Skeletons in the Closet: my own early Vic 20 efforts

After having taken the piss out of other people’s stuff for the last couple of weeks I feel it’s only fair to drag a few skeletons out of my own closet for public humiliation. This selection is largely from the very early days where I did a bunch of games written mostly in VIC BASIC, made shortly after I first got my Vic and before I got my hands on the spot assembler cartridge which made writing anything more than the odd helper routine in machine code viable.

To kick off here’s one which predates Llamasoft itself.

This is “Rox II” (I am not sure if there was ever a Rox I – probably not, I suspect I just added the number to sound cool. Certainly it’s hard to imagine an even more primitive predecessor. I do remember me and my dad playing this quite a lot in the December of 1981. It’s not even graced with any UDGs and is just made out of stock Vic 20 “graphics characters”. You have a little base on a “lunar surface” and “rox” fall down; your mission is to launch shots in one of three possible directions to try and shoot them before they hit the ground (or your base). If the ground was entirely breached or your base got hit (more usually) then it was game over.

Pre-Llamasoft I did do a little collection of games which were sold briefly as a package for about a fiver by my old brief publisher DK’Tronics for whom I’d done some ZX81 work and with whom I parted on not the best of terms after a dispute over royalties for the DK’Tronics Graphics ROM on the ZX81. For that reason the games weren’t sold for that long and the package is quite rare (I don’t even have all the games from it myself).

There is a slightly tarted up version of the same game called ‘Rox III” which I present here as well:

This was an “extended mix” for the 8K Vic which added UDGs and slightly fancier presentation. Llamasoft never sold this version to my knowledge so I guess it was probably part of the same package sold through DK’Tronics, as an optional version for people with the 8K Memory Expansion in their Vic. As well as the “improved” graphics there was an extra little segment every 4th wave where you had to shoot bombs dropped from a mothership, which you don’t get to see in the video as I died due to mis-triggering my smart bomb.

Next up is possibly the longest lived game I’ve ever done:

“Deflex V” (again with the arbitrary numbering system). The first version of Deflex was made on the Commodore PET while I was still at sixth form college in 1979, and the latest version is out on iOS, so it’s a game with a long history. It’s about as sparse looking a game as it’s possible to make on the Vic, with the graphics consisting of nothing more than a blob, a number, and the “bats” made out of diagonal lines. Nonetheless it’s still actually kind of fun to play. We did do a much fancier version on the Speccy and a not particularly great looking version on the Atari 800.

Next is a game which surely everybody who ever had a home computer with BASIC in must have made:

“3D Labyrinth” (alas, no minotaur). Once again written entirely in BASIC with just a smattering of UDG work to tart it up a little, this game would have benefitted greatly from a little dab of machine code to speed up the drawing of the view. Nonetheless it wasn’t too awful to play as you could kind of buffer up keyboard commands and then let it catch up while you thought about what to do next.

If you want to see a really bad 3D Maze game done by me then you should look for “3D3D Maze” on the ZX81. The idea of it was quite cool (the maze was a cube, and you could go through holes in the floor and ceiling as well as left and right) but it was balls-achingly slow making it pretty much impossible to play by creatures with metabolisms that run on a normal human timescale.

This game was sold by Llamasoft for a while but like all the early BASIC games we did, when I started making full machine-code games the old BASIC ones looked a bit shabby in comparison and as things moved on they got quietly dropped from the cattle-logue.

Next let’s look at “Rat Man”.

This is quite a rare Llamasoft game, for the reason that it really wasn’t that good when it came down to it. It was heavily outclassed in short order by later releases and so it was only ever mentioned in the first three Llamasoft ads. You take the part of a chap with a large hammer and your task is to wander left and right with a lurching gait and smash the crap out of any rats. The rats kind of queue up on the floor waiting patiently to be smashed. If one is lucky a travelling hole will pass beneath him and he’ll get to exist safely down below as a Pointy Stick Rat, poking a pointy stick up every now and again in the hope of catching a particularly dozy player unawares. (The pointy stick dudes were more or less lovingly stolen from “Uniwar S”, which at the time was the table top game in residence at the Hinds Head in Aldermaston, to which me and the Baughurst Piano Wizard would frequently retire for Guinness and gaming. They had a tabletop game in there that was changed every few months and was usually something a bit peculiar – I remember playing UniwarS, Checkman and Zaccaria Scorpion there).

Incidentally I just watched a Youtube video of Kim Jong-un looking at things this morning (he sure does have to look at a lot of things; it’s hard work being a god-leader I guess) and at one point he was looking at an arcade, and in that arcade they had those old tabletop games. I never thought I’d be envious of something from North Korea, but I do miss those old tabletop games in pubs, they were ace.

But anyway, Ratman tended to be a bit boring to play and was just a bit clunky compared to newer titles and so he was retired a few months after he was born.

Ironically enough one of my brothers has a pest control business and therefore actually *is* a rat man. He now has other people to do all the actual work for him and spends most of his time going on holiday. I sometimes wonder if I’d've been better off doing something like that instead of games, being as how my illustrious career has left me skint and abjectly scrabbling on the iOS treadmill desperately just to try to have enough to continue existing. I haven’t had any disposable income for over five years.

But anyway.

Next up in our villains’ lineup of early BASIC Vic 20 games is “Headbanger’s Heaven”.

This is a variant of a game that was popular back in prehistory, usually called “Moneybags”. A guy has to walk back and forth at the bottom of the screen to collect moneybags. He passes underneath three bunkers while projectiles fall down, eroding the bunkers and killing him if he gets hit. You survive as long as possible and grab as much swag as you can.

To spice up this basic formula I made it so that your guy was a “heavy metal nut” who actually enjoyed a bit of pain. He could (and should) take hammer blows to the head in order to increase a bonus multiplier that was applied to moneybags retrieved and hammer blows taken. Bigger bonuses would therefore accrue to the player who maxed out the pain meter – but too much pain would kill the player. At any time you could headbutt an aspirin and remove all the pain, resetting your bonus multiplier. So there was a risk/reward dynamic in there which a skilled player could exploit.

The game was actually kind of fun, but like all the BASIC games tended to suffer from sluggish controls and just wasn’t up to scratch when the likes of Gridrunner and Matrix started to appear, so was only ever on sale early in Llamasoft’s existence.

Finally here’s a game which I had genuinely forgot ever existed.

This is “Space Zap” which was made as part of that bundle of DK’Tronics games I mentioned at the start of this entry. I really had forgotten all about it until a few years ago when I was trawling through Gamebase on the Vic. At first I thought the character set looked familiar, but thought not much more of it since stealing of character sets was rife anyway. Then on the third page of instructions I saw a little llama and it triggered off distant memories of this game.

There was an arcade game called Space Zap that I’d read about in a book but never played or even seen. That game inspired this one I made for that DK’Tronics game pack. You have a turret in the middle of the screen containing a llama, ships fly in one at a time and eventually attack, you have to aim your turret and time a laser blast to zap the enemies. Laser heads get ablated away by impacts, exposing the llama, and if the llama is hit it’s Game Over.

