An interview with Bobby Earl

Bobby EarlBobby Earl worked on 4 diverse Amiga games during the 1990s, publishing games via Image Works, Ocean Software and Virgin. His softography consists of the following games:

Here's a photo from the Hook preview from Amiga Power issue 11 as part of "The New Ocean" feature. Any memories?

I look VERY tired (probably from working until the wee hours on Hook!), but it's from the exact time we were working on it. I was 19 in that picture.

You worked for Image Works (Flip-It and Magnose), Ocean (Total Recall and Hook) and Westwood Studios (Dune 2). Can you tell me a little about your games?

I formed a company with Martin Paton (Designer) and Miles Cowie (Artist) called Expanding Minds, to which we created Flip-it and Magnose for Image Works (MirrorSoft). After that I was employed by Active Minds to work on Total Recall, but was employed internally by Ocean to finish the project off and kept on to work on Terminator 2 (Commodore 64) and then to work on Hook. During my years at Ocean I left to try things in the US, and worked for Westwood Studios for 6 months, during which I aided the development of Dune 2 by working on the rendering routines for the Amiga version (as well as an unpublished Super Nintendo project).

Which was the best place to work?

Westwood Studios was certainly an amazing place to work for, the US culture added to the whole experience, but for me Ocean was the one place I really felt like I was part of something, hence my fortunate return to after working in the US.

Flip-It and Magnose

I admit to having never played this game before, and it seems to be rather confusing as to what you are trying to do without the manual!

Flip-it and Magnose was an odd title, although fun to work on being my first full project. The premise is you have to interact with the characters in the scene, to get them to release water into a carrier you had, to be beamed back up to Mars. It was meant to have a Spy vs Spy competing puzzle feel to it, as you could lay traps down for your opponent. In those days tutorials were never heard of, and you only got instructions in the box.

Flip-It and Magnose and Total Recall seemed to be released at almost the same time according to magazine reviews. Which game did you do first, or were you working on both at the same time?

Flip-It and Magnose was my first ST & Amiga game, it was written over a 7 month period during 1990 and finished around September. I then went to work for Active Minds, who were working on Total Recall for Ocean. I worked on the car section of Total Recall and it was re-written twice during the 2 months of development we had left leading up to a Christmas release in '90.

Total Recall

Total RecallAccording to the Total Recall entry on Frank Gasking's C64 Games that Weren't website, there was a lot of trouble getting the 8-bit versions completed in-time and only some of the team were transferred over to Ocean to complete the game. How many of the team moved?

Simon and I were the only 2 people taken on by Ocean after working at Active Minds. The Spectrum, Amstrad and C64 versions of Total Recall were all re-written in house at Ocean in a very short space of time (2-3 weeks?), the Amiga & ST versions still remained the same, although I re-wrote the car sections (on both ST & Amiga) since arriving at Ocean.

Can you recall why your section was re-written? Did the specifications change or was there some other problem?

The first version was a 2D top-down chase, a bit like the original GTA. The gameplay just wasn't working though, and we'd recently seen the original Batman on the Megadrive, hence the influence of making it a fast 2D scrolling drive shooter.

I must admit that I never actually made it to the car sections you wrote as I found the platform sections too long, difficult and tedious. I wonder how many people actually got to see your car section? Did you ever hear feedback similar to this?

For Total Recall, I only read reviews which weren't bad, never heard any direct feedback from players.

Total Recall taxicab levelThe level you made appears twice in the game but I suspect the identical code is running both times, just with different objects and graphics. Is that the case?

Yes the code was the same for both sections, just the data for the car placement was changed (to make it more difficult 2nd time around).

I have watched a longplay video of the entire Amiga game on YouTube (the car sections start at 7:55 and 18:15) and it appears to be scrolling the screen incredibly fast - maybe 8 or 16 pixels every frame? But perhaps only updating every second frame?

It was quite a frantic section, but everything ran at 60 fps (it'll look like 30 on YouTube though due to the movie player there only playing at 30). The reason for the background scrolling so fast was to keep it at 60 fps on the ST. Scrolling at slower speeds would have required either storing out a lot of pre-shifted data or shifting the bitplanes which was very CPU intensive.

Did you have any kind of 'shell' that your code had to adhere to so that it would drop-in to the main part of Total Recall written by Fred O'Rourke?

Tough question! Memory fading :) I think we just jumped to each other's code, and both of us had free-rein over memory until handing it back.

Total Recall later driving levelWas the original intention for Fred to write the entire game? Were you hired by Active Minds when they realised the deadline would be too tight?

Yes this was exactly the reason, I was employed to aid the development due to deadlines etc. A second guy was also employed for the C64 version to do the car sections.

Did you use sprites at all or was everything done with the blitter? Am I right in guessing it's all 16 colour mode to make the ST version easier to create?

Everything is done with the blitter, except the main car, hardware sprites (on Amiga) to save some time. On the ST everything is done in software, but as you know the ST CPU ran a little hotter than the Amiga. ;)

Hook

HookWas Hook a completely in-house project at Ocean? (There seems to be no development team mentioned in the game)

The game was designed internally at Ocean, and the Amiga & Atari ST versions were created internally as well. The PC version was ported from the Amiga version by an external developer, John Wildsmith.

What development system was used to create the game? And did you use anything like an Action Replay cartridge to debug the game or did the development system handle that?

I can't recall what development system we used! We used quite a few, it may have been Devpac, definitely used this on ST but can't recall if it was on Amiga as well? There were other systems we used, including a proprietary compiler/debugger made internally at Ocean.

Can you recall how long the game took to write?

It took approximately 7 months to write the game, from start to finish, it was all written 100% in assembly.

Hook introHow much influence on design of the game and the puzzles did you get?

I was responsible for the design of the game, as well as being the sole programmer on the game. The Intro replay code was written by Mick West.

I wrote all the code for the Amiga (& ST) versions of Hook, the only routines I didn't write were the music & sfx playback code along with the copy protection disc check (Rob Northen's), although I did do the follow on code to change the game if the copy protection failed.

Regarding the copy protection, Hook is quite famous in the Amiga scene for being badly cracked by the group Fairlight back in the 1990s. Their original version of the game cannot be completed due to this little routine hidden in one of the 3 copylock key calculation routines:

        move.w  #12-1,d1        ;Normal Rob Northen calculation routine
.loop   add.l   d6,d6 ;(12 loops modifying the d6 register)
        add.l   (a0)+,d6
        dbra    d1,.loop
;Extra code hidden in the copylock:
        lea     ($3ff0).l,a0 ;$3ff0 = Offset for one of the mugs of cocoa objects
        add.l   (4).w,a0 ;$4 = Pointer to the base of extra memory
        move.w  #1,(a0) ;Set the mug of cocoa to visible!

        addq.l  #4,sp ;Back to the usual copylock code!
        rts

That code snippet took me back, trying to decipher what it did, looks a bit different without all the variable names than what I remember.

Can you tell me a little more about the copy-protection? Did you ever meet Rob Northen?

The original idea to mess with the game code if the copy protection failed was Colin Gordon's (Producer at Ocean Software at the time), so he must take the credit to try and protect the game a little more than usual.

For Rob Northen's protection code, you basically called it to verify the discs were originals (there was certain sector information on the disc that normal disc copiers couldn't copy), if it failed then you just reset the Amiga, lock the game up or something. At this point we did the usual if it failed (reset the Amiga I think) but we also had a second check later on in the code that removed one of the key items required in the adventure. It was about mid-point in the game, you had to make 3 pirates fall asleep by giving them each a mug of cocoa (it was originally beer but it was changed due to the age rating of the game). We just took one of these mugs out if the copy protection check had failed earlier in the game.

I used Rob's disc protection code in 3 games I worked on (Flip-it & Magnose, Total Recall and Hook), and also used his compression code as well much later in a PC RPG called Silver. I never met Rob during the time of using his routines, although I did speak to him on the phone, and had the pleasure of meeting him a few years later at one of the many game shows in London.

Had you seen the movie (or work-in-progress versions) of it during development?

We received the script and style guide for the movie before the project started. As the game progressed we received on set photos, and as the game was near completion we went to a London preview of the movie.

Did you create other tools for map editors etc?

The only tools we used outside of the compiler/debugger were DPaint and Degas (art packages). All the mapping, path finding, puzzle data etc. were done in tables and code.

