We originally interviewed Simon Phipps back in 2014, since then we have updated RVG to a newer and more plush website so we felt we would revisit some of our favorite interviews from those days, Simes is one of the good guys, he’s always very approachable and welcomes talking about the old days, so what are you waiting for, its a biggy so read on.
Above is a drawing Simon did for me as a gift back when we did the original interview. It really is acool picture of one of my favourite gaming characters of all time and it now has pride of place in my mancave.
Hi guys, thanks for getting in touch again – it must be about five years since we last spoke. With your website upgrade it’s great to go and revisit the old interview from back then, update some of the answers and get to talk about some of the cool stuff that’s happened in my life of late.
Thanks Simon, take a moment to tell us a little about you, how you got into this industry and whats changed since we last spoke?
I’m 52 years old, 5ft 8in tall, I live in Derbyshire, in the UK, and I love drawing, painting and making stuff. I’ve had the privilege of being able to make games since 1985 and over that time have been lucky to be able to try my hand at pretty much everything you can do in the Industry – code, art, design, animation, scriptwriting, voice acting and motion capture.
Right now, I’m working from home for Three Fields Entertainment on our fifth game, Dangerous Driving, made by our tiny team of seven people, and it’s great because I get to be hands-on with the game making process once again after many years of managing it.
But, as to how I got here… Well, I grew up during the 1970s watching cartoons and was the right age (11) when the first Star Wars movie arrived at the cinema and blew my mind. I spent most of my time drawing cartoons, making spaceships out of model aircraft parts and desperately wanted to get my hands on an 8mm cine camera to make my own movies. I never got one, but in 1981 I saw something much more exciting.
I went around to a school friend’s house one evening to be shown a 1k ZX81 that my friend and his dad had assembled from a kit. We played a Space Invaders game that had no graphics – just letter A’s advancing down the screen (and it was so limited the screen literally turned off and on every time it updated.) My friend showed me the block of random letters and keywords that was the embedded machine code that was the game and I realised that if I had a computer I could change what was on the screen. I could make my own art move. So, I saved like crazy, did paper rounds, and in May 1982, with some extra money from my parents, I bought my first computer – a BBC Model A.
Of course, there was practically no software around back then, so I had to teach myself to program – a combination of BASIC and 6502 Assembler, and it wasn’t long before I was making my own games. My school friend, Stu Gregg (Dangerstu who worked at Core Design with me years later) encouraged me to send one of the games I’d been making to a publisher. To my surprise, Micro Power (one of the big games publishers on the BBC back then) liked it and sent me a list of changes that they wanted me to make before they’d publish it.
So, there I was, doing my ‘A’ Levels and my first game was out. It was a simple game, half BASIC (the logic), half machine code (the sprite plotting) called Jet Power Jack, inspired, in no small part by something I’d seen made by a certain Ultimate Play the Game on the Spectrum… I also converted Jack to run on the Acorn Electron. But despite getting a few nice royalties from the game, I committed to staying in education after my ‘A’ Levels.
I went on to do Computer Studies at polytechnic, but made extra money working a Saturday job in a computer shop in Derby. While I was there I got to know the local crowd, some of whom (Terry Lloyd, Chris Shrigley, Rob Toone and Andy Green) subsequently went on to work for Gremlin Graphics creating games such as Bounder and Future Knight on the Commodore 64.
Once my education was over, I went into serious computing – programming BCPL for a local company making desktop publishing software, but I kept tinkering around with my own projects on the Atari ST.
Five months into my first programming job, I got a call from my buddy Terry (Lloyd) asking me if I could help them out at Gremlin with some freelance graphics for the Masters of the Universe computer game that they were working on.
I went to see the guys, and instead of freelance work I got a permanent job offer and never looked back…
So, with my foot in the door, working full-time in the industry, I taught myself to code 68000 in my spare time and for the next few years I was happily coding, making the art and designing the games I worked on.
You have worked for a few iconic British Software Houses, tell us about those days, and were they as rock n roll as we all imagined it to be?
If, by rock n roll, you mean a small group of early-20s white nerds wearing white socks, hunched over Atari STs and Amigas in rented office spaces with grey carpet tiled floors, white polystyrene tiled ceilings and self-assembly desks…yes…
No, it wasn’t particularly glamorous, we’d all grown-up in small towns and found an escape from Thatcher’s Britain in the form of cassette tapes and magical boxes that brought life to the televisions in our bedrooms. Listening to C120 tapes of recorded chart music we poked away at our games and by a series of circumstances, often through friendships forged at computer clubs or by hanging around at computer shops came together and ended up in, for what was, for many of us our first jobs, suddenly working in offices alongside accountancy firms and solicitors and being looked at strangely when we broke for lunch or made tea in the shared kitchen.
