In The Chair: Kevin Ed­wards

From Acorn Elec­tron to PS Vita, Kevin Ed­wards has coded for many clas­sic com­put­ers and con­soles. He takes time out from creat­ing Lego games to dis­cuss his long ca­reer, baseball and a fa­mil­iar web­slinger

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by An­drew Fisher

The 8-bit cod­ing whiz looks back at his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer

When did you first en­counter a com­puter?

In 1979, when I moved to a new high school in Manch­ester. They had a Com­modore PET 2001 with 8K of RAM, locked away in a store­room and only ac­cessed by a hand­ful of peo­ple.

How soon did you start pro­gram­ming?

I spent all my spare breaks in that com­puter room.

You couldn’t keep me away from that PET! We had an amaz­ing com­puter stud­ies teacher, Pete Davidson, who en­cour­aged us all. He was teach­ing us 6502 ma­chine code at the same time as BA­SIC. My first

PET games were in BA­SIC and I added ma­chine code rou­tines later as my knowl­edge im­proved. I started with sim­ple maze games and later used ma­chine code to scroll the screen left and right, like Scramble.

Your first com­mer­cial game was Atomic Pro­tec­tor, how did you pub­lish it?

By 1983 Pete Davidson had left teach­ing and ar­ranged some sum­mer jobs for my­self and school friend Martin Gal­way – we were study­ing for our A Lev­els. This was at Data­base Pub­li­ca­tions, a big com­puter mag­a­zine pub­lisher, where he worked. We spent six weeks writ­ing games and other soft­ware, in­clud­ing Atomic Pro­tec­tor, which was pub­lished by Op­tima Soft­ware – a com­pany un­der the Data­base um­brella.

What did you like or dis­like about the BBC and Elec­tron hard­ware?

Not enough mem­ory (both) and the lack of speed (Elec­tron). 32K RAM was never enough and I would spend lots of time op­ti­mis­ing mem­ory us­age to get the games to fit. Galaforce on the Beeb ran in Mode 2 which takes 20K of mem­ory. That leaves only 12K for code, data, au­dio and graph­ics. It’s ac­tu­ally less than 12K, as the op­er­at­ing sys­tem steals var­i­ous blocks of this mem­ory for its own use.

You worked with Martin Gal­way on those early BBC ti­tles, what do you re­mem­ber of him?

We were both su­per-keen en­thu­si­asts that wanted to learn how to write soft­ware. Martin worked on a sound en­ve­lope edi­tor for the BBC dur­ing our sum­mer job at Data­base Pub­li­ca­tions. It al­lowed you to tweak the en­ve­lope and ADSR pa­ram­e­ters in real-time. This was used to create sound ef­fects for Atomic Pro­tec­tor – the first com­mer­cial game for us both. I don’t re­mem­ber the edi­tor be­ing pub­lished or dis­trib­uted. How­ever, it cer­tainly helped start Martin’s au­dio ca­reer. He worked on his own mu­sic driver and cre­ated sev­eral demos that even­tu­ally landed him a job at Ocean. I and other school friends used his au­dio skills in our early BBC games – in­clud­ing Knight Lore, Alien 8, Cookie, Night­shade, Galaforce, Crazee Rider, and Match Day.

When we ask Kevin if there were any pro­gram­mers he ad­mired, he replies, “Any­one who has de­vel­oped a game for home com­put­ers or the early con­soles de­serves praise and ad­mi­ra­tion. De­vel­op­ment tools back then didn’t ex­ist or were crude, sim­plis­tic or un­us­able. You had to have a lot of pa­tience and en­thu­si­asm to achieve rel­a­tively sim­ple tasks. Games were also writ­ten in ma­chine code which re­quired a lot of ef­fort to do sim­ple things.” Did that mean he spent a lot of time crunch­ing to fin­ish a project? “I’ve spent more late nights fin­ish­ing off games than I care to re­mem­ber.” Kevin has a clear pas­sion for mak­ing games, so let’s take a stride down mem­ory lane and look at his ca­reer.

How did your as­so­ci­a­tion with Su­pe­rior Soft­ware start?

I was a free­lance pro­gram­mer work­ing on a shoot’em-up. The game was 80 per cent com­plete and I de­cided to ap­proach a pub­lisher to see what they thought. At the time Su­pe­rior were the most ac­tive pub­lisher for the BBC, so I sent a demo to them.

They got back to me re­ally quickly, were very help­ful and gave me lots of use­ful feed­back. We worked closely to­gether for sev­eral weeks and shaped the game that be­came Galaforce. Richard Han­son and his team at Su­pe­rior were hon­est and very pro­fes­sional – some­thing that was im­por­tant as there were some un­scrupu­lous peo­ple in the in­dus­try at that time.

