Now working for Stainless Games (of Carmageddon fame), Nick Slaven has had a long and varied career in the games industry, working on everything from the Dreamcast and first generation smartphones all the way up to core game engines for current technology. He tells us about getting started in the industry, his award-winning Yaroze demo that got him a phone-call from Sony, and how modern AI could revitalise the classic text adventure.
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 game I played was Boot Hill, a coin op from the mid to late seventies, essentially a wild west shoot out for two players...
We had an early pong machine at home, it was amazing playing tennis, squash, football on the telly ( ok they were all the same game & secretly I really wanted an Atari 2600 ).
The first proper machine I could play games on was the BBC Micro. I sank countless hours into text adventures like Philosophers Quest and Sphinx Adventure.
Like most home computers at the time there were versions of arcade games such as Snapper (Pacman), Planetoid (Defender) & Mr Ee! (Mr Do!) which I played a lot though they weren't quite the same as the real thing. Back then arcade machines could be found just about everywhere so I played a lot of those. My favourites were PacMan & Mr Do! and later Dragon's Lair, Out Run, Marble Madness and Gauntlet. I loved Don Bluth's animation on Dragon's Lair, even if the game was quite simple. The game I played the most on the BBC Micro would have been Elite, it was truly brilliant as the open world style of play was completely unique at the time ( I must try the new online version ).
My next machine was the Amiga, adventure games were my favourite with such classics as the Monkey Island series, Cruise For a Corpse, Indiana Jones, etc. I also played Lemmings, UFO: Enemy Unknown and Space Hulk to name but a few.
Next was the PC with online multiplayer Descent and Warcraft II via Wireplay ( an early mulitplayer service in the UK ) and a few single player games such as Tomb Raider.
The first console I had was a Playstation. I had become tired of having to upgrade my PC to play the latest games, the Playstation was a revelation - not one game required an upgrade to the hardware :). Favourite games on here were Final Fantasy VII and Gran Turismo.
2) How did you get into games development? Tell me about your early experiences there.
From an early age I have always been fascinated by how things work. As a kid I would always take things apart. Reassembling the parts to re-make the original whole was, however, not always successful. It was the same when I saw video games for the first time, I was curious as to how they worked and after some time I stumbled across the term 'software'.
At school we had access to a Commodore PET 2000 series, which we could use at lunch times and free periods. As soon as I had typed in my first program I was hooked. I tried to write my own versions of Scramble and Space Invaders in free periods, though had not quite appreciated the amount of work involved, or the fact that BASIC was really slow. I think I managed three really badly drawn invaders on the screen before the thing ground to a halt.
My first home computer was a Sinclair ZX80. It was pretty basic and the screen would blank every time that you pressed a key, but I had a lot of fun typing in games from a book I had called Basic Computer Games, really simple stuff like Chomp, Hunt the Wumpus etc. I learned some fundamental concepts of programming here & I still have the book: http://www.digibarn.com/collections/books/basicgames/
Later the family got an Acorn BBC model B. I spent a lot of time writing my own games and attempted to write a version of Super Star Trek (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_%28text_game%29#Super_Star_Trek) updated with the amazing graphical capabilities of the BBC micro - though at that point I left home to study for my degree and the project never got finished.
When I got my first job I bought an Amiga. There was a burgeoning shareware scene at the time and I decided to write a clone of Mr Do! with which I won a programming competition that Amiga Format Magazine ran at the time. The game also appeared on a few magazine cover discs and earned me the grand total of £10 from shareware donations. I concluded that shareware did not really work.
3) How did you find yourself developing on the Net Yaroze? Describe to me what it was like.
I had just got into the Playstation and regularly bought The Official Playstation Magazine, primarily for the demo disk.
I played a lot of the Yaroze demos and, following my limited success in the Amiga shareware scene, thought I would give it a go. By this time I was a fairly adept programmer. I was also considering a career change. I wanted to see if I could make the jump into the games industry once I had some demos on the Yaroze put together.
After the price dropped to around £350 I took the plunge and bought the Yaroze, along with a copy of Code Warrior.
