Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a new weekly series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters.
When I was first thinking of Britsoft Focus, one name was stuck in my head: Jeff Minter. Some will have known his games for over three decades, others will have no idea who he is, but for me – especially when I think of the British industry and the developers I especially admire – the man his fans know as Yak is impossible to ignore. He is the indie godfather.
Minter is unusual even within the global industry – a figure who has operated as more or less a solo artist over multiple generations of hardware, specialising in responsive, often visually-arresting shooters with deep systems and high skill ceilings. Minter learned to program on a Commodore PET at school in the late 1970s, but the first computer he owned was the Sinclair ZX80 (“I had to work cleaning toilets and offices and bogs and things to earn enough money to get it”). Minter and a few schoolfriends made games on the PET to amuse each other and he even sold a few but, inspired by buying a terrible version of Asteroids, he decided to found Llamasoft and strike out in 1982.
“I suppose the first commercial games I did were on the ZX81,” says Minter. “I did some games that were published by another company before I founded Llamasoft, the first significant commercial games I did were things like Abductor for the unexpanded V20. I did a game called Headbanger's Heaven which was rather fun on the 8K V20, a silly little game built half in basic and half in Assembler, but it wasn't one of the major Llamasoft games. That really started to take off when I did Gridrunner in 1982.”
Since those days Llamasoft and Minter have worked across dozens of platforms, from Commodore and Atari Jaguar to PC and now PSVR (the upcoming Polybius, previewed here). Along the way he was joined by Ivan ‘Giles’ Zorzin, making Llamasoft a two-man band, and in recent years the pair have been creating a catalogue of iOS titles – but the mobile ecosystem turned out to be far from the promised land.
“We spent two years doing iOS stuff,” says Minter. “Nine games. I really enjoyed making them but it’s just impossible to, the market is so developer-hostile on iOS is the only way to put it, really, because you can’t charge any significant amount of money. I tried to put my games on as £2 at one point. Too expensive. The only way to survive on iOS is to go down the free-to-play route, and I really don’t want to do that because it changes what game design really is. When you make free-to-play stuff, you’re constructing something where you’re trying to make people go through pay points as often as possible, and that’s a completely different exercise to what I’m used to, where you try and make a game that’s a pretty coherent whole, which you hope that people will enjoy enough to buy and maybe look out for your next one.”
“I wore myself out there, basically. I spent two years trying and it became very wearying because we’d steel ourselves to make a game, you’d sit down, you’d make a game, you’d try to build up the enthusiasm, make it as good as you could, you’d put it out there, only get beautiful reactions and reviews. All the user reviews for every single one of our games are 4.5 stars out of 5 for everything. And yet still you’re making nothing, 50p at the end of it. By the time I’d done that about nine times I was broke, and I was just, like, completely exhausted emotionally and physically from it all really.”
The saving grace during this period was Playstation Vita and TxK - a game that Sony encouraged Llamasoft to make, and which did much more for them than all that hard work on iOS.
“Yeah basically Sony wanted us to do something on the Vita, and I thought of doing TxK. Supposedly the Vita is a niche machine, so I made this one game on a niche machine and it made so much more than two years of slaving away on iOS it was like night and day. It helped me to recover, because I actually felt the work I was doing had some value again, which was really quite important to me.”
We could spend all day on the problems with mobile discoverability and pricing. But the outcome is that, following the TxK experience, Llamasoft ended up working on PlayStation 4 – first making a VR version of that game, and then moving on to Polybius.
“I’d heard the legend of Polybius,” says Minter. “It had been around for a while, but I think VR was what made me want to make it, really. I thought, ‘If you’re going to do this kind of classically trippy mind-altering game, then VR is the place to do it.’ And I got to that realisation because we did TxK VR, and were taking it around to numerous computer shows and everybody loves it, and it made me realise people actually like the idea of a fairly simple arcade game almost doing the Tron thing, you know, putting you inside the game. It makes such a difference. It was surprising with TxK because that was designed for a small screen on a handheld, and I didn’t know how it was going to transform but it worked really, really well.”
Llamasoft toured TxK VR around events, where the reception was uniformly positive, but the current incarnation of Atari decided to try and get legal – throughout his career Minter has made games based on Tempest, often variants but including officially-licensed versions like the Jaguar’s Tempest 2000 (easily the machine’s best game), and Atari own the rights. Atari suddenly decided to try it on and get legal about TxK in the period where the VR version was being shown. Will it ever see release?
“I hope it will do one day,” says Minter. “I have spoken to Atari since and they’ve softened it, they’ve called off the lawyers. They wanted, at one point, me to take away the Vita version and give them all the money. I was stubborn about that and wouldn’t do it, and the lawyers’ letters escalated and escalated but thankfully nothing ever came of it. I did have a conversation with them thanks to a friend, and I think they realised, because there was quite a bit of negative publicity around that stuff for them, that they should have been working with me rather than against me.”
“I spoke to them briefly on the phone, and that seemed to be the point of view they were coming round to, and I was hoping that we would have further negotiation and be able to sort out some deal whereby I could realise TxK on other platforms and the VR version and give them a chunk of the money. I don’t mind at this point if I had to give them some just to be able to release it, because it’s such a shame. We’ve got a PC version, we’ve got a PS3 version, we’ve got a PS4 version. Gaz [Liddon] has done an Android version. We’ve got both versions of VR covered actually, Oculus and the PSVR. And it would just be a great shame if that could never come out, especially as it would be beneficial to Atari. So I hope one day we will still be able to do that. It would literally only take me a month or two to spruce it up and get it out there.”