What was your de­vel­op­ment hard­ware like?

For Galaforce and ear­lier ti­tles I used a sin­gle BBC Mi­cro that as­sem­bled the 6502 source code and then ran the game. I used BBC Ba­sic’s built-in as­sem­bler

32K RAM was never enough and I would spend lots of time op­ti­mis­ing to get the games to fit Kevin Ed­wards

to create the ma­chine code. The source was spread across mul­ti­ple files which were loaded and as­sem­bled one at a time from disk us­ing a sim­ple over­lay tech­nique. For Crazee Rider and Galaforce 2 I used a BBC Mas­ter 128 with turbo co­pro­ces­sor and 28MB Viglen hard disk which was con­nected via the user port in­ter­face. This al­lowed me to build the game im­age very quickly on the Mas­ter 128 and de­ploy the game to the sec­ond com­puter for test­ing. The data trans­fer time was re­ally quick – less than five sec­onds, if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly. This al­lowed me to edit source code and run im­ages at the same time.

Did you just start cod­ing, or would you plan it on paper first?

I love plan­ning and writ­ing code on paper first. It’s very tempt­ing to jump in and start cod­ing straight away. But some­thing I learnt early on is that you should never rush things without think­ing first. Sit down and plan with the big pic­ture in mind, not just the lit­tle thing you have in your head at that mo­ment. I have lots of notes for Crazee Rider which in­cludes hand­writ­ten source code, di­a­grams and gen­eral in­for­ma­tion. A lot of this is on Twit­ter as peo­ple seem re­ally in­ter­ested. I wish I still had the doc­u­ments for my other projects, but I guess they were re­cy­cled years ago.

Did you come up with any spe­cial tech­niques when work­ing on the BBC Mi­cro?

Each game has its own set of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges which must be over­come. Galaforce was all about per­for­mance. The soft­ware sprite rou­tines had to be fast, so code op­ti­mi­sa­tion was re­ally im­por­tant for this game. Also, mem­ory was tight so I had to pack the level and pat­tern data as small as pos­si­ble.

Galaforce drew heav­ily on ar­cade games, what were your favourites?

I played many of the early ar­cade games, some more than oth­ers. De­fender was truly amaz­ing and has to be one of my all-time favourites. I also en­joyed Galax­i­ans, Galaga, Star Force, Fan­ta­sia, and Moon Cresta. Ba­si­cally, I’m a big fan of shoot-’em-ups. Sim­ple, mind­less blast­ing!

What made you de­velop a mo­tor­bike game? Su­pe­rior Soft­ware’s Over­drive was a mas­sive seller on Beeb and Elec­tron, a very ba­sic car rac­ing game that had no cor­ners. You sim­ply had to dodge the cars as they came down the screen. Su­pe­rior were des­per­ate for a new rac­ing game that fea­tured re­al­is­tic cor­ners, but it had to work on the Elec­tron, too. I took up their chal­lenge and worked on the road tech­nol­ogy first as this was the most im­por­tant as­pect of the game. I man­aged to get this go­ing quite quickly us­ing a clever edge up­date tech­nique and tried it on the Elec­tron to see if the per­for­mance was good enough – the Elk runs much slower than the Beeb. The speed was great so proper pro­duc­tion be­gan. There were so many car rac­ing games around it was de­cided that a mo­tor­bike would be more orig­i­nal. You could also bash into the side of other rid­ers and knock them out of the way – well be­fore Road Rash did it. It was a tech­ni­cal chal­lenge and a nice break from shoot-’em-ups. The game was well re­ceived, es­pe­cially by Elec­tron own­ers.

Did you have any un­re­leased BBC games?

I started many games that were aban­doned very early in de­vel­op­ment, from iso­met­ric ad­ven­tures to 3D wire­frame ar­cade sim­u­la­tions. In most cases I cre­ated the ba­sic tech­nol­ogy re­quired and then strug­gled to make it into a fully-fledged game. How­ever, two ti­tles did be­come well-de­vel­oped demos. Storky (1985) was a side­ways-scrolling game in­flu­enced by ar­cade ti­tle

Kevin Ed­wards Each game has its own set of tech­ni­cal chal­lenges which must be over­come

Fast Fred­die. The player con­trolled a basketball-kick­ing stork that had to avoid the scrolling scenery and air­based bad­dies and mis­siles that were try­ing to knock him out of the sky. Sadly, I haven’t lo­cated any of the disks and I can only guess that the game is lost for­ever.

