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...
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 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
Can't remember, probably something to do with my summer
holiday or a work deadline.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
to the second part of the interview