Talkin'Games https://talkingames.com About Games with Those who Make Them Wed, 29 May 2019 13:03:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 https://talkingames.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/cropped-site-icon-4-32x32.png Talkin'Games https://talkingames.com 32 32 Jon Hare: Chapter IV https://talkingames.com/jon-hare-chapter-iv/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 17:19:43 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=3188 How about some positive memories from that time?

The main positive about Jagex was that I joined their football team – an 11-a-side football team. After playing with them for a couple of years, I joined another football team called Anglia FC. I’ve played for them now well over a 100 times, and now I'm the owner of the club. Jagex was a great re-introduction for me back into real football on grass and playing 11-a-side Sunday League football was something I hadn't really done until I was with Jagex in my 40s. That's great. I'm still with Anglia FC now and we’re doing well in the league. We're going to be about third or fourth by the end of the year hopefully...

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How about some positive memories from that time?

The main positive about Jagex was that I joined their football team – an 11-a-side football team. After playing with them for a couple of years, I joined another football team called Anglia FC. I’ve played for them now well over a 100 times, and now I’m the owner of the club. Jagex was a great re-introduction for me back into real football on grass and playing 11-a-side Sunday League football was something I hadn’t really done until I was with Jagex in my 40s. That’s great. I’m still with Anglia FC now and we’re doing well in the league. We’re going to be about third or fourth by the end of the year hopefully. So regarding Jagex the football was good for me and I’m still talking to them now, so that’s an open thing.

The immediate post-Jagex era of 2010 to ‘11 saw you very busy on all fronts again. You returned to the mobile market with Tower Studios, you travelled to Poland, and also attempted your own gaming platform, Me-Star, using an advanced 3D face technology. I’d like to hear that story.

After leaving Jagex, it was like, ‘okay, what do I do?’ I wasn’t that unhappy to have left because I’m not used to being controlled by people like that. I decided the easiest thing to do was to go back to Tower Studios because they still existed. It had been quiet for three years, but it was still there. We’d had a couple of number one games with Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder on mobile in the early Tower days. So I decided to get it up and running again, but this time on my own. I also got back in touch with some friends of mine in Middlesbrough, Darren and Jason Falcus – who had ran the old Acclaim Teeside Studios up there – and various other companies.

What was worse, the first in-game setting when it booted up was, ‘What’s your AOL name and password?’

Then, at a game show, I met an American guy from Ohio who ran the largest school photography company in the States. So he had about three or four million kids’ school photos every year and he didn’t know what the hell to do with them. But he knew there were these new smartphones and maybe something could be done with them. He had hooked up with a company in New York that specialised in using a single photo of a face to map out a 3D head, which could be used by the police to identify people from CCTV cameras. So this is a quite interesting little bit of background. He was exploring how we could make some apps out of it.

We came up with the idea for using personalised 3D faces to add like emojis to a messaging app, so I worked with my friends in Middlesbrough on this. It was called Me-Motes [Messenger]. The idea was that you could put your photo into the app and it would convert your photo into a 3D head. When you did a smiley face or crying face or whatever, it was actually your face smiling or crying, or your hand doing the thumbs up with your face behind it. It was a really good idea and it’s a lovely little app. Quite tragically, because it was going through the American guys, who were a little bit behind the times, they decided you needed an AOL account to be able to run this app. What was worse, the first in-game setting when it booted up was, ‘What’s your AOL name and password?’ So you couldn’t run it without that. For that reason, it didn’t take off.

Ah, I see. So that was the core technology later intended for the Me-Stars gaming platform, right? How did the Poles get mixed up in all this?

When I decided to resurrect Tower [Studios], I said to Mike and John, who were still doing a lot of work consulting, ‘Do you mind if I take the company over?’ They said that’s fine. So I took it over 100 percent myself. We didn’t really even have much of a public profile. Regarding Me-motes we got a bit of money out of it and it was quite fun to work with the Falcus brothers and other guys up in Middlesbrough again. They are the guys who I did Mike Tyson Boxing with years earlier. It gave me a first release with Tower Studios on the modern touch phone era.

Then, a little bit after that, I got contacted by this company from Poland. There was this guy called Remi Koscielny, who was contacting me a lot and trying to persuade me to work with them. They were a relatively small Polish company with about 15 to 20 people at the time. In the end, after the third or fourth time he rung, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go and see these guys.’ They are based in a city called Bydgoszcz.

Mev Dinc, Sobee team Istanbul and Jon Hare with Vivid Games
Left: With Mev Dinc (centre) and his Sobee team in Istanbul (2008) Right: With some of the Vivid Games team in Bydgoszcz, Poland (2013)

Previously, I had also been to work with my friend Mevlut Dinc, who used to run the company Vivid Image, who did games like the First Samurai. He was working on the football game I Can Football in Turkey.  So I worked in Istanbul for about six months, which was fun. And that’s when I had the first idea for Sociable Soccer, so the first idea came in 2008.

So, in 2010, I went to Poland to work – and they’re kind of working in a converted house. I remember how me, Chris and Martin worked in one like that, in the time before we got our proper office. They were keen to work and I was also talking to Mike Montgomery. Mike was keen to get some Bitmap stuff rolling. I had helped him do the contracts getting a few Bitmap games to mobile in previous years, as well as design consulting staff for him on some other games. So Mike said, ‘Okay which game do you want to do from the Bitmaps?’ and I said, ‘I quite fancy Speedball 2.’ That’s my favourite Bitmap game. So we had Speedball 2 and I wanted to do a game called Word Explorer that I’d designed.

And Me-Stars, what was the idea behind it?

So with Me-Stars, you had your little 3D heads and you could use that as a face. You could connect an account between different games using your Me-Mote head and collect stars for all the games. So, they’re kind of wrapped up together into a little world, cross-pollinating each other, which never really took off. I worked with someone to try and get this launched and it didn’t work. Actually, I think even when we signed the contract with Vivid Games – Remi’s company in Poland – it included Me-Stars, as it was very much a live thing then, but we dropped it.

What were the plans with Vivid Games?

We had a three-game deal: Word Explorer, Speedball 2 Evolution – the Bitmap Brothers conversion – and Vivid’s own game, ‘Shoot to Kill’. Basically, we started with Shoot to Kill and I just worked on their game polishing skills. I taught them what to do. I learnt a lot about how to skill people up from working with Nikitova in Kiev, Ukraine. Then we did Speedball 2 [Evolution], which was pretty successful. It was a number one hit for us in 2011. That came out on mobile, Mac, PS+ and I think some other more obscure platforms as well.

Everything lives or dies based on how good your programming team is, from the game designer’s perspective

Speedball 2 Evolution was a hit, but the later PC port, Speedball 2 HD, was met with a rather lukewarm response in Steam reviews; chiefly from the veteran gamers complaining about various dubiously reworked aspects of the original gameplay mechanics. Why do you think it failed to follow its predecessor’s success? And why, in general, do a lot of classic game remakes, usually executed by relatively unknown indie studios, often fail to impress contemporary gamers both old and young?

I am currently working on a Sociable Soccer that is very much in the spirit of Sensible Soccer, although I’ve got to say it’s a different game. But people think it’s the same. I think the real issue is that people just have an expectation that it’s basically possible to magically port exactly the same game onto a totally different machine in a different era to work.

So with Speedball 2 mobile, it was something fresh; you got these new different touchscreen controls and people were more forgiving. Also, in the case of the PC port, it was done by a different team at Vivid [Games]. They had other less experienced dev team in an office in Lodz, another city in Poland, and unfortunately they decided to give it to them. I sign deals with developers in a certain, low risk way, which helps me in as much as I share high percentages of the money that comes in after the games are sold with these developers and generally don’t have to pay them so much money upfront. Only certain companies can take this on. But it means it’s harder for me to control the kind of way things are staffed. To a certain extent, you’re very much throwing dice on the quality of the programmers and team that you’re given.

Martin [Galway] was the first experience I had with that. Trying to be a lead programmer for a Touchstone all those years ago in ’87 or ’88. I’m used to this, but it’s a dice roll with programmers. Everything lives or dies based on how good your programming team is, from the game designer’s perspective. In this particular case with Vivid Games, the guys were learning. They were good for young Polish programmers, but they weren’t as good as those top programmers at the Bitmaps making the brilliant iconic original Speedball for example. People have to understand that average quality of programmers is going down and down all the time as more people want to join the party often without the real skills to do it. In contrast, if I look at the work Chris Yates, Archer Maclean, Jeff Minter or David Braben did in the old days, all these guys were geniuses.

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Jon Hare: Chapter III https://talkingames.com/jon-hare-chapter-iii/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 14:04:05 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=3181 Since the studio was acquired by Codemasters, you have been often mentioned as a consultant designer. Would you care to elaborate on that topic?

We sold to them and then part of that deal was that I stayed on and worked for them as a consultant. As you said, it was a great, great time. It was working three days per week and getting paid incredibly well. We were making Cannon Fodder 3, which unfortunately never came out – we stopped and started development three times. Codemasters kept on swapping their programming staff around and we kept on losing people in the team so... Yep, it was a brilliant game design. I really regret not having made it. Not finishing that game, for me, was hard to take, because it came on in the back of Sex'n'Drugs'n'Rock'n'Roll, which I worked for four years as well, in the previous deal, and Touchstone was also a wasted year for me...

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Since the studio was acquired by Codemasters, you have been often mentioned as a consultant designer. Would you care to elaborate on that topic?

We sold to them and then part of that deal was that I stayed on and worked for them as a consultant. As you said, it was a great, great time. It was working three days per week and getting paid incredibly well. We were making Cannon Fodder 3, which unfortunately never came out – we stopped and started development three times. Codemasters kept on swapping their programming staff around and we kept on losing people in the team so… Yep, it was a brilliant game design. I really regret not having made it. Not finishing  that game, for me, was hard to take, because it came on in the back of Sex’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll, which I worked for four years as well, in the previous deal, and Touchstone was also a wasted year for me. We put a lot of time into some games which people didn’t see; as a creative person that always hurts.

A lot of people who didn’t have the talent were persuading companies they could make games

So, I came off the back of that and then did different bits with Codemasters instead. I did some work at the end of Prince Naseem Boxing. Then I made Mike Tyson Boxing with them, and gave some various bits of advice on other Codemasters games. With Codemasters, I was tied in for one and a half years and I liked it, so I stayed there for three years. I really enjoyed working with them, the Darling brothers and Jim Darling, they were great to work for. I couldn’t have worked with better people. But I was tired, I’d done 16 years back to back – 13 years with Sensible and three with Codemasters – with no break since I was 19. So I gave myself about three or four months off, watched the entire 2002 World Cup, every single game on the telly, and then started consulting for some small companies.

I picked very obscure stuff and just wanted to do some fun stuff again. I worked on a great game called Virtual TV (VTV) with a small company called Legba in Windsor, UK. We worked on that together for about a year and we couldn’t sell it, we just couldn’t get a deal. What had happened in the market was the Dot-com bubble. A lot of people who didn’t have the talent were persuading companies they could make games, and basically not delivering what they said they could deliver, and companies felt very burned. After that it was very hard to get original games signed up.

What made Virtual TV original?

