Llamasoft History - Part 7
Pre-History & Beginning
37 The history of Llamasoft doesn't only belong to me; it belongs to many people who were caught up in the whole thing - the people who bought the software, the people involved in producing the games - and also friends and family who helped out and without whom there would be no history to tell. It belongs also to my parents, whose lives were occasionally turned upside down by all the goings-on, and who can have had no inkling of what was about to happen when I started staying late nights doing odd things at sixth form college.
My mum, in particular, was instrumental in protecting me from some rather less-than-scrupulous characters I encountered in those early days, eventually throwing her lot in with me and becoming a partner in Llamasoft; and my dad, despite not being into videogames at all before I tainted him with the 2600, became fascinated with the whole business of both creating and playing videogames, and co-designed games with me and was a gamer for the rest of his life.
My dad was also a good diarist, and spent a good deal of time over the years working on writing a family history, informed by notes in his diaries going back several decades. This he eventually printed and distributed to me and all my brothers - it was an excellent and interesting read, particularly interesting to read his own perspective on events that we all only vaguely remembered from childhood or as distant family lore, from a time before we were born.
He also kept notes over the years about the happenings during the Llamasoft era, and he'd been planning to write a History of Llamasoft himself. Unfortunately he never lived long enough to do that - but upon going through his old stuff on my mum's Macintosh after his death, I was moved to discover all of the notes that he'd made for the project. Seeing his notes made me realise that there really was an interesting tale to tell about those old days, and that by doing the History myself, I I could complete what he started, and in doing so actually engage in one last collaboration with him.
The notes are by no means a complete History - some have been more or less completely written up, others are just stubs and ideas and bits where he was going to ask me to fill in some details of my own later. As we are now getting to the interesting part of the History, this seems to be the right time to introduce his notes and commentaries. Wherever possible I'll quote his actual writing, and I'll expand on his notes with my own thoughts and memories as we go along.
38I'll begin with his introductory paragraphs, which cover the same ground as I already have in preceding chapters, to recap and bring us up to date. Pat Minter:
A History of Llamasoft - Pre-History & BeginningLlamasoft has added a lot to our lives since it was first established in 1982, so I feel that it is worth setting down an account of its triumphs and adventures.
Of course Jeff was the creator and instigator of the whole thing; if he hadn't been so determined and so confident in his own abilities, Llamasoft would not have happened and Hazel and I would have a much calmer and more vegetative decade or so.
Jeff showed no apparent interest in computers until, at sixteen, soon after starting his A level course at Queen Mary's Sixth Form College in Basingstoke, he discovered that there was a Commodore Pet on the premises. The Pet was the first practical and seriously marketed "personal" microcomputer and simple games were beginning to appear for it, mostly created by students - I guess as a diversion from the mundane business of actually studying.
As this interest had not flowered until after his A levels courses had begun, Jeff had to progress by self-tuition, driven by his newly acquired enthusiasm. The first sign, for us , that something significant was afoot was when he started to leave home early to go to college- a striking departure from the norm. In fact he was ensuring that he could spend time on the computer system before the "autorised" students arrived...
In 1980, having achieved satisfactory A level grades in Maths and Science, he was accepted for a place at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and in the September was installed there to begin a 'Physics and Computing' degree. This course was intended to comprise 80% physics and 20% computing. Jeff approximately reversed these percentages and in doing so had a fine and instructive time, to the extent that after a year he was asked to leave.
We were rather worried by this last development and after discussing matters with him we began to search for a course which would lead to a degree in Computing, which we felt would better match his interests and improve his motivation. Various courses were considered- I remember an interview at Portsmouth Polytech, for instance, but eventually he was offered what seemed a suitable place at Oxford Polytechnic.
A CrisisHaving obtained a place, the question of accommodation had to be resolved. This proved to be difficult so it was agreed that initially he would commute the 35 miles to Oxford each working day. He would cycle to the station at Mortimer (4 miles?), proceed by train to Oxford, which entailed changing trains in Reading, cycle to the college and return by the same route. This was clearly a physically demanding schedule but then he was young and fit and he had a decent bike, didn't he?
The course began in early October and seemed to suit him. He travelled to and fro without undue complaint and seemed to have settled well into the travel routine. Sometime during this period Jeff came into contact with the head of a company that was trying to establish itself in the rapidly expanding home computer market. This gentleman was interested in the games Jeff had already developed on his Sinclair ZX81 computer (purchased with the proceeds of a part-time office cleaning job). He invited Jeff to his headquarters in Great Yarmouth and a couple of projects were agreed which Jeff would work on in his spare time.
