Tony Crowther

From Alligata to Gremlin Graphics, Tony Crowther has blazed a trail of original and highly playable games. Chris Jenkins pins down the man behind Potty Pigeon and Monty Mole.

Tony Crowther says he wants to be famous, and he's going the right way about it. His games for Alligata and recently Gremlin Graphics have set new standards for playability, graphics and invention, and characters like Monty Mole and Potty Pigeon are following on from the successes of the earlier Blagger, Loco and Killer Watt. But the financial rewards of being a programming mega-star bring with them the complications of contractual wheeling and dealing. "I just don't get a penny for the games I wrote for Alligata - I signed a contract at Christmas, and in all the excitement I didn't realise that one of the clauses meant that I only got royalties for my Alligata games while I worked for the company. Now that I've moved to gremlin Graphics I won't be getting anything."

Tony's programming career started in educational software - "I'd used a BBC in school, and bought myself a Vic and taught myself programming. This was when I was 16. I went through Basic programming and taught myself machine code using cartridge based assemblers - I couldn't work out what I was doing some of the time, but it was working!"

Commodore Vic 20
Vic 20 by Commodore Business Machines

Blagger Advert
Blagger by Alligata Software

Tony's first six games for Alligata - "I'm not proud of them!" - included Balloon Rescue, Damsel In Distress, Frog 64 and Aztec Tomb adventure.

"They were really crummy programs, Alligata's first releases, and when I wrote them I was working from home and getting a royalty, but later I went up to work there."

Tony's first big success was Blagger, using some of the ideas of Manic Miner. With Tony's distinctive style, however, Blagger came across as far more than an MM rip-off, though it was Alligata's idea to produce the game.

"The programs I'm working on now are joint efforts between myself and Gremlin, who offered me £10,000 for Percy the Potty Pigeon. I wrote Percy in all the depression on leaving Alligata, and Gremlin offered me a directorship as well as the advance on the game."

Gremlin's managing director is Geoff Brown, who also runs Centresoft/US Gold. Geoff contacted Tony after seeing his Alligata games, and Tony, who was a regular at Gremlin's Sheffield computer shop Just Micro, now works exclusively for Gremlin.

But just what is it about Tony Crowther games that makes them special? So far the distinctive large, colourful graphics and smooth scrolling effects have made each game easy to recognise as a Crowther effort - but as Tony explained, this may soon change. "There isn't anything secret about the programming techniques. I just sit down and create a full screen with as much detail as possible. The best so far is Suicide Express, which is due out in October. The screen only took about a week to do, and I designed it while I was on holiday in Spain. Instead of using hi-res screen, which flickers when you try to scroll it, I just define 255 characters and build the screen up using those. It's then much easier to get smooth scrolling."

The basis of Tony's programs is a screen-scrolling routine with a character set, and after getting the boring bits out of the way he sits down to plan the game.

"With Potty Pigeon I didn't have any idea what I was going to do, then I saw Audiogenic's Forbidden Forest. There are three layers to the background, which move at different speeds, so I used that idea, and the theme I worked out with my girlfriend."

Percy The Potty Pigeon
Potty Pigeon By Gremlin Graphics

Wanted! Monty Mole
Wanted! Monty Mole by Gremlin Graphics

"Monty Mole is similar to Son of Blagger - the same type of scroll but a lot faster. Unfortunately there were problems with the first batch, because the tape duplicators couldn't get the Pavloda to work, so they changed the program. They corrupted the character set so that there weren't any 'As' in the program, then they duplicated 5000 copies before anyone realised. Sometimes it crashes, and it never auto-runs - it was a real mess, but from now on I'm making sure to check the duplicating myself!"

Perhaps Tony's best-known program Monty Mole received nationwide TC coverage due to the miner's strike. "The character was the idea of Gremlin's Ian Stewart, and the original version was by Peter Harrap for the Spectrum. We looked at that and decided we wanted to do things that you couldn't do on the Spectrum, like the maze being generated randomly every time, so my version for the C64 has some similarities but a lot of differences; you only get one life, the highest score you can get is 14, and so on. It was a bit of a joke, it getting on TV - Pete Harrap's dad is a miner, so we gave a story to the local paper, and the next thing we were being phoned up by the national papers and the TV people. I was in Spain so I missed it all - but it would have been me if they'd known that my grandad was the President of the Coal Board!"