Richard Leinfellner / Palace Software
Added on December 7th, 2016 (2273 views)
Hello and welcome Richard! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Richard Leinfellner, and I've been making games ever since getting my first computer – a Tangerine Microtan 65, which I built from a kit while still at school – in the early 1980s.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
Once, while still at school, I helped a school friend keep his seat warm at a Saturday job while he went on a family trip to India. He worked at a shop called the Video Palace in Kensington, London; they sold the Apple IIe, Atari VCS and other systems. The VIC-20 had just come out, with its 3500 bytes of RAM. I sold a lot of the BBC Micro, but it was very expensive, so when the C64 came out at £199, I snapped one up. It was an awesome system, with a whopping 64 kB of RAM and nice graphics.
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?
As it turned out, when my friend returned, the store decided to keep both of us on as staff. We used to see Jeff Minter's mum a lot, as she was always dropping off boxes of his games for sale; they sold very well. One day, while chatting to my boss Pete Stone, I suggested that Palace could make their own games. He saw the potential in the idea, and Palace Software was born.
Palace used to handle film distribution, so the most obvious first game was to do one based on a movie. As it happened, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead had just been released, so we decided to make a game based on that. Pete did all the graphics on graph paper and typed them in as hexadecimal, and I did the code in 6510 assembler. It felt like the game was beset by the curse of The Evil Dead in that it was late for the launch party at the London Dungeon, and one journalist (possibly after one too many Bloody Marys) said I would fit in well as one of the exhibits. The curse did not stop there, either: after delivering the master tape to the duplicators, I was knocked off my motor bike by a sinister white van and broke my wrist. However, Pete managed to make some capital out of it by spinning a curse-of-Evil-Dead-nearly-claims-programmer story, which helped sales a little. The story does have something of a happy ending, though: just last year, my US-based cousin met Sam Raimi at Comic-Con and told him about me, to which Sam replied: "Yeah, I still have the promo C64 The Evil Dead cassette on my shelf at home", which was nice.
Anyway, we then decided to expand and hire an artist, and when Steve Brown joined us, we embarked on Cauldron, which had much better graphics, since Steve could actually draw – sorry, Pete. :)
Palace did not pay well, though as a founder I received a small royalty on everything we did until I left. I was young and just pleased to be working in games, so it never occurred to me to ask for shares.
One of our next hires was Richard Joseph. He was awesome, and we ended up working very closely together, as I wrote all the sound drivers for him. RJ, as we called him, was a real joy to work with, he had an amazing ear and was super-skilled technically. It was such a shock when he died. I did however meet him a few months before that, and he was the happiest I had ever seen him, loving his new life in France. RJ, you are missed, RIP.
What was it like to work at Palace Software? Was it a friendly and fun working environment to be in?
It was great! We had a great team spirit and socialised a lot.
What other companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
When I left Palace Software, I formed a small company called I.D.S. working on conversions such as Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit for Amiga. I then went to Mindscape for eight years, where I ended up as VP of Development for Europe. I was then successfully headhunted by Electronic Arts, where I became VP and Executive Producer for games like Theme Park World, Populous: The Beginning, F1, Shox, Catwoman (yes, my bad) and BattleForge.
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.)
My first game was The Evil Dead, which was pretty poor and late. We then did Cauldron, which was a big hit, followed by Barbarian. I started off on programming, but as the teams grew, I ended up as more like a producer or project manager. I still did the coding for some tricky bits, but for the most part I relied on Stan, Chris, Sean and Andy to actually make it happen. Most games took less than six months; we did The Sacred Armour of Antiriad, Dan Malone's brainchild, in three – it was short but beautiful.
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
The VIC and SID chips were amazing, very powerful and flexible. I always had a copy of the C64 programmer's manual handy, as it listed all the registers you needed to make cool stuff happen.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
Initially, I would just be programming. Later, when I was doing more managing, it was lots of meetings and travelling to and from meetings, and while it was fun to run large teams like that, I have to admit I missed the immediacy of coding and getting results that way.
What was the original inspiration behind Cauldron?
That was a co-production between me and Steve Brown. Steve was the artist, and one day he asked me: "Why is everything EITHER a platform game OR a scroller?" I thought about it for a while, but all I could then tell him was: there's no particular reason, they're just always separate games. So we started building a game that had both.
Speaking of The Evil Dead, were you a fan of the film or did you find it more funny than scary?
I sort of hate horror films, so I was not keen on watching it. I watched it on fast forward with Pete Stone, eating pizza at his house. I thought it was quite funny, and we came up with a simple design there and then. I now think the film broke new ground in many ways, including the way Sam Raimi financed it.
What part did you play in the creation of Barbarian? Were you the original designer for the game?
By then, I was more of a producer, and the game was designed by Steve Brown. Steve had lots of great ideas, including the marketing campaign.
