Chris Chadwick won the Game Developers UK competition for his entry, Blitter Boy, back in 1997. With such promise shown, it's interesting to hear that he decided to leave the industry for good shortly after - read on to hear why.
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.
A couple of things got me into gaming, back then. I started going to local arcades with mates, back in the early eighties, just as part of hanging around town at weekends, as you do as kids. Around the same time, my Uncle had got himself a Dragon 32 home computer, and was teaching himself programming on it in his spare time, as well as playing games. This piqued my interest and lead to my Nan kindly buying me a 48K ZX Spectrum in 1983, I think it was. I remember the first two games I bought were Slippery Sid (a variation on the classic 'Snake' game) and a Golf game which turned out to be written in BASIC. Seeing 'under the hood' of a game like that, I'm sure, fed my interest in learning how these games were made.
As for consoles, the first one I remember having was the SEGA Master System, although I can't remember for the life of me how I came by it. I know I didn't buy it new. Anyway, it had some great games such as Wonder Boy, which was very close to the original arcade version. The gap between arcade games, and games you could play in the comfort of your own home, was narrowing. As such, I pounced on the Mega Drive, when it was released. So many fantastic, arcade quality titles: Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Altered Beast, Devil Crash (a port from the mighty PC Engine), Strider, Golden Axe, Hellfire, Sonic... the list goes on.
I also got a SNES at some point after it had been out a while. I picked one up on a whim when I had a bit of cash burning a hole in my pocket. Up until then, I hadn’t owned any Nintendo hardware, having felt some kind of silly loyalty to SEGA. I wish I'd got one earlier as playing great games like Mario Kart and 4-player Bomberman with mates was such a laugh.
The next console up was the PSX, of course. The mighty Sony marketing machine was in full flow showing off what the 'next generation' in home console video gaming had to offer. Wow! I just had to have one. To this day, I think it's the only videogame-related purchase I've actually pre-ordered. Wipeout was the killer app that really lured me in.
2) How did you initially get into games development? Tell me about your early experiences there.
Well, my Uncle and I had a particular fondness for playing text adventure games, which quickly got to a stage where I really wanted to make my own. When I had learnt BASIC well enough, I managed to write two or three adventures - Krool Castle and The Three Faces of Time, spring to mind. My God, ha-ha. I then moved over to using The Quill and its successor, PAW (Professional Adventure Writer) to create my adventures. Quite a few games written with these tools had been published, so I started to get my hopes up that I may be able to get a game published, too. My first tries at this were met with utter failure. I think I had enough rejection letters to paper my bedroom with! Not surprising, really - the games weren't that good.
However, after honing my concept of what makes a good adventure game, I wrote a game called The Dreamland Trial, and sent it off to publishers. I started receiving the usual rejection letters, and thought, "here we go again" - until one day I got a call from a company called C.R.L., who said they liked my game and wanted to publish it! I couldn't believe it, and even thought it might be one of my mates winding me up. C.R.L. were well known at the time for publishing several popular adventure games, such as the spoof game Bored of the Rings.
Success at last, then! Er, no... I signed a contract, but my game never made it to the shops, for reasons I'm still unsure of to this day. I know C.R.L. went bust, some time afterwards, though. I think the game can still be found in the World of Spectrum archive online, under the name Crystal Quest - a name change insisted on by C.R.L. that I never liked, not least because there was already at least one other game out with that name.
3) How did you find yourself developing for the Net Yaroze? Tell me a little about what it was like, any early projects you completed etc.
In a strange way, my getting involved in the Net Yaroze scene was down to my Nan, again. Unfortunately, she had passed away at around that time, and left me some money. Without it, I would never have been able to afford to buy a Yaroze, which I think was about £550, when released. At this point, I was still messing about coding with QuickBASIC on the PC. I'd written a sprite editor called PIXELplus 256, and released it as shareware. It sold all of about ten copies, I think. The money just about covered the cost of putting out a few, small adverts in a PC magazine. I gave the thing away as freeware, shortly after that. I actually used PIXELplus 256 later, to create all the graphics in Blitter Boy.
I'd also just started to dabble with C. So, the fact that Net Yaroze development was C-based, and a dedicated gaming platform, really got me interested. I already owned a PSX at this time, and the thought of being able to program it really appealed to me. I'm not sure I'd even contemplated being able to write an entire game, at this point, though.
