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Quantum Sheep – Interview

March 20, 2011

For the second interview here at Arcadelife, we put the mind behind recent iPod/iPhone endless runner – Air Supply 1bit Run – into the spotlight. As we expected, this interview turns out to be very interesting…

Let’s start with an obvious question – why Quantum Sheep? Any deep significance in the name? 

Well, I’ve always been a huge fan of the TV show ‘Quantum Leap’ – I think Sam Beckett was a brilliant hero – a real role model. I miss that show 😦

We used to watch the show obsessively in my uni days and came up with ‘Quantum Sheep’ as a nickname for it (we liked our word play even then!). 

When deciding on a name for a company, and indeed a name for my online presence since about 1995, Quantum Sheep seemed the obvious choice! For me it conjures up some lovely memories, and just seems ‘friendly’. I hope it makes people smile when they read it! 😀 

Oh, and I love time travel. But I already told you that next week 😉 

How far back does your gaming history go?

 If you’re talking personally, I’ve been playing videogames for 33 of my 40 years on this planet at least!

 I had a documentary about opera singer Dame Kiri te Kanawa on the tv in the background one day, and one phrase she used really hit home. She said about her life “It’s really been a lifelong commitment to Opera”

Athough not a household name like the Dame, I feel the same about videogames. I’ve always played them, and I imagine I always will! I even had a Tetris cake made for my 40th birthday!

Professionally, I started out in the mid 90s managing a videogame shop. From there, I ended up a games journalist for the trade paper MCV, which was amazing fun! I then went on to companies like Microsoft (I helped launch the first Xbox and Xbox Live) and in between all these jobs I worked for myself as a freelance writer and also trying to create my own games! 

I ended up getting my first ‘official’ game designer job with Climax Handheld. I remember those days fondly, and still keep in touch with a  lot of the people I worked with there. Indeed, one of my (now) best friends, Jake, gave me that  first design job! 

We didn’t know each other back then, but became good friends very quickly! I’d never met anyone who loved games as much as I do, so we were bound to get along!  

Jake co-created Gravitrixx for the iPhone with me, and is working in his spare time on another game, ‘Red Mist’, that I hope we can publish soon! It’s very different, and lovingly put together with no thought as to how ‘marketable’ it is! It’s best described as ‘an arty, existential shooter’ – I’ll leave it at that! 😉 

After Climax, I went to Monumental games in Nottingham for three years, then came back home to London to work at Headstrong Games. After leaving Headstrong, I joined Asylum Entertainment as a freelancer, and once that job ended, and with a bit of money saved to live on, I decided to try and do this game creation thingy on my own full time! 😀 

What would you say were the earliest 3 videogames that made an impression on your life, maybe inspired you to start creating games yourself? 

I think influential games would have to be split between arcade games and home games. 

In the arcade, It would have to be Galaga, Star Wars and Outrun. They were wonderful games, and I still love them dearly!

Galaga - a classic, and also an Arcadelife favourite.

In the home, I’d have to say Tranz Am, Knight Lore and Elite. 

Tranz Am was awesome… my main memory of it was of fooling the enemy AI cars. You could brake sharply and they’d overshoot – and I just remember that at the time, that was the most awesome thing ever! 

Knight lore created a whole genre. The 3D arcade adventure. My jaw hit the floor when I saw what those lovely Ultimate people had created on a humble ZX Spectrum.

Elite… well, what can I say? I used to play it at friends houses, and at school during lunch breaks. I didn’t own a BBC Micro, so had to wait for the Spectrum version to come out to play it properly! Fortunately, the conversion was excellent. I’ve since become ‘Elite’ on multiple systems. LOVE that game because the universe felt incredibly real and authentic. It really sucked you in!

 

Tetris is my favourite game of all time though. It’s a game I’ve played consistently for two decades and I’m still not bored of it! A classic!

How many games have you released (had published)? What were they and on what platforms? 

