Skip to main content

What if people don't like Jon Hare's first original game since Sensible Software?

"That's it. End of. Simple."

"I'm a lucky guy because I achieved a lot in my work when I was young," says Jon Hare. He's not lying. He founded Sensible Software at 20-years-old and made games such as Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder, but his past now presents him a problem: he's a reputation to uphold. Hare hasn't made an original game for 17 years, but now he's nearly ready to release one. Has he still got what it takes? "It's got to be f***ing good," he says of his new game, "because I don't want it to f*** my name up as a designer."

"I am quite scared whether the game's going to be well received or not, if I'm honest. A bit of me putting it off is just pure fear! It's like a sculptor sitting there chiselling away at the arm until the f***ing thing falls of.

"That's where I am," he says. "When you say to me 'it's not quite what I'd expect from Jon Hare', that makes me nervous, because I think maybe you're going to make negative comments. Anyone's going to be nervous like that, it's just the way it is. But it's how I feel about it, I guess I'm sensitive about it."

What happens if people don't like it? "Well what's the point in making original games?" he counters. "That's it. End of. Simple.

"I don't like failure. At all," he stresses. "I hate failure. When I was at school and I was doing my A-Levels and I knew I hadn't done enough work, I didn't even turn up for the exams. I hate failing things. Somewhere in my personality I'd rather not do something than do it badly."

His first original game in 17 years

It's been two-and-a-half years in the making and it's still not finished. It is Word Explorer. And it is a geography crossword.

"To me this is like the Sensible World of Soccer of crosswords," Hare bubbles. Word Explorer may only be about guessing words related to geographical regions, and winning pictures and points, but it's taken "absolutely shit-loads of research and painstaking attention to detail" to make. Hare's hand-picked 2500 pictures to fill 250 levels full of questions he's had to think up. He's OK in regions he knows about, but when he's in Spain looking at "a beaver or whatever the f*** it is", things can get time consuming very quickly. But then again, he has become a nature boffin as a result.

The development set-up added time, too. Hare's been travelling out to Poland one week each month to developer Vivid Games, which has other things on its plate. He's worn out. "I've been coming out to Poland for three years, which is fun, but I could probably do with a short holiday," he says with a laugh. "With better efficiency we could have shaved six to nine months off of the development time," he adds. "In total it shouldn't have gone over two years. It shouldn't have, but it already has, and the clock is still ticking!"

"In my heart as an artist, I really really resent the free-to-play model, because it totally devalues the work of the artist."

Jon Hare presents Word Explorer.

When it's finished depends on the definition of finished. Hare would like Word Explorer to offer a full world of crosswords, on PC, Mac, Android and iOS devices. But to do that he'll need more time and money. Question is, how does he get that time and money? He doesn't have a publisher, although he's talking to some. He's even toying with the idea of Kickstarter.

Or he could limit his ambition and push out an iOS release containing only North and South America. He has that up and running now. When could it be released? "It will definitely be the end of this year or the beginning of next year, that's for certain," he answers. "It's more likely to be Q1 next year. We know we can deliver it. It's just a question of how much we can deliver as quickly as possible."

I can testify to it being up and running because I played Word Explorer on iPad with Jon Hare at the pub. I found it tricky - I don't know American geography that well - and the real-world trivia was rewarding. It was well presented with lovely pictures, and the gameplay was snappy. I'd quite happily spend a train journey playing it. But would that be all?

More to the point, why is Jon Hare making a crossword? He made Mega Lo Mania, he made Sensible Soccer, he made Wizkid, he made Cannon Fodder - yet he picked a crossword for his comeback? It's not what I expected.

"I do think there's a lot of Jon Hare in the game," he ruffles, reminding me that Sensible Software turned out all kinds of games. "Maybe what's lacking is it's not an action game. That's probably what you're saying."

What I'm saying is that when I spoke to Hare last, in February 2011, he teased all sorts of Sensible Software comebacks. He said he was talking to Sensible licence holder Codemasters; things were happening, things were moving. What happened to all that? "We've gone through them, but I've been doing this for 12 years now - 13 years since we sold to Codemasters," he says. "It's gone. That's gone. I don't own the Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer licenses. I can't do those."

"What I'm doing is finishing my current projects and then I'll look at what I can do," he adds, "and I am interested in football games. I am very interested in the long-term in football games, but I've got to come back again in a different way, not in the way people expect me to."

A new Speedball and the curse of free

Hare and Vivid resurrected Speedball 2 for iOS and PSP Minis last year. It seemed like a Sure Thing but it didn't explode. Speedball 2: Evolution was downloaded 700,000 or 800,000 times, but "probably the bulk" came when the game became free. "I'm a bit disappointed that we really failed to hit the American audience," shares Hare. "I thought Speedball was the kind of game the American audience would like."

Nevertheless, the UK did like it and there's a new version of Speedball 2 in the works. "Right now we're working on a new version of Speedball on several formats anyway," Hare tells me. "We actually sat down and had a meeting today and said, 'Well how much of this stuff do we put in and at what point does it become an update or a new game?' I don't know the official line at the moment. We're going to be doing a PC version of it and a couple of other versions."

