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Jeff Minter interview

April 27, 2011

Jeff Minter has been kind enough to take part in an interview for Arcadelife. Jeff is the founder of Llamasoft and has created games such as Gridrunner (1982), Attack of the Mutant Camels (1983), Llamatron: 2112 (1991), Tempest 2000 (1994), Gridrunner Revolution (2009) and, most recently, the first couple of Minotaur Project games on iOS devices – Minotaur Rescue and Minotron: 2112. I particularly wanted to interview Jeff to find out about his gaming history, thoughts on iOS game development and his farm animals…

Without any further delay, here’s the interview!

How big is your farm? Do you have to use a quad to travel around the fields?

It’s not that big, what we’d call a “smallholding” rather than a full on farm, at around 7 acres split into three fields. You can easily walk round it all although I have thought it might be fun to set up a quad track in the top field :). We use the top field mainly for radio aerials and the bottom two for the beasties. The bottom field is the largest, full of lush grass and trees, and in summer I like to go and sit there with the sheep; it’s like having your own private park. And us being nerds there’s wifi coverage in all three fields :).

How many different animals live on your farm? How many of them have been given names?

Currently we have 7 sheep, two llamas, a pygmy goat and a donkey.  All of them have names, of course. The sheep are Jerry, Fuwafuwa, Shaun, Katamari, Shaggysheep, Butterbean and Teddy. The llamas are Iki and Maya. The goat is Alice, and the donkey is Leona. We also appear to be the centre of a large bunny population and fat, relaxed rabbits are often to be seen in the fields and on the front lawn.

Alice the goat

Are the farm animals kept as pets or livestock, or maybe both?

 They are all pets; we ask nothing more from them than that they have happy, relaxed, and hopefully long lives :).

A happy, glowing sheep

Have you always lived in the UK? Never been tempted to move somewhere warmer?

I lived in the US for three years but never really settled in there. I missed my cups of tea and curry houses too much ;). It may rain a bit here but that makes the countryside very green and lush, and when the sun does come out in the summer it’s one of the best places on earth, I swear. You can’t beat a lovely sunny day in the bottom field watching plump, happy, contented sheep bumbling about, maybe occasionally coming over for cuddles and skritchies. Bliss :).

I’ve been hooked on videogames for over 30 years – What was the first videogame that you played and can you remember exactly where it was (pub, arcade, cafe)?

First ever videogame was probably a Binatone Pong set that one of my brothers got and brought over to show us. First coinop was Breakout, in a smoky wine bar in Basingstoke in which I was underage drinking with some of my brothers and their friends. But the first one to really hook me in was Space Invaders which I played for the first time at a travelling fair that came to our village. I’d heard of some new game that was huge in Japan and wanted to see it for myself. I got 470 points on my first go IIRC.

I recently went back to the place where I first played Space Invaders, a pub in Herefordshire near the Welsh border. They’ve extended the old back room where there used to be a pool table, juke-box, dartboard and videogame cabinet and turned it into a restaurant. Progress, maybe, but I think I preferred it as it used to be. Long-winded intro to the question – do you think the world was a more interesting place when there were videogames in pubs, cafes, chip shops and little backstreet record shops?

Yes, absolutely, in fact just a couple of days ago I was chatting on irc and mentioned how my mental map of the area I lived in in the 80s is tagged with arcade machines – Missile Command in the newsagents, Super Earth Invasion down the Ship Inn, Amidar and Donkey Kong at the Fighting Cocks, The Pit and Stratovox at the Fox and Hounds, Asteroids Deluxe at the Wellington Arms, Galaxian and Pac-Man at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment recreational society, Scorpion at the Hind’s Head… I served my Space Invaders apprenticeship at Harlequin Records in the new market square next to Basingstoke bus station. I do miss the old coinops being everywhere. I used to love the sit-down tables in pubs where you could sit down with a pint and a mate for a nice game of doubles. These days you only ever see coinop in seaside arcades (that are mostly pushers and fruitys anyway) and service stations and even then it’s only ever fighters, big driving cabs and gun games. I still think there’d be a place in pubs for a MAME cab where the game got changed every few weeks – I’d definitely play it, and I’m sure others would too, but there’s only ever fruities if there’s anything at all. I know we now all have awesome consoles at home, but it’s not about the tech, it’s being able to have a nice sociable game of something simple and fun… I do miss that.

Asteroids cocktail cabinet - sadly missed pub furniture

Out of all the videogames that you have ever played, which ones would you say were the most fun and/or the most significant and influential for you personally?

