An interview with Ian Moran
Ian Moran worked at Special FX producing some classic games published by Ocean software, before forming Rage software with 4 other colleagues. Ian's Amiga softography consists of the following titles:
- The Untouchables (1990) - Code
- Midnight Resistance (1990) - Code
- RoboCop 2 (1990) - Code
- Hudson Hawk (1991) - Code
- Striker (1992) - Sound effects and music
Which computers did you grow up with or was the Amiga your first?
The Amiga was the first computer I programmed professionally, but I had owned and used a number of other computers before that.
I'd got a secondhand Commodore Vic 20, programming was more fun than the majority of games that were about, as much as I did enjoy trying to land a 747 without a cockpit view, I'd tried basic but I quickly realised that in the 3.5k of memory that the platform graced us with, and just for the sheer speed of it that machine code was the way to go.
Reckon I must have totally misspent my youth, no sex, no drugs, time was taken cooking up all sorts of little projects, demos, little games, and simple hardware projects with the house wired with switches and sensors. I used an old motorcycle battery for power backup with external memory expansion, that mapped into the same memory range as plugin cartridges, which were sold for the vic, this meant I was able to do instant booting little games and demos, which was novel considering the speed of loading from tape.
I'd played with 6502 machine code on the vic and at school on the BBC micros and the very insecure network, and then some Z80 on ZX81, cheap when they were being sold in favour of the newer more exotic Spectrums and the likes.
The leap to the Commodore 64 was great (I actually had the Commodore 128 which was a Commodore 64 with some interesting additional hardware), there were actual off the shelf compilers that worked well, fabulous kit. The resolution, the scrolling, sprite hardware and the SID sound chip, all totally awesome, rocked, I had played with the Spectrum and that was ok and there was plenty of good software about, but next to the superior hardware, which I knew had so much potential, it had to be commodore.
During my time with the Commodore 128 I purchased a modem and was part of the compunet community, it was before the internet proper but there was a proprietary front end to a server that hosted chat, and you could share your demos and meet and learn from like minded people, the demo community was really taking off and this was a motivation and inspiration.
How did you end up getting a job at Special FX? Was it straight from school?
Programming was something I loved, it seemed natural that I'd give it a shot, and anyway I couldn't think of anything else I could do for a living. I took a few of my little Amiga demos round to a couple of local firms and they seemed keen, Paul Finnegan at Special FX, gave me some graphics, I knocked a R-Type style shoot'em-up demo together, overscan, smooth scrolling with the obligatory parallax star field. He made me feel comfortable enough for me to think this is the place for me, and that is where I started mid 89 after completing my A levels.
What was the development system you used for your games? I'm assuming it evolved between Untouchables and Striker!
You would think that wouldn't you lol. But quite honestly it didn't change much, the assembler was custom built in-house, this was close to the metal and as fully functional as you could want, this was developed by Keith Robinson, fairly sure it must have been hands down the fastest for the platform, we ran this on the Atari ST along with an external harddrive for storage. We had custom hardware for the fastest transfer to target and a lightweight OS that handled disk IO. There was never any need to further develop this, for our purposes it was the best development system bar none. There were some interesting off the shelf alternatives but at this speed and all round capability there wasn't anything to touch it.
For graphics on the 16 bit systems it was always DPaint, and we had custom grabbers and map editors for sprites, animation and level construction.
Did you get any choice in which game you would be working on first when you were hired?
Not really. Before joining there seemed to be an ambition to do original stuff; we all have ideas of working on our own ideas, and that might have been great, but it was all new to me and I was more than happy to take on the licences that were coming in from Ocean. It seemed totally natural that is what I would be doing, and they paid the bills.
When Red Heat was being finished off, I think it was all hands on deck, after getting set up, my first task was some bug hunting to get that one out of the door and it was right on to the next project Untouchables.
Speaking of Red Heat, credits are conspicuous by their absence in the game. Can you please fill in the gaps?
Joffa will have done ST, and Frank Robinson had just completed the Amiga port, Karen will have been on the case too, not really sure about anything else. I have the Amiga box at home, but when I checked inside the box unfortunately I didn't have instructions, or the game in fact!
Who came up with the specification for the game? How detailed was it?
