Game Developer Interview: Steve Wetherill
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
With several of his fantastic games available on Antstream Arcade, we thought it was about time we caught up with industry veteran Steve Wetherill to chat about his early games development career.
Antstream Arcade: Hi Steve. Where was your first role in the gaming industry?
Steve Wetherill: Software Projects was my first job, so it was naturally very exciting, and I also learned a lot working with Derek Rowson, with whom I developed Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy for the CPC. We never saw the source code so basically reverse engineered the cassette version of the game. Many late nights were involved, both at the office and at home.
A: How did you get into computer games, and start work at Software Projects?
Steve: After college, I acquired a Speccy and a black and white TV, and although I initially had in mind some electronic music projects, inevitably I picked up a few games and became curious. I started to dissemble a few games, learning a lot along the way, and eventually began creating my own demos in Z80 assembly. One was a vertical shooter, Galaxians-style, while the other was a sideways-scrolling platform game. It was the latter that I sent to Software Projects – along with many other software companies – and this led to an interview at its office in Woolton, Liverpool. Some of the sprites I created for this demo, including a spinning camel, rotating space station and CND symbol made it into the CPC version of Jet Set Willy. And in case anyone is interested, the demo I sent to Software Projects was created on one of any number of late, late nights in a freezing cold bedroom in a house on Airedale Road, Kexborough, near Barnsley.
A: A true bedroom coder! What was it like working at Software Projects, and why did you leave?
Steve: We had a lot of freedom, but it was very chaotic, and there was no development process or reporting structure to speak of. As there were no more Amstrad ports required, once we completed Jet Set Willy: The Final Frontier, I decided to leave and join my friends who had already gone to Odin Computer Graphics. After a quick meeting with Paul McKenna, the owner, where they showed me a quick demo of Nodes Of Yesod’s graphics and animation, I decided to accept a job at Odin.
A: What was it like at your new company?
Steve: Odin was fully focused on creating original titles. They had programmers, artists and musicians, as well as a fancy phone system! While I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity extended by Software Projects as my first job in the industry, at Odin I was able to spread my wings a bit and develop my first original games. I saw it as a clear step up, career-wise.
A: What was your first game at Odin?
Steve: My first game was Nodes Of Yesod on the Spectrum [available on Antstream now!] although it was very much a team effort, and while I ended up doing much of the code, programmers George Barnes and Keith Robinson worked on various parts of the game. The same was true of the art which was done by Colin Grunes, Stuart Fotheringham and Paul Salmon. Colin drew and animated Astro Charlie, the main character.
A: Odin’s Heartland and Robin Of The Wood are beautiful games, both available on Antstream. What can you tell us about these?
Steve: Thank you! Both were graphically very strong, especially when I look back at what was coming out at the time. Robin Of The Wood was Paul Salmon’s brainchild, initially some sort of 3D graphical representation for the game. I think Paul had a vision for how it should look, but I was not convinced that it was feasible on the Spectrum, and we ended up with the flip-screen presentation you see in the finished game. It had a different feel to Nodes Of Yesod, was a larger game in terms of rooms and gameplay, and better planned out. Heartland was derived from Colin’s graphical rendering of the main character, Bertie/Eldritch, and the game story evolved from there. I developed some new rendering routines, and the masked sprite and object rendering gave the art a very solid look.
A: How do you think they play today?
Steve: I think they look as polished as ever, although I really don’t know what I was thinking with the very awkward mechanic for going in and out of doors in Heartland! In any case, it came together very well, very colourful and smooth to play.
A: What happened at the end with Odin?
Steve: Odin had a tough time fulfilling its agreement with Firebird/British Telecom to create a certain amount of games within 12 months. In retrospect we were too inexperienced to scale quickly enough, and I think it would be hard to argue that all games were of the quality of Odin’s earlier output. Ultimately, the company dissolved, and the final game I worked on was Sidewize.
A: Do you have fond memories of that time? And you made some great games – any favourites?
Steve: Generally speaking, it was a good experience. While things were better organised than at Software Projects, there was still plenty of time for goofing around. Our lives did seem to revolve around the office, and we’d often work late into the wee small hours and then sleep in sleeping bags under our desks. This reminds me of one funny occasion when a few of us were asleep under various desks one morning. Unbeknown to us, boss Paul McKenna had arranged to show some potential business partners around, so he entered the room followed by a procession of suits. We retreated deeper into our sleeping bags as they passed within inches from our faces and we prayed nobody would notice us. I suspect that these business folks politely ignored us. Otherwise, some good friendships were made at Odin, and I think we did some pretty good work there.
A: You’re still involved in the industry today – how do you compare it to the Eighties?
Steve: There was something pure about literally knowing about a system inside and out back in the 8-bit days, and even the 16-bit days to a certain extent. These days, there are typically numerous levels of abstractions between you and the hardware, ranging from the compiler/interpreter to the OS and drivers. I spent a good few years doing pre-iPhone development and that was much closer to back then in terms of getting to the metal, but even that is dealing with layers of abstraction these days. Still, we have better tools today. Doing Spectrum development today is so much nicer, it’s almost easy mode!
Antstream Arcade thanks Steve for his time
To play Steve Wetherill's classic games on Antstream Arcade, including Nodes Of Yesod, Arc Of Yesod, Heartland and Robin Of The Wood, sign up today!