This is an interview with the creators of the much-loved ZX Spectrum game Skool Daze, which I wrote for Retrogamer magazine (in its Live Publishing days) back in 2006. This was the second time I’d spoken to programmer Dave Reidy after tracking him down for a previous article in Arcade magazine. For this feature, I managed to find Keith Warrington, the game’s artist. As far as I know, this is still the only time the two have spoken about the game since Microsphere’s heyday in the mid ’80s.
Dave Reidy can’t recall much about what he learned at school. “What I remember best are the things between lessons. Kicking balls around corridors, playing conkers, firing a catapult. Making fun of teachers. Making fun of other kids. And that was basically how I wanted Skool Daze to be. There’d be a major task to perform — but if you wanted to spend all your time beating people up, you could. Just like school.”
Dave is speaking to us from his home in rural Shropshire, where he still lives with the same woman who helped him run Microsphere over 20 years ago. His own schooldays are a fading memory — but his Skool Daze, the raucous, screeching, category-defying classic that Microsphere unleashed in 1984, lives on in the memories of hundreds of thousands of little Erics. We’ll come to Skool Daze in a minute, but — pay attention at the back — there’s a history lesson to get through first.
Decent home micros were a distant dream when Dave was at school. It wasn’t until his university days in the early ’70s that he met his first computer, a laboratory mainframe that gobbled up punchcards and spat out complex equation proofs that Dave needed for his neurophysiology degree. By 1981, though, when Dave was working as a systems analyst for an engineering company, Sinclairs and Commodores were taking off — and a ZX81 was born into the Reidy household.
“Initially, I wrote a couple of business programs for the ZX81 that were published by other people,” remembers Dave (he still has that quaint ’80s way of referring to games and applications as ‘programs’). “There was PPP, which stood for Project Planning Package. And there was a spreadsheet program that came on a plug-in RAM pack because it was just too big to fit into the ZX81’s memory.”
Then the Spectrum arrived, lugging a monstrous 32 kilobytes of usable game space along with it, and there was no need for bolt-on blobs of RAM anymore. Microsphere Computer Services Limited was actually born in November 1982 as a way for Dave to earn money arranging subcontracts for computer manufacturers. But as Speccy Fever began to grip the UK, he saw an opportunity to publish his own software — and games.
By mid-1983, Microsphere was up and running in the Reidys’ living room at Rosebury Road, London. You could phone Dave up, or write him a letter, and he’d send you a cassette decorated with that LED-like Microsphere logo. Two of the first three products were utilities — ZX-Sideprint, and the acclaimed spreadsheet Omnicalc. So while Crevasse/Hotfoot, the sole games tape, scored a rave write-up from Sinclair User and offered the barest hint of Dave’s special way with the rubber keys, you’d be forgiven for thinking Microsphere would be specialising in business software from thereon in.
But then Wheelie roared in. An impressive little platformer on wheels, it put Microsphere firmly on the map, and remained the company’s best-selling game thanks to glowing reviews (“I spent about three hours playing before I remembered I was supposed to write something about it!” confessed a startled Crash staffer). Wheelie also introduced Dave’s trademark border-flashing sound effects, which we’d be hearing a whole lot more from later.
That’s Microsphere’s early history in a nutshell. Dave’s a quiet man, not too keen to dredge up the past, and this is only the second time in two decades he’s resurfaced to talk briefly about Microsphere (“I only give one interview every 20 years!” he jokes, having already forgotten one he gave in 1999). So, rather than waste time pestering Dave for details on the making of ZX-Sideprint, we ring the bell for Skool Daze.
Helen Reidy was — and is — a teacher, so it seems entirely natural that Dave would turn his wife’s experiences into a videogame. But, as Dave explains, Skool Daze was more a case of taking the long English tradition of comics and books about naughty schoolboys — Just William, St Custard’s, The Bash Street Kids — and making you the short-trousered hero.
“All the characters are those comicbook stereotypes, because by and large all schools are the same,” says Dave. “There’s always you. There’s always the popular people — who you hate, of course. There’s always a bully. There’s always a swot. And Skool Daze was about giving people characters they would recognise. And making it funny, and enjoyable to play. Which, of course, meant making it a little bit evil.”
Skool Daze is, simply, genius. Unlike most ’80s games, the main quest — bash shields to hypnotise teachers into revealing the combination to the school safe — was usually little more than a distraction. The freedom you had to wreak schoolboy havoc was breathtaking. You could catapult teachers. Sneak into classrooms at breaktime. Sit on stairs. Write on blackboards. If you play the game today, it’s still thrilling to skip a lesson and wander the empty corridors — especially if you manage to dodge your livid teacher until you’re literally saved by the bell.