The game had already been planned out for the 8 bit versions, we visited Manchester and the vaults of Ocean on a recce and came back with a good idea of what the game was about, a planned was fleshed out and storyboarded back at the office, adding any graphical flourish and features for the platform, as ST and Amiga were always handled by different programmers.
You wrote the game with Frank Robinson. How did you split up who was doing what on the game? Which parts did you write?
Frank had made a start on the first level of the six in the game, each level was a subgame, and we each ended up taking three each, as to the choice we probably just took the next one that came, I can't really remember, but I took levels 2, 3 and 6 (bridge, alleys, and the roof top).
Did your coding style have to match each other to pull the game together or were the levels effectively their own separate load so you could do things completely differently from each other and it wouldn't matter?
I think I did the glue code which loaded the level code and data, managed disk changes, did the newspaper segs and score tracking, or what have you, that would have resided in a small area of ram, along with the DFS (which was Frank's code) each level sub game would would have been kicked off from there, each level ran separately, everything was built from the ground up, I don't think we shared any code, I would have thought we would have shared basic input code for example though, I don't remember doing so though... it was simple stuff that we probably just had.
Were the 16-bit versions developed by Special FX separately from the 8-bits?
We had taken a trip to Manchester to see what they had for the 8 bit versions at the start, these were being handled at Ocean's office and the design largely came from that, Special FX only did the 16 bit versions.
Were you allowed to make changes/improvements for the Amiga version over the Atari ST or was there no time to do this?
The ST and Amiga were handled independently by separate programmers, we wanted to use the technology and features that the Amiga brought to the table, the display was always going to be larger, we had double the number of colours, smooth scrolling, improved audio and the likes.
In hindsight, did you think the first level was too difficult?
There wasn't really any QA or playtesting labs back then lol, the usual test was letting Paul the boss play, and if he could do it, it was considered easy enough. Seriously though, yes... after you have played something a thousand times, it's not possible to be objective when it comes to setting the bar.
How did you handle the collision detection in the game? Did you have some kind of rectangle intersection, or points you checked on each object, or did you use the blitter collision detection or something else?
Interesting, after you asked about the game, I had been playing Untouchables this weekend. My goodness that first level was difficult! I did manage to get to the second level which was the shoot out on the bridge, and I remember using the blitter for accurate and quick collision, it seems a bit unnecessary to go to the bother, but collision on the GPU sounds cool even today, I would probably have used it for Midnight Resistance also.
With a multi-disk game like Untouchables, was there ever any pressure to try and reduce the number of disks? (I heard a rumour that Ocean didn't want Lost Patrol released in its original form on 4 disks, presumably as each extra disk cost another 40p meaning less profit so a lot of the content was cut to reduce it to 2 disks).
We did two disks didn't we? I remember doing some compression, decompressing data on load, might have been included for Untouchables, I think beyond two would have been a problem, and I think we were aware of pressure for that, it hits the margins. Hadn't hackers packed multidisc games down making a bit of a mockery of the large numbers of disks?
Were you ever told to make sure you included a cheat in a game? I know games were sent to reviewers with cheats so they could playtest all levels when they didn't have time to complete a game properly, were useful for developers, and also I heard cheats were sometimes leaked to magazines by Ocean so people would beat the game after a few months and then would have more of a need to buy their next game!
We always needed cheats for testing in-house, and these were always exposed to some degree using key sequence in game for the published product, you never know when that might be useful, and of course I guess it is free marketing, which was always nice to see, I don't know if we were asked to do it as such, but if I were the publisher I would have made sure we included stuff like that.
Who did the mastering for the games you worked on?
I think Frank will have mastered Untouchables, I mastered the other titles.
Were there any problems or interesting stories during development?
Interesting... possibly not... our cat on the roof top scene that you could shoot its head off was considered less than politically correct, and was changed to a porcelain version instead, and then we used the cheat code Southampton gazette, which someone had an amusing anecdote, regarding it being used as a 'rag' in times of desperation if my memory serves me, but that's another story and we best not go there.
Most people agree that the Amiga version of Midnight Resistance is actually more fun to play than the arcade coin-op - a case of the Amiga version bettering the coin-op! (Well done!) At the time, did you notice any bugs/problems with the coin-op that you changed/improved?
