Q&A: Tower Studios' Jon Hare talks iPhone Speedball 2
Jon "Jops" Hare and Speedball 2 are both names synonymous with gaming back in the 1990s. The latter came out on the Atari ST in 1990 itself, while Jon was responsible for some of the biggest games of the era, not least Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder.
Now he's plying his trade as the head of Tower Studios, creating titles for mobile phone platforms using new and established properties. And, it is through this venture that two true heavyweights of games history have combined to bring about a fresh retake on the classic future sports genre.
Released by Vivid Games and developed by Hare and Tower Studios, Speedball 2: Evolution has been given more than a coat of paint for the iOS device version (compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad). It retains all of the elements that made the Bitmap Brothers' original loved by so many, including league structures and the cartoon violence, but also embraces the new technologies of today; namely, touchscreen and motion controls.
Additionally, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity has been utilised for multiplayer link-up. The game may be based on a 1990's design, but the technology it now plays on sure isn't. It's something that Jon Hare's keen to stress, times have moved on.
Therefore, Pocket-lint caught up with the man himself, to talk Speedball 2: Evolution. And ended up nattering about the old days anyway. It would've been rude not to...
PL: Why Speedball 2?
JH: "There are several reasons why. Firstly, Speedball 2 is a classic game that is perfect for many modern day downloadable platforms, including iOS, and there is nothing else like it on the market at the moment.
"To those of us who know the game, I hope it will be received as the best version of Speedball since the original; that is certainly what I believe in any case. To those too young to remember the original, and to most people in the US, Speedball will be something brand new, despite the fact it has sold over 2 million copies to date in it’s various forms. And I genuinely believe this game can be as big a hit as something new to these two fresh markets for us.
"I have been working closely with Mike Montgomery and the Bitmap Brothers since 2004 and have helped Mike get conversions of Bitmap games done before. He has very kindly given me the choice of choosing the order we wish to remake the old Bitmap games and I chose this one first, because it is my personal favourite.
"For Speedball 2: Evolution, I have been working very closely with Vivid Games for over a year. It is much, much more than a port. We looked at the original source code and then proceeded to build the game from the ground up. This has enabled us to properly take advantage of the touchscreen and tilt technology, and the Bluetooth and Wifi connectability that wasn’t around when the game was originally made. We have redesigned the menu system and the game controls so that it appears as if the game was actually designed for smartphones and other touch screen devices."
Speaking of the Bitmap Brothers, Speedball 2 was a massive hit for them on the Amiga and Atari ST, and they, along with yourself and Sensible, were being touted as stars of the games world at the time. We’re they closely involved in this project?
"Yes, Mike is one of my very closest friends and I have ensured he has seen builds of the game regularly enough that we have been able to accommodate all of his requests. Also, I have been very lucky that Mike has put a lot of faith and trust in me to manage this fairly autonomously.
"The whole process has really been helped by the remake of Sensible Soccer for mobile Mike and I did together in 2005, and by the excellent work and commitment from the whole team at Vivid Games… They have really pushed the boat out for this product and delivered well beyond the required quality. Both Mike and I cannot thank them enough."
But do you think that the days are gone for a programmer to be a celebrity?
"I hear the lead designer of Gears of War is doing some TV in the US, so this particular dream has not quite died yet. But, in all honesty if you allow an industry to become dominated by glory-hunting corporations, then there is never any hope for the profile of the 'artists' to be pushed forward.
"For a start, people do not understand properly the roles that we perform within a development team, which really does not help. Many people think I am a programmer, for example, whereas anyone who has worked with me knows I am technically incompetent.
"Then people think that if you are the lead designer that you design everything, which of course you do not, you just drive it forward, create loads of directional documentation and sit over people's shoulders a lot. You must also engage in a LOT of conversations in order to get your ideas across and also do a LOT of listening to your team as they may have better ideas than you some of the time.
"I can tell you that in the last 25 years as a 'celebrity' 'programmer' myself, I can count the amount of times I have been recognised by a stranger outside of a games-related event on the fingers of one hand. In fact, I can count it on the fingers of one finger. However, I believe a sea change is on its way within the next 10 years; a new mentality of corporately-cynical consumers and a new type of consumerism will emerge from the dross of failed high street capitalism. And this new way of thinking may demand a new type of game and with it could be born a new type of games star. This will be for the generation of people born this millennium, though, the rest of us are too old to change now."
