The Making Of: Dizzy
The tale of how the Oliver twins got into the videogame industry is one of those Britsoft yarns, comparable to the one about Gremlin starting up above a computer shop or Peter Molyneux and Les Edgar kick-starting the development of Populous after receiving free Amiga hardware that should have gone to Torus, not Taurus. The brothers, recent purchasers of a BBC Micro, entered a competition on a Saturday morning kids show (“Isla St Clair, Tommy Boyd, Jeremy Beadle,” remembers Andrew Oliver) to design a videogame. They won – being the only ones to send an actual game rather than a design idea drawn in crayon – and later sold Gambit to Acornsoft for £200.
Spotting the money-making potential of videogames, Andrew and Philip spent the next year bashing out coin-op clones and educational software for a variety of budget publishers, initially on the BBC and later on the Amstrad 6128. Then in September 1985, the twins attended the first ever ECTS, where they met Richard and David Darling. The future Codemasters founders were setting up on their own and needed freelance programmers. “One of their lines was, ‘If you write a game for us we’ll give you £10,000,’” recalls Philip Oliver. The catch was, it had to be out by Christmas, so the brothers rushed home and wrote flip-screen platformer Super Robin Hood in six weeks. It sold 100,000 copies.
It was during work on the brothers’ next Codemasters title, Ghost Hunters, that Philip started fiddling around with the basic character design that would lead to Dizzy. As he explains, “I was sitting there working on the star of Ghost Hunters, drawing his face, and I had three pixels high, four pixels wide and four colours. You can’t be too creative with that, so I just got bored and started sketching ideas. It occurred to me that what we really needed was for the player to get empathy with a character, and the only way that would happen is if they could actually see the face. So I thought, ‘I’ll blow the face up, so it becomes the whole character’. So we did the face as big as possible – we could print something like 32 pixels wide by about 48 pixels high, and still move it around fast. And of course once you’ve done that, there’s no point in trying to create a realistic human – you’ve just got to create a cartoon character. So we drew on eyes, a mouth and nose, stuck some feet on. Arms are always expressive so we stuck them on, too. And that’s it really… it literally took half an hour to come up with the Dizzy design.”
Ghost Hunters went out with a more realistic human protagonist, but the twins wouldn’t let their egg-shaped character go. They started imagining a game universe to suit the character. This creative freedom was a luxury of the haphazard way in which Codemasters worked at the time. In the early days, development staff were employed on a freelance basis, which usually meant single-man teams designing and writing games from home. On top of this, coders were responsible for managing their own projects. As Andrew puts it, “They never actually commissioned anything specific and we’d never get advances. You wrote games and gave them finished masters.”
With Dizzy, Philip and Andrew set out, rather ambitiously, to create “the ultimate cartoon adventure.” As unapologetic popularists, they wanted to capture a mass audience – which at that time was mostly young and inexperienced with technology. So they hit on the idea of theming a character-based puzzle/platform/adventure game around fairytales. “They’re rich and varied, and everybody all over the world knows them,” asserts Philip. He continues, “Our basic mechanic for the gameplay was to pick up an item and take it to where it can be used. Obviously, people had done that before, but they’d always done it with keys and doors, and if you make everything logical it becomes extremely boring.” So these real-world devices were replaced with fairy tale systems. A magic bean, dropped in the right place, would grow a beanstalk to provide access to a high platform; an impassable giant rat could be coaxed away by playing a pipe borrowed from the Pied Piper. Simple yet charming and, as would become clear, hugely effective.
The production process behind the game was uniquely slick for the time. Says Philip, “We split backgrounds and foregrounds, so one of us did scenery and one would take all the moving characters. Don’t ask about music, that was just a complete bodge.”
By now the Spectrum was a much bigger market than the Amstrad, so Dizzy was developed for Sinclair’s system. The brothers hated the squidgy keyboard, though, so they wrote the game on their Amstrad, getting an electronics expert friend to design a rudimentary serial cable capable of streaming data to the Spectrum via the printer port. “All we actually typed on the Spectrum – after writing a little load routine in ten lines of Basic – was LOAD “”,” claims Andrew. “Then we put a tape in and that fired up the download software. Both machines were running Z80, they were very similar. They had slightly different graphics formats, but because we were generating the graphics inside a little editor we just put some options in to save out in both Spectrum and Amstrad formats.”