I know quite a lot of the other Yaroze owners preferred the SONY tools, but I really liked Code Warrior. You had full symbolic debugging and as I recall the compiler was much better at optimising the code. The interface was a little weird, having been ported from the Mac, but overall I thought it was pretty good.
The development turned out to be quite similar to my day job. At the time I was working on embedded software for high speed data acquisition hardware. Debugging over a serial port was very familiar and I quickly got up to speed.
The first game I wrote was Pong as I thought it best to start with something very basic to get up to speed with the machine and the development tools. Once that was done I started porting my Mr Do! clone, however once the GDUK competition had been announced I dropped this to start work on my herding game Come Baa. I had to reteach myself a lot of maths, something I knew but had not used in years (since studying 'A' level Maths & Physics in fact), but then as now you need to understand the mathematics of computer graphics to get anywhere with a 3D game.
4) Tell us now about the development of Come Baa, specifically. How did you come by the idea for it - what were your influences etc. What were some of the hurdles in development you faced?
The initial inspiration came from rather inebriated and absurd conversations whilst watching One Man and His Dog on late night TV with housemates, we were joking about how sheep herding could be the next big thing in gaming to totally surpass arcade & racing games. However, silly as it was, the idea stuck, though I did not actually do anything with it until I bought the Yaroze a few years later.
One thing that has remained interesting to me over the years is the idea of emergent behaviour ie:- the development of seemingly complex activity from a simple set of rules.
Sheep naturally flock, which is an emergent behaviour. I am not sure how real sheep actually think, if they do at all, but in AI flocking is based on a few simple rules that each agent or Sheep follows, ie:- "let's stick together" and "try not bump into each other". This is what I implemented, based on a famous AI demo called 'boids'. It turned out that getting this right was the most complex part of the game, it took quite a lot of experimentation. The basic flocking algorithm had to be modified to account for the position of the sheep dog to model the behaviour of sheep to a dog, ie "let's stick together", "try not bump into each other" and "OMG there's a dog, run!".
Performance was a big problem, a lot of processing was needed once the flock got big. The libs that Sony provided were quite slow when it came to trigonometric functions. I had to write a fixed point trig library and utilise the high speed scratch pad RAM that the Playstation had in order to get things running at a decent frame rate.
Art was also a challenge. Drawing a 3d model of the dog was very tricky as I was using some package I got from a PC magazine cover disc and it did not quite do everything. I remember I had to write tools to weld vertices and combine meshes. Once drawn I had to animate it. This was even trickier but thankfully there was an animation tool that another Yaroze owner had written that came in very useful here. I also had problems with drawing the environment, you really could not push that many polys around. I remember spending ages optimising my tree models and agonising over whether to draw the fences as 3d models or 2d billboards to reduce the poly count. The 3d models won as they looked way better.
5) Tell me a little about getting involved in the GDUK competition.. How did you hear about it and enter? Were you surprised by your performance in it? You also told me that party at Stirling Castle was one of the best parties you've attended professionally. Tell me more about it! the photos are hilarious.
I heard about the competition soon after I had bought the Yaroze, I think it must have been announced on the forums.
It was good that it happened as I work best to deadlines and having the GDUK competition deadline to work to really helped me focus.
I was very surprised to be a finalist, my game was completely unfinished and no where near as polished as some of the other entries.
As for the awards do, it was held at Stirling Castle as you say, something I hadn't really thought about until we got off the coach.
It is a magnificent place, on the evening it was all lit up with torches along the way and I believe we were piped into the castle.
It was a black tie event. There was a three course dinner, held in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle. There were magicians performing tricks at the tables. The compère for the night was a character called Big Rory - a hilariously huge Scotsman, though it turned out he was actually on stilts and not that tall after all ;-)
Dominic Diamond presented the awards, an incredibly nail biting 20 minutes as I recall, especially when it got to the Yaroze section.
Congratulations to Chris as he did have the better game, it was complete and rather amazingly polished and I was pleased to be one of the runners up in the Yaroze category.
6) How would you describe the Net Yaroze community as it existed in the late 90's?
