Britsoft Focus: Bak to the Future

By Rich Stanton on at

Welcome to Britsoft Focus. This is a series from Kotaku UK that focuses on the British development scene, from single-person projects to world-straddling studio blockbusters. You can find previous entries here.


Misfortune can be a blessing in disguise. “When I was four or five years old my dad worked as a miner down the pit,” begins Philip Bak, the developer behind Bezier. “And he had an accident with his finger, lost the top half, and he got five hundred pounds compensation, which was a lot in the seventies. So my Mum said ‘well it’s your finger, it’s your money; do what you want with it.’ And he went out and bought an Acorn Atom – 2.5K, looked a lot like a Vic20.”

This was in 1979, and to play a game on a machine like the Atom meant typing it in. Uncountable numbers of game developers began their journeys with hours spent poring over magazines, painstakingly copying out code from the pages and praying that, when they hit the button, something appeared.

“Now often we’d type it in wrong, and then you’d have to say ‘Well what have I done wrong?’ and sometimes you understood it,” says Bak. “So the first people who played games were developers, but they never really knew that – of course some of them did know and it came to the early 80s and they were saying ‘Well, hang on a second I can do better than this listing…’ and thus a bedroom coder is born.”

“So in 1981 my dad started making games himself and I would, as a kid, sort of test them – I wasn’t debugging them or anything like that. And I remember a period, I think it was ’83, nearly the start of the miners’ strike, so he was still down the pits but he was also a bedroom coder, and I remember my mum came in from the supermarket and my dad was there and he said ‘Dot, look at that…’ – and it was a cheque for basically the mortgage left on the house, and he was like ‘What do I do?’ and she was like ‘Well, I guess the miners’ strike is coming... just hand your notice in and do this if you’re earning this much.’”

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Philip Bak

‘Dad’ is Steve Bak, who would go on to become something of a celebrity in the 1980s coding world, in particular thanks to his collaborations with the artist Pete Lyon — the pair were contemporaneously known as the ‘dream team.’

“I was just in the background programming, I’d learned to program when I was six or seven,” says Philip Bak. “We always had loads of hardware around the house, a Dragon 32 this week, a Spectrum this week, I liked the Commodore 64... But I was getting sick of [programming] because whenever I do anything, my mates are all ‘That’s your dad.’ Now, sometimes it was my dad, but even when it wasn’t my dad, it annoyed me.

"So I started moving into music – I wanted to do synths and things like that but you’d end up just writing MIDI drivers and stuff. My dad did the video game of The Karate Kid Part 2 and I remember programming Peter Cetra’s 'The Glory of Love'.”

Steve Bak’s success eventually saw him set up on his own, using the family home as an office, and so the young Philip found himself with plenty of opportunities to contribute. “The games he was most noted for was the James Pond series. I generally worked weekends and holidays just for extra money, so I would do a bit of level design – I didn’t do much programming, because the last thing a programmer wants is some twatty kid coming along and... yeah. But writing music or doing a bit of level design and testing endlessly and washing up coffee cups – that sort of thing they’d let a kid do."

“I wrote the music for the first one and they threw it out,” Bak laughs. “I spent a summer writing that and they threw it out; looking back, it wasn’t very good music and I would’ve paid Richard Joseph to do it as well. You know Richard Joseph? Rest in peace – he was a fantastic musician, and my dad used to go to him all the time for music at that point.”

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James Pond: Underwater Agent

“There was one period where they couldn’t get him – for a game called Rolo to the Rescue on the Mega Drive; this elephant thing. So I wrote that music in an afternoon and my Dad had already accounted for the £500 fee, and so…”

Well, it’s your finger, it's your money?

“Yeah, that’s what he said, ‘There’s your money…’ So that was great. I bought a keyboard with that, I think – I bought a synth, which a musician should, right?”

The final act of Bak’s apprenticeship before heading off to university was James Pond 3: Operation Starfish (originally the subtitle was Splash Gordon, before some lawyers sent letters). Great game. Turns out most of the levels were designed by a teenager. “Splash Gordon yeah I think I did about half of the levels – like two thirds? It was a very, very strange time because – I don’t know if you’ve ever worked nights…”

Bak trails off a little, thinking about the office he used to go to at nights for six or seven weeks solid, before reaching for a Kubrickian comparison: “it was like the Overlook hotel. That was a really hard time – I turned up at university absolutely zombie-like. Fresher’s Week, everyone’s boozing and drinking and I’m there just dead in bed for a week.”

