Villordsutch chats with Julian Chappell of the classic ZX81 publishing house Software Farm…
The Sinclair ZX81 was (and still is) a plucky little machine. RAM packed with 1K of memory this machine came into its element when you crammed a hefty additional 16K onto the back of it, however at the time gaming on the machine wasn’t overly impressive. There were the occasional gem to be found, 3D Monster Maze, Mazogs and Inventions for example, however there were a certain cluster of gems grouped together – in amongst the considerable amount of chaff – and they came from Julian Chappell at Software Farm.
Julian’s titles, which included Forty Niner and Rocket Man – were something special. They did away with the Basic Sinclair Graphics set and he made good use of High Resolution Graphics on the ZX81. Suddenly everything became a lot less blocky and our games felt far more professional; more arcade like. However, time moves on and thirty-five years later I managed to catch-up with Julian who is now in a breezy Llandudno, running Ultimate Escape.
Villordsutch: What brought you to the world of the Sinclair ZX81? Was it your first machine and you just found an instant affinity with it or did you stumble through oddities with an Intellivision here and a ZX80 there?
Julian Chappell: It was my first machine – and I loved it!
V: When you sat behind the keyboard of the ZX81 and its inch-thick manual did you feel in your gut that this machine could do more or where you initially led to believe that you were to be stuck with the Sinclair Graphic Set and nothing else?
JC: Well obviously, the manual was aimed at using the machine ‘as it was intended to be used’. i.e. it gave instructions on how to load other people’s programs and lead you into BASIC programming if you wanted to write your own, but then went on to give a plethora of technical stuff in the reference section too. To this day, I don’t think I’ve come across a product with such a comprehensive manual. Sinclair’s openness about their product has, in my eyes, yet to be matched. After the usual ‘how to’ part you’d normally expect the manual to end, but for the ZX81 Sinclair went on to give details of every aspect of the ZX81. The internal architecture and the ROM etc. I don’t have a manual any more but I think I’m right in saying that they even listed the Z80 instruction set. If not, then I obtained one from somewhere else, but either way I skipped the BASIC which is/was far too slow for games and delved straight into the machine code.
V: What opened your eyes to the world of Hi-Res graphics on the ZX81? Was it something that you stumbled upon yourself or had you found out about it elsewhere?
JC: Once you are down to machine code level and are armed with all the technical info you can eat then it is a natural step to poke and prod around. I didn’t start prying into the inner depths of the ZX81 with the idea of improving the graphics – in fact I didn’t have any particular objective in mind other than hoping I might find something useful. When I found out how the graphics system worked it was just begging to be tweaked!
V: You started Software Farm and took to publishing your own titles including Rocket Man and Forty Niner which incorporated your rather fantastic graphic wizardry. I remember reading Sinclair Programs adverts and – as a child – looking in disbelief at the ZX81 graphics on show, did you ever get anyone questioning the validity of what you were selling?
JC: I expect there were a few lost sales because people didn’t think it could possibly be true, but nobody ever questioned it to my face!
V: Where did your publishing house name and the Cosmic Cockerel – the Software Farm mascot – come from?
JC: When I was a kid my parents had a Sub-Post Office and grocery shop, and this was at the time when the Supermarkets everyone takes for granted today were just beginning to appear. They hit the trade of the old fashioned ‘local shops’ really badly and many went bust. I suggested that if a Supermarket sprung up on both sides we could change our name to, ‘Main Entrance’, but Dad didn’t think that was funny.
My parents sold up and bought a smallholding in Tintern, South Wales with the intention of becoming self-sufficient and dropping out of the rat-race. The first ‘venture’ was a load of chickens, plus the required cockerel to provide fertilised eggs and replace the ones we were intending to eat. The farm became the Software Farm and the cockerel became the Cosmic Cockerel. It was better than a guard dog, throwing itself at anyone that went anywhere near his ‘girls’ with a tremendous squawking, beating you with its wings and could actually draw blood with those spurs.
When family and friends were finally invited to the first home produced Sunday Dinner, consisting of self-reared chicken and home grown vegetables nobody could bring themselves to kill a chicken so we had to get a take-away instead. A scene stolen by ‘The Good Life’ some years later. The writers of that must have been spying on us!
