My First Commercial Software: Kempston Joystick Conversion Tape

1983 were much simpler times in software. Here is how a student turned a quick hack into his first commercially released software and made his first money in the business. That student was me.

Back in 1983 Kempston Electronics produced a joystick interface for the ZX Spectrum, which allowed Atari-style joysticks to work with the most popular computer of the day. However, existing software had no way of working with this new hardware so in these early days it was cool hardware that honestly couldn’t do much. I picked up a joystick pretty soon after it came out, and found myself wanting to use it in my existing games. My favorite game of the day was the Psion Flight Simulator, a wire-frame “3D” representation, so I fired up my debugger of choice (Devpac) and searched for the IN instruction that read the keyboard. Those found I disassembled the keyboard code and figured out how to replace it with IN instructions to map the joystick movement to the game code.

For some reason (and I can’t honestly recall why) I decided to call Kempston and tell them of my achievement. Turns out they were very excited too, and offered me £250 for it right there on the phone. To give an idea how much this seemed to me, as a comparison the government was giving me a Full Grant of £1400 to cover my living expense for a year, and I actually had trouble spending it all! Naturally I was giddy at the idea of more money and proceeded to produce similar hacks for six other games, along with loaders that circumvented their copy-protection (so that I could patch the code), and created Joystick Conversion Tape 1. In due course I did this for a few more times and produced Tapes 2 and 3. I got royalties for these and I forget how much this totaled, but it was definitely a great time-taken vs reward result for me. (There are few things that you can’t find anywhere on the internet, but a picture of Tape 3 is one of them).

In due course the Kempston Joystick came to dominate the market and was a huge success, and I distinctly remember a notable sight when I was helping set up at a trade show once. Kempston’s owner, Ab Pandaal, was emptying a surprising amount of joystick boxes from his shiny red Ferrari parked in between the wooden folding tables that made up most of the “stands” of the day. I got to know Ab pretty well over the years: I did software for his Spectrum printer interfaces and scanner software for the Atari ST. He was the first person I knew with a Ferrari, and the only person I knew with two Ferrari’s until I got to Microsoft in the crazy 90s. I do know that at one point Coin Controls, who made the actual joysticks, offered Ab £2million for his company and he turned them down, which I'm sure he regretted later. Software development is a lot more complicated these days, Kempston Electronics are long gone now and I often wonder whatever happened to those early entrepreneurs like Ab.