His quest to find Atari Jaguar answers is going…quite well as it turns out. Atari (and Nintendo) producer supremo Faran Thomason is next up in Adrian’s cross hairs and he pulls no punches in this great interview (if we do say so ourselves – Ed). You Bubsy fans/haters may want to check out our latest podcast.
How exactly did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
As a tester at Atari. I studied film in college and moved to the bay area and the only “film” job I could get was shooting video yearbooks at local high schools and was probably as weird and creepy as it sounds. It was random because the business was one of those “franchise opportunities” you see in the back of magazines. We would go to high schools and shoot random footage and label it “football game”, “play”, “home economics” etc and would ship it to a computer based editor that would arbitrarily splice all the footage together without any context of the school, but this allowed us to shoot multiple schools at a time. Fortunately before the kids found out they were being hustled I found the classic “get paid to play video games” ad in the newspaper and got a job at Atari.
My first interview was at EA, but I had zero Madden experience and then I landed an interview at Atari which was more up my alley. I did have some product testing experience as my Dad had a modem company when I was a kid which of course gave me access to the “internet” and every computer platform in the early 80s. So growing up, as much as my parents loathed video games, I had many game consoles (usually the also rans like Odyssey and Colecovison), but had every computer available in the 80s, even obscure platforms like Osborne, Kaypro and IMSAI. While I never coded I did have a lot of hands on experience using computers and modems to hack into dial ups etc. And I think the combination of playing a lot of games as well as actual testing experience got me the job.
I might add that I did study interactive media at Michigan State University and I think they are one of the top interactive and game design schools these days.
Do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
I think it was probably Road Riot, Jimmy Connors’ Tennis or Malibu Volleyball for the Atari Lynx. It was probably testing all of those games at the same time since the Atari test dept was like three or four people at the time and one person would “lead” a project, but we would all test each other’s games.
Cybermorph was the pack-in title for the Atari Jaguar. What was your role on this game and do you think it managed to showcase the true power of the Jaguar?
I was a game tester and level designer. When Cybermorph showed up in the US Atari offices it was very basic, just the ship flying through a rudimentary landscape in all its Gauroud shaded glory. I am not sure if ATD did not have the resources or what the reason was, but the whole test department was drafted to implement levels and structure into the game. ATD had a rudimentary editor we would plot out the terrain and enemies and they would implement. I think at this time the ATD coders were onsite at Atari making the process easier. It was an all hands on deck type of thing we would be testing doing some design for all of the launch titles simultaneously and pulled more than a few all-nighter’s.
Overall, I think Cybermorph was innovative for its time. I think there was an upper management decision to make the hardware focus more on the Gauroud shading than texture maps. Like most Jag games it probably need a bit more time in the oven, but I think it was cool for the time. It was a true 3D world as compared to something like StarFox which was on rails.
Bubsy on the Jaguar is notoriously hard! (I cannot even get past the first level!), was the game intentionally made difficult and how do you reflect while looking back on this game?
Honestly I don’t think Bubsy is that hard, is it cheap in some areas, probably. Was it done intentionally, yes we didn’t want people to beat it in a weekend. There were other factors that lead to its difficulty curve. The developers were weaned on 90s era Psygnosis games which I think are a lot more difficult and unforgiving, additionally one of the problems of most games of that era is that we made games based on our reality at that time as well. As a tester I was used to beating games so the difficulty curve never felt impossible. But additionally I am sure there were collision quirks, etc. in porting the legacy Bubsy code to the Jag and merging it with Imagitec’s level editors etc.
With the Accolade deal we (me) were working on about half a dozen legacy Accolade games simultaneously, so at the time I never thought too much of it other than what it was. Bubsy was always a second tier platformer (say it isn’t so! – Ed), we tried to make it as exciting as we could given the parameters. The goal was to try to make it a little more “edgier” than the 16-bit versions so it would appeal to young and old. If I am not mistaken it was the only Accolade game to make it to retail. I was also working on Brett Hull and Barkley, but the development of those was pretty hellish and I think those only exist in bootleg form. Baseball and golf barely got past a title screen.
One of these days I may do a Twitch or a let’s play of Bubsy if ever get the time, granted I am old now so my reflexes are not what they used to be. But I do enjoy the weird polarizing attitude people have towards it, some people seem to love it others loathe it so I find it fairly amusing.
You have 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?
