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Nick Speakman Interview

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slightly different from our friend Ross Sillifant a.k.a Chryssalid,so please enjoy:

 

                                                      GOG Presents Nick Speakman

 

Nick Speakman of Binary Design talks us through his personal
recollection of working with the Atari ST:

 


Nick: I was never a user of Atari machines before the ST, I had a
Colecovision instead of a 2600 and the 400/800 were a bit overpriced
so I whilst I lusted after them a bit, around 1981 when I first got
into computing, I couldn't get my hands on one. By the time the ST
came out I'd got quite a bit of money together from writing a few
games for TI-99/4A and the very first Amstrad CPC464s and was itching
to get a 16-bit machine. I had a 520 which I quickly upgraded to a
1040STFM. This was my "go to" machine for 2-3 years until I got an
Amiga 500 and even then I switched between the two; Atari for music,
Amiga for graphics, both for games.

I started work at Binary Design in 1987, after leaving college, and at
that point the company had one Amiga 1000 which was sat in a corner
like an expensive curiosity but conversely the ST was THE machine.
Everyone in the office had an ST and it was the first machine people
wanted to code for. The 68000 was a dream to work with after the
restrictions of 6502s and Z80s. Ironically at this period we'd also
get requests for 2600 conversions of some of the arcade licences we'd
get from the States but getting given that job was like being handed a
death sentence! Over in the US there was still enough of a market for
2600 games in 1988 but we were all 18-20 year olds and struggled to
code for a machine with no video processor.

The ST seemed to have an unassailable lead for what seemed like ages,
but was probably less than 18 months, but the arrival of the Amiga 500
changed everything. As techies we just switched our obsession to the
Amiga instead and the ST kind of played second fiddle to it. This was
certainly the case with graphics and music in games. When I started in
'87 an artist would work on a platform and do that machine's graphics,
so each version of a game would have graphics of wildly varying
quality. The idea was that a "Spectrum Artist" would know how to
squeeze the best out of that machine's graphics more than say a "C64
Artist" as each machine had it's own unique limitations. The
widespread uptake of the ST and Amiga by 1988 and 1989 meant that the
focus switched to accuracy more than working around the foibles of
each machine's hardware. We had also by that stage, developed a way of
pausing the JAMMA boards of arcade machines and digitising the screen
output on an Amiga, so that we could "trace" over the top of the
graphics to copy them. The process (in theory) was we'd do it in 32
colours on the Amiga, down-sample to 16 colours for the ST and then 4
for Amstrad, 1 for Spectrum and mess around on the C64. The reality
was that both ST and Amiga had 16 colours, because of memory
limitations and also in parallel we started to see the first examples
of using code across multiple platforms because of the shared 68000
CPU.

ST interest was slowly waining in the office until a couple of us
started to read about Transputers. We had a technical interest in the
RISC processors of the Acorn Archimedes, but there was no market for
writing games for it, but we could see that RISC architectures and the
possibility of multiple cores and parallel processing in a machine
were the future. We'd also started to experiment with doing 3D
graphics for games like Hard Drivin' and what eventually became an
original game called Rotox, the problems were our ambitions couldn't
be met by the hardware available at the time. Transputers were widely
believed to be the future for a few years and when Atari said they
were going to incorporate them into their machines we all got excited
about the ST again. An indication of how widespread this belief was is
I bought a book called "A Tutorial Introduction to Occam Programming"
(Occam was a computer language Inmos created for the Transputers) in
Boots the chemists on Market Street in Manchester... in fact I still
have the book somewhere!

After ringing around loads of people we eventually persuaded someone
at Perihelion Software to lend us an Atari Transputer Workstation.
This machine was 5-10 years ahead of what the Amiga could do! It had
resolutions of 1280x960 (remember ST games were typically 320x200 and
considered hi-res) and could display 512x480 with 16.7 million
colours. The graphics for this would ultimately become what was used
on the Atari Jaguar, it had amazing "blitting" effects but it was
shear speed of the machine and number of instructions per second it
could handle that blew us away. We played with it for about a month
and did some amazing demos but ultimately we realised that we'd have
to send the machine back and also we couldn't find a commercial use
for it.

One "missed opportunity" with Atari hardware was when we saw the Atari
Portfolio. This was released before the Nintendo Game Boy, before any
Game Gear, Lynx anything... and it was a British invention. Unlike
most developers in the UK, because we had strong links to the US and
the market conditions there, we'd been writing PC games for 12-18
months at the time the machine was announced in late 1988, so the fact
it was a nearly a DOS machine with a reduced 8086 type CPU (80C88) was
of great interest to us. Also I'd had a Milton Bradley Microvision in
the early 1980's and was convinced that mobile gaming was going to be
big, even with a crappy monochrome LCD screen. (The Microvision
boasted a 16x16 pixel screen!). Both myself and another project
manager Paul Ranson took the long journey to visit DIP Research in
Surrey to talk about writing games for the machine. They greeted us
politely but told us that they really saw the machine as a business
device and didn't want to sully this plan by having games written for
it. Paul and I took the long drive back to Manchester depressed that
we thought we'd missed an opportunity. Ironically a couple of months
later DIP had decided to sell to Atari to get their machine launched,
but by this time Nintendo had announced the Game Boy, so it now had
competition from someone who DID want to have games written for it. I
still think that machine was ahead of the curve and could have done
great things, but I can see why they didn't want it become a "toy"

By early 1990 Binary Design had gone bust and after 8 years working in
the games industry I'd had enough. I went to write business software
for Apple Macs, which is still (kind of) what I do now. I've always
been interested in gaming especially "retro gaming" and I currently
work 200m away from TT Games, so I'm surrounded by games developers,
but I think it's a horrible industry to work in really, it's hard to
earn any money in it and it will spit you out for a younger developer
at the drop of a hat.

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