N.B.: This interview took place before Jon Hare's appointment as Head of Publishing at Jagex.
A near-complete line-up of Sensible Software's games. Click for the full version.
Jon Hare was at Urbis to talk to fans about Sensible Software and the soccer game sharing their namesake, so it only felt right to begin on this subject. The series became an ambitious effort, incorporating massive amounts of clubs and career modes, but how did it all begin? Well, as with all Sensible titles, it came about through a little experimentation. "Whilst we were developing Mega-Lo-Mania, we were playing Kick Off." Irritated at some bugs within the game, they decided they could do better. "As we were finishing Mega-Lo-Mania off, we started to play around with putting football men into it. I drew sprites that looked like Mega-Lo-Mania guys with football kits on and they were running around the little Mega-Lo-Mania world." Already having experience with the style, they used "the same viewpoint, same sprites, same angle, everything. I think it just happened to work from the Mega-Lo-Mania perspective. We sized the pitch up so you could always see the goal or the centre circle wherever you were running". The Sensible development team at this time was "really small", only creeping up to six members as the games continued coming. Of the founders, Chris Yates found himself managing programmers, whereas Jon handled most of the art and the creative direction (the rest of the team - Jools
Fans enjoy the beloved Sensible Soccer. Click for the full version.
The question on many peoples' minds for quite some time now has been that of the future of Sensible Soccer, or indeed other Sensible Software franchises for that matter. Well, it appears everything depends on the respective license holders. "I get emailed all the time saying 'would you like to do a version of Sensible Soccer or Cannon Fodder on iPhone, DS', whatever. I have to go through Codemasters. Codemasters' reply at the moment is slowly starting to become more positive." Considering Sensible Soccer appeared on Xbox Live Arcade a couple of years back, what are the chances of seeing a version on WiiWare or DSiWare as well? "I think it's possible to do a whole bunch of stuff. From my point of view, it doesn't need to be Sensible Soccer. Sensible Soccer's just a name, and I have worked on 5 other football games down the years on different formats." Adding further to the reasons why a new Sensible Soccer might not happen, Jon explained that the main downfall of the XBLA version was the online play. To get it working optimally, "we'd have had to rewrite the entire thing from scratch". Later on Jon expatiated upon the issue of rights and just who is in control of what. "I believe Atari may technically have most of the rights to the 8-bit games; Codemasters, who bought Sensible in 1999, definitely have the rights to the 16-bit games." Historically both have not been the most forthcoming with correspondence despite repeated attempts to instigate talks, including an actual face-to-face meeting with Phil Harrison during his tenure at Atari. "I don't know how much more direct I can get than that!" With Atari Europe being bought out by Namco Bandai we pondered that now might be a good time to grab some of those licenses back, to which Jon agreed but declared the lack of ownership to be "something I've learned to live with". It's not as if this is an issue that is only prevalent now, since when working with Ocean on Wizball Jon recalled wanting to carry it over to another platform ("probably NES," he added) but being unable to due to Ocean taking control of the title and showing no interest. One thing is certain in all of this, though - whether the desire to revisit titles is there or not, there is no hope without prior agreement. "I can't work without rights."
The Sensible gang. Click for the full version.
One game that Jon and his colleagues at Codemasters did manage to start developing was Cannon Fodder. However, work on a version that made its first leap into the third dimension, devastatingly for the team, failed to reach completion three times. "It does upset me that three times we started that project. It was a good project, good design, we had an extremely good team in London to develop it. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, Codemasters hit economic problems and had to sell the studio, so everything just went." The cancellation and suspension of titles seems to be something of a regular frustration for Jon. In more recent years he has had a high percentage of titles worked on "either put in the bin or suspended. At Sensible we published I think 80% of the games we designed. In the last 3 years it's been around 25% of these games that get published and 75% that end up in the wastepaper basket". As would be expected, this bears down on him considerably. "When such a percentage of your work, your product, is going in the bin, you have to learn to not care, because otherwise you can't live with it." It is clear that of the titles cancelled so far, the ones he has personally forged are the bitterest pills to swallow, such as the aforementioned Cannon Fodder 3 and adventure game Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll. "It took me four or five years to accept Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll wasn't gonna come out. We bankrolled that game for three or four months towards the end of Sensible. Basically, we were throwing 40 grand a month away, month after month. You can't go on doing that forever."
The cancelled PSP Cannon Fodder. Image: IGN.
