RVG Interviews – Darryl Still.
RVG brings to you another fantastic interview this time it’s Darryl Still.
Darryl has a long history in the video games industry but is probably best known as the former Marketing Manager of Atari UK, being one of last person to leave the company before they were eventually sold to Hasbro. Here is a brief run down of his career to date:
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Q. As marketing Director of Atari UK in the late 80’s, was it difficult to come up with new angles or promotion in aid to over shadow Commodore Amiga UK Marketing division at the time? And what did you learn from the experience?
Well, for a long time we were well ahead of the Amiga regarding UK sales and distribution. In the early days, developers were using ST as their main platform and just porting to the Amiga, so not taking any advantage of the extra few features the Amiga offered them. This meant there was no difference between an ST game and its Amiga port, meaning it came down to price, placement and promotion, which we were pretty good at. Because there were more ST games, we had a distinct advantage for some time. In hindsight, and as a complete paradox, our most successful piece of marketing also became a complete present handed to Commodore. The STFM pack we put together with 20 odd free games was an amazing package and sold by the truckload. What we had not thought through fully was the impact it had on developers. There was quite a backlash. Secret meetings and the like (which were never that secret!). They were unhappy that, us giving so many great games away with the machine meant there was no real incentive for the consumer to go out and buy any more ST games for some time after purchase…so as a group they decided to support the Amiga more and started to use the extra features that could make Amiga games look 15% better than their ST versions. That really gave Commodore a leg up and was all our own making. It was a big lesson for me. I believe that, much more than the often quoted STFM/STe incompatibility issues, was key point we handed the advantage over. The incompatibility thing was actually quite minor. We had thoroughly checked the top 100 or so games leading up to release, what none of us expected was for a small indie game from Kent called Kick Off to come from nowhere and be number 1 on day of STe release. That was unfortunate, but quickly and easily fixed compared to the earlier issue, which was a ride we could not turn back.
Q. Have you any anecdotes you’d like to share or fondly remembered while at Atari UK, a PR stunt, or an after party prank if any at Atari UK, or a stunt that some of the employees at Atari UK pulled during computer shows?
Well there were a few I remember fondly, I remember duetting on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” very drunkenly with Captain Sensible on a boat on the river Thames during one party. The Captain became a friend of Atari and used to pop in to have his mouse balls cleaned. Our attempts to get bigger into the music scene often ended in failure. At the time we were the equivalent of Apple are today in home & small studios. We sponsored Julia Fordham’s tour and she fell off the Eros tower during a photo shoot, hurt her back and had to cancel. We had a film crew with Breakfast TV in the tour bus for Chesney “The one and only” Hawkes’ tour filming the band playing Lynx’s linked up, which was a great stunt…but actually nobody turned up to any of the gigs. It culminated in tragedy when we were negotiating with the band Atari Teenage Riot for their use of the name and the band and their manager were involved in a fatal car crash on their way to sign the contract. In San Francisco just this year I met the ex-wife of Depeche Mode keyboard player Martin Gore and could not help myself reminiscing that, having one of the last ST monochrome monitors in free supply, how I used to lend it to bands to complete their albums. Some, such as Prefab Sprout returned it together with a signed copy of the album, others such as Brian May from Queen, with a nice bottle of Malt. Depeche Mode never returned it at all and that was the end of that. I, in turn, have NEVER listened to another one of their songs since…..
Q. What was your fondest memories in your career and what did you enjoy doing the most?
Wow, tough question. I’ve been very lucky to have 3 or 4 great jobs, and some really good bosses over the years. Because I was a young man in a vibrant young company, the Atari years probably resonate most. At EA I was possibly a little stale and old and needed the 3 years I took out the industry to come back more mature and harder working at Nvidia. Workwise, the whole buzz around the ST was fabulous. Working with great people like Rob Katz & Alistair Bodin (both close friends to this day) and working for an inspiration like Bob Gleadow, whose teachings really guided my career. My favourite part? Being Player-Manager of the great, all conquering Atari football team, who won most of the industry tournaments at this time. We really were quite good, you know!
Q. With Nvidia now the leaders in high end graphic card development, during your stay with them, where you ever shown chipsets or new graphics card tech or visual in house demonstrations that where never released or shown to the public? And what do you think of there products now? Do you miss working for them?