Am­ne­sia was lo­cated and made avail­able on pop­u­lar BBC Mi­cro web­site stair­way­to­hell.com. The game was aban­doned for var­i­ous rea­sons, the main one be­ing the BBC mar­ket was in se­ri­ous de­cline by 1988 and it didn’t make com­mer­cial sense to con­tinue.

an­other string to your bow was tape pro­tec­tion soft­ware. How did this come about?

One of my school friends was Paul Proc­tor, who con­verted many Ul­ti­mate Play The Game ti­tles to the BBC Mi­cro – in­clud­ing Sabre Wulf, Knight Lore, Alien 8, Night­shade, Lu­nar Jet­man and Cookie. Be­cause piracy was a big is­sue, he wanted to pro­tect his games from be­ing copied from tape to disk. At the time BBC own­ers dis­trib­uted copied soft­ware on disk as it was so quick and easy to do. The idea was to make the tape to disk trans­fer process dif­fi­cult for the av­er­age user, thus slow­ing down the rate at which games would be copied. I’d de­pro­tected many games and knew the tech­niques other peo­ple were us­ing, and de­vised a more se­cure way of pro­tect­ing code. This ba­si­cally in­volved ob­fus­cat­ing 6502 code that loaded and de­crypted the main game code and data. The ob­fus­cated code was hid­den be­hind some ro­bust de­cryp­tion code that used some of the sys­tem’s 6522 VIA timers to de­ci­pher it­self. If some­one tried to hack the code by chang­ing it in any way it would break the de­cryp­tion process and fail to re­veal the ob­fus­cated code cor­rectly. It proved so suc­cess­ful that many of the top pub­lish­ers asked me to pro­tect their ti­tles, in­clud­ing Ocean, Imag­ine, Su­pe­rior Soft­ware and US Gold. I re­worked this sys­tem and en­hanced it over the years.

I also pro­tected Ex­ile for Su­pe­rior Soft­ware and was for­tu­nate enough to see the game a few weeks be­fore ev­ery­one else. Ex­ile is a re­mark­able game that has to be one of the best Beeb games ever cre­ated.

You were known for your tight pro­tec­tion code for your games. Which game’s code took the pi­rates the long­est to de­feat?

Night­shade, I have only heard of a hand­ful of peo­ple that claim to have cracked it – mostly us­ing hard­ware de­vices. It was par­tic­u­larly nasty and had mul­ti­ple de­coder stages and lots of pit­falls. A few years ago I helped the em­u­la­tion com­mu­nity out as they were still un­able to em­u­late the code. A mas­sive tech­ni­cal [fo­rum] thread was started on start­dot.org.uk about Night­shade’s pro­tec­tion and the out­come was that they could fi­nally run the pro­tec­tion code suc­cess­fully un­der em­u­la­tion. The cy­cle tim­ings for the 6522

VIA had to be per­fect for it to run cor­rectly and they man­aged to nail it.

Did you ever go to the du­pli­ca­tion plants to help mas­ter the games?

No, I never got the chance. The last thing I did was create the ‘Mas­ter Maker’ Disk. This disk saved out a cas­sette im­age of the pro­tected game. The du­pli­ca­tion staff would boot the disk and record a sin­gle mas­ter tape from it. Af­ter test­ing, this was then ‘bulk-copied’ by their du­pli­ca­tion ma­chines and boxed up. I think Ablex did the mas­ter­ing for most of the Ocean, Imag­ine and US Gold ti­tles. Did you get ex­tra pay­ments from the Play It Again Sam com­pi­la­tions?

Yes, I got a pro­por­tion of the full roy­alty. So if I had one game out of four, I got 25 per cent of the roy­al­ties.

How did you make the jump from home com­puter to NES and SNES?

In late 1987 I re­al­ized that the Beeb mar­ket was start­ing to col­lapse – home com­puter and soft­ware sales in gen­eral were slow­ing down quite rapidly. I con­sid­ered de­vel­op­ing games for the Amiga, ST and Archimedes but I didn’t see much of a fu­ture for those ma­chines ei­ther. Around that same time Paul Proc­tor was work­ing for Tim and Chris Stam­per (at Rare) on a new con­sole called the Nin­tendo Fam­i­com. This was of course the NES when fi­nally launched in the US and Europe. [I thought], ‘If the Stam­pers were in­vest­ing time and ef­fort on con­soles, then maybe I should do some­thing sim­i­lar.’ I knew some­one who owned a lo­cal de­vel­op­ment stu­dio, Soft­ware Cre­ations, and heard they were build­ing a team to work on the NES. I went down to meet ev­ery­one and find out more and

got of­fered a job there and then. When the SNES was re­leased we started de­vel­op­ment for that, too.

