Jon Hare is an industry legend. Active throughout the last 25 years, he’s been one of the main brains behind several undisputed classics, such as Sensible Soccer, Mega Lo Mania and Cannon Fodder. Now, he’s just as active in the games industry as ever – and in this huge interview, he reveals some of this thoughts about it.
BeefJack: The industry has changed a lot over your time in it. At what point do you feel it went from a fledgling, back-office-based start-up into a more mature industry? Or, indeed, do you think we’ve reached that point yet?
Jon Hare: Well, that is an interesting question. I believe that as a commercial industry it became more ‘mature’ – i.e. bloated with far too much middle management all wanting their own slice of the pie and shareholders demanding never-ending short-term success – around 1995. However, I feel that creatively, from a software design point of view, it went from being a very powerful, innovative industry to a creatively weaker, me-too industry at about the same time. Put is this way: I was earning more money in 1994 and having more fun than I am now.
So from my point of view, commercially, it has gone backwards because I am making less money, because the middle managers and their bean-counting overlords have largely disempowered the creative intellectual property generators from having sufficient influence and power within the industry.
BeefJack: I remember spending months making a SEUCK game – that Amiga Format subsequently tore apart – and had immense fun doing it. Do you think there is a lack of simple entry tools like this nowadays? Do things like XNA compare for fledgling coders?
Jon Hare: I have not used XNA to comment on it. SEUCK ended up being a great tool. It started off life as a tool that Chris Yates – my partner at Sensible Software – had created for me in order to design some small games. In the end we realised the tool was better than the games I was making. Yes, it is possible to do it now, but you need a genius programmer like Chris – I do not use the word ‘genius’ lightly – and enough time to master the format and then execute a well-crafted tool that allows simple editing of all parameters that the user may wish to access. The secret, as usual, is how much freedom you give the user and how much you do for him.
BeefJack: Last year we saw an incredible shift in console gaming. Titles on such as Limbo, Super Meat Boy and Joe Danger have taken indie gaming and pushed it to the forefront. I recently placed all three of those games in my top titles of 2010 selection, beating out titles that cost twenty times as much to make. What are your thoughts on this upswing in indie gaming?
Jon Hare: Thank God for that. Sequels and license tie-ins will be the death of the industry. The business people who make the really big decisions would happily abandon this industry for another one once they have sucked the life out of it. There are many, many ways to make money out of games and I prefer the route that rewards great, new, innovative games and a limited amount of their sequels and conversions onto other systems. So all power to the indies and the truly great classic games, no matter what size budgets there are behind them – all power to great games.
BeefJack: I know music is something close to you personally, so what is your take on the sudden rise and fall of the rhythm genre? Did Harmonix literally hit that sweet spot early on, fulfilled customer demands and thus left themselves with little room to grow the concepts?
Jon Hare: I think it is like every type of game: it has its day and then grows a bit tired. All of the Guitar Hero, SingStar and dancemat games have been sold off of the back of novelty hardware. The game is still Parapa the Rapper… and it is starting to look very tired.
I have just been working on a plug-in football toy called ‘Boot It’, which is a ball attached to a mat that you kick around and it instructs you how to play and commentates on the game. It is a hybrid of the dance mat, with no screen, just a voice, lights and a ball. It’s like Parapa the Rapper… but with a coach, a commentator and no sense of rhythm.
BeefJack: I understand there have been a few abortive attempts before, but would you consider bringing a revised edition of Canon Fodder to current generation devices? It seems to me that a version for the iDevices, especially iPad, would be a match made in heaven. Either that or an updated Mega-lo-Mania.
Jon Hare: Yes, I am looking into both possibilities at the moment.
BeefJack: What are your thoughts on originality in the current marketplace? We mostly see a lot of publishers and developers playing it safe now millions ride on each AAA project. Have things like XBLA, PSN, Steam or the App Store made it any easier to push an original, maybe niche, idea?
Jon Hare: Yes, I am working on several original games on iOS, Steam and Sony Minis right now. It’s the best opportunity there has been for a while. I think a lot of the younger developers are very lucky to be starting out now. It is the best chance they have had to make original games for 15 years.
