Interview With Graham Conduit

by Dieter Koenig, August 2007

In the last years the community was lucky enough to track down some of the American programmers for the Videopac/Odyssey2 system (Ad Everett, Bob Harris, Rex Battenberg for example). But the story of Videopac game development in Europe still remained a dark horse.

Especially GST Video had always been a myth. Super Bee was the first game in the Philips Videopac library that had a logo in the title screen which showed that the game was not developed by Philips but by someone else. Back then we thought that Philips wrote all those games – until we saw Super Bee. But this myth stayed unsolved for 20 years. In 2003 I finally found GST on my vast searches in the world wide web. CEO Mr. Jeff Fenton confirmed that I found the right GST, but could not tell me any details about GST Video and the story of the game development for the Philips Videopac system.

After I released the GST prototype “Shark Hunter” on cartridge in spring 2006, I got an email in August 2007 that started with those words:

“Dear Sir,

I would like to order a copy of ‘Sharkhunter’ for Philips Videopac.

I am the author of the original game which I designed and wrote for Philips while working at GST in about 1983. It was wonderful to see the game again and I read your review with great pleasure.”

Those are the great moments in a video game collector’s life :-)

Mr. Conduit was so kind to give me an interview, so we can unveil some of the deepest secrets of the Videopac story …

Business Card Graham Conduit GST

Graham, first of all, how did your career as game programmer start?

I graduated in Maths and Philosophy, but there was little call for philosophers in the job market. After trying various jobs I finished up training to be a computer programmer. I already had some experience during the school summer vacations working as a computer operator at Boots on an IBM 360. During the night shifts I would wile away the hours trying to write a program to calculate the square root of 2 to 2000 decimals. I used Fortran but had no manuals and little documentation. I always finished up with hundreds of pages of core dump which I cycled home with in my basket and would look through before going to sleep. The next night I would try again. Great times!

My first real programming was in Cobol for another IBM mainframe. I also picked up a little assembler. Then I moved on to another company and worked in RPG2, again on an IBM. Just about that time the microcomputer revolution was starting and systems were becoming affordable for the home enthusiast. I bought a Nascom and soldered it together. It worked! Then came an Acorn Atom, an Atari 400 and a Commodore 64. I took a job with a scientific instrument manufacturer and started writing real time software for instrument control using Coral 66 and 8080 assembler. At night I wrote a game called Dambusters for the Atari 400. The games market was just taking off and I thought I would try to write a game myself.

The game idea was based on an arcade game I had seeen a few years before. It used horizontal scrolling and I wrote in Atari Basic and Assembler. I was successful in selling it to a company for distribution. They offered me either £1000 up front and 20 Pence per game sold, or £2000 and 10 Pence per game. I worked the figures and decided on £1000 (a lot of money in those days) and hoped they would sell enough to make my decision the right one. In the end they never released the game but I was able to keep the advance and retain the game rights. (Wish I had accepted the £2000 :)) They said that their plans to distribute in the States had fallen through.

During that time I also wrote the sound effects for a game called ‘Caesar The Cat’ on the Commodore 64. The girl who wrote the game couldn’t program the sound chip. I also wrote a game called ‘Hangman’ for the Atari 400 which was released by a company called ‘Database Software’. I don’t know if they ever sold any! It was a simple game based on the old paper and pencil game.

When and how did you hear from Greenstreet Software?

It wasn’t called ‘Greenstreet’ in those days. Around 1982 I was getting bored with my job at the instrument company so I used to look through the local newspaper for job opportunities. (No internet back then!) One day a games programming job appeared and I jumped at the chance. It was for a company called GST in a village not far away. I went for an interview with Jeff the director and Mick Rouse the lead programmer. I met the other programmers Andy and Jake, and had a good interview. I showed them the Dambusters game and I was offered the job. Great luck! They were working under contract to Philips and I had to go to Holland for an interview with the manager of games division. I was accepted :)

Do you know how the cooperation between Philips and GST started? Did Philips approach GST or vice versa?

