We love retro gaming stories and our guest this week has many. Anthony Rosbottom was a graphics and animation hotshot for the likes of Probe and Acclaim. He’s worked on many conversions including gems such as Space Invaders, Terminator 2: The Arcade Game, and the FIFA and NHL games of the mid 90s. Adrian sent him a lot of questions and he kindly obliged!
You can follow Anthony on Instagram and Twitter accounts @arosbottom and his portfolio website at www.anthonyrosbottom.com.
What was the first video game you ever worked on and how do you reflect back on this early stage of your career?
There was a game on 8 bit computers called Shockway Rider. In 1988 my first employer had the job of converting this game to the Atari ST and Amiga. We worked on this for a few weeks before the publisher decided not to publish Shockway Rider on the 16 bit machines. We stayed busy by helping Imagitec finish Butcher Hill for Gremlin Graphics so the graphics I did on Butcher Hill was my first published work.
I loved that time of my career because I was 17 going on 18 and I started meeting all these other developers in different parts of the country. It was all very exciting.
How has the role of a game animator and artist evolved over the years and what inspires you when you set out on a new project?
When I first started in the industry a games artist would do everything involved in a game, the front end menus & title screen, the background graphics and the animated sprites. By the early nineties there were game artists around who would only do character animation. Then a few more years later it was ok to specialise in environment graphics or just frontend menu graphics etc. Personally, I started to specialise in background tilesets and left the character animation to people more skilled in animation.
When I set out on a new project, I’m motivated to help the coders get to a ‘first playable’ as quickly as possible. Once you can play the game you’re creating graphics for, you get inspired to add more graphics and improve existing ones. I think it’s hard to fall in love with a game until you can play it.
You’ve worked on really high quality art for so many Amiga and Atari ST titles. Which of these games are you most proud of and why?
Prophecy: Viking Child isn’t a well known game but it was the first game I had a lot of freedom in what graphics I created. The designer provided a list of locations he wanted the game levels to take place in but after that I was free to style the backgrounds how I wanted and was free to come up with the ideas for the enemies and monsters in the game.
The other Amiga/Atari ST game I’m proud of is Special Forces for Microprose. This was a sequel to Microprose’s Airborne Ranger game and Microprose gave me and the two coders a lot of creative freedom. I was the only artist on Special Forces which was unusual even back then in the 16 bit days and I feel with graphics on the Atari ST version specifically, I really pushed the available 16 colours to good use.
How different was it creating art for a game on the Amiga as opposed to the Atari ST and which of these machines is your favourite?
In simple terms, without any weird video hacks or obscure graphic modes, you could have 16 colours on screen at once on the Atari ST. The Amiga allowed 32 colours on screen. So on paper the Amiga should have been my favourite machine of the two. But the Atari ST was always the cheaper machine for the equivalent amount of RAM and the musicians would hog the Amigas in a game studio because of the superior audio sample capabilities of the Amiga. On top of that the coder in charge of the Amiga version would need an Amiga. The result of all this was that artists like me were a lower priority when it came to allocating Amigas among the development staff (at the game studios I worked at back then anyway).
The general graphics pipeline back then was to create the graphics on an Atari ST first and put the Atari ST graphics into the Amiga version as a ‘placeholder’. If there was time on the schedule and an Amiga was spare, the artist would add extra colours to the Atari ST graphics to make the Amiga-specific graphics.
Occasionally time or budget would run out on a project and the commercial decision was made to release the Amiga version with Atari ST graphics. Which was disappointing for the Amiga gamers but also disappointing for the artists involved, knowing their art could have looked more colourful if circumstances were different.
But looping back to which was my favourite machine out of the Amiga or Atari ST, I’m actually going to say the Atari ST because it was my daily ‘work horse’ which meant I got really comfortable with it. Using the Amiga was an occasional treat for me back then.
You’ve worked on a few classic titles that require the SNES Super Scope and Mega Drive Menacer such as Body Count and Terminator 2: The Arcade Game. How did these differ from different titles?
Yes they were complicated and at times frustrating projects to work on to be honest. I worked on the SNES Super Scope version of Terminator 2: The Arcade Game first. The Terminator 2 game is basically set at night time so the graphics are generally dark. This presented a problem for how the SNES Super Scope was designed as it relied on bright, high luminance graphics to be in the game to work. So I had the balancing act of taking the normal SNES graphics and brightening them all up without making the game look like a surreal pastel mess with cute, non-threatening terminators.
I’d add some graphics and then QA would come back and tell me the gun didn’t pick up such-and-such graphic and I’d brighten the graphics a bit more and let QA test it again. We got into a bit of a demoralising loop until a compromise was reached.
