|Hey Paul! Please start this interview off by giving us some information about yourself (full name, birthplace and date, where you reside, job and interests).
I was born Paul Martin Docherty in Edinburgh, Scotland on the 15th of January 1969. Currently I live in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, not far from Brooklyn Heights. I work as a film and video editor, working mostly on historical documentaries. Interests are pretty much dominated by movies (watching, discussing, making), writing, and music, though I do like walks in the park. Oh yeah, and kittens.
When did you start out with the C64 and drawing graphics for it?
I was the second person in my primary school class to get a computer. My best friend was the first. He got a ZX81 kit for his birthday and I was fiendishly jealous! Then that Christmas my parents got me a VIC 20, which was actually kind of embarassing because it was ridiculously superior to my mate's hand-soldered black and white bleep box. I totally bought into the home computer hype. By the time the Sinclair Spectrum had been out for a while, I was ready to upgrade, and the C64 was the next logical step. This was 1984 or 85 maybe? After that, I was always trying to justify to my parents having such an extravagant toy in the house. So when Compunet came along I jumped on that scene straight away: "See mum, it's a tool for communicating across the globe blah blah investment in the future cough cough."
For those who don't know, Compunet was a C64 server based network, shared by dial-in users who had to buy a specific modem for their machine and were assigned a username. Mine was PD10. It was like a mini version of the Internet. It had email, message boards, download areas, and online chat. Things we all take for granted now, but back then it felt pretty avant garde, at least for a know-nothing teenager like me. I got into swapping software and music with friends around the country, hanging out at C64 trade shows, and then my mate from Birmingham, Roosta, gave me a copy of the art program Paint Magic. Boom! That was it. Changed my life forever.
Were you already drawing by hand at this point?
I was a 'naturally talented' artist when I was young, something I totally under-appreciated in school, and something my dad didn't think was appropriate for a career. There was talk of me going to art college at school, but my dad was set against it. He thought I should have a trade, like engineering. So, for a number of reasons art college didn't happen. I was flirting with comic artwork when Paint Magic came along. I wasn't a prolific artist before that. If anything, Paint Magic facilitated art for me. I invested more time in C64 art than I would have if I had another outlet for it, I suspect.
What other programs did you use to draw graphics with? I imagine there were quite a few custom editors around written for the games you worked on.
I'm going to be a disappointment if you're looking for details like that. I really don't remember. There was a sprite creation application I used that I could superimpose sprites in layers and animate them together. That allowed me to do the mixed resolution sprites for All Terrain Gardener for instance. That was a very very helpful tool, I just have no idea what it was called. Most other tools were proprietary, or designed specifically for the project. Those I liked less. Tools designed by game programmers tended to be crude and unfriendly.
Were you a part of the demo scene?
I pottered around doing C64 graphics stuff for friends, just dabbling really, until I got involved with some other C64 friends in Edinburgh. The chain of events is a little murky now in my head, but as I remember it, I was approached by Dunks and Sly of Pulse Productions, a demo crew. They'd seen my stuff on Compunet and wanted me to join their group. We met for the first time at the video arcade on Lothian Road. Pretty sure that place is long gone now. I was the club-joining kind at the time and took them up on the offer. There was Sly (or Eggo – he had a few nicknames and I don't recall his real name anymore), Dunks, and Graham Hunter. I think John Cassels was involved too, but he was on his way out for whatever reason. I never actually met him.
What we started working on, though, was a side-scrolling C64 shoot 'em up together. I don't think we actually made any demos together. There were some disagreements about the direction of the game and I took my graphics elsewhere, and they eventually turned up in the loveletter to Pulse that Radix Developments created called Peace on Pulse (how terribly Noel Coward of me). Graham and I went on to make more demos, because (1) it was fun, and (2) the demo scene on Compunet was really hotting up. It felt good to be part of that, and Jane Firbank was extremely supportive of that culture on her network. (I always saw it as hers, though I guess reading about it now she wasn't as involved as I'd imagined. She was very good to us, though.)
That all fell apart after our dealings with Thalamus, basically. Graham didn't enjoy programming large projects – Radix was never really about that – and so we parted company.
Then I was briefly involved with the Nato crew, which was me flirting with doing graphics just for fun again, after doing work-for-hire stuff for a couple of years and just not enjoying it that much any more. But that was just before I moved to London in 1988 (I believe), so when I left Edinburgh, that was the end of that.
Jane's been greeted in a few demos and seemed popular. What more can you tell about her and the team behind Compunet?
I didn't really interact with her that much, but she was the only contact with Compunet I ever had. So I always assumed she was in charge. My impression now is that wasn't the case. Others knew her much better. She was a champion of Doug and Bob, and I was with Doug on one of the rare occasions that I can remember spending time with her at a trade show. But she looked out for the talent on CNet. We were good for business. She was supportive of the likes of Radix, and that was a big deal to me.
What was the most alarming thing to happen at a trade show?
