Updated: Mar 27, 2020
For this week’s Game Developer Interview, we chat to Jas Austin, author of several Automata games, on what it was like working for the idiosyncratic software house in the Eighties.
Antstream Arcade: Hello Jas! Can you start by telling us how you got into computing and gaming?
Jas Austin: I remember my school getting a ZX80, and it was wondrous even though looking back it was a terrible machine! It wasn’t really geared up for gaming and it had this thing where every time you typed a button the screen would flash. So it wasn’t until the ZX81 that I started getting interested in games. I had a paper round and hated getting up at dawn and dragging these papers around. So I diligently saved up until I had enough to buy a ZX81, then told the newsagent to stuff their job!
A: Bet that felt good! Did you dabble in coding on the ZX81?
JA: Yes, that definitely kicked it all off. I self-taught BASIC and a small bit of machine code, but there was no computer class at school, so we set one up with the maths teacher. I didn’t go to university but did an O level computing course, which I failed twice. I still find that amusing! Then I left and released my first game in 1983.
A: Which was…?
JA: Bunny, released by Automata. I was friends with Mel [Croucher] and Christian [Penfold] from a few years earlier. Their company was based right here in Portsmouth by the seafront.
They did these little comedy games, and I saw an advert for one called Can Of Worms. I went and knocked on their door and asked if I could buy it, but they said no because I was too young! But they said if it was alright with my mum, then I could buy it. It wasn’t even that bad, just silly little games, and I played them to death on my ZX81. Automata were local heroes because they ran a games company.
A: How did Bunny come about?
JA: One Easter, Automata decided to have a competition asking for Easter-themed games. I think only two people entered and we both won. They were obviously hoping for something they could release, so they bought Bunny from me for £25 but I didn’t actually get the money as I wanted some memory for my 16k Spectrum, so Mel sorted that for me instead of the payment. I found out later he was able to get this stuff cheap, but I got what I wanted so I was happy, and it got my foot in the door. I was still just a kid.
A: What was the game like?
JA: It was a simple and terrible maze game, written entirely in BASIC, with only two levels and it took me about a week. I don’t think it did well, it was on a double tape with another game and sold mail order only. But I didn’t think of it as a job, purely a hobby. I was working part-time at my mum’s cake shop. But now, with my new upgraded Speccy I wanted to write something bigger and better.
A: What happened next?
JA: I learned machine code for my next game, Pi-Balled which I worked on with Colin Tuck who had done the other competition game. It was a complete rip-off of Q*Bert so I can’t say I designed it, but I did code it. It seemed like there weren’t many people doing original games then, you took one you liked and ripped it off. At the time I would have really liked to have done a Donkey Kong game, but I thought it was out of my reach. We did the Pi element first as we intended to offer the game to Automata as a Pi-Man-related game. We used the Currah speech unit, and I wanted it to say ‘BALLS!’ every time you died, but Mel vetoed it! But they were really happy with it, gave us £250 plus royalties, which felt like I’d hit the big time. I was a proper bedroom coder with a desk in my room.
A: Your next game was another arcade ‘homage’…
JA: Ha, yes, a mish-mash of Mr. Do and Boulderdash. Both our skillsets had gone up, all the levels were hand-built, with over 40 of them and lots more graphics. The story was you were the bird character from Pi-Balled and were shot inside this computer system, so there was a ‘Pi-in-‘ere’. We just wanted to get the Pi name in there again. Nowadays we spend weeks naming a game. Back then, we just down the pub and picked something that sounded cool and half-decent.
A: How did Pi-in-‘Ere do?
JA: Not as well. No upfront fee, and I don’t think they were doing particularly well. It wasn’t their fault, they publicised the game as much as they could, but the mail order market was dying. But people seemed to like the game.
A: Was that was your last game for Automata?
JA: Yes, but I did work on a game that never came out. You remember with their game, Deus Ex Machina, you played the game with the audio tape playing? There was this new technology where you could have this beautiful cartoon with Spectrum graphics laid over the top. We put together a little demo, very stylised with a character and Jon Pertwee doing the voiceover. It was just a prototype really, although the game had a name: Wozwell And The Time Ticklers.
A: Did this period, coding games for Automata, make you realise what you wanted to do in life?
JA: Yep, I realised that I really enjoyed writing games, had just left school and it was clear I wanted to try and make a career out of it. I was still working in my mum’s cake shop, and I still don’t think to this day she thinks of making games as a proper job. But after Automata it was quite tough as I had no real outlet to get my games out. I eventually worked on a game which was based on John Conway’s Game Of Life cellular formula. You created patterns on the screen and every cell lives or dies depending on how many neighbours it has.
A: Sounds like it was ahead of its time!
JA: It was, and it created these beautiful patterns thanks to a life grid and ‘guns’ on the corners that fired to create cells. I called it Colourscape, and it was very abstract, with a character set you could hardly read.
A: How much do you owe to Mel and Automata?
JA: They got me my foot in the door of the industry so I’ll always be grateful. We trusted Mel; he always seemed a genuine guy and not the sort to rip you off. He’s also incredibly talented, you could see as much from the Pi-Man games. Colourscape was influenced by him as Automata never released any violent games. Their games were about fun, not violence, and a lot of that went into my first solo game.
Antstream Arcade thanks Jas for his time. Check our Pi-Balled, Pi-in-‘Ere and more on Antstream Arcade, and like us on Facebook to be first with all the news!