Andy Roberts was the man behind the most popular section of Commodore Format –the tips section, Gamesbusters. He took time out of planning his wedding to talk life on CF, working on Mayhem In Monsterland and moving to Canada.
Andy! So, where have you been since 1995? Wow – Where do I begin? I stopped working for Commodore Format officially in July 1995; by that time, I was working with John and Steve Rowlands on a PC-based beat ’em up for System 3. We had formed a new company called Digital Graffiti, but later that year I left to pursue other interests.
I landed at Sony Computer Entertainment, and worked for a year as a Lead Tester during the launch of the original PlayStation; those were extremely exciting times, and I got to flex my design skills as well as my QA [quality assurance] skills. You can find my name in the credits for Crash Bandicoot, Formula 1, and Total NBA ’96, among others.
Then I jumped ship to work for Acclaim Studios up in Teesside; over the next five years, I established their QA facility, before moving into design, under the watchful eye of Guy Miller (ex-Core Design, responsible for nurturing the original Tomb Raider, and the man who christened Lara Croft). I learned an incredible amount from Guy and his partner in crime, Simon Phipps (the man behind classic games such as Switchblade and Rick Dangerous).
During this time, I also drifted back into publishing, and wound up spending a year freelancing for various magazines and websites, including Total!, Planet Game Boy (one of the best experiences of my life – Adam Waring was an amazingly talented and trusting Editor), Planet PC, PlayStation Max, Internet Magazine, Freeloader, PC Format, and Xnet(run by ex-Newsfield writer, Dominic Handy).
In 2001 I jumped ship again, this time to launch my own company, Thalamus Interactive, and along with the incredibly talented Jon Wells (Escape from Arth, Sceptre of Baghdad, 10th Dan), and a few other folk such as the legendary C64 artist Paul “Dokk” Docherty, we worked on a number of games for the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance.
I also did some freelance design for System 3, and got to work alongside John Twiddy on a next-generation version of The Last Ninja (this remains one of the best phases of my professional life; John is a fantastic programmer, and it was a joy to work with him so closely).
Life took a different direction in 2004-2005, as I married and emigrated to Canada’s West Coast; for a number of years I worked exclusively on web projects, although I did spend a couple of years creating a 2D map editor called FishEd in my spare time (you can find this at www.scaryfish.tv/fished).
I officially returned to games development in 2009, and worked on a casual game calledEmpire Builder: Ancient Egypt. This led to me accepting a job on Canada’s East Coast, where I worked as a Senior Designer for a couple of years.
My last games project was released in 2012 (South Park: Tenorman’s Revenge, for the Xbox 360). These days, I work as a Graphic Designer for a small company out here in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Take us right back to 1990, then. How did you get involved with Commodore Format? In the Summer of 1990, I remember picking up a copy of New Computer Express and seeing an ad for the position of staff writer with Commodore Format.
At that time, I was contributing a huge amount of material to ZZAP! 64 (after reading issue 17, all I wanted to do with my life was write for the magazine). I’d even had an article published in it the year before (my first ever professional writing commission), and thus I had a considerable portfolio of published work to fall back on.
I mailed off my CV and cover letter and remember waiting anxiously to hear back; and then, one day, a call from [launch editor] Steve Jarratt asking if I could come down to Bath the following week for an interview. I remember being extremely nervous and apprehensive; I was 17, fresh out of school, and painfully shy.
Future Publishing’s office was quite a distance from the train station, and I remember the weather was blisteringly hot; by the time I got to 30 Monmouth Street, I was a sweaty, nervous wreck.
The interview took place in a tiny office; as well as Steve, there was also [publishers] Greg Ingham (who I remember as immensely smart, amicable, and tall), and Steve Carey (whom I remember seemed very direct and intimidating). I later found out that Steve Carey’s nickname at Future was “Scary”, and I could see why, though in retrospect he simply had a very direct, non-nonsense approach.
I didn’t get the job, but the following week I did get a call from Steve Jarratt asking if I would like to freelance for the magazine. Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The downside was that I could no longer contribute to ZZAP!; the upside was that I’d be paid for my contributions. I’d be a bona-fide professional writer.
As an aside, about a year later I asked Steve why they had picked Andy Dyer over me; he laughed, and jokingly said “You were very quiet. You just needed to…”
“Sell myself a little more?” I asked.
