An interview with Ned Langman
Ned Langman was the graphic artist whose name popped up over and over again on Random Access/The Sales Curve's greatest games! Ned's Amiga softography includes the following games:
- Ninja Warriors
- Judge Dredd
- Saint Dragon
- Double Dragon 3
- Big Run
- Indy Heat
How (and when!) did you learn to draw?
Haha, I don't consider myself to be very good at art. That's why I got into computer games - it was easier to make things look good on a computer than on paper!
When did you realise you had a talent for computer artwork that you could make a career out of?
In the early 8 bit days, the great looking games were things like Xevious and Starforce in the arcades, and Uridium on the C64. These graphics were very easy to replicate as they mostly consisted of a solid colour, a highlight and a shadow. People got very excited by a grey shaded ball or cube in those days! Also, I just used to do spaceships where you could just do any mad design you wanted and it would look ok.
How did you end up getting a job at Random Access? What kind of interview took place?
I'm not sure I can remember an interview. The company was just starting up and a friend of mine worked there, and he just sort of got me in there. My first job there was to convert an arcade game called Kid Niki, Radical Ninja which was a sort of weird cute Shinobi style platformer. I produced all the graphics for the C64 but it never got completed or released. It was very easy to get work in those days as the industry was in its infancy and nobody had very high expectations. In fact, nobody knew what to expect!
Are there any games that you would have loved to create the graphics for?
Oooh, good question. Jane Cavanagh, the boss at SCi, often mentioned the possibility of doing a Thunderbirds game which I desperately wanted to do - I'm a massive Thunderbirds nut - although the graphic capabilities of the time probably would have made that impossible. But anyway, I went ahead and designed loads of new Thunderbirds vehicles and built a few of them in 3D studio, but nothing ever came of it. I think they ended up producing a rather average Thunderbirds game on the Gameboy.
When working at Random Access, were you poached to do stuff on other games if they (urgently?) needed graphics or you pretty much would complete each game in turn and then go onto the next one?
Yes, I do remember getting borrowed a few times to do extra bits on Big Run and some other dodgy ZX Spectrum racer. Couldn't wait to get back to the proper projects!
What was your favourite part of the job? (Drawing characters, title screens, creating new characters, maps, level design, box art etc)
Well, I suppose coming up with ideas. I never put on my CV that I was primarily a game designer (it wasn't a role I wanted to get burdened with) - but my brain was always turning over and trying to think of new exciting games to do. It was a time of experimentation in those days, I loved it. I was an artist out of necessity really - it was what I had to do to get ideas to happen.
And the least favourite part of the job?
Haha! Mapping? You know, those tedious jobs where you have to put "dirt attribute" down on about a million tiles. Or texturing a road. Working on racers was so dull. Tarmac, tarmac, tarmac, bit of dirt, more tarmac etc. Ergh!
Can you please tell me the general method you used when you had to reduce a game from say 256 colours in the arcade to 16 for the Amiga? Presumably you always have a black and a white so that's 2 colour slots gone. A fixed colour for the background that you can't use in other things; that's down to 13 remaining! Always allocate some primaries for explosions like a red and a yellow? And we haven't even started with the main characters! How on earth did you manage to stick to a static palette that worked so well throughout all the levels?
Oh wow! I can't remember how I did the Silkworm palettes - I think you have guessed pretty close to how it was. There was definitely a greyscale that never changed - this was made up of a black, two (or three) intermediate greys and a white. I think these were bunched up at the beginning portion of the palette. All the homing missiles, metallic looking objects and enemies would have used these, and the white would have been used as the highlight on probably every object.
Other fixed colours would have included a yellow and red and possible an orange. These would have been used in the explosions mostly, but the little yellow homing helicopters and the big goose copter also used the yellows. The orange might have been used to shade yellow objects. Oh yeah, that big spinning tower thing used these colours too.
The rest of the palette would have been green shades for all the copters and the jeep etc.
Ninja Warriors was a combined effort with you and Rob Whitaker. What were you responsible for on the game?
Ah, now that game did feel like it took a long time. The Amiga/ST versions were long and tedious. Just straight conversion work. The graphics were supplied and I just had to reduce palette etc. Ronald, genius that he was, created an automatic palette converter that went through all the backgrounds and calculated the optimum 16 colour palette that would work for everything on that level.
The ninjas were the hardest. They were broken down into component sprites. John Croudy had to create an editor just so that I could put all the limbs and head together - I had to do this for each individual frame!
The C64 version was more fun - I loved the challenge of trying to convert such a huge detailed looking game onto the C64.
I really can't remember what Rob's role was. He may have done the front end stuff - he was an incredible pixel artist so he usually got the title screens etc.
In my interview with John Croudy he mentioned that the editor he wrote lost your work several times. Can you tell me what you remember?
