A true retrogaming stalwart/legend graces our blog today. Kindly introduced to us by Jordan Freeman of ZOOM Platform, Darryl Still worked on and helped promote some of Atari’s very best hardware. The ST, the Lynx, the Jaguar, were all under his remit at one point and he dropped by to answer our questions in one of the most eyeopening interviews we’ve ever had.
Darryl, your track record in the business is well known, but how exactly did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry in the first place?
My very first job was selling course books to students at Reading University, and one of my departments was Home Computing, which at the time was a single shelf of books, but quickly built up to an entire bay. Meanwhile, I was working with some of the student programmers I had met on the side cranking out game code for conversions. A publisher I was selling these to asked me to go and work for them and so it started there.
What was it like working for Atari and what is your fondest memory of working for this iconic company?
You have to break it down into two sections really. The initial period was a fabulous up curve, Product Managing the Atari ST. Producing the hugely successful Power Pack, which established it as the hottest gaming machine of the period and being on a major high (no doubt – Ed). The end period was an extremely hard and painfully slow death of the company as two pieces of exceptional technology, The Lynx and then the Jaguar, failed to achieve the success they deserved due to issues beyond our control (also, no doubt – Ed) and the powerful budgets of the newly mighty Japanese rivals at Nintendo and Sega.
My fondest memories would be the companionship of a very strong and close knit team at the height of our success. Not least the excellent industry football team we had that won tournaments around Europe and formed a great bond between the top floor management and the boys in the warehouse. The internal Kick Off tournaments we used to run too. And the Friday night pub crawls in Windsor and Eton that most of the company went on. Plus events. The Atari shows and attendance at other shows in Dusseldorf and similar places were always eventful. So OK, it seems my best memories revolve around football and alcohol. Not sure what that says, but it was a young and very lively thriving company at that time and I made many great friends.
Could you share with our readers a typical working day at Atari and what your marketing role involved?
There was no typical day. That’s why it was so good. Over eight years it was ever changing. Putting together the games packs for the ST. Starting ARC, a publisher also selling Amiga and PC versions of the games, so could not be officially Atari recognised, though 100% Atari funded. Running the music division alongside – we were the home studio PC of choice – so working closely with the varied likes of Chesney Hawkes, Fat Boy Slim and Captain Sensible. Working with Kellogg’s on a massive Lynx promotion on all their cereal packs. The pure buzz of producing titles for the technology offered by the Jaguar. Every day, month and year was different.
Sounds amazing. Everyone seems to have many different opinions on why Atari is now a shadow of its former self. What do you think are the main reasons Atari ultimately failed?
I think within the company people have different opinions too. If you ask someone from Atari Germany they would tell you it was because the company moved away from its “Jackintosh” DTP routes. If you ask someone in Atari UK, they would say it was because they didn’t embrace gaming enough. I can point to failures on our part. The games pack that was a major part of the ST success was also a major part of its eventual failure. Giving twenty-one games away free with the machine led to the consumer not needing to buy another game for a few months. It also affected third party publishers ST sales, so that where previously they had developed on ST and done a straight Amiga port, they got together and decided en masse to develop on Amiga, use the extra 15% graphics features they had not touched to that point and then port down to the ST, allowing consumers to see, for the first time, that the Amiga version was slightly better. Then when we introduced the STe to make up the difference, and closely checked every game in the top 100 for compatibility, on day of release, Kick Off, a small indie game, came from nowhere to be top of the charts, and guess what? It didn’t work on the Ste, leading to “STe incompatible with STfm games” headline of the main weekly games magazine (harsh – Ed). That sort of bad luck seemed to follow us around at the time.
In my opinion Lynx was an amazing piece of technology, but for some reason, maybe battery life, maybe size, maybe just marketing power, the far inferior Nintendo Gameboy just got the handheld traction and totally dominated that market.
By the time we got to Jaguar, the company was in some financial difficulty and needed a smooth, trouble free launch. We did a great job bringing amazing titles to the console, and with very limited budget made it the must have machine that Christmas, and then due to a catastrophic failure at the plant producing a key chip of the console, failed to deliver even 10% of the demand.
