Thursday, 30 May 2013

Retro Gamer Article Extras: Interceptor Software Part 6: Full Interview with Simon Daniels

Last month's issue of Retro Gamer magazine (115) featured my article on Hampshire-based Interceptor Software (also known as the Interceptor Group). As usual with any "From The Archives" feature, there are a few interviews that don't make it at all into the piece and others only a few snippets. Here's another one where unfortunately only a small portion made it into the finished article, with Simon Daniels.

Simon wasn't a programmer but he nonetheless had a key role at Interceptor as you will read. For the full story of Interceptor, issue 115 is still on sale and can also be ordered from the Imagine Publishing shop:

JD: What was your previous experience prior to joining Interceptor and how did you come to work there?
SD: I was in secondary school, about fourteen or fifteen when Interceptor moved its operations into a brand new building in a brand new office park (Calleva Park, Aldermaston) a short distance (literally through the woods) from my parents’ house. Interceptor has previously been based in the adjacent village of Tadley, described in the Urban Dictionary as an overgrown gypsy encampment with a nuclear weapons base in the middle of it. Calleva Park was about half way between my parent’s house and razor wire surrounding the base (the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment). Locally the Joneses were also known as the owners of the local video rental store “Tadley Video”. Tadley was home to Jeff Minter and Llamasoft, as you probably know the Minters had, for a short while, a relationship with the Joneses, which didn’t end well. But that was before my time with the company and it wasn’t a subject the Joneses ever talked about.

I was of course into computers, staring with a ZX81, but around this time had graduated to a BBC Micro (having sold my Vic 20) and my younger brother had a Spectrum. My first experience with Interceptor was in buying “reject” floppy disks from them which I reformatted and sold on at school and through ads in local newspaper classified, and soon after I started working (part time of course, as I was still in school) in the company’s packing department. Interceptor was pretty unique in that it had a full design studio, printing operation, tape duplication and a jewel case manufacturing operation. So they were duplicating both their own games and those for other companies, so there was plenty of part time work – putting tapes, inserts and instructions into cases. Over time I started play testing games, and writing reviews of the games submitted for evaluation by independent programmers. I continued working part time for a couple of years, and after a year at Basingstoke Technical College dropped out to take an almost full time job at the company (four days a week, so I could continue at college on a day release basis).

My full time job at Interceptor was “software co-ordinator” for the Players and later the Players Premier labels which basically ran the gamut of evaluating submissions, negotiating licenses (royalty rates and pre-pays) with most of the programmers, writing licenses, working with the design studio on the packaging (I would write the blurbs, take the screenshots) and provide input into the artwork and logo. I’d then work with sales team to co-ordinate a release schedule, send review copies and press releases to the press. Commission music (hardly any of the games we licensed included music). I’d also come up with ideas and basic story boards to share with the regular programmers. I also compiled the royalty reports and got the checks out to the programmers.

Interceptor hired a number of in-house programmers. Kevin Parker and Andrew Challis were the mainstays. Andrew Challis has developed Commodore (6502 processor) games on the Interceptor label (before I joined the company), and Parker was the Z80 (Spectrum and Amstrad programmer) who ported a lot of Speccy product to the Amstrad. Together, with the exceptionally talented artist Robin Chapman they developed Into The Eagles Nest a Gauntlet style burst-scroller set in Nazi occupied Europe as an in-house product for the Pandora label. However their day to day work was writing the game “loaders” and mastering the games (making the master tape or disk). Interceptor were innovators in this space, not only did they do pioneering work on the turbo loaders (an absolute requirement on the Commodore 8bit platforms which were notoriously slow) but also in developing “load-a-games” mini games you could play while the main game loaded. This was ground-breaking work, and something Interceptor didn’t really get the credit it deserved.

Surprisingly Interceptor also hired a number of programmers who worked on budget software in-house. Something that didn’t make economic sense to me at the time. A bunch of these guys rented a town house in Tadley from the Joneses. The in-house output wasn’t prolific but some interesting stuff came out of it.

JD: Were you into games yourself or have much experience of them?
SD: Like most kids at this time parents bought us computers so we could learn, but we spent most of our time playing games. I didn’t have a whole lot of disposable income so before working for Interceptor was pretty selective in buying games. I recall walking to Jeff Minters house and giving his dad eight quid for a copy of one of his games, can’t recall which one, probably Matrix or Metagalactic Llamas Battle at the Edge of Time. I think the one game that had the most influence on me was Elite, on the BBC Micro.

JD: When did you join/leave?
SD: I was there from 1985 to 1990.

JD: What was you impression of Interceptor, their offices and the Jones’?
SD: The fact that they did everything in-house was the lasting impression. I would often give visitors a tour, we’d start with the programmers, move to the art studio, the print shop, the tape mastering room, the tape duplication machines, and the packing room. In fifteen minutes a visitor could get a complete end-to-end picture of how a game was made. I think this is what made the company unique, so much fun and an excellent learning environment for someone like me.

