Updated: Mar 27, 2020
In the latest of our Dev lookbacks, Antstream Arcade speaks to Mike Lamb, former Ocean Software coder and the author of a range of ZX Spectrum classics, about his early career designing and programming video games in the Eighties.
Antstream Arcade: Hello Mike! So how did you discover computing and video games?
Mike Lamb: I started programming in 1980 when I was 16. My dad was a lecturer at Hull University and he brought home the university’s Commodore PET to work on over Christmas. We mainly played Space Invaders on it, but I got to do some BASIC programming as well. There were stories in the press about kids who were making fortunes, and my friend’s younger brother, William Wray, wrote a ZX81 version of Space Invaders for Arctic that made a few hundred pounds.
A: A lot of money! Did you get a Spectrum when it came out?
ML: Yes, along with a lot of my friends, I ordered one. William had got a hold of an early one and written Galaxians, and made a boat-load of royalties in the process. We all paid attention!
A: Before Ocean, you created a utility and some games for a company called CDS?
ML: I’d forgotten about Spec-Copy! It was a program designed to defeat early copy protection, I think I sold about a dozen or so. I also wrote some BASIC games that a friend of mine put on a compilation that Christmas and started university. Pool came from an arcade game they had in the student union bar and when my exams were done I wrote a Spectrum version, sending it out to several publishers. Some offered straight cash, but I was more interested in royalties because that’s how William had done so well with Galaxians. CDS came back with the best offer, and it helped that their most prominent game was Othello, as that kind of fitted with Pool better than say Galaxians. It also worked out well because their offices in Doncaster were a short train ride from me in Hull.
A: How did the follow-up, Steve Davis Snooker come about?
ML: That was CDS’s idea. Giles Hunter was running them by then, and saw the success of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon. I remember being annoyed that Steve [Davis] got a bigger royalty than me, but Giles was right – the sales more than made up for it. I was making more money than my dad from programming, mostly over the summer. Then, after the success of the Spectrum version, I wrote more Z80 versions, each making steadily less in royalties, but I did well enough that I didn’t want to take a regular job when I graduated.
A: Having created the Joust homage, Winged Warlords, what happened next with CDS?
ML: I moved back to Hull in 1985 and they asked me to write a golf simulation, but it didn’t work out. Looking back I was overly ambitious and found it a bit isolating as well, working from my flat and with most of my school friends having moved away.
A: So shortly after you joined Ocean?
ML: I knew people in Manchester and thought that working there would be a good change. I applied for a job there and was interviewed by Gary Bracey, who had just been hired himself. Previously he had run his own computer games store and he’d sold a lot of CDS’s Pool and Snooker, so he offered me the job. The salary wasn’t all that much, but he promised more in bonuses if thing worked out, and pointed out that Ocean got the biggest licences. Gary had been hired to build up the in-house development in order to improve the quality. He hired around ten artists and programmers and most of us were new to Manchester, so we made friends quickly.
A: What was your first game at Ocean?
ML: It was Top Gun. They wanted a vector graphics game for Christmas – in about four months. It was quite promising to start with but there were some staff problems and it was too ambitious to begin with. The end result was rushed and you had to work at the game to understand what was going on.
A: What was it like working at Ocean? Was there a lot of pressure?
ML: We had deadlines to meet, but Gary mostly just let us get on with it. He’d pop by every week or so and check out what we were doing. They paid us on Thursdays, and for some reason there were a lot of hungover workers on Fridays…
A: Renegade and Target Renegade (available on Antstream) are both superb games. Why did you implement the one-button attack?
ML: I’d learned from Top Gun that trying to do too much on the keyboard wasn’t fun, and also all the joysticks at the time only had one button. Playing with both the keyboard and a joystick wasn’t much better, so I simplified it to one button. Then, Ocean negotiated for the Double Dragon licence from Taito, but Melbourne House got it, so it was turned into a sequel to Renegade. We had the basic idea of what we wanted to do, and just added stuff.
A: Who did you most admire at Ocean?
ML: Jonathan Smith was a Spectrum legend. He didn’t work in-house but came into the offices. Someone told me how his screen scrolling worked in Cobra, and I used it in Arkanoid, something he never failed to remind me whenever we met. John Brandwood also wrote some very good utilities we all ended up using.
A: Do you wish you’d had opportunity to design and code your own original games?
ML: I wanted to be successful, and for most of my time in games that meant working with licences. Steve Davis Snooker outsold Pool by five to one, for example. There were times when a new platform came out and you had a chance to stand out by doing something no-one had done before, but then everyone caught up and you needed a licence to stand out. Nowadays the graphics are realistic enough that the industry can create its own licences, like GTA, but for the most of my time that didn’t apply. I suppose it would have been more fulfilling to be more independent, but you make your choices…
A: Finally, what were the best and worst things about programming on the ZX Spectrum?
ML: The best – the Z80A processor. The worst? Probably the dot crawl.
Our thanks to Mike for his time. Check out the brilliant Target Renegade on Antstream now!