(To be honest, those weird looks still persist. Mostly now, games companies work in their own buildings, but in places where devs interact with the outside world, we’re still regarded with a sense of peculiar fascination…)
But yes, it was all desks piled with cables and computers, tea breaks, lunchtime trips into the local town to check out the latest releases in John Menzies or WH Smith and a daily call by the ‘Sandwich Man’ at around 11.00am where we’d all stand freezing in our shirt sleeves in the car park trying to decide on whether to go for a prawn cocktail baguette or a ham-and-cheese one.
There were moments of mischief, as you’d expect. For us, in the early days in the Gremlin Derby office at Saxon House, most of those were instigated by the lovely Greg Holmes (or ‘Dad’ as we called him, as he was a few years older than the rest of us). Most pranks usually involved hiding something or other, or disconnecting a cable here or there, or maybe a strategically placed piece of paper with a cheeky drawing on it. The most memorable was the time when everyone else in the office decided to prank Greg, and we took the entire contents of his desk – keyboard, mouse, and computers, mug (basically everything except his monstrously heavy 1980s CRT telly) and suspended it all from the ceiling with Sellotape.
So, not exactly rock ‘n’ roll. You just have to seek out those early local TV news reports that are out there on YouTube to see that.
One thing that did impress me though recently was watching ‘Bandersnatch’ – the interactive episode of Black Mirror on Netflix. The scene where the main character Stefan goes into the offices of Tuckersoft for the first time is the most accurate depiction of that time for me – from the clothes, the office space, the characters – Charlie Brooker and his team absolutely nailed it – every office had a boss like that, every office had one guru programmer who was reading Carlos Casteneda and curious about opening the Doors of Perception, everyone had a Competition Pro joystick and read Crash. That took my breath away – they’d really done their research. As far as I can recall, at least in Derby, no one got possessed by a demon or opened a dimensional gate into a parallel future world…
Do you have any anecdotes you can share from those days?
Anyone who’s spoken to me knows that I can probably wax lyrical for ages talking about all manner of things that happened over the years that seemed perfectly normal at the time. So I’m sure I’ve got stacks of anecdotes about the early years.
But the majority of it was about eight of us, in a little office in Saxon House tapping away on computers, doing tea runs and taking lunch breaks. Oh, and Rob Toone most often arriving at about 9.15 on a pair of rollerblades and not taking them off for a number of hours – he’s a big lad and seeing him effortlessly glide down the corridor, beaming, sporting a giant cup of tea in each hand – no one got in his way.
It was always the afternoons that seemed to be the quietest. Terry (Lloyd) and I for a time had moved into a section of the top end of the office behind a partition wall, and would sit back-to-back for hours on our Atari ST’s creating pixel graphics. No keyboard tapping, just total silence with a constant quiet clicking coming from our mouse buttons. Hours would go by, and then at one point, one of us would drop out of our focused state of total absorption and become suddenly aware of this and say ‘oooooooooooooo….mouse clicks!’ which brought both of us out of our trances and meant that for one of us it was time to make the tea.
How different has it been working in the gaming industry through the years?
It has been a constant source of change: variety, opportunity, joy, friendship, politicking, nonsense, stress, disappointment and frustration – a real rollercoaster. The highs have been brilliant, the opportunities to meet people, go places and do things I’d never in a million years thought I would. The lows have been utterly despairing and made me very ill. But, that said, having gotten to the place I am, surrounded by family and having some great long-lasting friendships all around the world, I think it’s turned out fine.
The early days were terrific – we were all getting paid to do something that was a hobby and we were all making it up as we went along, spurred on by a love for making cool stuff and putting it on a cassette tape and letting it loose on the world. We started at 8.30-9.00am and finished about 5.30pm, occasionally we’d maybe work until 8pm ‘just to get the game finished’.
Then, came the 90s, when folks that financed the burgeoning industry started getting greedy, making promises that would never be kept, piling on the pressure to get every game done ‘because if we don’t get this out, it’ll be a disaster’. The set up and publishing costs started to escalate – the tiny cottage industry had gone global. With the advent of consoles, you couldn’t make a game without renting a specific piece of development hardware from Sega, Sony or Nintendo for tens thousands of pounds. That was probably the worst time – folks who’d been able to manage a small company were suddenly exposed to vast sums of money-making the disparity between the guys working on the games and those running the companies wider and wider, liberties were taken, promises broken and ‘Crunch’ began.
For me, the mid-90s saw a massive shift, personally. The confluence of a number of circumstances saw me working at Iguana Entertainment/Acclaim Studios Teesside in Stockton-on-Tees – some 130+ miles away from my home in Derbyshire. My wife and I decided that it would be best for me to work away during the week, coming home at weekends. This broke the cycle of non-stop Crunch for me and meant that I had for the next 13 or so years a kind of stability – I could work myself into the ground 5 days a week and then on a weekend, no one could touch me, I was too far away. During the late 90s too, things started to get more professional with the US companies coming into play – management became more professional and measured, companies had actually HR policies and things got better – they’re still far from perfect to this day, and I know the big corporations take a beating on the Internet (sometimes deservedly so) but there are good professional people there trying to do their best.
The downside of the big corporate publishers is sadly, the negative impact that having investors obsessed with quarterly growth brings – you can sell millions of copies of a game and it can still be seen as a failure, and that means that studios packed with hundreds of talented folks whose families are reliant upon stability can get laid off after the game ships. I enjoyed my time working for the big corporations – it’s a million miles away from pushing pixels in a rented office space – standing in front of a team of 150+ folks and telling them your ideas, or grappling with insanely big budgets or literally doing a trip around the world visiting plush offices. And from a creative standpoint, rather than being hands-on, the division of labour on big teams means that you’re only ever working on a tiny part of a game, or spending your time in Powerpoint and Excel making plans for the team you’re working with, and the timelines now stretch to years, rather than months.
In the past 5 years, I’ve made another change, and that’s thanks to another technological revolution and quite some daring from my bosses at Criterion, Alex Ward & Fiona Sperry who threw all of their life savings into doing things differently. The past few years have seen a massive shift in how games can be developed – I’m not sure that everyone’s quite caught onto this – the big corporations are still ploughing ahead with their massive teams and gargantuan budgets. But for us, at Three Fields Entertainment (soon celebrating its fifth anniversary) things are very different. With the advent of middleware tools like Unity and the Unreal Engine that are freely available to everyone, we, as a small team of seven people were able to get out of the big budget world and create games using these incredibly smart tools at an astonishing rate and by making some careful choices put ourselves in a position where all seven of us, work, hands-on full-time on each game. For Alex & Fiona, they, for the first time are designing and building parts of the game, for our trio of programmers, Alex, Phil & Ben they have total control over building games the right way, supported by the power of the Unreal toolset, and for Paul and I as artists and designers we’re hands-on with the game in ways we haven’t been for years. (Case in point – working on the front end and HUD on Need for Speed: Most Wanted back in 2010, I was briefing in a small team of coders and artists to build the front end – I’d design it, would negotiate with managers and producers, brief in the guys and they’d build the game. Now – it’s me and my buddy Alex Veal – Vealy builds the back-end of the presentation, puts in any placeholder elements to keep the game running and try out new ideas – I build the art, the animation, implement it in the game using Unreal’s tools and even code up some of the logic to do specific things – with better tools we’re doing the jobs of maybe 10 other folks, faster and with fewer mis-steps because there are fewer opportunities for mis-interpretation.)
The other great thing about all this technology – I’ve been working from home for five years. There to support my family, stresses finally managed, and with the power of the Internet I can work in with the team whenever I like, and connect with other folks across the world, have time to pursue hobbies I’d never had the time before to have the luxury of.
It’s all good, and while there are folks supporting us by buying our games, we’ll continue to do it.
Did you create any special tools to help you be more creative?
We’re always on the lookout for smart ways to improve things – the better the tools, the more you can do, and the more you can focus on making the game right, rather than mucking about shuffling data from one place to the other.
The most tools work I ever did was in the Gremlin/Core days when I was drawing all the art in OCP Art Studio on the Atari ST. I could see the utter faff everyone had transferring data to machines like the Spectrum and, to be honest, I feared spending hours with a rubbery keyboard and a joystick recreating graphics I’d drawn on the Atari in some godawful art package on the Spectrum. So very early on I wrote a sprite ripper that enabled me to build all the art on the Atari, press a key and literally give the coders on the Commodore64, Spectrum, PC, Amstrad, whatever a sprite data file in exactly the format they wanted. After that, I built a few map editors – the most complex of which was the one for my platform game Switchblade – as I built the game, I evolved the editor to add in the data I needed for the next feature I’d be adding.
As things moved along and whole tools departments developed, I spent less time working hands-on with the games and more directing them, with my major tools being Photoshop, Powerpoint and Excel (although over the years we’ve done some ninja stuff to author progressions and the likes in Excel and then export data to the game via CSV files.)
Now, working in Unreal, we’re back to more appealing times and more involvement, and while I don’t code hands-on the tools any more our coding guys are able to add extensions onto the base Unreal editor to allow us to multiply our effectiveness. Case in point, we have a super-sophisticated set of road tools that we’ve developed over the past 3 games that allow us to snap together roads like a super-advanced Scalextric and fine-tune them for gameplay while making them look hyper-real.
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?
I’m not particularly nostalgic – I’m always excited about what’s new, what’s coming up on the horizon, what the possibilities are – the best games ever are the ones that are yet to come, and I still pinch myself quite regularly when I’m working on a 4K screen, manipulating millions of polygons in realtime, crafting entire environments packed with grass, trees, rocks, water, reflections – all the stuff that was beyond our imagination years ago. And I’m always wary of it. I’d hate to be the guy that did one thing thirty years ago and holds onto that, missing the chance of making new stuff, always backwards looking and not appreciating the wonder that is today and the promise of what’s to come.
But, I also understand it, as over the years, fans have politely gotten in touch to thank me for things I’ve made, things that they hold dear to them and ask me questions about how they came about. I’ve come to realise that those games I made long ago helped define a perfect time in someone’s life – a long summer, clutching a joystick with their mates taking turns to hurl Rick Dangerous screaming into the void, darkened evenings playing Shadowman or Switchblade, being spooked by stuff I’d put in the dark corridors. It’s such a privilege to have been able to touch the lives of folks I’ve never met in this way, and I don’t forget that.
And, with the way the Internet has made us more connected, it’s cool that there are enthusiasts out there that are keeping the memory of these games alive through their sites, forums, podcasts, emulators, retro-consoles and the like.
It does make my head spin though to think that anyone remembers any of my games, decades after I made them, let alone play them when Xbox and PlayStation exist or be kind enough to write and tell me their stories.
Tell us about how you got involved with Piko Interactive?
By the wonder that is the Internet. Eli (Galindo) who runs Piko had bought the rights to Switchblade, to republish the game on retro consoles. Eli got in touch with me, asking if I had any of my old sketches for the manual and I passed those onto him, commenting that if he wanted to commission me to, I’d paint a modern cover for the game. He did, so I did. And since then, I’ve done a number of other modern takes on old covers for Piko in cases where the old art just wasn’t up to it or the original scans are too low res to be useful any more. There are a number of yet-to-be-released titles that I’ve done this kind of work for (follow my Twitter/Instagram/Facebook Art Page and I’ll reveal the covers when the games are announced) and it’s a fun thing to do in my spare time as it stretches me artistically and gives me the opportunity to paint in different styles and tackle different subjects that I otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to do.
Whats you favourite game genre?
I’ve always said that I enjoy making games more than I enjoying playing them, and it’s true – give me an hour to play a game or an hour with a set of tools to make something and I’ll always take the latter – I’m just wired in a such a way that my rewards system gets so much more satisfaction from building or making a thing than it does playing through someone else’s story and not having anything tangible at the end of it.
That said, when I do play games, the ones I most enjoy are ones that have plenty of choice, the fewest number of game-breaking pinch points (if I fail more than 5 times on a boss that’s stopping me from getting through a game, I’ll bail on the whole game), that are easy to pick up for five minutes and put down again, have skippable cut scenes and that don’t take themselves too seriously. If a game really hooks me in and I find myself losing a few hours to it in one session, I’ll enjoy it but then constantly berate myself about what other things I could have done with the time.
And your favourite game or games?
Favourites over the past few years have been the Borderlands games, Sunset Overdrive, Just Cause 3 for all of the reasons above, with the Forza Horizon series thrown in for good measure. Notable mentions Fallout 4, Watch_Dogs and Far Cry 3 – although my teeth tend to grate during the cut scenes when everything’s being taken so darned seriously.
Rick Dangerous was one of my favourite games and i still have fond memories of it.. What was it like to create? Did you do the art work for all versions of the game?
It was tremendously focussed – we knew exactly what we wanted to make and we made it very quickly – 4 months from start-to-finish.
Rick began when me and Terry (Lloyd) were trying to think of new ideas – we listed out everything that was current at the time – we ruled out all the genres that were being done, and then I think I said something like, You know, I don’t think there’s been an Indiana Jones game that really did a good job of the temple at the start of Raiders…
The sketches above I did in the original Rick 2 design doc to illustrate gameplay ideas. And so we just took a big piece of paper and tried to write down as many ideas for traps as possible. Then I worked out a REALLY simple system we could write that would allow us to do all of them.