Quite how this game came up nearly 30 years after I’d last seen it, labelled as being published by a US company called “Vic Soft” I don’t know, but as another of their games was called “Deflector” and appears to be Deflex I suspect shenanigans. But anyway it was kind of cool to see a game of mine I’d actually forgotten about it’d been so long since I’d seen it, for all it’s a bit primitive and rubbish.

And that’s enough primitive and rubbish for this week. Plenty more to serve up! Maybe one of these weeks I should pick on something other than the poor old Vic (which i actually love with all my heart, piss-taking notwithstanding).

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Why I hate marketing. Or at least why it makes me feel uncomfortable.

I was quite surprised the other day at how angry I got when I was doing my blog about the old Vic games and pointed out the massive disconnect between Imagine’s claims for shitty Vic-20 effort “Frantic” in the advertising blurb and the actual, abysmal reality. Proper upset me it did.

The thing is I do have a huge problem with marketing. Own-trumpet-blowing has squicked me out for as long as I can remember, and it isn’t particularly helpful in this day and age where success seems often to depend on how hard you can tootle your own horn and how big an army of followers you can garner to vote you onto Greenlight or whatever. I feel icky even just trying to write out the silly self descriptive blurbs you have to write for your App Store releases and I kind of have to psych myself up to doing even those. Watching any telly with adverts makes me cringe and every “could help” and “up to” and “inspired by” and “helps fight” and other such weasel conditionals which pervade every single ad are like a poke in the eye to me.

I’ve been going back through some of the old computer mags looking at some of the ads that accompanied some of the awful games I’ve been taking the piss out of and I can’t help but wonder if part of my aversion is due at least in part to my immersion in the early games market. Now as far as I could help it Llamasoft never indulged in much shitty advertising practice; in fact the longer we went on in the market the more our ads didn’t try to claim anything much at all about the games, just announced their availability and put up a nice eye-pleasing bit of Steinar artwork every month.

I always felt it was important that even if not everybody liked what we were doing we were always at the very least trying our best to produce what we felt were genuinely good games. To this day that’s still how I feel. We’ve never knowingly released something that we knew was a turd and tried to shine it up with marketing bollocks. Even now when I announce a new game I like to do so by also presenting some information as to how it was created and package the announcement up with something to read that people might actually find interesting and amusing rather than just baldly stating claims about how ace the games are.

Some of those companies back in the day though were utterly shameless, and obviously saw the whole emerging games market as less of an opportunity for creativity and fun and more as an opportunity simply to cash in without any thought for quality. I’m sure at least in part exposure to that is what has to this day left me uncomfortable with the whole business of marketing. To my mind this wasn’t “business”, it was outright lying in order to separate kids from their pocket money.

Anyway I think it’d be fun and maybe even a bit therapeutic for me to introduce a new category where I take the piss out of some of the more egregious examples of that old attitude. I’ll probably try and fold this into the pisstake reviews I do more in the future, but to start the ball rolling I’ll pick a few examples from stuff I’ve already reviewed and pair up some videos with the actual adverts for the games in question. In fact I don’t think I need to actually manually take the piss myself. The ads and the videos will speak for themselves. So without further ado I present:

Now That's What I Call Marketing Bollocks

I’ll begin with a couple from old favourites Interceptor Micro’s. If anyone is ever curious as to why we split from the guys who ran Interceptor, here’s your answer right here.

#1: “Galaxzions”.

What they said:

Abject bollocks.

“This is the MOST AMAZING alien game EVER SEEN on the Vic 20. Galaxzions swarming in attack formation to destroy your planet. The NEAREST PROGRAM to the REAL ARCADE GAME for the unexpanded Vic 20.”

What you got:

#2: “Crazy Kong”.

What they said:

Utter smeg.

“Kong has stolen Mario’s girlfriend and taken her to the top of his steel fortress. You must guide Mario first across the ‘Easy Elevator’ and over the custard pies onto the fortress. Up the ladders to your loved one, however, be careful not to be killed in the process by the barrels which Kong hurls down the structure. Includes some of the BEST GRAPHICS EVER SEEN on the Vic 20″.

What you got:

More to come..

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You’re Having A Giraffe: More Vic-20 Smeg

Sunday again so it’s time to have a bit more of a rummage through the back cattle-log of the good old Vic.

The first game took me rather by surprise as I was trawling through Gamebase, since at first I thought a wrong screenshot had come up for one of the games. Took me a couple of looks to be sure of what I was seeing. Understandable I am sure you’ll agree:

Not Gridrunner

what the…?

Gridrunner

…erm…

Bit of confusion there, definitely caused me to do a double take.

The game itself is a weird old thing, it must be said. There’s a blue guy a bit like the Snitch out of Matrix who runs across the top and doesn’t do anything discernable at all apart from that. There are boxes which turn into more boxes if you shoot them, and everything changes state once in a while a bit like the Pods in Gridrunner. Some things eventually turn into green things which we like. Some things turn into other things that bounce around diagonally when shot. Those are the things that usually kill you.

Quite why the guy decided it’d be a great idea to make it look almost identical to Gridrunner I don’t know. It would have been easy enough to use a different tile shape to make the grid look slightly different, or even use a different grid colour.

Next up and continuing the theme of stealing bits out of my games we have “Minitron” by Anirog.

This is a sort of minimal version of Robotron for the unexpanded Vic-20 (if you can call anything with pixels that size “minimal”. It’s actually ok in a very raw kind of a way (but would have been improved immeasurably with just a couple of tweaks to the firing mechanism) if you don’t mind graphics so chunky they could have your eye out. The character font is lovingly stolen from Attack of the Mutant Camels on the C64. As you’ll see in the video Game Over isn’t properly debounced and in the heat of the action it’s possible for it to happen invisibly and unless you’re paying attention you could miss it. Ultimately lack of variety and lack of space exhaust the fun in this one after more than a few minutes, but it’s not as diabolically, unrelentingly awful as some of the stuff people put out for the unexpanded Vic.

While we’re on the theme of stolen character sets let’s have a quick goosey at “Fire Galaxy” by Kingsoft:

In the commentary I actually malign this game for excessive chuffing, but I discovered afterwards I’d left an instance of the previous game running in the background and it was that that was chuffing while I was playing this. This definitely was making noises a lot like a guinea pig we used to have when i was a nipper though.

The game itself is a rather chunky but not unremittingly awful version of “Scramble”, featuring my character set from out of “Andes Attack/Defenda”. It’s not terrible but not particularly engaging either, and one go is plenty for anyone really. Kingsoft are notable in Llamasoft history as the creators of the Turboload system on the C64, which I licensed off them for use in our games starting with Revenge of the Mutant Camels. They also did a version of Stargate for the expanded Vic which is fairly well ugly but actually rather good to play. I’ll do that one of these days.

To follow that we have “Frantic” by Imagine. If you want to see one of the reasons Imagine went bust you need look no further than this. I mean take a look at the ad for the game that appeared in C&VG:

frantic

That’s pretty snazzy artwork for the time right there, and just look at the blurb off to the side. It actually promises a “visually breathtaking view” as you “plummet towards the centre of Spectrum” (ah, that’s why you can’t fucking go up in the game then), waffles on about mythical aliens and goes on about how you will see “the sort of full-colour, hi-rez graphics and sound you have come to expect from Imagine”.

