Jonathan Wheatman was the coder of cult ST classics as Battle Probe, Alphamax and Bootiful Babe. Join us as Jonathan tells us what it was like to start your own company in the glorious days of ST computing, and how they had grown from game developers to true leaders in the computer music buzz.
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2) The first steps
3) Keep it in the family
4) Atari joins the club
6) Program languages
7) The company
8) Kids stuff
11) The good ol' days
12) Sequels that never made it
13) Big plans
14) Serious stuff
16) Tone deaf
17) 1 ... 2 ... 3 ... Techno
19) The future
20) Thoughts on the ST
21) Final thoughts
22) The Porsche
1) Hello Jonathan, nice of you to join us! First things first, introduce yourself to the people who haven't heard of you before?
Hi there, I’m Jon Wheatman, I currently work for Siemens VDO in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. I have worked the past five years on the VDO Dayton Car Navigation system. My hobbies are playing darts and watching football
2) What were your first steps into the world of computers?
Our first "family" computer was a ZX81, my dad ordered a "Do It Yourself" kit, I guess I was around 10 years old at the time. He spent a whole week soldering the thing together, we gathered round the TV set for the first ever glimpse of a home computer. He turned on the power and tuned in the television, all we saw was a white screen. He unplugged it and plugged it in, again a white screen, nothing more, just white... so after 20 times of plugging it in and out again, then checking all the connections three times, we decided to send it back to Sinclair. Welcome to the world of computers!
Anyway, a few months later and still no ZX81 received back from Sinclair, my brother decided he wanted the new ZX Spectrum for his birthday, it was just on the market with an amazing 16K ram, SOUND and COLOUR. My brother was at that time the computer genius in our family, he played tirelessly on that ZX Spectrum, learned BASIC and then machine code. He created a game in BASIC called "Stick Man Sam" and sent it off to Sinclair User magazine. They wrote back to him saying it was the best game they had ever seen, unfortunately they couldn't print it because he had used special control characters in the code to pack more levels into the game.
3) So your first computer was the Spectrum? Or wasn't it?
No, a few months after the ZX Spectrum was bought, a package turned up at our doorstep from Sinclair Research, inside was a shiny new complete ZX81, because my brother had his Spectrum, I could use the ZX81. So, in theory, my first computer was a ZX81. I dabbled with BASIC trying to follow my brother in his footsteps, but he was the master then, I remember one time my brother wrote a Pac Man game in assembler, but because he didn't have an assembler he wrote it on paper, then converted it into binary and asked me to type it all in, which I did (like a fool), we excitedly gathered around the screen when I executed the program, which turned out to be the biggest reset routine ever written. Those were the days!
4) When did you first buy an Atari ST? Why?
I think it was around the summer of 86 or 87 for my birthday. I always wanted one, there was a company in the UK called Silica Shop, they always had Atari ST adverts in the computer magazines, they got me hooked on wanting an ST. It just looked SO much better than what I had been used to, the Commodore 64 was great but was getting outdated by that time.
5) Let's start talking games now! You seem to have accomplished a lot at a very young age. That's just amazing! How old were you actually when you created your first real game?
Thanks! But it really wasn’t that difficult :-) Actually I was probably 13 or 14 when I wrote my first game, a horizontal shoot ‘m up for the Commodore 64, but it never got released! My first published game was "Battle Probe" from Crysys.
6) Where did you learn to program like that? What language did you use? How long did it take to create such a game?
I learned to program simply from reading books, I really got into programming on the Commodore 64, my bible was the C64 Programmers Ref Guide (of course). On the C64 game I programmed in 6502 assembler, but from the Atari onwards it was plain 68000 assembler. It took around six months to create a game. That was normal in them days.
7) After the release of Battle Probe you started your own company "New Dimensions" and created the shooter "Alphamax". You were just 16 years old. Could you tell us a bit more about this change in your career?
New Dimensions was my own company, that I set up together with the graphics artist, Rob Shettle, from "Capitol Software", we worked together on Battle Probe when I was working for Capitol Software. Rob and I were not very happy at Capitol Software, for "Battle Probe", I received an Amiga 500 and no money, so we decided after a time to go it alone and set up our own company. My father also had his own company designing PCBs (Printed Circuit Boards), he offered us a room at his offices free of charge for a 1/3 share of the company, which we accepted. We distributed "Alphamax" through contacts that Rob and I had made over the time we had at Capitol Software.
8) Sounds impressive. Your third game "Bootiful Babe" uses the same engine as "Alphamax", yet it looks a lot more professional. Was there a lot altered?
Bootiful Babe was basically Alphamax with less bugs and better alien routines! If only I knew then what I know now, it would have been so much better. To be honest I don't think that too much was changed, it was mostly reworking the graphics, but Rob did most of that.
