Stephen Curtis

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General Info

Stephen N. Curtis was a games programmer during the 8- and 16-bit era (well, he's still a programmer but not of the kind we tend to cover here!).

On the Amstrad he's responsible for these early titles:

His games garnered very positive reviews though they tend to be quite inaccessible to modern gamers. In his games he often made use of elaborate labyrinths and puzzles. For example - Into Oblivion had 2500 screens and required intense patience and mapping.

Interview

In October 2013 Stephen agreed to give us an interview focusing on Into Oblivion (a loved title by certain Forum users):


Hello Stephen!Can you tell us a few things about yourself? Where you come from, where you're at now etc?

I'm from Wales, 50, married, two teenagers. For the last 14 years I've worked for a multinational multi-billionaire American software corporation in their R&D dept. I report direct to the HQ in the States but work from UK, remote desktopping into my development PC. Not done any games since 1996, last think I did was some teamwork on the CapCom PS1 Darkstalkers game and Midway's Total Carnage on the Game Boy.


How did you get involved with programming?

Bought a ZX81 and got involved that way. Bought a few books and tinkered away.


What was your first experience with the CPC? How did you start programming it?

Bought with royalty money from some Spectrum games, bought an assembler ( can't remember which one), got some books on its architecture and tinkered. As it is Z80 based, all quite straightforward. Before the CPC release, actually saw a CPC prototype when interviewed for a job at Amstrad by Roland Perry. Didn't get the job. Go figure :-)


On World of Spectrum you're credited for 16 titles under various publishers - even three self-published titles. What was your primary machine? Which one did you like the most and why?

I think the CPC became the primary machine, better colour and sound, less restrictive, more of a "proper" computer. Always liked the CPC, especially the disc version. Spectrum always irritated me with its colour attribute clash.


How did you come to program Into Oblivion? Whose idea was it? What was the actual relation with the rest of the series titles (Nonterraqueous, Soul of a Robot, Terra Cognita) - was there anything shared or was it just a marketing ploy? What was the inspiration behind the series?

My idea, mostly Marketing reasons for making a series out of them.

Nonterraqueous and Soul of a Robot had the same artist, I did the graphics for Into Oblivion and Terra Cognita. Nonterraqueous and Soul of a Robot were "inspired" by UnderWurlde, Terra Cognita by Bounder.

I was working from the Mastertronic offices whilst doing Into Oblivion. I had trouble evaluating tapes coming into the office, doing administrative work, and coding IO at the same time, something had to suffer and that was IO unfortunately.


Speaking of other titles, Chopper Squad looks quite similar to Into Oblivion. Did they share any code?

Maybe a few core routines,and maybe the sound routines. The game itself was inspired by JetPac - I loved JetPac.


What tools did you use to write the game? How long did it take? What were the biggest problems you encountered? Did you do everything by yourself? How did you manage to fit 2500 unique, non-random screens into 64K?

I had an assembler on tape, can't remember its name; it was a line (not screen) editor so was a pain to use if I remember correctly. Two pass, which meant you had to run the tape twice. Biggest problem was it took ages for the edit->compile->run->test->edit... development cycle. Probably took anywhere from 2 days for a simple Spectrum game (Battle of the Toothpaste Tubes), to 3 or 4 weeks for a CPC game.

Did everything by myself. The maze was defined on graph paper, then Exits encoded into a byte. Then, if I recall correctly, I had a random number generator for the other bits. The seed for the generator would be the X,Y coords or suchlike, which meant each screen would always look the same, even though a random number generator was used. Some of the deadends in the maze might be a mistake by me when encoding. Nobody tested the game map, and I don't think anybody completed it before release, apart from myself, but then again I had a map and knew the short-cuts.


In relation to the previous question, Nonterraqueous features an unusual, mode 2 loading screen, which did not betray an awful lot about the game itself (as Axelay from the forum noted: the art seems to have little relevance to the game, the cassette cover and inlay shows and describes a robot out for revenge, so the 'monster hand' and border design on the loading screen dont seem to fit. Also the loading screen has 'The Hollow Moon' on it after the title, which doesnt seem to be mentioned in game or in the inlay). Do you remember anything about it?

I'm not sure, I can't recall the loading screen, I know Mark the graphics artist just did what inspired him (the film Alien and Giger), so he probably wanted to try doing a hand.

