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This page will take you on a journey through the making of "Rise of the Robots".
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GOING PUBLIC Congleton, August 1993
«Rise of the Robots is the best-looking, most beautiful beat ’em up on any format - ever.»
By late Summer of 1993, Andy and Peter’s fears had all but disappeared. Their trip to the Summer CES had eventually resulted in an agreement with a major corporation which gave the development team breathing space. What’s more, Rise of the Robots was finally beginning to take shape - and everyone at Mirage was starting to realise that they had something really special on their hands.
The time was fast approaching when they would have to let the rest of the world in on the secret - sooner, rather than later, the games-specialist press would have to be informed.
Because the coverage of games on TV and radio is so limited, the specialist press wield an extraordinary degree of power in the games business. If, as has happened more than once, the majority of the press decide that they don’t like a game, it can be as good as finished before it’s even been released to the public.
The process is a very simple one: if a game receives bad publicity, wholesalers and major retail chains will be reluctant to stock it - and if they don’t have it, you don’t see it.
Therefore, it’s important that any game make an impression on the press - but as the very future of Mirage was tied up in the success (or otherwise) of Rise, making a good impression was even more crucial than ever. The responsibility for ensuring that this good impression was made fell squarely on the shoulders on one person, Marketing Manager Julia Coombs.
I’d known Julia almost since my first week in the games business, when, as the Public Relations Manager for Hewson Consultants (which in the mid 1980s had a string of hits on the Sinclair Spectrum, notably the massive-selling Uridium) she had visited the offices of my then employer (Newsfield Publications in Ludlow, Shropshire) for the 1986 Christmas party.
In the years that followed both Hewson and Newsfield disappeared into the black hole that seems to consume many companies in this constantly evolving business, while Julia and I remained in touch as we moved from job to job and company to company.
From Hewson, Julia’s progress initially took her outside the games business to an Oxford-based PR consultancy and then back into games - initially via another now-defunct operation, Telecomsoft, and then, in May 1989, to MicroProse where she first teamed up with Peter Jones.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were halcyon days at MicroProse, as the firm enjoyed an extraordinary string of hits - including the Midwinter series, F-15 II, Rick Dangerous, Stunt Car Racer and FI Grand Prix - and grew to become one of the major forces in the UK business.
When Peter left MicroProse to head up Sierra On-Line in 1991, he had planned to approach Julia about the possibility of her joining him. However, for one reason or another this didn’t happen and Julia continued to work for MicroProse throughout the remainder of 1991 and into 1992.
But then, along came The Humans.
While Andy and Jim had struggled through the publicity campaign for Darkseed by themselves, they realised that they were going to need some expert assistance when The Humans came along. Peter had no doubts about who he wanted to fulfil this crucial role and, although he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to offer her all of the benefits that she 1991, he had planned to approach Julia about the possibility enjoyed at MicroProse, he immediately called Julia.
Fortunately for Peter and Mirage, Julia had just about reached the point where she felt that she’d achieved all that she could at MicroProse and was looking for a new challenge - so when Peter offered her a job she grabbed it with both hands. This, it turned out, was to be the last time that she’d use both hands for some time though, as Julia celebrated her appointment with such enthusiasm that she ended up in hospital with her arm broken in two places. Consequently, much of Peter’s time over the next few months was spent in chauffeuring his temporarily disabled Marketing Manager.
When work on The Humans finally came to an end, Julia set to work on the mammoth task of introducing Rise of the Robots to the world.
The boom in PC gaming in the early 1990s had led to a huge explosion of interest in the genre from all elements of the press, and also to a mushrooming in the number of PC games-specialist magazines. And with the all-important September ECTS fast approaching, Julia needed to gauge what the reaction to Rise among these magazines was likely to be.
In order to do this, Julia invited one of the most respected journalists in the business, PC Review magazine’s editor Christina Erskine, to Mirage’s office for a ’sneak preview’. Any doubts which Julia and the rest of the team may have had were quickly dispelled by Christina’s enthusiastic reaction - there was immediate talk of all-important front covers and extended coverage until the game’s release. (Incidentally, Christina’s first article, which appeared in the October 1993 edition of PC Review quoted the expected release date as being January 1994 - which, if nothing else, shows the kind of optimistic naivety which had engulfed Mirage at that point.)
And Christina wasn’t alone in her enthusiasm either - Rise received a similar reaction from almost every one of the legions of UK and European journalists who caught their first sight of the game at the September trade show, where it quickly became the major talking point.
A star was bom.
THE PENNY DROPS Kingston, December 1993
«Graphics to die for.»
Edge Magazine, December 1993
Although they may appear very similar animals to the outside world, in reality there is surprisingly little contact between the computer games business and the coin-operated arcade amusement trade.
Apart from some crossover in the US and Japan (Sega and Konami, for example, have both coin-op and home console operations) and the fact that most arcade hits are eventually converted for home use (Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat are just two of the big names which have made it to home game systems following strong arcade debuts), the two businesses rarely meet in the middle - and it’s almost unheard of that a game which begins life on computer crosses the great divide to the amusement arcades.
Rise of the Robots, however, is no ordinary game - and right from its earliest days Andy and Peter planned to take the concept into the world of coin-op arcade games if they possibly could.
This task was made easier by the fact that one of the leading arcade game manufacturers, Bell Fruit, had made a move into the computer software business in 1992 through Roy Campbell, Andy’s genial partner in U.S.D. (Roy, incidentally, as well as being generally regarded as the finest salesman in the software business, is also a walking football encyclopedia and die-hard Dunfermline supporter.)
Using the contacts made during this time, Andy demonstrated the game to Bell Fruit’s Marketing Director Paul Johnston in early 1993 - and although this demonstration amounted to little more than an on-screen presentation of a robotic hand opening and closing, he was impressed enough to quickly agree to produce a prototype Rise of the Robots arcade cabinet.
In general terms, it was thought that would have little or no impact on Rise’s development - as the coin-op version would be very similar to the PC CD-ROM game there would be little extra work involved. However, in one specific way, the agreement with Bell Fruit was crucial to Rise’s development it allowed the Mirage team access to something which is rarely used in the creation of computer games... market research.
Because of the huge sums of money involved in the creation of most coin-op games, the manufacturers do their best to minimise the risk of producing a flop by constantly testing each new release on potential customers throughout its development. Over the years, this research has developed into a near-exact science, using rigidly structured methods and state of the art equipment in the search for the perfect game.
As part of Rise’s introduction to this element of the arcade game’s development, Andy, Peter and Sean were invited to the headquarters of Bell Fruit’s market research company to witness a group of consumers play the game and expound their views on its merits and faults.
When the day arrived, the Mirage trio took their places behind a two-way mirror in a specially-constructed room watching the research unfold in privacy and, it must be said, some luxury.
As the consumer group (who ranged in age from 10 to 21) got on with the serious business of putting the game through its paces, The Mirage party got on with the equally serious business of attending to the food and drink which was in good supply behind the mirror. This, it turned out, may not have been such a good idea as it would certainly have been preferable to have had a clear head when the questioning began.
The real beauty of market research is that it raises ideas and objections which, for one reason or another, you may not have considered yourself; it allows you to see if your product is heading in the right direction, and, if not, points you in the way that you should be facing. Unfortunately, this also means that it can allow a group of people who have no connection whatsoever with your product to say some insensitive things -which is exactly what happened in this case.
Like most people involved in the creative process, Peter Jones is very protective of his product - so much so that he visibly bristled at even the smallest criticism levelled at Rise by this group. However, he did manage to control his feelings - at least until one of the younger respondents had the nerve to describe the game’s name as being «slightly cheesy».
At this, something snapped and Peter leapt to his feet demanding to be let through the door to have things out with the kids face to face. Luckily Peter watched the remainder of the session in silence - albeit with his teeth firmly gritted.
Ultimately, this and subsequent research sessions proved to be a valuable addition to the Rise production process. Many of the group’s suggestions were taken on board, and while this resulted in the abandonment of any thoughts of a January 1994 release, it also led to a vastly improved game.
As for the appearance of the coin-op game? The research group’s findings led to Bell Fruit giving the go-ahead for the project, which in turn led to a limited edition of prototype machines taking their positions in the nation’s arcades before the end of 1994.
A STITCH IN TIME London, April 1994
«A business that makes nothing but money is a poor kind of business.»
One of the first lessons that they teach you at writer’s school is that you should always capture your readers’ attention right up front by hitting them with your strongest fact. And while I appreciate that the beginning of Chapter 10 could hardly be classed as being ’right up front’, here is my strongest fact...
Rise of the Robots has cost more than £1,000,000 to develop.
This, I assume, sounds a mite unbelievable - especially as I’ve spent the best part of this diary implying that the chaps at Mirage didn’t have a pot to pee into - but I have looked over the figures first hand and it’s there in black and white - more than £1,000,000.
There are many reasons why the figure has grown to this size (and in terms of current game development budgets there are those who will doubtless consider this a bargain), but these
are not as significant as the change of philosophy that this figure forced upon Andy and Peter.
The original raison d’etre behind Mirage had been that it would always act as a publisher - that is, it would actually publish its own product, rather than simply develop games for other, larger companies to bring to market. However, taking into account the lessons learned on Darkseed, Ashes of Empire and The Humans - and, perhaps more significantly, the spiralling development costs of Rise - early 1993 saw Peter and Andy experience a major change of heart.
I can’t say that I was around when this decision was made, but I certainly remember Andy explaining it to me over a beer at the September ECTS in 1993. Essentially the problem was something like this - in order for any game to sell to its full potential, it has to be backed by a large marketing budget - but in order to have a large marketing budget, the projected sales have to be far greater than can be reasonably expected from the PC and Amiga markets.
Therefore, to justify the type of money which Andy and Peter felt that they would have to spend, Rise of the Robots would have to be released on every feasible game format including Sega, Nintendo and the emerging formats such as Philips CD-i and the newly-launched 3DO player.
This feeling was borne out by the success of another beat ’em up game, Acclaim’s Mortal Kombat, which the giant US publisher had developed into a massive hit by releasing it simultaneously on every available cartridge format in September of 1993. (Incidentally, sales of both Mortal Kombat and Rise of the Robots were handled by U.S.D.).
For Mirage, however, multi-format publishing would lead to some serious complications: firstly, development of these extra versions would demand people, equipment and money that Mirage did not have; secondly the unusual production methods employed by Sega and Nintendo mean that all game cartridges have to be paid for in advance - and where would.
This feeling was borne out by the success of another beat ’em that money come from?
The development of this situation had, in part, had been to blame for Andy’s pre-Brian May low - on the other hand it also offered Mirage a tremendous opportunity to grow, but only if the necessary funding could be found.
As a result of all of this, March 1993 saw Peter fly to the US for a whistle-stop tour of all of that country’s major publishers - a tour which eventually resulted in some important deals being signed. By the time the Las Vegas show came around again in 1994, however, the extra work initiated by the Bell Fruit market research meant that more time would have to be bought and therefore more deals would have to be done.
Never one to shirk a challenge, Peter set off for Vegas, carrying with him a suitcase containing everything he needed (including a lap-top computer and video player) to demonstrate all of the work which had been carried out on Rise to date.
Peter dragged this technological nightmare from stand to stand, once again seeing every single major US publisher. One of these meetings was with a certain C.J. Welch, Senior Vice President of the newly-formed software division of the massive Time Warner Corporation, Time Warner Interactive. And although this meeting was perfectly pleasant, it produced nothing which raised Peter’s hopes of any further progress - not, that is, until Time Warner Interactive’s UK boss Tony Adams called Peter up soon after his return to suggest a meeting at the Congleton office.
Although Peter had left CES with what seemed like the prospect of a good deal from one of Time Warner Interactive’s major rivals, he saw no harm in seeing Tony -especially as was to be accompanied by Welch and his boss, the President of Time Warner Interactive, Dan Van Elderen.
The US contingent duly arrived in mid-February and immediately set about trying to convince Peter to allow Time Warner Interactive to publish Rise across all formats. Although this offer was obviously attractive, Peter couldn’t give an answer on the spot: not only was he still deep in negotiation with another party, Andy was in the US at a coin-op trade show and this was obviously a decision which needed both of their consents.
Both parties agreed to keep in contact, leading to a series of transatlantic telephone conversations between Peter and Dan - many of which went on for between two and three hours. Over the following month it became clear that the Time Warner Interactive option was exactly what Peter and Andy had been looking for, and, through these marathon telephone calls, the two parties became closer and closer to finalising the deal.
On the night when Peter felt that he and Dan would finally come to an agreement, he killed the hour leading up to the telephone call (Time Warner Interactive being eight hours behind Mirage, these calls could only take place in the late evening) with a quick trip to the local for a couple of pints.
Sure enough, this was the night - the usual marathon phone call finally brought the deal which Andy and Peter had hoped for. Unfortunately, it also brought something else... the call of nature. Downing two pints of bitter, it seemed, had not been the best preparation for a two hour telephone conversation, and just as Dan got to the point where he was about to make his offer, Peter realised that he would have to take some drastic action in order not to interrupt this all-important conversation. Tucking the phone under his chin, Peter walked across his office and picked up the empty vase which stood in the centre of his table. «What’s that noise?» enquired Dan. «Oh... nothing,» replied Peter, «it’s just raining over here, that’ all.» Appropriately enough, the successful culmination of this call meant that Peter and Andy finally had a pot to pee into after all and now Mirage was allied to one of the world’s great media giants - Time Warner.
The agreement was finally signed in the Tower Thistle Hotel, overlooking London’s Tower Bridge, at 1.00a.m. on Sunday April 9th - just hours before the beginning of the ECTS. Having hammered out the finer points of the deal over an arduous three-hour meeting, the two parties handed their scribbled notes over to the hotel receptionist for typing, before crossing the river to the Pont de la Tour restaurant.
Once again Mirage and Rise were to steal the trade show headlines - but that was hours in the future, for now there was celebrating to be done.
MAY DAY Congleton, May 1994
«Music creates order out of chaos; for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed and harmony imposes a compatibility upon the congruous.»
Heroes... the famous... stars... celebrities... whatever you want to call them, well-known people have the strangest effect on us mere mortals. There’s no real reason for it, but as soon as a person’s face becomes well known, the ordinary man in the street becomes incapable of speech when confronted by it.
I’m no exception to this rule - when Paul Gascoigne, the only footballer whose exploits have ever been inspirational enough to actually bring tears to my eyes (Tottenham vs Arsenal, the F.A. Cup semi-final 1991), walked past my table in a trendy London restaurant one night I was so taken aback that I was literally unable to close my gaping mouth for a good 10 minutes. Worse still, when I bumped into another footballing hero of mine, the incomparable David O’Leary, outside a hotel in Harrogate, the inane drivel that I did manage to spit out led me to wish that he too had had the Gazza effect.
Andy Wood, on the other hand, is different. He has an almost childish innocence about the rich and famous - as far as he’s concerned, the only thing that you need to strike up a conversation with a celebrity is their telephone number... and, of course, something to say.
In the case of Brian May, he certainly had the latter - ever since our fateful trip to Brixton (and presumably for some time before that too) he’d decided that he wanted the celebrated Queen plank spanker to add his talents to Rise -but unfortunately the former proved to be a little harder to come by.
On returning to Congleton after that gig, one of Andy’s first acts was to set Julia the task of making contact with either Brian May or his management - despite the fact that he had no idea as to whether Brian had the slightest interest in even switching on a computer, let alone becoming involved in the creation of a game. (The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’ve just begun to refer to the former Queen guitarist by his first name. This may seem a little familiar - it certainly does to me - but when Andy’s five-year old son Tom refers to him as Brian, it would seem a little stiff if I were to write ’May’ or ’Mr. May’, so I guess that you’ll just have to live with this familiarity.)
Although she had zero experience of this almost groupie-like activity, Julia threw herself into the search and, having initially stumbled up a few blind alleys, eventually came up with a name and telephone number for Brian’s management company.
Initially, the contacts and negotiations between Andy and Jim Beach, Brian’s business manager, proceeded along very formal lines. Although this is not in itself unusual - the agreement which the pair were trying to strike was in many ways a conventional business deal - it did make things rather sticky, especially as the huge differences between the music and games businesses made it very difficult for the two parties to find a mechanism which would allow the deal to take place at all.
Although Andy did not get to deal directly with Brian during this period of negotiation, he continued to relentlessly bombard the still-touring musician with video tapes of Rise in action and a merciless pile of press cuttings (including the infamous ’graphics to die for’ article from the December 1993 issue of Edge). However, even this virtual siege seemed destined to failure, and although he never admitted defeat, my telephone conversations with Andy towards the end of 1993 led me to believe that his attempts to bring Brian May into the production of Rise was going to come to nothing.
And then a fax with a Tokyo dateline landed on Andy’s desk.
Although Brian was by this time very much involved in the latter stages of his first solo world tour, Andy’s deluge of communications had finally and caught up with him - and, even more remarkably, he’d taken the time to study them. Apparently Brian had liked what he’d seen and immediately fired off a fax to signal his enthusiasm to become involved.
Soon after, on December 6th 1993 to be precise, a draft contract was agreed between Andy and Brian. His level of involvement had yet to be decided, but one thing was now certain... Brian May was on board.
When Brian’s Back to the Light tour eventually arrived back to the UK, he invited Andy and Julia to meet him backstage at his Birmingham gig - here, what should have been a quick chat and a chance to take a couple of pictures became an hour-long discussion as Brian commented keenly on the latest video version of the game. If you’ll pardon the dreadful pun, Rise of the Robots had clearly struck a chord.
Although all of this video footage had obviously made a reasonable impression, Andy felt it important that Brian should see the game in its proper environment, so, in the latter part of May 1994, Brian visited the Congleton office to meet the team and finally get some real ’hands-on’ experience of the game.
Once again what had originally been intended as little more that a glorified photo session developed into something far deeper, with Brian offering to record some dedicated incidental music and sound effects.
The tape which eventually arrived in Congleton in fulfilment of this promise - a series of chords and guitar fills in Brian May’s distinctive ’voice’ had Andy and myself tuning up our air guitars (and consequently being banned from his living room) and ultimately resulted in the creation of Rise’s distinctive soundtrack.
What’s more, Brian’s introduction to the world of game development has given him an appetite to see and learn more - something which will undoubtedly result in further collaboration between the two parties over the next few years.
Who knows? Perhaps it won’t be too long before we see Brian May’s first original game design appear on the Mirage label. If the history of Rise of the Robots has taught us anything, it’s that anything’s possible.
EPILOGUE London, October 1994
«I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.»
Beginning each chapter with a quotation is a little trick that I picked up from the creator and inspiration of ’gonzo journalism’, the finest living American, Hunter S. Thompson (and I’m fairly sure that he, in turn, pinched the idea from someone else). And although you’ve already had to endure an almost unbearable number of these references, here are a few
more to take with you when you go...
«Technically [Rise of the Robots] is probably the most advanced game ever.»
Computer & Video Games
«...the sexiest fighting machine you’ll ever have come up against.»
«...fun to play - incredibly fun to play... you’ll wish all your games were this good... one of the classic gaming experiences of your lifetime.»
«...better than Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter II.»
The Steve Wright Show, BBC Radio 1
Which, I trust you’ll agree, is a fair summation of this extraordinary creation.
And that... is that. The story of a few small steps for one company and one very large leap for CD-ROM gaming. Or, at very least, my own personal perspective on all of the above.
Being around and about the creation of both Mirage and Rise of the Robots has been a fascinating and enjoyable part of my life - as, I suppose, has putting it all down in writing.
The whole process of creating an operation such as Mirage and a game like Rise of the Robots is one of evolution rather than revolution - and therefore its true effect may not be seen for some time to come. However, this process of evolution applies just as much to the people involved in this story as much as to the game itself.
Jim Murdoch, for example, has been through numerous incarnations since our first meeting in Las Vegas. Following spells with U.S.D., Mirage and another software publisher, Codemasters, he’s now doing what he does best - putting his thoughts on paper. Jim’s first novel, a gripping narrative based on the original Rise story, is soon to be published by Penguin - an event which will surely lead to bigger things.
Peter Jones, as we’ve seen, has moved on from applying his energies to other people’s problems to the ultimately more satisfying role of carving his own destiny - a move which has been shared in every aspect by his wife Debbie, who has now left her position as an accountant with the Sears group of companies to take control of Mirage’s day-to-day finances.
Andy Wood has seen his new venture grow almost in time with his family - since this story began, he and Beverly have added Conor to the existing line-up of Thomas and Nicola, while offspring number four is - how shall I put this? - already well past the storyboard stage. (This mushrooming brood also includes one dog, two cats and a pig, but perhaps this isn’t the time or place...)
And speaking of Nicola, she has also stepped into the spotlight this year by acting as bridesmaid at the wedding of one of the world’s most beautiful women - and okay, so it was my wedding too, but with two show-stoppers like Suzanne and Nicola hogging the limelight I found myself very much a spectator on that day too.
There have also been changes in less personal terms. From a standing start in 1991, there’s no question that Mirage has now become very much established on the interactive entertainment map. And while it’s as true in this publishing business as it is in any other that you’re only as good as your last release, the quality of the software that’s in the Mirage pipeline will surely be enough to keep the company growing for some time to come.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the entire Mirage/Rise story, however, is that it is tangible proof of what can be achieved with a lot of belief, dedication and graft. There were any points along the way when it would certainly have been a great deal easier for Andy, Peter and everyone else involved to simply have hung up the ’shop closed’ sign and chalked the whole thing up to experience.
That they didn’t is a tribute to the belief that they had in themselves and their product as much it is to the belief that others have shown when the going got tough - particular thanks in this department are due to the people in the Corporate department of the NatWest bank in Southampton, whose faith in Mirage’s darkest hours prevented the company name from becoming an appropriate description of both the firm itself and the entire Rise project.
Now, with Rise finished and the dust settled, the Mirage team find themselves poised to take advantage of the technological revolution which is sure to sweep across the interactive entertainment business in the remaining part of this century.
Sean Griffiths and his team are now not only experienced in the creation of state of the art software - but they also have state of the art hardware at their disposal to ensure that whatever they decide to produce will remain at the cutting edge.
Similarly, Andy and Peter are also now equipped with the resources necessary to take Mirage onwards and upwards -the experience that they have gained through their close links with the people behind Time Warner Interactive will serve them well as they cope with the highs and lows which will inevitably come their way over the remainder of this decade and beyond.
And who knows? Perhaps all of those quotes listed above were a little premature - maybe the best is yet to come?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Qaran Brennan was bom in Dublin in 1964 and educated there by a variety of religious fantatics. Moving to the UK in 1986, he began playing and writing about computer games in what was the hey-day of Sir Clive Sinclair’s rubber-keyed Spectrum computer.
His nomadic career has taken him through spells at most of the major UK games magazine publishers, including Newsfield, Dennis Publishing and EMAP. During this time he was involved in a number of successful launches and, in 1989, won the prestigious Journalist of the Year award at the games industry’s annual ceremony.
Following the successful launch of the first UK magazine dedicated to PC gaming, PC Leisure, Oaran left full-time employment to begin a career as a freelance writer. During this time he wrote a popular column for the games trade newspaper, CTW, as well as many pieces for Music Week and a number of national newspapers.
Since 1993, Oaran has been a director of Bastion, a public relations and marketing company which is dedicated to the interactive entertainment business.
Ciaran lives in Holloway, north London, with his wife Suzanne and absolutely no cats ... whatsoever.
FOREWORD London, October 1994
“Even the longest journey must begin with a single step.” Confucius
It’s not often in life that you’re called upon to do something a little bit new and different. So when I was first approached to write a history of the development of Rise of The Robots I have to say that I jumped at the chance... without really pausing to consider the consequences.
Apart from anything else, I thought that I was so well versed in the mechanics of this business that compiling this journal would be a relatively simple task. It was only as the pile of scribbled notes and photocopied reference materials began to outgrow my desk that the impossibility of ever doing this game justice finally dawned on me.
For example, how was I to tell the story of such a remarkable game through such a limited medium as the written word? And, perhaps more importantly, where should this story begin?
This second question is next to impossible to answer, as just about everyone who’s ever been involved in the production of any game will have his or her own answer. Does a game begin, as the designer might claim, when the first design is committed to paper? Or is it when the first line of code is written? Perhaps a game’s life hasn’t really begun until the necessary finance has been secured to guarantee its distribution to what is now a world-wide market for entertainment software?
I eventually decided to side-step this question completely by taking things right back to my first encounters with the people behind Mirage. This decision was made not only to avoid answering the original question, but also to colour this insight into just what it takes to produce a contemporary game with a little background information on the pleasures and terrors involved in getting a new company off the ground.
Above all, the ensuing chapters are intended to offer the reader a peek into the mountain of work that’s involved in what the text books call ’taking a product to market’.
Whereas as little as 10 years ago, this process could be carried out in its entirety by one person with a rudimentary knowledge of elementary programming working from his or her back room, it’s now a highly sophisticated process which requires ever-increasing input from an ever-increasing number of specialists.
That said, it would be unfair to suggest that the computer and video games business (or, as it’s now being dubbed, the ’interactive entertainment industry’) has become a heavily formulaic trade ruled by money, suits and spreadsheets. The very fact that a state-of-the-art release such as Rise of the Robots can come from a team of less than 20 people based in a small town in Cheshire is proof that this isn’t the case.
Finally, this is not a technical diary of the design and coding of Rise of the Robots - that particular story has already been well documented in the pages of countless magazines - instead, it’s my own personal perspective on the many different strands which eventually came together to produce the game which you now have in your collection.
This story would therefore be very different had it been told by any of the countless other people who have been lucky enough to watch this game, and the company which produced it, grow from nothing to what you have today. This story is for everyone who has had a hand in the making of Rise of the Robots, as much as for you, and I hope that it does them justice. But then, the game which they have produced is already a fitting monument to their efforts.
THREE MEN IN A JACXJZZI Las Vegas, January 1991
«Las Vegas... the land of the spree and the home of the knave.»
’What you see is what you get may be a particularly tired cliche, but it perfectly describes Las Vegas, a one-street town which draws together all that’s bad about the yoo ess of ay... and then fires up a million miles of neon to draw attention to it.
Most people associate Vegas with gambling, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and the obscene excess of hyped-up heavyweight boxing farces. However, to those of us connected with the business of computer and video games, the Queen of Nevada means one thing and one thing only - the Winter Consumer Electronics Show.
The Consumer Electronic Show (CES in cognoscenti terms) is a bi-annual event which throws open its doors in early June in Chicago and early January in Las Vegas (the winter event, incidentally, is very much the poor relation), allowing those with product and ideas to sell, those with money to buy and, in Las Vegas, those without taste to enjoy their surroundings.
The show’s original function was to bring together movers and shakers from the home electronics business: everyone from the giant TV and hi-fi manufacturers to the makers and hawkers of dodgy video films have traditionally found their niches at this sprawling monster of an exhibition. (Incidentally, while these people are still very much in evidence, the past four or five years have seen what we’re currently calling the ’interactive entertainment industry’ take a firm hold on the show’s floorspace and personality.)
As my first few years involved in the games business were spent in lowly back-room jobs in a variety of long-forgotten magazines, CES was for me, throughout the 1980s, an event that other people attended. However, as 1990 turned into 1991 and I became more deeply involved in the emerging PC games business, my then employer finally saw fit to buy me a ticket to the show.
Like some kind of high-tech Cinderella, I too was finally allowed to make it to the ball. And, like all good Cinderellas. I needed a Fairy Godmother to sprinkle a little magic on this auspicious occasion. My Fairy Godmother turned out to be a small (but perfectly-formed) bundle of creative energy called Andy Wood.
Like most diligent parents, my mother and father had always told me never to accept gifts from strangers. However, when, out of the blue, Andy called to ask me if I’d like to accompany him on a post-CES trip to the Sierra mountains, my twentysomething brain suddenly found a number of reasons why this perfectly sound parental advice was suddenly obsolete.
Besides, strictly speaking, Andy wasn’t really a stranger at all: for years he’d been one of those people who I’d bumped into at just about every work-related exhibition, party and event that I’d attended - although I have to admit that up until this fateful telephone call, I’d rarely had a meaningful conversation with the man.
That situation, of course, was about to change drastically.
The reason that Andy had chosen to call me with this offer of a visit to what is arguably the most beautiful part of the entire North American continent was that his company, U.S.D. (a sales and marketing agency which, to date, has been involved in the launch of 100 number one computer and video game hits) had just won the contract to act as the European agent for one of America’s largest entertainment software publishers, Sierra On-Line.
As part of this contract, Andy was asked to bring some influential European journalists to meet the Sierra team at their home base and I, being the editor of the only PC entertainment magazine in existence in Europe at that time, seemed to fit the bill. This, of course, was to be a serious business trip - and the fact that Sierra’s base was deep in the heart of an unspoiled rural paradise was strictly incidental.
Anyhow, after the rigours of four unspeakable days in Las Vegas’ appalling Circus Circus hotel (which, as the name suggests, features a 24-hour trapeze act plying its trade way above the heads of disinterested gamblers) I think we deserved a trip to somewhere that looked as if God at least knew of its existence.
By the time we landed in Fresno Airport and picked up the yacht-sized rental Cadillac which was to be our home for the drive into the mountains, our party had expanded to include Andy’s U.S.D. associate Jim Murdoch (a reformed biker with trombone-playing, German-speaking tendencies), Manfred Kleiman (then editor of the influential German games magazine, ASM) and the two heads of the leading German software distributor Bomico, Adi Boiko and Wilhelm Hamrozi.
Looked as though we’d got ourselves a convoy.
Without meaning any disrespect to Sierra On-Line, the trip to Oakhurst proved the old adage that sometimes it’s better to travel than to arrive. Apart from the company (and the car), the main reason for this was that in order to get to Sierra country, we had to wind our way up along a twisting mountain road through the Yosemite National Park - an idyllic snow-capped retreat from the real world whose crisp clean air and striking, almost monochrome views give its visitors an impression of having travelled backwards in time. (This extraordinary place has been immortalised by the remarkable black and white photography of the American master An sell Adams.)
The pseudo holiday atmosphere of this carefree trip spilled over into the first hours of our stay in Oakhurst, helped along admirably by the fact that our log cabin motel was fully-equipped with a heated pool and a couple of deep hot tubs, big enough to take three men in comfort (as long as they agreed to keep it their little secret).
Those who say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch were quickly proved correct however, as we soon found ourselves jolted abruptly back into the hurly-burly of everyday life through a two-day intensive guided tour of every aspect of Sierra’s business - from the design and coding of new games, right down to the disk duplication and packaging plants.
During one of the (very few) short breaks in this hectic schedule, I first became aware of Andy’s plans to break into the field of games publishing for himself - not from his own mouth, but in a short conversation with Jim which took place in the Sierra car park where we’d nipped out for a crafty fag while Andy, the Germans and the Sierra management thrashed out the finer points of yet another million-dollar deal.
This news - which was eventually to lead to the creation of Mirage and, of course, Rise of the Robots - came as something of a shock at first. However, after a little consideration it all began to make perfect sense. After all, Andy had been deeply involved in the sales and promotion of some of the biggest hits of the 1980s, so it seemed only logical that the experience gained in this could be put to use in the exciting decade that lay ahead of us.
All things must pass, and once the Germans had left us it began to dawn on Andy, Jim and myself that soon we would have to put this fresh-aired sanctuary behind us and head back to the routine of our nine-to five jobs.
We decided to spend our last evening in Oakhurst in much the same way that we’d spent the rest; relaxing by the pool and soaking away the tensions of the day in those nice, comfortable hot tubs - except on this last evening we finally noticed the electric switches that graced the wall beside each tub. Suddenly everything fell into place - no wonder the staff looked bemused as we sat for hour after hour in dormant, bubble-free Jacuzzis!