So Jeff now had a place on a congenial degree course and the possibility of earning some extra cash while improving his practical knowledge of computer programming. At the beginning of November, on a Saturday afternoon when the house was empty, there was a break-in and Jeff's ZX81 computer and a few related items, were stolen. The culprit turned out to be a kid who Jeff had been coaching in computer technology! Eventually the stolen goods were recovered and returned by the police.
On November 23rd we had a phone call from Jeff, from Oxford- he said that something was wrong- he was unable to pedal his bike. Was the bicycle defective in some way? No, he had pains in his chest. Greatly alarmed we asked if he could make it to Mortimer; he thought that he could and I drove to Mortimer station to meet him. Obviously the next step was to consult our local doctor. He in turn called in a heart specialist, Mr Fowler, who came to our house that evening. ECGs were made and a diagnosis was soon forthcoming- Jeff had Pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, a condition sometimes experienced by athletes and which if not recognised and treated promptly, could be fatal.
39Of course it didn't turn out to be fatal, or I wouldn't be sitting here writing the History at all. But it was extremely scary for everybody involved. I remember waking up one morning and finding my brother holding my wrist looking for a pulse, because I'd slept so late that my mum was scared that I'd died in the night.
As is the nature of such things, it was a lot more scary when I didn't know what was happening than it was once the correct diagnosis was made. Which isn't to say that it wasn't terrifying at times - some nights I'd get a panic on and be sure I was going to snuff it imminently, which I would usually assuage by doing some programming. Programming was an excellent way to take your mind off scary thoughts and worries.
There wasn't any real form of treatment for the condition other than complete rest - the heart became 'distressed' by rubbing against the inflamed pericardium, and all one could really do was chill out as much as possible until hopefully the inflammation went away and things got back to normal. I wasn't so desperately ill as to need hospitalisation, and it was decided that I would be less stressed to be at home. The condition did leave me feeling very weak a lot of the time, and for some weeks I was unable to do much that couldn't be done in a lying or sitting position.
One of my last acts before collapsing in Oxford had been to badger the Commodore dealer there about availability of the new Commodore machine that was just being released, the Commodore VIC-20. I was particularly keen to get this new machine, since not only did it have a much more robust keyboard and case than the rather flimsy ZX-81, it was also the much more game-oriented offspring of the old Commodore PET series that I'd cut my coding teeth on. It had sound and colour (and not a great deal of memory, but still more than a stock ZX-81) and I anticipated being able to write games on it that at last came close to capturing something of the arcade experience.
A couple of weeks after the incident and my diagnosis, my mum took me into Basingstoke to go shopping. Not that I could actually do any shopping - I just sat in the car, too weak to even walk the streets of Basingstoke. But I was able to send her up to the computer shop at the top of town to ascertain the availability of Vic-20s, and she returned to the car park with a Vic-20 package, which I lovingly cradled on my knees all the way home, looking at the pictures of happy families and chunky pixel sailing boats that adorned the outside of the package.
The VIC was a lot like the PET I'd started on, as I discovered when I got the machine home and hooked it up to the family telly in the living room, where I could lie comfortably and fiddle with it. The BASIC language was the same; the screen had fewer characters per line, but that was more than made up for by the fact that each character could have one of eight colours. In addition, one wasn't limited to the PET character set - one could sacrifice a little bit of RAM and use it to generate any character set you liked, just as in the graphics ROM project I'd been involved with, but with the advantage that one didn't need additional hardware, and that being in RAM, one wasn't limited to a fixed number of alternate sets. Anything you could think of you could define.
The VIC also had a splendidly noisy sound generator - no more arcane tricks getting sounds out of AM radios for me! - and a marvelously chunky and robust keyboard which was a real pleasure to use after the fiddliness of the PET's tiny calculator-style keyboard and the unresponsive membrane efforts on the ZX-80 and ZX-81.
40I spent the most part of that strange and stressful December lying in front of the VIC and the family telly, learning my way around. I learned where the screen RAM was and how to do the character-defining thing - in fact I wrote my own little program to let me edit the characters more conveniently. I wrote some simple games - a conversion of the 'Deflex' game that we'd originally made on the PET, except with noisy crashing sound effects and flashing colours when you hit a target, a Breakout game, a version of the hoary old City Bomber game that everybody used to do. As my dad recalls it:
Jeff had now acquired a Commodore VIC 20 computer as well. This had the advantages of a "proper" keyboard, colour output and a 3.5k of memory, a spectacular advance over the ZX81's 1k!