Professionally, I’ve worked on: 

Meet the Robinsons (GBA)
Football Superstars (PC MMO)
The Sorceror’s Apprentice (Nintendo DS)
Horrid Henry (Nintendo DS) 

And a few others that got cancelled, including a couple of DS games, a PSP game and a Wii game 😦

As Quantum Sheep:

Oni (Wap phones)
Dragon Rage (Wap phones)
Combat (Wap phones)
CyberHunter (Wap phones) 

I also wrote a couple of interactive fiction games using a system called ‘Adrift’. I do love adventure games, especially the old text ones! 😀

I’ve made about 10 iOS games, but honestly, the only ones worth mentioning are Attack of the Kraken, Gravitrixx and Gravitrixx HD, and, of course, Air Supply.

The early games I made had some interesting ideas I feel, but I was a total newbie when it came to iOS development. As a consequence, they’re not very good! 

I used to have “Doom dreams” after playing into the early hours – Have you ever had that kind of experience with a game? 

I have no idea what you mean. Have you seen a doctor for that? 😛 

Funny you should mention this. I was privileged to meet the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov, a few years ago. Lovely man!  

I asked him if, while he was making Tetris, he would shut his eyes before he went to sleep and see blocks falling. I certainly used to, and I know a lot of my friends did too!

His reply?

“No.”

I guess we’re all just freaks, eh?

I do owe a special note of thanks to Tetris though, and to the GameBoy. After my Spectrum years, my friends had moved on to their Atari ST’s and Amigas. 

I actually stopped playing games at that point. Forgive me! I was a teenager, and had discovered girls and the guitar, so my affections lay elsewhere for a while!

But then I got a GameBoy. I can’t remember exactly how or why that happened. And I fell in love with it straight away.

Tetris was packed in with it. And what a game! That started my obsessive game playing while sitting on the toilet and the condition I like to call ‘numb knee syndrome’. 

It continues to this day thanks to the DS and the iphone! So Tetris kick started my obsession again! 

ZX Spectrum or C64? I get the feeling you were a Spectrum owner, but I could be wrong…

So I started with some some home pong systems, played a hell of a lot of arcade games (as a child, my parents always took us to seaside resorts – which were FULL of arcades of course!) and then fell totally in love with my ZX Spectrum!

I played all the other systems as well of course. Some of my friends were rich, so they had a BBC Micro, Atari, Intellivision, Vectrex, a Spectrum, a C64 etc etc 

I got to play them all (and I’ve since bought them all for my collection!) but my one true love has to be the Spectrum! I think that the games made back then were better despite the limitations of the hardware. People had to really think about how they were going to squeeze a game into just 48k!

There was a lot of originality in them as well, of course, and some very surreal british humour 🙂

Stand out titles were Manic Miner, of course, ALL the Ultimate games (I have a special place in my heart for Tranz Am – a game most people will never have heard of!), Tir Na Nog, and the Skool Daze games. Too many to mention, really! Wonderful days! 

In a lot of ways, iOS development is a mirror of those days. One or two people, in a room, making a game that potentially thousands or millions of people might play. It’s awesome! 😀

As an adult, I have to shake my head at the immaturity of the ‘console wars’. So much energy spent putting down the system you don’t own to justify your own purchase. Seems very silly to me.

Still, after nearly 30 years, if you ever badmouth the Spectrum, then you’re cruising for a bruising 😉

Moving up to now, and your current game for iPod/iPhone, Air Supply – 1bit Run. It’s an endless running game, obviously, but with a striking and unique style. Was it a conscious decision from the very start to make a game that, at least initially, is completely in black and white?

Firstly, I’m not an artist! I get graphics where I can, usually favours from very kind and talented friends!

iOS games in general have a very distinct look to them. They’re colourful and cartoonish for the most part. I do like this style, but I’ve also wanted to do something ‘different’ when it comes to the look (and sound!) of a game!