Did you love work­ing with the SNES?

Yes, it’s my all-time favourite con­sole plat­form. Great hard­ware with plenty of dis­play modes and hard­ware sprites. Pow­ered by a 16-bit 6502 pro­ces­sor, too – the last plat­form where the whole game was writ­ten in assem­bly lan­guage.

You have basketball and baseball games in your back cat­a­logue – were you a fan?

I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of ei­ther, re­ally. I did get the chance to go to see the Lak­ers play in Los Angeles, which was an awe­some ex­pe­ri­ence. Baseball is way too slow for me.

are you proud of the ken Grif­fey Jr baseball game, de­vel­oped in the uk?

Yes, very proud. I worked with an amaz­ing team of peo­ple on that project, in­clud­ing Ste Pick­ford who was in charge of all the art. The game was pro­duced and de­signed by an Amer­i­can, Brian Ull­rich, who was a mas­sive baseball fan. He worked at Soft­ware Cre­ations with us and made sure we cre­ated the best pos­si­ble baseball game for Nin­tendo. Hard work, but happy days!

With the hype sur­round­ing this year’s Spi­der­man game on PS4 in mind, what was it like work­ing with the char­ac­ter (and other Marvel su­per­heroes) in the nin­teies?

Work­ing with other peo­ple’s in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty can be the best and worst ex­pe­ri­ence. You are of­ten bound by guide­lines that tell you what you can and can’t do. Most of the time, as long as you aren’t be­ing re­ally stupid, there are no prob­lems. Spi­der-man and Wolver­ine are two of the best Marvel char­ac­ters that you could choose for a videogame. They have awe­some abil­i­ties and this al­lowed us to make great games. The hard­ware in the Nineties was 2D sprite­based so we were quite lim­ited with what could be done. Ren­der­ing Spi­der-man’s swing­ing web us­ing sprites was a fun chal­lenge.

the In­com­ing games were 3D shoot­ers for the PC, a big change of di­rec­tion for you. What was your role on these ti­tles?

My role was to get the game run­ning on lots of dif­fer­ent 3D graph­ics cards and work around prob­lem­atic driv­ers/hard­ware. I was also tasked with op­ti­mis­ing CPU and GPU code paths. This in­cluded mak­ing use of mul­ti­me­dia pro­ces­sor ex­ten­sions where pos­si­ble. In­com­ing was in de­vel­op­ment just as af­ford­able 3D graph­ics cards were ap­pear­ing for PC. Hard­ware ven­dors were com­pet­ing against each other to sell their cards. How­ever, they des­per­ately needed 3D games that showed off their prod­ucts. Rage Soft­ware came along and sup­plied a copy of the game that was bun­dled with the graph­ics card. Rage re­ceived a fee and the graph­ics card com­pa­nies got

Most of the time, as long as you aren’t be­ing re­ally stupid, there are no prob­lems Kevin Ed­wards

some­thing to give their cus­tomers on day one. Ev­ery­one was a win­ner!

You re­turned to work­ing on Marvel prop­er­ties with X2: Wolver­ine’s Re­venge on Xbox – what did you make of the hard­ware?

The first Xbox was a re­ally nice con­sole to de­velop for. How­ever, the GPU was quite lim­ited and only al­lowed you to create very sim­plis­tic ver­tex and pixel shaders. Those chunky Duke con­trollers were ter­ri­ble, too, thank good­ness for the [smaller] ones. It was a lot eas­ier to pro­gram than the PS2, which of­ten re­quired you to roll your sleeves up and do very low-level hard­ware pro­gram­ming. I’m not say­ing PS2 was bad, it was a very ca­pa­ble plat­form, but Xbox was a rel­a­tively sim­ple step for any­one that had writ­ten PC games. C and

C++ ar­rived with PS2 and Xbox which made game de­vel­op­ment so much eas­ier.

Your most re­cent job is at trav­eller’s tales. is it fun work­ing on the Lego games?

Lego mixed with mas­sive IP is an awe­some com­bi­na­tion. How of­ten do you get the chance to work with great fran­chises such as Star Wars, In­di­ana Jones, The In­cred­i­bles, Pi­rates Of The Caribbean, Lord Of The Rings, Bat­man, Marvel su­per­heroes and Harry Pot­ter? The Lego games are so much fun to create and it’s great to work on games that peo­ple recog­nise and have bought them­selves.

