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Thu, Feb. 24th, 2005, 08:55 pm
The Story So Far

"Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood looking back"

I forget who said that, but it's a good quote. The moment I've been looking back to recently was a lunchtime in 1989. I was eight then, in my primary school classroom. What with memory being what it is, I don't know if this event actually occurred in exactly the way I remember it, but it makes for a (semi) interesting story. I was playing "Granny's Garden", an educational puzzle game on the school's antiquated BBC Micro. In a moment of boredom I started prodding random keys on the keyboard. I hit Escape, and the game was suddenly replaced with a screenful of some bizarre-looking text: Specifically, the BBC BASIC which the game had been written in. I was fascinated. My teacher, Mr. Stephen Burton (a mild-mannered beardy computer enthusiast who wouldn't have looked out of place on an Open University program) saw what I'd discovered and told me I wouldn't be going out into the playground that lunchtime - instead he would teach me the fundamentals of programming.

This is probably the breakthrough my teachers had been hoping for. I was a pretty screwed-up kid, often angry and frustrated, sometimes violent towards other kids and even the teachers. I didn't have a lot of control, both of my body (I'm left-handed and was a really clumsy kid which led to embarrassment with sports, handwriting, anything practical), and of the events in my life and my reactions to them. I suspect it clicked with Mr. Burton that a computer was something I could be in control of, a tool with which I could turn the stuff of my imagination into a reality, with none of that messy physical skill which is needed for anything else.

I was hooked instantly. I started with the basic (pardon the pun) 10 PRINT "I AM COOL" 20 GOTO 10 stuff, but started playing about making games pretty quickly. I decided that this was what I wanted to do for my career, a decision which I've stuck with for the past 16 years. I did some text based stuff, then messed around with the 8 by 8 pixel graphics which you could create by entering a bunch of binary numbers representing rows of pixels. I laboriously copied BASIC programs from magazines to make games, then tweaked them and improved them. I cleaned up some of the bugs in Mr. Burton's own epic attempt to recreate Monopoly in BBC BASIC (and, in a rather unethical move, hacked the intro screen to show my name instead of his). My teachers eventually commissioned me to write my own educational software, to help me learn basic arithmetic (something which I'm better at now, but still not great).

I got a Spectrum to play with at home, but mostly used it for playing games rather than making them. When the very wonderful Your Sinclair magazine finally bit the dust, I traded my Speccy in for a SAM Coupe, the most powerful 8-bit computer known to man. The machine was a dinosaur when it first came out, not a patch on the Ataris or Amigas of the time, but was a joy to tinker about with and make games on. When I was thirteen I had completed a game called Blokker (you can still get it online as abandonware from various places), and decided to try selling it via mail order under the name Mungus Software. I put a tiny free ad in a magazine, sold a few copies, paid for a bigger 1/4 page ad, sold more, saved up enough to get me to one of the SAM trade shows in Gloucester, and started working on a follow-up. "IMPostors!" was a Lemmingsy/Lost Vikingsy multi-character puzzle/platform game featuring 5 imps with different skills who worked together to get through a whole bunch of different levels. It was actually more inspired by an obscure and criminally under-rated old PC game called "The Humans", which has since faded into obscurity but was a big influence on me at the time. I did most of the level design during the German lessons in school with my mate John Thrower (who bought a SAM too and started making games as well). Various smaller games and other bits and pieces paid for postage, copying disks, buying cool new hardware and software, and our space at more shows. By the time I was 16 we were embarking on IMPostors 2, a much bigger project with no less than 6 people all contributing art, chunks of code, design, music and sound effects. It never got finished because by then the SAM had dwindled to so few active users that much of the "scene" had collapsed, so I put Mungus on the back-burner (where it remains) and went to College.

A-Level Computing, Maths and Theatre Studies - the Theatre Studies only because I wanted some light relief from Maths, and couldn't have faced doing Physics instead. Computing was ludicrously easy, I had known most of what was being taught for years already by that point, and any new information was assimilated without much effort. Maths was a nightmare which I pushed myself through. My overriding memory of it is of weeping over past papers every night for 2 months, terrified that I would fail. I got a B in the end, which remains one of my proudest achievements.

