It’s been a while since we’ve had a treat for you SEGA fans so here’s a bumper interview with Francois Bertrand, a true retrogaming legend having worked on many of the company’s Virtua titles including the seminal Virtua Fighter. There’s also something for you Atari/Atari Jaguar fans in the way of Fight for Life…
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
Ah! That is not going to make me younger… First time I ever touched a computer, it was a TRS-80 and I was still in high school. First program I ever wrote after touching this incredible machine, was an adventure game, text based… Yes they were such things… The bug bit me and has not let go since then.
Soon after, I bought my own computer, an Atom from Acorn and for years would keep working on computers from that company (BBC, Archimedes (first RISC processor the…ARM). I opened a company (Eterna), south of France, that was developing and publishing games for those computers.
While working on those, I developed an idea that allowed to control a computer without a joystick. The first digitizing cards were available and I started to play around with an interface that would analyze player motions in front of a camera, to control a game. I eventually developed a little game to go with it. My company didn’t have the means to market anything like that, so I made a videotape (DVDs were still a few years away…) and sent it to SEGA in Japan. They were interested, made me come to Japan for an interview, and then hired me. It was a big big deal at the time. I joined AM2 as the first foreigner working in a development department at SEGA a few weeks later (wow – Ed). At the time, Virtua Racing was in its final stage of development, and I started working on Virtua Fighter with the group, under the helm of Yu Suzuki, one of the legends of the video game industry.
Virtua Fighter was really a ground breaking game, and shaped much of the modern video game industry. 3D was just starting, there was no existing path to do camera movement, collision, player interface, motion capture… Virtua Fighter was done in-house and we had to invent all of it. That was spectacular for someone like me, coming from a small town south of France, and being part of such a ground breaking experience.
I worked on the collision system and camera system for the game. It wasn’t an easy task, at all. Not only everything had to be invented, but it had to be done while working with a team of people that I could not always understand 😀 . Life in Montpellier is definitely different than life in Tokyo, and I didn’t speak any Japanese before moving there, and few spoke French. We met in the middle and of course used English as best as we could at the time. At 25, there are plenty of things you use can power through, and in that particular case, the result was so great, that it seemed almost easy to achieve.
How easy was it to create a 3D fighting game and was this experience essential when you eventually started work on Fight for Life?
Without the (Virtua Fighter) experience, I do not think I would have worked on Fight For Life. I helped some on other projects while at SEGA: Daytona USA; some work on Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Cop.
Of course, all the research I did in Japan, was beneficial to help making FFL. The environment was quite different. With SEGA, I was used working in an environment with hundreds of people, working on hardware that would be tweaked overnight, several times a week to get the code I was writing directly adapted at the hardware level. With Atari, we worked with a very small team (for FFL) and with a set piece of hardware.
The game took longer than anticipated to come out, not really due to production issues, but more to the financial state of Atari at the time. We were almost done, when the company more or less folded overnight, and it took some pushing and pulling to get it finished. Working at Atari was as interesting as working for SEGA was, but for different reasons. It was of course a completely different environment, and regardless of what was said of the Jaguar at the time, it was an interesting system to work on. It might have been too advanced for its time though, and the PlayStation really did a number on the industry when it came out. From a technology perspective, it could have been possible to give Sony a run for their money, but from a financial perspective, that was just impossible. The console market was quite different than the personal computer market, and approaching the market the same way than it was done with Atari 16, Amiga in the computer market, would not translate in this world.
Fight for Life was Atari’s last ever Jaguar game released. Was it always your intention for characters to unlock new moves and strategies throughout the different rounds and how do you reflect back on this game?
That was an integral part of the design from day one. I wanted to see the fighters evolve depending on the way the player was using them, and rather than giving each one a unique fighting technique, I wanted the user to be able to customize them, based on result. At the time, customization wasn’t as big as it is now, and playing video games was pretty much an experience where you would use only what was given to you in order to move forward in the game. I really wanted to let the player be able to make their own choices as far as how their character would evolve while they were playing the game. A few decades later, there are definitely things I would do differently if I had to rework on FFL, but having the character evolve based on the player’s feedback is not one of them.
There are strong rumours that the released Fight for Life was not fully complete and rushed to meet the release deadline. Is this true, and if, so how much pressure did you feel while working on this title?
I touched on that a little in my first answer. When the company starting to lay off people, while trying to find a suitor, the game was not finished. It was not far off but would have needed a few more months to be even better. I was able to negotiate a couple of months (after being laid off myself) to finalize what was finazable. I could have used five, but that’s all I could get. We would have needed that extra time to QA the game a little better, and polish a lot of the things that were still a bit too bare. But at that time, it was either that, or not having the game. Some things got cut, just because of lack of time or resources.
It is also rumoured that a fabled more complete version of the game was completed by you but never released. Do you have this more updated version of the game, and if so, how different was this version to the released game?
I do not have any code from that time. Yes some things were cut in the final days, and as far as I can tell, they are gone forever. I do not know of anyone who still has source from that project.
I kinda left the video game industry 15 years ago, and have been working with Apple since then. I doubt I will cross path with FFL again in the future.
Fight For Life has an interesting backstory that helps the game stand out from the crowd, however, the game ends with a bit of an anti-climax ending screen. If you had more time, would you have liked to have ended the game differently?
The end story does feel like a leftover and was kinda rushed. The idea itself was the one from day one, but it was left on the side for the whole development as we meant to try to finish with a big bang. Unfortunately, with the way things ended, there was no extra time to allocate to the final scene. We built it as good as we could with the very little time we had.
Did you work on any other Atari Jaguar titles that were never released?
Nothing really that took shape. I worked on a lot of proof of concept projects, that could have been used and developed for standalone projects, but at the end of the day, they were initially geared toward FFL and ended up being used there.
You worked at Atari during a very interesting point in their history. Can you describe the atmosphere in the Atari offices and how did you feel when Atari went bankrupt?
Based on what I described above, when Atari went bankrupt it was just plain awful. The timing was terrible, FFL was near completion, the moral was low, the mood was pretty dark. It really happened almost overnight, as far as what we saw. A good friend of mine, from France, had signed up with Atari a few weeks earlier. He had quit his job, sold his apartment, scheduled the move for him, his wife and their little baby. When I learned about the closing of the company, I had to call him at his parents, where they were to say their goodbyes before making the trip from Paris to San Francisco. The most difficult phone call I ever had… Definitely the worst memory of my career.
Pitfall 3D was another top game you helped create. How do you reflect back on this title and are you a fan of the first ever Pitfall! title?
That was a great project. I loved working on it and everyone that was working on that project. Pitfall Harry of course was a legend in the video game industry at the time, and working on a 3D version of the title on the PlayStation was a great experience. Of course I was a fan of the first Pitfall title, and I was able to get some neat technology in that one. Atmospheric real time lighting, projected shadows and 3D moving vines (YES!) were some pioneer techniques for a PlayStation game. Plus Bruce Campbell was a great addition as the voice of Harry in the game. It was a great experience working there at that time.
Out of all games you have worked on over the years, which game are you most proud of and why?
All of them have pluses and minuses, pros and cons. At the time a lot of things had to be invented, there was no pre-made engines, libraries and any of the tools that exist today. I have no regrets for any of them.
What are your personal favourite video games of all time and why?
The original version of ‘Elite’. That was just an incredible game at the time it was written (mid 1980), both from a technology perspective and from a design perspective. Kudos to David Braben (indeed – Ed).
What projects / games are you currently working on?
I work at Apple on stuff I can’t tell anyone 🙂
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Lara Croft, duh!