Steve Crow not only made amazing games like Wizard's Lair and Starquake in the '80s, he went on to have a long and successful career, and today is at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft. I recently had a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible career in games.
Chris Bateman:You were a regular reader of the seminal ZX Spectrum magazine Crash, and in 1986 the readers voted you Programmer of the Year on the back of a string of incredible titles in '85 and '86. That must have felt wonderful at the time! But did it come to seem as if your career had peaked too early?
Steve Crow: No – I don't think so. Many people involved in video games back then were very young; most like me were teenagers or early 20's. So anyone who was successful was more than likely to be very young. I was more concerned about making games that I and others enjoyed playing and were fun. The good reviews and awards were just in some ways confirmation I was on the right track.
CB: So there was nothing negative about your early successes?
SC: The only bad aspect of being so young was handling the pressure of creating and completing the next game. I think in some ways I starting working on graphics to get a break from this pressure and found that I really enjoyed it. There was still a lot of pressure of course but I was working in partnership with a programmer so the creative process and stress was shared.
CB: Do you miss the way the videogames were back in its 'infancy'?
SC: Looking back I consider myself so fortunate to be in the industry at a time when one individual could be the author of an entire game. By the late 80's games started to be created by small teams of people as the programming, music and graphics became more complex and people began specializing in particular aspects of game creation. Since the mid 80's I have been involved in many very successful games so I don't consider the mid 80's as a 'golden' era of my career but it was a very exciting time to be involved in video games!
CB: You were writing the machine code for some of your Spectrum games on one of those chunky 80's home computers (the British-made Tatung Einstein), and it seems to me you must have had a great grasp of the technical capabilities – and limitations – of the platforms at the time.
SC: Using the Tatung Einstein for development (as opposed to the ZX Spectrum itself) was a great improvement – it had a real keyboard and a real disk drive! The Spectrum's main strength was that it had a fairly powerful (for the time) Z80 processor so even though it lacked features such as hardware sprites it was possible to emulate this lack of hardware with software sprites.
CB: Is there another computer you would have liked to have worked on back then?
SC: I was most envious of the Atari 800 and C64 as these machines had much better hardware such as true multicolour, smooth screen scrolling, a real sound chip, hardware sprites and interrupts etc. which more than made up for the slower 6502 processor contained in these machines.
CB: Have you ever thought about how different your career would have been if you'd had a chance to work on Nintendo's NES, or some other cartridge-based platform? There were a great many things they could do that were impossible for you...
SC: I did work on one NES game with Mark Kelly, on Overlord, and I recall it was not that powerful a machine. The processor was slow and there was very little documentation, so in some ways it was a step down from the C64 and Atari 800. Looking back the strengths and weaknesses of each machine influenced the games created. For instance I don't think Knight Lore would have been created first on the C64 or something like Uridium created first on the ZX Spectrum.
CB: So you're not drawn to any dream of 'what could have been'?
SC: Well it would have been fantastic to have had the capability to create Starquake as a true 4 way scrolling platform game with hardware multicolored sprites – but alas it just was not possible at the time – at least not on the ZX Spectrum.
CB: In 1986, when you won the award, Nintendo were changing the face of game design by incorporating a save mechanic into titles like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. This was unthinkable for most home computer games. But in your 1985 Wizard's Lair – one of my personal favourite games, incidentally – you came up with a mechanic which circumvented these kind of limitations: the elevators. Each floor of the dungeon had a five letter code, like LYONS or CAIVE, and players who made it that far could skip ahead to that floor in a future game by using the code at an elevator in the early levels.
SC: At the time I would have my brother and sister test out my games. I would tune the difficulty according to how tricky they found it to play. I made sure they could easily play through the early stages. Wizard's Lair had such a large map it was necessary to have staging points and the elevators (lifts!) between floors seemed like a natural point to do this.
CB: What was your inspiration for this mechanic, and did you have a specific motive for including it?
SC: I must admit I did not play many contemporary games at the time and assumed other games employed a similar 'save' feature!
CB: That blows my mind – I can't imagine creating a new game mechanic and just taking it on faith that it was something everyone else was doing!
SC: Wizard's Lair was fully completed before I even found a publisher to sell it! At one point I was contemplating giving it away free with Crash magazine as no one seemed interested in picking it up! As a Christmas present for my sister I created a special version of the game with her as the main character, the lifts were renamed 'loos' and all the codes were her favourite sweets.
CB: Speaking of Wizard's Lair, this was a particularly evil game in that the use of expendable keys – and, for that matter, crosses that allowed you to phase through coloured snakes – meant it was perfectly possible to get utterly stuck and lose the game, slowly wasting away into death. It was a devastating experience as a player! But it was also part of the identity of the game. Did you feel bad about inflicting this on players, or did you enjoy some schadenfreude while laughing evilly about it?
SC: I was actually unaware of this issue – maybe I assumed no one would make such a mistake? If it causes a player to lose just one life I think I would have assumed that was OK. However, if it causes a player to lose every life, one after the other, I would have considered that a design flaw and rectified the issue.
