Joe Bonar / Telecomsoft,
Added on December 1st, 2012 (4762 views)
Hello and welcome! Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
My name is Joe Bonar and I've been at the game for a long time. I started out with a ZX81 back I don't know when and enjoyed playing 3D Monster Maze, 3D Defender and getting whipped by 1K Chess. That's right kids, a chess game in 1K. I don't think you can even allocate less than 32K chunk on a hard disk now. And I used to walk both ways uphill to school, eat cold gravel for breakfast, etc.
How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My dad owned a bunch of petrol stations in the United Kingdom, and then became the first importer of Toyota vehicles to Britain, so we were a reasonably well-off family. I always loved computers and technology and he bought my first computer, a ZX81, in order to encourage my fascination. I went on to the ZX Spectrum (the first games I bought were Jetpac and PSSST! by Ultimate Play The Game from a computer shop in Streatham, South London) and then on to the C64. The first game I bought was Forbidden Forest, or was it Aztec Challenge?
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?
I started out on the Compunet demo scene, writing scrolly demos with borrowed art and music. I made a lot of friends who I keep in touch with to this day. My dad (ever supportive, and trying to get his investment to bear fruit) printed me some business cards (actually, they were stickers) which I took with me to the big computer show at Earl's Court. I gave them to everyone Yosser Hughes style saying "Gizza Job!" and my old pal Colin Fuidge said "OK". I worked for Telecomsoft, which was the video game publishing arm of British Telecom, and had to have a job interview with BT at their head office. It was weird because we never felt like part of this big British Institution until we had to do head-officey things. I remember going to the company cafeteria where really good food which was extremely heavily subsidized. Was it that good? It was 20 years ago, so my memory may be hazy. I do remember putting too much hair wax in my hair before my head office job interview, then trying to wash it out and just making it worse. I ended up with very curly hair that day. Still, they gave me the job.
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 think it was the accessibility of the platform; the fact that tools and tech were easy to use, and it was easy to make it do cool stuff. Of course, it was only as good as it was, so we had to work inside the box. It was a very cool box to work inside though. There was a heck of a lot of people making stuff for it, and the community was extremely helpful and friendly.
What C64 games did you work on? Please be as detailed as possible.
I wrote BMX Kidz with the very tolerant and very smart Ubik. Dokk did the graphics plus Rob Hubbard and Jori Olkkonen did the music. What a fricken awesome team!
(Opens up "Games List" part of resume – apparently I don't have the list of games I worked on at Telecomsoft/Silverbird, I should totally dig that out)
Savage (Conversion from ST/Amiga with Dave Perry)
Tintin on the Moon (with Daryl Bowers)
Chase HQ 2 (with Grant Harrison)
Dan Dare 3 (with Dave Perry)
Back to the Future 3 (with Simon Nicol and Hugh Riley who did the art)
Supremacy (with Dave Perry and Nick Bruty)
North & South (with Daryl Bowers)
Viz (Yeah! Based on the rude comic! Daryl Bowers again with Lee Ames on art)
Alien 3 (Yes, there was a C64 version. I remember the programmer's first name, Mike, but not his second name. Sorry.)
(OK, I looked up the Telecomsoft/Firebird/Silverbird games list at www.birdsanctuary.co.uk. Awesome web site!) This list is based on my recollection, and not necessarily 100 percent accurate, so I can't take full credit.
3D Pool (with Nick Pelling)
Bubble Bobble (with Gary Liddon, Graftgold? Or was that Rainbow Islands?)
Mr Heli (Jim Baguley)
Peter Packrat (Software Creations)
Arcade Classic (Ubik!)
Beach Buggy Simulator (Probe)
European 5-a-side (Probe)
I, Ball (Simon Pick)
I, Ball 2 (Simon Pick)
Micro Rhythm (Simon Pick)
International Speedway (Probe, I think)
Oh No! (I remember buggering up the box art for that game. I thought an Ox was actually an Ox (easy mistake, right?), and ended up putting a cow in a space helmet on the cover. The Sensible lads luckily thought it was hilarious.)
Seriously, it's all a blur. You should check out www.birdsanctuary.co.uk/sb/sb_titles.php?letter=0. I reckon I was involved with ~50 percent of those titles.
What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
I worked for British Telecom in the Telecomsoft bit, which became Silverbird/Firebird/Rainbird. I started freelance and then worked as a Project Manager/Producer in-house. I then moved to Probe Software when Microprose bought Telecomsoft. I was there forever and worked on loads of games, but not as a programmer. When Probe was bought by Acclaim, I became Studio Head. I then moved to EA Canada for a bit to work on NBA Live and March Madness which was quite the diversion. Then back to the UK to work on Burnout and Burnout 2 with the very talented crew at Criterion (for a whole nine months). Then back to Canada (I couldn't get Vancouver out of my system) to work for Magellan Interactive on games for kids, which was awesome. Then Digital Eclipse/Backbone Vancouver where I ended up as Studio Head again. After that, I joined Acronym as Studio Head for four years, and finally landed at Roadhouse Interactive, where I am now and very happy.
Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer.
Then: I was literally one of those "backroom programmers". I had a big room on the ground floor of my mum's house which was my makeshift office, and I would come downstairs from my bedroom and code. It was nice to have a separate room to work in, but I did keep weird hours. I was able to make lots of noise, which was nice. I spent a lot of time online; with the speed of the modem, that was inevitable.
Now: I have a standing desk, so, uh, I'm standing up right now. I answer e-mails, work with ScrumWorks and Trello, do lots of spreadsheets, organize stuff, make magic happen and play our games a lot. Today I put up some art around the office and did a tour with some rad potential new clients. I spend a lot of time online still, but not because the speeds are slow, it’s because of how easy it is to keep in touch with everyone and the sheer amount of consumable content available - including, of course, games.