I know that Jeff had good contacts with Philips and had done work for them before, but I don’t know the details.

The company which Jeff setup to write games for Philips was called ‘GST Video’ and was a sideshoot of the main GST company.

How was the work at GST?

It was great! The atmosphere was really friendly.

We worked in the top two bedrooms of a house in Longstanton near Cambridge and later a few miles away in a village called Willingham. I worked with Andy Eltis and Jake Dowding and the leader of the group was a guy named Mick Rouse. Those were happy times. We were all doing what we loved and got paid for it!

When we worked on games for Philips we had about 3 months development to produce each one. Each of us had a different game to work on and we had to code everything from the graphics to the sound. Nowadays it takes many man years and a large team of people to produce a game.

How did you learn Videopac programming? Did Philips teach the GST Video team?

There was no formal teaching. Philips provided documentation on the Videopac processor, graphics and sound chips etc. and we taught ourselves.

Did GST Video have their own development systems or were they supplied by Philips?

So far as I remember, we used a Unix based system with a 8048 cross assembler/editor. The resulting hex code was downloaded into a RAM cartridge for testing on the development system.

I think the development system was made in-house by the hardware guys at GST. But it may have been lashed together by Mick. I think he had a hardware experience.

The known GST Video games for the Philips Videopac so far are Super Bee, Norseman, Blobbers, Interpol, Shark Hunter, Martian Threat and Night Fighter. Did GST develop more than those seven games for the Videopac system?

I don’t think so. But I joined after the first batch of games had been written. I don’t recall any other titles.

There is rumour that the Videopac game “Backgammon” was written by Mick Rouse. This game does not have the GST or “mic-ro” logo in it, but can you confirm that Mick wrote it?

I am sorry but I do not remember.

Can you recall how you got the initial idea for Shark Hunter?

I wanted to write a game for the younger player. It had to have excitement and a kind of story which made it meaningful. The film Jaws may have had an influence on deciding the enemies. A harpoon seemed a good idea for a weapon. I hadn’t seen one used before and it could be directed well onscreen. Most games were either abstract or based in Space. I wanted something more down to earth and understandable by a younger audience. I think I got the idea all of a sudden before falling asleep one night. I wrote down the game concept for the others to give their opinions. I remember that Jake told me that you didn’t spell ‘Ice Floe’ like ‘Ice Flow’ ! They all liked it, so I submitted the idea to Philips for approval.

Can you tell us something about the development of Shark Hunter? The procedure?

First I had to write up the game concept for approval by Philips. I had to include all the game features including storyline, control, graphics elements and scoring.

Philips approved the game and I started work. First the hunter animation and then the landscape and shark control. I had to send copies to Philips at various time intervals so they could check progress.<

After about 3 months the game was ready to take to Eindhoven. I spent a week there with my family (expenses paid) while the Philips games division played the game and requested any changes. I don’t think there were many, all of them minor.

Then I had an interview with the manager. He said they liked the game but they were no longer going to support the Videopac. They were only releasing one more game and unfortunately it would not be mine. I can’t remember which game it was. But presumably it had been taken to them during the same period.

On other team in England and one in Hungary were working on Videopac games for Parker. Did you have contact with those?

No. I don’t think we had any contact with other game developers.

The games Neutron Star (Videopac 55+) and Robot City (never released) show a logo with the initials “GT” in it. Mr. Fenton told me that this has nothing to do with GST Video. Do you have any idea who wrote those two games?

I have no idea. I am sure they had nothing to do with us.

In 1983 the successor of the G7000 hit the shelves, the G7400. It could display graphics in higher resolution. First Philips released some of the most successful Videopac games with high resolution background graphics for the G7400, which was only a cosmetical effect. But at the end of the Videopac lifespan, there was software that worked only on the G7400: Videopac 56+ Norseman, Videopac 59+ Helicopter Rescue, Videopac 60+ Trans American Rally and the C7420 Microsoft Basic Module. Can you recall when and how you heard from the G7400 for the first time?

