The games software industry began with designer-programmers, then the team approach evolved with designers, artists and programmers working together on projects. Some companies, such as Denton Designs, set themselves up to ‘package’ products — producing programs for other firms to publish. Tigress saw a gap in the market, and seized it firmly by the tail... JOHN MINSON investigates one hot, steamy, London day.
It is hot. I am late. I have already postponed this interview twice. Now it is four o’clock and I should be in Putney, South of the River. Instead I’m still in the West End.
Luckily Tigress is very understanding about it when I finally roll up, three quarters of an hour late, at their office eyrie. In fact they’re so busy they’re glad of the extra working time. Under the eaves it is hotter still but a glass of Coke is offered and gratefully accepted.
Tigress is Beth Wooding, David Bishop and Chris Palmer. They don’t program; they don’t publish; instead they just have ideas. At the time of the interview nobody had any idea that game design was about to become a hot topic in the pages of CRASH, thanks to Mel Croucher’s outspoken views which appeared in the April issue.
Good old Mel, guaranteed to be controversial, had suggested to our beloved editor that, ‘it’s all derivative.’ And then the words that raised the hackles of so many readers ‘... fourteen or fifteen year old programmers. They can only be derivative — it is impossible for them to come up with an original idea, absolutely impossible’.
While I wouldn’t go so far as Mel, I would agree that last year was a particular low as far as clone programs were concerned. If I was kicked in the teeth by one animated martial artist, I was booted up the behind by half a dozen.
Not all was gloom though. One of the high spots for me was THINK!, the board game that would be near impossible to play on a board. The more observant of you may have noticed the Tigress name on the box. It was a brilliant example of simple, effective game design. But was it an indication that the future of good games lies in specialist design teams? Spill the beans, Beth, and tell us how Tigress got its teeth.
‘We started up in March ’84 as a promotional and marketing company specialising in the home computer market and we spent about a year doing that.’
At this point Chris Palmer takes up the story. ‘When I joined these guys they were still doing marketing. I’d met David who was at the time working with the Hungarians, the Andromeda Software crew, and it actually started while he was sitting in my office and we both simultaneously said, ‘What there is in this market is a need for properly thought out and designed games’.’
So Chris left his job at Argus to put that plan into action and as Beth says, ‘That’s all we’re doing these days.’ First out under the Tigress banner was THINK!, followed by GOLFING CONSTRUCTION SET, a Commodore 64 sport simulation which sadly depends on constant disc access, so is impossible to convert to the Spectrum.
But even before this, Tigress were involved with Domark on the VIEW TO A KILL tie-in — not that you’d know it from the packaging. That old favourite of the music biz, ‘artistic differences’ led to them disowning the much criticised title.
It’s easy to believe that they were forced into passing programming that they’d ordinarily have rejected when you compare the game with their ‘official’ releases. The trio look upon the experience as something of a lesson, albeit a painful one. Happily they now avoid such marketing pressures and currently have nine games under development.
I’m fascinated by how a games design Think Tank works though. Do they just sit around having good ideas all day long? Chris explains:
‘We work in one of three ways. A design will come out of our deranged and fevered imaginations, usually as an initial five minute or half an hour burst of ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this’. Then David and I get together and fire backwards and forwards and build the initial idea of the design.
‘Or a company will come to us with an idea, such as ‘We want a golf game’ or ‘We decided our range is lacking a strategy game’ or whatever and they might give us a very broad outline. Or people have bought the rights to a book or a film and have come to us saying, ‘Can you design a game round it?’ though that’s a minority.’
Then comes the stage when the idea has to be bound by the practicalities of the micro. ‘When we began doing this we set ourselves an initial rule,’ says Chris, ‘that we would design games first and foremost.
‘We try to make everything we design have the classic enjoyment values; that it’s fairly easy to learn yet the skills and challenge ramps up in accordance with how the player is doing at the game. And then we will look at the best way to implement that on a system.’ Then, smiling, he adds, ‘But we do have a huge ideas file that’s simply waiting for the hardware market to catch up with us.’
Once the storyboard has been constructed it’s time to find a publisher. Sometimes a design suggests a publisher, though more often it’s a case of being approached by a company with a general enquiry or making a presentation of several possible ideas.
Next comes the preparation of a technical brief. This document breaks down every single aspect of the game and lays it out in terms that a programmer can code. A simulation game would need various mathematical models as well as the more up-front graphic designs, for example.
But even then Tigress’s involvement is not over. Liaison with the programmers continues throughout. ‘Obviously there are times during the design where you had to make an assumption about technical feasibility or there are two ways of going about something. We’ll be on hand all the way through programming to sort out those problems.’