Jesus fuck.

What you actually get is THIS.

Your “breathtaking view” is a scrolling field of red minus signs with occasional white glitches running through them. The fugly, chunky enemies flicker egregiously and are hard to see due to their habit of putting enormous vomit-coloured squares on the screen. The controls are awful, the sound a massed Hoovers chorus, and it’s genuinely difficult to determine if you’ve actually scored any points. Death comes unexpectedly, inexplicably, and above all mercifully.

See that’s why I bloody hate marketing types. The only sensible marketing decision that should have been made regarding this game was “jesus fuck, hell no, get it away from me”, but somebody, knowing full well how dreadful it was, instead deliberately put together all that burbling tosh deliberately to con kids out of their pocket money to line their own pockets. Bruce fucking Everiss went on fucking holidays on the back of that behaviour. It makes me utterly sick to my stomach. No wonder Imagine crashed and burned, fuck’s sake.

Anyway. Deep breath and let’s moo-ve on.

Next we have “Ludwig’s Lemon Lasers”.

This is a game which is the videogame equivalent of having a really boring job on a production line, the sort of thing that people used to have to do for 8 hours a day on minimum wage back in the bad old days, but which is now done using digital vision systems and cleverly timed blasts of compressed air just like you see on “How It’s Made”. You have to keep some lemons away from some other lemons for a reason that is never so much as even hinted at, never mind actually explained. The game’s sole gimmick is that it constantly plays a bit of “Fur Elise” over and over and over again, justifying both the inclusion of “Ludwig” in the title and the psychotic homicidal rage you’d be worked up to by the time you’d heard it constantly while playing this game for 8 hours a day on minimum wage.

A game that makes you thankful for the advent of machine vision systems and industrial robotics.

Next is a brief look at Solar Software’s “Cavern Raider”.

This is a piss-poor attempt at cloning the much more polished “Caverns of Mars” from the 8-bit Atari. It has all the grace of those racing games that everyone used to do on the ZX81 because they were dead easy to do in BASIC by just scrolling the screen using PRINT statements. It’s only a brief look because I was feeling increasing levels of drowsiness during the first two sectors and then simple irritation at the third which led me to the conclusion that I simply could not be arsed.

To follow that and cleanse the palette here’s an even worse version of the same game by masters of shit on the Vic 20 “Nufekop”.

It’s simply unbelievably bad. For some reason you can’t fire at all and the only way to get the fuel you need to progress is to kind of try to smear it off the platforms as you clunk by. If you die by colliding with a wall it says YOU DIED 75 MILES DOWN or somesuch, but if you miraculously manage to evade the walls long enough (not always a simple task mainly because when you move your ship it often completely disappears, making it hard to see where you are) it says YOU DIED 65 METRES DOWN. I have no idea why you should be measured in imperial if you die by collision and in metric if you run out of fuel, or why there’s such a huge discrepancy in the distances reported. However far down though death comes as a merciful release from a horrible, dreadful game.

It’s a tossup really as to who was worse on the Vic, Nufekop or Interceptor Micro’s. Certainly both were capable of inflicting some eyewateringly bad games on people and somehow actually having the barefaced cheek to make money out of it. The guy from Nufekop has apparently written a book about it. I almost want to read it just to see how he justifies inflicting such wilfully vile crap on people back then.

Here’s another gem from Nufekop in which they actually demonstrate a marginally greater degree of competence than Interceptor in the ripping off Donkey Kong department:

Not by much, I am sure you’ll agree, but at least it is possible to go more than a few steps without turning into a green thing or having your head come off. They get round the tricky problem of implementing ladders by simply not having any at all and settle for a kind of staircase thing that wraps awkwardly at the screen edges. Inexplicably there appear to be indicators for three lives at the top of the screen but you never actually get them; the game ends at your first demise regardless. And then expects you to wait while it plays its crappy jingle before deigning to allow you to restart, although God only knows why you would want to unless you’re some kind of masochistic videogame pervert.

Finally let’s have a little look at “Cyclons” by Rabbit Software.

For all it’s not got the most spectacular graphics in the world I actually like this game. Motion is smooth and fluid, very unusually for a Vic-20 game, and it’s a challenging little inertia-filled shooter that’s actually quite fun to play. I always quite liked Rabbit for their anthropomorphic bunny logo and some of their games were utter tosh it’s true, but some of them were actually not terribly awful.

And so on that not terribly awful note it’s time to wrap up this week’s look into the world of ancient software of questionable quality. More in due course!

Oh and lest you go away feeling bad about seeing poor old Caverns of Mars so hideously butchered not once but twice I’ll just remind you of this.

There, all better :) .

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Fat Pixels, Fun Times: Great Vic-20 Games

I wanted to do a bit of a balancing entry to the one I did yesterday where I took the piss out of several bad Vic-20 games, lest I give the impression that I am a complete curmudgeon and that the Vic was incapable of hosting great games. For all its limitations the Vic was actually a great little machine, reasonably fast with some decent graphical capabilities if you didn’t mind pixels the size of house bricks, sturdy and reliable with a good keyboard (my original Vic-20 still works just fine to this day).

There weren’t any sprites or aught, so it was either use character mode or if you were super clever, write software sprite routines instead. Memory was at a premium too, but cartridge games didn’t use up any RAM for code and so were often able to produce decent games even within the constraints of the system’s 5.5K of unexpanded RAM.

Let’s kick off with one of my personal favourites, “Spiders of Mars” by Peter Fokos.

This is a fairly simple left/right Defender style scroller, characterised by its nice fluid movement (a rarity on the Vic) and escalatingly hectic gameplay. Objects in the game move fairly slowly, but as you work your way up through the levels the screen becomes filled with a metric arseload of baddies and insidious floating dust-mines. There was no autofire so one had to keep up a rapid firing cadence with the old thumb, something that was quite painful on the joysticks of the day.

My original Spiders of Mars cartridge went to one of my brothers along with one of my old Vics and I remember him saying even as late as the end of the 90s that he’d occasionally still drag out that old thing and play a game of SoM. The game stands up well to being revisited in emulation and remains a simple, fun and challenging blaster.

Interestingly enough the author Peter Fokos still works in games, but now he works for God and has done a Jesusly interpretation of Dance Dance Revolution called Dance Praise. But I’m sure he wouldn’t've got kicked out of Heaven for this excellent Vic shooter.

Next up: Omega Race.

This is a conversion which surely shouldn’t have worked out at all. Raster conversions of vector games tended to look ugly at the best of times, and the Vic’s gigantic pixels should have made this look like smeg. Instead it came out rather well – the aspect ratio of the pixels makes everything look a little odd, and yes everything’s blocky, but the motion is fluid and the ship turns and moves smoothly in a way that would have made S. Munnery weep if he’d had any shame. The rotation seems a bit quick and the thrust control a bit touchy but upon finding the actual arcade game some years later and playing it I can tell you that’s pretty much how it was on the coinop too. Presentation is great too, with a nice attract mode just like in the coinop, the option to use paddles or joysticks, and even to change the colour of the graphics. If you can get over the chunkiness and sound effects that only mildly make you think of Hoovers you’re in for a jolly nice and challenging arcade conversion.

