Author Topic: Interview with Ham / Software Failure  (Read 3408 times)

Offline 4pLaY

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Interview with Ham / Software Failure
« on: May 18, 2020, 06:46:48 PM »
Hello Ham. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hi, everyone.

My name is Hector, but you probably know me by my scene handle, Ham. I live in Spain. I'm currently in my mid-forties and I’ve been involved in this amazingly crazy world of the computer demoscene since my teenage years.

Time goes fast. Perhaps some of you have seen at least a couple of my demoscene productions, mostly intros but also a few demos, that I have released at some demoparties, in person (as it always should be) or sometimes remotely. Most of them are for my favorite platform which is, of course, the Amiga.

When did you get interested in computers and what was your first computer?

I think I could blame some old Sci-Fi TV series from having infected me with this love for computers when I was a child. I got my first computer in 1987. It was a wonderful Amstrad CPC 464 and it came with some tapes, a few games, a rudimentary word processor an even a drawing program and two manuals. One of them entirely devoted to BASIC. I read both books from cover to cover. Those were great days full of fun and experimentation.

I tried to emulate, coding in this slow BASIC, a few arcade games (with modest success) and I learned a lot by myself during those years. Later I upgraded to the CPC 664, which had a disk drive.

What Amiga(s) did you have in the past and if you remember, what were the(ir) configuration(s)?

My first Amiga computer was an A500 with Kickstart 1.3 and the usual half-megabyte trapdoor expansion. Later I bought a second disk drive, which was very practical when you did not have a HD. Around 1995, I got a vanilla A1200 with Kickstart 3.1 and I upgraded it a few months later with a 3.5" 850Mb IDE HD, a CD-ROM drive, an accelerator board with 030/42Mhz and 4Mb of Fast-RAM. Years later other accelerators came to my A1200, like the 040 (with 16Mb) and finally a 060/50Mhz with 64Mb of fast-RAM, which is currently installed on my AGA machine (another A1200).

I still have my first Amiga (that old A500 continues to work flawlessly to this day) and also an A600 with Kickstart 2.0, CF as HD and a Gotek as disk drive.

Can you tell us how you got involved with the demoscene?

It was a very gradual and almost inevitable process. After a year or two spending my days doing a lot of solitary coding with my first computer and saving my programs on those slow tapes, I got my CPC 664 and got to see some cracktros and demos that came to me along with several pirated games. I remember that I was very impressed by the wizardry of some of those demos like, for example, KKB's First Demo's effects and scrollers. By then I had already managed to write relatively complex programs in BASIC, such as a chess game (which played quite badly but at least complied with all the rules, such as capturing "en passant") and a conversational adventure parser and editor (with simple vector graphics), but I didn't want to get stuck in this limited form of programming. So, I started to focus on learning Z80 machine language. This was a slow process because the information was not very easy to find at that time, but there were books, computer magazines and diskmags (mostly in French) with some good articles. I were already involved with some friends in the local CPC scene, making our own diskmag and swapping stuff, when I began to discover how to mix BASIC and Z80 code.

Anyway, soon I bought an Amiga 500 and forgot about the Amstrad for a while. I went back to BASIC again, but this time it was AMOS Pro, a modern language with procedures, easy access to hardware and a compiler. That was much better and very different from the slow and cumbersome Locomotive BASIC of the Amstrad. I also received a photocopy of a translation into Spanish of the Amiga Hardware Reference Manual that, by then, was circulating among the coders of the Spanish scene and I study it conscientiously. At that time I got some fun too, making crappy music with StarTrekker and later on, ProTracker.

As soon as some of my contacts in the world of the Amstrad CPC began the transition to Amiga, I joined forces with them. That was the beginning of Software Failure. Then, a friend sent me a couple of issues of a new diskmag in Spanish called Fanzine, which was full of articles about the scene. This is how I learned that a demoparty had been held in Spain and that about 30 people had attended. The following year (1993) I started visiting demoparties, meeting at last some of my contacts in person, making new friends, and getting much more involved with the demoscene. Suddenly, It's funny now that I see it retrospectively, in less than half a year I attended both the biggest demoparties so far in Spain, the Southern Party (maybe 250 people) in July and the biggest demoparty so far in the world, The Party, around 3000 people, held in Denmark as you surely know in December. What a blast!

Could you tell us a bit about the story behind the group Software Failure and your part in it in the early days and now?

