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Is the Force with Taskset's Skywalker?
By Chris Jenkins
Published on 08/27/2006
IT'S TAKEN some time for the software houses to take the Commodore 64 to their hearts. Many still rely heavily on converting versions of Spectrum games, often with no attempt to improve them. Even worse, many companies simply reproduce the same tired old variants of Pac-Man, Frogger and Space Invaders ad nauseam.

What's the secret behind the success of Andy Walker's 64 games software company?
Chris Jenkins visits Bridlington to find out.

Taskset The Bug Stops Here
Andy Walker – “I don’t see any sign of the game software boom ending"

IT'S TAKEN some time for the software houses to take the Commodore 64 to their hearts. Many still rely heavily on converting versions of Spectrum games, often with no attempt to improve them. Even worse, many companies simply reproduce the same tired old variants of Pac-Man, Frogger and Space Invaders ad nauseam.

Zap! Kerash! Wallop! - enter Andy Walker and Taskset, fearless crusaders in the cause of original games and the lovable Commodore 64.

Taskset may not be the biggest or best-known of software companies - Andy Walker says he wouldn't want it to be, not under the Taskset name anyway - but it's pretty certain that most 64 owners will have seen and probably bought a Taskset game by Christmas.

Taskset's headquarters are situated in Bridlington, Yorkshire, a small seaside town kept going by the annual hordes of holidaymakers. "We're here for historical reasons," explained Andy "I've moved around a lot in the last ten years, and somehow I ended up here. Once you get onto the motorway it's a reasonable drive to London, so we don't feel too cut off. One great advantage is that if someone comes to visit Taskset we know they really want to talk to us - they can't claim that they just happened to be passing!"

Andy's path into the games software industry was not a straightforward one. Though he might be described as a "whiz", he's no "kid" - his experience in the industry stretches back through many years involved in the arcade business.

After a career working in government electronics departments, Andy gave in to his urges to write games programs and quit to move into the arcade business.

"It was a tough business and it finally fell apart because everyone went over the top. The time came when you'd walk into a pub, and there'd be two games machines; then you'd go to the chippie, and there'd be another one; you just couldn't get away from them. To make things worse everyone was ripping everyone else off. A lot of the companies who claimed to be producing games machines were just furniture makers - they'd buy one machine, copy the ROM, then churn out the cabinets with flashy artwork and someone else's game inside."

The lack of innovation which beset the UK arcade market rapidly knocked the bottom out of it. "Of course, another big problem was development costs. Your development budget could only be the amount of money you could afford to lose, because if an idea wasn't successful it would have to be completely scrapped. What the games designers would often do is to complete one prototype, ship it over to Miami and stand it in an arcade on a holiday weekend.

Andy Walker Chevrolet Camaro
Andy Walker's Chevrolet Camaro

They'd empty the coinbox and count up the quarters, and if it came to less than around $400 then the thing was a failure. There wouldn't be any question of just producing a few units - the American companies deal in thousands. There's no point in trying to pull the wool over their eyes with a bodged game - they've got to get their buying right."

Working for international corporations like Midway and Centuri, Andy gained a great deal of experience in what makes a game good to play. (Another acquisition was Andy's huge Chevrolet Camaro, which looks so out of place in Bridlington that its owner is recognised wherever he goes. "I was paid for one job in dollars, and I just couldn't resist the car. It's almost ten years old now, and I lost the radiator grille when I drove into a flock of pheasants, but it's still good for the image!")

Alas poor Oric
With the growth of the home computer market, it seemed a natural step to try to transfer that experience to a new field. "Some of the early work was done on a Superbrain system which had been dedicated to arcade projects. The first computer game Taskset actually produced was Dig Dog for the Oric, largely the work of programmer Paul Hodgson. It was written on a cobbled-together system made up of Oric, Commodore and Tangerine equipment, but we'll never try that again. The problems it produced were horrendous, and in any case the Oric was insufficiently supported - you couldn't get technical details for it. We never figured out how all the Basic worked, but of course that wasn't crucial since it was all written in machine code."