Next: Predator by Tom Griner

This is a peculiar one, by Tom Griner who was for a while my stablemate at Human Engineered Software. Tom was quite prolific on the Vic and whereas his early games were often a bit crude (as were those of all of us I think) you could see that he was developing a remarkable degree of technical skill as he went along. By the time of Predator I think he was just about the best coder there was on the Vic. Sometimes the actual gameplay wasn’t that great but technically he could make the Vic sing. He was evidently a big fan of Eugene Jarvis and Robotron as will be evident when you look at this game – check out the proportional font work, the style of the hiscore tables and the enemy explosions – dude loved him some Jarvis that’s for sure. Beautiful presentation, technically lovely.

I was actually briefly in touch with TEG some years later when I was living in the US – we emailed briefly while he was working at Silicon Graphics, but then he kind of dropped out of touch after making some comment about how he didn’t approve of my “lifestyle choices”. Lordy knows what that was about.

But yes, a fantastic Vic-20 coder, no doubt about that.

Next up: something from a company not known for their Vic-20 presence…

Jetpac by Ultimate (or ACG as they were still known at that time).

Call me a heathen but I still think Jetpac was the best thing Ultimate ever did – you can keep the maze exploration things that came later and especially all that dreadful isometric stuff that was a massive triumph of tech over gameplay. Jetpac was frantic, fluid shooting action, borrowing a bit from Defender in style, tremendous fun to play on both the Speccy and in this Vic incarnation. It’s a bit flickery and chunky but who cares when it’s this good to play.

No need to say much more than that about it really, so let’s moo-ve on to:

Jelly Monsters, Commodore’s *ahem* unofficial clone of Pac-Man for the Vic. It may look a bit odd as due to screen space limitations they’ve left off the outer edge of the maze border entirely, but look past that and you’ll see how good this clone really is. Remember the Vic had no sprites, so they’ve implemented impressively large and smooth software ones, allowing the gameplay to be fluid and smooth-flowing. I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best conversions of Pac-Man on any of the 8-bit systems, including the “official” Atarisoft conversion which was OK but not nearly as good. It certainly puts to abject shame all the endless character-mode clones that the smaller software houses did (I myself bought the Bug Byte one which had the Pac-Man with the continuously flapping lips and I remember trying to convince myself that I didn’t really mind that it moved in huge character sized steps and was really difficult to get to go around corners properly; a delusion which did not survive once I laid eyes on Jelly Monsters).

Predictably enough Atari didn’t like this at all, and Commodore were forced to rework it into something involving satellites floating round a maze, which was still very nice (being based on the same code) but lacked the charm that the original had of being just an awesome home version of Pac-Man on a system that not many would’ve thought could sustain it.

To further illustrate the gulf between small tinpot software houses doing rubbish character-mode versions of arcade games and a decent developer with the advantage of working off a cartridge, remember that dog awful abomination Crazy Kong from Interceptor that I mentioned last entry, and then check out:

Donkey Kong on the Vic-20, the official (and excellent) Atarisoft conversion. Yes, it’s chunky as hell, because it’s in Vic-20 multicolour mode with pixels the size of Lego Duplo, but it’s again one of the best home versions of DK on any 8-bit system nonetheless, containing all the levels except the pie factory as most home versions back then did, but including intermissions such as the How High Can You Try screen and Kong falling off the girders on the rivets stage. Gameplay is fluid and well implemented making it fun to play and a credit to the Vic. Really jolly good. And you don’t keep turning into a green thing.

Finally let’s have a look at an excellent conversion of a simple game:

Commodore’s Vic Avenger, which was an unofficial but remarkably close clone of Taito’s Space Invaders. The screen looks a little bit cramped, as due to the Vic’s lower resolution than the coinop there’s not as much space for the Invaders to march left and right, but apart from that this version is probably a closer copy than most of the 8-bit versions. It was faithful enough that those of us who knew certain techniques that worked in the arcade version (like counting 22-14-14 to maximise the points you got for shooting the saucers, and the Execution Method where you culd exploit a bug which meant Invaders right on the lowest row close to the ground couldn’t shoot you) could apply exactly the same techniques on Vic Avenger and they’d work.

So yeah, the Vic may have had not much memory and got laughed at for having fat little pixels but in the right hands it was capable of some great games and fantastic arcade conversions, some of which could even be considered to be best in class when compared to other much more expensive 8-bit machines of the day.

There was still a load of wank out there too, mind, and I’ll be back to take the piss out of that some more in the not too distant future. But I’ll also be mentioning some more of the great stuff too. Got to be fair to my old mate Vic :) .

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I’ve Turned Into a Green Thing: Terrible Vic-20 Games

While twittering on the tweetatron this morning the subject of “Asteroids” by S. Munnery came up. This legendarily terrible version of Asteroids was, as I have documented before in the History of Llamasoft, at least partially responsible for the very existence of Llamasoft, mainly due to the sheer cheek of Bug-Byte charging seven whole quid for it and making me think “bloody hell if they want seven quid for that I could bloody do better and people would pay for it”. I’ve been threatening for ages to do some occasional blog posts about bad games from back in the day, because boy was there a metric smegload of them, some of them my own. But let’s begin this look back with the seminal (with the emphasis on semen) “Asteroids” by S. Munnery.

Now Asteroids was a game that was at least in part defined by the smoothness, precision and fluidity of its gameplay. These are not qualities which translate well to objects that are moving in character-sized steps on the Vic-20′s extremely low-resolution screen.

Munnery’s version actually eschews the idea of having separate projectiles fired by the ship in favour of the simple technique of drawing a string of full stops in a line out of the craft’s nose whilst making a sound like a Hoover. In fact the sound effects are evidence of the fact that the programmer wasn’t aware that there were any volume levels at all on the Vic-20 sound chip apart from “OFF” and “HOOVER”.

It’s also pretty hard to see the string of full stops at times because it looks like he doesn’t poke the colour memory behind the full stops to white.

I suppose it wouldn’t've been that bad of a game if you and your mates had knocked it up yourselves while learning your way round the Vic, but at seven quid Bug Byte truly were taking the piss, and exemplifying the lamentable tendency of early software houses to slap the name of a famous arcade game on any old pile of toss they could lay their hands on and charge the masses of eager but naive punters significant coin for it.

Continuing that theme we now present another Munnery classic “Cosmiads”.

- a version of Galaxians in which you are beset by what look like tiny flying cat heads while a chorus of Hoovers drone on in the background (still not discovered the volume settings on the sound chip yet apparently). Now it must be said that although I enjoy taking the piss out of Munnery’s early games it’s evident that he is at least making some kind of effort to put some actual gameplay in there. For all that everything jerks around a bit in character mode the cat heads do recognisably leave the formation and fly down firing at you, and fair play he’s had a crack at trying to make your gun move smoothly even if nothing else does.