Do you pre­fer ded­i­cated hand­helds or smart­phones for mo­bile gam­ing?

Ded­i­cated hand­helds, be­cause they have de­cent built-in sticks and but­tons. Touch con­trols for games are dif­fi­cult to do well and are never as good as hav­ing proper con­trollers. I re­ally liked the Vita, but it got crushed by faster and bet­ter mo­bile phones and tablets.

What was your favourite stu­dio/com­pany to work at?

It’s the peo­ple you work with that makes the job fun and cre­ates the cul­ture within the stu­dio. I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many great, tal­ented, amus­ing peo­ple at sev­eral stu­dios. It’s those peo­ple you re­mem­ber and talk about. Do you have any un­usual sto­ries you can share? Count­less hi­lar­i­ous sto­ries that can­not be told for le­gal rea­sons and to avoid em­bar­rass­ing the par­ties in­volved. I do re­mem­ber the time some­one was sent fly­ing across the room be­cause they con­nected a con­sole, pow­ered by a non-iso­lated 110-volt trans­former, to an earthed TV mon­i­tor. For­tu­nately, they weren’t in­jured and even­tu­ally saw the funny side of things once they’d picked them­selves up off the floor. Re­mem­ber it, Tony?

re­cently you have been pre­serv­ing old BBC disks. Has it been a chal­lenge go­ing back to ma­chine code?

I still have all of my BBC Mi­cro disks from the mideight­ies and re­cently started to trans­fer them to the PC – these disks are 30-plus years old now and in a poor state. The prob­lem is that mag­netic me­dia fails over time. If they have been stored in poor en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions they be­gin to de­te­ri­o­rate and even de­velop mould which makes then dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble to read. For­tu­nately, I have been able to re­cover the source code and data for most of my early games as well as other doc­u­ments and soft­ware I worked on. I was also the cus­to­dian of Paul Proc­tor’s source code back­ups for his Ul­ti­mate con­ver­sions. Paul’s disks were in a bad way, but I man­aged to re­cover the source code for Knight Lore, Alien 8, Cookie, Lu­nar Jet­man and Night­shade. A bit more work was nec­es­sary to get them as­sem­bling un­der em­u­la­tion. I have made videos of these games as­sem­bling for Youtube and Twit­ter (@Keved­ward­sretro). I still re­mem­ber how to pro­gram 6502 ma­chine code!

Would you ever re­lease new BBC games?

Yes, if I ever get the time! I have al­ready con­verted the source for Galaforce 2 so it can be as­sem­bled on a PC us­ing mod­ern-day de­vel­op­ment tools and de­ployed di­rectly to an em­u­la­tor. My long-term plan is to re­lease BBC and Elec­tron ver­sions of Galaforce 3. It’s a straight­for­ward shoot-’em-up, but I need to re­work all the lev­els and alien pat­tern data, which is the most time-con­sum­ing part of the en­tire project. The cod­ing is the easy bit and prob­a­bly won’t need much more work!

What games do you play to re­lax?

I love playing Mario Kart with my chil­dren. Yes, they beat me ev­ery time. I’ve never been a good gamer!

Do you see a fu­ture for retro gam­ing?

I can’t see it ever go­ing away. The cat­a­logue of retro games gets big­ger by the day. Ev­ery­one en­joys playing the games from their child­hood.

[BBC Mi­cro] Kevin’s first ever game, Atomic Pro­tec­tor, saw you pro­tect­ing the dots in the maze.

Equipped with a 28MB(!) hard drive and co­pro­ces­sor,BBC Mas­ter 128 de­vel­op­ment this is Kevin’s ma­chine.

[BBC Mi­cro] Galaforce was born from Kevin’s love of shoot-’em-ups like Moon Cresta, and, ob­vi­ously, Galaga.

Kevin in 1987, in­ter­viewed for A & B Com­put­ing mag­a­zine.

[NES] Sil­ver Surfer is in­fa­mous for its ridicu­lous dif­fi­culty – pretty much any­thing on the screen will cause the hero to fall off his board.

[SNES] Kevin cites Spi­der-man as one of the best Marvel he­roes you could utilise in videogames.

[SNES] De­spite work­ing on baseball games, Kevin wasn’t a fan.

Ken Kevin and the team de­sign Brian Ull­rich’s flow­charts helpedGrif­fey Jr Ma­jor League Baseball.

[SNES] Vig­i­lante an­ti­hero Venom is about to de­liver a coup de grâce in Venom/spi­der-man: Sep­a­ra­tion Anx­i­ety.

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