“You just needed to talk!” he said.
He also added, “Andy Dyer had so much enthusiasm; he gave us the impression that if he didn’t get the job, he would die.”
Walk us through a typical month in the life of Gamebusters. All those maps, type ins, reader’s letters…where did you even start? Would the editors want you to crack certain games, or did you have a pretty free reign? In the beginning, I was just doing whatever bits and pieces the editors threw at me. For my first commission, I recall getting a copy of Die Hard on disk in the mail (everything was done by post back then – everything), along with a note from Steve [Jarratt] that read: “If you can expand on this with a complete guide … give me a call. If not, give me a call anyway!”
I took it as a challenge, and nervously booted up the disk to see how and if a solution could be produced. It was challenging simply because everything I had contributed in the past had been of my own choosing; ostensibly, I had mapped and solved games that I knew could be mapped and solved. However, I didn’t want to let Steve down and lose such a golden opportunity.
I mainly dealt with Andy Dyer each month, and he would usually call with a commission, payment amount, and deadline. More often than not, it was an extremely small amount of money and a very tight deadline (he makes reference to this in the intro for the New Zealand Story maps in CF14). However, I was 17, living at home, and I got to spend my days playing games and doing what I loved for a national magazine and I got paid for it. It was tremendous fun.
By CF9 we’d really hit our stride, and Gamebusters had its own distinct sub-sections (such as the Frame Busters budget/listings page and Samaritan’s Corner) which really helped to define the tips section and made it easier to plan/organize.
Things changed, of course, when Andy, Steve, and Sean left the magazine and Colin Campbell and Paul Lyons took over; at that point I became responsible for the entire Gamebusters section, and worked quite closely with Paul to work out what games we’d cover.
Naturally, there were restrictions, such as splitting solutions over multiple issues to save space; I personally hated this idea (I’m a completist who likes everything in one spot), but it did encourage readers to buy the next issue. We also had fun solving entire series over several months, such as the Dizzy games.
When Trenton Webb took over some months later, I’d already proved that I could handle 10+ pages of editorial content every month, and I pretty much had free reign to tackle the games I wanted to.
A couple of days after an issue went to press, I’d call Trenton and he’d let me know what pages I had for the next month, whether single or DPS (Double Page Spread), colour or mono, etc. From this I’d create my own “flat plan”, a graphical representation of the pages which Editors often used to create a visual overview of the magazine.
Listings were usually handled by Martin Pugh and Warren Pilkington; in my mind, they were the real heroes, cracking games to order in return for a pittance – and often, nothing – in terms of payment.
As for reader’s letters, I clearly remember the week I took over Gamebusters and they decided to send me all of the mail from the CF office. Two days later, two enormous padded envelopes arrived at my house; they were the size of pillows, and stuffed with hundreds of letters. Pretty much every month after that I would receive a “pillow” in the mail, and it usually took a day just to open them all, and a further day or so to pull out the useful maps/tips, and catalogue the requests for help (every request for help was written down in a jotter pad).
The maps look like incredibly hard work. Especially the ones in later issues where screen grabs were pieced together. How did that work? Did it take you forever? When I first started contributing to ZZAP!, everything was hand-drawn, and this was also the case with CF. Hand-drawn maps were drawn twice, once in pencil while I was mapping the game, then painstakingly drawn again in ink, hunched over a light table. A couple of the maps (such as Into the Eagle’s Nestin CF8 and the Turrican maps in CF10) were drawn usingDeluxe Paint on the Amiga – these were quicker to produce, but not particularly pretty.
One memory that stands out was creating the Summer Camp maps for CF6. At that time, there was no 24-hour television in the UK, and so after midnight I’d usually have to pop the headphones on and listen to CDs (often Jean-Michel Jarre or Vangelis – perfect cartography music!). However, when the first Gulf War started, ITN news would run throughout the night. I remember my deadline was approaching fast and the maps had to be mailed out the next day, and so I started drawing the maps just as ITN news showed the fighters taking off for a bombing run… and several hours later, I was finishing the maps as the 6am news showed the fighters returning…
By the time CF10 rolled around, I started producing screenshot maps which were absolutely crisp and pixel-perfect (Treasure Island Dizzy was the first screenshot map I produced). The technique – called DigiScan – was pioneered by my good friend Jason Mackenzie from Binary Zone/Psytronik, but the process was extremely laborious.