The last Commodore trade show I went to, I only went for part of the Saturday. I bumped into some friends who told me there was some Scandinavian guy looking for me, hair stacked up like mine (I had some funky Eraserhead thing for a while) and wearing a long black coat like the one I was wearing. Not alarming I guess, but it's the only time I even suspected I was being stalked. For the record, I never met him. No idea who it was.
Are you aware of that fact that your graphics were ripped and used in a lot of demos back then?
I never really had a sense of a scene outside of Compunet. I was very myopic; if it wasn't right in front of me I wasn't interested. So, no, I had no idea. I didn't have friends in the scene to keep track of that stuff for me, and I was just throwing myself into work. I didn't pay attention to what was going on in the C64 world outside. I can appreciate now that that's very much who I am. Tunnel vision. I miss out on a lot of things.
Tell us how your professional career started, because it almost seems like you came from nowhere and suddenly appeared to grace the world with your beautiful graphics.
Flattery will get you everywhere. All I wanted was attention. I was getting lots of positive feedback from friends and fans on Compunet, but what I really wanted was to get a picture in Zzap!64, the only games magazine I read cover to cover every month. They were printing a lot of artists work in there, now that Cnet was getting exposure, but they hadn't featured me yet. That really bugged me. So I went out of my way to create an image I knew they'd be interested in. I did the Judge Dredd portrait specifically to get into print. It was a consious effort to use more colour than I usually did, and to focus on a single, powerful image that demands attention. Worked like a charm. That opened some doors for me.
The sequence of events is a bit murky for me, but I'm pretty sure that I had already done the Leviathan loading screen by the time my images were printed. Through the attention from Zzap!64, I was approached by Firebird, and that was really where my career became a regular moneymaker for me. It wasn't like I suddenly became a hot property, not by a long shot, but I was taken more seriously by prospective employers, definitely.
Did you submit work samples to various games companies looking for jobs?
Sure, I sent out demo disks, but the first job I got was through Rich Hare, who had done the in-game graphics for Leviathan for UBI Soft. I met him though Sly at Pulse, and that was my first paying gig. I'd sent a demo disk to UBI Soft, and he recognized my name and was my advocate for the job.
He gave me some great advice that stuck with me. I'd told him I wasn't happy about the screen because it was a complicated piece of artwork that didn't translate to the C64 very well. And he quite rightly pointed out that it wasn't my job to copy art exactly. I had to interpret the design, use my knowledge of what works on the C64 and adapt the art. Obvious, really, but I wasn't operating like that then.
Leviathan for UBI Soft? Leviathan on the C64 was released by English Software. Was there a connection between the two companies?
Busted. I didn't remember the name of the developer, so I looked it up, I saw it listed as UBI Soft, but they must have been the US distributor or something. English Software wrote the check, yes. My bad.
When it was decided that you were going to do the graphics for a game, how much time did you usually have to finish it?
I honestly don't remember. Most projects had really, really short production cycles. Nothing like the two years I spent on the PC game Montezuma's Return. Project management was a huge problem in the business at the time. So many young, naive kids were creating the games and were being managed by other young-ish, under-qualified people who had little or no managerial experience. It was borderline chaos all the time. Well, the projects I worked on were.
System 3, for example, projects languished in development for what seemed like ages (Tusker, for example, which was never ever going to recoup development and production expenses). Or the falling out I had with the Firebird project manager on Tyger Tyger, which was a painful experience. I was so invested in it that I felt utterly betrayed. We didn't know any better, it was pretty unpleasant. Took me a long time to get over that.
What happened exactly?
Ah, well. The short version is Tyger Tyger was running over schedule, development was unstructured, and this was the project manager's first non-budget title for British Telecomsoft. So the project manager had a lot at stake, and was feeling the pressure. The way I remember it is that there was a 'crisis meeting' at Liddon's place where I was renting a room at the time. The problems with the project were placed on my shoulders by the project manager and I didn't agree. But I was the only one in the room who held that view, apparently. And it was the first I'd heard of it. Liddon was backing up the project manager's assertion that I was to blame by not defending me. He just kind of let it happen.
Maybe this was some kind of motivating technique they were shocking me with, but frankly being yelled at and being solely blamed for failure of a team project was not my idea of problem solving. So I quit on the spot. I made a deal with Cale to buy out my contract with Telecomsoft, and that was the end of it. I moved out of Liddon's place shortly after that and we didn't talk again for years.
Guest question from Frank Gasking: What was the reason for Tyger Tyger running over schedule? Was Tyger Tyger found to be too overly ambitious in what you were trying to achieve?
That's a very romantic notion, that Gary and I were pushing ourselves so far that we reached beyond our ability to grasp. It was more like simple project management issues that happen to lots of projects for lots of reasons: lack of forward planning and clear goals, set deadlines and general confusion about how to overcome obstacles. In hindsight, we could easily have come to a satisfactory solution to whatever problems were plaguing us, but I was young and inexperienced, as were others on the project, and so things didn't work out.
Talking about Tusker, I think it's clear that it was a game that took forever to finish because the game is bad and seven artists drew graphics for it. What was wrong?
