RVG Interviews Chris Shrigley.
RVG lands another huge interview with Chris Shrigley... A founding member of Core Design, co-founder of Eurocomm. Chris worked as a Gremlin Graphics in the early years where he programmed lots of games on Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, MSX and Atari games. Chris has created many other games on systems like the NES, Megadrive/Genesis, MegadCD/SegaCD and many more
BassMasters 2000 (1999)
James Bond Jr. (1992)
Tetris Evolution (2007)
Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers (2006)
Full Spectrum Warrior (2004)
Metal Arms: Glitch in the System (2003)
Pac-Man Fever (2002)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Dominion Wars (2001)
BassMasters 2000 (1999)
NHL 98 (1997)
Rock 'n Roll Racing (1993)
Batman Returns (1992)
James Bond Jr. (1992)
The Lost Vikings (1992)
Advanced Pinball Simulator (1988)
Masters of the Universe: The Movie (1987)
Action Fighter (1986)
Footballer of the Year (1986)
Future Knight (1986)
Gauntlet II (1986)
Jack the Nipper... II in Coconut Capers
Finally Chris has kindly released some of his games source code on his site HERE
Can you talk us through your career, where you started right up till now and what games you worked on?
Phew! A big, open question to start. Well, let me see. My actual career started when I joined Gremlin Graphics in 1986. I never really considered it a career until much later though. Before that, I was just some kid, playing coin-op games and messing around on my Commodore 64 in my bedroom. The first game I programmed and got published was a text adventure game called Pub Quest, programmed in BASIC. I was 16. It taught me a lot about game logic, structure, and programming in general. I naturally progressed to assembly language, and collaborated with some friends (Rob Toone and Andy Green), to make something more ambitious and closer to what we were playing in the arcades. We made Bounder over the summer of 1985, and sent it off to Gremlin towards Christmas. They liked it, and offered us all jobs, working full time up in Sheffield. We started in early 1986 and started work on our second game Future Knight.
Over the next couple of years, I worked on a couple of projects with Rob and Andy, but having more than one programmer on a project was an extravagance in those days, so although we were still a tight-knit group, we worked on different projects. I programmed Bounder 2 and Footballer of The Year in the Gremlin Sheffield offices, and Skate Crazy, and Masters of The Universe in the Derby offices. I also helped out on a few more games here and there.
The industry went through a bad patch, and around 1988, Gremlin decided to close the Derby office and make us all redundant. Jeremy Smith and Kevin Norburn took the office over and relaunched the team as Core Design. I worked at Core for just over a year, and programmed a couple of games, including Action Fighter, and Saint and Greavsie. I left Core to set up another company called Eurocom, with my friend Mat Sneap, focused on NES console development.
At Eurocom, I designed Magician, and programmed John Smith (later renamed and released as James Bond Jr). We were tiny, just 4 of us, working out of a shed behind Mat's dad's electronics company in Ripley. We were running on a shoestring, hacking development hardware together and reverse engineering everything. My first task was poking numbers into registers on a cobbled together development board, seeing what changed on screen, and trying to make sense of the Japanese documentation. The first year was a struggle, and we went through a cash crunch towards the end of it, and Mat's dad started to lose a bit of faith. He put us on a 2 day work week, and cut our wages, which made it almost impossible to live, especially for me with a mortgage and a baby. So I started looking around for another job.
Meanwhile, my good friend Andy Green, had also left Core by then and had gone over to work in California for Cinemaware. He was a real trailblazer and he basically persuaded me to talk to Bob Jacob, the company owner, about possibly coming out there to work too, but for his new start-up company, Acme Interactive. I met with Bob in London, all dressed up in a suit and tie. Bob, dressed in flip flops and a t-shirt, took one look at me and laughed out loud, which broke the ice and made the rest of the interview a lot easier. I got the job, and Bob handed me a Sega Genesis manual, written in Japanese to look at (deja vu). I flew out to California about 6 months later, on my biggest adventure yet.
I landed in a warm and sunny Los Angeles, stressed and exhausted, with two suitcases, a frazzled wife, a screaming baby, and $200 in my pocket. We got into a huge Mercedes and Bob drove us to our hotel via the scenic route, up Pacific Coast Highway 1, past Santa Monica and Malibu. It impressed the hell out of us, which was obviously his intention, and was an amazing introduction to California.
The day after checking into the hotel, I was sat at a desk, overlooking exotic landscaping and a pond, setting up a Sega Genesis dev system. Totally surreal and all a little crazy. I worked at Acme Interactive for a couple of years, and made Ex-Mutants, Cliffhanger and helped out on a few other games like Batman Returns, SeaQuest and Thomas The Tank Engine. I got my greencard and just after Bob sold the company to Malibu Comics, I left and took a job at Disney Software.
Disney was my first taste at true, corporate America. I worked on Gargoyles, Toy Story PC, and was a tech advisor on a bunch of external projects. When I joined Disney Software, there were just a couple of programmers and a couple of dozen artists, producers, and managers. This was in 1994, and within a year, the division had been re-branded to Disney Interactive, and had grown to 100s of people. It was madness. There was so much money flying around, it wasn't even funny. Massive parties, first class travel, and the best equipment for everyone. I was having a blast.
And then it all came to an end. They blew through 100s of millions of dollars and Disney head office pulled the plug. I was laid off, and did some freelance work (NHL 98), and then joined a small, local company called VRTO, which was part of GameTek. I worked on Jimmy Johnsons Football, and shortly after, GameTek pulled the plug and I literally walked across the car park to another game company called Mass Media, and asked them for a job. They said yes and I started the next day.
Mass Media was (and still is) run by David Todd, who was the tech director at Cinemaware with Bob Jacob, back in the day. Small world. I stayed at Mass Media for almost 10 years, and worked on over a dozen games for Gamecube, Gameboy, Playstation, XBox and PC, including Mettle Arms, Full Spectrum Warriors, Star Trek DS9, Bass Masters, and many more. Mass Media was eventually acquired by THQ, and tuned into their advanced technology studio, basically doing all the really hard stuff that none of their other studios could do. THQ slowly ran us into the ground and decided to shut the studio down, when they started having financial troubles. I left just before the crap hit the fan and joined Disney again, working on MMO technology. I figured I needed a change after 10 years doing console games, and also some new challenges. MMO stuff was interesting, so I jumped at the chance to learn some new stuff.
Over the next 5 years or so, I went from working in R&D and cutting edge server technologies, to managing the technology for Toontown Online. I ran the dev teams for the game, web services, and websites, and it was an amazing and intense period of learning. Sadly, Disney decided Toontown wasn't profitable enough and started winding it down, so I moved onto a new internal project, making the next big MMO for Disney. During my time on that project, I got promoted to Technical Director, and had to run larger teams, and more of them. It changed everything for me, and I was becoming more and more removed from the actual process of making games, instead spending my days in meetings, making long term strategic decisions, and deciding the fates of many people. I wasn't satisfied or happy, and in early 2013, I decided to quit and walk away from it all.
I left Disney and became an independent game developer and consultant. I now spend my time doing tasty bits of contract work and making my own games for PC and mobile. I also run (sporadically) Indielicious.com, which is a schizophrenic indie game website that I can't quite figure out what to do with. It's all pretty idyllic really.
OK, that was fairly epic. Next question ..
What made you start developing text adventures?
My friend Rob Toone. He wrote a text adventure and basically made me write one too. Before programming Pub QUest (my first adventure), I was just messing around, typing in listings from magazines, and making sprites bounce around the screen. Pub Quest taught me a lot about structure and logic, and how to put a game together. It also taught me how to finish a game, which is the hardest part of writing a game.
Advanced Pinball Simulator was a game I spent many hours playing, how did it come about for you to program this version?
I've always been a sucker for punishment, and when I was younger, I just couldn't do enough programming. I was programming all day, every day, and when the opportunity came up to do the C64 version of APS, I jumped at it. After all, I had a few hours in the evenings free, while I wasn't working at Core. I can't really remember how I ended up getting the gig, but I think it was through my friend Rob Toone. He had done a side project, and I think he made the introduction. I remember the project being a bit of a bugger to do, particularly getting all the collision detection going on the character mapped screen.
Bounder was a huge hit, (another one of my favs i must say) how did this game come about?
Bounder was the product of a glorious summer, a miserable English winter, and beer. The idea came about when Rob, Andy, and myself, were at the local park playing tennis. We were lazing under a tree, chatting about games and stuff we were playing in the local arcades, and I mentioned I'd written a cool parallax scroll on the C64, basically emulating a game called Exed Exes we'd been playing a lot in the local arcade. Somehow, we ended up talking about a top down game featuring a bouncing tennis ball, on a parallax scrolling play field. We started designing and programming it in earnest, mapping the levels on squared paper, and converting the hand drawn graphics to numbers that corresponded to 2x2 character blocks (basically indexes). Rob did most of the design and graphics, and Andy and I did the programming. We typed everything in by hand, and coded the entire game in a machine code monitor called Zoom Monitor. It was madness, but we had limited resources, and we made do the best we could. As the game progressed, we enrolled the help of Terry Lloyd, a friend who worked in the local computer shop in Derby, to do more graphics and enemy sprites. When we had made enough progress on the game, and got it to a playable state, we sent it off to Gremlin, hoping for everything, but expecting nothing, and actually got a response saying they were interested.
