John Gibson (RGM 12/26/2016)

By Peter Ward

Thank you for this interview. It is an honour for me to interview such a legend….

What did you want to do when you were at school for a career and what was your first job?

There were no such things as computers when I went to school so I didn’t dream of becoming a programmer. I don’t remember what aspirations I had but I certainly didn’t want to be a fireman or a train driver.

My very first ‘proper’ job was driving a van delivering medical supplies. The van had a sticker in the window saying ‘Urgent Medical Supplies’ which meant I could drive like a lunatic and get away with it.

The ZX Spectrum was your first computer. Is that your favourite computer?

My first computer was actually a ZX81 and the next one a Commodore VIC-20. I was introduced to the Spectrum when I joined Imagine and wrote Molar Maul for it.

Although I have a lot to thank the Spectrum for, it isn’t my favourite machine. That would be the Fujitsu FM Towns.

When and how did you get into the game industry?

I first got interested in games programming when I bought myself a ZX81. It was impossible to write a game on it in anything other than machine code so I bought a book called, “How To Write Machine Code On Your ZX81” and never looked back.

By the time I’d moved from Liskeard in Cornwall to Liverpool I was a dab hand at Z80 assembler and that stood me in good stead for getting a job at Imagine who were looking for people to program the Spectrum. I remember my job interview to this day:

Dave Lawson: Can you write 16K of machine code in a month?

Me: I dunno but I’ll give it a whirl.

Dave Lawson: OK, you’ve got the job.

You worked at Imagine who made you feel welcome on your first day?

Bandersnatch publicity photo — with Dave Lawson, Eugene Evans and Ian Weatherburn.

They most certainly did. When I joined the company, it consisted of Dave Lawson, Mark Butler, Eugene Evans and the guy who dispatched the tapes whose name I can’t remember. We had a few tiny rooms spread over three floors in Sir Thomas Street. Eugene and I shared one of those tiny rooms. The task Dave had set me was quite daunting given that I’d never been near a Spectrum before nor the Apple IIe along with its text editor and compiler that I was to use to write that 16k of machine code in a month. Dave was very understanding and never lost faith in me. In the end it was  48K and it took me 6 weeks. I’ll never forget what Dave did for me. Without his patience, I might never have spent 32 years as a games programmer.

I understand you were 36 when you joined Imagine, did this make it harder to mix with the team?

Picture of the Zzoom design document which is now in the Video Games museum

I was indeed a lot older than the others; Eugene was still a teenager. It didn’t make an iota of difference though. There wasn’t any kind of father/son relationship between Eugene and I; we were just friends. He did call me Grandad though.

Do you still own the metallic brown Porsche 924?

Good God, no. It would be almost vintage by now, besides it was repossessed when Imagine went tits up. I’m far more conservative these days. I have a Toyota Fortuna SUV which is the only way to get around on the roads in Udon Thani.

The first game you ever worked on was Molar Maul. What was your involvement in making this game?

I did everything: design, programming, graphics, sound. It was to be my first and last completely solo effort but back then, the programmer was mainly responsible for how the game turned out.

What was your favourite game you made at Imagine?

That would be a toss up between Zzoom and Stonkers, both of which were regarded as very innovative at the time. The former for its pseudo-3D and the latter as the first example of a real-time strategy game.

What is the funniest thing and most frustrating thing that happened to you at Imagine?

The funniest was the fire extinguisher fights. The most frustrating thing was that Bandersnatch never got to see the light of day. My Z80 game engine had reached near perfection in that game. Still, I got to use it in Gift From The Gods so all was not lost.

Please tell me about the Imagine parties?

Imagine wasn’t one for throwing parties; not like Psygnosis with their extravaganzas. At Imagine, every day was party day, in fact I got very little work done in the office; I did most of it at home. To say Imagine was laid back is a gross understatement. Fire extinguisher fights were an everyday occurrence, I would sit and play my guitar if I fancied a break from coding, people would stop work and watch a video when they felt that way inclined. Dave Lawson actually encouraged this behaviour as well as entirely arbitrary time keeping. The office was open 24/7 and people would come and go at all hours of the day and night. I remember one guy who over a period of time came in later and later until he eventually ‘wrapped round’.

You set up your own company Denton Design. What made you decide to go it alone?

Picture of a signed copy of a Psyclapse/Bandersnatch publicity flyer resting in all its glory in the museum

After the demise of Imagine, Dave Lawson took the Bandersnatch team off to his house in Caldy on the Wirral with the promise of a move to California once the deal with Atari had been finalised. But that never materialised thanks to a change at the top at Atari. Eventually we realised that things were going nowhere so we thought about going it alone; a daunting prospect back then. But after putting feelers out to Ocean and Beyond it was obvious we could most certainly make it as an independent development studio and thus Denton Designs was born.

How and who did you get as your team at Denton?

My answer to the last question covers this. The Bandersnatch team was me, Steve Cain, Kenny Everett, Ally Noble and Karen Davies. Ex-Imagine programmers John Heap and Dave Colclough joined later and Simon Butler did a lot of freelance work for the company.

So tell me about the last day of Imagine?

