An interview with Geoff Phillips

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Ross Sillifant has very kindly offered us an interview with Geoff Phillips (of Mighty Bombjack (c64) fame among others) to put onto the site, so without further delay i’ll hand you over to Ross…


 

As part of my on-going series of interviews intended to get some of our ‘lesser known’ coding heroes the coverage they deserve, it’s with great pleasure i’m able to put a few questions to a Mr Geoff Phillips……

Q) So Geoff, if you could be so kind, please introduce yourself to our readers and give us a bit of background detail on your good self, the games and formats you’ve worked on over the years:

A) Hi I’m Geoff Phillips, a games programmer from the late 1970’s, through to about 1990. I was a COBOL programmer who bought an MK14 (a kit-built simple microcomputer by Science and Cambridge). I ran a users club for the MK14, and met Paul Kaufman who sometime later worked for Tangerine, and thus I became involved in the Tangerine Microtan, and later the Oric-1 and Atmos.

I wrote many games for Tansoft, including the welcome tape. Several people from there set up Orpheus who were a more general games writing company (they published the Young Ones which was such a mess that they stopped writing games in-house). Orpheus was a bit of a disaster, but it was here that I started to do conversions for most of the 8 bit computers.

After Orpheus went bust, I worked alone, and continued to do games conversions for Tim Holland (who was a UK representative of First Star Software) and Roger Taylor of Cygnus in Leicester. Eventually, I went to work for MSU who were building the Konix, but at this stage I ceased to be writing games, and was more a R&D developer experimenting with CD-ROM’s, video compression, and most of my emphasis after 1990’s was the IBM PC.

Q) I’d really like to focus on your work on the more ‘obscure’ formats for the purpose of this interview Geoff, as they are machines I myself
(something of a seasoned gamer, starting out as i did with a Sinclair ZX81) know so little about.  

So, in your own words, could you please go into a bit of depth into what it was like working on the likes of the Dragon 32, Oric and Tangerine micro’s to start with.  Basically why these? What was the hardware like to work with? what games did you produce? And….just how soon did it become apparent these were never going to go onto become mainstream formats?

A) My first computer was an MK14, as I’ve said. Through this, I met many people, including someone who was a book editor at McGraw Hill. I had already written magazine articles, and I went along to Maidenhead to see what books could be written about the new home computers. Somehow, not sure exactly why, I ended up writing a book about the Dragon 32.

I wrote it while learning about it myself. The MK14 was quite a difficult beast to program – you had to enter hex codes, and in effect you would learn the assembly codes by heart very quickly. The first iteration of the Mk14 could not even save the code – a cassette interface, very slow and unreliable, did eventually come, as did more memory and even a TV interface (which had a very simple character output) Very few people would have owned this set-up. Programming these machines was always a learning process, you have to remember there was no Internet. I owned a ZX81, but never programmed it beyond BASIC.

As I said, I became involved in the Microtan, because a friend had himself bought one of those, and had ended up working for Tangerine. He persuaded me that it was an interesting computer to get involved with, and the follow-up product, the Oric, had enough potential in it for me to get involved in working with Tansoft, who produced the Oric, in-house if you like, software. I wrote an assembly adventure game on the Microtan, it was even put on sale via the Microtan magazine. The Microtan was very expensive, but it was much more of a decent computer, with decent keyboard. Programming still was a line by line assembler – but at least with a program that allow mnemonics to be entered, and jumps to be worked out.

When it became known the Oric was going to be produced, and there would be plenty of work, I became self-employed to effectively write games full time. I had an early Oric, and helped work out what all the bugs were – alas not all were fixed. I wrote an Oric-1 book – I don’t know how I found the time, because I was writing so much at this time, even fixing other peoples Oric programs in which they had lost interest having submitted them. I wrote Oricmunch, two adventure games, some non-games that suffered from being in BASIC – Oric Calc and Oric Base. After my time with Tansoft, I was part of Orpheus, a small software house in Hatley St George, near Biggleswade.

I wrote another Oric game Trouble in Store, which was well regarded I think. After the Oric seemed doomed, we switched to other projects, for me, I worked on the MSX at this time, and did a BoulderDash conversion, the first of many. The MSX2 was coming to the fore too, and I recall that somehow we ended up with freebies from Sony – a video camera, a digitizer, and a top-of-the-range MSX2. In the end, we only did one game of our own on the MSX – Elidon, which I was quite pleased with. We had many jobs that went nowhere, some conversions that were disastrous: we would take on jobs that we could not complete, farm them out to other software houses who would take the upfront payment and then tell us they could not complete.

