Interview with Manuel Caballero - creator of Imhotep by Ultimate Play the Game

 

Manuel Caballero

Creator of the C64 title Imhotep (1/3)

Way back in September 2001, Manuel Caballero got in touch with me to say that he'd seen the site, and wanted to help me piece together a bit more of the background of one title that he in particular knew quite a bit about - after all, he'd written the game that was released as 'Imhotep'.

Delighted, and intrigued, I got back in touch with Manuel and over the following few weeks a bit more of the story became apparent. He kindly sent me a copy of the C64 title Imhotep, as well as some pictures that date back to his time as an 8-bit programmer. Finally (regular visitors know how crap I am at getting around to doing anything), we agreed to do a sort-of 'interview', via email.

This took place during a few exchanges in November and December 2001, and then predictably it took me a few weeks (okay, months) to get around to typing everything up and getting Manuel's final approval.
So, here it is, at long last. Enjoy!

Rob, April 2002

In The Beginning

Rob: Hi Manuel, thanks for taking the time and trouble to do this interview. I guess the first question must be; how did you get into writing games in the first place?

Manuel: My interest in computers started in the seventies. My first computer was the Compukit UK101, a machine that started out my long relationship with the 6502 processor. I really wanted a Commodore Pet, but it was way more than I could afford, so I built the UK101 from a kit. I learnt 6502 assembler on the UK101 (I didn't have an assembler though, I learnt to assemble the code into hex bytes manually).

My first attempts at computer games were the predictable ones of space invader and lunar lander genres that was all the rage at the time. A few years later, I moved on to the Atari 400, a machine I felt was way ahead of its time. I soon got to know the Atari hardware in detail. I had decided to make use of the Atari's fantastic scrolling capabilities and decided on a scramble morphed with a lunar lander/mining genre. The result was my first game, which I had named HyperTrek.


(Firefleet)
I was amazed with the interest the game attracted and I contracted the game to the English Software Company.
They renamed the game to Firefleet.
 
The game sold reasonably well and for quite a long period of time.

(click for larger image)

During that time, I wrote a second game, Batty Builders. It was loosely based on the arcade game 'Portman' and English Software decided to market it as a constructive, non-violent game which was quite successful as the market was entirely dominated by shoot 'em ups at the time. Despite being only 3k of code, Batty Builders went on to be my most successful game.

By this time, I had bought a Commodore 64 and had reviewed a couple of the leading games at the time to try and get some ideas. I also got to know the hardware well and found it an easy transition from the Atari. The Atari platform had begun to wane at this time with the onslaught of the Spectrum and the Commodore 64, so I set about work on my third game, Imhotep. This was a monster project compared to the others and it used every inch of the C64 hardware. That was my aim - I'd originally started the project as a demo to get to know the hardware, but I found the transition so easy, I developed it into a full game. Whereas the two Atari games had taken a few months work part time, Imhotep took a full ten months full time during the year out I had between college and university.

Once complete, I sent the game to the leading software houses of the time, including the now legendary Ultimate Play the Game.

(screenshots from Batty Builders)

Rob: Cool. So you were an Atari programmer to begin with. When, and why, did you start working on the C64?

Manuel: In 1984 I recognised the Commodore 64 and the Spectrum were fast overtaking the Atari platform. Having an established 6502 background, the C64 was a far more attractive proposition to me that the Speccy. Even though the Speccy was fantastically popular at the time, it simply never appealed to me.

The hardware of the C64 was generations ahead (especially the sound). In parallel with my evaluation of the C64, I also evaluated the Amiga and Atari ST platforms that went into production shortly afterwards. However, despite excellent technical platforms with the 400/800, the ST always seemed a transitional product that found its niche in music applications rather than games. I couldn't believe that Atari would launch a machine with absolutely no hardware-assisted graphics!

By this time, games projects were getting to the size where a solo effort was barely feasible so I stuck with the C64.