The following day I completed the short hop from Oakhurst to San Francisco and settled down in the international airport’s bar - just in time to witness Dan Rather announce that a little disagreement between the people of Kuwait and the Iraqi army had just spilled over into international conflict.
Mirage and Rise of the Robots may still have been some time in the future, but at least Saddam Hussein was doing his best to ensure that my flight home would be as memorable as the rest of the trip.
Little did I know that before the year was out, Andy, Jim, Manfred and myself would meet up again in yet another international airport for what was to be one of the earliest chapters in the true Mirage story.
FONDUE MEMORIES Zurich, December 1991
«Everyone wants to understand painting. Why don’t they try to understand the singing of the birds? people love the night, a flower, everything which surrounds them without trying to understand them. But painting - that they ’must’ understand.»
If I ever get around to writing my memoirs (an unlikely prospect it must be said), December 1991 will not go down as one of my better months. Not only was I getting serious cold feet about the decision which I had just made to leave behind the comfort of a salaried (but by now intensely dull) job to try my hand at the precarious profession of freelance journalism, but also, completely out of the blue, I found myself dumped by my girlfriend.
As usual, of course, both of these changes of life eventually turned out to be very good things indeed. However in the week prior to Christmas 1991, light at the end of the tunnel was a very scarce commodity.
But then, had I forgotten that I was blessed with a Fairy Godmother? Just as a surprise phone call from Andy Wood had marked the beginning of this eventful year, a similar call arrived just in the nick of time to allow things to end with a bang.
Once again, Andy’s summons had me packing my winter woollies, but this time the action was to be a little closer to home. As I discovered over the course of the few days between the telephone call and our departure from a damp and dreary Heathrow airport, we were to visit H.R. Giger, the noted Swiss artist who had carved a place in cinematic history with his much-copied designs for Ridley Scott’s Alien, at his home in Zurich.
I was invited along so that I could help to publicise a new animated adventure game called Darkseed from the then-fledgling US outfit, Cyberdreams. This game owed much of its visual impact to the Giger illustrations which it incorporated in its background graphics. As well as allowing myself and Manfred the opportunity to meet this extraordinary man (and therefore to publicise the game on our return to our respective countries), this visit was also to allow Andy, Jim and Cyberdreams’ boss Pat Ketchum to show Giger the latest working version of the game and solicit his views.
While Giger hadn’t actually been directly involved in the production of the game (in fact, throughout our visit he refused even to touch the laptop computer which we had brought along to demonstrate the work in progress), his individual view of the world had influenced its writers as much as its illustrators and Darkseed looked very much as if it would be the first computer game to incorporate elements of genuine horror.
Bearing in mind the last time that we had travelled together as a group, I initially assumed that Cyberdreams was simply the latest addition to the U.S.D. client roster. However, over the next few days it became clear that there was more to it than that.
The most obvious difference between this trip and the last was that Andy was having a great deal of input into the creation of Darkseed, whereas with Sierra he had been solely involved with the commercial side. Over the course of the next two days, it was revealed to me that Andy’s dream of setting up his own software publishing label had finally been realised, and that Darkseed was to be the first game released through this as-yet unnamed operation.
Despite the drab, almost industrial background provided by downtown Zurich, this trip proved to be even more of an eye-opener than our earlier excursion to the Wild West. Most of this was down to Mr. Giger’s individualism, both in the the most obvious difference between this trip and the last was the bizarre and unsettling nature of his art, and also in the bizarre and unsettling nature of his home.
From the outside, chez Giger looks for all the world like every other normal semi-detached residence on its normal suburban street. Inside, however, is a different story. Within this dark, forbidding place, hardly an inch of wall space is untouched by Giger’s individual artistic style - a huge and unsettling mural covers his sitting room wall, while the centre-piece of his upstairs studio is a dining room table and chairs fashioned in the shape of human bones.
Other treasures of the Giger household which we were introduced to over this eventful couple of days included a walking stick made from a shark’s vertebrae and, the piece de resistance, the Oscar which the artist received for this work on Alien - this, like a bunch of star-struck teenagers, we took in turns to hold and stroke on the rare occasions that Giger left the room. (Incidentally, I have it on good authority that the artist has now temporarily defaced this statuette as a protest against the lack of recognition his work received in Alien3.).
Outside of Giger’s domestic environment, Zurich did little to dispel Switzerland’s long-held reputation for being slightly on the wrong side of exciting. Apart from the availability of wonderful multi-bladed knives and the wonders of the fondue (for those of you who only know the term from The Generation Game and have long wondered what exactly a fondue is, it’s a Swiss meal which involves dipping bread, vegetables and meat into hot cheese), Zurich had little to offer the weary tourist.
As William Faulkner once put it, the Swiss are not so much a people as a neat, clean, quiet solvent business, and in many ways this only served to heighten the contrast between Giger’s home and his external environment. However, it also made the evenings seem terribly long.
To pass the time, after we’d finally exhausted the comic possibilities of laughing at each other’s passport photos, we set about trying to name Andy’s new operation (as an ’off the shelf’ company, this had initially traded as ’Drumrock Services Ltd.’ - a moniker which obviously had to go). This, however, turned out to be a lot harder than it seemed (you try coming up with a name for a software label and see how difficult it is) and by the end of the trip we had yet to come up with anything suitable.
It wasn’t until we were just about to catch our separate planes that Andy offered up ’Mirage’ as a possibility (this, it seems had been the suggestion of another software industry veteran, Gary Bracey). «No. It will never take off,» I replied helpfully (which was not, in retrospect, a good thing to say in an airport). However, by the time I landed in Heathrow in time for my connection for Dublin, Mirage had already begun to grow on me.
And besides, as things turned out, my opinion didn’t really matter.
SACKCLOTH AND ASHES Market Bosworth, March 1992
«Wherever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.»
Peter F. D nicker
Throughout the first months of 1992, Giger - and consequently Mirage - was rarely far from the front of my mind. As things turned out, the trip to Zurich acted as a good kick-start for my career as a freelance writer, offering me a good story to hawk around new editorial contacts.
My need to keep up with the Darkseed story also gave me an opportunity to keep in touch with Andy and company in Congleton more regularly than I ever had before. And, through this frequent contact, the voice at the other end of the telephone became less of a business acquaintance and more of a friend as each month passed.
These early months of 1992 were also a very important time for Mirage, as more and more of the pieces began to fall into place. The most important of these pieces came in the shape of one Peter Jones, the man whom Andy had helped secure the role of European Managing Director of Sierra On-Line, but who now gave it all up to join him as an equal partner in the new venture.
Although I didn’t know it at this time, Peter and Andy had discussed the possibility of joining forces many times in the past. Small considerations - such as making a living and supporting young families - had, however, kept things at the talking stage until this point.
Peter Jones first became involved in the entertainment software business in 1987 when he took up a position as Marketing Director with the UK division of MicroProse, the US flight simulation specialist which at that point was enjoying the most productive years of its existence.
Peter was one of a number of ’professional marketeers’ who joined the industry in the late 1980s (his background and training had been in the brewing industry - a legacy which he still carries about his waistline), a time when the business was moving quickly towards becoming a mass market form of entertainment and ’real world’ expertise was becoming crucial.
The difference between Peter and many of the other people who joined the business in this professional goldrush was that where others applied ’FMCG’ principles in an attempt to sell software exactly as if they were selling beans or chewing gum, he very soon became totally immersed in all aspects of the development of games and the world of those who create them.
Peter and Andy have different recollections of how they first met, but both agree that there was instant mutual respect, leading to a professional relationship which lasted throughout Peter’s years at MicroProse (including work on such noted games as Stunt Car Racer and Midwinter) and, inevitably, to an even closer relationship during Peter’s time at Sierra.
My own relationship with Peter had also begun very early in his tenure with MicroProse - although on a slightly different footing. The first time we ever spoke was when, as deputy editor of a magazine called The One, I received a call from an angry Peter, who berated me about a review which I had written on one of his games - a motorcycle simulation called Honda RVF. I must admit to having felt a little bit aggrieved after this call - after all, I had given his game a good score... and the front cover all to itself!