We wrote it up, presented it and soon after that we began. I drew all of the sprite graphics and the title page for the game, Terry drew all the background art. I coded the Atari and Amiga versions, and along with Bob Churchill, Rob Toone, Stu Gregg and Dave Pridmore, we made the game for 6 formats.
This is the first ‘character sketch’ of Rick in his new look – I used this on the front of the Rick 2 design doc and then as reference when I drew the title screen for the game. We kept everything as simple and uncomplicated as possible – like sharing the same sprite dimensions across all formats as those on the Commodore 64, building the maps so they would fit on a Spectrum screen (256 pixels across.) And, being a tiny team (by modern standards) working together was so easy – we just thought of stuff, made it, put it in and moved on.
I take it the way most of the characters you create don’t start off as they finish.. Do you keep any art of what these characters could have looked like?
All the early games we’d just start by drawing the main character sprite first and once we’d found something that worked, we’d go out from there. We didn’t have the luxury of time to spare when development was only a few weeks long.
This is the first ever drawing of Rick – from the day that Terry and I sat down and came up with idea for him.
As to keeping artwork – not really – it was all just a bunch of pixels back then, so it’s not like we had any grand concept visions – it was very much about making a little 32 x 32 grid of pixels work as best as possible.
The only real example I can think of was the character Billy (Bli) Allison came up with for the SEGA Genesis platformer Bubba ‘n’ Stix. The main character started off as a tall thin green alien, spent a few days looking like a flat-capped Yorkshireman with exactly the same proportions before switching his costume to something less provincial.
Which game have you enjoyed creating the most and why?
I have to say, it’s the one I’m working on right now at Three Fields – we’re just putting the finishing touches to Dangerous Driving, due for release in April (2019) and I’ve had an absolute blast building race routes, landscapes, environments with such a sophisticated and powerful set of tools.
What do you see as the main differences from working in the industry back when creating games like Rick Dangerous and now when creating games like Need for Speed?
When we were making Rick Dangerous and the like, it was a handful of us making a game on a tiny budget in a short space of time and moving on to the next one. We could try things, fail and move onto the next game and get better quickly.
Now, with bigger, modern, boxed products for the big corporations, everything is on a massive scale. The stakes are enormous, and the deadlines are super-critical. You have to get it right first time and you can’t afford to fail. And once you’ve completed some task or other on your way to making the game, it’ll be 2 years before you get to try a different approach on the next one.
When you asked me this question first over five years ago, I hadn’t experienced what we’ve managed to do at Three Fields – make 5 games in 5 years with a team of 7 of us. By changing the business model and embracing tools like the Unreal engine, we’ve gotten back to much more like it was in the old days, with 7 of us working hands-on all the time to make cool stuff.
Switchblade had good reviews when released, what input did you have in this game overall?
With the exception of the music I made everything. (Side note – on Switchblade, I had the privilege of working with Benn Daglish who we recently lost – such a lovely guy and so incredibly talented…his music for the game was perfect and I cherish the memory of the afternoon I spent in his studio as he practically put on a concert for me)
After I’d joined Gremlin and decided to learn 68000 in my spare time, I set myself the challenge of making a side-on flick-screen platform game with hundreds of rooms to explore.
It took me eighteen months of evenings and weekends – single-handed I had to draw all the graphics, build all the tools and editors as well as the game. Of course, I was in my early 20s then, so working until 3:00am nightly and then going to work for nine the following day wasn’t a problem.
When Gremlin closed its Derby office and Core began, my coding skills got me programming Rick Dangerous. But it took me another year to finish Switchblade. So I was writing increasingly elegant code at work during the day (in fact I shipped 3 games, I think during the following year) and going home to wrestle with the spaghetti-like code that was Switchblade for months.
I have many fond memories of working into the small hours at home or at my girlfriend’s house (we got married in 1989 and are still together so despite all that late-night nerdery I guess I must’ve been doing something right!)
Hiro is a great character, was he your idea?
Thanks, Yes he was.
This was just around about the time that Manga was starting to appear in comic stores in the 1980s and arcade machines had enough power to feature exciting Japanese comic book-style intros and title pages.
(Also I could always remember a very early anime TV series called ‘Marine Boy’ in the early 70s…and ‘Battle of the Planets’ – the American adaptation of the Japanese Gatachaman.)
This is the ‘human’ sketch I did of Hiro after designing the sprite.
The finished sprite.
