|Jurie, if you could
be so kind, please introduce yourself to our readers and
give us your backstory, past to present :-).
I am originally from the Netherlands. I think I wanted to make games by the time I got my Sinclair ZX Spectrum back in 1985. I started programming in BASIC, then moved to assembly language. In 1988 I got an Atari ST and got into demo coding - putting your name on screen in as interesting a manner as possible. It got me familiar with high performance graphics programming. Late 1990 I was at a demo scene event, Thalion Software was looking for people, I interviewed, and in mid January '91 I moved to Germany.
There I worked on Amberstar and Ambermoon, and then later on Albion at Blue Byte. I then moved to France, to Austria, then back to France. During that time I became a game designer and a producer, set up my own company, and am now doing free-lance programming from Lyon.
I'd very much like to start the interview talking about your time at Thalion Software, if I may - the Amberstar / Ambermoon games in particular.
Was the concept for what was planned as a trilogy of games 'born' as it was from a desire to produce a series of games that took the best aspects of established classics, such as Dungeon Master, Eye Of The Beholder, Ultima etc, yet had a Thalion feel to it? I only ask, as Thalion's games often seemed heavily inspired by established classics in their field, be it shoot-'em-ups, platformers, etc.
I think at Thalion we wanted to develop the games we liked to play and that we felt we could make. The company was founded by and employed the best demo developers from the Atari ST scene, so we were relatively ambitious. The original idea for the Amber series came from Karsten Köper, and I believe he was inspired by both Western and Japanese RPGs.
It must have been a very brave undertaking to commit to resource hungry games of such ambition and sheer size such as Amberstar and Ambermoon. The sheer number of 'man hours' alone involved in their creation etc. was mind boggling. Was there ever a feeling amongst the team that this might be simply a gamble too risky to take as the ST / Amiga market was showing signs of rapid change at that time?
No. The company had already developed Dragonflight so they kind of knew how much work it takes to make a role-playing game. Karsten Köper, the game designer on the Amber series, had developed two role-playing games before, on his own, and he had developed tools that allowed him to create a lot of content very quickly. Amberstar took a little more than a year, Ambermoon about 18 months. These were my first games so I had no idea of scale whatsoever. Additionally, it was the early 90s and it was a small company so we just did it because we didn't know any better.
We switched to Amiga for Ambermoon but stuck with the Amiga even afterwards. When Commodore went bankrupt in 1994, we had to switch Albion from Amiga and assembly language to DOS and C, which was an interesting challenge.
It's been claimed that Ambermoon, despite being started on the Atari ST, was never completed (can you recall why not and just how far along coding got before the plug was pulled?) and neither was the PC version, but also the Amiga version, despite being finished, was never released in the UK as the Amiga market had simply shrunk to a point where it wasn't commercially viable to release it, as gamers were switching to PCs and consoles at that time.
Did you / the team ever feel 'bad' that a lot of UK fans, who'd been eagerly awaiting the game at that time, would now be denied a chance to experience it?
As I recall Ambermoon was started on the Commodore Amiga, and I don't think we ever ported it, or considered porting it, to the Atari ST.
Thalion slowly collapsed towards the end of development of Ambermoon, so we released the German version, prepared the English localization, but we were already at Blue Byte by that time. Thalion's UK office wanted to release the game but I guess they never did. I do wish more people could have played the game back then.
The third installment of the trilogy sadly never appeared due I believe to Thalion's collapse, yet many see the PC game Albion as the 'spiritual sequel'... so, I'm wondering if any of the concepts / storyboards / art / etc. for the planned game made it into Albion or whether the game was started from a scratch-new platform, new company, new project - everything for Albion built from the ground up for it.
There were no concepts or storyboards for the third part. Karsten had some ideas that he'd mentioned but it was still quite vague, and he left Thalion right at the end of Ambermoon, so we never even started seriously thinking about a third part.
Albion used some of the tech and approaches of the Amber series because we felt that would allow us to get up to speed faster and deliver a game sooner. Of course it still took us two years... Albion's setting and scenario were created from scratch, and the game systems as well, within the possibilities of an expanded Amber engine.