There’s lots I miss about Nvidia, but the technology is not part of it. I was all about content when I was there. I have never been vastly technical and did lean on the techies like Phil Scott & Juan Guardardo to parrot teach me the bullet points to take out to the studios. Putting the “The Way It’s Meant To Be Played” package together for Europe was great fun and my commitment to the PC as a gaming platform survives to this day, but again, all my best memories are about the people, the places and the parties. Our developer events at the Ministry of Sound are still spoken about to this day, and I am very proud to have been the driving force behind those. I also got to visit some amazing countries, and whilst it was a conscious decision to travel less, so I could see my kids growing up, part of me misses that too. Do I miss the corporate bureaucracy? Not so much! 😎
Q. Can you elaborate a little bit more on your new business venture “Kiss Ltd” the site is a little vague and would like to know more about it, so PR away!
Well, there are essentially two different Kisses. The first is Kiss Ltd, the agency who manage the 1C digital catalogue, The Lace Mamba Digital catalogue, the Lords of Football game for Gianluca Vialli and Fish Eagle, The Developer Relations business for the Rightware Kanzi UI tool and a few other projects (including our own wholly owned soon to be announced vendor websites) and secondly there is Kiss the label. Essentially a catalogue we are building of the best independently developed PC & Mac games out there, that we are putting together to enable to digital vendors (Steam, Amazon, GreenMan gaming etc.) to get all the best Indie games from one place, one contract, one point of contact. This is growing really quickly and considering we initially launched it as a sideline to the agency business, it is starting to play a significant part in what the overall Kiss company is doing.
Q. What Games would you of liked to publish or market back in the days of Accolade or Melbourne House, was there any favourites another company marketed you wish you’d of being involved in?
Oh, I dunno, we published so many, it’s hard to look at the ones we didn’t publish with any level of envy. I’d have loved KKND from Melbourne House to have got a wider appreciation of how good it was so we could have done more than just the one sequel. And Galapagos, the game we did for Anark, never really took off, but was a great concept and they were a fabulous team to work with, so would have liked more of that ilk. I guess if I had to choose one game that I’d have loved to have been involved with, it would have been Football Manager.
Q. I remember reading a quote from you that said something to the effect of that Atari UK had massive orders/interest for the Jaguar back in 1993 and they could have sold something like 20 times what they were sent. Can you elaborate on this?
Yeah, nightmare time. Remember we had a really limited budget, but had done an amazing job of building the hype and demand for the machine and then we just could not get supply. I heard stories about failed chip supply and all sorts, but at the sharp end all we really saw was the vitriol and anger of mothers who could not get their kids what they really wanted for Christmas, and trust me, there is no anger to compare with a protective mum! We even had the contents of someone’s dustbin dumped in our reception area in Slough!
Q. I wrote an article for Atari User magazine a couple of years ago where I analysed the Jaguar launch and put forward a theory that they should have launched the machine in the UK & Europe first where the Atari brand name was much stronger. What are your thoughts on this?
You are bang on. But it was a common theme. Going back to the ST, our policy in Europe was shifting a lot more units per capita than the US, but home territory always wins out when demand is limited and you are a distant subsidiary shouting into the wind. Not saying the team stateside were not talented, but we had the lowest hanging fruit for sure at that time. I think giving us the first stocks and giving us a bigger input into the software development process would have helped a lot, but at the end of the day, I’m not sure either policy would have made the difference that was needed at that time.
Q. The Lynx was an incredible piece of technology for the time, do you think Atari should have gone all out to promote it and support it better?
Should have done and really wanted to, but frankly there was limited money left in the pot to really do so. You know we pulled off some amazing stunts with it. We had metal badges of every available game in Kellogg’s cereal packets, which for an un-established commodity like this was unheard of. We had a dedicated magazine which sold more units than the Lynx itself. We did the road train trip, filling a train with Lynx arcade units and calling in at stations around the UK. I never felt the likes of Dixons ever really got behind it, unfortunately, and whilst we had a dedicated Atari audience we never managed to break out to the mainstream. That and the fact we did not have a blue hedgehog……
Q. Leading on from that why do you think hardly any 3rd party producers showed an interest in it?
There was maybe still a raw feeling left over from the ST and how senior development figures felt Atari had cut the adrift a little, but I think it was more likely a technical issue. It was not an easy thing to develop for. You know if we’d had Unity or an equivalent at the time and you could build you code for one device and port easily to Lynx we’d have had a lot bigger base, but like Jaguar, every title developed was from scratch. Bill Rehbock and his team did a fabulous job bringing on some great original titles, but they were stretched really thin and without third party support it was always a struggle.