Everyone had their own homepage for publishing their work to other Yaroze owners. There were many accounts, maybe a few hundred. I think I did go through them all at some point.
In the most part you could tell there had been some activity but it had quickly waned. In complete contrast there were some 10% that had very complete and accomplished homepages offering all sorts of advice, sharing source code, tools and demos. I guess this is a reflection of how difficult the reality of development was and still is compared to how it is perceived to be.
On the forums there were maybe around 20-30 regular contributors, it seemed to be quite a close knit community. I arrived late to the party so to speak, but they were very welcoming and incredibly enthusiastic, this was another great motivator and to be able to discuss tech issues with SONY devs was a real boon.
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.
The tools and libs we had access to were not as well developed as the professional tools, but this was fair - the professional kit cost a whole lot more. Having a less than optimal set of libs to work with was something of a challenge and forced you to think about the code & data more than if you were working on the PC say.
The hardware was pretty neat and downloading to the device was in reality no worse than other console development kits ( even to this day ). Some found the lack of access to parts of the hardware annoying, the biggest bugbear being the lack of multitap support, though this was not so much of an issue for me.
Having the best of the Yaroze published on the cover disks was very important, otherwise the distribution was limited to other Yaroze owners. I never completed any of my games so they were never included on the cover disc. I got a job in the industry shortly after the GDUK competition, and sadly never returned to the Yaroze largely due to a lack of spare time more than anything else.
8) Tell me more about how your career progressed after the Net Yaroze days. Where did you go from there?
A few weeks after the GDUK competition deadline I got a call from SONY. They had shown my game at their stand at ECTS that year and a game studio was interested in talking to me about it. It was a company called IO productions and they invited me down from Sheffield for an interview. I turned up at their offices in Hampshire and was surprised to see pictures of computer generated rolling landscapes complete with herds of sheep framed on the walls. Imagine my surprise when I then found that they too were working on a sheep herding game. The game was called Stampede! and had a brilliant "Peter and the Wolf" mechanic. There were many animals to herd with each animal having its own music signature, the sound scape was fully 3d audio and you could tell where the different animals were by listening to the music. I was sold, though did not actually take up the job with them until some 6 months later when they had finally signed their contract with the publisher Infogrammes.
We relocated from Sheffied to Hampshire and have been living here ever since. I joined IO as a senior programmer. My job was to get Stampede! working on the Dreamcast (a very much underated platform) and it was a lot of fun. The game however went from pillar to post within Infogrammes and ended up with a group that did not really understand it. They brought in many changes, the "Peter and the Wolf" music idea was dropped and the game went from a leisurely open world adventure to something speedy and completely on rails. It just did not work and the game got canned some 18 months or so after I joined the company.
I carried on at IO developing for the Dreamcast on a football management game for quite a number of months, however after that was released the studio shutdown and relaunched itself as iomo, shorthand for IO mobile. iomo had a lot of success in the early days of mobile phone games. We had a good relationship with Nokia and produced many white label games for them. The most well known game I developed was the 3D version of Snakes, which was launched on the NGage but went on to be included on every N series phone ever made.
Working on mobile at the time was great, usually a team of three :- coder, artist & designer. We had near complete control over every aspect of the game. In 2005 iomo got bought by Infospace who ran with mobile development for a couple of years, before ultimately pulling out in 2007 as they were not making money in the sector. In hindsight this was bad timing really as that was the year that the iPhone was launched. Apple got this right with the introduction of a complete app ecosystem that made people aware of what smartphones could do. At iomo we had been developing apps for phones since 2001, but smartphones were still something of a conundrum to the average phone user in 2007. The market was potentially big but no one really understood and if they did they could not find your apps easily so income was small. The app store fixed this over time though it was not obvious that this would happen at the launch in 2007. In any case is was too late for iomo who closed its doors and I was made redundant.