Two things put Andy off the idea of writing games for the Spectrum. "First, we left it too late; second, it's not really a games machine. The sound facilities are awful for a start; compare it with the 64's SID chip, which is good enough quality for the arcade industry."
Oric Dig Dog Taskset
Dig Dog by Taskset

Having opted for the 64, Taskset went ahead with developing its first suite of games. "Again, we had technical difficulties with our development system. We opted for Commodore equipment, and worked it so hard that we were plagued with breakdowns. For instance, the 1541 disk drive is not designed to be used fourteen hours a day! We'd put in a week's work then find that all our files had been overwritten, and we couldn't salvage them. Obviously we needed something better, so we went in for a Sage system which costs about £11,000."

Having moved to new premises above a bookshop ("which the wife runs, so she can open it only when she feels like it"), Taskset got down to the hard graft of writing games. Andy explained how the development system works.

Sage IV
Sage IV by Sage Technology of Reno, Nevada in 1983

"The Sage system has a massive memory and integral disk drives. It also has multi-user capability, so we can generate code using a'monitor/assembler we wrote our-selves and use the `postbox' facility to communicate between terminals. The next task is to use an EPROM emulator to make the 64 think that this code is part of its own RAM. The principle's sound, but although the Sage is supposed to be 14 times faster than an Apple were still only about 75% happy with this system."

Between them, programmers Andy, Mark Buttery, Paul Hodgson and Tony Gibson, with artist Andy Rixon, have come up with some remarkable games using this system.

"Cosmic Convoy, which is remember almost a year old, featured a number of 'firsts' - for a start, you had to do more than just survive to win the game. Your space fighters have to protect a cargo convoy from attacking pirates, and although you may sacrifice some freighters you can't afford to lose them all. Secondly, you can have all of your three `lives' on the screen at the same time, which is a feature you don't see much elsewhere."

Cosmic Convoy remains basically a shoot-'em-up, but other Taskset games take off into the realms of the extremely weird. Jammin' springs from Tony 'Gibbo' Gibson's interest in music, and the power of the 64's SID chip. "We wanted to do a game with good music, so we thought we might as well give it a musical theme. At the same time we had an idea for some sort of animated version of Ludo, and what emerged was Jammin." You'll find a full review of Jammin' in our software review section, as well as Taskset's Pipeline.

"Pipeline was a game that came from actual experience. When we were in our old premises we sprang a leak upstairs one night, and narrowly avoided having our Superbrain soaked. That experience led to all sorts of ideas about little men running around knocking holes in pipes. We worked on the idea for ages before realising that it was a much better idea to have the men repairing the holes."

One game which Andy will not admit is based on experience is Bozo's night out. "We were falling about laughing at some of the ideas we had for this one - like a display showing a bladder filling up which you have to stop to empty on your way home from the pub. In the end we felt it was getting silly rather than funny so we cut a lot out of it. All the references to alchohol were replaced with `wobble juice', although admittedly there are characters like G. Innes in the high-score table!".

Super Pipeline
Super Pipeline by Taskset

Bozo is very sophisticated in its handling of sprites and backgrounds, and some of the code which was developed for it may be used in further Taskset character games. Andy's understandable dislike for pirates and copyists stems from the effort put into the planning and writing of original games. "Not only have you spent months writing something, but you've sweated over the original concept and the debugging stage. For instance, when we finished Bozo we found that at one stage it was possible to make the character walk up vertical walls - not what we intended at all! It's a long process ironing out these bugs, and if someone avoids it all by taking your idea and rewriting it, they're making nonsense of that effort you put in. That's why you won't catch us doing versions of other people's games. We've got more ideas of our own than we've got time to develop anyway, so we're unlikely to buy in programs."