I threw myself at that look-and-feel, and the little guy emerged from there. And once I’d got a sprite that worked, I drew him as the human-proportioned anime-style character that appeared on the front end and on the box. (I’d tried drawing the sprite to human proportions but he was too spindly at 32×32 pixels, so I chose the more super-deformed look you see in the game.
The fun thing is now, my son is massively into anime so I’m introducing him to ‘the classics’ while he’s introducing me to the likes of One Punch Man, Jo Jo’s Bizarre Adventure and My Hero Academia.
What was it like to work for Core Design?
The first couple of years were terrific – we ran riot with our ideas and just went for it. The rest of the time…not so much fun.
You was involved in few ST games, what were the biggest challenges on that format, especially compared to the rival Amiga?
The funny thing was that was it was easier to code for the ST than the Amiga because it couldn’t do anything particularly sophisticated.
You see, the ST had zero additional hardware – it was just a big bag of memory and a 68000 chip – no hardware sprites, paralaxing layers or blitter chips, so you had to do everything with the processor. It was always about writing the most optimised code you possibly could, pre-calculating everything you could think of and then crossing your fingers.
Smooth-scrolling the screen sideways was the killer – I had some funky techniques that looked ahead and optimised what was coming on-screen, but ultimately it all came down to having to redraw that entire screen with the chip.
Switchblade, and its sequel, were incredible games, can you tell us about them?
Switchblade was both inspired by Ultimate’s Underwurlde on the Spectrum (I loved the massive scale and the exploration in that game) and the fun I’d had playing stuff like Alex Kidd in Miracle World on the SEGA Master System. So yes, you could say it was. (All the different types of bonuses and pickups came from spending too much time playing Bubble Bobble during those years.)
This image was scanned (with a hand scanner!) and used in the game – the logo below it was the sketch I did of the logo before I then sat down and worked out how to make the logo animate in the game.
After so many FPS games of this generations consoles getting ‘mauled’ by the press for not being COD, was it a deliberate design move to make Goldeneye 007 appeal to the COD crowd, but still remain true to the 007 legend and what would you change about the game and why?
In January 2009 our ambition for GoldenEye 007 was to go stealth-based, with organic, evolving firefights – to be as true to the spirit of Bond in the movies as possible. (The body count in the average Bond movie is pretty low.)
Of course, that’s an easy thing to say and a tough, tough problem to crack (one, that I think was only finally cracked by the Far Cry 3 team…and much respect to the ladies and gentlemen that solved that one.)
Anyhow, we spent many months trying to make our stealth/firefights work and in November of 2009, a little game called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 landed on the scene (you might have heard of it, it sold a few copies) and everything changed overnight. We were to follow CoD’s lead and make the game bigger, badder and as spectacular as possible.
This meant that we had to make the game more linear, scripted and set-piece driven. I left Eurocom the day after we went Final on the (then) Wii-exclusive version, so I had no hand in the PS3/Xbox 360 conversions of the game.
Shadow Man for the Dreamcast had mixed reviews in DC UK and the official DC Mag. It’s a very slow burner that requires the player to invest time in, would that be a fair comment? Also despite the crisp, high res visuals, the N64 origins of the game often seem to hinder level design a little, I found it so easy to get lost in repeated texture generated environments, so if you had designed the game for DC as base platform, what would you have changed and why?
Yes, definitely – we intended ShadowMan to be a really huge, slow burn and poured as much back story and dark, strangeness into it as possible. For everyone on the team it was our first foray into 3D, never mind trying to create an epic-scaled action horror adventure so we went for it big time, being gloriously overindulgent in every way possible. At its (twisted, gore-pumping) heart we were trying to make a kind of dark Legend of Zelda. It was a tremendous working experience and I learned an awful lot about how to make (and how not to make) games as a result.
If I remember correctly, we started ShadowMan on the SEGA Saturn and PC, and then over the course of development the formats it was going to be released on changed. The Saturn was dropped, the N64 arrived on the scene and at the last-minute we were asked to do conversions to PlayStation (1) and then Dreamcast.
MCD Wolfchild: Do you not think more could have been done with the format? Core later showed just what was possible with taking an established name from the ST/Amiga (Thunderhawk) and using the MCD hardware to the full.
Having paid 270 for the MCD, I was hoping for games that did something more than just cartoon intro, spruced up visuals etc.were you ‘finding your feet’ so to speak with the MCD hardware or was it just a case of Core getting games out quickly initially, to source money for the Triple-A MCD games to come?
