RVG Interviews: John Blythe.

Our latest interview is with the awesome talented John Blythe, John has worked on many famous games during his career, working for such famous British Software Houses as Gremlin Interactive. John is still works within the gaming industry to this day and is very active in the homebrew scene, read on and please enjoy the interview.

 

Zapiy

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

John

Well I’m John Blythe and I’ve worked in video games for 15 years. Starting at Gremlin Interactive then Infogrames, EA, Criterion and currently at Boss Alien (Natural Motion Games). I’m an avid Retro collector and I have many systems and their software libraries. Currently I have a Vectrex, Atari Jaguar, CD32, PS2, Sega Saturn, BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Sega Master System, SNES, Megadrive, Gameboy, Gameboy Color, Wii, Gamecube, Wii U, Arcade Cab…. the list goes on. I love creating games especially on the BBC/Electron and ZX Spectrum (via AGD package – Arcade Game Designer). Also excitedly waiting for my ZX Spectrum NEXT to arrive.

Zapiy

How did you get started in the video game industry?

John

I started actually working in an Arcade in a shopping centre. Showing people how to play our new VR game system!! That’s VR the first time it was a ‘thing’ ha ha. It used Amiga 3000’s back then and truthfully it wasn’t very good. From there I got into Gremlin Graphics as a tester and got a shot at applying for a 3D Artist.

Zapiy

Can you tell us about those early years?

John

Back then you didn’t need PHD’s or University qualifications. You just needed experience and talent. We also did a lot of cross discipline stuff. For instance the first game I worked on as an Artist was Wacky Racers on Dreamcast and I did vehicle modelling, weapon modelling and animation, level design and building, event set-ups and animation, 2D and 3D Fonts, weapon icons and even the 2D VMU (Virtual Memory Unit) icons. Very different to todays approach I can tell you.

Zapiy

What was it like working for those iconic British software Houses? (Gremlin Interactive, Infogrames/Atari)

John

Gremlin was amazing. Very much like a family. Everyone mucking in, pulling lates or all-nighters to finish a game. The games where very much more fun to work on as you got to do a lot of different things on them. Gremlin was much more willing to take risks and try different game styles out. Infogrames/Atari was when it started getting more business like. More risk averse. It was still fun, but getting more professional which is a pity in way. Some of the spontaneity was lost I think.

Zapiy

When you first started did you ever think that the video game industry would become as big as it has and still be going strong all these years later?

John

Absolutely. When I got my first computer (Acorn Electron) I knew this was the future. I’m not surprised that its grown and still here. Although I never thought it would be a bigger money earner than movies/tv which it is nowadays. The leaps in technology are just amazing, that’s something I continue to be amazed at.

Greyfox

What was the first game you created?

John

Personally not commercially, was not until 2016 and The Darkness of Raven Wood. It was a text/graphic adventure on the BBC Micro/Acorn Electron/Master. Commercially it was Wacky Racers on Dreamcast with a great team headed by Athony Crowther (industry legend and creator of Blagger!). If we’re talking first EVER game I created it would be Wimbledon’84 on my Electron, a PONG clone but with nice graphics.

Greyfox

Do you use any special programs to help you create your graphics?

John

Most of my graphics are created in Photoshop CC. Also I create game graphics using inbuilt editors in programs like Arcade Game Designer for the ZX Spectrum. My normal day job 3D Artist work is using Photoshop CC, Maya 2017 and Zbrush.

Greyfox

Any tools you created yourself for this task?

John

Nope, I’m not that good. ha ha. Although in my PC Blitz Basic days I did code a simple level editor for some of my games (Chuckie Egg: The Next Batch, Knightmare etc.).

TrekMD

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

John

Not really, its been a thing since the late 90’s and hasn’t really gone away, just changed form and evolved. Back in the 99/2000’s it was more a porting scene of 8 or 16bit to PC remakes for a while, then it became more of a collecting thing and still is, now we have ‘retro’ mini consoles that are all the rage.

TrekMD

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

John

Ha, well there are a few, which may never get released. I have a partial design for a text/graphic adventure on the BBC/Electron for The Hobbit (my version that is, not the old speccy version). I have several ZX Spectrum AGD ideas and partial games that may or may not get resurrected – ORBITA, The Last Run, Chickory etc.

TrekMD

You’ve written games, designed games and produced games. Which is your favorite role in the game development process?

John

I love designing games and obviously the graphics work. Producing if you can call it that is the lest favourite task. It’s a bit boring to be honest. Coding is fun and taxes the brain, it can be frustrating though as well. Most prefer the graphics as it’s the day job with designing coming a very close second if not equal first.

