Mostly known for his stellar Amiga work, Ronald Pieket also brought us the excellent Silkworm and SWIV. Here he tells us about his humble beginnings, the glory days, and provides the longest answer to the “who would you go for a drink” question we’ve ever had. Ronald, we salute you.
How did you first get into the video game industry?
In 1985, I lived in the Netherlands, I had dropped out of high school a few years before. I was in my twenties, unemployed and quite depressed. I had done some programming on a friend’s Apple IIe, years before, but on my unemployment cheque I could never afford to buy my own home computer. When my granddad passed away he left me a small sum of money. By small, I mean a few hundred guilders. But this gave me just enough breathing room between bills to buy a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and a few programming books.
I had been fascinated by arcade games like Ms Pac-Man, and set out to program my own maze game on the Spectrum. I approached Aackosoft, the only game developer in the Netherlands at that time, and showed them what I had made, and they hired me in 1986. I developed six games for the MSX system for them.
Aackosoft let go of most of its development team in 1987 and I was unemployed again. But this time I had a portfolio and I was a much more prolific programmer. But there were no more game developers in the Netherlands. The unemployment office offered me a COBOL training course, which I took. This was to prepare me for a career in writing business software. But in 1988, I packed my MSX machine in a suitcase and got on the ferry to go to the ECTS show in London. I managed to show my MSX games to several companies. Jane Cavanaugh was sufficiently impressed to offer me a job at The Sales Curve.
How The Sales Curve got a game development team is a story in itself. Jane had started the company with a completely different business model. She wanted to represent European developers in the UK market. Earlier that year, one of Jane’s clients had declared bankruptcy, and as part of the settlement, The Sales Curve ended up with the rights to the arcade game Silkworm. So she decided to put together a team to develop it for home systems, and the rest, as they say, is history (hooray! – Ed).
Do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
Of course. It was Snake-It for the MSX system. Check it out on YouTube:
It’s not great. Development time for a game in those days was about four weeks. My second game was a shameless clone of Q-Bert that we called Fuzzball:
I’m still quite proud of that one. Many years later I recreated it on the Amiga, this time called Q-Bic.
You are probably best known for your stellar work on both Silkworm and SWIV. How does it feel that you were so instrumental in creating two absolute classics?
Silkworm and SWIV were a team effort. John Croudy and I did the 16-bit programming, and Ned Langman did the graphics. John specialised in the Atari version and I in the Amiga. The three of us worked very well together and we made some excellent games over the years.
How does it feel? I did not realise until a couple of years ago that the Amiga still has active fans, and that Silkworm and SWIV are considered classics. Wow.
It was quite a surprise. I’m both tickled and surprised.
There has been a lot of debate online on what SWIV actually stands for. Will you reveal the true meaning?
We wanted to make a sequel to Silkworm. It was my idea to call it Silkworm 4. I thought that skipping 2 and 3 would make it more interesting, more surprising, and perhaps create a little intrigue. Maybe I was inspired by the first Star Wars movie being called “episode 4,” it’s the same idea. But Tecmo would not let us use the name in the end. Internally, we had already been abbreviating Silkworm 4 to SWIV.
I believe it was Dan Marchant’s idea to tell all the magazines that SWIV definitely did not stand for Silkworm IV. No, no, definitely not Silkworm IV (hee hee – Ed). Which they duly printed. So you could say that SWIV stands for “the game definitely not called Silkworm IV”.
Were you involved in any of the S.W.I.V. console conversions?
Ned and I made Super SWIV (a.k.a. Firepower 2000) for the SNES. I was not involved with any of the other incarnations and sequels.
Do you think a new Silk Worm or SWIV gaming title should be made, and if so, would you be interested in making it?
Ned and I tossed around the idea of making SWIX, but at this point it seems rather unlikely. I doubt that it would be profitable. And as a side project, well, after working a long day in game development at Insomniac, when I get home I want to do something different. I can’t speak for Ned of course.
Rodland brings back many fond memories from my childhood. Why do you think this game never received the attention and acclaim it probably deserved?
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Personally I think the gameplay is a little flat. But it’s simple and colourful which makes it attractive to a non-hardcore and younger audience.