Were the puzzles written using some kind of script/parser or hard-coded in the game?

There was no script or parser, the puzzles were data table driven. Due to the tight schedule of the project there wasn't time to create any tools.

How were the individual screens of the game built up? Did you have some kind of mask for each screen that showed where the player could walk?

The screens were created, then the paths were laid down. Any parts of the scene that the character could walk behind were recreated as sprites, and only redrawn when the character was near them.

How did each of the objects know which of the actions would operate on them? Did you have a table for each object so that the game knew what would happen when you performed each action on it?

All the puzzles were data driven, scene location, screen position (for point and click) along with call back routines that effected the adventure as it progressed.

Was there any pressure to keep the game to a certain number of disks? (From some previous interviews I've been told some companies said that programmers couldn't have an extra disk as that would cost them another 40p in production costs)

I don't recall being restricted to number of disks in any way, in some ways it was encouraged as a USP (unique selling point) if it was on more disks, especially for an adventure.

Had you played The Secret of Monkey Island when writing the game? What influence (if any) did it bring? And what did you think of Monkey Island?

Yes, I loved the Monkey Island series, it was one of the key influences to make Hook a point and click adventure.

What did you think of the Amiga magazine reviews of Hook at the time? For once, Amiga Power seemed to love the game with 84% (despite them saying the game was too small) whereas Amiga Format didn't like it at all and gave it 48%!

Mixed bag really, people liked or didn't like the game for certain reasons. It's great to read a good review (there were a few, some 90%+ in French publications), and not so good to read a bad one, but I don't think there was a bad review that was taken out of context.

For me though, one day I arrived at the Ocean offices early, and was talking with an artist near the Ocean helpline QA room. The phone was ringing and no QA staff were in yet, so I answered the phone, and it was a guy stuck playing Hook. I aided him in progressing and he asked me who I was, when I told him I was the designer/coder he was really pleased and said I'd created a great game that he had been enjoying immensely.

Amiga Format critisized Hook for "only" having 5 actions to take - were all the puzzles planned in advance and reduced to only requiring 5 actions, or was it a compromise on time/complexity?

It was considered a simpler adventure than Monkey Island, due to the demographic being for younger children, so the puzzles were deemed to be less complex. It wasn't a simple case of just having 5 actions though as each action could be used on an object, or a part of the background, creating numerous options available to the player.

Were there any parts of the code you are particularly proud of? Any special tricks or effects that the game is doing that the end-user may not be aware of?

Running the scrolling and main character update at 60fps whilst the game ran at 30fps, was probably my favourite achievement in the project. I was quite happy with the path finding at the time as well, but in these days it's nothing new at all! :)

General

Do you still have the source code for your Amiga games?

I have the source code for Hook but not the others (Hard drive failure!), Hook is still stored away on floppy disk. :)

Shadow of the BeastWhich Amiga games impressed you in terms of gameplay or technical tricks?

When Shadow of the Beast came out, I was blown away at the parallax effects and the frame rate (60fps) the game was running at. At the time the intro was absolutely amazing (doesn't look so great these days though).

Are you aware of the amazing Amiga emulator WinUAE or WHDLoad that enables you to play almost all the classic commercial games on a "modern" Amiga from hard drive?

I've dipped in and out of the emulation scene, mainly 8 bit and Atari ST, not tried any Amiga emulators yet, I'll check them out! :)

What do you think of all the retro-gamers out there that have collected, catalogued, scanned, videoed and preserved all the old games, magazine reviews, cheats and walk-throughs?

I think it's an amazing achievement, something I admire and get very nostalgic when reading! I'm astounded there are walk-throughs on YouTube of every game I've ever worked on! :)

Spiral HouseFinally, what are you up to these days?

Today I am the co-founder and co-owner of Spiral House Ltd., along with Kevin Oxland (background artist on Hook). We are currently in our 13th year and going strong. We have worked on numerous titles over the years, and more recently we have been working closely with Sony on their portable platforms, PSP & Vita. Visit our website at www.spiralhouse.co.uk.

Thank you very much for your time Bobby and I wish you good luck with the future!

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Comments

  • Great interview. Still a lot left on the site to read. :-)

    Posted by Coder, 20/01/2013 7:16am (1 year ago)

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