If we’d known about the MegaCD when we’d started Wolfchild and we’d cut an exclusive deal for it, it might have been a different game – the best games are always the ones that are made exclusively for the hardware that they’re made to run on. It’s as true today as it’s ever been. As it was, the conversion up to Mega CD after the fact was one of many conversions we had to do as Core was keen to get as many of its titles out on as many formats as possible at the time.
My reference for what Saul’s human form looked like, again, once I’d got the look right for the sprite.
The finished sprite above and and below are two of my pencil drawings that were then scanned for the intro to the original Amiga version of the game.
Rick Dangerous for the ST, I so wanted to love, looked superb, the audio samples had me in stitches, but by god was it frustrating to play, as a result i barely scratched the surface of it and never bought the sequel, was the difficulty level set so high on purpose? If so any reasons why?
Because games back then were essentially evil. If I ever go back to those old arcade game I’m harshly reminded of the fact – my scores after all these years are still no better. We made Rick in the era of Jet Set Willy, Monty Mole and all those blink-and-you’re dead titles that had their roots in the arcades.
But I think what made Rick particularly nerve-wracking was because we were trying to recreate that first scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark throughout it all. You know, a place packed with varied booby traps where a blow dart, collapsing floor or pit of spikes could come out of nowhere.
And since our trap system, (although very simple to code) allowed for a whole variety of ways to kill Rick, we used it to the fullest. So unlike other titles of the time where patrolling enemies and floating platforms simply went back-and-forth on their merry way and saw you timing your jumps between them, we created a massive memory puzzle spring-loaded with cartoon death.
Also, a fact of game development is, that when you’ve been playing your own software for months on end, you know it inside-out. What you take for granted with your insider knowledge of making the game is completely unknown to anyone who plays the game at launch. When we made Rick we were finding out all about that – and believe it or not, the version of Rick we released was our easy version of the game.
Not so much a question, but a statement. I just checked your art work out on your website, and it just had me gobsmacked!!!. You’ve clearly got talent and then some and seem apt at whatever style takes your fancy. What’s your favourite type of art to draw and do you do any commercially available stuff?
Thanks – glad you like it!
In my years at Core, whenever I got home and thought about making art, the temptation was always to carry on working.
So, when I left Core for Acclaim Teesside and stepped away from doing graphics work (the job had gotten too big to do both game art and design), I gave myself permission to make my own art in my spare time.
My friend Guy (Miller) who, among his many other talents is a fine artist introduced me to acrylic paint – I loved it.
I then made a vow to never draw video game subject matter (robots, spaceships, wizards, monsters, etc.) in my own time ever again and so I just went where the (twisted) muse would take me.
As goes style – I guess that comes from seeing other folks stuff, taking a liking to it and setting myself a challenge of having a go at it myself. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I always learn something. (Sometimes I make the crazy promise to my Disney fan wife that I’ll draw Mickey Mouse for the next 365 days… )
In later I set myself the challenge of learning how to paint digitally. I’ve spent years editing and creating graphics in Photoshop for work, but always wanted to use it to create paintings. So I attacked the problem head-on and I’m quite pleased with some of the results I’m starting to turn out.
My favourite stuff to draw are my pin-ups and alternative art – it’s intensely, unashamedly personal and it’s a real technical challenge to draw. Since I went digital I’ve been taking commissions which has been an interesting exercise because each piece pushes me to draw something that I might not have otherwise attempted.
In the five years since I last answered this question, I’ve moved over to using Clip Studio Paint much more (its vector line engine is insane and it’s a fraction of the price of Photoshop), I rock a 4K screen and a 22” Huion tablet (and a Samsung Galaxy Book when I’m on the go) and I split my drawing time between about three different projects: life drawing burlesque dancers at our local ‘Doctor Sketchy’ group, painting cover commissions for folks like Piko Interactive and Storybird Games and pushing my skills in different ways with whatever takes my fancy.
Recently a fan contacted me about signing an old Rick Dangerous poster and that gave me inspiration to paint a special piece of art celebrating 30 years of Rick – here’s the link to my store where you can (if they’re still in stock) grab a signed, limited edition print (https://www.simonphipps.com/store/)
I’m pondering whether to do a few more retro-game inspired pieces at the moment – if folks were interested, I might be tempted to paint some of my other characters, or do a modern take on some retrogaming classics…hmmm…
As an artist, how did you find the move from 2D to 3D? Which took more time to give the rewards as it were, for yourself and the player? The attraction of a game for myself has so often been to keep playing to see what other interesting stuff the environment throws up, how did you try to please cynical (now old) gits like myself? lol
The move to 3D was a tricky one for quite some time. The thing is, you’re no longer designing essentially 2D puzzles but actual environments – you have to think in a completely different way. You build and populate 3D worlds from a helicopter’s eye view in editors and you constantly have to keep reminding yourself to walk your environments just like the player will when they’re playing the game:
- Can they see the right stuff when you want them to?
