Interview mit Richard Löwenstein
|Interview mit||Richard Löwenstein|
|Bekannt als|| Spieleprogrammierer und Redakteur beim|
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Richard Löwenstein. I was born in the city of Munich in Bavaria, Germany in 1970 and now live in Landsberg, about 60 km outside Munich. I developed a few games on the C64 in the 1980s and then progressed to working for some gaming magazines and gaming websites.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
It must have been 1983 when I encountered my first home computer, a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. Using TI Extended Basic, a dialect of Basic specifically for the TI-99/4A, I taught myself how to push sprites across the screen and arrange them in such a way that you could shoot them. That's how I did my first Centipede clone. A year later, I saw a Commodore 64 running in a consumer electronics store in central Munich; someone was playing the Synapse game Zaxxon on it. It was a real eye-opener for me, and I decided I had to have one.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
I was still at school when I first started developing games, so I was just doing it in my spare time. Initially, I developed a few smaller games just for my own pleasure, just to see if I could do a game comparable to the Gremlin game Bounder, for instance. That's how Let's Bounce came about. It mostly worked out, but I was aware that the quality was not good enough to justify a fully commercial release, so I approached Markt+Technik, the publishing house which at the time published the two biggest magazines in Germany for the C64 and home computing generally, namely 64er and Happy Computer, and between 1986 and 1990, I made their "Listing des Monats" (monthly recommendation) four times, which is kind of neat, since only one title per issue got that honour. As my skills developed, I embarked on bigger releases. My platform game Twinky Goes Hiking from 1986 was an attempt to see if I could get multicolour scrolling to work on a split screen. I sent the game to a few British companies, including Ocean and Elite, though it was Firebird who responded first and ultimately published the game. Later on, I was approached by the German company Magic Bytes who were looking for a developer to convert the Amiga game Persian Gulf Inferno to the C64, and I was happy to oblige.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
Yes, I think it was. Technically, the C64 was and still is an awesome machine to work with. Not only did it feature sprites, which was unusual on home computers at that time, but the sprites were actually big enough to use in games, unlike the Amiga. This, and the built-in capability to create smooth full-screen movements by manipulating the soft-scrolling registers, made it a great machine to develop on. The processor was rather slow, but easy to understand. It was still a steep learning curve, though, because you had to learn machine code, and you really had to count processor cycles in order to avoid flickering graphics.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them, such as what it was like to work on each game, any sketches you did, what programs you used, fun anecdotes from creating the game, what the people were like to work with on the various games, the timeframes, any problems or headaches, etc.).
I worked on a few games in the 1980s. The most notable of these were probably Let's Bounce, Twinky Goes Hiking and Persian Gulf Inferno. Let's Bounce was my first commercial game for the Commodore 64. It's kind of a clone of Bounder. I developed it mainly to see if I could do it. It was developed using the built-in Basic language to control the game structure, and machine code to control parallax scrolling. The goal was to have a very small game, since I planned to send it to a magazine in the hope that it would get published as a type-in "Listing". In the event, it was not only accepted but also made "Listing des Monats" in the leading German magazine Happy Computer, which was kind of an honour, as it meant they thought it was the best self-programmed code they had received that month. Excellent!
The second game, Twinky Goes Hiking, was published in 1986. I'm not sure how long I worked on it, but it was about a year. I developed it using a machine code monitor whose name I've now forgotten. The graphics were drawn on paper and then translated pixel by pixel into a load of bytes by typing in hexadecimal codes. Pretty tedious, I can tell you, but not unusual at that time. My aim was to produce a game of genuinely commercial quality, and I think I kind of succeeded. Once the game was almost finished, I sent it off, mainly to British games companies like Ocean, Firebird, Gremlin, Elite and so on. Bearing in mind, I was 15 at the time and the Internet was still some years away, so I knew basically nothing about the companies. I felt like a dwarf approaching these giants of the industry and didn't really expect to get an answer, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Actually, to their credit, every company replied. They didn't all like it enough to release the game, but everyone sent back at least a short letter. The best rejection, as it were, came from Elite Systems. They sent back a review sheet fully explaining what they did and did not like about the game. In the end, I sold the game to Firebird Software and got a very reasonable amount of money in return, much more than indie studios usually get paid for mobile games nowadays. Fun fact: the cover artwork and loading screen were drawn by the English artist Stephen Robertson. He did a lot of work for Firebird, including Monty on the Run, Koronis Rift and The Sacred Armour of Antiriad. I never met him until only a few years ago. He had left some chat on a retro forum about his work in the old days of the C64, and how much he hated Twinky Goes Hiking. I suppose he didn't like the difficulty curve, which I can fully understand. We got in touch and had a very nice chat.
