How did you get into the computer industry?
My mum bought me a ZX81 and 16K RAM Pack for Christmas when I was 16 (thanks Mum) and I sat at home suffering RAM pack wobble and hand-disassembling Quicksilva's Defenda using a notepad and a Z80 book (Toni Baker's Mastering Machine Code for your ZX81, I think). I basically messed around and became quite a competent disassembler and a less competent programmer. I saw an advert for Imagine during autumn 1983 and decided to apply. I was interviewed, and because they could see that I was totally mad for it, they gave me a job on very little evidence of ability. That's how the craziest six months of my life started.
I got the bus down the following week and stayed in a hotel for the next 4 months, but hardly saw the place because I was in Imagine's offices constantly - just bumming around, trying to help out and eventually starting work on a games designer program (like Games Designer or HURG), which was canned at the same time as I was laid off, a few weeks before Imagine went bust.
What other 'names' did you work with?
I worked with all the Imagine and Denton crowd: Dave Lawson (Arcadia), John Gibson (Zzoom, Stonkers), Eugene Evans (Wacky Waiters), Ian Weatherill (Zip-Zap and Alchemist - RIP), John Heap (The Great Escape) and the various Imagine/Denton artists etc.
Then I worked with Jonathan Smith (aka Joffa Smifff), who was so far ahead of anyone else I ever worked with that it was scary. He worked fast, finished everything he worked on, did his own graphics and was an absolutely ace programmer (particularly his scrolling routines). A genius, a special person and also one of the best friends you could hope for. His CV has about 18 games on, but includes Green Beret, Cobra, Hypersports, some Daley Thompson stuff...
The final hero was Steve Weatherill, who did all of Odin's good stuff. He was mature, a good finisher/worker and wrote some really cracking stuff. He and Colin Grunes (from a graphics point of view) more or less propped Odin up, and I suppose he felt pretty pissed off that people around him weren't delivering in the way he could, but I always thought he was a really nice guy and had lots of respect for him. But, most of all, he could do this heavy metal riff thing on electric guitar which surpassed anything he did on a computer (bad haircut, though!). Joffa wins out easily, but, as well as the people who everyone will be interested in hearing about (Speccy greats), I also had loads of good friends that no-one will have heard of. Hi to all of them.
What was it like working at major software houses like Ocean and Imagine?
Ocean - Quite a good laugh, actually, because there were a dozen or so people to work alongside and they were all pretty okay. It wasn't exactly oppressive - I used to leave piles of copies of Marxism Today on my desk to wind up the sales and business guys - but they treated us pretty fairly (well, except for the usual crap wages).
Imagine (original incarnation) was probably the best experience of this and several future lifetimes. I could go on for days (and have done).
Odin - Great people (I thought), but I wonder now with some of the post-Odin comments. It was a shame, because it was falling to bits a little and I probably played my small part in its demise - the same as everyone else!
How do you feel about your own work?
As far as Ping Pong goes, I hated it at the time (perfectionist), but quite like it now. I can see why other people liked it – simplicity. In fairness, though, I was shocked when Joffa's Green Beret was reviewed in the same issue of Crash and scored less. There was so much more to his game than mine and he was miles ahead of me as a programmer.
When it comes to Hypaball, my feelings are coloured by the fact that I was having a pretty bad time personally when I was working on it, to the extent that they had to lock me away in Steve Weatherill's house for a few days with him watching over me to make sure I finished it! It was a disappointment in some ways. Crash slaughtered it, and I'm sure a few people at Odin were unhappy with it, but I am more happy with it than Ping Pong in a way, because there was so much more to it. I think times had changed and standards had moved on without me noticing it, but from a programming point of view it wasn't useless. Except for those blasted bugs with bits of ball left on the screen! ;-(
Of course, I was disappointed with everything I ever worked on because deep down I'm a bit of a perfectionist and these days I would do a much better job. But I know I wrote some good bits of code. The best thing that I ever wrote was the first quarter of Grog's Revenge (I just never got beyond the first quarter!).
Do you have a favourite game?
It would have to be Knight Lore, I think. There were other games I loved (in fact, I probably prefer playing Jetpac or Manic Miner), but most programmers would have something admiring to say about Knight Lore. It re-wrote the rule-book.
What about all the conversions and TV/film tie-ins that plagued the mid-80s?
Terrible. Even though Joffa wrote a lot of them, if you look carefully, you'll see that he tried to take the piss out of them where he could. His Stallone in Cobra has to be the funniest looking thing going! All we could do was concentrate on making the best conversion possible. In the end as a programmer you can take a lot of pride in your execution of the task, not just whether people like it as a game. There are bits of Ping Pong and Hypaball I'm very proud of - but they may not matter to a game player.
How did you leave the Spectrum scene?
Odin was falling apart - I was falling apart even more - and we parted on very bad terms, with them making some strange tax deductions from money that they owed me. There was never any money in the games industry really, and a lot of the characters in control were pretty shifty. Not real businessmen at all. I'm glad I got out when I did, but I wish I'd been a bit older. I would have enjoyed it more and done a better job. Still, I was lucky to have been there and met some wonderful people.
What are you up to nowadays?
When I left games, I worked on PC stuff for a while - C and Clipper - and then I got into Oracle programming, training and DBA work. I've been a contractor for about 5 or 6 years now and am a completely different person. That's enough about me - it's all in the Resume section at http://oracledoug.com/index.html
My thanks to Doug for the interview.
Doug Burns (aka Bernie Duggs) worked for Imagine, Ocean and Odin between 1983 and 1987, writing Ping Pong , Hypaball, and contributing to numerous other titles. In this interview he gave me in May 2000, he offers a fascinating insight into what it was like to be involved with the Spectrum in the early days.