Q. Also on that subject, do you know what happened to the deal for US Gold to publish games for the Lynx? They announced a number of titles such as Rotox, World Cup Italia ’90 and Strider 2.
In all honesty, no I don’t. That’d be a question for Bill (Rehbock). I know we desperately needed a football game. Same with Jag. Al Bodin and I ended up porting Fever Pitch because we just could not get EA to buy in and do FIFA for it.
Q. Do you happen to know what the total sales figures for the Lynx were? There seems to be no other figures quoted other than articles that report Atari selling their one millionth Lynx.
I probably knew at the time, but cannot put a figure on it now. Less than it should have been, that’s for sure. Definitely more than that the worldwide build was 7 digits and they’d have all been sold into retail.
Q. I always guessed at about 2.5 million because I know Batman Returns helped sell a lot of Lynxes. I still remember the long advert before the film when I went to see it at the Odeon in St. Albans! I wish I had a recording of that advert!
Yes, something like that. Because of that game, Batman returns was the first proper film premiere I ever went to. Mrs S and I walked down the red carpet and people started screaming. Thought for a second it was at us, then realised Bob Geldoff, Paula Yates and Catherine Zeta Jones were right behind us!!
Q. Do you think the Jag CD should have been launched earlier or do you think the Jag should have been a CD machine in the first place?
Only from a cost of goods point of view. I think the games that came on the cartridges were quite strong (and in some cases excellent), but would have been great to have the toilet option at the start, yes!
Q. What did you think of the Jag VR? I was lucky enough to play the prototype on a number of occasions at Jagfest shows and thought it was amazing.
Yeah, me too. We once used the technology to play a game in our small test studio in Slough, beamed in surround onto the walls and it looked staggering. Just had too many issues (technically and health wise) to make a mass market consumer unit I suspect.
Q. Many people talk about the buggy chipset in the Jaguar and lack of proper tools for it causing problems for developers. Do you think Atari should have held the machine back and got Flare to fix the bugs?
Being at the customer facing end more than the development end, I was a little removed from this process. I am sure Bill could talk about this for hours (and when I worked with him at Nvidia, often did!). I suspect that the answer is probably yes, but again, I’m not sure it would have been the full answer.
Q. Do you still have a Lynx or Jaguar and what are/were your favourite games for it?
I still have a Jaguar in our family den and two Lynx’s (that link up) with all the software titles in one of those official carry cases somewhere. To be honest, I very rarely play games these days and when I sat down with my son to have a Jagfest it was tough for me to hear how rubbish he thought it was! (although I do remember Fever Pitch Soccer being slightly closer to today’s FIFA experience that it, in hindsight, was!!!). On Jaguar I have to go for three games I was closely involved with. The stunning Tempest 2000, Attack of the Mutant Penguins, which was cruelly underrated, but great fun and Zero 5, which was an amazing game for its time but unfortunately only released after Atari’s demise. On Lynx, it was all about Klax for me. I loved that game.
Q. Do you agree with the statement of many that the ST Action Packs killed software sales for the machine? In hindsight do you wish you hadn’t gone ahead with them despite the strong sales of the ST at that time?
See my answer to the very first question. Yes. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The packs were superb value and sold amazingly well, but did help Commodore persuade the development community to support the Amiga over the ST long term, so were definitely a factor in that products growth and the ST’s eventual decline.
Q. What impact you think the rampant piracy and hacking teams had on the Atari ST market?
Having worked for a Russian company for the 6 years previous to launching Kiss, my views on piracy have matured a little. Much as I still despise them as I despise any thief, I think that at the end of the day, the people that steal software are not the people that you would be selling to anyway, so you should design your policies and focus your energies on selling your titles to real, honest, consumers. Looking back, the worst thing that these thieves did was take too much of our attention.
