An interview with Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson wrote several of Ocean's early Amiga games, with Robocop probably being the most famous title. Peter's Amiga softography consists of the following games:
- Wizball (1988)
- Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge (1988) - some events
- Arkanoid: Revenge Of Doh (1989)
- RoboCop (1989)
- Space Vegetables (1991) - unreleased
- Winter Supersports 92 (1992) - some events
- Trolls (1992)
- Morph (1993)
How old were you when you got your first computer and what was it?
I was 17 I think, it was a ZX81 with under 2Kb of RAM (until we got the RAM Pack). The keyboard was pretty rubbish so I hardwired a calculator keyboard to it. I still have it in the loft, I'm a terrible hoarder.
It was followed fairly swiftly by a BBC Micro the year after that, with all of 32Kb onboard. It's funny to think that 32Kb is very close to the size of the icon for my current iPhone app.
Which programming languages did you learn and in what order?
I did a bit of BASIC with the ZX81, and tried typing in a Space Invaders game in hex from a book (featuring only one space invader if I remember rightly), the usual stuff.
When I got the BBC Micro it was a great improvement, I think the fact it included a built-in assembler was one of the reasons I got started with assembly language, again by typing in a "pong" game from a book, then turning it into Breakout, then a lightcycles game. I actually sold a few copies of that myself in a local shop, at £2.50 a copy for a hand-duplicated cassette and a photocopied inlay. I made all of £17.50 I think, less costs, but it was a start.
I was on a Computer Studies course at Northumbria University at around the same time, so I did a bit of COBOL and other languages there, but nothing particularly advanced.
I finished my first commercial game just at the end of the course, about 2 days before my exams, I put a load of cassettes in the post and expected to forget about it, but it was pretty hard to concentrate during the exams because responses started coming in from all these publishers wanting the game and offering advances.
How did you end up working at Ocean software?
My first games were for Superior, I liked the fact that Richard Hanson, who ran the company, was a programmer himself with a few titles under his belt. The first game of mine they published, Q*bert, only stayed on the market a few weeks before we got a "cease and desist" letter from Gottlieb, who were owned by Columbia Pictures, who were owned by Coca Cola. We stopped selling it pretty sharpish.
It was a more naive time then, and such things as IP infringement hadn't really cropped up on the radar at that point, but the fact that we used the original name was an obvious infringement.
I did quite a few different games for Superior, so much so that the "best of" compilations that they put out later on earned as much for me as a few of the games did on their original release.
I think I moved on to other companies because of the appeal of working on name licences, first Atarisoft with a version of "Crystal Castles" and then a string of titles for Ocean, who were massive at the time. Atari never published the game I wrote for them (they decided not to publish on non-Atari platforms) but after I had completed my first game for Ocean, Gary asked if I had anything else unpublished. By an amazing stroke of luck they had just got the licence for Crystal Castles on C64 for their US Gold label, so it was relatively easy to get my version (BBC Micro) to market, over a year after it was finished.
Was US Gold a sub label of Ocean for a while?
US Gold was a joint venture between Centresoft, the leading distributor at the time, and Ocean, setup to distribute the best US games, where Ocean would handle the conversion to UK formats from PC or C64, and Centresoft would provide distribution. By contrast Imagine, at the time I made games for them, was purely a label for conversions of arcade games by Taito, Konami etc. to home computers. The three labels were pretty much interchangeable as far as I was concerned, I developed games for all three labels, commissioned through Ocean.
Any idea on the sales figures of your games? Which was the most successful?
I don't know, so I can't really comment.
At Ocean did you get royalties based on the games or a bonus?
Purely a one-off fee each time, negotiated at the start. I didn't require an advance either as I didn't really need the funds after my first few games were successful. That maybe helped with the relatively "hands off" way I was able to get on with my work in those days.
How did Ocean deal with people writing poor quality games?
I didn't have too much visibility on that, but I think it's only when Ocean started to get a bad rep for stinky licenced games (after Knight Rider and StreetHawk?) that things started to change as the market matured.
Did you read reviews of all your games in the magazines at the time? Any you felt were overly harsh or too generous with their marks/comments?
