RVG Interviews: Steve Screech.

Welcome to another RVG interview, this time its one of our interview updates, we original interviewed Steve Screech way back in 2015, following the move to a new site we wanted to revisit this and completely update the interview. Steve is most famous for his work on the Kick Off series of games whilst working for Anco.

zapiy

Steve, thanks for taking the time to talk to us at RVG, can you tell use a little about you and you career?

Steve

Sure, I’m the oldest of two children, my sister is 21 months younger than me.. which means I have a pretty good idea how my parents spent my first birthday! I grew up within about half a mile of Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace football club, a team that I have managed to link in with my work on many occasions. Academically I was in most of the top classes at school but when push came to shove and the exams came around I did dismally ( probably a lack of revision helped here but also that I was just not interested in any of the subjects to spark me) so much to my mothers disappointment ( yes she went proper ballistic when I failed everything the first time around ) I ended up moving on to a 6th form college to retake exams and get it right this time. Take those exams I did and this time things had changed…. I did even worse.

It was around this time that I was exposed to the ZX Spectrum when I had to spend a day with my Aunt and Uncle. He had just got himself a Speccy and sat me down with it and I just played the brick breaker game that came with it. That was me hooked. I taught myself to code from the various listings magazines that were out then. Making mistakes typing in someone elses game teaches you how to debug things and gives an insight into how everything works. From there I began to write my own games. I had a music business game released on Micronet, called Power Corruption and Lies which I think made me about £50. I made a few adventure style games which weren’t published despite me pushing them to a few software houses. I then made Deathball which was a futuristic strategy sports title, played in a very Lords of Midnight -esque fashion. This was published by CRL’s budget label Alpha Omega. I netted a cool £150 for that one. From there I wrote a graphical adventure for the 128K Speccy called Kingdom of Krell. I was offered £250 by Alpha Omega for that one, I think I still have the unsigned contract at home somewhere but Anco stepped in with a cool £2,000 for it and the die was cast. I ended up signing the deal, quitting my full-time job for a position with Anco and also getting a 86% in Crash for the title… which was nice.

So February 1987 saw me quit my paper pushing job as a commercial administrator at a local electrical power supplier manufacturer and move into something that had been my hobby. My first job after Krell was released was to look into making a game called International Events, it was to be a collection of odd sporting events from around the globe, like motorbike jumping and some for of water skiing etc etc. I did a bunch of screen shots and mock ups of the game and it was something that we were going to hit but nothing came of it in the end. Around September 87 for my parents anniversary my sister and were taken to Ibiza. We stayed in a hotel at a quiet end of town. On the ground floor were a few arcade machines and one of these was a top down football game. Ooooh I did love a footy game, how cool would it be to make one. It got me thinking that really there was nothing with this kind of view-point available on the home computer scene. So while the holiday was progressing, I was scribbling down ideas for not only a football game but for a whole bunch of other sports games all with the same view-point, distant and top down.

On returning from Ibiza I had a sit down with Anil and told him of my ideas.. the rest is history. I moved straight on to Face Off which was quite a radical departure for me as I’d not done an action game before so it was a huge learning curve but not as big as working with Dino would be.

The Kick off series is pretty well documented of course. There was an acrimonious split when Dino shipped out to Virgin and then a void that needed filling. I was asked to fill that void which was a pretty impossible task as I am probably about a 1/10th of the coder that Dino is but that was the role I then took up. So from an absolutely fresh start.. ie for scratch I made Kick Off 3 and the subsequent Player Manager titles and further KO titles through to my birthday in May 2003, when Anil passed away after suffering from a form of cancer. It was Anils wish that I would inherit the company but due to external parties conspiring against me his wishes were not carried out and there was a lot of scrabbling about in the wreckage with people grabbing what they could. A small group of the remaining staff, myself, Anthony Kyne, Jon Atkins, Paul Overy and Chris Jones, formed a new company called Floodlit Software. Anthony and I were directors and the other 3 were staff. We were making a game that came from the ashes of an unreleased Player Manager title. The game was called ‘From The Dugout’ and we tried to sell it to various software houses while we busily worked on it but our efforts came to nothing until we happened across a meeting with Eidos. Unbeknown to ourselves, Eidos had just split with Sports Interactive. The outcome of the meeting was not that Eidos wanted our game but that they wanted us, the staff, to help fill the S.I void. Eidos also wanted the intellectual property rights for Kick Off and Player Manager and at that point we didn’t have that due to the embarrassingland grab that went on post Anils death. It turned out that Anils solicitor had nabbed the IP and that he was willing to pass it on to us… for a fee. The IP should have been ours full stop but this greedy manipulating scumbag thought he’d make a quick buck out of us. We eventually agreed a fee and £15,000 was required to secure the rights. We didn’t have that money, but Eidos did, so as an advance on the purchase price of our company we were able to obtain the Kick Off and Player Manager rights at last. As a postscript to this, the solicitor left his wife and took the money to start a new life somewhere else ( obviously 15K isn’t enough for that so he was probably into a few other people too ) not a pleasant or morally adjusted guy at all.

