Minterview - Jeff Minter - Interview

Jeff 'The Yak' Minter is one of the best known personalities in

games programming. Kevin Cox went to meet the hairy one.

EVERYTHING ABOUT JEFF MINTER IS hairy. His hair is hairy, his beard is hairy and his games are about hairy animals. His dog, an Afghan, was so hairy it quite startled me - I thought it was an undersized, overhaired llama - and I shan't mention the old adage about dogs starting to look like their owners. His kitten was not that hairy but obviously aspired to the condition. I can't remember now, but i'm sure that even the carpet was a thick shag-pile.

So, it was with some trepidation that I went to visit Jeff. Perhaps I should explain: I am not that hairy. It has been mentioned that I am thinning on top just a little, perhaps receding, certainly not balding. I am not touchy about it (not much, Kojak - Ed), but I had nothing to worry about. Fortunately, Jeff is not a main to be taken in by appearances unlike some I could mention (who is this Ed anyway?). He realised that I was as hairy as the next man, on the inside. And that's important, because hairiness for Jeff is a philosophy, it proclaims his individuality, his unwillingness to accept things at face value. It also means that he doesn't have to fork out a fortune for a haircut as often as the rest of us.

Star Wars Coin-Op 1983
Star Wars Coin-Op © Copyright 1983 Atari
I visited Jeff at home in his family's bungalow in Tadley, a village half-way between Reading and Basingstoke. As soon as you arrive, you know Jeff lives there. On the wall is a large painted Llama. Inside they're everywhere. The room Jeff works in is a specially built extension packed with computer equipment: C64, Vic, C16 (he'd just bought one), Apple, Atari, MSX, BBC, QL plus his stereo compact disc and the video machines, including The Tempest and Atari's Star Wars. But the most striking feature of the room is the mural all along one wall. And the subject matter? Llamas, of course. And then the Llamas on top of the monitors - fluffy ones, plastic ones, metal ones. Not to mention the camels and the alpacas.

It seems that Jeff can't remember when this obsession with large ruminant quadrupeds began. While still at school one of his first games, programmed on an 8K Pet, was called Vicuna.

In those days, he used to get up at 6 o'clock in order to get to school and start programming. There was only one machine and time on it was limited. It took him two or three months to learn BASIC, but he soon tired of its limitations, so he taught himself machine code.

Getting up at six takes its toll, though, and he saved for 6 months to buy a ZX80. By this time, his talent was obvious and he told me, "It took me three days to learn Z80 machine code." Gulp.

Unfortunately, no-one recognised his gift at university, where only a third of his course was computing, so he left after a year. Then, after a couple of spells working for dK'Tronics (he developed a Graphics ROM for the ZX81) and for Interceptor Micros (where he produced versions of Amidar and Defender), he started on his own. Gridrunner arrived and the real Llamasoft was born.
No more getting up at six now. "I work whenever I feel like it," he told me. But his work-rate is prodigious. Just think of the number of games, all different and innovative, which he has produced in the last 18 months: Hover Bovver, Hellgate, Revenge of the Mutant Camels, Sheep in Space ("my personal scrolling shoot-em-up," he said.) and Ancipital. And that's just a selection.

Plus, he is now producing a regular magazine, the Nature of the Beast, all done on the wonderful Macintosh. It's very readable, very controversial in its opinion of games (and magazines), and a lot of fun. If you haven't seen a copy, write to Jeff at Llamasoft.

When I met Jeff he hadn't exactly been slacking. "I've never worked so hard in my life," he said. He had just spent two weeks on a brand new idea, Psychedelia. He had been working on a game when the idea came to him, and once that had happened he dropped everything to complete it. In two weeks it was finished, not just on the C64, but on the Vic and C16 as well.

"It took me three days to learn Z80 machine code."

Jeff Minter - Monitors
Jeff Minter
Psychedelia - Llamasoft
Llamasoft Psychedelia Advert

So what is Psychedelia? It is not a megagame. There are no ladders, no ramps, no bullets, no score, no lives, no aliens, no smooth scroll, no sprites, no lasers. Not a lot of anything, in fact, I thought. Just shows how wrong you can be. Jeff turned down the lights, put on Thomas Dolby (the one with the Llama on the Album cover!), picked up the joystick and started. The plain white pixel in the middle of the screen burst into life. Colour was everywhere, in shapes, patterns, movement. Psychedelia had me hooked, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. I'll wear a flower in my hair. (What hair? Ed).

Psychedelia is a light synthesiser. It is designed to be 'played' with a joystick, in much the same way as you would play a music synthesiser. The keyboard offers a variety of options such as pre-defined shapes (including a Llama), symmetry, colour choice, shape sampling etc. The joystick lets you create to the music of your choice, to interpret in light the sounds you most enjoy. Anyone can do it, and skilfully too. If I have any criticism, it is that the results that a novice can get are so effective that I cannot see how practice will necessarily improve them. You cannot sit down at a music keyboard and just play a tune. But perhaps I haven't seen what a really skillful player can do. After all, when I saw it, Jeff was the world's most experienced user and he'd only been doing it for two weeks!

The program's possibilities are endless. Think of creating your own audio-visual extravaganza for a party - the 64 version will save up to an hour to tape. Or you can just sit in a dark room to enjoy the experience.