Welcome Jon! Great to be able to do this interview with you. How are things?
I am good thank you. Life is it's usual transient pointless self but I got used to that a long time ago.

Tell us about the beginning of your computer career. What made you interested in computers anyway?
To be honest, I have never been a particularly techy person. In fact, I hate my PC more than virtually any other possession I have. But what got me interested was the ability to create something on an exciting new media.

When I grew up, there were not many home computers around. My first experience was probably Pong at a junior school bazaar, followed by playing my friends Atari VCS when I went to his house. When I was 17 (about two years before we set up Sensible), we got a VCS in our house. Tank Battle, Pong and Star Wars are the games I remember. Then of course there were arcade machines from when I was about 12. Space Invaders, Defender, Joust, Centipede, Nemesis... you remember.

I was already writing music with Chris Yates. I was an art student (recently dropped out), and I was at Chris's house a lot, and we were permanently creating things. What was good for me was that Chris was a lot more techy than me and his technical skill gave me access to being creative on computers with him. A typical day pre-computer games at Chris's was we would be in the spare room recording a song and in the middle of it Chris would take out a screwdriver and start hacking away at his home made effects pedal whilst I would scratch my head and rewrite some of the lyrics. This pretty much sums up our working relationship and Sensible Software was a natural extension on a different media of the creative partnership that Chris and I had already formed with music.

Did you at this point think it was possible to make a living out of making computer games?
No, it was never our intention to make a career out of it, just to get by for a while and have some fun. We were a bit more serious about our band when we started the game thing. At that time the band was the serious hopeful career part, and the games were just a laugh. This turned around probably as we started to complete Twister on the Spectrum about six months into first starting.

How did everything with Sensible start off? You and Chris Yates were playing in the same band, and...
We were both unemployed and Chris got himself a computer from a catalogue which was free for a month or so before he had to send it back. He taught himself to program enough to get himself a job with a local games firm called LT Software. I was round his house one day and he was working on this new game called Sodov the Sorceror on Spectrum. He was struggling with some of the graphics and asked me to help him. LT saw what I had done, liked it and offered me a job too. Next we made Twister on the Spectrum for LT, which came out from System 3. Then we both signed on the dole for 13 weeks in order to qualify for what was called a government enterprise scheme where you could set up your own company and the government would pay you £40 a week each for the first year. 13 weeks later we set up Sensible Software, worked on an early demo of Parallax and took it up to Ocean to see if they would sign it up. They did and gave us a cheque for £1,000 that same day. We celebrated with cigars on the train home from Manchester and we were on our way.

It sounds like a fairy tale!
We were very lucky in the right industry at the right place at the right time, and of course we were good at what we did too. Sometimes life just seems to go your way, and for us it did at the start of Sensible (I might add that often life seems to go totally against you as well). But in work by and large I have been pretty lucky... so far.

What did you write to the government to explain you wanted to do? Did they easily catch up on it?
No, it was a scheme they had in England designed to reduce unemployment. Anyone could set up any sort of business, the only qualification was you needed £1,000 in the bank and to have been unemployed for at least 13 weeks. Needless to say, we had to work through our 13 weeks of unemployment in order to ensure that we actually did have £1,000 each in the bank. It was a great policy for us, but if the government thinks there are many unemployed people with £1,000 loose change then they must be crazy.

OK, so you got started. How could a typical work day look like?
I would hitchhike to Chris's house (20 km away), and finally get there about three in the afternoon. Often we had the run of the house to ourselves. Chris would normally already be working and let me see some cool stuff he had just programmed. Then we would talk. I would make some graphics and then he would put them into the game and see how they looked. Sometimes we would stop to play a bit of guitar or smoke cigarettes, or smoke a roll up cigarette from the old butt ends, or even smoke roll ups made from butt ends of butt ends (these tasted horrible). Sometimes we would go to the chinese for some food or eat a microwave jacket potato or make ourselves a hippy brunch from the supermarket. Sometimes we would travel to the 24 hour garage for some food or cigarettes and often we would work until four or five in the morning. We fuelled ourselves with coffee. I generally eventually slept on a matress in his dining room as daylight was coming up. Then the next day we would work again and then I would go home. I would generally be there about three days per week on average. I tried to alternate with his girlfriend.

What were the worst working conditions you had?
I remember doing some early contracting for Oxford Digital Enterprises in a house in Oxford that wasn't a particularly enjoyable environment. It was like working in a messy bedroom in some student digs. In fact, it was a messy bedroom in some student digs.

