Ash Hogg / Freelance, Genesis Software
Added on December 1st, 2021 (1490 views)

Hello and welcome, Ash! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Please introduce yourself to anyone who may not know you.
Hi! I'm Ash Hogg, I grew up in Northern Ireland, and I've worked in the games industry for around 32 years now, having started out doing music on the C64 for a few Codemasters titles.

How did you first get started with computers in general and the C64 in particular?
My father was a systems analyst at a university, so I'd always been quite exposed to computers from a very young age, although I didn't really appreciate that at the time. Often, when I was with him at work, someone would just put me in a room in front of a random screen to keep me occupied, so I got to fiddle with quite a variety of systems before I'd even turned ten, though I probably couldn't tell you what most of them were! I do recall an old Apple, as well as some mainframe terminals. I often found simple games like text adventures or early Rogue-likes tucked away in the directories there, which kept me occupied for ages.

When I was ten or eleven, my cousin Michael got a ZX Spectrum for Christmas. It was this, and playing Manic Miner when I visited him during the holiday, that made me ask my parents for my own home computer: this got me far more excited than all the computers I'd used before at my father's university (which I just saw as something "fun" that I did when I was there).

After a couple of amazing years with the Spectrum, I got a C64 for Christmas when I was about twelve years old, I think.

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?
Through a local computer shop, I got to know a few people, including David Clarke: his job at the time was installing kitchens, but he eventually got a job as a programmer at Choice Software. I'm pretty sure that they were the only game developers in Northern Ireland at the time. Choice did a lot of conversion work for people like Ocean. David was working on New Zealand Story for the C64 when he sadly got made redundant. As a result, he and his cousin Jon Smyth (now Jon Temples) made CJ's Elephant Antics. They showed me an early version, and I had been doing a lot of Amiga demo coding as well as C64, so I said: "Hey, I'd love to try writing that game on the Amiga!", and that's what ended up happening. I also did the music for the C64 game. As both versions were nearing completion, Dave tried to get some interest from publishers, and in the end, both Players and Codemasters were interested. Whilst this was mainly Dave's decision, I think we all agreed that we were more comfortable going with Codemasters. I had also independently sent a small music demo to a few companies like Thalamus, but it didn't result in any work at that time.

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 don't think it attracted me as a development platform particularly, it was just what I happened to own! I loved all the games on it, and everything about it, so I tried to learn as much as I could. On the Spectrum, I only ever experimented in BASIC (and a little bit in Forth), then on the C64 I played with BASIC for a while before getting hold of the Laser Genius assembler, which was when I started to teach myself some assembly language. The SID chip was probably what really inspired me: I loved the sounds, and how different musicians continued to really push and improve the quality of the sounds. I originally wanted to be a composer like all of those guys, and whilst I did fulfil my dream fairly late in the C64's life by creating my own music routine and composing for some games, I think I was better at programming than music, so that's what I went on to do. For me, yes, the C64 really was incredibly special: some great hardware and (as with the Spectrum) its own very distinctive flavour, and a huge roster of developers who made some amazing games.

What C64 games did you work on? Please include a list of titles and as many details as you can recall about each of them.
CJ's Elephant Antics was the first commercial use of my music routine. Obviously, this game was a total blast, as I was 17 or 18 years old, writing the Amiga version of the game whilst Dave and Jon produced the C64 original; I then composed the C64 music right at the end. I spent a long time on the music, because I was still refining my routine whilst composing. I probably spent three to four weeks on it, though not full-time but rather spread out during that period. The way I worked on the music was similar to many other composers: I had no actual tools, I would simply compose on my Yamaha PSR-70 keyboard and then transcribe the music into patterns using data statements in the assembly source file of my music routine. It was all so long ago now, I don't remember too many anecdotes, though I do have fond memories of meeting Dave and/or Jon most Saturdays in Belfast city centre: we'd hang around the shops a bit, sometimes get some food in a café, play some games in a local arcade, and often go back to Dave's house for a few hours to do random stuff and maybe even occasionally something relating to the game. :)

CJ in the USA is one I really don't remember a lot about, if I'm honest, other than that Dave and I had leased a small office in Belfast city centre at the time, as that's where I worked on this one. I really can't recall how long it took, or any fun anecdotes, sorry!

Spellcast was a game that Dave and Jon prototyped but which was sadly never released, although the demo appeared on a Zzap!64 cover tape. I had already done a couple of classical covers (with the digidrums) as an experiment and just used some of that work for this game. Again, I don't remember a lot about it all these years later!

