For young sci-fi nut George Allan, the computer boom of the Eighties was a revelation. “I was a big sci-fi fan the one day it turned out computers were real!” he laughs. Antstream Arcade talks to the ex-Gremlin coder to discover more about the games he worked on throughout the Nineties including Venus The Flytrap and Zool.
Antstream Arcade: Hello George! How and when did you become a games programmer?
George Allan: After finding out about computers I eventually got a Vic-20, and it’s the best thing ever, still one of my favourite objects. It came with an introduction to BASIC, so I learned to code and figured out how games like Snake and Blitz worked. My first real games computer was the Commodore 64 and I taught myself machine code from a Melbourne House book. You could suddenly make proper games, super fast and learn from games creators by looking through their code.
AA: What games did you play back then?
GA: On the C64, Son Of Blagger is the game that really made me want to make games. It scrolled the level around the main character and the whole game was a single large map. It was mind-blowing at the time! Jeff Minter games were great too, both for their design and gameplay. Also his code was easy to read and understand, so I learned scrolling from him.
AA: After the Commodore 64 you graduated to its successor, the Amiga.
GA: Yes, although the Amiga was easily my least favourite Commodore computer to start with. The sprites were rubbish and the machine was overly complicated, at least compared to the Commodore 64. You needed a compiler to do anything, you couldn’t just write machine code. I was lucky, a college friend gave me a pirated copy of some compiler in exchange for my C64 machine code book. So I grew to love the Amiga. The copper chip was its saviour really, allowing you to multiplex sprites and get super fast full screen scrolling. I do still have my Hardware Reference Manual… couldn’t have done it without that book.
AA: How did you join Gremlin?
GA: I finally figured the Amiga out enough to start writing games and sent one off to Gremlin Graphics – I chose them because of Son Of Blagger [the game’s author, Tony Crowther, was now working at Gremlin], and everything happened really fast after that. I got an interview, travelled down from Aberdeen to Sheffield and was offered the job a few days later. Kind of lucky as I’d just dropped out of college after wasting all my time on the Amiga!
AA: Sounds like that was far from wasted time! What was it like at Gremlin?
GA: It was my dream job. It was right at the end of the Commodore 64 days and just how I’d imagined a game studio being… everyone there was making games! There was a single floor, most of it open plan, with maybe 20-30 people and different areas you could walk around, chat and see what people were working on. There was a ton of messing around and loads of us would end up at the Frog & Parrot after work. A little too often perhaps, but the bosses, Ian [Stewart] and James [North-Hearn] were really great. It was James who gave me the interview and job and Ian would come round once a week to check out all the games and see how everyone was doing.
AA: What was your first game at Gremlin?
GA: The first project was to finish the game I’d sent down to get the job, Chrome. I was teamed up with a couple of artists, Bernie [Hill] and Greggs [Paul Gregory] and it took us about eight months to rework and finish the game as Venus The Flytrap.
AA: How did that go, suddenly working with other developers?
GA: It went really well, especially considering there were no producers, so it was down to the team to design the game, make it and let the marketing folk know when it’d be ready. I can’t remember there being any crunch, you’d just naturally work more hours to get stuff done because it’s what you’d want to be doing anyway. Writing games with two or three other people was the best. You’d all be responsible for a large chunk of the game rather than be the second UI coder or something like that.
AA: What was next?
GA: After Venus, Greggs and I were asked to make a follow up to Switchblade. I’ve no idea why they didn’t ask Simon [Phipps, Switchblade’s designer] to do it. The original is a superb game, super-polished and playable, clearly a work of love, [so] it would have been nice to see Simon’s follow up. For Switchblade II, we designed a large map that would open up, much like in the original and I think it worked quite well. The later levels took a bit of a turn. We both played a lot of arcade machines back then so we tried emulating different arcade games. The second level is based on Gryzor and there’s a Shinobi influence later on. I’m not sure how successful we were given the limitations of the Amiga and myself, but I remember its development fondly.
AA: How did Zool come about?
GA: It started as a scroll routine for Switchblade II, although because that game didn’t really push the routine, I afterwards came up with this demo of a red square dashing about a large level. I showed this to Ian and he had me and Ade Carless paired up by the end of the week to try and develop it into a game. Ade came up with the character name and design and we created his moves together, again based on games we liked. Strider was a huge influence for me and this led to Zool’s climbing ability for example.
for more on Zool, check out The Secret History Of Zool on the Antstream Arcade blog: https://www.antstream.com/post/the-secret-history-of-zool.
AA: What are you best memories of working at Gremlin?
GA: It was pretty relaxed really, which was great for just making games and going to the pub. One of my best memories was from early on. I was getting stressed when Venus started dropping to 30 FPS and I’d convinced myself I was gonna get fired. Fungus [Colin Dooley], the other Amiga coder at Gremlin, calmed me down and we worked out how to update the bad guys in 30 FPS while having the scrolling and the player update to 60 FPS. It was just really nice that he took the time to do that.
AA: Why did you leave Gremlin and what did you do next?
GA: After Zool, myself and Greggs started working on a SNES title about a vampire crow. I had a pretty decent engine in the works while Greggs had the character all animated and running around. It was an exciting time with lots of ideas flowing. However, I was called off to work on the Amiga 1200 version of Zool and when that was done, Greggs was working on something else and I was asked to help out on the Mega Drive version of Zool. It was my first experience of having something I’d worked on being dropped and I guess I was feeling a bit sad about it, and a bit burned out from all the Zool. So when a friend asked if I wanted to work on a Mega Drive game elsewhere, it was a pretty easy answer. That game turned out to be Pitfall for Activision – those were some strange times.
AA: Finally, George, what are you up to today?
GA: I’ve been an indie developer for 17 years now writing games as Clockwork Pixels. After deciding to ditch mobile gaming and get back into PC games, I suddenly realised that I’d never written a platform game as an indie. So I started an Amiga/SNES inspired platform game called Grim Earth, which was supposed to take a year, but it’s been four years now. Still having fun with it though, and learning a lot!
Our special thanks to George for his time. You can find George at www.ClockworkPixels.com and see his early access build of Grim Earth on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/905220/Grim_Earth/. Also on Steam is Citadel 1986, George’s homage to his favourite Commodore 64 game, Son Of Blagger: https://store.steampowered.com/app/510830/Citadel_1986/.