RVG Interviews: James Boulton.

James Boulton (aka SainT) has been in the gaming industry since 1997 where he worked for iconic British Software House Argonaut, James was predominantly a tool programmer, perhaps the unsung heroes of game development, the people behind the people that make the games we love.

What is more fascinating about James is the fact he is the guy behind Retro HQ, NeoGeo Pocket SD and the soon to be released Atari Jaguar SD cart. So read on and enjoy.

Zapiy

Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about yourself?

James

My pleasure! I’ve been involved in the games industry as a software developer for the last 20+ years, working on a variety of consoles from the PlayStation 1 era, right up to the present generation of consoles. More recently I’ve turned my attention to hardware development, specifically the retro gaming and computing communities. Arcade, computer and console hardware is something that has always fascinated me from an early age, and being able to design hardware has always been a dream of mine.

Zapiy

What was it like working for an iconic British Software House like Argonaut?

James

Argonaut was a fantastic opportunity — it was actually my year in industry for the university degree I was undertaking. By chance I’d met Sam Littlewood (then at Argonaut Technologies) while out drinking with my brother and his friends somewhere around Sheffield / Manchester during my 2nd year of the degree. I got in contact with him about a placement sometime later, and it just went from there.

Argonaut was an amazing place for me at the time, being young and enthusiastic and surrounded by some incredibly talented people was awesome. There was just so much history there as well, with real iconic names like Jez San, Pete Warnes and Carl Graham (to name a few!) who were the people behind things like Starglider and the SuperFX engine for Star Fox. Plus of course, you had Argonaut Technologies, where the hardware was developed for the SuperFX and the upcoming (at the time) Argonaut RISC Core (ARC). Not to mention, with the acquisition of Cranberry Source, there was Jon Ritman (of Head over Heels fame) working upstairs with his team for a time. And on the art side you had people like Herman Serrano (of Weird Dreams fame) and Dave Moss (of The Lost Boys Atari demo scene), again, to name but a few. The talent that passed through Argonaut at that time was amazing.

During my time there I worked within the Croc 2 team developing the tools required to design the levels for the game along with bits of the 3DS MAX export code for the game models and animation, and it was a great way to get into the industry!

Greyfox

Acclaim is another iconic games company, what are your memories of working there?

James

Sadly I was only at Acclaim Cheltenham for 3 months before Acclaim collapsed! I came from a company called LT Studios, which had itself just closed due to Argonaut (who actually owned them at that point) being in financial difficulties. So it was from one beleaguered company to another! But in my short time there I met a really talented bunch of people, some of whom I would work with again a few years later at Slightly Mad Studios.

Greyfox

What was the first game/tool you created?

James

It depends on how complete you want it! 🙂 I’ve always been interested in writing games and building gaming technology. One of the first more complete games I had written would have been a Puzznic clone on the Atari ST when I was about 14 or 15. Before then I’d also spent a lot of time writing graphic / sound demos — nothing particularly spectacular, but I just liked trying to push the hardware to its limits. One of these demos was actually published, with source code, in the national Atari magazine ST Format when I was around 16.

Greyfox

Which tool you have created for game development are you the proudest of and why?

James

Without a doubt the thing I’m proudest of is the entire tool and game engine pipeline I developed for Eiconic Games — a company I setup with a few ex-colleagues when Travellers Tales Oxford closed. Although my history with those guys went back to the LT Studios days — a lot went to TT Oxford when that closed. All the tools and technology at Eiconic came from my own personal code which I’d been working on in my spare time for some years. The engine ended up on a total of 7 platforms (PC, PS3, PS4, Wii, XBox 360, PSP and PS Vita), all of which I handled myself, with the exception of the initial XBox 360 port, which we had a contractor on board for during the development of Squeeballs. We all worked entirely remotely, so the tools pipeline was built around a central managed server which ran my game resource repository system. It’s amazing how efficient and prolific you can be as a developer when you know everything you are using inside out.

Greyfox

Which tool caused you the biggest headache and why?

James

Other people’s tools, any of them, lol. 🙂 When joining most companies, I ended up in the tools and technology teams, and that always included taking on responsibility for the maintenance of existing tools and tech as well as developing new. Trying to figure out how people have done things (which often ends up not being the approach I would have taken personally) and trying to extend and maintain it always ends up being painful. I can’t think of anything specifically, but I do remember a lot of pain. 🙂

Zapiy

Super Monkey Ball Adventures review scores were poor, how did this affect the team at TT Games?

James

I don’t remember much of the review scores for SMBA, to be honest. I believe we’d already all been made redundant by that point, or at least it was very imminent! I remember SMBA quite fondly though — I guess it may not have been to everyone’s taste, but the team at TT Oxford tried to take the game in a different direction and expand on its universe. I remember the game being very nice graphically, and technically sound.

Zapiy

How long did it take to develop the tools for Super Monkey Ball Adventures and was Sega hands on in any of the development?