When I left the company for Electronic Arts in 1996, there were only 7 people left in the UK office.
You mentioned the Jaguar a few times there, and the limited budget to help promote and market it. Do you feel this was the main reason the Jag never really caught on?
Yes. The budget was limited but we used it very well and had a huge demand. It was the failure to supply the orders for the first Christmas that killed the machine. Parents went for their kids’ second choice console and we could never get that customer back.
Is there any truth that FIFA was in the works for the Jaguar, and if so do you know why the game was never made?
I attended a meeting with EA where we pitched them the Jaguar and they loved the technology, but would not jump fully into development until the units we promised were in consumers’ hands. I saw a very early tech sample, but nothing further and the failure to deliver on the hardware numbers basically killed it.
Are there any other Jaguar games that were in the development stage but were sadly never completed?
A few. Some, such as the amazing Zero 5, made it out subsequently via Telegames, albeit in an unfinished state. Some never saw the light of day, but I have wiped most of those from my memory.
That’s a shame, Zero 5 would have been a big hit we feel. The Jag homebrew scene is growing all the time, how does it feel that there is still so much love for the 64-bit console and are you tempted to release any future games for the console?
It’s actually quite rewarding. I have recently become a Patron of the National Video Games Foundation and donated some of my old test carts to their museum (we want to see! – Ed). I try not to get too drawn into the whole retro scene, quite simply because I run a thriving, forward thrusting company. It’s also funny having kids who play the latest games and any attempt I’ve ever had to proudly show them my past “triumphs” usually results in a bruised ego for me! Happy memories do not readily cross the generations it seems. Lol.
If you had the opportunity to go back in time is there anything you would love to have done differently to help turn around the fortunes of the Jaguar?
Simply being able to deliver on our first Christmas promises. The buzz around the console was awesome. Some of the games were stunning. If I could have hand built those chips I would have happily done so.
The console had a lot of 16-bit ports, which admittedly look better than their counterparts. In your opinion, what tied the Jaguar console to this path and why weren’t more high-end games that took full advantage of the console’s power like Cybermorph and Black Ice/White Noise released?
It was a matter of time between delivering the dev kits and delivering the first games. It was quite a fast turnaround and a steep learning curve. I am confident that, had the future been brighter, second games from most studios would have been more ambitious. People like Fred Gill and the Kingsleys at Rebellion definitely pushed the boundaries more. And look at Rayman, for example, compare the Jag one to the other versions (it’s great – Ed).
Moving on to the other console you mentioned earlier, the Lynx was around when we were kids but we just didn’t know enough about it to choose it over the Game Boy/Game Gear. Do you think it was a better console and, you touched on it a bit before, is it true the marketing budget was purposely restricted by Atari in comparison to Sega/Nintendo?
I believe that visually it was much better than both. Battery life was an issue, but it was on the Sega machine (also), and that may have handed Gameboy an advantage. But no, the marketing budget was not purposely restricted. Nintendo and Sega were just much richer companies than Atari. It was simple economics. Atari R&D was superb, but we were not in the same league as Nintendo when it came to the size of the bank balance or the marketing budget that allowed.
It’s well-known in retro gaming circles that the Batman Returns release allowed you to meet some celebs (you’re a celeb to us!) – who is the most famous person you’ve met in this line of work? And did you like them?
Most of the celebs I met were through the music side of things, rather than Batman Returns. Brian May from Queen was an avid ST user. Captain Sensible used to come in for me to clean his mouseballs (oo er – Ed)! But the Batman Returns movie premiere was probably the most glittering event I ever attended and the only time I ever really got caught in the Paparazzi flashlights, entering, as my wife and I did, between Bob Geldoff and Paula Yates and Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Leslie who were celebrity couples at the time (less said about Mr Leslie the better… – Ed).
