Sinclair User, December 1984
Matthew Smith struck gold
with Manic Miner. Chris Bourne beards him in his jet-set
THE RECEPTION area is stylish. Sofas which engulf anybody
foolhardy enough to sit upon them. Muted prints of Parisian
posters. A small pile of neatly stacked brown paper parcels.
Clean carpets. No empty gin bottles.
Matthew Smith, the creator of Manic Miner and Jet
Set Willy, seems light years away. All is order and calm.
Where are the chaotic by-products of the mind which created
the animated toilet seats, the pirouetting rabbits, the eternal
off-licence or the kangaroo above The Vat. The madness is
here, somewhere, beneath the surface. But where?
Alan Maton enters, tall and nervous, always in motion. He
is the managing director of Software Projects, if such titles
have meaning. His looks are faintly reminiscent of a youthful
Jimmy Hill. He does not look like a managing director. Inside
his office, chaos begins to surface. It is the usual office
chaos of overflowing desks and not enough ashtrays.
"It's not a smokeless zone" says Alan. "I
don't think it's even a nuclearfree zone. There should be
an ashtray somewhere . "
Alan hunts for an ashtray. The coffee machine supplies a
substitute in the form of a plastic cup. The coffee machine
claims to be unable to produce coffee. "It's lying"
says Alan. "How many sugars?"
Alan produces a cassette of Jet Set Willy for the
Commodore 64, a new conversion of the program. The latest
Software Projects cassettes are manufactured in blue plastic.
"Nobody else does them" says Alan. "You have
to get them ordered specially." The idea is to prevent
piracy of the commercial sort which passes off duplicated
cassettes under similar packaging to the original product.
Alan rummages about for the finished product. Even the transparent
section of tape at the beginning of the cassette has the magic
words printed there. You may gather that Software Projects
takes piracy seriously.
Alan's sense of humour becomes more overt as the conversation
continues. Liverpool people are notorious for their sense
of humour. It is a process of acclimatisation, of course.
If reporters were directly confronted with Matthew Smith there
might be trouble. Eventually, Alan decides that the time has
come. "Let's go and see if they've cleaned the straw
out of Matthew's cage" he says.
Matthew Smith lives in the zoo, along with the seven other
contract programmers employed by Software Projects. The zoo
is an area of the building set aside for the programmers.
It is not at all plush, quite unlike the reception area. To
reach it you must climb a concrete staircase, and then wait
for someone to unlock the door. Alan has a key, of course.
The animals respect him.
If Alan is the Head Keeper, Matthew is the star exhibit,
the money-spinner. He looks up from a conversation with two
other inmates as Alan approaches. Alan explains about the
'Do you want to do the interview?' asks Alan.
'No' says Matthew, tossing back his head and laughing, his
long black hair rearranging itself to hang down in the new
position. He doesn't really mean it.
Matthew was born in Penge, in Surrey, that butt of a hundred
jokes about suburban life. When he was seven his family moved
to Wallasey. He attended the local comprehensive, Mosslands
on the Marsh. He learned nothing about computers, and left
His first computer was a Christmas present in 1979, when
he was a mere stripling of twelve or thirteen. "It was
a 4K TRS-80. I had been asking for one every day for six months,
because I wanted to take it to bits to find out how it worked.
I was very into electronics."
Truth to tell, he looks today as if he was once into electronics.
His lank hair hangs down to his collarbone. He wears a white,
evidently drip-dry, nylon shirt and indeterminate trousers.
He has no socks, just a pair of heavy sandals. He is clearly
a one-time electrician. Or an off-duty journalist.
"I didn't take it to bits because it already worked
quite well," says Matthew. "I learned Level One
Basic on it, which was no use for anything at all. I started
learning machine code. It was tough. There were virtually
no books at all, except a really heavy one by Rodney Zaks."
Having discovered the delights of Level One 'Useless' Basic
he gave up writing arcade games. "It was two years before
I got anything out of it. The first games were shoot-em-up
games. That was what everybody played then."
The break came in a shop. The local Tandy shop played host
to teenagers on a Saturday morning in those days, encouraging
them to come in and program or play with the computers. It
was fun for the kids, and good publicity for Tandy, who could
demonstrate that 'even' children could program their machines.
"People say software houses in Liverpool are to do with
unemployment,'' says Alan. "It's not true. It's to do
with people. Like the Tandy store, and Micro-Digital, getting
people in there hacking away. Without them there wouldn't
have been much in the Liverpool area."
Liverpool is indeed a sort of Silicon Valley of software
houses, with Software Projects, Bug-Byte, the now defunct
Imagine, Voyager and even personnel from companies not based
in Liverpool, such as Ocean Software. Hit Squad readers will
be familiar with Steve Kelly, Chris Urquart and Mike Singleton,
Matthew knew a friend who frequented the Tandy shop, Chris
Cannon, now a Software Projects programmer. Chris Cannon knew
Eugene Evans, who was writing programs for Bug-Byte. Eugene
was later to become the star programme at Imagine.