His first game for the VIC 20, which he soon produced, was ROX, programmed in the Commodore version of the BASIC computer language. Rox presented a simulation of a planetary surface on which stood a space station which the player had to defend by firing missiles at descending meteors. It was very simple, colourful and it was fun to play.
Christmas was rather a subdued affair that year though I recall that Jeff was able to play Rox, lying prone, using the living room telly as a display.
Rox, for all it was a very simple game, was something a bit special to me. I'd made those other few games on the Vic, and they were fine, but were all simple and all things that had been made before. Rox was something else, a little game that I made up myself, redefining the VIC characters to create a lunar surface upon which a little lander descended, and which was then beset by falling meteors. There were only a few controls - to fire off intercepting rockets in three directions, or to panic and leave the surface, ending the game. Successive meteor impacts chipped away at the lunar surface, and if the surface was breached, or a meteor hit the lander, then you'd lose.
It was a really simple game, really all down simply to choosing which rocket to fire and timing it right - but there was something about it. Me and my dad played it a lot that Christmas, and I refined it, adding successive waves of meteors and occasionally an enemy missile strike to contend with too. I made it look nicer than any game I'd made before, designing a custom character set so that even the text appeared in a futuristic style, and adding a proper hi-score table and everything.
Nothing clever, only BASIC code, but it looked good for a game of its era, and... it played well.
We kept coming back for more.
41Anyway, let's resume my dad's narrative...
RecoveryHappily the New Year (1982) saw a slow but steady improvement in Jeff's health, albeit with one or two setbacks. The medics kept a keen eye on him, with regular ECG examinations to check the current state of his heart function.
The chap from Great Yarmouth was anxious to capitalise on Jeff's talents and Jeff was keen to respond. Consequently, in spite of our misgivings he went to Great Yarmouth at the end of January to complete some work for the fellow's company. This resulted in the marketing by that company of Jeff's version of the established arcade game Centipede, and also a program which would give the ZX81 computer higher-resolution graphics. The company must subsequently have made a great deal of money from these two products- they were advertised widely in the new computer games magazines- but Jeff's reward was derisory and it was not proposed to pay him any royalties at all for the hi-res program, which was unique and commercially valuable. Its value is illustrated by the fact that the bloke's cousin, who worked for him, defected to start his own company, selling thinly-disguised versions of the same products, including Jeff's hi-res program and of course no money at all was forthcoming from that source (although I did tackle the scumbag at a computer show some months later - he offered a payment of 10 pounds to which I made a rude reply). We subsequently arranged for him to receive a solicitor's letter on the subject but were keenly aware that our financial resources were meagre and that at that time software piracy was not legally recognised.
Six months later, after many letters, phone calls and unfulfilled promises, the guy paid a once-for-all sum of 500 pounds for the hi-res program, which must have been a fraction of a percentage point of his profit from it- booming times in the computer games business.
Jeff returned from Great Yarmouth in February in somewhat worse shape than when he had left home a week or so before. Fortunately the setback was shortlived and his health continued slowly to improve.
Here my dad is remembering a combination of events, some of which happened before I became ill - starting to work on the "Graphics Rom" project and Centipede for the ZX-81 - and what happened afterwards.
The guy from Great Yarmough I'd been working with was an ex-used-car salesman, a great corpulent slug of a man whose business practices turned out to be pretty shady, at least back at that time. Remember, at that point I still had no idea that I could ever actually make my own way selling and making games, and the small amount of biz I'd done with the man led me to believe that, as I was seemingly decisively out of the educational system due to a combination of flunkage at Norwich and illness at Ox Poly, pursuing work in league with him was probably the best bet for me to get off the dole and into employment.
Therefore, once I was recovered enough (barely) to travel, I set out with the intention of actually working for the man in Great Yarmouth. I got on a train and headed up there, booking into a cheap B&B when I got there. I still wasn't feeling at all great, but I figured I could hack sitting at a desk coding and flopping out in the B&B at night. The first day I was there he sat me down in front of what I think was an MZ-80K or derivative, a Japanese machine somewhat like the old Commodore PET, with the intention of having me write business software for his company. I remember sitting in the guy's office, in some warehouse that he'd recently acquired when his own biz got too big to run from his upstairs bedroom, playing with the Sharp and actually thinking about how to write business software in Sharp BASIC. At nights I'd get some chips from the local chippy (which had a Space Invaders machine in, at which I'd occasionally essay a wan game) then go back to my room at the B&B and pore over "Vic Revealed", a red, paperback tome which contained in-depth secrets and deep knowledge about the workings of the VIC-20.
