RVG Interviews: Simon Butler.

It’s with great pleasure that I can announce our latest interview with Simon Butler. He has worked on over 300 individual titles in his career having worked worked for Ocean, Team 17, Vicarious Visions, Probe, Magnetic Fields, Atari and many others.

Enjoy

Zapiy

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

Simon

I’m an accidental entrant into the game scene who is still here 35 years later with possibly more games under my belt than any other pixel pusher; 300 individual titles and counting. I am passionate about this industry and take no prisoners when voicing my opinions against detractors or pretenders.

Zapiy

What was the first game you created graphics for?

Simon

Pedro’s Garden for Imagine in Liverpool in 1983.

Greyfox

Have you ever coded a game?

Simon

Thankfully no. It has always seemed like some kind of dark sorcery and I prefer to leave it to the wizards of the keyboard.

Zapiy

You have worked for a few iconic British Software Houses, tell us about those days, were they as rock n roll as we all imagined it to be?

Simon

If, by Rock and Roll you mean disorganised, chaotic and destined for an early demise then, in the case of Imagine Software, yes. It was spiralling towards destruction from an early stage with those holding the reins having the brains of garden gnomes and others destined to be pariahs of the industry for their misogynistic and racist ramblings. Money was thrown around with wild abandon on everything except the bills and wages as they danced toward the precipice like lemmings. Their departure was inevitable and a fair comeuppance for those at the top.

Ocean was the complete opposite. It was a serious business run by people who had tried, failed, and learned from their mistakes prior to setting up this latest venture. I think they also learned from the mistakes of their Liverpool “competition” and as such, went on to achieve very great things in the early game scene. That’s not to say their staff were beyond a fair share of tomfoolery and shenanigans, but I can see those are tales for a further question.

Greyfox

Ocean are sadly no longer around these days but Team 17 are, why do you feel one survived and the other collapsed?

Simon

Ocean did not “disappear” due to any failure of their own, those at the top sold out to Infogrames, making a very nice profit and sailed off to count their millions. The French then simply renamed Ocean and things went pear-shaped some time after that. Ocean were very much a product of the times and while the retro-heads, bless em, cry out for a return of their beloved brand, they would never have stood alongside the AAA giants of today. It was never the plan.

Team 17, while doing well currently were in the wilderness for quite a long time after Worms, so they cannot be seen as some powerhouse that has stormed through from day one until now. Their current position is based on them changing their priorities from development to publishing external products. My loyalties, regardless of having worked for both studios will always be with Ocean, even though we did finally part on a less than stellar note.

Greyfox

Do you have any anecdotes you can share from those days?

Simon

Ocean was like working in a madhouse at times, possibly due to the wide age range of the development staff. I was quite a bit older than the majority of the other developers, so dealing with “children” put my teeth on edge at times and I have to say I did have harsh words for one or two at times. For the most part, it was a hive of industry that really did buzz with excitement on a daily basis, sporadically interrupted by hi-jinks like spraying the ceiling of Gary Bracey’s office with beer while he was away. All unintentional of course and we naturally, as buffoons do, assumed we would get away with it. We didn’t.

There was a member of staff who always took great delight in dropping his glass eye in your beer and another who flounced through the halls like some pre-pubescent Oscar Wilde; looking down his nose on the underlings and intellectual pygmies, while listening incessantly to the Smiths. The tales from the halls of Ocean would fill a book, while getting all involved in serious trouble from one faction or another, but they were great times and I am eternally grateful to have been a part of it all.

Zapiy

Do you meet up with any of the old crew from those days and reminisce about those days and the share your stories?

Simon

I never meet anyone from the old days of game development. Those I held in high regard are in foreign climes or sadly departed. The Ocean crowd is fragmented and spread far and wide. I sometimes bump into old chums at Retro Conventions, people like Stephen Thomson and Paul Hughes. The friends I have involved with games now are from the Next dev scene or the retro scene. I’m very much a dinosaur now. When I do get the chance to have a beer or two with people from 30 years ago we seldom talk about the “good old days”, we would rather look forward than back. Especially in my case, as I know full well that the road ahead is a damn sight shorter than behind, so why waste time? Onwards and upwards.