To begin with, I had to learn C properly (thanks mainly to the book, The C Programming Language, by Kernighan & Ritchie) as well as familiarize myself with the Yaroze hardware and libraries. This was made much easier thanks to the other members of the Net Yaroze community - particularly via the dedicated news groups. It was all very vibrant and bristling with enthusiasm. It was gratifying being able to ask for help on something you were struggling with, and also give help to others, when able to. Being able to see, and even try out ideas and games other people were working on, was great. It really did feel like a close-knit community of like-minded folk, all feeding off each others’ energy and passion for what we were doing.
4) Tell us now about the development of Blitter Boy. How did you come by the idea for it - what were your influences etc. What were some of the hurdles in development you faced?
Blitter Boy was born from the learning curve process I was going through when I first got the Yaroze, really. It evolved. I simply started by getting a sprite to display, then added the ability to move it around with the controller, then animated it, and so on. At some point I must have felt ready to attempt making a small game with what I had so far. I initially thought of doing something Robotron-inspired. Technically, it's a relatively simple game to make, but is exciting (literally - it can still get my heart pounding) and tremendously rewarding. Just, plain, fun!
However, I had to bin this idea - mostly, at least - when I decided I wanted a scrolling background that the game character could walk around - just because I'd now learnt how to do it, I suppose. This flew in the face of the whole Robotron concept: having an uncluttered background (i.e. none!) and the ability to see and distinguish everything in the level - even with your peripheral vision - are essential to that game's mechanic.
At some point, I also had to abandon the idea of having Robotron's independent movement and shooting directional control. I don't think dual analog sticks on controllers were standard yet, anyway, so control would probably have been cumbersome without them. So, not much left of the original Robotron idea, then.Because of this, I looked at what direction I wanted to take the game, instead. I really can't remember exactly how I came up with the whole collect-the-babies thing, but I'm pretty sure I was influenced by Flicky. A charming, fun little game that I played a lot on the Mega Drive. I could well have taken some influence from Zombies Ate My Neighbors on the SNES, too. There’re babies to rescue in that. Great game.
After this, I just worked on adding mad ideas to make the game engaging, funny, compelling, rewarding and - hopefully - fun, overall. The madder the idea, the better, really - just as long as there was a seed of twisted logic to the madness. For example, the Fruit Drops weapon: Well, it does what it says on the tin! Giant fruit drops from the sky to squash the enemies. Collecting (eating) the fruit before it shrinks away increases Blitter Boy's energy. See, completely logical, ha-ha!
As for hurdles in development, I'd made something of a rod for my own back by developing a game with the potential for a relatively huge amount of sprites being in the game arena at once. Collision detection. I had to find a way to do this that wouldn't slow the game to a crawl when things got busy. Luckily, I came across a 'shifted grid' method that basically meant I only needed to check if the sprites in each cell of a grid (representing the entire playfield) were touching. I also had to take into account the nature of the forced perspective, 2.5D graphics, whereby two sprites may be physically intersecting on-screen, but one may be standing further away, behind the other, so not actually touching in the game. Add to this the fact that some objects can be off the ground - such as when Blitter Boy jumps over a mine - and things got a tad complicated, but I got there in the end. There were a few tricky things like this to resolve, but I saw it all as a challenge, really - puzzles to be solved.
5) Tell me a little about getting Blitter Boy out into the wild and onto the OPM disk, where it was widely regarded as one of the best Yaroze offerings available. How did it feel to have such a fantastic reception?
To be honest, I wasn't really aware of how it was received by the public at large, as I was locked away in the Yaroze community bubble without any real channel for feedback from people who were playing the game outside that community. When first developing the game, I had no thoughts that anyone 'outside' would get to play the game. After all, it wasn't possible for us to burn our games to disc and distribute them to friends with Play Stations, even.
Anyway, by the time Blitter Boy was included on the OPM coverdisk, an early version of the game had already won a Yaroze programming compo run by EDGE magazine. Also, I think I'd just had success at the GDUK awards by then, too, so my head was still spinning from those achievements. Getting on the OPM coverdisk just made it spin some more! It was all pretty surreal but immensely gratifying.
It wasn't until some years later that I really discovered how Blitter Boy had been regarded. I think I'd Googled Blitter Boy for some reason and was pretty much gobsmacked to find some fan reviews and articles about it, and even videos of the game posted on YouTube. I thought the game would be completely forgotten by then. I pretty much had. Reading mostly positive comments from people saying how they liked the game, and they played it a lot when they were small kids, made me feel pretty warm and fuzzy inside. Not to mention old!
