Game Developer Interview: Steve Turner
This unassuming man from Upminster, Essex is responsible for an impressive range of iconic ZX Spectrum games. From possibly the world’s first dating program to hits such as Ranarama and Quazatron, Antstream Arcade caught up with Steve to chat about some of his most famous work.
Antstream Arcade: You went to school during the Sixties. Did you start to learn about computers then?
Steve Turner: Yes, I learned to program in a language called ALGOL 60, which was a good language but more suited to maths problems than games. We wrote programs on special squared paper and every Friday lunchtime we went on a coach to another school to type in our programs and feed a paper tape into the computer they had. It was the size of a desk with loads of flashing lights, and it was magic, like being in a spaceship. After I moved schools I learned FORTRAN, and was part of a group that designed a dating program, with the idea that people would fill out the form of their likes and our program would find the best matches. It was a runaway success, kids were buying loads of these forms to fill in for their mates. All the results were printed on a big list that was displayed on the school noticeboard.
A: No hiding from the results then! What about your first game?
ST: Years later I programmed mainframes and we had an empire-running simulation and Star Trek-type game. No graphics, sometimes a grid built with letters. Then the arcade revolution happened in the Seventies and I was hooked, I had to play a game until I could beat it.
A: Your first game for the ZX Spectrum – and Hewson, via your own company ST Software – was 3D Space-Wars?
ST: I noticed that a lot of arcade games were in 2D so thought the next step was 3D, which opened up the playfield and made other types of games possible. That was my unique selling point, and being a bit of an artist, I was used to creating the illusion of 3D on a flat surface. I chose Hewson to publish it as they had an in-house duplication plant, and were also very professional. 3D Space-Wars took just six weeks from start to finish.
A: After completing the Seiddab trilogy, you broke the mould with two complex adventures called Avalon and Dragontorc.
ST: I noticed the magazines, particularly Crash, were getting fed up of shoot-‘em-ups. So I wanted to do something different, the equivalent of an LP, something that would last longer than five minutes. I used to play a Dungeons & Dragons-type game called Runequest so put that into a myth that everybody knows, tying it into real locations. The display came first and I gave it a sense of 3D depth before adding all these things such as being able to hide, use magic on things and so on. It was very deep – there was a huge amount of screens and lots you needed to do to complete it. The baddies would follow you from room to room, and you could hear their footsteps. For the sequel, Dragontorc, I added emotions to the characters so they would all react in different ways. Hewson loved it, I think because it didn’t rely on your joystick reactions and you had to think about it. Avalon broke new ground, and then Dragontorc surpassed it.
A: Wasn’t Avalon originally intended to be a trilogy of games?
ST: Yes, but space games were suddenly very popular so I turned the third game into Astroclone. It was a new engine, but similar.
A: Your graphic engine was re-written for Quazatron and its sequel, Magnetron. What inspired these games?
ST: Ant Attack and the plethora of isometric games were storming the charts and getting rave reviews, so I started experimenting around with the graphics. I knew the gameplay from Paradroid [a Commodore 64 hit written by Steve’s business partner, Andrew Braybrook] was a winner, so married my graphic demo with elements of Paradroid. I also based the robot on a lot of things that Gribbly used to do [from another Braybrook game, Gribbly’s Day Out], such as the little eyes. In a way I was kinda nicking the best bits of games that Andrew had done and putting them together! I also worked out a way I could get in this huge background, which was hardly built out of any graphics because they were in a little parallelogram and diamond shapes rather than character squares.
A: Your next game, Ranarama, also borrowed from the Commodore 64 classic?
ST: Yes, Ranarama was also loosely based on the gameplay of Paradroid, set in a fantasy scenario. Unfortunately it was released at the same time as the official Gauntlet conversions so it got put in with the many other clones, although it was much more complex than many of those games.
A: What endeared you to Paradroid’s gameplay so much?
ST: It was a simple idea but perfectly balanced – the more powerful you got, the more vulnerable you became because your robot used to burn out quicker. And as you started clearing a level, you were killing the things that you were actually going to use, which peaked the excitement.
A: Finally, what was it like coding on the Sinclair Spectrum?
ST: For me it was a love-hate relationship. It didn’t have a proper keyboard and a wobble could crash any interface plugged in the back. But the Z80 language was a lovely language to program, well-thought out and easy to learn. It had no graphics or sound chips to work with; so your program was everything, and that made it very straightforward to work with. When it first came out, it seemed like a games writer’s dream, with colourful and high-res moving graphics and an affordable price. In those days, there were so many machines appearing, it was a lottery to pick one to develop on. But Sinclair had showed with the ZX81 that it could create a huge base, so relying on the Spectrum was a good bet.