Virtual TV was a game about a TV cameraman working with a TV reporter, making a documentary about dinosaurs in the wild. They had to film the dinosaurs and show them laying eggs and stuff without getting eaten by them. You had a camera and you were putting a film together and filming in an environment. It was a really cool game.

I’ll sum this whole era up. I went to Japan and saw three companies out there. I’d never been there before, so I had a terrible jet lag and almost missed the meeting entirely because of it. At that meeting, I saw six guys from the company who were waiting there. They must have hated me. It was almost half-five or six by the time I got there, because I totally missed my alarm. But I showed them the game, VTV, and they liked it. They said, ‘Well, this game is really good. We’ll show it to our accounts department to analyse it.’ So we sat there for another half an hour or so and they came back and said to me, ‘Okay, we looked at your game. Our accounts department says we can’t find any other game like it on the market. Therefore we can’t do an evaluation of it, therefore we can’t sign it.’ That sums up that era.

What year are we talking about?  

That was in about 2003. It was the polar opposite to when we went to Ocean with Parallax and they gave us a contract the same day, because they could see the game was good. The whole market got very fearful of making mistakes. In my opinion, it was because, in the old days, when we went to see Ocean, we spoke to John Woods who was an owner of the company and when we went to Virgin we spoke to Tim Chaney and Sean Brennan. Tim was the boss of the company. Sean was the guy running the marketing and one of the leading people in the company. When we went to Palace, we spoke to Matthew Tims – one of the runners of the company – and Pete Stone. When we went to Mirrorsoft, we spoke to Peter Billota at the top of the company, and to all the guys that ran Renegade as well.

Now, we’re talking to guys who are below people owning the company. The problem when you speak to people who are not the prime shareholders, is that their prime focus is to make sure they don’t lose their own job, rather than how to make the company loads of money. So when they look at a game, they see it as a threat; if they’ll make a mistake, rahter than seeing it as a feather in the cap if they get it right. Because they’re personally not going to benefit that much if the game sells a hundred times more than you expect. They maybe get a pay rise, maybe a small bonus at Christmas. So I really noticed the difference in the kind of people I was talking to, and how much influence they had on original games in 2003, which is before we got touchscreen phones. It’s just when mobile phone games just started to kick off, it was kind of like the bottom of the pit, the nadir of original games.

John Phillips, Mike Montgomery & Jon Hare (left to right) the original Tower Studios founders (2004)

So a year later, in 2004, you and two former members of Bitmap Bros formed Tower Studios. What did you achieve together?

Mike Montgomery, a very close friend of mine, and John Phillips – both in Bitmap Brothers – had found the same thing. So the three of us talked about setting up a company to make mobile games. By this, I mean old mobiles, like Nokia S40s and S60s, etcetera. We set up Tower Studios in London in 2004. We got a small office in London, by the Tower of London – which is why it’s called Tower Studios, for anyone who’s wondering.

Yeah, we started to make some games. Ironically, we worked with Kuju, who got their licenses for Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder, the games I’d recently sold to Codemasters. So the first two games we worked on were Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder again – this time, for mobile. We did a rugby game called British Lions Rugby Sevens, which was pretty good, and started working on a golf game, which was an original mini golf game. Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder did well. I would say that maybe SS was slightly stronger than CF, but they were both pretty good versions. Rugby was okay. The mini golf game, we had a problem with the programmer and he disappeared. He was another bad programmer. So that fell by the wayside which was depressing to me, because that was the original game out of all of them. It was very hard to sell original games for mobile phones and the mobile publishers treated developers like dirt. Games were one and a half or two percent of their income, or maybe three, but they really didn’t care about us. They had no respect for any of what we did in the past and, to be frank, all three of us hated it.

I actually entered BAFTA as a composer who’d done games, rather than a games person who’d done composing

And after a couple of years, Mike, John and me agreed to just stop trying to make new games at Tower Studios and leave it in an almost dormant state. Then we carried on consulting, which is what we did for quite a few years up to about 2009 – it was all consulting again from 2006.

Interestingly, in the same year you established Tower Studios, your name got also connected to a BAFTA awards ceremony. How did you get involved with that, and what has been your role there since then?

Yeah, I’ve been a BAFTA member since 2004 and I just finished my voting recently. I do the films as well as the games voting and it’s a good story actually. So when we were doing Sex’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll, we were interested in getting involved in the music market. We got working with these guys from a company called LP in London, who were predominantly agents for really good record producers – the likes of George Michael’s and Tina Turner’s producers, etcetera. They wanted to get into games and we wanted some leverage into music, because Sex’n’Drugs’n’Rock’n’Roll was a game about music history with a lot of sound. Me and Richard [Joseph] did over 30 songs for that game, so it was very music heavy. They got us in front of some big record companies to actually try and sell a Sensible band, as a virtual band with tunes like ‘War Has Never Been So Much Fun’. So we were doing a lot of experimenting there, we saw a lot of good music people, but nothing really came of that.

However, I still remained in touch with them. In fact, one of my daughters did some work experience with one of their other companies selling cosmetics. They shared their office with this other guy called Eddy. He was the guy who’d been involved in writing or publishing ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree’, a famous ‘70s hit and he was the guy who mentioned to me about BAFTA, because he was a member. He said, ‘Oh well, if you’re interested, your credentials are in the games world and as a music writer. We should get you into BAFTA membership, if you want to.’

I said, ‘Okay that’s interesting,’ and I filled in a form. He endorsed it for me. I actually entered BAFTA as a composer who’d done games, rather than a games person who’d done composing, which was great. So it came from a music angle in my case. Of course, the games helped. I’ve been on the BAFTA committee, I’ve sat on a few juries for awards, and over the last four or five years I’ve actually chaired the juries. I didn’t do one this year, but I did one the year before and I think I’ve done it about four or five times in total. So yeah, I’m very proud to be a member of BAFTA, it’s a great thing.

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Jon Hare: Chapter II https://talkingames.com/jon-hare-chapter-ii/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 13:53:08 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=3177 You lost Martin Galway in 1990 when he departed to work at Origin Systems.

We lost Martin and we lost Touchstone as a game. I put about a year into that, which is a bit depressing.

But soon after you secured another legend, Richard Joseph, who’d become more than an adequate replacement for Martin in the music and sound department. It must have been an incredible experience to work with such talents. You and Richard were known to collaborate a lot musically over the years to come, so what’s the story of Richard’s Sensible marriage?

Well, we met Richard, I think, when we did SEUCK. Because he was working with Palace at the time, on Barbarian if I remember rightly. He was Palace's main sound man...

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You lost Martin Galway in 1990 when he departed to work at Origin Systems.

We lost Martin and we lost Touchstone as a game. I put about a year into that, which is a bit depressing.

But soon after you secured another legend, Richard Joseph, who’d become more than an adequate replacement for Martin in the music and sound department. It must have been an incredible experience to work with such talents. You and Richard were known to collaborate a lot musically over the years to come, so what’s the story of Richard’s Sensible marriage? 

Well, we met Richard, I think, when we did SEUCK. Because he was working with Palace at the time, on Barbarian if I remember rightly. He was Palace’s main sound man. Although we didn’t work directly with Richard on the SEUCK, because it didn’t need sound. But we went back to Palace to do International 3D Tennis – the game we did after Microprose Soccer – and Richard was the guy to work with. Martin had just left and, as you rightly say, we totally fell on our feet. Considering me and Chris are both musicians, we luckily managed to work with two musical geniuses on our games – pretty much all the time at Sensible. We couldn’t have had two better guys and their style, I think, sometimes it just clicks. What we were good at was steering the ship ourselves but allowing other people to add their personality to the work, and with Martin and Richard that really is apparent. You can’t argue that on some of the C64 stuff, Martin’s work is the standout work. In terms of Parallax, it definitely is for example.

Richard was different to Martin. Martin, who at 18 years old, was a young whizz-kid type of character, whereas Richard was the opposite. He was older than us; he was about 12 years older than me. He had a recording contract with EMI, I think it was, when he was in his 20s. And by his own admission, he had been too far up his own ass and pretentious to understand what was going on and actually blew it, which he was trying to forgive himself for. He was hanging out and associated with some very successful people like Trevor Horn, Shaq Attack and other successful musicians that he’d been working in and around with. He comes from a highly musical and media family. His father was a film producer who worked with the Alfred Hitchcock. His older brother is a big deal in film sound. His younger brother runs The Mill, which is a big post-effects house in London that does Doctor Who and various other shows. His nephew also does a lot of film sounds himself; he has done Harry Potter and James Bond and stuff like that.

Considering me and Chris are both musicians, we luckily managed to work with two musical geniuses on our games – pretty much all the time at Sensible

Richard comes from a very rich media family in the UK – and by rich, I mean steeped in experience. So he kind of chose games, in a way I’m guessing, to individualize himself from his brothers. He brought this savvy film stroke music business world to us. He was very experimental and he had ambition.

Can you give an example?

The next game we were doing was 3D Tennis and we had commentary in it by Dan Maskell, who was the BBC commentator for a tennis in the UK. He was the voice of tennis on our television. He also brought the TV theme, so we recreated the structure of the BBC TV theme tune as our tune for 3D Tennis.

Yet still, 3D Tennis is a virtually unknown game, despite also utilizing 3D vector graphics and having a pair of ridiculous stickmen chasing the ball on the court…

With 3D Tennis it was simple; Chris just wanted to do 3D on C64. It’s worth talking about the game a bit as it was important in the evolution of the company. It was the first time we reconstructed an entire sport in a game. Although it looks a bit weird and most people don’t know about the game. It was actually our first game we did also for 16-bit machines, because we did it cross-platform. It was the first time we successfully employed another programmer do anything because we got David Korn – also called Ubik – to do the conversion to the 16-bit platforms for us. And it was the first time that I had designed a game with a full sports world behind it – although the funny little stickmen look ugly, I normally say like Czech cartoon characters from the ‘70s, because they do. They were really Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. We had every top player in the world in the game. You played a full career and you had to go through your season, working out which tournaments you wanted to play. We emulated accurately the professional tennis tournament prize money for the entire year. That preceded what we did with Sensible Soccer. Maybe people don’t know that, but for me as a designer it was a very important part of the learning curve.

Left: Steve Wright (BBC Radio), Sean Brennan (Virgin), Christine Erskine (Virgin), Jon Hare (left to right) (Golden Joystick Awards – Cannon Fodder – 1993) Right: Chris Yates, Chris Chapman, Jon Hare (top row), Richard Joseph, Dave Korn (bottom row) (1992)

Nonetheless, the next game in the pipeline was a real-time strategy for 16-bit computers. Mega-lo-Mania, published in 1991, at first glance seemed like a take on Bullfrog’s Populous or Powermonger. The game had a few revolutionary features for a 16-bit real-time strategy game. It was packed with some cool elements such as catchy voice-overs and a research technology tree. It also introduced players to a hilarious mini-sprite character art style that became something of a signature in your subsequent titles. All that neatly packed on, what, two floppy disks? I remember playing it a lot back on Amiga, so I am very eager to finally hear about its story.

