Interview with Iain Wallington

I started programming while I was at school, around 1983, writing simple games on the ZX Spectrum. When the Amiga 1000 came out it was such an incredible step up from what I was used to, I knew I had to get one. I saved up my wages from a summer job in 1987 and eventually bought an A500 and all the Rom Kernel manuals. I immediately started learning 68000 assembler and began writing graphics routines, (Going from a Spectrum to the Amiga, with its hardware scrolling, sprites, and don't get me started on the copper.........Geek heaven!!)

After leaving college in 1990 I knew I wanted to write games professionally but didn't know how to get into the industry. I was working on a few projects in the evenings in the hope that I could take them to a publisher when they were finished. I'm far from being an artist, so I got an old friend from school, John Kershaw, to help out on the art side. We didn't have a clue what we were doing at first, (some say we still don't), so it took a lot of experimentation and reworking to get something playable. Of the 3 or 4 projects we worked on there was one, (Bouncer), that became our primary focus. This was based on a game I'd had on the Spectrum, called Bounder, which was a top down view of tennis ball bouncing on blocks. Instead of a ball we created the main character as a Ribena berry, in the hope that we could license the game to SmithKline-Beecham and let them do all the hard work of producing / marketing etc. In January 1992, we were progressing in talks with their licensing dept. when we saw a job advert in the local paper for a games programmer and artist. Until seeing the advert I hadn't known there was a games studio anywhere nearby, and at that time I'd never heard of Graftgold, but John and I both applied and went along for the interview together. It was only when we got into the office and saw all the pictures and awards for Uridium, Quazatron, Paradroid, etc that I realised who Graftgold were, (Until this point I'd only known these games by the publisher's name...Hewson). We demonstrated the projects we'd been working on to Steve and Andrew, then sat down for the formal part of the interview. We briefly talked about the demos before Steve noticed in my C.V. that I played drums. From that point on Steve, Andrew and I talked about bands and music, (Steve plays guitar and Andrew plays Bass), while John sat quietly to one side. Anyway, we both got offered jobs, and the rest is history. As for the Ribena game...talks continued for a while, but it eventually came to nothing. At least it got us both into the games industry, (or was it actually because Steve and Andrew's band were looking for a drummer...hmmmm?)

I started at Graftgold a month before John because there was only room for 1 more person in the old office, before moving to a larger office the following month. On my first day Steve sat me down with some graph paper and explained how the Off Road Racer maps were constructed. All the time I was thinking "He's got us mixed up! He thinks I'm the Artist!!". But after explaining everything Steve remarked, to my relief, that it really needed a programmer's technical mind to create new tracks. So, my first professional programming job wasn't actually programming at all, it was to design track layouts for OffRoad Racer. After planning them on graph paper I then used an editor running on a spectrum to build the collision maps, and place the animated flag objects, etc. Once this was complete it was transferred from the spectrum to a PC, then over to the Master System for playtesting. I think I designed 3 new tracks in total, which all made it into the final game...Not bad for a programmer. ;o)

I don't remember much about this now. I believe because the AGA versions of Fire & Ice, Uridium2 and Virocop were hard-disk installable they needed to check various system settings. This meant using OS calls, so was easiest done in ‘C'. I was the only person that knew ‘C' at that point so I knocked up a quick program to do whatever it was, and a version of this was also used on the CD32. (I hope I'm not talking total rubbish here, but this was a long time ago now.)

Empire Soccer was written by another friend of mine, Jose Doran, who I recommended to Steve. Anyway, my part in the game was very small, mainly just play testing and the very occasional debug session. Debugging Jose's code was like a journey into another world. He would use all the tricks in the book, (and more), to squeeze every last cycle out of the Amiga, but it made debugging "interesting". Jose was the master of the Copper List at Graftgold, (you wouldn't believe the stuff he was doing with the copper...or the SIZE of the Copper Lists!!!!).

I was the Lead programmer / designer on Virocop, although at the time we didn't have such official titles. As with everything at Graftgold, everyone contributed to all the games, but this one was "my baby". It was the first full title that I worked on from start to finish.

Virocop started life as Tanky2. This was a game that Jason Page was writing on the MegaDrive. For one reason or another Jason stopped working on this and it was handed over to me to continue on the Amiga instead. After a month or two it was decided that we needed to completely redesign the game away from being based on tanks. I really liked the stuff that Jason had been doing so didn't want to deviate too far. Being able to fire in one direction and move in another seemed like a good mechanic. I'd also been a huge fan of Quazatron so was very happy about Steve's suggestion to base the character a bit on KLP2, and D.A.V.E. was born...and reborn...and reborn, etc until we settled on the final version. As for the level themes, this started out with an idea I had about making DAVE appear to grow as you progress through the worlds. The original design had DAVE as a tiny robot in an oversized garden, with giant plant pots, leaves, etc. The relative scale of the world graphics would decrease on each subsequent level, ending on the final level where he would appear to be a giant robot fighting tiny soldiers. Over time this changed into the different game genres that make up the finished game.

As mentioned above, DAVE isn't KLP2 but was heavily inspired by Steve's old character.

