An interview with Alan Grier
Alan Grier was a graphics artist that worked at International Computer Entertainment (I.C.E.) and worked on a large number of racing games as well as a number of coin-op conversions for Probe.
Alan's released games in approximate order of creation are as follows:
- Out Run - very little!
- Tiger Road
- Road Blasters
- Turbo Out Run
- Chase HQ 2: Special Criminal Investigation
- Cisco Heat
How did you end up working at ICE?
If I remember rightly there was a very informal interview in the kitchen of Ian's parents house over a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits, this was before ICE had formed. I had already heard about Ian as his previous company Platinum Productions had already produced a few Spectrum titles for US Gold. I wasn't part of PP, I think PP was breaking up around that time but Ian still introduced to some of the guys (David Anderson, Alan Laird and some others). I showed Ian the images I was producing and he seemed impressed, I had the job.
I was already producing computer graphics for my own pleasure before I met Ian, and I was sending images to various software houses and getting very favourable responses which resulted in a few job offers. Unfortunately it would have meant moving to London or Birmingham as they were in-house positions. At that time that was way too scary for a young, shy kid so it was pretty fortunate to meet up with Ian as it meant I had a chance to do something I enjoyed in my own back yard so to speak, so it was a yes to working with Ian and relief that I didn't have to contemplate a move.
Did you study at any art school or was it all self-taught?
I'm completely self taught, I've always been able to draw but it wasn't until I bought my first Spectrum and a copy of 'Melbourne Draw' that I started my pixel pushing career.
Do you have any photos from the early ICE days?
No photographs I'm afraid, I do remember a few being taken for various magazine articles with all the team members striking a (usually very awkward) pose on the steps of the Glasgow office.
Do you recall which magazines the photos were in or which games were being featured at the time?
Don't remember I'm afraid, I just remember the photo shoot, it was a sunny day :)
Did you do all graphics work on Atari STs for easy conversion or did you use an Amiga?
Guilty of laziness on all counts m'lud, yes, I tended to produce the bulk of my artwork on the ST using packages like Degas Elite and NeoChrome. I knew these packages inside out and with ever looming deadlines speed was of the essence. The Amiga versions of the games tended to be a mixture of ST and native Amiga graphics, due to the enhanced colour palette on the Amiga I would go native for elements like gradient backgrounds and skies where I could produce a more subtly shaded image.
Does that mean Turbo Out Run was the first Amiga game you worked on? And did you come from other 8-bit machines before that?
Not sure what the first was, I 'think' (could be wrong) all the major titles I was responsible for (Cisco Heat, Chase HQ 2, Hydra, Turbo Outrun, Tiger Road, Road Blasters and 1943) were developed for the Amiga, ST and the ZX Spectrum.
The name 'Freddy' appears as a graphics artist in the credits of a couple of the games you worked on starting with Out Run. Was that your pseudonym and if so, can you explain where it came from?
Yep, that's me. I did that quite often for some reason, it was usually related to whatever I was 'into' at that particular time, in the case of Freddy, I happened to be a huge fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, hence Freddy (Kruger) seemed a funny thing to do at the time, I could have been into a lot worse I guess. A Freddy Kruger image I produced on the Sinclair ZX Spectrum won first prize in one of their competitions! :)
Was that a magazine competition? If so, do you have any idea what issue it was or when? It'd be great to locate the original article!
Not sure what the Spectrum magazine was, it would have been around 1986. They would print the best art entries every month with the winners receiving a full colour framed print of their work, I still have mine, I've attached the image for you to view in its full colour clashing awesomeness :)
The Amiga version of Out Run is a very strange title for a number of reasons. There are 2 different versions of the game with different copyright years, one contains a moving starfield intro, they have different sized screens, one has a bug where the car image has been flipped horizontally when cornering to the far right causing the driver and passenger to instantaneously switch places etc! Can you tell me what you know about the game?
I had very little to do with on the original Outrun conversion, I do remember re-drawing some minor details on the car and loading screen but that was it as the original artist wasn't available at the time, hence I was able to vandalize, err sorry, I mean 'enhance' parts of the loading screen by adding a few names and initials here and there.
The 'AG' is myself of course, 'IAN' is a reference to Ian Morrison and the 'BF' on the blue case were the initials of a friend of mine 'Bill Fitzsimons' who probably just happened to be there at the time I was re-drawing the image. The 'FM' on the number plate is 'Fergus McGovern' the CEO of Probe.
Do you know anything about the driver and passenger switching places bug?
Nope, sorry, as mentioned above I had very little to do with the original Outrun, Alan Tomkins would have been the artist for that one, he was Probe's in-house artist.