The story of how that game was made is pretty crazy. We hadn’t employed anyone to work as a programmer on an original game before. Chris had always been the original programmer for everything we’d done. But when we came to make Mega-lo-Mania, we wanted to see what it was like to get another programmer to come in, because we realised that I didn’t have time to do art for two games at once. The games were taking a year and a bit to make in general. We wanted to make a space exploration game, so we made this game where you flew a spaceship around and there were 16 planets you could land on, then you could mine there, make better weapons for your spaceships and upgrade them. There’s a little castle there where you can breed men and then decide whether you want them to fight or stay there and do stuff. The game was like that for a year and we pitched it out to Virgin and various other companies.

Then about six months before the end of it, we still hadn’t signed a deal. At that point, I saw the advert for a Populous or Powermonger with the cavemen. Just the advert, didn’t see the game. The game had already been made – the whole thing with tech trees and stuff was already there – but it was bloody hard to play. Flying a spaceship plus not getting killed, plus doing all the stuff you do in Mega-lo-Mania at the same time, was humanly impossible really. So we decided to ditch the spaceship and then we didn’t know what to do. Then I saw the caveman and thought, why don’t we, rather than starting in 10 000 AD and getting better and better spaceships and going forward, why don’t we start in 10 000 BC with the cavemen? Then go through the tech tree but in known technologies. From cavemen up to biblical times and Roman times, then medieval times, Victorian times, WWI and II and spaceships and nuclear weapons, etcetera. Yeah, it worked. We then had to humanize the tech levels, which is when you get the little men coming up to represent these different historical periods of time.

Mega lo Mania (1991)

It’s quite intriguing to realise that you played, perhaps even coincidentally, such an important role in this freshly emerging genre of computer game. How successful was the game after its launch?

A number of games came out. Dune II [1992] had come out around about the same time. What I’m saying is that us developers, we were making games without really knowing what each other were doing at the same time. It was really because the 16-bit machines allowed us to explore more – they had more memory and better graphical capabilities – so we could do more. We all seemed to gravitate to different versions of the same thing. So our focus was on tech trees, quite fast gameplay, very mouse-driven gameplay. It was a men-management game basically; there’s time and men assignment. Then you layer on top of that Richard’s great work on the speech, some really good music, the humor again with the characters. I really love Mega-lo-Mania. It really suffered because of stuff outside of our control. It was a number one game. I think it came out in about October or September ‘91, and it was really going places. Then unfortunately, Mirrorsoft, the company we signed up with, just went bust two months after the game’s launch.

Ouch…

We got no royalties from it and it killed the game just as it was rising. It was a bit of a blow, because I think the game would’ve done well. Probably with a bit of a push, it would have done better in the States, and as it was, it didn’t really get that kick at the right time. It needed to get bigger, but it got smaller. Six months later we re-signed it to Ubisoft, but the momentum had gone then.

That’s a shame. However, speaking of publishers in general, it’s quite interesting to note that throughout the whole Sensible era, you were very flexible with them – something almost unheard of these days.

Well, it is for better business. You’ve got to remember – like I’ve said to you before with Ocean – all of their artist statements said zero at the bottom. You need to put this in perspective. We did three games with Ocean: Parallax, Wizball and Wizkid – we haven’t talked about Wizkid yet. That’s three with Ocean. We did two with Palace: SEUCK and International 3D Tennis. We did two with BT: Oh No and Galaxy Birds. We only did one with Microprose because they were not nice to work with. That’s the main reason we only did one with them; they weren’t a nice company to work with. Although they they did pass the money, they made things very difficult for us. Then with Mirrorsoft, although we only did one game with them, we had actually signed on four, but they went bust.

What we learnt was that you need to retain your relationship with publishers and have good working relationships, but also you need more than one source of income. Because if anything goes wrong with that company, your company goes down. Actually, what we learnt from the Mirrorsoft experience was that we signed four games with them, they went down, and we were in trouble and lost 75 percent of our turnover that year. That nearly killed us. So yeah, we didn’t move around as much as it appears. Companies were offering you deals to secure your future, while you commit everything to them for that time.

The first ever game was Norwich vs Sunderland, it was obviously a lot of fun

Mega-lo-Mania, Mega-lo-Mania 2, Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder were all signed with Mirrorsoft when they went down. They also had a lot of Bitmap Brothers games signed, Probe games and many other companies. I think they’d signed up over half of the talent in the UK, so it was a big big deal for everyone when they exploded.

In 1992, an immediate hit that rippled through the fabric of space-time was born. In the years to come, it received many reiterations and conversions, and its legacy lives on in the hearts of many devoted gamers. Sensible Soccer was the single most important title that made you the rockstars of the game industry – well, at least in Europe. A lot was written and said about it and even people who don’t normally enjoy football enjoyed the game due its pace, ease of controls and excellent multiplayer. Still, I wonder whether there is something left out; anything you have never revealed about this game before?

Sensible Soccer is the only game I worked on that, within two months, you knew it was gonna be a hit. It just played so well. We played it non-stop in the office ourselves. You have the ability to colour in the little men, who were just the Mega-lo-Mania men on a football pitch, with your football kit. I was a Norwich fan and Jools – who was the Cannon Fodder programmer at the same time – was a Sunderland fan. The first ever game was Norwich vs Sunderland, it was obviously a lot of fun and we were really enjoying it.

Left: Front cover – Sensible Soccer (1992) Right: Rear cover – Sensible World of Soccer (1994)

I don’t know what to say that maybe no one knows. I think that what we really learnt with Sensible Soccer, was how people fill in the the gaps that they don’t see. So, literally, when the guys are running around the pitch, it’s only three frames of animation – a left leg forward, a right leg forward and both these in the middle. But people imagine them chesting the ball down or doing little spins. When we see something in the distance, the brain fills in gaps. That’s how the human mind works. So what we really learnt with SS is that the graphics, when you look at them, still aren’t that great, but when they’re moving, they play tricks with your mind and make you think that there’s more going on than there is. Layer on top of that that we were the first game to have Black players or even players with blond hair, to use shirt numbers to identify who the player was, or to have all those teams from all over the world. Sensible World of Soccer (SWOS) has 1500 teams and 23,000 players – from memory. Sensible Soccer was less, it was about half or maybe a third of that, but still a huge volume of a world of football.

It is no coincidence that we were one of the first games to ever include anything from the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia) in it. And not just the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia), but also Poland, Argentina, Yugoslavia, South Africa, etcetera. These countries were ignored by the gaming world and we embraced them.

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Jon Hare: Chapter I https://talkingames.com/jon-hare-chapter-i/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 13:06:05 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=3169 Hello Jon! Let us start with the most important question. What’s your favourite football team?

Hello! My favourite football team is Norwich City. That's easy. I'm a fan.

Great, so now all the pub quiz masters can check this one out! Anyway, what's the backstory of your famous nickname, Jops or Jovial Jops?

It actually comes from my sister. I've got a younger sister, just one sibling, and we used to make stupid names up for each other because you do when you are kids. And she was calling me Joppy at this time. It was when I started to know Chris Yates, who I set Sensible Software up with. Chris was a close mate my of mine. We were in school together, we went to the same maths class. I guess I first met Chris when I was 15 and my sister had been 11 or something, and she was calling me Joppy. So Chris, to take the piss out of me, started calling me Jops, and it kind of stayed with me.

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Jops, real name Jon Hare, barely requires an introduction. The veteran developer, musician, consultant, businessman and educator has been a household name of the British and European games industry for over thirty years. Jon has held the scene’s spotlight since his Sensible Software heyday. His rich industry experience has not only been sought by other developers, but also a number of universities. His current project, Sociable Soccer, seeks to introduce his classic magical formula to the new generation of players – and bring a great deal of refreshed nostalgia to the others. But let’s rewind. Our story begins with a college dropout who wanted to be the next big rock star…


Hello Jon! Let us start with the most important question. What’s your favourite football team?

Hello! My favourite football team is Norwich City. That’s easy. I’m a fan.

Great, so now all the pub quiz masters can check this one out! Anyway, what’s the backstory of your famous nickname, Jops or Jovial Jops?

It actually comes from my sister. I’ve got a younger sister, just one sibling, and we used to make stupid names up for each other because you do when you are kids. And she was calling me Joppy at this time. It was when I started to know Chris Yates, who I set Sensible Software up with. Chris was a close mate my of mine. We were in school together, we went to the same maths class. I guess I first met Chris when I was 15 and my sister had been 11 or something, and she was calling me Joppy. So Chris, to take the piss out of me, started calling me Jops, and it kind of stayed with me. Then when it came to making the credits for our first ever Sensible Software game, Parallax on the Commodore 64, Chris took it to the next level by adding me in the credits as Jovial Jops, which he tried to balance up by calling himself Cuddly Krix, both names steeped with irony. He managed to shake off the nickname, but I didn’t. My wife still calls me Jops to this day and a lot of my older friends in the games industry still call me that too. It’s kind of stayed with me my whole life. I mean, in order to be slightly more professional, I tend to put my name as Jon these days [laughing]. But there was a time when everyone was calling me Jops. It’s fun to have a nickname.

Before turning to Sensible Software and the games, I’d like to hear more about your musical background. It’s well-known that you and Chris Yates were bandmates in several music projects. Could you briefly sum up that era?

We we were in the last year of high school, so 15 to 16 years old, when we became friends. We met going to a Rush gig – the Canadian band. We met on the train back with a couple of school friends of each of ours and we pretty quickly became friends. I lived maybe a half-hour bus ride away from the school, whereas Chris lived a five minute walk. Chris lived with his dad who wasn’t always home, so we had a pretty free rein of the house. I found it quite attractive when I became friends with Chris; to go to his house rather than standing around waiting for the bus in the rain. And yeah, we started to make music together. Chris had a guitar and I had an old acoustic guitar at home that I had had since I was a child. We started to try and write songs, I suppose you could call it. Chris was a good guitarist for his age and I was terrible, but I could sing a bit and make words up. So it naturally gravitated to me to write the words with Chris playing the guitar; writing the music together, we originally called ourselves ‘Deuce’. Then I learnt how to play the bass because we needed the bass player. A young lad at school said he was a drummer, but actually had only saucepans really.

We did one gig, we both wore rubber masks and I wore a dressing gown

We did our first gig under the name of ‘Zeus’ very near where Chris lived and we both went to school, in Chelmsford, Essex, in a scout hut in a park. I think it was quite cold, it must have been in January or February. I remember that this guy, when we got him a drum kit to play, he really couldn’t play the drums at all. It was to the extent that we did a cover of ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen – which, as you probably know, has got a very simple drum beat – and he couldn’t do it. We weren’t very good, you know, but we thought we were Rush. We were three 16-year-old kids who were learning and rubbish. But we persisted; we got rid of that drummer, changed our name to ‘Hamsterfish’ and me and Chris carried on writing music. A friend of mine – a few years older – lent us a four-track Tascam [recorder], and we became recording partners. Chris developed a talent technically. He always had it anyway.Mixing, producing, messing around with effect pedals, getting a screwdriver out and pulling things to bits; that’s Chris’ world. I would sit there and write lyrics and we’d do chords together; it was just a very natural partnership. Then we started to play some gigs locally with another local drummer, now under the name of ‘Dark Globe’. One time, barely over 18 now, we had a gig in a local village hall where about 100 people came to see us, which is quite good when you’re a young band. We’d make our own tapes, and we had a guy who said he’d be our manager. I remember someone stole all the money from door that night. I don’t know how many gigs we did like that in that band, maybe about 20 or a bit less.

