Llamasoft Interview by GAMESIDE
About Llamasoft, games, and lovely ungulates…
This is an interview originally done for a Japanese game magazine called GAMESIDE. GAMESIDE is a unique game magazine which is known for their in-depth coverages for both new and retro games.
Please visit http://gameside.jp/ and say hello to them :)
GAMESIDE did a 9-page feature story about Llamasoft in their April 2008(Vol.11) issue. Here is the interview from the issue, published in English for the first time. We thank the editor in chief Yusaku Yamamoto and Micro Magazine for giving us the permission.
Q1. Please introduce yourself(yourselves)/Llamasoft to our readers.
Jeff: My name is Jeff Minter (Yak) and I founded Llamasoft in 1982. Llamasoft currently consists of two people, myself and Ivan Zorzin who joined in 2004.
Giles: My name is Ivan Zorzin (Giles), been fond of electronics and computers since I was 12. For a strange fate it happens I am a cook and worked many years like that as well as a software/hardware developer for a big security systems company. I like a lot also mathematics, Yak says I am his math co-processor :-)
Q2. How do you describe Llamasoft in a sentence?
Jeff: Old-school game developer.
Q3. Is there any Llamasoft’s philosophy/mission?
Jeff: We create the games we would like to play, and we hope others like to play them too.
Q4. Llamasoft has been developing games for long time – What are your most memorable titles? Memorable we mean here can include – the best one you’ve ever produced, the most sold one, the most challenging one, etc.
Jeff: The first game that became very successful – “Gridrunner” on the Commodore Vic-20, which sold very well in the USA.
The most successful game – “Tempest 2000” for the Atari Jaguar. By the end of its life more people owned “Tempest 2000” than the game that was actually given away with the Jaguar for most of its life.
The best game – “Space Giraffe” on XBLA. This brings together my two favourite things, abstract, algorithmic graphics and shoot-em-up game design.
Q5. What kind of mind-set do you have when designing games?
Jeff: I always work by trying first and foremost to make something that I truly want to exist. I am always trying to create a particular feeling of being fully engaged with a game, so that the act of playing it feels good and is deeply satisfying. The act of playing should be a good reward in and of itself even if one doesn’t get the highest score.
Q6. Please tell us about the first “game” you ever programmed.
Jeff: The first games I ever programmed would have been on the old Commodore PET machine that we had in school. The first game I remember actually programming was a two-player shooting game. Each player was represented by a block graphic and moved around with the keyboard and you could fire shots at one another. The game is memorable to me because in trying to improve how it worked I discovered the existence of screen memory in the PET, and where it was located, which was a first step towards a true understanding of how the machine really worked underneath the BASIC language interpreter. A few months later I left BASIC for good and began to work entirely in 6502 machine language.
Q7. We assume people often ask you this question – Why and how did you come to love animals especially ungulates?
Jeff: I liked camels and llamas since I was quite young, I guess simply because they are unusual-looking and I like how they look. The more I learned about these animals the more I liked them. I really like sheep because they are lovely, gentle animals which have a lot more personality and intelligence than they are given credit for. I like goats because they are very strong-willed and full of attitude. I admire the ox because he is strong and patient and gentle yet hard working.
I admire animals in general because they are never intrinsically bad. If an animal behaves in a bad way it is usually because it has not been treated well.
Giles: Well .. I grew up in a rural country animals always been around me, we had chickens, rabbits, ducks .. they really are part of your everyday life you live with them and you get to know them.
I had a friend that had some goats .. I always found goats really cute and nice, my love for ungulates started there and as Yak said herbivores are really nice because they don’t need to kill to live.
Q8. How many animals have you ever had as pets?
Jeff: When I was growing up we had a family dog and a couple of cats. Since I have lived away from my parents’ house I have had two cats, two sheep and two goats. Currently I have six sheep, two llamas, one goat and a dog.
Q9. As you know, we Japanese find it hard to imagine a big house which can have sheepies as pets. Could you educate us how having these sheepies, llamas and goats can be great in developing games?
Jeff: I find having the animals around to be very therapeutic and relaxing when one gets stressed out from work. Working all the time sitting at the computer can get tiring and sometimes stressful, and sometimes one would like simply to disengage for a while from all things technological and spend some time with nature. At those times it is a real joy to be able to step outside and take a walk around the fields, and to have all the sheep and other animals come running up looking for attention and cuddles. It is hard to feel stressed when you are cuddling a large, happy sheepie :) .
