Ivan Davies / Special FX,
Added on May 9th, 2015 (2705 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi guys, I'm Ivan Davies. I'm 46 years young and the proud father of two Minecraft addicts. I've been involved in making games since 1989, so that's a quarter of a century of making games. However, I've been playing games for about 35 years, if you go all the way back to me playing Blitz on my VIC-20.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
I was the proud owner of a VIC-20 (a very early Commodore home computer) in my youth, so that was my first taste of gaming. Like all kids at the time, I persuaded my parents to get a computer to help me with my school work, but only actually used it for games. The first time I used a C64 was when I started work at Special FX in 1989. Special FX was a small independent games developer based at the Albert Dock in Liverpool.
Tell us how your career in games started. Did you submit sample work to various games companies in order to procure jobs, or did jobs come to you?
I got into the games industry in a rather fortuitous and bizarre way. I was studying to be a graphic designer and had been on an Art Foundation course, where I got to use Quantel Paintbox. This dedicated graphics machine was used for adding graphics to TV programmes. I think it was a 32-bit machine. Then, one day, I saw a job advert in the local paper asking for an 8-bit graphic artist, so I applied and was given an interview. I turned up in a suit, with a new haircut and my art portfolio carrying case. Upon entering Special FX, I immediately noticed that everyone was young, in jeans and T-shirts, and there were no drawing boards or editing desks or other design studio equipment. I asked the owner, Paul Finnegan: "Where are the drawing boards?", to which he replied: "We aren't a design studio, we make computer games." I apologised, saying there had been a mistake and I knew nothing about drawing for computer games. Paul suggested that we might as well have the interview, since I'd already made the trip to see them. During our chat, I showed my artwork and we got onto the subject of football. Paul and I just hit it off and talked footy for the rest of the interview. At the end of the interview, Paul offered me a job and said: "Give it a month and see what you think." Twenty-five years later, and I'm still making games. Thanks, Paul.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
Unfortunately, it wasn't a special moment in my case: as I was the new boy at Special FX, I was given the C64 as my platform simply because the other artists were already tasked with delivering graphics for the Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad and Spectrum.
What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them (such as what it was like to work on each game, any sketches you did, what programs you used, fun anecdotes from creating the game, what the people were like to work with on the various games, the timeframes, any problems or headaches, etc.).
At Special FX, I had the pleasure of serving as artist on four C64 games, namely (in chronological order): Red Heat (a sideways scroller); Cabal (a shoot-'em-up); Midnight Resistance (another sideways scroller); and Hudson Hawk (a platform game). All these games were developed by Special FX and published by Ocean Software.
Red Heat was based on the film of the same name starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Joffa Smith came up with the game design, which was a mixture of side-scrolling beat-'em-up action and interspersed mini-games. As this was my very first game, it took me a while to get up to speed with the restricted colour palette and the memory limitations. I'm sure I must have driven Robbie (my coder) up the wall with my constant questions about why I couldn't do this or that. The film wasn't great, but hopefully the game was perceived better.
Cabal was a conversion of a really good arcade game originally created by TAD Corporation. The arcade version had a two-player mode which was great fun, but we were never going to get that working on the C64. The game is a shoot-'em-up viewed in the third person, where you are a soldier and must fight your way through various missions. I think the game had 20 or 25 levels/screen in it, with a boss battle after every four screens. I remember doing some very crude animations of the buildings exploding and the enemies being destroyed. It was also the first time I had used a hires overlay over an expanded sprite for the main character; another very clever trick thanks to Robbie. I also remember that Karen Davies, the lead artist at Special FX, gave me some really helpful advice on shading techniques and palette use.
Midnight Resistance was another arcade conversion of a classic game. Boy, how I loved playing this game. I probably spent more time playing the arcade game, pretending to be looking at the artwork, than actually drawing the C64 version. The main character had multi-directional firing, which was cutting-edge for its time but a right nightmare to animate smoothly on the C64. We had to use clever tricks in order to get so many baddies and pick-ups on screen all at once. There was one particular level set in caves, and I can still see these horrible brown blobs that I'd drawn that were supposed to be the caves.