One of the more significant losses in modern times appears to be his DS/Wii/PC game CCTV, which was in development at Ukrainian company Nikitova Games. With a sigh, Hare lamented: "CCTV is kind of suspended at the moment". The idea behind the game is that players work as a security operator in charge of using cameras to clear up the streets. "You see on one screen, on the DS, there's loads of people coming out of shopping mall, <...> on another you've got it cut into four sections. In each of these there's a camera feed, and the camera feeds are coming from various shops. <...> As you look at different camera feeds, you can see different action going on - some of the people are, as you're watching, they're kind of like..." he trailed off, picked up a nearby water bottle and furtively pretended to pocket it. "If they do that, you're directing a video guy and you go 'hang on, rewind camera six'. He rewinds camera six, and if he finds a frame where you can see the guy pinching from the shop you'll freeze it and go 'right, that's a criminal' <...> As the people are leaving the shops, you've got to pick him out from the crowd." Sounds rather like an animated Where's Wally?, no? "Precisely the right analogy. If you pick the wrong one they'll argue with you, you lose time. On a basic level you have to pick out the minimum number of criminals in two minutes to win that level." He went on to explain that as you progress through the game things start to become more fleshed out, with players unlocking new locations to monitor, different times of day to deal with and a whole host of criminals that start to get more experimental with their misdeeds ("smuggling in the airport,
CCTV: top screen of DS on left, bottom screen on right. Original shot here.
Jon pointed out that CCTV was a prime example of how the world of videogames has taken a turn for the worst in recent years. "CCTV's a good example of how it's very hard to sell an original game. We did show CCTV to a lot of companies, and some companies expressed interest, but there overall response was 'that's interesting, I like the idea of that, but...it's too original'." He was surely not impressed with many of the ways that the Industry has evolved since his days with Sensible. "What I'm good at is designing and directing the development of original games. Unfortunately, publishing companies have become less good at having balls to back original games before they're proven. It takes trust in creative people to do that, and they don't trust creative people as much as they used to." It's not the only thing that's an issue; copyright and legal oversensitivity are points of irritation too. "We did a video for one of the Sensible Soccer games and one of the artists modelled a football boot. We were told we had to change the intro video because the football boot had three stripes down it." The recession has also not been the greatest help, putting a number of companies he has worked with into financial difficulties. Comparing the situation to having plans for a quick kick-about disrupted at every stage, Jon described the disparaging effect these things have upon development. "When you're constantly blocked by a legal consideration, or a financial consideration, every single block stops the creative process... When you're getting blocks all the time, you lose the momentum, and you lose the willpower." Summarising how the Industry has switched course, the man also known as Jops commented that it had moved from being a handful of passionate specialists to being "an industry cluttered with loads of enthusiastic younger people with the desire to get involved but often with no latent natural aptitude to produce excellent product and no industry experience". The response of publishers to such a dearth of real, professional, creative quality within development teams is naturally to become more risk-averse than ever.
An iPhone game.
Yet despite the annoyances Hare is still an extremely active member of the Industry with dealings in a great number of projects. He explained that he is currently very much invested in web games and iPhone development, for instance. "I'm interested in iPhone and browser-based games, the reason being that you can develop relatively cheaply.
Sobee's I Can Football.
For all of his recent involvement in what are sometimes classed as casual games, Jon confessed that he would still also like to work on the more substantial platforms, be it mid-to-full range PC games or selected consoles, despite their heavy shift towards motion control. "I would like to do a really good Wii game with a really good budget. A really good original Wii game would be a lot of fun to do." Despite this, he expressed his concerns, saying "the Wii controller's a bit of a nightmare. It doesn't react fast enough and it doesn't do enough. Having done a boxing game on it
Zoo Digital's Showtime Championship Boxing.
Nowadays Hare actually finds that his comfort zone is more outside of gaming circles, with his passion being in his music. As a member of the Commodore 64 cover-band 'Stuck In D'80s' (he revealed he was unsure when they were next set to play live), he stated he has now come to the realisation that whatever control he may have lost with respect to his old games, no such roadblocks can be found with his music. "I realised I can control this, I've got the sound files , I can work with my mate to set a website up and we can sell the music and go to market, and there's no one irritating problem in the way." His partner in 'chimes' is Ben Daglish, a computer musician who worked on audio in games back in the days of the Commodore 64. "He and I are about to launch an online music publisher called Sensible Soundware
Stuck In D'80s in concert. Photo by merman1974.
As the interview started to reach its conclusion, Hare was quizzed about a reunion of the old Sensible team, or a return to the approach of those heady days of yore. Disappointingly Jon's response was not as positive as expected, with him succinctly saying, "Everything has its time. The time for what we did is now gone." Yet later the cynicism drops slightly, with him remarking "let's try and go back to where we were when we were doing those Sensible games". It seems obvious that his meaning is merely in terms of attitude, when a team could put out whatever it liked without being held back, and this appears to be something he is currently recapturing with his work on iPhone. Who knows what will become of the promising CCTV, or if he will ever be able to create that original Wii title, but it is plain that while he will continue to look for challenges - be it in games, music or any other medium - the old days will always have a special place in Jon Hare's heart. "That was a magical time for us."
Images from event by Adam Riley
Our huge, special thanks to Jon Hare for taking the time out around the talk for this interview, and of course for the talk as well. Also thanks to Pollyanna, Caroline and Dave at Urbis and Jo at Anita Morris for arranging the meeting.
Coming soon: an interview with The Oliver Twins. The next event at Videogame Nation is a talk by Manic Miner/Jet Set Willy creator Matthew Smith on 19th July, and there are of course more events running through until September. For a full run down of what's on offer within the exhibit itself, check out our previous article on the exhibit.