ZX SPECTICLE INTERVIEWS (5)
 

Jonathan Smith | Dougie Burns | Mike Follin | Dean Belfield | Simon Butler

  Simon Butler - Interview Conducted May 2001
   
  Industry veteran computer artist Simon Butler worked for a number of software houses including the original Imagine, Denton Designs and Ocean. His ZX Spectrum CV includes a total of  28 titles. In this interview conducted in May 2001, Simon certainly pulls no punches in his opinions of those that worked in the industry during the Spectrum's golden years and the current state of the software industry in general. Simon now runs a graphics studio in Liverpool called TagMonkeys which develops graphics primarily for the hand-held market.
   
 

How did you get started in computers, what was the first computer you ever saw and what was the first computer you ever owned?

I was in my final year at Liverpool Polytechnic and was asked to do a one off job for Imagine. I did this, left and thought that would be the end of it. But once Imagine went to the wall, and rightly so...I was invited to join Denton Designs.

The first Computer I ever saw was a BBC. The first I ever actually owned was a NES.

During the early years you obviously did a lot of graphical work on the ZX Spectrum, did you work on any other machines during this period?

I worked extensively on the Spectrum, but did a lot of work on the Commodore 64 and Amstrad.

What was the first game you did graphical work on?

Pedro's Garden on the BBC.

I believe you may have worked at the original Imagine, what work did you do while working there and were you involved in with the infamous 'Megagames' Bandersnatch or Psyclapse?

Fortunately no. I was at Imagine for three days to do Pedro and was back in the real-world post haste...long before the infamous and ultimately doomed "Megagames". Thank God!

What Games have you worked on that have been published on the Spectrum?

Shadowfire: Game / cover design, manual illustrations.
Enigma Force: Character design.
Cosmic WarToads: Game / character design.
Gift From The Gods: Game / character design, Spectrum.
Bouncers: Game / character design.
The Never-Ending Story: All graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad, Atari 8 bit.
N.O.M.A.D: Game / cover design, all graphics, copy, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Hunchback the Adventure: All graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Batman the Adventure: All graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Leaderboard: Graphics, Producer, Spectrum.
Miami Vice: Sprites, Producer, Spectrum, and Amstrad.
Highlander: Sprites, backgrounds, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
It's a Knockout: Sprites, backgrounds, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Breakthru: Sprites, backgrounds, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Psi 5 Trading Company: All graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad.
Super Cycle: Sprites, backgrounds, Spectrum, Amstrad.
Mag Max: Sprites, backgrounds, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Legend of Kage: Sprites, backgrounds, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Terra Cresta: Sprites, backgrounds, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad.
Silent Service: Sprites, all graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad.
Platoon: Game design, storyboards, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64.
Target Renegade: Game / character design, Spectrum, C64, Amstrad.
Sim City: Title screen, Spectrum.
Dan Dare 2: Title screen, Spectrum.
Viz the Game: All graphics, Spectrum, Amstrad.
Total Recall: Game design, Producer, sprites, backgrounds, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64, Atari St, Amiga.
Gazza 2: All graphics, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad, C64, Atari St, Amiga, PC.
Vindicator: Game / cover design, all graphics C64, Producer, Spectrum, Amstrad.

Did you get involved in any other areas of the creative process of
making games such as games design or perhaps a little coding?


During my 8 bit days I pretty much did a bit of everything with the exception of coding. It was a case of having to in those days.

Did you feel frustrated when having to deal with the Spectrum's limited colour palette and attribute clash or did you consider it a challenge?

Frustration figured heavily in everything you did on the Spectrum. But it was just a case of getting on with it and doing the best you could. It was always a challenge especially when the major publishers asked you to convert then state-of-the-art arcade machines onto the 8 bit computers.

What do you think of your games (in a graphical sense)? Which is your personal favourite?

Some I like more than others. I feel that some were absolutely awful, but that was never due to anything I did. We were given some appalling licenses to develop and had some complete and utter retards in charge of said projects. The Industry hasn't changed that much in that respect, there are still completely useless bastards in positions of authority when they'd be best suited stacking shelves in Tesco.

Whose graphical work did you most admire during the 8-bit days, any personal favourites?

I loved the Ultimate games. The graphics weren't staggering but they were
atmospheric. They set a benchmark that many copied and few ever equaled.
Heartland by Odin was a favorite, as was The Sacred Armour of Antiriad.
There's too many to list really.

Which programmer did you most enjoy working with during this period and who do you feel made the best use of your talents.

I enjoyed working briefly with John Gibson. He was one of the few who didn't think of artists as some kind of lower life-form. Not that I know of anyway.

James Higgins at Ocean was a good guy. Quick, open-minded and very professional.

Alan Shortt was another Ocean coder who I've a great amount of respect for. I had to, he was bigger than me and kept hitting me.

The computer media of the 80's gave a somewhat false impression that all games programmers and graphics artists were earning an absolute fortune and living a great life. Recent interviews with those that worked in the industry during this period have painted a rather different story. How did you feel you were personally treated within the industry and do you think you got the credit (and rewards) you deserved.

Those who got the credit were those with the money or the profile that suited the industry. With one or two exceptions, the industry as a whole didn't want to see spotty-faced oinks who spent their lives hunched over their keyboards. People like myself and those in Denton Designs were something of an anomaly in the industry because we were all at least ten years older than all the pre-pubescent herberts that got snapped up and exploited by the corporate giants. All in all I feel I was treated like a dog most of the time by people who just didn't know any better and who, to this day wouldn't know a decent game if it bit them on the arse.

