Spectrum HoloByte – Blinded by the Light

Spectrum_holobyte

Spectrum HoloByte – Blinded by the Light

Have you ever had a job offer that just sounded too good to be true? Well that’s the place I found myself with Spectrum HoloByte, and it was totally my fault for falling for it hook, line, and sinker!

Now it all started after the mass exodus of employees from Virgin Games after we had finished up Aladdin.

With 90% of my team now gone I was left in a quandary about what would be my next move, for I really didn’t see a happy future staying at Virgin Games.

So I started researching other job opportunities, something that were plentiful at the time, seeing my new found fame as the design lead on a number of hit games.

One of the first places I thought about was following my old team over to Shiny Entertainment, something I talked with David Perry about. But from what I was told, the idea was met with strong opposition from Nick Bruty who was originally, not only David Perry’s lead artist in the UK but also his lead designer back then, so that wasn’t an option for me.

My next step was to call a recruiter, which I had absolutely no experience with at the time, but I was told was one of the best ways to go, just to help filter through all of the incoming job possibilities.

That’s when I called Jill Zinner, one of the most well-known recruiters in the video game field.

She told me that Barry James Folsom, the CEO at Spectrum HoloByte really wanted to talk to me about working for his studio in the Bay Area.

I knew that Spectrum Holobyte was into flight simulation software for the PC, but had little info on what they were doing in the console market, so understandably I was curious about why Barry would want to talk with me, so we scheduled a phone call.

Now Barry James is a really smart guy and in an industry that can have some really odd-balls he stands out as a straight-shooter and legitimately a nice guy, so our conversation went really well and I was invited up to the bay area for a face-to-face interview with him and the Director of R&D.

So I drove up to the bay area and we met at a restaurant in Alameda, home town of Spectrum HoloByte.

The interview went really well and the questions were fired at me from Barry and the Directory of R&D, but I had a really strange feeling coming from Director of R&D. Something in retrospect I should have given a lot more weight to, before accepting the job offer.

But the job offer came in for me to be Manager of Cartridge Game Design and at double my salary at the time, and that blinded me to what was to come.

So my girlfriend and I packed up our home, and with Spectrum HoloByte help moved up to the bay area to start my new job… or so I thought!

I didn’t realize until I got there that the Director of R&D and his lead Producer had absolutely no desire to have me there and made it clear nearly daily. In many ways they saw me being there as a slap by Barry James that they couldn’t handle design matters on their own, and from what I saw Barry was right.

They were working on a Star Trek game at the time that have been so over designed that it wasn’t fun, but I was told from day one by the Director Hands-Off, don’t even comment on it!

So for the next few months I focused on developing my own game concepts and helping Clyde Grossman, the external game producer with his projects.

But it all came crashing down just 3 months later when Spectrum HoloByte merged with MicroPros and the layoffs came down.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man so happy to layoff an employee as I did when the Director of R&D called me into his office that morning. I’m only shocked that he didn’t have a bottle of champagne ready for when I walked in his door. He didn’t like me there from day one and this was his victory dance.

Unfortunately for me I had to head home that day and tell the little lady that I was job hunting again, just after she got settled there and we were sitting on a unbreakable lease, oh-joy!

What I really took away from this situation is, never get so caught up in being interviewed by a studio that you don’t interview them as well. Don’t just analyze what is said during an interview, but what is not said and always watch the mannerism of those you’ll be working with and reporting to.

Lastly, the best girlfriends or wives to have in the video game field are those who are not into firearms 🙂

Virgin Games – Let the Games Begin

virgin Games

Virgin Games – Let the Games Began

The first day on the job, especially your dream job can be so exciting, totally full of expectations and I was fit to explode when I drove into the parking lot at Virgin Games that October morning.

I arrived to find that Virgin Games development group was fairly small at the time with only 3 games in development in-house that I can recall.

