Jeff Minter The Programmer Behind Gridrunner And Attack of the Mutant Camels by John Blackford, Assistant Features Editor August 1983, COMPUTE!s Gazette
Jeff Minter, British author of the hot-selling game Gridrunner, started his own software company after he was forced to drop out of college. In the year since, he's produced more than a dozen popular games and a couple of best sellers. Here, he talks about his work and his approach to game programming.
Jeff Minter is excited about his newest game, Attack of the Mutant Camels, an extension of his popular Gridrnnner. It was premiered in June by Human Engineered Software (HES), the U.S. distributor. HES is gearing up a national advertising campaign featuring "camel consciousness. " Minter has every hope that his latest effort will affirm the success of Gridrunner.
The popularity of Gridrnnner - the Commodore 64 version is No. 2 on the COMPUTE!'s Gazette HOTWARE list and the VIC version is No 7 - has established Minter as a successful game programmer in the U.S. market. Until now, his reputation was limited to the United Kingdom.
Like a surprising number of professional game programmers, Minter never intended to become a game programmer. He started programming in college on an early 8K version of the Commodore PET, the one with the calculator-style keyboard. He programmed games in BASIC, and his friends critiqued them. He found his class-mates hard to please, forcing him to learn fast.
Minter studied math, physics, and computer science at several colleges in the United Kingdom, including Oxford Polytechnic, before a serious illness forced him to drop out. But then he had tiMe to get seriously into game programming in machine language. (Because it runs so fast, machine language is the choice of nearly all commercial software authors. )
Since leaving school, Minter has become one of the most popular game programmers in the United Kingdom, and quite successful in the United States. He doesn't regret having to give up college because he enjoys inventing games - and now he gets to do it full time, and for money. He sets his own pace at Llamasoft, his London-based software company.
Llamasoft (so named because Minter likes Llamas) distributes cassette and disk versions of his games overseas, while HES handles all cartridges and exclusive rights to distribution in the United States and Canada.
Minter says there are so many inexpensive cassette-based games available in Britain that consumers have a hard time knowing what's good. But in the United States, he says, the quality of commercial software is much more consistent, and consumers can be fairly sure of getting a reliable, playable game. In the United Kingdom, buyers often go by the reputation of an individual programmer - and Minter's reportedly is excellent.
Minter's first United States hit, Gridrunner, is about alien Droids in the year 2190 who are stealing electricity from Earth's orbiting power station, the "Grid. " To stop them, a combat ship patrols the Grid. In the game, the Grid is a large lattice on the screen, and Earth's combat ship moves along the lower portion, firing on segmented Droids, dodging the X/Y Zappers, and eliminating mutating yellow pods which sometimes lodge in the lattice.
The action in Attack of the Mutant Camels is similar, but there are several difFerent grids and a challenging array of traps and hazards. Attack of the Mutant Camels is the most ambitious of Minter's games to date. In the higher levels, some grids are diagonal, and sometimes the grid is not visible at all. To make the levels more challenging, Minter added new problems rather than merely speeding up the action. The mutant camel is one of the additions. and there are pods to be destroyed before they mutate (as in Gridrunner), as well as other pods that destroy you if you fire on them. Deflectors in increasing numbers also start bouncing your laser beams around unpredictably.
In addition, Attack of the Mutant Camels has some traps for those who have become proficient at Gridrunner n . "There are ways to beat Gridrunner," quotes Minter. "Some people try to stay in one place. Others get to the edge of the screen. But in Attack there are nasties to keep you from doing things like that. For example, there is the Traitorous Humanoid. If you stay in one spot too long, he points you out, and the X/Y Zappers blast you
"The hardest part of Attack of the Mutant Camels was to get a game that plays coherently, " he says. "That's the hardest part of any game. "
To get the game just right, Minter spent four or five weeks working out the program. Then he took the game to some computer shows and let kids try it out, on the theory that the best way to debug a game is to let people play it.
You might be wondering how he dreamed up the strange title. It seems that while visiting California recently, talking to the people at HES, Minter grew fond of the radio station KMEL. When he spotted the camel logo on the station's T-shirts, he decided to incorporate camels into his next game. A camel appears in some of the higher skill levels, and you get 106 points for shooting it. Station KMEL just happens to be located at 106 on the FM band.
Like many game programmers - especially those working for the limited-memory VIC-2O - Minter breaks down the action of a new game program into small modules. He carefully works out the bugs in each one before adding it to the main program. Each of the modules forms a subroutine. A main loop defines the screen and calls up the appropriate subroutine to move the ship, fire the lasers, and create sounds.
In the past, Minter has programmed all his games with the VICMON, a utility for machine language programming that is somewhat limited by professional standards. Now he has a Commodore 64 assembler-editor with such features as the ability to relocate lines of code and to add memos to his programs (similar to REM statements in BASIC). But despite the new equipment, he uses the same programming style he developed with the VICMON. "You add very small pieces, one at a time. I've developed a very disciplined style. "
Encouraged by the sales of Gridrunner and the positive reception of Attack of the Mutant Camels, Minter has even more games in the works. "I look forward to working on new games, " he says. "Writing them is really fun. And I'm getting better all the time. "