Although Richard was the public face of the company, it was his dad Julian who was always present, from the early hours through late into the evenings. I would often show up at odd hours and on the weekends and he was almost always there, as was Janet who ran the packing department. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Julian, and would often find myself in quite heated arguments. I genuinely felt the Players product I was responsible for was at least as good as what Codemasters and others were producing based on the reviews, and I couldn’t really understand why we were not able to shift as many units or have as many games in the charts. I got on fine with Richard, but during this time he wasn’t involved in the games side as much and when he was he focused on the Pandora label. He seemed to be looking at diversification and setting up new businesses, such as music duplication “My Music”, self-hypnosis cassettes (under the Nirvana label) etc. The Interceptor group letterhead was filled with the logos of these different businesses he was involved with.

JD: And what did you think of the programmers and other employees? How was your relationship with them?
SD: I spent a lot of time with Andrew and Kevin, and I had a lot of respect for them. It was a big loss for the company when Andrew left to go and work for British Telecom, seemed like a waste of his talents. My natural home however was in the art studio, and I set up a desk with the designers and artists working there. The studio was run by Mike Wood, and he hired a number of in-house and freelance people who I really enjoyed working with. Airbrush artist Peter Austin lived in Basingstoke but would always be around, and would hang out after hours with the programmers, he produced 90% of the cover artwork. The studio had a photo-typesetting machine, a Linotronic I believe and it would be used to produce the galleys, later I would write the blubs on an Atari ST using Calamus, print them out at 200% on a 300DPI laser printer which would then be photographically shrunk down to produce the artwork. It was in the studio that I started to build an understanding and appreciation of design and typography, which ultimately led me here to Microsoft (where I run the fonts and typography team).

I got on well with the other in-house programmers, and spent a reasonable amount of time with them outside of work. Lots of talent but I think ultimately a lack of oversight meant that they didn’t fulfil their potential. The sales guys, were sales guys, the accountants were accountants. I got on well with everyone.

JD: How and why did you leave the company (if not when it folded)?
SD: Around 1989 things were really starting to look bleak. My ability to license games, schedule and release them was being hit by the economic situation, and the games were not selling well. As I recall the Interceptor Christmas party was cancelled, and it was at that time I decided it was time to bail. I signed on with a few agencies in town and was offered a job doing dealer-level technical support at Frontline Distribution (a software distributor) in Basingstoke. I did this for a year and a half, earning couple of “A” levels at night school and leaving that job to go to University.

JD: How would you look back at your time working for Interceptor?
SD: I have no regrets about working there. It was great fun and a fantastic learning opportunity. It’s a shame the company wasn’t able to adapt to the changing environment. I’m glad I left when I did, I don’t think staying would have made a difference.

JD: Which games do you remember in particular or are particularly fond of?
SD: Into the Eagles Nest, was also a ground breaking game, the view from directly overhead graphics were really well drawn by Robin Chapman, and it clearly influenced Castle Wolfenstein and we know where that led. For its time I think it was the best of the Gauntlet style games on 8bit and 16bit platforms.

Joe Blade, and the subsequent sequels were a high point. I recall getting the evaluation tape around the time we were wrapping up Into the Eagles Nest, everyone was taken by it, and we were able to specify some updates that made it a much better game. It deserved the success it received. I think it’s a great example of what one talented person can produce, Colin Swinbourne not only wrote the came in pure machine code, but he also drew all of the graphics in an editor he wrote himself.

JD: How do you think working at Interceptor influenced you or your career since, if at all?
SD: To be honest after leaving Interceptor I was pretty much burnt out on games, and I never really recovered. I get to work with games studios at Microsoft all the time, commissioning and sourcing fonts for game and console use. My time at Interceptor certainly helps me in this part of my job. But mostly I think my time there helped me develop a passion for creating stuff, and shipping product, and I’ve always been happiest when contributing to the creation of interesting digital things that end up in the hands of customers. 

JD: Any other memories, stories or anecdotes you think would interest readers please let me know.
SD: When Codemasters launched they committed themselves to producing non-violent games. Players and Players Premier under my influence went the other way, the more excessive and over the top the weaponry the better, and I’d often have the programmer replace the space ship in a submitted game with an F14 or attack helicopter or replace a robot/alien with a mercenary. This provided a way for us to create more interesting artwork and stories that separated us from other game companies. We drew on popular culture, with obvious influences being movies like Commando, Platoon, Mad Max, Aliens, Conan the Barbarian etc., As such our games were almost always banned in Germany.

There was a very intermittent bug in the Amiga version of Into the Eagles Nest, which seemed to occur only on cold machines. To replicate the issue I would put an Amiga in a freezer for an hour or so. We never solved that one.

I also wrote a few of the inlays. Most of the stuff I wrote contained various in-jokes, as did the credits. Sound effects for one game were credited to Sonja, as we sampled them from the Red Sonja video. We also had fun with the “hall of fame” high score screens, type in “Richard” or “RPJ” (Richard Paul Jones) and the name would often resolve to “Boy Racer” or some such nonsense.

And I definitely agree with Andy [Severn, Interceptor extras part 5] that the Laser Tag battles were certainly a highlight. I remember the night the security guards busted us. Some were caught but others managed to escape, albeit by scrambling through a water filled ditch.

JD: What have you been upto since Interceptor?
SD: Since 1997 I’ve been working within Microsoft’s Typography group, currently I manage a small team that creates, licenses and maintains Microsoft’s international font library and helps product and marketing teams use fonts effectively.

My many thanks to Simon for his time and input.

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