Bloody nice of most people to say, thanks, I can't really remember but we did play the arcade version, didn't it have a rotating novelty joystick controller or something that was awkward and painful after a bit, anyways, I think the control method that we used with the standard stick possibly got in the way less, but I could just be imagining that.
Was the Amiga the lead version?
I think they were pretty parallel but independent, a lot of the graphics were shared but what we did with them was best for platform, the ST's small page scroll wouldn't have washed for me on the Amiga, we had more screen area, smooth scrolling and I found no problem doing two player simultaneous.
Any idea how long the game took to write?
Probably about 5.5 months, which seemed typical at the time and place.
Did you have to also create the ST version completely yourself or was somebody else responsible/helping on that?
No the ST was taken care of by (the now sadly late great) Joffa Smith.
Presumably there was some big chunk of actual game logic code that was identical on both the Amiga and Atari ST and it called separate routines to do the actual screen rendering and sound for each platform? Or heaven forbid, did you both do your own version of the code?
Sounds crazy, but you know I think we each wrote it from the ground up. I think the game handled quite differently to cater for the page scroll on ST, it was all much more fluid on Amiga, thanks to the hardware, so maybe the differences and speed of development meant it was more straightforward to just do it, I spent quite some time in Joffa's office but this was mainly to see some daylight. He had an office on an outside wall of the Albert dock, and we'd sit around chewing the fat with Frank talking about computers and cars.
Did you have access to the source code or get supplied with anything from the coin-op people?
No source code, but we had the suitcase for a short while at least, I think we probably videoed a play through, and read the roms to get the basis for the graphical data.
I don't think the suitcase would have stayed with us long but we had it for long enough to get what we needed, once the game was mapped out we had enough to make the game.
Were all the inter and end-of-level guardians fun to write or a nightmare, or a bit of both? (eg. The planes flying over, the huge battleship, the massive spinning cogs etc).
I think it was probably one of the most fun titles to develop, most frustration in development comes from having to rethink around flaws in design or capability of the hardware. When the design is complete and working at the start of development, it's in the bag, anything you do beyond that will just be icing on the cake.
Did you get so good at the game you could fly through the game very easily? (I could never beat the planes dropping bombs without losing several lives!)
I reckon so, but when you need to get to a point in game to find and fix bugs, I would typically still rely on cheats, maybe that was more to do with time than anything else though.
With regards to the enemies in Midnight Resistance, were they all placed (and triggered) based on the map?
Triggered by map point and some by event.
Were the enemies all treated like objects with their own chunk of code, a move procedure, a draw procedure, a blow up procedure etc? And once created they all just do their own thing?
The code was quite low level and procedural, but the same concepts apply.
What was the most complex enemy?
I guess it would have been the more multi modal guardians.
Are you a perfectionist, as it seemed like a lot of effort and care went into making a really accurate conversion?
Just following the lead from what we saw, it was just great to have hardware that could do some justice to the coin-op, there was a lot of time and effort, I was always burning the midnight oil, if you think it was accurate then I guess we did ok.
Did you always create the actual game first and all the extra stuff (high score tables, intros, outros etc) later? Or if you got stuck on a problem you'd switch to doing another bit for a break?
Focus was on the game, I suppose at times, you could say that it is often productive to go and do something different then return.
Had you seen the movie while creating the game, or was it still under construction?
Yes we did, we saw a pre production cut of the movie, this had little or no special effects, and many scenes just missing, but you got the idea, we also had the script.
The bottom right hand corner of the RoboCop 2 title screen has always looked like a cut and paste job gone wrong to me. Was the title supposed to look like that or did something get corrupted?
Was this another game where Special FX only did the 16-bit versions? Did you do the ST version as well this time?
Yep I think the 8 bits were another thing done in Manchester, with us doing the 'next gen' platforms.
Each platform seemed to be adapted to a game that would suit it which was quite rare at the time. Did that mean Special FX could pretty much create their own game on the with different levels, enemies, subgames etc or was there a brief from Ocean about what had to be done on the 16-bits?
Well I think we had 3.5 months to complete this, which seemed rather tight for a licence, despite which I remember us storyboarding and planning, there were three main level types, a platform, a target shooter and a puzzle. I expect the 8 bit versions would have been developing these elements, I expect we just took the ideas and worked from them.