And then you could call it Tempest. “Call it Tempest as well,” laughs Minter. “We’ll call it TxK licensed to Atari, whatever, I don’t really care at this point. I’d just rather people were able to play that game, because they really like it, and I think it would fit in as well with the stuff we’re seeing now at the start of VR where the abstract games are doing really well.”
This is an interesting point because, while many early VR games go for ‘realistic’ settings, Polybius and TxK VR look like arcade games. And this creates a very powerful effect in VR, which you might not necessarily expect.
“It’s the Tron thing, really, isn’t it? It is the Tron dream come true. You kind of put yourself inside an arcade game. I prefer virtual un-reality to virtual reality. I do like well-done VR that’s realistic, of course. I mean, it definitely has its place and it’s fantastic to see simulations, driving games, and I’m looking forward to a really good flight simulator. I’ve enjoyed Microsoft Flight Simulator on Oculus, it’s lovely, and such a a great feeling of really being on a plane. It actually makes it easier to fly the plane because you can look around naturally.”
I haven’t played Microsoft Flight Simulator in VR yet, but immediately EVE: Valkyrie and Elite: Dangerous spring to mind. Minter jumps straight in. “I’ve played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus! I’ve stopped because otherwise I would spend too much time playing the game because it’s absolutely fantastic, just getting stoned and putting Floyd on and going round the galaxy looking at all the fantastic sights. Absolutely wonderful. And that stuff of course has its place. I will always enjoy that, wonderful. But I think there’s also a place for just going to completely abstract different spaces and immersing yourself in those as well, and that’s what I’m trying to do with Polybius.”
The most striking thing about Polybius, from the perspective of a Minter fan, is that Llamasoft usually makes shooters with high skill ceilings. But this is much gentler. I wonder if this is the VR influence, or some sort of general mellowing with age.
“I don’t want to overwhelm people, but I think where it comes from really is that I’ve grown a bit tired of games where you finish playing the game and you almost end up feeling stressed and angry because you haven’t got past some arbitrary spike or you’ve had to redo some level ten times, and I got to thinking that when I finish playing a game I don’t want to be feeling like I’m shaking and I’m upset. I want to be feeling happy. I want to be feeling, like, chilled out.”
“What this does is it enables you to get to that flow state really quite easily, and it enables you to remain in that state and just feel lovely. I’ve said it many times today, but sometimes I wake up on a Monday morning and I’m feeling grumpy, and then I spend ten minutes in there and I come out feeling lovely. I want the game to do that, and I want it to be accessible. I don’t want people to feel like they haven’t got the skills so the door is slammed on them or they can’t experience this.”
Check out our preview of Polybius for more on this game specifically. I end by chatting to Minter a little about his working process, how he scripts his levels and re-plays and tweaks them until they hit the standard. It strikes me that one of the reasons his games are so beloved by his fans is this refinement, which doesn’t become obvious until you’re really starting to learn how a given system works.
“I’ll put down a rough shape of the level then I’ll start playing through that right away,” says Minter. “Then I think, ‘The timer on this bit is a bit wrong or, you know, this is too close together, this doesn’t quite work, it doesn’t help the flow,’ and then when I can actually sit there and play from beginning to end, I get that feeling where I’m like, ‘Okay. Now that’s acceptable.’ But I’m constantly checking myself, and I will be playing all those levels all the time between now and the time it goes final, and I will be tweaking little bits all the time to make it as perfect as I can.”
It’s worth ending by emphasising that, while Jeff Minter is my nominee for the Britsoft indie godfather, Llamasoft is no longer a solo project. “I am so much not a one-man band. The reason this game is so good is because of the hard work that Giles has put into the engine. The fact that we are getting two times 120 frames per second native on an engine which is not an off-the-shelf engine, which he’s built from the ground up, which he also has running in parallel on the PC. I couldn’t do any of the stuff we’re doing without a fantastic amount of hard work from him. We went to a developer VR event at the beginning of last year, and the guy was saying how you can go 60 frames and then kind of scale up to 120, then added, ‘But there is a native 120 mode that we don’t see many people using.’ Immediately Giles said to me, “we will not rest until we’ve got that.” He’s got such a passion for making that thing work well. We were just down in London last week, working with the engineers to iron out some teeny tiny teeny tiny glitch, which nobody else would even see, but he wants that thing perfect. If anything he’s probably worked harder than I have on making it what it is, I’m so proud of the work he’s done.”
Polybius will be in beta by the end of this month and into QA as soon as possible after that, so after “a month or two for the bureaucratic phase” it should see release in early spring. If you have any interest in something different, beautifully-designed, and with a bit of personality, keep your eye out – and we’ll certainly be reminding you here on Kotaku UK. After this? “I'll be happy to see it out the door and on to pastures new,” says Minter. Llamasoft never stops, and that’s why this long-haired gentleman is the kind of indie every young British developer should look up to. He’s never stopped making games, has done it across so many platforms it’s untrue, and has always made the games he wanted to play. That may not lead to millions but, in this case, it led to some of the best shooters ever made.
And the odd bit of personal satisfaction, too. “My mortgage finishes in a couple of months and that is going to be a huge ‘thank fuck’ moment I can tell you.” After a career as long and unique as this, it is a happiness richly-deserved.