Yeah, that was hell. But I didn't blame John. He did a pretty good job considering what we had to do. And I have to give us a pat on the back for doing exactly what the arcade machine did - we could have so easily just done a solid Ninja character with an energy bar and turned him or her into an android when the bar got low. But we went the whole hog and created each body part seperately. John's editor was a standalone tool that allowed me to import the body parts and set the offset positions for them for each stage of the animation. And there were many. I shudder just thinking back about it!
Did you draw the impressive title screen for SWIV? Was the box image inspired by the game, or was the box picture done first and the title screen copied off the box?
The box art was done before the title screen and I have no memory of the artist. I converted it to pixels for the title screen.
About how long does something like that take to get right?
It took a long time.
In the attract sequence for SWIV, there are 2 very slick specification screens where the helicopter and jeep are drawn from components, adding more and more detail, fading parts in while printing all the stats. Was that a pure animation you created in DPaint and the game is just playing it back? Or did you build up a set of component parts and code is fading them all in?
Aha, yes that was very clever wasn't it! Very simply, it was a palette trick similar to the colour cycling tricks that were used a lot in those days.
I just created a single blueprint image for each vehicle, and layered it. Each layer using one colour slot in the palette, so colour slot 1 was something like the chassis, then slot 2 could have been the wheels, then slot 3 would have been another level of detail and so on.
Then all Ronald had to do was make the whole palette black and then "switch on" each colour by making it green. Well, we could have stopped there, but to give it an extra bit of glimmer, he animated each colour as it came on - so it flashed white and then faded down to green. As the colours were switched on in a sequence it gave the impression it was being drawn. And then when it was complete the full colour image of the vehicle was displayed.
Did you have free rein over it? How long did it take to do?
I had total free rein, it was the most fun I had making games. The limitations of the time forced you to be very imaginative.
From Ron Pieket's interview, it sounds like the SWIV map maker was an amazing piece of software. Could you draw graphics in it or it was just for placing already created graphics?
As I remember, all the sprites were created first in DPaint. I'm pretty sure backgrounds were treated as sprites too, at least in the context of the editor.
Did you have to manually cut out every object you wished to use in the game? And were objects kept in their own image file with their own palette or did you have to combine them all into one huge file?
Ronald did this clever thing where you laid all the sprites out on a sheet and just clicked any point of one sprite and it would automatically cut the sprite out. Clever Ronald.
Can you please tell me what you can remember about it? What was the interface like and how did it work? Was it very programmer-like with hexadecimal values all over the place representing various things or was it more slick than that?
First you would import the sprites into the editor and they would be accessible by scrolling through them. I would place the background sprites first - I don't recall there being "paint" or "tile" modes. I think I had to place each background tile one piece at a time!
I would just plonk down the sprite for roughly where I wanted the baddy or wave of baddies to generate, and Ronald would do the rest.
The palettes could be created on the fly at any point on the map. They were displayed as R,G,B decimal values at the left edge of the screen. I think I could do it one colour at a time rather than an entire palette adjustment at every point. For instance, if there were some green lights that used just one colour slot, and I wanted them to be red in the next area along the map, I would plonk down an RGB label, choose the green colour (I'm afraid I can't remember how you chose the editable colour - you'd have to check with Ron) and adjust the RGB values. This effectively gave you more than 16 colours on screen at any time.
The transitions from zone to zone were done by disguising the colour swap. For example, where brown dirt becomes yellow desert sand, lots of stones and rocks using the generic section of the palette were obscuring the ground. If they weren't there, then you would just see ugly colour banding where the palette colours on each line are changed.
Gosh, I forgot how complex it was!
The game credits shows that 4 of you worked on it! (Chris Lowe, Robert Whitaker, Steve Snake and yourself). What was that like? (Sounds like trouble to me!) Was there always one person who was primarily responsible for the game and the others reported to them, or it was an all-hands-on-deck approach?
Haha! That's called sharing the blame! Ah, what a shame though. We were massive 2000AD fans. The chance to do Dredd was so exciting, but the design just wasn't there. I don't remember who designed it or if it even had a designer. I was assigned three backgrounds I think. Rob did the sprites - which were really nice actually, especially the fatties with the wheels. If only we had seen Narc (a Williams shooter that came out a few years later) - it should have been done like that - a straightforward shooter with a (very small) bit of arresting on the way. Still, nowhere near as bad as the Stallone movie though!
Did you have any challenges when games re-used colours during the display? eg. Changing a palette entry from a blue sky for the top part of the display to a grey for the road near the bottom.
Um, I can't really remember this being a problem.
With a game like Rodland where you received the coin-op graphics, did they arrive a bit like the MAME dumps where it's a tonne of 8x8 or 16x16 tiles that are not necessarily in a logical order, and with a large number of palettes to sort through, and it was up to you to reconstruct the whole thing? Or did you get nice sprite sheets that you just had to palette reduce rather than re-stitch together first?