Body Count benefitted from the experience I got from the Terminator 2 game. I created all the in-game graphics for Body Count and was given free reign for how everything looked. As well as enjoying the creative freedom, I was able to design the game locations so that they never took place in the dark of night. This meant the Mega Drive Menacer version of the graphics weren’t very different compared to the non-light gun version of the graphics. Whereas unfortunately the Terminator 2: The Arcade Game non-light gun graphics looked very different from the light gun version.
You’ve worked on huge titles such as FIFA Soccer 96, NHL 95, Ready 2 Rumble Boxing and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 for the Game Boy consoles. Can you describe the process of creating and bringing these classic games to the handheld and did you have the console versions to aid you?
FIFA Soccer 96 and NHL 95 games were relatively straightforward because the other console versions were still 2D not 3D at that point and EA Sports insisted that the isometric view of the more powerful consoles had to be present in the Gameboy versions. So for these games it was a case of converting Mega Drive versions of the graphics to three tones of grey (plus transparent), resizing the graphics for the lower resolution and pruning the number of animation frames in use in the case of the player sprites and reducing the number of tiles used in the background graphics, until the graphics fit into the smaller memory of the Game Boy.
Ready 2 Rumble Boxing was a trickier project. The source game was a 3D game on the PlayStation. We had high resolution 2D marketing and frontend art supplied to us but the PlayStation team couldn’t help up with the in-game graphics. Luckily, the company doing the Game Boy color conversion (Crawfish Interactive) also converted WWF Attitude on the Game Boy Color and it was the same coder, David Theodore behind both games. This made the development of Ready 2 Rumble easier because the games were both similar enough that a significant portion of WWF Attitude could be reskinned as Ready 2 Rumble Boxing.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 was essentially a whole new game from the other versions. We could only really use some of the frontend graphics from the other versions (can’t remember which version we had access to). So we took inspiration from the theme of the original levels but THPS3 was a very different game on Game Boy Color. We went for a ¾ top down view instead of the full 3D view of the other console versions.
What was your exact role on Mortal Kombat 2?
After we completed the home console versions of Mortal Kombat at Probe, we had workflows in place to convert the arcade graphics to different sizes and amounts of colours for each console version. An artist did an initial conversion of graphics for MKII but as is the way a lot of the times, they moved onto a different project and then weeks later the coders can come back and say the graphics are taking up too much memory and ask for more pruning. Or the graphics need to change for a bug fix or design reason. So I did some extra processing of the graphics and also trained other artists to handle the graphics conversion process so they could help out.
You’re credited as a designer on a few titles such as Egg Mania and Forsaken. How does this role differ from being an artist?
Being a game designer at a studio involves creating a lot of documentation (game bibles, frontend flows, back story, dialog trees etc.) and a lot of editing levels and logic in the game itself. My credits as designer for these two games are for different reasons. For Egg Mania, myself and two coders were having a brainstorming session for game ideas we could come up with. We came up with Egg Mania and I drew some concept art for it but the project wasn’t resurrected till quite a few years later.
For Forsaken I designed one of the multiplayer arena levels (as well as creating some of the textures used throughout the game). The levels of Forsaken were constructed in the dos version of 3dstudio, a program used by 3d artists not designers unless they spent a while learning it. So most of the levels in Forsaken were designed by artists and honed by the whole team playing them. Some game designers managed to learn enough of 3dstudio to create their own levels.
We’re proud Croydon boys at Arcade Attack. A lot of your career has been based around Croydon. When did you work in Croydon and how important was the area for the gaming industry?
Yes I believe Fergus and Vakas set up Probe Software in Croydon in 1984. I joined around 1993 (roughly). The company grew really big over the following years. We had two floors at Knollys house and roughly 150 people working there. The mighty US publisher Acclaim bought Probe in 1995 and renamed it Acclaim Studios London. I was made redundant in 1999. Luckily for me, Cameron Sheppard, a coder at Probe, set up his own studio a couple of years before called Crawfish Interactive. Crawfish specialised on Game Boy and Game Boy Color games and that’s where I did most of my Game Boy work.
Acclaim fell into financial difficulties soon after I was made redundant from Probe/Acclaim Studios London And Fergus started a new studio that was called Netherrock for a short while before being renamed HotGen. After my time at Crawfish I moved to HotGen which had two floors of the famous 50p building (local nickname) that was used in the Bandersnatch episode of Black Mirror.
HotGen lasted a long time, moved to different Croydon offices and was bought by a US toy company called Skyrocket Toys in 2016. I was there till the end (late 2017). While the ‘Probe to HotGen dynasty’ was happening, other game development studios appeared, usually created by ex Probe staff. There was Razorback Developments set up by Dave Leitch and Cameron Sheppard. Matt Nagy, a game designer, set up a studio. Until early 2021 there was a games company called No Yetis Allowed that specialised in mobile phone games based on licenses like Shrek, Peter Rabbit and Judge Dredd.
