Tom Lanigan / Pagoda Software
Added on April 27th, 2010 (6077 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi! My name is Tom Lanigan and I co-founded Pagoda Software back in 1986. I provided the graphics, music and sound effects for our games.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My first home games machine was the Mattel Intellivision back in 1982 and I thought it was, and I still think it is, a fabulous machine. My first encounter with a micro computer (a shame this term has died out because I always liked the sound of it) was an RML 380Z at school. I attended the first ever after-school computing lesson and listened to a teacher attempt to explain Logic for the entire one-hour. Needless to say, I did not catch the programming bug after the first lesson and I failed to attend any subsequent ones. Initially, our game designs revolved around Jason's newly acquired Atari 800 in 1985/86, but then a C64 replaced the 800. After a few hours of playing Scarabeus, I was hooked.
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?
If I was to say that we "woke up one day and decided to write a computer game", it wouldn't be too far from the truth. To begin with, I do remember dictating the listings published in the computer magazines of the time for the Atari 800 and the C64 to my friend and colleague, Jason Daniels. Later, this came in useful when inputting the data for the numerous character sets and sprites within our games (in hexadecimal if you please).
We decided from the very beginning that we would be writing industry standard quality games, even though we had hardly any experience in the machines. That said, we worked damned hard to realise these ambitions. Actually, we would have been better off producing smaller and simpler games as 1986 was a golden time for producing games for the C64 with the likes of Sensible Software (Basildon boys working just up the road from us haha) starting at the same time. Once our first game AutoGuard was close to completion, we sent letters to all the large companies that we wanted to associate with: Ocean, Palace, Electronic Arts, British Telecom, etc. We had company letter headed vellum paper and we spent ages drafting the original introductory letter. We also tried to pitch the game in a professional manner (wearing suits if you please).
What attracted you to the C64 as a development platform? In your opinion, was it as special as we like to think it was?
I was not familiar with many machines, but compared to the Atari 800, I found the sprites on the C64 were much bigger and I liked the colours. The sound, of course, was amazing and still is. You really are looking at a beige-plastic synth with a Commodore key and a QWERTY keyboard. The more you work with the C64, the more you realise what a great machine it really is. From a graphics and sound standpoint, it had no rivals until the Amiga and the Atari ST arrived. As much as I admired the Z80 machines (especially the Enterprise 64), they did not have those wonderful colours, or the depth and quality of sound. In fact, we have rekindled our interest with the C64 and plan to start writing for it again, especially as there is a healthy group of fans who still have a fondness for the machine and would like to see new software. Our first project is to finish AutoGuard.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
Although credited on the C64 version of Hunchback at the Olympics, my main output was with Pagoda Software on No Pow-Wow, AutoGuard, Blip! Video Classics and Die! Alien Slime. I was studying fine art at college from 1983 to 1985, and I produced graphics for friends during my free time. There is nothing worth mentioning apart from input and advice on graphics, really.
1985 Hunchback at the Olympics, Software Projects (Artist) Commodore 64
1986 No Pow-Wow, Unreleased demo (Artist/SFX/Music) Atari 800/C64
1986 AutoGuard, Unreleased (Artist/SFX/Music) Commodore 64
1988 Blip! Video Classics, Silverbird (Artist/SFX/Music) Commodore 64
1989 Die! Alien Slime, Virgin Mastertronic (Artist/SFX/Music) Commodore 64.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
We did things the easy way. Haha! We started our own software house. Shortly after we visited Electronic Arts to pitch AutoGuard in 1988, we received a developers pack through the post and a letter essentially asking us to consider becoming an in-house development team for EA. Although flattered at the time, we were not the least bit interested. In hindsight, it would have been an ideal time to establish oneself within a company like EA and we would have been heading up large development teams within a few years. Whoops! Ho hum
Gary Bracey at Ocean was also keen on what we had done with AutoGuard, and there was talk of moving up north to produce games for Ocean. Gary was keen, but he needed a licence for the game and we were all scratching our heads as to how we could tenuously link the design of AutoGuard to a current licence. The graphics, the multi-layered sprites (a combination of both multi colour and hires overlayed), and the design of AutoGuard were so personalised to the game that we could not simply ditch the sprites for Miami Vice's Crockett and Tubbs or Aliens. So it was decided that our square peg would not fit into Ocean's round hole and the deal fell through, as did our association with Ocean. A real shame as Gary is a top fella and Ocean were big players.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Haha! At first, we were working from our parent's living rooms, on bits of paper and tape loading software. We pitched for an Enterprise Allowance grant and also managed to secure a small business overdraft. We then rented a unit at an industrial complex, and we soon became the centre piece of the whole area as we were a small company in an exciting new industry. This meant that part of our day involved meeting various dignitaries that were wheeled in and out of the enterprise park. Computer games were a new industry back then and we were good publicity for the local enterprise initiative.