Zapiy

Which software company did you enjoy working for the most and why?

Simon

In my tenure in the games industry, it has been Ocean and Elkware in Hamburg that bring back the fondest memories. Ocean, because it brought the first and possibly only era of financial stability into my life for several years while working with some really great people. Elkware in Hamburg was a very similar environment with an amazing team of passionate developers who were always open to new ideas and loved what they were doing. The other studios while not hell-holes per se, always managed to fail in one area or another, some quite spectacularly so.

Zapiy

What did you prefer working one then 8-bit or 16-bit games?

Simon

I had no preference. It was all just part of the industry and you moved with the times or fell by the wayside.

Zapiy

Who in the industry from those days and now most admire and why?

Simon

I have friends within the industry, but there was no one I held in great esteem, although I would have to say that the person who comes closest to being a “star” in my eyes would be John Gibson. He was a stellar coder who took no bullshit and stayed the course until his well-earned retirement to all points East. Steve Cain, who was not only my best friend until his passing in 2006 and was instrumental in my entrance into game development, is someone who I would say I admired, probably for his tenacity and strength of character more than his gaming achievements.

TrekMD

You’ve done graphics for games, designed games and produced games. Which is your favourite role in the game development process?

Simon

Any part of the process is always fun for me.

Designing games has changed beyond all recognition in the AAA world but in the indie scene, it is the same and is always a challenge that brings great rewards.

Production, for those of your previous interviewees who seem to think it means something else, is hard work. You need to know what every member of your team or teams are doing at any given time, making sure that everyone is singing from the same page and managing to keep their tasks on schedule. Dealing with your own problems is taxing enough, but dealing with the problems of others, especially when they invariably wind up including rubbish from outside the workplace is quite the conundrum. Nevertheless, it’s fun in its own strange way.

Graphics, which was my first and most natural role, is what I enjoy the most, working within limitations and trying to inject character and charm into a 16 x 16 sprite has never lost its appeal.

Zapiy

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Simon

I wouldn’t say surprised because the scene now is only the product of senior members of major studios departing to return to their roots and doing what they first loved. This then fed into those who had wanted to enter game development but felt excluded by the giant polygonal wall that was between them and the AAA studios. Suddenly people saw a playing field filled with like-minded souls working on games similar to those they had seen their brothers or fathers play years before. I am a constant evangelist about the indie scene on my monthly podcast, which is for mature listeners only, but I will never stop telling the retro-scene to sprinkle some new retro-influenced titles into their old 8 bit gaming. It’s the future.

Zapiy

Can you tell us the idea behind your monthly podcast?

Simon

The idea behind my monthly podcast, if indeed there was one came from a simple suggestion from Mike James and Scott Schreiber of RetroGaming Roundup. They interviewed me for their monthly podcast, and feeling somehow that I held strong opinions on games, games development and those involved, although I have no idea what I did to give that impression, they offered me a monthly slot. I invariably have no idea what I will talk about but I know that I will have some notes on the side of my screen regarding things that I have heard about, things that have happened to me personally within the dev scene and/or games that I have seen or played. I then turn my mic on and wing it.

It is peppered with expletives but it seems to be popular, having only received two outraged responses to date, alongside demands that I retract my “opinions” and issue an apology. I am passionate about my time in the industry and what it is I do for a living so seeing people taking the piss, or just going through the motions drives me to distraction. I know there is precious little I can do about these matters but at least I shan’t be stopped talking about them and for some strange reason the retro-heads out there seem to like my odd sense of loyalty to games and game development.

TrekMD

Which one the games you was involved in are you the proudest of and why?

Simon

Addams Family on the SNES. I was given carte blanche to draw whatever came to mind while working within the simple limitations of them being “creepy and kooky”. It was a joy from start to finish, regardless of it being vastly smaller than intended, due to sudden demands being put on the development team to finish much earlier than planned.

TrekMD

And which game caused you the most headaches?