Had you played the original version of Robocop by Peter Johnson at all while working on the sequel? If so, what did you think? Assuming SFX designed RoboCop 2, did you analyse anything in it?
I'm not sure we looked at it as a team, but I probably did see it at some point. I think I was quoted in a magazine saying something disparaging due to the port like appearance (sorry Peter), I'm sure it was a great game.
Was the game designed to run at 25 frames per second from the start?
It was always a borderline thing running at 30/60 (25/50 PAL), with a vague recollection I'll have to accept your analysis that it was a two frame game, it would have been nice to keep to 60/50, could have just been to keep things at a consistent frame rate, rather than chugging in places.
Actually it might have been down to animation, we didn't have long to develop the animations, I think they will have been done in 16 colour for ST then drawn over for extended palette. The ST will have had 30Hz animation and because the animation was locked to the feet, running at a different rate would have meant 60 silky smooth scrolling with a dithery main character, maybe that's why?
Were the Amiga and ST versions identical game-play wise (apart from the obvious colour and sound reduction on the ST?)
I think they were very similar, the level design would have been the same, and the puzzle section was cleverly designed by Keith Robinson who handled the ST version.
Did you have anything to do with the pre-level HAM digitised photos that were used or did the graphic artists do those? What hardware/platform did you have to digitise the pictures?
I was well into video, I had a genlock and a digitiser, when they were on the market at a reasonable price, but I'm not sure I actually had anything to do with the capture.
When Robocop is shot, he turns a kind of slight green colour. Was that done by drawing one less bitplane, some kind of mask trick or something else?
Could have just been palette manipulation.
Whose idea was the (annoying) "reverse joystick control direction" pickup? (Grrr!)
The "push joystick straight up to do a diagonal jump" was very unusual at the time - how did that come about? (Did it have anything to do with the design of the game not having too many places where a straight vertical jump was required?)
I think these were the animations we had that looked best, I think I remember that being an irritation at the time, but the level design must have been tuned to make best advantage of it.
Did you enjoy doing the bonus sub-games on this one? (The find-the-path through the computer chip puzzle and the 3D into-the-screen shooting bits?)
Yeah it was all good, the layouts for the puzzle was drawn up by Keith Robinson working from his home office in Wales, and the Amiga version was a copy of that.
The neat line-font drawing effect in Robocop 2 (where each letter was drawn slightly after the last and drawn one pixel at a time) - how was that created? How did you store the data for each letter? It's such a great effect! And how long did it take to perfect?
Wow, you are really generous lol, it's just an idea I had, don't know if it has any link with the RoboCop 2 theme, just thought it would be nice, the letters were just stored as little arrays of 2d offsets, probably points in the order that you might write, so I could trace with a gradient so it would be like it was being written out, multiply this up by the number of characters you want to display and I think it was a nice graphic effect, probably looks pants these days lol.
It wouldn't have taken long to do, and to perfect? I think the artist Karen Davies would have been asked to do some better characters.
One of the most impressive things that first hits you when the game loads is the slick attract mode with its awesome music (on the Amiga at least!) complete with digitised "your move creep!". Everything seems to be nicely timed with the RoboCop 2 letters moving up into position, the 8x8 font being typed out and the line font drawing effect for the high score table. Was a lot of work done on that or did all the effects just come together nicely?
It pretty much fell into place, the audio was handled by Keith Tinman, it was just a case of triggering his stuff at the right time, the visuals were pretty much there for the menus anyway.
Were you happy with the review marks at the time? Most are high 70s to low 80's with a few 90's thrown in too! What did you think it should get at the time?
Some of the scores were great, Zzap! 64 gave us 92% and I think we got a 90% Zero hero, we had comments that it was the best licensed product of the year, and that it was a "massive game". It's hard for me to accept praise, but I suppose I thought I never felt it was 'massive' or the best, but it was drawn up to a formula that people had liked and we had improved it technically with previous games of this type, so I really didn't know.
It wasn't something I remember thinking about, I was just always made up to see coverage, it always seemed positive, we seemed to have more than our fair share of front covers, I think we were well looked after.
Did you come up with any of the game design? Or did Ocean design the game and SFX programmed it?