We would work through the night, especially if we were on a roll and code/graphics were flowing! It really was a time at which we were at our creative best. For one thing, being best friends, we were very critical of each other. This was destructive at times due to the severity of the criticisms but, ultimately, the end results became refined and polished to a standard I am still proud of.
To answer your question:
Shops to buy biscuits/pot noodles
Choose music to work by
Discussions about progress
Work through the day
An hour on Parallax/Wizball/Storm
Kebab from Ottoman's. Delish!
Work into the night.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
We had no fixed time frame to complete a project. Having said that, we worked long hours and at a fast speed. Yes, AutoGuard was unfinished after 18 months, but Blip! Video Classics took three weeks and Die! Alien Slime just less than six months.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
Neos Mouse/Cheese for AutoGuard title screen
Artist 64 for AutoGuard game designs and main game screen
Electrosound 64 for AutoGuard music
Ubik's Music for Blip! Video Classics and Die! Alien Slime music/SFX
Basic Lightening for No Pow-Wow and AutoGuard sprites and character sets
Shoot 'em up Construction Kit for Blip! Video Classics and Die! Alien Slime sprites, tiles and tile maps
I also had the use of some excellent tools produced by Jason Daniels which were unique to AutoGuard and this allowed me to produce 3D isometric objects using any colours from the C64 palette. Cheers Jas!
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
AutoGuard was our first and best product. It remains unfinished because it was a labour of love and our introduction to proper games development (No Pow-Wow was essentially a bunch of ideas and a few coded routines). We had to make a decision to stop working on it for a while and produce something quick and simple to get the money rolling in. We shelved AutoGuard to start on Blip! Video Classics (initially titled "Blip!" after a handheld game of the same name, re-named "Blip! Video Classics" by Silverbird). Blip! took just under three weeks to complete, and it was then decided to start on a new project, Die! Alien Slime. AutoGuard was moth-balled.
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 am very proud of the three games we produced and for different reasons. AutoGuard was a tremendous technical achievement for us as it was our first project. I am very proud of the AutoGuard main character designs and the main game menu. The bomb sequence is the piece I still like the most. This involved disarming an explosive orb. The orb would appear as a small sprite at first, but when you got close, it would pop up as a large graphic on the screen along with a three colour code. The orb would then split in half and would have a spectrum of colours revolving away inside the mechanism. You disarmed the bomb by pressing the joystick as the appropriate colour scrolled around. You needed to get all three right to open the device and then shoot the internal coloured objects in the correct order.
Blip! Video Classics was a simple game, but that was the whole point. What we did was add something to the Pong genre. I still play the odd game of Asterbliperoids to this day, haha!
Die! Alien Slime was my version of Alien Syndrome. I wanted to outshine the original C64 version, and I think I did OK at that. I liked the music I produced for this as it sounded like a proper SID tune. For those that are interested, the atmospheric in-game sounds were inspired by the scene in Top Gun where Maverick is guiding Cougar back onto the aircraft carrier. The soundtrack for that is truly inspiring. Also, I wanted some neat little touches in the game. If your man ever gets close to the edge of a gantry, he will fall off, hang by his fingertips, and climb back up. Not sure how many people discovered that.
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I would remove the music from Blip! Video Classics. *lol* It performed its function very well as it was supposed to inject a simple game with some energy and pace, but after a while it gives you a migraine. Apart from that, I am pretty happy with what I did. I just wish I had done more. Die! Alien Slime is still a game I would like to re-visit. I'd like to produce a sequel. In fact, I did produce a lot of graphics for an Amiga version using AMOS. I also looked at making a mobile phone version using Dark Basic on the PC.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Actually, Die! Alien Slime was born out of such a scenario. I was a big fan of Alien Syndrome in the arcades and was very disappointed with the C64 version (apologies to anyone reading this that worked on the game). I think we decided to produce our very own homage. I'd still like to see a decent conversion of Gorf. More recently, I wish I had been part of a team producing the Gran Turismo or Project Gotham games. I am a big car fan and such an opportunity would have been a dream come true.