We stayed with Eidos for 6 years until they cut development of the Championship Manager title we were working on. In this time we put out CM5, CM2006, CM2007, CM2008 & CM2010. Each title got closer to where we wanted to take the game and that was to have a true rival to Football Manager. The problem was that the development team was bloated and bureaucracy meant that key features and standards were ignored in favour of features that were sexier. We needed to get the authenticity right, to make the game fully believable but apparently that didn’t look good in a screenshot!

So Beautiful Games Studios, as we were known within Eidos, stopped at the end of 2009. I then moved on to a totally different challenge at a company called CyberSports in London. Here we made online MMO football titles for 4 years with a few of the BGS staff that I’d managed to cherry pick. As is quite common the money ran out here too and thus I found myself out of work again in the Summer of 2014.

It’s not easy at my age to move into a different market segment without having experience of it already. It shouldn’t be this way but that’s how it panned out. Mobile phone games were what I needed to get in to but without experience already in this department, nobody would take a risk on me. Well I have been self-taught all my career, kind of winging it so that’s what I did again. VP, a company down in Bournemouth that were known for their Mac ports of games and who I knew personally asked about my availability for helping them to finish a couple of part started mobile games.. it’s all I needed really, a chance to get into the market and so two titles later, Orchard Wars and Atom Splitter, I then had the mobile experience that I had lacked..sure they weren’t classic titles but I got them out the door and learned a lot in the process. So now I work from home, I am a freelancer taking contract jobs that interest me. I am done with the daily commute, it’s about quality of life. I know that no matter how much money I ever had I would still do this line of work. I love it, even if there are days when I never want to see a keyboard again.

zapiy

Wow, thank you for such and indepth reply, Anco was an iconic British Software house, what were the days like working there, were they as rock n roll as we all imagined it to be?

Steve

Haha I’m not sure Rock n Roll is the right term. There were 3 or 4 of us working out of a house in Dartford and the admin team were in a separate facility so we did have some no holds barred games of some type of murder ball game to let off steam which may or may not have smashed a few light fixtures. There was no alcohol or drugs abuse I’m afraid so if you are looking for a story of excesses you’ll have to look elsewhere. We were just a small group of guys trying to make games with Steve Wright and Simon Bates playing on the radio.

zapiy

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

Steve

There are many anecdotes from my time at Anco, I mean I was there for 17 years so some crazy shit is going to go down at times. Anil Gupta was head of Anco, a fairly eccentric Indian guy who owned the company until he died in 2003. He was a very great man who was taken advantage of by many unscrupulous people over the years but we had a great relationship. Most anecdotes will revolve around Anil. There was the day when he poked his head into the office and said good morning and was clearly unaware that the green sweater he was wearing was back to front. The next time he came into the office everyone was wearing their tops back to front..he stopped, looked down at himself, shook his head and muttered ‘ i’m an idiot ‘ and walked back into his office.
Another time I walked into his office to find him concentrating on some paperwork totally oblivious to the fact that there was a raging fire in his bin from one of his poorly discarded cigarettes.

One time we had a very well suited and booted client come in to negotiate a deal on one of our management games. Anil’s dog took a shine to this chap and kept rubbing itself against the clients leg. When he left at the end of the meeting he was just covered in white dog hairs. Anil wasn’t really aware of who the client was and was fairly horrified to find out that it was one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sons ( we were acquiring the rights for Sir Alex Ferguson to be used with our management titles )

The company was always just about hanging on all the time. It had some good periods but generally it was always a struggle to fight against the bigger players in the industry, and as time went on that struggle was harder and harder. We took on a 2 game deal with Sven Goran Eriksen to put out games relating to the World Cup. We put out a Kick Off variant and had to smash out a management title too. We had no time to do one of the titles really so myself and Anthony Kyne ( another Anco stalwart ) managed to smash out a game from start to finish in 2 weeks for the Playstation. Sure it wasn’t pretty but those were the pressures we were under at the time. I could keep going on with crazy closure parties when we would finish a game, exploding cigarettes, strippers, the journalist that died while reviewing our game etc but then you’d not all go and watch the Anco Movie ( won’t happen, just kidding ).