Simon

Total Recall by the laughing named Active Minds. The day I arrived to take the role of pixel artist it was apparent to anyone with an IQ greater than a budgerigar that nothing had been done in the many months it had been in “development”. What little that existed, sullied the good name of shite and the producer from Ocean obviously had some personal agenda or was seriously lacking in brain-cells. It was a shit-show of the highest order and yet this feckless bog-trotter would constantly report back to his superiors at Ocean HQ that great things were afoot, while the complete opposite was the cold, hard truth.

TrekMD

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

Simon

I never adapted. I stayed firmly entrenched in pixels until today. It paid dividends for some years while other years were very lean due to my career choice. Today, I am merrily plotting pixels on a wide variety of projects and I am still using the same software I used a quarter of a century ago.

Zapiy

Have you thought about getting involved in Retro Game Development?

Simon

I am currently working on several projects for the ZX Spectrum Next and would quite happily do a retro title for the C64 etc, but without wishing to seem mercenary, it would need to be a paid gig. This is my job and I can’t be working purely for the “joy” of creation.

Zapiy

Can you expand on these Spectrum Next projects and tell us a little bit about the games?

Simon

Upon hearing about the ZX Spectrum Next project I threw my pixelated hat into the ring and offered my services to anyone who may be interested. The first reply was from Jim Bagley and I worked on the graphics and a loose design for a 2D platformer called Quake Star. A thoroughly unoriginal title as it is heavily influenced by the wonderful StarQuake.

The second title was with Matt Davies and is an official, albeit free title. It is a conversion of the classic Mike Singleton game, Lords of Midnight. There’s no additions or subtractions, it’s the game people knew back in the day with hopefully better graphics.

The third project, Monkey McGee, is one of my own that I have been working on for over a year with Paul Sidman Hesso on audio and a first-timer, Mr John McManus who after doubting his abilities for way too long has come up trumps and shown himself to be the stellar coder we all knew he was from day one. Again this is also a 2D platformer, with what I hope will be a a huge map filled with every peril know to man, and one that will exasperate, thrill and entertain gamers both young and old.

I have also done graphics for Q*Bee which is a Q*bert clone with Daniel Lopez. I am helping out on The Hollow Earth Hypothesis with some sprites and background graphics, this is with Lampros Potamianos. So all in all my old-school skills have come full circle and I find myself working once again on the Spectrum, albeit with many more colours and better sound.

Zapiy

Are you into the retro homebrew scene, if so what games are your favourites?

Simon

I have watched the homebrew scene and know some of the people involved and I have even given their sterling efforts airtime on my podcast with reviews. As I said earlier, I would happily work for/with these teams but I seriously doubt they would pay me a living wage. I know there are those who work purely for the joy of creation and I salute them, but I’m not in a position to do so. I spoke recently about Richard Jordan and his amazing isometric iteration of Atic Atac which has been given the greenlight on both PC and ZX Spectrum Next from Kev Brady. This is probably the game that is highest on my radar at the moment, although there have been others, but being vehemently against the idea of me ever owning any of the old games machines again, I shall suffice with online walkthroughs.

Zapiy

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

Super Metroid and Castlevania Symphony of the Night on the SNES. They are a benchmark I will never attain, but after decades, they still hold the top two slots in my favourite games list. I suppose every game I have played, be they good or bad have influenced my approach to game development, showing what can be achieved and what should be avoided.
It’s a constant learning curve.

Zapiy

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

Simon

I worked on an isometric pixel project for the Ouya that was coming along swimmingly but ultimately it fell at the last fence. It may resurface, you never can tell.

Zapiy

Tell us about Dinosaur Pie?

Simon

Dinosaur Pie is an umbrella title for my own freelance efforts but is currently the name of my online store where I create and sell low-res images of retro icons from TV, Movies etc. https://dinosaur-pie.co.uk/

Finally

A huge thanks to Simon for taking the time to chat with me, I am sure you all enjoyed reading that, I could have asked a million more questions but I guess we have to draw a line somewhere, but wow, another great interview.

 

zapiy

Retro head and key holder of RVG.