Thalion had a reputation for really pushing the ST and the Amiga, the ST especially. Did you yourself ever pull out 'all the stops' on either platform? And if so, what sort of coding tricks did you use and how easy were they to 'discover'? Also, were they born out of a need for the hardware to really deliver what you needed to get the planned games done - or simply because they added an extra layer to the game engines being used?
I was a decent programmer and wrote all of those games in 68K assembly language, but I was mediocre compared to the other programmers at Thalion. The really fancy tricks that allowed Niklas Thisell to make Enchanted Land (50 Hz full screen smooth scrolling) were developed over years of one-upmanship in the demo scene and involved confusing the ST's graphics chips in complicated ways.
Christian Jungen also spent many years developing the 3D engine used in No Second Prize. (We showed No Second Prize on an Amiga at trade shows and people wouldn't believe that the Amiga didn't have a turbo chip inside.) Michael Bittner used a very smart trick involving an obscure 68000 instruction to enable real-time 3D texture mapping on an Atari ST. He had this running in early January of 1991 - I saw it during my interview and my jaw dropped, it was unheard of. But it took us until late 1993 until we had it running inside a game - Ambermoon's 3D dungeons. Erik Simon, the development director, often pondered that we could have dropped everything and gotten to market first, but, well.
On the other hand, the Amber series was more about lots of moving parts and tons of systems. Both of those games made only minimal use of the operating system, so everything you see was hand-programmed, mostly by me. 2D engines, GUI code, text display, all of it. It now embarrasses me that Amberstar didn't even have any real scrolling, but as programs they were quite complicated and I learned a lot about architecture and code organization.
You were writer for the stories on both Trex Warrior and Lionheart, so I'm wondering just how this aspect came about and how easy it was to come up with back stories for each game and how 'important' the team felt they were in the overall production of a game.
We needed a story in the manual and I said I could write something in English and we didn't have anyone better suited :-). The Amberstar story was perhaps a bit grimmer than it needed to be - and a bit longer! Our managing director grumbled a bit about that.
|Also with Trex
Warrior, so many in the UK were
denied a chance to play this superb game (in fact it
never even made it in a recent retro GAMER magazine
feature on Thalion at all, which was a crying shame as I'd
hoped the writer might have used the feature to introduce
the game to those who weren't aware of it...), as it was
only ever published via the August '93 issue of The One
magazine, which gave the entire game away for free on a
cover disk. Do you have any memory of why the game was
never commercially released here in the UK?
No, I didn't even know that! It's a pity because it was a really fun game for the time.
Before I move on, I'd like to briefly ask about your personal feelings about the UK press, both then and now.
I look back at UK reviews of things like Ambermoon / Amberstar and Albion and whilst there are plenty of fantastic reviews, sometimes I wonder if the games were given to the 'right' reviewers, as they moan about things like graphics not blowing them away, user interfaces taking a while to get used to, games taking a while to get into, etc. Plus bizarre gripes about the alien race, the Iskai, being naked... it sometimes seemed very fickle and I wonder if you ever had 'concerns' reviewers weren't going to spend anything like enough time on a game of such scope before reviewing it.
It wasn't something we obsessed about, especially me as a programmer, even though I did have a little contact with the press.
Also, were you ever miss-quoted in the UK press? I've seen that happen with an ex-Thalion coder a while back, which didn't seem to go down too well when I chatted to him about it, but to be blunt here, I don't think I've ever seen you interviewed in likes of EDGE / Games™ / retro GAMER, etc. - so do you feel 'unfairly' over-looked by UK press at all? I ask as a key reason I got into these interviews was to try and track down the 'unsung heroes' and give them a voice. I personally think that the insights you could share will be fantastic.
I can't recall any problems like that with the press anywhere during my time at Thalion.
I do feel that Thalion made some games that were quite special, like Trex Warrior, No Second Prize and Lionheart, and it would have been nice if we had been better known outside the German market. But I wouldn't call it unfair. In the end it's not that important - what counts is whatever I am working on now, and trying to do the best job I can.