Speedball 2: Evolution slightly missing the mark means Jon Hare's now "extra cautious" about Word Explorer. "I really don't want to f*** up the getting it to market part," he remarks. After all, Speedball is an old but known IP. What's Word Explorer got to trade on?

The most aggressive way for Word Explorer to get a foothold will be as a free game. But Hare's got real problems with being free; he's put a lot of hard work into Word Explorer for two-and-a-half-years - why shouldn't it cost something? "It doesn't make sense to sell it for free," Hare says.

"The problem with the modern consumer is they're limited in their idea of what they want. It's harder to sell new games. If you look at what sells in a solid way on the App Store for example: yes, people will look at new games, but in the main they want to download them for free," Jon Hare declares.

"In my heart as an artist, I really really resent the free-to-play model, because it totally devalues the work of the artist."

Something that drove this home for Hare was a comment about the Kickstarter drive to raise funds for the Sensible Software biography book. Someone asked about the need for funding: couldn't the author make the book and then recoup costs when the book was sold? It was the "f*** off! Why should a writer write for free?" response by veteran video games journalist (and former Sensible Software employee) Stuart Campbell that caught Hare's attention.

"If you work in a shop or as an insurance salesman, would you f***ing work for free?" Hare asks me. "The assumption that creative professionals should do it just for the love of it and not because it's their job is the kind of underlying current which to me has been perpetuated by the X-Factor mentality that anyone can sing, anyone can do anything."

Sensible Soccer games cost £20, and Hare says he put a similar amount of work into them as he has Word Explorer. Even smaller games he put out in the '80s cost a couple of quid, and they only took two people six months to build. "Now when we've got a small team dedicated to a game for two years, why would you ever give that away for free? Come on!" he blurts. "It's not like the quality's gotten worse - it's gotten better."

"I hear many people say the current market of small platforms is like the good old days that we used to be in, in the sense that small teams can make games," Hare says. "Well it's correct in one respect: small teams can make games now, which is great. The difference is we always worked for money. We were stable as professionals. Although people have a romantic and condescending view of how we used to run bedroom companies or cottage industries back in those days, the truth is as a business model it was a lot sounder."

He'd sign a deal with a publisher who'd give him an advance on royalties, which would fund development. Rinse, repeat, with proceeds from previous game also coming in. It was, quite literally, sensible business. "We ran really efficient businesses," Hare says. "Sensible Software as a business over 13 years made an average of 49 per cent profit a year. Business wise that's pretty good. And I don't see the opportunity for the small companies now that we had to have that stability.

"People have a romantic and condescending view of how we used to run bedroom companies or cottage industries back in those days, the truth is as a business model it was a lot sounder."

He's looking at you.

"It's almost impossible to get an advance against royalties now. This is a massive change," he states. "It's not spoken about enough. It's a massive change. The publishers aren't functioning like normal publishers used to."

Without publishers the options are few and unappealing. Developers can work for free, but it's unsustainable for most so they run the risk of putting out sub-par games that flop. They go bust. Or they could seek venture capital funding for a part of their business.

"That's not the way I started my career," says Hare, "and I don't necessarily think it's the best thing for the younger people."

He singles out New Start Soccer. "It's New Star Soccer 5, it's not New Star Soccer 1," he says. "The guy's been making it as a labour of love for six or however many years he's done it for. And now it's suddenly taken off and rightly so. But the commitment that's gone in there, the persuading yourself that you must go back and put your nose to the grindstone again to make it happen. This isn't how we used to work in the '80s and '90s. It wasn't like it at all.

"We were pioneering, making new stuff. People loved it, they raved about it in reviews because journalists did better work in those days in general. We got paid and the next time we got our stuff signed on the basis of our name as an artist. That is not happening for people now."

A new football game from Mr Sensible Soccer?

"Once this game is done I need a breather," Hare tells me. "And then after that breather I will be very up for doing some original stuff. I'm kind of in the mood right now - I fancy doing a short game."

At Sensible Software Hare did a couple of quick-make budget games like Galaxibirds. "And I'm in that mood now: let's have a breather, finish Word Explorer - it's been a long time - put my feet up for a while, get the Speedball update up and running and then come back and do a fresh idea. I almost feel like doing a week-long burn on a game like we used to, just to recharge my batteries of the fun, because you really get ground down by the process on these longer games."

Earlier Hare said that he was "very interested", longer-term, in doing a football game. And again he tells me that "I think I'm likely to look at a football game at some stage soon".

Given the success of old IP revivals on Kickstarter, I ask him whether he'd consider it for a spiritual successor to Sensible Soccer. "Absolutely," he states. "It would have to be that [a spiritual successor]. I can definitely and categorically state I would not do a Sensible Soccer unless I'm given the license for free - and I'm not going to be given the licence for free! I know that."

He adds: "People say they want a new Sensible Soccer but they don't: they want a good new football game. This is the point."

Read this next