No, I think I generally did OK with reviews, especially on the BBC Micro and Electron platforms when there really weren't that many people putting out good titles. It's quite different nowadays reading the reviews some people post to the App Store, it makes the standards of journalism back then seem Pulitzer-worthy.
With regards to the Wizball conversion, were you given the C64 version and had to replicate the gameplay as well as possible?
Yes, that's pretty much it. In those days I was pretty much left to my own devices as to how to approach the conversion, and which bits to update or change to suit the Amiga and ST. This gave me full rein to adapt to take full benefit of the hardware.
Did you have to train the game (infinite lives etc) to see what was on all the levels?
Ocean provided a complete play-through video for that one.
Did you get any documentation or source code from Sensible Software?
No, it was all reverse-engineered, as were all my other conversions between platforms.
Who decided on the little touches that add to the presentation of each game? Was all this side of things left up to the programmer?
In my case I was pretty much left to get on with it. I would want to add the neat touches all the time myself, just as part of taking pride in my work - like the weird way the "Wizball" loading screen was repeatedly coloured in from monochrome in a lot of randomly different ways, echoing the central theme of the game.
Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge
Which parts of Daley Thompson's Olympic Challenge did you write?
I did some running events on Daley and maybe one other (shot putt perhaps? I really can't remember now). A company in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland did the rest. Amusingly, the weightlifting stuff they digitised for the game was someone totally different, with Daley's 'tache pasted on after.
I had what I thought was a great idea for how to do the running events, with a weird counter-intuitive parallax trick to give the arc of the stadium in the background behind as you ran, which should have been far better looking than Track and Fields side view, but it just plain felt wrong as you transitioned from straights to corners, and we had to scrap that idea and rethink them very drastically for the finished game.
It was all a bit of a rush job in the end and I don't think the digitising we tried for the graphics (a black and white digitiser on the ST digitising from VHS tape, which had previously impressed when I did the "Robocop" title screen with it) was quite up to the task.
To cap it all, the game was released on the very day Daley lost the event, after having won gold in the previous two Olympics. Not my finest hour, I think.
In Daley Thompson, there is a "HINGSEN-J" cheat, presumably referring to the West German decathlete that was beaten by Daley Thompson. Was that something you added?
That was the other guys, I don't know.
Did you do the Hit Squad re-release (compressing it down to 1 disk and removing the intermission screens) or somebody else?
Always somebody else for that stuff.
When you were working for Ocean, how were games allocated? Did you get a list of available titles and get to select the one you wanted or did Gary Bracey assign games? How did that side of things work?
A little of both, I'd finish a game and go down to visit them in Manchester to discuss the next one.
They had an arcade set up downstairs with the games they were converting, so I'd often take a look around down there, and they'd show me a few of their other games close to release, and I'd see what I liked and felt I could do justice to on the platform I was working on. Then we'd strike a deal, and I'd go back home to start work on it, often not showing up again until it was finished.
I think they liked working with me because I was reliable, relatively low maintenance (with very little drama) and cared about what I did.
I do remember that Ocean were a little reluctant to do Amiga games at first. The machines were very expensive in the UK to start with due to needing a special monitor, and it took Commodore a while to get over that, but this was just after the A500 came out and I had bought one of the early ones. I had to talk Ocean into releasing "Arkanoid 2" (which I had already written for Atari ST) on the platform, and only after I'd called Discovery Software over in the States, who had previously published their own licensed version of "Arkanoid" on the Amiga, to see if they would be interested.
I've heard some stories of others' experiences at the time, but Gary and Lorraine always looked after me very well there. In fact I have just linked up with both of them on Facebook this year, which is nice.
As far as arcade conversions go (Arkanoid, Robocop etc) were you provided with much support from the coin-op manufacturers or did someone have to play through the games with a video camera?
I don't recall ever having direct support or contact from the manufacturers. Ocean occasionally sent up suitcase versions of arcade machines to work from, just a power supply and a JAMMA-compatible arcade board which I connected up to an old RGB colour monitor that came with my Amstrad CPC464 (I probably used that monitor for that purpose much more than I ever used it on the Amstrad). Sometimes I'd get a complete play-through video or, in the case of "Yie Ar King Fu 2" which I was converting for BBC Micro, the MSX version of a game to work from.
What was the development system you used?