In that regard, I hope my games buck the trend, as it were. Sometimes successfully (as seen in Air Supply) sometimes not quite as successfully!

I think the idea is to engage the player. Sure, there are enough differences to other running games in the gameplay, but I wanted people to ‘feel’ a certain something when just looking at the game!

I showed the graphics to my colleagues at Headstrong last June. They haven’t changed since then! The people I showed it to have collectively sold millions of games around the world on Wii, GBA and DS – and all of them fell in love with the look of Air Supply.

I knew I was onto something then!

It was only about two weeks before the game was released that I had a ‘Eureka’ moment and thought about adding the colour options. Before that, it was going to be completely black and white! I think they add a lot to the game, and even change the feel significantly depending on the colour you’re playing with. 

People seem to like it! 

It’s such a simple but effective idea. And these ideas come thick and fast, right up to release, and sometimes beyond. There’s always that itch in the back of my mind that says ‘What MORE can I do to add something cool to the game?’

There’s not much to Spaceman Sam – two round eyes looking out of a space-suit, yet the character is instantly recognisable and he is undeniably cute. Did he always look like this or did his appearance change during the development of the game?

Spaceman Sam was made by my friend Mr Funkleberry one night over Skype. He was ‘bored’ and asked if I wanted any ‘doodles’ 🙂

I’d wanted to make a space game for a while with a cool main character. I sent him screenshots of the Spectrum game Nodes of Yesod (which he loved!) and said ‘yeah – something 8bit like that would be great!’.

He came up with the following in a matter of minutes:

I really liked it, and we left it a few days, after which he sent me a link to a flash animation with the graphics you essentially see in Air Supply today.

I think he said at the time ‘Trust an artist to come up with something completely different to what you asked for!”

I’m glad he did! The guy is supremely talented, and really has a passion for this kind of thing! Unfortunately, he’s really busy all the time, otherwise I’d use him more! You’ll be glad to know he’s working with me on the spin-off to Air Supply (tentatively titled Air Supply – SOS) while the other awesome artist who worked on the original Air Supply, Basil, will be working on the official sequel!

SO MUCH TO DO!!!

Are any specific aspects of the game inspired by (I won’t say copied from!) other endless runners? 

Well, I love running games in general. Canabalt blew me away. I remember playing it when it first came out and saying to Jake ‘I wish I’d made this game!’

So, I’d already played a lot of running games prior to making Air Supply. I went through all of them again though, and tried to work out what I liked or disliked about them. What I thought ‘worked’, or didn’t work, essentially. 

But it needed something else. Thankfully, the name was decided a long time ago, and the dwindling air supply mechanic was included from the start. This gives the game, I hope, a sense of urgency as well as justifying its existence!

The unlock system was ‘borrowed’ from Rogue Runner, which is an ace 8bit runner for the iPhone!

What I liked about that game was that, even though the unlocks were all just re-skins, it gave the game a different feel. I found I was playing that more than other runners because there was a reason to play it – to unlock new stuff.

Copying Rogue Runner wasn’t enough though. In that game, money you pickup goes towards unlocking characters and backgrounds.

We expanded this by letting you unlock music and colours as well. And we also expanded on it by giving each unlock a different currency – Stars unlock characters, distance unlocks levels, air unlocks music and kills unlock your rank/colours.

Getting the unlocks right is one thing though. I spent a LOT of time getting the feel right for the actual gameplay. How fast should the air go down? How often should pickups appear? When should enemies appear? How should they behave? How do you jump? etc etc

So yes, Air Supply is, in essence, ‘just another runner’. And a lot of people will dismiss it because of that and ignore it because they’ve had their fill of this kind of game. 

But those that have played it have, largely, loved it. And that is a real gift. I was astonished by the response from people on the Touch Arcade forums, for example. They can sometimes be a very scary lot! But the enthusiasm for ‘just another running game’ was incredible. People have been very kind, and it’s greatly appreciated!

