From the foundation of the home computing scene to the modern day, veteran Steve Riding has enjoyed a busy career in videogames encompassing an impressive range of computers and consoles. With some of his early games available on Antstream Arcade, we caught up with Steve to chat about his 8-bit programming days and beyond.
Antstream Arcade: Hi Steve! What were the first videogames you remember, and what got you into computing?
Steve: Hi! I saved all my money to buy an 8K Commodore PET, and learned machine code by finding some interesting code at the end of Your Commodore PET Revealed. That turned out to be machine code, and I could enter it into the PET by use of the hex editor, entered by typing sts 1024, if I remember correctly! The machine was purchased from B&B Computers in Bolton, and Ian Hetherington of Imagine and Psygnosis fame was a director there.
AA: Which early games do you recall playing?
SR: All the early Atari VCS games, especially really fun ones like Combat. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a commercial for VCS Basketball. I saved up with my brother to buy it.
AA: You became a lifelong Atari fan at this point, notably the 400/800. Why that computer in particular?
SR: Well, it had a 6502 processor, which was the same as the Commodore PET, and the graphics were pretty impressive and elegant for the time. There were some great magazines out at the time that supported the Atari 400/800, especially an American magazine called Byte which had some excellent technical articles. Getting a floppy disk drive with its huge 88k was also a large leap forward compared to audio tape.
AA: How did you meet Phil Morris and get involved with English Software?
SR: My brother would visit Gemini Electronics – owned by Phil – to buy games for the Atari VCS. He then bought an Atari 400 which I did some programming for, and showed Phil the results. I developed a machine code/BASIC hybrid game called Cosmic Conflict, and Phil sold it. After that, he lent me an assembler and disk drive, and that led to the development of Airstrike. I also worked weekends at Gemini selling software and hardware. It was a great time.
AA: Sounds it! What was the next step in your career?
SR: I was getting married and thought that Imagine Software would be more stable and thus easier for me to get a mortgage. The irony was that Phil gave me a large royalty cheque during my wedding, together with an aluminum cooking pot that I still have!
AA: Were you there at the end of Imagine? What was that time like?
SR: Completely surreal. I was staying at a hotel for some of the week while working on an Atari 400/800 Olympics game with a view to selling it to Atari. Then, one day the manager of the hotel was waiting for me, and I found out that the bills had not been paid. So, at that point, I would work through the night for a lot of the week, then take my Sage IV development system home at the weekend to work. So even at the end, the Atari team was fully committed while the company fell apart. There were some great people at Imagine, and it was a fantastic experience.
AA: You eventually started work at MC Lothlorien / Icon Design?
SR: I joined there sometime in 1985. They were good people, and the first game I worked on was Legions Of Death for the Commodore 64. I wasn’t a great fan of war games as such but thought that was good to work on, and we did some cool stuff in that period. While there I also did Atari 400/800 conversions of Flash Gordon, Revenge Of The Mutant Camels, Molecule Man and Universal Hero. The bonus for Molecule Man allowed me to buy an Atari ST to work at home on.
AA: What was your first 16-bit game?
SR: Never Mind. It was a challenge, as the original programmer wasn’t making great progress so I ended up writing it during evenings while managing the office by day. But it was great to work on and obviously proved to be my gateway to a job at Psygnosis. I had an amazing ten years there, eventually ending up as Director of all External Developments and working with great people on many great products.
AA: How do you look back at your time in the Eighties?
SR: It was like the beginning of an industry. We were one of the first developers in Europe to deliver 100% machine code experiences with products like Airstrike on the Atari 400/800. It was great fun, but having said that, the industry is constantly fun, and part of its charm is the speed at which it advances and that it never stagnates. The other cool thing is that a couple of my children are now in the industry and winning awards in their own right. They used to help me when they were as young as five to look at games and visit some of the UK’s most successful developers, so you could argue they have been in the industry longer than most!
AA: Finally, what is your favourite own game of those early days?
SR: I would say that would be Airstrike as it got me into the industry, allowed me to do what I wanted to do on my own terms, and also pay the bills!