An article on Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond written by Graeme Kidd

reproduced from Your Sinclair Issue No. 32 - August 1988

 

Pottering through the sunny streets of North London to Jon Ritman's home, I knew that Bernie Drummond, Jon's graphics collaborator, was a man of minimal appetite, a fellow who hardly eats and who was very choosy about what he munched. So there was little chance of rushing up a massive expenses claim at a gourmet restaurant on this job... As I half expected, Bernie had 'already eaten' so Jon and I tucked into fish and chips, washed down with chateau Red Stripe while Bernie enjoyed a black coffee. Then the bombshell dropped...

"Sick as a parrot, Jon, that's what Spectrum owners will be when they hear this..."

"We've just decided to stop writing for the Spectrum," Jon says. This is hot news! But why, I asked?

After completing Matchday II, Jon and Bernie tossed around some game ideas, decided to do a scrolling landscape game and set to work on Starship. They had got a fair way into it by the middle of May, when KAPOW, the dynamic duo put down their Spectrums and took up Razz boards. Rare Ltd (Ultimate, save the name), commissioned Jon and Bernie to write an arcade game.

Rare's coin slot system is based on the Razz board, a custom-designed computer built around a souped-up, turbo-charged version of the Z80. The temptation is understandable - no longer do they have to worry about every last byte when writing a game, and suddenly Bernie has a pallette of hundreds, nay thousands of colours to play with. And several hundred kilobytes of memory for graphics rather than 16 or 17K. For a team like Jon and Bernie, used to working hyper-efficiently to make the most of a measly 48K, having up to half a megabyte of memory to play with opens up dramatic new possibilities.

The arcade project is still top secret - the game has been designed and work is underway, but Jon and Bernie remain tight-lipped about their new creation. It's a new way of thinking, writing arcade games. "When I design a game, it's always built around the limitations of the Spectrum. Other versions can be slightly different and take advantage of a machine's capabilities, but the Spectrum was the machine I designed for. Obviously, designing a game for the Razz board is completely different," Jon explains. And a coin slot game has to have instant appeal, tempting people to part with their ten pees and to keep parting with their money. It's a change of direction for Jon, "The way I was moving on the Spectrum was towards games that took a long time to play, games you got a lot out of. You need a different kind of game for the arcades - with Head Over Heels in an arcade, you could spend 1 on the first room and still not get of it."

Which is about all they will say about the arcade project. Jon might produce a Spectrum version of his coin slot game or games, but that is very much in the future. The Spectrum is unlikely to receive any new code from Mr Ritman during 1988.

A great loss, compounded by the fact that Starship looks well impressive, even at the stage at which it reached before being abandoned. "The game that'll never be," Jon jokes as he loads it up. A flying saucer zooms along above a smoothly-scrolling tesellated landscape, a landscape that forms a globe and is complete with hills and mountains. The playing area is huge - flying at full pelt in one direction, you go for about 45 seconds before circling the globe. Starship had the makings of a great game - you were going to be able to travel across the landscape in a variety of vehicles, hunting for treasures and entering buildings to buy and sell equipment. What a shame!

Jon and Bernie have been working as a team for nearly three years now - after Matchday I which featured the little men from Bear Bovver with their snouts cut off, Jon realised that he needed an artist to help out with the graphics. He knew that Bernie, an old friend, keen footballer and ace Matchday player, was enjoying a period of unemployment. From his schooldays, Bernie has had an interest in drawing, producing detailed posters in felt pen for his own amusement. Jon needed a central character for Batman, so he thrust a joystick connected to a drawing utility into Bernie's hand...

"No, not like that!," Jon was tempted to cry, when Bernie started waggling the joystick furiously, scribbling random pixels onto the screen. Peering at the apparent mess on the monitor, Bernie found a bit that looked like an eye and started chibbling pixels away, adding a few here, removing a few there and soon Batman was born. Bernie has continued to work on screen more like a sculptor than a draughtsman. "Pixel manipulation is very strange - things look very different on screen compared to the way they might look on paper," he explains. "If you've got a character with a head that doesn't look round, adding a couple of pixels can make the head round and make a couple of ears."

With Batman, Head Over Heels and Matchday II to his credit, Bernie ranks amongst the best designers of game graphics. He's still a little surprised, "It never occurred to me that I was an artist, or that I was going to be an artist - I liked drawing, but didn't have any ambitions." But then he's right, when he says, "the job I do didn't even exist until Knightlore came out..."

Six and a half years ago, the job that Jon Ritman does, didn't exist either. He was working as a TV repairman for Radio Rentals when it decided to do a feasibility study on the market for renting out home computers. Figuring Radio Rentals would need computer engineers if the scheme took off, Jon bought a ZX8I to find out about these machines. "I hadn't got a clue about computers, but got really involved immediately," he remembers. Staying up into the early hours every morning, Jon worked through the manual in a week and then went out and got a book on machine code.

Working at home, programming games is a lifestyle that suits Jon. "I put in far more hours, but I do what I want, when I want. I'm basically lazy, and avoid the hard bits for ages until I'm finally forced to get into it - for instance I was scared of splitting Head from Heels... everything was working with one character but I spent two and a half months putting off the moment when I split the character into two. It took an hour..."

Sales of well over million units must have made a significant difference to the Ritman lifestyle? Sitting in a modest terraced house in North London, a few miles from where he was brought up, Jon ponders. "It's nice not to have to worry about money," he muses. The idea of going to work nine-to-five in exchange for a sum of money every week is something he's glad to be free of. There's financial security - the house and so on, but there are no expensive jaunts to exotic places or fast and flashy cars. Sitting comfortably in his front room, dressed in track suit bottoms and a sweatshirt, is there one thing that fame and financial success have brought Jon that has made a real difference? No, not really.

Then it occurs to him. The dishwasher. "I'm really lazy when it comes to doing things around the house. Never having to wash up again... brilliant."

 

1988 Dennis Publishing