Chris Shrigley (EA/Gremlin) – Interview

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We’ve been blessed here at AA in terms of the interviews we’ve managed to do and this ranks up there with the best of them. Chris Shrigley worked for all and sundry on some of the biggest retro games in our collection (if you don’t believe me, click here) and if you’re a retro gaming nut or aspiring developer you really need to listen to what he has to say. Adrian caught up with the legend himself to chew the fat…

 

How did you get into the video game industry?

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away .. Actually, it was in 1983 and in a place called Derby in England. I’d been coding for a few years, writing little games for myself, emulating the stuff I was playing in the arcades at the time.  A good friend of mine showed me a game he’d written on the C64 in BASIC.  It was a text adventure game, and I was intrigued. I set about writing my own and a few months later, I’d programmed my own text adventure game called Pub Quest for the C64. I sent it off to a company called Dream Software, and they liked it and published it.  That was the first game I got published commercially, and it gave me the momentum to keep at it. I was 16. You could say that was when I got into the games industry, but in reality, it wasn’t until 3 years later that I got my first real video game published, along with my first game industry job. I went to college for the next 2 years, and during that time, learned 6502 assembly language and worked on a proper arcade game with some friends. Towards the end of 1985, we had a finished game, called Bounder, and we sent it off to a company called Gremlin Graphics, who had quite a high profile at the time with their Monty games. A few weeks passed and we got a letter from them, saying they wanted to publish the game, and that we should go up to the studio in Sheffield for a visit.  We took the train on a cold December day, and we were all offered a job, starting in January 1986.  The rest as they say is history (great story – Ed).

 

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If you could give one piece of advice to anyone hoping to work in the video game industry what would you say to them?

You really, genuinely have to love making games, and really want to do it. In fact, I’d say, unless you live and breath making games, carry around a notebook where you sketch or make design notes or write programs, while on the bus or sitting waiting for your latte, don’t bother.  It’s not glamorous at all, and a lot of people don’t realize that or understand that until they give it a go.

Beyond that, if you’re looking at this as a career, then start with a computer science degree.  It will give you a solid, academic foundation to build on.  Then go to vocational school, or college that has a games program, and learn the basics.  Make friends and network.  Get involved with the local game dev community.  This all ties back into my first point about living and breathing game dev.  It really is a lifestyle.

Finally, be good at something. The games industry is a meritocracy.  You have to be good to succeed (unless you’re a manager  I kid, I kid), and if you’re not good, it will be apparent very quickly.

 

You have been heavily involved in programming throughout your career – has your job changed a lot over the years with advancing technologies and software or is it still similar to the early days of making video games?

As a coder, it’s still the same, pretty much. You sit in front of a screen, typing code. Tools have changed for sure.  When I started, I programmed in assembly language on something called a machine code monitor.  No symbolic variables or fancy editors.  Just typing code into memory.  Now its Unity or UE4 or Visual Studio or the 100s of other frameworks, libraries, SDKs and IDEs available. Writing games has never been so accessible.

As far as my job goes, I’ve worn just about every hat there is to be worn.  I’ve been a coder, an artist, a producer, a musician, a manager, and a tea boy over the years.  When you’re in a team and making something cool, you do whatever you have to do to make it work. That’s all part of it. It’s actually one of the best aspects of working in this business.

 

Masters of the Universe: The Movie was based on the camp 80s He-Man film starring Dolph Lundgren – Is there any difference when making a movie based title as opposed to an original game?

The process and mechanics are essentially the same. The project goes through the same phases of design, pre-production, production, testing, etc.  The main differences are around how much control and creative freedom the team has with the game. Usually, on a movie tie in or IP that a third party owns, everything has to be approved and go through some sort of external process.  Sometimes that external process can involve people that don’t really now about games or understand the project.  Lawyers, marketing people, the producer’s kids. That sort of thing (sounds lovely… – Ed).

 

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The Lost Vikings was a huge success and gained very positive reviews across the board. What was it like working on this ambitious title and how did it feel to be involved in such a popular game?

The version I worked on was a port from the old SNES version, to the Game Boy Advance. We took the original SNES assembly language source code and hand converted it to C. It was a fairly technically challenging project because the game had to play exactly like the original. We wrote a bunch of tools to convert the SNES format graphics and other assets so they’d work on the GBA, and pieced the game together over the course of 8 months or so (the same tools and techniques were used to port the other two Blizzard games, Rock n’ Roll Racing and Blackthorne at the same time, so we were really making all three games simultaneously). So, although I wasn’t involved with the original Blizzard versions, and Blizzard were pretty hands off with the GBA version we did, I still had a blast and it was definitely cool to be porting a game I’d been a fan of in the past.

 

Batman Returns on the SEGA CD was different from the Mega Drive / Genesis version of the game. How did you make the SEGA CD version different and did this cause any issues from a programming point of view?

The Mega Drive/Genesis version was just the platformer.  For the Sega CD version, we added a driving game, stitched together with cut scenes and a sort-of story. My role on the Sega CD version was the cut scenes and all the “glue” that allowed the game to go between the original platformer and the new driving sections. I also did all the disc layout and loading. The data on the discs had to be structured and optimized for loading and streaming audio. It was a real bear getting that stuff right (but you did and we love it! – Ed).

