This is the fifth article in the Where We Came From series.
Last year I looked at a fabulous game called Beat Hazard which takes any piece of music and procedurally generates a shoot 'em up experience from it. It was the twisted brainchild of Steve Hunt, also known as Cold Beam Games. When writing that article, I discovered that Steve had been programming since the 80s and, like myself, started out on an Atari 800.
I knew he'd be a perfect fit for 'Where We Came From' so I begged Steve for an interview, mentioning something about starving orphans and guns against puppies' heads. He gave in to my demands.
HM: Okay, Steve, can you tell me a little about how you started out with an Atari and how you got to creating commercial games for it?
My Dad bought an Atari 800 when I was 10-ish and taught me Atari Basic. I used to write a few little games (like a grave robbing game!). However, Basic wasn't that powerful and I soon moved on to 6502 Assembly language. My first commercial game, River Rally, was inspired by watching the boat chase in Live & Let Die and took about 9 months to write (and that seemed like a long time when I was 14).
I sent it to loads of publishers until it was picked up by Red Rat Software who published it in the UK and Europe. I think it sold about 1000 copies, which I thought was great at the time.
So I was a kid writing my own games at home and just hoping for the best. Seemed to work though.
HM: My own game sold about 40 copies if I remember correctly, in 1991, as the 8-bit Atari community was petering out. So, so jealous that you shifted a thousand units. What was your favourite game on the Atari 8-bit in those years? Was any Atari developer a particular inspiration?
Oh, I've got loads of favourites. I loved M.U.L.E., that was so cool. My brother and I spent ages playing Spy vs Spy. The Lucasfilm games just blew me away - Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus and The Eidelon were just amazing, and as a programmer I had no idea how they did that stuff.
Wow... I just spent a couple of hours looking these guys up and watching YouTube videos of Atari games - happy days.
HM: Glad to hear I'm not the only one who can disappear into an hour of Atari YouTube nostalgia. You may find this amusing...
Hahah class. Yeah, I've spent many an hour playing old Atari games with an emulator. It's so cool.
HM: Lucasfilm Games were the kind of upstart developers that forced everybody to upgrade their technical ambitions. The arrival of Valve with Half-Life stands out as a similar disruptive influence - anything else come to mind?
Hummm.... not really. There are some amazing games out there at the moment, but none seem to have the magic I got from playing the Lucasfilm stuff. But maybe this a sign of getting older. I feel the same way about films too. However, I do get a massive kick out of playing Call of Duty Spec-Ops with a friend and Bad Company. Portal 2 is an amazing game too. In general I do find that I only get a buzz out of online co-op games now. It has to be something very special for me to spend a long time on a single player game. Not sure why though.
HM: Now if you wanted to do anything of substance on the Atari you usually had to go for assembly language, but that meant you were looking after bloody everything. There were functions in the Atari OS to deal with I/O and simple graphics, but all the low-level audio, the player-missile graphics, display list interrupts - you had to manage all of it using no more than the equivalent of an abacus in programming terms. Fast forward to today, development environments are far more expressive and powerful, but this pushes developers into games of greater complexity. Has the difficulty of developing a commercial game been decreasing, increasing or stayed pretty much the same?
Hummm, yeah, I used player-missile graphics, page 6, horizontal and vertical interrupts to do funky things in games. And as you say, writing in 6502 was like pulling teeth, even multiplying numbers greater than 256 was a massive pain.
The complexity of games has increased many orders of magnitude since then. However, you can dodge all these by using something like Unity that can protect you from all this stuff. But having said that, the more you know about how the underlying systems work, the better games you can write. Now looking back at the Atari days, it looks really simple. I've just spent 6 months writing the PS3 version of Beat Hazard Ultra, and it's the most challenging work I've ever ever done. It is such a complex beast!
I just remembered a funny story, I did Computer Studies (GCSE) at school and I printed out the whole of my game to submit as a project, it was about 100 pages of 6502 assembly. I thought the teacher would be really impressed, but he just said, "What is all this? You need to add comments if you want me to understand it..." Comments? Hahah.
HM: Did your teacher accept it in the end? Did you get a good grade? "I can't understand this, full marks."
Lol... I went home and wrote rough comments on each page but it would have made no sense to him. And I got an 'A' hahaha.
HM: Now for the purposes of this interview, I played Planet Attack and River Rally and, I have to say, I won't be playing them again! When you look back at your Atari work, what do you see? Who are you as a game designer?
At that point I was just making games that my brother and I liked to play and not really thinking farther beyond that. Also, I was at the limit of my programming skills so even though I could see problems with the games I wasn't in a position to do much about it. My design skills really started to develop when I started working at Digital Image Design (DID).
HM: So you became part of projects bigger than you after your Atari years, one might say a cog in larger corporate machines, starting in the mid-nineties. Why did you end up going this way? Was it a continuing interest in game development and this seemed like the best route to follow? No option to do something independent back then?
I went to Uni to study Computer Science and I didn't write anything game related for quite some time, although I did write an evolution simulation for my final year project which was very game-like. I did have the aim of working for a games company, but in those days it wasn't really seen as a realistic career path. I was told by my career advisers to be realistic and not take all these game related classes - I should do something useful like databases – lol.
I did a year at the Defence Research Agency (which was great). Out of the blue I got an call from a fellow student who was working at DID in Warrington. They asked me to come for an interview and I got a job as a game programmer - a dream come true!
At the time there was no way you could have gone indie. Also I wanted to go and work with the big boys. It was cool.
HM: You stayed with this type of project environment for over a decade until, following redundancy from Juice Games, you went all-out indie and became Cold Beam Games. How long had you wanted to go indie and return to your independent roots? Did you need redundancy to push you into it?
I'd been wanting to go indie for a number of years but until recently it wasn't a realistic option. Over the years I found myself getting more and more frustrated by the lack of creative freedom and increasing interference and politics of big game development. It makes sense given the money involved, but I just didn't like it.
About a year ago I got the feeling the writing was on the wall for me at Juice Games and started planning what I would do if I got made redundant and how I might give indie games a shot. And it sort of all came together. I've been very lucky for having a good idea for a game, the skills to make it and doing it when the climate was just right.
Yes, redundancy did push me into it, but I was sort of planning to give it a shot anyway. I don't know if I would have done though.
HM: Going further, do you think we've lost anything between then and now? Do you miss the innocence of just "making it up as you go along" in those pioneer days? Or is the present day just as awesome and exciting in its own right?
I used to think that when I worked for a big studio. Writing and designing games became more about politics and grinding that having fun and following your instincts and trying new ideas. However, now I'm at home writing my own stuff I'm happy to say the magic is well and truly back. I really love it. I can try any idea I like and take the game in any direction I choose. In fact I'd say that a game like Beat Hazard would never be made by a big studio because it's so over the top and in your face (and that's bad, because Grandma wouldn't like that).
Also, with all the new tech and platforms, huge interest in gaming and digital downloads it really feels like anyone can become an indie developer and make a good living from it. Gameplay is king again now, which is great!
HM: Steve, thanks for talking to Electron Dance.
The follow-up to Beat Hazard, Beat Hazard Ultra, is now available on Steam for the PC.