Kuju also quietly set up shop in Croydon. It was there in pre-Covid 2019. I hope it’s still there now.
I really love your artwork. What inspires your work and do you have a favourite piece?
Thank you. My work is mainly inspired by cover art from 1970’s & 80’s scifi novels. I grew up with classic book cover illustrators like Roger Dean, Patrick Woodroofe, Wayne Barlow, Tim White, Chris Foss and many others.
Finished artwork is a bit like your own children, you don’t really have a favorite but if I am pressed, I’d choose my acrylic painting called ‘Past Present and Future”.
Of all the games you’ve worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
A hard question to answer but I’m going to say Space Invaders on the Game Boy for Activision in 1999/2000.
Firstly, when elderly people ask me “what games have you worked on?” I can answer “Space Invaders” and everyone on the planet knows what I’m talking about (even if I’m cheating because they are most likely thinking about the 1978 original and not the Activision remake).
But I’m proud of the work I did on that project because I put a lot of effort into being creative on re-imagining the aliens and the player ship. It was also a project that went as seamlessly as video game projects could. I was given total creative freedom and David Leitch the coder, was really supportive and made sure our Game Boy Color version was as visually pleasing as the higher end formats. I actually think the Game Boy was the best format for this version of Space Invaders. We couldn’t do a lot of flashy elaboration of the design of the game due to the technical limitations of the format but I think this is great as we weren’t tempted to dilute the classic experience with extra ‘fluff’.
Did you ever start work on any video games that were never completed, and if so, what titles do you think would have been a success?
Compared to a lot of my game industry friends, I haven’t been blighted much by ‘canned projects’. I mean my very first game Shockway Rider was canned but we have to jump to early 2000s for my next significant canned project. At HotGen we were tasked with creating the sequel to the PlayStation game ‘World’s Scariest Police Chases’ (based on a US tv show). The game started off like Acclaim’s original Burnout game but then GTA 3 was released and the publisher 20th Century FOX suddenly wanted an open world game like GTA 3. We spent about two years on the game and had solid Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Gamecube versions running. Then FOX was bought by Vivendi and the only game franchise Vivendi wanted was The Simpsons so World’s Scariest Police Chases Two (snappy name) was cancelled just as we were finishing it up.
I think this game would have been a success for parents who wanted their children to have the open world GTA 3 experience without the violence and criminality of the GTA franchise as you could only play as law enforcement.
Do you own a copy of all the games you have worked on?
Unfortunately not. It was always a bone of contention when developing games that publishers were generally very stingy with giving final copies back out to the developers. I’ve seen development contracts where the publisher has stipulated that six copies of a game will be provided to a development team of forty people. Much like being credited on video games, not being provided with a finished product is a common gripe among developers.
That being said, I do have a copy of most of my Game Boy games. I also have a copy of Body Count which I recently found out sells on eBay for £100 due to its rarity.
Are you a gamer in your own time, and if so, which are your three favourite games of all time and why?
I am a gamer but I don’t keep abreast of all the new titles coming out. I play a few titles a lot rather than playing a new game every week like my kids seem to do.
My three favorite games, another hard question. Looking at my choices I can now see that games with a strong exploration element are my favorite types of game.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild:
I loved playing A Link to the Past on the SNES and Links Awakening on the Game Boy but I didn’t really get on with the 3D Zelda games until Breath of The Wild. This is in my top three because the presentation (sound and graphics) is flawless. The art style fits perfectly with what the Wii-U and Switch can throw on screen. But most of all, the sense of exploration is awesome. This game and its 2D predecessors are masters at showing you places you can’t yet get too but you know you will get there eventually.
This choice is really a culmination of all great first person shooters from DOOM onwards up to the point of Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2 was the point that I thought I was ‘playing’ a Hollywood action film instead of watching it. Was also the first game I felt a connection to the NPCs. Especially Dog.
Minecraft Java Edition:
This game is my number one favorite. I have to consciously stop myself playing this game too much for my own good. I came to Minecraft relatively late. I saw my kids playing it and thought it looked ‘mildly cool’. Then as soon as I tried it I was hooked. It’s the sense of practically infinite exploration possibilities and the control the player has to change the environment, that keeps me obsessed with this game. Knowing you’ll never hit the edge of the world, [in a normal lifetime] and that there is always something ‘a bit further along’ is incredible.
What projects and games are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished work on Jelle’s Marble League, a PC/Mac game on Steam based on the hugely popular marble run YouTube channel of the same name.
Right now I have just started working at Funfair.io an early pioneer in the crypto gaming space who are doing big things in the online gambling world.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Yoshi. I want to ask him how on earth he put up with baby Mario’s crying in Super Mario World 2.