David Johnston of Smudged Cat Games bent my young mind in 1997 with his time-warping, platform-hopping TimeSlip. In the following interview he tells us about the joys of porting the game to Xbox, and how he actually never even paid for his Yaroze back in the day - the rogue!
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.
The first machine I really remember playing games on was the ZX Spectrum. I has so much time back then to play stuff I remember getting completely lost in games like Lords of Chaos, the Dizzy games, Underwurlde, Atic Atak and Super Robin Hood. I was a big fan of the Codemasters stuff, thinking about their adventure games still gives me goosebumps to this day. I had a BBC Micro as well and remember playing Elite, Exile and Repton a lot. There weren't too many games around for the BBC Micro though. I eventually moved into consoles like the Sega Master System and then the Mega Drive but it was the home computers I really started gaming on.
Although the ZX Spectrum had a much bigger games scene I initially got into coding on the BBC Micro. I think purely because of the development environment, everything was so much easier to work with there. On the Speccy you had to use weird key combinations to get the keywords to appear and it had that awful rubbery keyboard. BASIC on the BBC Micro was so much easier to pick up and start developing stuff with.
3) How did you find yourself developing for the Net Yaroze?
I remember reading about the Net Yaroze in an issue of EDGE and was immediately very excited. I was probably just starting university at the time and the idea of developing a game for a console was just a pipe dream. I knew I really wanted one and decided to stump up the cash (I think it might have been £500 but I can't quite remember) and get one. It had to be bought directly from Sony and, much to my delight, they never actually took the money for it. I still can't believe I never actually paid for the Yaroze in the end; I think enough time as probably passed now that they can't chase me for it!
I remember completing several small projects for the Yaroze that only the other members of the community ever saw. I can't think of them all but I remember working on a patience like card game and a 3D adventure game that I started that never really went anywhere.
4) Tell us now about the development of TimeSlip. How did you come by the idea for it - what were your influences etc. What were some of the hurdles in development you faced? It was a hugely innovative idea - did you feel this way at the time? What were the different roles you and Mike Goatly played in the development?
The idea behind TimeSlip came from an episode of Dr Who. I can't remember which one unfortunately but I remember The Doctor explaining the concept of time travel to his companion. He was stood by a control panel in the TARDIS and explained that he was setting something up to travel back just a few seconds in time, he moved round the control panel and his past self appeared in his previous location replaying his actions as he traveled back. It struck me as a great idea for a game because you'd be the one in control of everything, it was up to you when to move around and how difficult that would make things when you traveled back in time and encountered your previous self. I'd never seen a game like it in the past and I'd like to think it was the first game to feature self co-op. I know a couple of other games featured a replay of the player's own actions but they were just something you had to avoid not work with.
In terms of the actual development I did all the coding for the game and Mike did the graphics, no-one else was involved. There were a few issues I ran into during development of the game. The game wasn't actually that complicated technically but I had to work out a few things related to how the past echoes would work. My initial idea was to record the button presses that someone was making and replay those but that didn't work because the environment could have changed when the button presses were being replayed. I wrote a blog article about it fairly recently actually, it's available here - http://www.smudgedcat.com/blog/?p=127
5) Tell me a little about getting TimeSlip out into the wild and onto the OPM disk. How did it feel? What was the reception like?
It felt great! I knew the print run for OPM was massive and it was weird to think of that many copies of my game being out there. There wasn't much reception to gauge though, social media like Twitter and Facebook wasn't around back then so I didn't really hear much about how people got on with the game. I remember people within the Yaroze community congratulating me but most of them had already played the game before so it wasn't like they were just discovering the game. The game appeared on the OPM cover disk before I had left university so it was a great thing to be able to take along to job interviews. Not many graduates going for games industry jobs could take along a Playstation disk with their game on it.
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
The community was great, we couldn't show off our games to a wider audience which I think led to the Yaroze community being really supportive of each other. Everyone always played each others games and offered feedback. There were a few friendly rivalries though. I remember someone (unfortunately I can't remember their name now) making a game called 'Down' where you dropped down a never ending level and had to avoid spikes or something. I really liked the game and decided to make one called 'Up' which employed a slightly different mechanic and thought would be quite funny. It turned out he was planning on making a very similar game as a follow up to 'Down' and he wasn't very happy when I initially made 'Up'. We exchange a few emails and eventually he saw the funny side and realised there weren't any malicious reasons for me releasing the game.
7) What were the limitations of the Yaroze?
There were obviously technical limitations of the Yaroze, just like there are always technical limitations developing for any system. Probably the main one in terms of Yaroze development versus regular PSOne development was the inability to use the CD drive. It meant every Yaroze game had to be able to fit completely in memory, we couldn't stream any content from a CD. That obviously prevented using a lot of high resolution graphics, limited what you could do with music and things like video were a complete no-no. I remember all the graphics had to be slotted into VRAM and drawing little diagrams so show where everything was. It's the sort of thing that doesn't really happen these days but I always quite liked because it made you feel like you were really close to the hardware.
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?
After the Yaroze I graduated from uni and went to work at Rare. I hated it there and left within a year. I worked for a few "regular" software companies after that but decided to return to game development when Microsoft released XNA. I developed a game called "The Adventures of Shuggy", had numerous ups and downs with publishers and eventually got the game released on Xbox Live. It never quite took off as much as I'd hoped but I developed another game called "Gateways" and ported both of them to the PC where they were released on Steam. I've worked on other smaller projects over the years but those are the main games I've worked on. Sadly, I've been unable to make quite enough developing my own games to remain an indie developer and I'm now back at another "regular" software company.
9) What brought about the porting of TimeSlip to the Xbox Live? Was it an enjoyable experience?
I'd read a few comments online from people who remembered the game fondly and thought it would be a nice little project to work on for a while. It didn't take long to port the game over and I had fun doing it. I decided it would be nice to have some slightly updated graphics with it as well and that took a little bit longer.
10) 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.
To be honest, I feel a bit out of the loop these days. I have two young children now that take up a lot of my time so I don't pay as much attention to the industry as I used to. It seems like the indie scene is becoming much more mainstream with the line between mainstream and indie becoming very blurred. The question of what really is 'indie' keeps raising its head and I don't think you can really differentiate between the two any more.
11) 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 to find a project you're really passionate about and stick with it through to the end. So many people get bored of the project they're working on and start something else because it seems more exciting but that just leads to a whole load of unfinished projects. A single finished game that you've taken the time to polish and make sure is absolutely perfect is much better than a load of half-finished ideas.
There are a lot more opportunities for indie developers these days with easy to use frameworks like Unity and GameMaker, people are more likely to look for indie games as well so there is a potentially big audience. However, that does mean there's a lot more competition out there. Getting noticed is getting harder and harder. The number of games released every day on platforms like iOS is staggering. It takes a lot to stand out from the crowd, and that I certainly don't envy.
12) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
Nothing too controversial, the Final Fantasy games, Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, stuff like that. Recently I've enjoyed games like The Unfinished Swan, Spelunky, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the Pixel Junk games, FTL and Papers, Please. Slightly different stuff, I'm not a massive fan of FPS's and AAA games.
13) What projects are you working on now and in the future? Tell us about them.
Sadly I'm not working on anything at the moment. I now have two young children and have recently moved house so my priorities have changed a bit. I'll be sticking with a regular software development job that pays a regular wage for the foreseeable future.