It's barely a year since the yellow topped, lightning-fingered Tony Crowther burst upon the games playing scene with a series of stunning programs for Alligata: Killer Watt, Blagger, Loco and Son of Blagger. He's continued to make waves since then, changing companies twice and rewriting his earlier hits as well as producing new graphical wonders. But what kind of person really is this 19 year old whizz kid? Zzap! 64 reveals for the first time the full Tony Crowther story in this interview with editor Chris Anderson.
I think probably most people in the industry now see you as one of THE big names - do you actually feel like a star?
Yes. Two reasons. One, you get fan mail. I really like that. I usually reply to it which is good fun - you get replies back again and you keep in touch that way. And then, people come to see you. The other day someone just came round from York just to meet me.
How much mail do you get in fact?
Oh, about one a month (laughs), usually from Sweden and places like that. You get the odd one from Great Britain. Then you get these obscene phone calls. What they do is, they ring up to speak to Tony and then they say 'I've just bought this. It's brilliant! Bye!' Bang. That's all they say.
The thing that seems to mark out your games is their amazing graphical quality. Where's that come from?
Oh, I'd always been top of my art class. I passed my 0 level with a grade A. Went for the A level but kept flunking it because I could never turn up for the exam. So I never really passed the A level. I wanted to go to art college - in fact I was going to, but I thought: oh, I'll have a look at software for a bit. So I stayed on that for a year with Alligata - and then I thought: ay-up, this is quite fun this. So I ended up staying on it and I never went to art college.
But most people think that if you're good at art, you're bad at science and vice versa. So how come you can program?
I am bad at science. 1 never passed my Physics- I took it four times, the 0 level, and failed every time.
So how come you can program?
(laughs) I think because I've taught myself. If someone had tried to teach me I'd have had no chance.
All right, let's take it through. When did your computer bug start?
Two to three years ago when I was about 16. My Dad has got one of these rich friends who keeps flying away and marrying millions of people and then divorcing them again. He had a computer and he lent it to me - it was a Pet 4032. So I borrowed that for a bit, and I couldn't make head or tail of it. I had it for three months - I couldn't work a thing on it, nothing. I used to type in listings, but they never used to work.
They never do.
So I thought right, I'm going to learn it, find out what's getting me mad. So I picked up a little bit and wrote a program on it. You know Mastermind - I wrote that on the Pet. A really good version. It worked. You know the plastic model version you can get with the pegs. It looked identical to that.
Pet 4032 By Commodore Business Machines
So Mastermind was the first Crowther game?
Well, it never got anywhere. I sent it off as a listing to Computer and Video Games and waited ages and ages for a reply. I showed my mates and they loved it - and it never even got anywhere, they never even replied back. So whether they used it I don't know, but I never got anything for it. It was just getting me mad, so I bought a Vic - out of frustration. It was a new machine - it had colour! So I started playing around with that obviously. I also started picking up machine code, not very well but ... I wrote a type of Galaxian game, and I was quite pleased with that. But it didn't get anywhere. Then I wrote a car game on it - I'd just got a mach-ine code monitor for it, I was obsessed by it - so I showed it to Superior Systems who had just started. Mike looked at it and he said: Look, tell you what, Tony, I'll give you a Commodore 64 on loan. I can't pay you, but you can have it as advance royalties. The 64 had just come out, it was at £299. I thought: free computer, I won't complain.
Two weeks later I came up with a program, Lunar Rescue. It was the first commercial Program I ever did.
Do you think you're a particularly competitive person?
I love competing with people. But I also love people to tell the truth, what they really feel about my programs. When I write a prog-ram it's how I like it, but that isn't the way it should be when you think about it because N's not just me that's having the program. So what I do is I usually show it to people. If they're not impressed with it I scrap it and start again.
You're working on a new program at the moment. Tell me about it - as much as you can at this stage?
Well, it's a system - how can you explain it without giving too much away?-well hope-fully it's going to be a new side to computer games, that 99 per cent of them will appear like this is. If other people feel about it what I feel, they'll follow it. It's going to make a package worth the money ... um . . . it's difficult to explain. I'd love to show you, but it's best not to ... I'd say it's going to be a new format to games. You know you've got scrolling screens as a format, and flick screens - those two types - welI it's a new type.
You're spending quite a bit of time on it by your own standards. Over a month?
It is a long time, but I'm hoping, with it being my first program for my new company, Wizard, I want it to be a success. In fact my working companion doesn't like it. But my brother has never liked any of my games, but he's never stopped playing this one.
You've had quite an interesting history over the last year or so. Some people feel you have a reputation for not being at all settled, for chopping and changing a lot. What actually happened? Why did you leave Alligata?
I know a lot of people who've got standard jobs, like working in insurance. If they're not happy with the people they're working with they leave. Some people stick at it, some people decide to leave. I've become one of those people.
So were there particular reasons for leaving Alligata?
I think it's just the fact I wasn't happy working. I didn't get out of the company what I wanted to, I could have got a lot more. I was told in fact that I should do what Jeff Minter is doing - work on my own, get my own company. But obviously - I'd just left school, I didn't like that idea at all. What I did was leave Alligata and attempt to work along those lines. But as soon as I left I got tied up with Gremlin Graphics.
Were you actually lured away from Alligata by Gremlin Graphics?
No I had already left.
So you stayed with Gremlin Graphics for three or four months, was it?
Yeah, around that.
And what happened there?
Well again I didn't like the people I was working with -well, not so much I didn't like them ... it was just that ... I'd never seen a company in my life, and suddenly 'l was in one. All right the company was doing well, but I wasn't satisfied with that. It's not the money I was after, it's a satisfying job. I noticed that the company was not set up correctly, it seemed as though no one knew exactly how to run the company ... I don't want to go into that ... I lost interest in that and didn't find I was getting what I wanted out of it.
