Once upon a time, before Atari ST, before Sony PlayStation, before Sonic the Hedgehog, even before the internet as we know it, Chris Yates and Jon Hare (that's me) were killing time in Chelmsford Essex when they dreamed up a crazy computer game about a wannabe rockstar called Nigel Staniforth Smythe.
23 years later, that idea has mutated into a downloadable 52-minute knocked-together 'concept' album and a handful of dated-looking videos that can be found on this website. [Nigel, Tommy, Creamy Dreamy Lady, and a Eurogamer TV Show - Ed]
Why anyone should care about anything that looks so ancient and sounds so cheesy, badly acted and variable in production quality is probably not immediately obvious to anyone, including me. But via the few remnants that you find on this website today it's found its place in the pantheon of computer games folklore simply because it never came out.
It is also the project that has caused me the most grief and the most joy that I have experienced in my entire career. To tell the story of the entire project we must first timewarp back to 1985 and Thatcher's Britain, where it all began.
Chris and I had been to school together and played in a band together since we were 15. Now at the very grown-up age of 18, and both having dropped out of college during our A levels, we were hanging out a lot together. In between writing songs and devising board games on his Dad's wallpaper table (we literally drew on it in coloured pencils) we were also writing the odd throwaway joke computer game - Escape from Sainsbury's, for example - on a very old handheld device, the name of which I don't remember. During this time we came up with this idea for a game called Drugged-Out Hippy.
It was designed as a Leisure Suit Larry-style point-and-click adventure game about the singer Nigel Staniforth Smythe. Nigel had borrowed 2,000 pounds off of some Hell's Angels to buy himself a beaten-up old van so that he could go touring with his trashy rock band. He was claiming benefits, so to supplement his income he had to play gigs and deal drugs.
Drugs were quite a problem for Nigel as he had seven separate drug habits - all of which needed to be supported simultaneously. These drugs were core to the gameplay as speed made the game speed up, heroin made the game slow down, acid made him see things that weren't there and cocaine made him talk s***, etc. - all great gameplay mechanics. The other little problem for Nigel was that the Hell's Angels were quite keen on getting their money back. In fact, Nigel only had two weeks left before they lost their patience and came round to his house to kick the s*** out of him - GAME OVER.
Around about this time, Chris started to pick up some programming work from a local games company called LT software, and I soon joined him there as an artist. The Drugged-Out Hippy idea was rejected by us as another bout of self-indulgent uncommercial nonsense.
1986: We formed Sensible Software on a government enterprise scheme, after spending less than one year at LT software writing Spectrum games.
Between 1986 and 1994, Sensible Software became one of the biggest game developers in Europe on the Commodore 64 and Commodore Amiga, and we were also hugely successful on SEGA Megadrive and PC. The games included seven number one hits (in Europe only) and others such as Parallax, Wizball, Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit, Microprose Soccer, Mega lo Mania, Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and Sensible World of Soccer.
1994: Sensible had just completed Cannon Fodder 2 and SWOS, and after six years of virtually non-stop success, we were now looking for the next projects to turn our attention to. Chris and I remembered two old game ideas that we had discussed in the past - ideas that might now be fully realisable with the new GBP 40,000 CGI Graphics machines that were all the rage and the talk of the industry (although 3D studio and Maya proved to be a lot more cost effective in the end).
The two ideas that we discussed were Office Chair Massacre and an old idea we once had called Drugged-Out Hippy. The former was a light-hearted game about office politics and blasting people to bits in wheely office chairs and that became known as Have A Nice Day and the latter became Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll, and Chris started to plan the future of Have A Nice Day on the Sony PlayStation (a new format for Sensible), while I started to sketch out some early plans regarding the look and structure of Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll (also known as SDR for short) which was to be written on the PC (also a new format to Sensible to handle internally).
I still remember those early days when SDR started to move towards real production. I was producing pencil sketches of Nigel's bedroom (based on the bedroom of a musician friend of mine who lived in Chatteris, Cambridgeshire) that would eventually define the hand-drawn style of all the backgrounds in the game so brilliantly created by John Laws (now at Frontier Developments). We changed a few details along the way. Nigel's name was changed to Nigel Stanleyforth Smithe, and we moved the scenario to Bognor Regis and more emphasis was placed on Nigel's slow ascent through the local music ranks in very grungy surroundings. Nigel also started to get involved in pimping during this period. Now living in his van, he could haul girls in off the streets and sedate them with drugs as he pimped them out to anyone who fancied a good time in the back of his van.