The general process was that the game was mapped out to begin with, some title design template for earlier titles was influenced by other versions, so the arcade cabinet for Midnight or the 8 bit developments for Robocop maybe for example, but certainly for Hudson Hawk it was all in-house from the ground up.
Once we had the map of the game, in a story board format, we would pitch ideas and these would be drawn into the design.
At the start of development of a title like Hudson Hawk, did you work out how much memory to allocate for code, graphics and sound? Or did that all evolve as you went?
Yes a memory map was something that followed the design and storyboarding, a budget was made and we stuck to it, I guess on Amiga we had more memory and the hardware used it efficiently so this was typically an easy task.
Approximately how long did this take to write?
I think about 8 months, which was the longest I spent on an Amiga title.
In various places Hawk appears behind foreground objects such as poles etc. On the Amiga this is quite difficult compared to other machines. Did you use any sprites or any special tricks to achieve this, or did you have to blit the frontmost layer over the action each time?
I think sprites were probably used for the ball and incidentals, the 'cleverest' trick was using the extra colour that we had over ST, the additional bitplane was used as a mask for example so security cameras would pan and scan, filling the 5th plain to mask area to palette shift to black and white, which is what you would expect closed circuit cameras to use at that time.
This game (like all your others) features silky smooth scrolling, both horizontally and vertically. How did you allocate the memory for this? Did you have to do some kind of copper-wrap trick (repositioning the bitplanes partway down the screen and sometimes drawing objects in 2 pieces) to allow for the vertical sections or were they not that big so you could just allocate the entire screen in height?
I think the copper split once or twice down the screen to allow for score viewports and alter the size of the scrollable area, I'm not sure if I needed to multiplex the sprites for what we were doing.
This might test your memory! At the start of the game on the credits/high score table, the text flows in from the left every 2nd line, and from the right every alternate line. It's also doing a nice fade in colour effect via reds/blues to white! Can you remember how you did this effect in terms of the colours? (It doesn't seem to be a fancy copperlist, so is it moving a multicolour block that masks out the colour across each line or something?)
Haha, you are continually testing my memory, I needed to check a youtube clip to remember this one, which was probably just a simple slide through 4 or whatever bitplanes to colourise the top mask lettering, which is what you are saying I think.
The inertia seems *extremely* sensitive, and like Robocop 2 it features the "up to jump diagonally" trick which adds to the frustration at times when you slide off a platform. Was that something that was tweaked to be that sensitive, or toned down, or done to make the game take longer for the player to complete?
Oops, we would tune it until we were happy with it, which comes back to the problem that we didn't really have any significant player feedback, a bunch of people with 8 months experience in a game are generally going to be 'expert' at playing, unfortunately end users are not expert at playing.
The game to me seems extremely difficult, and there are no options for entering a level code (other than the cheat mode where DEL skips a level). Some reviews even said the game could have done well by being shorter, which is almost unheard of! In hindsight do you think it was too hard? Could you complete it easily?
I could complete it very easily, I'd had months of practice, I think the kids had fun with it a couple of years back, but I now feel the need to go back and see how sadistically I'd tuned it. Again this is one of these questions that if you need to ask then it probably was too hard, games should be more about carrots than sticks, making a player look dumb isn't going to make you any friends.
Apart from one review in Amiga Joker of 52%, the lowest mark you received was a very credible 75% (from grumpy old Stuart Campbell at that!) and three 90%+ marks! What did you think of the game at the time?
I think I liked it, plenty of little fun Easter eggs, and with the months of practice I don't think I would have found it too difficult, never know what to make of reviews, it's hard to say what it deserved, but we were used to decent coverage.
We had finished the game for the end of '91, all the reviews I remember seeing were positive, I notice from the date of the Joker review that we had started Rage and were busy doing Striker. I think despite it looking ok and being fun, looking back I would have to mark it down for being unforgiving, just not quite as far as Joker apparently did.
Who came up with all the funny little touches (killer attack poodles on level 4, skeletons falling out of the closet to crush you, the broom that keeps sweeping after the cleaner has been disposed of, guys that blow up and leave just their shoes, old guards with walking sticks, the screen turning black and white when you pause etc)?