For me though I would jump forward to my EA Sports days and meeting a number of sportsmen like Lennox Lewis, Carl Fogarty and the likes, but biggest ever thrill was doing voiceover work with two of my cricketing heroes, Sir Ian Botham and the late great Richie Benaud (legend – Ed), who was an absolutely charming man.
What are your views on the future Atari console the Ataribox and will you be getting one? (they should give you one for free!)
I’m eager to see one. I get most of my retro news through my close friend from EA days, Iain Hancock, who has quite a collection, so I expect I will see it around his place first.
Out all of the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
I loved Graham Gooch’s Test Cricket. Then at Atari, probably Alien vs Predator for the Jag. At EA I worked on a title called Galapagos, which was pretty revolutionary, but failed to really fly off the shelves. Since then I worked with some great games at Nvidia like Far Cry and Call of Duty. At 1C the Men of War series was great fun and obviously I am very proud of some of our games at Kiss, such as Project Nimbus.
What are your three favourite video games of all time and why?
My first addiction was a BBC platformer called Monsters, then probably Aztec Challenge for the Commodore 64. I spent many hours on Summer Games for the same machine and Kick Off on the ST. Probably the game I have spent most hours on in my life is Championship/Football Manager. Multiple Champions League triumphs with QPR just show what fantasy gaming is all about (ha ha! – Ed).
What projects are you currently working on with Kiss Ltd?
Kiss is going through a massive growth spurt right now, with some great investment coming into the company. Project Nimbus releases from Early Access next week and we still have some great games in that platform, such as Gear City and UpsideDown Dimensions. But most exciting is our first titles for console. We have three separate games coming, one on each of Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. A major move for the company. Added to that a huge commitment in our free to play kids game, Pooka on mobile formats and doubling of our staff. It’s all good times in what is a very challenging sector these days.
I see you’ve worked with our good friend Paul Marrable over at Flump Studios (we love his games, feature him all the time) – what do you look for in an indie dev person and also the game, to take them on board at Kiss Ltd?
We created Kiss on the model of Stiff Records, with a view to giving creative artists complete control over their work and just providing the business back-up they need. Paul is a great example of that. Horizon Shift is a stunning game, in my opinion on par with Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000 (that’s quite the praise! – Ed). I hope that moving forwards, with bigger budgets, we can allow the likes of Paul, Simon at The Secret Experiment, Pawee at Gamecrafter, Matt at Decaying Logic and Baris at Pulsetense, the ability to create the type of games that their imaginations would lead them to. With so many “me too” games hitting the digital stores every day, as Unity and the likes makes development so much easier, the games industry needs this type of talent to create new, ingenious content and we aim to get those guys to the front of the queue in discoverability on the overcrowded release schedules.
In your opinion, what makes a game successful in this day and age?
Unfortunately there is too many times a difference between a great game and a successful game. I was commenting the other day on how difficult it must have been for a journalist covering the recent GamesCom to know what games to focus on, there were just so many games to see. For me, innovation, such as displayed by the Secret Experiment’s Beckett, makes it a success even if it only sells 10 units, but to truly breakout, you need to get the community buy in that something like Minecraft has achieved. It’s hard for someone that spent five years eulogising graphic excellence at Nvidia to recognise the success of a block building game, but getting that momentum and riding that wave are two separate arts, that when combined, make one heck of a lot of money!
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why? And you’re a player down on your cricket team, barring any actual cricket player (inc Brian Lara!) who would you choose?
I’m still in the middle of my mid-life crisis here, so the drink would have to be with Lara Croft, Joanna Dark or maybe Rayne from the Bloodrayne series, cos my Goth side still sneaks out sometimes. If I had to choose a man, then Leisure Suit Larry would probably get the vote.
Cricket-wise, I reckon Agent 47 might make quite a useful secret weapon as an all-rounder, or someone athletic like Nathan Drake or Gordon Freeman. Maybe the ultimate would be Duke Nukem!
I wouldn’t want to be bowling at Duke! Thanks for stopping by Darryl, we wish you and Kiss Ltd all the best for the future!