The play mechanics were to come later, though. With comics as his inspiration, Dave’s initial brainwave was entirely visual: a bustling school, alive with wandering kids and teachers, where “each of the rooms would look like a frame in a comic”. The graphics in everything up to Wheelie were Dave’s own work (“as you can probably tell”), but it was clear the amibitious plans for building a complete school on the Spectrum meant getting a proper artist in. Luckily, he had one handy — Keith Warrington, who’d already illustrated the ads and packaging for all of Microsphere’s games since Crevasse/Hotfoot.
Keith was a struggling illustrator at the time, a 23-year-old sharing a house with six other art graduates, just down the road from Dave. Now 45, he’s married, living in Peterborough, a teacher, and exclaims “Crikey!” when we finally track him down and remind him about Skool Daze. Fishing around in his memory, he recalls that he had a very special lady to thank for the Microsphere gig: his mum.
As a boy, Keith grew up next-door to a girl called Helen Korol. When Helen’s family moved to Muswell Hill, Keith and Helen’s mothers kept in touch with Christmas cards. Years passed. Keith left home, and Helen became Mrs Reidy. And when Mr Reidy needed an artist to create the promotional artwork for Microsphere’s games, mum got in touch with mum — and Keith got in touch with Dave.
The Skool Daze project came just after Keith had polished off the artwork for The Train Game and Wheelie, by which point he’d given up on his professional illustrating aspirations and begun training as a teacher himself.
“I remember Dave saying that he’d got this new game idea,” Keith remembers. “The graphics were going to be a bit… more than the other games. So he asked if I’d be interested in doing them. I was game for anything. I was mostly unemployed, and I had the time. So I thought I’d give it a bash. I sat down with Dave and basically learnt everything — what pixels were, all that — from him.”
Back home, with the living room floor of that shared house as his working space, Keith created some of the best-looking graphics Spectrum owners had ever witnessed… on graph paper.
“I didn’t have a Spectrum to start with,” he says. “It was easiest to do line drawings over squared paper, then block in the squares to make it pixelated. I just kept blocking in and rubbing out until I had something that looked decent when I stuck it on the wall at the far end of the room. For the animations, I used tracing paper to draw alternate legs and arms. Then I’d hand the whole lot over to Dave. After a while, though, I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous’. So I bought a Spectrum to do it all properly. But I still often found it easier to return to the graph paper.”
Over at 72 Rosebury Road, Dave was cracking on with getting Eric, Angelface, Mr Creak, Mr Wacker and the rest up and running on a Spectrum. Like Keith, he was working lo-tech — actually writing the code on paper, and using the raw numbers of machine code rather than the friendlier assembler languge. When pages of code were ready, it was Helen’s job to type them in, digit by digit.
Keith, regularly gathering up his graph paper masterpieces and “walking over a couple of fields” to get to Dave’s house, remembers watching Skool Daze come together very quickly. “It was encouraging. I’d finish the kids, and the next time he’d have a version with the kids running around — but no teachers yet.”
Lucky kids. It wouldn’t last. Gradually, a fully-functioning school took shape, the width of three tellies and populated by four teachers, three other ‘big boys’ and eleven titchy first-formers, all busily getting on with things with or without your intervention.
In an earlier interview, Dave recalled that everything in Skool Daze — the nursery rhyme music, the clickety-click walking, the school’s timetable, the mini-missions like avoiding Angelface and his unique recurring case of the mumps — emerged almost fully-formed.
“It was just a case of adding the characters, scripting them to a certain extent, giving them ways they could interact with each other — which was pretty unusual in those days — then finding a suitably bizarre storyline as I went along. The difficult bit was working out how the characters would interrelate — how and where they’d all go during the course of a school day. All that was based on my admittedly shaky and very shadowy recollections of school.”
Skool Daze was more than living up to Dave’s dreams of a living comicbook — and that was largely thanks to Keith packing each teacher and schoolboy with a remarkable amount of character for their 500-or-so dots.
“I just left Keith to it,” recalls Dave. “What he came up with was really very good. The swot had an egghead, the bully was a little bit broadshouldered and butch, Boy Wonder was blonde and attractive and flowed around the place — don’t you just hate people like that? Where Keith got his inspiration from, I don’t know. He was heading off to be a teacher then, so he probably modelled it on people he knew.”
That’s half right. Keith did take inspiration from teachers — but the ones from his own childhood rather than any he was working alongside as an adult.