Spikey in Transylvania is another one where I have no idea any more how long the music took, though I do remember really enjoying writing it. I was experimenting with a number of different sounds/styles and got into a bit of a flow for the first section of this, but couldn't quite figure out how to transition to the second section that I had already worked on. Then I played with the bell sound and really liked it when I used it between the two sections: I still get occasional emails about that part even today!

Steg the Slug took about a week for the music, I think. It was the first and only time I was asked to provide music for a game I hadn't really seen. I had already produced the Russian-style title track, as well as the seed of the idea for the main track, which is what I then developed into the full track. It's a bit of an odd one: again, I was trying to play with something different, and I'm not sure if it quite succeeded. I do like its energy, though.

Nobby the Aardvark was definitely the longest time I ever spent on a single game, and the largest amount of music I ever composed for a single game, although that's also because it was developed and iterated fairly slowly over a number of months as the C64 game was being developed, and I was also working on the Amiga version of the game at the same time. I was playing with yet more styles on this one. A few of the tracks' styles were heavily influenced by the soundtrack from the TV show Northern Exposure, which I absolutely loved at the time.

What companies did you work for, either in-house or freelance, and in what capacity?
Essentially, the only companies I did commercial C64 work for were Codemasters and Thalamus, both on a freelance basis (first as an individual and then as Genesis Software in partnership with Dave and Jon).

Describe a typical day for you in front of the computer at that time.
Mostly, it was spent sitting in front of my Amiga 500 or 1000, either in Devpac (if I was coding for the Amiga) or my own editor (if I was coding for the C64). Being an avid gamer, there were frequent breaks in order to play various games on both platforms, for "inspiration". To be honest, I wasn't very disciplined: I loved playing games too much!

When you were assigned to a game, how much time did you usually have to complete your work?
To be honest, it was pretty fluid for the C64 music work that I did. The Codemasters tracks were typically just fixed sums per game, so as long as the music was delivered in time for the game to be finished, the timescales weren't exactly rigid. With Nobby the Aardvark for Thalamus, I can't recall how long we originally scheduled for the game as a whole, but I know we ran way over schedule in the end.

What tools, development kits, etc. did you use, and did you create any yourself to fulfil a need?
At first, I did C64 development on the Atari ST connected via a parallel cable to the C64, using a source editor/assembler and C64 downloader tool which Dave had "borrowed" from Choice Software when he left. ;) However, I also developed my own editor/assembler on the Amiga (called Baby Amy, very original), which could actually assemble both 6502 and Z80 (I wrote both assemblers myself), and the corresponding C64 downloader tool, so by the time I'd finished CJ as my first commercial project, that was the setup I was using. Interesting trivia fact about Baby Amy: both of the 8-bit assemblers I wrote for it ended up being used later on for console development. Codemasters were not officially licensed developers for either the Sega or Nintendo platforms. When I helped them complete development on Fantastic Dizzy for the Sega Genesis (a.k.a. Sega Mega Drive), I agreed to port the game to the Super Nintendo, for which I customised my 6502 assembler to support the console's 65816 CPU and additionally added some support for cross-compilation of 68000 machine code to 65816. Whilst simplistic, it allowed me to get the game up and running quite quickly using the Sega code as a base. This SNES port was never finished, but a significant portion of the game was running very well and a large amount of the source code was still in original 68000 form and cross-compiled. A couple of years later, I wrote an audio driver and converted the music for Empire's Yogi Bear game from SNES to the Mega Drive, for which I wrote the audio driver in Z80 (rather than use the 68000 CPU, as the game was already using almost all the main CPU time) using my Baby Amy Z80 assembler.

Were there any games you worked on which never saw the light of day?
On the C64, probably just Spellcast which I mentioned before. Outside of the C64, there were several such games on later systems, including a PlayStation port of the N64 Earthworm Jim game.

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 suppose the one I'm most proud of would have to be Nobby the Aardvark: as I said already, I had the luxury of being able to work on the music for the C64 game over a long period of time, which allowed me to refine my music driver quite a lot, hence it's also the game I poured the most energy into. The mash-up of tunes may not be to everybody's taste, but I put a lot into them, and I'm very proud of them!

If you had the chance to revisit any of your past games, what would you add, change or remove?
I'm not sure I would do anything, really: I think I'm happy just to let the past be the past and focus on the future.