Creating Imhotep

Rob: So, you started writing code on the C64. Where did Imhotep come in?

Manuel: Imhotep was written in 1984 during a year out I took between college and university. The Egyptian theme came about after I researched a possible game plan for months. In those days, certainly in my experience, games were very much influenced by the specific abilities of the hardware. Imhotep was no exception to this. Imhotep makes extensive use of parallax scrolling and multi-instance sprites.

Rob: 3 months, 10 months - wow. Still a far cry from the 2year+ development cycles of today! So how did Ultimate get involved in the project?

Manuel: I was pretty pleased with the results of the Imhotep project, so I thought I had little to lose by aiming high. I sent a copy of the game to the leading C64 outfits at the time, including Ultimate (although they were obviously a primarily Speccy house at the time, but what the hell?). I didn't rate my chances of getting a result with Ultimate very highly. I had a few leads with some of the other companies, but they either presented me with outrageous contracts or the companies looked decidedly shaky when I visited them.

Meeting Tim Stamper

After a while, I was getting ready to send out some more copies when I had a phone call to tell me someone would be picking me up tomorrow to take me to see Mr Tim Stamper of Ashby Computers & Graphics.

Bang on time the next day, a Merc pulled up outside my parent's house in Kent. The driver said he was from Ashby Computers & Graphics, and he was to take me to the home of Mr Tim Stamper to discuss Imhotep.

Rob: You lucky bastard!

Manuel: As it's 18 years ago, I can't remember who the driver was. I'd love to find out. If someone at Rare could help me with that, I'd love to know!

Anyway, I was whisked up to what I remember as being a huge country residence outside Ashby de la Zouch. When we arrived, I was introduced to Tim Stamper and his wife. It's a long time ago, but it's a day I won't forget.

Tim must have been about the same age as me at the time (18-19). But there were Porsches, Land Rovers and Mercs on the drive. That evening, Tim took me for a spin around the countryside in his 911 ! I wish I'd taken a camera that day.

Tim was keen that Imhotep be marketed as soon as possible. He seemed genuinely impressed by the quality of the game production. I can't actually remember whether I stayed over or it was just a very long day, but Tim had already started on the artwork for the packaging and promotional posters.

Tim asked me to generate a story for the game, the result of which can be found in the inner cover of the cassette package. It's hopelessly inaccurate historically, but time was of the essence!

Rob: (interrupts) Hmmm. You know I'd kill for scans... :-)

Manuel: Somewhere, I must still have those posters. Tim sent me a large package of promotional material, including several copies of the game, one of which you have now. I will try and dig out more of the items, including T-shirts, baseball caps and jackets. They are likely to be in my parent's home in Spain. They never throw anything out!

Releasing Imhotep

Manuel: The launch of Imhotep was pretty impressive. There were full page ads in all the mags at the time and I went up to the mastering plant at Telford with Tim to see the first production run being made.
 
Imhotep received good reviews. Unfortunately, I can't find the clippings I'd kept.

Rob: What did you write the game with? Presumably you were using assembler - were you developing directly on the C64 or did you have another machine to cross-develop on? Were you disk based?

Manuel: Yes, I developed directly on a standard C64 using an assembler slot-in cartridge so that the entire RAM was available to the game. Imhotep uses pretty much every byte of RAM on the machine. I got a disk drive soon after I had decided that the demo was evolving into a commercially viable game. I really went to town using every feature of the C64 I could get to work. Some levels have over 40 sprites on the screen at once.

Rob: It sounds like you developed quite a fondness for the C64.

Manuel: The C64 was a fantastic platform and most of the concepts I had learnt from the Atari were directly applicable (i.e. display lists, sprites) In fact, I liked the sound chip so much, I bought eight of the 'SID chips' and hooked them up to a 6502 processor and made a complete music synthesiser with it complete with a MIDI port. It was very advanced for its day and it's a shame I never recorded any music from it. Ironically, the 'SID chip' has become infamous in the music industry now. A couple of companies have released incredibly expensive sound modules based on these chips.