Because of time limits, could you feel that you were not totally pleased with your work – but it had to go because of the deadline?
On the C64 and the Amiga, deadlines were rarely an issue. We often finished late for no extra money because we knew the extra royalties would compensate. I suppose had we had the time then we would have re-done some bits on Cannon Fodder 2 and Sensible Golf. It is much more noticable nowadays where over-runs cost publishers big money and no matter how many late nights you are willing to put in you really cannot get the game to be as polished as you would like. Sensi Soccer 98 is a good example of that. It was rushed out of the door at least six months early. Similarly I find a number of the products I have worked on since the end of Sensible have been subject to feature culling at the end.

How could a typical brainstorming session look like?
Me and Chris sitting in the spare bedroom in his Dad's house, smoking roll ups made from old dog ends, eating microwave baked potatoes and going "what about this" to each other. We had very similar senses of humour, had no particular respect for the way things 'should' be done, enjoyed off-beat things and our communication was always incredibly clear and uncluttered.

Did you ever run out of game-ideas?
I have never found it a problem to have new ideas. It seems to be a bottomless pit so to speak. The problem nowadays is having to put your ideas through a whole bunch of externally imposed filters before you can use them commercially. The ideas are still there but sometimes my will to either fight or put up with the system is very weak. I have learned to deliberately apply my ideas more commercially these days where it used to happen by accident.

Were things a bit tough because you've always prefered doing something original instead of an arcade conversion?
Up until 1996, we had some unbelievable times making original games and the sort of freedom that people now can only dream of. I also made quite a lot of money out of it and worked with some brilliant people. Unfortunately, since then there are few people who have the faith in the intuition, perception, vision and persistence of an original game design, even if the designers are proven. It seems the concept of faith in creativity is positively frowned upon in the boardroom of most PLCs, however much they might pay lip service to it. Few of them really want anything truly new nowadays and I am sure that for a lot of people the arcade conversion is the better option. I just wish that the tide would turn back a bit in the favour of creativity again and that development costs would drop so that we could get some financial investment in creative games development in this country to enable us to compete.

Was it frustrating to see heavily marketed titles with a license name charting higher than your original games, despite being poorer?
It is refreshing for myself and my peers that people like you recognise this. It was frustrating to see any one else's games, original or licensed, do well prior to us having our own successes. We resented everyone's success prior to our first number one SEUCK, and then we resented everyone who had made good money until our cash cow Sensible Soccer came along. Creative people are very ego driven in this department. I experience the flip side of it sometimes myself, but that's OK, it is just normal. Recently I have experienced the frustration of licensed titles dominating again, haven't we all. It's still just a passing phase. Sooner or later this ultra capitalistic bubble is going to burst (please). I just hope that some day everyone that matters remembers that it's possible to make cash and be original at the same time.

The computer shows in London were really important for games companies and fun for the computer interested people. Were Sensible ever represented on those shows?
We did one of the London shows. We wanted to sell Microprose Soccer but the boxes weren't ready yet so we had to settle for selling mail order forms for guaranteed quick delivery (pathetic huh). We also sold Sensible Software T-shirts and other bits. It was fun but we never did it again. We also did a couple of shows in Eeklo in Belgium called OZ, now they were very weird. We got the Bitmaps, Archer, Richard Joseph and Graftgold to come to the second one too, except that I don't think Graftgold ever got picked up from the ferry by the guy who organised it. Oh well, we were busy snorting vodka in the bar. This is just about as rock'n'roll as it ever got.

Why did you put Sensible to rest?
Myself and Chris had been working together for 13 years. Since we were both 19, we never had one argument to my memory in that whole time, but it felt to both of us like it was time to move on. Games were getting expensive to make on PC and Playstation 2 and the risks were far greater. Sensible Soccer and Sensible World of Soccer cost us about £100,000 to make and made us about £3,000,000 (which we divided between ourselves and the team). Modern games cannot match that percentage in terms of outlay vs income and we had too much to loose to piss it all away on some great new idea. That is why Sex'n'Drugs eventually had the plug pulled on it by us. Also the legal issues with Sex'n'Drugs (censorship) and Sensible Soccer 98 (rights) were making creativity a legal minefield. In short, the poor business model and the creative restrictions, plus the size of the team we needed to manage and the middle management needed to cope were all huge turn offs to Chris and myself.

There's lots of nostagic things going on right now like Back in Time Live. What was your spontanious reaction when you heard about it?
I thought it would be a small gathering of guys in their 30's talking about the past whilst we played some largely ignored music in the corner.

And your reaction when you attended it?
It is the best venue I have ever played in live. A big enthusiastic music focussed audience, I loved the way the staff at the Jarrold Hall were totally flumoxed by this weird mixture of geeks cheering and howling, karate chopping, Swedish choir, they are used to listening to the London Symphony Orchestra you know.

I was really thrilled when you joined us (Stuck in D'Eighties) on stage last year, because you were originally gonna play with us in Brighton. What happened?
Can't remember, probably something to do with my summer holiday or a work deadline.