Missing Credits on GO!/Probe Games
I don't remember exactly who programmed those ones but yes, I was responsible for every pixel on both those titles. One game, one artist, seems such a foreign concept these days :)
Do you have any idea why there are no credits in the game? Did you sneak your initials in somewhere or are US Gold/Probe likely responsible for removing them?
No credits, you're absolutely right, looking back through the graphics I'm surprised I didn't sneak something in there. Some of our games, I should say 'most' of our games never had credits beyond developer/publisher logo.
And when companies put their own logos on things, did they pre-supply you the GO! and Probe! logos and you were told they must appear or were they added in later by someone else?
We were certainly told that they must be shown and would be given a printed copy of the logo, publishers never supplied their logos in digital form, there was no way they could, palettes were so restrictive at that time, on all our games developer and publisher logos would have been drawn bespoke by myself tailored to the particular palette of the title screen.
At the start of the game there's a short 4-frame animation of the plane flying in over the aircraft carrier towards the screen. How long did that take to make and what kind of problems did that cause? (I'm guessing you had no digitiser back then - nowadays you could rip the original from MAME in about 1 minute!)
Something like that would have taken around a day to produce (just the plane, not the entire screen) .To get the basic outline I would place a sheet of clear acetate over a photograph of the title screen and draw the outline of the plane and a few major details on the acetate, I would then stick the acetate sheet to my monitor, I know how this sounds but it was very effective :)
After completing the largest frame I would then scale it down and rotate it to produce the effect of the plane zooming into view, the results of this could be quite poor so a lot of tidying up would have been required.
Approximately how long did it take you to do all the graphics for each game in those early days?
From what I can remember it was a fairly rapid process, a couple of months probably.
Did you get switched around projects regularly or did you tend to work on each until they were done?
It was very linear, I did tend to concentrate on one project at a time before moving onto the next.
Did you (as the artist) always get to pick the palette used by the game or was that heavily constrained by the programmer?
I had pretty much free rein, technical limitations were minor, they really only consisted of ensuring a certain palette position (usually 0) was consistent over all images as this was the transparent colour.
Some of the programmers I've talked to have mentioned quality assurance procedures taking place back then. Was there ever anything like that for the graphics in games?
Not really, as we were mainly doing arcade conversions I was just redrawing whatever was in the arcade game, my job was to get as close to the arcade look as I could within the limitations of the platform. I was also my own worst critic, many times, usually in the wee small hours I would draw something, take a step back and say to myself "WTF is that supposed to be?!?" And start all over again.
Re-looking at the game I have noticed that FREDDY is drawn in small letters on one of the attract sequences, but again no in-game credits. Any idea why?
Yep, again, no proper credits, or nothing beyond developer and publisher anyway, I don't remember ever been annoyed or irked about it in any way, it was just one of those things. As a small developer we danced to the publishers tune, they were holding the purse strings after all, they had a brand to build and promote.
Games like Tiger Road seem to have hundreds of frames of animation and it's hard to imagine how to fit it into 512k. Were you given a certain brief early on such as all graphics must fit in some arbitrary memory space which might work out to be only 5-6 screens in 16 colours and it was your job to go through and decide which frames of animation to retain or cull?
It was all an illusion :) Time and space was very much the deciding factors in deciding how to best utilize the space available, a constant balancing act between sprite frames and background tiles and of course time. I always began with walking and standing animations of the player character, then moving onto the various actions he could perform, jumping, punching, throwing, ducking etc. Animations like punching and ducking had to be played out almost instantaneously in keeping with the players reactions and were usually very short and quick, probably around just 1 or 2 frames.
Every sprite in the game would be carefully considered. How little could I draw to achieve the desired effect was pretty much my mantra. Many, many times I would draw more frames than I really needed and have to cull my own work. Same mantra applied to the backgrounds, I loved the challenge of duplicating the arcade background as much as possible within the very strict constraints of the hardware and the finite number of tiles I had to work with.
I have attached the graphics I have for both 1943 and Tiger Road, these will give you a much better idea of the restrictions I had to work with.
Do you have any trivia about the game?
A YouTube comment really made me laugh out loud recently when it was brought to my attention that the walk animation of the player character gives the impression that he is swinging a massive pair of testicles!!! I watched it again... and it's true! Why didn't I notice it 20 years ago?!?
In case the comment ever gets removed, I've preserved the original author's wording here for your enjoyment! The walking animation has been slowed down slightly and is blown up here to double the original size (64x64 instead of 32x32).
Here are all the original source images for Tiger Road!
Turbo Out Run
Can you please explain the conversion process of how the graphics went from the arcade machine to the final game including all the (possibly tedious) steps in between?
