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The Giant Book of Spectrum Arcade Games

27/3/2004: It's now over two decades since the computing world entered the domestic market, with a plethora of machines costing a few hundred pounds or less. Tanzarine director Neil Pellinacci looks back at the production of a typical games book, on the twentieth anniversary of its publication.

The Giant Book of Spectrum Arcade Games (Fontana Paperbacks 1984) by Raymond Blake, Neil Pellinacci, Andrew Turner and Tim Hartnell

During the early 80s the three of us, like so many others, had eagerly snapped up (or more importantly, had eagerly persuaded our parents to snap up) a Sinclair home computer.

Having got the hang of things with a ZX81, we saw the new ZX Spectrum, and knew we had to have one as well.

Like most of the kids at the time, we were well into it all - games sessions, programming, books, magazines and the myriad of shows and exhibitions proudly showing off the latest hardware and software of the time.

In particular, some of the magazines had sections where readers were invited to send in their programming contributions, with the best being rewarded with publication and an associated cash prize, normally less than a tenner, but when you're 15 you don't worry about things like that.

Early efforts generally met with negative responses, but as time went by, some of the magazines responded more favourably, with promises of our code being kept on file because it was of a sufficiently high quality. However, publishing success eluded all of us.

Until one day, when one of our friends who had submitted a listing to a magazine called ZX Computing received an unexpected response from the editor. The editor was impressed, so much so that he was prepared to purchase the program for £35 even though there was no space available in the magazine to publish it. He was, however, compiling a book of Spectrum programs, and it was this which was to contain our friend's work.

News of this success travelled quickly, and we diverted some of our creations to ZX Computing rather than other magazines, and soon had the attention of the editor, Tim Hartnell.

Tim's company, Interface Publications, was at that time producing titles not just for the Sinclair machines, but also for all of the other machines in the rapidly expanding home computer market. Initially we sent in to Tim programs which had already been written, but it wasn't long before we were phoning him to see what he wanted next, and then producing programs accordingly.

The first breakthrough came with the Interface book "49 Explosive Games for the ZX Spectrum", published in 1983, which contained most of the programs which we had supplied, in my case to the extent that I, along with three others, was credited on the front cover as a co-author, although this was very much a last minute decision made by Tim, based on the quantities of material supplied by the four concerned.

Ray also had some of his programs in that book. For amusement, Interface also sent me a copy of the Portuguese translation of this one, which still sits on the bookshelf alongside the others.

In September 1983, the three of us made the almost mandatory visit to the PCW Show in London, and having split up for a while, we rejoined almost at random, for Ray to announce that he'd been talking to Tim Hartnell, and that we should all drop by the Interface stand to meet him.

This we did, and the ensuing conversation eventually formed the basis (although there was no coffee involved) for the foreword of "The Giant Book of Spectrum Arcade Games", published the following year by Fontana. Tim had been contracted by Fontana to produce a variety of titles, one of which was solely to be dedicated to arcade games.

By this time the three of us were on to A Levels, but we still found time to start work on games for the book, keeping in regular contact with Tim as we went. Our target was 30, which we reached comfortably, only to learn that after a review Fontana were keen to have a book with 50 games titles instead. This in fact stretched us somewhat, not in terms of programming but design and creativity, and this can be seen in in the book as a number of games being re-invented as 2-player versions.

However, we got there in the end, our final tasks being to provide the programming documentation which had become our trademark, general technical documentation for running the games as efficiently as possible, and last but not least to order the games in such a way that the most interesting ones were at the front and the back.

The advance was reasonable, but not spectacular, and none of us were under any illusions about what we were doing, we hoped for royalties, but youth meant that the doing was everything.

The preliminary copies of the manuscript provided a taste of things to come. Whilst the games were all there, the careful ordering had been changed (we never worked out whether this was deliberate or accidental, or even who had done it), and some of the page formatting left a lot to be desired. We changed what we could, but the process provided us with some early hints of how the business world worked.

Finally, with much excitement within our respective families at least, "The Giant Book of Spectrum Arcade Games" was published, in the latter half of 1984. The college where we were studying picked up on what we had been doing, and spotting an opportunity for some positive publicity, contacted the local paper, who promptly supplied a photographer to interrupt our classes one morning. In another excellent lesson on how business works, the press release proudly proclaimed that we had "used computers at home and at school to write the games", and included a photograph of the three of us clustered around a BBC Micro. Well, close, anyway.

Christmas 1984 was approaching, and there was nothing left to do but sit back and wait to see what happened. By that time, we had met up with Tim a couple more times at computer shows, and he had asked us to work on a few more projects, plus we were also supplying programs on an individual basis as before.

As things turned out, the Giant Book of Spectrum Arcade Games wasn't the seller we had all hoped for. We only ever saw one distribution note (which is lost somewhere), which indicated that 42 copies had been sold in the UK, indeed, overseas sales seemed to have outstripped the home market (although not by much).

In mid 1985, we had completed our A Levels and were moving on to other things; Andrew moved to Manchester University, I went to Birmingham University, and Ray began a career in London working in banking. Whilst we continued to dabble, on Acorn Electrons and BBC Micros by then, selling programs became much less of a priority, we saw each other less frequently, and eventually lost touch with the team at Interface Publications.

Now, some twenty years later, I've been contacted by one of the site maintainers at worldofspectrum.org, where some of the games in the book can now be played again via a Spectrum emulator Java applet, and it is thanks to him that this look back at the micro age has been written.

Tim Hartnell returned to Australia in 1984. Tragically, he died of cancer in 1991, at the age of 40. You can learn more about Tim, and his involvement in the home computer revolution, on the Interface Publications web site.

Ray Blake is Head of Software Design at GR Business Process Solutions, a UK-based business which provides specialist services around knowledge testing and skills assessments. He develops and sells Excel, Access and Visual Basic applications, both as off-the-shelf products and as custom jobs to meet specific client needs. With three sons all under the age of 6, he gets little time for interests of his own, but seems to get dragged into each of theirs. Consequently, he has built up an impressive knowledge of young persons literature, mostly surrounding the adventures of rodents and other small mammals.

Neil Pellinacci is director of Tanzarine Technology Ltd, a small independent Internet consultancy, specialising in software development in Java and perl, and data management using XML and relational databases. He founded the company after spending ten years working in systems and application software development.

Andrew Turner is an Internal Audit manager at JPMorganChase, with responsibility for technology across Europe and Asia. Prior to this he had a long career working in management consultancy, and also had a stint owning/running a company providing on-screen sports graphics for television companies. Along the way Andrew got married, divorced and became the proud father of a beautiful daughter Sophie.