James is an independent developer from England, and founder of DemonStudios. He wrote Gravitation for the Yaroze, which is currently being ported to modern platforms under the title Super Grav. Go check out its Steam Greenlight page, and follow Jim on Twitter at @DemonJim
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 ‘console’ was a Grandstand TV gaming system we got in the late 70s when I was about 5 or 6. Two analog paddles and 3 built-in Pong-like games (tennis, football and squash). It was fantastic, and still have it somewhere. First actual computer was a VIC-20, where I had Pac-Man and a Space Invaders clone on cartridge - it was amazing to be able to play arcade classics at home. Later came the Commodore 64, most memorable for me there was International Soccer, Manic Miner, Thrust, Kickstart II, Gunship and Revs+. Naturally that led on to the Amiga - the games I remember most fondly are Gravity Force, Carrier Command, Kick Off 2, F1GP and Stunt Car Racer. The Amiga had this amazingly creative demo scene, where much of it wasn’t interactive at all - just awesome music and technically impressive visuals, but also superb games like TwinTris.
As a child I started learning BASIC on the Commodore 64, and my first ever game was called Mud where you had a bucket and had to catch mud falling from the top of the screen. It was total bobbins, partly as it was all done in character mode (rather than using the hardware sprites), but it was my first experience of turning an idea into something you can actually play from scratch. Later things like AMOS on the Amiga made coding in BASIC much easier and fun too.
3) How did you find yourself developing on the Net Yaroze?
I think I saw an advert in a magazine, possibly Edge. I didn’t have a PlayStation (as I had opted for the Nintendo 64) but as the PlayStation was such a success I figured I could get one and see if I can make some games for it, and get a fancy black region-free PlayStation to boot as well. The whole Yaroze ethos was really enticing - the “Net” part refers to the community element and the Internet was only just taking off at the time so it was all quite new to me. Most internet forums were (and probably still are) ruined by a predominance of trolls, but the exclusivity of the Net Yaroze forum system kept them all out. It wasn’t cheap, but by this time I knew I wanted to make games for a living so knew if I could make a game for the PlayStation it’d really help me get into the industry. Member could create their own members-only website and shared ideas and helped each other on the forums. It was a real community and seeing others' work really inspired you to make something cool to show off.
4) Tell us now about the development of Gravitation. How did you come by the idea for it - what were your influences etc. What were some of the hurdles in development you faced?
Me and a mate used to play Gravity Force on the Amiga after school. I loved that game, it just had the right feel in the physics. There was nothing quite like it for the current gaming consoles, so I thought I’d have a go at making my own clone as it’d make a great little game for the Yaroze community to play. By this time it was possible to get your game on the Official PlayStation Magazine cover disc - which gave me masses of motivation to get it finished. It’s so easy to start a game prototype and shelve it (I still do this often), so that motivation to see it through to completion was the key hurdle really (and still is). It’s SO easy to spend a week getting a rough playable prototype game up and running, but to finish all the content, menus and audio, and polish it all up to make it worthy of release is probably over 99% of the time and effort required.
5) Tell me a little about getting Gravitation out into the wild and onto the OPM disk. How did it feel? You mentioned to me in an earlier email that at the time it was hard to gauge reception (unlike in todays world). What feedback - if any - did you receive?
Getting the game on the cover disc felt absolutely fantastic. It really meant something, it was a real achievement as it had to be selected to get on there. To know thousands of people are going to play your little game and might actually enjoy it is why we make games. I heard that they make a million of those cover discs so that was quite special. I had no idea if people were enjoying it or not though, as without social media there was no immediate way of getting any feedback.
