Stephen Mitchell (Lore/Atari) – Q&A

A real treat for you Atari fans this week. Ace programmer Stephen Mitchell has coded and developed titles for the Atari Jaguar (inc Highlander CD which he goes into much details about) and the Lynx. He discusses a lot of those Highlander rumours as well as insights into titles such as Kung Food, Licence to Kill, Total NBA 97 and Tommi Makinen Rally.

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?

As a kid I had started coding on the ZX81 at home then learned to code in assembler for the Model B whilst still at school. I think I wrote a lunar lander type game the day I switched on my ZX81 for the first time.

My first commercial project was not until I had already started at Uni: the BBC model B version of the game “Return Of The Jedi”.

I was called in by Consult Computer Systems to help them port a game they were doing for several formats to the Model B, as they didn’t have a programmer on staff who could code that platform.

I had taken a “gap year” and was about to start a computer training job to fill the time when I got the call from Dave, the boss there. Even though it was less money and only 7 weeks of work, I dropped the “day job” before I even started it and the took on the BBC game contract instead.

I’d met Dave a few times as I dropped in to see friends of mine from school who had started at Consult, so the boss there knew I could code for the Model B.

Although my friends had left before I was called in for this project, I did meet new friends and came back to work for them again on “License To Kill” not long after.

 

Licence to Kill was a big hit. What was you exact role in this game and how do you reflect on this title?

I was one of two programmers, myself and Chris Lowe. We had only 6 weeks to squeeze the game down from a larger version on Amstrad/Spectrum. This was a difficult task, but we came through. Back in those days ports/conversions were common so publishers could say they supported all major home computers, I don’t think the BBC Model B was a big selling platform in it’s own right.

 

What was it like working at Lore Design Limited and how did the company get the opportunity to work closely with Atari?

Well, Dave (the boss of Consult) told me, after I had completed my first game for them, “If you get the chance, go direct to the Americans”. So I took the money I had just earned and rang Atari to buy a development kit for their new console, the Atari Lynx. It also had a 6502 (well 65C02 if I recall) micro processor. I had been offered a full time job at Consult if I didn’t go back to finish my degree, but I’d made commitments so returned and graduated – coding for the Lynx in my evenings, being late for lectures in the day time.

 

You created Kung Food for the Lynx, was it easy to code for?

The Lynx was a great platform. The tools had been developed to use the Amiga, instead of the ST, so I also got into using the Amiga for programming (I had a PS2 IBM PC, Atari ST, BBC B and an old ZX81 by then, adding an Amiga was a bit of a change). The Lynx used a “Howard Board” for debugging and development, my first experience of true cross development as the BBC Model B has its own assembler inside the BASIC language.

 

 

Kung Food is quite an interesting idea, how do you reflect on it and was there ever any discussions to get it ported to other handheld consoles?

I had been told ‘verbally’ I could to bring it to other platforms if I paid Atari a royalty, but the rate was quite high and this was in the 90s when cartridge costs made this tricky. I don’t know which part of Atari own the rights today, but if they were interested I’d be tempted to bring it out for the VCS – though perhaps as an arcade style one on one fighter where you could play any of the creatures…

 

Moving on to your Atari Jaguar work, was the original idea for Highlander going to be a one-on-one fighting game, and if so, how far was this concept into development before you changed the direction of the game?

Yes, a cartridge one on one fighter. However the change happened early on, little more than background art had been created at that early stage. The producer had seen AITD (Alone In The Dark) and that appeared to lend itself to a new drive they were planning to add to allow CDs to be used instead of cartridges – as you could add a lot more “pretty” pre-rendered and textured content. Jaguar had shading, but minimal texturing capacity in 3D. A CD mechanism would allow you to have more memory and use pre-rendering. The game, however, become totally different with this new direction.

 

Was it based off one episode of the animated series? We know there was part two and three coming, were those games based off one episode as well or were they going to try to wrap up the series?

It was largely based on episode one, later episodes were to be used in sequels. We only had access to early materials of the new animated series during our design phase. The plot was somewhat dystopian (not set in the movie Highlander era at all), which is why it appears so different to the movies.

 

The game sometimes gets criticism for the three dimensional/polygon models of the characters. Was the game finished or was this a game that was rushed out to production?

We had very little time, the CD development systems did not show up until shortly before the game was due to be completed. Had we just made a cartridge fighting game it would have been much more straight forward, but the CD system needed titles – so we had to push that format. A lot of people worked very hard to get the technology to work.

The characters were adapted from the animated series and so looked a bit flat perhaps. We did demos using limited facial texturing and much better human characters by carefully selecting items of clothing etc. but that was for a photo realistic look that did not meet the core license requirement in this case.

 

Highlander-Atari-Jaguar-CD-Box

 

Do you know why Atari or Lore Design didn’t use some official art from the cartoon for the game box art?

I imagine the idea was to show the pre-rendered texture mapping. It was the new thing in games at the time.