How did you leave the Spectrum scene? Were you sad to leave?

The Spectrum scene left us. It was overshadowed and forced into early retirement by the 16 bit machines. I didn't feel sad as such, it was just a case of "upwards and onwards" only with more colours. And in the case of the Atari St an even worse scroll.

What did you do after the spectrum years and what are you doing now?

I bounced around the Industry like someone demented and to date have worked
for almost everybody. I found myself as a 2D artist, to be almost obsolete as everybody got a lump in their pants over polygons without ever realizing that they cause more problems than they solve. But I persevered, I worked on some decent projects and some dross...mostly the latter. And finally I came to the conclusion that the industry in general is run by dickheads and populated by morons. Even worse, there was a new plague called The Producer. These shiftless ne'er-d-wells started
sprouting up everywhere like fleas. They were invariably failed artists and coders or people with a grasp of the industry so miniscule that you could write it on the head of a pin and still have room for the complete works of Shakespeare. So I quit and went on my own. I now run a graphics studio in Liverpool called TagMonkeys Development
Studios. We do primarily 2D graphics for the Handheld market and in the last 18 months have worked on 15 GBC titles, 8 GBA, 7 WAP (one of which was nominated for a BAFTA) and one Interactive TV project. So it's all gone full circle and my 2D skills are now very much in demand.

What were the best/worse things about working with the Spectrum?

Some of the best things were:
Melbourne Draw. It was a dream to work with once you got to grips with it.

Sprites. Once they came along and you were allowed more than three frames of
animation then the world was your oyster.

The worst thing were:
Movie and TV licenses or arcade conversions.

The pin-headed programmers who thought they were pseudo-intellectuals and looked down their noses at all artists. It didn't bother most of them but it drove me insane because I was old enough to be their Father. Most of them are still virgins so I suppose there is some justice in the world.

What were your favourite Spectrum games and why?

3D Ant Attack was brilliant because it was so addictive and yet so simple.

Chucky Egg for exactly the same reasons.

The Ultimate games for the reasons mentioned earlier.

Starquake, because the graphics were great and the game drove me to
distraction.

Do you use an emulator to play or keep a record of any of your old games?

No. - I did for a while but I tidied up and it's backed-up somewhere on a disc along with a ton of my favourite Speccy games. As for the games I worked on, I've never really been all that interested in most of them. With one or two very rare exceptions I have not had much opportunity to work on material that appeals to me. It's been all licensed
crap or someone else's "fantastic and groundbreaking TOTALLY ORIGINAL" design.

What was the last Spectrum game you worked on? Did you leave anything unfinished? Or were there any games that were commercially unreleased?

Vindicator for Ocean was the last. It was meant to be an original title, but as with so
much that Ocean did they cobbled a license onto it. In this case Green Beret. Then they decided to make it multi-sectioned, which they hadn't done a thousand times before.

There hasn't been anything that was left unfinished although Batman, The Adventure never saw the light of day. I worked on it immediately after Hunchback, the Adventure and it was merely an opportunity to use the same game engine and a license that Ocean was milking to death. But although the game was completed it was never released. No great loss.

Obviously the modern consoles and computers give artists such as yourself a much greater creative canvas to work on. Do you feel that the freedom that this gives you makes the job more enjoyable or were the challenges of working within the early computers technology much more fun.

I hate 3D graphics with a passion. There have been far too few successful polygonal titles because the majority of those involved in their creation are all labouring under the misconception that they are creating something worthwhile. They think they almost in the same creative circle as the movie industry and that what they create is "ART".
You simply end up with companies like Rage who take two to three years to create something that is merely a fancy-packaged graphics demo. Or you have the invariably black-clad Nine Inch Nails-loving techno-goths who add years onto development time by adding hours of useless FMV to a title that could have been released long ago and developed far better if these brainless molluscs had been put onto the development of game graphics.

So NO! The industry as a whole is a horrible to place to work these days, but that does not mean that the early days were any better. There's just more suits these days and project managers crawling out of the woodwork which is why I choose to work by myself. I pick the people I work for and those who work for me. We're almost exclusively on the same wave length with some fond memories of the industry's beginnings but we're not foolish to think that they were "the good old days."
Any day you sit back and think "that was fun. I did a good job there." is a good old day.

Is there anything or anybody that you miss about the old days?

No.

Any amusing anecdotes/stories etc about the old days?

Everybody in Ocean knew that John Meegan was gay before he did. (It was an
Ocean thing. You had to be there.)

One of the Ocean Coders, Jamie Higgins once licked a games testers eye-socket when he took his glass eye out. Not funny, but memorable.

The fan base for the ZX Spectrum is as strong as ever on the web. How do you feel knowing that people are still playing the games you worked on nearly 20 years after they were originally made?

It just goes to show that there are people out there who don't want to sit around for hours on end while some pretentious and inevitably God-awful piece of PC software tries to detect your sound card. Good luck to them. If they enjoy them without the rose-tinted spectacles then it was all worthwhile.

So there you have it. Once I get on my soapbox it's difficult to get me
down. And you got the sanitized, abridged version too.

Have fun.

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Content, Coding And Design 2001 ZX SPECTICLE - D.J.MCCOWAN