James

The tools pipeline was already in existence when I joined TT Oxford, I was responsible for maintaining and extending them. I think I was lead developer on the PSP version on the game at the time (although I don’t seem to be listed as such in the credits!) and was instrumental with the technical side of getting the GameCube version of the game working, which was an interesting hybrid of the TT Oxford and TT Knutsford game engines. I remember frequent visits from one of the Sega producers, but I believe we had quite a lot of freedom in terms of developing the game.

TrekMD

Were you involved in any unreleased games?

James

There were certainly lots of games being worked on which never saw the light of day at pretty much every company I’ve worked at. There were some interesting ideas, including a Dr. Dolittle game I remember. But nothing really got past the prototype stage. Some of the more complete games, like Emergency Mayhem, eventually had a release (after Acclaims collapse in this case).

TrekMD

What do you for a living now?

James

I’m primarily a hardware designer now, supporting the retro gaming and computing communities. I’ve managed to make retro a full time pursuit!

Zapiy

What is the reason behind your RETRO HQ name?

James

It came about when I needed a domain name which would be permanent for my email address, and I’d been toying with the idea of trying to do something with the hardware I’d been tinkering with. So after a lot of domain name searching, I ended up on Retro HQ — it had a certain sound to it which just seemed to work for me! 🙂

Zapiy

Where did the handle SainT come from?

James

It’s something that has stuck with me because of the Atari ST emulator I wrote back in the late 90’s / early 00’s. I named the emulator “SainT” because of a letter that was in ST / Amiga Format back in the late 80’s, which came from someone saying their son had asked “Why is the magazine called Saint Amiga format?”. It’s something that stuck in my mind, and I ended up posting on forums with the SainT handle because of the emulator. It’s now ingrained in everything I do!

Zapiy

What is your mission statement for RETRO HQ?

James

Retro HQ exists to support the retro gaming and computing communities. To what extent and direction I take things is entirely dependent on what people are interested in! My background is in software development within the games industry, so that, coupled with my abilities in hardware design, means I could really take on anything. I have thoughts for developing new games for old systems and all manner of new hardware for old computers and consoles. What ends up coming to fruition will be a mixture of what I want to try next, and what people want most!

TrekMD

Can you tell us about your products and what each one is for those coming into this new. What you get and the features and so on.

James

Currently I have the Lynx SD and NeoGeo Pocket SD products being actively produced and sold. Both are “Everdrive” style cartridges for the Lynx and NeoGeo Pocket consoles which support playing games from a microSD card. Both cartridges support the full set of commercially released games and all homebrew. I’m currently working on an Atari Jaguar SD cartridge, which is nearing completion.

Zapiy

Are you surprised by the resurgence in retro gaming?

James

In a way, yes, but I guess if you think about it logically, it makes sense. From one perspective you have people in their 30’s and 40’s who have disposable income looking to re-live the games they enjoyed as kids. And in another, those same people are developing independent games for new platforms and bringing back a certain style and feeling of games to the forefront. That, and the ever-growing game streaming channels, means retro games are more publicised than ever before — even in mainstream films.

Zapiy

Have you ever been involved with the creation of games/tools systems like the Gizmondo, Konix Multisystem or any of the other less known or unreleased systems?

James

Nothing from a professional point of view. Although I do have a soft spot for the obscure, so I have things like the Elan Enterprise, SAM Coupe and Sharp X68000 in my collection. And, in fact, the Enterprise (an unusual British 8-bit computer) was the first machine I wrote an emulator for, and also the first machine I developed new hardware for (a memory expansion board and then an SD card expansion). So I may have missed the obscure professionally the first time around, but I’m revisiting it now.

Zapiy

Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?

James

No, nothing of any interest, sadly!

Greyfox

Can you tell us what prompted you to get involved in Retro Game Development?

James

It’s mostly down to where my interests lie within the games industry. I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspect of development, and pushing the hardware as hard as you can. These days, everything is so massively abstracted, you have very little to do with the underlying hardware. Everything seems to be moving away from my key interests, and hence looking to hardware as a way to get back to the low-level work I enjoy. And as a bonus, I also get to work with the consoles I looked on with awe back when I was a kid!

TrekMD

What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?

James

A few games really stand out for me. The biggest from the Atari ST era would have been Dungeon Master and Double Dragon. Both games I played to death, and both genres I still love — I was even chatting with Wayne Holder (the owner of the IP for Dungeon Master) about an iOS version many years ago, but sadly nothing came of that. On the PC I very much enjoyed Legend of Grimrock and more recently Streets of Red: Devil’s Dare. And in the RPG genre, The Elder Scrolls series is just awesome. I’ve been playing TES games from Daggerfall all the way through to the current incarnations. Bethesda do a very good job of making sandbox RPG’s!

TrekMD

What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware when creating these carts?