9) "Bootiful Babe" really is a misleading title, you know! Most people are expecting a really different kind of game :-) Did you do this on purpose? A little joke? A marketing stunt perhaps?
"Bootiful Babe", I think that it was my father's idea, he was actually a very good salesman when it came to software! So yes... A marketing stunt you could call it!
10) Do you still keep contact with your team mate?
I have not seen Rob for about 5 or 6 years now, just after he got married. We bought him out (my Dad and me) of New Dimensions because there was not enough work for him and he was getting interested in other things.
11) How was it to be a game creator in those days? Was there a lot of competition? Could you earn a living with the things you did?
It was great in those days, anyone with a bit of ambition and time could write a game, nowadays it's like film making, you need hundreds of people and a giant budget to produce a title. Competition was not really a problem in those days because the industry was still young and there was plenty of room for everyone. We certainly earned our living out of it, we did however progress more to application programming than just games. This is what we were really best at.
12) I heard there was a sequel created to Alphamax. Why was it never released?
Actually there were two sequels, "Return to Saturn" and "Oberon". I can't really remember why they were not released, I think "forgotten" would be a better word, as I mentioned above, application programming became more important to us, so the games got a little left behind.
13) Are you planning on making them public, now that the ST emulation scene is booming!
Yes, but to be honest I would like to develop "Oberon" further and release it as a full blown game for the ST community. What do you think ??
14) Okay then, about your ST applications. I heard you have worked with other big companies such as Mandarin, creating STOS Maestro. What was your part in this project?
Rob was also a bit of a hardware buff, he designed a sound sampling cartridge to work with the ST, I created some sampling routines and made a demo program out of it. We liked it so much we phoned around to see if anyone was interested in a sampling project with us, it turned out that Mandarin were busy getting ready for the release of STOS and being able to play samples from the games creator was just what they needed to polish it up. So, STOS Maestro was born. I did all of the programming (in 68000 assembler) with support from Francois Lionet (STOS) and the Mandarin graphics artists. I was the first person to create a STOS extension, so I was also testing and finding STOS bugs for Francois :) I guess that around that time we bought out Rob Shettle from the company, Mandarin were doing the graphics and he didn't have much to do.
15) You seem like a real music/audio buff?
Absolutely not, I'm tone deaf! :-) I am good at writing fast software, so sampling was an ideal application of that. I have had contacts with lots of artists that used my software in the past. For example The Prodigy used my sampling software for lots of their early work, they phoned me once for support.
16) On a side note then, if you’re tone deaf, who did the music & sound for your games?
Jean-Michel Jarre, we sampled a lot from his work :)
17) So I guess STOS Maestro was your biggest project then? Or did you do even more?
On the Amiga, we created our most profitable venture, Technosound which probably was the number one selling sound sampler in Europe. We went head to head with Mastersound, those were great times. We developed Technosound for the PC but it sadly flopped. We had many spin-off sampler programs sold by other software houses and we toured European computer shows and sold tens of thousands of Technosound samplers. Technosound was voted 96% Best Buy by Amiga Format magazine and was featured on many cover disks.
18) What is your all time favorite computer game?
Arcade: Defender (of course), luckily it was ported to all systems thanks to the MAME project.
Atari ST: Bubble Bobble, simple and addictive
Commodore 64: Paradroid, what a game
19) What are your future plans?
I would like to develop maybe one more game for the Atari ST, just for fun and to prove to myself that I can still do it.
20) What do/did you think of the Atari ST in general, compared to other machines?
It wasn’t until I got that Commodore Amiga that I realised how bad the Atari ST was, compared to it’s closest rival that is. Don’t get me wrong, I am a loyal ST fan and have one sitting in my work room, the Amiga is in the attic collecting dust. But compared to the Amiga, the Atari had no smooth scrolling, no Blitter chip, no sprites, no DAC for good sampled sound, limited colours, even the Commodore 64 had smooth scrolling and sprites, I still cannot understand why Atari did not support this from day one. On other points the ST was superior, take them MIDI ports for example! The man that decided to put them on was a genius, I hope that he wasn’t the one that forgot the sprites and smooth scrolling!
21) Last but certainly not least! Would you like to share something else with us? (greetings, thoughts...)
Just thanks to anyone out there for listening to my story, and keeping the ST spirit alive.
22) Just out of curiosity... Did you ever get that porsche 911?
No, but I did buy a Mazda MX-5 when I was 18 and we did earn a serious shit load of money in them days, just a shame that there’s none of it left over to show, but hey, you only live once, that's my motto.
Well, that's about it. Thanks a lot, Jon, for everything! I think the ST community will be really appreciating your contributions...And I hope to hear from you again in the future with a stunning release of "Oberon"! Good luck with the VDO project and your future career.
Say hi to the family from me :-)
Bub and Bob on their first quest. They would rejoin in Rainbow Islands and Parasol Stars ... In human form.
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