I never played it, so I can't really speak about the game. The project didn't really have anybody in control of it. I didn't see other projects going that far off the rails there, so project management issues were worked out after Tusker (or they improved at least). I think this was the first project for Cale that he developed without John Twiddy, Hugh Riley and Mev Dinc, so there were assumptions made about how things would play out and some of those assumptions were wrong. But that's my interpretation, I really wasn't that involved.
Do you remember what you drew for the game?
I think I did some screens, like the Elephant's Graveyard. I'd be happy to take no credit for any of that, though. :)
Which C64 game you drew graphics for are you most pleased with?
All Terrain Gardener, an unreleased Firebird game I developed with Ubik. That was the first time I conquered sprite animation. I was horribly embarrased by the sprites I did for BMX Kidz, the first game I did graphics for. They were basically stick figures, not much actual animation going on. So next time out I was determined to push myself. The game was really simple, and working with Ubik was a real pleasure. He was game for anything.
Exterminator for Audiogenic was the last C64 project I was utterly proud of. Doug Hare programmed it and we worked out of his flat in Shepherd's Bush. We wanted to make it absolutely faithful to the original, but the graphics didn't transfer well from the arcade version. So I re-created all the graphics from scratch. I was horrified to read the first review of the game suggesting that those graphics were digitized. What a jerk! Didn't do an ounce of fact checking. But that's always the problem, right? The harder you work, the more invisible the effort is to the audience.
But it was a compliment that you could draw graphics that good, don't you agree?
I'm always listening for compliments, but that review didn't have any compliments in it for me. Regardless I'm still very proud of the work I did. I know I did a great job.
What game are you most displeased with that you worked on?
Everything I did for Probe Software just never come together for me. No idea why, but I couldn't make it work. Also, I'm kind of shocked by the screenshots of Tyger Tyger. What was I thinking with that colour scheme? I had a dream recently about working on that game. I was watching a 'lost' level of the game that had the most amazing castle sequence with a dragon wrapped around a tower throwing fireballs at the hero. In reality that project was a huge missed opportunity. Such a shame.
You know, it's never too late to PM Mr Liddon and pick up where you left off. You can even fix the colour scheme this time! C'mon, all your fans are eagerly waiting for the next DOKK master piece!
I wouldn't ask the world to hold its breath waiting for that one...
Generally speaking, are you pleased with what you drew?
Tough question. I mean, I was learning all the time, so the early stuff is hard for me to like. By the time the C64 was ending its life as a viable platform, I'd moved on to the challenges of 16-bit graphics, so things like my Exile loading screen were a bit passionless, though technically very accomplished. Looking back at it from this perspective, it all does feel like a body of work. I've never really stopped to think about it like this before. So I can say, at this moment, I'm pretty proud of what I did. It was all so full of potential.
What game was most fun to do?
I can't think of any C64 games I worked on that weren't fun on some level, though the focus and sense of accomplishment from Extreminator puts that one pretty high up the list. Pity, really, since it's a conversion and not an original title. Tyger Tyger was a blast but ended badly, so that doesn't really count. Creatively I had the most input I ever had on a game and playing with ideas was really exciting. Plus Liddon was really great to work with. We ended up working together at Strangeways Software a few years later. My favourite times as a developer were definitely at Strangeways, but that's post-C64 and doesn't really fit here.
Second guest question from Frank Gasking: Apart from Tyger Tyger and All Terrain Gardener, were there any other C64 games that you worked on that never saw the light of day?
There was a Super Mario Bros clone I worked on for Firebird with a programmer whose name escapes me. It was fun to do, but the game was considered too derivative to market, sadly. Or maybe it was just crap, I don't remember.
What drove you insane about drawing graphics on the C64?
What an odd question. I imagine you're thinking I felt held back by the limitations of the medium or something, craving more colours or more resolution. I didn't experience any of that. I really enjoyed the struggle to get a good image out of the machine. Playing with the limited pallete and the limited resolution was what it was all about for me. Nothing about it drove me insane. I was already insane. :)
Did it ever bug you that the pixels weren't square?
No. Never. Did it bother other people?
It drew Ste Pickford (Ghosts'n Goblins title screen, etc.) insane. It must be mentioned though that he was more of a Speccy kid.
I was a Commodore guy. I have no sympathy for those Speccy victims. I started out on the VIC 20, so anything was an improvement.
Was there a lot of planning involved before you started drawing or was that something that was done along the way?
Maybe if I'd planned more I would have had an easier time of it. But no, I developed directly on the C64. It was about the pixels and the limited colour palette for me. I loved (and still love) the luminance of the pixels on a TV screen, that analog glow of a cathode ray tube. LCD and plasma screens don't have the same look or feel. We lost something when everything went flatscreen, though I did regain a lot of desk space.
Did you have any special drawing techniques?
I always worked with a Kensington joystick. I realize now that was a handicap rather than an asset, but you get used to working a certain way and rarely have reason to question it if it works.