 

Can you explain how the chicken god mode came about and are there any other Easter eggs within the game?

Well, testing is easier with a god mode. I suppose people remember games for their Easter eggs (Adventure on the 2600?). If Atari QA had asked for it to be removed, it would have been left out.

 

Previews and then reviews praised the high resolution, high colour backdrops, motion capture used, animated intro and the use of Z-buffering for Highlander, but tore the gameplay apart. Do you feel the game was harshly judged?

It was hard to play a game with fixed camera positions and wide open spaces. The format would have worked better in tighter outside spaces and compact interiors with a single camera. Shooting or attacking someone in 3rd person when flipping between two fixed cameras…?

As an early game of its type it has faced some criticism, but then I play Call of Duty in campaign mode and – it’s pretty and it is loud, but am I really playing a game? Perhaps 1st person shooters work best when playing with other people.

I think Highlander might well have had better gameplay reviews as a two playing arcade style fighting game, but you would have to turn the clock back to the mid 90s to find out – and it would have been a much smaller scale of game. In the end, it was an adventurous format and probably would have improved significantly over each iteration.

 

How do you personally look back on this game and should it have been released to other consoles?

The PC version would have been interesting as we had been asked by Atari to hold the low resolution version and instead upscale it to a much higher pixel count.

 

There are rumours that Highlander 2 and 3 were all be worked on and even completed. Can you recall how far each of these sequels was in development and were they similar to the first game?

I don’t think “completed” is the right word, though much work had been done. Atari QA had to test and sign off their games, and I think only the first title had gone through QA and been signed off.

They were to use the same engine, so would have been similar in style but with different environments and characters.

 

There are also rumours the complete versions of these games are in possession of a former Atari employee. Do you have information on this claim?

No comment…

 

If you had possession of Highlander 2 and 3 would you release them to the public?

I think they would probably be incomplete, if they exist at all. Early demo disks are probably all that would be available (again, if they exist) perhaps showing just elements. The cost of moving 600MB of data between the UK and the US back then made testing difficult. In the end you either shipped a disk by FedEx or uploaded changes and recompiled in the US for QA. Data moved no faster than 57.6k Bit BAUD back then, FedEx was quicker.

 

Are you a fan of the Highlander films and the animated series, and do you feel it’s a franchise that should be bought back?

Loved the original film… not so sure that the animated series was as strong. I’d be surprised if it’s not already a made for Netflix TV series, I’ll look next time I switch on my TV.

 

 

Are in you in possession of any other Jaguar alphas or betas the Atari community may not be aware of?

Not personally, Atari owned the kits and so I have none – I believe they went back. Other demos exist from that period, I was about to say I don’t know where they would be – but I should probably double check my attic.

 

Is there any truth that a Batman Jaguar game was briefly in development, and, if so, what sort of game would this have been?

I’m not sure how long NDAs last on this subject. I can definitely say that I do not recall us ever having an actual demo done for Batman at Lore. Perhaps the license ended up at a different studio.

 

What was like to work with the Atari Lynx? Was it easier than the Jaguar and if you still had a development kit, would you make any new games for it?

Yes and yes. The Lynx was great. The only problem is you’d get distracted by playing multi-player Slime World or Warbirds.

 

Why do you feel the Jaguar is so popular today, especially because it was ultimately a failure for Atari?

All consoles end in failure, if you think about it, they get replaced with something much better.

 

Will we just be playing using Cloud services in a year or two?

The Jaguar broke new ground yet was not easy to develop for, like the 2600 – you have to be a bit crazy, perhaps, to want to code for it.

I also worked on the SEGA Genesis with 68000 and Nintendo Gameboy technology Z80 for the GBC and then ARM for the GBA. I love assembly language programming. Does this mean I must be a bit crazy?

Perhaps the old consoles, including the Jaguar, were more about the gameplay and less about the FMV (either real-time or pre-rendered).

 

You then helped created Total NBA 97 and Shootout 97 (for the PlayStation) which received high praise. What was it like working on these basketball games and are you a fan of these sports?

Oddly, between Atari projects, I worked in Chicago for a competitor. Basketball was a big deal in Chicago in the early 90s.

In the UK I’d play 5-a-side but in Chicago we’d “shoot hoops”. The Chicago Bulls were big on TV for being the basketball team to beat. The whole living and working (yes with a visa) in the US was a great introduction to NBA basketball.

So, perhaps this introduction helped with developing the game. It wasn’t until after the Jaguar that I moved to London and was one of two Internal Development Managers on PlayStation (as it was then) for Sony SCEE. Total NBA (and Shootout) were my projects. I picked the team and managed them day to day. I also helped with developing the game specific tools and the design of the learning AI, but I did not code on the PlayStation itself.

There had been a Total NBA 96, but it was flawed and considered incomplete by American standards for sports games. I created the new Total NBA 97 project bible and plan, produced and directed it all the way from start to finish. We were to fill all the gaps that 96 had left. After Atari, it was amazing to see how different it was at Sony. The Edge 9/10 review was a great reward for working on the game and worth keeping on my bookshelf. Best still, it’s really addictive to play the game – even now. The team were amazing, I think we all enjoyed standing next to the title when it released.