The decision to move away from programming, and games more generally, probably seemed like a very good one. Bak did a maths degree (“because I can’t write essays”) and, after university, did his PGCE before a bit of teaching. So he gets a few years off at least, before his rather specialised CV re-opens some doors — initially in QA.

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Rolo to the Rescue

“1997 is when the games industry drags me back in, and this was at Sony Liverpool. I was working in their internal teams, but also you had to do submissions coming in. I’ll never forget me and a whole room of Scousers dancing around to Parappa the Rapper because it had just came in.”

“But the thing about testers is that everybody hates testers, and it’s terrible because they’re probably one of the most important jobs in the industry, and people hate testers because of the old adage of shooting the messenger; sometimes we’d get games in on a Friday, and this has to pass for Monday, it has to be submitted to reach this deadline. Which generally means it’s not going to fail – you’re not allowed to fail it. And then you’re playing it and you’ve got it to crash, and you’d take your little tape up then you’d see your boss go into a flaming rage. And you’re like ‘Don’t be mad at me, I’ve done my job! What do you want me to do?’”

Bak’s laughing, but you can see it’s at the absurdity of this stuff rather than any especially fond memories of the job. “I knew on the first week that I did not want to do it. I thought ‘I can’t do this, the pay is dreadful and we get treated like shit.’ So I started just learning C and C++, there were always tales in Sony Liverpool that the programmers down in London were being treated like royalty.”

But it wouldn’t be London where Bak ended up. He found his talent for coding undiminished by a few years off (“bit like riding a bike”) and was looking at a return to Sheffield, his university town, with one of the great British software houses: Gremlin.

“I wrote a little game in about three months, I sent it off to Gremlin and they gave me an interview, and I was absolutely flabbergasted because they weren’t advertising or anything like that. So I started at Gremlin and that’s when I became a programmer. Gremlin then was like 200 – 300 people, a big studio, three floors and they used to call it ‘The University’ because it was where you learned to do your game dev, if you know what I mean. It was a nice spread of ranges of expertise; I was in the room with the Actua Soccer people even though I was working on an RPG, and it was all really good.”

The RPG was called Soulbringer, but unfortunately it would have a tepid reception. “Then I did a golf game on the N64 that had such bad reviews that a reviewer questioned or not whether it was in 3D, which was lovely,” laughs Bak, adding “It was in 3D.”

“My crowning glory with that actually was because I was in charge of the front end, I made the default character female with dark skin, and I could see my bosses wanting to say ‘Can we change the lead to a bloke with white skin please?’ but they couldn’t tell me because I was in charge, so I was basically saying ‘It’s female Tiger Woods, what do you want? It’s golf.’”

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Soulbringer

Bak’s head was turned when some friends got involved with a startup in Milton Keynes — called Deep Red Software, it was formed by two former Hasbro Interactive employees, Kevin Buckner and Clive Robert (“so there was that bit of authority about them”), and would focus on PC simulation games.

“So my friends went down there and they led on a game called Monopoly Tycoon on the PC, and I helped them out on that. But I was earmarked for a Thunderbirds game, and I worked on that for a little while. I met Gerry Anderson, shook his hand – he was a very nice man. Like royalty isn’t it. Then my Thunderbirds game got canned.”

The story is typical of many periods in the industry, where money was being thrown at ideas of questionable scope that — if you’ll excuse the pun — were never gonna fly. An initially-simple design (think 'Thunderbirds Kart') had grown out of control, and beyond what was possible.

“They didn’t have a very big budget, we were a team of eight or nine people, and they’re saying ‘We’re going to create the next Vice City with Thunderbirds.’ My CEO’s saying ‘I want to see cities, I want to see this, I want to see that…’ Right, OK... how we going to do that then mate, with three programmers?”

The game’s cancellation, while expected and inevitable, left Bak with a sour taste in his mouth — and a feeling that maybe he’d made the wrong choice after all. Looking for an exit, he decided to hit up the one programmer his dad had really rated.

“I’d met Jez San because he really liked the dream team back on the Atari ST — we were at a show, and he said ‘I’ve got a game, do you want to come and have a look at it?’ We went to this hotel room, Jez was 18 at the time, I was 11, and it was Starglider. It was amazing, it was like 3D on the ST. I remember my dad saying to me ‘There’s only one programmer in this world better than me – and that’s Jez San.’”