I do appreciate you doing these interviews though. It's always fun to talk about the old days and to know people remember them.
In keeping with this rather 'bleak' vibe, it's (sadly) not just 'The Press' which fails to credit those who've put in a lot of bloody hard graft to make Big Name Games happen, is it? Can you talk us through the rather sorry incident of how Rockstar Games happened to neglect to credit the likes of yourself and many others for your work on *** (Anmerkung des Webmasters: Aufgrund von Indizierung und Beschlagnahmung darf der Spieltitel an dieser Stelle nicht genannt werden.) and how experiences like this have left you feeling about all aspects of the games industry. It must be a bitter pill to swallow that so many of you are simply never given the credit you deserve.
It was unfair but it's also 10 years ago now and who remembers ***? I'm glad I was able to help correct the record for the great team that worked on that game.
I already touched on the subject of certain aspects of the media not being happy with nakedness in your games, but did you ever find yourself having to censor aspects of your games for certain markets? If so, how did / do you feel about the entire aspect of censorship in games?
I don't remember much from Albion - perhaps we covered up a nipple or two. It did always annoy me that we had to remove any sexiness but at the same time increase the bloodthirstiness for the US market, and I've kind of sworn to choose censoring everywhere over pre-emptive self-censoring whenever I can.
I often see you credited for additional coding on games like Extreme Assault, Max Payne 2, etc., but they never detail just what you did... could you shed any light?
For Extreme Assault they used some technology I had written - probably my CD audio code, which a lot of Blue Byte games used. I also wrote character animation code that was used in a few Blue Byte games.
The Max Payne 2 credit is embarrassing, because I just helped them with a small tool for a few hours. I don't even know who put me in the credits, but there were other people with the same credit who worked many weekends.
A generic question that I ask everyone: Have you worked on any formats like the Atari Jaguar / Panther / 7800 or Lynx - or things like the Konix Multisystem / Nuon, etc.? Any other 'lost games' (any format) we might not know about?
No, never. But we did receive an Amiga CD32 prototype one day at Thalion. It was some metal hardware screwed to a plank. It had an open CD drive. We couldn't figure out how to connect it to anything, so we ignored it and I think it rusted away.
Also, in keeping with the open, honest nature of my questions, can I ask you as a veteran of the industry, someone who's worn many 'hats' (lead coder, designer, producer, writer, project manager, etc.):
Does the industry have any bloody idea just where the hell it's headed? I ask this as someone who's supported the damn thing for over 30 years now. My first computer was the Sinclair ZX81, in terms of what must be thousands of pounds spent on hardware, software, magazines, etc. and now countless hours looking into lost game claims, carrying out interviews and all I see is an industry that only cares for the big names, be it same old people headlining websites / magazine articles, day one patches, QTE sections, ropey A.I being acceptable for end product... age old concepts like motion control, 3D via headsets, home VR etc. being rolled out yet again.
No one seems to learn from the mistakes of the past, the level of utter arrogance out there seems worse, a feeling of "we know what's best". For the first time in my gaming life, I find myself spending far less time actually gaming, have zero interest in new hardware, have practically stopped buying magazines, full stop. All which seemed unthinkable say as little as five years ago, yet by speaking to people like yourself, my eyes have never been so wide open... so, is it just me or is it similar at your sort of level? Has the industry, which is still very much in its infancy, a much longer road to travel before it really comes of age?
I don't let it bother me :-). The industry is just an abstract concept. There's a whole bunch of people trying to make games and they all have their own ideas about what could work. And those ideas are all different in some ways - they have to be - and therefore many of them turn out to be wrong.
People drop out of the industry fairly quickly, so a lot of knowledge is lost. And sometimes new segments come into existence, like social games, browser-based games, mobile games. New people come in and they bring new ideas but they also have to re-invent a whole bunch of wheels.
Das Interview mit Jurie Horneman
wurde im Jahr 2015 im Forum der Grumpy Old Gamers
veröffentlicht, welches mittlerweile offline ist.
Mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Ross Sillifant erfolgt nun die Archivierung bei "The Thalion Source".