Michael Batty Interview

Back in the days when I ran a Fanzine called Desert Island Disks I was so lucky to be able to interview Earth Shaker author Michael Batty. The interview was printed in the December 1999 issue. For those who missed the BEST Spectrum fanzine ever (you wish, Ed.), read it all here:

Michael Batty - Interviewed by Michael Bruhn

Remember him? He's the guy who gave us that terrific cover tape game Earth Shaker. Probably one of the best cover tape games ever released for the Spectrum. I took the opportunity to interview Michael when he contacted me about my Type-In section on the Desert Island Disks homepage. Enjoy.

How old are you?
29 - born 17.9.1970

What are you up to these days?
Trying to get a permanent job as a lecturer in a British University. Recently I've been lecturing mathematics on a temporary basis at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

When did you get your first computer?
My brother, David, got a spectrum in 1983 when he was 11. He had more vision than me even then. But I got just as hooked as him. I got one the following year to stop the fighting.

What did you use it for in the beginning, playing games?
Yes - but I also started programming immediately. Among the first games we had were Spectral Panic, Kong (Ocean), Deathchase, Ground Attack and Manic Miner.

What is your favourite Spectrum game of all time?
I played Chuckie Egg by A 'n' F more than anything else. I think level 47 was as far as I got. The playability of this game is as good as it gets - after a while you can be very agile about bouncing around the screen and grabbing onto ladders. Other favourites have to be Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Boulder Dash and Knight Lore. And Jetpac. And Sabre Wulf. And Dynamite Dan and Quazatron and Arkanoid and ...

Level 47? Believe it or not I've only managed to get to level 8. I absolutely love the game, but I'm probably the worst Chuckie Egg player in the world. Which Spectrum games are you really crap at?
Ones where I can't work out what the hell you're supposed to do, or haven't got the patience to work it out. E.g. Lords of Midnight, Zoids, Fat Worm Blows a Sparky ...

When did you start to learn programming?
I learnt BASIC straight away - aged 13. I couldn't put that orange manual down. Then I started on machine code about a year later.

What was the first program you made called, and what was it all about?
It was a sexy little number called "Doe a Deer" which beeped the tune and printed the words line by line. Missing in action now, unfortunately. Has anybody got a copy?

Your breakthrough came with the excellent cover tape game Earth Shaker, why did you make a Boulder Dash clone?
I started Earth Shaker about 4 years before it appeared in Your Sinclair. A Boulder Dash clone seemed like a reasonably easy thing to program. I thought Boulder Dash was great and played it for ages. I'm still fascinated by the way you can get such complicated behaviour and realistic avalanches by using a few simple rules. Earth Shaker just grew - I kept leaving it and going back to it. But it was the first machine code game I managed to actually finish. I didn't even have an assembler back then and, ridiculous though it sounds, poked the whole thing in gradually from BASIC! It started life as "Rockfall", didn't scroll, and had graphics one character large. The name changed when wew did C. Day Levis's poem "The Magic Mountain" in english literature at school:

"Let us now praise famous men,
Not your earth-shakers, not the dynamiters,
But who in the Home Counties of the Khyber,
Trimming their nails to meet an ill wind,
Facing the Adversary with a clean collar,
Justified the system."

See - those lessons must have been some use!

Did you try to get Earth Shaker released by a software company before you sent it to Your Sinclair?
Yes - Zeppelin were the first I tried. They offered me a job on the basis of seeing Earth Shaker, but were reluctant to publish it because at the time I think First Star were trying to sue people who were making Boulder Dash clones. Then I tried Mastertronic, who didn't reply. CDS said they "didn't feel it was suitable for inclusion in their CDS/Blue Ribbon range". Alternative were next. They went bankrupt or something. Then Atlantis, who came up with the best excuse yet - that they couldn't get it to load. I can't remember whether or not I sent them another copy. There didn't seem much point as the first one had worked perfectly.

Why did you send it to Your Sinclair?
Because I couldn't think of any more software companies. Also I was studying for a maths degree at Edinburgh at the time and fancied earning a bit of quick beer money. I could also rationalise the decision by saying that a game gets a very wide audience if it is published as a cover tape. I spent a LOT of time on Earth Shaker and thought it would be nice if a few people got to actually play it. When someone found a poke for infinite lives I was convinced this was the case!

How much cash did YS pay you for Earth Shaker?
£100 and my soul was theirs. I think I even had to bargain with them to get that. Do you know that they had put it in the "crap games corner" a couple of months before? I was pissed off about this and wrote a letter of complaint, but at least the editor phoned me up, apologised, and offered to put it on the cover.