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
The Net Yaroze community was such a fantastic bunch, with lots of banter and camaraderie. People would always take the time to help you if you asked how you might go about implementing something, or help with code bugs or with graphics or audio, and give feedback on the games you’ve made. There were a few people on there that would post questions such as, “How do I make a game like Gran Turismo?” and we would have a bit of fun with them as it would soon become clear from their lack of taking any advice from us that they weren’t interested in actually learning how to make it, just having the glory of the finished game. There was one guy in particular - I won’t mention his name but the others on there will know who I mean :)
Some people just don’t have the patience or desire to actually put the hours in and learn the basics. Probably most people, as it takes that extra spark to have that drive, and there aren't really any shortcuts. The same is true today of course, and always will be in all walks of life. How many people have bought a guitar and given up because they can’t play like Jimi Hendrix within 5 minutes? Well I’m one of those. I know how frustrating it is to not quite be able to do something you want when making a game, but with dedication you can get there, and the Net Yaroze community really did help me and I’m sure lots of others to really stick at it.
7) What were the limitations of the Yaroze?
Technically we were given pretty much all the power of the PlayStation on the Net Yaroze. It wasn’t underclocked or anything like that. There were some limitations to the libraries we got, such as we couldn’t use the Multitap, we probably missed out on some specialist graphical functions and didn’t get any of the performance optimisation tools the official developers got. So Gran Turismo was probably impossible as that rinsed out every ounce of performance, but there’s no reason technically that most other commercial games out for it couldn’t be achieved.
The lack of distribution channels was a very real limitation to the Net Yaroze, and is probably what saw it reach its eventual demise. The magazine cover disc was essentially the only way to get your game out there, and if you didn’t get selected to be featured you were out of luck. So only other people with a Yaroze could legally play your game. People with a chipped PlayStation or via PC emulation could too, but they’re people with technical knowhow who are actively doing that to play unsigned code, so isn’t easily available to the masses like making a PC game is.
8) Tell me more about how your career progressed after the Net Yaroze days. How did you start working for Codemasters? Later on, you started your own company. What were the reasons for this? How have the two experiences differed?
After making Gravitation and thought I’d be able to get a coding job quite easily, but it turned out not to be the case. An interview with Sony in fact didn’t go very well as they were a bit underwhelmed by my Gravitation game. I really wanted to work for Codemasters though because I loved Colin McRae and ToCA, but decided a good way in would be via game testing as I feared they’d be as unimpressed with Gravitation as Sony was. So I worked in QA for about 18 months, after which applied to a programming job internally to the Design and Prototyping department. I was thrilled when I got that, especially because it involved making small prototype games in a creative environment. The first thing I did there was a small gameplay prototype for Club Football written on a PlayStation (using a proper dev kit this time!). It was great fun working there in that environment, but the department closed down so I moved over to work on a big team on Pro Race Driver. After that I worked on a few other games like LMA Manager, Brian Lara Cricket and most recently Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Flashpoint was the most enjoyable because I got to work on vehicle gameplay and did all the helicopter physics on that.
The only thing is although | was working in areas I enjoyed, I still didn’t have any real creative control of the project, and you’re always a small cog in a big wheel. I could have tried to move higher up the chain of command, but then I wouldn’t be coding any more so didn’t want to do that. The iPhone had come out by this time and the Apple Developer Program offered the same sort of appeal as the Yaroze did all those year before. So the only answer was to leave and start up on my own and see what I could come up with. The DemonStudios website shows some of what I’ve done since then, namely Lead Wars, Super Grav, Fliptomino and Logograph, but as I said above there are many other prototypes that have never made it past the dirty prototype stage. Logograph was in fact the first thing I worked on after I left Codies, but I found out Apple didn’t allow any sort of code compilation in apps so I shelved it about 50% complete. This policy has since changed though, so I hope to get that project running again.
The two experiences of working for a big company and for yourself differ in that in the former you actually earn money to live. Haha! But going it alone offers a much bigger potential reward, both financially and in terms of actual achievement. Well all dream of being the next Notch, though I think it will a long time before someone else achieves that much again.
9) What are your thoughts on the state of the gaming industry today?
I suspect those lucky few, ultra successful indie developers taint the general image that we have to the general public such that they think we’re all earning the same as they are. I suppose it’s because people only show off their success, rarely revealing their struggles, so it’s our own fault really. It’s odd, but the better the game, the more offended people seem to be when the dev wants them to pay for it. I think it’s because they see an awesome game so assume they must be minted and so the develops must just be being greedy.