Are there any particular games you would have liked to have worked on or converted from arcade?
That's a very interesting question. I can't really think of any titles (arcade or otherwise) that I particularly wish I had worked on. However, what I do know I would have loved is to have collaborated with and learnt from certain developers of the day; the actual title involved would have been less important. For example, working with teams who clearly had an eye for quality (such as the Rowlands brothers, or the Cyberdyne team who made Armalyte) would have been such a great experience, I think.

Did you get much of a chance to play games as well as create them? Any favourites?
I certainly did, although much more when I was younger: free time to play has got less and less over the years! I loved so many games back in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, though I did tend to focus on a handful of all-time favourites. In no particular order, the ones that I remember playing a LOT include Cauldron (Spectrum), Paradroid (C64), World Games and California Games (C64), Thrust (C64), Defender of the Crown (C64), Stunt Car Racer (Amiga), Kick Off 3 (Amiga) and Pinball Wizard (Amiga).

Were there any games you found so awful that you wish you'd had the chance to do a better job?
In all honesty, I don't think so. I mean, I remember being disappointed by many games, but I don't believe I ever thought: "I could have done this better", because I don't think I could have at the time!

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?
For sure, my main inspiration was Rob Hubbard, as well as Martin Galway (although Rob's style resonated with the teenage me more than Martin's). Those early C64 music works were what drove me to learn assembly programming in order to write my own music driver and produce my own compositions. Over the years, with hindsight, I've realised that many others had different influences on me too, and I have also come to appreciate the work of many others from that period. For me, it's actually one of the joys of the C64 era that even today, I am discovering old games, music, graphics, etc. which I didn't see at the time and which I can really admire.

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.).
One standout memory was going to the ECTS show in London, it was probably 1990 or 1991. Dave, Jon and myself made our way over from Northern Ireland and crashed in a pretty cheap and nasty hotel near Olympia. However, the show was a lot of fun. We hung out a lot at the Codemasters stand, with whom we had only recently signed CJ's, and got to meet various people for the first time, such as Tim Miller and Paul Ranson, the project managers.

We can't ignore the fact that there were other machines apart from the C64. What software and/or hardware did you create on other systems?
This is probably going to be a fairly long list, as I've continued working in the games industry since the C64, but here goes, although I'm sure I've forgotten about quite a number of things! At first, I did Amiga and ST ports of games like CJ's and Nobby the Aardvark. Then came various music drivers and game conversions on the Sega Mega Drive (Fantastic Dizzy, Cosmic Spacehead, Yogi Bear) and Super Nintendo (Fantastic Dizzy). I converted some Micro Machines stuff to Philips CD-i (what a STRANGE but interesting system that was). I started (but didn't finish) a PlayStation port of the PC flight simulator Dawn Patrol for Empire Interactive. There were PlayStation ports of Bloodlust (a 3D-rendered beat-'em-up by the Rowland brothers for PC) and Constructor, and a PlayStation version of Joe Blow for Abstract (run by the lovely ex-Sensible Stoo Cambridge) and Telstar. I then joined Runecraft, as a paid employee for the very first time in my life, where I worked on Earthworm Jim for the PlayStation, a bit of Scrabble, and Men in Black Crashdown. I then spent some eleven and a half years at Blitz Games, working on their in-house game engine across all sorts of platforms, often porting the engine to new prototype consoles like the Xbox360, etc. After that, there was fourteen months at Playground Games working on Forza Horizon 2, then a couple of years at Radiant Worlds (formed when Blitz went bust) working on the mobile version of SkySaga. That brings us up to my current job, which I answer in your next question!

What are you up to these days?
I was recently working for the game engine company Unity. I was with Unity for nearly four and a half years, the first three of which I spent travelling around Europe (and sometimes further afield) to visit developers and help them to profile, analyse and optimise their Unity titles. For the last year I've been helping to manage that same team of engineers. Imagine my surprise on my first day, when I visited the Unity Brighton office and sat in on a meeting for various support engineers, only to discover that C64 veteran Jason Page was in the room! We're not even the only eight-bit "old folks" there: we also have Richard Underhill, and a few others here and there, I'm sure!

I did however recently leave Unity. Having spent over 30 years working in games and tech, I've reached a point in life where I just feel like I should take a year or two out to recharge and reset. After that, I really don't know what I'm going to do: I may just dive back into games development, or I may do something else. Hopefully, the path will become clearer to me during my sabbatical!

Thank you for helping me 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.
I suppose I'd only want to close by reiterating just how incredible and important the C64 was, and how amazing it is that we still have people pushing the limits on that hardware. It was a dream come true to produce even a small amount of commercial work for it, and it will always remain very special to me. Long may it continue to inspire and delight people.

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