Bugs in the Attic.

Caveat Lector; this is one of my more self-indulgent ‘blog entries where I, now quite famously it seems, take a while in getting to the point.

  • If you wish to indulge a writer with too much time on his hands because he’s still housebound while recovering from a long bout of food poisoning then, please, just keep reading.
  • If however you wish to jump past much of my ill-disciplined pre-amblings then click here to circumnavigate umpteen paragraphs of text and get to the gist of the piece.
  • Or just click here to jump past all the waffle and go straight to the punch line.



“It was corrupt data rather than… ah… deliberate… incompetence!”
- Matthew Smith, creator of Jet Set Willy
( on the game’s infamous ‘Attic Bug’ )

Jet Set Willy - 8-bit computer game hero!I suppose that most of us have heroes while we’re growing up. One of the foremost amongst mine was – and still is, actually – Matthew Smith.

Matthew Smith was an influential pioneer of the computer gaming world during the early-to-mid 1980s; back in those halcyon days a majority of the software[1] available for home computers in the UK was written by lone programmers – often geeky adolescents – who sat hunched over 8-bit computers in poorly-lit bedrooms while pushing their machines’ woefully limited capabilities to, and often far beyond, the manufacturers’ parameters… usually while neglecting their schoolwork[2]. The games they produced and marketed were often available in major stores – Boots, WHSmith’s and their like – who were crying out for saleable stock during the ‘bloody ‘ell, that caught us all by surprise’ genesis of home computer ownership. Software Houses were founded around kitchen tables by school-leavers and corporate Atari’s mighty grip on the video-games-at-home market (in the UK and European Continent at least) slackened and became the ineffective rigor-mortis grasp of a cold, dead hand. Even the big names in game-authoring in the UK – software houses like Ocean and Imagine – were really little more than a slightly bigger and more organised breed of indie publisher; small cooperatives of über-talented nerds with a gutsy business-school graduate to rally their efforts. I thought them to be wonderful people, all of them, many of whom even now wouldn’t look out of place guesting on The Big Bang Theory.

It might be a cruel but sadly fair (and entirely accurate) observation to point out that the majority of this self-published output from the aforementioned teenaged hermits’ indie software houses was buggy and unplayable tripe. Quite often I’d stand at the computer counter of Boots or WHSmith’s on a Saturday morning agonising over which of the garishly-packaged and luridly-titled games to purchase before finally surrendering my hard-earned pocket money. This was often followed by deeply disappointing Saturday afternoons bemoaning uninspired programming and unattractive graphics. And then came Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith’s 1983 Manic Miner – a game initially released on the much-loved Sinclair ZX Spectrum micro computer, but quickly ‘ported to most other home computers – was a work of pure genius and quite rightly a huge hit with gamers the world over. It was, quite simply, a beautiful piece of work. Smith’s magnum opus became the benchmark by which all other subsequent releases were measured.[3]

Hot on the heels of Manic Miner’s massive success – and while enjoying celebrity status as a cult hero-cum-guru to millions of little nerdlings like me – Smith released the sequel to his game through his self-founded indie software house. Jet Set Willy was the title of this eagerly anticipated follow-up, and it was bigger and better in almost every respect than the Manic game that acted as its herald.

I say in almost every respect because…

After several days of endless playing some of the more accomplished game geeks discovered to their horror that this Holy Grail of Spectrum games was riddled with bugs[4], and these bugs meant that Jet Set Willy, although infinitely playable, was impossible to finish. What has become known for time-immemorial as The Attic Bug meant that once a screen known as The Attic had been visited a glitch in the game’s code…

…erm…

…buggered up the game play entirely.[5]

There was considerable outrage amid the ranks of 12-to-17 year old nerds for whom Spectrum gaming was more a lifestyle than a pastime.[6] We’d lined Matthew’s pockets with our hard-pestered-for cash and had been sold a turkey. We called for Matthew’s head on a plate, or at least a refund. What we got was a short bugfix program in BASIC printed in all major computer gaming magazines along with endless excuses and explanations. The game was also re-released with all bugs and faults smoothly ironed out and became, of course, the second seminal benchmark Spectrum game by which all others were judges. We forgave Matthew, naturally. We always forgive our heroes.[7]

But what has become evident over time – with some facts only belatedly coming to my attention recently, in fact – was that any flaws and faults in Jet Set Willy’s original release were not Matthew’s fault. His master version of the game on his computer was perfect, and the glitches, faults, corruption and bugs must have crept into the code somewhere further down the line; presumably at some critical point between leaving Matthew’s computer, via mass-duplication, to being stacked-high on retail shelves.

Jet Set Willy’s life as a computer game had to endure a now-infamous series of false starts; but it was a victim of circumstance, not laziness or apathy, publishing deadlines or consumer-demand pressure, or a profit-over-quality mentality. Delicate, intricate, fragile code – lovingly crafted by Matthew Smith – was corrupted by blind chance and pure bad bloody luck somewhere down the line. It was corrupt data rather than… ah… deliberate… incompetence!