I wasn't there for long. One day I decided that I really needed to ask the man about what my rewards were going to be for my part in the graphics ROM project - it didn't seem unrealistic to expect something, given that despite my encroaching illness I'd worked pretty damn hard putting things together and writing software for the thing.
The guy basically turned around and told me that I'd be getting nothing at all for it. As far as he was concerned it was now a hardware thing for him to sell, and that was an end of it, despite the fact that all of the actual contents of the ROM had come from me. He thought I was doing it all "as a favour"
That was the end of any plans I had to work there, to be certain. I became very upset, and at that time such upset caused me a good degree of physiological distress too, thanks to my illness. I arrived gasping and shaking back at the B&B, and the kindly lady who ran the place found me white and in tears, packing up my stuff. I felt so frustrated, and angry at myself - angry that I had been taken in and used so, angry at my stupid illness that was making me feel like shit for months on end, just completely upset, and ill. I made my apologies to the lady and headed for the train station to get myself home where I arrived physically and emotionally shattered.
It's true about the bloke's cousin, too - shortly after I'd started doing ZX81 programs for the man, another company with almost the same name started up, and they were selling pirated versions of my own programs - identical code except for my name crudely hacked off the title page and replaced with something else. They were both repeatedly challenged about this but there was never a straight answer, they claimed that there was no relation between the companies and what they sold, despite them being cousins. It warmed my cockles and made me proud when my dad told him to piss off with his paltry settlement offer at that show some months later. We did extract a desutory amount from them in the end but by then we figured it best to be happy we even got that out of them, and just move on.
And that was the end of the lot from Great Yarmouth.
(Many, many years later, trawling through unfamiliar program images on a Vic-20 emulator, I came across something surprising. I was loading a .tap image of some US game, and... something seemed familiar, something I hadn't seen for 20 years... the way the character images loaded from the tape, gradually filling the title screen with a familiar font... little llamas on the instruction pages... but the title screen had plainly claimed that the game originated in some US state...
...then I remembered: before the irreconcilable breakdown with the Yarmouth guy, I'd written him a handful of Vic-20 games, really simple ones, which he'd wanted to release as a cheap pack of games to sell for the VIC, opening up that market alongside his existing ZX81 biz. Ten games on a tape or something like that, and one of them was "Space Zap", based on a description of an obscure arcade game I'd never even seen.
And it was "Space Zap", llamas and all, that I saw on that obscure US tape image. It'd plainly been taken and sold in the US, completely unknown to me, only finding out about it 20 years later.
Probably the US guy just picked it up and copied it himself, from the tape sold legitimately by the Great Yarmouth guy, and hacked the title screen and sold it himself, and I'm just being paranoid to think that slug-man did an export deal on the sly.
42Back to my dad's narrative (I hasten to add that my dad would never have used the term "Smeghead". However in his text he used actual names, and I have grudgingly changed those to protect the guilty throughout):
The Smeghead PeriodThrough February and March, to judge from the information to hand, Jeff lay low. In fact I feel sure that he was working- and further fruits of his programming were shortly to appear. Also sometime during this period, probably at one of the computer shows now being held with increasing frequency, mainly in London, he made the acquaintance of Smeghead. Coincidentally Smeghead also lived in Tadley. He was seventeen and lived with his parents. His father was a staff sergeant (or some such) in the Army and owned a small furniture removal business.
Over the next weeks Smeghead became a frequent visitor. Although he and Jeff shared an interest in computer games, Smeghead clearly saw himself as a budding business tycoon and computer games as the medium for achieving this ambition, whereas Jeff's interests were in conception, design and programming. Their possible combination in some sort of partnership seemed logical and potentially profitable. Although Smeghead was young he was backed by his father who obviously saw this possibility as a means of extending his own business interests, particularly as he was shortly to resign/retire from the army.
My diary for 21st March 1982 contains the one word 'LLAMAS!' from which I deduce that this was the day that Llamasoft was formed.
Actually I think I met Smeghead through a mutual acquaintance, a guy who lived on the same estate who also had a computer (I think it was a ZX81 back then, although he later got an 8-bit Atari). Smeghead lived round the corner from this guy; the family ran a video rentals business from out of their garage. Anyway, of an evening I frequently used to wander down to the estate and hang out with Smeghead and my mate, or they'd come back to mine, and Smeghead started getting the idea that instead of flogging my stuff through the likes of the Great Yarmouth bloke, maybe I should think of doing it myself.