Definitely Eugene Jarvis’ Williams coinops (Defender, Stargate, Robotron, Sinistar) which were and still are a huge influence on my own game design style. Also obviously Tempest, Star Wars, Asteroids, Missile Command, Centipede, all great classics… Star Raiders on the Atari 400/800 was also awesome, one of the best home games of the 8-bit era, astonishing to think it was written in the 1970s. Rescue on Fractalus was a stunning technical achievement on a 1MHz 8-bit machine and great fun to play.. Thrust, Oids and Virus I also loved, I always really enjoyed those games where you have to control a ship with delicate touches of vectored thrust.  I remember I didn’t much like platform games until a journo friend of mine came to visit bringing a NES and Super Mario with him. We played for 4 days straight :D.

Oids - I loved that one too!

I’d say, looking at your impressive catalogue of games, that you’re primarily a fan of shoot-em-ups. Do you have one favourite shooter from the early days of arcade games?

If I had to name one shooter as my fave it would be without doubt Robotron. It is the pure distilled essence of shooter awesomeness.

Robotron

What would you say is, or has been, your favourite device for writing and/or releasing games on, and why?

Probably the c64, not because it was the best hardware or anything, just because the times and the surrounding scene were just so great. You could bang out games in a month or two, there was a good market for them, you’d go to exhibitions several times a year and they were always great fun, you’d meet up with a lot of good people, play games, go out in the evenings and hang out in the arcades and pubs in London… just really good times.

Is there a non-mythical animal that you would like to put into one of your games but haven’t yet?

Oxen don’t get enough love in gaming. I guess I’m halfway there with the minotaur games. Maybe I should do a reverse bullfighting game where you’re the bull and you have to gore as many gaily-attired Spaniards as possible.

What music were you mostly listening to while working on the Minotaur Project games?

Probably Gary Numan and a bit of Underworld.

For touch-screen devices such as the iPhone and iPad, good controls are essential. For the Minotaur Project games, did you develop controls that you liked yourself or did you try out various control systems on a group of testers and go with the most popular?

For me part of a game’s design is the feel of the controls, the first thing I do is get the player character in there and controllable as soon as I start making the game, so as to be able to begin refining the controls at the earliest opportunity. They have to be efficient and to feel right, which is something that only comes with lots of testing and refinement. Simply plonking down an ugly onscreen joystick in a fixed position will NOT do. I thought I’d hate doing touch screen controls since I’d played plenty of games where the controls flat out sucked but in truth I found it challenging and enjoyable and satisfying when you get it right. For me that right feeling is a personal thing so I tend to develop the controls and then at the end put the game out to a few testers to make sure that they think the controls are good too.

Minotaur Rescue

Would you like to share any feelings that you may have regarding virtual joysticks in touch-screen games? I don’t understand why some developers seem to insist on trying to reproduce a physical controller on-screen when some of the best control methods are ones that have been designed specifically for the touch-screen and its limitations.

I’ve wondered myself why people do this and the conclusion i have come to is that onscreen joysticks make it easier for people to understand how to control a game, because they represent something familiar, but they are actually one of the worst ways to actually control something on a touch screen. Developers put them in because they make their games initially easy to understand, but in doing so they do gamers a disservice. There is no need to obscure part of the play area with drawings of a nonexistent joystick, nor to require directional control touches to fall on a specific target that it’s inevitable you’ll slip off of during the heat of gameplay. Directional controls should centre themselves wherever your touch falls, and there is no need to highlight their position by drawing anything – your control motions should show up in the behaviour of your onscreen character without the need to see anything extra where you touch the screen.  You should be able to shift your control position freely as the action moves around the screen. Unfortunately so many people have implemented sucky onscreen controls that people expect them a lot of the time now and can be initially confused when there’s no controls drawn onscreen. But almost inevitably once people get used to the idea that they don’t need onscreen joysticks then they find out that the game actually controls way better without them.  I’ve seen no end of comments on the minotaur games where people have said it took them a few minutes to “get” the controls but when they did, BEST CONTROLS EVER. As a designer, for god’s sake remember that the whole touchscreen is a versatile and sensitive control surface and use it as such.  As a player, take a few minutes to learn how to use games that do provide good controls and you’ll be rewarded with excellent control of your game rather than having yet another game that looks great but which you only ever play three times because the controls are just so broken and nasty. Onscreen joysticks – just say HELL NO :).

Do you think there’s any scope for a simultaneous two-player shooter such as something like Smash TV on the iPhone/iPad, either over bluetooth/wi-fi or, on the iPad, with 2 players on one device? Have you considered writing one?

