An interview with Jeff Minter. INTERVIEW WITH JEFF 'YAK THE HAIRY' MINTER by Richard Kar

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An interview with Jeff Minter. INTERVIEW WITH JEFF 'YAK THE HAIRY' MINTER by Richard Karsmakers About one or two months ago, I wrote a letter to Jeff 'Yak the Hairy' Minter, creater of dozens of blast'em-up games for several machines, and writer of the ST program 'Colourspace'. He was surprised that a hack group like us did something constructive for a change, which he seemed to appreciate... RK: Let's get down to business right away. What's your occupation, and what's your date of birth? JM: My occupation is, I suppose, that of programmer, although I got a pretty casual approach to what I do; sure, I need to do a lot of commercial stuff to earn my bread, but I get the biggest buzz from doing experimental stuff. Some of the experimental stuff turns commercial if it gets good enough (the whole Psychedelia (A popular Commodore 64 light synthesizer, ED) and Colourspace series started out from a Sunday afternoon hack I did on my C64, for example). I'm 24 years old, be 25 this April 22nd. RK: Why did you switch to the Atari ST? When did you buy it? Do you still program on other computers as well? JM: I got the ST because I wanted to move on to a machine with more potential for my creative work than was afforded by the 8- bit micros. I was interested in the Amiga, but it was hellish expensive and hard to get (still is hellish expensive!), and my first contact with ST came when Atari asked me if they could use 8-bit Colourspace as a demo in Hannover '85 show. I went along, and saw the ST, and fell in love with the system: I really wanted to get Colourspace on the ST! I liked Atari's approach to the 16 bit market with the ST: the computer wasn't too expensive, had great graphics and plenty of RAM, and was cheap, so real people could afford to have it. Pity the sound chip was so naff though. Anyway, I ordered the ST, got it in May that year but couldn't do any work on 'Space cos I only had a mono monitor! I eventually got the ST running with a Philips monitor, and ran my first ST Colourspace demo (only one week's work!) at the PCW '85 show in London. I also program for the Commodore 64, Commodore 16 occasionally, have done work on the Atari 8 bits too. RK: Which of the computers you're working on do you consider to be best? What is your opinion about the ST<->Amiga syndrome, and the Amiga in general? JM: Of the computers I work on, the ST is the best. True, the Amiga is more powerful, but the price here in England means that not many people can afford one, and also the system isn't 'solid' yet, what with stuff written under Kickstart 1.1 not running under 1.2, the poor software developers have a really hard time. HDs are very expensive for Amiga too, 'coz you got to buy the SCSI interface to get decent speed, and even then they're not as fast as on the ST. I use my ST for all my word processing and stuff, messing with graphics and mathematical art (thereby teaching myself all the math I forgot since leaving college) and of course my 'Space work. As for the old ST-vs-Amiga argument, I still prefer the ST although it isn't as powerful in some ways as the Amiga. Amiga's too expensive to justify the slight advantage it has over the ST; there's plenty happening for the ST and lots of useful stuff to hang on it, all available now, and all compatible with the current release of the machine. My ST has two floppies, one half meg and one one meg, a HD20, graphics tablet, video digitiser and sound sampler, and gets used 14 hours a day most days when I'm not working on the C64; my Amiga tends to gather dust and is only fired up for the odd game of Marble Madness or Mindwalker, and most annoyingly, the drives have gone out of alignment, meaning that DF0: cannot read files from DF1: and vice versa. A real downer. DPaint is good on the Amiga though; I hope they port it over to the ST soon. RK: When did you start programming 'Colourspace'? Which assembler did you use to program it? JM: I started writing Colourspace in August '85. It was finished by January '86. I started out using the 68000 assembler in the Atari development Kit, but soon moved over to using K-SEKA, which doesn't have many fancy features, but runs like the wind on account of being totally RAM based. A lot of the coding of 'Space I is a bit raw, as it was my first ever 68000 program, and also Atari's documentation was a bit heavy! All the good bits were well hidden in tons of other stuff! Atari UK were helpful when I had machine crashes or whatever, they'd fix me up pretty quick, but for programming advice, not so hot, 'coz they all worked in C and didn't know a lot about assembler programming. RK: What may we expect from you in the near future, software I mean? JM: I would like to write arcade games for the ST, and I doubtless will as soon as I finish with Colourspace. I particularly like the idea of transferring Ancipital to the ST with better graphix and extended gameplay, so that may well be my first game project for ST. My next ST release will be Colourspace II. I have done some work on this already, but now I'm doing some Commodore work to earn some bread, before devoting say 6 or 7 months to doing nothing but 'Space II on the ST. I have currently got as far as 'Space v1.3, which has extra stuff like: denser starfields, new pattern mode using lines instead of just pixels, screen re-mapping allowing you to do Colourspace on the surfaces of a cube, or on the surface of a sphere (or indeed upon the surfaces of several concentric spheres); also, the ability to drive Colourspace using a graphics tablet, thereby allowing you to get rid of the little white dot that you need with a mouse to position yourself on screen. For Space II I hope to add: a video-sequencer (allowing you to load lots of frames in and run them as an animation); macro-commands so that any key can be assigned any function rather than just having pre-defined functions; faster plot-routines; proper menu-screens for the options instead of having to remember silly sequences like UNDO-M-A and stuff; proper file handling on load and save functions; generally improve the user interface and add more options. I have no firm release dates yet although I guess summer/autumn '87 is a good guess (I'm tied up 'till April with my Commodore work). RK: What do you think