Simon Phipps / Gremlin Graphics,
Added on June 24th, 2014 (2898 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Simon Phipps. I'm an artist, video game designer and programmer. I've been making games since 1984. Over that time, I've worked for Gremlin Graphics, Core Design, Acclaim, Eurocom, Infogrames and Electronic Arts, on titles as diverse as Rick Dangerous, Harry Potter, Shadow Man and Need for Speed.
How did you first get started with computers and the C64 in particular?
I had always wanted to make cartoons as a kid, but I never had the opportunity. Then, when I was 15, a friend of mine showed me his Sinclair ZX-81 and a 1K Space Invaders game that used letters for the enemies. I asked him if I could change the appearance of the enemies. He said "yes", and that really blew my mind, because it meant I could make my art move.
So I saved up and in May 1982, I got a BBC Microcomputer. I started drawing graphics on it, but it wasn't long before I'd taught myself how to code and began making my own game.
My only real exposure to the Commodore 64 was selling them at the computer shop where I had a job in my spare time during those years. Oh, and standing for 45 minutes in the shop waiting for a copy of China Miner to load when someone brought back a faulty tape. Mind you, that was in the days before Turboloaders...
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit work samples to various games companies looking for jobs, or did jobs come to you?
Well, by the time I was 17, I'd written a game for the BBC Micro, and my school friend Stu Gregg (who went on to become a coder at Core Design in its early days) encouraged me to send it off to get it published. I sent it off to Micro Power, and they sent me back a letter with some changes they wanted making. I made the changes and so had my first game published while I was still at school.
I then converted Jet Power Jack to the Acorn Electron, and Micro Power had Gary Partis make a version of it for the C64.
I then went on to finish my schooling, and in 1987, my friend Terry Lloyd (of Bounder, Future Knight, Krakout, etc.) called me up and asked if I'd be interested in drawing some graphics for a job he was working on at Gremlin's offices in Derby. I showed up, and they liked what I could do and offered me my first full-time job in the games industry, working on Masters of the Universe: The Movie.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? Was it as special as we like to think it was?
Not for me, I'm afraid. I thought it was a horrible machine to work with.
The problem was, I'd been spoiled by the BBC Micro with its faster tape speeds, pixel graphics modes, lightning-fast BASIC and super-accessible assembler that you could write in-line with BASIC. That was how I made my way into making games – I started writing BASIC and then, as I gained in experience, I switched out more and more code for assembler.
So when the C64 came out some months later, there was no contest. Also, I couldn't afford a second computer – if you calculate back and adjust for inflation, a C64 would cost around £850 or $1450 nowadays, which is still a serious amount of cash!
But hats off to anyone who managed to use the C64 for development. In fact, my mind got blown the day Chris Shrigley told me he and Andy Green had written Bounder on the C64 using only a monitor, converting the assembler to hexadecimal by hand and then poking that into the memory. That takes skill and not a small amount of madness.
Later, after I'd joined the games industry, I did make graphics for the C64, but I drew them on the Atari ST and wrote my own graphics converters that would cut up the images and convert them directly into C64 format so I didn't have to go anywhere near the machine.
What C64 games did you work on? Write a list with the titles and as much information you remember about each of them.
If anyone wants to hop over to my website www.simonphipps.com, I've got a whole page dedicated to all the games I've ever worked on. But specifically with respect to the C64:
Masters of the Universe: The Movie
I arrived in the middle of this project, so just helped out where I could – I may have drawn the graphics for the panel at the bottom of the screen on the C64 version, but that's about all, I think. If I recall, I had to draw those graphics using a joystick in some clumsy custom editor on the C64, so I pretty quickly resolved to figure out a way of getting off the C64 so I could work with a mouse on the Atari ST.
On this one, I had the job of converting Kev Bulmer's lovely skater sprites for the 16-bit versions to various formats, including the C64. This is where I discovered the technique of building a hires, single-colour outline sprite and then putting a chunkier multi-coloured sprite behind it. I also drew the background graphics for the scrolling section of the game. Skate Crazy was the first game I wrote custom graphics-exporting tools for, so I'd draw everything in OCP Art Studio on the ST and then fire it through my converter so I could hand Rob (Toone), Chris (Shrigley) and Andy (Green) the data in the exact format they needed for the game.
