Welcome to part two of the Sensible Software story with co-founder and retro games developer extraordinaire Jon Hare.
We're jumping right back into where we left off, so if you've missed part one of our interview with Jon, go ahead and catch up here - https://www.antstream.com/post/game-developer-interview-jon-hare
AA: Hi Jon! After the Shoot-‘em-up Construction Kit and International 3D Tennis, Sensible Software expanded further and transitioned across to the 16-bit computers.
JH: We were Amiga first as a team – it just seemed to be able to do more, and we stayed with Commodore after the C64. We just thought they were the better machines. Our first 16-bit only game was Mega-Lo-Mania, which I think is the most underrated of all our games. It started out building stuff in space, then we got rid of the flying around and saw Populous and Powermonger on a cover somewhere. We thought, maybe we can start out the whole tech race, instead of 3000AD, start in 3000BC. So we changed all the graphics and I had these little cavemen running around, trying to advance themselves through a game mechanic that later became known as a ‘tech tree’. In fact according to games historians Mega-lo-Mania was the first game in the world to have a tech tree. But unfortunately it was signed to Mirrorsoft, and while it was at number one, Robert Maxwell jumped off his boat, the Mirror group fell to pieces and the game lost its momentum.
AA: You had a big contract with Mirrorsoft – that must have been a very difficult time?
JH: It all collapsed. We resold Mega-Lo-Mania to Ubisoft, and went to the bank manager and said we had this number one game but the publisher went bust, and we had lost 75% of our turnover. We told them we weren’t worried because we’ve got these two great games and we showed them the floppies for Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer. But all they could see was that the disks were worth 25p each, so they wouldn’t loan us any money. But we knew Sensible Soccer was pretty good, so we pitched it to other publishers and got lots of interest. Renegade had just been set up by the Bitmap Brothers and some guys from Rhythm King records, and it was the best deal we’d ever signed, a good advance and royalties.
AA: How did Sensible Soccer come about?
JH: We started it at the end of Mega-Lo-Mania, and I just took the cavemen from that game and dressed them up in football kits. Norwich City kits, to be exact! That’s how it started, and the perspective from Mega-Lo-Mania really worked too, the zoomed out pitch, so we kept it.
AA: How did you come to support East Anglia’s finest (sorry, Ipswich fans)?
JH: The first football game I saw on TV was the Arsenal vs Liverpool cup final in 1971, and Arsenal were playing in my favourite colour, yellow. For a few years I carried on following them, but of course twigged that that was their second strip. By the time I was 11, I had settled on Norwich, and when my family moved to South Woodham Ferrers we started to get Anglian News so it was all about Norwich City on the TV.
AA: What do you think made Sensible Soccer such a hit?
JH: I think it was the immediacy of the controls, which just worked. It kinda came together like magic, and we didn’t quite know how we did it – but we didn’t let ourselves touch that piece of code afterwards. Plus the vision you had, and the ability to put moves together and strategise. And the depth of the research, I loved doing all that which took me back to playing Subbuteo as a kid. It included a lot of countries which gave us loyalty in different places for 1992 – no one usually included Poland and we had the whole Polish league! At the end of the day, it was the best game on the market in its relative genre, and it just had that x factor.
AA: And follow up, Sensible World Of Soccer was even better!
JH: It was a natural successor and allowed us to make the game even bigger – so we added more tactics and a whole world of football, plus a big career management game. We had this magic football game and we added an amazingly big football world around it that people still play almost 30 years later. I went to the Sensi world cup once and lost every single game…I got very angry! But SWOS is still the best game I have ever made – so far!
AA: Before SWOS, you worked on Wizkid as well?
JH: I love Wizkid very much, it was this super avant-garde game, in a genre of its own, even today. It had a lot of music from Richard Joseph in it, and was definitely not normal! But that was key for us, a balance between straight games and the weird stuff that we liked doing a lot.
AA: And then finally you got some of your own music into a game with Cannon Fodder?
JH: I’d been playing in a band all the time, and I did this song, War Has Never Been so Much Fun for Cannon Fodder. I came up with the bass line, vocals and guitar stuff, then Richard did the arrangement, which was great. And the game, everyone knows it as anti-war these days, but when we were making it we were just making a game, and wanted to make it like Rambo but with loads of soldiers in a trail instead of just one. So we added bazookas, tanks and helicopters, different levels and environments and made up missions.
The main focus was on a fun game, and the connection to the guys who were dying, was done at the end. The game was called Lemmings with weapons for a year internally before several things fell in place to make it anti-war. Firstly, we made the list of people who had died we made it so that you were unable to click away from it, you had to watch. Second, we took an old love song of mine and made it an instrumental, but it was still really sad. And finally, there was this screen with everyone queuing up in their civvies to join the army and turn them into soldiers, all in front of the graves of the dead soldiers.
AA: Plus the different sized gravestones…
JH: Yep, they were bigger the higher rank the soldier was. It made it a more political story, but the game itself is all about comedy violence, before this reflective period – fun and guilt, playing with your emotions. But we were just making a good game, and to create any good game you need to change it as you’re making it, to always do what feels like the right thing to do. And when we knew that the anti-war sentiment was our line with this game, we changed the name to Cannon Fodder to really ram the point home.
AA: After this purple patch, Sensible began to struggle a little?
JH: We didn’t make the jump to 3D very well. We made the transition from 8 to 16 bit easily and thought it was going to be easy again, but it wasn’t and we got complacent.
AA: Looking back, what was your fondest era?
JH: The super successful time between June 1992 and June 1995. Our games were at number one for 52 weeks of that period. Everything we touched turned to gold.
AA: Finally, how are things going with Sociable Soccer?
JH: We’ve been working on it for four and half years now, and we launched the Apple Arcade version last November. It’s a constantly evolving game, and with a small team, getting all the pieces done has been a lot of work for everyone. But the version we’re going to put out next , Sociable Soccer 2020 will be very good. I think in a few months we’re going to have the best online football game you can play.