Your next game was Full Throttle 2. Why Zeppelin?
Zeppelin games was based at Houghton-le-Spring, which is a few miles away from Chester-le-Street in County Durham, England, where I'm from. So it made sense to work for them as I used to stay with my parents during the university holidays, when I did my programming. I answered an advert in a magazine (Your Sinclair probably) which was recruiting new programmers, and thought they were a nice crowd of people when I met them.

How did it end up being called Full Throttle 2, was it Derek Brewster's idea?
The original game was by Mervyn Estcourt, not Derek Brewster. Zeppelin had bought the copyright to Estcourt's games so were at liberty to call a game "Full Throttle 2". I worked out where Full Throttle's offset tables were by listening to it load (sad or what) and pinched them. Zeppelin had gave me a half-finished version to complete that someone else had started. I hate doing that so I dirched it and started from scratch. The same was true for TCT. Regrettably I didn't keep copies of these scrapped versions.

Is it just me or don't you think that FT2 is way too hard?
It probably is. The trouble is when you write a game you inadvertently get very good at it when you're constantly play-testing it. It's a good idea to get someone independent to do this. I only had 10 weeks to write it. Believe it or not, when it was almost finished I did take Zeppelin's advice to make it easier. If you take the corners at the right speed you shouldn't crash into too many other bikes. FT2 clearly wasn't as good as Full Throttle, though, just had better sound and graphics. Estcourt had the playability exactly right, which is what really counts.

T'ai Chi Tortoise, your next game got some great reviews. So you think it was the best game you have made?
I prefer Earth Shaker myself, but I was still pleased with TCT. I was more organised about it as it was a tall order to do in ten weeks. Eventually it took 13 weeks. It's far too hard and I don't think I've ever completed it without infinite lives.

Did you come up with that rescue the cheese plot for T'ai Chi Tortoise yourself?
No - Zeppelin were to blame for that one, but I liked it and decided to take it in and bring it up as my own. It was suitably surreal and ironic for such a daft game title.

How well did your 2 commercially released games sell? Were they satisfied at Zeppelin?
Royalties statements were sometimes vague and I'm not sure how good the distribution was. To be honest I was too lazy to bother finding out. I don't think I'll ever make much of a capitalist. Zeppelin were pleased with my work, unless they were lying.

How come none of your games were reviewed in Sinclair User?
I'm not sure really. Good question. Was Sinclair User still around then?

Yes, they went on until 1992. Maybe they didn't review your games because you sent Earth Shaker to Your Sinclair. Could that be?
I doubt if it was any petulence on their part. More likely that Zeppelin never sent them any copies to review in the first place. As far as I could tell, magazines depended on software companies to provide tapes of new games (unless they were Ultimate or something).

Did you start on another game after T'ai Chi Tortoise, that was meant to be released by Zeppelin for the Spectrum?
No I didn't. At some point they wanted me to make a tennis simulation, but I think that was before T'ai Chi Tortoise. I was going to try and make it with 3D parallax scrolling. It was probably meant to be released in time for Wimbledon. I didn't have time to do it as mathematical physics and statistics were clamouring for my time.

Well, you told me about your idea to make Earth Shaker 2, what's the story?
This is like people plugging their books on chat shows ... I've been "thinking about it" for 10 years. So don't hold your breath! I have got some good ideas for it. It's going to have a lot more types of objects. It will be called "World Snooker" and the bubbles will be replaced by spinning planet earths which can bump into each other like snooker balls. I'd also like it to feature magnets, water, ice, bombs and much, much more. In fact it would be nice if you could design your own laws of physics. I'll stop there before it sounds too much like "Bandersnatch" or "Zombie Flesh-eating Chickens from Mars".

What music do you like?
Funky seventies disco music. The Beatles, esp. John Lennon. Oasis. Mozart.

Any favourite movies?
Er ... "Clockwise" with John Cleese? Very British humour. I never go to the cinema so it depends what's on the telly. I also like Monty Python and Blake's 7. Why didn't anyone write a spectrum adventure about Blake's 7?

Favourite food?

Favourite sport?
Only pub games like pool and darts. I also like snooker but I'm crap and never improve.

Favourite football team?
I'm not really into football that much. But Newcastle if I have to say anything.


If you like to see scans of the pages of that interview in Desert Island Disks, you can do that on WOS. Page 1, Page 2 & Page 3

You can also visit David Pegg's Earth Shaker Dedication Site. The interview is also hidden somewhere on that page :)

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