Usually went something like this, in the case of Turbo Outrun anyway. The publisher would ship the arcade game up to us at the office, not much actual work got done on these days :) We would all play it (pretty badly) and after a few hours or days one of the team members would end up becoming an expert, this would be the guy that played it while we set up a camera on a tripod looking over his shoulder. Usually both a video camera and a stills camera. We would then take a photograph every few seconds until the entire game had been completed.
We eventually ended up with a huge pile of photographs, a lot of which were pretty useless, remember these arcade machines didn't have pause buttons but they were set to freeplay and infinite continues so once you were on that mule you were on it till the bitter end. When the guy playing the game got fed up, hungry or had to go to the bathroom someone else would quickly take over the controls until they got back.
With my photo collection in hand I would then set about the task of listing every single graphic that appeared in the game. Now it was time to fire up Degas Elite on the ST or Melbourne Draw on the Spectrum and get to work.
The majority of my work at that time was conversions of racing titles which meant scaling for trackside objects, the bane of my life back then, it was all very well drawing a massive building or a billboard at its largest size, that was the easy bit, the part that made my heart sink every time was knowing I also had to produce around 10 progressively smaller versions of the same graphic, my soul died a little bit every time.
I pass my image files onto the coders for them to work their magic. They would run the files through their tools which break up the images and get them into the build, the game is started and I get to see what works and more importantly what doesn't work and needs revising.
What was the delay between you delivering the graphics to the programmer and being able to see the graphics moving and animating in the game?
Not long at all, just a few minutes, the instant feedback was invaluable. I could check animations myself within the art package without having to bother the guys.
In the original graphics you sent me, there's a naked version of the sign girl for 2 frames of animation. Is that an easter egg activated in the game somehow or just some fun drawing that never made it into the final game?
Haha! That's funny! You must have poured over those pixels to spot that. I have absolutely no idea if she is in the actual game, I sooooo hope she is :) If she is in the game I wish I could tell you how to activate it. Between this and the swinging bollocks in Tiger Road I must have been such a pervert :)
DPaint on the Amiga had a crude scaling feature (by removing entire rows and columns of pixels) that could create smaller versions of graphics quickly. Was a feature like that available to you?
Sometimes the scaling helped if dealing with larger, bolder objects but mostly it was pretty garbage, usually making things worse to the point where it was quicker to redraw from scratch than polish the turd the scaler shat out, especially as a lot of the billboards and trackside objects had text on them. Starting from scratch meant I could keep it readable.
In stage 4 of Cisco Heat there's a rather unusual billboard on the side of the road featuring a picture of some guy. It seems a very strange image and out of place for a car racing game. Is that something you added and is it supposed to be Ian Morrison at all?
Ha-ha, that graphic does bear a striking resemblance to Ian, minus the ponytail, but it's not based on Ian, it would definitely have been copied from the original arcade game. We would take literally hundreds of photographs of the arcade games screen while someone who was good at the game played it all the way through, this gave me a huge visual record of every elements in the game which I then used to re-create the artwork for the platforms we were producing for. I of course added the occasional 'embellishment' to some of my artwork but it would just have been very small things like personalized graffiti on an in-game wall or my initials, nothing as large as that.
In my interview with Doug Little, he mentioned that "there might be easter eggs placed by Alan - he did have a sense of humour. If you can dig him up he might be able to say" hence the question!
No easter eggs, sorry! These questions are making me feel that I took my job a little bit too seriously :)
I suspect that's due to deadlines more than anything else! I've also heard some team members fired back then if the games weren't delivered on-time. Did anything like that ever occur at ICE or was it pretty stable?
Seemed pretty stable to me, a few people came and went but the core was solid. It was hard work and long hours a lot of the time but enjoyable, we delivered on time which kept the publishers happy so there were no axes hanging over our heads.
Doug Little also mentioned a car game he worked on called FutFut'n'Bobby. Do you by chance have any information about the game or any graphics of what it looked like?
FutFut'n'Bobby, yes, I remember that one and yes I do have some graphics! The game was never completed though which was a shame. It was a 2D side scroller featuring a leather clad, shade wearing beaver who drove a funky 'Roger Rabbit' type car. The gameplay had you collecting CDs for some reason, don't ask me why.
I completed the graphics for the first level only, no menus or titles or anything, just the main sprites and the background scenery. I've attached what I have, it should give you a good idea of where the game was going.
That looks a pretty neat little game and a real shame it was never finished! Do you recall why it was never completed?
Never made it to final state, if I remember right we had those graphics in, the scrolling worked and we had the main character moving around, bouncing about and doing his thing but that was it, no finished levels, no enemies, no scoring system, no sounds, no menus, no titles, but the little we had was very cool :) It was just one of those projects that was permanently on the back burner, it was a project to work on during any down time between contracts.
