Make your own TV shows!

Kristan speaks to Jon Hare about his latest project.

We probably all whinge and moan about the standard of telly these days; the endless diet of reality TV shows, dreary soaps and celebrity chef crap turns our brains to custard. Somehow we can't stop ourselves watching this fast food TV, and we really have to chastise ourselves when we end up getting sucked into heated discussions about the standard of Big Brother totty. Must. Stop.

But knowing what a bunch of telly addicts we are at heart, British development legend Jon Hare (Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder, Wizball) has teamed up with a little known British development studio called Legba, taken the basic concept of Pokemon Snap, applied it to a free roaming 3D engine and concocted a game that tasks you with 'filming' your environment to create as entertaining a piece of footage as possible.

Intrigued, we met up with the long-haired Canaries fan, signed our lives away in an NDA and once we'd finished rueing the failure of Norwich City's Premiership promotion bid, the man himself gave us a sneak peek at a project with almost limitless potential...

Kristan Reed: Give us a brief overview of the Virtual TV concept.

Jon Hare: Virtual TV (or VTV) is a piece of technology that allows the user to film what he sees in a 3D world and to then edit and save that data at an incredibly low memory rate of under 200k per minute. The data is transferable between all current major games machines be it PC/PS2/ Xbox/GameCube and even handhelds and can travel real-time across the Internet. It is so low in memory that we can store over 35 minutes worth of film data on one PS2 memory card.

What this means is that you can use VTV in all sorts of entertainment software products, but is particularly good for games, commercial applications and online TV broadcasts.

It is our plan to develop a big web community around VTV so that over time there will be thousands of VTV videos created by users of our products that other people can access and view. We will be giving awards away each month for the best movie director, best sound, funniest moment, etc. We want this to be a place where people can show off their creative talent and brag about how far they have progressed through the games they have played by showing other people the videos they have created.

You can even create a piece of video footage from a VTV game on your PS2 and then upload it onto our website so that someone else can download it onto their PC.

Kristan Reed: How long have you been working on this project?

Jon Hare: About six months.

Kristan Reed: What's been your role with Legba, and how did you end up working with the company in the first place?

Jon Hare: I have been consulting since last summer when I finished at Codemasters. I met the guys from Legba at Game Connection in Lyon at the end of last year. I initially saw them about something totally different but in the end I got talking to them about their game called Dinosaur Hunting Extreme and looking at ways in which it might be improved... now I have taken the Creative Lead role in the project and I am also acting as their sales agent, as well as doing the press work for the game - effectively all of the bits I did before at Sensible except the man management/company running side.

Kristan Reed: What's it like working for them?

Jon Hare: I enjoy this work a lot as Legba are experienced creative and business people to work with. Everything we do together involves a lot of constructive discussion and we have an excellent working relationship, plus as a consultant I also have the luxury of being able to work on other things at the same time.

Kristan Reed: Give us a little bit of background on Legba.

Jon Hare: Legba is a small software development studio very much in the mould of a small film production studio. It is run by Amy Mayer and Stu Jennings, both of whom have over 12 years experience in managing and producing top level application software mainly for companies such as Canon. In the last three years they have been focussing on developing their own game concepts and engines and working closely with companies like Criterion and individuals like me to bring some leverage and commercial bite to their products. They have also developed relationships with other well known and larger developers with spare man power, such as Kuju, so that they can have access to their production, programming and art resources when needed. Legba also have an excellent and highly professional executive board.

Kristan Reed: How have they managed to turn out this game engine so quickly with so few staff?

Jon Hare: They have been working on the game for 18 months with a very small team. However, I have found them to be highly focussed and eager to make things succeed since I have been working with them. For experienced high earning professionals they are very receptive to taking my creative direction even if they disagree with me... which any designer will tell you is a very rare and desirable quality. They have produced so quickly because they are professional and have enough money behind them to not be distracted by the finance worries that most developers have.

Kristan Reed: How much publisher interest have you had?

Jon Hare: We have had excellent interest from everyone who has seen the game so far. What excites people about the product is its originality and we have found the press and TV/Media companies to be particularly receptive to what we are doing as it is something new and a breath of fresh air.

