The Inside Pulse Interview with Archer Maclean

British gaming icon Archer Maclean may not be a familiar name to US gamers, but with the release of his newest title Archer Maclean’s Mercury on the recently launched Sony PSP, game freaks in the US are starting to wonder just who this guy really is. Join Liquidcross as he talks with Maclean about his decades of game development experience, the joys of the current gaming market, and of course, more Mercury.


[Liquidcross] Thanks for sitting down with us, Archer. Most retrogamers would know of you via games like Dropzone and International Karate back in the Atari and Commodore 64 days. Can you give us a rundown on the design process for those games? The gaming atmosphere was obviously very different two decades ago. How did all of that stack up against the game development environment of today?

[Archer Maclean] In those days I was heavily influenced by anything the arcade manufacturers were putting out, especially Atari, Williams, and Cinematronics. I would spend hours playing everything and naturally got inspired to want to do my own games. But this was the early 1980s. We didn’t have the internet, or BBSs, or E3. We didn’t have any software or hardware tools, so any animation/graphics/sound effects “tools” I needed I had to first write myself. And machine code was the only language you could program fast games in. Seems odd now looking back that I would spend months optimising the t-state microsecond timing on a 1mhz 8-bit 6502 or Z80 just to make my code run faster than any of my contemporaries at the time. The early Atari machines did have some very clever hardware graphics support which they didn’t advertise to the world and is one reason why they appeared to have games way ahead of the competition. The Commodore 64 by comparison was weaker, but had its own tricks (Commodore spent plenty of money on ads heralding sprites and the SID chip). Anyway, today they would be called a hardware accelerator or 3D hardware cards, and I can plot the evolution of games hardware from maybe mid-1970s through to the present day. Its fascinating for me to have been along for the ride from the days of Pong in 1972 to the PSP in 2005, and hopefully a while longer yet.

I also remember spending ages fine-tuning game play balance to make it as progressive as an arcade game. This is time that isn’t normally allowed in today’s cutthroat development market where getting the product out on time is more in the publisher’s interest than letting it slip, due to all the huge marketing schemes kicked off months before the expected project completion, as well as the need for funding to hit financial quarters and such like. You can (with intelligent project planning) work in all the these factors, but the pressure is always on to get it done on time and on budget whilst dealing with a creative project that can “evolve” during development into something better than originally dreamt up in a game design document. I just never had documents or plans in the early days; it was all in my head! And there was only me to worry about, with no team pressures to cope with, and I was far more focused in those days.

Programming games back then was much simpler with no publisher leaning over your shoulder telling you how to do it! I was fortunate in that Dropzone in 1983/1984 was financially successful, so other titles I did after that enabled me to just “do my own thing,” and a game was ready when I thought it was balanced/tweaked/fun/just right/full of all my trademark quirky bits. Strangely enough, all the games where I was left to my own devices were #1 hits.


Dropzone

Since then, it’s been a lot more difficult because when you manage a team and take development advances from a publisher, they like to stick their oar in and argue about everything with the result that budgets increase maybe 30% just for their meddling, even though they want the costs kept down! They all bang on about wanting killer games and the next big thing, yet even when you show them something like Mercury at the early stages, they all can’t see it, or back off, or don’t want to invest the millions it takes to do this because it’s so unknown, and after you spend months being strung along by publisher management, someone eventually says “It could be good, but we’d rather you make a nice driving game or fighting game,” or in my case, another pool game! So it’s no wonder so few original titles ever make it out to the market.

[LC] What made you decide to focus on pool and snooker simulations?

[AM] I had a very vivid dream around 1980 or 1981 as if I was a camera suspended just above a snooker table and just floating about looking at the moving balls close up. This was probably triggered by watching hours of snooker coverage on British TV at the time, with the likes of Jimmy White and Steve Davis cleaning up in the televised tournaments. However, there was no way I could do a 3D snooker/pool game with filled-in polygonal graphics at the time, and I didn’t want to do a top-down 2D solution. So I went off and did a load of shooting/fighting games until the advent of the Amiga and Atari ST using the 68000 chip, which had the essential maths abilities and speed to allow my game design dreams to be expressed as fast as I’d like at the time.

Needless to say, Jimmy White’s Whirlwind Snooker and AM Pool (all on the ST, Amiga, Genesis/Megadrive, and PC) sold by the bucketload, and I realised I had unearthed a bit of a goldmine. So I then proceeded to evolve this into Jimmy White’s Cueball (PC) with lavish graphics and making use of the Voodoo 3D cards that were all the rage in the late 1990s.


Jimmy White’s Cueball

I still think Cueball is one of the nicest games I’ve done. It didn’t stop there and I went onto to do Cueball World (PC) in 2000/2001, and then Pool Paradise (PS2/GC/PC) in 2003.