But this version of Galaxians is actually awesome compared to our next offering:

“Galaxzions” by Interceptor Micro’s, testament to the bizarre belief shared by a lot of software houses back then that one could avoid copyright issues and the righteous wrath of Atari by the simple expedient of spelling the name of an arcade game with a gratuitous “z” in it or somesuch (we shall not speak of Llamasoft’s own early Vic 20 game “Defenda” in this regard, for that would not be appropriate).

This game looks and plays much like a broken Game and Watch, with enemies not so much moving as just kind of randomly spazzing about on the screen, appearing in semi-random positions whilst the Hoovers blare away. Enemy shots don’t appear to actually move at all; white blobs just appear in set positions every now and again and woe betide you if your strangely knob-and-bollocks-shaped craft should happen to be near them at the time. Munnery’s game seems well-crafted by comparison; this game could probably have been bettered by my ex-cat sneezing at the keyboard while the assembler cartridge was plugged in.

Our next exhibit exemplifies a flaw shared by quite a few early Interceptor Micro’s titles: a complete lack of any gameplay at all.

Created to cash in on the famous arcade game “Defender” (and skilfully sidestepping copyright issues by putting “Jupiter” in front) we have “Jupiter Defender”. Now Defender brought many original features to arcade gaming, not least a world larger than the screen through which the player had to fly in order to perform his defence and rescue mission. With Reverse and Thrust buttons the player could chart his course at will through this game world, using his “Scanner” radar to identify trouble spots and fly to the rescue. Defender was most of all known for its fierce and unrelenting challenge, making it a favourite of those arcade pilots who considered themselves the best of the best.

Jupiter Defender has nothing in common with Defender apart from the name “Defender” in the title, and the vague shapes of some of the ships. You can’t reverse. You can kind of change your speed, but there’s no reason ever to do so. In fact, nothing ever moves in anything but a single horizontal direction, and so the best strategy in the game is simply to stay where you started and hold down the FIRE button. That’s it. You can see me using my awesome skillz to rack up 20,000 points without losing a life in that video.

Our final title for today then is another Interceptor Micro’s gem, “Crazy Kong”.

Superficially it does look a bit like a mashup of some of the levels of Donkey Kong. There’s platforms and ladders and pies, oh my. Unfortunately it is just beyond horrible to play. I’m generally pretty good at playing hokey old computer games in emulation, since collecting old emulator games is kind of a hobby of mine (and I was there to play them back in the day when they first came out too). But I genuinely could not get that little man to do anything apart from turn into a green thing on the bottom of the screen, although I did make his head come off a couple of times. I did once get him onto one of the ladders, where a barrel went through his head, but then I fell off and turned into a green thing again.

Well, that’s it for this instalment of “terrible games”, I’m sure there will be more. And although I did take the piss out of Munnery he was at least trying to make playable versions of the games he cloned; looking at the Interceptor Micro’s ones I’m not sure they were even trying to do that at all, more like they were just putting out things that looked vaguely like famous games and charging six quid for them regardless of the fact that they weren’t any fun to play at all, not even remotely; and that’s far worse than anything poor old S. Munnery ever did.

Interceptor weren’t the only ones doing that; there are plenty more egregious examples which I’ll be back to take the piss out of in other entries, no doubt. But that’s all my poor eyes, ears and thumbs can take for now.

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Various Items of Gridrunner-Related Gnus

Quite a Gridrunnery time at the moment.

1: Gridrunner nominated for the Golden Joysticks awards.

Golden Joysticks logo

Gridrunner

In the mobile/tablet category. Which is nice. However since to win it you have to get the most votes from fans, and since in fact I’ve sold a quantity of games such that I could probably comfortably remember the names of every customer, I figure that’s supremely unlikely. But it’s nice to be nominated nonetheless. I’d be delighted to be proven wrong mind, so if you feel inclined to vote then please go ahead, that’d be lovely. Buy a copy of the game too, that’d be terrific too. Get your mates to buy a copy too. Ten copies in fact. Get them to get all their relatives to buy copies and vote for Gridrunner in the Golden Joystick Awards until our entire glorious nation sweeps us to overwhelming victory, sweeping aside the likes of foreign Angry Birds and creating a swell of national pride greater even than that engendered by coming third in the Olympics, causing tears of joy (of PURE TEA) to stream down the Queen’s face and Clive Sinclair to lie down with Chris Curry in peace and harmony!

Yes. That’s what I’m hoping will happen. It’s actually more likely than selling a significant quantity of iOS games or Apple actually putting one of my games in their so-called retro section.

2: Gridrunner now available for Mac OS X!

Despite being delayed for being rejected for important technical reasons (the title of the helpfile used the letters “OSX” in a forbidden way and had to be expunged) the Mac port of Gridrunner is now available on the Mac App Store. You can find it at the following lovely link of joy.

Here it is! Click here to be transported to Macintoshly shooting ecstasy!

Plays well with keys or a USB Xbox 360 joypad on any Mac but is absolutely most sublime if you have a trackpad, either a desktop Magic Trackpad or a recent-ish Mac laptop. If you’re using the trackpad remember to put the game fullscreen.

We’ve charged a full £2 for this game despite it not being significantly different from the iOS one really, simply because we thought we could get away with it. And now we’ve been through the OSX submission process and know what to avoid (never mention the system or OS you’re running on) we can crack on with pushing out the rest of the ports. Next up will be Super Ox Wars, and the probably GoatUp after that. (All the ports are already actually working, just needing a final going over to ensure compliance and proper cursor behaviour).

And finally:

3: Gridrunner FREEMIUM (I hate that word) coming to iOS!

I think part of the problem with the iOS stuff is as I’ve mentioned before, since it’s never actually likely to appear on the front page of the app store pretty much the only people who buy the games are people who are actively looking for them; for people just browsing to find a new game it’s about as hard for them to find Llamasoft games as it was for Arthur Dent to find the famous road bypass plans that were on display in a locked, unlit cellar with a sign on the door saying “beware of the leopard”. Accordingly I’ve decided to try making a free version of Gridrunner in the hope that some more people may pick it up because FREE and then maybe possibly buy the IAP (there’s only ONE IAP) to unlock the full game.

The free version actually contains an extra mode, a “Survival” mode where you have one life and play over a looping sequence of 6 levels that get harder with each loop around. That mode is free and you buy the IAP to unlock the rest of the game (containing the usual Pure and Casual modes from the paid version of the game). I’ve also rejigged the game so that it uses only Game Center, since Openfeint is now turning into something else anyway and it’s pointless including a lot of extra overhead in the game when all I need is the leaderboards and cheevos already provided by GC.

It also has an extra feature whereby you can touch a Llamasoft sheep icon and it takes you to the App Store where you can see “bloody hell this chap’s done a lot more games and look they all have 4 to 5 star ratings” so maybe it’ll push up sales of the games already out there.

This new version is just about done, I sorted out all the IAP gubbins this last week and whould be ready to bung it off to Apple next week some time. Perhaps chucking a free version will deliver us some of the precious MARKET PENETRATION that we desperately need (who doesn’t need a nice bit of PENETRATION once in a while let’s face it). Or maybe it won’t make a damned bit of difference, who knows.

