It gives me great pleasure to announce our first interview of 2019, this time with Elton Bird, Uprising Games’s founder Elton has been making games since the mid 1990′s and recently ventured in the retro game development with a new ZX Spectrum game.
Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?
I’m a 20+ year (veteran?? :o| ) experienced game maker, bitten by the gaming bug in 1982 when my family got our first Spectrum. I’ve been playing games since then, and making them / programming bits and pieces ever since I was
old enough to vaguely comprehend Speccy BASIC. I started seriously on the Amiga and was lucky enough to get to work for Sega, make a game on the Dreamcast and get into a career making games with some great companies before going out as an independent. I like to make games that I enjoy playing, and as I grew up in an era of arcade games, games you had to learn, replay and master, those are the types of thing I tend to make.
What was the first game you created?
I wrote a single screen platform game on the spectrum in basic that was terrible. I also made an impossible to play shoot ’em up to enter Your Sinclair’s “worst game in the world” competition, I don’t recall the year, and actually got my name in the magazine for it just because the game had a silly name. (Attack of the Horrible Hostile Worm Thingies)
Tell us about your time with Mental Software, not much is known about the dev, how did you get started with them and how did it all end?
Mental Software was the name my brother and I chose when I started making stuff in Amos on the Amiga, which I’d really left far too late as we missed the best years of the Amiga. It was kind of opposite to “Sensible Software”.. and we liked silly stuff. When I made the first version of Tennis Champs, the name just stuck and I used it as the developer name. After getting my first games published I had a few contacts and wanted to build a team, but a job opportunity came up that I couldn’t refuse so I couldn’t continue it.
How did the Super Tennis Champs game come about?
The first version of Tennis Champs was written in Amos, and although it was pretty good, all attempts to get a publisher interested fell flat. I eventually sent it to Amiga Format and they loved it and wanted to put it on the cover disk. They didn’t have room but Amiga Power took it on instead, and it proved quite popular with both the journalists and readers. That’s when Audiogenic software got in touch, as Amiga Power had been telling them
what a good game it was. I moved onto Blitz! instead of Amos, and rewrote the whole game in a couple of weeks with it. Then I spent a couple of months making improvements and it became a full price release as Super Tennis Champs.
Do you have any anecdotes you can share from those days?
A few small things spring to mind..! Ringing up Amiga Power to try to get them to ask readers to send me their wish lists for games on the Amiga, opening the next issue to find they used a double page spread in the news
section with my name in what must have been a 200+ sized font across it. I guess it was a slow month for Amiga news?
Also I had my first experience fighting with a publisher when I didn’t like some of the art they’d done to help me finish Super Tennis Champs.. my brother Elliot and I redrew a few character faces on the guy’s art (I mean they were OUR characters, we knew how we wanted them to look!) and he didn’t take it all that well and insisted we use his. Still, as I had to produce the master disk for duplication, I swapped a couple of the images to our
versions at the point no-one could change them back!
Who in the industry from those days and now most admire and why?
The people who designed and programmed their own ideas initially, so people like Jon Ritman and Rafaele Cecco were favourites of mine, obviously Matthew Smith too. I always loved the musical side in games, and Tim Follin’s work always made me want to buy whatever he’d done the music for. For sheer programming brilliance Jonathan Smith of course as he was the king of the Spectrum, and Mike Lamb also had a knack for creating brilliant playability
and technically marvellous games. I didn’t really have many heroes in the Amiga years, as the influence of the Megadrive and then SNES had kicked in and you didn’t really know who made the games back then.
How did you end up working at Razorworks, and can you tell us about your time there?
Razorworks was one of the opportunities that came up after Sega had made me redundant when the Dreamcast was cut. Initially I was put off as it was a long commute, but the fact they’d called the recruiter before I’d even made it back to the train station to offer me a job made me feel good about going there. It was racing games, which I loved, and a chance to work on the upcoming Xbox too. It was one of the most important jobs in my career as a learning experience, and I worked with some great people who I still have contact with now. Sadly it was a case of a great team held back by a poor publisher.
You’ve written games, designed games and produced games. Which is your favourite role in the game development process?
I consider myself a designer who can program really. I do enjoy low-level technical / engine work and much of my career in games has been doing that, but I only really learned to program so I could make my own ideas. It’s probably why I’ve tried to stay independent now, as whenever I look for employment I’m only ever offered roles as a programmer!