When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
Never enough time is the obvious answer, but that's just not true. Of course all clients want their game out as quickly as possible, which usually means more quickly than is actually possible. Ultimately, one works as hard as possible and gets it done as quickly as they can. Things are different now with live online projects because the team has to pace themselves in order to work at a constant high rate. There's no work like hell, ship, sleep, rest for a month and to it again cycle. I do remember working in excess of 72 hours finishing up BMX Kidz with Ubik. Legend has it that it was more like 96 hours. I do remember feeling quite unwell after that.
What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
I honestly don't remember which assembler I used, or even which text editor. Which is a bit sad really. I had a C64, a 1541 disk drive, a Commodore monitor, loads of floppy disks and a disk nibbler to make them double-sided. I also had the Compunet modem and still get sweaty at the thought of British Telecom charging 1p per minute to connect. At those slow speeds, it ended up costing a fortune! 1200 bits per second down, 75 bits per second up. That is not very fast at all.
Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
Ubik and I designed a game called All Terrain Gardener, which he wrote which was never officially published. You can totally still play it though as there are binaries floating around even now. There was another one called Classic Dogfight which was a very excellent World War 1 biplane combat game which the sales people didn't want to release because the graphics flickered. This was on Spectrum. The reason they flickered is because the game wasn't locked to the refresh in order to make it run as fast as it could, and I didn't care because it was just so damn good. Sadly, it never went out because of that.
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 only programmed one game, of course, BMX Kidz which encapsulated all your questions! I was very proud of it, particularly the great big chunk of code which posed as the enemy bike AI, and very proud of the collaboration between me, Ubik, Dokk and Rob Hubbard. It was a challenge because writing games is hard. It gave me headaches for the same reason! I have a weird recollection of the AI being a 6K lump of code with a few inputs and a few outputs. But I think I must have been wrong – ten percent of the total C64 RAM just for that? I don't think so!
If you had the chance to edit your CV of past games, which ones would you add, edit or remove?
I don't think I'd change anything. I still look back at my game and think it's lovely. I even looked at the code at some point and thought: "How the hell did I write that?" I think I must have been smarter back then.
Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
Zelda. I would love to have made a Zelda game, or even something like it. Assassin's Creed also. That is one hell of a game!
Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
Then: I played lots of games, in the creation of them and the evaluation of products from all over Europe. When I was working, I was able to buy lots of them too. It was nice to be able to buy games made by my friends. I would trawl through Zzap!64 and buy their most recommended products almost always, and perhaps a couple of the lesser-known ones. £1.99 or even £2.99 was a nice price. £9.99 too. My favourite game on the C64, and perhaps one of my favourites of all-time, is Wizball.
Now: I play lots of games, and now with iPhone/iPad and Android the whole game development process has been democratized again, like it was on C64. I just downloaded Re-Volt (which is a port of a game we made at Probe, which was a long time ago!) and also the new version of Zaxxon from Sega. I was also lucky enough to get a Beta key of Retro City Rampage which is so excellent it gives me palpitations. On console, I just bought Borderlands 2 and haven't actually had a chance to boot it up yet. Darn it. My kids are both playing League of Legends and Portal 2 (for the seventy-fifth time, or whatever). I have a lot of pre-orders at the local EB Games, mainly for the blockbusters – including the new Paper Mario on 3DS, Professor Layton, Bioshock Infinite, etc. I even pre-ordered a Wii U. We'll see how that goes!
What games did you feel were appalling and you could have done better, given the chance?
I can't remember any, but that's probably for the best, isn't it? I probably expunged them from my memory, either consciously or unconsciously.
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?
Ubik, of course. Jeff Minter, of course. Chrix and Jops. There were a bunch of people on Compunet that I wanted to impress, and I hope I did, occasionally. I'm stoked that Jeff is putting games out on iOS, and I've bought them all. He's a bloody genius. I work with programmers, artists and audio guys who blow me away every day. Making games is so hard these days, and making an MMO like Family Guy Online is so incredibly complicated, it blows my mind that these guys can handle their chunks of it day after day.
Please share some memories from the old days! (Like something a colleague did or said, your time on the demo scene, crackers stealing development disks, going to computer shows, etc.).
I remember using a hex editor to put my name in the high score table of Thing on a Spring which someone else had cracked, then finding out that it was that version which started doing the rounds. Embarrassing – especially when I met Jason Perkins who wrote it! Heh, the trouble you can get in with a text editor. We became friends though, so that's alright. And all the trade shows up at Olympia. I remember taking Stavros Fasoulas out for lunch. He had steak. I remember Simon Nicol having a duvet under the desk, and leaving it one day wrapped around a C64 power supply which caused it the melt. Or when we had to get back into the office one night, and we'd locked ourselves out and Simon had to climb up a flagpole – which was rotten and fell over, with him pretty much at the top of it. And... And... And... Oh man, I could write a whole article about those misadventures. Particularly the time when a car parked out behind the office with a couple of lovers in it... Nah, I won't tell that one.
What made you eventually stop creating games for the C64?
I actually wrote a full game and realized that managing teams was way more fun than being obligated to write code. As I said, I am still so very impressed by the talented engineers we have.
What are you up to these days?
I am the Vice President of Studios at Roadhouse Interactive. We're working on Family Guy Online and Mech Warrior Tactics, also online. I'm responsible for making sure everyone has an excellent office to work in every day, and everything they need to make excellent games. I also get involved in making games, of course. I love it.
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.
(Insert scrolly bouncy text here. Put some sprites in the side-borders. Grab one of Bob's pics, nick some of a Rob Hubbard's music. Rinse, repeat. You guys know who you are, especially Dave Mariner.)
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