A Sensible Interview from issue 23

Programmer Chris Yates and graphics designer John Hare — Sensible Software, a gruesome twosome if ever there was one. Bursting with innovation and talent. . . In a matter of months they progressed from the silly scenario of an aged and unoriginal shoot 'em up — Galaxibirds — to an equally silly but far more original arcade game called Wďzball. They don't have an axe to grind — but they do have some sharp opinions about the state of the software industry . . . as Gary Penn found out in a lengthy and somewhat harrowing interview.

GP Tell me about Wizball.

JH We were originally going to do Wizball before Parallax. But then, Chris came up with a parallax scrolling routine and got a few sprites moving around, and we thought 'that looks pretty', so we scrapped Wizball for a while. We're doing it now.

GP Fine, But what exactly is Wizball?

CY It's a game. A game involving sprites and chars... characters.

JH You control a wizard in a bouncing ball and a little cat spins around the ball like a... 'multiple' — er, 'catalite'. The wizard is actually bigger than the ball — when he steps out of it to mix colours he goes PSSHWWEEEUT!... The world starts out black and white and gets coloured in through the game by doing certain things which we're not going to reveal. It's a sort of 'paint-by-numbers' game.

GP ls it going to have a proper ending though, unlike certain other Parallax games I could mention...

CY The reason we left ParaIlax open was because of the option of Parallax II. You hyperspace to earth, but it's a multi-earthable hyperspace—we're into that. We could do an [sic] another bit, where on your way back to earth you investigate another alien planet.. . accidentally.

GP So you will do another Parallax?

CY It's on the board at the moment, but it will depend on how well Parallax was received. If people still remember it in a few months' time then I suppose so... I actually quite enjoyed writing Parallax — (sarcastically) I enjoyed creating it because it's the sort of game I would like to play.

GP What's it like working for Ocean?

CY Well without making it sound too much like boot-lick-ing. . . they're actually a very good company with very good intentions. They're a company of businessmen more than games-playing people, and they know exactly what to do on a personal level. If they think you're going to do them good, they do you good, so it's easy to form a suitable relationship with them. They treat you as people — they don't look down to you as people might think.

There were a lot of rumours spreading about that Ocean weren't very good at paying royalties and so on. But we've never found that. They didn't seem too bothered whether Parallax was going to make it or not. They had confidence in the game — they felt it was the best they had and they convinced us of that. Their belief in the game was paramount to the fact that it was going to sell well, or not. That was good.

GP Are there any programmers you admire?

CY Mel Croucher — he's definitely an innovation in the industry. He doesn't give a damn about what he does as long he's entertained by his own product— I feel, I think people find his stuff more entertaining because he's actually managed to put some of his own personality into it, instead of the usual, boring, second-rate arcade games which most people try to rip-off from the machines and never succeed. The Commodore hasn't got the memory, and most of the games are boring any way.

GP Does it mean anything to get a good review?

CY Getting a good review is absolutely everything. It's the only real feedback you get — the company we're doing a game for are going to say it's good anyway. Apparently we got loads of letters about Parallax sent to Ocean, but they didn't pass them on. . .

JH Did we really?

CY Yeah. We get a few people writing to us saying whether they like our games or dislike them, but l think it's better that we don't read them. It would probably put us off. That's why a review is the only way of judging how well we're doing.

JH Yeah. When you review a game, don't you find it's easler to slag it than write about its good points? . .. If a game is going to impress it's got to be a totally new concept — or an extremely innovative adaptation of an existing concept. It's far easier to produce new presentation than it is to come up with new concepts. But coming up with ideas has never been much of a problem for us at all — it's always been getting the ideas down that's a problem.

JH We've got loads of new concepts that we'd really like to sell, but we can't find an outlet for them. It's so hard to go about it — actually communicating with someone else is the problem, making them see things as you see them.

CY But it's getting to the stage where's there's not much point in coming up with new ideas — things have to be the same or they won't sell. A game's got to have a name to it, or it's got to be the same thing in a different package, A big name or tie-in helps regardless of the quality of the game.

CY We shouldn't really blame the companies for wanting everything to look like everything else, or have a name, because it's not really their fault that those games sell. And I'm not really blaming the kids for buying this stuff either, because they only want to buy games that they think are going to be good.

JH We try our best not to nip anything off —well not consciously. Going back to the parallax scrolling, the graphic effect — Chris picked up the parallax scrolling from Bounder. He saw what they were doing but made it about 24 times better. You've got to do that to progress. It's hardly ripping off an idea.

CY l think there's not enough humour in the industry at the moment. That's what's lacking.

JH Do you think that kids like games because even though you're a real wimp you can run around blasting things to death? This might sound really profound, but do you think that playing video games is like, say, the way kids in the twenties would read an adventure book and relate to the hero? Do you think it's the same thing?

GP I hadn't really thought about that before. I would say it depends on the quality of the comic strip — how well it's drawn, how well it's been executed. Do you get carried away with the action, and is there the sense of being there? I found that with The Eidolon — it was real, but in a dream sense. It was my dream and I was there.

JH Yeah. Master of the Lamps was the same. The music's amazing, and so are the visual effects.. . which draws you into it. It's beautiful. In Psychedelia you've got all these amazing visual effects, but there's no inertia. It is a good idea, because Jeff's tried some thing different, but I don't think it works.