James

There are a few different challenges involved, really. For one, you often have space limitations. The NeoGeo Pocket and Lynx carts are quite small, so you are limited to the physical space for chips. Then you have cost to keep in mind. You need to try to be clever about what components you use to keep costs to a minimum, but this equally impacts on the complexity of the design. Often the cheaper components are much more difficult to integrate with than the more expensive. And then there’s the issue of cartridge shells! At the moment I design and 3D print the cartridge shells for all the cartridges I produce. This in itself is quite an undertaking with very fine tolerances involved. I’d like to move to injection moulding for the cartridge shells, but the cost is rather prohibitive for small production runs (i.e. just a few thousand). It’s a rather organic process, I’ll just see where things go with the Jaguar shells!

TrekMD

Do you have timelines built into the management of these cartridges?

James

I’m aware of time, but thankfully it’s not been a pressing issue, or something I am rigid about. For me, a product is ready when it’s rock solid and working without fault. I certainly won’t rush to get something out before its ready! 🙂

Zapiy

What was the decision to create an SD solution for the Neo Geo Pocket?

James

After the Lynx SD had been finished, I had messages from people asking if I was planning on doing a NeoGeo Pocket cartridge. I had intended to do the Jaguar after the Lynx, but I saw the NeoGeo Pocket as a nice stepping stone. I’m using similar Lattice components in the NeoGeo Pocket SD and the Jaguar SD, so it gave me a simpler intermediate project to get to grips with the new devices.

Zapiy

Are you doing all the development independently?

James

Yes, I do everything from the software and hardware development to making stock and packing up orders. I enjoy having the many different areas to work in, even down to designing packaging and instruction leaflets. This is why my capacity to produce the units is rather limited, but it’s enough to keep me going. I’m expanding, slowly. 🙂

Zapiy

What keeps driving you to continue Atari Jaguar development instead of moving your efforts to a more manageable platform with a potentially broader audience?

James

I’ve generally been picking up on the consoles which Krikzz doesn’t have any interest in supporting. While it may not be worth his time to develop hardware for the more obscure or less popular consoles, when you’re a one-man-band like myself, even a relatively small number of units can be worth my while. Plus I’ve always had a real enthusiasm for the Jaguar, it’s one console which just should have done so much better. So to a degree it’s down to my own preferences as well!

TrekMD

How is the development of the Jaguar SD cart going, and can you share any news on features and so on?

James

It’s mostly complete now. I’ve just been adding features like firmware updating and writing a nice looking game selection menu. Once everything feels complete I’ll get a few more units built up and get some more people involved in the testing. For me, making sure everything is working perfectly is the biggest factor. There’s nothing worse than having to deal with problems which you could have avoided. Thankfully, I’ve done very well with this so far, having very few issues with the NeoGeo Pocket and Lynx cartridges.

Zapiy

What’s next for you and RETRO HQ?

James

I’m not really sure, yet! Once the Jaguar cartridge is in production I’ll re-assess what’s next. I’ve had people saying the Mega CD could do with a CD emulator or there’s the NeoGeo CD… there are lots of options! 🙂

Zapiy

Any homebrew game development thoughts?

James

Not specifically, other than I would love to some day. I’ve been toying with the idea of an Atari ST game for years now, something along the lines of a cross between Laser Squad and a more traditional RPG. But from a monetary perspective, realistically I know I have to focus on hardware! New software is more of a labour of love, which is why things tend to be quite small-scale unless they are funded, like the great looking Tanglewood.

TrekMD

Can you tell us about the process behind creating the physical cartridges, the workload involved?

James

All the cartridge shells are 3D printed by myself. The actual physical design can take many dozen iterations to get it spot on, depending on the tolerances of the console. Both the Lynx and NeoGeo Pocket are very tight on the tolerances for the cartridge slot. The Jaguar is much less of an issue in that respect. The time taken to print them is the biggest factor though, with a NeoGeo Pocket shell taking about 35 minutes to print. I’m wary of outsourcing production, especially with the NeoGeo Pocket shells, due to the tolerances involved. So at the moment, the production bottleneck is how fast I can produce the shells.

Zapiy

How have sales of your carts been so far?

James

From my initial expectations, they’ve been just unreal. Orders for the Lynx SD cartridge still trickle in at a fairly constant rate, and the NeoGeo Pocket I still have a massive backlog. I think I’ve sold something like 1000 Lynx and 400 NeoGeo Pocket carts at a rough estimate. While this is hardly much in the bigger picture of things like the Everdrive, for me it’s been amazing.

Zapiy

Do you want to add any closing words?

James

Getting this far with Retro HQ has been an amazing experience. When I started getting into retro computers and tinkering with electronics a bit more seriously about 5 years ago, I never dreamed I’d be able to produce the things I can now. It’s quite something to be able to make your interests and passions into a living — first game development for all those years, and now with hardware and retro game development. I am extremely happy to be able to contribute to the retro community, and re-live development on some of the consoles I missed out on professionally the first time around. Retro is the way forward. 😉

Finally

A huge thanks to James for taking part in this interview, it’s always nice to hear from the unsung heroes of gaming and its awe-inspiring to see how James is making his dream a reality with RetroHQ.

You can purchase any of RetroHQ’s products HERE and follow us here or on our fourms to keep upto date on his products.

Retro head and key holder of RVG.

zapiy

Retro head and key holder of RVG.