Luckily things improved from that point on - so much so that when Peter began to put together his marketing campaign for the game that was eventually to become Midwinter II, he asked me to travel the country with him extolling its virtues to software retailers. (Incidentally, it was on one of these trips that Peter, Andy and I first met up. Peter and I had just finished a particularly lively presentation in the Four Seasons hotel near Manchester Airport when he suggested that we take a cab to Stockport to catch ’Jim’s Ties’, the band that Andy and Jim Murdoch played in, at a pub gig. Unfortunately, the cab took so long to reach us that we eventually arrived just in time to watch Andy pack his last drum into its case.).
Despite my involvement, it was Midwinter II which really made Peter’s name in the software business. Whereas many other publishers would have been happy to simply stick a couple of digits at the end of what had been a moderately successful release and cash in, Peter’s growing knowledge of software development led him to believe that much more could be achieved. Going out on a limb, he put the full weight of MicroProse’s resources behind Midwinter’s creator Mike Singleton, allowing him to develop Midwinter II into the strategic masterpiece which it eventually became.
Sadly, Midwinter II marked the peak of MicroProse’s achievements during the 1980s, and by the time the opportunity came for Peter to take the helm at Sierra came along, ’Prose’s US parent was beginning to experience the difficulties caused by its inability to adapt to a market which was changing virtually by the week.
Peter joined Sierra not long after my original trip to Oakhurst and immediately set about establishing a European base for the company. However, not long after the initial honeymoon period was over and the excitement of establishing a company virtually from scratch had given way to the day-to-day business of publishing software, Peter soon became disillusioned with the direction which Sierra’s operation was taking.
Andy and U.S.D. were experiencing similar frustrations with Sierra, the culmination of which was a fraught meeting at the Summer CES in 1991, where Andy finally picked up his belongings and literally walked away from the deal - something which he had never done before and never plans to do again. While this, of course, was the end of Andy’s involvement with Sierra - it was also the real beginning of his determination to strike out on his own.
Although they were no longer officially working together, Andy and Peter were still booked on the same return flight to the U.K.. It was on this flight that the seeds of a partnership that was to develop into Mirage were finally sown.
Although it would not be until the early part of the following year that those plans made high above the Atlantic were to come to fruition, Peter was to use as much of the remainder of 1991 as he could to lay the foundations of Mirage’s initial catalogue. Setting up an office in his garage in Market Bosworth, Peter began to use his contacts to see what product, if any, was under development and had not been snapped up for publication.
Peter’s progress was particularly dependent upon his wife Debbie’s considerable aptitude for figures. Under her guidance, Peter was able to create the 100-page spreadsheet that convinced Mirage’s bank to come up with the necessary funds to set the company in motion - what’s most remarkable is that this loan was provided unsecured and at the height of recession.
It was around this time that Peter once again came into contact with Maelstrom Games, the company which had developed the successful Midwinter games during his time at MicroProse. Since Peter’s departure, Maelstrom had become more and more disillusioned with the MicroProse set-up and now approached him to see if he would consider publishing what was in effect Midwinter III through Sierra On-Line.
Peter, of course, had a better idea than that.
And although the Maelstrom people were initially reluctant to commit their work to what was at that stage a new and unproved publisher, Peter and Andy’s drive and commitment eventually won them over and what was to be MicroProse or Sierra’s Midwinter III instead became Mirage’s Ashes of Empire.
Although Ashes of Empire was just beaten to the punch by Darkseed in the race to become Mirage’s first release (both were developed almost simultaneously throughout 1991 and early 1992), it nevertheless went on to be huge success, both critically and commercially.
The only hiccup which did occur came about as a direct result of Peter and Andy’s relative inexperience in the nuts and bolts of software publishing. In Germany, Mirage ran into copyright problems with a company which had, in the early 1980s, released 200 Commodore Pet cassettes of a game called The Ashes of Empire. Following an injunction from that company, Mirage had to recall its first shipment of Ashes of Empire and repackage it as Fallen Empire - a simple mistake which ultimately cost the two budding entrepreneurs somewhere in the region of £75,000.
This, it turned out, was to be just the first of many hard lessons which were to be learned along the road to Rise of the Robots.
HUMAN NATURE Islington, April 1992
«All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.»
It’s April 1992 and Mirage makes its debut appearance at the European Computer Trade Show (ECTS) in Islington’s Business Design Centre. And although I’d kept in touch with Andy and Peter over the first few months of the year, this was to be my first opportunity to really catch up with what Mirage had been up to since our trip to Zurich at the end of 1991.
As expected, Darkseed and Ashes of Empire were both prominent on the debut Mirage display. However, alongside this duo was a newcomer to the Mirage range which I had no knowledge of whatsoever - The Humans had arrived.
With Ashes and Darkseed both nearing the end of their production cycles, Peter had spent the months prior to ECTS in an earnest search for new games to add to the Mirage catalogue. Scouring his contact book, Peter came across Lmagitec Design, a software development team which he had originally come into contact with during his days at MicroProse and subsequently when its leader, Martin Hooley, had approached him during his tenure at the helm of Sierra.
Deciding that the time was right to renew this acquaintance, Peter visited Lmagitec’s Dewsbury offices to see if the team had any ’work in progress’ which was as yet unsigned to any publisher. What he found seemed at first to be way beyond his expectations: a large and apparently well-run team, all of whom were embroiled in various stages of development of five separate games. And, best of all, Hooley said that not one of them was signed to a publisher (it turns out that this wasn’t exactly true, but that’s another story). At a stroke, it seemed, Mirage had a catalogue with which it could build on the foundations laid by Darkseed and Ashes of Empire.
Of all the product in the Lmagitec pipeline, the most impressive (and, coincidentally, the closest to completion) was an animated cartoon puzzle game featuring the exploits of a host of cute (but stupid) Neanderthals, The Humans. This, it was agreed, would be the first game to emerge from the new alliance between Mirage and Lmagitec.
Without really knowing it, Peter had stumbled across a game which was not only going to occupy just about everyone at his growing operation’s every waking hour for the remainder of 1992, but was also going to put Mirage firmly in the games business spotlight - unfortunately, not always for the right reasons.
Whether fairly or unfairly, the majority of visitors to Mirage’s stand at the April ECTS immediately compared The Humans to another cartoon-style puzzle game, Psygnosis’ Lemmings. It wasn’t long before the buzz which the game created had filtered back to the Psygnosis stand, and before long a deputation from that firm had arrived threatening to take legal action to close the Mirage display if The Humans wasn’t removed. Ultimately this threat came to nothing, but it did have the effect of dampening what should have been Mirage’s finest hour and spoiling an otherwise enjoyable show.
However, as it turned out, this was just the beginning...
As progress on The Humans progressed over the next few months, it soon became clear that Lmagitec was having serious problems putting all of its ideas into practice and the proposed release date was constantly being moved further and further back towards the end of the year.
Finally, in September of 1992, Martin Hooley announced that The Humans was finally ’finished’. Finished in every respect, that was, except that it had not been bug-tested.
One of the great mysteries of software development is the random and unpredictable appearance of ’bugs’ and glitches in seemingly perfect code. At best, a bug can result in unsightly colour clashes or other cosmetic irritations; at worst, a bug can cause a program to simply lock up - the appearance of this, the dreaded ’crash bug’, is probably the worst imaginable nightmare for all software developers.
The only way to minimise the appearance of these unwelcome creatures is to rigorously test every single aspect of any software product - in other words a game has to be played through from start to finish, making use of every possible set of parameters and every conceivable move. Worse still, once a bug is detected, there’s no guarantee that putting it right will not cause another bug to appear at some other point in the code. The bug-testing element of a game’s development is therefore one of the most laborious and time-consuming in its production schedule.
Lmagitec’s belief that The Humans was finished was therefore only half of the story - unfortunately, the team’s lack of a testing department meant that it wasn’t in a position to tell the other half. With less than a month to go to the final release date, some serious decisions had to be made.
With much of Mirage’s future depending on the success of The Humans, putting the game’s release back until after the all-important Christmas selling period simply wasn’t an option. Instead, Peter decided that, having mastered many of the other aspects of game publishing, he was now going to have to become a game tester.