For me, it came as a bolt out of the blue; I had no idea anything was wrong with the company. I suppose I should have smelled a rat when what turned out to be my final pay packet was paid in cash rather than into my bank account. I found out later that Imagine’s senior management had gone round dozens of ATMs drawing out cash with their American Express cards in order to meet the wage bill. I was so engrossed in Bandersnatch that it wasn’t until I noticed the people around me pointing and whispering that I took in what was going on. A lot of what happened that day I missed and didn’t find out about until I saw the BBC2 documentary about Imagine’s demise. What I did know was that the Official Receiver had sealed the offices and wouldn’t let anybody take anything out, not even personal possessions. But Dave Lawson wanted to salvage the Sage IV computers containing the source code for Psyclapse and Bandersnatch, those being Eugene’s dev kit and mine. He wanted the two of us to sneak out the back door with the machines, put them in our cars (Eugene’s Lotus and my Porsche) and take them to his house in Caldy on the Wirral. That proved to be easier said than done. We made it to the back door but then one of the bailiffs spotted us and we had to make a run for it. We dived through the door into the stairwell and headed straight for some toilets. We each went into a cubicle, put the computer – a hefty beast – onto the seat and stood on it. Needless to say, the bailiff came in looking for us but soon left when he believed we weren’t there. We gave it a few minutes, stuck our heads outside to check the coast was clear and ran like frightened rabbits down the stairs to our cars and away. That was the last I saw of the last day in the life of Imagine.

Your first game for Denton was Gift from the Gods which actually came packaged with the +3 along with Cosmic Wartoad. Were you aware of this and how did you come up with the Idea for both these games, which I played to death on my +3?

I had no idea that those games had been packaged with the +3. What an ego trip!

GFTG was a Bandersnatch clone and the story behind it came from my (brief) interest in Greek mythology. The characters were real but the story wasn’t although it was based on a real Greek myth.

Cosmic Wartoad was designed and drawn by my dear and sadly missed friend Steve Cain. My only input was the code. Perhaps that’s why it was and is such a popular game. Steve was such an innovative games designer. His death was a big loss to the games industry.

One of your biggest hits at Denton was Frankie Goes To Hollywood; did you meet the band and did they have any input into the game?

No we didn’t get to meet the band and their input was simply, “We don’t want little Frankies running around”. They loved the game’s final design though because it encapsulated their philosophy.

What was your favourite game you made at Denton?

I think that would have to be Gift From The Gods because, in a roundabout way, I got to see Bandersnatch published.

In 1986 you left Denton, what were your reasons?

It was to do with a restructuring of the company. John Heap and Dave Colclough were employed by Dentons but they wanted to become joint owners like the founding members. That was fine but they wanted an equal share and I couldn’t agree to that. I and the others had sweated blood to get Dentons where it was. There was another reason though: David Ward at Ocean had made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to go work for him freelance. Yes, I do not have any morals.

Were you sad to see Rage purchase Denton in 1995?

Not really. My ties to the company were long gone by then.

During most of the Nineties, you worked for Psygnosis in several senior roles and was directly responsible for most of the code libraries used in all Psygnosis’ internal products. Please tell us about these libraries?

I didn’t write the libraries. At that time, Psygnosis had more than half a dozen studios all of which were writing the same code. My job was to identify reusable code, put it in libraries and ‘sell’ it to the studios. And that’s where the plan fell down. Programmer egos got in the way of common sense so some studios were reluctant to ‘give away’ their code and others stubbornly refused to take ‘someone else’s’ code on board.

One of your biggest games for Psygnosis was Microcosm, please tell us how you felt about the great review?

For my part, Microcosm was a massive undertaking. I had to rewrite my Z80 game engine in 80386 and also write a plethora of tools and add-ons, all in 80386 assembler. I also had to train the other programmers how to use the engine. It was satisfying to know that it had all been worthwhile.

I understand you were involved with the Motorstorm series, what was your involvement and what did you use to program these games?

My reply to your last question answers this one. The whole series revolved around the Microcosm engine.

Tell us what you’re currently working on?

I retired in April last year but once a games programmer, always a games programmer, so I keep my hand in writing Android apps. I’ve nearly finished a version of a game I wrote in 1986, Spaced Out. Maybe one day it’ll find its way onto the Google Play Store.

I enjoy some modern games but feel more love for the smaller teams of the past. I feel the fun factor has gone in modern games and are more like movie productions; games can be bug-ridden now as patches can be made. In the past we didn’t have updates and in-app purchases. What is your view of our industry now?

Yes, it was definitely more fun back in the 80’s and 90’s. Writing a game was like writing a book; you could get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it. But with big teams, you just feel like a cog in the machine. I have to say I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to it when I retired. I think the rise of the Indies proves that small is beautiful.

I wouldn’t have said no to patches back then though. Maybe I could have fixed the crash bug in Stonkers.

Here are some questions about retro games:

My favourite computer was my Amiga and my favourite console the Mega Drive. Do you have a favourite?

I loved the Amiga as well. After the Spectrum it was like going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Pity I didn’t get many chances to write for it.

What is your favourite retro game?

That’s gotta be LucasArts Monkey Island along with all the other variations such as Day Of The Tentacle and Sam And Max.

Do you still play games on the current consoles, if so what’s your favourite game?

I’ve never been much of a games player and I’ve never owned a console but I did enjoy playing Spyro The Dragon and Crash Bandicoot on the PSX.

What’s the worst game you have ever played?

I hate to say it but it was Imagine’s Schitzoids, written by Dave Lawson. 3D vector graphics using a processor without a multiply instruction let alone a divide instruction is a bridge too far.