Most of the Easter eggs will have been defined at the planning stage, pitched by one or more of us, with others implemented along the way, the game was a fun take on the script of the game, caricatured rather than realistic, I can't remember how most of the stuff relates to the film, but it was a forgettable film. Incidentally I do remember we had rejected film licences, that were even more forgettable than Hawk.
The game features a really amusing "piano falls on your head" effect if you don't move for quite a while! Easter eggs like that are brilliant! Any idea who thought that up?
Unless it was Amiga specific, I'm going with it being Joffa's or Chas Davies, I can't be sure.
What was the thinking at Ocean in licensing the Hudson Hawk movie? It turned out to be a deserved box office flop and, one would have thought, too quirky a film to turn into a game. Did Ocean sign the deal based on Bruce Willis' stardom and the movie script alone, perhaps?
Ha, not sure at what stage they signed deals, but it would have been sealed before it became clear how the movie would end up. From our view point we were given the script during development, and I'm not sure if we felt Bruce could carry what already looked like a turkey.
Did the failure of the Hudson Hawk film affect the sales of what turned out to be a very slick game?
I remember going to the cinema to watch the movie and the theatre was nearly empty, quite embarrassing really, the licence won't have done sales any good, Ocean bundled a Hudson Hawk cap, but I can only imagine even diehard fans of Willis would have had a problem wearing it.
Too bad really I think we had managed to tie in some of the movie's elements and make a reasonably fun game, despite reviewing somewhat more favourably than the movie, I can't imagine it did big numbers.
Was it a difficult game to write or no harder than any of your others? Were there any development problems you encountered?
Probably about the same, the relatively extended period of development time gave the production a different focus, with a couple of months spent getting the infrastructure setup rather than weeks, I don't remember any significant probs.
Did you work closely with Keith Tinman throughout the project? Who decided how many and what type of sound effects to use at various stages, or did it all evolve?
Keith was working pretty much throughout, there was a list of sound effects that were apparent from the design, he did these and I'd use them, others developed as required.
What do you think about end-sequences in games? Hudson Hawk prints 'The End', then shows a pic of Hawk escaping on the flying machine, then 'Game Over'. How much thought and time were allocated to creating end sequences, or were you generally a bit sick of the game by then so just wanted to get it finished?
It's still true today that end sequences aren't generally seen, despite been acknowledged as a truth for years, I still generally don't see more than 50% of a game that I buy. All I can say for our titles is that *some* time was spent on them, we would generally play animation, throw some simple graphical effects and then on to the high score, but not much more than that, which I think was ok.
I think the end sequence should reward the player. For me, ideally I want to play games with replay value rather than the single goal being the objective.
And more generally, can you remember which of your games has the most impressive end sequence? I don't think I've finished any of them legitimately so can't tell you what's at the end of them!
No, don't suppose any of them were must see material.
Special FX and the formation of Rage Software
Did Ocean actually own Special FX or just a part of it, or they had some exclusive deal such that Special FX only worked for them?
Special FX was born from a split from Ocean back before 16 bit development, certainly by the end all its work was exclusively licensed work for Ocean. My understanding was that Paul and Joffa owned shares at the start, but I expect capital was bought up along the way when things became more exclusive.
Do you have any photos from the Special FX days?
Unfortunately I don't have any office shots of Special FX, it was a great office to work in, but so dark, which I think effected the look and palette of our games back then.
And a vintage shot of me (possibly 88 or 89?) and a few of my mates at a computer show, me with the ocean T-shirt on. Also in the pic are Jed Adams and Alan Webb who are still in the industry, Jed left Special FX and ended up moving to the US, and Alan now works at Sony.
In the early 90s it seems that most of the team parted ways with Special FX and Rage was created. Can you tell me a bit about that?
In '92 things were changing, we were thinking about new hardware, when Ocean pulled the plug, moving several Special FX staff in-house in Manchester, and the rest of us were made redundant. There was a desire to develop original ideas, there was a small but focused critical mass of experienced talent (imho), I became one of 5 founding directors of Rage Software. We took a number of pitches to Elite Systems in the Midlands, they were interested enough for us to go away with funds to pay the bills.
Which parts of Striker did you work on?