Dithering was a signature of mine, I suppose, that checker-boarding effect with pixels to create half-tones and blends. You'd really have to ask other people about that. I did whatever it took to service the image at the time. I don't think I had specific habits or techniques. I was always trying to be better, faster, more exciting.
In which title screen did you succeed best with dithering?
It was an on-going thing. The Leviathan screen has some crude dithering, though I like the yellow and pink exhaust fumes. By the time I did Druid 2, I was using just enough dithering to blend the colours, trying to be efficient. From there I did stuff like No One Special which has almost no dithering, just on the face, and enough on her shirt to suggest form. Dithering for a reason. The Magnetron screen is almost all dithering, but I'm trying to break up the regularity of the pattern, at least in the background. And then there's the Nato screen which was just an orgy of blending and dithering. So with each screen I'm trying to be better, to perfect something, or do differently something I felt I'd 'perfected' before.
Did you have a lot of artistic freedom when drawing?
On most of the later loading screens, yes. But to begin with, not usually. Most of the games I worked on were original titles, so I had carte blanche under those circumstances. Games like Exterminator that were adaptations, I was supposed to deliver something close to the original. Those jobs were about the technical challenges of working within the limitations of the hardware.
Because of time limits, could you sometimes feel that you were not totally pleased with your work but it had to go because of the deadline?
Always. But the beauty of working with such limited resources was that you had so few options on the C64 screen. Loading pictures were always needed yesterday, so that was a constant challenge. You can spot the screens I had no interest in but needed the cash. I don't remember sweating deadlines on game development back then, though. Maybe I should have...
Was there a game you would have liked to draw the graphics for?
Tyger Tyger. I wish we'd finished that. Myth and Salamander. I admired Bob's economy. I would have liked to have done a game like The Pawn, the one that Bob did all those really nice screens for. I would have liked to have originated a side scrolling shoot 'em up, too (as opposed to just doing sprites for Dominator) – create my response to IO and Delta. I was a fan of Armalyte too.
What other artists did you admire back then?
Bob Stevenson as mentioned and Hugh Riley. Those were the guys to beat. Bob was clinical, almost surgical in his placement of pixels. Hugh was so loose and free, there was a real liveliness in his lack of polish. Robin Levy, too, who appeared on the scene later. He had a style that in a way emphasised the pixels. It was meticulous and so tied to the C64 graphics chip. Magnificent. It was a great experience working with him.
Were loading screens something the companies wanted if budget allowed? You mention that they were needed yesterday while today one would think that a loading screen is the first thing a gamer sees and therefore is very important.
I can't speak for producers, but when a game is being developed, the loading screen is the last thing to be considered. Maybe not an after-thought so much as a very very low priority. So while I agree with your point that it's the audience's gateway into the game and should be taken seriously by producers, it generally wasn't. And that's not a judgement on the process, that's just how things were. The Druid 2 screen was definitely the exception rather than the rule.
Another thing was that developers often weren't involved in the process of mastering the game to tape, so the distributors made the loading screen decisions. That was a benefit, actually.I didn't have people critiquing my work. Distributors just wanted something that looked okay delivered quickly and cheaply.
How much did you generally get for a screen?
£100 for my first one. £200 was the going rate at Firebird, which was a lot for me at the time. I don't even know what £1 is worth anymore.
Tell us how the amazing Druid 2: Elightenment title screen came about.
It was just a regular job. I got a call: "Can you do a screen for us?" "Sure, what is it?" "Druid 2." I nearly dropped the phone. I was a huge fan of Bob's Druid screen; its economy, a genuine interpretation of artwork instead of a straight transfer to the C64 screen. So I took this job as my mission to basically be the new Bob, at least in my eyes. I gave it everything I had. But really, it wasn't anything more than that. I didn't lobby to get the screen, it just landed in my lap. I was in the right place at the right time.
Do you remember pixling on it? Was there a paper sketch? How long did it take?
No paper sketch. I actually worked from a black and white photocopy of the original artwork. So some of the differences between my screen and the artwork are a product of the horrible reproduction I had to work from. I don't remember how long it took specifically, but I know I had more time than usual, so maybe I spent a week on it. I had time to play with composition and to finesse the colour selections, etc. For loading screens, I usually had original artwork as a reference, and I would work out the composition of elements directly on the screen. If no artwork was available, I would improvise directly into Paint Magic. I wasn't a traditionally trained graphic artist by any stretch of the imagination. C64 all the way.
What was most fun to draw; title screens, sprites or backgrounds?
Everything. I loved it all. We were always setting ridiculous challenges that pushed the possibilities on the C64. The ideas always outstripped the technology and our abilities. Title screens were a sweet chunk of money for such short deadlines, though.
You did the really beautiful graphics in Dominator together with Hugh Riley. What did you do for the game? Did you draw anything together?
I'm pretty sure my input was limited to sprites, so I didn't get to do the landscapes. I was heavily influenced by IO and Armalyte, so perhaps that comes across. Hugh's style was so very different from mine, I never thought it was a good mix, but it's nice to hear you feel differently. Like with most things at System 3, Cale let me do what inspired me at the time, and he was clear which bits worked for him and which didn't.