There was Overlord which was being developed by Mark Kelly (Programmer) and Steve Crow (Lead Artist), Monopoly which was being developed by John Alvarado (Lead Programmer) and Cool Spot, which was still in its kick-off phase. That was being designed by me the (Designer) with the art initially being developed by Rene Boutin. Our lead programmer, David Perry hadn’t arrived in the states yet when I stated work. David Bishop who was to be my boss also hadn’t arrived yet.

The studio itself was split between upstairs which was marketing and downstairs which was R&D, so it was fairly easy for a newcomer like me to find my way around and get to know everyone by name.

But to be honest knowing everyone and being welcomed by everyone was two different issues.

Yes it’s true, I was finally working as a video game developer, but I had no idea how ground-breaking my roll was at the time, for I found myself in the middle of a culture where the idea if a Game Designer was totally alien and in my case initially totally rejected.

You see, up until that time the Lead Artist and or Lead Programmer on a project was the game designer of a game, so the idea of someone coming in and telling them what to do wasn’t going to fly. It also didn’t help that in their eyes I hadn’t paid my dues by working in console game development before.

So it was a rough few months for me, but with the Director of Development, Stephen Clarke-Willson’s support and the Lead Artist at the time Rene Boutin it kept me going while I tried to prove my worth to others in the studio.

My big break would come when Cool Spot was put on hold and I was reassigned to a game called Global Gladiators, a licensed game for McDonalds. I was asked to come up with an initial level design for the game and present it to the team by the following Monday.

So over the weekend I came up with my first and in full color level design for Global Gladiators and came into the office to present it to the team.

I wasn’t sure how they would respond to my work, for I really wasn’t sure what they would be expecting. But it was done to the best of my abilities at the time and I rolled this really long level design out and held my breath. You could just feel the energy in the room change quickly from skepticism to excitement in a flash. In one day I went from the outsider to the guy people wanted to work with or come to with ideas to flush out, it was a great feeling.

Now, although they liked my work I still had some refining to do on my level design process, for example one of the things I was doing was creating my level designs in full color. This was great for generating an emotional excitement around my level designs, but my boss David Bishop pointed out that it really wasn’t needed and a waste of time. So in future products my level designs went to just black and white drawings. I also had a habit of getting carried away and designing monster size levels, so that to I would scale back over time.

Our first game, Global Gladiators would go on to be a fairly straight forward project for our team, taking about 6.5 months to develop and going on the become Sega’s 3rd Party Game of the Year.

The only hiccup came once the game was done and it was submitted up the chain of command at McDonalds. Unbeknown to us during development, McDonalds owned one of the largest lumbering companies in the United States and having an anti-foresting world in our game really ticked them off, to the point of asking for it to be removed. Something we couldn’t do, for it would have gutted 1/4 of our total game, besides we already had publishing approval in-hand from Sega.

Next our team would go on to develop Cool Spot, which really started to set our teams reputation in the industry for speed of development and quality, when we finished the development in 4.5 months.

Jungle Book would be our team’s next project, but its development was shipped out to another developer once Virgin Games received the contract to do Aladdin and our team was reassigned to that production.

Aladdin would prove to be our teams crowning achievement, being developed in only 3.5 months and going on to become Game of the Year. It also went on to sell more than 4 million units on a single platform.

Unfortunately Aladdin would also prove to be the end of Virgin Games Golden Age of video game development.

My industry friends have often heard me say that making a hit game can be just as bad as making a terrible one. That is because fame can change people and more often than not, not for the better, and there was no exception when it came to our team, now called the “Global Team”.

Once the press rolled in the egos came out and getting your face in a magazine became a really high priority for some in the company. This started to create a lot of tension within the company and within the different teams, leading eventually to the end of Virgin Games Golden Age and the end of the Global Team.

My own decision to leave Virgin Games came shortly after most of my team left to form Shiny Entertainment, founded by David Perry our teams Lead Programmer.