Audio code, layered sound effects, and some visual stuff. The music was done for us, I think I had a tape, and possibly a music score, it was a tune that I still find myself humming. I used that and reconstituted it on Amiga using a tracker, I sampled instruments for that, and for the sound fx, layering sounds gave the atmosphere. Probably nothing particularly good, but fun at the time.
As part of Rage, were you part of the team that decided to create a football game? What was the inspriation at the time for creating a footy game?
The Kick Off series had been a firm fave at Special FX, and I think Sensible Soccer was around, also great stuff, then there were the larger character, slower (and less fun) titles like Manchester United, there was certainly a middle ground that had been missed.
Rage was small at the start, we all had a hand in everything we did, I had focused on doing a football title on SNES, I had started out going with bigger characters, that would later be reduced and sped up for SNES Striker.
Copy protection and the Special FX disk format
Was there any copy protection other than the custom disk format itself in your games?
The DFS (disk file system) was totally proprietary, and used more tracks.
In fact there was a scare with Midnight Resistance when I had a call from Ocean; there seemed to be a problem with the first batch of 5000 disks off the line, we had stretched the spec a little too far and they needed to be re-run.
Stretching the specification gave us protection, the duplicators could write these tracks but the Amiga could only read them, unfortunately the drives we had were more capable than some of the newer drives.
When you were writing the games, presumably all the files just ran off the local (Atari ST) hard drive. Can you tell me a little about how you went about creating the final disk versions for sending to the duplicator?
We could transfer data from ST and use, but very often I would have data prepared on Amiga floppy early on and just use that, with code always transferred from the ST dev kit.
We had all the data in Amiga writable track length fine for development, with an updated DFS written that would only work with extended track length, the duplicator would extend the track length for the gold DFS to function with it, so we needed to get the disks back before we could test, but since there was no extra functional data, we were only testing the 'protected' DFS, not what you would call secure protection but enough to stop the casual copy I guess.
Are you familiar with the history of the Special FX disk format? From memory it's something like $1800 usable bytes per track, organised into sectors, an allocation map making it fast and sophisticated, and a total length well above what most Amiga drives can write back (long tracks). Any idea who came up with the format and when?
It was Frank's DFS, but I wouldn't have been surprised if Keith (Robinson) had some part in the design, it was done and dusted by the time I arrived in 89.
Master did use long tracks, and we needed to have a return from the duplicators to test, the disk was biked down and back for us to test in Special FX days, and to save time and no doubt money, I went down to the duplicators with Striker.
According to the Wikipedia entry for Rage Software, the company was forced into liquidation due to the cost of publishing in 2003. Can you tell me anything else about Rage Software? Did you stay right until the end?
I'd stepped back from being a director to concentrate on coding at Rage after we went public, I was coding 'til the bitter end. I don't really know the ins and outs of what happened, but we had a string of titles approaching completion that unfortunately didn't make market when the banks pulled the plug.
After the success of Striker SNES, if the media was to be believed, I was a millionaire, I might have made that on paper, sadly I was always too busy to realise it.
For a laugh, I've attached the front page of Liverpool's local paper and an article from one of the many nationals that covered us after the success, it was the SNES version though, looking a bit full of myself unfortunately.
Were you still a major shareholder or you had been bought out by then?
Actually I could probably do you a great deal if you fancy buying some of my Rage shares today lol.
Which of your Amiga games was the most fun to work on and why?
It was all fun, I love the idea of creating something from nothing, doubly so when there's positive feedback, the focus of putting a game together in a brief crunch was pretty cool.
And the most difficult or annoying?
Stress of quick development, and long hours, it's all good fun.
Did you get any feedback from Ocean on how well your games were written?
Other than a pat on the back, not really.
Do you have any idea on sales figures for your games?
Not for Special FX games. Striker which we published on Amiga and ST did well enough for us, but admittedly not nearly as well as what was more mainstream hardware to come.
Did Ocean bosses (Gary Bracey?) visit Special FX headquarters regularly, or were disks sent to them to check out progress regularly?
Gary would visit on occasion, I don't remember doing disks for Manchester, as far as I remember the only disks that ever left went to master, or cover disk demo.
It's quite incredible to hear from others but I have been told there were almost no meetings at Ocean; it was a case of put a programmer and a graphics guy in a room for 6 months and at the end of it see what comes out. Was that also the case at Special FX or was it far more structured?