But Hugh had designed these graphics before departing to form Vivid Image with his cohorts John Twiddy and Mev Dinc. So we were never in the same building working on that game. His part was done by the time I showed up and I was there to add some <ahem> polish.
How did you get employed at System 3?
Good lord, that's a long story. The edited highlights are that I pursued them for ages. I loved their early ad artwork, and tried to leverage my Last Ninja eyes screen into a job. I interviewed there a couple of times but nothing came of it. It wasn't until Tyger Tyger fell through that I was hired to work on Vendetta. Mark Cale basically bought out my contract with Firebird so I could work for him.
I've only heard bad things about Mark Cale. Do you have anything nice to say about him?
Ouch. During the time I knew him he was always excited about the games he produced, and that includes Tusker. He had an eye for talent, and I met many great people through him (Twiddy, Riley, Mev, Stan, Duncan, Jason, Chris Butler, the Armalyte boys, the Eldritch guys, the Flimbo's Quest guys... the list goes on). He rewarded loyalty, sometimes with cash. Oh yeah, and his early magazine ads blew my mind.
You know, it's not my job to reinvent the past, but Cale was pretty good to me. I stayed at his house for a while, he helped me out of sticky situations with other companies, he was tolerant of some unprofessional behaviour on my part. On that level I was treated well. I can't speak for other people, and I do remember some very outspoken critics, some of whom knew him better than I. But that just wasn't my experience. It wasn't the best of times, but it certainly wasn't the worst.
Tell us about your The Last Ninja picture. It was never drawn for the game, but it ended up in it. From the things I've heard about Mark Cale, I assume he thought he could use your picture as he pleased as it was a copy of his ad art.
Ah, well the story I heard was that I had been sent a check to pay for travel to System 3, which didn't happen for whatever reason. I used that check to pay for a visit to another company (I think it was Thalamus, but I don't remember). Now, I'm pretty sure he'd already used my screen in the game without paying me, which is why I cashed the check, but he used that check-cashing incident as his own reason for using the screen. So in a way I did get paid. As it turned out, it didn't really sour our relationship. I was working for him full-time within two years.
Who else was employed at System 3 at the same time as you?
Mark Cale (obviously, he owned the place), Stan Schembri, Jason Perkins, Duncan Meech, Tony Hagar joined the Vendetta team, and eventually the Armalyte boys joined the company; Dan Phillips, Robin Levy and John Kemp. John Twiddy consulted at the time I believe. Or did he develop Ninja 3 out of house? Something like that. But I never really saw John at the office much, regardless.
There's a scrolly message in the intro to Vendetta, probably written by Stan Schembri, that mentions that Jason Perkins was a guy who threw great parties. Can you tell us anything about that?
Can't say I remember much of that at the time. Yeah, he probably did. I didn't spend a lot of time with Jason until later, when we collaborated during Strangeways Software. Our relationship was much different then.
What was the atmosphere like at the office?
When I started, a couple of titles had been languishing in development hell, in particular Tusker which just seemed to be endless, and nobody was all that thrilled about working on it. Jason Perkins was working on Dominator and Stan was gearing up for Vendetta.
I guess, if I have to be honest, it was like I showed up at the party after all the cool people had already left. That sounds terrible, I know, but the energy of Ninja and all that early System 3 stuff was gone, and the company was a bit directionless. Or maybe that energy was just a romantic notion in my head and it had always been like that even before I got there. God, that's a dreadful thought. Mark's real strength, of course, was his ability to drive things forward regardless. He was passionate about the games, and at the time his energy was the only thing moving the company forward.
The offices being in Pinner didn't help. What an awful place to live. I stayed up the road with Mev Dinc (Vivid Image) in Hatch End. Nothing going on there either. And the offices had no structure or atmosphere. So when Mark added partitions and cubicles it actually improved the look of the place. I hated it, though.
There wasn't a sense of collective purpose, there wasn't a sense on building on a heritage of quality games, and there wasn't a pride in the company. And I don't think saying that is in the least bit subjective. It was written on the faces of everyone involved. It coloured everything we did. That said, it did get better, helped in large part by the arrival of Doug Hare, who brought focus and positive energy. And then Mark opened up to developing titles for the emerging Amiga market, and that also breathed life into the company. But up until then, I can't say that what I witnessed was a high point for System 3.
The best thing about working at System 3?
Going out for a drink with Chris Butler. A really great guy! And working with the Armalyte guys in Harrow. They introduced me to the music of Zappa. :)
What rules and routines did you have to prevent game code and graphics from leaking to crackers?
How about, I didn't share my graphics files with anybody.
That works of course, but I meant when the game more or less was finished, more people get involved, marketing people, people at the duplication plant, etc. Did you hear of someone getting caught?
Nope, I was never involved or interested in that part of the business. I'm pretty sure I heard something about a System 3 game being leaked, but which one and by whom? No idea. That stuff generally occurred at the manufacturing and distribution stages. During development you're not giving copies out to anybody. These days the best testing involves a much broader cross-section of people, so things leak sooner, but back then we tested in the office. It was when the game went out for duplication the leaking began.