Fast-forward to the early 2000s, Jez San is running Argonaut, and Bak joins up as an audio coder. “That was good, I got to work on many different projects. I worked on Malice – before the Xbox came out that was going to be a big thing, but they just couldn’t get it out for release. Alex Clarke was the main programmer on Malice, fucking genius he is.”

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Starglider

Bak loved learning the new role, and working across the range of stuff Argonaut was creating. Free at last. But you may be spotting something of a theme here: just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.

“I got dragged back into games yeah,” he laughs. “I went to work for my old employer back in Milton Keynes and doing PC sim software again – I did a few games there, mostly PC sim games – I did a Vegas game, called Vegas: Make It Big. I kind of missed the game thing, and my friends worked back there, and a few of the reasons I left were not there when I wanted to go back.”

“The best thing I did was a prototype for a game called... I believe it was New York: Make it Big? Anyway I modelled fifty or sixty thousand people walking around streets, and it was real – it wasn’t bullshit, it wasn’t Vice City where you drive three streets away, come back and it’s a new set of people – it’s all smoke and mirrors, games, it’s always smoke and mirrors. It still is – there’s no reality to it, don’t believe what anyone says. But I did sixty thousand people – couldn’t go past sixty-four thousand because of the count.”

“Each person was essentially 4 bytes, every road was a logic queue, and I would pop people on and they would walk along it — so I wouldn’t have to visit them again for the number of seconds it would take to walk across the road. Which meant people on the other side of the city, I could pop them onto a street and not talk to them again for twenty seconds. We did a bit of Elite too, where from a code you can just procedurally make up a name, a gender and life, you know.”

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Vegas: Make It Big

Bak was enraptured by this prototype, but the suits weren’t so keen. “They wanted New York. They wanted the lights and the glam and a living, breathing city with real people and have it more celebrity-focused. To me I wanted the fifty thousand people. To me, as a programmer you’re always ‘I want to push it to the absolute extreme and then show somebody on screen’ because when it came up, and there were that many people wandering around, it did actually look quite impressive.”

The business end of the games industry is essentially conservative, and with good reason to be so, but this is probably why coders like Bak can find it such a struggle to work in. Here he was, getting better and better, producing greater and greater things, and almost no-one was seeing any of it.

“2005 all these kind of things happened, where I don’t like the practices in the industry, the EA Spouse thing, companies bragging about working their people to death – I’d just got married in 2004 – I want out. I’m going to do it properly this time, I’m going to get out.”

We’ve got at least one more comeback to go, but this was the most major shift yet — because he went all the way out. “I went to do business programming. I was very frightened I wasn’t going to be good enough, but to my amazement I found the people I worked with were actually really stupid, and it was easy to look really good. One thing the games industry has is the best programmers, and the best technical minds. There was one guy I sat next to in business who would never look at a problem if it was in C++ because he was a C guy – and he said this for six years. It took me about three weeks to learn C++.”

Bak’s salary had doubled, he was doing more or less half the hours he had been beforehand, and there was no such concept as overtime. Life was good.

“Then something strange happened. About a year later, my wife starts saying ‘What are you doing? You get drunk on a Friday night and you start Visual Studio, and you’re programming – what are you doing?’”

What were you doing?

“I was doing particle systems – I wanted to create a game out of particle systems. I can write music, I think I can program – but I can’t draw for shit. So I wrote this engine, I wrote this thing that drew lots of particles in a line, a Bézier curve, and I got this idea that maybe you can make a whole game out of this. I think I tried nine or ten different game ideas until in 2008 one stuck with me – eight years later, Bezier was released; my first game. 30 Years, and that was my first game.”

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Bezier is a much more remarkable creation than it looks at first glance. The problem is that it has the trappings of a genre, the twinstick shooter, that’s been so overdone. But most of those games are clones. And this isn’t some mindless blaster that just repeats and gets more difficult. Each of Bezier’s stages has its own soundtrack, its own enemies and movement patterns, and its own beauty. I’m not going to pretend the game doesn’t have one or two rough edges — but the experience is unique.