The third game I'd like to mention here, Persian Gulf Inferno, was my very first piece of contracted work. I was approached by the German company Magic Bytes, who were looking for someone to convert the original Amiga game to the Commodore 64, so that's how I came on board there. I can't quite remember what tools I used to develop the game, but it was interesting trying to squeeze a rather large 512 kB Amiga game into the much smaller memory of the C64. As with all my other games, I did most of the work myself. For this one, I received game designs, scripts, maps and original artwork from the developers, a Scandinavian team called Parsec. It was immediately evident that I had to overcome some technical obstacles. I wanted to keep as much of the visual quality of the original as possible, so one of my aims was a four-way scrolling of the full screen. By scrolling the colour maps, I was able to use a rather unusual technique in order to mix multicolour and hires pixels in one screen. This delivers a lot of detail in highly colourful scenarios. Unfortunately, just as the conversion was almost finished in 1989, Magic Bytes and the Scandinavian developer Parsec went their separate ways. I got caught up in some of legal wrangling, mainly because Magic Bytes didn't want to pay Parsec for the work they'd done on it. I'm not sure how it all ended, though. Fun fact about this one: we had to change the title of the game to "North Sea Inferno" for the German market. The original game was banned for containing too much violence, though the game itself remained completely the same and happily continued to sell.
I also did some other games, including Top Cross and Quadranoid. For more details about these, may I invite your readers to visit my online compendium and blog about the old days? It's in German, but I hear Google Translator does a decent enough job nowadays. :-) The link for the compendium is www.richard-loewenstein.de/spielwerk and for the blog is www.richard-loewenstein.de/category/retrowerk.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I worked for Magic Bytes, Ariolasoft, Computec and Firebird Software as a freelance game developer. I did everything from game design to coding and graphics. Music was provided in the case of Persian Gulf Inferno.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
Good question. I can't remember the specific names of my tools, to be honest, though I do remember I developed graphics by drawing pixels onto square-ruled graph paper and then somehow inputting them into the C64 memory by means of lots of data statements in Commodore Basic. Later on, I also used some kind of machine monitor and assembler package on my Commodore 64, but never the cross-compiler or comparable high-end stuff.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
On the Amiga, certainly, but not on the C64.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
I think I'm probably most proud of Twinky Goes Hiking. It was one of the first ever endless-runner-type games, and its split screen feature was pretty neat in 1986. It was difficult to develop, though. In particular, it was quite hard to get the timing right on all the raster interrupts, in order to achieve smooth scrolling and sprite multiplexing on two independent screen areas.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I'd most certainly lower the difficulty curve on most of my games, they were way too hard! But I don’t think I'd remove anything, I'm fairly happy with how all my games turned out, given the time and resources that were available at the time I developed them. It would be interesting, though, to see what a conversion of Persian Gulf Inferno would look like if I had the time to remake it. Today, I would have much better tools and much more knowledge of the C64 hardware, compared to the late 1980s, so that ought to translate into a much better game.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I wish I could have achieved what the guys behind the C64 conversion of Terra Cresta managed, that was just a terrific conversion in absolutely every aspect. Thumbs up!
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Oh yes, very much so. Too many to name here, in fact, though I loved Summer Games, Fort Apocalypse, Zeppelin, Stunt Car Racer, among many others.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
Well, in the 1980s, there were a ton of games out there which were pretty bad, but I preferred – and still prefer – to concentrate on the great games. Back in the 1980s, I found it very fulfilling to analyse how a great game worked technically. I should also have analysed their gameplay, but I didn't, which probably explains why some of my games were not as playable as they could have been. One of the great C64 development achievements which I really adore is the Turrican series, including the relatively recent Turrican 3 release. I could also mention Rescue on Fractalus! and California Games here.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
I liked Rob Hubbard's work. I always had the music from Commando on in the background while I was doing homework or developing games. There were of course also some coders who inspired me, such as Stavros Fasoulas and Steve Hales, to name just a couple. I also liked Jeff Minter's work for its, um, special touch.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
The only other home computers I worked on, in the Stone Age of computer gaming, were the TI-99/4A and a couple of Amigas, but I have no big game releases to show on those, I'm afraid. :-)
What are you up to these days?
I'm still working in the games industry, developing games for mobile systems and reviewing games for T-Online Spiele, which is one of the larger websites for the German market. Away from that, I like spending time with my family, reading, driving my car or relaxing in front of some contemporary console games.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know. You're welcome, and thanks for taking the time!
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