But I thought it’d be worth a try. Maybe soon the Sun will be posting pictures of Prince Harry naked AND PLAYING GRIDRUNNER and a grateful nation of cheery white van drivers will be downloading the FREEMIUM version in droves and upgrading to the full version and voting for us in the Golden Joysticks Awards until David William Donald Cameron and ED BALLS discuss nothing in Parliament together except who’s got the highest score in Gridrunner and what a frightful bugger those little ships that try and go right up your arse are.

IT’S MORE LIKELY TO HAPPEN THAN GETTING IN THE TOP 10.

So: Gridrunner, Gridrunner, Gridrunner, Gridrunner, Gridrunner!

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Caprichoso Arcade: Inferno+

Caprichoso Arcade

It’s happened again.

It’s a scene which has played out so many times, in the offices and homes of game developers across the world. It’s happened many times before and doubtless it’ll happen many times again.

One dev turns to another and says “well, we’ve got this fantastic idea for a game… what about a theme for it? can you think of anything?”

“Hmm… uhh… no, not really, I’ve got nothing right now. How about you?”

“Ahh… umm… lovely curry last night… erm… bloody hell, Britain not losing as badly as usual in the olympics then… er… actually no, I’m empty too…”

“Sooo… well then…”

“I guess… it’s the usual thing then…”

(both simultaneously) “WE’LL MAKE IT LOOK LIKE GEOMETRY WARS THEN!”

And so they do :) .

This time the game in question is basically Geometry Wars and Gauntlet mashed up (and made to look like Geometry Wars). And that’s basically all you need to know about the design of Inferno+. Says it all really.

Inferno+ looking like Geometry Wars

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way slagging off the actual game, it’s great fun and I’ve just spent an enjoyable Sunday afternoon blasting through its 40 levels. I’m just taking the piss a bit because it does seem to be a well worn cliche these days, making stuff that looks like Geometry Wars. And it’s all well and groovy, because Geometry Wars does look nice, but you could probably fill your ipad twice over with games that look like Geometry Wars.

So what distinguishes Inferno+ then?

Well, I’ve thought for a while that a mashup of Roby and Gauntlet wouldn’t be a bad idea, lots of shooty shooty combined with maze exploration and looting would make for a fun game (in fact if I ever do a Llamatron II it’d probably be something along those lines). This game implements that idea very competently. The controls are very good (once you go to Options and turn off the fixed control points like a sensible person) and the blasting action is fluid and fun.

Not role playing.

The game categorises itself as “Action RPG” but I’m sorry, if this is RPG then so is Pac-Man :D . You play the role of a little circular space ship thingy blasting at other blobby vaguely geometric Geometry Wars type thingies. There is looting (in the form of “G” pickups which add to your score) I suppose. Basically though it plays exactly like it says on the tin: Gauntlet-style mazes you make your way round blasting away in a Geometry Wars style. Like in Gauntlet there are “doors” that need unlocked with keys you find in the maze, and there are generators that spew enemies. You have shields that get depleted as you get hit and which can be replenished by collecting + signs you find scattered around the place (bits of meat and jugs of scrumpy not looking so great drawn in a Geometry Wars style I suppose). Shoot everything, have a whistle round looking for hidden areas and to make sure you’ve completely rinsed the level, off out the exit and on to the next one.

Rinsin'

There are smart bombs that can be found and active shields that I’ve not much used so far. Every now and again you find a shop and as you progress you are given upgrade points to spend in it. At first only a few upgrades are available but as you progress you can spend some of your score to unlock the others. And every 10 levels there’s a boss who can usually be defeated by the age old method of keeping moving and dodging stuff whilst shooting the crap out of him.

You’ll probably want to play most of the time on the hardest difficulty as the lower two are quite easy to defeat, especially with all the powerups going on. Playing medium difficulty this afternoon it was no bother to whistle through all the levels and by the time i was getting towards the end I was so hideously beweaponed that all I had to do was basically move through the maze not bumping into anything nasty and everything died for me. But there’s plenty of fun to be had playing on hard, and 4 different ship types to play though with, and you can always go for a higher score (and make the game harder for yourself) by not spending any of your score to unlock the more exotic powerups. Oh, and if you play through the game once it unlocks the + mode which does seem to be a lot harder, so there’s plenty of scope for replaying and score chasing.

So there’s actually plenty of game for you to get stuck into, and best of all you get it all for the purchase price. No “Congratulations, you’ve beaten easy mode, do you want to buy Medium difficulty?” or “Well done, you got to level 20, do you want to buy the rest of the levels?” or “Jolly good, you’ve earned the chance to upgrade, would you like to buy this nice smart bomb?” or (most heinous of all) “Game Over. Would you like to buy an extra life?” ARGH DEAR GOD DISGUSTING IAP GET IT OFF ME

None of that bollocks. It’s all there when you buy the game. SEE, PEOPLE, THIS IS HOW IT’S DONE. A nice, well made, COMPLETE game for a fair price. So definitely a gold star from this ox for Radiangames here and on the strength of this I’m definitely inclined to look out for more of their games.

(They do get one bite taken out of their pappadom of excellence though for nagging me to rate the game at the end mind. I understand the need to get good publicity but being prompted to rate stuff gives me the same vaguely uncomfortable feeling you get in the curry house when the waiter comes round one too many times asking if everything’s all right. I always feel ratings and such are worth that much more when they are unsolicited, when someone’s actually thought highly enough of your work that they’ve jolly well originated the effort of going to rate the thing off their own bat rather than just gone “eh, ok then” and pressed the “Press this button to rate now” button. This is but a minor niggle though, and I’m probably the only person to get annoyed by it, so it’s only a small bite. And they have been jolly good sports with the no IAP so an extra pint of Cobra for that. And there’s still the lime pickle).

So if you fancy scratching your Gauntlet and blasting itch I definitely recommend this fun blaster with great controls and all the parts in the box when you open it, and which just happens to look like Geometry Wars. Oh and it’s Universal too, so an extra gold star and a grunt of approval for that too.

Get it on the App Store at the following link.

Radian Games: Inferno+

(When it comes to roleplaying and Robotron just about the only game I can think of which could actually make that kind of a claim would be the very excellent indeed “Time Bandit” on the Atari ST. Utterly fantastic game that, lots of Gauntletty shooting’n'looting action mixed up with a complicated plot and puzzles almost like a text adventure, great fun that was. If that’s not being remade for iOS then it damn well should be. Come on somebody, pull your finger out! Get it sorted! And don’t fuck up the controls! Thanks! :D )

GLORIOUS

FANTASTIC. GIVE IT ME.

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Happy birthday C64!

Breadbin

So they are saying that today is the 30th birthday of the c64. Well that’s true for certain values of “birthday” I guess. When was the C64 born? Was it back in 1981 when the designers first began work on it? Was it when it was first shown? Was it when it first went on sale?