The only good thing about this time was that I did learn a lot, and got to grips with the Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC. In this time, and the following years, I did many conversions of the various BouldDash games and Spy vs Spy games onto the Spectrum, Amstrad and MSX (Exactly which ones I could not now say). In the mid 1980’s, I used the Amstrad 128 to program on that machine but also on the Spectrum and Commodore 64. I cannot recall the details of this, but I think I wrote a cross-assembler for the 6502, and had an interface for the Spectrum… but it’s gone out of my mind how exactly I did this.

The Amstrad had a lovely ROM-based assembler which meant it was instantly there when you switched on. In the late 1980’s, I was really struggling to make a living converting games in a small office in Ely. I did a football game conversion, European Championship, an Atari St to Spectrum 48k conversion called Zombi. I also did an arcade conversion of Mighty Bombjack on the Commodore 64. For this last item, I had no code, but a tiny map, a printed dump of the Arcade machine ROM and a video play through of all the levels!

The graphics were done by Cygnus’s graphics guy, I think he did an excellent job. I somehow hacked the ROM dump and worked out the map layouts. In 1990 (I think) I was contacted by someone developing the Konix, they wanted programmers to go out to China to teach the locals. I turned this down, but some months later there was more of a generalised job opportunity which I did take up, and that was the end of my games writing time, but the start of a great ten year stretch of learning about video, audio, compression, and the Internet.

Q) Keeping the vein of the above, you seemed to have started working in the industry at a very ‘chaotic’ time-a vast range of hardware appearing, each I assume with it’s own programming code to learn and no sooner had you started on 1 format, then another appeared.

How long before the industry appeared to settle down to the point it was clear that certain formats (IE the C64/ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC) were the ones that were here to stay and others, like the BBC, the Atari 8 Bit range etc were going to fade away and the MSX range simply never take off?

Also did this make life ‘easier’ for you? or was there an element of frustration as all the coding skills you’d learnt on earlier machines were now pretty much useless and you’d had to start all over again?

A) No, it was never frustrating. There was always a semblance of similarity in the machines. I was young enough to be flexible too, I’m not sure I’d have the patience now to keep switching between machines. There is only a limited way to design video memory maps, and in the end I could put my mind into Z80 or 6502 modes. To begin with it was a very exciting time- I am talking now of about 1979.

I remember going to North London Polytechnic where there were a huge number of enthusiasts, and dozens of soon to be extinct machines being demonstrated. There was a huge air of “what next”. There was an element of luck I think – I’m not someone who made a fortune on games programming, because I was late on the scene to the Spectrum and Commodore 64 (surely the winners of the game).

I think it was probably a case that we saw that distributors were only taking certain game formats and at various times, it was obvious it was time ditch the Oric, then the MSX. But there’s two sides to the coin of a home computer that’s not in the top tier – if there’s less software around, then your software (if you can get it on sale) will sell better to the fewer buyers.

On the other hand, if you’ve written something that’s not well received, on a mass market like the Speccy, then you’re not going to see a reward. Ultimately though, after 1985, we were only doing conversions for other people, and very little in-house work – and so the requirements were dictated to us – it would be a case of, we need this converted to the Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64, so no decision on what formats we were going to do.

Q) You worked for a period of time at Databyte, I believe? If so, this is a very long shot, but you wouldn’t know anything about Adam Caveman would you?  Advertised for A8 and C64, Atari user claimed they’d seen it running at a trade show (I emailed the article writer, even sent scan of said article, but never heard anything back, lol), but never seen.

A) I would ask Tim Holland if I had any contact with him… but he disappeared from my radar. I asked Richard Spitalny of First Star if they knew where he was, and he did kindly reply, but he did not know either. Databyte was, as far as I knew, just Tim Holland, with help from his girlfriend Karen. No-one, as far as I know actually worked there with him – I suppose there may of been people like myself working at remote sites and sending stuff in.

I think he (Databyte) was more of a distributor of American games.. but I could be wrong. I got to know Tim through Orpheus, and we did many conversions for him, and often went down to see him at Kentish Town, and later Hampstead. Tim was very fond of his Atari.. The name Adam Caveman does ring a bell but I could not swear to it.