The big companies making blockbuster console games have a much more realistic portrayal - people are happy paying £40 for a physical boxed game that will entertain them for a few hours because of all the Hollywood style effects, and they have some idea of the cost of developing them, but people seem to think all indie games are developed in a weekend so aren’t worth any of their hard-earned cash. If I ever manage to make a game in a weekend I’ll gladly give it away free! Lead Wars took me about 6 months to release, and another 18+ months working on updates for it to get it to how it is now. The game looks simple but all the underlying systems like the A.I., all the UI systems and the online multiplayer is just as complicated as a game with fancy graphical effects.
10) What advice would you give to any young indie developers today?
Get stuck in, start off modifying existing sample code to learn the basics. And when you start a game from scratch make it stupidly simple. You’re not going to make GTA for your first game. Not even the 2D one. Start with Space Invaders or Pong. You will learn so much as you overcome endless hurdles that you had no idea you’d have to face in making such a simple game. And when you finish it, you’ll be well chuffed. Only when you can code a really simple game can you even begin to work on a game of your own design. And when you come across a hurdle, and you always will, repeatedly, keep your eye on the prize of getting it finished to give you the motivation to stick at it and get over that hurdle. And when all that hard work finally yields a game and you put it out there, don’t be discouraged when people say it’s rubbish. Even the best games have their haters. In fact I prefer to read unfairly bad reviews in a silly voice, it makes them hilarious.
In some ways there are too many opportunities these days, it is probably a bit baffling knowing what to choose. But it is certainly far more accessible and easier to get results with what’s there than it was a decade ago. But because of that there are far far more games coming out, so the problem nowadays is getting noticed, merely making a good game is not always enough. So I think these days being good at marketing and using social media is as important as being able to make the game in the first place.
11) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
Timeshock, Tomb Raider I and II and Need For Speed III (which had a much better sense of speed and on-the-limit racing than Gran Turismo in my opinion, and a fantastic soundtrack). If I had to pick only one though, and one that for me epitomises the PSX era, I’d probably have to say Parappa the Rapper, even though I was rubbish at it.
The best recent generation game for me by far is Trials HD. Pure physics based skill, totally my favourite kind of game. Also, Just Cause 2. Absolutely pure, GTA-beating, destructive, grapple-hooking fun. Can't wait for Just Cause 3.
For driving games (my preferred genre), it has been disappointing of late as they all seem to be too-easy-to-stay-on-the-road Gran Turismo clones, which I really don’t have time for. So I still play Live For Speed a lot which offers some really realistic close racing online. When you drive a real car at racing speeds it is REALLY easy to lose control and crash, so I want a simulation to be the same. DiRT Rally give you this on a knife-edge danger and is just fantastic, realistic fun, especially on the dirt stages. Love some arcade driving games too - am currently totally addicted to Rocket League - turns out that simply adding cars makes football brilliant!
As for FPS games, there is only one for me, Half-Life 2. I just can’t get into any others. I try playing Battlefield or Crysis or something like that and I just end up going back to HL2. Along with Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2 is as near to perfect a game as you can get.
12) What projects are you working on now and in the future? Tell us about them.
Super Grav, is the official sequel to Gravitation. It's out now on iOS and Android, but it isn't really a mobile game so I'm currently trying to get it Greenlit for Steam. Am also working on the Mac App Store version, and with the recent announcement that Apple TV is getting an App Store I'll be getting a version out on that too (I was one of the lucky ones who got a dev kit for £1!).
I have quite a few projects in the prototyping stage too, but not sure yet which will be next to be made into a full game. I want to get Fliptomino into a better state (a tetromino puzzler) as well as Logograph at some point, but the next game will probably be something in 3D, with cars.
13) Where do you think gaming (and games development) is headed in the next ten years?
It will all be about VR games, and it will happen soon. At first driving sims and 3rd person games will do well, but the holy grail here has to be who can make an FPS that truly works in VR. Whoever can solve the movement problem will be the winner. There will always be a market for all retro games, the fashion for those seems to come in waves, but the real smart money has to be on making a multiplayer game called Streets of Laredo. For those who aren’t big Red Dwarf fans that will make no sense. But I'd buy it :D