By the time the Tramiels took over Atari it was a shadow of itself (this probably happened when Warner made it more corporate), of course it depends on your age as to what you think of Atari as some people really only know it from the Infogrames era. It was a great place to start because we got a lot of input into product that I probably would not have gotten if I got the job at EA. It was a great experience, I made friends that I talk to today and we still work on projects together.
The Lynx was great hardware but designed to be “powerful” and the Game Boy was designed to be efficient. So I think choices like that made things a struggle as well as the Jag being extremely difficult to program for. Additionally almost for all the devs on Jag games it was their first game programming jobs (they were cheap and companies didn’t want to expend premium resources to develop Jaguar games). But in general the Atari “brand” has become a commodity because every owner (including Bushnell) wanted to capitalize on the name and the brand.
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?
As stated above, it was too difficult to program for. Also the marketing spend was not huge, but that being said most of the games are not that great. However, if it had a C compiler or better dev tools out the gate, I don’t think it would have been a huge success but the games released would have had better quality. I also think that it has a unique unpolished aesthetic which may be part of the reasons for its cult status. I am pretty shocked how popular it is 20 years later. No one cares that I worked at Nintendo on literally some of the most popular games ever made, but I still get you worked at Atari, THAT’S COOL!
Are there any other games on the Atari Jaguar or other consoles you started work on but never managed to release?
The most infamous Jag game that I worked on that never got out the blocks was Mindripper, based on a cheesy Wes Craven produced film. It was fun, because this was at the point where Atari Upper Management was giving everyone a little more room to try to get stuff done and make interesting things. This was probably around the Black Ice/White Noise, Highlander era where we got actual budgets and resources to make games. The budgets on Raiden/Bubsy/etc. were less than Game Boy game budgets! The movie company gave us access to actors like Lance Henriksen and access to the set and the props. So even though the movie was pretty schlocky I think the game would have been fun, it would have been a cheesier and gorier version of AvP. I think if Mindripper had gotten done it would have had cult status, but still would have been in the shadow of AVP.
I also worked on an unreleased action RPG called Dead Ahead for N64, an MMO called Skies for Sega where we had character designs done by Image Comics and a Gamecube game that was being developed by Martin Hollis, the guy who headed Golden Eye for N64. There are many others but those had the most potential.
After you finished work on numerous Jaguar titles you then worked on a number of quality Game Boy Color titles. How did this opportunity arise and which Game Boy title are you most proud of?
After Atari I worked on an unreleased N64 game called Dead Ahead, then went to Sega and worked on an unreleased MMO called Skies. I then got a job as a Producer in the “treehouse” at Nintendo. We worked on a lot of famous titles like Smash Bros, Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong Country, etc. Personally, I worked on all the Game Boy Color titles that no one bought like Warlocked, Little Mermaid Pinball and Pocket Soccer. Warlocked was probably the best of the batch, it was the first portable RTS game. It was a whimsical clone of Warcraft and it was multiplayer and you could trade units like Pokemon. It got great reviews, awards, but no promotion.
Out all of the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
I think I liked Warlocked the best since it was so innovative and well received. Of course I have made really crappy games like a crappy LCD version of Texas Hold Em Poker (similar to Game and Watch and those old Tiger Games) that sold millions, so you never really know what will be big and what will be a footnote.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am in the process of creating a retro console, but it’s pretty tough to get rights to old games. We have an alpha rev of the hardware up and running. I don’t have too many details to share at the moment, however it is in conjunction with another former Jaguar/Lynx developer. This would actually be our second console that we have partnered on…we went to China and made a Wii knock off called Motion on the Move a few years ago. We sold units into India and Latin America primarily. It didn’t make us rich, but was a great experience.
What are your three favourite video games of all time and why?
I don’t really have “favourites” but here is what I am playing at the moment:
Persona 5, It’s pretty good JRPG but having played almost all the games in Persona series I am kind of over it, not because its bad but because it’s a bit redundant, although the story in 5 is very “mature” in themes for what looks like a kids game. I would like play an action RPG in this universe and would be cool if Atlus could make that happen!
Dark Souls 3 is another redundant sequel, but they did a great job in fine tuning and polish over the Souls games so that this one still feels fresh and exciting to play.
Yakuza 5 is a great interactive Gangster movie. The property management sim is awful…but a great execution of a Gangster film. While Shenmue gets all the hype, the Yakuza series is leaps and bounds better!
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Hmm, not sure but maybe the Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball team?