Q) The MSX range of hardware then – very much an unknown to so many of us (mentioned in C+VG etc, known to some of us for it’s Konami games and awful scrolling), a very early attempt at a single-format, you worked on a few games for it, so what did you think of the hardware itself and did it ever appear to have any chance at making any in-roads, here in the UK? Or was it simply doomed to failure from the off?

A) It suffered from the stupidity of having different memory options. The hardware wasn’t too bad, it had a nice line by line colour system, and it was quite solid technology with a nice keyboard. I had a Sony hitbit and a Toshiba (because we needed to be fairly sure software would run on different machines). The MSX 2 had a horrible memory paging system. The architecture was too slow, unfortunately, and not enough people were writing games for it, so it fell by the wayside. The concept of same hardware, different manufacturers is what happened to the PC, but no the MSX was too late, 8 bit architecture at a time when people were moving to 16 bit, and from my memory, more priced as though it was 16 bit.

Q) You converted Zombi from the Atari ST to the ZX Spectrum (but I believe it could have been a lot more if they’d let you do it for the 128K Speccy from the start?), so I have to ask IF you’ve seen/played Zombi U on the Wii U and if so your thoughts on the modern take on it…

A) I have not seen the Wii version. It was frustrating, my brief was to write for the 48K Spectrum, converted from the ST, but there was no memory for all the game play, maps and animations too. It was crazy really attempting it. I ended up doing a manual line drawing coordinate system which just took forever.

It had, I think, all of the adventure components of the original, but it was more of a text adventure with graphics. The annoying thing was that the box when it was made had “requires Spectrum 128k” on it, despite my efforts to make it work on the 48K (which it did).

Q) I’m itching to hear about your time/work on the Konix Multi-system.  I believe you worked on it at a time it was being re-packaged as it were, as the TXE Multi-System, which was attempting to be the PS2 of it’s day, a Video CD player, as well as gaming device… So CD Rom, VCD playback, plus games etc.(suppose it was the Nuon of it’s day as it was in effect a gaming chip ‘bolted-onto’ a VCD player?) .

Could you tell us a little about your role on the Multi-system (and were you aware of it, in it’s original form, The Konix Multi-system) and how do you came to be working on it.   Also, what did you personally feel it’s chances in the market were at that time?  The hardware must, at that time of been rather ‘dated’ or under powered, were attempts made to beef it up?  Or was the device aimed at a ‘lower end’ of the market?

A) MSU started out as a group of people working in very distant locations. They employed games writers and graphics lads were up in Sheffield, the hardware was being designed and built in Cardiff, the ASIC was designed by Martin Brennan, and others were elsewhere, like myself in Ely, a group in Lowestoft, and other individuals. My first experience was almost immediately to spend some time in Cardiff writing little bits of test code, and then to take a trip to Sheffield to meet the games programmers.

After a while, an office in Milton Keynes was acquired, and at least the Sheffield lot and the Cardiff people and myself worked from there (although about half of the Sheffield guys didn’t move down) . My role was a bit ambiguous to begin with, not a games writer, but someone to write development code, and to test new iterations of the hardware. We used PC’s and its parallel port to squirt down code into the various multisystems, also Eprom emulators (RomPets) through which you could load up code. The intention was, at quite an early stage, that the Konix would be equipped with a CD-ROM which would enormously increase its capacity for extra features in a game. We were trying, at any cost of CD-ROM space, to do games with built in video at a time when I don’t think this was done.

Domestic CD-ROM recording was not available until about 1995, but we were doing it much earlier with a hugely expensive recording box, and CDR discs that cost about 3 for £10 at best. We did succeed in getting, albeit in a small window, 12 frames a second video running from a CD. This was not using a file system, but directly writing sectors onto the CD. I don’t think it was underpowered to begin with, in 1990. It used an ASIC with a DSP which ran single cycle commands – this was very powerful, powerful enough to later run the guts of an MPEG-2 decoder running real-time. The multisystem changed in its focus.

I could not tell you exactly when that was, but that was a typical feature of MSU – changing goalposts. The essential core of the machine could be used for: a video CD player (and other formats, like CD+G, audio CD, photo-CD, potentially games) , an Internet set top box (from about 1996) , and a computer that could connect to a TV. Most of these projects failed because whatever we’d do would not be enough. We developed a working Internet box, even had some built and sold, but the box by this stage was absurdly too low powered for browsing. As web pages became increasingly sophisticated, we could not write the browser enhancements to, for instance, Flash, or JavaScript.

