Jon Hare: Chapter IV

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.