A Captive Audience

Antony Crowthers game development career has passed through most of the major eras; the brave new world of the early 8-bit games, the increasingly commercial 16-bit period, the 3D texture-mapping of post-Amiga PC games and gaming on current generation consoles. Amiga Lore traces Tony's path.

The 8-bit Era

On the 8-bits Tony was known as something of a superstar coder but it all began in surroundings that were far from rock and roll: "I started coding in Basic, in the school library. We used to write educational software, then sell it to other schools to increase school funds. There were four of us; Ben Daglish, Nigel Merryman and Martyn Peverley and it was run by the library teacher Ian Warby. I was studying my A Levels at the time, A level Art, Engineering Drawing and Maths."

During the weekend Tony worked at Superior Systems for Mike Mahoney. Having played games on Commodore PET computers owned by others, Tony acquired his own machine: "I saved up enough and bought a C16, and showing off some software I had done on the C16, Mike offered me a C64, if I wrote him some games. I agreed and my parents complained and said I was wasting my time. I wrote six games and they were all released under the new software label Alligata. I ended up owning the C64, and a cheque for £500, this stopped my parents complaining :)"

After writing his first games in BASIC, Tony moved to Assembler for Brands Deluxe, a top-down racing game. Tony gained a reputation for programming C64 games very quickly but what was his method? "I wrote a one line assembler in basic, that allowed me to edit and disassemble the code. Later I wrote an Assembly language version of the one line assembler, which I used for most of my early C64 games. It was used to disassemble in decimal rather the Hex. And I think if you type sys 49152, on my games it will run the editor. I think later I managed to write it so it can be moved anywhere and run. But I was very quick at writing code using this. I also wrote my own graphics editor, and early version was published in a magazine, called Three in One editor."

In 1984, Tony was involved in the formation of Gremlin Graphics, a company that would later become prominent on the Amiga. Tony recalls that he "was asked by Ian Stewart and Kevin (cant remember his second name), if I would like to start a new company, they were going to put in capital, and I put in Potty Pigeon."

However, Tony was still quite young and left the company: "I was about 18 at the time and easily persuaded, and was asked to leave Gremlin, and form another company called Wizard Development."

The creation of Tonys handle "ratt" came about in these days on Compunet, the online service provider: "There was a game called MUD, part of Compunet I think, and every time I played it someone killed me, so me being a little naive though I would pretend to be one of the games animals, so I attempted to long on with the name "rat" but it said I could not use that name, so used "ratt". Bingo, I can now play MUD with pretending to be a game character. But also they still killed me. But I did keep the name."



Tony's first Amiga game began life on the C64. Since it was a bamboozling puzzle game with bombs David Bishop named it "Bombuzal". However, Tony created only the graphics on the Amiga and left the programming to his friend Ross Goodley, due to technological concerns: "In the early days, I did my own graphics, music, sound fx, tools, etc. I was a bit of a one man band, but 16-bit machines scared me, so I stayed with 8-bit for a bit longer."

The gameplay concept came from David whilst Tony and his wife, Lisa, were visiting his house. After returning home, Tony "started work, and a week later, I informed him I have it up and running, we ironed out a few gameplay issues, and within a couple of weeks it was completed. I had created an editor, and sent it as many people I knew at the time, to create a levels for it." The level contributions came from well-known game developers such as Jeff Minter, Jon Ritman and Andrew Braybrook.

The C64 version was completed within a month and once Mirrorsoft saw it, they funded the Amiga and ST versions and published the game on their Image Works label.

Bombuzal features two viewpoints; top-down 2D and isometric 3D. The 3D version was partly added for presentational reasons. Tony explains that "to me it made sense, if you were buying a magazine with pictures in (lots of pictures), that the better they looked, the better the impression would be to others. This is not saying the 3D version was bad, but I preferred the 2D for speed."


Stuart Campbell reviewed Bombuzal in the proto-issue 0 of Amiga Power magazine and awarded it 84%. The full game also appeared on the coverdisk of issue 1 of Amiga Power but the release of full games was eventually unofficially banned by the ELSPA (European Leisure Software Publishers Association). There was some concern at the time that quality free games on magazines would stop gamers buying full price games in the shops.

A sequel to Bombuzal was briefly mentioned in Amiga Power issue 0 but this seems to have been a rumour or else didn't progress very far: "I don't think I even saw a design. If there were plans, no one spoke to me."



Phobia is a lesser known shoot-'em-up on the Amiga that again began on the C64. However, this time Tony programmed all three versions: "Amiga and ST were the same, but ST lacked in hardware support for smooth scrolling, and Audio was a little weak on ST. The 8bit to 16bit was a big step, as I had to learn a new language, as I programmed in assembly language at the time."

