ZX Coding Days

The other day I found some old ZX Spectrum programming guides I had stored in my attic.
Two straight programming books and two adventure books, where the source code for several IF games was printed.

ZX Spectrum Coding Guides

I leafed through the battered, dirty copy of “Como Programar o Seu ZX Spectrum” / “Programming your ZX Spectrum” by Tim Hartnell and Dilwyn Jones, published in 1982. I instantly felt the urge to code for the Spectrum, if only to experience BASIC in all its glory.

The book cost 497 Escudos, the old Portuguese coin, it’s almost the equivalent of 2.5 €. I never read this book as a kid, my father purchased it at my brother’s request but all I wanted to do was play. Programming didn’t even occur to me and I wish I had read it. I would have got the urge to code a lot earlier!

I’m going to dive into Spectrum programming and document the experience. Let’s call it “ZX Coding Days”!

I downloaded Unreal Speccy Portable, but its mapping of the Spectrum’s keyboard to the Mac’s isn’t great, it got stuck in a loop every time I pressed Shift + another key.

I tried out Fuse and fell in love. The Mac OS X version feels like the perfect solution. This is one of the things I really like about the Macintosh, there is ONE, maybe TWO fantastic implementations of what you need. I’m in a nostalgic mood, so why don’t you also take a look at Boxer, the DOS-Box for Mac? Gorgeous design.

Ok, so I have an emulator. Let’s start reading the book!

First Page

The first page nearly made me weep with nostalgia.
Here’s a rough translation of the last line:

The moment has come. Turn on your Spectrum. ‘Light up’ your TV, and let’s begin.

Ok, so the Spectrum keyboard had shortcuts for all the programming keywords, as you can see in this awesome screenshot I took of Fuse:

Fuse

Those white and red words on each key are activated by Symbol-Shift and other shifts. Had no idea, I just played games on the thing!

Stuff I learned:

REM means remark, and are comments. Now it all makes sense.
LIST shows the currently loaded program. NEW erases it. I’m using the emulator’s snapshots to store the program, later on I’ll see about actually putting it in the Spectrum format, probably with another app.

Typing line number and Enter eliminates that line. This is awesome because it means I can alter lines without having to type them all in the correct order, which is a fantastic way around the lack of a mouse.

I didn’t go much further than that simple Hello World, because it’s a bit painful still to have instant shortcuts for keywords ( I type P and Print shows up). Had to do a lot of backspacing!

If you have any suggestions about where I can take this feature, go ahead. It’s entirely possible I’ll get discouraged and forget about it.

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In the Absence of Game Industry

My #gamedev Story
I’ve been a part of the game industry since me and my brother got our first computer, the Spectrum ZX. Now that I changed from gamer to game developer, that time feels very distant.

Games were always present as I grew up, my first console was the Super Nintendo and I played Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Prince of Persia endlessly.

My last Super Nintendo game was Secret of Mana and I spent the summer playing it. I stopped at the final boss, the Mana Beast, and never got the chance to kill it. Years later, equipped with an emulator and a controller, I did him in and reached closure.

As I grew I had to choose where my life was heading next. I was undecided between journalism and “computers”, which despite my gaming and IT sensibilities, were still a nebulous thing in my mind at the age of 16. You must understand that “designing and developing games” was never an option for me. Such a thing as a Game Industry does not exist where I live, so I chose the closest thing possible: programming. After seven years of learning and three years “working for the man”, I’m finally preparing something special.

My #gamer Country
Here’s where I live, Portugal, highlighted in red:
Portugal in the World

You might have heard from us recently in the news.

Portugal has a voracious appetite for games: PS3 games sell for 70 euros, roughly 100 dollars. When Metal Gear Solid 4 and Red Dead Redemption were released, they actually sold out, which means people actually pay that kind of money. World of Warcraft expansion releases are always met with endless lines, and national “celebrities” promote Nintendo’s products in terrible campaigns. When the Wii came out, they did a little tour around the country demo-ing it and every Xmas it almost sells out.

The crop of 3DS ads with local celebrities is both appalling and a travesty, because while these celebrities are having fun playing mindless Augmented Reality games, students in colleges and Universities are being told that game development is not an option in Portugal. Even just talking about the subject in public is met with derision and disdain.

Our #gamedev Industry
My country contributes to the game industry as consumer, but not as producer. There have been several attempts to jumpstart this country’s game industry, but I wouldn’t be writing this article if they had been successful.

We don’t have game design schools, nor game houses, nor guaranteed internships in the game business after graduation. There are companies making games, but not necessarily the games they want to make, and there aren’t enough of them nor do they have the capacity to employ everyone that wants to develop games in this country.

There are some exceptions: Seed Studios, established in Oporto, are currently undergoing QA for their first title, a PS3 downloadable game called Under Siege. It looks stunning and I’m proud that some of us managed to rise to the challenge without withering along the way.

VectrLab are also building a game, liZboa, a Zombie FPS set in our country’s capital.

However, compared with Spain, our neighbouring country, whose Madrid based Pyro Studios exist since 1996 and created the worldwide acclaimed Commandos series, Portugal’s #gamedev scene is dead in the water.

We have a vast number of qualified technical people and a lot of gamers. I haven’t met anyone that didn’t know at least tangentially what World of Warcraft is, and everyone I met in the IT field has played it. A lot of these people also express interest in the video game industry. Why haven’t we been able to build a profitable product, since so many of us are gamers, technically proficient and would love to work in that area?

Why are potential game designers, programmers, sound technicians, musicians and artists forced to either leave the country or submit to other job offers outside the #gamedev field?

Previous efforts were committed to making a Portuguese game to sell on Portuguese shores, but the only games that sell here are big blockbusters. We should aim for the international market, and this is the best time to finally kick this country’s and the World’s #gamedev industry into gear, because I think we are witnessing something special.

Rise of the #gamedeveloper
There were never as many game developers as of now and each day something new happens. A new hero rises to the top of the Apple App Store charts, a new indie bundle is announced on Steam, and people like Superbrothers + Jim Guthrie + Capybara of #sworcery fame, Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, Adam Atomic, creator of Canabalt, Markus Persson of Minecraft fame, among others, set out examples of successful game design and hype generation with great payoffs. They are examples to be followed, not copied, because each achieved recognition in their own different way.

The advent of self-publishing removes previous constraints and every day we see more people going indie, forming their own companies, learning the trade and spreading the love of game development.

I’m going to do my part and I’ll tell you how it goes.

PS: This post is part of #AltDevBlogADay, a group of game developers that share their experiences and want to write better and more often. You can find this post here.