’s PCW show.
Martin Alper, who runs Mastertronic’s American operation, is also very excited about it, Jane told me. One of the benefits of the takeover is that Melbourne House will profit from Mastertronic’s unrivalled distribution. ‘And it will be a lot easier dealing with a head office which is just around the corner, rather than in Australia,’ she added. No more phone calls in the middle of the night!
“Some people seem to think that so long as you put lots of monsters in and lots of shooting, you’ve got a good game.”
So as it’s all change, no change, let the last word go to Steve Taylor, now lost in the depths of Europe. Lee did just manage to ask him about his next project before he escaped from the pub.
It’s an arcade game with a Dungeons and Dragons flavour, Steve told him, based in part on that Melbourne University Unix favourite, Rogue. Steve’s main fear is that it will be mistaken for just another Gauntlet clone. ‘Those games are okay, but rather tedious. There are loads of monsters, but they’re so stupid. They just line up to die. Some people seem to think that so long as you put lots of monsters in and lots of shooting, you’ve got a good game.’
Steve promises a much more strategic program. So keen is he to get down to work that he’s been coding in his own time. Sadly it had to be put to one side when Fist II reached its hectic conclusion, but programming resumes at full speed when Steve returns from the Grand Tour. And who knows, maybe all those Italian drivers or Paris’s sewers will provide inspiration for some new, even more terrifying fiends!