of ST NEWS and our Synth Sample III (we sent these programs to him together with the interview, ED)? JM: ST NEWS is a great idea. The screen colours are too dark though - could hardly read it on my SC1224! Perhaps a 'change screen colours' option? I liked the menu presentation, though, made the newsletter easy to browse through, and the articles were interesting and pretty well written. Some 'active' demos would be nice, if not in the newsletter proper then elsewhere on the disk. Although I understand that there'll be stuff like that when you get your problems with GFA-Basic sorted. The Synth Sample was good, although there was the odd bum note in there! Of course I missed hearing the stuff properly, 'coz my MIDI synth just blew up and I haven't had it fixed yet. All good work though - anything that shows off the ST is well worth the effort, keep it up! RK: I suppose you must have run into some strange problems when you were programming on the ST. Can you tell our readers something about that? JM: I found that when I was learning my way around the ST, my main problem wasn't that the information provided by Atari wasn't correct, just that it was buried in huge amounts of other not-so- relevant stuff. My docs pack from Atari consisted of a huge box of photocopied, un-bound sheets roughly sorted into vague categories. What was needed was a good book for the beginning ST-68000- programmer with all the juicy bits like file access, reading the keyboard and mouse, accessing the sound chip, and understanding the screen-mapping of the ST, and useful appendixes full of stuff like key code tables, detailed memory-maps, and stuff we all need at times like Neo-file structure explanations and the like. Perhaps if all the programmers you knew worked together we could build up a library of disks of documentation on this sort of stuff, written by those people who have already learned about these things and explaining them for new programmers who are still learning. So you could send off for the PD documentation disk about, say, using the graphics-tablet in an ST application, and get a disk full of info and examples back. Would save a lot of hunting through those piles of photocopied sheets! RK: Are any other more or less famous British programmer's switching to the ST? JM: Tony Crowther (He is the auhtor of many very nice games on the Commodore 64, like Loco, Suicide Express, Monty Mole and William Wobbler, ED) has fallen heavily for the Amiga, and plans to code for that machine. I think he's attracted by the graphics and sound, being as he's a fine artist and loves DPaintII, and his best mate's a musician and loves the Amiga sound chips (I think Mr. Minter refers to one of the very best sound programmers on the Commodore 64 here, Ben Dalglish). There's a lot of ST interest here in the UK though; lots of the old 8-bit software houses are turning to the ST and people like Paul Shirley (author of "Spindizzy") are converting stuff for ST. I've all but convinced Andy Braybrook that he ought to get an ST too (Andy is the guy that programmed Paradroid for the Commodore 64, ED). RK: Since I've heard that you love playing games, even your own, I would like to know which games for the ST you consider best. JM: Best game... to play, probably Time Bandits. Technically, probably Star Glider. Jez has done some great 3-D stuff there, and the game's a blast too. RK: What do you consider to be the best game on any computer? JM: The best game in any computer? Has to be Star Raider for the 8-bit Ataris. In terms of depth of gameplay vs. memory used (only 8K of ROM!) nothing else comes anywhere near. 'Raider on the ST is great graphically, but the gameplay is a bit easy (I shouldn't be able to get Star Commander Class One for a moderately-good Warrior Mission!) and is spoiled (like many ST games!!) by the fact that the joystick interferes with keyboard commands, meaning that you can be in the thick of a heavy battle when a spurious 'shield off' command gets issued and you get blasted! (This is also a pain in Time Bandit: I've been playing for over an hour only to have a spurious 'quit' command end my game). The solution: ensure that all keyboard commands in joystick-operated games require another key pressing as well, i.e. Shift-Q for a QUIT command rather than Q alone. RK: Software piracy in known to be quite growing on the ST just as it has on popular home micros like the Commodore 64. What do you think of it? JM: I have mixed feelings about piracy. I appreciate that cracking games is a fine way to learn about programming, but it's a pain when you've just spent five months programming a game to see it getting ripped off all over the place. Maybe the big companies can afford it, but I'm just one guy trying to earn my living, and especially where the ST is concerned I need to be able to sell all the legitimate copies I can. There aren't that many ST owners around yet compared to Commodore folks, and if half the ST owners get cracked software for free, it makes it difficult to justify the large amounts of time it takes to develop stuff on the ST! Mind you, I don't really like having to protect software at all, because I feel uncomfortable if I only got one disk of something I use a lot, and besides, I like to have stuff on my HD20! I think a lot of the solution could be to do stuff that isn't protected but which requires a good manual to use properly. That way, if you pick up a pirated copy, you get to have a look at the software, and if you want to use it to its full potential, you get an original and all the info with it, plus the possibility of stuff like software updates to better versions. I think a lot of the answer to the piracy problem lies in the hands of the software houses themselves. Tougher disk-protection ain't the way. No matter what you put on a disk, sure as llamas got fluffy little tails, some other sucker's gonna deprotect that disk within a couple of weeks of launch. As for the hackers themselves, I got nothing against them, they usually laser-sharp coders and know their subject machines inside out- only please remember guys, we aren't all huge companies like USGold who can maybe afford to lose some sales here and there, a lot of programmers are guys just like you working on their own trying to do good work and maybe earn some cash too! Yours zoophilically -- Y a K


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