- Will they be looking in the wrong direction at the critical moment?
- Does the elaborate puzzle you’ve designed on paper as a top-down schematic even make sense when you turn it into a 3D space?
When I first moved over to 3D, the fastest method we found for designing worlds was to draw a series of top-down cross-sectional maps and hand those to dedicated artists to build them. This was because it was so easy to spend time getting bogged down in the construction of, say, a spiral staircase, that you’d lose sight of what you were trying to build in the first place.
Now, though, with modern tools such as SketchUp and prototyping environments like Unreal and Unity it’s getting much easier for us designers to leap in and build 3D mock-ups and walk/drive them as players do before the art guys come in and make it look amazing. It’s much more rewarding too, and you can make changes faster. You can experiment and fail many more times until you get it right. In Unreal, I can literally move mountains, snap roads to them with a right-click and be driving them seconds later.
Long shot, but whilst at Core, was there ever talk of Corporation 2 or a reboot of it on more modern hardware?
You know, I simply can’t remember. I remember the bank holiday weekend when we were finalising he original Corporation. The game had to be in shops on the following Tuesday or the company would have been in dire trouble. A whole bunch of us stayed up two nights in succession and when we had a final disc drove up to the mastering plant in Leeds where we (after being up 48 hours already) manned the conveyor belts packing the discs into their boxes during the night so the game would be in the shops at 9am. We were hallucinating and falling asleep standing up – it’s one of the most weirdest memories I have of the early 90s.
As an artist, where do you draw (no pun intended) your inspiration from? the world around you? cinema? manga? or all of the above?.
(Actually, this is such a cool question – no one’s ever asked me this before, although the question rattles around in my head quite a lot.)
There’s a baroque, glamorous and decadent imaginary world that’s lived somewhere inside my head for years that gets fuelled by the music I listen to, music videos, alternative fashions, burlesque and concept art. It has an emotional logic and consistency inside my head but makes absolutely no sense if I try to explain it.(I did attempt to write some of it down years ago, and quickly stopped as it read like utter gibberish.) So I’ve resolved to explore it visually – if I’m listening to a song that fires off an interesting image, I’ll quickly sketch it before it evaporates like smoke.
But the blank page is my nemesis – I hate having the urge to draw but not knowing what to draw. That’s when I turn to my wife and ask her for a title – she’ll come up with some innocuous phrase and then that sets me loose to turn it on its head and twist it.
Which reminds me…with all the other projects I have going on of late, it’s time I did some more of this stuff…
When designing a game, just how much freedom were you given whilst at Core? i.e did you have to submit basic demo type stuff before green light was given or would they just check your progress now and then? Also what if anything was ever ‘cut’ from your games and why? was it your choice and if not, how did it feel to have something you’d spent time on cast to the cutting room floor?
When Core was a developer for hire we had to pitch concepts and meet up with the external producers – just like it’s done today, but on a faster turnaround. Once Core turned publisher there was a bit more freedom to explore but that didn’t stop projects getting cancelled and never making it to market.
I probably spent about 18 months – 2 years during my time at Core working on stuff that never made it through for one reason or another. But that’s the way the Industry works – you learn very quickly to roll with it when something gets cut or canned. There’s always a good reason for a cancellation – the idea’s not working/it’s too complicated/you’ve done a bad job of selling it/it’ll cost too much/too long to finish or there’s just some business reason that’s totally out of your control that has affected you.
If you get too precious and hung up about it, it’ll stop you moving forwards. At the end of the day, the player only sees what went into the final product – they don’t care what you went through to make it or what you didn’t get chance to put in, and they shouldn’t.
What’s your favourite title you have worked on during your career and why?
It’s always the one I haven’t made yet on the incredible new hardware that’s just around the corner.
…but I’m having an amazing time right now!
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us again Simon.
I really enjoyed doing it – there were some great questions in there and giving me the chance to revisit the interview and update it, after doing all the cool stuff I have the past five years thanks to new tech has been great.
P.S. Folks – follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or drop on by my own Website.
A huge thank you to Simes, firstly for the awesome header image created for this interview and I want to say its been a pleasure to build a virtual friendship with a guy that I grew up being a huge fan of, when someone you have admired for so long turns out to be so bloody nice, its humbling, so thank you fella, next update 2024?