As should be made clear by many of the gaming articles here on PixelBedlam, we’re fascinated by retro-gaming. For me my childhood was mainly spent sitting in front of either a Spectrum or for my formative years an Amiga. The Amiga had some amazing games that have stuck with me 20 years later, one in particular Rockstar Ate My Hamster was not only a fiendishly difficult rock management simulator, but also a game that featured humor in abundance.
The game was created by Colin Jones a developer who after a 20 year break has returned to game development with a new title for iOS Eek! It’s A Bomb! I asked Colin some questions about his own history and his views on the gaming industry over the past few decades.
How and why did you get started in the gaming industry?
I had a ‘eureka moment’ one day at a friend’s house. He’d just got a Texas Instruments games console, had plugged it into his television and was playing a game. Everyone else seemed to see a space invaders clone on the screen, but I saw a cartoon that you could interact with. Interactive entertainment had entered the living room. It changed the way I thought forever, my mind rearranged itself in an instant.
I also had the luxury of being thrown on the scrapheap after leaving university – unable to find a job, I borrowed enough money to buy a Sinclair Spectrum, and found an industry that was busy being born. I wrote my first game ‘I’m In Shock’ in hexadecimal, great fun, and sent it off to Artic Computing. They sent me a contract, almost by return of post. It all seemed so natural.
Rockstar Ate My Hamster is a game that is nailed into my memory from childhood, on one hand I remember it being an amazingly hard simulator but on the other I remember even at that age finding the game funny. How did the game come about? What are your memories of it?
I’ve got nothing but fond memories. I’d done a conversion for Codemasters, got to know them a little, and found out that they were quite open to new ideas. There’s a certain amount of self-awareness involved here, you realize when you get an opportunity that you really should give it your best shot. It’s easy when you’ve got the benefit of hindsight; the trick is to be able to do it at the time.
Mel Croucher had already released Deus ex Machina, and I was looking to do something original, in my own style. I had a think, combined my love of music with my games designing skills, and pitched Codemasters the idea of a rock management simulator. They were big on simulators, I seem to remember. I honestly didn’t see the point of doing a ‘straight‘ management game so I came up with the idea of poking fun at the music business.
I could say that I was surprised when Codemasters went with it, but I had a feeling they would, even down to the name. I’m extremely grateful to them for letting me run with it, if the truth be told. It was a big game to program on so many different platforms, a lot of work, but was generally well received.
Some of the names in Rockstar Ate My Hamster are, it has to be said, not exactly subtle in their mimicking and sometimes mocking of the real singers. Was there ever any issue legally with doing this? The caricatures on the Amiga version especially could be classed as mildly offensive, were there any concerns?
Oh yes, there’s very little subtlety in Rock Star. Subtlety doesn’t go down too well in games. The way it worked was that if I thought of a funny name or joke I’d put it in. I seem to remember that Codemasters had a word with their lawyers, but they were assured that ‘satire’ was ok.
Of course, when we did run into trouble, and the game got banned from the multiples, the irony was that an irate parent had taken objection to one of the jokes in the packaging. I still find that so unfair, I can still get annoyed at that. One of the stores that it was banned from, a national newsagents/booksellers chain, felt that it was OK to sell firearms magazines and pornography, but that Rock Star Ate my Hamster was obscene. I rest my case, your honour.
You produced what has been called “One of the darkest game-overs ever”, this was in the Spectrum game Grange Hill (a tie-in with the TV series). Were you solely responsible for this ending?
I’m so pleased that someone said that, my life has been worthwhile after all. Yes, that was my work. Grange Hill had a ‘just say no’ campaign to alert young people to the dangers of drugs. So I put it in the game as a choice – do you take drugs from a dealer or not? There was no pressure from anyone else to include it or otherwise. But it was a great way to end the game. Yeah, that’s a good little piece of writing. I aim to please.
Grange Hill was a kids soap about school life, although it had a number of story lines that were available to you how did you go about actually turning the kids programme into a game?
That was a bit of a challenge. The thing with Grange Hill was that it had a certain realism about it, so you had to be careful not to take that away. It was groundbreaking in its day, and I was a big fan. So I tried to make a game that would deal with some of the issues and characters from the series.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s how much of a hand did publishers have in the production of a game? You were with Codemasters for a couple of your releases, were there restrictions on your work or were you allowed to figuratively run free?