As with most games, the name changes during the development cycle. It started out as ‘Tanky2', before becoming ‘The Robot Game'. I named the character Dave, (don't know why really), and we considered calling the game ‘D.A.V.E.' for quite some time, but then the film Dave came out, (about a U.S. president I think), so we had to change the name again. When the Viruses were added as the recurring enemy in the game, the name was changed to ‘Virus Alert', but this was never a very popular name, (especially with me). Eventually we had everyone in the company brainstorm names and vote on their favourites. Lee Banyard's suggestion of ‘Virocop' came out as the clear favourite.

We had a number of artists working on the game's worlds and they each came up with ideas for themes, and suitable enemies to populate their worlds. We then selected the ones that we thought would work best and provide the most variety between worlds. Of all the worlds that were planned for the final version only one didn't make it. This was based on board games, with Chessboards, Dice, Snakes and ladders, broken Egg timers and lots of sand. It was shaping up to be a nice looking level but due to time restrictions it had to be shelved.

It was developed on the A500 mostly, with Mr. B., (Andrew Braybrook), doing a lot of the A1200 updates right at the end. The extra A1200 level was written after I'd completed the main A500 game.

The A500 version was as it was meant to be, but we had a small amount of time for A1200 extras and a complete graphics set for the medieval level ready to go, so we quickly put together the maps and coded up the extra enemy behaviours. It was too late to retrofit the level into the A500 version so it was left as a bonus for the A1200 owners.

We had some great artists working at Graftgold at the time. Colin Seaman in particular was great at adding a lot of character and humour to his art. If you look at the wall of the skyscraper you'll see a poster for ‘Rockin the Pig'. This was actually the name of the band I was playing in at the time, and Colin scaled down one of our gig posters my wife had designed for us and added it to the level as a surprise. Another example is on the racing track level where there's a caricature of Murray Walker commentating, (one of my heroes). We just tried to get as much humour and life into the levels as possible to make it a fun experience to watch as well as to play.

No, it was only ever planned to be on the Amiga, although I think it would have gone down well on the consoles of the day too.

To be honest I don't know what figures count as ‘selling well' back then, and I don't know how many copies we sold anyway. There was so much piracy around at that time it had a huge negative impact on sales. We had some good reviews and a lot of press coverage in the UK. I'd also been writing a ‘making of the game' diary for a German magazine that had gone down very well. Unfortunately the project wasn't due for release at the time the diary series ended so a lot of the hype we'd produced over there was wasted. When you put so much time and effort into a product you want it to do its job, which is to provide entertainment, so I just hope that the people that did buy the game enjoyed it.

It was sad to move away from the Amiga as I'd invested a lot of energy into understanding the machine, but it was onto the next challenge, (PC, PS1, Saturn, and onwards). I came into Graftgold where there was a very strong history of great titles and although Virocop isn't spoken about as another true Graftgold classic, like Fire & Ice or Uridium, I don't think it let the company, (or the Amiga), down at all. I think we left the Amiga days behind us on a suitably high note.

I left Graftgold in 1998 after around six and a half years. Unfortunately it was the end of Graftgold. The games industry is a volatile place at the best of times, with publishers seeming to decide the fate of small developers based on..? (I don't know, but a proven track record of producing top quality games didn't seem to count for anything). I loved my time at Graftgold, and may still have been there today had they survived.

The focus was always on producing something fun, (both to play and to watch). There was no luck involved in getting playability into the games, we all worked very hard to ensure it was the best experience we could make it.

I worked on a couple of games that never made it to the shops. As part of an updated Rainbow Islands Trilogy for PC and PS1 Graftgold were writing 2 of the 3 games, (I think Probe were writing the 3rd game). Kevin Holloway was working on Rainbow Islands and I was on Liquid Kids. (For anyone that's never played Liquid Kids it's well worth checking out. It has a very nice bubble / Water game mechanism, and some great enemies.) I'd got all the core mechanics working and the first couple of levels were close to completion when the publisher decided to drop Liquid Kids in favour of Parasol Stars instead.

The other unpublished game was HardCorp. This was the title we were all working on when everything collapsed. It was a near future based Tank game, (perhaps it should have been called Tanky 3! ?), with everything you'd expect of the Genre, ie. Tanks, shooting, big explosions, the ability to crash through buildings etc. Controlling tanks in full 3D environment threw up some interesting programming challenges such as the auto-targeting of enemies. This was simple enough when driving on flat ground but became trickier when driving on slopes, (turret rotation and barrel elevation are no longer discrete X, Y components). This was only my second full 3D game, (after International MotoX), and I was really enjoying solving these sorts of problems. It was very satisfying to finally see the tank successfully lock onto a moving target in the distance, then see the shell arc through the sky followed by an explosion, which left a burning wreck and a huge plume of smoke. It was shaping up to be quite a unique game for its time, but the doors finally closed at Graftgold before we could complete it.

Having moved around the country a few times, working for various studios such as ATD, Acclaim, Kuju, and others, (most of which have gone the same way as Graftgold...Is it me?), I've been working for Slightly Mad Studios, (formerly Blimey Games), since 2005, leading the online team. We released Need for Speed SHIFT in September 2009, followed by a number of downloadable expansions over the following months, and are now working on a currently unannounced title so I can't give any details away. In many ways the working practices at SMS are very similar to those at Graftgold, with everyone being encouraged to contribute and comment on all aspects of the games we make. This results in everyone feeling a greater personal ownership of the game, which in turn produces top quality titles. I was very fortunate to start my career at Graftgold working with such talented people, and equally so to be continuing it now at SMS with some of the best people in the industry.