Zapiy

What games from back in the day (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?

John

Oh god that’s a loooong list. Things like Chuckie Egg, All the Zelda games, Elite, Super Mario games and loads of 8bit stuff like Knightlore, Cybertron, Head over Heels, Cauldron II, Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, Monty on the Run… there’s honestly too many. Platformers are my favourite genre though, I grew up on those.

Zapiy

What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title? (Memory? Graphical capability? Speed?)

John

All of the above. ha ha. That limitation, that challenge is what makes it fun. To try and eek more out of the editor like AGD than you’d expect. I try to mix it up with each release. I haven’t done a sequel yet and each game has hopefully been something different gameplay wise. Thats my challenge to myself, come up with something different… in gameplay mechanics or art style or genre or design. It’s worked so far.

Zapiy

Do you have a favourite game that you were involved with?

John

Commercial releases I’d have to say the early stuff like Wacky Racers (Dreamcast/PS2) and Micromachines (Xbox/GC/PS2), just because I got to do a lot of different roles on those games which I really enjoyed. With EA things like Need for Speed Most Wanted (2012) and a little game called Zubo (DS) as well as Spare Parts (XBLA/PSN). As for personal stuff in the retro and remake scene, I loved working with the guys at Retrospec on some of their games… Knightlore remake, Exolon DX, Cybernoid II remake, Attack of the Mutant Camels remake. Good times.

Zapiy

Was it hard adapting to the changing hardware over the years?

John

Not so much as the tools that went with it. Like moving from 3DS Max to Maya, that took some learning and nowadays things like Zbrush, Substance Designer etc. They’re pretty intense to have to learn. Hardware is easy really its the content tools that make it challenging.

TrekMD

Are you a gamer yourself? Do you own any retro systems? Modern systems?

John

I mentioned those early. Currently I have a Nintendo Switch as my main system and absolutely love it. Zelda: Breath of the Wild (115hrs+) and Super Mario Odyssey are sublime pieces of software. I love my retro stuff, but finding time to enjoy them is hard. Particularly love my Vectrex and Sega Saturn too.

TrekMD

When you’re not working on games what are some of your favorites to play?

John

Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, DOOM (switch), Pinball FX3 (MARS table), Celeste, Yoku’s Island Express. Recently started replaying RAGE by Id Software.

TrekMD

How different has it been to work in the gaming industry through the years?

John

It’s an ever changing, evolving industry. In the last 10yrs we’ve seen the rise of the mobile free-to-play gaming sector. Nintendo have shown the importance of portable gaming to the now 30 and 40 somethings who are time poor. I have had to move with it. I currently work for a mobile gaming company. I’ve done the smaller indie software house thing (Gremlin), I’ve worked in the big triple A studios (EA,Criterion) and now the Mobile game studios (Natural Motion – Boss Alien). I’ve enjoyed them all in their own way. Still enjoy it. The smaller studios like Gremlin where great, small, almost family atmosphere, everyone was pals, right from the execs down to QA. Everyone mucked in. The big triple A studios are far more professional and detached. You tend to be a cog in the bigger machine. Execs are less likely to be involved with the devs themselves. Mobile is a different beast again, more like the small studios but with enough money to really create a great tight ‘family’ atmosphere. Well that’s what I’ve found so far.

Greyfox

What company back in the day did you most admire and why?

John

For me it was Superior Software, because I owned an Acorn Electron back in the day. They did some impressive and frankly great games. When other companies wouldn’t do ports to the BBC and Electron they would step in and do the job, meaning us Acorn users didn’t miss out on some of the big games. They did ports of things like Barbarian 1 & 2 and The Last Ninja 1 & 2 and Ballistix and Predator etc. As well as their own great original software like Repton, Exile, Citadel, Ravenskull amoungst others. Great studio.

Greyfox

Can you tell us if you will have any involvement in the Spectrum Next game dev?

John

I’m not a low level coder (machine code). But when the likes of AGD Next or PAWS Next becomes viable, then absolutely I want in on the Next. I have a cased version waiting to be delivered.

Zapiy

If you were stuck on an island and only had one game to play for the rest of your life, what would it be?

John

Easy….. ELITE nuff said. The first open world, open ended mega game. Never bettered in my opinion.

Zapiy

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

John

Because I love games. I love designing them, I love coming up with ideas, I love doing the graphics. I love the challenge. It was my first love back in 1982 and I will always try and find a way to be involved in the scene.