Yes! MAME dump hell is the answer. It was just one massive jigsaw puzzle. There didn't seem to be any logic at all to how the blocks sets were laid out. I had to guess the palettes and then guess which 16x16 character block belonged to which palette. That was the most challenging job I ever did! I ended up having to do a lot of the graphics myself because I just couldn't decipher the source stuff. The first two screens were created by me.
For the screens you re-created manually, what kind of technology did you have at your disposal back then?
I think I had a video that I paused.
Did you get the arcade graphics from this game?
Right, I do remember us having some source graphics, but again, as with Rodland, they were all over the place and hard to figure out.
If you didn't have all the original graphics, how difficult was it making probably hundreds of tiny car rotating frames (and presumably ones with bits of the car coming off/blowing up etc)?
Ugh, I remember dreading the idea of animating all those cars - there seemed to be hundreds of frames of rotation, and all in 3d, so you couldn't just spin it in DPaint and touch it up - luckily the sprites were all provided, but I think I had to reduce the colours a bit.
Did you get the chance to add anything to the game that wasn't in the original?
No, it was a straight forward port - no room for artistic license. I didn't even get the chance to sneak a SciFi reference in there which, little do people know, I did with every other game.
It appears that you were given the luxury of 32 colours for the game, because it's updating such a weedy amount of each screen so the Amiga can keep up with 5 bitplanes. Did that make everything much easier?
Oh, I'm afraid I can't remember. I know there were lots of layers - cars, shadows, masks, track etc. I think the cars all used a separate palette to the backgrounds - not sure!
The Colorado track has really weird shading on the track, particularly the leftmost edge of the straights. Was the original like that or did someone else help out or you were trying some effect or something? (I don't like that track to be honest, the others look so slick and neat, that one stands out like a sore thumb!)
Yeah, I remember that - no, I think that's just how the tracks came - they must have had a different artist do that one.
Was this an enjoyable game to draw the graphics for or a pain?
To be honest, it was a difficult, fiddly game to convert, but we did have a lot of fun playing with the arcade machine! That was the perk in those days!
With Big Run you had to work with Rob Whitaker and Shaun McClure. What bits did each of you do on the game and how did you divide up the work?
I'm afraid I have erased all memory of that game.
The only thing I recall about the production of that game is that me, Rob and Shaun compiled a fart tape. Perhaps I should leave that there.
Into the Sales Curve
In January 1992, Click (the magazine-on-videotape) visited The Sales Curve/Storm and interviewed several of the developers. Ron Pieket is visible for about 2 seconds at 0:42, Ned Langman's interview is at 1:36, and John Croudy's interview starts at 2:18.
Oh God, I wish they'd never dug that up, it's so embarrassing! We had all these ideas of how witty and clever we were going to be when the guy came in with the cameras but in the end we got all shy. I thought the gag with Shaun coming out the toilet was good though.
Were you ever responsible for the box art for games or only computer artwork?
Um, nope. But we were always really excited when they brought the artwork in to show us - it sort of made what we were doing become real.
Of the games where you were primarily responsible for graphics, which was the quickest and the longest to work on? And does quick represent easy or not always?
Super SWIV on the SNES was the quickest game to turn around. Six months in total I think. It wasn't as vast as Amiga SWIV, but it was loads of fun to do and very exciting to be able to have transparent sprites to play with!
The longest game I ever worked on was Forsaken for the PC - almost three years! Managed to sneak some SWIV references into it though. The main player's weapons systems might seem similar to SWIV fans!
Is there anything you can't draw? You've done military hardware (Silkworm, SWIV, St Dragon), cutesy fairies (Rodland), racing cars (Indy Heat, Big Run), people (Ninja Warriors, Double Dragon 3) etc!
I was rubbish at people, animals, trees, anything organic - everything really except for spaceships! I made a career out of tricking people into thinking I was good at art! I got found out back in 2004 when I lost my job and became unemployable!
When looking back at old games do you think that you should have done something differently?
Absolutely, I always want to improve things. You have to make a lot of compromises to get games out on time. I look back on Judge Dredd Amiga and think "we should do that again - from scratch!"
Do you cringe at any of the graphics you did due to tight deadlines? (It sounds like SCi were more relaxed than some outfits but maybe as an outsider that's wrong!)
Haha, yeah, a bit. But, I don't think it matters these days as long as the game is fun. Graphics are so powerful now that it's become a burden I think. Big studios don't dare release a game unless you can see every single fiber on a soldier's rifle strap, but come on, I mean who cares? Why should technology dictate design? I'd love one day to make a game that is really fun to play but just has really awful graphics, a bit like the stuff you see on Gallery Abominate!