March 30th of this year saw the Kindle premier of my novel, “GIVEN – A Very Personal Apocalypse”. There was something about publishing through Amazon for their Kindle device that rang a few nostalgic bells for me. We’re all witnessing, here at the dawn of the 21st Century, the rise of the pioneers within the ebook publishing world; these are heady days for authors the world over – a majority of the Kindle ebooks available on Amazon have been written by first-time authors who sit hunched over laptop keyboards in brightly-lit branches of Starbucks while pushing their story-telling capabilities to, and often far beyond, traditional publishers’ parameters… usually while neglecting their friends and family.[8] The digital books they produce are marketed by Amazon and made available worldwide via Amazon’s collective websites while traditional publishers reel during the ‘bloody ‘ell, that caught us all by surprise’ genesis of author-driven publishing. Publishing Houses are being founded around kitchen tables by… well, you get the idea.[9]

There are many superb Kindle books out there… it’s fair and accurate to suggest that possibly as many as 10% of all Kindle titles available are actually worth reading.[10]GIVEN – A Very Personal Apocalypse” – in its first incarnation, I must stress – was not among them…[11]

The first blunder was mine and mine alone. My PC’s hard drive, upon which I do my work, is as disorganised and shambolic (but probably less dusty) as the house in which I live. Files sit within folders which hide within other folders that dwell somewhere upon compartments, and I was also until recently in the habit of simply naming files with a string of numbers; usually the date. Uploading the finished, completely and utterly perfect Kindle file of “GIVEN…” should have been as simple as clicking My Computer > D > Morris > Writings > Current Writings > Given > Converting to Kindle > Completed > GIVEN > Ready_to_submit > 30032012.mobi. But somewhere on this unnecessarily long and convoluted route through my hard drive I failed to take the left turn at Albuquerque[12] and managed to upload a previous draft / test coded version of the novel (30122011.mobi if you must know)[13] from some months earlier replete with typos, homophonic gaffs, smelling pistakes, an incomplete ending and sundry other schoolboy errors[14]. Oh the shame! Oh the ignominy! Oh bugger!

During the opening hours of publication twelve copies of the book had sold before I noticed this bone-chilling mistake, but thankfully all the purchasers were either known to me personally or had emailed/Tweeted/Facebooked me to let me know that they were about to read my work. Their copies were replaced free of charge, of course, with the proper copy

Jet Set Willy on C15 audio cassette (1984) and GIVEN... on Kindle (2012)

Jet Set Willy on C15 audio cassette (1984) and GIVEN… on Kindle (2012) – can you see the difference? I can’t!

Unfortunately, rather like Matthew Smith’s work of nearly thirty years previously, the problem with the proper copy of “GIVEN…” was a technical one. My 30032012.mobi master version of the novel, still stored upon my PC, is technically perfect in coding and layout… the glitches, faults, corruption and bugs must have crept into the code somewhere further down the line; presumably at some critical point between leaving my PC and uploading – via hugely unreliable broadband access courtesy of my locality’s ancient copper-cable telephone network – to Amazon KDP.

The list of faults within the original file still makes me shudder; my readers picked up the small, niggling faults first; a letter missing here, a sentence repeated there. Then, on checking a copy downloaded from Amazon (as opposed to the version I uploaded) I discovered whole paragraphs of the book were missing! Hacking into this file I could see that the errant letters, words, phrases, paragraphs were present in the body of the file, but their ‘p-tags’ had vanished. I can’t and won’t blame Amazon for this – the coding, authoring and uploading was my responsibility alone – and I delivered faulty goods to them.[15] Had I have bothered scrutinising the proof Kindle copy that Amazon always provide in return of a submitted upload I’d have noticed the blunders immediately… but I only gave it a cursory once-over because it was a vast improvement over what was being sold on Amazon a few days prior!

Yes, “GIVEN”’s life as an ebook had to endure a series of false starts; but it was a victim of circumstance, not laziness or apathy, publishing deadlines or consumer-demand pressure, or a profit-over-quality mentality. Delicate, intricate, fragile code – lovingly crafted by me – corrupted by blind chance and pure bad bloody luck somewhere down the phone line. It was corrupt data rather than… ah… deliberate… incompetence!

I wouldn’t dream of comparing myself to the marvellous and talented Matthew Smith, but at least I now know how he must have felt about ‘The Attic Bug’. I now retrospectively refer to my coding ‘n’ uploading troubles as ‘The P-tag Buggeration’.

It’s been a steep learning-curve but, with broadband connection upgraded and my hard drive filing method less lazy, I got there in the end…

GIVEN – A Very Personal Apocalypse is now available on Kindle from Amazon. It’s the 2nd edition and is, as far as I and my ten proofreaders / beta-testers are prepared to testify, entirely glitch, bug, typo, spelling mistake and error free[16]. It not only includes all the content the original release should have contained, but now also features some all-new content[17] and a new cover.