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
We would often take a trip to the software shops of the times (Software Plus?) to check out the competition. We were avid readers of Zzap!64 and would buy a game straight after reading the review. We also took frequent trips to the seafront arcades to play the new games as well as our fave classics. C64 games: Buggy Boy, Sentinel, Scarabeus, Wizball, Bruce Lee, International Karate and Revs. Arcade: Outrun, Gorf, Winning Run, Hard Drivin', Final Lap, and Centipede.
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
No, not at all.
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 don't think many of our inspirations came from the C64 scene as we were on our own journey. However, I admired the work of Geoff Crammond and the Sensible Software boys. I also admired the early work of the Bitmap Brothers. In fact, I had a nice phone conversation with Eric Matthews shortly after the Bitmaps were on a TV program called "Signals: The Day Comics Grew Up" to which he admitted to me that he was completely pissed when being interviewed although the strawberry-coloured face and constant laughing sorta gave the game away. My music and graphic ideas mostly evolved from my own artwork and sketches, but I was also keen to try and get an arcade look to my graphics and the C64 allowed that.
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.).
Having been invited to visit Probe Software in the early 90's, I took along our old games from Pagoda Software together with some new stuff I had produced on the Amiga. I was interviewed by the boss and he introduced me to the guy in their music department. This place had all the latest synthesisers and recording equipment which must have cost a few quid. He liked the music I had done on Die! Alien Slime and asked what synths I had used to create it. I showed him a £2.99 copy of Ubik's Music, he fell very silent, and the boss gave him a frosty look.
We decided very early on that we would promote ourselves in a very professional way. When we visited Ocean Software and met Gary Bracey, we stood there in our business suits and did our very best presentation. Jason, who was much better at talking than me, got into full flow and then as he attempted to load a game into their systems, he received a massive electric shock! He then carried on presenting, articulate as ever, whilst having a stiffie and having strands of hair standing up and waving about in the breeze.
Our visit to Electronic Arts was most impressive. They picked us up from the railway station in a brand new Renault 25. This was great apart from a design flaw in the car: very limited rear headroom. This combined with very spirited driving left us looking like tramps by the time we arrived. Dunno why we bothered dressing to impress! We also got a glimpse of EA's Ferrari Formula One on the Amiga. I was a huge F1 fan and pointed out some errors and we were hurried along.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
By the time we released our first game, it was already 1988/89 and the C64 games were mostly being marketed as budget games. This and the fact that we as business partners were close to stabbing each other in the eyes. I decided that I liked the look of the Amiga and drifted into producing graphics for a personal show reel.
What are you up to these days?
I am living and working in Singapore for an investment bank these days. I am working on some graphic novel drafts, maybe for publication in Singapore or online. Thanks to your interest in our past, and our new-found nostalgic meanderings, we (Pagoda Software) are looking at completing AutoGuard on the C64 and releasing it in some form.
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.
Firstly, my thanks go out to Andreas and the C64.COM page for his/its part in keeping the Commodore 64 alive in the minds of those interested in the history of personal computing. I'd like to thank all those guys, and gals, who made me feel so welcome whenever I visited Palace Software, Ocean, Electronic Arts, BT Firebird, Probe and Empire Interactive, and especially Simon Jeffery (Electronic Arts), Gary Bracey (Ocean), and Andrew Wright (Virgin Mastertronic).
It has probably already been mentioned that the 8-bit era was a great time for anyone who wanted to make a computer game. A one or two person team could create a game, sell it one week and be in all the top magazines and software shops the next. Fantastic times in a world that now has games designers working 100 at a time in cubicles on a small piece of "content" for a "franchise".
For anyone looking to begin a games career, you could do far worse than learning to program a C64 simply because it is relatively easy to program, has a well-laid out memory map and architecture. You can produce some wonderful results, all within 64K of memory (well, a Commodore 128 or PC development system would be helpful here). Programmers and artists of this era learned how to squeeze the very best from such a small amount of memory with streamlined code, data management techniques and precise graphics.
If only there was a games system today that had a built-in development tool for people to produce their own demos and to encourage new talent to come forward. A console that had a fixed internal architecture, an internal set of games development tools and an iTunes style shop window for downloadable content/games produced by amateur coders and artists. This is what I feel the industry lacks today.
back to the list of available interviews