Hudson Hawk was a movie tie-in, and the movie stank. Very early on in development, Joffa and Chaz decided not to follow the movie in any way except for using the same locations. As we had been playing a lot of New Zealand Story in the office, I think that this was a major point of influence for the design. Looking back now on my artwork for this game, there does seem to be a HUGE amount of bricks in the levels, probably the same brick just in a different colour. In fact, bar a few exceptions, the backgrounds don't look very good at all. The static screens and boss/puzzle sections look quite nice, but some of those backgrounds, eek... not good at all. But hey, at least I got to animate nuns on roller-skates in this game; also, one of the security guards in the game was based on a bloody miserable, grumpy old security guard where we were actually working in Liverpool.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
As a C64 artist, I worked at Special FX and Ocean. All the artists at Special FX were in-house, and we were each responsible for all the graphics on our particular platform, so an artist would do everything from characters and animation to environments, objects, effects and menus. We also did the game title screens. We were also allowed to contribute game design ideas, it really was a whole-team effort at Special FX.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
No day at Special FX was typical. I had the privilege of working with the late Joffa Smith and, as anyone who was lucky enough to have known Joffa will tell you, no day was normal with him around. We worked in platform teams, and the C64 team consisted of me and a great coder called Robbie Tinman. On a daily basis, we would work out what was needed for the development to continue and work from the level design Joffa had created. For conversions or ports, I would look at the arcade versions, take photos and start drawing the C64 graphics from them. This was in the days of taking your photos to Boots the chemist's and waiting five days before they were ready.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
It really depended on the game and also the release date we were working to. Sometimes, artists (and coders) would all work on a particular platform if something was needed for a tradeshow or presentation. I don't remember doing too many late nights at the crunch, so the schedules we were working to must have been quite realistic. Obviously, if a game had a film tie-in then we would have to target a specific release window in order to maximise sales potential. The Christmas release schedule was also when things got really busy. If a particular piece of artwork needed more time and more polish, then I was prepared to stay late and make it as good as it could be.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I used a drawing package called KoalaPaint which came with a KoalaPad, which was a type of basic graphics tablet. Robbie Tinman wrote some code and used a switch and a soldering iron to create a mouse that worked with KoalaPaint, which at the time was a godsend. I can still remember the golden rule of the C64: three colours and a background colour per sprite.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Yes, there probably were, but for the life of me I can't remember them. We had a very close relationship with Ocean and worked exclusively for them as a third-party team.
Which game are you most proud of, which was the most fun to do, which became a real challenge, and which ended up giving you the biggest headache?
My favourite C64 game would have to be Midnight Resistance, as I loved the original arcade version, so it was a real pleasure to do the conversion. It had several different locations in the game, so there was variety in what I was drawing. Cabal was also fun, as it was the first time I used an overlay sprite with an expanded underlay sprite; this gave the main character a more defined look and help make him stand out from the background. From a design point of view, Hudson Hawk was great to work on – what other game has nuns on roller-skates in it?! Joffa and Chaz (Charles Davies) really went to town on this design, since the movie didn't lend itself easily to a good game design.
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I'd love to do a PS4 version of Cabal or Midnight Resistance, because no colour restrictions or memory constraints = yes please, but it's been a long time since I've drawn any in-game graphics. I'd certainly get more experienced 3D artists to do the artwork.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
New Zealand Story or Lemmings were my games away from Special FX at that time, so I would have loved to have been involved with them. I'm a great lover of platform games, so these two would be particular favourites of mine. Funnily enough, I've produced two versions of Lemmings that were great games.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Yes, loads of time to play, as mentioned above. New Zealand Story and Lemmings were top of my list.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
None, really. I always tried my best because I didn't wanted to let Paul or Joffa down, given the faith they had shown in me. If I had to pick a Special FX game, I'd probably say the environments in Hudson Hawk. I do have a few games on my CV which (from a non-artistic point of view) I wish weren't there, but you live and learn.
Was there a particular programmer, artist and/or musician who influenced you and possibly inspired some of your own work, or did inspiration come from somewhere else?
Everyone at Special FX influenced me, and they all kept me in the industry. I'd have to say working closely with Robbie, Chaz, Karen, Joffa, Paul and Jim was great.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
There are some things I can't mention for legal reasons and some other things I won't go into detail about, but the memories I have of Special FX and the C64 I worked on bring a huge smile to my face. I remember sharing a honeymoon suite with Jim Bagley on one trip. I remember being able to make the whole office a cup of tea, because it took over five minutes to save my graphics to tape. I remember rolls and rolls of fax paper littering the office, which contained all the bugs Ocean QA had found overnight. I remember returning from lunch to find most of my clothes being hung out the window for everyone in the Albert Dock to see. I think I spotted my boxer shorts blowing in the breeze first. I remember the whole office having a sponge ball fight, and then of course there were the early afternoons in the pub...
We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
After Special FX, I moved to working for Ocean directly and away from the C64 and onto the NES and PC platforms.
What are you up to these days?
These days, I'm running my own games production company called Catalyst Outsourcing. I still see Jim Bagley and Robbie Tinman, since our development studio is in Liverpool city centre. January 2015 marks 26 years since I entered the games industry, and I'm extremely lucky and eternally thankful to still be making games.
Thank you for helping us preserve an important part of computer and gaming history! Do you have any parting comments with which to leave a final impression on our readers? Feel free to greet anyone you know.
I've worked at some great places: Special FX, Ocean, Infogrames, Warthog and Sony XDev; and worked with some amazingly talented games people. I can't thank Paul Finnegan and Joffa enough for giving me my lucky break in the industry. Keep playing games!
back to the list of available interviews