The Hollow Moon, I think I was trying to make the game sound "grand" by giving it a sub-title, but it's not pertinent to anything.

On the subject of artwork, one of the things that used to annoy me was that nobody would seek my thoughts on the cassette artwork before commissioning it. I remember being disappointed with the artwork for Soul of a Robot, which had a robot with wings - totally missing the point of the game, and a bit naff.


The game (Into Oblivion) was not hard to play screen per screen, however after partially mapping it it's revealed how brutal (if not downright impossible) it would be to finish it, especially without cheating. What was the motivation behind its vast size and high difficulty? Was it playtested by anyone? How did you go about designing the screen structure?

It is possible to finish - I did. But I had the benefit of a map. Of course if you don't have a map then it might be near impossible, but physically speaking, it's possible to finish - i.e. the maze ends somewhere.

The maze is huge because I bought huge pieces of graph paper and did the maze whilst watching TV on the dining room table. Got carried away I guess.

Yes it was play tested, a day before release a bug was discovered where the central sprite would disappear - a bit of a panic to fix that before sending tape to be duplicated.


Are there any Easter Eggs in it? :)

None at all, sorry.


Did you actually program the other version(s) (Spectrum or c64 - though the latter seems to be a different game?)? If so, was there any cross-development, and what was the primary machine?

Can't remember a C64 version, unless Mastertronic commissioned it. I can't remember a Spectrum version either, if it was done Ed Hickman would have done it, he sometimes took the code and produced versions of my games for other machines e.g. MSX.

Normally a Spectrum and CPC game shared very much the same code, with a few tweaks for the different graphic capabilities. For example Terra Cognita on the Spectrum and CPC probably share 90% of the same code.


Did it pay well?

Extremely well, large advance and royalties for several years.


What kind of a relationship did you have with Mastertronic?

Very good, very friendly and appreciative, always bought lunch when I visited. Nice bunch of people, especially John Maxwell (Head of Programming).


Do you have any idea about how well it did in the market? Was the CodeMasters better or worse to work for than Mastertronic?

I preferred Mastertronic, CodeMasters were ok as well, but I felt more at home at Mastertronic.


Would you have changed anything if you did it again?

I’d probably a) make the map smaller and less cruel, maybe more progressive in difficulty as you get near the end, maybe fewer false turns and dead ends until you get near the final stage. b) make more and different aliens, with different paths etc c) Improve the graphics and sound d) Make link stronger to the previous games.


You said that, unfortunately, you don't have the code or the maps you made for the game. However, the Spectrum version seems to be missing - would you happen to have a copy?

I've looked in the loft where my old games are slowly degrading, no I have no Spectrum version, not even sure there is a version for the Spectrum?


Are there any titles you worked for but were never published?

Not on the CPC, but Akira on the Nintendo Game Boy was never published. That was a very good game indeed, but it never came out, not sure what happened, it was all officially licensed.Total Carnage was published on the Game Boy though. That was a challenge, converting a coin-op onto a small gray screen thingie ( I don't like the Game Boy ).


Any other thoughts about working in the games industry back then?

If I could do it again, I'd do it better. Maybe stop rushing things. It was fun and exciting, I was treated very well indeed. I jumped off the 8 bit platform too soon and jumped onto the 16 bit ST and Amiga. I should have stayed on 8 bit for several more years, 16 bit computers raised the development time too high.


Any nice inside stories you could share?

None that I can share sorry.


When/why did you stop doing games?

When I worked for Psygnosis, I often wouldn't get home until 9 or 10 at night, and had to work through a few weekends. Life's too short to work like that, unless you're working for yourself, so I stopped and went and worked for an Internet start-up in 1997, then went on to work for a Government agency crunching statistics, and then onto my current position where I've been for the last 14 years.


Are you in touch with any developers from back then?

Lost touch with them, not many are in games now, one became a property tycoon.


When did you stop using your Amstrad?

Early 90's probably. I went and got an Atari ST, coded Eco Phantoms on it, also did some PC work (arcade sections of Cosmic Spacehead PC version ), also did some Amiga work, e.g. Gnome Alone.


Do you ever fire up an emulator to play old games?

Never play my old games, I don't play games anymore, too many chores to do around house and with the kids.


What were your favorite titles?

I loved anything by Ultimate Play The Game.


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