Tell us about Uprising Games?
I founded Uprising Games with an ex-colleague who was also tired of making games for other people, doing ports and conversions. It took longer than we expected to get to the point we could make a game and unfortunately we both went back to do other jobs as a financial necessity before we could get to stability. I kept Uprising going alone and effectively did 2 jobs for a few years to make it work. It’s now a full-time thing for me, and my outlet to make the kind of game I love.
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?
Not really, I think as gaming has grown the people who were into it earlier are getting fewer games that do what they originally loved. Retro gamers really just like what I call “proper games” : they want a challenge, they want to feel a sense of skill and achievement when playing. Modern games don’t really do that, too many are “walk throughs” where it’s just about playing through the story really. “Modern retro” games are more than just “old school visuals”, they recreate the gameplay that modern games lack. There’s a wider audience of people open to games now, so I can see why more and more people are discovering retro games and realising there’s more to
gaming than 1st person shooting and 3rd person action adventures.
Which one of your early years games are you the proudest of and why?
Would have to be Super Tennis Champs. To get an Amiga Format Gold (90%) in the same issue that Worms got the same score, after Team 17 politely said Tennis Champs wasn’t worth publishing was pretty satisfying! It also got
the cover art on the review issue of Amiga Power, plus I got to see the box on a shelf in my local games shop, which is an amazing feeling. Planet Ring for Sega was also great as we had a lot of freedom with it. Each team member designed and developed their own parts of it, and considering a few of us were quite inexperienced at the time that was quite a risk, but it seems to be a real cult classic now, with people rebuilding servers for it so it works again now!
Which game caused you the most headaches?
Definitely my latest, Mr Kung Fu for the Spectrum! Fitting everything into a 48K is the mother of all headaches. Ball Bubble in planet ring was also pretty challenging, as it was doing 4 player real-time gameplay over a modem. There were a lot of issues with de-synchs that were a real pain to find and fix.
Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?
Yes, quite a few. I’ve got a nearly finished iOS Tempest game that I just can’t release as Atari would jump on it and have it removed / take me to court for my life’s earnings. I started it many years ago, before they got arsey with Jeff Minter, and the vector engine I did for it with glowy, blurry effects and tons of particles is something I still really want to make a different game in and release. There are 3 or 4 others that I’d like to return to also. You can’t have a
demo called “Captain Bacon : Oink! Oink! BOOM!” and NOT want to return to it.
Can you tell us what prompted you to get involved in Retro Game Development?
I’ve spent 20 years kicking myself that I got into serious programming too late. I missed the Spectrum entirely really, and even the Amiga scene was on its last legs when I finally applied myself to it properly. Could I have leaned Z80 back then? There was only one way to find out and that was to finally do it! Everything I make tends to have a retro flavour anyway, so doing something on an actual retro platform just had to be done. Also there’s a beauty in simplicity. And retro games / old platforms bring restrictions that help you focus on what’s important.
Mr Kung Fu looks fantastic, what is the inspiration for the game?
Thanks! Kung Fu Master was always a favourite of mine in the arcade. My local sports centre had it and I couldn’t wait to get a bit of change to stick in it. The US Gold Spectrum conversion was really quite poor, and I can’t be the only one who’s ever wondered “what if Ocean had got the rights and given it to Joffa Smith to convert?”.. So basically “try to do it like Joffa would have” was my goal, which is ridiculous I know as I’m a speccy novice, but I’m standing on the shoulders of giants really. I was lucky enough to have email contact with 2 of my Spectrum coding heroes, back in about 1998. First I contacted Mike Follin (Bubble Bobble, Bionic Commando, Ghouls n Ghosts) using a new thing called “the internet”, and also a friend who had worked with Mike Lamb (Renegade / Robocop etc.) gave me his email address. I couldn’t help but quiz them on how the hell they got some of their games going on the spectrum, and they both gave me a few tips that even though I don’t have the original emails, have stayed with me and I’ve applied 20 years later! Actually I had a few email chats with Jon Ritman back then too, he didn’t give Spectrum tips but he was a great bloke and really encouraging about game development in general.
Are there any plans for further retro games and can you tell us about them?
There’s nothing concrete on the old console / Speccy front yet. I’m still deciding what to do next. On the full game front (mobile first) will be an Ice hockey game trying to capture the spirit of the Megadrive ones. Next Speccy project is likely to be something shooty though!