Cueball World


Pool Paradise

Off the top of my head I’d reckon that somewhere between 3 to 4 million of those games were sold, and yet they all related to a code design I researched and refined way back in 1988/1989.

[LC] Any plans for the Nintendo DS? Stylus control and billiards seems like a perfect match.

[AM] I’d love to put Pool Paradise and even Mercury on the DS and make good use of the lower touch screen. This would all be subject to negotiation with Nintendo though.

[LC] Speaking of Mercury, your most recent release…how exactly did that game come about?

[AM] It was a massive extension to the sub game we had in Cueball World. Do you remember those little plastic puzzles you get at Christmastime that feature half a dozen ball bearings that you need to tilt into destination holes? Well, I played with them as a kid, and out of the blue found myself playing with one 5 years ago which made me want to put a mouse controlled version into Cueball World. Then, turning that into a mercury “blob” instead of ball bearings was a flash of inspiration I had in 2001, but the processing power required to make the mercury ebb, flow, and gloop about is enormous and couldn’t have been done in realtime then. Luckily, the PSP does have amazing maths abilities linked to excellent graphics hardware and a fantastic screen, and it all came together as a great marriage of “new style” gameplay and a superb handheld games machine.


Mercury

I could rattle on about all the other major hurdles we had to overcome with the game’s design, but that would take up a few hundred pages another time, as I have often been told a write a book called “Archer’s Anecdotes” or something due to the bizarre life I have led outside of programming.

[LC] Rumors flew around about a USB “tilt sensor” that was supposed to ship alongside Mercury; whatever happened to that?

[AM] Yes, it definitely exists! It is completely analogue and proportional, and works in all axes, not just one. It’s something we have played around with since 1999/2000 when we made the first one for another hardware project we were playing with. Mercury is playable with the tiny prototypes here at Awesome Studios. But despite Sony Europe/Japan/USA all liking the gadget (they’ve all seen it), they have only just got the PSP hardware launched, and we are working with Sony to get this out…just as soon as Sony has the procedures to approve 3rd party devices. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Until then it has to continue to wait, but yes it definitely exists.

[LC] What can you tell us about Mercury 2?

[AM] The main Awesome Studios team is working on this at the moment. Mercury 2 is not just a load of new levels, but a substantial new game, but not losing sight of the fact that the blob is the star of the show and shall continue to be the focus. However, now we are concentrating on multiplayer, mini games, co-op and competitive play modes, and dozens of new mercury behavioral techniques and their use in game level design.

Multiplayer (co-op and competitive, and for 2-8 players) is one area that will be dramatically enhanced in Mercury 2. We have looked long and hard at how we can best expand the gameplay of the single-player game into the multiplayer arena and some of the new ideas that the designers have been coming up with for multiplayer modes are really exciting.

We’re also looking into the possibility of a level builder (not in Mercury 2 but for the future) with upload/download features via the web, but to make this bullet proof is almost as much work as doing a new game.

One limiting factor is the amount of processing power needed to render up lots of mercury blobs. The PSP is surprisingly powerful, but if we have 8 sets of full sized mercury blobs all interacting with themselves in an 8 way shared game, the processing goes up exponentially and it cant happen on any current machine. However, we have various interesting ways around this limitation.

Also, feedback from Mercury players out there commenting on their likes and dislikes is really important to us and we’re constantly checking to see what features players of the first game want in the sequel.

[LC] Are there any plans to port Mercury to other consoles?

[AM] Mercury as it stands today is for the PSP. We’re planning future versions of Mercury for the PS2 and PSP; these will be all new and have features that allow the two to link up, with masses of hidden unlockables and subgames, plus some really fun multiplayer areas. These will support the tilt sensor on both platforms (the PS2 one will use a new DualShock-type controller with the tilt electronics inside).

[LC] Any chance we’ll see your games on the Mac OS X computing platform, rather than just Windows PCs? There’s plenty of Mac gamers out there…

[AM] I have always been a big fan of the whole Apple Mac system right from day one. I still have an Apple I and Apple II Color here at home, and have followed the careers of “the two Steves” (Jobs and Wozniak) since their entrepreneurial days at Atari working on Pong in 1971-1973.

But sadly, there’s very little distribution and publisher content support to make adaptations onto the Mac OS worthwhile… unless someone out there has a plan they’sd like to talk to me about!

[LC] Even without Mac stuff en route, it seems we still have a lot to look forward to on other consoles. Thanks for your time, Archer!


Again, if you’re interested in checking out Maclean’s most recent work, look for Pool Paradise (which has the original Dropzone as an unlockable extra!) on the Playstation 2, Gamecube, and PC; 3D Pool on the Game Boy Advance; and, of course, Mercury on the Sony PSP. Now all we have to do is wait until Mercury 2 comes out…