This was my first professional job doing everything: programmer, designer and artist. I coded the ST and Amiga games and drew all the sprite graphics for all formats. Building on my experience from Skate Crazy, I was able to draw the Atari graphics, quickly down-res/change the palette for the sprites and whack them through my converter, thus handing the data over to the C64, Amstrad and Spectrum coders in an instant.
One thing to note here is that the Commodore 64 determined Rick's dimensions on screen. Since the C64's hardware sprites were the most restrictive of all the formats we were making the game for, I decided to draw Rick to fit the Commodore's odd 24 x 21 pixel sprite dimensions and then use that across all the formats.
Saint & Greavsie's Football Trivia Quiz Game
Nothing super-special to say about this, we made the game on five formats within ten weeks from start to finish, with me coding the 16-bit versions and drawing all the graphics for all the formats. We went 'gold' on the game the night before I got married, and my fiancée (now my wife of almost 25 years) was standing at my side as we made the master disks. I recently found out that someone found the hidden message I'd left in the Amiga code that evening, see http://tcrf.net/Saint_%26_Greavsie_(Amiga). Amazing to discover that after all these years!
Monty Python's Flying Circus: The Computer Game
Again, another game in which I coded both 16-bit versions and did the graphics for all the versions. I remember that getting the Terry Gilliam look was quite a challenge on the C64, as was making the game work with the limited number of sprites you could get on the C64. As with Rick Dangerous, we restricted all the versions to take into account the C64's limitations, it was the only way we could work on so many formats that quickly and guarantee that the game would play the same on each machine.
Rick Dangerous 2
By the time we worked on Rick 2, we'd got working on multiple formats down pat. Nothing much to say about this, except that I would have loved to have made a Rick 3.
What companies did you work for, in-house and/or freelance, and what were your tasks?
Over the past 26 years, I've worked in-house for all of the following companies:
Gremlin Graphics, as Artist;
Core Design, as Artist, Programmer and Designer;
For my first five games at Core, I did all three jobs at the same time, by which time the job had become too big, so I decided to drop the full-time coding and worked for my last three years or so at Core "just" as an artist and designer.
Acclaim Studios Teesside, as Lead Designer, Project Manager, Motion Capture Performer and Voice Actor;
I took my design/project management skills to Acclaim, since the job had then become too big to do art and design at the same time. At some point about two years in, I had to delegate all the project management tasks to someone else, and I spent my remaining years there as Lead Designer.
While working on Shadow Man, I ended up in the Motion Capture suit and provided the voice for the Jack the Ripper character, a gig I got accidentally after doing a bad Bob Hoskins impersonation during a script read-though...
Infogrames UK, Manchester, as Lead Designer;
I spent about eight weeks at Infogrames working on the design for a Superman game based on the comic books, which I managed to convince them they didn't need to make since they were already in the process of making a Superman game based on the animated series and this didn't make much sense to me. Fortunately for me, at about the same time, I had Electronic Arts on the phone asking me if I'd like to attend an interview to work on Harry Potter...
Electronic Arts (UK), as Lead Designer;
I worked as Lead Designer on four-and-a -half Harry Potter games... I started work on Order of the Phoenix, but moved to Criterion Games halfway through development, to play with other toys...
Criterion Games (EA Studio), as Senior Designer, Web Engineer/Artist and Video Podcaster;
I moved to Criterion to help out on the design for a number of projects that ultimately didn't happen. Then I was asked if I knew anything about running websites. I didn't really, but I teamed up with my buddy Jez Chubb and for about a year, we had an absolute blast building their website and making the video podcast 'Crash TV' which we used to help promote Burnout Paradise.
Eurocom, as Designer;
I left EA/Criterion in order to work closer to home. I live in the Midlands in the UK, which is about 130 miles from Acclaim's Teesside studio and 150 miles from EA's Surrey studio, so after so many years of travelling, I decided to return to Derby. I ended up working on GoldenEye for the Wii, so no pressure on that one!