The band was called The Subverts.
SDR fitted perfectly into the left-field half of Sensible's established formula of putting out a mixture of straight games like Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and Microprose Soccer with left-field games like Wizball, Wizkid and Mega lo Mania. This was a formula which had thus far proven to be very successful.
1995: Sensible was riding the crest of a wave, everything we touched turned to gold, and in retrospect it was at this point that we should have sold the company. Anyway, we didn't want to sell our company, we wanted to do what the hell we wanted creatively and amazingly we got our way. Warner Interactive (who had recently bought Renegade, the publisher of Sensible Soccer), signed us up a three-game deal, with Sensible for Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll, Have A Nice Day and a new version of Sensible Soccer. This was a multi-million pound deal, which was almost unheard of in the UK at this time, and amazingly in its eagerness to sign up the new version of Sensible's perennial best-selling Soccer game, Warner had agreed to pay a seven-figure sum for Sensible's ultimate joke game: the over-indulgent fantasy with very British humour that was Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll.
I cannot tell you how much of a dream this was to me: over one million pounds to make my creative fantasy come true. This was much more interesting to me than the new Sensible Soccer, and was something I had wanted to do for 10 years. This was my chance to prove myself as a media visionary, this was going to be a piece of art the likes of which the industry had never seen before. A marriage of games, music, TV and live performance. The shape of things to come.
And even better than that, it was such a fantastic excuse to write music. I had written music with Richard Joseph for the previous five years for all of Sensible's Amiga games. Richard and I were natural creative partners, as well as very close friends. In my career I have nearly always worked best in partnerships so I really appreciated the special working relationship that Richard and I had. We gave him a very good budget for the sound work on SDR as well us all of our other projects signed to Warner (between us by the end of the project we had written and produced over 30 pieces of music for the game).
Various changes happened to the game plot in 1995. At Warner's behest, we got rid of the pimping angle in the game and also his total reliance on his seven drug habits. His drug-taking had now become recreational rather than dependent. How trendy.
We decided that more people could relate to a rock star than a guy who wanted to be a rockstar, so we changed the plot to make sure that he had a record deal signed up and was jetting off to LA within the first few scenes of the game.
We also ditched the paying back the Hell's Angels part of the story and changed it so that they just beat him up because he accidentally got signed up to their record deal by mistake. The band's name was changed from Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Necropolis to Black Magic to simply Magic as the game progressed.
We also developed the plot a lot more. It took in 63 separate settings and traced the band's journey through many different musical phases such as Punk, Glam, Space Rock, Sitar-backed folk, Disco and Serious Stadium Rock. Also the band travelled all over the world to the US, Amsterdam, Japan and Mexico as well as the UK. In total, the game was to include 150 characters - all of whom were earmarked for 3D modelling, and this would later become a serious reason for the problems that later ensued - not just for SDR, but for all of the games signed under the new Warner deal.
Sensible was one of the last big developers to move onto 3D, mainly because we were so successful on the 16-bit machines such as the Amiga, Megadrive and Atari ST. By the time we did eventually get around to using 3D art in our games we were two years behind most other top development companies, and had a lot of very basic lessons to learn regarding how to best create, manage and program these resources.
To give an illustration of how technically unrealistic some of the art creation was in Sensible during these early stages, the very first character model made for the game (one of the backing singers in the Creamy Dreamy Lady video) was created in such a fashion that one of her eyelashes contained 10,000 polygons.
1996: By this stage the art and sound production for the game was in full swing. I punctuated my time in our office in Saffron Walden with regular visits to Pinewood Studios where Richard was recording and producing all of the sound.
I used to really look forward to those days going there with a song I had just written. I'd play it to Richard, record it, and leave it for him to work his magic on it so I would come back the following week to hear a fully polished production masterpiece, and he loved the project as much as I did. Richard had already lived the rockstar dream when he had his own recording deal from a top record label when he was in his 20s back in the 1970s, but - by his own admission - he had blown it at the time by being too pedantic and up his own arse.
SDR was the chance for him to show his musical prowess and to emulate the arrangements and production styles of many different kinds of music. Plus, as luck would have it, the Derek and Clive/Viz-style schoolboy humour in the game was right up Richard's street. It was about this time that it became clear to Richard and I that this project was more than just a game for us, it was an artistic mission. It was like our calling.