I think that’d be practical on the iPad, I’d imagine 2-player coop on a single screen would be a tad cramped on the iPhone even with 2 phones over BT. On the iPad to have 2 players on 1 device playing an arena shooter I think you’d have to have each of them using a method like Simplified in Minotron, where each player moves but aiming and firing is AI controlled – getting 4 touches onscreen andstill be able to see the playing area would be a bit tough. If I were doing it I’d have some kind of thing happening where you could affect firing style by where you positioned yourselves relative to each other – maybe by moving closer together you could have a more defensive shot pattern covering the two of you, whereas moving apart would give you each a more aggressive hunting style of shots. Maybe in boss rounds you could have larger, more powerful shots aimed along the vector formed by you both as endpoints of a line. I am sure you could have quite some fun with such a game design while still only requiring one directional touch per player on the screen.

Are there any iPhone/iPad games that you have played recently that you really enjoyed or that struck you as games that really made the best of the device they were written for? 

I liked Space Invaders Infinity Gene, nice shooter and thank god proper controls. Orbital is very nice looking and a perfect example of a nice game from minimal (one touch) controls. My favourite of the running games is Robot Unicorn Attack because hey, robot unicorns.  Just recently I got Bit.Trip Beat (HD… developers, by the way, shut up with separate versions for iphone and HD for ipad, I don’t want to buy two separate versions one for each device – make your apps Universal as God and nature intended) and that’s fun, almost Pong-meets-Rez which is an odd but rather effective mix for a bit of fun every now and again. Final Freeway is outruntastic and controls very nicely from accelerometer controls (a rarity indeed).

Robot Unicorn Attack

What do you think of the iTunes app store as a marketplace? Is it strange to be developing new games for relatively new devices, knowing that the games will be on sale for such small amounts of money?

It’s ok although there’s a real problem with visibility. You get some stuff that sticks in the top 10 and does awesomely, then other stuff that maybe pops into the top 100 for a fleeting bit and then goes away and unless you’re looking for it is never seen again, and then the Nether Void. And with everyone pretty much expecting games to be super cheap that means the only people who do well out of it are those who do serious volume, which is pretty much only the ones who break into that magic top 10. There’s not a lot of scope for a comfortable middle ground. I’d prefer it if it were possible to work comfortably somewhere in the middle ground, where you could be a bit more experimental and off-mainstream but still get some kind of reasonable return for it. As it is it’s a bit of a lottery and it seems the emphasis is more on publicity and self-promotion than it is about game design. I hate marketing and all the associated crap and just want to make games :).

Have you got any essential advice for someone thinking of writing a new game for the iPhone/iPad market?

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT USING FIXED POSITION ONSCREEN DIRECTIONAL CONTROLS>

What’s your favourite non-game iPad app? I’m guessing the Korg iMS-20, but that’s just because I’ve seen you mention it on Twitter.

Yeah, I’d definitely say the iMS-20. It is just fantastic fun for anyone with even a passing interest in synths and amazing that you can have a really great emulation of a classic analog synth for under a tenner. It’s a close enough emulation that I learned my way around it by watching some tutorial videos of a guy using a real MS-20 and I was able to follow along and replicate all his demo patches on the iPad. Brilliant fun and feels like more of a real instrument than some of the other music apps out there which are fun but a bit more toy-like.

On the UK app store, Minotron: 2112 and Minotaur Rescue have a lot of really positive review comments, many that are clearly from long-time fans of your games. What do you think it is about the games (and Jeff Minter himself!) that attracts dedicated fans like that and keeps them coming back for more of the same psychedelic ruminant shoot-em-up action for so many years?

I think that there are some people who obviously like the feel of the games and enjoy a bit of good old fashioned arcade-style action, and who know I can generally be relied on to deliver that. And they obviously don’t mind a bit of humour with the games too.

Minotron: 2112

Here are some quick, interview cliché questions (sorry!) …

Favourite book: – any of the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks.

Favourite film: – Blade Runner.

Favourite band: – Pink Floyd.

Favourite album: – Wish You Were Here.

Favourite colour: – Dark purple.

Favourite food: – Chicken Vindaloo

Favourite drink: – A nice cup of tea.

Where did you last go on holiday? What gadgets did you take with you? Did you buy any new gadgets on holiday?

Portugal, last year. Took my iPad, iPhone and the digital camera I’d bought the year before, also in Portugal, when I sat on my old one.

Would you like to give any clues or other information about further games in the Minotaur Project series?

The next one’s quite different.

Last question – How would you like to be remembered?

Hopefully as someone who made some people happy making fun toys and who always had happy sheep.

Many thanks to Jeff for taking the time to provide an informative and quite fascinating interview.

The two Minotaur Project games can be found on the iTunes appstore here: Minotaur Rescue and Minotron: 2112.

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One comment

  1. awesome interview. Looking forward to the next ios game. My prediction is bovine racing on acid.



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