The Spectrum Show

Dedicated to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum

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DIY Gaming

The ZX Spectrum, when launched in 1982, cost £99 for the basic 16k model, and £199 for the 48k machine. At these prices there were an expensive item, especially for something that just played games. Sinclair cleverly labelled the machine as a household tool that would let you calculate your finances, write letters and famously, help the kids with their homework.

The children of course, knew better, and to them is was a toy. A little black box that would let you play endless games of Space Invaders without having to put coins into someone else's pockets.

As responsible parents, games were often limited to birthdays or payday treats, unless of course you were financially well off or slightly older and had a job or good pocket money.

To fill in the gaps between games, magazines began printing simple listings that users could enter into their machines and save to tape. After a few hours, or in some cases, days of work, you had a brand new game to play.

Type-ins have many memories connected to them; random crashes and error codes being the most prominent. The quality of the print in the magazines often caused the most frustration, with zeroes looking like letter Os, and 6 and 8 sometimes merging into blobs of ink.

Some of the time these problems could be sorted out quickly; a quick re-read of the listing often picked them up, sometimes it was a matter of guess work. This act of de-bugging was the chrysalis of game development.

Once you had managed to get the game working there was always a desire to modify it. Put yourself as the author, change the title or the colour of the user defined graphics. Make the beeper do different things and for the more experimental of us, add or change the graphics.

Early listings not only included games, but often things like character set generators, screen effects and small business type programs. Which you chose to type in was down to your individual needs and once you got familiar with Sinclair's Keyword syntax, short listing were a breeze.

As early as 1982 there was a dedicated magazine that just contained listings, Sinclair Programs, and this was very popular.

Over time, listing began to incorporate small elements of machine code to spice up certain aspects of the game. These were usually sound effects or screen effects such as full screen inverse or pixel scrolling. Small machine code sections were not too bad to enter and some listings came with checksum verification. Because they were machine code though, if entered incorrectly they could have a catastrophic effect on your hard work. The computer could freeze or just reset because one digit was wrong. Constant saving was the key because the single time you didn't, the whole thing wold come crashing down.

Listings soon grew in size with some magazines, like Your Computer, offering full machine code games to type in. These were a mammoth effort to enter, often resulting in something that you had no chance of de-bugging. In BASIC you had at least a chance, in machine code it was very different.

To save the user this torment publishers produced four different alternatives; a covertape with the games on, a telephone download service, a television broadcast game or an electronic magazine with the games ready to play.

Your Computer had their own TeleSoft service around 1985, where a small listing was entered into your micro that allowed you to download games via a modem – if you had one. Several companies tried the television method with Channel 4 broadcasting games during the testcard for several computers. These could then be recorded onto your cassette recorder, ready to be loaded later.

The tape magazines are covered an episode of the show, and were a welcome change to hours of typing and un-expected crashes.

Back to the listings though, and once you had typed them in and modified a few games you felt you could actually write you own. Borrowing bits of code from the games you already had, it was immensely satisfying to see your first home grown graphics move across the screen.

The listings then changed function (pardon the pun) and instead of giving you free games, they were a library of routines that could be harvested for your own needs. A beeper effect here, screen scroll there, a keyboard reading section, hi-score table, everything was there if you looked.

For the more advanced user, and that didn’t include me, the next obvious step was the murky and exciting world of machine code. For those with a talent, they could pick up the basics in a few months and have their own game ready to sell. The bedroom programmer had been born.

There were no end of adverts in all of the popular magazines asking for games to be sent to companies, and many users did. The amount of money they made varied on the game, the company and the royalties. Some set up their own companies that continued on for years, some are still going today.

From the small BASIC listings in computer magazines grew a whole software industry that is worth more than the world of movies, and that provides jobs for thousands of people and games for millions of users.