Rob: You mentioned the artwork. Did Tim change any of the in-game artwork? Did Ultimate ask you to change much of the game itself?

Manuel: Surprisingly, no. As far as I recall, not a single change was made other than to add copyright notices. I was really chuffed with that.

Life After Imhotep

Rob: Okay. So after Imhotep, did you start working on another C64 game for Ultimate?

Manuel: Tim was keen that I became a Speccy developer. He was of the opinion that the Speccy still had mileage in it at that late stage. I wasn't so convinced myself. He sent me a full development kit, but I just couldn't find any appeal in the platform. It was like stepping back two generations in computer hardware for me. Also, I had reached the pinnacle of 6502 competence and time constraints precluded starting from scratch with a new processor and a platform that was definitely past its heyday. I didn't even install the development system Tim sent me.

I did work on other game concepts for Tim's consideration, but by this time, things were evidently undergoing change at Ultimate. As I wasn't a staff programmer, I didn't get much information on what was going on at Ultimate and I gradually heard less and less from Tim.

Rob: That's a shame. So you sort of drifted apart?

Manuel: That's right. Unlike my previous developments where I stayed in close contact with the company throughout the lifecycle of the game, that didn't happen with Imhotep. Imhotep had a relatively short shelf life and I didn't really find out what happened to Ultimate until 17 years later when I came across this site. By the time Imhotep an Ultimate were sliding into history, I was off to university, thus I made little effort to find out what was going on. I completed the port of Batty Builders to the C64, but I didn't release the completed product.

After all these years, I'd still like to meet up with Tim. I'm not sure that will ever happen though. If it does, I will make sure I take the camera this time!

 

The Present Days

Rob: So what are you up to now?

Manuel: Predictably enough, I'm a software engineer now. I develop software in C++ for digital television applications. All interesting stuff, but every now and then I do pine for the biz. I have considered going back into the biz, but obviously it's a very different proposition now to what it was back in the 8 bit days.
The games now are major projects involving man-decades of effort; a solo effort is all but out of the question. One of the main excitements of the 8-bit days was the reality of a solo effort: game design, graphic design, coding, test and production all in a few months.

(click for larger image)

Rob: I'm a straight programmer by day myself, and I can earn much more writing corporate stuff than I suspect I ever could working for a games team. Having said that, I don't for a moment imagine I have the necessary talent anyway! Plus, at my age I'm probably too old to get into the industry at that level; any whizz-kid days I might have had have long since passed! Still, I like to kid myself that one day I'll have paid off all my bills and debts; I'd love to work in the industry because I have a genuine, real enthusiasm for it.

Manuel: I'm in pretty much the same boat. I'd love to get back into the biz. The release of the XBox is of interest though. I'm fluent with DirectX8 and Visual C++ and a dab hand with 3D Studio, so it would be an easy transition for me. If I could find the right team, I might just do it.
If someone were to ring me up and tell me they had a spare XBox SDK, I might just buy them a beer.

Rob: Well, you must stay in touch and let me know what you get up to!

Manuel: I sure will! The photo below is one of the very few of me developing games back in the early eighties. In fact, it's a picture of me designing a game post-Imhotep (a copy of which is visible clearly in the picture). The game, as you will see on the TV screen, is an isometric maze sort of game, not a million miles off Ultimate's Nightshade (my favourite Ultimate game - Tim sent me a copy of every Ultimate game). By then though, university and girls were higher up on the priority list, so the designs remained designs.


(click for larger image)

Rob: University and girls, eh? It was Polytechnic, beer, girls and guitars for me. Still, there you go. Anyway, thanks very much for talking to me about your spell with Ultimate.

 


Follow-up:
You might be interested to note that Manuel features on The Giant List Of Classic Game Programmers and that a quick Google search reveals a few hits for Batty Builders and Firefleet on various Atari sites such as the Ozkan site.