It was in this year that I also met up with a guy who was employed by Warner to look at the way they could integrate the various media that they published, such as music and games. I had huge respect for him as he was the producer of Tainted Love by Soft Cell, one of the groundbreaking records in terms of production. However it became pretty apparent that he just didn't 'get' the idea that they were a virtual band who could be turned into a virtual music act that had their own game (and possibly cartoon series) a bit like Max Headroom. Or maybe he just didn't like the music. Either way, this was the first sign that our dream of SDR being signed to a major media company was starting to look a bit less rosy.
Believe it or not, in 1996 the art that you see in these videos today was pretty state of the art. In those days everything had to be rendered out in a painfully slow process, and our video director, Wes Dunton, and video animator, John Lilley (JL) would often work through the night while all of the machines in the office turned into farms to render out their animations. The look that the videos were giving the game was very exciting to us at the time.
However, the programming side of the game was starting to reveal some serious problems. We had been careless in our selection of lead programmer and now his incompetence was starting to show. Not only was the adventure engine he had written totally flawed, but his 'yes man' tendencies whenever he discussed any game issues with me now meant that I was a designer working with no adequate reality checks. The game plot I had written, by this stage, meant that the game would have to come out on 16 separate disks. Clearly it was time for some changes to take place.
By 1997 we had pushed forward with the art even more, the music was coming along really well and so were the sound effects and speech, which was recorded at Pinewood with professional actors under the supervision of Richard and myself. The scripting was a lot of hard work for me to write: by the end of the project I had written 1,500 pages of technical script for this huge adventure story, but it was clear all was not well. I remember one night sitting in the office room in my home writing the script for yet another scene for the game and thinking that it's a white elephant. It's just not going to happen. Something felt wrong about it. I was sitting there making up all this rubbish about getting a blowjob on an aeroplane and I couldn't believe that it was really going to make it onto the shelves. Life is never that easy. How right I was.
We decided to make some serious changes. Firstly, the game was reduced to a more realistic 24 locations and we slimmed it down to four discs rather than 16. Crucially, we also got rid of our lead programmer and replaced him with a new guy from the Bitmap Brothers. He was good, but we had already lost a year on the programming, and the game was still not at all playable.
We also decided to string together a bunch of the animations and speech samples to make up a pilot cartoon episode of SDR. We took it to Hewland (a key TV games show broadcaster at the time), and judging by their subsequent lack of feedback they were obviously not impressed.
The other major change to take place in 1997 was the publisher. Warner had decided to bow out of the games business and sold its publishing arm to GT Interactive. Unfortunately for us, GT Interactive was backed by the people behind Walmart, which is run by the strictest most down-the-line bible belt Americans that you could ever wish to meet. What happened next we should have seen coming from the moment the ink dried on the Warner/GT agreement. Let us just say that an 18+ game about snorting cocaine and shagging girls in cars was not GT's idea of family value. But the blood-drenched excesses of Duke Nukem was fine, apparently...
I remember having a number of discussions with Frank Herman at the time. Frank was a seasoned veteran who had seen it all and was brought in by GT to head up its European office in London. He was used to controversy, having been responsible for distributing the video of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the 1970s in one of his previous jobs, and he was advising me against some of the excesses of SDR. "Does it really have to be cocaine?" he said. "Can't we change it to space dust?" "No," I said, "we want it to be real... that is the whole point to set the game in the real world and to show how absurd real life can be." Frank warned me that I was in danger of being "hoisted by my own petard". I didn't know what a petard was at the time, but he was right.
Chris and I started to get worried about what would happen if GT pulled the plug. We had become very behind in the development scheduling of all three products under the deal we initially signed with Warner, largely because of programming. Thanks to the nature of the deal we negotiated (and unbelievably for this day and age) there were no milestone targets, so we just got paid every month for all three games regardless of progress. But our worries were that we had both personally accepted liability if anything went wrong, and that if we couldn't deliver the games there was a chance that they could ask us for all of the money back - and this was starting to become quite a serious consideration.