 

What was is it like working on Tommi Makinen Rally for the PlayStation and did you ever get to meet him while producing this title?

I did not meet Tommi. Rally was a more difficult title to produce and I was a step away from it as I had become an EP by then. We had, what we thought was a good game – but we were looking at V-Rally as the competition. Colin McRae came out shortly after we did and it re-defined the genre away from arcade gameplay on console and towards a more authentic sim. With basketball I had the luxury to bring out the best game in its class at the time, with Rally we had just a few weeks before we were comfortably bested.

 

Lore Design has been featured in Retro Gamer magazine, what was it like working for this iconic company and are you still in contact with anyone from Lore?

I founded Lore Games when I was still a student for developing an Atari ST game, it was merged into Lore Design and I became a smaller cog in ‘the machine’ with nearly 20 people, at one point, working on Jaguar CD.

I am still in frequent contact with many of the Lore Design folks, and also several of the Atari crowd. Thinking about it, I’m in contact with people from just about everywhere I’ve done projects. I think I see about half a dozen people who were from Lore during the Jaguar period on a regular basis.

I enjoyed my time at Lore, but indie development was getting tough as larger development efforts were needed with ever bigger budgets.

 

Faran Thomason is a true gaming legend who we have featured in the past. How did you meet him and have you worked together since?

I met Faran at Atari corp. in Sunnyvale. We’ve always caught up at trade shows or just when passing through the same city. Maybe not every E3, but barely a year goes by I don’t see some of the “original Atari people”, which I count as those who were there during the Sunnyvale period. Faran and I often get involved with projects together in some way, not always commercial – maybe just concepts or cool retro things. Hey, when Faran calls, it’s going to be an interesting conversation.

 

What games and projects are you currently involved in?

Well, NDAs probably stop me saying anything really interesting. But I think it’s public knowledge that I’m involved in making games controllers and some of those are for cool platforms.

My assembly language background diverted me into video games accessories and electronic toys after I stepped away from being an EP.

I always enjoyed the code and engineering side of the business. I even went “back in time” and learned how to code for the original Atari 2600 a year or two ago (hey, 6502 and a few bytes of RAM – what’s not to like?)

I also help tutor at my local university and, surprise, surprise, I run some retro games projects with a few undergraduates each year.

 

Did you ever start work on any games that were sadly never released or completed, and if so, which of these games do you feel would have been the most successful?

Yes.

Hard to say which would have been the most successful, I did start working on World Heroes for the Genesis for Sega – but I quit when they cut my ROM budget, making a faithful arcade port impossible (so I thought). Clearly I was young and foolish as the engineer who they ended up using did not do a faithful port form the arcade version. I know I could have done a better one than the version that they finally released.

I also turned down a C64 Vindicators contract from Consult. They had already failed to finish it for several months/years with several other programmers. They asked me to do it for around £1,500, if I recall correctly. They had spent much more than that amount during the many, many months it had failed to emerge over but could not accept that the code they had was; basically useless.

To do a faithful port you need to go deep into the machine code and decipher the game’s data (levels, art and audio). Then you have to squeeze it down to a smaller memory footprint and usually a slower chip whilst maintaining the data structure integrity.

I worked fixed price back then and I simply couldn’t do a good enough job for so little money, sometimes you just have to say no – especially when previous programmers notes were in doodled crayon all over random sheets of A4 (eeeeeek – Ed).

But I’d have loved to have coded C64 Vindicators if I’d been allowed to start from scratch and perhaps had been offered a little more money.

I tended to complete games I started (except at Sega…). I did help put together the Total Soccer team at Sony before I left, but I did not work on the game itself – I’d loved to have been there for that one.

 

 

If you could step inside any of the games you have worked on and live there for a day, which game would you choose and why?

Lore Lords of Britain (yes, I coded it). I love 890’s AD Britain, play-by-mail strategy games were surprisingly immersive, I even played in one of the games myself for a couple of years – they typically lasted about 3 years each. It was text based… but then some of the best retro games are.

 

What are your favourite video games of all time and why?

GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64, followed by Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64 (Balloon mode). OK, everyone says that right?

I did like Star Wars the sit down arcade game, used to own an old cabinet – probably my favourite arcade title of all time.

If I’m taking an hour off to play a PC game, it’s probably Generals Zero Hour or Red Alert 2 (multiplayer).

 

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

Well, it’s obscure but – Fat Bobby… Hey, he rescues his band – cool guy!

From mass gaming… I tend to pick Bowser (yes, he’s a villain normally) when I play Mario Kart, does that mean I want to go for drinks with him – hum, maybe?

Thinking about it, I like both the hero and the villain characters and can definitely see myself hanging with the whole cast at the end of the game…

 

Adrian

 

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