I designed or co-designed, and had published, 14 original game concepts – not including sequels – between 1985 and 1995… but I have not had one original game that was my idea from the start published since that date, because there has been no market for it. What is staggering is that we had eight number 1 games at Sensible, and still, the moment we hit 1995, no one – except Warner Games and Virgin – had the balls to back us based purely on our track record. But now, with cheaper platforms to develop for, people, at last, are open to original games again.
BeefJack: Tower Studios, your company, seems to embracing the AppStore. What led you to this? Was it the ability to cut to the chase and publish without the middle-men?
Jon Hare: Tower Studios is a publishing and rights-holding company – our main development partner right now is Vivid Games, who we are working with very closely on many titles. The main attraction to me was to be able to get my own ideas published without waiting for someone else to approve taking a risk on it. That is the only real upside of self-publishing.
BeefJack: Is the AppStore, and to a similar degree the Android Marketplace, working as a concept from a developer’s point of view? Surely the sheer volume of content means, despite the worth of a product, it can be easily lost in the tide.
Jon Hare: Getting lost in the tide is a colossal problem. I have been speaking to Apple about it, but the guys we know can’t change anything on a big level even if they wanted to. The main problems are that the product grading is too flat and the price point jumps are too big, making meaningful micro-transactions much harder to integrate at a realistic value. Why by a micro-transaction for $1 – minimum price – when you can by a whole game for that price anyway? I would love to see Apple create a professional games tier where we pay them $1,000 as an advance against their 30 per cent royalty in order to elevate our games into an elite category within the AppStore.
Also, the top 20 games on the AppStore currently are the only ones that really sell well. We have discovered a way to get free games up the charts – our game Shoot to Kill hit the top 10 in 18 different countries on iPad in December 2010, including number 2 in the US – but we did not manage to convert that into sales when we stopped the free promotion.
Yes, how to market your games effectively is the single biggest problem that we face. It is very easy to lose money on marketing.
BeefJack: What about Facebook as a viable model for distribution and revenue? There seems to be some money to be made there, as long as micro-transactions are put in to play. Would this be something you would consider?
Jon Hare: Yes, but the monetisation of games for iOS and Facebook need to be very different. If you can bear this in mind, then it makes a lot of sense to convert your games to Facebook. Although in the long term, it is my feeling that Facebook only has two years left maximum before its power will start to diminish. Everything becomes old hat in the end… remember CB Radio.
BeefJack: What upcoming products can we look forward to from Tower Studios over the coming months?
Jon Hare: We have a great version of The Bitmap Brothers’ classic game Speedball 2 called Speedball 2 Evolution coming out for iOS and Sony Minis, Samsung Bada and Andoid in about a month – Feb 2010 – and then we have my new word game, which I am confident will be successful everywhere from Easter onwards. And then we are looking at a few more Bitmap games, maybe some old Sensible games, maybe a new football game… maybe something totally new again. A balance of old and new sounds like a sensible way forward.
BeefJack: What are your thoughts on the move towards ‘true 3D’ gaming? Is this a flash in the pan gimmick or will this stick around this time? Nintendo seem to be leading the charge with the 3DS.
Jon Hare: Unfortunately I have personally never made a great 3D game – I have never been given the budget or time to compete, and never had a strong enough team to deliver even A quality, and have always had to work around licenses – and I am including Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder as licenses here. The Nintendo 3DS take is interesting, but in my eyes it is just a hardware gimmick which might do well. I am a game designer. I am not interested in the limitations and demands of graphical engines. I want 75 per cent of the focus of making a game to be on the gameplay and to keep on making it better and better and better until it is ready to be published. This is almost impossible to achieve with 3D without a massive budget and a lot of time.
BeefJack: What standout titles appealed to you over this past year of games? And is there anything on the horizon that excites you?
Jon Hare: I have played Angry Birds to death. And Scrabble on the iPhone, although as a purist I am not comfortable with how they have dumbed down the game. Mr Butts will be turning in his grave.
I have not had a lot of time to play many console games so far this year, but I am just about to sit down and play ten of them as part of my role as a member of the BAFTA games committee, so ask me the same question in a month or so, and I will be much better informed…
BeefJack: We’ll be sure to do that. Thanks very much for your time.