Being able to spend time with the animals helps keep us grounded in the real, natural world when we might otherwise get too lost in the world of the machines.
Giles: I think it’s important to say that “life is not made of computers only”, we do love computers we really do but we do also love nature and the rest of life, life would be someway really incomplete and unbalanced without nature.
There definitely are moments when the brain and the soul needs something else to think and care for, animals are our passion and love as well I love to grow plants too, it’s not just a distraction it’s really “the two things that make life balanced”.
When you have a goat or a sheep that is so happy to see you in the morning and be with you it makes you feel great even when maybe other things are not going so well :-)
Q10. Have you encountered any difficulty in having your beasties? Was finding a nice house with fields hard? Is it hard taking care of them?
Jeff: Well, I could not have afforded to be able to do so if I had stayed in the part of the UK where I was born – places with fields are much too expensive there. So that is part of the reason I came to Wales, such places are much cheaper here. Even so it took time to find just the right place.
Looking after the animals isn’t too hard – the sheep need shearing once a year, and you must provide hay and extra food in the winter when the grass doesn’t grow much. Sometimes routine maintenance must be done, usually to hooves, which need trimming from time to time, and which can become diseased if the ground underfoot becomes too wet, and require treatment.
Q11. We all know you love ungulates. How about other animals?
Jeff: I like all animals, but I am particularly fond of herbivores. I like animals that do not need to kill other animals in order to survive.
Giles: Once I raised up a duck that was lost .. it’s been really an experience .. the duck was following me everywhere .. was a bit noisy and I had to clean lot all around .. but it also been incredibly cute and funny, when he got big enough we found a place in a farm for him with other ducks he lived many years.
Q12. Your works…such as Tempest 2000, Neon and Space Giraffe flood us with lights and sounds, and make us feel something…like a “mythical experience.” Where did you get your inspiration?
Jeff: That inspiration comes from deep in my childhood, when i first heard the music of “Pink Floyd”. I would imagine abstract lightshows in my head when I listened to that music, and I always wanted a machine that would let me externalise these imaginings somehow. This resulted in my first work on “light synthesisers” that I began in 1984, and carried on to encompass my interest in interactive music visualisers such as the VLM-1 in the Atari Jaguar CD-Rom, and the Neon visualiser in the Xbox 360.
Tempest 2000 was the first attempt to fuse gameplay with the visualisation technology I’d developed, and Space Giraffe, being built on an extended version of the Neon engine, is the latest evolution of that idea. With each iteration I would like to combine even better the good feelings that I get from using a really good interactive visualiser and those that I get from playing a really good and satisfying game into a single, joyful experience.
Q13. We feel audio is an integral part of Llamasoft works. Did you do any special musical activities back in school – such as forming a band with your friends?
Jeff: I was never in a band, although I did play the piano and the trombone for a while. I never really got fired up creatively until i discovered programming. These days I enjoy using software tools to try making music (I made one of the tunes for Space Giraffe myself). And my favourite musical tool that I have is the Tenori-on from Toshio Iwai.
Giles: When I was a child I learnt music and played mandolin in a band for some years, much later I learnt and studied clarinet for a few years.
Even much later I learnt to play didgeridoo by myself, I find it really fascinating and I quite like that instrument.
Q14. Since when have you been challenging to bring the games and the lightsynths together?
Jeff: This really began in 1993 when i was working on Tempest 2000.
Q15. Llamasoft is a very small company with only a few people. What are the Pros and Cons of being a small company?
Jeff: The pros are really that we have very low overheads and so it doesn’t take much money to keep us going. The cons are that we can only really undertake smaller projects because larger ones would simply take too long to be practical, and also between the two of us we have to do everything ourselves. This can be a good thing too, in that we have complete creative control of what we do, but it can also be a burden if you need to spend time preparing other stuff when you would rather be programming.
Q16. Please tell us about your first encounter with a video game.
Jeff: The first game I ever saw would be a home “Pong” game that one of my older brothers got and brought over to my parents’ house one weekend. I saw it and thought it was cool but at that time I could not afford to buy one myself so I forgot about it. Then a few years later I remember the same brother talking about a game called “Breakout” that he’s played in a bar somewhere, and that Christmas my brothers took me out to a bar and that game was there. I was interested in it but spent more time watching my brother play it rather than trying myself. The first game that really caught my interest and got me playing was “Space Invaders”. I had heard about the game on the news (they said that in Japan the game was so popular they were running out of coins), and when a travelling fair came to town and I saw they had Space Invaders I had to have a go. I believe I scored 470 points on my first game.