I tinkered a bit with XNA on the X360 for a few months with the idea of becoming an indie developer, but realised that my redundancy pay was rapidly disappearing and so started looking for jobs. The first to come up was a lead programmer role at Stainless Games on an undisclosed movie tie-in game. Unfortunately the game was canned a couple of months after me joining the company. Fortunately there were plenty of other projects for me to work on including Scrabble, Magic the Gathering, Risk:Factions & Carmageddon. I have been working there ever since, though I am now more focused on core technology, which means I effectively work on all the games Stainless make.
9) What projects are you working on now and in the future? Tell us about them.
At Stainless we have just released the latest patch for Carmageddon:Reincarnation which gets the game to its best looking yet. If you haven't already, you should check it out on Steam: http://www.carmageddon.com/
Earlier in 2015 we released the latest in the Magic the Gathering series. Again if you haven't already you should check it out: http://magic.wizards.com/en
10) What is it like working for such a storied company like Stainless Games? Did you have to relocate to the Isle of Wight - how has that been?
It is a time of change for Stainless as we move from developer for hire to an independent publisher with all that that entails. It is rather exciting and the future is looking bright. As for relocation, we didn't have to. I cycle to work from the mainland. It is rather involved requiring two bicycles and a ferry, but door to door is under 1hr 25m. It is a rather pleasant commute taking in a lot the scenery along the banks of the Medina. It is a good start to the day.
11) 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.
Gaming is a lot more accepted as entertainment than it has ever been, which is just marvelous. The opportunities available for both players and developers are bigger than they have ever been.
As an industry I think it is in a very healthy state, though as always, the industry is also in a state of change. I think this is good as it keeps things interesting.
For indies the tools available are ridiculously productive compared to the days of the Yaroze. If you go down the route of Unity or Unreal you can be up and running very quickly. One thing that has impressed me here is the marketplaces these engines offer. There are a wealth of third party plugins on offer which should help any budding game developer get started.
The flip side of this is that there are many more games being produced by many budding game developers and getting your title seen by the public needs some clever marketing or a big budget. It has, however, been possible for tiny studios to have some huge hits. I suspect the opportunity here is probably reducing as more get involved.
12) 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?
Be inspired, keep it simple and do it now before anyone else does.
The tools are cheap, or free, there is an amazing array of capable open source software out there. You will need a PC ( or Mac ) and inspiration.
I don't think I'm envious as I get to play on the same tech but with more experience :)
13) Favourite PSX game? What games from the more recent generations do you rate?
Without a doubt Final Fantasy VII on the PS1.
Jet Set Radio on the Dreamcast.
Rez & Ico on the PS2 were brilliant, as was GTA III.
I skipped the PS3 in favour of X360, which has seen me playing a lot of Gears of War and adventures such as Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption.
I loved the retro look and feel of the puzzles in FEZ and played it to completion.
The recent remake of XCom was fantastic and I also played that to completion.
14) Where do you think gaming (and games development) is headed in the next ten years?
I am a huge board game fan and in this respect I find it very interesting to see the cross over that is happening here. I am thinking of games like XCom:The Board Game which uses an iPad as the progenitor of game events and Alchemists where a smart phone is used to randomise the rules of the game. It seems like the start of something new. We will see a lot more of game technology being incorporated into many more experiences outside of the traditional console model.
Perhaps we will see more games involved in the real world now that smartphone adoption is so high. The Nokia Game had something way back that involved clues being placed in newspaper columns and the like which you had to solve alongside mobile game content to become the winner. A year or so ago Ingress was very popular, that had just about everyone I knew capturing portals. That kind of augmented reality multiplayer experience could become a lot bigger, maybe tying into smart watch tech, or wearable tech like Google Glass, once someone discovers the best way to make wearable technology fashionably acceptable.
VR could be big too, though for me there is still a fundamental obstacle in that it seems you need a minder to stop you from walking into walls and coffee tables etc. Augmented reality glasses like HoloLens or Magic Leap promise something spectacular with all sorts of possibilities, but I think we are some way off any launch of this tech any time soon. We will have to wait and see.
The future could be surprising. With modern advances in AI we could see a resurgence of the old text adventure. There
is a lot of processing power available now that would allow some fairly sophisticated AI to run. Maybe we will finally see the development of the truly interactive and dynamic novel.