Part one (or two, depending on which order you read them!) of our Amiga double header this week is my quick chat with Core Design’s Gary Antcliffe. I initially tracked him down to ask some questions about Universe but I’m glad to report that his career went from strength to strength and he’s done (as he will explain) PSVR stuff as well as the amazing Little Big Planet for Sony. It was a pleasure to catch up with him and pick his massive brain:
***After reading this, you can listen to Dylan waxing lyrical About Universe, DreamWeb and Beneath a Steel Sky in this podcast. Who says we don’t treat you? :)***
We best know you for the work you did for Core. How did that opportunity come about and what was the team like to work with?
I had been working for Hi-Tec software for a few years writing budget games. As I improved as a programmer then my ambition increased and the sorts of games I wanted to make changed. One of the biggest games I did at Hi-Tec was the platform game Scooby and Scrappy Doo. I think this took about 6 months to do on the Amiga & ST, whereas some of the earlier games only took weeks to a few months.
At some point Hi-Tec started to struggle financially. We continued working for a few months without pay but eventually the company went into receivership. At this point I started looking for other places to work and Core Design stood out. I think it was around the time Chuck Rock was out and that really impressed me.
So I think I sent off some games I’d done with Richard ‘Rambo’ Morton as he was the artist and level designer on most of the games I’d worked on. I went for an interview and was offered a job starting pretty much straight away. Rambo was also offered a job and we initially started working together on an Amiga version of Choplifter.
Core was a fantastic place to work. It was still relatively small when I joined, crammed into a small building with around 30 people. They were all incredibly talented and everyone got on really well. I remember times going out to the pub and almost all of the studio went out together. That wasn’t every week of course, but there was lots of socialising as pretty much everyone had to move city to join Core, so it became your family.
The Choplifter project got canned after a few months as Jez hadn’t actually got the license! They had just released Cure of Enchantia and they wanted to do a follow up and asked me to code it. I guess it was a little overwhelming at first as it was to be a much bigger game than I’d ever worked on, but I was definitely up for the challenge.
We had a team of 4 full time developers (Rolf, Jim (Bot-mason), Stu & myself) and an in-house musician (Martin) who worked on it along with a number of other projects. The guys were great to work with and have become life long friends as have a number of other people I originally met at Core. I actually went on to work with Jim and a few other Core people at a number of other studios throughout my career.
What made you want to become a programmer?
I think I first saw Space Invaders when we were on holiday at Butlins. Then the next year I saw games like Galaxians and I was hooked! At some point we had a Phillips G7000 but as I got older I saw the C64 and really really wanted one, but they were expensive. So my mum struck a deal with me, if I could save up enough money to put half towards it then they’d buy me one for Christmas. I’d already been saving money from two paper rounds and I eventually had about a year’s worth of pay saved and managed to scrape together half of the cost.
Initially I was only interested in playing games, but I’ve always been inquisitive. I’ve taken apart many a watch, calculator, toys and so on to see how they worked. I think some of that stemmed from playing with Meccano (I loved that stuff! – Ed). Unfortunately not all of them went back together correctly but that didn’t stop me wanting to understand how things worked and that just translated to games as well.
I’d type in listings from magazines then eventually I started trying to write my own games. This wasn’t so easy with C64 basic and I went on to learn about this thing called assembly language which meant you could do smooth scrolling on the C64, not like the jittering mess you saw when trying to do this in basic. I had an assembler written in basic from one of the magazines, but it ran out of memory really quickly so you were limited on the number of lines you could enter.
I eventually saved up more paper round money for an Action Replay cartridge along with a C64 reference manual and starting typing in hex machine code values and using the disassembler in the cartridge to validate the numbers I’d typed were correct assembly code. To this day I still remember how some of those hex values translate to assembly mnemonics!
So that was the start of my journey into programming and making games.
Universe is one of my favourite games of all time. You programmed the Amiga version, what was the game like to work on? What were the main challenges in putting it all together?
We had a really close team and the guys were just so talented. I’ve never met anyone as talented as Rolf, he painted this when (I think) he was in college:
The other guys were just as talented but in different ways.
Rolf already had the idea for the story which is something he’d partly already written in his own time. The game did evolve though over time, and Jim (Bottomley) took a keen interest in co-designing the game and writing some of dialogue. We were all involved in the game design to some degree as we’d talk over ideas in the pub every week.
Rolf would airbrush the backgrounds in his little studio and then scan them into a PC at 256 colours. We then had to reduce the colours to get it onto the Amiga and it was a shame that we’d lose so much compared to the PC images. So I started looking into ways to get more colours out of the Amiga and came up with a method where I could use the Copper co-processor to change up to 16 colours every raster line so we could get up to 256 colours on a standard A500. The game ran in extra half-brite mode so those 16 colour changes actually gave you 32 colours due to how half-brite worked (amazing – Ed).
There were some issues as you’d lose some details in places and we had to have some fixed colours for Boris and background animations, but overall it worked pretty well. We never had a screen with 256 different colours but I think we ended up with one screen close to around 240.
