Q&A: From Starquake To Starcraft

If you thought the previous interview was old, check out this one, taken from an ancient email exchange with Stephen Crow in 2005 that has remained unpublished for seven years. (I recall planning to write something up for Retro Gamer magazine, but never got around to it.)

Crow came to prominence in the UK during the mid 1980s for a couple of games: Wizard’s Lair, a rather blatant rip-off of the Ultimate/Rare classic Atic Atac, and the seminal sci-fi action adventure Starquake, a game that had you controlling the cutest robot in gaming as he tried to stop an unstable planet from exploding. Starquake was a huge critical and commercial success and was released on every major computer platform of the day, including Atari ST, Amiga and PC (fairly awful that one, I wouldn’t recommend it).

When this interview was fresh in my inbox, Crow was working on console shooter Starcraft: Ghost, which obviously never made it to release. He then helped Blizzard out with a couple of World of Warcraft expansions, so it’s good to know he’s still out there making compelling characters and remains involved in some of the biggest games on the planet (even if they are fantasy ones).

PSF: I read that you started programming at school on a RML 380Z… surely an experience that would put most people of programming for life?

Stephen Crow: That’s not entirely accurate. I actually wrote my first game on a dumb terminal that was connected from my school to a mainframe at a local college. The connection must have been incredibly slow! We saved our programs on paper punch tape! When our school got the 380Z it was amazing! You could write programs and get instant feedback and it had a video display.

One of the first games I wrote on the 380Z was a Missile Command (still my all time favourite game) type game, which used crude blocks instead of lines coming out of the sky.

PSF: When did you start creating games and what were your early experiences like?

Stephen Crow: Soon after the 380Z I got given a ZX81 and started programming games in Sinclair basic. I think I must have written dozens and dozens of games on the ZX81. It was slow and only had a black and white display. I upgraded it with a 16K ram pack which wobbled and crashed the computer continually. My dad (who was a computer engineer) built a real keyboard for it so that I could type without wobbling the ram pack. Programming wise I think I was still using Basic but there were compilers around to convert the basic into machine code, which made the code run 10 times faster. On the Spectrum Lazer Snaker was all compiled Basic and Factory Breakout was half-compiled Basic and half full machine code.

PSF: How well were those games received?

Stephen Crow: At about that time I was considering going into business with a school classmate who was already contracting for Atari. My dad had a friend he played golf with, Bill Laker, and asked him for some advice about the deal. Bill was an owner of a computer company (Gandlake) and offered to set up a partnership to publish my games – that was how Poppysoft was born. The first game Lazer Snaker had moderate success but the second Factory Breakout was very well received with excellent reviews in the magazines at the time. Unfortunately Gandlake was so successful with their other business that the computer games proved too much of a distraction so they decided to dissolve Poppysoft. Gandlake is still in business today but who knows if they had stayed in games they may have become a household name!

PSF: Wizard’s Lair was your first big game. What inspired you to create it?

Stephen Crow: Although a blatant copy of Atic Atac, which I never actually played, I was inspired by a screenshot I had seen of the Ultimate game in a magazine. The top down view was very interesting so I just went from there.

PSF: Did you encounter any significant problems during the development of Wizard’s Lair?

Stephen Crow:  The rooms were mainly drawn from lines so I remember writing a fast line drawing routine to speed that up – it was still pretty slow though. Also because there were so many rooms a lot of things were generated pseudo-randomly to save on memory. I would later use this technique extensively in Starquake and Firelord. The main problem, though, was I couldn’t get anyone to publish the game. I had it completely finished but no one wanted it. I think Thorn EMI offered me £500.00 which I took as an insult. I was just about to give it to Crash magazine to give away for free when Bubble Bus offered me a fairly decent royalty deal for it.

PSF: The game was described as ‘plagiaristic in the extreme’. Fair?

Stephen Crow:  Yes, as you can see from the inspiration that is fair. Sadly 98% of all games that come out today would fall into this category! I don’t think that is a bad thing if you copy something and improve on it – what matters at the end of the day is executing a great game. Although now I think the pendulum has swung too far and the games industry needs to be more creative and publishers more willing to take risks.

PSF: What was the inspiration for Starquake’s design?

Stephen Crow: In Crash magazine there was a comic strip that ran (it may have been Lunar Jetman?). Anyhow, there was this little round robot who sometimes appeared in the comic strip, I loosely based the main character in Starquake on him. From there I just decided to set it on a planet in space. I spent a lot of time getting the play mechanics for Blob working right and playing fun.

PSF: Starquake was created in a very short space of time, even for 1985, what medication were you taking?

Stephen Crow: I started Starquake in January and finished sometime in September. Just consistent hard work – especially towards the end. Back then I would do all the code, art and music! The game had 512 screens so I set myself a task of creating 20 a day for a month to get it done. That was nothing compared with today’s games when we often work 80 hours week for months at a time to get a game out on time – video games today are incredibly complex and have a huge amount of content this equals lots of hours of work. The medication – just like an athlete, video game creators have to train their bodies to survive on extreme sleep deprivation.

PSF: Did you encounter any significant problems during the development of Starquake?

Stephen Crow: Not really. I kept rewriting the sprite routine to improve performance. It was one of those games that just went right and was fun to play from the get go. The green elevators (based off of Factory Breakout) were hard to get working bug free and also the fact that Blob could fly around on a jet pad meant I had to play test it a lot to ensure you couldn’t fly somewhere you weren’t supposed to.

PSF:  BLOB was a rare creation in that he had real character… ?

Stephen Crow: Absolutely, I wanted him to seem adorable to the player, a bit like having your own pet robot.

PSF: Being voted programmer of the year in 1985 must have been nice?

Stephen Crow: Well I went to the awards ceremony and didn’t even know I had been nominated – let alone expect to win! It was pretty overwhelming!

PSF: A year passed between Starquake and Firelord, during which time you moved from Bubble Bus to Hewson; what were you up to during that time? Were there any plans to create a Starquake sequel?

Stephen Crow: I had no plans for a sequel – as they were pretty much unheard of back then – although a few games did have sequels. After doing the sci-fi thing with Starquake I was keen to do a fantasy/medieval scenario.

PSF: It seems Firelord was the last game you created on your own. Why was this?

Stephen Crow: I don’t know why, it was stressful working on Firelord for Hewson – I will say no more! Also I started to get more interested in doing graphics and a little bored of programming machine code. It was very slow to compile and write code back then and check the code you had just written. If I had stayed with it the first professional development systems were just coming out which allowed nearly instant compiling of code and thus quick feedback. I did start on another game based on Blob (thus a Starquake sequel you could say), which had much more gameplay and physics to the main character. You could fire Blob out of canons etc and it was really fast – a little like a very early Sonic the Hedgehog but nowhere near as advanced. Sadly I did not get very far and started working on graphics for other games. Fortunately I am still a video game artist. Working with 3D and all the complexities of a modern game engine challenges both the artistic and technical side of my brain! I am currently working at Swinigin’Ape studios creating 3D vehicles and levels for Blizard’s Starcraft Ghost game.

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