Watching the videos on YouTube and reading the comments was interesting - and a bit frustrating. It seemed the lack of instructions in the game lead to some confusion. I'd been in a mad rush to get the game ready for the GDUK competition deadline, and simply didn't have time to include a proper instruction screen, explaining what all the power-ups do, etc. Also, some people didn't know that using the run button sapped energy, or even that you could strafe fire - an important feature that perhaps, in hindsight, I should have made the default mode of firing.This inspired me to record a YouTube video of my own, detailing everything about how to play. Going back to Blitter Boy after all these years was interesting – I’d been too close to it previously, to look at objectively. For the first time, I was able to play it with somewhat fresh eyes. In fact, I’d forgotten so much about it, such as the shonky VCR freeze-frame effect when the game is paused, and what half the power-ups did!
A screen telling the - albeit corny - background story may have been useful, too. For example, several people have commented on how the ghosts in the game look like the ones from Pac-Man. They're not like the Pac-Man ghosts, they ARE the Pac-Man ghosts! The story went along the lines of a lightning strike hitting a multi-story shopping mall, causing all the monsters from the games in the arcade to escape and go on the rampage. Everyone had fled in terror, leaving behind some babies in the crèche. Blitter Boy - a child mercenary, if you can believe that - had been sent in to rescue them. Some crap like that, anyway. I'd planned on adding lots of other arcade game baddies, and had started on designing an end-of-level Centipede boss. I wouldn't have been so blatant about 'borrowing' characters from well-known arcade games if I'd known the game would ever see the light of day, outside of the Yaroze community. Let's just call it a homage to the arcade games of old (today, the only form of video gaming I'm still passionate about). I wanted to add lots more whacky weapons, too. Basically, I don't consider the game finished.
Back to the OPM coverdisk. It was news to me when I discovered that Blitter Boy had been included on OPM coverdisks three or four times. Unfortunately, once or twice, a cut-down, hacked version with early, unfinished graphics was used, it seems. Presumably something someone at Sony/OPM had knocked up for whatever reason - I don't know. Not good. I just wish they'd taken my name off it, to be honest.
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
In a word - buzzing! It always felt like a fairly small community, but very busy. Also, we were pretty much isolated from the Japanese Yaroze community - who were producing some amazing stuff - due to the language barrier. However, you'd get to know - in a virtual sense - all the regular contributors and posters on the newsgroups, share thoughts and idea and help each other out. The Sony staff involved were great, too - particularly Sarah Bennett, I remember. She was very encouraging and enthusiastic. In fact, she was the one who persuaded me to enter the competitions. I wasn't the most self-confident person back then, and am pretty sure I wouldn't have bothered without her encouragement. I really must thank her for that.
The Net Yaroze and the community was pretty much my whole life, at the time. Sad, I know, but it was great! I remember a bunch of us did actually meet up at one point when we were invited to a day out at Sony's London HQ. Treats included a pre-release look at the much anticipated Gran Turismo and lunch at Planet Hollywood, I think it was. We were also given the opportunity to have professional Sony dev staff give feedback on our games. It was suggested that I consider adding strafe firing, as without it, the game was too hard. A great idea which I duly added - although, I'm not sure how many people later realized this was possible by holding down a shoulder button. It was a very enjoyable day, and it was good to put faces to the names of the guys you'd been chatting with online for some while, by that time.
7) 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.
Yes, the fact we couldn't burn our efforts to disc came up in discussions on the newsgroups, quite often. Looking at it objectively, now, I guess Sony just couldn't allow this. They couldn't have individuals potentially starting up their own, mini Play Station distribution channel, giving away - or even selling - games, completely independently from Sony. Sony needed to protect & contain its property and branding, I suppose. To this end, there was a fairly stringent QA process all Play Station games had to undergo before publication - certain things had to be done a certain way; some things weren't allowed, etc. Yaroze games, too, had to pass this before getting published on the OPM coverdisk.
Also, the Yaroze development library was a cut-down version of the full, professional dev kit one. I think a few of the members were Play Station developers, so had knowledge of what was missing, and wanted certain features added - I forget what, exactly. I had no knowledge of the full dev kit library at the time, so didn't miss what I'd never had, I don't think.
