Simon Phipps (Core) – Interview

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The Rick Dangerous games were huge for us growing up, as were a lot of Core’s games at the time. So it’s a pleasure to introduce the game’s creator and retro gaming superstar Simon Phipps! Our Adrian went to have a little chat with him, take it away chaps…

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first game you worked on?

Funny question this – made me realise that my very first published game wasn’t the one I’ve been quoting all these years…  (this is an exclusive, for you guys, I guess!).

Technically, the first game I ever had published was a version of Lunar Lander that I wrote in BBC BASIC back in 1982. That was published under the name ‘StarForce Lander’ by First Byte Software. I worked spare time in a computer shop in Derby and they tried their hand at selling a few games on tape when titles were scarce in the early days of the Beeb.

The first ‘proper’ published game was ‘Jet Power Jack’ on the BBC Micro in ‘84.  I wrote that while doing my A Levels.  It was a combination of machine code and BASIC and my school friend Stuart (‘DangerStu’) Gregg encouraged me to send it to a publisher.  I sent it to A&F Software (who turned it down for not being 100% machine code) and Micro Power.  Micro Power came back to me with a list of 10 improvements and I made those changes and they published it for BBC and later the Acorn Electron as well as getting a conversion made for C64 by Gary Partis.

 

 

So those were my first brushes with the Games Industry.

My break into working full-time in the Industry came in 1987 after I’d been off to Polytechnic to do a whole heap of serious computing and Computer Studies.  I’d finished my course and started a job as a BCPL Programmer with a local firm making desktop publishing software.  One evening in late November/early December a friend of mine, Terry Lloyd (who used to work with me at First Byte years before) phoned me up asking me if I’d like to help him out with the artwork for Gremlin Graphics’ Atari ST version of Masters of the Universe: The Movie.

I quickly put together a portfolio on a disc, dropped it in with Terry and then had an interview with the guys at Gremlin.  I was expecting a part-time contract – they offered me a full-time job…and I’ve been making games ever since.

(Crumbs, that’s 30 years, full-time, this year!)

 

We’re big fans here at Arcade Attack, what inspired you to create the awesome Rick Dangerous and how long did it take to turn your initial ideas into a finished game?

Core, in its first few days, needed new ideas to pitch, so Terry and I sat down in the back room one afternoon and made a list of all the game genres that were being done at the time.  We crossed off space games, medieval games (Black Tiger from Capcom was just out – I remember that clearly).  We realised that an Indiana Jones-type game that captured the spirit of those first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark – a headlong dash through a mass of flying blow darts and booby traps had never been made.

We started scribbling down ideas on a few pieces of paper (the original scans of those pages are on my website and I came up with the idea for a very simple system that would allow us to create a massive variety of traps very easily.

We then started work on the game and four months later it was done.  The game wasn’t released by Firebird until much later in June ‘89 because for some reason or other, publishers back then didn’t have to release their games a second after they went gold.

 

 

Very interesting! The game has a very strong following even today. Why do you think fans really took to it and the main character?

I can’t wrap my head around it – the fact that anyone remembers such an obscure little game at all let alone continues to play it, remake it for various platforms old and new or write to me with stories about how they played it all that time ago is quite amazing.

All I can think is that Rick just hit at the right time for some folks and it represents for them a warm, fuzzy memory of being huddled around a computer with their mates taking turns, throwing things at the screen and having a laugh.

To think that I’ve been responsible for creating those memories and moments has been a real privilege.

 

The original and its sequel are both difficult games. Did you purposely aim to make them challenging?

No.  We thought we were making games that were just like their peers.  We took all of the one-hit-and-you’re-dead jumping mechanics that you’d see in games like Manic Miner et al and put them into tombs.  Of course, in hindsight, I’ve now realised that the big difference between us and the likes of Jet Set Willy was the fact that in all the other games patrol patterns were repetitive and predictable.

So, while we thought we were making a regular platform game, turns out we were actually making a memory test full of surprises and spring-loaded death (arrgghhhh!! – Ed).

It’s worth mentioning that some of the original level designs in Rick 1 were too difficult and we spent a lot of time making them more achievable…

 

Did you ever start work on Rick Dangerous 3 and if so, how far was the game to completion?

Nope.  Never did.  Rick jumped into the teleporter at the end of Rick 2 and we moved onto other projects.  No one asked us to make a Rick 3 and we all wanted to do new things anyway.

 

You’ve sort of touched on it there but would you ever be interested in making a brand new Rick Dangerous title?

No, not really.  Gaming has moved on and so have I. I came into computers wanting to work on new things, new technology, discover new ideas and develop new skills, so that’s where my focus is, moving forwards and making new things.

 

 

Aw come on! Just kidding! You worked at Core for a good number of years. Can you share some of your experiences working for the company and your fondest memory?

My fondest memories are those early years of the original Gremlin team working together in Saxon House making titles like Rick and Rick 2, later working with my school friend John Kirkland on Wolfchild and spending lots of time with the delightful Billy (Bli) Allison working on Bubba ‘n’ Stix – Billy was incredibly generous with his time and I learned so much about animation and how to draw from him.

 

Out of all the games that you’ve worked on, which gave you the most pleasure and are you most proud of?

