Adrian’s pulled one right out of the top drawer this week! LucasArts and Atari supremo James “Purple” Hampton joined him for a lovely chat about the other legends he’s worked with, the Jaguar smash hit Alien Versus Predator and much much more… Fancy listening to James as well? Don’t say we don’t spoil you, here him podcasting with Adrian here.
What are your earliest and fondest memories of playing games when growing up?
That first time in Junior High school when a friend (Kevin) of mine convinced me to slip out the back at school and head over to the arcade that opened a few blocks away. Stepping into this darkened den, full of stand up coin-op arcade games, hearing the signature warp sounds from the Defender machine, stepping up onto Battlezone peering through the goggles while using the dual sticks to blast that infernal saucer that went racing by, and becoming mesmerized by the clever mechanics of Star Castle which took more quarters from me than I can remember.
Beyond the arcade experience, founding a Dungeons and Dragons club in an old storage closet at school with friends became the foundation for one of the first games I’d help make – a live-action ‘Dawn of the Dead’ themed role playing game we sprung on our D&D group. We cobbled together using rule sets from other RPG games like Champions and Car Wars to play.
How did you first get into the video game industry?
The 90’s started me off with a bang, when as a college student in Massachusetts my house burned down and I lost almost everything I ever owned. Not long after I kept having this same dream about driving west in a purple car. So I found a car, painted it a purple, and got on the road to the west coast. I landed in Marin county in the northern part of the bay area in California where I responded to an anonymous ad in the local paper looking for people with experience with computer games. When I got to the interview, I remember asking what was with all the Star Wars posters in the lobby only to be told that I was interviewing at LucasFilm Games.
Kirk Roulston, the supervisor of the testing department had lost my resume, and decided to hire me on the spot after we talked about all the different games and game consoles available.
The Secret of Monkey Island is one of favourite games of all time. What was it like play-testing this game and how did this early experience in gaming help in your career?
I started at LucasFilm Games just as Monkey Island was in its final Beta test phase before release. It was my first exposure to ‘crunch time’ and my first day on the job was a Saturday testing session that included people from throughout the company who all gave up their weekend to play-test the latest builds of the game.
It was my first taste of what it took to get a game made and out the door into manufacturing. Seeing first hand to see the friction caused by the pressure to release the game in time for Christmas and the desire of the game development team to make it the best game possible. The charged atmosphere was both electric and exhausting, with the team working around the clock at times to make fixes and improvements before the game reached a ‘gold master’ state and ready to for release.
This early experience emphasized how important the combined efforts of everyone throughout the company, and their willingness to go above and beyond giving up their nights and weekends is what pushes the game to greatness.
Did you work closely with LucasArts legends such as Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and David Fox and how would you describe the atmosphere while working at LucasArts?
I’d describe the atmosphere at LucasFilm Games during this time as creative chaos. It was a fun environment full of bright and talented people who all wanted the same thing, to make the best games possible, and who were willing to go that extra mile to get it there.
Early on during the development of Monkey Island 2, Ron Gilbert was very inclusive in the creative process, and welcomed what we called the ‘giant D(d for design) bug’ document, that a few of us in testing (Jim Current, Mark Cartwright, Bret Mogilsky, and more) put together. It was full of ideas and reactions to the earliest builds of the game. Ron listened, and we in QA were excited to see some of the concepts make it into the game (such as the screwball take on the Indiana Jones ‘travel map’, or the card catalog in the library room full of all the clues and Easter eggs we could squeeze in.
And while I didn’t have a lot of direct interactions with Gary Winnick, he did step up and rally the art department to participate in their section of the ‘company video’ that a few of us in QA had been asked to make which was shown at the big LucasArts annual company meeting.
David Fox always seemed like the unofficial voice of reason at LucasFilm Games, having made some of the earliest titles such as the truly excellent Ball Blazer game, as well the initial SCUMM titles like Maniac Mansion and Zak McKraken. He valued quality and inspired the company to always aim high and push for the best possible games.
Working at LucasArts you obviously worked alongside some of the industries most talented game writers and programmers. What is your favourite LucasArts game and why did you end up leaving?
While I’ll always have a soft spot for the oft-forgotten Night Shift game as the first title I lead tested on, which included the first gameplay feature I designed, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge would have to be my favorite LucasArts game. Ron Gilbert led the SCUMM team made up of people like Tim Schaefer and Dave Grossman, were open to feedback from us testers, and even included us in the brainstorming for the climactic ending to the game, where my suggestion to make it a ‘Saint Elsewhere’-like ending (where it is revealed it was all a dream) became the basis for the cliffhanger finale where it revealed LeChuck and GuyBrush are two brothers in the ‘real world’ before seeing LeChuck’s eerie eyes glow.
As for why I ended up leaving, it was due to something I would learn happens all too frequently in the games business, whereas after a massive amount of hiring and expansion, the company realizes its head count is unsustainable. In this instance, almost half the company got laid off as the transition from the George Lucas-funded LucasFilm Games division was transformed into a self-sustaining LucasArts company.
How did you move from quality assurance and game testing to actually producing games and how do the two roles differ?
I moved from QA to Producing with a little help from my friends. After the LucasArts layoffs, my friend Terry Bratcher helped keep me going by getting me some work painting apartments through his wife’s business. During this time another friend of mine, Brandy Wilson, put me in touch with Mitzi McGilray who worked as a producer at Maxis in the east bay. I was able to get a job in the Maxis QA department, and even though I was only there for six months, I met people like Carter Lipscomb who would become my long time friend, and had regular brunches at Millie’s a nearby diner with Will Wright who was eager to talk about his ‘Doll House’ project which would eventually become ‘The Sims’.
While at Maxis, I got a phone call from my friend Brandy Wilson again, and put me in touch with her sister Lori who worked in the business department at the Atari Corporation, and they were looking for Producers for a new game console under development. She took my resume over to the development team, and after a few interviews I got hired into my first Producer job.
Starting in QA afforded me a perspective into all aspects of the game development process. As a tester we regularly interacted with programmers, artists, sound designers, and folks from the marketing and legal departments. This provided a solid background to understand the process of how a game is made start to finish. As a Producer, your job is to be the ‘champion’ and leader for the game, making sure the resources (manpower, time, money) are allocated and available, all while pushing the creative side to ensure it can be the best game possible.
As a person who started as a tester at LucasFilm Games, I learned how important it is to set the bar high, and strive to maintain a ‘gold standard’ of quality for games. As a Producer I was able to build on this background and directly apply those standards to projects in every stage of development.
What was it like working for Atari the early Jag years?
Another flavor of chaos ruled the days at Atari during the early Jaguar years. When I first arrived at Atari, the company seemed to be at a crossroads. It was trying to reconcile its legacy as the company behind the first wildly successful game console (the original 2600 / VCS), and at the same time a company that needed to learn new ways of doing things to be current.
I started working there just after the Atari office in Chicago was closed down, and all of the half-finished projects (primarily Lynx games) needed to be completed. This was going on while the Jaguar hardware was being developed.
There were quite a few people at Atari that still remembered the days of huge selling games that were built by one or two man development teams. I recall meeting with Sam Tramiel and describing just how many people worked on Monkey Island 2 at LucasArts, and he couldn’t fathom how it was possible, how a game with that many people and production budget could ever be profitable.
And it was this kind of thinking that was responsible for the strategy for the Jaguar’s initial launch titles whereas there was this idea that as there were four programmers in the internal Jaguar game development team, they would be able to get four games made in less than six months on an untested console system that very little in the way of ‘support tools’ for the coders. This of course was a terribly unrealistic approach, and it wasn’t long before two of the four titles got cut and more resources (artists, programmers) thrown at the two remaining games.
In Alien Versus Predator, you produced one of the best titles for the Jag. How did this opportunity first come up and was the game initially supposed to be a launch title?
Alien Versus Predator was never meant to be a launch title. Early on in the pre-production planning stage, it was recognized that the Jaguar AvP would be an ambitious effort and would need more time in development. I believe the original target release date was spring of 1994 (Q2 release). The development period was extended to fall of 1994 when I convinced Sam Tramiel to relocate the programmers from England and set them up working directly with the Atari level design team at Atari headquarters in Sunnyvale California.
The Atari Alien versus Predator game began as a title the Chicago office of Atari had recruited UK based Images studio (run by Karl Jeffery) to develop for the handheld ‘Lynx’ game system. The ‘AvP’ license had been acquired through Activision and originally was supposed to be a port of the Super-Nintendo version, based on the Alien versus Predator arcade game. Atari shut down their Chicago office, and AvP was assigned to me as one of the first projects to work on when I started at Atari in the Autumn of 1992.
When i took the AvP project over, all development had stopped, and I was left to scour the Atari internal BBS to find the most recent Lynx ROM files that had been uploaded. The Images Lynx development team had built an initial demo / prototype (which still floats around the internet to this day) that let Players play as a Colonial Marine or a Predator. The design didn’t include the Alien as a playable character, a detail I was able to get changed when we at Atari submitted a new proposal to Activision/20th Century Fox for the Jaguar version.
The original design docs for the Lynx AvP, featured numerous characters and locations named in the Alien Versus Predator comic book series published by Dark Horse Comics. We did not have a licensing agreement with Dark Horse, and I was able to use this as a reason to justify the submission of a new design plan for the upcoming Jaguar version of AvP. The updated design pitched to Activision/20th Century Fox identified the Jaguar title as a first person shooter which included being able to play all three sides (Alien, Predator or Marine).
When I began at Atari, they were also ramping up the Jaguar game development efforts, and Alien Versus Predator was identified as an external project which would eventually be contracted out to the Rebellion development team in the UK. During the initial discussions, Atari shared the design docs from the Lynx version with Rebellion, as well as the three-sided design concepts developed by the internal Atari staff who would become the Atari level design team for the game.
I remember seeing early screenshots of the game and being completely blown away. Did you know that this game was going to be something quite special from early on and can you run through how this game was produced?
Alien Versus Predator’s creative and unique art direction was established by the Rebellion art department. To show off the Jaguar’s capabilities, the Rebellion artists utilized photos of set tiles and model kits of the Alien and Predator characters which were meticulously painted, posed and animated by artists Stuart Wilson and Toby Banfield. One of these models was so hard to get, that we had to smuggle it into the UK… The Alien character, famously created by the controversial artist H.R. Giger, featured enough ‘questionable material’ for UK customs that it prevented a model kit of the Alien queen from being purchased/shipped into the UK. I literally had to hand carry the Alien Queen model in my luggage to get it through UK customs and to the art team in Oxford in time.
Why was the game so delayed in its release and did this add extra pressure to make sure the game was as good as possible?
The development contract Atari first made with Rebellion for AvP on the Jaguar was under-funded (I wan’t privy to the original negotiations) and the course of the development cycle took far longer than the contract’s original milestone dates allowed. This caused many issues, including a critical problem brought up to me by Andrew Whittaker and Mike Beaton who both told me in the Spring of 94, that they weren’t getting paid by Rebellion because the original contracted budget had been spent. The game was at an ‘Alpha’ stage which included the initial first person shooter game engine demo and featured most of the in-game art created by the Rebellion artist duo of Toby Banfield and Stuart Wilson.
Getting Mike Beaton and Andrew Whittaker paid by Atari was one of many issues that got ironed out when Sam Tramiel agreed to my proposal to extend the development timeline, bring the team in-house and on-site to finish the game at Atari HQ during the summer in time for an end-of-year/holiday release date.
Once the Rebellion programmers were in Sunnyvale they were able to work directly with Jaguar hardware engineers to resolve technical bugs which the Rebellion coders were struggling with. As well as implementing the level maps, story and game-play design developed by the in-house Atari level design team, as well all of the sound effects and music created by the Atari audio department.
There are rumours that AVP pushed the Jag beyond its initial capabilities through some canny programming. Do you think this game pushed the console to its 64-bit max or is there another game that you feel deserves this accolade?
I’ve heard a lot of rumors about games that pushed the limits of what the Jaguar hardware could do, and in its own way AvP pushed the envelope. The amount of data that could be loaded into memory at once was taken to its limits by the games attempt at photo-realistic textures for all the art elements.
As there was very little in the way of ‘developer tools’ for the Jaguar, any Jaguar development team that completed a game, most likely in one way or another ‘pushed the limits’ of what could be done.
You worked with some very talented people while working on AVP. None more so than the Marine himself Lance Lewis. Would you be able to share a few stories of this great man who sadly passed away recently?
This is the one of the legends of the late great Lance J. Lewis.
At the very end of the development of Jaguar AvP, the game had to be approved by 20th Century Fox before we could release it to manufacturing. Scott Marcus, our contact and account manager in the 20th Century Fox licensing department was about to travel out of the country for almost a month, and so we had a very narrow window to gain his stamp of approval.
On the day when the Fox representative was supposed to be getting on a plane to leave for three weeks, I recall that Sam Tramiel used some of his influence to get him to meet with me for a final approval review, the morning of his flight.
The AvP crew had been working around the clock, and on that final morning, after another all-night testing session, we had a stable build ready to be shown to Fox. As I headed out the door from Atari HQ, Lance J. Lewis who had been up all night with the rest of us, pulls up in front of me in his Jeep and tells me he’s going to get me to the San Jose airport on time. I will never forget zooming down 101 as the sun was rising on Silicon Valley on a hot august day, and believing it when Lance told me we were going to make it just in time.
It was this kind of positive energy, this can-do attitude in the face of impossible odds, that Lance always seemed to have ready to share. He stepped up, along with some fellow testers to become the level design team for AvP. He always had something extra to add, wether it was working up a complete walkthrough with strategies to complete the game, or the detailed level designs worked up with pencil and graph paper. Lance did what it took to not only get it done, but get it done well.
After leaving Atari, I would go on to work with him at Rocket Science Games as well as Cyclone Studios where his wisdom help guide me to work habits that let me ‘leave the work stress at the office’ so you can balance it out and have a life at home.
Lance J. Lewis was the kind of guy who you knew ‘had your back’. Smart, creative, funny and wise beyond his years.
We learnt recently that Dan McNamee provided the sound of humans being impregnated in the game by recording himself eating an apple. Do you have any other interesting pieces of trivia or Easter eggs you would be happy to share?
Dan McNamee was one of the dedicated people at Atari that spent many a night and weekend making AvP the best it could be.
Additional AvP trivia –
– the voice of the computer was done by Sandra Miller, who worked at Atari and was married to Richard Miller, one of the Jaguar’s primary hardware engineer. While meeting with the Atari Audio manager James Grunke, I remember us hearing Sandra speaking with someone in the hallways as they walked by, and we immediately had the same idea that her British accent would be perfect for the game.
When developing AvP did you have a preferred character to play as and overall how do you reflect back on this iconic game?
While I love the story arc that the Marine player has, I was personally fond of playing as the Alien. The unique ‘infect’ enemies to stay alive strategy I thought was a fun way to both make for a different kind of play experience all while staying true to the idea of an Alien ‘hive mind’
Did you, or anyone else ever start work on a follow up to AVP?
After the game was released to manufacturing, the internal Atari level design team and myself convened at another Atari producer’s (Ted Tahquechi) place where we had re-watched the Alien and Predator films on laser disc for the initial brainstorming sessions, for the specific goal, of what design elements we would want to build for a CD-ROM based AvP game.
The ideas that were generated were compiled into a proposal that we submitted to 20th Century Fox, who then passed these back to Rebellion who they had hired to develop the PC version of the game which took nearly four years to get made.
Did you ever start work on any other Jag games that were never released?
Space Pirate – a side-scrolling adventure shooter in the vein of Metroid.
Sanscript Journey – John Wentworth was a programmer at Atari who envisioned an exploration game where players navigated the worlds using symbols and hand gestures based in Sanscript traditions. It was a wildly ambitious and cool project that was way ahead of its time (perhaps best suited for virtual reality set ups with goggles and gloves as the controls).
Why do you think the Jag proved to be a failure and what do you think Atari should have done differently?
Atari was a company stuck in time. Atari reached stellar heights with the 2600, and in turn resisited the realities of making more complex games for systems that were so much more capable. This disconnect in philosophy influenced the decisions made early on that set the Jaguar on course to its demise.
– lack of programming tools / resources for developers to build from.
Instead of giving the dev teams a leg up on their projects, there was a basic idea that any programmer who needed such tools was an idiot.
– not accepting the bad news early
Instead of accepting that the Jaguar titles were going to be more complex and thus demand larger development teams which needed a bigger budget and more time to build things in, set a course based on their 2600 era thinking such as the four internal programmers meant they expected four games to be made in less than six months with an unfinished game console still in development.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which game are you most proud of and why?
Alien Versus Predator is still at the top of my list as it was a super challenging experience getting it made, and the development teams that stepped up their efforts and applied themselves relentlessly pushing the game to the finish line.
What are your top 3 video games of all time?
Oh man this one is so hard. So many different types of games, so many moods to be in to play.
– Tetris – the chocolate chip cookie gameplay recipe of games.
– Motor City Online – a super fun MMO buried underneath a top heavy interface.
– The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy text adventure – the original boxed copy included all the cool extras such as a microscopic space fleet and peril sensitive sunglasses.
What projects are you currently working on?
That would be telling.
I’m in the process of putting all of the tales from starting at Lucasfilm to when I left Atari into a book with all the juicy details behind the scenes.
How did you get the nickname Purple?
When I arrived at Lucasfilm, all the testers in the QA department had a nickname they used to log bugs into the database. As I was driving a purple marbleized car, with purple tinted glasses and purple streaks in my hair, the name Purple was given and stuck.
If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Another tough one. There’s that buy that guy a beer factor for heroes such as Samus from Metroid, or Mario even, then there’s that let’s go out for grog factor with saucy pirate ‘Risky Boots’, the main villain from Shantae the original side scroller game made by one of my favorite developer in the business, the nice smart people at Way Forward.