Chris is the only one of the three with programming ability, having started on Commodore Pets, many years ago, and though Tigress don’t themselves program, these skills are useful when liaising with the writers, or come in handy when mock up screens are needed for the initial presentation of an idea or routines need to be cobbled together to test techniques.
David Bishop, who has until now been sunk in work at his desk, is now drawn into the discussion. According to Beth, he does nothing else, other than play games. ‘I spend most of my evenings and weekends playing. I’m a chess and a bridge addict.’ Beth too is a card player, and her previous job, merchandising Walt Disney characters, brought her into contact with the games world.
‘We have to look at what else is around,’ David calls across the room. ‘We’ve spent a lot of time recently looking at Macintosh, ST and Amiga stuff.’ Certainly the office shelves are filled with programs, and Beth adds that as many again are back at David’s house. ‘You pick up ‘feels’ from playing games,’ Chris says, ‘as to what feels good and what doesn’t.’
When it comes to favourite programs, Beth nominates RAID OVER BUNGLING BAY by Broderbund. ‘I think mine is MULE by Electronic Arts,’ David says. ‘In fact I know it is.’ But Chris is less sure. Apart from his own THINK!, which amid much laughter he claims is, ‘one of the most classic games of all time’, he finally chooses SPINDIZZY.
When it comes to what gives them most pleasure to design, Chris waxes lyrical, much to the amusement of the other two. ‘Because we approach each game as an entity, they all hold both an immense amount of pleasure and an immense amount of pain.’ ‘You sound like a sort of software midwife,’ David shouts. ‘Sometimes it feels like that,’ Chris laughs.
‘We try to make every game a progression from what we’ve done. And if we’re working within a generic class, such as an arcade adventure, we’ll look at that genre and decide if there are any elements that haven’t been fully exploited or fully explored so we try to make a progression there. We get an awful lot of pleasure out of coming up with a novel way of doing things or a novel twist.’
There’s a lot of satisfaction for David when they finally have something up and running. This early form of the final game program will have all its variables left open so that they can be fine tuned. ‘That, to me, is one of the most rewarding bits because I can’t program, but to be able to actually affect a program that someone has given me is great.’
‘Yes,’ Chris agrees, ‘And it’s great when you first show it to people and see their faces light up.’ But Beth is more down to earth. ‘I like to see the money in the bank.’
It can take quite some time before that happy day though. How long from the first light bulb over the head to handing over a finished product? ‘As long as it takes,’ Chris replies. ‘It really depends a lot on the project. GOLF took thirteen to fourteen months, though that was exceptional. They usually run six to nine months.’
Though the team are currently keen to write for the new generation of 16 bit computers — the Amiga, which they think is superb but has yet to prove itself in the marketplace, and the Atari ST range, which Chris considers will become the new workhorse of micros, they still see a future for the humble Spectrum.
‘There’s still an enormous number of Spectrums out there,’ Beth observes, ‘and the age range we’re appealing to can’t afford to buy Amigas.’ ‘And whenever somebody brings out a piece of software and everybody goes, ‘This is it — the peak’, you still find that a couple of months later there’s something else that makes you think, ‘How did they do that?’’, adds Chris. ‘And even if it has been pushed to its technological limits there’s still a huge palette that we can use inside that without the need to bust through a brand new technical innovation on it.’
So even though there are frustrations working with the machine’s constraints, Chris reckons that providing you come down to earth, they shouldn’t be too bad. If he could advise Alan Sugar on a redesign for Christmas though he would add more memory and disc drives for multiple access. In the end though, it all comes down to good game design, and that’s the thing that will extend the life of the machine, not copies of classics from the cliche hall of fame.
The aim of Tigress is to be known for quality and innovation though they still see the need for the designer/programmer because, as Chris explains, ‘Some things can only come together from that high level marriage of knowing the nuts and bolts internally of the machines.’
‘But we have seen specialisation within the market with publishers getting better at marketing the games and the programmers getting to know the machines. By taking the design thing outside of all that we get a high degree of objectivity, unclouded by either extreme.’
‘Even though initial reactions from programmers may be that a proposal is impossible, on thinking about it they will find a way, which pushes game design beyond the limit they set for themselves.’ Chris expects to see more specialisation in the future.
Inside it is still sweltering, but before we depart for the cooler afternoon sun and some wacky pictures, Chris shows me two games that will be appearing on the Spectrum over the next few months. Both are for Ariolasoft — one a complex arcade game with startling 3D graphics; the other a strategy game with a most unusual theme. More I cannot say or Beth will throw me to the company tiger, but both upheld all that had been said during the afternoon.
Yes, Mel, there is a lot of rubbish out there. But there are a lot of rubbishy books and films and records too. While there are design teams like Tigress to take a fresh look at old ideas and push forward the boundaries of what we do with the Spectrum, rather than just its technical limitations, then there’s hope for the machine for a long time to come.