“I had my own little names for the teachers while I designed them,” Keith recalls. “The Prof, The Duffer… I particularly remember the one I called Walker [Mr Withit in the final game]. He was partly based on a guy who used to teach me at Junior School, called Mr Sykes. My all-time favourite teacher. He was a real cool dude. He drove an old Rover, miles older than anything else on the road and in good nick. He taught football, and he was smooth and good-looking — he had this slim moustache like Clark Gable out of Gone With The Wind. A real character.”
In addition, there was some benefit to being shackled by the limitations of two-colour 8-by-8 squares of pixels. “You couldn’t do a normal person because they would have all looked the same,” says Keith. “There had to be a little bald round-headed teacher with specs. One needed to be a smarmy bloke with a moustache. Another was bound to be an Open University guy, all beard. Just so you could tell them all apart, really.”
In both Skool Daze and its sequels, Spectrum owners could take Keith’s throwaway nicknames a step further, and officially rename the teachers and pupils for themselves. That was an inspired touch — as Dave says, anyone who’s suffered school could borrow a name of a real-life “crazy chemical teacher, or a mad history teacher who forgets everything”. Similarly, everyone’s been ‘told on’ at one point or another, which is why Einstein the swot got one of Dave’s favourite lines — “Please Sir, I cannot tell a lie…”, delivered just before a teeth-gnashing confession that you’d punched him in the face at lunchtime.
Still, if Einstein’s tale-telling is burned in all our memories, our ears are permanently singed by the screech that came with being gently reminded by a teacher that “You are not a kangaroo!” Dave disagrees that he’d created a noise that could wake the dead. “I wouldn’t exactly call it ear-splitting,” he says. “I never meant to be cruel.”
Despite the anarchy going on behind the virtual headmaster’s back, Dave couldn’t help but side with the teachers from time to time. Skool Daze turned into a real history lesson when you were forced to cough up the date of ancient battles, in order to unlock the code letter “hypnotically embedded” in the mind of history teacher Mr Creak. In an era well before Wikipedia, more than one Spectrum fan dug around in the library to find dates for preposterously obscure conflicts like the Battle of Clontarf.
In fact, Dave told Sinclair User magazine at the time that the only reason he wrote Skool Daze was to get lists of ancient battles in the hints-and-tips pages of Spectrum magazines. He still chuckles about it. “I remember thinking that it was probably going to teach people a few strange dates. I bet most people had never heard of the Battle of Lepanto until they’d played my game.” (a 1571 clash between the Ottoman Empire and the ‘Holy League’ of Pope Pius V, if you’re interested. The Holy League won).
As Skool Daze approached completion, it’s appropriate that the relationship between Dave and Keith wasn’t entirely unlike that of teacher and pupil. “I think sometimes I did brass Dave off with my relaxed attitude,” admits Keith. “I’d go round to his house and we’d sit down and he’d tell me what he liked, and ask me to change things here and there. I’d say, fine, I can have it done in a week — and he’d go, ‘Can’t you do it now?’ After all, it was his money. His commitment. He’s got a real head on that shoulders, that bloke. A real brainbox.”
But Dave still isn’t sure where the central goal of Skool Daze, and the idea of racking up lines until the game ended at 10,000, came from. “The pacing of a game is always quite difficult,” he says. “You have to make people want to play it, and play it again and again. Which means it can’t be too easy to achieve the object, nor too difficult. They have to get closer and closer each time. Skool Daze — like Back To Skool and Wheelie — just seemed to get it right.”
Of course, that’s probably news to Spectrum owners who wandered around bouncing on people’s heads and scribbling rude words on blackboards without the slightest idea of what they were meant to be doing. Back in 1985, Dave told Sinclair User that “a game should not depend on the desire to achieve a single aim. In Skool Daze, you don’t have to know what to do to enjoy it.” We put it to the author that the school he created, operating almost independently of the player, was years ahead of its time. It was ‘sandbox’-style games decades too early. Grand Theft Education.
Dave is a bit lost by all this.
“Um… I never really played anyone else’s games, and I still don’t. So I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,” he admits. “It just seemed to make sense to me — the characters, the school, and in particular the day being divided into things that you do.”
On its release at the tailend of 1984, Skool Daze was instantly loved — at least by those who could get its extraordinarily fast homebrewed tape-loading routine working.
“We sold around 50,000 copies of Skool Daze,” says Dave. “Ten years later, we were thinking that we could have made a lot more money at the time, if we’d been clued up and actually done some proper marketing and merchandising. But I’m not going to cry at the opportunities we lost. We made a decent living out of Skool Daze — it paid for its development, a few times over.” Keith bought a second-hand motorbike on the proceeds.