Another area that was challenging and I was never fully happy with was the auto-routing where you click on a point on the screen and Boris tries to walk to that point. Due to limited memory we could only use a bitmask to define where he could walk and at times the algorithm would overshoot a point it was trying to get to and get stuck. There was no internet back then and limited books on algorithms (I had none) so I was having invent methods myself to solve this problem.
It was also a big game and I was the only coder on it. So I think it took around 18 months in total to finish. We were all really chuffed with what we had achieved though and I think my proudest moment was when I received some fan mail from a young boy asking how to complete part of the game and how much he loved it!
Do you think there’s scope to make a current gen version of Universe? Maybe in VR?
I think there’s always scope to take old games and bring them into the modern age. It needs to be done skillfully though and I think something like Universe would end up being a big project. I think it would need a lot of detail and more interesting mechanics. The player expects so much more from games these days so the depth of the story and dialogue would need to increase.
Could it be done in VR, yes to some extent but it would probably be quite tough to do. There are a lot of issues with VR and you have to be very careful so as not to cause simulator sickness. I was the engine lead on RIGS for PS4 and we spent a lot of time on that game trying to make it the best we could without making the player sick.
A game in VR needs a high frame rate to reduce the likelihood of sim-sickenss. You also need to render the view from 2 viewpoints, one for each eye. You need to try to keep things as ‘real’ as possible. We often cheat in games to get a high framerate but with VR if you walk close to some objects you need a good amount of detail for it to fit into your immersive world. So a lot of detail, a high frame rate and render to 2 eye buffers is going to be very challenging.
You went on to do some stellar work for SCEE including Little Big Planet, the Medievil PSP outing and Killzone sequel Killzone: Mercenary. What was it like working with PlayStation development compared to Amiga development?
I worked on the PSX as a 3rd party developer when I was out in the USA. I liked the PlayStation, but it was quite different to working with the Amiga. Everything was using libraries at that time and you had to leave the OS running. On the Amiga most games would take over the whole machine, ditch the OS and write directly to the hardware. You just couldn’t do that on the PlayStation.
I enjoyed working on Medievil as I like writing code for player characters. It’s so hard to define what makes a game playable and I used to get a lot of pleasure out of coding up ideas and then watching the team play the game and getting enjoyment out of it. It was also tough though as the PSP hadn’t been fully developed when we started on the game. Some of the hardware we received wasn’t finished or was slower in parts than a PSX. We ended up writing the game code on a PS2 while a couple of the guys developed the render engine for the PSP on emulators. I don’t think we got real hardware until about 3 months before the game needed to ship.
LBP was a tough project for me, very stressful due to the ridiculous deadlines we were given. I was the lead programmer and was trying to do a full time programming job while leading the team and there just weren’t enough hours in the day. I think what we achieved with the time and people we had was amazing though, even if there were some bits of the PS3 game missing. It just wasn’t feasible to get them in due to time-lines or limited processing power.
Mercenary was a big game for us from a time and content POV. It was a massive challenge as the expectations were so high and everyone just wanted something that looked like a PS3 game on a handheld system. I can’t remember the figures but we did do relative comparisons with the PS3 for performance and it was at least 10x more powerful than the Vita. Working on the Vita was a dream though, such a lovely little console to program for and the devkits were tiny compared to the monster tower units we were used to for PS2 and PS3. I was the engine lead on Mercenary and we spent a lot of time optimising the hell out of that game and working with some very technical artists to push the limits of that machine as far as we could. I think we did pretty well and it looks gorgeous for what would now be considered a relatively low powered machine.
What do you think of the Amiga as a computer and what are your fondest memories of it?
I thought the Amiga was an amazing machine. I think I bought one of the early A500s imported from the US, bought from a friend. It was just so far ahead of anything else at the time. I was working on the C64 for Alligata software when I got my first Amiga. I’d spend the whole day coding the C64 at work and then spend most of the night learning the Amiga.
I’ve always liked being able to push a machine and the Amiga had so much hardware to play with. The 68000 CPU was also a dream to program with. No longer was I stuck with just 3 registers, now I had 16 and it ran 7x faster than the C64!
I ended up writing my own assembler while at Hi-Tec and we linked Amigas together and we’d write on one send the code over the parallel port to the other machine to run it on. We also did this for the ST and a number of 8-bit machines. So this greatly improve the working environment and I no longer had to wait 20 minutes for things to compile on tape.
There’s no one specific thing about the Amiga that really stands out as a fondest memory, it was just that you could do so much more with it than the machines before it. It was also a damn site easier to write scrolling games on than the ST!
I’ve been privileged in my career to meet some of the creators of the Amiga and I’m still friends with RJ Mical. I’ll always be indebted to those guys for the fond memories and a platform that launched my long career in games development.
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
We that’s easy, Boris of course. But I’ve already had drinks with him as Rolf is Boris! We rotoscoped him and the character on the box cover is Rolf as he used photos of himself as reference for his artwork.