GP What do think about the current trend of tie-ins?

JH It seems... well, it seems that no-one really cares about the kids anymore. Companies are just there to make money, to milk money from the kids. But if the kids still buy the games, whose fault is it? Is the kids' fault for actually buying the game because they recognize the name, or is the company's fault for bringing out the game because the kids want it? A game cauld get crap reviews, but the kids still buy it and it gets high chart ratings.

You sometimes have a go at companies for bringing out cash-in, tie-in titles, but the kids still buy them. It's the same with the pop industry. The market the companies are aiming at gets younger and younger and younger, and they're a more vulnerable market. lt's the same in any industry — it's easier to influence young people. Kids either go to their parents and moan at them until they buy what their kid wants, or, they go out and buy it themselves because they think it's trendy. A kid sees his favourite program on the telly, out comes the computer game, so he buys it. But it's not necessarily a good game.

CY There are so many TV tie-ins or arcade conversions that just won't work. A tie-in comes out, it sells — it's crap. Who cares? It makes money. The kids are happy because they bought it and everyone else has bought it. People vote for it in the ZZAP! charts, so after they bought the game they must have still liked it, whether you think it's rubbish or not.

JH It's like music. Kids get into Heavy Metal. They're not into Heavy Metal because they like Heavy Metal — it's because their mates are into it. It's the same with software.

GP But would you ever program a poor TV, film or arcade game tie-in just for the money?

CY Yes — if people want to pay for it then we wouldn't disagree with them.

JH True-but at the same time we'd try to do our best to make it good. If we think something's awful we won't produce it. We wrote Galaxibirds because it was awful -it was a laugh. And it was cheap.

GP But some people didn't see the joke, even though it was cheap.

CY I feel that magazine reviewers are journalists more than games-players. When some people reviewed Parallax they didn't understand the humour. One magazine actually slagged it for the bad spelling mistake!

JH There are a lot of games that are just totally misunderstood. An example directly related to you is Hercules. You reviewed it and gave it a high mark. Other magazines gave it very low marks. It's not necessarily because either of you are wrong, it's because it looks like you found it funny and the other magazines didn't. It's all down to personal opinion and what appeals to you. This is why reviewers who can relate more to the people who buy the products are a lot better than some stuffy old journalist who's 30 years old and spent the past few years working with some small local news paper.

CY It's like the music industry when a group becomes trendy, like Ah-Ha or Wham — or the Jam before that. People didn't listen to the singles before they went out and bought them. They bought them because the group was 'in'. It's the same with TV or film tie-ins. If a kid likes the TV title or the film title, and likes the adverts, he thinks it's going to be good. And most kids won't have read any reviews beforehand, so they won't know what they're going to buy. But it makes no difference. People go for the titles they recognize.

GP That's a bad thing?

CY lt depends if the kids are happy with the games. But I think they would be happier if more quality software was produced and less dross.

GP What do you think of software today?

CY There's this thing in the programming world where everything's got to be technically correct—everything's got to be done every 50th of a second, and it's got be perfectly smooth and so on. Programmers seem to be forgetting about the actual game. Trapdoor is the most brilliant game I've played for ages. It isn't particularly well presented, but It's such an interesting, mentally stimulating game.

JH People aren't bothering to think up new concepts for games. With Parallax we tried to think up new concepts, but we had to keep the presentation tight — slick graphics, smooth scrolling and soon — and we couldn't put in any of the extra ideas because we ran out of memory. All for the sake of effect. That's not to say Parallax is a bad game — we think it's good as it is—but it's sort of, incomplete.

CY We could have left out all the gimmicks and put in more game-play, but it wouldn't have sold as well. Software should be entertaining, not just special graphics or music or even the game. We should be producing a complete package — not just a game. Kids pay for entertainment. They want to laugh at a game or laugh with it or enjoy playing it.

JH In the arcades. . . people are sticking to the old arcade concepts and simply glorifying the presentation, without bothering with new ideas. With Wizball we're trying to present new concepts in a familiar way. But whether it succeeds... We wanted to do Wizball with a company who could — I know this is hypocritical — but a company that could give it a bit of hype. So they could actually hype what we feel is a decent game. Otherwise it'd just get missed.

CY You've got to get inside to influence. You can't influence from the outside, by being anarchic, say. It won't work. It's like politics — if someone wants to change politics they've got to get into one of the major parties before they can actually start influencing.

JH Good presentation is becoming more important than a good game. World Cup Carnival was a good package — I mean, if you were into football it was interesting memorabilia. There again, if we'd bought World Cup Carnival we'd have been disappointed with it because we already had Artic's soccer in a package with four other games. The biggest problem with coming up with new concepts though, is hardware limitations. People are running out of ideas because they've only got a joys tick and a keyboard — and there's only so much you can do with a joystick and a keyboard.

Take football games — they're all crap. Even the best football games. You're limited by the number of hands you've got and it can get incredibly frustrating — like when the computer selects which player you're controlling, it gets really frustrating. This is a good example of how the hardware limits the software. If you could wire up . . . maybe this will happen in the future . . . but if you could wire up little pads and things to detect nervous twitches from the brain or whatever — or from your hands — you would have much more control. It would bring about a whole new concept in games.

GP But that's still along way into the future. Isn't it...

This feature was typed in/OCRed by Iain