For this week's Dev Story, we are heading back all the way to the Eighties and Nineties to chat to Jon Hare, co-founder of the brilliant Sensible Software. With several of their fantastic classic games available to play now on Antstream Arcade, why not read about how these talented people got started and their amazing success, before heading online and trying a few of their fantastic games out?
Antstream Arcade: Hi Jon! So how did you and [Sensible Software co-founder] Chris Yates meet?
Jon Hare: We were at Great Baddow School together in Chelmsford, Essex and were always making music together. When we left college at 19, we had the intention of being in a band, but quickly realised that was going to be a little more tricky than we realised! We had an interest in games, so Chris taught himself to program – pretty good, actually – while I was a bit more of an art type person.
AA: And you both got a job at a software developer in Laindon, Essex?
JH: Yes, they were called LT Software, and they were commissioning games, and they did quite a few for System 3. I worked on an early version of International Karate there – all my work got binned, but that’s another story – and also worked on Trivial Pursuit and Flyer Fox. Then, in 1986, when we made Twister for System 3 we realised that we were doing all the work while they were getting 85% of the money, so we set up our own company on the government Enterprise scheme.
AA: Did you rent an office?
JH: Oh no, we were only 19, and still living at home. Our office was the spare bedroom in Chris’s house – it actually did have Flintstones wallpaper!
AA: Yabba Dabba Do! How did you choose the name Sensible Software?
JH: Honestly, I can’t remember! I’m pretty sure we were a bit stoned which is why we don’t remember! I remember I liked that they were both eight letter words, and started with an S and ended with an E, which looked good for a logo.
AA: What was the first official Sensible game?
JH: Parallax for Ocean Software. Twister was commissioned by LT Software for System 3, but we weren’t officially Sensible then. That was a Spectrum game, but we’d converted a game called Runestone from the Speccy to Commodore 64, and although it was never released, it taught us the ropes on the C64.
AA: Did you prefer the Commodore computer?
JH: Oh yes. We found it a bit easier to be creative on it, so it became our main writing platform.
AA: Why did you choose Ocean for Parallax?
JH: Because they were the top publisher in the country at the time. We just went through magazines looking for software house numbers and found Ocean’s. It was a nice game, all about the parallax effect, so it was suited to the C64. And of course, it had brilliant music by Martin Galway.
AA: How did Martin come to join Sensible?
JH: Martin had an ambition to do a bit of programming, and with our output of only one or two games a year, it wasn’t enough to have a full time musician. So we took him on on the basis of a second games programmer. The way it had worked until then was that Chris did all the coding, I did the art and we did design and business together. But we realised that I could do the art for two games while he coded one, hence having two programmers and employing Martin.
AA: You and Martin worked on a game called Touchstone with Origin – what happened to it?
JH: We worked on it for about a year. One of the problems was that I was getting super ambitious as a designer and Martin wasn’t experienced enough as a coder to tell me when to stop. We kinda got it running on the C64, then Origin decided it would be better on PC, and in truth it never got past their greenlighting stage.
AA: Shortly after that, Martin left?
JH: Yes, He went to join Origin in the States after he left us. But even for that short time, we were very lucky to work with him. Martin was supremely talented as a games musician, I remember when he first played that Parallax tune, and the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck.
AA: How did the rest of the Eighties go?
JH: We did some budget games, Galaxibirds and Oh No! for Firebird and Insects in Space for Hewson. That was a nice game, a Defender type game but up and down with a floor at the top. And there was Wizball which, looking back, was definitely our best Commodore 64 game.
AA: Wizball was chock-full of ideas – we love it! How did you come up with all those crazy themes and concepts?
JH: Although, like a lot of those early games, it is influenced by arcade games, such as Nemesis and Salamander, we had started to realise that we could be quite creative, and add our extra twist to stuff. Wizball was when we really started to find our feet with ideas like the colouring of the landscape, the wizard living in a ball and its slightly surreal world.
But with that creativity, it’s important to reflect on how we became a software company. Chris and I had been writing songs together since we were 15. Wizball came out in 1987, so we’d already been a creative partnership for six years. So although it was only our second big game, we’d already been creating things together for quite a long time. We’d have a chat, Chris would do some coding, I’d do some art and then we’d talk again. That’s how we worked, experimental and collaborative. I don’t think Wizball and even Parallax would have quite come together in the same way without that.
AA: Then came a precursor to one of Sensible’s biggest hits, Microprose Soccer.
JH: It was originally called Sensible Soccer! But we shopped it around and Microprose said they would sign the game, but only if we changed the name to Microprose Soccer. They gave us a £30,000 advance, which was quite a handsome sum in those days, so we agreed. It did mean, however, that when it came to Sensible Soccer a few years later, we dug our heels in about the name…