 

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Cliffhanger was a quality film starring my favourite actor of all time; Sly Stallone. How did the opportunity arise to make this game and did you get to see the film before it was released?

I’m not sure how we got the gig.  ACME was run by a guy called Bob Jacobs and he was pretty well connected in the comic book and movie industries. He’d come into the office and just tell us what was coming up.  Cliffhanger started as a design proposal on the back of some deal Bob put together. I wasn’t privy to the details, but the game got greenlit, and we started development. I don’t think we saw an advanced screening of the film though. At least I don’t remember seeing one!  We worked off story boards, and the script. I vaguely remember having a video tape with scenes from the movie for reference. It was actually pretty cool at the time. The games industry was a bit obsessed with doing movie tie ins at the time, and Cliffhanger was being pushed as a blockbuster movie, and was quite high profile. I think we did an OK job on the game, with the material we had to work with.

 

Which programming language is used most in gaming these days?

Game development is so broad and diverse now. If you’re looking at sheer market size, probably Objective C, because the iOS eco system is so large. Then you have Java for Android, which is also a huge market, as far as volume of games being made. Of course not everyone develops natively, so C/++ is still widely used for development, including on Desktops and stuff like UE4. Then you have C# used on Unity and Windows Phone and stuff. And then, you have the whole web/mobile/HTML5 thing, with Javascript.

Right now, I’m developing in C/++ for my PC stuff, and I use Javascript for my browser/HTML5 stuff (and a bit of PHP). I always try and go cross platform when I develop a game, because I hate maintaining multiple code bases and working natively. I used Marmalade a couple of years back to make iOS and Android games, which was all C/++ with some native extensions. It was pretty good, but bugs and documentation killed it for me. I’m currently trying to find a viable cross platform solution for my new stuff. HTML5 is a contender, and there are some promising tools coming out that will wrap and package for multiple devices.

 

Do you have any other games in the pipeline?

I have 3 “pet project” games I’m working on right now. I tend to get distracted by new and shiny ideas, so I’ll take a break from dev, and prototype something new for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll go back to my pet projects and move them forward a little bit more. I’m in no rush to finish them, and it’s nice to have something to go back to and mess with when I’m in need of a break from contract work, or some coding and creative jollies. Right now, I’m just working on my own stuff by myself, and it can be difficult to stay motivated like that. I’m planning on starting something pretty cool and with a fairly large scope with an old friend and colleague. I can’t wait for that project to kick off.

 

What are your views on the video game industry of today?

It’s big, diverse and fragmented. There are so many platforms and markets for games now. I’ve been out of console games for a few years, having spent the last few years working on MMO tech, being a manager, and now chilling at home working on whatever I fancy doing, but console stuff continues to blow me away. The level of sophistication and maturity in design and technology is astounding. Then you have indie, which is something I’m really interested in personally. There’s some great innovation and experimentation going on there, and it’s super accessible and very much an open and level playing field.  Anyone can jump in and shine and make something cool, provided they’re actually any good at what they do. Mobile was exciting and cool, but pretty much sucks now, at least for me personally. It’s mostly an ocean of shite, stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s tough to make money doing mobile, as there’s an entire generation and demographic of players who have grown up getting and expecting their entertainment to be free. The challenge of monetizing something that I spend months creating, through ads or IAP, is a bit depressing really. And unless you win the lottery and get played by PewDiPie, or have a load of cash for marketing, forget about getting your game noticed. But I’m not bitter. LOL.

 

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You have worked at numerous gaming companies such as Atari, Gremlin, SEGA, Disney and Electronics Arts. Where did you have your fondest gaming memories?

I have fond memories of all the places I’ve worked for one reason or another. For me it’s about the people I worked with, rather than the games I worked on.  The games are a blur, and most of them were brutal grinds at times. Back in the day, when I was involved with Core Design and Eurocom, I worked with some of the most amazing people. Full of youth, passion, energy, and creativity. The thrill of inventing and making shit up and winging everything we did back then was just fantastic. When I moved to America, my first job in California is full of good memories. The glorious sunshine and exotic smells and sounds. New friends and new hardware to master. It really was that good. Later still, Disney provided me with some amazing opportunities and experiences.  Working for a company I’d only dreamt of as a lad growing up in England, meeting celebrities, working on great IP, and having access to all the creativity and talent I could eat. It’s hard to pick a single place or time in my career. It’s all been pretty damn amazing (to say we’re jealous is an understatement… – Ed).

 

Which video game character would you most like to share a few pints with?

Chun-Li. She’s hot. No, wait, Dirk The Daring, because he’s cool. Maybe it was me who was cool, because I was the one controlling him? Hmm, this is tough. Maybe The Announcer from Unreal Tournament. No problem getting the bartender’s attention with that guy, although conversation may be a little monosyllabic. Link could be fun, although he’d probably go around smashing all the glasses…

 

Thanks for your time Chris, all the best for the future!

 

Adrian

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