|Interview with Ashley Hogg|
Devin: How did you come to work for Codemasters and what was your previous game programming experience?
Ash: I started out freelancing, back in 1990/91. I was still living in Northern Ireland, and a couple of guys I met and got to know through local computer shops produced a C64 budget game which ended up as "CJ's Elephant Antics". I had been coding Amiga for a while (demos mainly) and we decided I would have a go at an Amiga version, as well as the C64 music. The game ended up signed to Codemasters, that was my first commercial title and the beginnings of my involvement with Codemasters. After a few projects with Codies, we did a couple of other things including a title with Thalamus. That didn't work out too well in the end, and late 1992 I was thinking of emigrating to New Zealand and getting out of games altogether! I mentioned this in passing to a couple of the Codies guys, and they said I should move to their offices in Warwickshire and help out on some other projects, so I did! Initially I helped them finish "Fantastic Dizzy" on the Megadrive, which was my first console experience and a very fun time. I decided to stay in the games business after all.
Devin: Who instigated the Micro Machines conversion for CD-i?
Ash: I think it was Philips. After the multimedia angle hadn't exactly put a CD-i in every home, they started trying to get deals together to get larger name game titles ported to the system. Micro Machines and Codemasters were pretty big at the time so it wasn't a bad idea. Actually, I remember speaking to Philips directly myself before I even moved to Codemasters, sometime in late 91 or early 92. They didn't seem so keen on games then, but I was looking for systems where I could possibly carve a niche for myself. When I caught wind of the possibility of doing Micro Machines I was fairly keen to get involved, which was fortunate because, no offence to Philips, but I don't think any of the other programmers were especially interested. Personally I saw it as a decent way to get some experience developing for a CD-based system, which were fairly new at that time. I think the deal pretty much happened early to mid 1994, so it was several months before the PlayStation surfaced.
Devin: How did you originally approach this conversion?
Ash: Initially I had hoped it would be fairly simple from a code perspective, since CD-i had a 68000 series CPU and the Megadrive game had already been coded in 68000 assembler. Unfortunately, due to some rights problem (I still don't really know why) we couldn't use that code. So I had the original NES 6502 assembler code handed over, and I made a printout of the whole thing. I made a rough map of the code functionality (for example higher level processes and lower level detail) and decided on a rough plan of attack. During the development I basically took each part of the code in turn and re-coded it into 68000 directly from the 6502 reference. It wasn't the prettiest way to do it really, but time was likely to be short and at least it was methodical if not optimal. Philips had given us a useful base framework to get started with, as well as a development kit with SNASM tools and so on. What I remember most was how much I hated using a PC. Quite a few of us had used Amiga A4000 workstations for the Megadrive development, using a mix of off the shelf tools like DevPac, and stuff we wrote ourselves. For code editing, CygnusEd was simply the weapon of choice. By comparison, tools on the PC were like the dark ages. To this day I still can't really believe it!
Devin: What was SNASM and is the fact you needed to make your own tools typical for development purposes or was this simply a problem coding for CD-i?
Ash: SNASM was the series of development systems produced by SN Systems, they had them for most console platforms and Amiga and suchlike. The PC and CD-i devkit were connected via SCSI and SN supplied compilers, assemblers & linkers and debugger. It's fairly common for developers to produce their own tools, although back then it was somewhat easier than today with the huge 3D beasts of games that we have. A group of us at Codies were die-hard Amiga fans and coders, and between us produced a fair number of useful development tools, like level editors and suchlike. For Micro Machines I still ended up using the A4000 with a couple of custom tools, for designing the bonus levels, graphics conversion/compression and suchlike.
Devin: Did your experience working on CD-i prove valuable in subsequent projects as you anticipated?
Ash: I'd say yes, in terms of getting a lesson in the kind of performance problems you have dealing with CD-based titles (slow seek times, etc). Aside from that, it was just another, slightly quirky, system to learn and produce for. After CD-i I went straight to PlayStation which really was a very different animal altogether.
Devin: Why didn't Philips or Codemasters pursue more conversion projects to CD-i, was anything planned besides Micro Machines?