One feature unique to the Amiga version is a high resolution mode and screen positioning using the cursor keys. Tony recalls that "I completely forgot about this, but I used to like to try out different things, adding test cards was a fad I had."

The game's levels are based on various phobias which gives it a different theme to many of the metallic shooters of that period. As was common with shoot-'em-ups at the time, Phobia is a tough game, inspired by games "like Salamander, these were hard to play too, so it was aimed at that type of player."



By the time that Tony was programming a game called "Federation War" the Amiga was the lead platform with the Atari ST close behind it: "It was written first for Amiga, but the engine ran on Amiga and ST, so ST version was working the same day a feature was added."

Tony had been working on the game "for about 4 months, and was looking for a publisher for it. Mirrorsoft/Image Works were not allowed to publish it, due to a contractual agreement with FTL." The game would eventually be published by Mindscape but not under the name "Federation War".

ACE magazine ran a competition to name the game and in issue 37 reported that the winning entry was "Captive". According to the magazine, the runner up entries were The C.A.L.L.E.D. (The Cryogenic Awakening Lost Logic Emphatic Droids) and Escape From (Galacto) Cryo-Crypt 248c/418 serious" (sic).

Captive ran on a custom Disk Operating System called Ratt-DOS. Tony explains that "it was done in my spare time, just messing around with the hardware. It had the advantage of merging the ST and Amiga into a single file system. It could auto compress and decompress per sector, it was faster the AmigaDOS, and it was a little harder to copy. So I was quite pleased with it."

If the 1Mb version of Captive is booted with 512K of memory the in-game briefcase computer crashes with the familiar Guru Meditation error. This suggests that Trill's droid controlling computer is an Amiga? "My favourite machine was the Amiga, ST was second best. Mainly due to the poor hardware for both graphics and sound."


Captive doesn't have designed levels. Instead, its "Architect" system generates levels in a semi-random way. Tony explains that "the general gist, was to try to produce a level, that looked man made, rather than computer generated randomness. This caused the code to be re-written many times, until I was happy with the final results. But the levels had to feel harder, as it generated 65536 levels. Level 0 would be simple, and as they advance levels become harder and harder, but introducing different game elements, like fire and super strong fast aliens. I think some of the monsters don't even make an appearance until very high levels. Same with the hardware you can buy, by having ranked version of each weapon, it was possible to delay these."

Furthermore, the planet and moon names were generated programmatically and "even the location of the planets was based on a seed. I did have to check that no rude words could be generated from the system :)"


With so many levels, it has been speculated that Captive is an endless game. According to Tony, "there is an end sequence where you find Trill, only for him to be re-captured and you have to go look for him again. I think this was ever 10 or 12 planets."

A mission disk may have been planned at one point, possibly by Mindscape's marketing department, but Tony wasn't aware of it: "Mission disk? New to me."

Captain Planet


Many Amiga gamers became familiar with Tony's next game, Captain Planet, when it was bundled with Commodore's A500 Cartoon Classics pack. Tony had very little time in which to produce the game: "If I remember this correctly, the bundle was arranged before I was asked to write the game, and we only had 30 days to write it. So it was a bit of a rush, but I'm pleased to say the product does not looked rushed."

This time Jason Kingsley did the game graphics: "I think this was the first time I worked with an artist. Prior to this I had done all my own artwork." Furthermore, the credits list "WE MUSIC THE RETURN". W.E.M.U.S.I.C. stands for "We Make Use of Sound In Computers" and signalled the return of Tony's partnership with Ben Daglish, who composed the music.

The game is based on the Captain Planet licence, a 90s cartoon with a strong environmental theme. The different Planeteers star in five large levels which is then followed by a sixth level where the player controls Captain Planet himself. Licensed games can sometimes be restrictive but Tony was free to create the game as he saw fit: "I don’t remember having any issues. They were either happy with what I had done, or they were never shown to them for them ask for a change."

The mechanics of each level are varied. One level sees the Planeteer create ice platforms and another grows trees. There are also falling boulders and vehicles to pilot. Tony recalls that the game design was fairly organic: "These levels were designed around gameplay, if it felt wrong it got changed, but the game did borrow some gameplay elements from other games like Mario (headbutting blocks), Boulder Dash (pushing boulders)."

However, one aspect of the game demands an answer. Why were the endangered seals hanging around above the ozone layer? "Lol, can't remember."




Tony returned to the RPG genre for his next game, Knightmare. Unlike Captive, the game was based on an existing concept, a children's TV programme. The TV series featured contestants who would wear a sightless helmet and be directed by fellow players. Although the game wouldn't follow this format directly it was based on Knightmare's world: "It was written with the licence from day one, as Tim Child the man behind Knightmare, was a fan of Captive, and wanted me to write the new version of Knightmare the game. The artwork was all done by Jan Thwaites, She was an artist who worked on the TV show. I was given 1000's of pages of scripts to pick ideas for the game, and Tim asked for certain things to happen in the game."

