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Show Us Your Wimpy!
E'lite anything... including the last Wimpy in Walsall. Even as we eat, Rachael Smith is totally out to lunch with Karen and Nigel, the team that signed the Walsall pact to program Ghosts And Goblins...
YS Scan
Rachael Smith
I never knew the Editor hated me so much. 'We need somebody to go to Walsall to interview a couple of programmers,' he said as he tapped his barometer absent-mindedly. 'Rachael!' Which is why I found myself on a train speeding north into an increasingly snowy landscape with the growing realisstion that I wasn't just being sent to Coventry (which is several stops earlier -- Geographical Note) but Siberia itself!
    I arrived at Elite's Aidridge HQ around lunchtime, camera round my neck and tape recorder in my hand. Karen Trueman, the graphics half of the duo was out of the building. But Nigel Alderton, the man responsible for the coding was sitting drinking coffee in front of a row of arcade machines, all looking like the victims of some crazed disembowelling. This violation allows difficulty levels to be set so that the games can be closely analysed in the quest to create accurate, licensed copies. And there, yes, is a Ghosts And Goblins machine, the title the two are currently converting.
    I dragged Nigel off to a side room, sat him firmly in a chair and set up the camera. If this was Siberia, I'd be conducting the interrogation.

    
Nigel Alderton
RJS: What... hey, is this thing working?
Nigel: I think it is now.
RJS: Right -- I'm here in the snowy home of Elite software. (Pause to think of question.) Well -- tell us something about yourself. Hobbies?
Nigel: Hobbies? I play snooker, tennis- mmm -- I do a bit of weight-lifting.
RJS: But nothing to do with computers at all?
Nigel: No. (Laughter)
RJS: How old are you?
Nigel: Nineteen
RJS: And how long have you been programming?
Nigel: Two or three years. (Camera clicks) Do you want a smile?
RJS: No. Just carry on talking. Do you just program for the Spectrum?
Nigel: I've written for the Spectrum and Amstrad so far.
RJS: So you're Z80.
Nigel: Yes.
RJS: How did you get into machine code?
Nigel: I bought a ZX81 first and started messing about on it and bought a book. Then I just sort of messed about on the Spectrum and wrote a game, Chuckle Egg, and that sold. Then I went to work for Ocean -- worked for them for a year in-house. And then I went freelance and I've done Commando for this place.
RJS: Right. So you're totally freelance now?
Nigel: Yeah -- completely freelance.
RJS: So, talking in generalities, how much could you expect to make as a freelance?
Nigel: Anything between three thousand and ten thousand a program. Assuming that program takes three or four months to write, then in theory you could be on forty grand a year, but nobody is. It's almost impossible.
RJS: How does a program happen then? How do you begin converting an arcade machine?
Nigel: Err -- basically, you look at the arcade game -- decide whether it can be done or not on the micro -- then pull it to pieces, analyse it. If it's got a big map, map it out, work out how much memory you're going to need for graphics, how much memory for sprites, how much memory for the program. And just start writing it.
RJS: That makes it sound very simple. (Laughter) Is Ghosts And Goblins going to be a particularly hard one to convert?
Nigel: Well -- I'm only two weeks into it. No major problems so far.
RJS: What sort of mind does it take to become a machine code programmer? I'm sure most of the readers won't have any idea...
Nigel: Warped (Laughter)You've gotta have a logical mind.
RJS: Yes.
Nigel: (Pause) It's difficult to describe. You don't have to have much imagination. You've got to have... you've just got to be basically a logical person.
RJS: Are you based around here?
Nigel: No -- I live in Manchester, but when we wrote Commando they brought us down here because they wanted to keep an eye on us.
RJS: Right. (Pause) How do you do your writing? Do you work on Spectrums or...?
Nigel: No. I use a Tatung Einstein as a development machine.
RJS: Why the Einstein?
Nigel: It's... it's cheap, it's... er, it's got a nice keyboard and it's got discs.
    