By then the wheels had really started to come off. I remember waking up in the night with palpitations for virtually the whole of this year for fear that GT were going to ask us for the money back. It wasn't just SDR that was struggling, it was the other two games too. Nearly all of our problems were related to 3D technology and a total absence of middle management in our company structure, a direct consequence of our inexperience of dealing with projects of this size. By this time, we had decided to turn the deal into a six-release strategy, splitting SDR into two releases and the new Sensible Soccer into three releases in an effort to appease GT and try to get something into the market as quickly as possible.
But also at about this time GT really started to turn the screw on us by refusing to pay us anything. It waited for us to crack, as month after month they paid us nothing. We were running a team of 23 people at the time and this went on for six months.
Most developers in our situation would have been forced to have conceded something, but we were kept afloat by our excessive royalties from Sensible World of Soccer and Cannon Fodder. So we continued to develop the game as we were contractually obliged to do so, and Chris and I were scared that if we suggested that we pulled some of the games from the deal that they would ask us for the money back as they had the right to do. So we just soldiered on and, luckily, we rode out the six months and GT agreed to pay us all of the money they owed us from those previous six months on the condition that SDR and Have A Nice Day were withdrawn from the deal and no future money would be payable on those games.
What's more, they wanted a cut of the money if we managed to sell either of them on to another publisher. I remember that meeting so well, and when me and Chris left the meeting all we felt was relief. Both SDR and Have A Nice Day had terrible technical problems, and to be let off the hook and to keep all of the money was the best possible result we could have expected.
What is commonly thought of about SDR was that it was the salacious content that was its downfall - but, actually, we visited a top lawyer shortly after we got the game back from GT and he told us that the only thing illegal in the game was one solitary blasphemous reference that we promptly changed. The downfall with SDR, Have A Nice Day, and the subsequently-released Sensible Soccer 1998 was that when we signed up the three-game deal with Warner in 1995 we had no 3D programmers in our team at all, and the first three that we hired were all substandard. This lack of foresight and bad judgement on our behalf is what eventually led to Sensible's downfall.
By the end of 1997, SDR was in a new position. We decided to abandon Have A Nice Day, which had hit a very large technical brick wall, and to focus on reselling SDR to a new publisher. This time was the first and only time that Chris and I found ourselves putting our hands into our own pockets to bail out the company as we bankrolled SDR for a further four months while we attempted to find ourselves a new publisher.
But this was not an easy sell by any stretch of the imagination, even if people did like the little that we could show them. No one could see how this offensive game could find it's way onto the shelves in the US - this was before GTA, remember. The fact that GT wanted a cut of whatever money we received was offputting to a lot of publishers.
So, despite the fact that 90 per cent of the script, 80 per cent of the sound and 75 per cent of the art was complete, the programming was still only 50 per cent complete. The very worst thing was that we could not really run the adventure engine at all when we were showing the game to people. The only thing we had to show that ran smoothly were the music videos available on this website - it was a nightmare, to be honest. We just needed an extra six months to get the engine working and then virtually the whole of the game would have been playable at once because most of the art, sound and scripting content was already finished.
But Chris and I were not prepared to bankroll the game indefinitely, so we had to sell it as it was. We saw 20 publishers (all of the big ones) and our old friends at Virgin offered us a UK-only publishing deal, but the money was not enough to cover the remaining development costs. After four months we very reluctantly threw in the towel and laid off about 60 per cent of our staff. The company was now officially in wind-down mode.
The following year, 1998, was a quiet year for SDR. At Sensible we focused mainly on the Soccer games left on our to-do list. We wound the company down to the bare minimum of employees and, eventually, in October 1998 after two Sensible Soccer releases, GT told us that it did not want the final soccer game. This was a huge relief to us again, as we would have been making it at a loss, just to honour the deal.
With the Warner/GT deal now history, Chris and I approached Codemasters about buying our company (essentially the company had been reduced to nothing more than a bunch of intellectual property rights by this stage, including the SDR IP). Codemasters agreed, and in May 1999 the deal was complete.
At about this time, after Chris and I had finally been paid back the money we had put in to keep the company going at the end of 1997, I calculated the overall finances of the Warner/GT deal of which SDR was a big part, and, to my surprise I calculated that we had actually made a healthy profit out of the deal overall. Despite the huge amount of work and all the technical mishaps on SDR, the relaxed milestone structure and GT's decent way of handling our ultimate exit meant that this potential nightmare had actually ended up being pretty good business. Although of course it was no consolation for the fact that the game never saw the light of day.
