IN SEARCH OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE - AND FINDING A BIRD OF PREY
by Richard Karsmakers
At about a quarter past one we left Magnetic Scrolls. Lucky
enough we got to Borough Tube Station much faster than the time
it had taken to get from there to Magnetic Scrolls, so we were
quite in time for our next appointment: Meeting Jez San at
Argonaut software, in the Northern part of London.
So we took the tube from Borough to King's Cross/St. Pancras,
where he had to take a British Rail train to Millhill Broadway
using the Thames Link - that's what Jez had instructed us to do,
We arrived there, and noticed queues of dimensions we had never
before seen. They must have been over a hundred metres long,
winding all through the Railway Station hall.
So the train was definitely off. It was simply too busy. But
there was another solution: Just continue on the Northern Line
and get out at Mill Hill East. That was surely bound to be quite
near to Argonaut's offices.
So that's what we did.
We were already getting to be a bit tired, and we again sweated
like hell in the subway. It was damp and very smoggy. We hated
We arrived at Millhill East Tube Station and we just called Jez
using a payphone. He is going to pick us up HIMSELF! Yes: Mr.
Vectorgraphic himself is going to pick us up!!!
I am so excited!!!
Ulp. I've never expected this, really. Being fetched by a
celebrity and all... I guess I am quite excited as well!
I am surely glad that we can wait a bit now, and have the sweat
soak into our T-shirts before we actually get going.
Millhill East is a very small station at one of the two Northern
ends of the Northern Line. And...it's unbelievably hot. I do not
exaggerate if I tell you that the heat was on us like a
meticulously made blanket - like a surfing suit, really. I can
now imagine what it's like to be on a holiday in Spain - and I
surely don't like it!
It must have been just over half past two when a metallic light
blue Ford Sierra Cosworth 2.5 litre car ground to a halt in front
From the driver's window which was wound down, a face wearing
sunglasses and a broad smile looked at us. The face was instantly
recognisable for I had seen it several times before in
several computer magazines: It was Jez San.
He opened the trunk of his car so that we could put our
rucksacks in it, after which we entered the car.
Some people might think that Jez is a poser, and they are right.
But then again: Which other 23-year old (for Jez is only 23
years old!) with a flashy Ford Sierra Cosworth 2.5 litres
wouldn't show it off?
So he did that as well. Putting us solid to the backs of the
seats, he sought to find his way to Argonaut's offices at speeds
that were - to use an understatement - 'highly irregular'. He
accelerated heftily and turned up his on-board CD player really
It was as if we were temporarily in another world.
A world we had to get out of about a quarter of an hour later,
when he had the car once more grind to a halt in the
neighbourhood of a regular house - a house which you would find
in any English suburb, one of those large semi-detached houses
where you would normally find laundry hanging outside, screaming
kids playing, etc.
Another very unusual place to have a software office in - let
alone the fact that this was the office of one of the most
revolutionary software houses to date: Argonaut.
Soon after we entered the house, which was filled from top to
bottom with high tech hardware varying from computers to audio
equipment, we sat down in what probably usually would be the
living room and interviewed Jez.
What is your place and date of birth?
Jez: The 29th of March 1966, in Edgeborough near London.
(We react slightly amazed to the fact that he is still so young
- we had expected him to be at least 35...)
How did you end up in the computer business?
Jez: Em...when I was thirteen I got my first computer, and for
about a year it was just a hobby. A Tandy TRS-80. I really
started programming when I got the BBC, which was in about '82 (I
did a few ROMs, utilities, disassemblers, monitors, disk
copiers). We also wrote the development system that David Braben
used to do "Elite". 'We' means Argonaut in its early days - not
what you're looking at now. Since then, when the ST came out,
Rainbird gave me the chance to write my own game - "Starglider".
That enabled us to set up the whole company, and now we're 11
people. And we're working on different projects on the same time.
We're also working on the Konix now.
What are your other interest except for programming computers?
Jez: Cars, gadgets, flying (I'm still learning, though),
What do you dislike most about the software industry?
Jez: Licenses and conversions.
What do you think is the best game ever launched on the ST?
Jez: I don't know, that's a toughie. I think "Starglider II" is
one of the best but there are other games that I appreciate, like
"Dungeon Master" that everybody likes. I've never played it but
everybody seems to like it.
And the lousiest game?
Jez: There's a lot of them. Anything done by Anco, Microdeal
(except for the Steve Bak games, although they get a bit tiresome
because they're all the same - but they are impressive).
What do you think is your best achievement on the ST?
Jez: Em...one of our best achievements was the dual format disk
- that booted with the same disk on Amiga and ST. "Starglider II"
for example. And those weren't two games - just one game that ran
on both machines. It wasn't half ST, half Amiga - the whole disk
was for both systems.