Are there any games you saw where you just couldn't believe how incredibly good (or bad) they looked?
Oh yeah, Forbidden Forest on the 64 - looks pants now but at the time it was like seeing a movie. And Gorf on the Vic-20. Showing my age now, but when me and my late friend Dave saw that for the first time our jaws were open! Haha!
Are you a programmer at all or purely a graphics specialist?
Oh, believe me I tried to learn to program many times, but it hurt my head! I just didn't have the logical mind for it. Too much math. I had so much awe for Ronald and the others. Those guys were like alchemists as far as I was concerned. I used to knock out basic games on the old Vic20 and C64, but the proper hard core coding was for the brainy people!
Having said that, in desperation for work I have now learned how to program Flash games - just enough to get by on. I won't be able to make my own SWIV sadly!
How many of the "old gang" are you still in touch with?
Well, thanks to Facebook, I got back in touch with Ronald who moved to the States not long after the SCi days. I got back in touch with John Croudy too, but he has left Facebook now. He went off to live in Finland I think. Not quite sure what happened to Steve Snake. Rob Whitaker also moved to America, but I'm still very much in touch with Greg Michael who I've worked with recently.
What are you up to these days?
Well, I sort of fell out of the industry around 2003 and underwent a massive lifestyle change! Got married, had kids, moved out to the country etc. But thanks to the huge shift in gaming to online and mobile, I got back in, and now I run a Flash website called The Fungooms with games for children. I also worked with Greg on Space Junk, a vector styled homage to the old Williams and Atari games, and I'm hoping to make some more of those. Right now I'm concentrating on my Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to take Fungooms to iOS and Android.
Can you tell me a little about the history of the Fungooms site and the kickstarter campaign you have for it?
The Fungooms site is totally free to play so I don't make much money from it - just enough to get by on from advertising. And I have a huge back log of game ideas in my head, but no way of bringing them to reality. I'm hoping that the Kickstarter project will enable me to take on some help as well as network a bit with other developers in the South West which is incredibly beautiful place to live, but hugely lacking in games developers. If successful, I can get Fungooms apps out there fairly quickly and hopefully generate money from them to make more Retro blasters - honestly, there are hardly any decent (IAP free) retro shooters on iPad, and my motivation has always been to make the kind of games I really want to play. I'd love one day to bring SWIV to mobile devices, I think that could be a cool game.
Can you tell me a little more about Space Junk?
I teamed up with an old SCi buddy and produced a retro shooter for iOS called Space Junk. That was real fun to work on, the whole process was just like the old days - pure creation, and no interference from marketing people. Having said that, it failed to sell, so I guess that's where the marketing people come in handy!
If it's not too confidential, what counts as "not selling" these days for iOS?
Oh, I think we've had about 6,000 paid downloads and ten times as many free downloads.
Is piracy a major problem for iOS games or the bigger problem trying to get publicity when there are so many games out there now?
The latter - I've heard people argue that these sort of games don't have a big market, but I've never paid much attention to that sort of thinking. I'm a stubborn chap, and I believe that if something is cool, then it is cool whether there's a "space" in the market for it or not. Space Junk is a totally cool game and easily one of the best blasters, and is especially gorgeous on the new iPads. I've seen similar games selling 50 times as many units, but as a teeny tiny developer we just don't have the marketing muscle to promote the game. But anyway. I'm not in it just for the money. If I was then I would be making "Angry Ninja Zombie Pirate Mine Build Craft Birds"!
Finally, can you list some of the hidden or sci-fi references that you drew in your games?
Um, let's see. Eagle Transporters in SWIV Amiga, the funny alien from Dark Star in Ninja Warriors Amiga, The Flying Sub from Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea in Super SWIV, and every single level of Space Junk has a sci-fi reference - heaven!
Thank you very much for your time and your amazing artwork over the years, and the best of luck with your kickstarter campaign!
It's a pleasure! I feel all nostalgic now. This is like therapy!
Starting out creating graphics for early pioneer Steve Bak, Chris moved into programming games and went on to create one of the Amiga's flagship characters - James Pond.
Well known for his slick Amiga games Midnight Resistance and RoboCop 2, Ian Moran worked at Special FX from mid 1989 until 1992 when he was one of 5 founding members that formed Rage software.
John was one half of the formidable Random Access/Sales Curve programming team that worked on some of the Amiga's most fondly remembered games. John worked on Silkworm, Ninja Warriors, SWIV, Rodland, Saint Dragon and Indy Heat.
Copy protection expert and creator of the copylock, Rob Northen's system was the primary measure to prevent casual software copying for around 500 commercial Amiga games, the majority of which were protected between 1989 and 1992.
The programming legend responsible for the superb games Silkworm, Ninja Warriors, SWIV, Rodland and Q-Bic, Ron answers a plethora of technical questions about his games.