It does put the pressure on for the next games though! I don’t want to ever disappoint people! The idea is that you want to spread some fun around the world! 

Air Supply is full of movie quotes and other references; what are your top 3 favourite films for quotes and should we be expecting to see more of this in future Quantum Sheep games?

It’s a strange thing, but within my close circle of friends, who’ve grown up together watching the same films, listening to the same music… well, there’s a ‘code’ if you will. 

Our humour is largely based on these shared experiences. When someone says ‘Game over, man, game over’ in a real-life situation, it’s funny because we all know where it comes from, and it fits the situation we’re in.

Some people don’t get that.

So this is the kind of person I am. And being my game, I try and put as much of my personality into the game as I can. Little nods to stuff that only a tiny percentage of people might pick up on. 

Now, it doesn’t detract from someone’s enjoyment of a game if they don’t get the quotes. But for those that *do* get the quotes, it really adds something special I think. 

It shows the game was made by a person, not by committee… and if you ‘get it’, there’s a connect there to another human being, not a faceless corporation!

As to movie quotes… well, Star Wars, Predator and Aliens are the kings of that along with every other sci-fi film ever made! Aliens especially, though. I’ve said it many a time, *everything* comes back to Aliens. It’s a fantastic film that I’ve watched over 1000 times, I’m sure. And I can *still* happily sit down and watch it and its influence is *still* felt to this very day!

At one company, we had some local interns working for us. They were very young – I was old enough to be their dad! 

One of them said he’d never seen Aliens.

I was shocked. And outraged. But mainly shocked.

After ranting at him for a bit, I walked out the office, went to the local DVD store and bought him a copy of Alien and Aliens. Plonking them on his desk, I muttered “That’s your homework for tonight”

I don’t think I over-reacted. I mean, *really!* How can you work in game development and have never seen Aliens???? 

I say we sit down and watch the entire film from the sofa. It's the only way to be sure.

 Do you listen to music while you work on game development? If so, any favourite artists who particularly inspire or help the creative process?

It’s difficult to listen to music while making a game for me, mainly because the music itself is such a big part of the game!

When you’re testing the game, you want to hear the music. You want to ‘live’ the experience as a player would. So you can’t ever turn the music off, really!

However, in the bits between testing and ‘feeling’ the game, I tend to listen to soundtracks from films. Mainly because there’s no singing to distract your train of thought!

So, during Air Supply’s development I listened to:

Inception soundtrack
Tron Legacy soundtrack
Battlestar Galactica soundtracks
Lots of Spectrum music! (mainly by Mister Beep!)

Who would you prefer to see Spaceman Sam compared to as a device icon – Mario or Sonic?

I think Mario. After getting a GameBoy, I’d essentially become a Nintendo fanboy 🙂

I got a SNES after graduating from University, and loved it. It’s still one of my favourite consoles ever made! The controller was just perfect! And so many wonderful games!

Sonic and I never really got on. I found he was all flash and no substance! Don’t hate me for that! 

Oh, and he always ate all the sausages at parties. 

I spotted a similarity in style between Air Supply and Nodes of Yesod. So, in addition to looking at current iOS endless runners, did you draw a lot of inspiration from older games?

I’m old. Very old 😦

The one advantage being old gives you, is that I’ve played a LOT of games. I mean thousands of them. A lot of them a great many of today’s gamesplayers will never have heard of, or not experienced fully.

And they’re still in my memory. Games I enjoyed will always be there because they hit those part of the brain that trigger ‘joy’. 😀

So yes – inspiration should come from everything and anything really. Music, the news, games, films, books… everything!

Who is Mister Beep? Are you allowed to say?

Mister Beep is a genius. Over a year ago now, I wanted to see what Spectrum related games were on the market for the iphone. I found depressingly little at the time (though now Elite has released a bunch of games from that era – thanks, Elite! :D)

So I was thinking (and still am!) – I’d love to do an original, modern game with Spectrum graphics. 

