The March of Hare

Sensible Soccer and Jon Hare return after a period out of the limelight, and Eurogamer grabbed an exclusive interview with the development legend to talk about his role at Tower Studios, something of a Sensible/Bitmaps dream team...

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During the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Jon Hare's Sensible Software produced some of the finest 8 and 16-bit gaming moments on the Commodore 64 and Amiga, including the likes of Parallax, Wizball, Megalomania and latterly Cannon Fodder and of course the legendary Sensible Soccer. After the controversial, ambitious and expensive adventure project Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll helped bring the company down in 1997, the Sensible dream seemed over. But this week, Tower Studios announced themselves to the world, headed up by Jon Hare and former 16-bit rivals Mike Montgomery and John Phillips formerly of the equally legendary Bitmap Brothers. Their first projects include mobile phone versions of Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder, to be published by Kuju Entertainment, but Hare is also considering other old classics as well as entirely new IP. In this exclusive interview, Hare talks of the problems of mainstream development, and why working within the creative confines of a small, focused team is better...

Eurogamer: First of all, tell us about Tower Studios. Was it set up specifically with the intention of creating mobile phone content?

Jon Hare: Tower Studios was started up earlier this year and consists of me, Jon Hare - Ex head of Sensible Software, Mike Montgomery - Ex head of The Bitmap Brothers, John Phillips - Ex technical Director of the Bitmap Brothers.

What we have noticed in the mobile market is a lot of publishing companies with some big licenses and good ability to bring titles into the market and lots of development teams with the ability to technically create product to satisfy these demands.

What Tower Studios offers is a very experienced production, design and technical team who have a proven track record on designing, managing and delivering AAA titles (15 number one games between us) on many different formats over the last 20 years.

We feel that our experience of designing and managing products has a lot to offer the worldwide mobile gaming community, both as a development house and as production company to bridge the gap between publishers/licensors and developers in the mobile sector, to ensure quality, playable games that satisfy the demands of the licensors and the publishers and bring out the best in the development teams.

Eurogamer: Tell us about the deal with Kuju.

Jon Hare: The deal we have signed with Kuju offers us the chance to set the benchmark standards for mobile products that we expect others that we work with to aspire to. We are creating Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder ourselves and working with quality consultants such as Stoo Cambridge and Chris Chapman (both ex-Sensible) to strengthen our team.

Beyond the Kuju deal, we also have original games for mobile currently in prototype with a number of parties already expressing interest and further publishing companies looking to use our facilities as a Design & Production house overseeing and directing other developers in the creation of mainstream licensed product, based on our designs and prototypes, following their advice.

Eurogamer: Presumably Codemasters still owns the Sensible IP - how have you managed to re-use that for Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder? Have you had to sub-license it back or did you come up with a deal to buy it back?

Jon Hare: Kuju did the deal with Codemasters for the license, and a deal with Tower for the development.

Eurogamer: Your chief role at Sensible was as a designer. What role do you perform at Tower, seeing as Tower is porting your old games to mobile phones?

Jon Hare: My creative roles at Tower are mainly design and creative direction, obviously my prime designing role will be on the more original titles, but funnily enough there is a lot of design work in converting a game to mobile and making the most of the limitations imposed on the controls, memory and display area. I am finding it immensely enjoyable, especially working with incredibly experienced guys like Mike and John who have made a lot of their living squeezing maximum performance out of limited formats.

Eurogamer: How faithful to the original Amiga versions will Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder be?

Jon Hare: Remarkably faithful, Sensible Soccer is already playing incredibly well and we are squeezing as many of the tactical and game type options in as we possibly can, yet again it will be the football game written by football fans for football fans and it will piss all over FIFA.

Cannon Fodder will also be much more similar than people expect, you can squeeze a lot out of a mobile phone if you try hard enough you know.

Eurogamer: How popular do you think they will be? How big is the market for nostalgic old games like this?

Jon Hare: It is hard to say, obviously Kuju believe the market is big for classic games like Sensi and Cannon Fodder, to be pitching them alongside their more mainstream licensed games.

