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Taskset In Profile
By Bohdan Buciak
Published on 08/25/2006
Taskset is a relative newcomer to the make or break world of home computer games; it's been trading for little over one year. But its protagonists cut their teeth earlier than most by producing games for real arcade machines. Now they've turned their collective attention exclusively to the Commodore 64 and have produced a string of eccentric yet original games that seem to pop up regularly in the games charts. Bohdan Buciak took the stopping train to sunny Bridlington to meet the creators of Rankin' Rodney and Bozo.

The View From Bridlington
Taskset is a relative newcomer to the make or break world of home computer games; it's been trading for little over one year. But its protagonists cut their teeth earlier than most by producing games for real arcade machines. Now they've turned their collective attention exclusively to the Commodore 64 and have produced a string of eccentric yet original games that seem to pop up regularly in the games charts. Bohdan Buciak took the stopping train to sunny Bridlington to meet the creators of Rankin' Rodney and Bozo.

Taskset Team
The Taskset Programming Team

Andy Walker was born just down the road from Taskset's new premises on Bridlington High Street. He's managing director of that company, and probably falls into the local-boy-made-good category, whether he likes it or not. He's now in his mid-thirties, sports a Noel Edmunds hairstyle and beard, and has done time working as a civil servant. Not an environment conducive to promoting games mania. So how did he get hooked on computer games?

"I spent a considerable number of years working with computers at a government electronics centre", he declares cautiously. That was a few years back, when microcomputers were just beginning to make their attack on the mainframe and minicomputer market.

Walker saw the potential immediately and became fascinated by micros to the point of distraction. But his enthusiasm couldn't persuade his superiors to send him on small systems courses to find out more about micros. Walker considered that to be somewhat shortsighted, "they didn't believe the future lay in small systems." So he built an antipathy towards the Civil Service and started building his own micros.

He eventually left, having decided that he wanted to do nothing more than devote his time to writing video games. He managed to inspire another programmer and a video artist with his own brand of enthusiasm and together they set up AWL Electronics, a company who's major claim to fame was writing games like Andromeda and The Pit for the true games arcade consoles.

From Arcade To Home
But nothing seems to last long in the computer games industry. "The writing was on the wall for arcades", recalls Walker. "People were ripping each other off blind, producing anything but original offerings. In any case, the growth market was in home computers, "you can't put a keyboard in an arcade." By that he means the sophisticated game control you get from a keyboard couldn't be incorporated into an arcade machine - keyboards are a mite too delicate for arcade zappers.

Andy Walker's arcade experience told him that the two ingredients for success are spectacular graphics and good sound. But that wisdom left him with nowhere to go, a home computer that could do justice to those two requirements still hadn't appeared - as far as Walker was concerned, anyway. Maybe his standards were too high.

But he was immensely impressed when the Commodore 64 appeared on the scene; its sprite graphics and its VIC chip. "We bought a few 64s and took them apart, and found that the VIC chip does the same as a board full of chips on an arcade console - what an awakening for me." Walker will, without hesitation, produce a circuit board the size of a drinks tray for anyone who doesn't believe him.

And his views haven't changed since, "the 64 really is the best value machine on the market. The technology you're buying for the money is terrific. The screen editor is terrific, too". Trouble is, Walker can't comment on its Basic; he doesn't know the language. But on the strength of what he saw, Walker adopted the 64 as his main machine.

Andy Walker Taskset
Andy Walker - Managing Director of Taskset

So Taskset came into being (at a time when Jetpack had just appeared on the Spectrum), with a team of programmers nurtured in arcade work, working for a machine they reckoned could display their talents to the full. But why choose an unusual name like Taskset? Simply because they needed to become a company quickly, so they bought a name off the shelf Walker felt it sounded reasonable.