What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?
There are so many, but games that were smoothly executed as without that it’s hard to have good gameplay. Dominic Robinson’s Zynaps and Flying Shark conversion, Keith Burkhill’s Commando and Ghosts’n’Goblins stand as markers of what you can do on a spectrum in the arcade genre. Renegade on the speccy, possibly my favourite 8-bit game of all time. They were all inspirational games as they got the important stuff across, but prioritised playing well as a result of technical excellence. Goal! on the Amiga as also a huge game in our house, it was a huge leap over Kick-Off and it directly influenced my Super Soccer Champs games.
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?)
My modern games aren’t really limited by technology, but I favour being small and using as few resources as possible, so most of the limitations are self-imposed. Being fast to load, quick to get into gameplay, I think they’re really important. But making more spectrum games it’s definitely more a memory issue. Fitting in all the graphics at the same time as having fast drawing code is a balancing act.
Do you have timelines built into the management of your games?
I don’t really impose deadlines on myself, but “get it done before the money runs out” is a constant concern! As I work at home and have a toddler, it’s pretty hard to stick to a schedule.
Are you doing all the development independently?
Yes, for better or worse I do everything myself now. I think it’s good as I’m able to improve different skills. But it’s just the freedom I like, there’s always something else I can do if I’m stuck or struggling with a feature. Plus I can’t blame anyone else if something fails now..
Will there be physical copies of your games?
Yes, I’m going to try to find a partner who can make a boxed version of Mr Kung Fu on tape. That will be a career highlight for sure.
Any thoughts about doing games on other systems? (More Amiga or ST games)
The Megadrive is tempting, as is returning to the Dreamcast perhaps (is that retro yet?). But I would like to do 1 or 2 more Spectrum games first. The Amiga would be fun to return to, I’ve got a folder of unfinished ideas on my old Amiga hard disk too.
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 unlreased systems?
The gizmondo version of SSX and FIFA was made where I worked but I didn’t have any direct involvement as I was doing Nintendo DS instead.
Any thoughts on developing a game for the Spectrum NEXT?
Absolutely. I am waiting to get my cased machine and finish a few other things before I play with it. Part of me feels the hardware is almost too good to feel like a spectrum, which is why I wanted to do some original Spectrum stuff before I work on it. Still, having the same screen size, resolution and the AY sound does keep it somewhat Speccy like and I’m keen to see what I can do with it. Mr Kung Fu Next is a definite possibility.
Can you list all the games you have worked on for our readers?
Games List :-
As Mental Software: (Amiga)
Tennis Champs (cover-mount disk by Amiga Power Magazine)
Super Tennis Champs (Audiogenic Software)
As Uprising Games: (all iOS – Design + programming)
World Soccer Champs 2010
Super Soccer Champs (2013)
Tennis Champs (Returns / Season 2 / 3)
For Sega Europe:
BASH! (DC VMU – doubled as an invite to the Dreamcast launch party
Ball Bubble (Dreamcast – Designed and programmed, part of “Planet Ring”)
Total Immersion Racing (XBox – Empire Interactive)
Ford Racing 2 (XBox – Empire Interactive)
Ford Racing 3 (XBox – Empire Interactive)
For Exient: (Nintendo DS unless stated)
Madden 05 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Fifa 06 (Tech)
Madden 06 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Fifa Street 2 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Madden 07 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Tiger Woods 08 (Tech)
Madden 08 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Need For Speed: Pro Street (Tech advisor + Game Modes)
Fifa Street 3 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Madden 09 (Tech + Lead Programmer)
Fifa 09 (Tech)
Skate it (Tech)
Need For Speed: Undercover (Wii / PS2 – Effects / Optimisation)
Sims 3 (Tech)
For Natural Motion:
Jenga (iOS – Lead Programmer)
Dawn of Titans (iOS / Android – Coding)
For First Touch Games:
Fresh Tracks Snowboarding (iOS Tech + Lead Programmer)
Dream League Soccer (iOS – Graphics programmer / Android conversion)
Score! World Goals (iOS – Graphics programmer / Android conversion)
FTS ’14 (iOS – Graphics programmer)
FTS ’15 (iOS – Graphics programmer)
A huge thanks to Elton for taking the time to chat to us about his career.
Retro head and key holder of RVG.