Jon Hare – Sensible Software
Three decades ago, Sensible Software were one of the big names in home gaming circles. Having both a Commodore 64 and an Amiga now tucked away in my attic, it's clear they had a profound influence on my own early gaming experiences. In this talk, Jon Hare recounted the story behind his long gaming career.
Back in the early ‘80s, Jon Hare and his friend Chris Yates had dropped out of school and were in a band together. In 1985, taking advantage of the 30-day trial arrangements of various catalogues, Chris repeatedly ordered a Spectrum from a succession of outlets. Returning each within the time limit, he never ended up buying any of them, but that time allowed him to learn to program. The two men then took this knowledge to a small company called LT software, who were writing games for System 3, one of the big studios of the era. Here they helped produce the well-known International Karate and the more obscure Twister: Mother of Charlotte (working title – Mother of Harlots). It did not take them long to work out that, whilst they did the majority of the work, their share of the return was poor.
At the time, in an attempt to encourage entrepreneurship, the Government Enterprise Scheme offered start-up funds to new businesses. Engaging in a certain amount of manoeuvring to meet the qualification criteria, Jon and Chris received a grant and they first set up Sensible Software. 1986 saw their first game release, the side-scrolling shooter Parallax. Whilst obviously dated now compared to modern games, the use of shading and parallax scrolling to create a 3D effect was impressive for the time. They managed to sign a deal with Ocean, the biggest publisher in Europe at the time, but agreed to a cash advance with no royalties, a decision they later came to regret. Their second game, Wizball in 1987, achieved Game of the Decade status in top Commodore 64 magazine ZZap!64, but was once more compensated on an advance-but-no-royalties basis. The same year they took one of their design tools and released it to the general public to widespread acclaim. That utility was the Shoot-em-up Construction Kit, which allowed users to create their own simple games, including four demonstration games to work with.
For a while they worked with Origin, a major force in roleplaying games at the time, to create a game called Touchstone. In this game the hero sought a cure for his wife’s illness, and travelled between four worlds to achieve it. Three of the worlds, Body, Brain and Soul, were within his wife’s ravaged body, the fourth being reality. Whilst its designers were enthusiastic for the project, unfortunately it ended up being cancelled. In the early 1990s, Hare and Yates made a move to the Amiga with a game called Mega-lo-Mania. In this game a new planet was forming, and the player, seeking to be the new god of this planet, guided their followers to conquer the land. This concept took some inspiration from Populous, which came out earlier that year, having cavemen advance through different levels of innovation. However, Mega-lo-Mania is believed to be the first game with a researchable tech tree, having beaten Civilization to release by a matter of months.
Having learned their lessons on contracts, Sensible Software’s arrangements with Mirrorsoft had 50% royalty arrangements built in. It was here that the first instalment of the company’s most famous game series, Sensible Soccer, was born. Whilst still featuring fairly low-resolution graphics, the game featured teams from leagues all round the world, with colours matching those of the real teams as far as possible. This gave the game international appeal, because it was possible for nearly everyone to play with teams they knew well. Mirrorsoft was subsequently brought down by revelations of financial fraud following the death of Mirror Group founder, Robert Maxwell. Fortunately, Sensible Software recovered the rights to the game in this collapse.
Jon details a career dating back to 1986 (photo courtesy of AdventureX)
In 1993 came Cannon Fodder, a war game with a difference. Whilst the gameplay made its simple top-down shooting action fun, each soldier in the game was individually named. Successfully completing missions saw soldiers go up in rank, marked by a change of insignia in the mission review screen. The same screen also provided a list of all those who had been killed in the mission. Crucially, this review was unskippable, forcing the player to sit through the entire list of the dead, which could take quite some time on the tougher missions. This brought the horror of war home to players in a way that was often ignored in war games. That reality was reinforced by the hill on the title screen, where a line of recruits waited to sign up for future missions, having a grave added to it for each dead soldier. In a macabre twist, the higher the rank of the deceased soldier, the more ornate their grave marker. When a sequel was created, the development was largely left in the hands of an independent team without appropriate oversight, resulting in fantastical elements being introduced that watered down the game’s impact.
With the arrival of the late ‘90s, the two friends’ previous success drove them into some self-indulgent development that did not see commercial release. A huge amount of resources were put into a game titled Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll. This was intended to be an adventure in which the lead character had a variety of addictions, with the player required to try to keep them all satisfied at once. Whilst a lot of work went into the production, this game never saw the light of day, ultimately being dropped by the proposed publishers. Fortunately for Sensible Software, the decision by the publishers to pull the plug meant they did not have to repay the advance for failing to deliver the game.
Sensible Software was ultimately sold to Codemasters in 1999, along with the intellectual properties associated with the business. Jon Hare continues to work in game creation to this day, including adaptations of some of the earlier works to different platforms.
Joey Jones – Interactive Fiction Today
When he was a young man, Joey Jones had a passing interest in point-and-click adventure games. Then a friend of his had an idea for a philosophy-based game that, partly due to the difficulty of covering the content in any other form, was a text adventure. It was the first game he had really played, and Joey was hooked. Now a leading member of the Interactive Fiction Community Forum, Joey sought to share his love of the medium in a short talk.
Joey Jones discusses modern IF
Interactive Fiction refers to games that are primarily text-based, with minimal visuals, if any. Their heyday was in the 1980s and early ‘90s, where the limited graphics capability of computers meant visuals weren’t so much of a draw. Though undoubtedly no longer a mass market format, text adventures continue to be made to this day, even thriving within its independent community of fans. There has been some evolution over the years, eschewing the often brutal difficulty and dead ends that were common in the early text adventures. Browser-based games, using hyperlinks within the text rather than requiring the player to type, have also risen in popularity. So what’s behind this enduring fascination with a commercially-antiquated game style? As Joey Jones sought to demonstrate, IF games have qualities that give them distinct advantages over other presentational formats.
The most obvious is how easy they are for their authors to change. The look of a location can be completely altered in a text adventure by just rewriting the description. Depending on the detail, the same alterations can take weeks or months for a graphic adventure. This also makes it a lot easier for individual developers to create games without the need for a lot of assets. More importantly, text adventures allow you to do things that would be impossible in other formats. Wordplay has been used extensively in some games. The Infocom adventure Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head or Tail of It was entirely made up of chapters using such things as common expressions and homonyms to change the environment. More recently, Counterfeit Monkey incorporated a device that allowed you to remove letters, changing objects like plans into pans. With the results of the 20th annual Interactive Fiction competition attracting 42 entries, it looks like text adventures are still a major force to be reckoned with today.Continued on the next page...