Bags Of Ideas
Taskset didn't need to adapt its working routines to write for the Commodore 64; the team carried on originating games in their accustomed way. "We carried on operating what we call an ideas bag," explains Walker. The bag is actually a board hanging behind Walker's desk upon which people scribble their ideas. "We also run regular brain-storming sessions in which lots of weird and wonderful ideas get thrown around." But the casualty list seems high "about one in every twenty ideas actually becomes a game".

And the real mainstay for Walker is originality; probably a hangover from his experience of arcade games, and something he'd really like Taskset to become known for. "You've got to be able to junk ideas, even if someone comes out with a game that you've already put a great deal of work into." Walker reckons he's already done that - probably not many other games houses could make the same claim.

And the theorising continues "apart from originality, what we'd aim for in a game is relatively simple rules but a high standard of presentation. There's no reason why graphics shouldn't be good and music shouldn't keep tempo with the action."

And do Taskset's games live up to all those aims? On Cosmic Convoy, its first game, Walker has doubts. The most he'll say about it is that it was an original offering. But he'll really wax lyrical when pressed about Pipeline and Jammin', both of which have been remarkably successful.

"Pipeline came out of an ideas bag we had when we were still writing for the arcades. We'd had a burst pipe at the office one night, dripping water perilously near to some expensive hardware. The plumbers came next morning, and it developed into a really crazy situation - workmen galore, one guy holding a spanner while three others watched." So the idea went into the bag and eventually surfaced, albeit a little transformed.

"It's a simple game, but it was a long way advanced over its competitors, especially in terms of music", enthuses Walker. He plays the game almost reverently, "so simple, the idea is to engender panic, you can win if you keep your head, not many people get past pipe ten..."

Cosmic Convoy Taskset
Cosmic Convoy by Taskset

Jammin Taskset
Jammin by Taskset

Pipeline set the trend for a succession of games characters, like Rankin' Rodney in Jammin'. That game stemmed from Tony Gibson, Taskset's reggae loving musician, who hero worships the late Bob Marley - hence the game's strong red, gold and green colours.

Walker probably reveres that game even more: "nobody had driven the 64's sound chip like that before. Jammin' has a drum, bass and melody line; and it all keeps time with the action; it's truely interactive There's no killing involved either, lust collecting instruments so that they'll play to you. And the baddies are just bum notes." Whether you like the game or not, there's no denying that both the music and graphics are brilliant. The tunes either obsess you or drive you mad.

Then came Bozo, the unsteady anti-hero of Bozo's Night Out. That's Taskset's most original and bizarre offering to date. But games that include a drunk, a bunch of muggers and sweet painted ladies will inevitably offend somebody somewhere.

Walker is quick with his defence, "Bozo is a reasonable idea, and I don't think there's anything to alienate youngsters. Alcohol is never mentioned - it's wobble-juice. An awful lot was cut out so as not to be offensive".

One idea that didn't quite make it was a bladder that would fill up as Bozo drank, the problem of emptying it proved an unsurmountable surmountable - probably a mixed blessing.

That prompts Walker to risk a few generalisations. Like, "there's a lot of arguments for us writing what we want. For example, we'd write a political game whether it offended a political party or not. We are our own masters. We back games with our own money, and you please yourself whether or not you buy them." That assertion of independence seems to pervade the writing process itself. "We never advertise for games contributions and we don't buy anything in. If a game is not written here, it doesn't get published."

And writing itself is always done as a team. "I'm not saying individuals aren't important," asserts Walker. "It's just that the process is too big for individuals. The best way forward for Taskset is to gather a team of specialists; everybody is good at what they do."

Getting To The Chips
Having decided to use an idea, what are the mechanics of writing a game? Walker quickly asserts that all writing is done in machine code and nothing else. "I don't like anything getting between me and the chips." He doesn't know Basic anyway - and probably doesn't want to.

To make the writing process easier, Taskset has invested heav-ily in development hardware. Such as the Apple II micros (they run with the 6502 processor similar to the 64's) they use as development machines, running the Merlin as-sembler package. Then there's the Omninet local area network. That connects the input/output ports of all the Apples, enabling them not only to transfer programs and data to each other but to share a 10 megabyte Winchester hard disk, which stores all the work done and can be accessed by anyone on the network.

Not only that, Taskset has spent a great deal of time writing its own utilities. "We couldn't buy the utilities we wanted so we wrote them ourselves; they all link together. We've written a compact machine-code monitor too." Another example of that much-prized independence?
Koala Pad Technologies
Koala Pad Touch Tablet by Koala Technologies Corp.

More recently, Taskset discovered the Koala Pad graphics tablet and is now using it to generate graphics, having written their own utilities for it. "The impact has been enormous," enthuses Walker. "We can generate in a day what would have taken a week to complete. That means we can afford to experiment with ideas much more."

Walker insists that the new utilities won't make Taskset produce games more quickly. "We can't produce games quickly because we're a small company, and machine code won't rush. We don't want to either, I don't want Taskset to become a big conglomerate. We're staying small so that we can, all be Indians." by that he probably means everybody stays a part of the team and gets equal shares in the glory.

But Taskset has grown despite these assertions, and Walker has taken on an accountant and a marketing man, suitably called Andy Nutter, to allow him to do what he enjoys write games. And probably to shirk the mundane yet essential job of administration.

Computer games is now big business, no longer the cottage industry of yore. And Walker won't hesitate to stress the importance of good management, especially when bankruptcy casualties among software houses are becoming uncomfortably regular. But he'll claim immaturity as the main cause of a company's demise rather than the activities of organised games counterfeiters.

"I don't think piracy is responsible for any software house's down-fall. We've been badly hit too. And we're doing, something about it. I hate it because it involves me in a lot of work and money, and that offends me." What he's doing is embarking on a long and tortuous period of legal action. Taskset could join the Guild of Software Houses and take joint action. But Walker hasn't got round to it. "It's just not the all-important problem."

Making Plans
With the future of some software houses being abruptly curtailed, what kind of plans has Walker made for Taskset? "We have to be international in our outlook. It's no good being in just one country. You've got to be in Europe, which means providing games on disk because the disk market is much bigger there. We've also got links with America from the old days, which we're using to good effect."

America is probably a thorn in the side to many British games houses as American software sells rather well in this country. Walker asserts it doesn't bother him "it was bound to happen. The games are generally of very good quality and it's good healthy competition. So we can only welcome a move like that. The real winners are the customers. They're getting a colossally good deal."

Time for some more home-spun : Walker philosophy. "Customers have a lot of power. If only they'd realise it. They have the power to make or break software houses. For example, if people don't like Bozo, it would put them off everything else we do." And inverting that theorem, Bozo fans will invariably turn to Taskset for future games.

So Taskset is determined not to produce inferior games. It's all a question of credibility. Or, as Walker puts it, "we want to be known for original entertainment, and I'm quite happy with that as my major aim. We're not interested in business or utility software. We write games and we think we're good at it."

Seaside Special Taskset
Seaside Special by Taskset

But will Taskset's future games continue to be exclusively for the Commodore 64? After all, Commodore has just announced the 16 and Plus 4 models. Does Walker regard those as true gaming machines?

The answer is characteristically abrupt.

"I won't ever look at the 16, and with the Plus 4 the answer's a qualified 'no'. It's got no sprites and they've thrown away the SID chip. It's madness and a big step back for the gaming world."

"Neither of them will sell better that the 64. And the 64 will be around for a long time. Commodore couldn't kill off the demand if they wanted to."

Certainly, software houses continue to churn out innumerable games for the 64. Taskset doesn't work quite that quickly but it is currently launching two new games.

The first, Poster Paster, involves a character called Bill Stickers. And if Bozo reminded you of a character from a seaside postcard, you won't be surprised that the second game is called Seaside Special - must be something in the Bridlington air.

Article reproduced from Commodore User magazine October 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: (rambosoft)