Did cracking ever bother you?
No. Still doesn't, really. But then I'm not a developer anymore. There's always going to be an element of loss to piracy and theft, whether it's software, music or movies you're talking about. That's what the demo scene started from, treating the software protection as a personal challenge. The thing is that most people don't enjoy or appreciate work that just shows up for free. There's no investment. I still buy CD's, partly because I like owning something physical, partly because I like to vote with my dollar. I own the movies I love, rarely watch streaming video. I'm just a rank materialist, I suppose.
Piracy was a central element to basically everybody on the scene at the time. Games were like currency. So circulating games freely sustained interest in the market and developed a C64 culture. It had its benefits. Plus being illegal it had that extra sex appeal to it. That's my personal opinion, naturally.
Does it hurt the industry? If piracy went utterly unchecked the industry would collapse, no doubt. But the existence of a software swapping underground, as romantic a notion as that sounds, is a breeding ground for talent and ideas, where fresh minds interact with new technology and imagine something exceptional. The relentless corporatization of the games business has stifled innovation, sadly. One might say that's the nature of capitalism, but that would be a rather dull conversation to have.
The Japanese seem to have much more fun designing games than the developers in the west do. Though that could just be my ignorance. It's not like I've studied the matter. Maybe the expectations of their audience are different. But surely I'm not the only person in the world who thinks first-person shooters and sports simulations are the most tedious inventions? Every once in a while there's a good game that crops up – Portal on the Xbox leaps to mind – but how often does that really happen?
Stagnation was a major contributing factor to my leaving the video games business, frankly, though there were other, more relevent factors that influenced that decision.
When did you get the job at Firebird?
I think you misunderstand. I was used regularly by Firebird/Telecomsoft as a freelancer, but they never hired me full-time. I don't think I ever signed a long-term contract for anything, actually. So I would normally just get a call: "We need graphics for 'X', how much do you want?" I'd name a figure, and they'd offer me half.
That's how I got my first job. Colin Fuidge called me first thing in the morning, I was still in bed, and offers me the chance to do the graphics for Jo Bonar's budget title, BMX Kidz. I say sure. Colin says: "How much would you want for that?" I can't remember what I said, 800 I think. He said: "I can only offer you 500." I replied: "Well, if you knew you could only offer me 500 why even haggle?!?" I took the money, naturally. It was my first game and it was released on my birthday that year.
In general, that's how things happened. Dangerously convenient, actually.
How did a typical day look like at the office?
So since I was freelance I didn't work in the office. I would go to the office on Oxford Circus to deliver work, for meetings, progress reports and such. Sometimes just to hang out, though I wasn't much of the hanging out type back then. We'd sit in the games-testing room and talk smack about basically everybody else. A bunch of little boys hiding in the back room together. Great times, actually.
Who worked there with you?
Colin Fuidge was who I dealt with mostly. Graham Boxall was there as a games tester, though he was moving up. There were other folks who worked there that I didn't deal with, but I worked with later after Firebird broke up. Angela Sutherland leaps to mind, John Norlidge.
What were the pros and cons if you compare working at Firebird and System 3?
Well, it was very different. At Firebird I was freelance and worked from home, which contrasted with working at System 3's office and being very much part of a team. Firebird felt very rough and ready; tight budgets, tight schedules, and communication was always an issue. System 3 was a different environment. I liked being around other developers, I generally find working from home to be not all that healthy for my mental state. System 3 was a tiny, tiny organization, while Firebird felt like it had more layers of bureaucracy. They both wrote me checks that cleared, which was a big plus on both sides.
Here's a list of people that I know you worked with in one way or another. Please tell us a bit about them:
Fucking hell, mate, this is some list! (Apologies for factual errors and my faulty memory.)
Mark's brother. Was head of marketing towards the end of my stay at System 3. Smoked these awful cheap cigars, stank like a badger's fart. Just hideous. Not a popular man in the office as a result. Wrote unintentionally hilarious copy for the System 3 marketing campaigns.
Aleric was an interesting guy. System 3 somehow fucked up his living arrangements, so he stayed in the office for weeks which didn't have a shower anywhere in the building. Poor guy. Smoked a lot too. I remember that he was funny, and good company at the bar.
Angela was (and still is I suspect) outspoken and single-minded. An Edinburgh refugee, like myself, so I always had a soft spot for her. I knew her peripherally during the Firebird days, but I eventually worked for her at Perfect 10/Teeny Weeny Games.
The best programmer I ever met. :) Liddon brought him into Strangeways Software, so strictly speaking this isn't a C64 memory, but he was (and still is apparently) a truly gifted coder. Very probably a genius.
The man responsible for dragging me into the world of video games for real. Colin was unique. I didn't always get along with him, and I didn't always know where I stood with him, so while we may not have been friends necessarily. Regardless he was a big influence and he had the capacity to be disarmingly insightful. Funny bastard, too.