The Video CD player probably failed because the Video CD market was not taken up by the studios, but was more successful in the Far East where typically music was released with a Video CD. The quality on movies was only about as good as VHS, and suffered from having to go across two discs. The Video CD player was something I worked on a lot, because there were a lot of problems with our solution. We were using our main ASIC, though I think by this stage the DSP had been slightly enhanced, more memory perhaps. A colleague was working on a separate microcontroller which handled the player’s front panel and CD mechanism. The player had a Winbond chip to decode the Mpeg-1 that Video CD used. The chip could not do audio, so I was pulling out the audio packets, doing a certain amount of work on them, and then the DSP did the rest.

The Winbond chip was terrible, full of bugs. I had to work around the problems by fiddling around with the MPEG packets, unfortunately Video CD was not an exactly uniformly adhered to specification. I had noted the chips faults when I was playing with it in the early days, but I was not listened to. A year or so later, there were much better MPEG chips out there, where you could pretty much just read a CD and fire the packets at the chips and they would decode the video and audio with no effort. But we ploughed on with our solution, and in fact some were eventually made and sold in Tandy’s (Radio Shack) . I spent some time in Taiwan ironing out the problems. One problem was that we kept getting errors, even on very clean discs. I worked out it was overheating, and we had to fit a fan to the Winbond.

Q) Also, could you shed light on any of the games planned for it? And the level of support from developers/publishers in the market for it at that time?

A) There you’ve got me… the detail’s lost from my head. There were two racing games being developed. Lotus was one. I remember a sideways scrolling type game, which had a 2 levels of parallax type scroll. I am struggling to remember more. I don’t now see how we could have launched with so few games.

I think my own emphasis was to support the games programmers and the hardware engineers, and day to day I was always busy, and too busy to really see or think about the marketing side. I don’t know if we hoped that once we launched, we would somehow magically have other programmers writing games for us.

Q) You’ve worked on so many obscure formats, I have to ask, any work done by yourself on the likes of the Atari:Falcon, Panther, Lynx or Jaguar? What about the Nuon or 3DO?

A) Although I have worked on some strange machines, I don’t know any of those you’ve listed, sorry !

Q) What about Lost games, anything on any format?  We’d love to hear about  any and why they were never finished and how it felt to see hard work put into projects that sadly never saw the light of day.

A) There were some speculative projects that were never developed. One was a Vietnam game, one was a surfing game. These did not develop beyond some initial graphics. This was at Orpheus, and we were putting our in-house development to one side to do conversions.

We also developed “September” on the Commodore 64, Amstrad and Spectrum… but my memory of this was that the publishing house did not like what we had done, it was too slow to work out the moves.

Confusingly, I recently learned that the game was published, but if it was ours or not, I could not say: but I was pretty sure we had never gotten paid for the work. When I was doing work for Databyte, I put some time into writing a Chess program with nice graphics for the ST. This was partly because Tim Holland himself was a chess player. But this was nothing new of course, and it did not reach a completed state (although it was fully working) .

I also wrote a game loosely based around the old Life game, but that never reached fruition, would have also been on the ST. In the Oric days there were a few things written but not published, one was BoulderDash, or at least the basic mechanism for it, moving around a test screen of earth and diamonds.

Q) Finally, what are you up to these days? And any messages you’d like to pass onto the readers?  What obscure games of yours should they look out for, if looking to start collecting for the likes of the Oric, Dragon 32 etc?

A) When I started at MSU in 1990, I put games writing behind me. I had been struggling to keep my head above water, and was happy to move into different areas. These days I work in a small TV studio in Milton Keynes, where I’ve written many pieces of control and communication software, and designed a robust video over IP systems used to transmit from Australia, and Thailand to the UK.

I’m still doing various bits of R&D with video and audio. Out of the software I’ve written and converted, I’m happiest with Mighty Bombjack C64, Elidon on the MSX, and Boulderdash construction kit on the Spectrum. My books on the Dragon 32 and the Oric-1 are impossible to find, but the Oric-1 games, such that they are, always turn up on eBay.

I would say a big “Hello” to anyone who knows me from the old days!

Many thanks for your time Geoff!

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