Criterion Games (again), as Senior Designer;
After GoldenEye was finished, I was invited back to work for EA/Criterion, but this time working from home for some of each week. I also worked on Need for Speed: Most Wanted and had a great time working on some new concepts that are yet to be released.
I am now an Independent Developer. I left EA in February of this year – travelling and living away for the greater part of the past 18 years has finally caught up with me. The emergence of mobile and platforms like Steam, as well as tools like Unity, have enabled me to work from home full-time now and become an Artist/Designer/Coder again.
What did a typical day in front of the computer look like?
Back in my first year or so of working in the industry, I was in a small office just off Friar Gate in Derby, working first for Gremlin Graphics and then the beginnings of Core Design (since Core was set up when Gremlin decided they had to shut their Derby office, so we all took redundancy and helped start up Core days later.) I'd usually drive to work in my Mini, park in the pay and display car park on Ford Street, and take the short walk to the office. It was a pretty standard office unit: suspended ceilings and one long room with a partition in it to form a small office at one end. Well, I'd get in, and if nothing much had happened overnight (there was this one time when we all decided to wind up Greg 'Jack the Nipper' Holmes by taping every piece of kit he had to the ceiling, only his monitor was spared), we'd do a tea run and then get cracking. Usually, the eight of us would split roughly into two small teams working on two different games at the time. It was pretty much heads-down, get on with it and make the game.
For lunch, we'd either bring in our own sandwiches or get something from the sandwich van that turned up mid-morning in the car park in front of the office. Actually, that's just made another memory resurface: I remember one day, we saw that some young woman had somehow managed to park her car in the car park opposite in such a way that it was actually trapped between two walls. She'd sort of driven diagonally into the corner of the car park and got the car stuck – she couldn't drive forwards because of the wall in front of her, but she couldn't reverse either because she was diagonal to the wall at her side. Anyways, Stu "DangerStu" Gregg opines that we should help her, so we all run out, grab the rear corner of the car and together manage to lift it away from the wall so she could drive out. I'm sure there's something I should say here about the experience teaching me about teamwork or such like, but I won't... particularly as we'd been watching the poor woman drive herself into the corner for about ten minutes, before deciding we should maybe get out there and help her.
After lunch, it was back to work on the games. I do remember that Terry Lloyd and I shared the small office bit on the other side of the partition for a while. We'd sit there drawing graphics for hours, and it would get quieter and quieter until one of us would quietly say under our breath "mmm... mouse clicks..." when we realised we'd descended into complete silence, broken only by the tiny clicks.
We'd knock off around 5:30 and head home. Doing crunch-time, working whole weeks without a day off, cancelling vacations and doing un-paid overtime were apparently all concepts which hadn't yet been invented back then...
Now, of course, I'm doing my Indie thing, and my life is simpler than it has been for many, many years. I get up, have breakfast, see everyone off to work, tidy around the house a bit, then go into my home office, fire up the laptop and make games. Every other lunchtime, I take a break and run at least 10 km, then spend the rest of the afternoon coding, drawing and designing. It is wonderful and liberating to have this much freedom. One thing I have realised, however, is that I am terrible at deciding what music to listen to while I work, so rather than waste time and energy trying to think of something, I end up spending whole days in absolute silence with nothing but – that's right – mmm... mouse clicks to bring me back to my senses.
That said, recent favourites of mine have been Far Cry 3 and the Borderlands games. Both offered lots of freedom to explore, with side-missions that were at least as or even more satisfying than the story missions. I love the way that Gearbox told their story as you played, rather than stopping you for lengthy, tedious, cut scenes.