Who came up with the idea for the game? Did you get a say in the design of the game at all?
Yes, absolutely, that would have been a joint effort, there was no dedicated game designer at ICE, never really needed one as all of our output at that time was conversions of existing titles.
Did the game have a publisher lined up or was it an internal ICE game that would be shown around publishers later hence only the one level of gfx being made for it?
No publishing deal set up beforehand, it never reached the stage where it was polished enough to be shown off. I'm sure it would have been snapped up though, lol!
Happy, happy days.
Here are the original source images for FutFut'n'Bobby!
I also found some concept art from another unreleased game, a racing game I was working on when ICE closed. It was going to be called Eclipse, and it was a sci-fi based racer that would have used Ian's standard racing engine... again :)
On completion it was going to be submitted to US Gold for their consideration, hence the US Gold logo on the title screen.
The Eclipse title you sent has a copyright year of 1989 on it suggesting it would have been one of the earlier games, or was it only started early on and kept on the backburner for all those years and still would have gone to US Gold later?
You're right, it does look like a backburner project, something I must have delved into during downtime. If it ever did get completed it would certainly have been sent to US Gold for appraisal as we had an extremely good relationship with them.
Do you recall how long you would have worked on those graphics for? Would that have been a month's downtime or so?
Not sure how long in total as I would be jumping in and out of Eclipse over a long period. I don't remember ever having a month's downtime at any point during my time at ICE, would have been days at the most, it was a very prolific period.
When did you leave ICE software and why?
ICE fizzled out due to lack of contracts and the various people involved went their separate ways. Ian (Morrison) and I then worked as contractors for Probe Entertainment and then Bits Studios (Cricklewood, London) for a few years.
When the boss came in and said, "Let's do another racing game with my engine" did the others in the office secretly groan at the thought of it, or was it a case of head down and get on with it? (From an outsider, it seems that Ian went out deliberately searching for racing game contracts!)
I'm sure there would have been a bit of groaning initially especially after the first 2 or 3 racing titles, but it was a contract so yes, very much head down and get on with it, while muttering under our breath no doubt :)
The more diverse projects like FutFut and Eclipse were certainly being worked on, mainly by me, but were still in the concept stage when ICE went under. Without funds from the publisher they just ended up in the darkest corners of my hard drive.
Which was the most fun Amiga game to work on and the worst?
Capcom's Tiger Road conversion is probably the one I enjoyed the most for a couple of reasons:
- It wasn't a racing game :)
- The variety of locations within the game
The only downsides were very tight deadlines and I remember being particularly disappointed at the game running in small window with this massive decorated border around the play area rather than being proper full screen, I'm sure the technical reasons for this would have been explained to me at the time, can't remember what they were now but it was very disheartening.
Worst would have been a racing game, probably one of the later ones like Hydra or Cisco Heat. When I say worst I don't mean I didn't enjoy doing them, I always did, to say I loved my job was an understatement, but there was a long run of racing titles. Ian had written a good racing engine that he had used to great effect on Enduro Racer and boy was he going to wring every ounce of life out of it over and over again, with revisions of course, through Roadblasters, Turbo Outrun, Chase HQ 2, Hydra and Cisco Heat. I loved it all though, even though I was scaling graphics in my sleep.
Which games or artists really impressed or inspired you? Were you in close contact with other gfx people?
I didn't have much contact with other artists in the early years, it wasn't until ICE disbanded that I began to meet other pixel pushers through various contract work which invariably involved visiting various companies, most of these companies preferred you were in-house for parts of their project. The guy I was most impressed with and was most inspired by was an artist I met during my time at Probe by the name of Nick Bruty, he was, and maybe still is, a fantastic artist and an extremely nice guy.
And finally, what are you doing these days?
I'm still pushing those pixels as a freelance graphic designer/game artist for anyone that will hire me. I'm still just as passionate about my work which can't be a bad thing. I do both contract work and a lot of app development as one half of Claymore Games. Check out the website www.neoarcade.co.uk, which features retro-inspired and original arcade games for iOS.
Thank you very much for your time Alan!
You can download a zip file containing the graphics for each game by clicking the links below:
Alan Grier Softography
Amiga Code: Martin Kane
Graphics: Alan Grier,
Music: Jas. C. Brooke
Graphics: Alan Grier
Music: Jas. C. Brooke
Graphics: Alan Grier
Graphics: Alan Grier
Music: David Whittaker
Graphics: Alan Grier
Music: Dave Lowe (Uncle Art)
Graphics: Alan Grier
Sound: Chris Scudds
Graphics: Alan Grier
Sound: Chris Scudds