Barbarian was obviously inspired by the Conan series. Were you satisfied with the final game and the reviews it received?
I thought it was a great game, the reviews were also excellent. I think we really hit the spot for single- and multi-player games.
Barbarian caused controversy in the press, partly due to its violence but mainly for the advertisements featuring a very scantily-clad Maria Whittaker. What was your reaction to all the fuss at the time, and do you think it helped or harmed the game?
The game was great, and the publicity was also great. It even got banned in Germany. It seems rather tame now, but at the time, it was all very rock 'n roll.
Brick Busters was a breakout clone, found on the Internet, which is credited to you. Unfortunately, not much else is known about the game. Could you elaborate some more on this title?
I did that game as part of a regular piece I did for a German magazine to teach kids C64 programming.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
It varied. I hate long development cycles because I get bored, so I was always pushing to ship ASAP. I think the longest one was 18 months. I killed a lot of stuff that was taking too long.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I designed and built my own C64 development kit which allowed us to compile on a big CPM-based system and remotely debug using 90 per cent of all the RAM; that was great, and it was also quick to assemble. I built the hardware and wrote the software. It gave us a huge technological edge at Palace, until SN Systems came along.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Before being "volunteered" to save Catwoman, I was working with Pandemic on an LA-based action game. I had to give it up when I moved to Catwoman, and it eventually became Mercenaries. I've always wished I'd been able to make that game (great).
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?
I loved Theme Park World, it was the first game by the team I took with me from Mindscape to EA (incidentally, I didn't just steal the team, Mindscape got paid good money for me to take them, and we were still good friends after). I was asked by Nancy Smith, EA's Head of Sales, if I would sign my name in blood (her words) to make something to ship for Thanksgiving. I signed on the dotted line, and the team delivered: Sim City shipped, and we are now gods within EA for saving the financial year. It felt awesome, and then just to make a great year even better, the game won Richard Joseph's audio team a BAFTA. Good times! We ended up spending £1000 on champagne that night, but it was worth it, the game sold over $60m worth of copies. I also loved working with Games Workshop on Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat and Warhammer: Dark Omen, they are one fun bunch!
If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I'd like to take the first six months of each project, which are generally wasted on pointless meetings and executive crap, and add them to the final-polish stage to make them great.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
I always liked Scramble, Defender and Phoenix.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Less these days, I just don't have the time. Also, I hate the trend these days of having three to four hours of gameplay and six hours of full motion video "story-telling", it's really lazy designing. Sadly, it's getting worse: the better the graphics get, the worse the game actually ends up being, it's just like the bad old days of Hollywood in the 1990s.
Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
The only real challenge was Catwoman. EA had the licence, and because it was Warner Brothers – the people behind Harry Potter – they were keen to impress. However, they left it very late, and then all the other EA studios passed on it, so we ended up with it at EA Chertsey. It had to be either me or Colin, who was running all the Potter stuff, who would end up having to finish it, and since Potter was EA's biggest franchise, it made sense that I "volunteer" to take it on and give up my original game with Pandemic in the process. We had to build the game from virtually nothing to shipping within five months, using Argonaut Games and about 30 EA staff, it was brutal. When I realised just how bad the film was, I decided to ship before the movie release. I still think that was the best call. If ever there were a textbook example of why you should avoid movie tie-ins, this is it.
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?
I was inspired by sprite multiplexing, taken from the demo scene. It was pretty cool and allowed us to bring big characters to the screen. I really loved working with Pete, Stan, Richard and Steve, they were true professionals and a lot of fun.
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.).
I have a story about Stan: it's heavily censored, but still rates as the funniest thing I have ever heard. Stan had a habit of being a little rude, so when we had a foreign journalist in, he was told to behave and not mention his favourite phrase. The interview was going very well, and we were on track to get the front cover, when after being quiet for 45 minutes, he turned in his chair and said: "Don't mention FF", before turning back again. We all just kept going as if nothing had happened, and the journalist's face was a picture as she tried to figure out if she'd misheard or was imagining things. We did get the front cover, and to this day, it's the most Stan moment ever.
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?
I also programmed on the Amstrad CPC, Spectrum, PC and Amiga.
The C64 broke all records by establishing itself as the greatest-selling home computer of all time, and it lasted a staggering twelve years! What impressed you most about the C64, and why?
It was such an advanced machine, well thought out and hugely powerful for its time. The sprite system was such fun to work with, and the smooth scrolling was well ahead of its time.
Do you still own a C64 today, and if so, do you still sometimes play on it?
What are you up to these days?
These days, I have a number of roles, including lecturing at a number of universities and running a business/technology consultancy.
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.
The C64 was an amazing piece of kit! If there was any justice in the world, Commodore could have been Apple and Microsoft combined. I had the great privilege of spending some time (and drinking some good Armagnac) with Jay Miner and other Commodore alumni at various developer events – treasured times.
back to the list of available interviews