Spent a lot of time together with Dan at System 3. Shared digs a couple of times. He knew me at my absolute worst.
A remarkable programmer. Working on ATG with him was a real joy. He could do anything as far as I was concerned.
Our paths crossed many times during my career as a graphics designer. What can I say about him? A lot of energy, a great talker, more of a conceptual person than an actual coder, but could get the job done when he had to, as with Exterminator. Was always going to rise above. Seems to be doing pretty well for himself in LA now. Haven't spoken to him in years and years.
Dark, sarcastic humor. I wonder what happened to him after System 3?
You already know everything I remember. I met him a couple of times after I left Pulse. Seemed nice enough, smart too.
Without getting too sycophantic, Liddon was a huge influence on me. The first person I shared a place with in London. His attitude to games and to the business in general shaped a lot of my own ideas about what I was doing, if not at the time then definitely later. His enthusiasm and talent was remarkable, and his non-traditional ideas kept things fresh for me. We lost touch for years after Tyger Tyger, up until he joined Strangeways Software with myself, Jason Perkins, Doug Hare and Robin Levy. Those early days at Strangeways were creatively a very rich period, in no small part to Gary's instincts and drive. His was the standard by which I measured myself for many many years.
Don't remember much about Gary except that he was eager and energetic. I have happy memories of Exterminator, and he was no doubt a big part of that.
As far as my faulty memory serves we didn't interact a whole lot outside of meetings at Firebird and visits to the bar. Great guy, though.
My partner in crime in Edinburgh for a few years. We met through Pulse Productions, and we were a team for a while. He wasn't interested in becoming a professional coder, for reasons I think I've gone into earlier. Haven't spoken to him since before I left London. I heard he became some kind of musician. If he reads this he should get in touch...
One of my heroes, and a genuinely good guy. Co-founder of Vivid Image. Didn't get the opportunity to connect with him much when I worked there.
Didn't interact with Jacqui as much as Doug and Stan did. I had my first cigar at her place before we went to Mark's wedding reception. That was a good day.
Don't have much to say about Jason. We worked together on Dominator. Founded Strangeways Software to develop Apocalypse on the Amiga. And then we fell out. Can't say we were ever friends again after that, and his behavior during the collapse of Strangeways I found pretty unforgivable. Maybe he feels the same about me. Who knows? We never talked about it. Never will, either. I hear he's doing well.
The first programmer I ever worked with. I kind of knew Jo before, from Compunet. We met a few times, always fun to share a drink with. After BMX Kidz we went our separate ways.
One of the Armalyte guys. He had a photographic memory, which was incredibly annoying. :)
John 'Slippage Factor' Dean
John Dean had the impossible task of attempting to implement effective project management at System 3 during some of the darkest times. Like trying to put a raging fire out with a teaspoon of water. He was a good guy nonetheless.
Remarkable fella, great programmer, a sane man in a business full of lunatics.
Not sure, bad with names. Was this one of the Eldritch guys?
She was a receptionist at System 3 who dated Stan for a while. Sweet girl.
SID musician, met him a couple of times. I talked him into elaborating on a Jean-Michel Jarre theme for the Vendetta title music. Seemed like a good idea at the time. :)
Mev used to work at System 3 but had moved on to Vivid Image by the time I met him. Helped me out by renting me a room in Hatch End. I think I exhausted his patience by the end.
The second best programmer I ever met. He did Frak! Met him through Liddon. Very cool guy. Patient with me, certainly. May well have been a genius.
First met Phil at a trade show, apparently a big fan of mine at the time. He was hustling to break into the business. We hung out, talked games, I stayed at his house once. He met a few people, ended up as a games designer at System 3, designing Myth amongst other things. I suspected he had a hand in getting me a job there, or at least in encouraging Mark to consider me. Perhaps that's just my perception. Phil never took credit for such behaviour.
I kind of lost track of him after that. His career took off, and he rose quickly. Last time I saw him was at the last trade show I attended in London, Earls Court I think. He was wearing a shiny suit and I was probably wearing a hangover. He saw me, recognised me, then kept walking. Didn't acknowledge me at all. It's a shame when people end up like that. Though I must say he has done rather well for himself since then. CEO of Sony Europe, right?
Another name I sort of remember but I'm not sure. I think I stayed at his place once working on some project or other. Man, my faulty memory... Didn't he work on First Samurai?
Doug Hare's brother, worked on Tusker. Long before that, he helped me get my first loading screen job, and kind of introduced me to Pulse Productions. I think these events were more accidental than intentional, though.
Never met Rob, but I was a huge fan. His work for Thalamus was always my favourite.
The Armalyte artist. We shared living space for a while. Great guy, more talented than he gave himself credit for. Haven't spoken to him in years.
He was a handsome, charming guy. I have absolutely no idea what he did at System 3. Did he do anything except exude confidence and panache?
My first Compunet friend. We bonded through our mutual love for Douglas Adams. He was responsible for giving me my first C64 paint program, Paint Magic.