By that time I was the Senior Game Designer for the studio and teacher to many up and coming designers within the company and I was moving more and more into more of a manager roll than that of lead designer, which was what I really wanted to continue doing.

So when an offer came in from Spectrum Holobyte to be a design manager for their studio in the Bay Area I jumped at the opportunity.

Oh boy was that a bonehead move! But that’s the next chapter of my story 🙂

Next: Spectrum Holybyte – Blinded by the Light

Virgin Games – The Interview

virgin Games

Virgin Games – The Interview

The story of how I ended up at Virgin Games is a funny one, for having had to return to full-time employment outside of the game industry left me little time for programming, so my focus switched to primarily working out my game designs on paper.

This lead me to develop one of my most extensive game designs yet, a RPG game tentatively called the Wizards Eye. It took me about 6 months to outline it in a 300 plus page document which included a full back-story along with a vast number of level diagrams.

I didn’t have the time to develop all of the art and code for it, while I was holding down a full-time job as a mechanic still, so instead I shipped it off to Virgin Games as-is just on paper, strangely enough I was just applying for a programming position and the idea of being just a designer didn’t even dawn on me.

My hopes for getting a job with them wasn’t too high at the time for I had already approached Interplay, a game developer right up the street from Virgin Games at the time, which turned into one of the strangest interviews I have ever had, yet another story LOL.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I received a letter from Virgin Games scheduling an on-site interview a few weeks later.

I remember feeling excited and a bit panicked at the time, for all I had to drive at the time was an old beat-up Datsun 510 that I wasn’t sure could make the trip down to Irvine.  But lucky for me at the time my girlfriend and future wife had a reliable car and was willing to drive me down there for the interview.

Now the next question was what to wear?

Working as an auto mechanic for the last few years, with uniforms provided didn’t exactly prepare me for what I thought might me a suit and tie interview, so I spiffed up as much as I could for the meeting.

One of the most memorable comments my girlfriend made on the drive down was, “Don’t expect people there to be walking around in blue jeans and t-shirts, so I had to hold back my laughter when I was met in the lobby by the Director of Development, Stephen Clarke-Willson who was wearing blue jeans and t-shirt 🙂

Now with my expectation for predictability out the window, Stephen, also known as Doc to all who worked there at the time, lead me down to his relatively small office and sat me down for my interview.

I was nervous, as you might expect and a bit confused when I looked over to the left back corner of his office and saw my game design document for The Wizards Eye tossed fairly casually in a pile with other documents.

Stephen sat down and said, after a little introduction chitchat, “I’m thinking of bringing you in as an Assistant Game Designer for Cool Spot, a upcoming Platform Game”.

Now, really confused I look at him and said, “Not as a programmer?” and he said “No!… I really need someone here to handle the game design”. I then told him that I knew absolutely nothing about platform games, for my main focus for years has been on making RPG games.  Stephen then turned and picked up my game design that I had sent him and said, “Anyone who can come up with all of this can easily design a platform game!”. We then talked about more about the position and how I would eventually be working with David Bishop, who they were planning on bringing over from Virgin Games UK to be the Manager of Design in the US. Then we went over the basics, such as benefits and salary, which was much more than I was making as an auto mechanic, before he escorted me out, saying that he would be in touch.

It would be about two weeks before I heard from Virgin Games again with an offer that would kick-off my in-house game design career.

Next: Virgin Games – Let the Games Began

How I got into Gaming

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Introduction
An old Producer friend, Matt Powers called me the other day to ask if I might write a small note about my experiences as a Lead Game Designer for an article he was doing for Gamasutra, and it dawned on me that I should include these notes on my own site, while I’m young enough to still remember them 🙂

Paying your Dues
In kicking off my long history of notes as a Professional Game Designer I’m going to set the way-back machine to before I got my first full-time job working in-house as a Game Designer.