Which led onto: “What kind of music can I put in such a game?”

That’s when I discovered the Spectrum music scene – a bunch of very talented, very enthusiastic musicians around the world making music on hardware over 25 years old!

Mister Beep is just one of those talented musicians! He’s probably as hardcore as it gets. The music he’s making at the moment, and which will be in Air Supply 2, is made using nine channels of sound – all from a ZX Spectrum beeper that previously could only handle 3 channels at most.

To say it’s utterly amazing is an understatement!

I’m thinking though, for the spin-off, Air Supply – SOS – to use Yerzmyey, another fantastic spectrum musician. He supplied the track ‘Baroque’ for Gravitrixx – it gives the game a very ‘Tetris’ kind of sound/feel 🙂

I’ve become a massive fan of the Spectrum scene – of people like the AY Riders, Yerzmyey and Mister Beep. As Metal Casket, from the Touch Arcade forums, told me: “The music makes me feel like a child again.”

I couldn’t agree with him more! 🙂

Having such great music in my games is truly an honour. Not enough iOS games use music to the full I feel. 

It also piles on the pressure to make a ‘good’ game. It’s not just *my* name on the line! And I want to work with these wonderful people on future projects. Making rubbish games won’t exactly help my cause in that regard!

I’m still missing 5 achievements even after unlocking everything, gaining Elite status and clicking every icon on the menu… how hidden or hard are some of the achievements, without giving too much away..?

They last ones are more endurance based. I’ll leave it at that I think. And the very last one is for unlocking everything else. I hope people get a kick out of that one 😉

Do you have any plans for Spaceman Sam? He looks like a great candidate for a franchise. Is there a sequel in the works, maybe?

Well, there’s the spin-off – SOS – that I’ve already mentioned, as well as a full on sequel.

The sequel will be a platform game. But again, there’s plenty of those out there already! The trick is working out how to make it different to what’s already been released, other than the graphics and music. 

Graphics and music help a hell of a lot, of course. But you need to get the ‘feel’ right for the core gameplay! And it can’t be another running game, but it has to include elements from that so that it feels like a continuation of the series…

The unlock system for that is going to be a little more complex. And that takes a LONG time! 

So in the meantime, I’ll be working on Air Supply – SOS. The target is iPad only (but if there’s demand, an iphone/ipod version may surface). It’s based on an old Spectrum game I used to love. I haven’t seen it done on iOS yet, and I still believe the gameplay is classic. 

Your Air Supply may still be running out. But it’s not just *your* air supply you  have to worry about this time. You have to rescue lots of Quantum Sheep. And *their* air supply is running out too!

Here’s a sneak peek at a sheepy in peril!:

 

Do you get a chance to play many other iOS games? Do you have any favourites or any that stand out as classics in your opinion?

At the end of the day, I’m a gamesplayer, just like you, just like everyone else out there reading this. I want to be entertained. I want to have fun.

So yes, I do spend a stupid amount of time playing iOS games. I’m influenced by some, and I like to dissect them as well. See what works. See *why* I like a particular game mechanic or visual style.

Some classics for me, for various reasons, include:

Gravonaut
Bit Pilot
Minotaur Rescue
Game Dev Story
Canabalt
Bit Trip Beat
Space Invaders: Infinity Gene
Carcassonne
Poodle Invasion
Words with Friends

One thing they all have in common is that they make me smile. And that’s got to be a good thing, right? 

One thing that really stands out for me after playing Air Supply a lot – I never got angry playing it, never felt any frustration. It’s incredibly subtle, but that kind of gaming experience doesn’t come about by luck. 

It’s all by design, that’s why! 😀

A lot of people, when telling me what they’ve unlocked, start with ‘I’ve got all the music of course’.

Of course you have! The game’s designed like that, so that the thing you pick up most, air, unlocks the music first.