The group was created around the last quarter of 1992. Darklord, the founder, was also one of my old contacts in the world of the Amstrad CPC. So he told me about this new group as soon as he learned that I had bought an Amiga and I joined immediately. At first I was just an AMOS coder and an aspiring musician, but later I started with 68000 assembler. Anyway, we did just a few prods during the first years and most of them were coded by Darklord, sometimes using the handle Genam, that he had until the summer of 1993. For example, we released a musicdisk called “Musik Rulez” (with some early tunes from Goreboy) and an intro for a diskmag called “Digital Fanzine” that was edited by Future Brain (a group from Barcelona) and mainly focused on manga stuff. A year or so after I joined, Chip, another guy from my city, joined too. The team was small and scattered among several cities, so we used to use long telephone calls as our primary form of communication (which was pretty normal before the internet era) and we could only meet at demoparties one or two times each year. I think the first time most of the team met was at Southern Party II in the summer of 1994.

By that time we joined forces with some members of the group Sepultura and even released a demo with them. Shortly after that, I became the organizer of the group because Darklord left Software Failure and joined Necropolis. That pissed me a little bit but most of Necropolis members were living in Darklord's city, Almería and that made it easier for him being productive and I guess, learning more tricks from Necropolis` old coders, Skynet & Creator. So I understood the allure of joining bigger teams with lots of experienced people (after almost a year in Necropolis, Darklord joined Capsule later). Anyway, our group didn't dissolve and we planned to release more prods sooner or later.

Now I guess I should have released more stuff during those years, cause I coded enough to make a couple of small intros, in assembler, that could have been for Posadas'95 or Euskal IV, but I was driven by the vice of perfectionism and those releases were always postponed. Even if I was committed to be more productive and not going to a demoparty again empty-handed, it was easier said then done, because there was always some bug or something that made the releasing unwise. This is something I regret, because Darklord didn't get to see the resurgence of Software Failure since then, unfortunately, he died in the last quarter of 1996 as a sudden consequence of a diabetic coma. Just remembering this tragedy makes me feel deeply sad even now.

However, months passed while I continued learning and improving. I realized that I already had the skills to make relatively good stuff alone and I started a series of regular releases that I somehow managed to maintain every year since then. Not always for Amiga, I must say, but mostly for Amiga. Later JosSs joined, after we did a co-op demo for the GP2X console that won a BCN Party in 2007. So, nowadays Software Failure is a multiplatform small group, centered on the Amiga. Currently only Chip, JosSs and I are really active.

Do you remember which tools you used back when you started out and what are you using these days for development?

Well, sticking to the Amiga, although I've also made (and will do) some demoscene-related productions for other platforms, the main difference is that nowadays I use a PC to develop for Amiga, while before I only used an Amiga for these purposes. So these days I use VBCC, vasm and vlink for cross-compiling code edited on Notepad++ and then I run the resulting executable within WinUAE or FS-UAE. I also test it on the real thing, because I need to be sure that everything really works. My A1200 has a network card, which is very practical when making fast tests during development, but most of the time I use an emulator and try to minimize the number of tests on my A1200. In the old days I used Devpac to code in 680x0 assembly and then I switched to PhxAss for a while.

Regarding music, when I need to do the music for a demo, nowadays I use Renoise, some VSTs and Audacity, but if I need to do music for an intro (or even a dentro) I generally use that ProTracker 2.3D clone made by 8bitbubsy. Sometimes I create the samples with Renoise and then I convert them to 8VSX using SoX (which allows more flexibility than simply loading WAV samples at 22KHz).

Regarding graphics, I still use some Amiga tools like Personal Paint and Photogenics inside the emulator, but I also like to use some PC tools like GrafX2. And for 3D graphics I created my own tools, first in AMOS on Amiga and later in C++ on PC, but I also use some normal tools such as Wings 3D (great tool that I recommend for modeling and texturing low polygon models). These are more or less my current tools to develop for Amiga and though they are much better than the tools I was using years ago, everything could change in the future, because I will always be willing to improve this sometimes tiresome workflow for something better or faster.

Do you have some tips for anyone that might want to start doing Amiga productions in 2020?

You need to feel motivated because making productions is not easy. You should expect some difficulties and be able to handle a certain level of frustration. The good thing is that nowadays it's relatively easy to start if you get one of those frameworks released by groups like Haujobb or Capsule. Cross-compilation makes the demomaking process easier now than before. Also, you don't need to use assembler for all the things. Though you should learn assembler cause 680x0 machine code is fun anyway!