First, I’d create a rough pencil map of the level I was grabbing. Next, I’d run around the level and grab dozens – sometimes hundreds – of screenshots with the Action Replay cartridge, and make a note on the pencil map of the screenshot’s location/filename.
Once that was done, I’d run a C64 emulator on the Amiga, hook up my 1541 drive via a custom cable, load up each screenshot in turn, grab the image using the Amiga Action Replay, and save that to disk. It’s worth noting that the early C64 emulators were painfully slow.
The final step in the process was to load up Deluxe Paint (in the excruciatingly slow and flickery hi-res mode) and stick the screenshots together. However, there was a maximum size for each image, so the guys at Future would often have to stitch chunks of maps together in PhotoShop in order to produce the final map in the magazine. It’s also worth noting that this system didn’t handle sprites, so any enemies or sprites that needed to be shown on the maps were grabbed a different way and placed by hand.
So ultimately, yes, an incredible amount of tedious work, but in the end we wound up with crisp maps that were way ahead of even Future Publishing’s own proprietary image-grabbing technology. For a little while, at least, CF had the best C64 maps around.
Who was great to work for at CF? Steve Jarratt pains himself as a “miserable bastard”, but people say he’s the most fantastic editor to work for. I can’t find a bad word to say about Steve, to be honest. He gave me my big break in publishing, and for that I’m eternally grateful to him. Around the office you could argue he wore a very focused expression, but miserable? Hardly. The banter between him and Andy Dyer was hilarious, they had a great chemistry and made a fantastic team. He was also very trusting and had impeccably high standards.
Andy Dyer was always a pleasure to deal with, both on CF, and later on Total! andPlayStation Max, as was Sean Masterson. Art Editor Ollie Alderton was a very funny and amicable bloke and remains a good friend to this day, and designer Lam Tang was incredibly talented and focused (I remember the day he saw an issue of ZZAP! where they had very closely emulated some of his signature text effects – he wasn’t a happy chappy!).
Colin Campbell was also great to work for (when I took over Gamebusters he asked me how much I wanted to get paid; he took my answer and doubled it). After that comes the Trenton Webb era, along with James Leach, Dave Golder, Lisa Nichols, and Clur Hodgson, which always felt like being part of a really great family. Simon Forrester was also a very laid back and funny man.
Is there any story that really stands out and makes you smile from your time working on the magazine? I remember visiting the CF offices with John and Steve [Rowlands, coders of Mayhem In Monsterland] and later that evening we went out on the town with Ollie Alderton and drank vast quantities of tequila. John wound up taking a strip down a very steep hill in a shopping trolley, and both John and Steve finished up the night vomiting profusely. Then it was back to Ollie’s place for tea and toast; while talking in his kitchen, he did his impersonation of a certain editor at Future Publishing and literally had us on our knees in hysterics. Not really a magazine story, but great times nonetheless!
You were pretty heavily involved with the development of Mayhem In Monsterland, right? Tell us a bit about what you did on the game. When Creatures 2 wrapped up, John an Steve were keen to step away from Thalamus and do something different. We spent a lot of time going back and forth with John Twiddy and Mev Dinc from Vivid Image, the plan being to use their C64GS cartridge technology to push the C64 to the limit.
During the 6-hour round-trips to visit John and Mev, we would brainstorm ideas for the next game, and came up with a number of concepts. However, the influence of Super Mario World on the SNES was considerable, and one day I showed up and saw John dabbling with the scroller routine (ripped from Creatures and completely revamped). They wanted to create a platformer.
I remember we struggled for days with the premise for the game; initially, Monsterland was going to be a land full of Mayhem’s phobias, with enemies themed appropriately, but despite an abundance of ideas, nothing seemed to stick. Eventually, not wanting to settle for a second-rate idea, we finally all agreed on the concept of collecting Magic Dust to turn the level from Happy to Sad, a concept we had all enjoyed so much in Wizball.
I mainly helped out with suggestions, graphical ideas, game design, playtesting, and was also a sounding board for ideas. Midway through the project we realized we’d need an intro and end sequence, so John taught me how to program the C64 using an Amiga-C64 cross-development system which had been sitting in my office gathering dust. I would code frantically for a couple of weeks, then take a trip down from Liverpool to Essex and show them my progress.