It was a conscious decision – the music really adds to the game I feel. And there’s so much of it, I didn’t want people to *Not* unlock any of it! 

Other gameplay elements… how long it takes for each unit of air to go down… how long the shields last for… how often you unlock new stuff… how often air shows up… how often other pickups show up… the enemies… well, this is where the majority of game development time went, tweaking it all so that the game played as I wanted it to – fairly!

Anyone can make a game where your little guy jumps up and avoids holes in the ground. Seriously, it’s not difficult! 

The tricky part is making it fun… making it fair… and making it something that people want to play over and over again!

The double jump is a good example. A lot of running games don’t have it. Instead, they have a ‘hold down for a bigger jump’ mechanic.

For the most part, this works ok. But you’re never sure how high you’re going to jump! 

The double jump in Air Supply basically lets you jump a set height upwards. Twice! It can get you out of trouble if you make a mistake! It can also get you *into* trouble if you mis-use it!

That people feel it’s a very fair game is so, so brilliant! That was the intention from the start, after having played countless other running games. The idea was ‘reward often, never punish unfairly’.

Even when you die, you should never feel it was the game’s fault! And while the game isn’t perfect, I like to think that some people have got some joy and fun out of it!

What’s the process like, making a game?

I’m sure it’s very different for everyone really. Mainly it starts as images in my head. They swim about a bit. I see them everywhere. And eventually, my head gets so full of these images, and the ideas they represent, that they need an out!

Making games is the outlet for those ideas!

So you start putting something simple together. Maybe listen to some music you think might work with the game. 

Indeed, the music selection sometimes dictates the tempo of a game!

And you draw on a lot of influences. Attack of the Kraken is inspired by the book ‘The Kraken Wakes’ by John Wyndham, as well as Jeff Minters ‘Attack of the Mutant Camels’. Those two influences had been in my head since the 80s!

Then you start replacing your rubbish graphics with early stuff from an artist. You think of a ‘feeling’ for the game. “What do I want to get across to the player??

In Kraken, I was trying to inspire a ‘David vs. Goliath’ feeling of hope within helplessness. That’s why the enemies are so large and your rocket ship so small – the scale should fill you with awe and dread but still instil some hope in you!

Gravitrixx was all about ‘flow’. Not just the flow of your player due to gravity changes, but in how the player progresses through the game. We didn’t want you to feel ‘stuck’ particularly. You could, for example, skip whole levels and *still* progress! Thus, progress ‘flows’.

Air Supply was all about tension. The air running out instills this, as does the constant ramping up of speed. And I never wanted the player to be ‘bored’. So, ‘tension’ and ‘excitement’ 🙂

The whole process can be helped by showing the game off to people as it’s being developed. It’s always good to get a second opinion on things, and conversations with people playing the game can inspire new additions or tweaks, both before and after the game’s completed!

Have you made much money doing this?

Well, if I did it for the money, I’d have given up a long time ago I think!

I think I’ve always wanted to create stuff. There’s a kind of nervous energy some people have that makes them always want to make things.

Any money is a bonus. It means I don’t have to get a ‘real’ job, and can do this for a bit longer. 

But even ‘with’ a real job, I was still making my own games. I think sometimes it’s just something you really want to do, and that drives you on!

Additionally, the response to Air Supply from complete strangers all around the world has been awesome. I really want to thank those that have played it! I hope you liked it! 

I think a lot of people get into making games, iPhone games in particular, for all the wrong reasons. Their very first question is “Have you made any money doing this?”.

Really, it should be “Is it any fun?”

And yes, it’s a LOT of fun! 😀

Thanks very much to Quantum Sheep for taking part in this interview. Good luck with the continuing updates for Air Supply and all your future projects.  

Air Supply 1bit Run – iTunes link
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2 comments

  1. […] You can read the interview here. […]


  2. Really good interview. Great to hear about all the inspiration behind Air Supply – I used to love all the old Ultimate games too.



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