The Captive engine was reused but the level design took a more traditional route: "Captive was re-skinned, and the levels were man made, rather than generated. The attack system was re-written, and the animations system upgrade to make the bad-guys look nicer. As they were built out of small moving parts, rather than a fixed image."


The levels were handcrafted for a reason that Tony relates: "Because Knightmare had a plot, i.e. was scripted with challenges, and it's not easy to control the flow when it's random. Random may have sped up development, because I sent a long time on generating those maps, and testing the game play."

Several methods of transportation (a mine cart and a boat) were added to the engine: "I think I was just trying to think of things to add, that were not in Captive. I don't think the mine cart worked as well as the boat, mainly because you were not in control of it."



Liberation is a Captive sequel that would substantially modernise the engine: "Always wanted to do another Captive, this time I teamed up with a friends Ross Goodley and Kim Blake. I had worked with these before, as Kim did the scripts for the story in Gobots. And Ross had done the K-Ring, Gobots, Centurion and Bombuzal conversions for me. The plan was to push 3D to a new level, thanks to Ross, because I had no idea how the maths worked."

The game originally appeared on Commodore's Amiga CD32, a platform that appealed to Tony: "I thought it was a cool idea, as games were coming on many floppy disks. PlayStation took it to the next level." However, game developers faced a problem when presented with a massive increase in available space and it was common for CD32 games to drastically underuse the capacity. Liberation, however, makes extensive use of the format with graphics, voice acting and a CD soundtrack. Intriguingly, it was originally a floppy-based project: "the CD32 was added later, we originally wrote it for Amiga, and I suspect ST was dropped due to speed problems. CD32 came about and we went mad with Audio... Graphics were only better because we had disc space."


Liberation's graphical engine was named "Vectomap" and utilised a type of static texture mapping: "It was 3D vectors, it could draw polygons with a pattern texture... at the time it was pretty ground breaking :)" However, Tony didn't pursue a full texture-mapping engine, of the type that was seen in Amiga games like Legends of Valour: "I didn't think the Amiga was fast enough to do it. And there was still a quality level it had to pass, for me to pursue it. PCs were fast enough, that's why Realms (ROTH) and Normality were written."


The setting was one aspect of Liberation that was scaled back. Captive is an interplanetary adventure but Liberation is set in a city. This was "changed due to Ross's influence, he took the lead on the plot, and it was based around a random story generated by the game. My English was never good, so I took a back seat on this, as I couldn't really help :)"

Although the Liberation credits are quite extensive the core team, called the Byte Engineers, was still relatively small: "I think there was only me, Ross and Kim, working on the game (I think the speech involved other people). The intro sequence added more people to the list."

Tony remembers how the development was divided up in the team: "Ross worked on the Inventory System, the Chip System, the Pub Name generation, the 3D polygon rendering, the random script along with Kim. And I worked on the world rendering, the city layout, the traffic system, route finding, the house internals, and the Intro sequence. I remember Ross doing the converting the animation player, but can't remember what for :)"

Post Amiga

Liberation was Tony's last game on the Amiga before he moved to greener pastures: "PC's were bigger than Amiga, and software houses wanted PC software". Tony returned to Gremlin, the company that he had previously joined as a founder and then left. The reason for this purely practical: "I live in Sheffield always have and always will, and Gremlin were in Sheffield so it was easier."

Gremlin's Normality, a 3D texture-mapped adventure game, was released in 1996. Realms of the Haunting was released in 1997 and used texture-mapping to create an action adventure set in a frightening world. Tony's role was as the main programmer: "I wrote the 3D engine, I was involved in the video compression for ages, I wrote the editor. And did the final pass on the levels, adding and fixing gameplay. I remember at the end throwing away a level, and creating a new puzzle level (the level with the mirrors)."

After Gremlin, Tony's next lengthy role was at Electronic Arts. As a monolithic entity how did they compare to companies that Tony had worked for in the past? "To me they were no different, I like to find new roles in the company, and I did just that. I got to travel more, as EA is an American company. It was an enjoyable experience. But if I didn't enjoy it I would not have stayed with them for seven years."

Companies in the games industry sometimes have a tendency to morph into others. For example, Gremlin Interactive became Infogrames Studios Sheffield which became Sumo Digital. Is the games industry an unstable place to work? "I'm back at Sumo now :) ... I think it's because people at the top change, and they like to make things happen, some bad some good. But games/software is still a big market."

Despite writing a number of classic games, Tony doesn't revisit old games: "I think newer games are more and more impressive, I wrote the games then to be impressive, and today's standard has moved on, I just moved with it."

One last question remains. When will we see Captive III? "Never say never... I don't know, I'm currently very busy on other things, but when I get free time, I may indulge myself."