The work I’m doing right now with Three Fields Entertainment.  In the past year, we’ve shipped 3 titles (Dangerous GolfLethal VR and Danger Zone) across 7 platforms and after two decades of doing nothing but the design and management/production stuff, I’m hands-on making games again.  This has meant spending lots of time making interface art, coding and I even have had the opportunity to paint the pack art too – I have more freedom and support from my Three Fields family than I’ve ever had in my entire career and we make games that we want to make and don’t have to ask permission for anything.  It’s wonderful.

 

You have helped create many games for both computer platforms and numerous consoles. How different is it to create games on various platforms?

The principles are all the same, certainly from my experience.

When it comes to the art – make your original art for the highest possible specific machine and then carefully downgrade it for whatever the target machine is.  It’s a real pain to try to add detail to something and up-resolution it – I spent 18 months up-rezzing all the art for Wolfchild, adding more colour and detail to it for every platform that came along – I never ever want to do that again! (we can imagine! – Ed)

As goes cross-platform design – if you’re working on multiple platforms simultaneously – pick a middle ground that will work across the board and concentrate on making the best game across everything.  Then optimise for specific platforms.  (That’s how we managed to get Rick and other titles across 6 formats in 4 months – we picked a sprite size that worked with the C64, a screen width that played nicely with the Spectrum, no more than 256 characters to work with the Spectrum/C64 and no side scrolling because the Atari ST would’ve died.)

In short, you’re always looking for ways to share the maximum amount of work across all formats rather than burning time on little inconsequential things that players won’t notice and will only benefit one platform in a small way.

If the platforms are so diverse, know when it’s sensible to make separate games (such as the GameBoy Advance and PlayStation2 versions of Harry Potter) but try and spot places where you can save yourself work by sharing art, dialogue, etc.

Of course, if you only have one platform to work on – go all out and make it the best it can be – embrace the quirks of its hardware – so if it has unique motion controls or a touch screen, make use of them – the first-party software will and if you want to compete with that, then you have to do it.

But it all comes down to gameplay at the end – whether it’s in 2D or 3D the most important thing is making the game fun and remembering in the face of all the competing pressures and requests from everyone who has a vested interest in the game that that’s vital. And the bigger the company, the bigger the budget, the harder it is to maintain that focus as you’re trying to please many, many competing interests.

 

 

You have worked in numerous roles within the industry, such as leading a project, programming and graphics. Which role gives you the most fulfilment and why?

I think a healthy balance of making art and coding – drawing/animating something then making it come alive on screen.  That’s why I started making games back when I was 16 and the magic of that is why I keep doing what I do.

 

What are your top three favourite video games of all time and can you explain why?

Here’s the countdown…

In at number 3…

Elite on the BBC Micro – that swept me up and took me away for hours back in the 80s – it was the ability to fly my own spaceship and lose myself in a galaxy full of freedom that just blew me away (I’m privileged to be able to revisit Elite Dangerous on the Oculus Rift in VR now and still get chills and feelings of awe when docking with a Coriolis space station…although I wish I had more time to lose myself there for 4 or 5 hours at a time like I used to.)

Powering into the number 2 slot…

Sunset Overdrive – without a doubt, the most joyous time I’ve had in years playing games.  Cut scenes that were genuinely worth watching and I found absolutely hilarious.  In-game dialogue that always brought a smile to my face, an amazing in-game soundtrack, crazy amounts of character customisation (the first time I’ve really felt that it was my character that I was taking through a game) and just sheer fun from start to finish.  I have an enormous backlog of games that I know I’ll never get to (on account that my urges to work, paint, draw, make and hang out with my family eat up pretty much every day) but I always toy with the idea of going back to Sunset City all over again.

 

 

(My heart sank when I heard that Insomniac was doing a Spider-Man game instead of Sunset OD II)

And taking the top spot…number 1…

Borderlands – I just love this series.  It’s funny, upbeat, silly, full of freedom – it’s video game crack to me (ha ha! – Ed).  In a world of linear, miserable, brown, post-apocalyptic environments packed with unskippable cut scenes, this has been such a joy.  I love its anarchic sense of humour, compulsive looting and shooting and the tactics that come with its elemental weapons, the sheer freedom to swap and change missions whenever you like.  The story of the world and its characters are rich and hilarious and all told without taking the controls away from you.  Also, the graphical style and tone take things that in other games would be grim and miserable and elevate them into pure comic book.  Rough around the edges, maybe at times, but it has such heart that I’m still playing the 360 version of the pre-sequel in preference to anything in 4K right now.

Honourable mentions: Zelda: Windwaker and Watch_Dogs – two worlds full of freedom that I absolutely lost myself in for weeks.

Especially Watch_Dogs – I broke my ankle and couldn’t get out a few years ago – running around a virtual Chicago kept me sane.

 

That’s a great top three, I wonder if any of our readers would like to top that 😉 A final question for you as we know you’re a very busy man, if you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Undoubtedly ‘Mad’ Moxxi from Borderlands – she’s a really smart, capable lady with a razor-sharp wit and I guarantee on a night out she’d get along famously with my wife, Jayne  I’m glad you’ve said ‘a few drinks’ though – neither of us are big drinkers and I’m 100% certain Moxxi’d drink us both under the table…

(Okay if I mention that folks can visit my website at www.simonphipps.com, follow me @simorph on Twitter or follow my Art Page on Facebook…?) (Yes it is! – Ed)

 

Thanks for stopping by Simon! Your games have given us many hours of enjoyment and we wish you all the best for the future!

Adrian

 

 

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