I can’t remember. We stopped work on Videopac in 1984 and I left the games company around 1985/86.

It is interesting that a company in England developed games for a machine, that was not even released in that country (meaning Norseman for the G7400). Do you have any idea why Philips sold the G7400 on the continent but not in the UK?

I have no idea, but the Sinclair Spectrum was big in the UK around that time. Maybe they considered it too much competition.

Philips discontinued the Videopac system sometime in 1984 to move on to the MSX system. But before that, did you hear anything of a successor for the G7400? A Philips G7600 for example?

No. Maybe Mick and the others did. But I can’t remember.

Did Philips ever ask you to write games for the MSX system when they decided that this was in some kind the successor of the Videopac system?

No, not as far as I can remember. That would have been dealt with by Mick and Jeff.

What happend when Philips pulled the plug from the Videopac system?

When Philips decided to discontinue the Videopac system we had to decide what to do. We were all essentially out of a job, although we had an opportunity to move into other parts of the GST company. I think Mick persuaded Jeff to create an independent games company which would have to survive on it’s own without funding from Philips. We held a competion to choose a name. In the end it was decided to choose ‘Electric Software’ which was Jeff’s idea.

Business Card Graham Conduit Electric SoftwareWe had a graphics artist design the company logo but his ideas were things like lightbulbs and were too boring. So I think it was my idea to have an electric lightning flash over clouds. The clouds were the ‘soft’ part of software. That was the logo we eventually went with. The MSX system was thought to be the next major games system, so we decided to concentrate on that. None of us had experience on the system so we also decided to support the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum. We advertised for a spectrum programmer and a young guy named Paul Johnson joined the group.

We had to design some new games, but to start with we could use ‘Sharkhunter’ and ‘Buzz-Off’ based on ‘SuperBee’ because they were original concepts of mine and Mick Rouse respectively. I worked on ‘Buzz-Off” for the Commodore 64 and Paul Johnson worked on ‘Buzz-Off’ for the Spectrum. Jake started work on ‘Sharkhunter’ for MSX and Andy worked on a new concept of his called ‘The Wreck’ for MSX. Later we all worked on completing ‘Sharkhunter’ for the MSX. Also, Mick decided to produce and market my ‘Dambuster’ game for the Atari because I had recovered the copyright. I think we sold a few copies and a review appeared in Issue 10 of Page 6 magazine.

So Buzz-Off is a home computer conversion of the Videopac game Super Bee. Shark Hunter was also a former Videopac game. Was “The Wreck” originally designed for the home computers or is that another, yet unknown prototype for the Videopac system?

I think that ‘The Wreck’ was originally designed by Andy for the MSX. I remember watching in wonder as his jellyfish-like creatures meandered around the maze waving their tentacles.

Electric Software was a completely independent company?

Yes, as far as I know. We must have had some help financially by GST until we could stand on our own feet.

It is interesting that you were allowed to use the games that you wrote at GST for Philips in your own company then. Did you have to pay royalties to GST or Philips?

I have no idea. I think that GST must have retained the intellectual rights to the games because they were game concepts developed by us and not by Philips themselves.

Graham, what are you doing today?

Today I am working as a freelance software engineer.

I write embedded software for scientific instrumentation, mainly chromatographs. I also write PC based control programs for the same instruments.

I work part-time, which gives me a chance to pursue my hobbies such as astronomy and microscopy. I read a lot of popular science and try to keep up with developments.

Maybe now I will also replace the Xbox with a retro VideoPac. What do you think?

That would be a great idea! Anything else you want to say to the community?

The very best of luck with your endeavours, and it is great to think that these old games which were the forerunners of the modern computer game have a fan club like yours to keep them alive.

Many thanks for the interview, Graham!

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