CB: I'm pretty sure you could only lose one life, although you could fail in your overall strategy this way because the keys and crosses were a limited resource. I don't think this was in any way harder than what other games were doing at the time, to be honest.
SC: That's good to know.
CB: Starquake is sometimes considered your magnum opus (although I know players who prefer Fire Lord), and one of the most fascinating aspects of its design is that you replaced jumping with a platform resource that allows you to ascend upwards as long as you have them in stock. As with Wizard's Lair, it could lead to players getting horrible trapped, but it also made the game stand out as entirely unique. Where did the idea for this mechanic come from?
SC: With all my games I created a sand box area of a few 'flick' screens where I prototyped ideas. I would program different mechanics and see how they played out and if they were fun or not. I am not sure where the idea for the platform-laying mechanic came from but I really like the way it worked as it allowed a player to climb but was also a limited resource. It was one of those mechanics that just felt 'right'. Maybe the idea came from a picture in a magazine? I'm just not sure.
CB: Both of these games were heavily influenced by the art designs of the Stamper brothers' company, Ultimate Play the Game, who dominated the 8-bit era in Europe. (They later went on to found Rare, of course). I believe you hadn't even played Atic Atac or Underwurlde, you just saw screenshots and used that as inspiration, is that correct?
SC: Yes this is very true! I was influenced by what the Stamper brothers' were doing (although I did not know who they were - I just knew them as 'Ultimate Play the Game'). I remember seeing one of their games for the first time at a computer fair in London, around the time we were marketing my first game, Laser Snaker. I think it was Pssst. I was blown away by the smoothness of the motion and the animation – all on a 16K Spectrum! I think I owned Pssst and Lunar Jetman, but I never played Atic Atac or Underwurlde – I'd just seen pictures in magazines.
CB: Did you ever meet the Stampers? Did they give you a hard time for 'borrowing' their visual aesthetics, or were they flattered?
SC: I never met the Stampers, and they never contacted me or any publisher in regard to the visual similarities between their 2D games and mine. I really think by the time my games were published they were moving on to bigger and better things.
CB: It has to be said, no end of companies took the forced isometric concept of their Knight Lore as an inspiration, but only you seemed to have been quite as switched on by their 2D explorers, like Sabre Wulf. Why do you think that was?
SC: I think I preferred the visual richness of the 2D games, and they allowed for more artistic creativity and large exploratory maps. I am not sure I would have been able to write a 3D game such as Knight Lore – it was way ahead of its time. When I first played it I was absolutely amazed, it was more impressive than Ultimate's first 2D games.
CB: Talking of exploration games, the 80s saw a great many of these (including several of your own games!) with maze-like layouts that encouraged mapping. The Spectrum in particular featured a lot of flick-screen games in both 2D and isometric forms, and maps were a big part of the 'tips' sections in magazines. Those of us playing videogames in the 80s were in love with those 2D explorers, and still remember them fondly, but today the form doesn't seem popular. What do you think was appealing about this style of play?
SC: I think born into everyone of us is an inherent desire to explore the world around us. This, I believe, is what is behind the popularity of such games. As a child my friends and I would travel miles exploring the fields and woods around the village we lived in, sometimes we would be away from home all day. Unfortunately, children today rarely get the opportunity to have such freedom and video games allow them to exercise that exploration.
CB: Is the classic form of exploration-play gone forever, do you think?
SC: Most games have a fairly linear progression so that instead of true exploration it is more a matter of discovering what is next. It's far easier to design a linear single player experience rather than a truly exploratory game. A major component of the game I currently work on, World of Warcraft, involves exploration – of course this is a 3D game. As far as 2D exploration games are concerned it is hard to tell whether they will become popular again. There has definitely been a resurgence of 2D side scrollers – so you never know!
CB: I've been lucky enough to meet and work with a lot of the British 'bedroom coders' and many of them, like Sandy White (who made 3D Ant Attack), had difficulty getting jobs later in their career. Those that had most success, like the Oliver twins, generally formed their own company (Blitz Games, which sadly closed their doors in 2013). You seemed to have found a different path through the games industry, having worked for many different studios and ending up at what is now the world's biggest software publisher, Activision-Blizzard. What's your secret?
SC: Back then everyone was self-taught. I think my secret has been to never stop learning and growing. Concentrating on graphics certainly helped, and also trying to make everything I work on the very best it can be. Perhaps some developers had a hard time transitioning from 2D to 3D games or simply keeping up with the ever increasing complexity of video games? I would imagine that's especially true for programmers.
CB: Do you miss the days where you were an 'auteur' with absolute control over every aspect of a game's development?
SC: I don't think I really miss the days of being the author of an entire game. It would be fun to do a solo side project but modern games require large teams of people working together. I rather like working as part of a team and you still get control on the asset or portion you are responsible for – it is simply one piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle.
With thanks to Steve for his time.