Did you feel they weren't giving you enough share in royalties?
No it's nothing to do with the money -1 was quite happy with what I was on. There were just certain advantages I wasn't getting.
To do with control over how the programs were marketed?
I had no say whatsoever, the way I saw it. Obviously I said what I wanted, and they just said, it's all right, we'll do it. I was left on the outside writing my programs. So I decided to leave. I met up with Roger Taylor and we decided to split Wizard in half - we would own half each. Now we have the situation if I want to do something I'll do it. If Zzap!64 wants an interview I'll do it.
So you feel more settled now?
I don't think I'll be leaving Wizard, don't worry about that.
mentioned earlier that you were quite a competitive guy. Would you
really like to be clearly recognised as the number 1 UK games
I'm not sure if I am already! (laughs)
But would you like to be clearly recognised as that?
Um... I don't know, I don't think you can class anyone like taht - because not everyone's going to like my games, just like not everyone likes Jeff Minter games. But I think everyone knows I'm here. Like I rang up Currah a while back and said: Hello, it's Tony Crowther, and they said: Not THE Tony Crowther - you get all of this. Everyone knows who I am, it's really good.
That gives you a buzz?
Yeah, it does.
Where do you get the idea for the amazing graphics that you have in games like Suicide Express, or should I call it Black Thunder?
What happened was I started doing Suicide and I disappeared off to Span. And when you're on the beach, sunbathing away, you get really bored. I got a little pad and started drawing things like giant mushrooms, mazes, even things like words in stone. So when I got home I just put it straight in.
What do you think of the games market as a whole at the moment, do you think it's in decline?
In what sense.
Well, people talk about the home micro boom being over?
The boom is over, yes. I'm still worried people are going to go on buying software. Eight quid a shot is so expensive - I'd love to release programs at four quid, but it's not advisable for us because we don't get much money that way. I know they're even more expensive than records, that's what worries me about the price of software - you sometimes find you get more enjoyment from a record than you do from a program. It makes the programmer think then because he's got to put so much in it that he keeps them happy for at least two or three hours.
In all, you mean? - for the game's entire lifetime?
For someone who buys the thing he's got to be happy for at least three hours.
A lot longer than that, surely?
No, I buy a record, listen to it onece and never hear it again. Right? So I'm only happy with it for about an hour. With software you're paying twice as much, so I'm saying that if you play a game for three hours you've got your money's worth.
Do you think quite a lot of software on the market won't even hold people's interest for that long?
I don't think they will, some of them. I can only play games for about 10 minutes in some cases. In some cases I play up to three hours.
Long term, what are your plans? Do you want to keep writing games?
I want to keep writing games as long as the market's there. As far as I know I can keep writing games till it comes out of my ears, because I enjoy doing it. With writing them so fast it's really nice because I can spend three weeks on a program and then a full month just thinking about it. You just sit there with a book - when you've bored you can scribble, watch telly. That's the beauty of it - 'cos obviously the software house can't release more than so many, they wouldn't be able to cope with it.
Do you have anything else lined up after your next program?
No, but then I've got a month to think about it - that's the beauty of it.
CROWTHER ON MINTER
In recent months Jeff Minter has had interviews in about five different magazines, and in some of them he's been saying things about Tony Crowther, implying that all your games are very similar, all with scroll routines, and that you're not too good. Does it hurt you when you read that?
I don't know, I do in a way, but I find it's a compliment because i'm being mentioned, because he knows I'm there - and so do a lot of other people. I know, I'm not bad because people are buying these programs I'm writing. Whatever I write they go into the charts. They may not get that high in some cases, but they still go in the charts. I don't see why I should be criticised just because all my games are scrolling. I'd say there are two types of screen you can have - a flick screen or a scrolling screen. I find a scrolling screen more advanced, and it's also harder to write on, than a flick screen.
Do you like Minter's games?
I won't answer that! (laughs) - I do like one of his, Hover Bovver, that's the only one I do like though. Only because I'm too think to understand them - that's my problem.
Do you see you and Minter as big rivals?
I don't know. What I'd like to do is to get together with him and write a game, splitting the profits 50-50.
That sounds interesting - have you put the idea to him?
No, I haven't talked to him about it, because he won't talk to me. We don't even get to that stage! I don't really mind what he says about me, because I really like the guy.
I Don't like playing games!
Tony Crowther always insists that he doesn't 'like' playing games - on the other hand, he'll admit that those below did 'keep me happy' for a while. His verdicts:
'Completed it the second or third time I played it.'
'Kept me happy for a reasonable amount of time. Really funny.'
'Played it for a long time.'
'I developed a cheat version which was a lot more fun.'
'I cheated on that too, and got right up to level 99. There's a bug up there somewhere. The aliens start running away from you!'
Staff Of Karnath:
'I like the 3D background, but not the sprites.'
'Kept me happy.'
'Played it for half an hour, didn't finish it.'
'It's good, I played it a lot until my copy went wrong. It's written completely without sprites.'
Crowther the person
Engaged for 18 months to Lisa, gorgeous, after meeting in a nightclub. No Marriage date.
Travelling, going to exhibitions (really enjoyed recent visit to Las Vegas), woodwork (once built a crossbow!), sewing using a sewing machine (Lisa can't).
Don't watch much except videos, Last of the Summer Wine.
Clint Eastwood, horror.
Yorkshire bitter. Plenty.
Article reproduced from Zzap! 64 magazine May 1985 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: