• Graeme Mason

Dev History: Malcolm Hellon

While he may not be the most well-known name in retrogaming, Malcolm Hellon worked on several famous games during the Eighties, including Spy Vs Spy and The Lords Of Midnight. With his zippy Commodore 64 game, Splat!, available on Antstream Arcade, we spoke to Malcolm about his time working at Incentive Software.

Antstream Arcade: Hello Malcolm! How and when did you become a games programmer?

Malcolm: Hi! It was way back in 1983, when I first became involved with Ian Andrew and Incentive Software, which he was operating out of a ground floor shop in Reading. My mate Pete remarked that with its large single front window and long high counter, it rather looked like a fish ‘n’ chip shop. It was purely fortuitous that I happened to be walking past when I spotted a little note in that window: ‘Commodore 64 programmer wanted’. Now, being the proud owner of what was then such an impressive machine, and being, how shall I put it, not gainfully employed, I was naturally curious and wandered in to have a natter.

Malcolm (left) and his programming sidekick, Philip ‘Tag’ Taglione.

AA: How delightfully random! How did you get on with Ian?

MH: He struck me immediately as personable, amiable, polite and charming. It turned out that that meeting was the beginning of a friendship that was set to last many years, and never really ended.

AA: What did Ian need a C64 coder for specifically?

MH: Incentive had just released a game called Splat! for the ZX Spectrum, and he wanted someone to do a conversion. Could I do it? Well, yes. The game was written in 48k BASIC with bits of Z80 assembler, but I never looked at the code, I just copied the look and feel of the gameplay while adding a few enhancements. These included a wider maze to suit the C64’s screen, and sound samples of sorts – I didn’t have a microphone, so had to use headphones in reverse, and my sampler design was a bit primitive back then. It took about two months to complete.

AA: Why did you use an alias for Splat?

MH: I seem to remember it was in case the game flopped. I needn’t have worried, it sold very well on the C64, and Ian’s royalty cheques were very welcome.

AA: What else did you work on at Incentive?

MH: Next up was the Powerload 64, a fast loader and anti-piracy software device. The problem with the C64 was that loading games from its cassette machine was very slow and unreliable; often a game would take 20 minutes to load and then you’d get the ‘load error’ message right at the end. Another problem was that at any point during loading, pressing the run/stop key would enable you to break into the game and copy the code. Powerload 64 was my design to get round all this nonsense, and it turned out to be very successful, cutting down load times and blocking out break-ins. Other publishers and duplicators loved it, and I’m happy to say the royalties piled in and lasted for a couple of years until Novaload took over.

AA: How did you come to work on The Lords Of Midnight?

MH: In 1985, Ian was in contact with Beyond, and they wanted someone to do a conversion of this hugely successful Spectrum game. By this time I had met Anthony ‘Tag’ Taglione who had loads of Speccy experience, so we all agreed that Tag and I would work as a team and do the conversion. We went up to Wallasey to see Mike Singleton, and after chatting to Mike over a couple of days and agreeing what we all wanted, Tag and I returned to Reading to start work on the C64 version. We added some embellishments, a wider panorama, a moving moon and sun using hardware sprites and a few Stonehenge-inspired vistas

AA: How long did it take and how did you do?

MH: It took about three months and it was hugely successful. Ian was beaming and Beyond were very impressed with the sales and anti-piracy features of the Powerload 64 – it was the first game to use the system.

AA: What was next?

MH: The second effort by ‘Tag and the Kid’, Spy Vs Spy. This was another conversion but this time from the C64 to the Spectrum. Tag and I worked mostly in my room at my mate Pete’s house, working 18 hour days for many weeks on the trot. Squeezing the code from 64k into 48k was a very tight fit, and we ran out of space at one point.

AA: We imagine it was tricky – what did you do?

MH: I went to the pub! But the solution to our problem came while I was having a pint and idly watching a fruit machine, and how it handled illuminating a line of images. It turned out we didn’t need another 1k of data tables if instead we could have a bi-directional masked sliding bit pattern, which in any case would be virtually just as fast as a look-up table. Sorted.

AA: Your final project for Incentive was another utility, of sorts, The Graphic Adventure Creator.

MH: Sean Ellis had produced it for the Amstrad CPC464, and Ian asked me if I could do a conversion for the C64. By this time, I was actually living at Incentive, on the second-floor room which I shared with Ian’s table football and pinball machine. The GAC was a program designed to facilitate the design, creation and testing of adventure games, and it was quite sophisticated for the time. I built in a few little enhancements, mostly to do with the creation of the graphics. In particular, Sean’s original had no facility to reflect, invert or mirror the pictures, while mine had. Most of the enhancements were to save memory, such as the ability to flip a picture upside-down. I also built the code for Powerload 64 into it, but doing this brought the code into the public domain.

AA: How did the GAC do?

MH: It did quite well I think, but by now the machines were changing and the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Amstrad were being eclipsed by the more powerful Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, something which Ian was acutely aware of.

AA: When did you leave Incentive and what are your outstanding memories of working there?

MH: In May 1987, I received a call from Mike Singleton, offering me to join him as co-director of his new company, Maelstrom Games. It was quite late at night, and I’d had a few bottles of Guinness so I just said ‘yeah, sure.’ But I have very fond memories of working at Incentive. Combined with the others, we had a fair bit of talent and were for the most part, young, free and single, and pushing the edges of what was technically possible given the fundamental limits of the machines at our disposal. Nowadays, computer games companies can be huge, with defined departments and demarcations. But back then we were programmers, designers, artists, musicians, sounds engineers, testers, publishers and financiers, just about everything! The programming teams were mostly hippies of sorts, and we probably smoked and drank too much. But we had optimism, vision, creativity, a sense of community and a sense of company in the true spirit of the word. We really were in it together, showing what could be achieved, and producing great games.

Our special thanks to Malcolm for his time.

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