Many long days and nights ensued, with Peter often sleeping on a blow-up bed at Lmagitec’s offices. As the all-important release date drew near, more and more Mirage and U.S.D. staff joined this makeshift bug-testing crew until eventually the entire company was busily playing The Humans as if their lives depended on it. (At this point, even Mirage’s newly-appointed Sales Manager Dave Cotton had offered his services - however, his usefulness was severely compromised by his inability to make it past the game’s second level.)
An ironic footnote to this episode is that despite the heroic efforts of the entire Mirage team (and numerous friends and relations), the first batch of The Humans still went out carrying a dreaded crash bug: if the player allowed the animation sequence following Level 13 to play through, the game would simply lock up and refuse to work again - an elementary problem which would have been quickly spotted had a professional tester overseen the project.
At this point, towards the end of 1992, Mirage now had three releases under its belt - and for one reason or another, neither Andy or Peter had been happy with any of them. The launch of Darkseed had been marred by production delays and legal wranglings with its US publisher Cyberdreams, while Ashes of Empire simply hadn’t lived up to the promise of its two predecessors, the Midwinter games.
It had been a long year and many lessons had been learned -one of which, in particular, was going to shape Mirage’s future and open the door for Rise of the Robots. Bearing in mind the problems incurred in the development of The Humans, Andy and Peter decided that from this point on, everything that Mirage published would be developed under the company’s total control.
BASIC INSTINCT Alsager, October 1992
«Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.»
Arthur C. Clarke
Although he’s not yet reached the ripe old age of 30, Sean Griffiths has already been involved in the making of computer games for the best part of 10 years. His first solo production - a platform game called Zoot, published by the long-defunct Bug Byte for Sir Clive Sinclair’s 48K Spectrum home computer - earned him the princely sum of £1,000 and a job offer from another now-defunct publisher, Palace Software, which led to the 19 year-old packing his bags and leaving Cheshire for the bright lights of London.
My own first meeting with Sean didn’t happen until much later - 1991 in fact, when as editor of The One magazine, I interviewed him in his capacity as programmer of The Bitmap Brothers’ Magic Pockets.
Coincidentally, it was at just about this time, with the development of the Amiga version of Magic Pockets nearing completion, that Sean first began to consider what his next move should be.
The early 1990s were a time of significant change for people involved with the development of games software - the technological exploitation of disk-based home computers had gone just about as far as it could go, yet the possibilities offered by CD-ROM and ’high-res’ graphics technology were still tantalisingly out of reach.
This, however, did not stop Sean from dreaming - having taken the best part of two years to develop what was essentially a standard arcade action game, he was now convinced that new methods of game production would have to be established if software developers were ever to take advantage of what the emerging technology would have to offer.
Towards the end of 1991,1 met up with Sean at the Computer Entertainment Show in London’s Earls Court where, through the Bitmap Brothers’ association with the huge US publisher Mindscape, he found himself demonstrating Magic Pockets right next to the ground-breaking PC space epic Wing Commander. «I’m definitely doing something wrong,» he said, obviously both impressed by this rival product and bemused by the restrictions imposed on him by his own working methods.
This experience played on Sean’s mind throughout the remainder of his work on Magic Pockets (completing the PC version kept him busy until mid-way through 1992) and convinced him that the then-prevalent practice of having lone coders working in isolation on individual games and software formats would have to give way to the formation of multi-faceted development teams.
It was about this time that Sean also decided that his next project should be a beat ’em up. It may seem unlikely now, but in early 1992, before the huge success of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat, the humble beat ’em up was very much looked down upon by the development community.
However, Sean’s experience in the development of Palace’s Barbarian (perhaps the most successful beat ’em up of the 1980s) and the growing popularity of the arcade version of SFII convinced him that the time was right to resurrect the fighting game.
Apart from considering the type of game that he should devote his talents to, Sean was also concerned with other matters: namely how, as a game designer, he was going to cope with the vast consumer expectations which would be built up by the arrival of CD-ROM, and how graphic artists were going to cope with the huge possibilities offered by the 256-colour graphic resolutions which were becoming standard on home PCs.
A brief dalliance with the 3D CAD (computer-aided design) package Real 3D on his Amiga convinced Sean that computer-modelled characters and environments were the answer - both in terms of making full use of the CD’s vast storage capacity, and creating realistic environments and characters which could take advantage of the new, improved graphic capabilities.
Although it now seems obvious, the idea of applying this CAD-based development structure to his other plan for producing the definitive beat ’em up didn’t strike Sean immediately. It was only when he arrived at the idea that he should base his beat ’em up on robotic characters that everything fell into place.
Now all he had to do was convince someone to let him create this monster project.
With Magic Pockets finally over and done with, Sean broke his ties with The Bitmap Brothers and decided to head off into the world of game development to find a publisher who would give him the resources he needed to realise his vision.
Six months later, with rejection notices from just about every major publisher in the UK forming a pile almost as high as the bundle of unpaid bills next to it, Sean decided to move back to his family home in Alsager, Cheshire to consider his next move.
As the games software business is far too small for anything to go unnoticed, I had been aware that Sean was doing the rounds with a game design - and while I had an idea of its content, I had no idea of its complexity. Still, it came to me as something of a surprise when, on a social visit to Congleton (trips up North to see Andy and his wife Beverly were by this time becoming a regular part of my social calendar) Andy asked if I knew anything about Sean’s game.
«Yes,» I said, «isn’t he doing something for Psygnosis?» «No,» replied Andy, «he’s doing something with us. And it’s going to be massive.»
As it transpired, Sean’s relocation to the Cheshire area had had a huge bearing on this development. He had already sent his design brief to Peter Jones’ Market Bosworth office, and although he hadn’t as yet received a reply, he decided that, with Congleton only 10 miles away, he would have nothing to lose by making a personal visit to Mirage’s base.
Arriving unannounced, Sean was greeted by Dave Cotton, who showed a good deal of interest in his game ideas - however, having had six months of rejection, it wasn’t until he subsequently received a call from Peter Jones raving about his «brilliant» beat ’em up concept that Sean allowed himself to believe that maybe Rise of the Robots was finally to leave the drawing board.
A little hard bargaining later, Sean found himself ensconced in Mirage’s office, charged with the task of developing his initial brief into a complete design document. If he could prove that his plans were feasible, Mirage would back the formation of his planned development team, Instinct Design, and fund his game’s development. The few problems that did exist - Mirage’s lack of any development resources, in either hardware or staff, to name but one - seemed relatively insignificant: at last work was beginning.
Having spent the best part of a year convincing himself that his fighting robots could actually be modelled and animated by current computer technology, Sean equipped himself with a PC, a copy of the 3D Studio design software and a plastic robot model kit from Fantasy World and set about putting his theories into practice.
Breaking this model - the imaginatively named ’Patlobor’ -down into its component pieces, Sean set about learning how to manipulate 3D Studio to a sufficient degree to be able to rebuild this robot in working, digital form.
Finally, early in 1993, came the fateful moment when Sean called Andy and Peter into his office and unveiled the fruits of almost three months’ labour - a distinctly Japanese-looking robot throwing a clumsy, but threatening, punch.
Crude and derivative it may have been, but the first of Sean’s robots had finally risen.
SMELLS LIKE TEAM SPIRIT Congleton, May 1993
«One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.»
Exciting as his arrival on the team may have been, Patlobor’s digital limbs were unlikely to lend a great deal of assistance to Sean’s efforts. The creation of an integrated team of specialists had always been an essential part of the Rise of the Robots design philosophy, and with all doubts as to the project’s technological feasibility now dispelled, Sean’s next task was to set about building this team.
Having given the subject serious thought, Sean eventually decided to begin his search outside the existing pool of professional game programming talent. What he needed was a collection of individuals with computer and design skills, but who had not been tainted with any of the normal preconceptions attached to games development. If Rise of the Robots was to succeed, it needed the full efforts of people who knew no limits.
Before he even began his search in earnest, however, the first of his new team arrived from an unexpected source - from within Mirage itself. Prior to Sean’s arrival in Congleton, Andy and Peter had employed a young games enthusiast called Andy Clark to act as a technical support assistant on Ashes of Empire. With that project out of the way, Andy had returned to his native Hull to resume his attempts to break into the world of Amiga games programming.