Nothing too weird, just a stock A500, with extra RAM. The biggest difference in development speed came from getting a Hard Disk. I remember that my first hard disk cost me around £400 for a 10Mb drive!
If you hold down the left mouse button as the game finishes loading, an ad for Robocop appears. Did you know you were converting the game at that point?
Yes I knew that one was coming next.
Did Ocean actually know you had put that picture in?
I would think so, yes. I didn't do many easter eggs like this.
It's possible it was done partially as a proof of concept for the digitised screen, which was done with a black and white Atari ST digitiser hooked up to my Canon camcorder, pointed at either a movie poster or a magazine ad for the film from "Empire". I then hand-tinted the picture to match the original as best I could. You couldn't get colour digitisers then at an affordable price (if at all!).
I always invested in good kit for video and sound, especially as it crossed over into my other hobbies.
What were you given (in terms of code of graphics) for the Robocop conversion?
I don't recall getting code for any of them, or graphics for that matter in most cases (although "Robocop" was based loosely on the Spectrum graphics, which I was sent, then I drew my art over the monochrome animations with a style to resemble the Data East coin-op, which I was given a suitcase version of to work from.
How did you create the speech sample on the title screen?
I couldn't get a good sample from the film (it was VHS only at the time of course) so the voice at the start of the game on the Amiga and ST is mine, treated through a Yamaha SPX90 effects unit in my home studio with a really short delay.
Can you recall any interesting facts about the game?
You can build Gary Bracey's face in the identikit minigame in "Robocop", as he was one of the people they photographed in Liverpool for it.
Robocop is one of the first games where the arcade version was licenced from a computer game company. I heard at the time that Ocean bought the licence when it was still at the script stage, so even though the Data East arcade game came out first, it bore a message that it was licensed from Ocean.
Did you program these early games for the Atari ST and port them to the Amiga? If so, what was the porting process like?
It was most likely that way around at first, yes. I developed the tools myself rather than using anything from Ocean.
I think in hindsight that I didn't take as much advantage of the Amiga scrolling hardware as I would have liked, I don't like seeing those ugly borders on "Robocop" now, for instance. On ST they were used to cover up the scrolling background data so I didn't have to mask at the edges of the play area.
As far as copy protection was concerned, can you explain the process? Was any consideration taken while creating the games, or simply that was added at the final stage?
As referenced in Rob's interview, it was normally added at the end and I'd ship the disks off to him, I think there were only a few games of mine which had the protection checks built in.
It wasn't really a design consideration for me during development.
Who did the mastering for the games? (In my interview with Rob Northen, it seemed like he would often be given a disk and he would effectively re-write the initial loader to call the protection).
I think Rob has pretty much covered it there.
Who were the best co-workers while working on the games?
I was pretty much a one-man band at the time. So this question probably doesn't apply to me.
When did you leave Ocean?
It was just after the 12 months that Daley, Arkanoid 2 and Robocop were in (1989). We changed to a different payment system for a year which didn't work out so well for either of us. (It was a generous enough amount but I think we probably set the number of games per year too high, as they were becoming steadily more complex and larger at that point).
After completing Robocop, there is a gap of several years before returning to the Amiga. Was this while you pursued music?
Music has always been a passion. I play a number of instruments, but am more of a producer and arranger than a virtuoso or songwriter, so when I got an offer to do some work writing soundtrack music I took it. I did a few projects for Paul W.S. Anderson (who went on to direct "Mortal Kombat", "Event Horizon", "Alien Vs Predator" and the "Resident Evil" films) and his partner Bharat Nalluri (who went on to direct the first episodes of the TV series "Hustle" and "Life on Mars") just after they left film school. Then I did a theme tune for a series for our local TV station, a piece for Sky and a number of soundtracks for the direct video market (such as exercise videos, and the like) which was quite big at the time.
After I returning to games I later played in a Blues-Brothers type band for a number of years with Bharat, and Gordon Hall who was our house Musician and Sound Designer at the studios I ran for Rage and Venom for a good many years.
After your break to pursue music, what made you return to writing games for the Amiga?