Ash: Well, during MM we were all talking about a couple of further projects. A conversion of Codies' Megadrive game Psycho Pinball was the most considered, and for a while there was talk of a deal to do a conversion of Theme Park. With hindsight I am SO glad that never happened, it would have been a nightmare. In the end though the budgets were never going to be big, and after MM I opted to go and do a PlayStation title for Empire. With the low budget, and the fact that none of the other coders were ever really that interested in CD-i, I think it just died a natural death right there.
Devin: Micro Machines, much to the delight of CD-i gamers was the first and only game to be given covermount treatment on the UK based CDi magazine as a demo. Assuming you were involved in its production who's brilliant idea was it?
Ash: I honestly can't remember if it was Philips or the magazine that instigated it. The news was just passed on to us and so we worked to get a demo ready! If I remember correctly it took a while to produce the demo, since really the game code needed to be pretty much done and most of the bugs worked out. That was tricky enough as there were quite a few months of fixing code bugs and having issues with the game running properly on retail CD-i units. It all seems one big blur, but I guess we did manage to get the demo done in time and the feature ran in the magazine.
Devin: A question that can hardly be avoided and something thats turned into CD-i folklore! Your declaration of love for one Kathryn Spencer in a hidden file within the CD-i disk. Care to elaborate?
Ash: Yeah, I think I already spoke about it on the CDInteractive forums but here goes again. Really, it's not what people think but it does kind of read that way! I still don't quite understand the chronology of events, but that bibliographic text file (one of a few standard but normally hidden files on these discs, and meant to contain things like references to other works etc) was actually not the final one that should have been mastered. I did look over my backups and it pre-dates the submissions by a good few weeks. Since I prepared the disc images for master, the fault is only my own. Probably what occurred is that I left the work-in-progress files on the discs right up to near the actual mastering, then replaced it on my last couple of disc images (I had likely forgotten about it until that point). Perhaps the first disc of the final few submitted was actually the one that was chosen for master.
At that time, I was really busy with work and generally pretty happy but there was quite a lot of pressure and stress too. With hindsight I guess my life balance wasn't quite right, but then that's true of many of us :) I had just gotten involved with a theatrical company, doing props and helping out backstage etc. Kathryn was a company member and her father John was chairman of the company, and certainly very instrumental in the whole thing. She was just one of those people I instantly liked and felt a connection with, it wasn't a romantic interest or anything but almost like the sister I never had. John is a great businessman and both he and his wife are always so full of life, they got me involved in other projects too and were always extremely kind to me. I haven't seem them for a few years but I often think of them and hope they are well. The final bibliographic file actually goes some way to thanking them (and some other people) for all of this, but sadly I never really took the chance to tell them directly. So the file on the disc was really a work-in-progress, a real snapshot of a moment in time!
Devin: Codemasters seemed quite focused on providing innovations for multi-player based games. It might have even been Micro Machines that started the specific 4-Player Megadrive cartridge. I'm not sure if your familiar with the technology but basically the megadrive cartridge came with 2 additional gamepad ports for a total of 4 possible players including the standard MD jacks. The CD-i version had its own interpretation based around the hardwares limitations. Using a single gamepad for two-player action. Quite a unique approach! Did this come from Codemasters or was it your own answer to the troublesome two-player question faced by CD-i hardware?
Ash: Micro Machines is obviously the type of game that's more fun against a friend (or several), so Codemasters really wanted to incorporate multiplayer in the CD-i version. In fact, I think at the time they had been very keen on adopting the rules of an internal design document which insisted all games have a simultaneous multiplayer aspect. Certainly with Micro Machines that made sense. We were primarily thinking of the then-new CDi-450 unit, which Philips were hoping would position them more in gaming territory along with Sega and so on. One console-esque controller was what the unit came with, so I think it was David Darling who suggested just letting the cars auto-accelerate and share the 2 sides of the gamepad to control just the steering.
Ashley Hogg was interviewed by Devin
With many thanks to Ash for answering our questions, long live the Codies!
For more information about Micro Machines and that hidden bibliographic that we believed to be a declaration of the developers love check out the Micro Machines game page: Micro Machines Information Page.
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