Fan mail (and fan phone calls) poured in, and Helen gave up full-time teaching to concentrate on the day-to-day running of Microsphere. “We used to get together and write reports for people who sent us mail,” recalls Dave. “Helen went through a phase where she read through letters, corrected the spelling, and sent them back.”
Sequel Back To Skool followed — basically the same game with added frogs, bikes, conkers and girls. And in 1986 the clever but frustrating Contact Sam Cruise used the same engine, and remains the only game to star a private eye who had to somersault onto dollar bills in order to stay out of prison. But then, despite hints from Dave about a third school-based game in two separate magazine interviews, it all went quiet. And that’s largely for the same reason that Dave estimates 350,000 more people played Skool Daze than actually bought it — home taping.
“Going into 1984, people were copying so much,” says Dave. “Somebody at the time estimated that for every game actually sold, there were seven copies made. That’s probably about right. We used to get games returned as faulty from WHSmiths and Boots. Most of them played fine, they’d just been bought, copied, and taken back. Some of them had even been tampered with so people could ‘prove’ the game wouldn’t load — recording a few seconds of silence, say. But there was nothing we could do about it.”
As full-price games were shoved aside by the cocky new budget market, and the shadow of 16-bit computers fell over 8bit gaming in general, Microsphere disappeared.
“The Spectrum was dying on its feet,” says Dave. “Sales volume declined rapidly from 1985. By Christmas 1986, it was about 30% of what it was before. I don’t think we made any money out of Contact Sam Cruise at all, so we thought it would be best to stop. It was time to get proper jobs.” He wrote a “3D crossword program” in 1990, and a couple of games for other publishers which were apparently never released — but those were the last games to emerge from Dave’s fingers (or, more accurately, Helen’s). He now runs his own electrical engineering company.
Keith recalls the sudden change of plans. “Helen and Dave went away for three months on some kind of round-the-world tour, a big holiday they’d wanted to do for years,” he recalls. “When they came back, they wrote with a present — a little Chinese paintbrush. Next thing I know, I’ve got a letter saying they’d moved to Shropshire. And I’ve not really heard from them since.”
So what became of turning Skool Daze into a trilogy? Dave is sparing with the details, but the working title of the third game gives plenty of clues: Eric and Hayley’s Decathlon.
“It may not have even gone out under that title, but a few things were planned. It involved a lot of sheep. Helen and I had moved to the country by then, so after the mice and frogs in Back 2 Skool, we had to have sheep being let loose and running in and out of the school. But generally it was going to be a pastiche of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon, with ten ‘sporting’ events and various scenes holding it together. Events like Throwing the Hibiscus [a type of tropical plant].”
Keith remembers Eric and Hayley’s Decathlon too — the artwork for it was actually completed.
“I was told to make it vaguely sports-related. I remember the picture of Eric and Hayley in the foreground, hurdling over the school fence or something like that. It was the classic hurdling pose, one leg out the front and one bent under. The school was in the background — it wasn’t unlike the Back To Skool painting in that respect, just more polished and with a few speed lines added on. But that’s honestly all I can remember.”
Indeed, neither Dave or Keith has much left from the Microsphere days. Dave threw out most of the materials ten years ago (“We tend not to keep things”). Keith thought he might have the Eric and Hayley’s Decathlon artwork in the garage somewhere — but then realised he’d binned it during a move.
Today, Keith is “an FPS fan” and has his Spectrum, still working to this day, lying around somewhere. Dave, though, doesn’t play many games, and isn’t a big fan of today’s interactive fare. “In terms of hours per pound, the games in those days were probably far better value than the games you get now.” he says. “Do people really play a GBP50 game more than they used to play a GBP5 game? I’m not sure that they do.”
It’s a shame Dave isn’t keeping tabs on the gaming scene. Because he’d probably be amazed to learn that, twenty years after the bell first rang for playtime in Skool Daze, everything’s coming full circle. Grand Theft Auto demigods Rockstar have just announced Bully — which, despite being unlikely to feature catapults and short trousers, looks like doing for today’s consoles what Skool Daze did for the Spectrum and C64.
In truth, he probably wouldn’t be too interested. Even with the cult of Skool Daze firmly established, Dave finds it odd that people are still playing and talking about something that he conjured up two decades ago as a kind of hobby. “I thought Skool Daze was an interesting idea,” he says. “The characterisation and personality appealed to me. It was like a puzzle to perform — a case of making it work, and getting the look and feel that I’d imagined to come out on the screen. I never really thought about how to make it unique or special. It was just a game.”