Nicole Segre talks to Adrian Sherwin about a top programmer's flights of fancy
IN NOVEMBER Bug-Byte Software of Liverpool released a program for the 48K Spectrum which made a dramatic departure from the all-too-familiar space vessels, robots, monsters and dungeons of computer games. The Birds and the Bees introduced "for the first time on screen" Boris the Bee, whose mission is to flit from flower to flower collecting pollen to take back to its hive.
At the same time, it has to avoid a mounting series of dangers such as birds, Venus fly-traps, spiders' webs, a bear, and a swarm of wasps. Within a month, the game had sold almost 10,000 copies and seemed set to continue making steady progress in the popularity charts.
The talent behind the unusual and refreshing game is Adrian Sherwin, one of the leading hopefuls in the Bug-Byte stable of bright young programmers. He has been writing games since he was 13 and, at the ripe old age of 16, has already sold four games to commercial software houses. He is working on the fifth and were it not for the demands on his time made by his continuing education, could well be writing many more.
|'At the ripe old age of 16, he has already sold four games'|
Sherwin was introduced to computers at Mosslands School, the boys-only Liverpool comprehensive where he is now studying for A levels. "The school has about 10 BBC micros now," he says, "but three years ago our electronics teacher had to bring in his Tandy to introduce us to some of the rudiments of computing."
Sherwin was so absorbed by the subject that he sent immediately for a ZX-80, swopping that for a Spectrum as soon as the new machine appeared on the market. In those days he had no money, so he had to persuade his parents it was a good idea for them to buy him the expensive new toy. "I didn't have too much trouble," he says. "I told my father he could use it in his jewellery business but he never has done. He's computer illiterate," he adds with a note of pity.
From the start, Sherwin was spending about two hours a day with the computer and writing simple games of the space invader type. With the help of Toni Baker's book, Mastering Machine Code on your ZX-81, he learned machine code and proceeded to read Rodney Zaks' Programming the ZX-80 to help him master assembly language. He also bought an assembler program.
Thus armed, Sherwin wrote Caterpillar, which was based on the arcade classic Centipede, and sent it to Ocean Software, then called Spectrum Games. The company accepted the game, as it did his next one, called Robotics and based on Berzerk. Another famous arcade game, Missile Command, formed the basis for Sherwin's third tape for Ocean Software, Armageddon.
Meanwhile, he had been introduced to Matthew Smith, the author of one of the best-known Bug-Byte products, Manic Miner. Smith was in the year ahead of Sherwin at school and was willing to help him further his programming career. Thanks to Smith's good offices, Sherwin was lent a Tandy Model 3, with its disc drive and superior keyboard, on which to start writing the Birds and the Bees for the Spectrum.
"We had seen what he had done for Ocean," says Bug-Byte director Tony Baden, "and were keen for him to try something for us."
The idea for The Birds and the Bees emanated from Sherwin's younger sister Kay, now aged 14. "I asked her for some suggestions," he says, "and she produced several. That was the one which appealed most to me."
Sherwin started to write the program when school broke up for the summer and had finished it in two weeks, all except for the graphics. "When he first showed it to us, it consisted mainly of shapeless blobs," says Tony Milner of Bug-Byte. Fortunately, Smith had already offered to help with the graphics and together they set to work, with the aid of a graphics designer program which Smith had already written. "It made things much quicker and easier," says Sherwin, "and we had the game finished and bug-free by the end of the holidays."
One of the striking features about The Birds and the Bees is the way in which Boris the Bee swoops and dives, rather than travelling in predictable straight lines. Sherwin achieved that by giving each key movement a velocity factor. "The idea was Isaac Newton's," he says. "I just used it to make the game more lifelike." It also makes the game more difficult to play but Sherwin has managed to get as far as the swarm of wasps - the highest level - which proves the feat is not impossible.
Sherwin's latest project is a sequel to The Birds and the Bees, to be called Antics. The details are not yet finalised but it is likely that Antics will introduce a new character, Boris' cousin Barnaby - or Barnabee - who will attempt to rescue Boris from the ant-hill in which he finds himself - for mysterious reasons which the author declines to elucidate.
The title sequence is all that has been completed so far and features a fugue in "Bee" minor which, in the words of Milner, "sounds very good and goes on forever."
Bug-Byte has secured first option on the first three games which he produces using the company Tandy and Sherwin already has the idea for the third one. "But I'm not telling anyone," he says firmly.
Although Sherwin would have liked to turn to full-time programming, his parents have persuaded him to stay at school to take A levels next year. His four subjects are maths, further maths, physics and electronics, and will leave him little time for programming.
Nevertheless, Bug-Byte approves of his decision to gain some sound qualifications, perhaps returning to programming later. "The days of the freelance programmer making an easy killing are numbered," says Baden. "We are gradually turning over production to a team of programmers working full-time but who knows how the market will develop?"
|'Good machine code programmers are few and far between'|
Unlike other bright young Liverpool games authors, such as Imagine Software's Eugene Evans, who once complained publicly that he could not get a credit card because of his age, even though he had earned £30,000 that year - or even Smith with his fast-selling Manic Miner - Sherwin has not yet earned a fortune. Yet, he has still made more money than most 16-year-olds; so far he has bought an Atari 800 with a disc drive from his proceeds and put the rest to earn interest in a building society account. "I shall wait till I have learned to drive before I buy a car," he says.
Apart from his obvious flair for mathematics, Sherwin does not know what makes him a good programmer, although he agrees with Milner that good machine code programmers are few and far between. "When you are using machine code," he says, "you have to be able to break down each aspect of your program into many small components and then keep track of them all. That is why an assembler is such a help, as it saves having to deal with so many numbers."
Writing games takes most of the time Sherwin has left from his studies. Apart from snooker, he tries to avoid all forms of sports, and although he likes films - "any films," he says - his interest in books is limited mainly to horror stories by James Herbert.
He lives south of the river in Wallasey with his sister and parents, who so far, he says, have been happy to let him program to his heart's content. Wherever his studies may lead him, so far he shows no signs of wanting to stop.