Left: Andy Cater (Drums), Jon Hare, Chris Yates (1984 Dark Globe), Right: Chris Yates & Jon Hare (1987)

Then we stopped doing that band after a while. We got a local following, we kept on experimenting and recorded three albums, we were always changing what we were doing. We would alienate the audience sometimes by doing some crazy stuff. We did one gig, we both wore rubber masks and I wore a dressing gown. Chris was in some kind of dress I think and we went on to play as a two piece. So straight after our most successful gig with a hundred people, we threw a total curve ball, ditched the new, better, drummer and briefly transformed ourselves into ‘The Amazing Technicolour Dream Globe’. It was mostly rock music or rock-influenced music. I guess I tended to write a lot of ballad slower acoustic rock stuff as well. So there’s a mixture of that and straight rock music. Then, a couple of years later, we met these bass and drum players. Jack Grigor and Ron Bennett from Chemical Alice, who used to be support band for Marillion. Do you know Marillion, the British band? In the ‘80s, they were a successful prog-rock band – a relatively new ’80s band. We managed to pick up their old drum and bass player by fluke, so we now had a good rhythm section. I went back to playing with rhythm guitar and Chris was playing lead and keyboard. I was doing the singing and lyrics and we were writing the music between us. That was fun. This new band was called ‘Touchstone’ andat was probably the best band we had at that time. I think Sensible Software started out somewhere in between the Amazing Technicolour Dream Globe and Touchstone.

How did you come up with the idea to start making games?

Okay, so in terms of the games, the first game we ever made was a war game. Chris’ dad left a wallpaper table in the room and then he went abroad. We drew a grid out on that table with a ruler and pencil, then a map of different terrain and rivers and forests, and all these pieces. Kinda think about it like a really early board game prototype of Cannon Fodder. We did that when we were about 16 to 17 – this is three or four years before Sensible Software. Also, I remember even when we were at school – we would have been 16 – Chris was getting these weird computers. I mean, it was even before we got a Spectrum. In this computer, we put naughty words to the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence.’ And we made a funny little game called ‘Escape from Sainsbury’s’. This is before SensiSoft – we were in a creative partnership, basically, that’s the way to think about us. So, it was very natural for us when Chris got a Spectrum. It was just an extension of all the other stuff we were doing. It was like another little machine and certain things to do in between writing the music. But, at that time, neither of us had jobs. We both dropped out of college before we’d finished our courses. He’d done computer science and I’d done some arts, drama courses and theatre design – a qualification which is about the art around theatre, lighting, stage sets and stuff like that.

Chris managed to get a Spectrum from various catalogues. Basically, when you got the Spectrum, you could send it back within the same month for free. He did that three times in three different catalogues; enough times to teach himself to program. Then he made a demo and actually got a job from a local company. It was very inventive of him. He was doing some work for them and they needed him to do some art, but he couldn’t do it. I was at his house one day for music and I said I’ll have a go at that art. So, I drew a dragon and a wizard and stuff that was needed for the game he was doing, and he put it in the game. The company liked it and then they offered me a job as well. That was how we started. We spent about nine months to a year working in that company. Then we realised they were actually taking 85 percent of the money and we were doing 100 percent of the work on those games. We decided to leave and set up our own company, which the UK government made easy at the time, so we did it.

Graphically, you could be very experimental in those days. Baddy was a baddy, he was just a blob of pixels in the sky

Why Sensible Software?

I can’t remember why we called it Sensible Software, but I do remember one thing. I remember once we came up with that name, I liked it because ‘sensible’ and ‘software’ have both got eight letters. So, the initial Sensible Software logo has got a big ‘S’ at the start and the big ‘E’ at the end, then all of the other letters are written in between. I think we were stoned talking shite and came up with this idea. I don’t know if you remember a band called The Damned, but they had a guitarist called Captain Sensible, who actually contacted us years later. He was known by then and it was around that time, so they might have had some small influence on our thinking, but I don’t really remember. I was just playing around with what was on a page at the time.

Your first ZX Spectrum game already hinted towards the tongue-in-cheek presentation style that would become your signature. The simple pseudo-3D arcade shooter, Twister: Mother of Charlotte (1986), had to have its name changed due to a slight controversy. Could you tell me a bit about that?

This was a game we did when we weren’t yet Sensible Software. We were working as freelancers for this company called LT Software, which was relatively local to us in Essex. But System 3 were kicking around then and LT Software were getting a lot of their work from Mark Cale. He had this idea for a game called Twister: Mother of Harlots, which basically means mother of whores. He literally said to us, “I want it to be like Tron and I want a woman with big tits flying around as the main boss,” and that was pretty much it. So she was called Mother of Harlots and she was flying around. Initially she was naked. But then Mark changed his mind and so we cleaned it up by changing her name to Mother of Charlotte and putting a bra on her. But it still had these weird caterpillars with bongs flying around and stuff in the sky, etcetera. Graphically, you could be very experimental in those days. Baddy was a baddy, he was just a blob of pixels in the sky. We made a pretty good Tron game at the time. Yeah, that was the first game.

Twister: Mother of Charlotte (1986)

Did you consciously decide that the games you were going to make would always have this extra layer of wry humour?

It was totally natural with me and Chris working together. Chris had a pretty vicious sense of humour. We actually had a very similar sense of humour and we didn’t consciously put the stuff in there. It was just part of the way we worked together. Actually, in the UK, it’s nothing special to be like this – especially at that time, before we had to think about political correctness and getting sued legally, which are the two things that shut people up now. There was humour in everything – any radio programme in the morning, anything on the television or in the newspaper – jokes were just part of what we do. Maybe, in retrospect, we became a company that could carry that kind of British humour to a European audience, which is quite nice really. It was not our intention, but that’s what ended up happening.

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Mark Knight: Chapter IV https://talkingames.com/mark-knight-chapter-iv/ Tue, 11 Sep 2018 13:22:43 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2600 What happened after EA? Did you go straight to Codemasters?

Well, after EA – and I left EA by choice, which doesn't happen that often; normally it’s redundancy or studios closing. But, I had the opportunity to go on tour with a band called Massive Attack. So, I left EA. This had been something that I'd been talking about with the musical director for about six months. They had a world tour coming up and I kind of jokingly said, “Do you fancy an electric violin?.” And he turned around and said, “Yeah, that sounds great!” So, I left EA to do this with Massive Attack, but I was completely and utterly unprepared. I hadn't any experience of touring at that sort of level at all and after two weeks, they decided that I wouldn't be good enough so they dropped me.

Then I had to scrabble around and find another job, but I didn't want to go back to EA..

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How did you end at EA, where did you go after, straight to Codemasters?

Well, after EA – and I left EA by choice, which doesn’t happen that often; normally it’s redundancy or studios closing. But, I had the opportunity to go on tour with a band called Massive Attack. So, I left EA. This had been something that I’d been talking about with the musical director for about six months. They had a world tour coming up and I kind of jokingly said, “Do you fancy an electric violin?.” And he turned around and said, “Yeah, that sounds great!” So, I left EA to do this with Massive Attack, but I was completely and utterly unprepared. I hadn’t any experience of touring at that sort of level at all and after two weeks, they decided that I wouldn’t be good enough so they dropped me.

Then I had to scrabble around and find another job, but I didn’t want to go back to EA. So, I ended up in Scotland working for a developer called Visual Science, who were doing car games. I’d been working on the Formula 1 games and actually they had worked on some F1 conversions. So, if EA did the PlayStation version they did the whatever – the Xbox version or whatever there was. I built a bit of a relationship with this team up in Scotland and after Massive Attack went pop I ended up working for them. I think I did freelance on a game called Sudeki for Climax Studios, but I ended up in Scotland working on driving games for them. Unfortunately, one of them was a Carmageddon game and one of them was a Fast and Furious game, both of which got canceled, so they became shut-down. Then I went back to EA, but to a different office.

And that was when?

It was near Manchester and that was 2006. I went there only for six months, because after six months, they shut the studio down. We were working on Road Rash. I stayed up there for about 18 months and one of the guys that I worked with at Visual Science, a guy called Andy Grier – a lovely guy and an amazing sound designer – he got a job at Codemasters. He kind of spent 18 months convincing me to come down and work for Codemasters. But Codemasters didn’t offer me enough money and then they eventually did. So in 2007, I ended up at Codemasters.

I basically dropped everything I was working on, in terms of having an input into what the game sounded like, to go back to writing music

When sealing the deal with Codemasters, what titles did you work on before moving back to F1? Did you carry on with sound design?

Well, yeah that’s it [laughing]! We had a GRID game to finish off when I started, then DIRT 2 (and 3), and then we got the Formula 1 license. I can’t escape Formula 1!

Nevertheless, you managed to escape back to music composition eventually! What’s the story behind this transition?

Yeah, it was an interesting one. I started at Codemasters as a lead sound designer. So, I’d look after a game – DIRT or GRID game, etc. I then became a group lead, which effectively was audio director, and that was by choice. I wanted control over DIRT and F1, so I was a group lead and I took on too much. Also, it was much more of a management role, so my job was more scheduling and paper-pushing. I’m not a paper-pusher and I’m not a manager. I’m not really a very good people person. I was shit, I was crap at my job and I was unhappy.

From Left: Subaru Impreza during DIRT2 (2009) recording & Mark at some DIRT3 (2011) exhaust action

The people who worked for me, who worked on the team, they were unhappy with me and Codemasters went through a bit of a difficult financial period. We were spending a lot of money on the F1 music – Ian Livingstone, a fantastic composer, recording orchestras at Abbey Road Studios. I went to my boss and said, “Look, I want to change my job. I don’t want to do what I’m doing anymore and I think I can save us some money if I do the Formula 1 music in-house.” Ian had already decided that he didn’t want to work on Formula 1 anymore anyway, so my boss said, “Yep, okay, let’s go with it.” I basically dropped everything I was working on, in terms of having an input into what the game sounded like, to go back to writing music. Actually, I ended up doing most of it at home as well. I’m not very good with people – there’s a bit of an Asperger’s thing going on there.

Yeah, I can relate…

I only just started discovering this because my son’s been diagnosed as autistic. Learning about what he’s going through, I was learning more about myself and realizing that, you know, when I was at school, I actually wasn’t a naughty boy. I had some form of Asperger’s but back then, it didn’t exist, so I was a naughty boy. It was kind of like a dream for me to be writing music again. I’ve always loved it. I mean, I do have a passion for car games; I love car games and I love the technicality in it and I really enjoy trying to make something more real-world than interactive in a video game. And I love cars – well, you’ve seen I’ve got a Subaru parked outside. I love cars and I love the sound of cars. That’s why I’ve got Subaru and not an EVO because, whilst the EVO is a better car, the Subaru sounds better!

So yeah, I went back to writing music and ended up doing most of the work at home. I was well aware that this probably wasn’t gonna last forever, so I started buying more software. Basically, the deal with Codemasters was that I would buy my own software, because they couldn’t afford it. So, I started to buy my own software, I started buying new speakers, thinking that I probably wouldn’t be at Codemasters for that much longer. And indeed it all went sour a year ago. I can’t talk about it, unfortunately, because I had to sign legal documents saying that I wouldn’t talk about what happened, but I got a union involved to look after me and they looked after me and I resigned.