I remember him, but nothing to add beyond that. Yet another person with whom I parted on bad terms. Oh, well...
My programming partner on Vendetta. We drank a lot... A whole lot. Never kept in touch.
I never really got a chance to meet him. Saw him once at a Commodore trade show in London, but he was totally wasted. Sloppy drunk he was. :) Admired his straight forward, uncomplicated approach to game design. I was a big fan of Delta.
I miss Tony. He joined System 3 as an artist. Not sure what happened to him after that. Very talented, great to work with. He's still got my portable TV and my C64 though, the bastard. :) Get in touch, Tony!
And the companies:
Distributed titles for System 3 and Vivid Image.
They were solid and paid their staff. Well, they paid me. No complaints. Only worked with them once.
Not sure what happened to them after Leviathan. We didn't get along, but I was young and stupid. Gave me my big break, so I'm grateful for that.
Great people to work for. Developing games with them was fun. Didn't feel like work.
I think that was just what Jo was calling himself at the time.
I was a fan, but never really met any of them professionally or otherwise.
Jacqui Lyons's company. She was PR? I don't recall.
Fergus McGovern's development company. Never felt comfortable there. Lots of people did though, so that was clearly my problem.
When Graham and I worked for Thalamus it was turning into a different kind of company, regrouping in the wake of Liddon and Andrew Wright moving on. Not what I'd hoped for. The vision was different. probably necessarily so. They treated us well, though.
John Twiddy, Hugh Riley and Mev Dinc. Need I say more? Okay, I worked on a couple of their projects, then pitched the First Samurai idea to them. I was slow to develop graphics for them, and then to add insult to injury, I started developing the helicopter game Apocalypse with Jason Perkins instead of fulfilling my obligations to Vivid first. They were understandably upset and let me go. First Samurai wasn't all that great. I like to believe it would have been better if I'd stayed. Shame, really.
Here's some questions to determine how big C64 fan you were/are. Googling not allowed!
Well, I'm not that kind of fan. Trivia is not my thing, but here goes...
In what year was the C64 released?
1983 (wild guess, can't be right).
Name atleast one of the creators of the C64.
Nope, can't do it. (You're kidding, right? People have this info at their fingertips?)
What is the name of the graphics chip?
Erm, it wasn't still called the VIC chip, was it?
Was Uridium programmed by Antony Crowther, Andrew Braybrook or Jeff Minter?
Which two games did Epyx release: Supremacy, Frak, Jailbreak, Winter Games, Sub Battle Simulator?
Winter Games and, um, Supremacy (total guess).
Which of these three demo teams were UK based: The Mean-Team, The Judges, Stoat & Tim, Ash+Dave, Upfront?
Good grief. The Mean-Team, Stoat & Tim and Ash+Dave I'm pretty confident were from the UK. Don't know the other two, so my guess is either they're not from the UK, or this is a trick question and they're all from the UK.
Correct answers are: 1) 1982, 2) Al Charpentier/Robert Yannes/Robert Russell/Charles Winterble/David Ziembicki/Bruce Crockett, 3) VIC-II, 4) Andrew Braybrook, 5) Winter Games and Sub Battle Simulator, and 6) The Mean-Team, Stoat & Tim, and Ash+Dave. Judgement: Even the sun has spots, so you're an OK C64 fanatic. ;)
What are your fondest memories of working with the C64?
Getting printed in Zzap!64 was really big for me. Also getting my first check for a graphics job, which was for the Leviathan loading screen. That was the moment my dad finally understood what it was that I was doing for a career.
The Druid 2 loading screen is still magical for me. It was my chance to be Bob, at least in my own mind. I was very proud of that.
In general though, I have very fond memories of visiting the Firebird office at Oxford Circus. Colin Fuidge, Dave Korn, Gary Liddon, Angela Sutherland, Graham Boxall...
What is your favourite demo?
I have a soft spot for Circlesque by Stoat & Tim.
And favourite game?
At the time I was a big fan of Iridis Alpha and Sheep in Space by Jeff Minter. I loved Delta and Armalyte. I liked shoot 'em up's. :) I also remember liking that 3D puzzle game Sentinel, and I recall playing a lot of Elite when it first came out. For some reason, I like to play Hunter's Moon on my laptop even now. Very relaxing sound effects...
What was the coolest thing someone invented on the C64?
Compunet. Without a doubt. It wasn't really invented on the C64, I suppose, but it was unique to C64 users (at least while I used it).
We have reached the end of this interview. Thanks for everything Paul! Really. It's been a pleasure walking down memory lane with one of my old heroes. Any final words?
I'm all out of words... except to say that this was fun, looking back like this. :) When I left the games business it was after four years of really unhappy times, so it's good to be able to appreciate why I got into the business in the first place. Because of meeting people like Roosta & Graham Hunter, because of sharing the experience through Compunet and Zzap!64, because of being inspired by enthusiastic gamers like Jeff Minter and Gary Liddon. Those were good days for me. I don't miss them, but I'm definitely glad I had them.