The hardware manufacturers we have shown it to have also been interested to see the way that we are trying to use their technology in a different way to create a different sort of computer entertainment product.

As we speak we have several publishers at board level showing a keen interest both in Virtual TV and in Dinosaur Movie Maker, in fact we are just about to embark on a VTV tour of Japan, by popular demand. It is not a regular kind of product, therefore it will not suit every company's taste, but it seems to stand out in every publisher we see as a strong alternative kind of product and has been taken on and championed by a number of people within their publishing companies to try and push it through approval at board level. In my experience this is the typical response to a top quality innovative product and I think it bodes well for the way it will be received by the public at large in the future.

Kristan Reed: Can you forsee VTV being a huge success?

Jon Hare: Absolutely. Everyone in the world watches TV and can relate to it. Dinosaur Movie Maker is the first software product to allow people to make their own TV shows, and we are already starting concept work on three other VTV ideas making Music Videos, Action Movie Trailers and Grand Prix TV coverage, plus we have at least another half dozen Virtual TV ideas in the bag besides these.

The one thing we do know about VTV is that once it goes it will be huge, because the spin offs and sequels are endless and it is just so license friendly.

Kristan Reed: How hard is it coming up with original ideas these days?

Jon Hare: Coming up with an original idea has always been very easy for me and should always be easy to anyone who calls themselves a game designer, however coming up with an original idea which is perceived by publishers, press and retailers to be commercial enough to bring to market is a far trickier proposition especially in an increasingly narrowing strip of game ideas that are considered to be mainstream enough to justify investing 2 million plus into. The main problem with all but the most obviously commercial original ideas is that everyone says they want them but most people are actually too scared to back them with money.

Kristan Reed: Why did you choose to go for the Dinosaur theme?

Jon Hare: Mainly because we started out with a Dinosaur hunting game, so a lot of the graphics were already there for us. Now as we have developed it more and more we realise that it is the perfect subject matter both for interesting filming and for a product aimed mainly at the younger end of the market. Everyone still loves dinosaurs, believe it or not. This is nothing new; they have been around a long time.

Kristan Reed: How finished is Dinosaur Movie Maker? Will it be released close to the form you're currently demoing at the moment?

Jon Hare: At the moment we basically have a very advanced demo and every day the product becomes more and more like the finished article, the more we refine the controls for all three formats, the editing processes and the menu layout and content the more complete it becomes as a game. We still have a lot of work to do on the AI, the level design and finalising the technical side of the graphics, but I doubt you will see a much more complete demo than this one.

Kristan Reed: How has the project been funded?

Jon Hare: We are very lucky to be in a position to self fund all the way through this Research and Development stage. Many games suffer from lack of early R&D due to lack of funds. In a sense this game is being developed very much in the old fashioned tradition where you spend ages getting the controls and the structure right before you even show it to a publisher. As soon as milestones kick in this kind of creative freedom often goes out of the window, a lot of companies have lost sight of this recently but it is absolutely vital, particularly in the early stages of a game.

Kristan Reed: How many other themes could this VTV concept extend to?

Jon Hare: At the moment we are working on a range of future products in a VTV Action Director Series including Music Video, Movie Trailer and Grand Prix, but we also have loads in the pipeline including, CCTV Detective, Porno Director, Anime Director, Cartoon Director, Paparazzi News Hunter, War Reporter and Wildlife Director.

Kristan Reed: Sorry, can I stop you there? Porno director?!

Jon Hare: Well yes, there have been several mentions of different porn versions! I think anime would be excellent for this in the Japanese market, and I also like the idea of dumping a naked girl in the middle of wherever, surrounded by whoever or whatever and armed with a sack load of Anne Summers cast offs and instead of telling her to say certain script lines you get her to... well you can imagine the rest I am sure.

Kristan Reed: Yes, I'm sure I can imagine the possibilities...

Jon Hare: Basically any license anyone cares to throw at us can be instantly catered for and adapted to a relevant game format involving the creation of TV footage.

Each product needs its own control restrictions, throwable objects, environment, editing system and objectives, but Virtual TV is just so versatile we can do so much with it the possibilities are endless, although we are probably most likely to pursue most vigorously the ideas that can generate us the most cash.

Kristan Reed: What's your target audience for VTV games?