Q. You were very ‘active’ in defending the Jaguar in magazines like C+VG (where the following month the mail bag had a field day with your racing car comparison approach, lol). Edge – where you wrote in to correct claims they made about a Jaguar CD blowing up at a press event etc and Ultimate Future games, how did you find it, dealing with the UK games press? They were initially very much for the Jaguar and the 3DO, but soon turned on them, did you dread having to reply to yet another letter in a games magazine or comment made by a staff writer?
I know that Peter Walker, who ran Atari PR, used to cringe when I had another letter published, and I did get a couple of dressing downs from Bob Gleadow for not clearing my responses through the proper channels at the time. At the time I was young and passionately believed in my product, so found it much harder than I do these days to accept press inaccuracies. I never dreaded it, no, I used to enjoy the “challenge” of proving a journalist wrong, but at the end of the day I don’t think I ever fell out with anyone. I hope the guys I spoke to appreciated my honesty and attention to detail. I think too many corporate PR people hide behind smoke and mirrors. I know if I was in their books I’d prefer an open and honest approach, even if that meant there was no big story. It was the thing I found hardest when I moved from Atari to EA. The closed corporate PR screen.
Q. You promised that we (the Jaguar owners) were going to be in for a real treat and that it would be well worth waiting for, I refer of course to Attack Of The Mutant Penguins, which polarised reviewers, with most hating it. Your own thoughts on the game? And was this really the flagship Jaguar game you promised from the European Jaguar development teams?
I mentioned it above as one of my favourite games. So yes, I think it is “misunderstood”. Maybe Flagship is a little ambitious a word for it though. Fun and quite innovative in gameplay. The challenge we had (Al Bodin and myself) is that there were two of us running the “European Studio”, and we actually had full time days jobs inside the organisation, so this was a typical Bob Gleadow staff incentive. “Yeah, you can run the European Studio division, but you’ll have to do it outside your normal working hours…..”. I still think this game stands up though. And Zero Five. Fever Pitch Soccer, not so much!
Q. When defending the Jaguar, you made some very valid points about it’s power in terms of link-up speed, Data-Bus, etc etc, but you also said it was on par with the Saturn and in some areas, even more powerful, was that comment a miss-understanding? Or were you thinking of something other than areas like 3D and texture mapping as readers of C+VG pointed out, 32X destroyed Jaguar in terms of polygons with Virtua Fighter and 3DO had far better texture mapping. Looking back, do you feel you’d made a rod for your own back?
Maybe it’s selective memory or maybe there is only so much tech data my brain can handle, but whilst I have a good recollection of my own products, I really have retained absolutely nothing about the technology that was inside the Saturn. Because I do not come from an engineering background, I tend to lean on others and soak up like a sponge regarding the key bullet points to focus on in this area, so if I was talking bollocks at the time (and it has been known) my only defence is that I was badly advised. 😎
Q. Another point you were keen to stress was the disadvantage Jaguar had next to Saturn and PS1 was that it was cart based and they were CD based. But as soon as Jaguar had it’s CD drive, it’d be a level playing field. Was there ‘pressure from above’ to make claims like this and the ones above, in magazines at the time or did you personally feel they were valid points?
I’m sure I believed them when I said them. Inside every organisation you have the experts in these fields telling you this stuff, and because they’ve been right before, you assume they’ll be right again, so as the mouthpiece, you take the message out in full faith. There was never any pressure from above and never any deliberate intention to mislead, just an eventual inability to deliver on a promise, I guess.
Q. If you could handle the Jaguar P.R campaign all over again, other than asking for more funds and better games, what would you do differently and how do you feel Atari USA handled the Jaguar situation from day 1?
For me it was all about supply. I think we did very well building demand on limited funds and had a decent enough catalogue of games. The top titles, like Alien vs. Predator had a 1 to 1 console to cartridge attach rate and there was enough there to tide people over so we could focus on a building few more peachy triple A’s if we’d had the user base. The key was, we just did not get enough consoles built into boxes for the first Christmas. If we had done so, I think we’d have got better buy in from EA and the other major players with regards to doing Jag versions of their titles early the following year. We had almost been too successful on the PR front, but by the time we failed to supply initial demand, and people moved onto their second choice, we’d screwed the pooch!