It’d been rumoured for a while that Commodore were working on something called the VIC-40, which was to be an extension of the already quite successful VIC-20 which itself hadn’t been out in the UK all that long. And there was a weird thing in the Grattan mail order catalogues in that year which was called the Commodore Ultimax (my mum used to get those catalogues and I remember gawping at that thing and wondering what it was like. To which the answer eventually ended up being “so rubbish it was never released”. The “Vic-40″ however was a different matter…)

When it was first released in the US the first ads tried to promote the thing as a business machine. Yes – the c64 a business machine.

Business C64

An error that Commodore would repeat again a few years later when they launched the Amiga – whose chipset had originally been designed to be part of a game console -as a business machine, even acting all po-faced to games developers at the time who were interested in developing for it. That’d come back to bite them on the arse quite severely when the Amiga steadfastly refused to take off compared to the less powerful but more accessible Atari ST, until they saw sense and released the Amiga 500 which was squarely aimed at gamers. But I digress.

Also look at that price. Ooyah. That’s getting on for iPad levels and that was 1982 so you’re looking at a modern equivalent of over a grand. Thank goat it didn’t remain at that price for very long.

Launch date for us UK people was still a couple of months away at this point, due out at the end of September. I was still busy building up our Vic-20 library so I wasn’t particularly trying to get one early, but in the end I did end up getting one a few weeks ahead of UK launch date. After attending our first ever computer show in June (the Commodore show at the Cunard Hotel) I’d hooked up with Jay Balakrishnan of Human Engineered Software in the US, and we’d done a deal for them to distribute some of our Llamasoft Vic-20 games, beginning with the actually rather awful Andes Attack, a Defender clone with jerky scrolling, more bugs than a Pyongyang hotel room and a ship the approximate size of a bus with handling to match).

There was another computer show due at the start of September, the Personal Computer World show at the Barbican in London. We were there pimping our latest Vic-20 games – the aforementioned Andes Attack, along with somewhat chunky and tricky to control Amidar-style game Traxx and primitive but fun unexpanded Vic bottom shooter (fnarr) Abductor – along with some fairly low-key efforts on the new Spectrum (rough ports of Rox III and Bomb Buenos Aires *cough* I mean City Bomber, and quite a nice version of Deflex, all things that were easy to write in Sinclair BASIC) and the Atari 8-bits (yet another version of Deflex; the lovely A8 version of AMC was still a few months away at that point). We probably even had a ZX81 there running Centipede, bless it.

I do recall those Barbican shows being incredibly crowded and noisy, loads of small game companies there and everyone cranking up their sound effects to be heard above the general cacophany. Our own game Traxx certainly didn’t help, being as it played the theme from Amidar constantly, loudly and gratingly off key. Continuously. Loudly. All day. You could barely move in there and it was hot and full of nerdstink, ahh, those were the days. So it was something of a relief when Jay Balakrishnan came by – he was over on a trip looking for more software to sell in the US – and he told me he’d got a present for me back at his hotel room (that sounds dodgy but it totally wasn’t!). It was good to have a couple of hours out of the show walking to his hotel where he presented me with a shiny new c64, still a few weeks before the official UK street date. Score!

It also presented us with a bit of hassle too though. It was a US machine so it needed 110V instead of 240 proper British volts, and it used the American “NTSC” (which stood for Never Twice Same Colour, an inferior foreign TV standard) system. Proper British tellies wouldn’t like that at all, so in order to be able to use it we needed a bit of extra kit (which probably ended up working out being more expensive than simply waiting a few weeks and buying a UK C64, but it gave us a little headstart I suppose and it was genuinely useful kit to have around in the years to come). Accordingly me and my dad headed off on the tube to Tottenham Court Road and bought a stepdown transformer to give us the necessary 110V (I think we still have that somewhere and it still works) and a JVC multi-standard video monitor that could handle two different flavours of NTSC as well as PAL (the Queen’s own video standard) and SECAM (only used by the French). I remember that monitor being a big old thing to be horsing about on the tube.

It was still an excellent score though since I think the only other people we saw at that show with an honest to god C64 were Rabbit Software (I believe they were importing games by “Nufekop”, whose early efforts were just about as hilariously primitive as my own).

(Speaking of the tube, the first day of that Barbican show – 9 September – was the release date for the film “Blade Runner” in UK cinemas. Consequently the tube was full of posters adveritsing the film, and it was one of those posters which game me the idea of a theme for my as-yet-unwritten new Vic-20 Centipede-style game).

Eventually we all got back home after the show and the US c64, along with the necessary gubbins to use it, was installed in my bedroom.

Not my C64.

(Not my actual c64 in this pic. Or my bedroom)

Actual info about the new machine was still pretty thin on the ground at that time, at least in the UK, and that thin little manual was all I had to go on (and most of *that* was about teaching beginners BASIC which was of no interest to me). At least it told you where the addresses were in memory for the special chips that controlled the sprites and sound effects which were the main attractions of the new machine. I didn’t even have any kind of machine code monitor at that point so I thought as a learning exercise I’d convert one of my very first Vic-20 games, something I knew would work in just BASIC and a bit of poking and which I could hopefully use the new machine’s capabilities to tart up a bit whilst learning my way round the new stuff as I went along.

So my first ever c64 game was rather obscure and not terribly amazing but it was all done in one evening the first night I got the machine set up.

On the old Vic 20 I’d written a little game called ROX that me and my dad enjoyed playing quite a lot one Christmas.

ROX

It was a really simple game, a bit like Astrosmash on the Intellivision come to think of it, except simpler in that you didn’t move your little base at all, you could just fire up rockets to intercept falling rocks. If too many rocks hit the ground it’d make a hole and that’s be game over.

I’d added a few little things to that game and tarted it up with some UDGs and the obligatory awkward to read character set and turned it into “Rox III”:

Rox III

although I’m not sure if we ever even sold it on the Vic ourselves since we really didn’t like that much selling programs written in ropey old BASIC.

However since at that time there was basically nothing at all out on the c64 I thought it might be an idea to release Rox on the 64 as a BASIC program that other users could LIST to see how the new chips worked themselves, so we did end up selling it for a while on the 64, just at a low price so that people wouldn’t think we were trying to take the piss.

ROX 64

It just BARELY made use of the new machine’s features, using a single sprite for the lunar module (and a right pain in the arse it was drawing that thing on graph paper and converting it into BASIC DATA statements to be poked into sprite RAM; unsurprisingly enough one of the very next things I wrote was a proper sprite editor) which would land on the lunar surface (lovingly constructed out of ropey old PET graphic blocks) to the accompaniment of various whooshing noises from the SID chip.

Awesome.

So my first C64 program was a pretty low-key and unassuming thing, but it was a first step on what was to be a long and enjoyable road. After I finished writing that sprite editor I began straight away using it to draw some big and crudely drawn camels, which looked more like two fat men in a camel suit…

bull!

(Nothing at all to do with the C64, just a drawing from a C&VG from around that time which I was looking through in search of old Llamasoft ads from that era. It was the only illustration in an article about PRESTEL, believe it or not. Gotta love early 80s era C&VG art style!).

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Why you should ignore the Top 10

F10

When you go to the Apple iOS App Store and browse through the various apps pretty much all most users will see is Top 10 lists. And really as a user you should deliberately ignore Top 10 lists, precisely *because* they are the most visible parts of the store’s app collection.