Can you tell us what it was like working for Codemasters and Gremlin back then?
I only worked as a freelancer for Codemasters and only on one project (Advanced Pinball Simulator). The project was quick and tricky, and all I remember is how hard it was to get paid by them. They probably still owe me a couple hundred quid actually.
Gremlin was a different story. I served my apprenticeship in the games industry at Gremlin. I had some amazing times there, both in the Sheffield and Derby offices. Just a great bunch of people, all really mad about games, all working for the pure love of it. We had tons of freedom, being allowed to design and program the games from start to finish without any real interference from management. We made the games quickly, banging 3 or 4 out a year, and never had time to get bored or distracted. Everything was new and shiny, and we were just making shit up. I was young, healthy, and idealistic. I had good mates, some money in my pocket, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, we were making cool stuff, and being creative. The world was wide open and belonged to us, and it was always sunny. It was probably one of the best times of my life, so far.
Which one of the C64 games you programmed is your favourite and why?
Probably Bounder, as it's wrapped up in some very fun and fond memories. We programmed it over the summer of 1985, while drinking lots of beer, breakdancing, driving round country lanes too fast, and generally doing what teenagers do. Just so many good memories of that summer, all tangled up with making Bounder.
How many of you was there at the beginning of Core Design, and how did the company get started?
Core was born out of the death of Gremlin Derby. The industry was in dire straights, and Gremlin couldn't afford to keep the Derby office going or pay our wages. We heard rumbling from Sheffield that something bad was going down, and we were inevitably summoned up to Sheffield to face the music. I can remember sitting in Ian Stewart's office being told we were being made redundant. We were pretty shocked. Kev Norburn was there, and in the next breath, he turned round and said he and Jemremy were starting a new company, and offered us all jobs. A few weeks later, Jeremy Smith, Kevin Norburn, Greg Holmes, Rob Toone, Andy Green, Terry Lloyd, Simon Phipps, Dave Pridmore and Myself, were in business as Core Design.
How long did you stay with Core, and if you don't mind me asking, why did you leave?
I was there for about a year. Why did I leave? The short answer is, that I left to start Eurocom with my friend Mat Sneap, making games for NES. The long answer is a bit more complicated and involves secret meetings and angry, shouty people. I've said this before in another interview, but I'll reiterate it here. When Core was started, we were all promised a share of the company. It was apparent, very quickly that this was not going to happen. I was, and still am, a bit of a rabble rouser, especially in the face of injustice, so I called a secret meeting at my house with the others to discuss things. There was a lot of fist shaking and angry muttering, along with lots of pizza eating, but not much else. Someone told Jeremy about the meeting, and I was summoned to his office for a bollocking (and probably worse). I sat down and Jeremy was very pissed with me. I spoke my mind and we shouted at each other a bit, and he fired me. I told him he couldn't fire me because I already quit, so it's a coin toss over whether I was fired or I quit. I'd been working with Mat for a couple of months, getting ready to set Eurocom up, so I was ready to bail anyway. I moved on.
Core was responsible for some of the best Mega CD/Sega CD games, and really made the add-on worth buying. Which games for the system did you work on?
None. That was long after I'd left. I was getting a sun tan in California by then.
Gargoyles is a great game on the Genesis, and I'm happy to say I bought it as soon as it was released and finished it too (I was a big fan of the cartoon). How much assistance did you get from Disney as far as the license goes and were you allowed to make the game your way or did they specify what kind of a game it had to be?
So you're the guy who liked it! That game was really hard, so I'm impressed you finished it. We got a lot of assistance making the game. We had access to everything from the cartoon series, and access to all history and backstory to the characters. The animation for Goliath was done by the same people who animated the cartoon, and we had writers and concept artists from the TV show involved too. Even the music was written by Michael Giaccino, who went on to score games like Call of Duty, and TV shows and movies like Lost, Alias, The Incredibles, UP, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible. It was a great project to work on, and had a number of really cool firsts for me, working for a big company like Disney, with all their resources and money. Actually working for Disney was a real thrill too. Growing up in England, I never dreamed I'd end up working for The Mouse.
Rock 'n Roll Racing has a great soundtrack. Who picked the tunes and was it hard to get the license to use them?
Rock 'n Roll Racing was a port, so all the music and art and design were already in place. I've no idea how the original project was put together, but the version I did was fun and challenging.
