Interview With Adrian Stephens

Best known for Mr EE and Killer Gorilla, Adrian Stephens also programed Superiors Crazy Painter, Atari's Donkey Kong Jnr, Llamasofts Colourspace, Micro Power Escape From Moonbase Alpha and Flip. I recently asked him these questions, about the BBC, and his current work.

1. How did you get in to programming, and what made you choose the BBC Micro as the machine you specialised in?

In the summer holiday of '79 a neighbour let me use his home-built computer while he and his kids went down to the beach. I became obsessed with the thing and taught myself to program first in BASIC and then assembly. I think the neighbours got pretty sick of me constantly hanging around, so I saved up and eventually bought an Acorn Atom.

At the same time my High School bought a Research Machines 380Z, and I'd spend every lunch hour in a cramped room that used to be a dark-room with 3 or 4 other saddos just playing around on the machine.

When the BBC micro was announced I ordered one right away. I think it took about 18 months to arrive, but I got one of the first ones. I wonder what happened to it...?

2. How did you get your 'break' in the industry, was it difficult or did you find it easy to get a game published?

It was just a hobby at first. Some friends persuaded me to submit a couple of games I'd written to MicroPower. They offered me 800 (400 each) as an advance to publish them, which was a huge amount of money to me then. Those games were 'Killer Gorilla' and 'Escape from Moonbase Alpha'. KG became one of the best selling BBC games of it's time and made me a lot of money for a 17-year old. Those were the days...

3. What helped you to decide which titles you produced, were you commissioned to do certain types of game, or did you do them because that is what you wanted?

Generally I just did what I felt like. I wasn't running a business, and I just carried on as if it was a hobby. I was doing a Maths degree at Bristol University at the time, and if I finished a game in my spare time, I tried to get it published.

I wrote Killer Gorilla after I bought a magazine that had screenshots of the four levels of Donkey Kong. It looked like an interesting challenge to do something similar, but I had no commercial intentions at the time.

I wrote Mr Ee because I thought Mr Do was the most interesting and clever game design I had ever seen. I played it every night in the arcades in Felixstowe during the Summer college break.

There was an 'Amidar' machine in the college bar, which 'inspired' Crazy Painter.

Later, I was actually commissioned to write a version of Donkey Kong Jnr for the BBC by Atari. Suddenly I became legit!

4. You seemed to have specialised in arcade conversions, what was it that prompted you to do so?

Looking back, I am slightly embarressed by the blatant arcade conversions - only one of which was authorised. I suppose large factors were laziness and lack of imagination, but also I think it was because I enjoyed the challenge of trying to emulate the arcade machines. When I started virtually all games on the BBC were copies of something, and I think it took a while for it to dawn on me that you could do something original.

5. Out of all the games you programmed, which would you say was your favourite one and why?

On the BBC it has to be Mr Ee. It was the most complex game I wrote on the system, and I was really proud of it when it was finished. It's the one game of mine people still seem to remember fondly.

I'm also very fond of Killer Gorilla because it gave me my start in this business, and made me a lot of money at a time when I could enjoy it. Of course I spent it all a long long time ago.

Other than the BBC, usually, hopefully, the last game I wrote is my favourite. Right now that's 'Vigilante 8' for the Playstation, of which I am inordinately proud, because it is, of course, brilliant.

6. Why is it that your games have been published by so many different publishers and not just a couple?

The 'BBC micro' part of my career coincided with my University Course, so it was all very haphazard. Maybe if it had been a serious career I might have tried to establish a long-term relationship with one publisher, but it was more a case of just mailing off floppy discs whenever a game was complete.

7. Which publisher did you most enjoy writing for and why?

In the early years I had a very good relationship with Micropower. They would always have the most prominent adverts, and were very good about paying royalties on time. When the Electron came out they asked me to convert some of my games for it, and I spent a week or so up at their offices. It was quite a novelty for me to work in an office at that time.

8. What did you enjoy most about programming on the BBC, and were you surprised that the Acorn series of BBC and Archimedes computers faded away as they did?

The BBC was designed to be programmed by hobbiests. The second you flicked the 'on' switch you could play around with it in BASIC and assembler. Everything about it was very accessible, and every aspect of its design seemed very elegant. I even wrote a few 'ROM' applications (like a FORTRAN interpreter, for my college course), and it was so satisfying to have the OS handle and page it in just as cleanly as the built in BASIC.

I suppose the fading away was inevitable. Actually programming home computers is a minority interest , and if you just wanted to play games the Acorn computers were over-engineered. Then, the rise of the PC marginalised them in other markets too.

At least the ARM chip lives on. I just heard it's going to be used in the upcoming Playstation PDA.

9. Are there any things which you regret doing with regards to your programming work?

I suppose I somewhat regret the blatant plagiarism of my early works, but things were different back then, and it didn't seem a big deal. I wish I had some original stuff to show from my BBC days apart from 'Escape from Moonbase Alpha'. I find myself apologising to people who tell me they bought it.

10. Do you have any projects which you are working on at the moment, and if so could you tell me about them?

Somehow (long story omitted) I have ended up living in Santa Monica married with two children, and a new start-up company called Luxoflux Corp. ( See where video games will get you, listeners? We just completed our first project as a company, called (if I didn't mention it) 'Vigilante 8' for the Playstation, published by Activision. Right now I'm converting it for Nintendo 64, and then we'll start work on the sequel, and then conversions of the sequel. So that's my life sorted for the foreseeable future.

Thanks Adrian for that insight into the world of the BBC Games Programmer extraordinaire! I hope you enjoyed this interview, and look out for more - coming soon to a site near you!