The two games are different, Cannon Fodder is a definite case of a classic licence, although there are few games like it available on mobile at the moment and it will be a classic pick up and put down action game.

As far as I can see there are no other decent football games on the market at the moment and Sensible Soccer still has a huge worldwide following, over 15 million people have played it. If we get the marketing right I see no reason why Sensible Soccer cannot become the number one football game for mobile phones, after all it is already the biggest selling 2D football game of all time.

Eurogamer: Will you be using the mobile as your main creative outlet for now?

Jon Hare: Personally I will still be doing some consulting work on other formats, but the majority of my time will be spent with Tower. It is so much easier to be freely creative on mobile, because it is so much cheaper to produce the games.

Eurogamer: Are you considering releasing all-new games through Tower in the future?

Jon Hare: Tower is a games development, design and production company set up by myself, Mike and John. At the moment our main focus is on mobile phones, however with 30 odd formats under our belts between us, we would be mad to suggest that this is the only format we will work on.

Eurogamer: Do you prefer working on simpler devices that concentrate on pure gameplay than the more resource/manpower intensive home consoles?

Jon Hare: It is refreshing to be working with experienced and talented programmers and artists on a platform that can get by on a team in single figures. The main difference is that you can use more direct forms of communication in order to create the game, i.e. talk about an idea, draw it up on A4 with a biro, wait for the programmer to put it in, test it and then talk about how good the idea is in context and refine it if necessary. This process can be done in a few hours on mobile, whereas with other formats and particularly with bigger teams, the design process relies on communication via documents to too large an extent. It is impossible to explain the game mechanics of a console game in detail on paper without writing reams and reams of stuff that most people have not got time to read anyway. Games development by its very nature is iterative, at least in the department of controls, on screen display and player feedback and this is very hard to communicate accurately on paper.

Anyone who questions this might like to try writing down extremely accurate control directions for a game like Pro Evolution Soccer in a way that a programmer can understand, digest and bring to life. There are a lot of calculations sitting under the surface that all need to be specified and the main difference with a small team is that you can talk half of the obvious ones instead of writing them down. The bad thing with writing them down is that you have to constantly update the document every time you make a change and then cross reference that change backward and forwards throughout your 200-page plus design document, which basically means that your designer spends too high a percentage of his time writing and double checking his writing instead of looking at the game closely and designing around the core game as a player rather than as a scriptwriter.

All this means smaller platforms give you a higher percentage of your development time to concentrate on the gameplay mechanics. I am convinced that some of these techniques can be drawn into larger teams on different formats with the correct timing of the phases of the development and production plan, but that is a whole separate issue.

Eurogamer: Are you looking at other handheld platforms as well, maybe the PSP or Nintendo handhelds, or is Tower strictly about mobile phones for now?

Jon Hare: We are not closed to any formats; we are building a business as a development, design and production company for computer games. Mobile represents to us the best way of establishing a sensible business model [spot the pun -Ed] from which to move forward. What we are not in the business of is creating games and pursuing contracts that are going nowhere.

Eurogamer: Would you consider reviving other lost classics from the Sensible archive, such as Wizball and Megalomania?

Jon Hare: Yes we would consider this, either as the developer directly or as the overseeing design/production company, although as I have already stated we do not want to get caught in the trap of just reproducing golden oldies. You must remember that what we collectively are best at is designing and producing original games of outstanding quality. One of the main attractions to the mobile market for us is that it offers us the easiest access to producing original games with less resistance and conservative, political bullshit than you are often confronted with on other platforms.

Eurogamer: What about other retro classics from other developers that people love? Would you consider giving them the same treatment?

Jon Hare: That could be interesting yes, again in either the development or design/production capacity.

Eurogamer: Is this an exciting venture for you personally? Do you feel like this is almost like the "good old days" when you could make great games with a small team?

Jon Hare: Absolutely, for me personally it is great to be working with a team again, especially a talented experienced team that are my friends and it is also great to be building a new business. I have spent the last two years consulting on my own and it is a lonely business when you are in the period between contracts and constantly chasing people up because there is nothing else to do. Consulting is fun when you are busy, this way I can be busy all the time.

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