This makes a position in that top 10 list an extremely valuable position for app creators, and critically this means that often the kind of apps you find there are apps that have been specifically created to sit in the top 10 hauling in money. Once in the top 10 apps tend to stick there, mainly because at that point they *are* the most visible apps in the store and thus most likely to get chosen.

So there’s a huge value attributed to those top 10 positions, and you’ll find companies striving hard to put their apps there, which is understandable. But is striving hard to put an app in the top 10 the same as striving hard to make something cool for the sake of making something you really believe should exist?

In discussion a few weeks ago we were talking about “what makes an indie game indie” and one of my personal criteria for that comes out of considering the motivation to make a game. I think indies tend to make games because they have a particular vision and want to create something that fulfils that vision, and they hope to make enough money to sustain the process by so doing, almost as a by-product. Whereas non-indies set out explicitly and primarily to make money, and it’s the game itself which is the by-product. And I like the games I play to be labours of love rather than by-products.

It’s much the same with the Top 10. Sure, the two categories are not mutually exclusive – it is possible for a good indie game to “go viral” or whatever and luck into that hallowed space, but by and large the stuff that you find there has been put there by people with a very specific money-making aim in mind.

You may ask “so what?”, since there are top 10s in all kinds of other fields too and the same thing applies to them too, surely? Well, yes – but the trouble with the app store is that pretty much the only way you can view stuff just by browsing is by going through the keyhole of the Top 10 lists. And the further you get away from that exalted space the more your discoverability drops away until you have a situation like it is now, where basically those in the Top 10 positions do very well and everybody else is lucky to make 50p.

There needs to be more middle ground, a way for people to be able to work off-mainstream and still be able to get a reasonable return for their investment of time and effort.

So how can we work towards this?

For a start, ignore the top 10. Simply because something is up there doesn’t automagically make it good. I still sometimes see “Justin Bieber” come up in the trending topics list on Twitter but that doesn’t mean I’m interested in him. You might find the odd gem that manages to break through up there but it’s far more likely you’ll be encountering stuff that’s been engineered to be there for the explicit purpose of hoovering up money.

Be prepared to dig around a bit. There are subcategories on the App Store that you can find with a bit of digging around (although even these aren’t super reliable; there’s actually a “Retro” category on there in the Games section and there isn’t a single Llamasoft game listed therein, despite LS having been probably the most prolific developer in that category in the last year and a half). Be prepared to spelunk around a bit in the less exposed categories deeper in the store away from the Top 10 honeypots at the entrance.

Read reviews and recommendations. Take note of the little icons underneath the app description when you buy one which indicate what people buying that game also bought; you may find a few unexpected gems there. *Give* recommendations, both in person to your mates when you like a game, and when you want to support the developer of a game you’ve enjoyed, go and give them a vote on the app store. (Doubly definitely do that if they *haven’t* nagged you to do so in their app. Those ratings mean a whole lot more when they aren’t explicitly solicited).

Be loyal to your favourite developers. Chances are if you like one of their games you’ll like most of them. Go buy the back catalogue. Keep an eye out for their new releases. Pimp them to your mates. Praise always means a lot more coming from the mouth of someone who is genuinely happy with a product than it is falling greasily from the distended lips of some self-praising marketing hype machine.

Basically try to navigate the app store in such a way as to avoid the sticky fly paper of the Top 10s dangling at the entrance. Everyone will be better off for it in the end.

Developers too should ignore the top 10. My mum occasionally sends me newspaper clippings about some lucky chap whose app suddenly got popular and now they’re a millionaire or whatever – and it’s true, it can happen! And so can winning the lottery, but you’d be daft to set out to make a living buying lottery tickets and waiting for your big day. Better to build a body of work, build a reputation, work to make life sustainable on the middle ground somehow. Be nice to your users by not following the herd with hateful “monetization” bollocks and unnecessary use of IAP. Work at trying to be a good guy rather than just hoping to be a lucky one. The more of us who manage to do that the better, anything to lessen the hegemony of the Top 10.

We need diversity and sustainability outside of the current “all or nothing” way of doing things and a step in the right direction has to be – ignore the top 10!

(And yes, if one of my games ever gets to the top 10, feel free to ignore that too) ;) .

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When Llamasoft abused the Olympic copyright

Yes, there was actually a time when Llamasoft illicitly used the Olympic rings symbol in its advertising. Take a look at this 1984 ad:

Llamasoft Olympic ad

“Hottest Games in town” my arse. Basically we relied on the firm who did our printing back in Tadley to do all our ads for us (and a bunch of the early game cassette inlays too, I am sure oldies who remember those games will recognise the style). Now they were great printers and all and did a great job of producing all our posters and inlays but I think by this time they were reaching the outer limits of their artistic abilities and it shows a bit. Not that it’s necessarily a bad ad for the time, just that the whole theme is a bit bleh and the hooking onto the Olympics thing is reaching rather a lot given that there’s nary a sports game in the bunch when it comes to Llamasoft games.

Really I’ve never been much into marketing and to this day I have a kind of cringing aversion to own trumpet blowing, perhaps to my detriment in an age where it seems the most effective way to sell a game is to yell LOOK AT ME as loudly and frequently as you can, preferably whilst jumping up and down naked and painted dayglo orange. Llamasoft always was (and still is) primarily about just making stuff that’s cool and fun. When we went to trade shows all we basically did was put out computers with all the games on them and let people come and play and judge for themselves, and also just to hang out; in the end the shows for us were more of a social thing than any kind of marketing effort. In that kind of scenario this old Olympic themed ad seems a bit out of character for us.

Luckily for me then that at one of those very shows a young chap came up and asked me if I’d be interested in seeing his portfolio of artwork. I’d not really given much thought to hiring a proper artist but I thought it couldn’t do any harm, and boy was I glad I did. That young chap was an artist by the name of Steinar Lund and the stuff in his portfolio blew me away. he’d done work for Quicksilva before I think, so I’d seen some of his earlier work, and the thought of having him produce some of his great artwork for us was pretty exciting. It also fit in with the Llamasoft way of thinking. I wanted his work in our ads not just to promote the games but also because it was just damn cool artwork.

And so the next month away went the crappy Olympic ad and in came this:

Sheep In Space ad

Which I am sure you will agree is a lot more memorable and pleasing to the eye.

Steinar was always an absolute delight to work with – he’d come down to discuss a new project and then go away to do a bit of research and then present us with some preliminary sketches, one of which I’d choose to be developed into the finished artwork. He’d look at the game we were working on at the time and he always managed to come up with something that was both appropriate and awesome. His artwork came to define the look of Llamasoft’s packaging and advertising throughout the 8-bit and early 16-bit eras.

Here’s one little bit of trivia that came out of Steinar’s research for that very first iconic Sheep in Space ad:

The Sheep in Space sheep

This is the actual sheep that Steinar used as a model for the sheep in that ad. He went out photographing sheep as part of his research and this one became his model. He gave me the photograph at the time and I’ve kept it framed on the wall ever since :) .

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