How did you first become involved with computers?
The first computer I ever used was a Commodore PET. I'm not sure what the year was, but my older sister brought it home from college to do some homework on. I got to use it for about one hour and I remember designing a rocket ship using a simple BASIC program:
10 Print " !"
20 Print " !!!"
30 Print " / N \"
40 Print " / A \"
50 Print " / S \"
60 Print "! A !"
You get the picture.
I had Pong on a really early TV console, followed by an Atari console. Then I saw an advert for "build you own Sinclair ZX81". This I did and tried to copy games that I played in the arcades.
Looking back, I'm sure I was addicted to arcade games. I remember the very first time I played Space Invaders. It was black and white, with tinted gels over the screen to give the game ‘colour’. Later, I moved on to Asteroids, Battlezone, Centipede and Pacman, but my favourites from that time had to be Tempest, Defender, Robotron, Mr Do…I could go on! I programmed the ZX81 trying to emulate those arcade games. I remember writing Defender in 1K. Not a patch on the original, but to me it was still Defender, only without having to put 10p in the slot.
What was your first published game and how did it come about?
The very first games I wrote were actually for the ZX81, sold in a local shop under the name Jega Software. I was totally self-taught, learning bits from those awful printouts in computer magazines - the ones you could type in but never worked.
Then the ZX Spectrum came out with colour (wow!) and I started to program it for my own pleasure. I remember getting a phone call at home from the owner of Blaby Computer Games [John Bailiss]. He said someone had told him I wrote games and would I like to meet. And that's how my first commercial release came about.
The first title of mine released by Blaby was Confusion (I think), which they bought for £50 outright. After that, the games started to sell pretty quickly, so we agreed that it made sense to have some kind of royalty payments based on how well a game sold. Blaby were as new to the software market as I was to writing the games.
What was it like to be part of the fledgling software industry? Did you feel like a pioneer, or was it just a bit of fun?
At the time it didn't feel pioneering, but looking back it feels very pioneering, particularly when you see how much the games market is worth these days. Bigger than cinema, I often read. It was a lot of fun, too. I was only about 15 and it was just a hobby, really. I was envious of Matthew Smith, wishing I could program as well as he obviously could. But it seems that maybe the money went to his head, so perhaps it was for the best that I wasn't too successful! I used to buy magazines to read reviews of my own games. I fondly remember the first issue of Crash, where it said one of my games had the best sound of any Spectrum game ever, or something along those lines.
What was life like with Blaby? Did you work in-house or were your games submitted from home?
All the programming was done in-house: my parents’ house. In my bedroom, to be precise. Blaby would supply me with a new Spectrum if mine broke down. Every so often I'd give them a demo of the latest game, or current stages of a game, and they would give me feedback. The guy at Blaby started to get other programmers working from their bedrooms, too, and branched out into Dragon 32 games. I hated that machine about as much as the BBC Micro, which is what schools were starting to get by the time I left. I had a few computer lessons at school, but I knew more than the teachers, so I stopped attending.
Did being a games programmer change your life or have a bearing on your later career?
Not really. The money was good, but it was short-lived. I decided early on that when I left school I would like work with computers, but I thought you couldn't make a living writing computer games. I would have to get a ‘proper job’. Plus, I always had a big interest in graphic design.
How do you feel about your own work, particularly compared to other games of the time?
The thing with most of the old games is they had this thing called playability - a wanting to get to the next level, beat the high score, get your initials at the top of the screen. A lot of today's games have lost that.
At the time, I thought my games were as good as anyone else's. But then I remember seeing Jet Pac at some computer games exhibition and wow...it just blew everything else out of the water with its smooth pixel-by-pixel graphics. That's probably when I thought “time to hang up your keyboard”.
I recently used an emulator on my PC to play my old games. The early stuff looks really rough, some of the later games were much better, but I'm just surprised at how ten games were written in the space of about sixteen months by one individual.
What was the Spectrum like to work with? What were its main strengths and weaknesses?
Progressing from the ZX81 to the Spectrum, there were three great things: colour, sound and more memory. Its weaknesses were the way an 8x8 block could only have one foreground and one background colour, and then there was the sound coming out of that tiny speaker.
Blaby was part of the original generation of software houses. What was the industry like in those early days and how did it change over the years?
Blaby originally started with just the boss and me, then they began getting other programmers writing for the Spectrum and the Dragon 32 (spit). It was a lot of fun being creative, because apart from the arcade rip-offs everything else was original - games that had never come before. You had a blank sheet of paper, so to speak. A lot of the games I wrote were obviously inspired by arcade games and they sold the most, because people knew what they were getting.
The industry became increasingly professional during the mid-1980s, and companies like Ocean squeezed out the small fry with their endless spin-offs and tie-ins. How did you feel about this?
I really, really detested Ocean. They always seemed to bring out similar games to me a couple of months later, complete with full-page colour adverts in the press - and I'm sure that placed a bias on reviews in some of the magazines. Blaby could not really compete with that. Plus, Ocean always seemed to get the tie-ins with well-known brands.
Talking of which, I remember developing a platform game based around crisp production, with the express view of getting Blaby to approach Walkers crisps and ask them to go in with us on a tie-in. But Walkers declined. They've gone from strength to strength since then, so it was obviously a good choice!
How did you leave games programming?
I wrote my last few games when I should have been studying for my O-Levels, then I did my exams and went to college to learn ‘proper’ computing. So I learnt how to program stock control in COBOL, which was as dull as dishwater. I got a job doing computer graphics after leaving college and I've been doing that ever since. As far as the gaming scene is concerned, I'm just a player now.
Many thanks to Gary for the interview.
Gary Capewell was a schoolboy programmer, who wrote more titles for Blaby Computer Games in a couple of years than some well-known labels produced in their lifetimes. The likes of Barmy Burgers and Killer Kong satisfied the appetite for arcade clones among home gamers, and propelled Blaby to short-lived success. In this interview from May 2003, he recalls how he got into programming and shares some memories of the time.