“I had this idea of the game being about where analogue meets the digital, and that’s what a Bézier curve is – a curve specified by a mathematical function between four points; it’s used in computer graphics, it’s nothing new – but you digitally sample it on the points, and you either draw a line like a computer graphics card would do, or you do what I did where you put a particle on that.”

A Bézier curve, in other words, helps turns the real world into something measurable. And Bezier’s theme is that you’re playing a human consciousness that’s somehow been stuck into a computer, and basically they’re having an existential crisis and want to get out.

“I think that – to a point – we’re living inside computers, like in World of Warcraft, right? That little bag of heroin. I would play World of Warcraft, sometimes, twelve hours a day. Go on Twitch now and you’ll see people playing Battlegrounds twelve hours a day, right? And they don’t do much else.”

What interested Bak was combining this modern theme with more deeply-ingrained parts of the human character — and tying it all together by building out from the Bézier curve. And there was one more striking inspiration, reflected in how each of the stages and the game as a whole is constructed.

“Leonard Bernstein is a great composer, and in 1973 he sat down at Harvard and did a series of lectures where he tried to do Chomsky’s linguistics work for music. Which is basically about how art and beauty and poetry can come about from simple forms, people all start off saying 'mama.' So what Bernstein did was say ‘well, hang on, there must be a common language within music like this: if we start with key and meter and notes, and then we get our underlying strings and melody and harmony and rhythms, then we can move up to prose where we’ll have a theme’ and so on.”

Bernstein makes a direct comparison between how language and music operate, in order to construct some better way of understanding. Which made Bak think about our equivalents. If you got right down to the foundations, what are the chosen elements that make something a videogame?

“In videogames you have the same systems, and some games are great, and some games are rubbish. There must be a scientific breakdown to this, how do they do it? It’s a bit like how certain films have all the same bits in, but they’re different films: The Shawshank Redemption had every prison film cliché going – the old man with the beard, the prison bible warden... but that is almost a heavenly piece of art. It’s timeless because it’s set in the 30s and it just resonates through your soul, like... what on earth is happening here?”

You can see how the concept began to come together. The analogue and the digital, that deep human need for certainty in the face of ambiguity, the concept of the chosen elements of this new form that are somehow underlying everything, but not yet understood or seen. It may seem surprising that I’m writing this way about a twinstick shooter, but that’s not really how I think about Bezier at all. In my head, and please excuse how terribly pretentious this sounds, the sensation of playing is more akin to ballet than blasting. One of the reasons that the sound effect 'MEGACHAIN' amused me so much is that it occurred while I was deeply entranced by the audio and motion. And it turns out this is the way Bak began to think of it, too.

“Towards the end I actually stopped thinking of my game as a twin stick blaster, and more as a ballet to that music, and things would move in and move out, and each enemy has been assigned a character in the play, and it’s the play every time. Roughly speaking I wanted to create something which was really, really frantic and looked a lot more dangerous than it was, a bit like Space Harrier where you seemed to be in more danger than you actually were.”

I’m not quite sure about calling something like Bezier a ‘personal game,’ because I don't mean you learn about Philip Bak by playing. Or, rather, you do — but not in any kind of straightforward way. You get a glimpse of how someone else sees the world, the questions it raises, the stuff they worry about. But it's ambiguous and slippery and sometimes random, too. The spirit behind the work shines through, but in doing so part of the point is that it gets distorted.

“I could write the next Minecraft,” says Bak. “I won’t, but I could write the next Minecraft and it won’t be as personal as this is to me, and nobody will ever… it doesn’t matter, you don’t need to understand it, really. Eight years, I wasn’t sitting on my arse.”

And Bak wasn’t doing it to learn anything, or to make money, or even with any great expectation of success.

“This is where we bring in that horrible word ‘art’ – and when you’re trying to make your art, what are you trying to do? The best art just asks questions. But it sounds very self indulgent when you talk about art – I’m not doing it for the money, I’m not doing it for the fame because no fucker knows me, there’s only three people around playing it who’re going to appreciate everything. I take the work really seriously. I don’t take myself seriously.”

Bak had had a bit of a health scare early in the making of Bezier. Around two years into development, the doctors found a lump in his throat, so he went in to have it removed and fearing the worst.

"On the day of my first operation, my wife said 'I don’t want to take your mind off it but look at this...' and she passed me the positive pregnancy test, and all of a sudden I’m thinking 'Oh god I’ve got cancer and I’m about to start making videos to my unborn son I’ll never meet because I’m gone in three months' you know."