Q. Before landing a job at Atari, you ran a studio of your own with ‘uni dropouts’ I believe you called them, lol, doing conversions for companies which you say involved lots of meetings, lots of drugs and no sleep. Did any of these ‘dropouts’ become famous and do you miss the chaos these days?
Yeah, early days I would have a house full of hairy unwashed, cranking out code during the night, then I’d put on the business clothes and drive the code up to the publishers during the day (where was FTP when you needed it). Even after my wife moved in we constantly had people staying over to help hit their deadlines. A few of the boys were famous in their own field (I remember standing at an Acorn user show with Peter Scott & Gary Partis signing autographs all day long like some pseudo Geordie boyband!). One is heavily responsible for the engine that became Total War. I did bump into one at the bar of the Golden Joysticks a couple of years ago, bought him a drink and asked “what are you doing now?” to which he replied “Oh, I just sold my company for £500 Million”. All I could think was “I just paid for the drinks!!!” Do I miss the chaos? No, I’ve got a house full of teenage kids now, so things are not much different.
Q. You launched the ST as a games machine, what were your thoughts on the hardware? (I was a proud 520STFM owner once) and do you think it’s lack of hardware scrolling and the poor sound chip, compared to the Amiga (blitter etc), made your job harder to convince people to buy the ST over the Amiga?
It didn’t seem to. As I mentioned earlier, it took a while for developers to start using the Amiga’s enhanced features for gaming, preferring to just port the ST code. So in the early days there were no issues. I think the flexibility of the ST and the fact that it was being used in music studios with the MIDI support, that in Germany it was a CAD/CAM staple and in the US it had quite a different user base than the UK was evidence of what a superb machine it was. That, however, also brought its own problem of where Atari should focus its efforts, and that may have stretched us a little thin at times.
Q. What became of the ST CD-ROM drive?
Goodness knows. Probably in the same landfill as Larry’s famous voice recognition and handwriting prototypes.
Q. It’s been claimed that your departure from Atari in early ’96 helped bring about the media frenzy of stories like ‘Atari abandons Jaguar!’ and stores dropping the product like a stone, how do you feel about the way the media handled your moving on?
I think I missed much of that furore, because I was starting a new job and had just become a father for the first time. I was also pretty blissfully unaware that the press regarded me as so significant to the Jaguar. As there were only 7 people left at the UK company after I moved on, I suspect abandoning Jaguar was the least of their worries…
Q. The Atari Panther, had things been different and this had been launched against the MD and SNES, how do you think it would have fared? And would it have allowed for more time to sort the bugs etc out in the Jaguar?
To be honest, it’s all speculation. If it had been the Atari I joined in 1988, then yes, it probably would have had a shot. The Atari I left in 1996 was broken, frankly, and however good the technology they’d not have been able to compete against the Sega and Nintendo of that time.
Q. Did you see Attack Of The Mutant Penguins as being something akin to what Lemmings was on the Amiga? And do you feel likes of it and Fever Pitch really showcased the Jaguar hardware?
Penguins was not about showcasing the technology. The guys in the US studios had that brief. Our aim was to create a playable and original gaming experience and I think we achieved that. Fever Pitch was a desperate response to losing FIFA and needing a football title. It didn’t really showcase much at all to be honest, but we did it in 6 weeks and it was quite playable is a short term fun kind of way…at the time!
Q. The Jaguar ‘suffered’ a lot of MD/SNES ports, which I often saw you defend by saying they ran in higher res, had 256 colours etc. Did you try and get developers to do ‘more’ when converting games to the Jaguar from those consoles? And can you understand the frustration of Jag owners like myself wanting more than tarted up MD/SNES games?
In any catalogue you have to cover as many bases as possible. Some Jag users wanted to play the games that their SNES mates were playing, others wanted their own original IP to crow about and showcase what SNES could not do. It was the teams job to provide both options. From the outside it may have looked different, but when you understood the resources that were available to them, the job they did was pretty impressive.
Q. The Jaguar was originally designed to compete against the SNES/MD (Rip the guts out of it’s 16 Bit rivals etc.) but as soon as the PlayStation and Saturn appeared, Atari seemed to change focus and try and compete with games having lots of 3D, texture-mapping etc. Do you personally feel it was a mistake to change tactics to face a new set of rivals? And did Atari ever consider adding extra chips to games or hardware? I.E putting DSP chips on carts? or a dedicated texture-mapping chip to the Jaguar CD ROM? Or was the increased cost considered too high a price to pay?