Did you sell that idea to "ST-Amiga Format" as well?
Jez: Someone stole our idea and did it for "ST-Amiga Format". We
did do a few of their disks, and some of the other dual-format
disks around like "The One" (another mag, ED.), and one of the
Ocean disks ("Double Dragon" - the freebie demo one on ST and
What about 3D graphics?
Jez: We put a lot of effort into 3D graphics. We always try to
make them as fast as possible. We have a couple of mathematicians
working solely on 3D graphics routines so that they can always
make them as fast as possible. Three or so in our company are
only busy writing algorithms, and not programming.
What tools do you use to program?
Jez: Most of the time Hisoft "Devpac" and we're starting to use
"Argasm" (a new product of Argonaut which is in testing stage -
only Amiga now). It's exactly ten times faster than "Devpac" so
it's quite easy. We use "DPaint III" for graphics.
What's your favourite book?
Jez: It's a long time since I read a book. My favourite would be
"Of Time and Stars" by Arthur C. Clarke - from my childhood, a
long time ago. I like the Hitchhiker's series and the new Douglas
Adams book. But I mainly read graphics books.
And your favourite film?
Jez: There's a lot. I am into films. I see every film. I saw
"Ghostbusters II" in America, two weeks ago. That was quite good.
"Prince of Darkness" is a good horror film.
Jez: (Someone yelling from the background: "Chinese!") Yeah;
Jez: Diet Coke or Bacardi and Coke.
Jez: Umm...anyone...Level 42, Queen....I like everything.
Who do you consider to be the most interesting person in the
Jez: I don't know. There aren't many fascinating people in the
software industry. There aren't any. Maybe....Minter is
interesting because he's weird and still manages to program. But
there is no-one really who would slip into my mind as being very
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Jez: I don't know. Well...from everything we see and do. We're a
very crazy bunch of people. We're eleven people. There's a lot of
ideas floating around in-house. We do not need to take ideas from
outside. If someone comes around with a good idea, we'll listen.
But most of the time we innovate ourselves. There are a few
people who I would really like to have met but who are dead.
People like Wallace (a genius who knew a lot about air dynamics)
and John Nathian (16th century mathematician who invented
logarithms). He had even mathematical systems that he took to his
grave, so it is said.
Apart from "Hawk" and "Argasm", what are you working on?
Jez: We're working on some products for the new Konix console (a
good new game console, ED.). "Hawk" will be out this year. And
we're working on some real car simulation instead of just...er
....an arcade game. We're into "Winning Run" (arcade machine)
with polygon graphics. It will be extensive but better done than
"Ferrari" (the new EA game).
What do you think about software piracy?
Jez: I hate it. I think it's killing the industry. It kills
little guys like us, who are solely reliant on the royalties to
earn a living. We have eleven people to pay. They will have to be
paid whether we make any software or not. So we have to keep the
money coming in. And piracy really does hurt us, because our
programs are in demand and get pirated a lot. We try to put
protection on the disk, but it doesn't last very long.
Eventually, a hacker will get past it within days - or less. No
matter how much effort we put in it - if they want to copy it
they will copy it. In many ways, it's decisive for which products
we do next. On the ST, piracy is so bad that we attempt carefully
which programs we bring on the market for it. A number of
companies have gone that way. Amiga people are probably richer,
so they buy more. That's why piracy is less on the Amiga than on
What is the release date for "Argasm"?
Jez: For the Amiga in September. For the ST: As soon as we write
the editor. "Gen" (the "Devpac" editor, ED.) is crap. We will
have to write our own graphic development system, like "Tempus",
and that's a lot of work.
What do you think of people who, like, put "Starglider II" with
another game on one disk, with intro, in files?
Jez: It's still just as bad. We put much work in each game;
"Starglider II" took 6 man-years. And to have someone break it
and distribute it, just to have their name on the front, is
really disgusting. I like hacker's demos, and I like the people
who distribute hacker demos. That's great. I don't like to see
them attached to our programs.
When compared with "Starglider II", how much faster have your
graphics routines gone by now?
Jez: That's a good question. They are about 50% faster; the
overall frame rate is about 25% faster, but the actual graphics
are 100% faster. Some things are VERY fast. We can cope with very
complex scenery now. We can have a couple of helicopters (each of
67 polygons) on the screen, so we're talking about hundreds of
polygons for each frame. And they're fully animated and
everything. We have also generalised the process much more.