You’ve still got to create emotion for certain areas of the game, but keeping it within the context of the style of music – and the style of music is me

Cool, I can cross out one of the questions now [laughing].

Which was what? Why did I leave [laughing]?

Yeah, exactly! Nonetheless, your music writing career at Codemasters was a fruitful one as you composed three complete Formula 1 soundtracks. And again, these pieces are wonderful examples of your signature style and your ability to put full attention into your music. They are packed with lot of dreamy, pumping and melodic electronica, which shares one important component with their elder siblings: their standalone ability. To me, it seems like you wrote music not necessarily for the sake of a game, but more as an individual masterpiece that was attached to a game, but that could easily work without it. My question for you is: did you perhaps approach the writing from an angle where the music was to outlive the game?

I think in the first two F1 games. I mean, for 2015 there was no brief whatsoever and, as I’ve said already, I’ve got a love for Jean-Michel Jarre.

Cabling up a Force India F1 car in 2008

Yeah, I’d say that, absolutely, that theme made me immediately think of JMJ [laughing]!

It’s me, it’s me [laughing]! But, of course, what you’ve still got to do with an F1 game for certain parts of it – when you win a championship or you’ve done a good qualifying – you’ve still got to evoke emotion. So, I’d say 2015 is very much my style. In fact – and here’s a little one – if you listen to the credits music on F1 2015, in the middle of it, there is pretty much a little bit of Knight Rider.

[laughing] Well, that’s funny, because when I listened to that part before, I could not, for some reason, figure out this familiarity, even though I know this theme very well!

Well, I’ll tell you why. When I was writing that track, I already had something in the middle and my partner came in. I know Knight Rider and The Hoff are massive in Germany and I grew up with Knight Rider. I love Knight Rider. Whilst I was writing the track, Glen A. Larson, who created Knight Rider basically, he died. So you’ve got to pay tribute, because Knight Rider was my life when I was like nine years old. I had to have that in there. But yeah, it’s very much me. You’ve still got to create emotion for certain areas of the game, but keeping it within the context of the style of music – and the style of music is me. F1 2016 kind of continued that. We had a little bit less time and I still wanted to reuse things, but I wanted to make it better. Toward the end of 2016, I bought these [Mark points at the large monitor speakers behind him], which suddenly then helped me with the mix.

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Mark Knight: Chapter III https://talkingames.com/mark-knight-chapter-iii/ Tue, 11 Sep 2018 12:46:42 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2593 Let's carry on. With the Mindscape era behind you, you were suddenly a free agent. Before you moved to a new dry harbor, you were hired to remix and rearrange a soundtrack for a PS1 port of FPS cult classic Duke Nukem 3D, called Total Meltdown. Interestingly enough, your version of the soundtrack is much more electronica-driven and some of the added material drifts off heavily from the original. For a PC gamer, it would be almost impossible to connect it with Duke at all. How come you chose this avenue?

I know. Another interesting little point with that is, if you can imagine Wing Commander should have never really run at all on Amiga, just like Duke Nukem should have never run on a PlayStation. It's the same programmer, Nick Pelling, who did Wing Commander and Duke Nukem, which is why I got the gig to work on it.

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Let’s carry on. With the Mindscape era behind you, you were suddenly a free agent. Before you moved to a new dry harbour, you were hired to remix and rearrange a soundtrack for a PS1 port of FPS cult classic Duke Nukem 3D, called Total Meltdown. Interestingly enough, your version of the soundtrack is much more electronica-driven and some of the added material drifts off heavily from the original. For a PC gamer, it would be almost impossible to connect it with Duke at all. How come you chose this avenue?

I know. Another interesting little point with that is, if you can imagine Wing Commander should have never really run at all on Amiga, just like Duke Nukem should have never run on a PlayStation. It’s the same programmer, Nick Pelling, who did Wing Commander and Duke Nukem, which is why I got the gig to work on it.

So, in answer to your question, we felt that Duke Nukem on PlayStation would sell better in Europe than it would in America. So, the idea with the music was to try and make it a little bit more European-centric. I kind of ditched the whole rock thing, because I don’t think Europeans would have got it so much. Obviously, the Americans didn’t really get what we did on the PlayStation version. But it really was kind of down to thinking that we’re going to sell more units in Europe than we are in the States, so let’s gear the soundtrack a bit more towards those sort of customers. I don’t know if you know of something called Marmite, which is a spread that you put on toast, made from yeast extract. The famous saying with that is, you either love it or hate it. I’d say that with the Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown music; you either love it or hate it.

It was a shame, it was very disappointing what happened at Bullfrog

Honestly, as a PC Gamer myself, who has not played PS1 games, when I listen to it, I completely forget that I’m listening to a Duke Nukem soundtrack. That said, I must also admit that it is a very enjoyable piece of electronica in its own respect, even when listened to separately.

It’s interesting because it’s now been modded, so you can download the music and use it on the PC version. I had nothing to do with the mod pack, but it seems to have been quite requested at some points, and people wanted to have that music in the PC version of the game as well. That’s quite cool.

Not long after, you found a new home at Bullfrog. The three titles you worked on there made up the final chapter of the renowned ‘90s studio, but ended, like many others, in the EA cemetery. They were Populous: New Beginning, Dungeon Keeper 2 and Theme Park World. Did you join Bullfrog before or after Peter Molyneux left to form Lionhead?

He’d already left, unfortunately. Quite a few people had by that stage, which is a real shame. Bullfrog was a company I really, really wanted to work with. One of the reasons that I wanted to work for Bullfrog was because of their composer, Russell Shaw, who I still have an immense amount of respect for. I thought the stuff that he did on earlier Bullfrog games was absolutely stunning and he had a fantastic way of melding sound design with music. It wasn’t until after I’d started in the first week when Russ replied to my “I’m really, really looking forward to working with you and learning from you,” with “Well, you’d better learn quickly then, you’ve only got a week, because I’m leaving to go to Lionhead!”

Nobody told me that I was employed to replace Russ, but even so – it may be just for my own ego – I still like to think that Populous 3 and Dungeon Keeper 2 were still pure, proper Bullfrog sounding games. I am very proud to have worked on them, to be honest with you. Again, both soundtracks were styles of music that I’d never really done before, which I like. I like the challenge of doing something completely different and seeing what happens. Luckily, probably due to more luck than talent, both of those soundtracks seemed to go down pretty well.

It was a shame, it was very disappointing what happened at Bullfrog. The last Bullfrog game that we actually worked on was porting Quake III over to the PlayStation 2, which is completely not a Bullfrog thing at all. But that’s what EA made us do. Then everybody was moved over to the EA banner and was given a choice to work on Harry Potter or Formula 1.

Let’s talk a little bit about the soundtracks you made for Bullfrog. Your Bullfrog debut on Populous is a very atmospheric and moody piece of music with ethno elements. It’s also quite short, totaling just 25 minutes. Dungeon Keeper 2, in comparison, is really big, spanning over 70 minutes of music.

It’s the Bullfrog behemoth [laughing]!

I still think that Dungeon Keeper 2 is the best soundtrack that I’ve written

I can hear a lot of dynamics in there. I can hear elements of your previous works, but overall, you accomplished something very different. The music does not stick to one genre or theme, but drifts from a variety of suspenseful motifs through to fast-paced electronica and even some fierce drum and bass elements.

Yeah, it’s like gothic drum and bass in parts, isn’t it [laughing]? Each track was around about 20 to 25 minutes long and they were interactive. So, I wrote the music of a mind that you would be able to branch between the different levels – I’d written little branching bars. Then we had some software – I think it was called Pathfinder – which allowed me to link all the bars together and say, if this happens, go here, if this happens, go there, etcetera, etcetera. So, certainly the atmospheric side of things was me trying to kind of emulate what Russell had done in Dungeon Keeper 1, but then add a bit of me in to the mix, twist it up a bit. Russell had already introduced that concept with the dark Rock vibe for the intro of DK1, so I did the same with a more electronic sound for DK2’s intro – and then of course incorporated that into the rest of the soundtrack.

Indeed, a lot of the instrumentation – a lot of the sounds like the choir clusters rising in pitch and some of the percussive sounds – were basically reused from Dungeon Keeper 1. Russ had done a lot of the work on a Kurzweil synthesizer, which I then had and continue to use even now, but I liked the idea of modernizing it somehow. I still wanted it to be Dungeon Keeper, but I wanted it to be Dungeon Keeper brought a little bit more up to date in terms of the soundtrack. I can’t remember who I had a conversation with to discuss this, because I think if I had discussed it with most Dungeon Keeper 1 people, they would have said, ‘No, don’t do that!’

That leads me on to my next question. Did you have total creative freedom on those projects?

Yeah! Less so, I’d say, with Populous. I think the brief was that it needed to be ambient and ethnic-sounding and, at some point, when you fight, some drum loops or some percussion loops would be brought in. With Dungeon Keeper, I worked on the intro first and I had a storyboard. In fact, I’ve got a video of me talking about it on BBC News. I had a handwritten storyboard which I could then use to get a rough idea of the highs and the lows of what was going to happen in the intro.

For some reason – I think it was probably because I was playing around with what the Kurzweil could do, loading in drum loops and distorting them and just really fucking them up basically, which you couldn’t do in most samplers. In most samplers, you could play the sample and you had a basic filter, with which you could kinda change the sound – predictably. But Kurzweil could completely and utterly mangle sound. So, I was mucking around with that at the same time and, for whatever reason, it went drum and bass. I mean, I don’t listen to drum and bass. I don’t like drum and bass, but for some reason, it kind of worked. So we did that for the intro and it was like, okay, now we’ve got in-game tracks.

I think the brief really was that we need five levels of music; it needs to start off ambient and then the fifth level is fighting. So, because I already used a bit of a D&B drum loop in the intro, I guess it was easier to say that the final level of the in-game music would be the same sort of thing – high-paced drums. But I obviously didn’t want it to sound stuck on. Like, here’s a soundtrack, let’s stick on something at the end which sounds completely different. So, I was careful to kind of build it up in a way that what you heard in the fight music consisted of elements that I’d introduced earlier in the more ambient side of it.

 

I still think that Dungeon Keeper 2 is the best soundtrack that I’ve written. It may not be the best sounding in terms of mix by today’s standards, but I remember my boss with whom I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things – in fact, most things. He said to me that, with the Dungeon Keeper 2 soundtrack, he couldn’t imagine it being better – whatever ‘better’ means. He couldn’t imagine anybody else doing a better job than what we did and that, for me, was a big win. Because, the two of us, in any opportunity we had to put each other down in a negative way, we kind of did. But the Dungeon Keeper 2 soundtrack he received very positively. I love it and again it’s a bit weird, it’s a bit strange, but I’d love to do another Dungeon Keeper.

Indeed, for War for the Overworld – that’s another game which uses Dungeon Keeper as its influence – I approached the developers and said, “Well, you know I wrote music on Dungeon Keeper 2 and I can see that you’re basically making this game as a bit of a Dungeon Keeper homage. I’d be interested in working on it.” And they were interested up until the point I mentioned money and then the conversation just went. But, I’d really love to do another Dungeon Keeper. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. I think they sold the rights of the Dungeon Keeper IP to a Chinese company after their flop of a mobile game. That reminds me, a few years ago, I wrote the soundtrack for F1 2017, and there’s a subtle hint to DK2 in that.