Greyfox

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

Steve

Yes the industry has changed massively. When I first came in it was largely bedroom coding where someone could do everything. I certainly put out some games where I did all the art as well as the design, development and sound fx too. As time went on then we would use specialist artists ( I was hired as an artist and designer that could turn his hand to development if push came to shove ) and then teams got bigger as the games and target machines got more complex. It all seems to go in cycles. Home development on computers then consoles taking hold then back around to computing power once more etc. When the mobile market started kicking off then the old school bedroom coding days kind of kicked in again and that was a nice fresh change, quite exciting in a way.

TrekMD

Did you create any special tools to help you be more creative?

Steve

Not really no with the exception of a music program a made for the 128K Speccy that allowed you to create layered tracks with its vastly superior sound chip but really tools and tech like that have not really been my bag, they don’t excite me, I’d rather be creative.

Greyfox

What are the biggest challenges you faced with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title from one generation to the next ( 8-bit, 16-bit, 32-bit, Memory, Graphical capability, Speed and so on)?

Steve

To be honest I quite like the days of working with restrictions. Kevin Keegan Player Manager for instance required an entire football management economy with all the player stats, teams etc and it had to fit the save into 8k. That’s the kind of challenge that I love. Coders are lazy on this score because generally they don’t have to worry about that side of things anymore but I find it exciting and fulfilling, it challenges you and makes you apply solutions that end up benefitting other parts of that game.

Tip Off

zapiy

Can you tell us about the venture into US-based sports with the creation of Tip Off, what was the thought process within Anco at the time?

Steve

Well Anil was very keen on us putting out a game that used a 2nd fire button.. something that was unheard of at the time. We always had the idea to do Face Off, Kick Off, Tip Off and probably Bails Off as a range of sports games with a similar vantage point. Tip Off just didn’t feel like basketball because..well, I didn’t really feel basketball. To write a game of a sport you have to feel it or at least work alongside someone who does feel it. Dino wasn’t a football fan at all, far from it, he really had no feel for football at all but I did so that was fine we could still get the feel correct but Tip Off needed someone who really felt basketball and we didn’t have that person. Also I just wasn’t a good enough coder to do it justice. I had to step up and produce a kick off style basket ball game and it didn’t really happen for us.

TrekMD

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

Steve

I quite like the hands on Producer role where you can roll up your sleeves and muck in. It also helps too because you won’t get a programmer giving you BS about how something can’t be done etc or giving massively inflated time estimates because they know you know! Whatever the role if I am involved in the creative process and the design side then I’m going to be happy.

Face Off – Amiga

zapiy

You developed Face Off under the developer name Screech Productions, can you expand on this time of your career as to how that came about?

Steve

Face off was my first game that I wrote in-house for Anco. I had a lot of fun making at as it was all new to me. Again I didn’t really feel Ice Hockey either but I certainly had more affinity for it than I did basketball as a sport. Again I was very much learning as a coder so everything in the game is done along 45 degree angles because, well those are the directions the joystick goes in. I didn’t think to add inaccuracies to this and variation, it just never occurred to me but I had no regrets, it was fun to make and I had fun play testing it as well.

zapiy

Face Off got mixed reviews, how did this make you feel and did you actually really care what the critics thought?

Steve

Well it was early on in my career and I don’t think I read anything to damning. I was well aware it wasn’t exactly ‘Elite’ or ‘Lemmings’ but I was just happy to get a game finished and out the door on Atari and Amiga. Let’s face it though reviews are not exactly VAR tested! Some reviews are paid for, some reviews are manipulated due to external influences so as great as a good review is or as bad as a poor review is you have to take it with a pinch of salt. I received a 91% review with a particular game once but later found out that it had been financially induced… that’s not the way it should be but….

Kick Off 2002

zapiy

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

Steve

Actually Kick Off 2002 would probably take that title. It was written in conjunction with old school Kick Off players. I would create versions for them to test and the test and design process was very shared. This was in 2001 and it may have been one of the very first crowd funded games as some of the design and test team payed a small fee to be part of this group and in return they were sent versions of the game with themselves credited. The design process meant that the game was so well tuned and we put in some cool features like adding your own mp3 as a walk out song or a goal celebration. There is nothing like hearing your opponents tune rip out the speakers each time he scores, it kind of steels you to do better to hit him!