"Starglider I" had 16-bit maths, and "Starglider II" has 32-bit
maths but the world was still 16-bit. In "Hawk", it's all 32-bit
now. So we can fit a whole planet in it, but it is still very
fast. You can have mountains that are huge and very far away, and
you can still see them. We couldn't do that in "Starglider II".
And yet it's still fast.
You were quoted to have said that "Outrun" was bad, but
"Afterburner" would be much better; what did you think of
"Afterburner" once it was released?
Jez: "Afterburner" is bad. Any original product that we get
total control of development of, will be good. Because we're
perfectionists. But in a conversion, you don't have a lot of
Then why did you do it?
Jez: For the money. At the time we needed to, for we hadn't
handed in any products for a while. A company as big as ours
needs money. "Hawk" took a very long time, and we have to pay
those eleven people. We're perfectionists. "Afterburner" was a
quick job. It would have been good if we would have had 1 week
extra. But they (Activision, ED.) were concerned with getting the
product out in time. But for our original products, we take as
long as is necessary. "Hawk" is already a year after its
deadline. It's supposed to be handed in last July. We're taking
longer, but EA (Electronic Arts, ED.) don't mind. We deliver a
better product. They are very patient with us.
After these questions, we got a guided tour through the house.
It's just a freaky casual house - with the usual "Playboy"
posters hanging in the rooms, printer paper everywhere. "Hawk"
was demonstrated to us. I think it hardly suffices to say that we
were completely, utterly and totally devastated by what we saw.
And the devastation was hardly less when Jez showed the Amiga
version of Argonaut's forthcoming assembler, "Argasm" - the
latter we got to see at about four o'clock in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, since Jez had to bring some working "Hawk" stuff
to EA soon, this was all slightly rushed.
After that, he brought us back to Millhill East, where we were
to take the tube to Goodge Street - the Station where our hotel
that was arranged by Barrington Harvey would be near.
"Hawk" is, to say the least, a LOT better than "Starglider II".
It will be another arcade game in which there will inevitably be
some blasting, but the graphics and the scenery will show high
resemblance with a true flight simulator. But it's a true war-
game. When I asked Jez whether there would be scenery disks
available at a later date, he answered confirmative.
We didn't see a final working version of "Hawk" - probably
because Jez told us it would take another three or four months
for it to be launched. But what we did see was impressive.
He demonstrated some of the shapes that will be in the game,
which included accurate models of most Russian and NATO airplanes
and helicopters. Elaborate Russian gunships with rotating tail-
and main-rotors would appear on the screen moving ultra smoothly
- with 16-colour blue shading that made spontaneous ghusts of
saliva burst forth from our mouths. There were even pilots
recognizable in some of the cockpits. Rapid zooming in and out
was also possible, and we could also actually look IN the
objects. There were also circle routines - something innovative,
so it appeared.
"Hawk" will contain about 300 (or more) shapes, whereas
"Starglider II" 'only' had 100; "Carrier Command" or "Virus" only
had about 20 or 30, Jez told us. The scenery will contain cities,
bridges, trees, and much more. The smallest individual objects
can be displayed at 27 frames per second; the bigger ones are
displayed at about 20-25 frames per second.
"Argasm" is the rumoured Devpac-compatible assembler by Argonaut
- with an original name as well! It is 10 times faster, though.
As an example, they assembled a file containing all possible
68000 processor instruction in all addressing modes - about 6000
lines of course code, or over 125 Kb - in 1.52 seconds ("Devpac"
in 11 seconds). You can edit and assemble files simultaneously,
and it should be available at £60 (same as "Devpac"). Editing
will be faster, as will be the 'find' routine. The debugging
information will also be compatible to "Devpac". The assembler
interprets the syntax of each line each time it is entered.
A quite revolutionary thing, that made Stefan go really out of
his mind, is that it can display clockcycles needed for each
line, and that it can calculate the total number of clockcycles
for all instruction in a defined block as well - and it even
checks how many times a loop is executed to add this together
Some benchmarks (taken from "ST-Amiga Format" of July 1989):
Benchmark Devpac 2 PDS Argasm %inc. over %inc. over
lines assembled per minute Devpac PDS
1 35,300 88,000 250,000 700 300
2 66,700 176,000 1,034,000 1600 600
3 18,000 35,000 105,000 600 300
4 120,000 200,000 2,500,000 2100 1300
5 6,000 13,000 40,000 700 300
Benchmark 1 - 5000 lines of MOVEQ #100,D0
Benchmark 2 - 10000 lines of RTS
Benchmark 3 - 3000 lines of MOVE.L #12345,100(A0,D2.L)
Benchmark 4 - Conditional assembly test (skip 10000 lines)
Benchmark 5 - Macro handling (Macro containing 10 RTS lines,
called 1000 times)
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.