V: When the doors closed on the ZX81 gaming why did you decide you’d had enough with programming for Sinclair computers? Had you burnt away too many hours of your life and realised it wasn’t for you or did the ZX Spectrum not hold enough interest at the time?
JC: Within seconds of the Spectrum being announced all the software houses dropped the ZX81 like a hot potato and raced each other to produce the first Spectrum games. This left the Software Farm with the entire remaining ZX81 market, with hi-res into the bargain! Although I was under no illusions. I was well aware that this situation had a very limited life span as all ZX81 customers were abandoning the little black wedge as soon as they, or rather their parents, could afford a Spectrum.
I did move on to the Spectrum, but with hindsight much too late. The ZX81 market was diminishing by the day and by the time my Spectrum offering – a program called ‘Potty Professor’ – was ready for release there was no money in the coffers for advertising or even proper packaging.
In ‘Potty Professor’ the player had an arsenal of unlikely items which if fitted together in the right way would create different working contraptions, such as a steam engine – or a time machine made out of a Delorean. (That’s a joke, by the way!)
There are only a few copies of ‘Potty Professor’ out there. I don’t even have one myself, so if anyone does they have a real collector’s item!
V: With the resurgence of the ZX81 and new games appearing from people like Bob Smith (of Bob’s Stuff), Paul Farrow, Johan Koelman, Jim Bagley, NOCA$H and numerous others do you ever feel like breaking out the machine for nostalgia sake?
JC: With my last memories of the ZX81 being that less and less people out there had any further interest in it I just naturally assumed that once the lights finally went out that was it. It had had a good life but was now dead, deceased, snuffed it, is no more and would have fallen to the ground if it wasn’t nailed to the perch. I didn’t give it much more thought and moved on, concentrating on the project of the moment. To be honest I didn’t even know there was a resurgence until very recently.
V: Since you left gaming where did your travels take you?
JC) I stayed with computing, becoming an IT consultant and worked on many varied projects over the years, from early warning system for a nuclear power station to till systems for Thornton’s Chocolates.
V: The Ultimate Escape sounds interesting how did you get involved in that?
JC) The life of an IT consultant can be a little nomadic, as you have to go wherever the client’s office are based and life in temporary accommodation. A life of hotel rooms and bedsits and now I’m not a spring chicken any more I wanted to become a little more settled – and once games are in the blood…..
Escape Games started online where players are enclosed in a building or some other structure and have to find clues and solve puzzles which eventually lead to them escaping before the oxygen runs out. Or perhaps they’ve been poisoned and need to get out to find the antidote. The reason depends on the storyline, but it’s always against the clock!
Once Escape Games appeared in the real world they soon became popular and Escape Rooms quickly spread around the globe. I started the very first one in North Wales, called Ultimate Escape in Llandudno.
V: Is this an adults only thing or can parents turn up with children and get shown up on the day?
JC: Escape games appeal to everyone – as long as they like the challenge of solving puzzles, and I think that is most of us. Escape Games are great for families, groups of friends and of course company team building events, and they appeal to all ages. I’ve had parents bringing their 6 year olds along right up to 60th birthday celebrations.
V: Without spoiling to much of what goes on – in the rooms – can you give us a small sales pitch of what we’d expect if we turned up at the door? That’s a good point, should we book ahead or can we just turn up at the door?
JC: When a team turns up they are given an introduction to Escape Games and the type of thing to expect, if they’ve never played one before. I have created two themed rooms, ‘CSI Murder Mystery’ where – you guessed it! – you have to solve a murder, and ‘Escape from the Future’ which is obviously Sci-Fi but with all challenges aimed at being fun or amusing to do as well as being challenging. Players are given a briefing about the theme of their chosen room and given their objectives – then they have an hour to solve all the puzzles and complete their quest in order to escape. There is usually a debriefing session afterwards too, as everyone wants to talk about how well they did!
It is sometimes possible to turn up at the door, but that is taking the risk that the rooms aren’t already booked – so you quite often end up having to make a booking for later anyway!
Flickering Myth and Villordsutch would like to thank Julian for taking time out for the interview. To find out more about Ultimate Escape or to book a time-slot the you can visit their website or give them a call on 01492 471493.