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The Potty Programmer
By Chris Jenkins
Published on 09/20/2006
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.

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!"

So Tony's "cuddly" games, with a large playing area with scrolling backgrounds and fast action combined with original characters, have been a big success. And does he intend to carry on doing that sort of game? "No - I've done enough of those - I'd like to do a really good shoot-'em-up! Suicide Express, the latest Gremlin game, is the same sort of idea as Loco, but it's four times faster and the graphics are better than anything I've done before."

Tony's opinion of UK software isn't very high - "Everything seems to be a copy. Loco is actually based on an arcade game called Super Locomotive, but I only saw that once and I wrote the game a year later, so it's not a direct copy. I look at American software sometimes, and get some ideas there. The music for my games is sometimes transcribed from sheet music, sometimes written by a friend - I got him to do the Jean Michel Jarre music for Loco, but as it turned out it wasn't what I thought it was. I asked for Equinoxe Part 5, but what I really wanted was Rydeen by the Yellow Magic Orchestra, which is what Ocean have on Decathlon. Suicide Express is another one I've transcribed from sheet music; it's a Sky piece from Sky 2."

Super Locomotive
Super Locomotive by Sega

Rydeen Yellow Magic Orchestra
Rydeen by Yellow Magic Orchestra

Tony's games should now be heading in a new direction. Having reused the ideas from his Alligata games, and come up with even better versions for Gremlin, he's now keen to get into new areas. For a start he has to think about his role as a director of Gremlin Graphics: "I'm the only one that draws a wage, because all the others have other companies backing them. I get a sum for each cassette sold, and a percentage of the company's profits. When Suicide Express starts selling well there should be a fair bit coming in!"

Red Arrows
Red Arrows

Tony's next project is connected with the Red Arrows RAF display team. "They've asked us to write a program - they asked Commodore too, and they wrote back with some ideas, but I just laughed at it! Trouble is, they just want the stunts - I've got to figure out a way to make it into a game. It's got to be really well thought out, because it could just end up looking like a commercial for the Red Arrows."

Tony's "0" Level Art and "A" Level--Technical Drawing qualifications no doubt`' help in the design of the games, which look`: in some cases more like cartoons than computer games. "There's only Aardvark's Frak, on the BBC, that gives you a real feeling of cartoon quality - that's due to the way they draw black outlines around the characters. With my details, it's usually too small to do that. I'm doing some work on the BBC now, but really I don't rate any machines except the Commodore 64; it's so easy to write on, I can just sit back and do it. I'll give you that it's slow, and the Basic's poor, but who uses Basic? Aside from that there's nothing against it. I could write any Spectrum game I've seen, on the Commodore 64."

So while he's seen MSX, and is working on the BBC, Tony's main effort should continue to be on the C64 - which is good news for all Commodore 64 games players.

After the Red Arrows project, Tony's plans might include a game based on the Ray Harryhausen film Clash of the Titans, in which mythological figures battle to the death. The complications of writing an adventure don't have much appeal any more - "It does get slightly tedious, having people ringing you up asking 'How do I get past this' - I'm getting the same thing with Monty Mole.

Another thing I've done is to design the cover artwork for Suicide Express, and we've had an artist paint it. I've seen the Plus/4, and though it's got no sprites I like the keyboard; you could write a sprite routine for it, but I think I'd like to write more for the C16. A lot of people will buy it, and 16K is enough to write a good game on - a lot of Atari cartridges like Donkey Kong and Pole Position are in 16K, and the early Ultimate games for the Spectrum. There's plenty you can do with 16K - like a good shoot-'em-up!" Tony comments, returning to a favourite-theme.

Clash of the Titans Ray Harryhausen
Clash of the Titans By Ray Harryhausen

Suicide Express
Suicide Express By Gremlin Graphics

Tony's also working on a book on programming hints for the C64. "It's got some Basic in it, but it's largely going to be on machine code - things like screen scrolling, animated characters, machine code monitors, playing sounds using interrupts, that sort of thing - it might put me out of business! We're looking at several publishers."

But why write a book now? "Fame! I'm enjoying it, getting reviewed in the magazines and getting my name in print. It's not the money that I'm after - I haven't got a Mercedes, I can't even drive! But I've got a good contract with Gremlin, and a scrap-book full of reviews of my games.

Everyone in Sheffield knows me, though I don't get invited to open super-markets yet. Gremlin's going into the American market through UK Gold, Geoff Brown's follow-up to US Gold, and we're all working together to come up with new ideas."

"I took a little notepad with me on holiday in Spain, and it's full of ideas." It should be interesting to see what springs forth from Tony's little notepad next!

Article reproduced from Commodore Horizons magazine November 1984 edition.

Although all text appears unchanged, some photographs or images have been added or modified for aesthetic purposes.

Thank you to the following websites which were used for sourcing some images that appear in this article:
Wikipedia,, Commodore-gg, Arcade History, Discogs, Commodore, Lemon 64.