Use emulators while you are making your demo but don't forget to get a real machine for testing and never rely completely on software emulators or hardware reimplementations (like MIST or Minimig) because they are not always completely accurate in terms of compatibility.

Choose AGA or OCS. They are different platforms even if they have many things in common. If you choose OCS, stick to A500 for compatibility but make sure that your demo can run flawlessly, without graphical or sound issues, on AGA machines (at least check this on an emulator). If you choose AGA, make a demo that can run well on 68060/50MHz maximum and I'll be happy. But I would be even happier if your demo runs on a vanilla A1200! Start easy. Make a small intro before you try to make a full demo.

Anyway, avoid perfectionism because it could be paralyzing. You need to finish your prods and you should not worry if they are not your best. You can always do next one better. Look for inspiration everywhere and preferably outside the demoscene world. Nature, mathematics, art and life are better sources of inspiration than other demos.

What would you consider the best production you have created so far?

I honestly have no idea. Best according to what criteria? In terms of what I learned creating them, it's probably one of my early intros like "Mecanica", "Neuroblasto" or "Brain Overdrive". But if we consider just the overall result, maybe it's some of my recent productions like "Omnimetatheorem" or "Obsolete & Happy". Some people may even argue that my best demo is not even made for Amiga but for GP2X! I would disagree with them, of course. In any case, I hope that my best production (whatever that means) has not been created yet.

Can you tell us what you consider the best Amiga demos back in the golden years? as well as now

Well, one of the best of the golden years (1992) was, to my taste, not a demo but a musicdisk by Sanity called "Jesterday". It's absolutely fantastic! I also recommend another Sanity's production from 1993 (this time it's a demo) called "Arte". This demo is pure delight! There is another great demo from the mid-90s called "Deep - the Psilocybin Mix" by Parallax & CNCD. I will not try to describe this masterpiece, just watch it!

A demo with great design and style is "Klone" by DCS (1999). Also from the late 90s, I recommend "Pulse" by Nerve Axis. In my opinion, it's the best demo from Nerve Axis. Clearly better than "Relic". Perhaps I should point out that much of the best prods from this era were 64K intros. Check all the stuff made by Antibyte/Scoopex (like "Superautodrome 2", for instance) because, regarding code and music, you might find them quite interesting.

Another one, much more recent (2001) is a 64K AGA intro by Nature called "Zeon" that not only has a great tune but also impressive 3D effects in low-res wireframe and flat lighting. Nowadays the Amiga demoscene is perhaps smaller in size but not in quality. There is a lot of great stuff released recently both in OCS/ECS and AGA. For instance, the demos from Revision 2019 released by groups like Ephidrena, Capsule, TEK or Haujobb. And even experimental demos like "Peek" by Spaceballs (Datastorm, 2018) are moving the Amiga's flame forward featuring quite impressive effects made for anaglyphic glasses.

What do you think of the state of the demo scene today?

I can't complain about how things are nowadays. Every month, or every couple of months, you can find new stuff for Amiga released at some demoparty. Or some prod simply released for fun. That's amazing considering how old our platform is. But C64 is older and still kicking. So I feel optimistic.

What do you feel you got out of the whole experience of being active in the Amiga demoscene? for example, did it lead you to code professionally in any way?

Being active in the demoscene brings me much more in the personal realm than the professional one. Of course, demoscene skills are somehow transferable to many technical and artistic jobs but that’s just a collateral benefit and not the main fruit of doing demos. To me, the whole process of creating a demo (or intro) gives great satisfaction, especially if it’s properly finished and released, and makes me push my own limits, learn more things and explore new ideas. Besides, meeting a lot of great people interested in creating demos (on Amiga, PC or whatever) and being able to party with them and share this passion for technology and art is something amazing. Moreover, I consider the “computer demo” as an art form as good and legit as could be a poem, a sonata, a painting, a photograph, a film or any other “classical” art forms. So far, being part of the demoscene has made me grow as an artist, programmer and person. That’s what I get out of the whole experience.

Is there anyone you would like to send some greetings to? Or perhaps you have some other last words?

Greetings to all the people who keep alive the demoscene spirit. They have my admiration, especially those who release new stuff for old machines like the Amiga. Also, big thanks to the nice coders who spend their time making useful demotools like crunchers or trackers. You all are awesome! See you at some demoparty, hopefully soon.

That is the end of this interview, thanks for taking the time to do it Ham, I am sure our readers will appreciate it :).