"Chris managed to con one of the new-fangled Spectrums
out of BugByte," says Matthew who, unable to afford a
Spectrum, asked for one on loan too and said he would write
a game. He showed the company what he had done on the TRS
80 and was offered a freelance contract for three games. The
first was Styx.
"Trouble was, I ran out of memory halfway through. It
was only a 16K Spectrum. That's why there are lots of empty
gaps in the game. It was a shoot-em-up game loosely based
on Tutankhamun. I wrote it on the Tandy for the Spectrum,
and wrote a routine to make a Spectrum read Tandy tapes. I
kept dreaming of a disc drive."
Thus the Manic Miner legend was born. Alan Maton,
then despatch manager for Bug-Byte, wanted a game similar
in concept to Donkey Kong, which had been an enormous
success in amusement arcades. Matthew suggested a game with
eight or maybe even 16 screens. Such an arcade game had not
been attempted before, not with fixed layout screens. "The
name was Alan's," says Matthew. "Eugene said 'I
don't think it will work,' which proves what he knows."
Matthew got to work on Manic Miner, using a Model
III Tandy, with colour and sound. "I did 16 screens,
and then worked out a way of adding another four. It was finished
in August 1983." The game used core code routines for
most of the basic action, but special routines were introduced
for particular events on each screen. "It upset the people
trying to do a conversion to another machine, " says
Matthew. "People working on the Solar Power Generator
Yes. Sick. Matthew's games are distinctive for their sense
of humour. "It started with a skit on Eugene Evans,"
says Matthew, reclining on his yellow foam mattress and smiling
benevolently at the thought of Eugene. "The animated
toilet seats were my little brother's idea. He wanted toilet
seats in the game." Anthony Smith was three at the time.
Matthew's modesty is disturbing. Is that all there is to
it, a few ideas borrowed from elsewhere? "No. I was fed
up with little green monsters."
Alan decided to leave Bug Byte and set up on his own account.
For six weeks he ran Acme, part of the Creative Technology
Group set up by Imagine overlord Bruce Everiss. He still receives
letters from lawyers as to who owned what and who was paid
what. "I was only there for six weeks," moans Alan,
Matthew also wanted to leave Bug Byte. According to him,
there was a small matter of royalties owing. "I would
have been quite happy to leave Manic Miner with them
but they bent the contract," he says. Alan explains.
"The royalties were to be paid for the duplication of
cassettes, not their sale. The contract was only a few sentences.
They were almost verbal agreements in those days."
"They ran up a huge debt," says Matthew. "It
was £25,000 at one time. I kept asking for some of it.
Whenever I called in they either fobbed me off or refused
to see me. Eventually we agreed to cancel the agreement. I
had sold Styx to them but they only had a licence to
produce Manic Miner, which I cancelled."
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the business, and business
in Liverpool certainly seems unnecessarily complicated, Smith
joined up with Alan Maton and his wife Soo to found Software
Projects. Liverpool entrepreneur Tommy Barton joined them
and later Colin Stokes moved over from Imagine, following
the notorious bugging incident in which his telephone was
Alan is anxious to dispel ideas that Liverpool is a sort
of Silicon Dallas. "It's a very friendly industry. There
are no hard feelings between me and Tony Badon at Bug Byte,
for instance. As a matter of fact, we're having a meal together.
We're good friends."
Matthew settles back and talks about Jet Set Willy.
Jet Set Willy is said to be the biggest selling computer
game in Britain. Work on Jet Set Willy began even before
Matthew had left Bug-Byte. He does not like giving away many
of his programming secrets, but it will be a surprise to some
to learn that the music, which plays continuously throughout
the game, does not use an interrupt.
"The first instruction in the program is 'disable all
interrupts' " he claims. "It's just move-a-tiny-little-bit,
BEEP-a-tiny-little-bit. Have you noticed, the more lives you
lose, the worse the music gets?" Few will have noticed.
The music is unutterably disgusting anyway, a maniac, stunted
version of If I Were A Rich Man, even worse than the
Bugs crept into the game, because of the pressure from distributors
and retailers for the new game. That is the reason for the
secrecy surrounding the third and final part of the trilogy.
Bugs include the double score for some of the objects and
the major problem which relocates quantities of monsters after
a player has passed through the Attic. Software Projects originally
announced that this was a deliberate ploy to make the return
journey through the house much more difficult. "Great,
isn't it?" grins Alan. "There's no such thing as
a bug in a game."
The humour became wilder. Some of the names for the rooms
are obscure to the point of perversity. Was it true that 'We
must perform a Quirkafleeg' derives from a cartoon in that
comic beloved of hippies, The Furry Freak Brolhers?
"Yes" says Matthew. "I've been reading those
comics for years, Furry Freak, and Fat Freddy's Cat. So does
"You told me it was a Norwegian Folk Dance," says
Alan, accusingly. He does an impression of a massage from
the Swedish Prime Minister.