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?

Oh no, certainly not, you could not have foreseen the blurring of gaming and movie making etc that was just unimaginable while you were playing 3D Tanks.

zapiy

Who was or is your favourite artist, on the C64/Speccy and Amiga/ST?

Steve

Me, I love my Kick Off sprites, so limited in palette and size but I loved them all the same. I didn’t really follow a particular artist back in the day.

Greyfox

Of all the games you were involved in which was the hardest to create art and graphics for and why?

Steve

Nothing really comes to mind. I relinquished my art role many many years ago so I’ve not really done any game art for over 25 years other than the occasional menu box here and there.

Greyfox

As a huge fan of Kick Off, it received really good reviews and deserved them but when you look back with a critical eye what would you have done differently?

Steve

Hey there’s no regrets with the Kick Off titles, you can always go back and change little bits and pieces. I think maybe it would have been nice to have had a control for making your keeper run out to the ball. We managed to do this in KO2002 and again we could do it with a single button. Other than that I’d leave it well alone… oh actually maybe make the keeper a bit better at dealing with those halfway line lobs!

zapiy

Was there ever an Anco V Sensible Software from within the walls at Anco?

Steve

We did have a few games of Sensible in the office as it was coming through but we didn’t see it as a threat, we felt it was more of a nod to our work to be honest. Sure it is possibly more critically acclaimed than Kick Off but then again it was released by a bigger company with PR.. Anco never excelled in that department. We certainly weren’t looking at other titles and saying oooh we should do it that way, maybe we should have.

zapiy

Do you have any early sprite designs for Kick Off that you can share with us?

Steve

Unfortunately not, I made them using an Atari ST sprite animator program that I had picked up. I started with a totally overhead view and then adapted them so that the angle was more interesting and pleasing on he eye.

zapiy

Can you tell us about Deathball 2000, how it came about and what the inspiration for it was?

Steve

Haha yeah well that was a future sport game on the Spectrum that I published via the CRL budget label, AlphaOmega. I ripped one of the character graphics from Lords of Midnight and sported it up to fit the purpose. The theory was you had a team of players and had to get the ball and get it to the other teams goal. It was a turn based game and it took place in a maze. It was a bit crap really but it’s all part of the learning curve you go through.

zapiy

What are you up to these days Steve?

Steve

I am making a football management game for VP down in Bournemouth. It will be for Switch, mobile, PC, consoles etc and all the dev is being done by myself alone. We are trying to put a different slant on football management, make it far less of a spreadsheet and far more touchy feely. It’s all about balancing different aspects of your club and coming to terms with the outside forces that can derail any manager. Fan opinion, the press, the board, the players themselves, not just about pay for the best player and win. I am also working on some AR projects that are non gaming related. One of these will see an AR app for the Stow Maries WWI museum in Essex. It’s not football for sure!

TrekMD

What was the system you prefered to create games on and why?

Steve

The more limitations the more i love it so the Speccy and the SNES were both very enjoyable for me

zapiy

You mentioned Kingdom of Krell earlier that you made for the Speccy 128k, I believe you wrote these under the name of ‘The Majestic 12’ can you tell us about the games and what that name was about?

Steve

I used the Majestic 12 name when I wrote Cricket Captain, not Krell. That was because I was working for Anco at the time and didn’t want to upset the boss there, Anil Gupta. As an awkward coincidence of this I had to accompany Anil to see the chief buyer for WHSmiths at one point, when we were in his office he showed us this new cricket game he had come across, lo and behold it was Cricket Captain which was a little freaky. I said nothing of course but did mention that it looked like they had ripped off my Kick Off gfx 🙂 would have loved to have worked on that at the time, however after that came Kick Off and from there I was knee-deep in the business and to be honest I don’t look on at any other football titles with any degree of jealousy from there.

zapiy

Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?

Steve

Ahhhh no not really, people will always look back at the games with rose colour spectacles to some extent but the truth is that in those days there was so much less focus on effects and far more on the gameplay. I believe gameplay is king and it saddens me to see a beautiful game with either only a very short play span or with no playability because it was a side issue to the loveliness that was envisioned. The old games played well, they were tuned and tuned and tuned.

Finally

A huge thank you to Steve for taking the time to chat with us again, it was fantastic to catch up again and those anecdotes are hilarious. Thanks fella.

 

zapiy

Retro head and key holder of RVG.