Funnily enough, though, it's the limitations of the hardware that appealed to me, in a way. The Yaroze/PSX - like all consoles - had a fixed architecture. You had this much RAM, this much processing power, these graphics capabilities, etc. There was no option to fit more memory, upgrade the graphics hardware, or whatever. Consequently, you could be sure that anything you developed would look, sound and perform exactly the same on any other machine. I liked that. It meant it was you against the machine < insert Rocky theme tune >, pushing it to perform as well as you wanted it to. I always enjoyed the satisfaction gained from successful code optimization. I guess this is an aspect of programming that I learned to enjoy, back in my early days. Not that back then I wouldn't have sold a kidney for more RAM and a faster CPU, as standard!
As a whole, I think the Net Yaroze project's main limitation - or, a limiting factor - was the price of entrance. As I mentioned earlier, it was only through - for want of a better word - luck that I was able to buy into it. Yes, there were several price reductions - I think it ended up being about half what I paid as an early adopter. Even so, we're still talking about hundreds of pounds. I appreciate that Sony won't have made any money from the Net Yaroze programme; if fact, they probably made a loss on each unit they sold. I just wonder how many talented individuals missed out simply because they couldn't afford the entrance fee to what must have seemed like some kind of exclusive club, maybe. There were one or two universities running Yaroze development courses, now I think about, but this still didn’t make it open to all, really. Personally, the cost of getting a Yaroze was somewhat motivational, though. There was no bloody way I was going to spend that kind of money and end up not doing anything with it!
8) Tell me more about how your career progressed after the Net Yaroze days. Where did you go from there? What other projects have you worked on?
Well, I'd just got back from the GDUK awards in Sterling, when I got a call from a company called Eighth Wonder. They were a fairly small, Sony-sponsored group of mostly ex-Rare developers, based in the Midlands. I was asked to go for an interview, so I drove up to meet them and was offered a job. Before the year (1998) was out, I'd moved to the Midlands and started work. Unfortunately, things didn't work out the way I'd planned, shall we say. I left after about six months and haven't worked for a games developer since that time.
Burnout. Breakdown. Whatever you want to call it. I’d just run out of juice. It wasn’t until a good while after this that I even wanted to go near a computer, to be honest.
Anyway, a good while later, I remember reading posts on a gaming forum, by John Pickford - one half of the long-time industry stalwarts, the Pickford Brothers. He was praising a little-known language he was using, called Blitz 3D – a language/compiler specifically designed to ease the development of PC games. I figured if it’s good enough for him, it’ll certainly be good enough for me, so took a look. As well as discovering a great little language, I found a burgeoning community of enthusiastic developers, with varying levels of experience and ability – professionals and hobbyists. There was a busy, optimistic atmosphere, not unlike that of the Yaroze community.
I spent several years playing around with Blitz 3D - writing demos, libraries, mini games and prototyping game ideas, as well as completing a tool for making funky, bit-mapped fonts from TrueType ones. All just done as a hobby, really. A way to vent some creativity.
9) What are your thoughts on the state of the gaming industry today? If you could give me a perspective on both the mainstream and indie scenes, that would be fantastic.
This isn't something I contemplate too often these days, to be honest, since I'm no longer involved in development or even a consumer, really. Mainstream PC gaming doesn't really appeal to me, for whatever reason, and the only games console I own is an Ouya that someone kindly gave to me. The plan was to learn Java and play around with development. However, I was sidetracked by another project and didn’t return to it.
I've gone back to my roots as far as my gaming goes - the arcade. My pleasure is nostalgia-fuelled, I'm sure, but it's something I've only really got back into fairly recently – when I bought my first arcade cabinet - and am passionate about. I just love the charm and challenge of the old arcade games I played as a kid, and think some of the cabinets are works of art.
Anyway, the gaming industry? Well, from my admittedly limited viewpoint, mainstream gaming all looks depressingly samey, to me – and violent, mostly. There doesn’t seem to be much innovation or risk taking, as far as ideas go - no doubt due to the massive time and financial investment each title demands, these days. Not that many titles don’t look very impressive, technically. But, you know – meh.
Indie development is – not surprisingly, I guess – looking much more vibrant and innovative, on the whole. There really are some very talented developers and individuals working in this sector of the industry, from what I’ve seen. But again, this is just watching from afar – videos, screenshots, articles and posts I’ve stumbled across online. I’d struggle to name a current, specific game to cite, to be honest. I think the last indie game I played – properly, at least – was Cave Story. What a superb game.
10) 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?
Young indie developers probably know more about the scene than I do, these days, so I’m probably not in a position to give any practical advice, really. I would just say that if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it helps a lot.