The first thing to note is, unless your fortunate enough to have a friend or family member who works in or owns a game development studio you will have to have to fight really hard to break into the field. In my case it meant holding down other jobs and willing to come home at night to pound away on the computer to develop your own games.

It’s true that I started off programming at the age of 13 and by 15 had published my first game, Diamond Hunter for the Atati 800, but shareware games weren’t known for making people rich and for me it was no exception.

So for many years while I made these shareware games, building up my experience to impress the big-boys I worked many different non-video game development jobs, my first being as an Assistant Manager for an Arcade and Mini-Golf course. I would say an easy job to get for a kid right out of school who knew all the latest coin-op video games and was a master of Mini-Golf lol.

But once I left my home town of Big Bear Lake things became more complicated and expensive, including the computer systems I wanted to work on at the time, which was the Atari ST.

In Corona, CA where my brother and I moved to there was lots of work opportunities, unfortunately none in game development at the time, so we took whatever jobs came our way. For me it was working for Marie Callender’s as a Busboy and Pie Maker, while at the same time working as a Press Operator at a Mold Injection company, both of which were full time jobs. It was crazy, for when I left Marie Callender’s only a few hours off before I had to get over to my graveyard shift at the plastic company.

As you might have guessed, this left me no time for programming after work, but through the law of attraction it would pay off down the road.

You see, while working at the plastic company one late night I was given an assignment to mold these little plastic cartridges… yes, video game cartridges. So, after a little detective work on my behalf I found out that there was a small company, Elcom System right up the street who developed the video game ROMs for game publishers.

Now I knew they didn’t make the games themselves, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about the field, if I could get my foot in the door. So at every opportunity I had I would ride my bike by the company, stop in and ask the secretary, “Do you have a job for someone with video game experience?”

The answer for months and months was “Sorry, No!”

I must have seemed annoying to the poor lady, but I would say around my 15th time in that front door and hearing no again, I hear a man say… “Wait!” from an office in the back.

A fairly short man came walking out into the lobby and asked who I was and why I kept coming by. I promptly told him my story and that I wanted to work for him, where he asked if I knew anything about TTL Electronics or working with circuit boards and I said no, my experience was in making games. He then looked at me and said, “Your Hired!” come back Monday next week. I was confused, but happy at the same time. He ended that conversation by telling me, he wasn’t giving me a job for my experience, he was giving me a job because of my tenacity. He said, “I’ve heard you come in here time after time hearing the word no and yet here you are every month asking again, you’re the type of person I like working for me!”

I didn’t know it at the time but Gerry Weddle, the owner of Elcom Systems was a multimillionaire who had spent much of his life building up companies across the US and then selling them, a man who really knew his stuff and would become a mentor to me over the next two years. Especially when he decided to put my game development skills in action when he formed Corona Micro, which was to be a shareware game software branch of his company.

This only lasted for a few years, for when a large financial crisis hit Elcom Systems it quickly spread to Corona Micro, leaving Gerry with a tough call, that to sell the whole company off to his business partner, who had little to no interest video games. Gerry pulled me aside and wanted me to stay on, but it was clear that staying at the company wouldn’t include game development anymore, so sadly I had to walk away.

At this point I retired from working full-time to devote more time for game development, only working for others part-time through a company called Thomas Temporary, a temp employment agency in Corona, CA. During this time I would develop a number of different RPG games that would be published through Astra System Software. A company originally known for making one of the top-of-the-line hard drives for the Atari ST’s. But when I showed up on their doorstep with a number of video games for the ST the owner thought it would be cool to jump into the game field.

Still not making a full living off games yet, I was forced to once again take a full-time job, but this time it was working for Pep-Boys in Corona. While this wasn’t my bliss, it was my second bliss, for I had always been into cars in some way or another, having taken auto shop in high school.

I would continue working as an auto mechanic and making shareware games at night, until I got my big break with Virgin Games in Irvine, CA in October 1991.

But that’s the next story 🙂