Andy believes that the customers who make copies of tapes for their friends aren't the villains of the piece. "It's just not true that every copy made means a purchase lost. At around £5.99 lots of people make copies because they can't afford to pay full prices. The real villains are the mass duplicators who run off 5,000 at a time, and the moves made to stop them so far aren't achieving much. Software Project's idea of putting a colour code on their inserts won't stop people who own four-colour presses. We're involved in a couple of court cases at the moment, and hope this will set a useful precedent."

Bozo's Night Out
Bozo's Night Out by Taskset

Asked whether a cut in prices would deter pirates, Andy was doubtful. "I've seen some of the games put out by cut-price firms, and some of them are so bad they could use them in Bridlington Hospital instead of a stomach pump.

OK, some of them are fair, but in any case I can't see the idea of cheap software lasting - if you're working with a normal dealer system where every step in the chain has to take a percentage, I can't see any way to keep going with these sort of low prices.

We haven't changed our prices up or down since Taskset started, though if I thought we could get away with a price drop I'd do it tomorrow. Basically you need sales revenue to put into development costs, and although the production process won't get any quicker the games will be better - so in the end the punter will win either way.

It's up to the buyer to be more discerning too - you can't expect software houses to put on their packs 'This one isn't too hot but please buy it anyway'. It's worth reading reviews in the computer magazines, though if I was a kid I don't know if I'd be able to afford to buy all the magazines and still have enough money for the software!"
Andy also had lots to say about overseas markets. "It's interesting to note how things vary from country to country. West Germany is very much disk based, the USA uses disk and tape but prices are higher, and the UK is very largely tape based. We're now putting all our games on disk, in fact we were one of the first companies to do so; but we're also using Pavloda, from Melbourne House, on our tapes. This makes tape loading times similar to disk loading times, so I don't see the advantage of having a disk drive unless you want to do major programming or use business software."

Apart from the in-house programming utilities Taskset is developing, Andy doesn't have much time for the idea of writing serious software. "You need a certain kind of mind to enjoy writing or using spreadsheets or databases. I just prefer games." Programmer Tony Gibson added, "I once wrote a word processing program and quite enjoyed it - but I'm happier with games even though I don't play them much. I just like looking over people's shoulders as they play, and my idea of a good game is one where you can get a lot of fun just out of doing that!"

Andy also mentioned that although he likes some adventures, such as The Hobbit and Level Nine programs, he can't see Taskset writing such programs itself. "There are already dozens of sub-groups of games: arcade space, arcade character, text adventure, graphic adventure, simulations and so on. It's getting more and more like the pop industry in fact, and as games become more sophisticated and more `crossovers' occur there'll be lots of room for all kinds of different categories. So we'll just have to see."

Whatever happens to the software industry, Taskset intends to stick with the 64. "I'm hoping in many ways that the new range of Commodore machines never take off. What they should do is keep the 64's memory map, add a proper printer port and change the Basic and operating system.

We're using the Audiogenic Koala pad graphic tablet to help get over some of the screen designing difficulties, but the line editor is good and the Programmers' Reference Guide is a big help - it's a pity there isn't that much information made available for other machines."

With the release of Gyropod, a sophisticated space arcade epic, and two more games on the way around the end of August ("Character games - I won't say more than that" Andy hints darkly), Taskset is determined to make a big splash before Christmas.

Gyropod by Taskset

"Our reputation is built on a team effort, the burning of much midnight oil and a portfolio of varied games. There aren't any passengers in the company - in fact we're having to take someone on to deal with all the business aspects so that I can get back to some programming, which I don't have much time for at the moment!" Andy gazed longingly at his terminal, which looked dusty with disuse. "I'm going to take a holiday then look after the Commodore Show in June, then I hope to get back to programming some games. People have been telling me since 1981 that the games boom was over, but I don't see signs of it finishing.

Article reproduced from Commodore Horizons magazine July 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), Swedish Oric Homepage, Old-Computers.