I’d ask myself why, exactly, I wanted to be an independent games developer. If it was just as a job that puts food on the table and pays the mortgage, or whatever, then obviously I’d target the platforms and game genres that are popular with the indie game buying public. Research it. From what I’ve seen, these tend to be games like Solitaire and Match-3. There are quite a few indie devs that do this, so you will still have your work cut out for you to make a living. You’d need to come up with something that makes your games stick out from the crowd. A professional look and feel is essential, so unless you’re lucky enough to possess excellent graphics and sound/music skills, you’ll need to employ the services of others that do. This avenue of game development would be too cynical and unrewarding for me, I think, but it’s a completely legitimate one.
For developers who want to do something different and innovate, and really have a passion (that word again) for what they’re doing, things are a bit trickier, it seems to me – to make a living, at least. It’s easier to stick out from the crowd with a game that looks and plays differently, sure, but more difficult to get others to buy in – literally - to that idea, and your vision of it. There are, of course, certain games from developers that fit this bracket who have found success and made a lot of money. The tastes of the indie games buying public at large - when it comes to something new or different - is very difficult to gauge. So, all I can really say on the matter is, good luck!
As for envying the huge range of opportunities available these days – not really, no. Today, there’s a bewildering choice of platforms, tools, engines and languages to choose from. I seem to read about something new on a weekly basis, and I’m not even looking. It must be hard enough choosing an appropriate toolset for what you want to do, and sticking with it - eschewing the temptation to switch to a new ‘grass is greener’ development environment. I’ve seen this happen sometimes online, when games developers – particularly lone, hobbyists – switch tools/language on the pretence that missing feature X or Y is what’s holding them back from making a great game – or at least finishing it, which is the hardest part. It just seems like unproductive procrastination, to me.
11) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
I don’t think there’s any game that I’ve played that would count as recent, I’m afraid. As for the PSX, there isn’t a specific game that sticks in my mind as being my top favourite. I enjoyed many of the usual suspects from the mainstream, such as Wipeout, Tomb Raider, Gran Turismo, Resident Evil. I remember Bishi Bashi Special was a fun party game, dripping with insane Japanese humour, which I loved. My family and I really enjoyed the Broken Sword point-and-click adventure games, when we played them together at Christmas. Twisted Metal would probably count as a guilty pleasure, as I don’t think it was critically acclaimed, but I had a riot playing it.
12) What, if anything, has spurred your leave from the world of games development?
I can interpret that question in two slightly different ways. If you’re asking if any alternative pursuit or endeavour has kept me away from games development, then the answer is no, nothing specific. Stopping games development – and programming in general – left a void in my life that I still haven’t completely filled. I still miss it.
If you want to know what spurred me to leave in the first place, that requires a different answer.
I’ve talked a little bit already about why I left professional games development, initially. The reason I never went back to it – or even tried – boils down to the revelation that I didn’t like it, much. This came as something of a shock, as I’d dreamed of making video games for a living, ever since I started programming on the Spectrum as a young teenager. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.
I found it frustrating having very little creative input, and consequently an unrewarding occupation. Whereas making my own games for fun meant I could create and do things any way I wanted, working for someone else on a game - which I played no part in the concept, design or formation of - was quite a different matter. I was tasked mostly to write the game’s frontend menu system – something most developers will probably tell you isn’t the most exciting job. I’m not complaining about that though, really – I was new to the company, and new to professional games development, so I expected to start at the bottom and learn the ropes, so to speak.
I found it hard to get enthusiastic about any of it, really. I just felt I didn’t fit the job – or the job didn’t fit me - somehow. This isn’t any reflection on the guys at Eighth Wonder, by the way. They were great and made me feel very welcome.
13) Where do you think gaming (and games development) is headed in the next ten years?
As a whole, I can’t see the mainstream games industry deviating too far from the path it’s already on, as far as the types of games being offered up to the public is concerned. Gaming hardware will get more capable, of course, allowing the entertainment software for it to become more technically impressive and consuming, but not necessarily better as games.
I think maybe we’ll see VR headsets finally finding a home in mainstream gaming. VR seems to have been on the cards forever, but now the technology has matured – with the likes of Oculus Rift – to a point where it’s becoming viable. The cost still needs to come down etc., but I wouldn’t be surprised if future consoles employ this tech. Maybe even to the point where it becomes the standard way to experience games – or, certain types of games, at least.
I don’t know, really – I could well be talking crap, here. I guess we’ll all just have to wait and see. But, that’s one of the more exciting things about the video games industry. I just hope that some things come down the pipe to shake the whole thing up, somehow.