What do you remember from the rehearsals?
Thinking: "Oh shit! I am never going to learn this in one day, why do the songs have to be so complicated with so many unpredictable chord changes", and later on in the day: "Jesus look at the size of those blisters on my finger and thumb."

Playing live on stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd is a fantastic feeling, especially when you do it to a crowd that knows the songs by heart. What went through your head as you entered the stage?
See the answer above. I have never concentrated so hard in a gig in all my life. I did not know any of the tunes before our one day rehearsal and I had a piece of paper with all the chord changes on the floor in front of me. I had swapped my lead with Ben's to give him room to run around, the one I used was very short so I couldn't move much, but it didn't matter because I was tied to my chord change sheets in any case. I enjoyed playing in front of the crowd and having at least 50 percent of my numerous mistakes masked by my brilliant fellow musicians.

Let's do it again soon! :)
I am up for it anytime, especially if I can swap to playing guitar as I did at Retrovision recently. I use bass to write and can knock out a riff pretty well but I am a chords man at heart.

Let take care of some personal things before we move on to talk about the games you've worked on.
Birth place and date: Ilford, Essex, 20th January 1966.

Reside in: Essex, England.

Interests: Music, playing, writing, listening and dancing, football playing and watching, trying to play golf, learning about the human condition.

Music taste: Fairly varied. Lots of 70's stuff like Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Black Sabbath and Gong. Funk, jazz, trance... Music that cries and music that flies.

What makes you happy: The sensation of feeling totally free (when none of your energy or consciousness at all is being used to restrain yourself) and to feel loved of course.

Goal in life: To understand everything and to be totally at peace with myself. Career wise I will have reached my goal when I am as renowned for quality and genius as Picasso or Shakespeare or Spielberg.

What have you been up to since the C64 hey days?
Well, after the C64 at Sensible we started working on Amiga games, which we also ported to the ST and Megadrive in-house. As most people are probably aware of, we did pretty well on the Amiga. Our first a port of game was International 3D Tennis. Then we did Mega lo Mania, Wizkid, Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder, Sensible World of Soccer, Cannon Fodder 2 and Sensible Golf.

The Amiga period was a great time for us because creatively it was as open as the C64 days but there was more money in it as well. After that we worked on a three product deal we signed with Warner. Sensible Soccer 98 (PC), Have a Nice Day, which was intended for the Playstation but never saw the light of day, and the infamous Sex'n'Drugs'n'Rock'n'Roll, which was an absolute dream for me to work on for about four years until Warner sold their software division to GT, a company positioned firmly in America's Bible Belt. After this we sold Sensible to Codemasters, whom I worked with for three years.

I have just set up a studio with Mike Montgomery and John Phillips of Bitmap Brothers fame called Tower Studios. We are doing mobile games and design/production stuff. Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and lots more are coming to your phone soon. Just watch this space.

You worked on Sex'n'Drugs'n'Rock'n'Roll for four YEARS?!
Actually, I worked on it for very many years. We first came up with the idea in 1985, I started preliminary work on it in 1994, signed it in 1995, stopped working on the game in 1999 and finally finished the soundtrack in 2001. Now you understand what a big part of my life it has been.

Why did it take nine years between idea and preliminary work?
Originally we messed around with an idea for a game on the Spectrum called Drugged Out Hippy but it was far to dangerous for the market at the time so we put it to bed as just another crazy idea that would be impossible to bring to market.

Can you tell us something of the original idea?
The original idea was a singer in a nothing band who had seven seperate drug habits to support and who had borrowed £4,000 from the Hell's Angels. He had to deal in drugs and play music and make all the money back in a week or else get his face smashed in. The game was set in England. This then mutated to a drug addict guy in a nothing band who was driving round in a van dealing drugs playing music and dealing in whores, who was also in debt to the Angels. The game was set in England/Amsterdam. This then mutated to an epic 100 location nightmare with a guy in a nothing band suddenly making it and being catapulted to stardom and jetted off to LA, followed by Tokyo, New York, Rio, Mexico, Paris and Amsterdam and becoming mega rich before losing it all and dying live on stage. Which was then modified to a more managable 30 location version of the same plot.

What have you done with all the material? Will it ever be released?
We have a 17 minute long video containing about seven cut-scenes from the game, mostly of the band performing live and a 52 minute audio CD featuring the complete soundtrack (with speech and SFX). These bits can be released and have been used before on TV and radio. The rest of the material is just sitting in folders on hard drives gathering dust.

» Continue to the second part of the interview

» Get the games – from C64 to Atari to Amiga and more!

Softography – not only the C64 stuff.

» Tower Studios – this is where Jon works these days.

» Interviews