I fluffed up my uni application, because all of the "straight" Computing degrees just seemed too dull to me. I knew I wouldn't be able to tolerate the courses enough to actually complete them. Right at the end of college I found out about Abertay Uni where they had just started the UK's first Computer Games Technology degree. I applied like a shot, but by then I had to defer entry, so lived for a year in Exeter, working full-time in Burger King. I was only able to stand the job because I knew what would happen after it. The degree was bloody hard work. I broke up with my second girlfriend in 2nd year for a variety of reasons, but one of the major ones was that I was spending more time making PlayStation games for coursework than I was with her. I adopted a "No girlfriend" policy during 3rd year for largely this reason, it wouldn't be fair on any girlfriends I had. Which was really annoying because I met a whole bunch of really lovely females who thought I was great but with whom nothing meaningful could happen because of my rule. It's still painful to meet up with these girls, in the knowledge that the time for doing stuff with them is over and they'll always be The Ones Who Got Away. But, I got the degree, which was the goal for moving to Dundee in the first place.

The degree was followed up by Dare To Be Digital (www.daretobedigital.com), a 10 week competition for teams of 5 people, to make a game demo from scratch. I ran our team, and we made "Zoo Crew", a puzzle/platform game featuring 5 animal characters who used their skills to work together and escape from a zoo. The parallels with the IMPostors games is pretty obvious. It's a very comfortable and interesting style of game design to me, one which is both under-used and unfortunately somewhat unfashionable, although that problem isn't insurmountable. Dare saw me working 16-18 hour days, 7 days a week for 16 weeks, which left me utterly exhausted and on the bring of total mental collapse at the end, but it was worth it. We won the competition, I got a job at Evil Amateurish Games (name changed to protect the guilty), and Zoo Crew is still quietly being worked on. The concept is the same but the gameplay, platform and target audience have shifted slightly to bring the ideas to a wider modern audience, but it's still essentially my baby, just in slightly different clothes.

Evil Amateurish Games has clearly not gone so well. I've found the corporate culture somewhat stifling, and it's brought me to the horrible realisation that the games industry today is completely different in every single respect to the industry I thought I'd be going into when I was eight. Team sizes and project budgets are vast, developers are completely dependent on publishers, who for the most part are deeply uncreative people with no interest in the merits of a game's concept or execution, merely how many units it will shift. People will work inhuman amounts of unpaid overtime, on salaries which are already a fraction of what they could be earning making non-games software, because they "love the job". Employers have started taking liberties with this goodwill, and the concerns about work/life balance are becoming increasingly serious. The sense of ownership gleaned from being involved in all aspects of a game's production is now largely impossible to find outside the tiny, commercially unsuccessful cabals of die-hard bedroom programmers making independent titles for probably not much more money than I was making in my SAM Coupe days. Originality and creativity are all but dead, and can only be revived when developers find a way to break that crushing dependence on publishers and find a way to afford to make games which can really push the boat out. Middleware and online distribution may perhaps offer a light at the end of the tunnel but I can't work out how we got into such a dark tunnel in the first place.

Over the years I've given up sleep, friendships, relationships, money, most of my control over where I live and work and no doubt a couple of years of my natural life (which will vanish in some stress-related disorder further on down the line) to make games. I STILL love it, I'm STILL passionate about it, but when I look at what I've lost to keep steering down this path, and when I look at where the path has lead, there are times when I feel cheated. I either joined this industry ten years too late to catch the fun stuff, or ten years too early to enjoy my youth during the Second Wind. There's not much I can do if I'm too late, but if I'm too early I guess that means I need to find a way to bring the change about that is so clearly needed. But I have no idea where to start.

I sometimes wonder if the eight-year-old me would have made the same decision had he known what I know now. I suspect he would have done, but sometimes I dream of going back and meeting him, seeing how much I've really changed since then, how profoundly the decision of a primary school kid has shaped the character and experiences of a jaded but unbroken adult.

Stay tuned for the next episode in which I enthuse ravingly about the wonderful new job I'll be getting and how stuff is going to all work out for the best... ;o)