Are you still in contact with anyone from those days? (C64/Speccy era to Sega CD era)
I am with quite a few of them. Rob Toone lives about a mile away from me, and Andy Green lives in Illinois. Terry Lloyd and Simon Phipps are back in England doing their own thing and kicking butt. I keep in touch with a bunch of old timers through Facebook or The Chaos Engine. Only a few of them have dropped out of the games business, which is quite surprising.
Have you ever gone through you old files and found incomplete games that you may release to the retro scene?
I'm a source code hoarder, and have managed to save some source code over the years. I lost a few of my older archives unfortunately, but I did release a game called Hero Quest I made for NES, just before I came out to the States, on Lost Levels a few years back. I have an old source code archive on my website (shrigley.com), with a few complete games for NES and Sega Genesis for educational purposes. I don't have any C64 stuff though, at least not here in the USA. I still have some boxes stored at my Mums house which may have some treasure in.
You coded both Batman Returns and Cliffhanger on the Sega CD/Mega CD why do you feel this add-on ultimately failed?
It was too expensive and it didn't do enough. Games are a profit driven business, and the market just wasn't big enough to entice publishers to sink money into games for it. Because there weren't many games, people didn't buy it, which made it even less attractive, and so on.
Did you ever work on the Konix Multisystem or Atari Jaguar? If so, can you tell us more?
I didn't. I pretty much went from Genesis to PC to Playstation, and then Nintendo systems and newer Playstations and Xbox. I skipped Konix and Jaguar, basically working on the systems that made the most sense for the companies I worked for.
Blackthorne is one of my favourite games for the Sega 32X. How was it working in the development of this game? What challenges were faced? Was having to develop the game for the 32X helpful or did it make work harder?
Awww, I didn't do the 32x version of Blackthorne. I worked on the GBA port, which was no walk in the park, by the way. I had to reverse engineer the SNES 65816 assembly code, into C for the GBA. Good times!
HeroQuest on the NES never got an official release, what happened there?
I did Hero Quest as a quick freelance project for Gremlin, while I was waiting to come out to California to work. I had 4 or 5 months to do the game, and managed to deliver final code just before leaving. I heard very little about the game after that, apart from there were a few bugs and some additional work that needed doing. I was told some other programmer was going to button it up and it would be released in Japan or something. It never did get released, but I don;t know why not. I eventually found the old source code and binaries for the cart, and released it through Lost Levels. The version I had was not the finished one though, but I think a slightly more complete one was uncovered a year or so later.
You've worked on games from various entertainment franchises (Batman, Masters of the Universe, Star Trek, James Bond, Gargoyles). Were you a fan of any of these when working on the games?
Yes, absolutely. I'm a card carrying nerd, I'm afraid. Particularly love Star Trek (although Deep Space 9 was never my cup of tea). I used to own a comic shop when I lived in England, many years ago (around the time I was working for Gremlin / Core), so I was also a bit of a comic nut, and collector. When I made Masters of The Universe, I got to go down to London to watch a private screening of the movie before it was released. That was a great experience.
Did you get these as straightforward assignments or were you able to ask to work on these?
No these were just projects that came in the door. It was always cool to get to work on a big franchise or movie tie in (even Cliffhanger), but I never really had much choice.
Do you have a favourite console you prefer to work on? Which did you find more challenging to develop for?
My favourite console was the Sega Genesis, mainly because it was the last piece of hardware I was able to spend any length of time getting intimate with. By the time I finished Gargoyles, I knew the hardware like the back of my hand, and felt very comfortable with it. After the Genesis, it got harder to become an expert, as hardware lifecycles got shorter, and teams got bigger, and you were mostly responsible for a part of a game, rather than the whole thing. Getting down and dirty with the hardware, and poking at the metal got harder, as it was abstracted away from the programmer. Unless you were an engine guy, you never really dealt with the hardware directly. It was always through a library or and SDK.
The most challenging was probably PS3 because of its awkward architecture and use of open source development tools.
Are you a gamer yourself? Do you have any retro systems?
I am a casual, opportunistic gamer nowadays. I tend to spend most of my time making games rather than playing them. I don't own any modern consoles, and do most of my gaming on PC. I like RPGs, Roguelikes, and dungeon crawlers mostly, and I still play WoW and a fair few indie games. Games like Desktop Dungeons, Race The Sun, Assault Android Cactus, Torchlight, SanctuaryRPG, and many more. I have a million Humble Bundle games I've not even had chance to install yet, and tons of games on Steam too. There just aren't enough hours in the day.
Huge thanks to Chris for taking part in this interview.
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