Do you remember when you first heard about the Jaguar and what was your initial reaction to it?
It was through John (Mathieson), Martin (Brennan) and Ben, of Flare Technology; they were working on the chipset and design with Atari. Attention To Detail (ATD, I was a founder and Technical Director) had previously worked with Flare on the Konix Multisystem – we created a number of tools for the system to help developers maximise that system.
We were initially contracted by Atari to work on demos for the Jaguar, but pitched to create the game Cybermorph – based on what we called a flying carpet demo (think David Braben’s Virus landscape) using a vehicle that could fly above water, as well as turn into a submarine (I am pretty sure we pitched for it to be able to drive on land in the sequel, Battlemorph, but that had to be cut due to schedules).
We were excited by the concept of the Jaguar – a number of us had grown up on Atari consoles (VCS), and when we first created ATD, we used the Atari ST for all our development, including creating our own assemblers. We had moved to the PC as our development platform by the time we were working on the Jaguar (mainly as a result of having created all the tools for the Konix), but still had a soft-spot for Atari, and were keen to see them have a successful console again.Tell me about your involvement with the Jaguar, what games did you work on etc.?
We worked closely with a contractor, Brian Pollock, on Cybermorph. He worked remotely, and we used RCS for code version control (1992) to make sure we could both work on the same source files at the same time. This was all via dial-up modem – bleeding edge technology in those days!
I remember when Cybermorph was chosen to be the pack-in game for the Jaguar (ahead of Trevor McFur) – we were over the moon; we thought that the freedom that Cybermorph showed (we considered it open-world – OK, not a very big world, but you could fly almost anywhere) was the future, not a side-scrolling shooter with pretty graphics but suspect gameplay.
We also worked on Blue Lightning (not our finest hour – ATD had grown and we hadn’t managed that growth well, and didn’t manage the team that produced it very well) and Battlemorph, on which I was lead, and which I am still incredibly proud of.What was the Jaguar like to work with? Good and bad points!
Bad was the main processor – a 68000 @ appox. 16Mhz – underpowered when we launched; for a short while the both the 68020 and 68030 were considered, but dropped due to cost.
Good – it was multiprocessor; one of the first where we could submit jobs to co-processors to run in parallel; an engineer’s delight scheduling jobs on the Tom & Jerry (graphics and audio) processors – we did a lot of that on BattleMorph to improve the frame rate.Can you tell me any interesting stories about your involvement with the machine?
Take your pick!
About 4-5 months prior to ship Cybermorph was crashing, and we were pretty sure that it was a hardware problem; initially Flare and Atari were sceptical, but they indulged us (just in case). I remember driving over to Cambridge (where Flare was based) from Warwick three times a week for approximately a month, whilst we tried to reduce the code from several thousand lines of assembler to tens of lines which reproduced the bug. Pretty early on, we proved it was the hardware, but couldn’t work out why. It was very stressful, with an imminent launch, and no definite cause or workaround, but we did manage to recreate with 20-30 lines of code, and John/Martin worked out the issue and patched the hardware within hours.
Atari were very cost-conscious, and initially flew the Flare team out to the USA on the cheapest flights available; once this even included Aeroflot – I am not sure what happened on that flight, but after that the Flare team booked their own flights and re-charged them to Atari.
Leonard Tramiel was the technophile and had learned about the new Sega and Sony consoles, which even though 32-bit, had texture mapping units. I remember that we (ATD) had major arguments with him about texture mapping in Battlemorph – he wanted everything to be texture mapped, but we were insistent on about 10-15% of the polygons being texture mapped to keep the frame rate up and the game responsive. Ultimately Leonard produced a fully-texture-mapped game (Battle Tank?) to prove that the hardware was capable, but it ran at 6fps and was atrocious to play.
Reading files from the CD-unit was problematic – you would make a request, but the hardware would only guarantee to read within 6 sectors, so you had to build this into your filing system (there was no O/S to do this – everything was done via direct access to the hardware). We discovered a hardware issue about 4 weeks from going final, where the wrong sectors were returned; we had to add another layer into the file system to ensure each file had a uniquely identifiable signature.
After the Jaguar launched, we were called by John Skruch (who headed up development at Atari, a great guy with a difficult job) to ask if we could reduce the cost of manufacture for Cybermorph. Cybermorph originally shipped on a 2Mb cartridge, and Atari needed it in 1Mb. We did some analysis and I think we agreed a price of $5,000 – it took about 4 hours to remove the assets (mostly animation frames) and rebuild.
After the launch, and with Cybermorph as the pack-in game, we were told by Atari that we had earned no royalties (from memory Cybermorph cost less than $100K). We were very sceptical and after much deliberation threatened Atari with an audit. Magically, about 2 weeks later a cheque for $2,000 appeared. I remember framing it and I don’t think we ever cashed it as British banks did not like cheques from American banks - (international banking has improved lot in the last 20 years)
Not as relevant - I remember the Tramiel family being generous (Jack, Sam and Leonard all being in the business). Sam had season tickets to the San Jose Sharks, which he, after we expressed interest in seeing hockey, gave to us whilst we were finishing Battlemorph – 4 hours of the most electric atmosphere, which really did break up extended stay in San Jose.Do you have a favourite game for the Jaguar and why that game?
I really enjoyed Battlemorph, both creating and playing. AvP was good, and I also really liked Iron Soldier for its technical excellence and gameplay - the team that created it discovered a small area of memory that could be used as a texture source (256-bytes or words of palette) and it was the same speed as flat and Gouraud shading (twice as fast as normal textures) – they used it to great effect.In your opinion why do you think the Jaguar was a commercial failure?
I think Atari were, unfortunately, already in a downward spiral; they couldn’t afford to create and launch a new console, and so everything was done on a shoestring budget. They couldn’t attract enough high-quality 3rd-party IP, nor enough of the best developers and publishers to the console as they didn’t have a compelling story - indeed Sony and Sega were both courting the same developers and publishers…Interview by Kieren Hawken with special thanks to Fred Gill