Zapiy

Are you doing all the development individually?

John

Mostly I do. Thats the challenge to me. Although I have worked with many people offering my services as an artist for free. I worked with the guys at Retrospec for many years working on their remakes. I’ve recently worked on titles from a graphics point of view for several people… White Light (BBC), Prince of Persia (BBC Master), Castle Defender (BBC). Mostly I like to do my own thing with minimal outside involvment.

Zapiy

You was involved in the BBC Mirco port of Prince of Persia, can you tell us about your involvement in the amazing port?

John

I was asked by Kieran Connell if I’d be interested in doing the graphics for the game. I jumped at it of course. I first saw his intentions on Stardot forums, to do a port. I threw in some preliminary concepts, he contacted me some time later. It was a fair chunk of work too, it took many hours of work over several months. Anyone who has seen the Sprite animation frames alone will know how much work is involved. Kieran was amazing though, he would take my stuff and get it in game in a matter of minutes sometimes and send me a link to an online BBC Emulator so I could see it running. Great stuff.

Zapiy

How did the name Rucksack Games come about?

John

Ah, well. My first retro game a few years back was a BBC/Electron/Master text/graphic adventure game called The Darkness of Raven Wood. I needed a ‘fake’ studio developer tag for it (it’s what you do in the scene, mostly). It was an adventure game so I thought well you usually take a Rucksack on an adventure so there you go. I’ve used it ever since, even for my ZX Spectrum games. Plus no-one is using it commercially so far.

Zapiy

How did your connection with Monument Microgames come about and will all your games get physical releases through them?

John

I saw Graz Richards post on some of the Spectrum facebook groups about his releases and went to his website. I was amazed that he could do all his stuff (Double cassette cases, Badges, CD, Tape, art cards) for such a great price. He seems to put a lot of time and effort in and I really wanted to support that. Especially if he thought my games where worthy. He’d contacted me some time ago when I started doing Foggy’s Quest, but I’d forgotten he’d got in touch and then went with George Croppers publishing (who did a great job too). Graz contacted me again after its release and I felt bad for forgetting he’d contacted me. So my second game went to him and he did a great job on Circuitry. I would gladly let him publish all my titles, he produces a great package.

Zapiy

Rubicon is a stunning game, what was the inspiration for this game?

John

Thanks for saying so. Well several really. From my distant past there were a few games I loved on the Electron. Star Drifter, Cybertron, Repton, Ravenskull and of course other platforms like Sabreman on the ZX Spectrum. Those kind of maze runner style games. I just loved that gameplay, spent hours playing them and mapping them.

Zapiy

Which one of your homebrew games would you say is your favourite and why?

John

Thats a tough one. I really love Raven Wood as I love adventure games and it was my first retro outing. Although Foggy’s Quest is also a great game. It had nice graphics and that arcade adventure gameplay which I really love. I kinda love them all in their own way. (Cop out I know) LOL

Zapiy

Also which was the hardest to create and why?

John

Hmmm. Raven Wood took a fair bit of planning and the graphics work took a fair while too. Foggy’s Quest also took a lot of planning and was my first AGD game and that took some learning as well. Both of those were the hardest because they were firsts I think.

 

Zapiy

Whats up next for the homebrew scene from you?

John

All Hallows. It’s the next game I’m currently working on. It fun so far. Loving the bouncy pumpkin mechanic (evoking the Cauldron II vibes). Could be a tricky design project, but I like what I’ve done so far.

Zapiy

Have you ever thought about releasing games for the SNES, Megadrive or Amiga?

John

I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. Plus there is no easy editor tools for those systems that I know of. Given the potential size of the games I probably wouldn’t have the time to devote to a fully fledged game on those systems.

Zapiy

Can you tell us about your use of AGD? I’m currently making a little game with it and yours give me inspiration to carry on.

John

AGD has come a long way since I started using it in 2016. Alan Turvey and David Saphier are doing incredible things with it. Extending its usefulness and user-friendly capabilities. Jonathan Cauldwell is pushing it forward too with his windows version. I find AGD is amazing, it allows me to do some great things and produce games I could only design in my head but never create. There’s tons of help online too and in the community with the likes of Alan and David and Andy Johns and many other developers who’ve been using it for a while now, all on the Facebook groups, happy to help with advice and tips and techniques.

Finally

A huge thanks to John for taking the time to chat to us, you can get more info on John and his games at Rucksack Games.

Retro head and key holder of RVG.

zapiy

Retro head and key holder of RVG.