Indeed, I'd like to think that this new generation of consoles can enable us to move on from making the player sit and watch five minutes of something entirely non-interactive. The test which I have been using for the past few years is this: if the cut scene were a drama on TV, would I sit and watch it or would I fast-forward to the good bits? Ultimately, every cut scene in a game ends with '... and drive to this yellow dot on the map', regardless of the preceding 'content' of the cut scene. Thus, I'll admit that during the story missions on Far Cry 3, I would get up and make a cup of tea when the cut scenes came on. Technically, they were masterful, but I would personally have preferred three or four hours' worth of mission content to play, rather than non-interactive cut scenes which I just try in vain to skip through.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to finish your work?
"As long as it takes and no longer than it needs" was the unofficial mantra in the early days.
The best thing about working on projects like Harry Potter and the Need for Speed games is that there is a definite end date, which focuses the minds of everyone on the project to make decisions, and when you're working all hours over the summer, it's good to know that 'When September Ends' (that Green Day song really resonates with me!), you'll get time off.
The worst thing about working on projects like Harry Potter and the Need for Speed games is that there is a definite end date, which means that however hard you work on it, there will always be something you never quite managed to get into the final product and were forced to cut because you'd never get it finished on time.
What tools/development kits/etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to satisfy your needs?
Back in the old days, I used an Atari ST, and OCP Art Studio for all my graphics. Coding was done in a 68000 assembler and then squirted down a printer cable to get it onto the Amiga. As already mentioned, I wrote my own sprite and graphics export tools so I could do all of my work on the Atari and then pass the data onto whatever other formats we needed it on.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Tons. I bet I've spent at least five years of my working life on things that never then happened. It's a fact of life. The important thing to learn is never to get precious about it. If your project gets cancelled, just deal with it, go to lunch, come back to work and get started on the next amazing thing.
Which game are you most proud of, which was most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which gave you headaches?
Most proud of: the next one. Most fun to do: the next one. The real challenge: also the next one. Biggest headache: every single game I've ever made.
If you had the chance to go back to any of your past games, what would you add and/or remove?
I am glad time travel is impossible.
Were there any particular games that you would have liked to work on or converted from arcade?
Not really. I've been fortunate enough to have been able to work on loads of different types of game, lots of original games and some really amazing licences. I've never wanted to work on a Batman title or anything to do with Star Wars, nor any Disney property (as my wife is a huge Disney fan).
The problem I've found with working on something that you like or have some special connection to is that by the time you've finished working on it, you've spent so much time knee-deep in the property that you're done with it... for life. I can't watch Monty Python any more (although I loved it as a teen), and anything to do with Harry Potter is met with derision by my kids, although I actually discovered the books and fell in love with them before I started working on the games. I still think they're brilliant, although I don't think I'll ever read them again.
It's like being given the keys to the ice-cream factory and being told you can have all the ice-cream you want: the catch is that they lock the door behind you and tell you that all you're getting to eat for the next 18 months is ice-cream. But I do keep coming back for more...
Did you get much chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Ever since I started making games as a teenager, I've always preferred to make my own games rather than play anyone else's.
I just have so much fun coding and making art. It's so satisfying. Give me an hour making something and at the end of that hour, I have something that I have made. But give me an hour playing a game...? I may have a few Achievements, but I haven't created anything.
That's why the best times I've had gaming have been with friends. I've got amazing memories of C64 sessions with my buddy Terry back before I joined the industry. I had a fantastic time playing co-op Halo Reach through with my friends all around the country, or during the massive 12-Xboxes-in-a-room Call of Duty sessions we held at Criterion.
Were there any games which you felt were so appalling and bad that you wished you had worked on to do a better job?
No, I would tend to sympathise with the team, who were probably struggling to get the game finished and out of the door by their deadline.
There are a lot of average games out there that could have been so much better if the creators had been given a few more months to polish them off, though what I specifically mean by this is that the team gets to take a break from the project and come back to it later with fresh eyes to wrap things up. The phrase "we've got a few more months" is the last thing a tired and struggling team needs to hear when they're fighting to get a game out by an unreasonable deadline.
I hope that when we break the tyranny of the 'packaged goods model', which forces the majority of games to hit the shelves 100% finished within that very tight Thanksgiving time frame or whatever, it will lead to better games overall. If you look at the way apps are made, where they're small when first released but then enhanced, features are expanded, and importantly users (players) are involved, consulted even, to find out what does and doesn't work about them – that's a much more sustainable model, because it means things continue to improve after release, while the product is already being played. It's a win-win for everyone, as far as I can see.
Right now, making those big AAA titles is like trying to assemble a golden jumbo jet full of money, while it's in flight, and 18 months later it's got to land on a runway you've not even built yet in a country you've never heard of, and you know there are scores of teams around the world trying to do the exact same thing and land on that runway a few seconds before you. I've done a good deal of that, it is exhausting and I take my hat off to anyone still doing it.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly gave inspiration to your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
When it comes to my art, there's a whole heap of things that feed into my head and inspire me, such as burlesque and modern alternative fashion photography, movies like Barbarella, Blade Runner, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Baz Luhrmann's Red Curtain movies, books by William S. Burroughs and William Gibson, art by Hajime Sorayama and Gustav Klimt, music by Angelspit, She Wants Revenge, Lana Del Rey and Lady Gaga, as well as old 1980s New Romantic tracks which I have a soft spot for (but do not listen to nearly as much as I suspect everyone thinks I do!). None of this, of course, will or should ever be made into a game (you will be relieved to hear), but I do like where all this stuff takes me on the my visual canvas.
In terms of people in the industry who have directly inspired and/or influenced me, there's a whole bunch of lovely folk out there – who hopefully know who they are. I've learned so many new things from them all, and continue to learn now. The best thing you can have in your life is someone who sees something from a surprisingly different point of view but who is willing to show and explain to you how they see things and to share that with you. That goes for learning new techniques in coding, to art, or simply understanding games themselves.
Share some memories from the old days! It could for instance be something you remember a colleague did or said, about your time in the demo scene, about crackers stealing development disks, or about going to computer shows.
I've never made a demo, and I've thankfully never had any trouble with crackers.
As for computer shows, I always remember going to the old shows they had at Earls Court and feeling incredibly sorry for the poor chaps in the cheap booths at the side, selling some weird controller they were convinced would revolutionise the face of the industry; it was always something black, designed to plug into a PC, and had about a million programmable buttons on it that could be customised to work on games that no-one would ever play.
Oh, and there was this one time in the early 1980s when I had to attend a local computer show in Nottingham with my colleague Alan. We were there to represent the computer shop we worked for and were showing off the then-brand new Acorn Electron. This was probably only the second one we'd ever seen, and Alan accidentally knocked an entire can of beer into the Acorn's keyboard. It beeped rather sadly and then shut down. We pulled the plug out straightaway, poured the beer out of the computer into a bin, and then sat it on a radiator. A couple of hours later, it had dried out and we tentatively plugged it back in. It beeped back into life as if nothing had happened, although we never quite got rid of the stale pub smell.
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. Share with us the software and/or hardware you created on other systems.
Well, I fear I've already talked way too much about things I didn't do on the C64. One memory I definitely have of the C64 that will always stay with me, however, is from the summer of 1984, I was working a summer job at First Byte Computers in the Main Centre in Derby. All I will say is this: Ghostbusters title music. All day. Every day. For six whole weeks. (Shudder)
What are you up to these days?
In February 2014, I left Electronic Arts and its big blockbuster products and massive teams behind, to once again try my hand at becoming that triple threat of Artist/Designer/Programmer on these smaller, more accessible platforms. I'm pleased to report that after 20 years of no programming, the old code muscles are flexing themselves once more, and I'm having an absolute blast.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any last comments to leave a final impression on the audience? Feel free to send any greetings to anyone you know.
Thanks for the interview, it's been super-fun. I'd like to apologise to all the C64 die-hards out there for my comments about their beloved hardware, and to thank everyone who has been in touch with me over the years and taken the time to share their memories of the games I made which they enjoyed.
I can't believe I've been doing this for so long, and I do believe the best really is yet to come.
My website can be found here: www.simonphipps.com
Follow me on Twitter using: @simorph
I also have a Facebook Art Page here: www.facebook.com/simorph
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