I guess that different publishers dealt with different people in different ways. I seemed to have instilled a certain amount of confidence in both Codemasters and Argus Press Software (who published Grange Hill) in that they pretty much let me get on with things. Nobody ever told me to take something out of a game, ever. So I have to thank them all, but they probably felt that the games were in safe hands. Ha.
The early days of the industry seemed to almost be one person and their computer building a game alone, from conception to art to coding to release, then the industry went to big teams and processes to put a game together. Of recent times some of the more critically acclaimed games are back to the one person and their computer style of production. How does this make you feel to have witnessed this change in the industry, and as someone who has done the small team production over a couple of decades, is this the way it should be done?
Historically there are very few great works created by a band of people, but a huge number by individuals. You just don’t get books, art, music written by committees. Yes, get people in to help by all means, but you’ve got to decide if you’re making novelty toys or creative works.
And we should really have known that the games industry was doomed from the moment people began calling it an ‘industry’.
But to be honest, I despair at the mediocrity of the games past and present. Even more so today; we should be standing on the shoulders of giants, and we’re patently not. Why did games design get stuck in it’s infancy?
British games studios are closing on a semi-regular basis, in the 1980’s and 1990’s Britain was a prime location on the gaming map and produced a number of games the world considers classics, where do you think the industry went wrong?
We’ve been through a terrible contraction of the imagination in the past few decades, which has been global, insidious and relentless. We’ve been sucked into believing that mobile phones are hip and that corporations can change our lives. That’s not to say that any of these things are inherently bad. The upside is that we now have a technology literally at our fingertips that we can use in quite remarkable ways, and this is something that Britain can excel at. The downside is that we’re still playing Pong. I’ve got to help change that, if at all possible.
How does it feel to have made games that people are still talking about 20 years later? A quick look on Google or Youtube shows that people are still discussing Rock Star Ate My Hamster and Slightly Magic.
It’s heartwarming. It gives me a certain impetus to write new and hopefully original stuff. I’m not really one for looking back too much, but when someone like yourself gets in touch for an interview it does help give me some perspective. A little bit of confidence to push on with the next project, to think that people just might be interested in the next game.
What has made you decide to go with iOS platform as the area to release your latest games?
Well the iOS platform was there, it was open, and reasonably easy to get into. I woke up one morning and found that I could write games again after a break of twenty years, simple as that. You find your life goes through certain phases. A door opened, a veil was lifted, a smog cleared. I felt liberated. Everything changed, all at once, everywhere.
We all have tremendous financial, physical and mental pressures on us, but here, now, I get to do what I love for a day or two. So I’ve got to make the best stuff I can, which will happen early next year. Until then I’ve got a new game out which I hope everyone will download. Free fun.
What can you tell us about your latest releases?
The games are going to get steadily better until they become remarkable, under the Potassium Frog label.
I’ve already released ‘Clockwork the Mouse’ for iOS, which pretty much follows on where Slightly Magic left off. I got to use 20-odd years worth of puzzles that I’d stacked up in my memory and decided to hand-draw the backgrounds. It’s well worth a look.
On Sept 30th ‘Eek! It’s a Bomb!’ will appear in the app store for the iPad. It’s a cartoon puzzler which I think has a certain addictive quality. Since I’m releasing it on my birthday I had the idea of giving it away for free as a kind of reverse-birthday present. I hope that everyone who can will download and play it, which will get me enough momentum for the next release, which is going to be something very special indeed.
It’s what I’ve been working up to, I guess, for a very long while. I’m almost nearly now at the point where I can talk about it, maybe in a month. I’ve been deliberately saying a few provocative things about the industry here because I have to up my game to get this next project out. I’m beginning to dare myself.
So please tell every one to download and play ‘Eek! It’s a Bomb!’ because that’ll make the next title possible. And you will want to have made that possible when you see it next year. If you have done that you will be very proud, very proud indeed.
But ‘Eek! It’s a Bomb!’ is a great game, and it’s free fun. Tell your friends, Tweet your aunties, Facebook your pets. They’ll love you for it, they really will.
Colin’s latest iOS endeavors (Including the free Eek! It’s a Bomb. Released 30th September 2012) can be found here on the App Store: