Lars Hannig (Atari Jaguar Homebrew) – Interview

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Lars Hannig is a writer, game designer and software developer from Germany with a passion for writing retro games. In the Atari community he is known as ›Starcat‹ and started making games for the Atari Jaguar was he was only fourteen.

His most active years in the Atari community were from 1999-2006 in which he made Jaguar development more accessible, helped developers get started and released several games for the console. In time for Christmas 2017 he released another surprise title for the Jaguar.

 

Can you remember your earliest memory of gaming and what was your favourite computer / console while growing up?

My earliest gaming memory must have been on the C64 when I was four. I remember playing Seawolf with my father. It was a two player paddle game where you had to time your torpedos to sink ships that scrolled over the screen and get the highest score.

As it often is with siblings, the computers my older brother didn’t use anymore were passed on to me. I was very interested in technology, which at that time seemed like magic. We had a lot of computer magazines. Even before I could read, I used to flip through the pages looking for pictures of pcbs and screenshots.

Not too long afterwards my brother explained some BASIC commands to me and I started writing little programs. They just consisted of print, input, if and goto. But I remember creating »interactive stories« with character set art.

We were a Commodore and later a PC household, but through those early computer magazines I somehow was fascinated with Atari. The sound of that name alone. In 1993 I got a VCS with some games. I especially liked Dig Dug, Star Wars and Atlantis, but I don’t recall playing for longer periods at a time.

Many early gaming memories were me looking over my brother’s shoulder when he played Super Nintendo or DOS games. At some point he went on a school trip and he hooked up the SNES in my room so I could play as much Super Mario World and Super Metroid as I liked. That was amazing and actually kept me interested very long.

My parents had a 286 in the early 90s and I remember playing Commander Keen and Wing Commander on it now and then when nobody else needed the PC for work.

I remember when my brother got a 486 SX with CD drive, it could run more demanding games such as Jazz Jackrabbit, One Must Fall or Wacky Wheels, which was something I had not seen on a PC before. To me one of the most impressive experiences was The 7th Guest which felt like being inside a movie or a real haunted house for that matter.

It was in 1996 when my brother gave that PC to me and I spend so much time exploring the Stauf mansion. I felt like a new world of games opened up for me.

The very first game I bought and played was Monkey Island 2. That and T7G started my love for adventure games and really got me playing games regularly.

In school I was the only avid player in my class. I totally identified with my hobby and I was like a walking encyclopedia of computers and games. There were two or three other kids who played on occasion, but that was all.

To let you in on a little secret: it was also 1996 when I went to the CeBit trade show with my father and it was on that show Duke Nukem 3D was shown. My father got me a printed pager bag with the shareware version. He didn’t know about system requirements or age restrictions and neither did I. When we got home I discovered it didn’t run on my machine, which was a shame, but my brother played it (with parental lock when I was around). I had to wait a few years, but I ended up loving that game and started building my own levels and mods for it.

Over the years I’ve shifted more towards console gaming both retro and current gen.

 

Do you remember the first time you played a Jaguar console and were you instantly impressed?

The Jaguar’s lifetime was already over when I first got interested. That was in 1998. Adventure games were declared dead and I had lost interest in playing PC games. I felt like everything cool was happening on consoles and I had just gotten a PlayStation.

In early 98 I was on a long train trip to Hamburg with my family. I was looking for a magazine to pass the time. It was pure luck that I stumbled upon an issue of ST Computer which had a Jaguar special in it. By then I had not heard of Atari for years and only had a faint memory of them releasing the Jaguar. I was very surprised to hear that there were still games coming out and there was an avid community on the internet (whatever that was).

My brother dug up an issue of EGM from early 94 that he had in his collection, which featured a preview of Alien vs Predator for the Jaguar. I had just finished Alien Trilogy on the PS and felt like AvP was like that, just more fun because you could also play the Alien and Predator. Only problem was I didn’t have a Jaguar and no idea where to find one.

People say the Jaguar failed because of poor marketing and that EGM was especially cruel to the Jag. Funny enough I kept staring at the screenshots and print ads in my EGM issue for months. I was totally obessed with getting a Jaguar. Again out of pure luck I found two Jag games in a used game store on a vacation in Great Britain before I even had a Jaguar. Those games were Dragon – The Bruce Lee Story and Brutal Sports Football.

When I finally got access to the internet I discovered a forum called Jaguar Interactive 2 which was the home of the community at the time and I finally got a Jaguar with a few games.

Was I instantly impressed? No. I was happy, had just started my collection and was very much looking forward to each game I could get my hands upon. But I was often disappointed. I was like: »Okay, this isn’t as fun as I hoped, but the next game I buy will be awesome!« This was the Jaguar after all. A system I had been looking forward to playing for so long. Again, I was just a kid and I was obsessed with the Jag.

 

 

What initially inspired you to make games for the Jaguar and can you tell our readers a little more about some of the titles?

Now I knew the Jag wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t care. Better yet, I wanted to prove to everyone around me what the Jag could do. I wanted a game that left no doubt how cool the Jag was, even if I had to build it myself!

Once outspoken, that idea got stuck in my head.

I always had an interest for how games were made. My brother used to program small DOS games when I was growing up. On multiple occasions I tried to get started in different programming languages, too. First BASIC, then Turbo Pascal, then C. But what was I supposed to build? And why bother? I couldn’t compete with the games my childhood heroes had built.

But on the Jaguar, with games like Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy I wanted something better. Only problem was: How to get started? How did console game development work in the first place?

So I began reading any piece of information I could find about it on the internet. I learned about underground developers and a swedish homebrew kit called the Jaguar Server which connected to a ST computer. So I figured I needed one as well.

I eventually found a ST, got as far as running the Devpac 3.10 editor and picked up a very dry book on 68000 assembly.

At that time I joined the underground mailing list, heard about the official Alpine II Jaguar dev kit and managed to track down a collector in the US who would sell me one.

I was fourteen years old, new to the internet, had never done business with anybody in the US and was about to send more money than I had ever owned before to a Western Union account overseas. My parents thought I had lost my mind. But I insisted on it. When you’re fourteen everything is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Fortunately all went well. I got my dev kit, but I had no documentation and no software tools. Not to mention no development experience whatsoever.

To make a very long story short, I managed to track down each item I needed to finally start programming the Jaguar or rather learn programming in the first place.

One thing was clear to me, if I wanted new Jaguar games to be made, more people needed to be able to do what I did. Tools and documentation needed to be available.

So for Christmas 1999 I wished for a scanner and spent weeks scanning the development manual page by page. Matthias Domin converted the images to pdf and I hosted the files on my Jaguar Development Club website, along with examples and all the tools one needed to get started. As internet connections were slow back in the day I also offered a CD with all the downloads and some extra content. By the way, the most important files remained online and are still available on my website (at www.larshannig.com) to this day. Just like my previous Jaguar releases if you’re interested.

My first Jaguar project was Star Alliance- Battle for Earth, a 2D scrolling shooter which never got finished, but exists as prototype builds in different stages.

My most anticipated title was Eerievale, a graphic adventure game set in what I called an alternate late-victorian world (I didn’t know the term Steampunk at the time).

The first proof-of-concept of the engine was presented in 2003 on Euro JagFest, which is an annual event for fans and developers that a friend of mine and I had started three years earlier.

I worked on many different projects between 1999-2006. Most of them small game ideas whenever I needed a creative break from Eerievale. I released JagMIND: Bomb Squad, a puzzle game, but mostly I tried to help new developers get started with the Jaguar. Among them promising developers such as Atariowl.

 

Many games were never completed for the Atari Jaguar. Which game which was in development would you have loved to see completed and why?

There were many Jag titles, I would have loved to play. I imagine Battlewheels would have been great on the Jag if done right. Black Ice/White Noise was very promising.

Of course there were also very promising underground games. Duranik did amazing work on Native, I wish they had done more on the Jag.

To me the most promising Jag title however was a project Atariowl was working on. It was a 3D action adventure with role playing elements inspired by games such as Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which I love. It featured a strong story and the most advanced 3D engine I have seen on the Jaguar to date. I helped out with feedback and 3d models around 2010 while I was working on Eerievale.

Needless to say we were all doing this for fun as a hobby. I’m talking about spending years of your lifetime in front of a computer to write a game for an abandonded platform that in the end a few hundred people may ever play.

It takes a lot of time, energy and even costs money you will not get back. Developing for the Jag is something you do out of passion, but that alone doesn’t last forever and the community wasn’t always supportive. I find it strange, that developers are blamed and attacked when they decide, they don’t want to do this anymore.

 

Can you briefly run through how easy (or difficult) it is to create a game from scratch on the Atari Jaguar?

For a professional team at the time, I don’t think the Jaguar was easier or more difficult than other platforms to work on. Each platform has its quirks you need to learn. If you really want to push the hardware, it’s always a challenge.

If we’re talking about homebrew developers creating new Jag games, there are much better tools available today. You can use the Virtual Jaguar emulator to develop complex games with a good chance of it working fine on real hardware. There are different kits that allow you to easily run homebrew games on a Jag.

If you want to make a game and don’t want to build everything yourself, there are different libraries available. There is an excellent sound engine by U-235. There is the Raptor engine made by Reboot which does a lot of heavy lifting for you. It’s even possible to write full games in BASIC using the rB+ toolchain (which uses Raptor).

I feel the biggest challenge in making homebrew or indie games is no longer the technology or tools, but the creative work involved. There is no tool that can do it for you.

 

 

Roughly how long does it take to make a complete Jaguar game?

It depends entirely on the game, the scope and the developer.

You can build a small raw game in just a few hours, if you know your tools, and the results can be surprising. That’s the whole fun of game jams.

I used to program most of my prove-of-concept prototypes from scratch in an afternoon, but I felt like I could never get the creative part right.

To me the biggest challenge is to overcome the need for perfection. I especially have to keep reminding myself that good is sometimes good enough and that creative work is always an iterative process. I used to think I had to get things right the first time.

On my Jaguar projects I was pretty much a one-man studio. I had to do everything myself, even if something wasn’t my strength and it took forever to do. Who else was gonna do it for me? I lost myself in detail work like improving artwork instead of just making the damn game. That would have been better, even if it looked raw.

A lot of that came from the obsession of the Jagauar community with 64-bit power and how a Jaguar game had to look, instead of focussing on how a game should play.

Today I believe it’s important to get something done. Raw is fine and can be improved.

 

How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?

I worked on a lot of ideas during my studies and built two cartoon adventure games.

HalMock FurBall, a game about an intelligent space hamster who crashes on earth and Nerd Verne, a game about a nerd who dreams of landing a job in games.

After I got my game design degree I learned how hard it can be to actually find a position at a game studio, especially if you want to get paid.

What I had learned and done for fifteen years didn’t count. If you have no work experience you do not get paid, simple as that.

As an intern I worked extra hard. I did concept development, game design, writing, translation, even a bit of concept art. My first concept for that studio actually got funding by a publisher. For six months I worked from home, because I couldn’t afford a flat in the city the studio was located. And then I was back where I started. Only a whole lot more disillusioned. Maybe the studio was too small.

So when I got the chance, I talked to the head of production of a big studio and showed him my work on Eerievale. He asked me what I did do on the project. »Everything«, I said and had lost his interest on the spot.

Today the only chance to get a job in games is to specialize in one thing, he told me. What I considered game design were already ten things, but I couldn’t imagine to spend my days just doing one thing over and over, like planting trees or rocks in a game world. Especially if I was working on games I didn’t even like.

I’m not a gardener or a plumber who does the same things every day.

I’m a writer and a game designer, I’m here to create something, to learn something new and to face new challenges with each project.

All my life I had wanted nothing else than to make games, but not like this. What was I supposed to do? Whenever I saw PR-headlines of game studios, I felt sick to my stommach. What happened to building something you love? Doing something because you’re passionate about it? Maybe you could only do that in indie games anymore.

There was no way I could make a living in games at the time, so I switched to application development and started an apprenticeship as IT specialist.

Now as a programmer getting a job in games was much easier than as a designer. In 2013 I had moved to a different city and quickly found a job at a local game studio.

It turned out to be great fun and started as a much nicer experience than all I had seen before. I was happy, made friends and could finally put my »old school« spirit to good use. It didn’t take long until I was lead game designer, writer and gameplay programmer on different projects. But there is always a catch, isn’t it?

First of all, I was working on games that were essentially shovelware. As a professional I can find interesting elements in any project, but I wouldn’t play these in my spare time.

Payment wasn’t great, the hours were long, crunch times were especially tough.

While you’re young, for a while you can afford not to look out for yourself or your health if you have friends around. Long hours and work through weekends was one thing, no time for vacations another, but then the paychecks didn’t come anymore and I couldn’t pay my rent. We were working ourselves sick hoping for the next paycheck, which again did not come, and the team slowly fell appart. My friends had seen the same happen before in other studios over and over.

It’s the kind of story anybody in the industry can tell you.

Me and my friends decided that the games industry was not working out for us. I still talk to them regularly and so far we did not regret that decision.

 

So you’re not working in the games industry anymore?

Not exactly, no. I’ve found my profession in writing genre fiction: speculative fiction, steampunk and thriller.

I still love playing games and sometimes I toy around with game ideas or do some writing for games. Last year I did parts of the German translation for Unbox: Newbie’s Adventure. I wish they had contacted me earlier so I could have done the whole translation, though. As it is, it’s kind of a mixed bag.

Currently I’m working on a German book project set in the same world as Eerievale.

It’s called Die phantastischen Fälle des Robert Fuchs (the phantastic cases of…). It’s a spin-off containing several steampunk detective stories about Robert Fuchs, who investigates supernatural cases and it’s as close as you may get to experience the story of Eerievale. The different cases feel very much like I would have wanted the game to feel like.

The book release is scheduled for late 2018 and for now it’s in German only (unless a publisher for the english market is interested).

 

Can you tell our readers what happened to Eerievale?

The development story behind Eerievale is long and full of twists and turns.

 

I spent a lot of time learning to make adventure games and build my game engine.

In 2005 I was approached by a publisher who suggested I bring the game to multiple platforms. I made a trailer that was presented at Gamescom. Everything felt like I was on track.

I had just turned twenty and had very idealistic views about making games. I dreamed of a career in gaming, and to one day write the games only I could write.

I worked hard to get into a game design study at a private university.

The publisher asked me to focus on my game  instead. This was a one-time offer, but I felt that taking it would have been a mistake.

In 2010 I had my degree and was soon pretty disillusioned about working at a game studio. They took my ideas and got financed. I got nothing, not even a job. Fortunately, those ideas were not related to my personal projects, but it was tough anyway. So I tried to make Eerievale on my own with a few friends. Some progress was made, I went as far as I could from my savings.

 

 

There was no way I could make a living in games at the time, so I switched to application development and started an apprenticeship as IT specialist.

During that time the project went into hibernation. I tried to revive it, but I had to realize it was too big for me to handle alone. The publisher who was originally interested turned out to be so small that he had no more resources than I had myself and couldn’t help.

After moving to a different city and looking for a new job in 2013, I tried one final time. I talked to different game studios to see if they cared to team up. Turned out one studio was very kind, they actually knew the publisher I was in contact with, but didn’t recommend working with him.

I actually ended up working for the studio. It was great fun at first, I made friends and gained some up to date commercial game experience.

 

 

Sometimes I tried to pitch Eerievale, but knowing suggestions ended up in a folder for later reference and not actually got done, I kept things vague. The studio preferred doing contract work for publishers. About that time I realized they weren’t right for what I wanted to do, things went real bad. The team was slaving away to the breaking point, we were not paid in a while, it’s a typical games industry story of our time. In short: things didn’t work out. I quit and decided to work in software development instead.

The first big chunk of Eerievale development time went into the technology and learning how to develop adventure games in the first place.

However, over the years most time actually went into writing. As anyone in game development can tell you, making a proof-of-concept demo and working on technology is not the same as making a game. Over ten years had passed, since the name Eerievale was first mentioned, but I didn’t have much of a game to show. Just some demos, concepts and a lot of story. Novels actually.

Making the Eerievale game would have required funding and a team to be successful. I couldn’t find either and the game was too big to make on my own. So I decided a few years ago it would be best to move on.

 

Can you remember the first ever video game you worked on?

That was Star Alliance, a scrolling shooter for the Atari Jaguar. At the time I was just a kid with little experience. It was fun, but mostly a learning project.

 

 

Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?

The first games I felt I did a good job on as a designer were the adventures games I did in university. Within two and a half weeks I created HalMock FurBall from scratch with two of my peers who helped with artwork and brainstorming. It was an intense time, in which I rewrote my adventure engine for the PC and extended it heavily, while designing the game and putting everything together.

Two years later, for my bachelor thesis, I created Nerd Verne in a similar time frame, but it felt more polished. I’m thinking about remaking both to run on current hardware to make them available again. Maybe I will at some point.

 

 

What was your involvement with the Jag title Asteroids 2000 and how do you reflect back on this title? If you could give the 2000 treatment to any other Atari classic what would it be and why?

I wasn’t involved with Asteroids 2000. A prototype of it had been floating around the underground since before my time, it wasn’t much of a secret. I remember JustClaws demonstrated it on the first Euro-JagFest in 2000.

The recent talk about Asteroids is probably because the binary was released to the community. I was asked by a fan, if I had the binary and I shared it with him. Later I read the original developers released their latest build to the community as well. Not sure which happened first, but it’s nice to have another piece of Jaguar history available.

I enjoyed Tempest 2000 very much and I always felt like the best games in that style were done by Jeff Minter. If somebody were to do the same to other Atari classics, I would like to see STUN Runner.

 

Is it true that you lost a lot of work on new Jag CD games when your hard drive crashed, and if it’s not too sore a subject, which titles did you lose?

I had a few crashes over the years, but the most painful was in my early Jag years. I think that was shortly after work on Star Alliance had stopped and I was between projects. Out of the blue the drive just died. It was only a few months old. When I talked about that on the forums, it started such a flame war. Not a great feeling when you’re sixteen, just lost a project close to your heart and have no money to even replace the hardware.

All that was long before crowdfunding. It’s not like people had any claim to what I did in my spare time. But for the first time I understood, why fellow developers packed up their stuff and left. You need a thick skin sometimes.

I lost some proof of concept work over the years like the snippets that can be found in my Lost Treasures release. I was careful with backups while working on something, especially Eerievale.

 

The Jaguar has had such a big resurgence over the last few years. How does it feel to be one of the new developers for this console and what are your personal views on the huge homebrew scene?

I don’t consider myself a new developer. Most people you see today started after my active time. I caught a glimpse of what they did, but wasn’t around at the time.

Hardly anybody is still active from my days. Today teams like as Reboot, U-235 or the folks over at Jagware are doing an amazing job keeping the Jag homebrew spirit alive. I think that’s great.

 

What’s your latest release for the Jaguar about?

Around Christmas I released HalMock FurBall: Sink or Swim a cartoony one-button highscore-hunting game for the Jaguar and the first title made by Starcat Devocean the team I share with my girlfriend. The game is about HalMock FurBall, an intelligent space hamster who works as a private investigator. While looking into a case, he gets caught up with a mobster called Fatso Laboom. His goons force HalMock into a corner by the docks and want to make him disappear. They chain something heavy to his feet and throw him into the water.

With his amazing burp power HalMock has to burst the bubble he is trapped in and must swim back to the surface before his air runs out or he reaches the ground.

The player has to quickly tap a button to charge HalMock’s burp power bar.

Of course HalMock just ends up being caught again. The goons try all kind of things to make sure he stays down. It’s short but fun. You can download it on the Starcat Devocean website at http://www.starcat-dev.de

 

 

What games are you currently working on and when do you hope to get them released?

Next to my bread and butter job and my work as a writer, I don’t have as much spare time to put into game dev as I used to. I still love making games and I have a few ideas I’m toying with, but I’m in for the fun of it. That’s what Starcat Devocean is all about. These ideas will have a retro pixel style and will be strong on storytelling. That’s all I can share for now.

 

If money and time was no object, do you have an idea for an original Jag game you would love to see released?

Personally, I would go with something that is designed to be fun and tells a story. I would focus on something that works well on the Jag. Too many titles tried to push the hardware, but had weak gameplay.

 

Do you have any insight to share for developers who are just starting out?

The first thing I was taught in university was: Games are different. That’s why none of the rules of other media apply. None of filmmaking, certainly none of writing.

This kind of lazy elitist bullshit still seems to be stuck in the heads of many today.

There are bad games based on movies, bad games based on books and the other way around, but not because different rules would apply. More likely, the wrong people worked on it for the wrong reasons.

If there is one thing that is universal, it’s storytelling. If you care about story, that’s the craft you need to learn. Better accept it and get right to it!

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?

You’re saving the toughest question for last, aren’t you? It would probably be someone from an adventure game.

As I could use a bit of vacation, I’d choose a trip with Guybrush Threepwood through the Caribbean. I’m in it for his pirate anecdotes and not for the grog, I swear.

 

Adrian

 

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