Technical tid-bit: it is one of several titles that uses instrument sounds that came from a software FM synth that I wrote for the Amiga. Not real time synthesis, though – we couldn’t afford the CPU cycles. Other titles that use instrument sounds from the same synth include The Ninja Warriors, Saint Dragon, and Q\*Bic.
The Lion King is rightly regarded as one of the best Disney video games ever made. How did the opportunity to work on this title come about?
My contribution was minor. I worked at Virgin Games in London at the time. I had been working on Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story for SNES. Virgin wanted me to polish the game with the QA department in their California office.
I had packed my suitcase for a two week trip. Just as I was about to return to the UK, they asked me to join the Lion King team at Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, because they were behind schedule, and could use an extra pair of hands.
I ended up staying for three months, helping out on The Lion King. As I recall it, I only worked on a portion of the AI code.
I really enjoyed my time in Las Vegas, made good friends, and this trip eventually inspired me to move to the US.
Die Hard Trilogy was one of the best early 3D games ever released on the PlayStation. Were you involved in all three game modes and do you have a particular favourite?
I only worked on the Saturn port, while the Playstation version was still in development. This was a tricky job because the two platforms had very a different hardware architecture. My main contribution was a Playstation graphics chip emulator, which ran entirely on the Saturn’s second CPU. My proudest achievement was implementing additive blending, which the Playstation had, but the Saturn did not. The game made extensive use of it.
I also worked on the Saturn implementation of the driving portion.
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
If I could travel back in time to work on any video game, I would pick an arcade game from the early eighties, late seventies. Video games were still new, and unexplored territory. Developers were still trying to figure everything out. I would love to have been part of the development of Pac-Man or Galaxian.
You have worked on some truly amazing games. Which game did you have the most fun working on during your amazing career?
Thank you for your compliments. The simplest answer is SWIV, but it’s not that simple. Ned, John and I were given a remarkable degree of creative freedom. That collaboration is definitely a good memory. It was an ambitious project and we pulled it off.
I had a somewhat similar experience developing Mercenaries. Ambitious and creative freedom – but also the publisher pushing and pulling, and working long hours.
But you have to remember that developing games is a job. And like most jobs, it has a daily grind, frustrations and stresses. I have been doing it for some thirty years, and every game I worked on is inextricably linked to a particular phase of my life, the location where I lived, my personal life and relationships at the time.
So although SWIV and Mercenaries were the most fun, I’m the happiest in my job right now.
If you could give one piece of advice to anyone looking to work in the video game industry what would it be?
Make a game. Finish it. Polish it.
I will have more specific advice for specific disciplines. But “make a game” applies across the board. No matter what role you want to specialise in, you need to know what all the parts of a game are and how they fit together. Game design, art, animation, sound design, programming, and project management. If you get your start in indie game development, you will be involved in several of these aspects, so obviously you need to learn them all. But even in a large game studio, where you will be more specialised, you still need to understand and appreciate the other disciplines. And the best way to do that is to get some experience in those other disciplines.
Hint: you can use a game engine such as Unity or Unreal Engine.
What is your favourite retro video game?
I have fond memories of playing Legend of Mana all the way through over one sleepless weekend.
What projects/games are you currently working on?
After Pandemic Studios closed in 2009, I moved to Insomniac Games to be part of the Core team. The Core team is responsible for the Insomniac engine, tools, and asset pipeline. I specialise in tools, in particular our world editor. So although I’m still in the game development industry, I work behind the scenes. But you will probably find my name in the credits of the upcoming Spider-Man PS4 (ooooohhh – Ed).
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
You have accidentally (or not) hit on a sensitive point. This is my main personal disagreement with contemporary games, and I’m climbing on my soap box.
I have always felt that storytelling and character development do not belong in video games. Not at all. Video games, in my opinion, are best when they are left open, a blank canvas for the player’s imagination and experience. It’s about the activity, the skill, the achievement.
To illustrate, think about your own relationship with SWIV or Silkworm. Yes, it’s a relationship. You remember the first time you beat it, and how hard it was. You remember playing with your best friend, and showing them how to control the jeep. That’s the kind of story I’m interested in. It’s a story that is lived by the player, not written by a script writer.
So for me, video games are best if they focus on pure game play and do not force their story on my experience. And if there are characters at all, they must be left sufficiently blank for my imagination to fill them out.
That said I wouldn’t turn down a date with Nathan Drake. He’s hot.