Giles: My memories are a bit fading, I saw Pong as well but I think much later .. I think my real first videogame been Asteroid, I’ll never forget the impression it made to me with its super shiny vector graphics, for years ( and still today ) real vector graphics been a kind of love to me :-)
Q17. Please tell us about three games that are very special to you…The game which you love the best, the game which has influenced your life the most, and the game you are best at.
Jeff: I think the game I love the best would have to be Katamari Damacy. I love everything about that game. The style is wonderful, the music is great, the many ways in which the King can tell you off are amusing, the act of playing it never fails to make me smile, and I am always happy when I am done playing.
The game that influenced my life the most is definitely Tempest. It instilled in me a love and appreciation of abstract graphics, and enabled me to create one of the most distinctive games of my career when Atari had me do Tempest 2000 for the Jaguar. Space Giraffe has its ancestry in Tempest too (via Tempest 2000 – I really think of SG as being the evolution of T2K).
That would probably be Atari Star Wars, the vector arcade game. I used to have the sit-down version of this game at home, and I loved it dearly and became very good indeed at it. A few years ago I went to a Llamasoft meetup at a replication of an old arcade room, a place that contained hundreds of old games all on free play. The best players from YakYak were there, and we all played against one another – it was a really lovely day out.
They had an Atari Star Wars game, and my worst score of the day was far ahead of anyone else’s best :) . I hadn’t played it myself for more than ten years, but I guess the memory of how to play never faded :) .
Giles:That’s really a hard question, I really like many games and many of them are special to me because they are tied to moments of my life.
I have to say a special one to me should be maybe Track and Field because I have very good memories of me and friends playing it having a really wonderful time, it wasn’t just the game but all the rest around it.
One that influenced my life ? .. Oh dear .. I have to say Manic Miner because it made me addicted to the platform gender :-)
The game I am best at ? I think I should say Starforce, it’s one of the few games I can make a score higher than Jeff.
Q18. Which game console impressed you the most?
Jeff: For its time, probably Nintendo 64. Although a couple of other consoles were out earlier with polygonal 3D capabilities, I think it was the N64 with the analog stick and some excellent software titles (in particular Super Mario 64) that first made me feel that 3D gaming could actually be really cool. The PS1 has to come close, since it too had some excellent titles and decent polygonal graphics, but nothing made me feel at home in a 3D world as much as Super Mario 64.
Q19. Is there any recent favorite game from other developers?
Jeff: I absolutely love the Half-Life series; we’ve just played through all of Half-Life 2 and both episodes and really enjoyed it. Portal is excellent too.
Giles: Me for Half Life as well :-) Ah and of course Super Mario Galaxy.
Q20. How did you come to work with Microsoft?
Jeff: That came about through friends of mine really – one of them was involved in a company that did a lot of Xbox work, and he brought a friend of his from MS to a party at my place one time, and he saw some lightsynth work I was doing, and told the main Xbox guy at MS about it, and it turned out that the main Xbox guy had liked my stuff for ages… it was a long chain of relationships really and people helping to move things along, but eventually we got to make the Neon visualiser for 360 and then after that get into doing work on XBLA.
Q21. What do you think of Microsoft, as a developer?
Jeff: They are really pretty cool people to work with. Their technical guys are always really on the ball and willing to help out if you need them. I went out and met some of the Xbox 360 team back in 2004 and they came across as a bunch of guys who really were working hard to produce something that they thought would be great for gamers, and I admire that kind of attitude.
Q22. Nintendo announced WiiWare, which is like a XBLA for Wii. Do you want to develop games for WiiWare?
Jeff: Certainly if the opportunity ever arises I would be interested in having a go at designing games for Wii. I think the nature of the kind of spatial control possible with Wii controls might fit in really well with certain aspects of the interactive visualisation work.
Giles: And I had “yes me too” :-)
Q23. There are 5 game consoles right now: Xbox360, PS3, Wii, DS, PSP. Please give us a short impression/comment for each.
Jeff: X360 – Now seems to be coming into full maturity with lots of good titles coming out. Very well integrated online experience. If I could change anything about it, it would only be to make it a little quieter when it is running.
PS3 – Very promising machine that has yet to live up to its promise. I think in this coming year it will start to really get better games which will show it off to its best effect.
