Like the previously interviewed Chris Chadwick, Ben James also decided to exit the games industry despite showing extraordinary talent. His 2D top-down shooter Psychon was a gloriously violent affair, and seems in hindsight to be a game both retro-inspired and ahead of it's time.
1) How did you first get into gaming as a young man? What were the first consoles you owned, what games did you play etc.
I was part of the 1980's 'home computer' generation. We had an 8-bit Amstrad CPC computer when I was 8-years-old and my first game was 'Harrier Attack' which was epic at the time. As far as consoles are concerned, I didn't own one until the PlayStation era.
2) How did you get into games development? Tell me about your early experiences there.
Having played a few different games on our 8-bit home computer, I started experimenting with the built-in BASIC language. It wasn't long before I began learning how to create graphics and make rudimentary games.
My first 'proper' game was released on the Amiga as sharewere. 'Psycheual' was the father of Psychon so to speak. It took about 6 months to write in my spare time - I was at technical college doing an HND in Software Engineering during the day. I still regard it as the best game I've ever written, technically speaking. I felt it made good use of the Amiga's hardware and I'd produced all the graphics, sound effect and music myself. It did modestly well in the shareware market, particularly considering how rife piracy was on the Amiga.
3) How did you find yourself developing on the Net Yaroze? Was Psychon your first project?
I discovered the Net Yaroze after seeing an advert for it on the cover CD from The Official PlayStation Magazine. I'd recently left a job in non-games software development and was feeling disillusioned with my careers choices. I'd always wanted to program games professionally and I felt developing something on a modern system might get my foot in the door with a games company.
Psychon was my second project on the Net Yaroze. Initially I'd jumped straight in at the deep end and attempted a 3D game - in my mind at least I would need to do that to be taken seriously and 2D was distinctly old fashioned and uncool at the time, very much last generation technology.
4) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community in the late 90's?
The Net Yaroze community was a small but vibrant group. There was a core of people that committed to the platform and produced some good games and development tools. There were other people that would suddenly appear announcing they'd just got a Net Yaroze and would soon be releasing the next Quake beater. Most of the time you'd never hear from them again - they'd presumably quickly realised game development takes a lot of time and effort.
5) What were the limitations of the Yaroze? I'm talking both from a technical standpoint, and a holistic one. I know a lot of people, for example, had a problem with the extremely limited distribution channels for their finished projects.
The first problem I had with the system was that the serial port seemed fond of giving me electric shocks and blowing up the serial cards in my PC.
Although the PlayStation has 2MB of memory, the Net Yaroze libraries took up something like 500k of that so you were left with about 1.5MB to play with. I did run out of RAM once or twice and had to curtail the amount of graphics in my games.
Initially you could only release your game to other Net Yaroze users within your region. However, most of the better games (and some pretty bad ones) were released on the OPM demo disc so they'd reach a much wider audience.
6) Tell me a little about getting Psychon published on the OPM demo disk. How did it feel? What was the reception like?
Of course I was pleased about Psychon making the cut for the OPM demo CD but it wasn't like I'd won out over lots of other games. There was only ever a trickle of releases for the NY - at least on the European side. If you'd produced a half-decent game, chances are it would make the OPM CD at some point - I ended up having 4 games published over the course of as many years. The others were Shroud, Katapila and Squeak.
As for Pychon, well, the journos didn't seem to like it and it would be years before I'd get any further feedback. About a decade later, folk started getting on touch about it, play-throughs appeared on YouTube and such, one guy was even going to port it to the PC. It seems there's a small band of gamers that really like that game.
7) Tell me more about how your career progressed from there on. What other projects have you worked on?
After about 6 months of programming the Net Yaroze, I was offered a job at Codemasters, a family run developer and producer of games. I worked on Micro Maniacs for the PlayStation - the spiritual successor to the Micro Machines series. This was around the year 2000 and everybody was making the transition to PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
I worked on a snowboarding game for the following 18 months but that was canned for various reasons.
Club Football was my next and final game with Codemasters. During this time I got pretty disillusioned with commercial game development. The company had expanded greatly during my time there and development teams were, in my view, way too large to be efficient or fun to work in. We had a room full of programmers working on Club Football alone; this meant the individual was a small cog in a large machine. I spent two years programming the commentary and cut scenes for what turned out to be a pretty crap game. After seeing Club Football through to release, I threw in the towel and left the industry altogether.
8) What are your thoughts on the state of the gaming industry today?
The mainstream games industry has become very commercial and profit driven - game 'franchises' are the norm now. I'm not part of the industry and haven't been for a long time so I don't know what it looks like from within. Some games take hundreds of man years to create and as someone who's used to creating an entire game single handedly, it's hard to imagine what that feels like for the people involved.
9) What advice would you give to any young indie developers today? On a side note, do you envy the huge range opportunities afforded them these days?
My advice would be learn a 'proper' programming language such as C/c++ or C#. They're excellent for learning how to program well and serve as a solid foundation - many other languages resemble them to some extent. I've recently learned Java and found it identical to C++ in many ways.
Furthermore, it's unlikely that someone will spend their whole career programming games. A good technical programmer with some common sense and desired skills should easily be able to transfer to a different industry.
I don't envy new developers at all. Gaming is a huge industry with great competition and a focus on profit. It's as cut-throat as any other industry.
10) Favourite PSX game? What games from the recent generation do you rate?
Driver would be my favourite PSX game of all. The playability was just perfect and the atmosphere very appealing. It was pretty rough around the edges but they'd got the important things dead right.
Silent Hill sticks in my mind to this day, as do MGS and Syphon Filter.
Couldn't tell you about modern games, I played a bit of Minecraft and tried out a few Steam releases but gaming just doesn't hold my imagination the way it used to.
11) What projects are you working on now and in the future? Tell us about them.
After leaving the games industry in late 2003, I just stopped programming, did other jobs and hobbies.
At the beginning of this year (2015) I decided to give mobile development a go. I felt there was room for the little guy again in that market so I developed a couple of small games 'Simples' and 'Pixel Station' for Android. Towards the end of the development for Pixel Station, I realised getting noticed was going to be a huge issue. After reading the experiences of other one-man indie developers, the same story kept being told. Google Play and Play Store are stuffed full with dead apps - programs with only a handful of downloads. I really didn't want to get into marketing and all that social media BS.
As of now, I have no future plans in the area of games development or programming.
12) How do you feel about the fact you made Hotline Miami first, and about 17 years ago :p
Haha! Well, I'm humbled and indeed surprised to have inspired such an amazing game!
As far as IP rights goes, I believe the developers hold the rights to their actual games. You do however need Sony's launcher to actually play them - that contains 'libps' which is all the SDK stuff. There are third-party Net Yaroze compilations out there already, the launcher/menu system was easy to hack. Whether Sony would approve having an official repository for this, I couldn't say, I don't see why not as the system has been 'retired' for some years now.