Then perhaps another future Warhammer game…

Well, I’d love to go back and do those sorts of things. I think it would be easier for me because I’ve already set my own level, I’ve already set my own themes, and it would be brilliant. Like I mentioned earlier with what I’ve learned; go back and expand it, yeah!

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Mark Knight: Chapter II https://talkingames.com/mark-knight-chapter-ii/ Tue, 11 Sep 2018 12:08:31 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2572 Let's move back deeper into history again. 1992 was an important milestone for you as a musician. You were hired by a big and successful studio that developed games across many platforms. You are also known to arrange music for the Amiga port of Wing Commander, which had an excellent original soundtrack that I can easily backtrack in my memories. Perhaps even because of the fact I gave the game another complete playthrough not long ago. Was this the very first game you worked on?

It was the first full game I worked on. I wrote one track for a game before that: Guy Spy and the Crystals of Armageddon. Wing Commander was my first proper gig, I suppose, and it saved me in some ways because I had left college. I'd been turned down to do music technology at university because, and I quote, “Classical musicians can't deal with music technology.” So, I didn't really have anywhere to go. I was 18 or 19 years old, not going to university. I ended up filling out a form to do management training at one of the national supermarkets when Mindscape phoned and asked me if I was interested in working on Wing Commander.

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Let’s move back deeper into history again. 1992 was an important milestone for you as a musician. You were hired by a big and successful studio that developed games across many platforms. You are also known to arrange music for the Amiga port of Wing Commander, which had an excellent original soundtrack that I can easily backtrack in my memories. Perhaps even because of the fact I gave the game another complete playthrough not long ago. Was this the very first game you worked on?

It was the first full game I worked on. I wrote one track for a game before that: Guy Spy and the Crystals of Armageddon. Wing Commander was my first proper gig, I suppose, and it saved me in some ways because I had left college. I’d been turned down to do music technology at university because, and I quote, “Classical musicians can’t deal with music technology.” So, I didn’t really have anywhere to go. I was 18 or 19 years old, not going to university. I ended up filling out a form to do management training at one of the national supermarkets when Mindscape phoned and asked me if I was interested in working on Wing Commander. I think I really got the gig because Richard Joseph was the composer that normally worked for Mindscape, but from what I understand, I undercut him by about 50 percent. So I got the gig by being cheap [laughing].

But it was a way in. It was only a freelance job, a contract job. But very, very close to the end, the development manager at Mindscape – a guy called Richard Leinfellner, who was a successful Commodore 64 programmer that worked for Palace Software and did games like Barbarian and Barbarian 2 – called offering me a job. And Mindscape was only based around about ten miles away from where I lived in Brighton, so it was extremely lucky really. I’d send disks to as many games developers as I could find the addresses for back in those days, and luckily the one that was closest to me offered me a job.

That’s something I have heard from other interviewees; being locally close to a studio helped them to land an amazing career. Now, let’s talk a little bit about methodology. Could you elaborate a bit on the process of music arrangement as opposed to original music composition?

Yeah, normally an arrangement is taking the themes of a piece of music. It could be creating another piece of music using those themes and using those chord progressions.

I remember going through the video with a stopwatch, making timings as to when different scenes came up

Like in a standard remix?

Yeah, but this this type of arrangement was literally, we’ve got this music and we want to hear the same music on this completely different platform with a completely different set of features and functions that it can or cannot do. So Wing Commander was quite a difficult one really, because obviously you had the MT-32 or the LAPC-1 versions of the music which was 24 channels of General MIDI. Obviously, the Amiga is four channels, with whatever memory the programmers are going to allow you to install the samples.

I had an Atari ST and an Amiga at that time. Martin Galway – the extremely well-known Commodore 64 musician – was working at Origin at that time, so he sent me the PC MIDI files on a PC disk which luckily the Atari ST can read. So I’d have them loaded into Cubase on the Atari, which was sitting on top of my Amiga, in fact – you’ll find a photo somewhere on the internet of the room that I use for that. And then it was just a case of me playing the MIDI files over and over in small sections and then kind of copying the note data in. But obviously I had to choose the most important parts of the music to reduce down to the four channels, of course being mindful that one of the channels was also going to have to be used for sound effects as well. I think we had a memory limit; I think it was around about 200K for the title tune, but went down to around about 120K, or something like that, for the rest of the song data. So rather than using the module format – which would have meant that you’d have to load the samples every time you had a different piece of music – we kept the samples resident in memory and just loaded the small song data. This allowed us to kind of keep the interactivity that the PC version had on the Amiga as well.

It was it was fun to do, it was interesting, it was difficult. I think, for me, the biggest letdown was that I didn’t have a very good sampler and the synthesizer that I had to make the new sounds wasn’t the best. Certainly, the samples in the Wing Commander soundtrack aren’t as good as what they could be these days, but that’s what I had at hand at the time so that’s what I used.

That was an excellent soundtrack. I played the Amiga version first back in time and even with those limitations, it was still very good sounding traditionally better than PC version in the end.

Yeah, I mean Origin did a good stab of it with with their games. I remember the Strike Commander soundtrack on the LAPC-1 was phenomenal, and by that time, they were programming their own sounds on the LAPC-1 as well. I had a Roland D-10 at the time, which had the same synthesis as the LAPC-1.

 

1993 was the year Commodore presented their last big trump to the scene, the Amiga CD 32. Their transition into 32 bit and CD-ROM also meant more support for a proper HQ multi-channelled music and sound format. You were one of the first to embrace this format and your epic soundtrack for dark cyberpunk title Captive 2: Liberation is a truly unforgettable piece that stands out even today. What do you remember about working on this masterpiece and the technological leap as a whole? Also, where did you draw your inspiration for the theme?

Okay, I’ll answer the second question first, in that I didn’t [laughing]. Originally, even though it was on the CD32 platform, we were going to write all the music in Tracker. I’ve still got the tune, or tunes, that I came up with for that. It was obvious quite quickly that we didn’t want Liberation to sound like a demo, so we took a very quick decision to move over to CD audio. I had the intro as some kind of video file, which I can’t even remember what I could play it on now. I remember going through the video with a stopwatch, making timings as to when different scenes came up and writing some notes as to what was going on. I did it at home and the reason was that, when I started at Mindscape, they didn’t have any equipment for me to use. So I brought in my own equipment. I think at the time I had a Korg O1/W workstation. They gave me the Atari, but in terms of music or sound-creating modules and synths, I just used my own stuff.

One day, one of the programmers came into my room, spilled coffee on my synth and walked out – he didn’t even tell me. When I turned around to go on my keyboard, there was coffee all over the bloody thing. “What’s going on?,” I said to my bosses. “Enough’s enough, my equipment’s going back home now and you’re going to have to buy me stuff.” That obviously wasn’t budgeted for. So, with Liberation, I wrote the music at home, because I’d taken my equipment back home [laughing], cause I couldn’t write any music at work. And I did it. I did the intro over two days, I think it was, and of course at home I didn’t have the video, I only had the notes that I’d written. You can probably tell me how I wrote it as much as I can tell you how I wrote it. It just came out as it did. I wasn’t a huge film score fan in those days. I didn’t really have anything to refer to. It just came out as it did and luckily it was really well received.

I remember the one magazine, which was a Commodore-only magazine, they absolutely gushed about the music and my ego just went boom

The in-game stuff was a little bit easier because I did use some source of inspiration for that. A guy called – you’ve probably heard of him – James Hannigan, he is a very successful game soundtrack composer now. Well, back when I started at Mindscape, James wasn’t working in games. He was sending his demos out to people and there was a track of his demo reel which I really liked [laughing]. It was very percussive. I can’t remember a lot about it now, but I remember listening to his track and thinking that something in that sort of style would work quite well for the in-game stuff of Liberation. So, I kind of used one of his demo tracks to steer me in the right direction for the end-game stuff, which I think by that time I was doing back at work.

The evolution of Mark’s working spaces from Top-Left: his bedroom in early 90s, setup at Total Meltdown mid-90s, EA office in 2002 and finally his home studio in 2015

We got all the music written and Mindscape bought me an E-mu Proteus Orchestral and another Korg O1/W, so I had one at home and one at work. Then they came up with this idea that we needed to record the music at a studio in London. So, we went to Andre Jacqueline studio with a floppy disk [laughing] with the Cubase data on. I had a really bad cold at that time, but we spent an evening getting the music up and running – and they didn’t have Proteuses, they had Emu Emulators. . They had the proper bloody samplers there, but the end result didn’t work. I think that’s literally the fault of trying to do everything in a single evening.

So, I ended up re-recording the stuff myself to be used in-game, because to my cloth ears it sounded better anyway. But yeah, I never expected Liberation – certainly from a music point of view anyway – to be as successful as it was. For me, it was a case of write this music and go on to the next game – until I started seeing reviews. I remember the one magazine, which was a Commodore-only magazine, they absolutely gushed about the music and my ego just went boom. I spent all my teenage years reading Zap 64 and that sort of thing, and reading all the positive comments about Rob Hubbard’s music and Martin’s music. I never expected to get in a magazine and have the same sort of positive comments written about something that I’d done.

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Mark Knight: Chapter I https://talkingames.com/mark-tdk-knight-chapter-i/ Fri, 07 Sep 2018 13:06:43 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2556 Hi Mark, do you still remember the very first moment you heard a chiptune? If so, how did it feel?

It depends on what you class as a chiptune, cause you can argue that anything written on C64 is a chiptune. Yeah, I do remember, because the C64 sound chip made a massive impression on me straight away. The first game I had was a cartridge game called International Soccer – and the sound was shit in that – but soon after that, there was a game called Forbidden Forest. I had three games early on: Forbidden Forest, Super Huey and then, a little bit later, Commando. Commando is one of Ron Hubbard's best soundtracks and that blew me away. I fell in love with the C64 sound.

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Mark Knight, also known as TDK or Madfiddler, has been part of the video games music scene since the onset of the ’90s, having cut his teeth in various cracktro and demo crews. His fruitful collaboration with publishing giant Mindscape secured him a number of successful subsequent titles and collaborations with Bullfrog, EA and Codemasters. Destiny led him to the racing game arena, where he learnt his sound design skills. The smell of petroleum would eventually follow the accomplished composer and sound designer on a creative journey under his very own banner: the aptly named Sonic Fuel.


Hi Mark, what would be your very first memory of a chiptune?

It depends on what you class as a chiptune, cause you can argue that anything written on C64 is a chiptune. Yeah, I do remember, because the C64 sound chip made a massive impression on me straight away. The first game I had was a cartridge game called International Soccer – and the sound was terrible in that – but soon after that, there was a game called Forbidden Forest. I had three games early on: Forbidden Forest, Super Huey and then, a little bit later, Commando. Commando is one of Rob Hubbard’s best soundtracks and that blew me away. I fell in love with the C64 sound.

We are talking about the mid-‘80s. I was about 11 years old and I didn’t have any kind of stereo or anything like that. The only person in my family who had a sound recorder was my grandmother. She had this old fashioned, big hi-fi sound system with a turntable, radio and cassette deck. She also had a microphone. So I used to stretch the microphone over to her television and recorded the music from the games through the TV speaker. I did this for a little while, probably for a year or 18 months until I got my own little ghetto blaster Walkman. So I’d record my own C64 tapes and listen to them on my Walkman.