Jon Hare: For Dinosaur Movie Maker the target audience is the under 15 market, or more accurately it is the market currently buying The Sims and most of Nintendo's games. The sort of game that every parent or granny would want to buy for Little Johnny at Christmas. The game is actually a lot of fun for adults too as the film making and puzzle solving is unusual and engaging. The other good thing about it is that it is totally unisex and I don't think I have shown it to a child yet that hasn't loved it. It is about time the industry remembered that not every potential punter out there is male, childless and between the ages of 15 and 25. What is the point of aiming every product out there at the same narrow band of society? It's no wonder so many games make huge losses; they might be the largest sector of the market but there are only so many games that each of them can buy.

Kristan Reed: Why do you think this idea hasn't been stumbled across before?

Jon Hare: I have no idea; it is so obvious and yet we seem to be the first people to have got there. I guess it shows how little people are allowed to innovate and think laterally in the current market.

Kristan Reed: Do you worry about this idea being pinched by a rival developer?

Jon Hare: Very much so. Every time I show it to anyone I am nervous about it.

Kristan Reed: What can you do to stop other developers and publishers jumping on the bandwagon? After all, it's a brilliantly simple idea.

Jon Hare: In practice very little that is really effective and easily enforceable The best form of protection is to patent the basic concept - if that is doable - to get NDAs signed by everyone who sees the product and to have good lawyers, of course.

Kristan Reed: Do you think it's harder to convince publishers to back an original idea these days? Why?

Jon Hare: Yes, I think it is hard to convince publishers to throw their money at something whose performance in the market is not very predictable at such an early stage. It is not impossible, it is just harder. The publisher's attitude is very different now compared with the 90s - they have all been burned too many times and many of them are very scared to make mistakes with the big money they have to spend on development and marketing for fear of negative consequences. I also feel that it is very much harder to sell an original concept to someone who does not hold the purse strings, or own the company themselves.

People who are not in ownership of a publishing company will always look to protect their jobs before anything else. Of course there is nothing wrong with this but the consequence is that they rarely have the balls to put their neck on the block over some seemingly off the wall concept, so there is a kind of playing it safe attitude throughout the industry. Once in the acquisitions process a new game concept has to jump through several - often international - hoops within a publishing company, and unless it fits through all of them it tends to get rejected. Unfortunately most of the people holding the hoops these days tend to be cautious and conservative because if they make too many wrong decisions they will get sacked. This is the advantage of company owners making decisions about the products that they take on - they can't get sacked. Also company owners tend to be more entrepreneurial types that will naturally take more risks and go on hunches and most company men generally play it safe most of their lives in a business sense, even if they hate to admit it in public.

Kristan Reed: Are you happy with the tech behind the game, having seen some of the incredible new engines that there are around currently (i.e. Valve and Id's latest)?

Jon Hare: We are very flexible regarding the tech behind the game, we feel our tech regarding file management and transportation is excellent and our engine is good enough to make a graphically competitive PC Game. However as we proceed to take the game across to Xbox and PS2 we are very mindful of the fact that different graphics engines may assist us in further enhancing the graphical quality of the product on both the consoles and the PC itself. At this stage we are not closed to any options regarding increasing the technical quality of the game, it is simply a question of the time/quality/cost conundrum, which we will deal with more seriously as soon as we know the aspirations of the games publisher(s).

Kristan Reed: Will you ever consider doing another football game? Do you miss those young, innocent days?

Jon Hare: I would love to work on another football game. Just give me a team and a budget and off I go. My current record is two football games Microprose Soccer and Sensible Soccer and two number one successes. It would be nice to get a hat-trick. And I cannot remember the last time I felt innocent!

Kristan Reed: If you could change three things about the games industry right now, what would they be?

Jon Hare: 1. Introduce a law that prohibits hardware manufacturers vetting and restricting the software that goes out on their machines.

2. Introduce a law that allows developers and publishers to exploit third party names, images and intellectual property in the same way that newspapers and books do.

3. Introduce a law that prohibits publishers from being able to stop paying developers for any period longer than two months, while they consider whether or not they wish to continue with a project that the developer is still contracted to deliver to them. It is these months of unpaid indecision that are killing our developers.

Kristan Reed: Jon Hare, thank you.

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