Luckily, the lump in his throat was benign and the operation was a success. "Within forty minutes of the general anaesthetic – I’m still ashamed of this by the way, it’s a bit like a war story – I had the laptop open and Bezier was still being coded! When I could still feel my hand, it was one of the happiest moments of my life – I was still going to be able to get this game done."

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It's striking that, at a time where Bak’s thinking about matters of life and death, something seems to solidify in his thinking about why he's making a game at all. His drive and determination to make a personal work makes me wonder about that image of Bak's father receiving a cheque to pay off the mortgage, and subsequently diving into the industry. I wonder if such a powerful example, so early on, was the lens through which he saw games for some years. Since Bezier's release, and despite excellent reviews from the likes of Simon Parkin at Eurogamer, it hasn't sold well at all. I ask Bak how he feels about Bezier’s lack of sales and attention.

“The three word answer is I don’t care,” says Bak. “Which sounds very flippant. Like I said, at around year two I was in the hospital bed, and that was the moment when I sort of gave up the idea that I was going to pay my mortgage. And as soon as I gave up that idea it was wonderfully freeing because you feel ‘balls to it, I don’t care.’ I’m going to think about the deep structures, I’m going to try and deconstruct some metaphors here. I wanted to make a silly twin stick shooter that had a bit of meaning to it, that was a bit more deep, because when I played Geometry Wars, as much as I liked that, I don’t feel I’m doing anything like killing my own brother. I don’t feel like I’m wrestling for my own soul because I’m frightened about my own soul.”

The last few sentences might raise a few eyebrows, but what Bak’s talking about will be familiar to any player of Bezier. The game is essentially a character wrestling for their soul inside a machine. “He thinks he’s going to die, and he thinks if he dies he’ll be gone and god will not be looking," says Bak. "I’m an atheist, but I recognise that story element of god not looking – it’s the thing that humans are terrified of, that god’s not looking at you. You are left behind. It’s the trigger, it’s the exclusion – the worst thing you can do, it’s exclusion. And to somebody that feels that way, that seemed like a great starting point for a twin-stick shooter.”

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“The thing is, you make a game with one or another mindset. You can either make a game and say ‘What do I think the player wants? Where’s the hole in the market? I will go for that dollar, whatever it is.’ You either do that, or you say ‘I’m going to make a game I’d like to play, and it’s me.’ And it’s very indulgent, very pretentious. But then to me if you say ‘Well I think these people want that…’ I think that’s more offensive than saying ‘I’m just going to try and please myself’ – because who the hell knows what these people want? How dare you speak for them!”

As we’re finishing up Bak tells me that, while he sometimes likes the idea of going back into the mainstream industry, he’d rather work in a bar and make his own games on the side, unfettered. Not that he currently works in a bar, we just happen to be in one. But it’s the kind of mindset that shows you how the guy could be pushed-and-pulled across so many years by the allure of dream projects, of making something beautiful, and the cold realities of creation-as-an-industry. He’s had a life in games, but can he imagine one without them?

“I’m going to steal a saying from Christopher Hitchens, from when people asked him for advice on writing, and he stole it from somebody else. Every so often someone says ‘I want to get into games, what advice can you give?’ I say the same thing every time as he said – 'Can you imagine a happy life where you are not doing games?' – and if you can’t, then you’ll be fine. But the answer has to be 'no.'

“If you can imagine a happy life where you’re not making games, then go do that with your life. Go do it. It’s an awful saying and nobody ever likes it when I tell them because games chose me, I didn’t choose games. I tried to leave it at every step, four different times. And it’s not because I hate it.

“In 2004 I had the responsibility of interviewing programmers, and I would say: ‘What do you like better, do you like programming games or do you like playing games?’ and I used to think that was a top shit question because that puts them on the spot. They’ve come in for a programming job, but it’s a games job – it’s like a catch 22 shot. I used to think I was very clever.

“Ten years later, I realised I was very stupid because if you rewind back to 1979, that flashing cursor, when you turn a computer on, Spectrum, Acorn or whatever, that’s your game. Your game is making the game. It’s the same thing – do you like playing games or making games? I wish somebody had just said ‘Shut the fuck up, it’s the same thing!’ And it is the same thing. You ask any programmer, game developer – the best game is making the damn thing. That’s it.”


You can buy Bezier here