Hello Gary welcome to Retrogamesmaster it is an honour to interview one of the pioneers of the industry.
What did you want to do when you were at school for a career and what was your first job?
At one time I was studying to get into law, but when I got to a certain age I decided I didn’t want to study for another 5 years but get out in the real world and start earning some money to pay for my clubbing lifestyle!
What was your first computer you used and is that your favourite computer?
I flirted with the ZX81 but my first real computer was the Acorn Atom (with floating point ROM, of course).
When and how did you get into the game industry?
I bought a Sinclair Spectrum the day it came out and rented shelves in a local video library to sell Spectrum games (demoed on my own computer). Within 12 months I had made enough money to open up my own shop, called ‘Blue Chip, in a Liverpool suburb and ran that for a couple of years.
What was your first day at Ocean like and who made you feel welcome?
I was a little bored with retail and was speaking to an old friend, Jon Woods, one day explaining that I wanted to get into the development/publishing side of games. He was running a company called Ocean Software and asked me if I would join them as he wanted someone on the commercial side who understood games. He and David (Ward) were terrific businessmen but really weren’t into playing the games themselves. It was just the opportunity I had been waiting for!
When I joined, there was a relatively small in-house team of around ten or twelve, but the majority of the development was being farmed out to freelancers. As there was no-one really managing these teams then the product was inevitably very late, over-budget and of poor quality (these were the Street Hawk, Knight Rider days). I figured the best way to keep all of this under control was to have as much in-house development as possible and so we expanded that facility and grew the Ocean teams accordingly. We ended up with the most amazingly talented coders, artists and musicians – many of them straight out of school but with a passion and enthusiasm to create great games. I would name them here, but would be terrified of forgetting someone but they know who they are and it was these guys who were essential to making Ocean the success it was. We had great business people at the top who were able to market and publish the games globally, and the technical expertise of the studio guys and girls who worked their arses off to make the best games they could. I was truly privileged to have worked with such talent.
Your first project at Ocean?
I think it was the aforementioned Street Hawk and Knight Rider. Truly a baptism of fire (and one I’d rather forget!).
What is the funniest thing and most frustrating thing that happened to you at Ocean?
Most of the funny and frustrating incidents are things that might embarrass certain people so I better exercise restraint. However, there was the one incident when I purchased a crossbow at a local sports store and brought it into the office to show everyone. I aimed it at a door and pulled the trigger, not realising the power of the thing. It went right through the wooden door and nearly impaled someone (I think Brian Flanagan) on the other side. Could have been a nasty outcome but everyone laughed about it. Except Brian.
The one frustrating episode I can talk about was when the then-coder on the Spectrum conversion of Wizball took me aside and said he wouldn’t finish the game unless we paid him an extra £3,000 – essentially extorting the company. I agreed, of course, but I think he’s still waiting to be paid! He was fired the day he finished and I don’t think he got another job in the industry. This was very untypical of the way we worked, as I’d like to think everyone was treated well and rewarded with bonuses for a job well done. Certainly, most people stayed with the company for a number of years as it wasn’t just a job – it really was like an extended family.
What is your favourite game you have worked on during your time at Ocean?
That’s like asking who is your favourite child! There are a number of games that stood out for me for different reasons – I was particularly proud of such movie licensed-games as Robocop, Platoon, The Untouchables, Batman and Addams Family. Then there were the original games like Wizball, Wizkid, F29, Epic and Pushover. And finally we did some great coin-ops such as Arkanoid, Typhoon, Rainbow Islands, Chase HQ and Operation Wolf. There were more but my fingers would just get sore typing them all.
Was it all champagne and caviar like the magazines at the time made out?
It’s a tired adage but we worked hard and played hard. The Ocean Parties were legendary and we often brought our development crew to the London shows so they could see the reaction the public had to their games… and then the parties in the evenings.
Personally, I was also involved in the movie licensing side and with Ocean USA and so spent a large part of my time at our offices in San Jose and also at the film studios in Hollywood. There were some interesting parties there too!
What happened after Sinclair’s crown slipped? Did you change formats?
We were always wooed by the hardware manufacturers to develop our games for their new computers (and subsequently, consoles). So it was natural to evolve to sixteen-bit (ST and Amiga) and PC. Of course, with the advent of those more powerful machines, the development teams grew also.
Are you still involved with games?
I’ve always been involved in the industry one way or the other. However, I’m currently back in the thick of the games development side helping Kuju find new challenges.
What advice, if any, would you give to teens today, wanting to break into games dev?
If you feel you have an aptitude then it’s never been easier to experiment and prove you have the chops to succeed (or not). Unity allows everyone to explore their talents and allows you to compose a demo to show your potential. If it’s good, you have something to show to the studios and, hopefully, be given a chance to assist on a commercial project. If you have the talent, passion and commitment then you can achieve your ambitions. Perhaps a little luck helps too!
When and why did you leave Ocean?
I left in 1994, for personal reasons.
Would you ever like to reunite the old Ocean team for a new project and are you in touch with many of the old team?
I’m in touch with many of the old gang, mainly through Facebook. Occasionally we get together for the odd reunion, both in Manchester and Los Angeles during E3 (as a lot of them emigrated to LA later). We shared an amazing period together and it created a bond that, as far as I’m concerned, is permanent. Pretty much without exception everyone says it was one of – if not THE – best time of their life… and I agree with that. Funnily enough, I was surprised by an old friend at a lunch during GDC last month – Martin MacDonald, whom I hadn’t heard from for about 20 years! After the initial emotion of the reunion, we were back chatting as though those two decades had never happened. That’s the testament to the relationship we all have with each other. I don’t see folks very often but when we do it’s like reuniting with an old – and very close – friend.
I enjoy some modern games but feel more love for the smaller teams of the past. I feel the fun factor has gone in modern games and are more like movie productions; games can be bug-ridden now as patches can be made. In the past we didn’t have updates and in-app purchases. What is your view of our industry now?
Of course it’s changed. When we were doing games at Ocean, it was perceived to be a ‘fad’ and probably over within 5 or 10 years. Instead it has grown into the prime entertainment medium. Of course, the budgets and business reflects this and so there is less of the ‘personal’ touch and more of the ‘big machine’ approach. However, the Indie scene compensates for this and keeps that spirit of innovation and rebellion alive.
Here are some questions about retro games:
My favourite computer was my Amiga and two of my favourite games were Cannon Fodder and SWOS, and my favourite console the Mega Drive. Do you have a favourite?
I have an everlasting affection for the Spectrum as I attribute that computer for giving me and my family the start to what became a great life.
What is your favourite retro game?
Again, there are so many, but I guess the one game that changed it all for me was Manic Miner – that was the game that inspired me to get into ‘the business’
Do you still game on the current consoles, if so what’s your favourite game?
Of course. Currently playing Fallout 4, the new Ratchet & Clank and waiting for Uncharted…
What’s the worst game you have ever played?
We made a few clunkers at Ocean but I wouldn’t want to be churlish to name one of ours or anyone else’s!