It is indeed the zoo, and no matter how involved the conversation
becomes one is inescapably drawn back to it. Some people never
leave the zoo. Stuart Fotherington [sic - actually Fotheringham],
a punkish leather'n'studs programmer, has not been home for
days. "They know their job's on the line," says
Alan. "People see everybody wandering around and think,
they're idle. But as long as they produce a program, we don't
care how they do it. Some of them sleep here. Come on, Stuart,
when did you last go home?"
Stuart considers. "Saturday," he says, uncertainly.
Today is Tuesday. "They've all got keys," says Alan.
"I haven't got a key," says Matthew. "Well
go and get one," says Alan. Matthew snorts.
Rumours abound that the next game is Willy Meets the Taxman
with Willy forced to pay up for his Jet Set Willy lifestyle.
No decisions have been taken, says Alan. Certainly the new
game will be based around the further exploits of Willy. Matthew
wants to have a hardware-based game, involving some sort of
extra ROM chip which could be used for programming applications
as well as forming an integral part of the new game.
In the meantime the company is releasing a new game, Lode
Runner, for the Spectrum. It will be another levels and
ladders game but with the facility to design your own screens
as well as use the ones provided. The graphics are clear but
simple, with blocks to be collected and white ladders connecting
layers of brickwork. Alan explains how wonderful the game
is. It is being marketed under licence from Broederbond, an
American software house which has had a great success with
For most people, however, the success of Software Projects
centres around Matthew and his unorthodox imagination. He
is now the most famous programmer in the country, the embodiment
of the otherwise spurious myth of the schoolboy millionaire.
What does it feel like to be a cult? "A what?" frowns
Matthew. "Am I? You only become a star when people ask
for your autograph."
"They do," Alan informs him. "They ask for
signed posters." Matthew pretends to look puzzled. "I
forge your signature," explains Alan, helpfully. "I
try not to be conscious of it" says Matthew, self-consciously,
eyes glued to the table. "Stardom doesn't really appeal.
Too much hassle. I happen to be doing something that sells
well. Anything that is really interesting to do should make
Alan explains his ideal game is something like MUD, the Essex
University Multi-User Dungeon in which many players can participate
simultaneously and interact. Matthew says he thinks we are
approaching the sort of game he would like to write. "It
won't be written on the Spectrum first," he says. "We'll
get someone to convert it."
Matthew's lifestyle is experimental. Alan says Matthew has
discovered the sixties. "I don't do a lot" says
Matthew. "Computing was my only hobby but I don't do
that any more. I like partying, getting drunk and falling
over a lot." He explains how he went to a nightclub recently
dressed in a toga, 'as an experiment'. "Will they let
you back again?" says Alan. "Not in a toga,"
says Matthew darkly.
Unlike many programmers, Matthew is still a fan of computer
games. "If I had to be shut in a room with one Spectrum
tape it would have to be Atic Atac," he says.
"It's closer to what Jet Set Willy should have
been than Jet Set Willy as it is." Unusually,
Matthew does not entirely approve of games, although he plays
and makes a living from them. "I think it is harmful
playing games - as well as writing them. Computers are going
to have to stop giving out gamma radiation, keyboards have
to go. Computers should be totally adaptable machines. I can
see them being used - well, in a toothbrush, to keep the bristles
at the right angle."
Matthew expands on his view of the future. "Things get
hairy when we get machines which are more intelligent than
us," he says. "I keep going on to Alan and Tommy
when they are planning to take over the world. I want to lead
a simple life. I think a lot of people do. The world can't
sustain itself. The time comes when we can't all be comfortable
and happy and warm and fed. We have to blow ourselves up or
find a way of being contented. There is not enough land. True
communists are people who live in communes, villages, tribes.
I'd like to live like that, but always with the communications
we've got. There should be an end to cities. Cities should
have walls around them to keep the city in."
Matthew contrasts himself with that other star programmer,
Jeff Minter, whose Grid Wars series for Commodore machines
rapidly achieved cult status. "What I don't like about
Minter games is they're not a simulation of any kind of real
problem. I'm not into simulated violence. It's not really
that much fun."
Minter claims Matthew's games are boring because there is
a single route to success. "The single route doesn't
present new problems," says Matthew, "but one fixed
problem allows it to be a real scorcher. It's bad to encourage
violence." What about the foot that crushes Willy if
he loses? Is that a violent image? "No," says Matthew,
firmly. "The foot is comedy. Comedy is important to negate
Matthew returns to his work, and we take our leave of the
zoo. Alan telephones for a cab. The coffee machine produces
one last cup of murky instant. Alan answers a call. "No,"
he says, "there's nobody here. You'll have to call again
in the morning." "I have to be my own security guard,"
he jokes, replacing the receiver. "Here's the cab. It
should only take fifteen minutes to the station. Nice to have
met you. Goodbye."