It's something I've always loved and, though I got a good number of commissions for the music side and it paid very well when you got the work, there was also a certain amount of sitting around between jobs, so I got back into it when Andrew Bond asked me to help out with some graphics for "Shadow Of The Beast" on the Atari Panther (the hardware never got released in the end, they jumped straight to the Jaguar. I got a thanks on the Lynx version he did). From there I just sort of moved back into programming again.
I do have one more story that overlaps with this one. Before this, when I started doing music professionally, CD drives were just starting to come in for the Amiga so I did a new, synthesiser-based, version of a track or two from "Shadow of the Beast" in my studio and sent it off to Psygnosis in Liverpool. They said that they weren't interested as they intended to use the CD for faster loading and larger games, and that the chip music on Amiga was fine for their purposes.
Can you tell me a bit about Space Vegetables?
I developed it for Amiga and ST, and then Flair converted very quickly for PC and C64 in just a few weeks, I am not sure if it was ever released for Amiga and ST here, but it might have been in other territories. I think Flair had their eyes on Morph at the time, which I had just started, and had the design doc for, it was designed from the start to work as a console game. I'd been playing a lot of Megadrive at that point, but it was developed on Amiga first.
Any chance you still have it? I don't think it has ever been released on the Amiga and ST!
I don't think I do still have it, no (I tried to get retail copies of most of my games, and strangely I sometimes had to buy them in the shop myself, as publishers aren't always that great about sending you a copy).
If I stumble across it in the next few years I'll let you know. I am clearing my loft in the next two months, so if it's going to show up it will be then.
I used to love the game it appears to be based on, Software Projects game "Star Paws" where you were catching birds on a remote planet!
I never played Star Paws, my sources were mainly Defender for the gameplay rules (you grew pods under glass domes, you wanted to harvest them when mature, but if you didnt get to them in time they would burst and squish juice all over the inside of the dome, the plant would then start to grow again). Enemies could pick the domes up and carry them off, if you shot the enemy you had to catch the dome, as if they hit the surface too hard they would break the glass, which was permanent. If the dome gets stolen the enemy probably got more aggressive, and there was also probably some sort of gameplay equivalent of the "Space Invaders" periodic flying saucer mechanic too. Stylistically it had more in common with "Lunar Jetman" than Defender.
Winter Supersports 92
Can you clarify which events you wrote on Winter Supersports '92?
It was the slalom and skidoo I did for Winter Supersports.
It may seem odd, but it's hard to be sure after this amount of time. That was probably the first game I wrote from someone else's game design (I still have the original doc for it) as opposed to reverse engineering.
How long did that take to write?
It's hard to be sure, maybe two months for two events on two platforms?
What kind of brief were you given for the Skiido and skiing sections, or did you design them yourself?
Flair commissioned a design doc for these events from an outside company, it was probably the first time I worked to someone else's design. I still have the paper doc here.
How did you get involved in that game after being a one man coding team for so long?
I had written a quick game to get my hand back in, called "Space Vegetables", a mix of game elements from "Defender" and "Lunar Jetman" where you grew strange plants on an alien surface, and protected them from being abducted. I sold this to Flair, and they asked for my help with completing this game.
The events were all entirely separate from each other, so it was business as usual for me coding wise except for having the graphics and music supplied.
Certainly the most colourful game you've worked on. Can you please tell me what you did on that game? And how you came to work on that game?
I helped with sound effect samples on that one, as they knew I had a background in that area, and I had a decent 8-track recording studio at home. I probably spent over £5000 on equipping it with recording and sampling equipment, though today you can replicate it for a few pounds on an iPad.
Among other things I contributed the sound of a surprised elephant for the game, by recording the trumpet player from the Blues Brothers band I played in.
What made you come up with the idea for Morph?
I just loved the idea of having the central characters physical transformation as a core mechanic, based on a simplistic version of real physics and the way density changes with heat.
I designed the professor character originally intending it for a game where you had to get power to flow across a pegboard to turn a piece of machinery using cogs and other devices. Quite like "The Incredible Machine" (though it predated it).
Were there any coding difficulties in the game? Any parts of the code you are very proud of?
Actually I think I was most proud of the design itself.
The greatest technical difficulty was probably getting the collision detection to work all over the map for all physical states, that took quite some time to make it work reliably and nit end up with the ball stuck within the landscape.
What map editor did you use to create all the levels? And did you create them all yourself?