Teamwork
Despite my hours of journalistic training (both of them) I was beginning to run short of questions, so hoping to divert Nigel from the fact, I asked about the still absent Karen.
RJS: One thing I've got to ask is, if you're based in Manchester, how does the work as part of a team go? Is Karen based near you?
Nigel: No, Karen works down here. The graphics... what usually happens is I write out a specification, and once I've decided how big a sprite's going to be, I'll just send her the size of the sprite and she'll go ahead and do it. If it's any good, I'll take it, and if it's not somebody's got to do it again.
RJS: How about other programmers in a team?
Nigel: That's a knack. It's definitely a knack. Some people just can't take it. It's how to split the work up, how to divide the game, sort of roughly down the middle, so when you put together the parts it works.
    
Karen Trueman
My well of questions now dry, we went in search of Karen and at last located her, hiding in the programmers' room. Okay, Karen Trueman, this is your life...
RJS: Okay, we've got to go through this horrible interview bit again. Do you hate being interviewed, Karen.
Karen: I've never been interviewed before.
RJS: Fine. I've never done an interview before. How long have you been programming?
Karen: (Pause) About three months.
RJS: And what did you do before programming?
Karen: (Long pause) I was at school. I took art. (Silence. I get the idea Karen is shy.)
RJS: Okay -- a nice easy question. What's your favourite colour.
Karen: Bright yellow.
RJS: And what's your favourite game?
Karen: Chuckie Egg.
RJS: It all ties together, doesn't it. Tell me how you do the graphics.
Karen: Well, I use this graphics tool called Arthur. Elite wrote this in-house graphics tool about...
Nigel: Forty five years ago.
Karen: (Laughter) And I use that.
RJS: Had you done any computer graphics before?
Karen: No. But I did a few sprites on Commando. Rory started it and I finished it. (Very long silence)
RJS: And how do you intend to make your fortune.
Karen: Marry a millionaire.
    
The business lunch.
Okay, I had a feeling that this wasn't going as it should. The Ed's last words to me had been, 'Keep it wacky'. ('Keep it cheap' as I remember, Ed). So I suggested that we go out to the pub to get a bit informal... only in Siberia the pubs shut at 2.30. Only one thing for it -- into a taxi and hang the expense -- Ed's paying! (That's what you think! Ed)
RJS: Walsall, please.
Maureen (the taxi driver) Right.
RJS: So how do you do the graphics, Karen?
Karen: Well, we usually get the arcade version in so we can have a look, then they'll just tell us the sizes they need.
RJS: Do you start with the backgrounds then go on with the sprites...?
Karen: I usually start with the sprites. Get them over and done with first then get on with the screens.
RJS: Have you got a computer.
Karen: My brother has and I'll get a Spectrum so I can work at home.
Maureen: That used to be the airport.
All: Really?
    
We arrive in Walsall, a town which just fails to remind me of New York, and trudge through the slush to the local Wimpy where we defrost our feet and we order. Karen insists that I add that she's a veggie and had to be forced into this carniverous cavern.
RJS: Two quarter pounders with chips one coke, a milk and an orange.
Wimpy Girl: Right. That's four pounds forty six, please.
RJS: Thanks. Let's sit here. (We settle in and I get the camera.)
RJS: I'd imagine that as a team grows there's more potential for disagreement. The graphics people demanding more space for the graphics -- or doesn't that happen?
Nigel: No, because there's always, like a superior, isn't there?
Karen: We're the underdogs.
RJS: Aww!
Nigel: Does anybody else get to listen to this tape recording?
RJS: No. I'm going to make it all up when I get back anyhow, so you can say what you want.
Wimpy Girl: Two cheeseburgers and chips.
RJS: I'll just go get those. Say something witty, someone.
Nigel: Do you want a chip? She's going to get some lovely slurping noises in this.
Karen: I don't envy her.
Nigel: Chornp, chomp, chomp.
Karen: Slurp, slurp
Nigel: Chomp, chomp
RJS: (Returning) So here we are, and I'm hoping you'll forget we're recording this.
Nigel: She just did. We were slagging you off!
    
And so I finally broke down the barriers. We stepped outside and in a totally informal manner Karen and Nigel grabbed handfuls of snow and hurled them at me. Finally, exhausted, they left me sprawled in the slush. Somehow I raised the strength to type this and now... PLEASE, LET ME COME HOME!
    Next month: Macdonalds with Maureen.


Published in the May 1986 issue of Your Sinclair

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