I didn’t get a computer because of the sound. I got the computer because I was banned from riding my bicycle, as it happens. I was a bit too dangerous. My dad was a policeman and I raced one of his colleagues down the hill – basically raced a police car down this very steep hill in Brighton where I lived. They told my dad that, if I didn’t calm down, they’d be scraping me off the pavement. I guess, my dad and mum had a conversation which involved taking my bike away from me. That was a big thing for me as I was always out riding my bike. That got replaced by the Commodore. After falling in love with its sound, I bought a program called Electrosound and tried to write my own music on it.

Did you have any musical background?

Yeah, I had been playing violin since I was six. My grandfather, before World War II, was a Polish concert violinist. During the war, he moved to the UK as part of the Polish forces flying for the RAF and settled down there with my grandmother. He started to teach me the violin a few years before he passed away. That legacy carried on; my mum kept me learning it. So I had a grounding in music – not necessarily in music composition or music theory, but I certainly knew what notes are and started to understand what chord progressions were and melodies, etcetera. That certainly must have been a help to me.

I was stealing a lot of stuff as well, because for some reason I was thinking I could steal a piece of classical music and say it was mine

What were your other musical influences back in the ‘80s?

Back in those days I didn’t have a cassette recorder or player. So the only things that I heard in the house were my mum’s ABBA LPs, and my dad had an Akai Reel-to-Reel recorder and he had things like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Tubular Bells,’ – but only the first half. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scared me as a kid. I don’t why, but I found it a very scary piece of music. But ‘Tubular Bells’ was awesome. When I finally got my own cassette recorder, somebody almost immediately introduced me to Jean-Michel Jarre. So it was a mixture of JMJ, Mike Oldfield, and then Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway on C64, that really got me going – got the juices flowing that I like electronic music.

Can you still recall the first tune you wrote?

The very first tune I wrote? I would have it on a cassette somewhere, cause I’ve still got everything. Actually, I have digitized it all now and put it all on hard drive. I can’t remember what it sounds like, but I am sure it wasn’t very good. Electrosound didn’t really use a lot of C64 capabilities either. There were no multiplex chords, no ring modulation or syncing of the waveforms. It was very very basic. You had three waveforms or three instruments. There was no wave table, so you couldn’t make an instrument that had a bass drum at the beginning and turn it into a bass guitar or anything like that. But I can remember roughly some of the tunes I was writing or arranging back then. I was stealing a lot of stuff as well, because for some reason I was thinking I could steal a piece of classical music and say it was mine – that’s a bit weird [laughing]. I think I rearranged some Mozart or ‘La Folia’ by Corelli and all sorts of violiny type of tunes.

Okay, so what about the first tune you were really pleased with?

Yeah, I remember that track. At that time, I had a little drum machine on the C64 called Microrhythm. So, when I got to that point, I was recording C64 on one half of a stereo cassette and – I don’t know how I managed to do it but – I was able to record two tracks. So I’d record the C64 on one half and then, on the other half of the stereo track, I’d play drums on the keyboard – really, really out of time! But I got a lot out of it – a lot of pleasure out of doing that.

How was the transition to Amiga after all that?

Easy [laughing]! The Amiga made a lot more sense. I had no programming background whatsoever, so Electrosound worked for me, because it was almost like a piano key editor from something like Cubase. Whereas a lot of the other programs like Soundmonitor or Ubix Music were almost like trackers, but I think the concept wasn’t as well written as the tracker format on Amiga. I bought Amiga because I heard the music. I think it was a Dr. Awesome remix of ‘Tied Up’ by Yello which was on a Team 17, or whatever they were called, when they did public domain before they did game software. I heard that at a friend’s house and I was like, ‘Okay, I gotta get Amiga now,’ because I can drum sounds that sound like drums and I can have saxophone that sounds like saxophone. So pretty much from day one that I had Amiga, I got the tracker and I started learning properly how to write music.

SoundTracker, ProTracker or…?

Yeah, I think it was before the ProTracker. I got the Amiga in either ‘88 or ‘89. And yeah, then there was ProTracker and all the little strange versions of it. I had one called MelonTracker; it was a ProTracker, but Melon Dezign-styled with their logos and fonts on it etcetera. I’ve still got that on a Melon floppy disk.

Around that time, you came out with your first handle: Warlock, which later changed to TDK.

Very quickly [laughing]!

And you became a part of the demoscene. How did that come about?

Me and a couple of friends, we talked about starting a demo group on C64. Unfortunately, we were gonna call it the Kool Krackers Korporation, using only Ks, which you narrowed down to KKK and that isn’t very politically correct [laughing]. We never actually did anything anyway. I don’t think I released anything as Warlock. Warlock was just something that came to my mind; not something I put any thought into. Then there was another guy I knew, Adam Daws, who was in a demo group called THR and he suggested The Dark Knight. We got talking and The Dark Knight – dark sounds like Mark and knight obviously sounds like Knight, and then there’s also TDK, the name of the cassette company – that kinda worked a lot better for me. So TDK came and I stuck with it.

 

So eventually, you started writing tunes for the demoscene, but also did some memorable cracktros. How much did these two scenes blend together?

Oh, very much! Most of the music I wrote, I had no idea what it was gonna be used for. I just used to write tunes, stick them on a floppy disk, put them into an envelope and send them either to Anthrox or Melon. There was no real instant communication, so probably the first I’d known that a tune of mine was used, was when I got a copy of it downloaded via BBS.

Anthrox and Melon were the two main crews you were associated with, right?

Yeah, they were the two big ones for me.

Where were these crews situated?

Well Melon Dezign was based in Copenhagen, although they had members [elsewhere] in Denmark, a couple of members in France, and me in the UK. So there were a few kind of splattered all over the place. The music I wrote was more used in Crystal cracks. Then Audiomonster did a lot of the full-sized stuff, because my full-sized music really wasn’t competitive.

Anthrox was based mainly in the UK. I got hooked up with Anthrox when I made some childish, nasty remark about some member in their group. A guy, Trevor – Mungo was his handle – phoned me up to have a go at me, I think. I pretended to be my dad [laughing] and we kind of just hit it off. We got on and so I started to do stuff for them.

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Damon Slye: Chapter III https://talkingames.com/damon-slye-chapter-iii/ Mon, 20 Aug 2018 14:25:52 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2442 The 2000s saw a rapid decline in the mainstream demand for combat flight sim games apart from the excellent IL-2 series not much has been left. Titles like Warbirds moved predominately into multiplayer arenas and single-player flight games turned into a quick-action arcade format. Why do you think this has happened?

I feel that there was a misunderstanding among the market, going all the way back to very beginning, where people didn’t understand that you had to have a balance in these games between authentic simulation and fun. They seemed to think that a game either had to be an arcade game, that is in a way an empty and meaningless experience, or something that is a realistic simulation.

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The 2000s saw a rapid decline in the mainstream demand for combat flight sim games apart from the excellent IL-2 series not much has been left. Titles like Warbirds moved predominately into multiplayer arenas and single-player flight games turned into a quick-action arcade format. Why do you think this has happened?

I feel that there was a misunderstanding among the market, going all the way back to very beginning, where people didn’t understand that you had to have a balance in these games between authentic simulation and fun. They seemed to think that a game either had to be an arcade game, that is in a way an empty and meaningless experience, or something that is a realistic simulation. I have always tried to find the middle path where it’s both; where it’s all fun, but also not just completely made up and fake. I even saw it back then – about the time when Aces over Europe came out, probably – there was an original Warbirds game and it was this online game. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, Europe is terrible; it’s not realistic at all!’ We got slammed by this certain segment, this certain niche of players. We could see that their voice was gonna destroy the genre, because they were very vocal. Every decimal point of every equation had to be exactly a certain way. We called them the grognards – it’s a weird word, I think it means something like the know-it-alls – and they were gonna really damage the market. But I was leaving, so it didn’t matter.

I have always tried to not build straight simulations. To me, I wanna build a historical simulation, not a flight simulation. I want to simulate the pilot psychology, not the airplane. It’s not about the airplanes, it’s about the pilot. I mean, the airplanes are great and cool – they are, in a way, the stars of the games – but it’s really about psychological realism and providing an authentic experience, sort of making an interactive time machine. But it doesn’t have to be an arcade game and it doesn’t have to be a dry simulation. I feel like that was damaging the market.

Nowadays, I  feel I am missing such a balanced single-player-focused flight sim; in which you can switch between different layers of simulation and play more of a quick-action game if you want. I really like Aces of Europe and the ability to switch instantly into an action location instead of just accelerating time. In Red Baron, you can accelerate time something like 16 times which was also great. I like it when you can opt out from this monotonous, boring part where you’re just flying to targets and nothing ever happens. Yes, it’s realistic, but its far from being fun.

Yeah, exactly. That’s the perfect example. If you’re going to do a perfectly realistic simulation, it’s boring [laughing]! You read the accounts of the pilots back then and they said that in the Pacific, they’d be on a flight, trying to get to the island, and they’re flying for about four hours of just sheer boredom, followed by two minutes of extreme terror. That’s what it was. Who wants to do that [laughing]?

They needed all of their games to be multiplayer. That was the charter for them; they weren’t doing singleplayer

I have always liked what Origin System games – for example, Wing and Strike Commander – delivered; this kinda deeper narrative about the pilots. They have some personality; you can interact with them outside of the flight back in the base. That was something; combining adventure game elements with flight sim, having it packaged together. But this format kind of died off with Wing Commander.

No, you’re right, that would have been very cool, and I really like the Wing Commander games a lot. I thought they were great.

Star Citizen’s Squadron 42 is going deliver a similar experience but as a sci-fi game. I always wanted something historical in WW2 or WW1, where you could meet with and talk to the famous aces and they could give you some kind of unparalleled immersion. I always thought about it when playing Red Baron; being a flieger in a Jasta 2 alongside Oswald Boelcke and the early von Richtofen. I’d love to compete with him because he was just on a relatively low score back in 1916. That kind of experience with more immersion as a result of off-duty interactions and narrative.

Yeah, that’s cool, that’s great – especially adding personality. You can add a bit of personality and merge it with their tactics and stuff.

So, in 2007, you made a comeback with your own studio Mad Otter Games. Your first game was Ace of Aces, which pretty much fits into the category of a WW1 arcade flight arena-based multiplayer game. Why did you choose this format, and why do you think the game died so soon after?

The company I was working with did the MMO fantasy game Villagers & Heroes, cause I’d always wanted to do a game like that. And then they wanted me to do another World War 1 combat game because they knew I was good at it. It was Jeff Tunnell who was pitching to me. And I was like, ‘Nah, I’ve already done that,’ but he talked me into it. He was like, ‘Look, you really need to do this because we’re going to give you money and you can do this and you’re good at it, and it’s just a smart idea.’ So he talked me into it and I was glad. It was a really fun experience building that.

