Rainbow Arts made a lot of our childhood possible and it’s an honour to say that we caught up with one of its main driving forces – Thomas Hertzler! Here he tells Adrian all about the legendary Giana Sisters, what it was like working on video games in the late 80s and his new project Gamma Protocol …
Hi Thomas, great to have you here at Arcade Attack! You’ve produced some legendary games, how did you get into the video game industry?
Quite by accident. I was on a path towards becoming an electrical engineer, when I decided to buy one of those ‘new’ computers, a stock C-64. I remember the sales associate telling me that I also needed the Commodore Datasette, but I thought the additional expense frivolous. I returned to the store the next day to correct my mistake! I played a few games and peeked and poked around for a while. In order to complete my top-of-the line home computer system, I talked my father into buying a diskette station and dot-matrix printer. In return, I wrote a payroll program in BASIC for his business. Only after I purchased my first Atari ST, did I really get into low level, high performance coding. Soon, I was spending more time developing my first vertical shooter inspired by my first arcade experience, Xevious, than my college studies.
What was your role when working for Rainbow Arts?
I was one of their first full-time employees, and my first job there was to complete Skyfighter (the Xevious – clone). After about a year or so, the owner offered me the job as “Entwicklungsleiter” (Development Manager). In the meantime I had been working on the (legendary) Great Giana Sisters Atari ST and Commodore Amiga ports.
Did you realise that The Great Giana Sisters would cause so much controversy after it was released?
I don’t think anybody expected Nintendo’s response. From top to bottom, we were pretty naive about copyrights and intellectual property. All the wanted to do was make games. It was a blow to the company, but the team recovered pretty quickly.
How involved were you when making The Great Giana Sisters?
I didn’t get involved with the project until it was about 75% done. I had built up a considerable library of hand-coded 68k graphic routines and a level editor, so I was given the job of porting the game to the ST and Amiga. Overall I had very little input as far as the game design was concerned.
Did Nintendo actually sue Rainbow Arts regarding how close The Great Giana Sisters was to Super Mario Bros?
I believe that Nintendo filed something equivalent to a cease and desist order, but I don’t think the case ever went to court.
What is your favourite Rainbow Arts game you were involved in?
The Great Giana Sisters. I was able to concentrate on honing my technical skills, develop tools and explore the Amiga hardware capabilities.
Why did you decide to leave Rainbows Arts and start Blue Byte Software?
Towards the end of my time at Rainbow Arts, the work environment had changed dramatically. In 1986, we started with three guys: Armin Gessert; Manfred Trenz and myself. In 1988 Rainbow Arts decided to expand and move closer to Rushware, its publisher, so the company was relocated to Düsseldorf. I don’t remember how many employees Rainbow Arts had at the time, but it must have been at least twenty – and nobody was in charge. I had a title, but the decisions were made elsewhere, so I resigned my position and for a few more months I worked for them as a programmer. There was a bit of an exodus in the summer of 1988, and that’s when Lothar Schmitt and I decided that we could do better and set out on our own – thus the creation of Blue Byte Software (nice! – Ed).
Both Battle Isle and The Settlers were huge successes for your company – how does it make you feel to be involved in creating such successful games?
I would include Great Courts/Pro Tennis Tour in this list (as well). I was certainly relieved that the investment of time and money was finally paying off. Most of my friends and acquaintances at the time thought that I had lost my mind, by betting my career on computer games. So it felt good to get the thumbs up from the people that make this industry possible in the first place – the players! I don’t dwell too much on past successes, because I have learned early on, that you are only as good as your last game.
Blue Byte titles were very popular in Europe but never really connected with the American market – why do think this is?
Short answer – cultural differences. The flow of culture after WWII has been from West to East, not the other way around. I mean how many German movies made it big in the US? Germany was the second largest market for PC games in the 90’s/00’s, (revenue-wise, it currently stands about fifth!), and it was easy to neglect international tastes and still run a viable business. And that is what most German developers and publishers did. As Blue Byte, we tried to appeal to a world audience but in the end we were just slightly more successful in that respect, than our German competitors.
What is the proudest video game you have been involved in?
IL-2 Sturmovik. Visually and from a physics point of view, the game was way ahead of its time.
Which games console do you have the fondest memories of?
From my early game days, there is Nectaris for the PC Engine of course and a bunch of other titles that you had to import from Japan.
What are your views on the video game industry of today?
It caters too much to the limited attention span of today’s generation. The mobile market has gutted itself by constantly lowering prices. While in some ways, the process of making games has been democratized, profits are more polarized than ever. It’s feast or famine.
If you could share a few pints with a video game character who would you choose?
What games are you working on at the moment?
Gamma Protocol, a tactical turn based game, played on land, air and sea. www.gamma-protocol.com. It’s the spiritual successor to Battle Isle. We are still in the Alpha stages and we’ve had a few hiccups along the way, but it’s really taking shape. It should appeal to Battle Isle fans, World of Tanks fans and anyone who’s a fan of turn-based strategy games!
Thank you very much for your time Thomas, and also your German translations! We wish you all the best for the future!