Retro gaming is massive at present, is that playing into your hands?
"I must admit, I have a bit of a problem with the definition of retro gaming. Is FIFA 2011 a retro game because it is a remake of a game from 1993? Are first person shooters retro games because all they are doing is emulating games from the early to mid 90s and adding better graphics? Is the only difference between FIFA and Speedball that one has had consistent releases and marketing over a 20 year period and the other has had a few gaps?
"Yes, at the moment people are interested in seeing retro games on new machines, in some cases almost as if they are brand new product. However, very few of them have gone on to sell really serious numbers. I hope Speedball 2: Evolution can defy this trend and be seen as a great game designed to take full advantage of modern technology in it’s own right, with far, far more depth than most games currently clogging up the App Store."
Has the introduction of the iPhone (and iPad) reinvigorated the handheld games market? And what is different when trying to appeal to a smartphone owner over a console gamer?
"From a games designer's point of view, the combination of tilt and touchscreen is a dream. It offers a whole new bunch of game mechanics that are simply not possible on console games. Using the touchscreen appeals to a much more direct and primitive part of the brain, which means more people can access it and 'get it'.
"The smartphone owner demands short gameplay sessions; on the train, the bus or the toilet is where these games are often played. They haven’t got the time a console player has to get into a playing session, as at any time it might be curtailed and this needs to be done without punishment inside the game. Also, it is more difficult to get money from the smartphone user. So many free games are available that unless you can get into Apple’s top 25, priced games are often overlooked.
"Instead, we have to use smart monetisation tricks in a free version, like micropayments and in-game ads, which don’t always work for every game and which need to be constantly monitored, adapted and updated from build-to-build and format-to-format. Also, some games just die without a big screen, they lose their atmosphere and often it becomes difficult to see what is going on. This is why we design everything from scratch specifically for the iPhone and the iPad."
Will there be any of your old (Sensible) games converted onto the Apple platforms? Wizball?
"Wizball is a possibility. I am also in discussion with Codemasters about the other Sensible games. However, we are also balancing remakes of old games with totally new games I have designed specifically for these formats.
"For me, it is very important to keep on making and designing new games… it is what I love the best and it is the major appeal in the long term of these new machines. You must remember Parallax, Wizball, Mega lo Mania, Sensible Soccer, Wizkid and Cannon Fodder all started their life as NEW games made specifically for the hardware of the time.
How does the App Store differ to the old fashioned outlets when selling games? Is it like a return to the Mastertronic-style £1.99 Speccy games in newsagents?
"Well, there are two crucial differences between the App Store and the budget games of 1988: On the up side, you do not need to manufacture and distribute cassettes, which means you keep more money per unit and take less financial risk initially. On the downside, there were 150,000 Apps released last year on the App Store as opposed to just 1,000 games released on the Amiga in 1992… So, marketing-wise, the App Store is much more difficult. If Apple do not feature your game and it is not a known license, it is very hard to make people aware that it exists."
Are you, personally, still composing music for games [Jon famously wrote and recorded the soundtracks for both Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder among others]?
"I am always composing music when I have the time and have done so for the last 30 years. The last released game I recorded the music for was Sensible Soccer 2006."
And I’ve heard tell of a Cannon Fodder 3, are you involved?
"I was surprised to hear about this game being made and find it quite amusing. Having worked on a design for Cannon Fodder 3 as early as 1999, which had development started and stopped 3 times by Codemasters from 1999-2002, I am interested to see what these guys come up with.
"What is most strange is that it is for the Russian market only and yet I do not recall ever seeing a penny of royalties from the sale of copies of the game on any format in Russia.
"I know the piracy rate was 10 to 1 in the Amiga days in the UK, so I reckon it must have been about 1,000 to 1 in Russia for the license to mean anything there. Still, I would not close myself off from getting involved with it if I were approached, and it is not stopping me from talking with Codemasters about any other things that we might wish to do with the old Sensible licenses at some point in the future.
"All I can say is, good luck to them and please don’t fuck it up, it is one of my babies."
And finally, hopefully, will we ever see Sensible Soccer for the iPad?
"I definitely plan to work on a football game for the iPhone and iPad in the near future."
Speedball 2: Evolution for the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad will hit the iTunes App Store over the next couple of weeks. Pocket-lint will bring you a review when we see the final build.
Jon Hare photo taken by Andreas Wallstrom.