Wii – The machine that vindicates Nintendo’s bold decision to drop out of the “console arms race” and try something different. Appeals to many more people than the conventional consoles. Very interesting possibilities for game design due to unique controllers.
DS – Portable gaming perfection. The DS Lite has to be the best portable machine ever. Not the most powerful portable – but in portables, practicality is king.
PSP – Lovely machine, and the best looking and most powerful portable out there, like having a portable PS2. Not quite as easy to carry around as the DSL though, so doesn’t get used as much as the DSL.
Q24. What is your opinion about the current game industry?
Jeff: I think some of the more monolithic game publishers could do with being a bit more adventurous than just sticking to formulas that they know will sell well, but I also do see occasional more unusual titles getting noticed and published, and I hope that online distribution will allow smaller companies producing off-mainstream works to get heard and distributed – so I think there is hope for the future yet.
Giles: I would just add that maybe this is a bit a “single sided question”, I think that today the question should be not about the game industry only but about the players as well.
The two things are connected and one influences the other I think the situation is quite complex.
Q25. You gathered translators for Space Giraffe using your online forum. What do you think about online communities surrounding games?
Jeff: In general I’ve found it a very positive and helpful thing. We established the Llamasoft forum in 2002 and since then I have made a lot of friends there, and had a lot of fun at parties and meetings; I have also had a lot of help in game development, through the help of translators, musicians, artists and game testers.
Q26. Where do you think the game industry is heading, and how the future Llamasoft will be like?
Jeff: I think what will happen is what I hope will happen – moving away from physical distribution as the only method of getting games out there will open things up to smaller teams interested in doing off-mainstream works, and that this will maybe inspire the larger companies to step a little more outside of their comfort zones and support more diverse developments. There will always be a market for large, epic games made by large teams of people, and there will also (I hope) be a market for smaller games made by smaller teams with a strong individual style. I hope that there will be a place for Llamasoft in that second category in the future.
Giles: What Yak said hoping there will be always a place for people like us, I think it would be a real pity if that there won’t be place any more for people like us but what’s going to happen only the future can tell.
Q27. What do you think of Japan(the country/the game industry)?
Jeff: I find Japan and its culture to be absolutely fascinating, and I would very much like to visit one day. I think for us Europeans, we’ve grown up in an area where there are a lot of different cultures but with an underlying cultural commonality coming largely from Greek and ancient Roman cultures, and so although we are different from one another we aren’t that different.
The cultural history of Japan has been entirely different from that of us Europeans. I think maybe the fact that the deep history of Japan is so different from our own means that we naturally find many aspects of it to be very interesting. Japan also seems to be full of a lot of wild, creative talent which manifests itself in all kinds of interesting ways, not least in the form of excellent game designs (and game system designs). The world would be a much poorer place without the Japanese game industry – how terrible it would be if there were no Nintendo and no Mario!
Giles: Huh .. here I could speak for days :-) I find it very fascinating as well, as an Italian I grew up with things like Osamu Tezuka, Kenshiro and felt in love with many Japanese things ( that I am sure I just know only at the surface ) mangas and cartoons.
You may know it or maybe not but in Italy the cultural influence of Japan is quite big at least for quite some people.
Many people loves with admiration the differences and originality of Japan, we surely don’t understand it all but we truly like to see it trying to understand it.
I will always very grateful to Japan for creating a thing that “is so simple and so nice”, I wish to say thanks for Super Mario :-)
Italy is not really a country where we cannot have super heroes except maybe just Mario .. he’s just .. he’s too nice :-)
I really really hope a day I’ll be able to visit it but even if I never
visited it so far Japan has always a place in me.
Ah yes .. YAY for Excel Saga ! :D
Q28. Could you leak us something about your next game?
Jeff: It’s a shooting game with many different ways to play it – like with Space Giraffe, you can be bold and take risks and get more points, or you can play more safely. It isn’t quite as deeply abstract as Space Giraffe; it contains a ship that is recognisably a ship, and sheep that are recognisably sheep!
Q29. Please give your message to Llamasoft fans in Japan :) Thanks!
Jeff: I would like to say that we appreciate your support, and that we hope you will continue to enjoy Llamasoft games for many years to come.
Giles:What Yak said, I hope we’ll be around for long time :-)
Interviewer: Shinichi Yamoto, © 2008 MICRO MAGAZINE