It was disappointing, of course, because what happened was that the publisher failed and then the game was just removed because there was no publisher anymore. I wish I’d actually got it going. I could have actually put it up on Steam if we had just done a little bit of work, but we were so busy with other stuff. I wish I had though because I know it would have made money and people would have liked it. They needed all of their games to be multiplayer. That was the charter for them; they weren’t doing singleplayer. And so I did a lot of research looking at other things – games like Tribes – but how do you marry that? I also started looking at a lot of MMOs, including fantasy MMOs, and just figuring out how to marry all of those successfully.

Ace of Aces (2008)

And Ace of Aces came out and even with the publisher – which was originally Garage Games and then became Instant Action – I couldn’t convince them that this was a huge opportunity. They just thought simulation games were niche and that no one would play them and I was saying, ‘No, you’re going to have a million players worldwide. There’s a million people worldwide that would play a flight game every month.’ And the model is correct; it’s free to play and then you can buy stuff – you can buy other planes and things like that. It’s arena-based and it’s a sport. All of these things turned out to be true, so yeah, I guess I have sour grapes because we really delivered. We were way ahead of the curve on that game, because after that World of Tanks became huge. I didn’t even pitch that. I said, ‘I want to do a tank game too,’ and then Jeff said ‘No, we’ve got someone else doing a tank game.’ I was like ‘No, I want to do this tank game!’

I loved Ace of Aces, it was really fun. I’d never done a multiplayer game before. I didn’t feel like it was a stupid arcade game. It does have the elements – you respawn after you die, which is fake obviously – but the focus is on flying. There was actually also a single-player mode – the single-player was arcadey, I have to admit, but still it was really fun. It’s hard to explain. The flight models were good, so in that way, it’s not arcade-like. But you are just flying around shooting planes, and there’s a single-player mode called Turkey Shoot which was just really fun. Then there was the arena-based e-sport part. I was really proud of that game. I’m still proud of it, it’s just too bad it didn’t go anywhere.

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Damon Slye: Chapter II https://talkingames.com/damon-slye-chapter-ii/ Mon, 20 Aug 2018 14:17:51 +0000 https://talkingames.com/?p=2438 1990 was the year that marked a new era for Dynamix. The studio was bought by Sierra-On-Line and lost, albeit temporarily, one of its founding fathers Jeff Tunnell, who started his own studio. It was also the year that spawned the legendary Red Baron. What are your memories of that turbulent 12 months?

It was a good time. We made a deal with Sierra – with Ken Williams – and the main point of sale with the company was that we remained autonomous – creatively autonomous. Because that was what kept us excited and enthusiastic about making games. He totally agreed; he was an entrepreneur himself and he understood.

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1990 was the year that marked a new era for Dynamix. The studio was bought by Sierra On-Line and lost, albeit temporarily, one of its founding fathers Jeff Tunnell, who started his own studio. It was also the year that spawned the legendary Red Baron. What are your memories of that turbulent 12 months?

It was a good time. We made a deal with Sierra – with Ken Williams – and the main point of sale with the company was that we remained autonomous – creatively autonomous. Because that was what kept us excited and enthusiastic about making games. He totally agreed; he was an entrepreneur himself and he understood. He didn’t want just to acquire us and then shove his ideas down our throat. He could see a lot of acquisitions that worked down that ladder, while the others failed. So I would credit him with a lot of wisdom in the way he managed us. We were certainly

willing to work hard when we did the sale to Sierra, cause we still loved what we were doing. Funny thing is that he did an interview with a local paper and said, “Oh yeah, these guys are 30 people now and in a year they’re gonna have 120 or something.” And we are like, “What? This guy is crazy!” But he was right, because he was willing to write the check. So we just started hiring people and we started to do projects for Sierra, and difference was that the budget’s got way bigger. Sierra understood that what you wanted was a hit and you should invest more; you should have a better game and you are just gonna make much more money that way.

‘Oh no!’ We thought we were going to somewhere where nobody was around and suddenly everyone’s here

Then Jeff branched off to do his own thing, but he was still essentially part of Dynamix. He was sort of a sub-label of the whole thing. It was JTP [Jeff Tunnell Productions], but I think it started under the Sierra label. Basically, he just a got a little studio here in Eugene of 10 to 12 people. But it was basically the same thing, he just wasn’t in the same building. I don’t really know how it worked out financially, but anyway, it wasn’t like a big break-up. He just wanted to do his own things for a while.

For me, I wanted to do another flight game and I wanted to do historical. My original idea was to do something called The Great Warplanes – WW1,WW2, Korea, modern – it was gonna be everything.

That concept reminds of a game by Microprose called Dogfight, where you could fly triplanes against jets.

Ah, okay! Yeah, EA ended up doing something like that later too [perhaps Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat].

So, that was kind of my idea and then I got a letter from Ken Williams. I didn’t really have much contact with him, so it was like, ‘Oh, jeez!’ It was a little bit scary – ‘what’s this about?’ He wrote a very formal letter, but basically he just – he was very kind – he said, “You know, we found at Sierra that the best way to do this is to do sequels. Instead of doing them all at once, it would be better if you just do one thing and then the next thing.” That sounded right to me and I actually liked it; I could just focus on one era. So that’s how we ended up doing Red Baron to start. And we were playing a game called Fokker Triplane on Mac that was very fun, but it was very arcade-like. It didn’t have any depth, didn’t have any history, but still the core gameplay was fun. Ah, the core gameplay is fun and that’s the thing: you always want the core game loop to be fun and then you can add all the layers on top of it. That was kind of the inspiration for Red Baron.

Red Baron was released at the same time as its rival Knights of the Sky by Microprose. I only properly played the latter back on my Amiga 500. However, Red Baron 3D has become my personal all-time favorite historical flight sim. How come two such similar big titles were released head on in the same year? Was one a direct response to the other or was it a coincidence, or something entirely different?

I think it was a coincidence and I think it was because Larry Holland had done Their Finest Hour, Battlehawks 1942 and The Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe. So, someone had already done WW2 and I think everybody was like, ‘this idea of doing historical flight simulations is a neat idea, but we wanna avoid WW2.’ That’s kinda what my thinking was, so I think that maybe everyone else had similar thinking. Because it wasn’t just us and Microprose; there were about three others at the same time. There was Blue Max, Wings and there was even another one – I can’t remember now. It was crazy and we got scared when we found out that everybody was suddenly doing this. We thought, ‘Oh no!’ We thought we were going to somewhere where nobody was around and suddenly everyone’s here. So that was like, ‘Oh jeez, now we are in trouble.’

Red Baron (1990)

After Red Baron’s massive critical success, Dynamix achieved the formal status of an accomplished flight sim developer and followed up with its Aces series. Again, shoulder to shoulder with their rivals from Microprose. What was your relationship with the guys from Microprose in general? How well did you know each other?

They were just competitors and I always, of course, was envious of their success, because they were successful earlier than we were. Going way back, I don’t remember what was their first big game. Maybe F-117 Stealth – that was huge for them – and there were some other ones even before that. They were the top company in the simulation area for sure; nobody was close to them. We were surprised how quickly we overtook them. I am not saying we passed them, but we certainly got on par with them and I think our products started being better than theirs. I think it was really our 3D expertise that was one of the reasons we had a competitive advantage over them. I think we had better technology at that time than anybody for 3D. There was a moment when we had the best stuff and I think later that changed. Maybe around ’93 to ’94, other companies started coming along. They were rivals, but I didn’t dislike them. I knew that Sid Meier was such an amazing developer. He stopped working on their sims at some point. I have even met Bill Steele at some conference and you can tell, he was a really competitive person. He would just make a little jabs at your product [laughing].

We were terrified of Knights of the Sky and when it came out we were really happy, because once we played it, we realized that we had nothing to worry about. It just wasn’t there. It wasn’t the real experience, not how I would have expected. I didn’t think it was as good as the stuff they had done before. They went for this cutesy retro – oh, things were really cute back then in WW1 – and they were flying these cute little planes and they all had scarves. It wasn’t like that; it was a terrible time for the pilots. For the pilots, it was a terrible war. It started off when they were all excited, like, ‘Oh this is great, this is chivalrous, we are all above the fray.’ But, by the end, especially for the German pilots, it was horrible. They were doing two flights a day and they would go up to 10 to 20,000 feet. It’s freezing up there and the oxygen’s bad, their brain is just dead, their friends are getting shot down left and right. It wasn’t a cute, fun time. It was sort of romantic and beautiful – like the planes and everything, I mean, there was a nice side to it – but there was a dark side too, obviously, and I felt you need to kinda capture that a little bit.

It is fun to build. There is a lot of things you can do in life; building is one of the funnest things you can do

Aces of the Pacific and Aces over Europe were the last games you developed for Dynamix.  Which of these is your favorite aerial warfare game, and why?

It’s still WW1 Red Baron. I think that was the best product we did. Technically, the other ones were a little better. We made some improvements in Aces of the Pacific and Aces over Europe – some graphic improvements. And the scope of Aces of the Pacific was way larger than Red Baron – it was huge and had carrier landings. You can fly for five services, not just for three, and there were a lot more airplanes. So the scope was a lot bigger, but Red Baron was really focused and tight. I also I think that the dogfights were more fun, because the planes were slower, so that meant they were also closer together. I think that part was a little better. But WW2 was still pretty good in terms of the quality of the experience for the player. I think the modern era is really not at all the same; the dogfights are too big and there is too much electronics. I like WW2; I would have liked to have done more WW2 combat games, something really focused, especially, with better technology.

Game Covers: Aces of the Pacific (1991) & Aces over Europe (1993)

In 1994, you suddenly departed from game development and left Dynamix for good. How can a seasoned developer suddenly drop out at the peak of his creativity? What were the driving forces behind this hiatus, and why did it take so long for you to return to making games?

I was burned out and I had really done nothing since high school but make games. Right when I graduated from high school, I started working full-time on Stellar 7. That was in 1980 and from ’80 till ’93 or ’94, I was just working many hours making games. Of course, back then we would do overtime like crazy – it’s not healthy [laughing]. There was one week, I remember, on Arcticfox when I worked 105 hours and I was sleeping at the office. Even on Aces of the Pacific, the team was working 70 hours a week for a while – it was crazy. You don’t have a life anymore; you don’t have a personal life. So, there is that, and I had never really done anything else. I thought I should go back and do my degree. I was making a lot of money, but life shouldn’t be about money. So I just kind of burned out. If I was smarter, if I was wiser and older, I would find a way to keep making games; I would have just changed the way I did it. I would have scaled back to normal hours and just done things I enjoyed, and I would probably stick around longer. Cause it’s kind of an honor to be able to lead a team and make cool games, and it’s fun. It’s fun to collaborate; that’s why I came back to doing it again. And I probably would have tried some other kinds of games.

Ever since Stellar 7, I wanted to do a game where you can get out of the tank and you can run around as a person. I had always wanted to that, and later on, that became a new genre. I would have probably ended up doing something like that. Something like Tribes, cause that was after I left.

So what did you do when you were not making games – or rather, what made you come back? Did you get bored of life outside games?

Yeah, I just realized that working is important – you should work – and it’s fun to make games, it’s fun to work with people. There’s lots of parts to life. Before, I was only doing one part of life, which was working, but the solution isn’t to not work. I think I should have just added balance. I also realized that I missed working and that I want to make things. It is fun to build. There is a lot of things you can do in life; building is one of the funnest things you can do.

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