I wasn’t privy to all the hardware decision and many of the strategy meetings would have been held in California, so I’m not sure if it was a kneejerk reaction or a well thought out process. There was certainly never any official edict that this was the new course we were taking, it just seemed like a natural evolution being driven by the new competitive environment we faced. At that point, I suspect expensive hardware changes were not an option.
Q. Was the STe far too little, too late?
In principal, patching the 15% advantage Amiga were perceived to have was not a terrible idea. Might have been better to take it 15% further and get ourselves an advantage rather than just matching theirs, but again, these were engineering decisions and I certainly would not have been able to advise them what to do better. As a marketing person, I would always tend to focus my attention on where our strengths were. But at the end of the day, as I said at the start, we had lost the developer community by then, which was more important than the technology differences.
Q. The Falcon – what on earth went wrong? I have old Amiga magazine scans where they praise the hardware, one article writer even goes as far as to proclaim it far superior to the A1200.
The main thing I remember was the big press launch. We had a room full of Falcon’s all set up to run the tech demos and impress. The day before we had a run through and it all ran like clockwork and looked superb. On the day itself, in a packed room, absolutely nothing worked. It was complete carnage. The rest, I appear to have shut out of my memory. Thankfully I was not managing the Falcon range at that time. That was part of the business division driven out of Germany.
Q. The Jaguar UK pre-official launch, hopes were for several thousand machines to be made available, but HMV and Virgin got less than 100 units each and they only reached stores in time for Xmas Eve. Store managers and people who had pre-ordered consoles were very vocal about their anger, at a time when retailers weren’t exactly swayed with confidence about Atari’s handling of past hardware. Just how much ‘damage’ do you feel incidents like this caused?
To put it simply, I think the lack of supply in an area where we had built up real demand did more damage than any other factor in Jaguar’s life. I’ve covered it above, but we in the UK took the brunt of the anger, and shared much of it, if I am honest. I still do not totally know whether the US kept them all for themselves or just could not get them built…but lack of sales stateside do suggest the latter.
Q. Do you know anything about how the Lynx fared in different European countries? Being from Germany I never knew anyone who had a Lynx and never got to play it; yet in the UK it seems to have been a fairly common system.
That would be down to Atari Germany not wanting Atari to be seen as a games brand. They were focussed entirely on DTP and CAD/CAM and really had no interest in the console side of things. Lynx did OK in UK and France in the early days.
Q. There are claims that at one point the Lynx outsold Game Gear in the UK. Is that true?
I probably made those claims….not sure there was much foundation in fact, but at our peak, we would have been close I’d imagine.
Q. Did the Atari 7800 sell well in Europe?
It was well stocked by European retail. It never got the consumer traction that the 2600 did, but I remember we used to do a lot of units mail order through the catalogues and in the less affluent areas.
Q. Atari had problems getting the big publishers of the time to support the Lynx; especially with most popular games coming from Japan. Yet looking at the home computer scene there were many games considered hits that never came to consoles, presumably because licensing fees were too high with Nintendo and Sega. Was there ever the idea at Atari to actively approach developers of such hits to support the Lynx for good conditions? This could have given the Lynx much needed popular titles in Europe at least, and given the computer devs a chance to get into the console/handheld world. But in the end save for a few exceptions it was mainly the very small devs that supported the Lynx.
I think the developer relations team relied quite heavily on the studios that had supported previous Atari machines. I’m not sure they had quite the reach to have brought these guys in. Especially as there was no European dev team at Atari around the time of Lynx.
Q. Are you aware of the very active homebrew scene for the Atari systems, including the ones from your days at Atari, Lynx and Jaguar? There are always games in development for them, a few years back even an all-new commercial Lynx game was released, and Jaguar fans are waiting for an official port of the Another World 15th Anniversary Edition to be released on cartridge as I write this.
Yes, I am aware of it and still feel some pride that people are playing the systems I helped bring to the world all these years later. It shows we did some things right.
RVG would like to thank Darryl for taking the time to speak to us and I hope you all enjoy his answers!