I think the planning was pretty good, each of the projects was well mapped out before we started, the problems were well understood and the whole team was small and closely knit, there was typically just the coder then who would specify what the requirements were and the artists would say what was possible in the time. Sounds pretty organised, but beyond the plan there was only informal communication.
So some might say there wasn't really 'meetings' at Special-FX either, it wasn't structured, no official guidelines, TCR requirements, QA or playtesting other than what we came up with between ourselves.
Did you get any say in which game you would be converting next?
I think it went something like, so how would you like to do blah... I never said no, not sure if that was an option! If it was, it was one I wouldn't have wanted to explore, it was all new and fresh to me.
Your games are full of slick little presentation effects (eg. font drawing in Robocop 2, the way the title letters jump up and into place, screen fades etc). Did you have free rein to come up with whatever you liked for those kind of effects?
Yes, I love doing that sort of thing. There wasn't really the time to develop the designs more than we did, so anything like that was where the fun was at.
Were there any programming teams or individuals you really admired?
Yes, it was great to see a fair amount of quality work, always inspired by good use of the hardware, that could be quality games or stuff from the burgeoning demo scene.
Did you play many of the games that came out at the time? Especially the 'mega' games (eg. Lemmings, Turrican 2, Speedball 2). Did all the industry guys play these?
Yes all of them, of the peeps at the time, I think I played games the most. There was a school of thought carried by some, that coming to a game with a clean mind was a positive thing, but maybe you are just as likely to repeat mistakes.
I loved a decent pick up and play arcade thrash, but always found myself spending inordinate amounts of time playing immersive and emergent games, I loved games like Mercenary, and later Hunter for example.
Speaking of Hunter, did you (like me) spend god knows how many hours searching everything on the map for the plane that was on the title screen? (Author Paul Holmes has since said that the code is in there for the plane but it's not enabled on the map! Grrr! There is a secret vehicle in Hunter at least!)
Did spend many hours, just loved the range and scope of vehicle interactions, swimming, surfing, a landscape full of living things, really cool, don't remember 'hunting' a plane as such, think I remember a copter though, there was certainly flying to travel quickly.
Were there any games you would have dearly loved to convert had you been able to pick any arcade conversion?
There were many that might have been great fun, I don't remember thinking about any especially though.
What did you think about teams like Dinamic, Tiertex etc that seemed to not care about releasing quality, churning out any old garbage? Special FX always seemed to make memorable conversions; did it annoy you that other companies didn't?
I think software was coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but if you mean ST ports? Depending on the title that might be ok.
To me if someone has invested in superior hardware, I didn't think they would be motivated to buy inferior software, which ports often were. As a games player I didn't want to play ports, and I didn't fancy doing them as a developer. That was the feeling at Special FX and we were allowed to get on with it.
That sounds like it would have increased costs significantly, but I think we did what we did by being a little bit clever with the resources we had.
Do you still have a working Amiga? Or do you ever use an Amiga emulator?
Yes, the kids (I have three), played Amiga games a couple of years back, I was surprised how into it they were.
I hear talk of an iPhone emulator, that would be amazing wouldn't it?
Have you heard of WHDLoad, the amazing software that lets you play disk games from the hard drive while implementing quit to workbench functionality, trainers etc?
Not really, I'll check it out.
What are you doing nowadays?
I have been at THQ Digital Warrington for the last 6 years as a core technology programmer on a number of platforms, we're focused on digital distribution platforms, so you can find our games on PSN and XBLA for example.
While programming and hardware are really my obsession, I've been enjoying photography and flickr, the sense of community reminds me a little of the early days when I did my little demos on compunet. If you fancy you can check out my stuff there or at www.edgyangle.com
On behalf of the entire Amiga community, I'd like to thank you for actually giving enough of a damn to release Amiga specific games at a time when so many others were happy to churn out straight ST ports!
And thank you very much for your time in answering all my questions!
Ian Moran Softography
Graphics: Andy Rixon,
Music: Keith Tinman
Graphics: Colin Rushby,
Music: Keith Tinman
Graphics: Colin Rushby,
Music: Keith Tinman
Graphics: Karen Davies,
Music: Keith Tinman