BJ West (Atari) – Interview

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BJ West is a retrogaming vet of almost 12 years, having worked on titles such as Cybermorph and various The Sims games. Adrian’s current Atari Jaguar resurgence led to him tracking down Mr West to ask some very important questions. And here they are, with the answers…

 

***You can hear us discuss BJ’s work and the awesome Atari Jaguar CD here***

 

How exactly did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?

Oddly enough, I started as a temp! I was just learning computer modeling and animation, but my professional background at that point was in print graphics. When I signed up with a temp agency looking for work, I listed the CG aspects of my work, but didn’t expect it to pay off. It did, however, and Atari brought me in as a temp hire. After a few months, they signed me on full-time.

 

Do you remember the first ever game you worked on?

That would be Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy.  I started building smaller enemy objects like the bats, by the end I was creating some of the level bosses, including the mud-slinging creature in the swamp level.

 

 

Out all of the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

Probably TheSims and it’s many sequels and expansions. It doesn’t suck having the best-selling computer game of all time on your resume!

 

You worked on numerous games for Atari. What was it like working for the company and why do you think the company is now a shadow of its former self?

Working for Atari was both exciting and frustrating. They had so much history and prestige, but when I was there I saw a marked over-emphasis on hardware, and no deep love or understanding of games and the end player experience. They wanted to sell the Jaguar like a toaster, pushing its specs, hyping its performance, but then completely failed to create a modern development environment for creating cutting-edge games. The whole attitude was focused on cost-cutting and being “good enough” rather than doing whatever it took to have the best titles on the market. Once people got their hands on the Jag and were underwhelmed by the games, it was pretty much over.

 

I feel the Atari Jaguar was underappreciated and never really got the attention it deserved. What do you think are the main reasons the console was not a success?

If anything, I think the Jaguar was — and is —  over appreciated. Despite all the hype about how powerful and innovative it was supposed to be, we were constantly told that the hardware couldn’t do the things we wanted to do. But even then, it would have sold a lot better if more of the games had been on par with Alien vs. Predator, and for the most part, they just weren’t. No one buys your toaster if the only bread you can put in it doesn’t taste good.

 

 

Black Ice/White Noise for the Jaguar CD looks like a ground-breaking game. How did you get the opportunity to manage this title and start work on one of the first open world titles?

By a complete fluke of circumstances. We were finishing the first wave of internally developed games, but the executives didn’t seem to have a clear vision of what game to make next. We were all asked to pitch ideas for a platform hopper designed to feature a new official mascot character, the way that Nintendo had Mario and Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog. But they never liked any of the ideas and characters we came up with. I broke with the request and submitted a bunch of proposals for games in other formats and genres. Among them was a high-end open-world cyberpunk adventure game called “The Chaos Agenda.” I guess I sold it well, because they were interested enough to do some focus group testing, which came back off the charts.  They decided to go ahead with it, but there was a trademark conflict with the name, so we changed it to “Black ICE\White Noise.”

 

How close was the game to completion and what are your views on how the whole game was managed by Atari?

As with every game developed for the Jaguar, we were hobbled by the archaic development environment. We were supposed to build the game using old PCs and Atari ST computers, mostly because they were already around. We demanded contemporary tools including new Macintosh work stations. They hated it, but reluctantly gave in. They also kept pulling our artists and programmers off to work on other games that were closer to completion, which really slowed down our progress. By the time Atari imploded, I’d guess we were somewhere around 50% to 70% finished.

 

 

The homebrew scene for the Atari Jaguar is really giving the console a new lease of life. Would you ever be tempted to try to complete Black Ice/White Noise?

Not a chance. Despite me offering to buy the game from Atari as we were laid off, they preferred to put it all in the dumpster. I have the game docs, but very little of the assets we’d need to finish the game, including the live action video, which would be crucial. We’d largely have to start over from scratch, and even then, we’d end up with an extremely dated, derivative game on an underpowered platform.

 

Are there any other games on the Atari Jaguar or other consoles you started work on but never managed to release?

Over the years I worked on many games that didn’t ship, mostly for PCs. There was a Stargate SG-1 game I worked on at a small third-party developer called Postlinear that got cancelled. I never found out why. I also worked on SimMars for Maxis, which they canned to put everyone on finishing TheSims, which was going to be an obvious hit. That one still hurts, it was going to be an amazing game.

 

You’ve touched on it a bit previously but what was the Atari Jaguar to work on as an artist and do you think any game showed the console’s true potential?

As I mentioned before, making games for the Jag was a major drag. Atari didn’t consider making developer tools a priority. Even third-party developers complained about having to work in assembly language, or make their own tools. I’m an artist, not a coder, so I’m in no way an authority on the console’s performance, but the feeling I got from those around me was that Alien vs Predator was pretty much maxing out what the Jag could do, and they had to put together some pretty serious hacks to get that much out of it.

 

 

How did it compare to move from Atari to working for Maxis Software for the awesome Sims games?

Night and day. Maxis was completely focused on the player experience, which is why they focused on making PC games, with console ports being secondary. On the other hand, where the work environment at Atari was relaxed and fun, EA ran Maxis like a mule, constantly pushing us to work harder and longer until we burned out.

 

You are still working in the digital art industry but are you ever tempted to work on any future video games?

Every now and then I have an idea for a game that I think would be cool, but then I remember what it takes to make games, have a stiff drink, and do something else.

 

What projects are you currently working on?

I publish a set of cards for brainstorming works of dramatic fiction, called Story Forge. It’s one of the most powerful story and character generators out there, for both writers and gamers. I’m also working on an effects-intensive music video for a friend’s band, set in a space station on the moon.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

I’m gonna say Sam and Max, those guys know how to party! Although GLaDOS would be an interesting conversationalist…

 

***You can hear us discuss BJ’s work and the awesome Atari Jaguar CD here***

Adrian

 

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