Like many budding programmers, Andy had developed a number of ’demo’ games which he distributed through the Public Domain network (a system whereby software is shared among enthusiasts, usually for free). It was one of these demos, a platform game called Doody, which convinced Sean that Andy could be right for the job. One quick meeting later and the team that was to grow into Instinct Design had begun to form.
With Andy installed and equipped to begin producing the Amiga-specific code, Sean set about finding the remainder of the team. A notice was posted in the local Job Centre and an advert placed in PC Format magazine - both of which were carefully worded to play down development experience and encourage people with ideas to come forward.
With magazine production schedules being what they are, the Job Centre notice began to attract attention long before the PC Format advert had even hit the streets. For the most part, unfortunately, very few of the people it attracted had either the talent or technical abilities which Sean required.
One applicant, however, stood head and shoulders above the rest. Sean Naden, a local boy fresh from college, arrived at the Mirage office clutching what was easily the most impressive portfolio which Sean had seen. As he turned each page - revealing in turn an intricate technical drawing of an Aston Martin; a hand-drawn, anatomically-perfect study of the human body and a cartoon strip - Sean began to think that he might just have found his man. This thought turned to conviction, however, when Sean Naden turned the last page to reveal his final work... a study of robots. Better still, this near-perfect portfolio was backed up by talk of CAD experience on his college’s computer.
Sean sent his namesake away with instructions to come back in a week with some developments on his robot theme. The result - a page of robot designs based on insects and animals - was enough to secure Sean Naden his place as Rise of the Robots’ 3D modeller. Even his confession at this point that he’d never actually used a computer (let alone had any knowledge of CAD) wasn’t enough to dampen Sean’s enthusiasm - he’d found his man, and teaching him to use the tools of the trade would only be a minor inconvenience.
While Andy Clark and Sean Naden had arrived in February and March respectively, the PC Format advert did not begin to achieve results until late April. The advert’s position - in the middle of a feature on computer music - led to many of the applicants being unsuitable, however one telephone call led to a promising disk landing on Sean’s desk.
Just as a demo had led to the recruitment of Andy Clark, a home-produced version of the arcade classic Galaxians was enough to suggest to Sean that its creator, Gary Leach, had the necessary talent to bring his robots to life on PC. Strangely, though, when Sean invited Gary to Congleton to discuss the possibility of his joining the team, Gary seemed to have developed serious doubts about his ability to produce what Sean needed.
However, when Gary pointed out that his demo disk had actually carried two games - the second being a near-perfect reconstruction of another arcade classic, Defender - Sean became even more certain that this was the man he wanted. Sean refused to take Gary’s doubts into consideration, and when Gary in turn discovered that Sean had been the man behind Magic Pockets - his all-time favourite PC game - the deal was done.
Although the magazine advert had been deliberately ambiguous, the vast majority of applicants still came from a computing background. One, however, an interior designer named Kwan Lee, had no computing experience whatsoever -he simply felt that his real-world experience could be applied to creating digital landscapes. Sean wasn’t so sure, but, more out of politeness than any real interest, he did suggest that Kwan send in some samples of his work.
The result, a collection of schematic drawings, colour illustrations and even photos of completed work quickly changed Sean’s mind. No matter how complex or realistic the Rise robots turned out to be, Sean knew that they would be wasted if set against inferior backgrounds - he also knew that Kwall’s combination of natural talent and ’real world’ training would add a new dimension to the Rise of the Robots environment - once again, the decision to forsake proven programming abilities in favour of new sources of talent had paid dividends.
By May 1993, the five-strong Instinct team was in place -now it was just a matter of time.
WAITING FOR THE HAMMER TO FALL Brixton, June 1993
«The smallest actions are greater than the largest intentions.»
Picture the scene. It’s Wednesday June 16th 1993 and I’m half-way down the queue for the Brian May Band’s gig at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. A tout walks up and down the line of people surreptitiously offering to buy or sell tickets to the show. «Over here mate,» I cry. «Take these two off me will you?» Twenty quid in pocket, I leave the queue and head home to catch Coronation Street.
Don’t get me wrong, It’s not that I didn’t want to see Mr. May and company in action - in fact I’d seen them the night before at The Brixton Academy - it’s just that ending up with a couple of spare tickets to a gig is one of the occupational hazards of hanging around with Andy Wood.
This particular chapter in the Rise of the Robots story had begun a week previously when Andy called me in a state of some excitement. «Brian May is playing a couple of gigs in London next week, do you want to go to one of them?» he asked. I have to say that I didn’t immediately fall over backwards in excitement, but being a bit of a closet axe-fan. I thought that it couldn’t do any harm to see how the ex-Queen string-bender was doing sans Freddie.
We settled on the Wednesday gig at the Apollo as being the most appealing and I immediately made the call for tickets -and it was a good thing I did, as they were selling out a good deal faster than I had imagined they would.
Of course, knowing Andy as well as I do, I should have expected the call that came through to my office on the Monday. «I’ve got a bit of a problem with Wednesday, can we do Tuesday instead?» he pleaded. «Okay then,» I replied, «but it’s up to you to get the tickets.» We made arrangements to meet up at Brixton tube station at 6.30 the following evening and I left my fate in his hands.
In keeping with tradition, I was a little late to our rendezvous and Andy had been a little early - it was a good thing too as he’d had to get his tickets from a tout and once again they were selling out quickly. What wasn’t in keeping with tradition, however, was that Andy wasn’t exactly buzzing with his usual enthusiasm.
An adventure like this would normally have had Andy.
straining at the leash, but on this sticky summer evening -even though we were only minutes away from seeing one of Andy’s heroes in action - there was a noticeable lack of spring in his step.
A quick chat in the bar before the gig revealed that the problem, of course, was work-related. Looking back on it now, it all seems quite insignificant, but at the time the scale of the undertaking which he and Peter had taken on in deciding to publish Rise of the Robots had only begun to become apparent, and financial pressures had started to set. This being mid-June, Andy and Peter had just returned from the Chicago CES, where they had hoped to raise some finance to enable development work to continue uninterrupted. And while the reaction to the game had been good from those companies which they had approached, no-one had actually made a firm offer by the time they had returned to England.
Before we could go into too much detail on this subject, the Tannoy crackled into life to announce that the gig was about to start, so, picking up our beers, we made our way to our seats... right behind the main spotlight (bloody touts!). «This evening,» I thought as the house lights dimmed, «can only get better.»
As the ominous ’guitar orchestration’ intro of the opening number (which, incidentally, turned out to be The Dark) began, Andy turned to me and said «I want to use this one for the intro of Rise.» «This is one man who just can’t leave his work at home,» I thought, just before the flash pots exploded and the gig kicked into life.
Although Andy had been completely serious in his intent, I must admit that I didn’t take this too literally. In my many years in the business, I’d heard a lot of talk about famous musicians becoming involved in writing game soundtracks, but up until this point the nearest thing that I’d seen to and sort of pop star involvement had been bumping into Jesus Jones at a Sega party (and to be honest, they looked as if they didn’t really know why they were there). It’s not that I doubted that Andy would do his best to secure the rights to The Dark, I just thought that neither Brian May nor his management would have had the slightest interest.
Once again in my association with Andy, I was about to be proved wrong.
Anyhow, I didn’t really have time to consider Andy’s words, as the gig was total heads-down boogie from start to finish:
Brian May had enlisted some of the best session players about (heavy metal fans will already know how good Neil Murray and Cozy Powell are) and hearing some of Queen’s finest rockers belted out live for the first time gave them a whole new dimension.
It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but this exposure to heavy metal completely lifted the weight from Andy’s shoulders. As we left the gig and made our way back to the Victoria Line, the spring had returned to his step and he was now talking about incorporating another Brian May number, Resurrection, into Rise of the Robots. (Incidentally, that gig was recorded for posterity and is available on video... just thought I’d let you know.)
However serious Andy’s doubts had been at the beginning of the evening, there was no way that they were going to survive the attack of frenzied optimism that was about to hit them. I headed for home, more convinced than ever that Rise of the Robots was going to make it big.