It was in early 1999 that I really started to feel the pain from SDR not being released. By this stage it had been five years of my creative life, and as an artist, pulling the plug on your greatest work in order to protect your family and your finances was a very bitter pill to have to swallow. At the end of the day I could have remortgaged my house that I bought with my Sensible Soccer royalties to risk everything on SDR, but I chose not to. I am glad I made that decision, but I still hated to see the game just disappear. It was a bitter loss for me. It was also a huge loss for Richard Joseph who was mortified that the project had been canned. He had done so much brilliant work on it and the soundtrack was so nearly finished now.
Between 1999 and 2004, Richard and I came up with the idea for the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll concept album. I had managed to keep the music rights for all of the Sensible games from the sale of Sensible Software to Codemasters, and we realised that we could tell the SDR story this way. By hacking together the existing music tracks into some order and linking them with dialogue and then overlaying that with sound effects, we could set the scene.
The biggest problem was that quite a lot of the speech was yet to be recorded and we could not afford actors - so we decided to do it ourselves. Most of the male voices you hear on the CD are three people: professional actor Gavin Robertson, Richard Joseph (who did an excellent BBC voice) and me.
This turned out to be a fantastic project for us to work on, on and off over a few years and eventually we had hashed together a tenuous plot, by calling in a handful of female friends to do the female voices when we needed them and improvising everything else ourselves. This was really winging it now. Making it all up on the fly most of the time. In the end, the plot kind of wrote itself. The CD diverges from the game plot as soon a Nigel's baby is born and from that point onwards it was all about thinking on the spot when recording and then leaving it to Richard's production and arrangement genius to do the rest.
The timing of the sound effects and speech is totally immaculate throughout (listen to when Nigel makes a cup of tea, or when the BBC radio announcer introduces the orchestra). Richard sculpted the sound arrangement of the soundtrack for many years to perfect it as best he could with the material he had to play with. The album that we have ended up with is the embodiment of my working relationship with Richard - the humour, the music, the anarchic, homegrown production style. It is definitely not to everyone's taste, and I anticipate loads of people not liking the soundtrack at all, or thinking it is amateurish or simply just not getting it at all.
But be that as it may, we loved it in all it's cobbled-together glory, and every now and then either of us would listen to it and phone up the other and say, you know, it really is pretty good.
Commercially we really didn't know what to do with the soundtrack. We thought it was worth something to somebody and so we decided to sit on it and wait for the right time. In 2005 Richard and I decided to manufacture a bunch of Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll CDs with the 52-minute soundtrack on them. We even sold a few at a games fair in Kenilworth, Warwickshire and had the music videos (there are seven videos in all) running on a big TV in the corner.
However, in March 2007, my dear friend Richard Joseph died unexpectedly of a cancer-related illness at just 52 years old
So that brings us up to date, with a Eurogamer TV Show, featuring a recorded interview with me, a bunch of the SDR music videos, and the 52-minute soundtrack. This is all that is left of Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll except for a few more promotional videos and the pilot cartoon that was rejected by Hewland.
These days the videos act as little more than museum pieces. Some of these videos were started in 1995 and all of them would have been cut into the game as reward sequences for finishing the previous stage of the adventure game. Each video features a song that was to have been played by Nigel's band Magic in the game. Personally, I love the style of hand-drawn cardboard cutouts that you see featured in all of the videos and the anarchic, anything-goes energy that they radiate.
In conclusion, SDR was always an art project made by artists. It is also a project which had a time and a place in 1997,1998 - but that time has long gone. Nowadays our cultural sensibilities are different and our technical expectations are much higher. Quite often people talk to me about the chance of reviving the game and putting it out on some new machine, but in my mind the chance for this game has gone. I have put a considerable amount of work and thought into this project over the 20 years that it mutated from a Spectrum game about a drug addict on benefits into a 52-minute concept album story book, and this is where I am happy to leave it.
Finally, the decision to give away this soundtrack has been made in honour of Richard's death, so that people can appreciate some of the great work that he was doing behind closed doors. To this end, we would invite you to download the first half of the Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll soundtrack now (tracks should be played continuously without pauses in between) and to make a donation to the Cancer Charity as a mark of respect to my dear and very much missed friend Richard Joseph.
Eurogamer would like to thank Jon Hare for sharing his experience developing Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll and providing the soundtrack for our readers.