Although the intro sequence was designed by all of us, the end sequence was really just a happy accident – I coded the sequence over a couple of days just for a change of scenery. I didn’t tell the boys what I was up to, and I even drew my own test graphics to try out the map scroller; I mailed it off to them, and remember John totally lost for words (in a good way!) on the other end of the phone!
There was also a considerable amount of work behind the scenes in terms of self-publishing: there was the mastering and duplication, sourcing cassette and disk cases, designing and printing the inlays, pricing out postage systems, designing (and booking) advertisements, all of which was entirely new to all of us. However, despite the long nights, it was an incredible experience to have a hand in a project from start to finish.
I’ll never forget the day – about 3 weeks before Mayhem finally shipped – when the first order plopped onto the doormat at John’s house. I held the envelope in my hand and walked slowly upstairs to the office.
“John…” I said, slowly.
“Yeah?” replied John.
I dropped the envelope down in front of him. “You’ve got an order, mate.”
“Bloody hell!” he said. He opened the envelope and looked that the order form and cheque inside. “We better finish the game, I suppose!”
What did you guys think of the 100% review score? Was there a certain amount of anxiety about that? I seem to recall John being very apprehensive about the score, and with good reason: this was the third game that they had chronicled as a diary in a magazine, and there was always a concern that people would perceive diary + good review as magazine bias and be turned away. This was particularly worrying as they were planning to take a huge risk with Mayhem and self-publish; there was no big cash advance from a publisher, and thus, sales were vital.
One the one hand, I can understand that Mayhem was the C64’s swan-song, and that the likelihood of something better coming along before the machine faded into obscurity was pretty slim. That aside, it was an extremely playable, technically clever, and visually amazing game. Very few developers could pull off such consistent quality in all areas of a game.
But perfect? It’s a contentious issue to this day, and I think this was the whole point behind the rating; Andy Hutchinson seemed to like controversy sprinkled with anarchy, and I recall that he was the only person [on the CF team] that wanted to give the game 100%. And of course, as editor, his decision was final…
Not so long after Mayhem, the ’64 and CF went into a really very obvious decline. Tell us a bit about life on CF as the magazine got smaller. I seem to recall the pinch came fast, and the magazine was downsized considerably pretty much overnight. Obviously, there was less money to pay freelancers, but my biggest concern was that there simply wasn’t a lot of space for Gamebusters any more, which felt extremely restrictive after having 10-14 pages to play with for the best part of 5 years.
How did you find out that the magazine was closing? Do you think, in hindsight, it would have been better to shut up shop a little sooner? CF58 was the last issue I worked on, and my notice came in the form of a letter from Karen Levell. As I was no longer working for the magazine after that, I never really knew when the final issue might be (I still received my subscription copy in the mail each month, but it wasn’t until I saw the final cover with Roger Frames that I knew for sure). I think the magazine was a pale imitation of its former self, and like all things in life, it may have been better to go out on a high.
My only problem with the final issue was not receiving an acknowledgement; despite my freelance status, I had worked on the magazine since the first issue, and produced more editorial content that anyone else on the magazine. However, with one person producing the entire magazine themselves each month, I can see how things got overlooked.
What’s most important is that I remain fiercely proud of the work I did, the incredible talent I got to work alongside, the friends I made, and the experience and knowledge I gained (which still comes in useful to this day).
You helped so many people with Gamebusters. Did you ever pick up any fan mail or get any, er, “attention” from readers? Most letters were fan letters, to be honest; people loved Gamebusters, it was by far the most popular section of the magazine. Most of the letters I read always had something nice to say, and people were always kind and well-mannered when it came to asking for help. Some kids would send in jokes and cartoons, too, which was always fun.
There was never any adverse attention from fans, to be honest. The only strange aspect of going through the mail is that kids would occasionally send in a picture of themselves (in retrospect they were probably just hoping to see their face in the magazine, but it always struck me as a little odd).
Thanks for talking to us, Andy. What are you doing with the rest of the day? Planning for my wedding in July, and doing my due diligence as an honorary Canadian by whooping and cheering for a local hockey team down at the rink. CF
Andy Roberts worked on Gamesbusters, Commodore Format’s tip section, from issue 1. He became section editor on CF15. This interview originally appeared on our Facebook page and is copyright 2013 The Commodore Format Archive/Andy Roberts. To make contact, go to our legal page.