I think the levels were defined in TUME. I made half myself. When the game came to acquire a Megadrive version Millennium who were publishing it on that format, agreed to do some more levels for it.
They sent me a few levels, and I'd send back notes saying what was wrong or right with them. I thought they were just getting the hang of it and ready to do some proper levels when they announced they'd finished and I'd got them all. That's why some of the levels don't match the others in details like the gas cloud behaves near a fan.
The credits for Morph say "Graphics by Phil Nixon and Flair" - can you remember who exactly Flair were at the time? Were there multiple people that did little bits and pieces on the game?
Flair were the publisher, but they also had a team on-site developing games for them. I designed some (the original versions of the different physical states for the player, and the professor character seen in the intro for example) and a guy called "Mook" contributed some of the graphics initially, but Phil Nixon completed most of it. His artwork was always great, and he was also amazingly fast.
Phil and I joined Rage together, originally working from home, and he continued to work with me for a long time at Rage and Venom when I set the studio up. Probably four or five of the other people who helped establish the studio in the early days came directly or indirectly from Flair and it's previous incarnation of Tynesoft, and most stayed with us for over 10 years, forming the core of our team.
A certain website has credited you with work on Oscar - is that a mistake? Both Trolls and Oscar were coded by Mick Hedley.
One was developed out of the other, and Oscar may have delayed so it could ship with the CD32, which was a coup for a company of Flair's size. I heard that when Commodore originally went bust, it owed a lot to Flair for copies of Oscar shipped.
Mick worked with me for most of my 15 years at Rage and Venom, he's been at Reflections for the past 2 years, I believe.
Do you still have your old source for your games?
I do have the original source code for my first titles, but only in printout form. It was part of the ritual of finishing a game that I'd print it all out. It made it feel complete and final. You didn't have downloadable patches in those days :)
Is that the pre-Amiga titles? I imagine printouts of Robocop on Amiga or Morph would be entire books in length!
I think I probably stopped at Arkanoid, my first for Atari ST.
In looking for it I have just found my 4 page initial design doc for Morph. It was quite close to how the game ended up.
Were there any (Amiga) programmers or teams you greatly admired at producing fantastic games? How many games written by others did you check out during your Amiga days?
I tried to play most of the games that were popular at the time, relying on Zzap and Amiga format to tell me what to check out.
Did you keep up with the Amiga games scene during it's final period? Have you seen any of the amazing games with awesome demo effects like Brian the Lion, Elfmania, Lionheart and Super Stardust?
I don't recall those, so they may have been after I'd moved over to writing console games, which started with a Megadrive conversion of the "Morph" game I'd written for the Amiga. Soon after that I set up and started to manage the Newcastle studio for Rage, while finishing off my one and only game for the Atari Jaguar, called "Power Drive Rally".
Then running the studio and producing our games became my full time job for the next 16 years.
Do you have any interesting photos from back in the Ocean days?
I don't think I have any relevant ones. I take a good few hundred pics a year now digitally, but back then it was about a roll a year, or polaroids :)
Finally, what are you doing these days?
Last year I decided to return to programming after over 15 years away from it, and founded Soluble Apps, a MicroStudio for development of games and apps for mobile platforms.
We have just launched MailShot, an app that provides an easy way to email friends or colleagues as a group built right into your iPhone or iPad address book. It has been pretty successful so far. It's been doing well because it's a unique solution, and has attracted well over 5000 customers already in its first month or so on the App Store, with the numbers steadily increasing week by week.
Doing this again myself really feels like a return to my roots of putting those cassettes in a local shop, only with rather better sales figures.
Thank you very much for your time Peter!
Peter Johnson Softography
Graphics: Peter Johnson
Music: Peter Johnson
Game Complete Music: Ian McLaughlin
Graphics: Peter Johnson
Music: Jonathan Dunn,
Graphics: Peter Johnson
Music: Peter Johnson
Graphics: Peter Johnson
Music: Peter Johnson
Flexicrunch: Andrew Bond
Sampled Speech: Replay
Graphics: Phillip Nixon,
Music: Phillip Nixon
Graphics: Phillip Nixon
Music: Phillip Nixon
Sound FX: Peter Johnson
Miscellaneous: Kevin Preston,