It’s £2.05 (inc VAT) or $2.99 on Kindle for a full-length 140000+ world novel[18] – but for goodness sake don’t buy it yet![19] Because…

GIVEN – A Very Personal Apocalypse will[20] be published in paperback by Pipit Books next Friday; 27th July 2012. To celebrate the paperback’s release the Kindle edition will be free to download from Amazon for a limited time next weekend.

Anyway; here’s to you, Matthew Smith, I’ve walked some little way in your shoes now… and it hurt my feet!

At least mastering the paperback went smoothly… almost. I’ll tell you about that a little later in the week.




FOOTNOTES

[1] Okay, for ‘software’ read ‘games’. No home computer was capable of running any truly useful programs in the early 1980s and the kids who owned these under-powered dinosaurs were really only interested in playing games anyway.
[2] I was one of them. I never did get any of my games published – they were worse than any of the dross other geeks were knocking out – but eventually, just as 8-bit computer was breathing it’s last, a professional software house bought some animated sprites from me to use in a Doctor Who game.
[3] There had been a few truly excellent games released immediately prior to Manic Miner – Sandy White’s Ant Attack, Bob Hamilton’s Doomsday Castle and Ian Weatherburn’s The Alchemist come immediately to mind – but, to my mind, it was Matthew’s work that really set things rolling for the ZX Spectrum.
[4] One could argue that Matthew Smith and his software house Software Projects had inadvertently invented the concept of software sold to the public for Open Beta Testing.
[5] Wikipedia can explain this problem with far greater understanding and clarity than I; Jet Set Willy bugs on Wikipedia link
[6] Me, again… and all my mates… and all my mates’ siblings… and all my mates’ siblings’ friends.
[7] Matthew Smith has not, to date, solo-authored or released another game, and he went missing for a decade-or-so but I’m assured his disappearance was never related to any Willy bugs. It might be more to do with his claim that he was screwed out of most of his royalties and residuals. He’s back in the limelight to some extent now and I’m genuinely delighted to hear that he’s alive and well because, as I’ve already implied, we never stop loving our childhood heroes.
[8] No, not me. Well, okay, so I can go for weeks completely oblivious to the passing of time and therefore neglect my family and friends, but I only write when at home. I view all this lap-top at the coffee shop nonsense with utter contempt and disdain; it’s all so nauseatingly pretentious and reeks of pseudo-intellectual attention-seeking.
[9] Or, at least, you’ll know where this is going if you read my lengthy pre-amble.
[10] It seems abhorrent for an author to be so dismissive about other author’s work… but, c’mon, I part with my money to buy promising Kindle titles regularly and have found to my chagrin that KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) has conclusively proved the fallacy of the old adage; “everyone has a book in them”. Evidently, for many Kindle-published writers, ‘in them’ is where the book should quite definitely stay.
[11] Any observer will have noticed that I stopped promoting GIVEN… within about 48 hours of its release and then went very quiet about it. This is because I will not sell damaged goods to my readers… now read on!
[12] Ref: Bugs Bunny
[13] I’ve stated before elsewhere on this ‘blog that I chose to encode my novel from its manuscript into XHTML (the language of ebooks) from scratch myself rather than use a conversion programme. I never wanted GIVEN… to look like any other generic ebook, and too many books I read on Kindle are so abysmally laid-out and encoded that they could only be the work of an automated process. Need a keyboard monkey to encode your manuscript for Kindle release? You could do far worse that take a look at my book and, if you like what you see, email me to discuss my fee.
[14] By other schoolboy errors I mean trifling little matters like a character’s name actually changing halfway through the story!
[15] Even though – it must be stressed – the novel was not faulty as it left my PC, it just arrived at Amazon’s end utterly screwed up, the corruption creeping in during its journey via the internet. It’s also worth pointing out that P-tags were just the beginning of my problems, but I won’t bog you down with the plethora of other niggles and glitches that made the release of the first edition of GIVEN… irksome.
[16] But still all hyphens within hyphenated words – such as volte-face, single-handedly, half-arsed and even Morris-Henshaw – are actually n-dashes and not true hyphens at all. Most newspapers and magazines have been using the ndash in lieu of the hyphen for years and there’s a very, very good reason for this… but not one worth going into here.
[17] Reader feedback is important to me, and when a number of people said ‘you need to explain such-and-such a bit a little further and stop being so damned enigmatic’ I did exactly that. This is not artistic compromise; it just involved shunting some of the story of GIVEN 2 backwards into the first book to make for a more satisfactory and less cliff-hanger-y ending.
[18] Beware of Kindle authors selling ‘novels’ that weigh in at 20000 words – that isn’t even the length of a decent novella and barely falls into the ‘short story’ category. Shame on them.
[19] No catch; it really will be honest-to-goodness free that weekend. Why? I just want it read.
[20] Act of God or (more likely bearing in mind the novel’s pro-Jesus evangelical message) Act of Lucifer notwithstanding.

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