I must admit that similar thoughts had been occurring to me. The "games biz" had sprung into startled existence in the space of a few months, and the poor thing was in sorry shape indeed, not really knowing what to do with itself. People suddenly realised there was a market selling programs for the newly-fashionable "home micros" and the result was an absolute shambles. Whether peddled by individuals working from their bedrooms or hastily-formed companies formed to be the first to exploit this new scene, the software on sale was almost uniformly execrable, usually artless apings of popular arcade games cobbled together in BASIC or, if you were really lucky, "100% machine code!".
It was after having paid seven quid for a version of "Asteroids" so mind-numbingly, gut-wrenchingly and unremittingly awful as to beggar belief that I started thinking to myself "bloody hell, even I could do better than that" and wondering if that was indeed what I should do.
In the meanwhile I carried on exploring my VIC-20. I got myself an 8K RAM expansion - which was sheer luxury, and allowed me to try more ambitious things on the little machine. I also bought myself a large, metal, Welsh expansion unit, and a "Spot Assenbler"cartridge, which was a tool that let me examine memory in the form of an assembly language listing, and enter opcodes as mnemonics rather than do all that tedious mucking around in hexadecimal.
Something I was playing around with was the concept of making a big, virtual screen inside the VIC, and then being able to scroll over the virtual screen at will - the default VIC screen display was only 22 characters wide, which was a bit restrictive. I wanted something that would let me work in a larger area.
I wrote some assembler routines to handle the display and scrolling of the virtual screens, and it all worked pretty well in the end, but I wasn't quite sure what I should do with it. It was a neat hack in need of something to be used for.
I also worked a bit on the little tool I'd made to help me design graphics and character sets for the VIC. I extended it so that you could put a cluster of characters together and use those as a tiny hi-res display for making larger designs - you could push a little cursor round the display area and "draw" inside it using the keyboard.
One day I was home alone one afternoon, lying on the floor idly playing with the graphic design tool, and thinking about animals. I pushed the cursor round and drew the outline of a llama. I sat and swigged my tea, looking at the llama, and then, on a whim, directed the cursor to some empty space below the image of the beast, and wrote there, in tiny letters, the word "Llamasoft!!" (Goat help me, multiple exclamation marks and all. Forgive me. I was young).
Satisfied with my work, and needing to nip out to get some money, I finished my tea, cleared the screen, and then used the keyboard to reconstruct my little llama logo in the middle of the screen. Then I typed beneath it "GONE TO BANK, BACK SOON" and left the telly on as I went out, to explain my absence should my mum return while I was away.
It was more an idle doodle at that time rather than a proper intent - but Smeghead thought there was mileage in it, and encouraged me in such thoughts at every opportunity - with the proviso that he would be my representative and promotor, and handle all the business side of things, whilst I would be the creative engine actually producing the goods. He got me round to his dad's house on a couple of occasions to talk about it. They were recent arrivals in the town, having been over in Northern Ireland owing to Smeghead's dad being in the army. They seemed to be doing OK, with irons in a few fires between Smeghead and his dad, and were almost well-off in a somewhat chavvy, slightly shady kind of way. His dad was an odd character, a short, strident man who reminded me of a strutting Bantam cock. It did make me squirm a few times when I was up there and I heard them talking disparagingly about "Fenians" and "pakis" - I'd never been around anyone with views like that before. I guess I put up with it because I figured hell, maybe being in the army and in a place where you might get shot or blown up makes you less tolerant, or something like that. But it still made me uncomfortable.
Between them they did their best to encourage me to allow them to run the business side of things if I did decide to start selling my own games. They made great play of the fact that I was still recovering from my illness, telling me that they would do all the hard work and shield me from the need to worry about the business side of things. All I had to do was rest, recuperate, and write code, and they would reward me with a whole 30% of anything that they made selling it.
Goat help me, I could cheerfully travel back in time and knee my 19-year-old self firmly in the bollocks for being so easily led up the garden path, round the houses and into the barn with all the cows in, but back then I was young and stupid and hadn't the first idea how to go about any kind of business activities at all, so I fell for it.
We decided that we would start by placing a small advert, printed out on the Vic-20 printer, for some of the early games I'd made already, and see what happened.
And we decided that we should call ourselves "Llamasoft".
Thankfully, Smeghead and his strident dad had figured without allowing for the level head and fiercely protective nature of my mum...