|Interview with Johnny Wood - ex Philips ADS|
Devin: You've been credited with the pretty pictures from Pac-Panic, the graphics for Ms Pacman from Arcade Classics and also the highly unexpected first person shooter Atlantis - The Last Resort. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to work for Philips on these acclaimed CD-i games.
Johnny: I am Johnny Wood. International Sex symbol, original bad boy of video games, and err, the ex- Lead CGI specialist for Philips Media Advanced Development and Support. Never done an interview before, apart from the time I ran for government as the leader of the undead, so I'm pretty clueless... I'll just tell you how it happened!
Back in the 80's I used to work for a guy called Lance Mason. I was doing graphics for search for sharla which was pretty ahead of its time really. Way ahead of its time actually. Like 10 years. Unfortunately Thalamus ended up closing and despite them not wanting to let Sharla go, they had to, Lances company ESP shut down. Not being good at selling myself, I ended up living rough in Birmingham. My main source of income was pavement art, so I can't say I was a beggar, but that's how society saw me. After I kept getting into trouble I decided to clean my act up and went on this experimental government training scheme where you put your skills into the community. I ended up on the video group and there I met Pete Dabbs sister. Pete was doing a beat em up for the amiga and needed an artist. Petes mum would pay me with hot meals.
Meanwhile in the World that was emerging of CDi, Philips had decided that they needed an old school games expert to head up the games division at the Dorking Studios. Lance had been appointed. He set about building a team of old school game coders. Of the crew he built, Pete was one of them. So when they needed a pixel pusher artist, (most the artists there were degree educated photoshop guys and hadn't heard of sprites!) Pete told Lance that he knew where I was. Lance gave me the job. Though I think he was scared I would f*ck up. Not because I couldn't do the work, but because my attitude was a bit "different and unusual". He took the risk and I suddenly found myself in the stockbroker belt of surrey in a beautiful house, on a good salary and working in a showcase studio.
That's how I got the job. It was a lucky break I guess, if ever there was one.
Devin: Your background seems far from typical for a games developer Johnny! As the name suggests, Advanced Development and Support (ADS) this division of Philips Media wasn't supposed to be a games developer but a "Support Group" for technical assistance to outside studios working on CD-i software. What did this supporting role involve and how did ADS evolve into a developer for some of the most playable and technically outstanding games witnessed on CD-i?
Johnny: Well although my background is far from todays typical games developer, once it was the norm. The whole industry started off in bedrooms with people like me and Pete. So I think we were typical games developers. Well for the 80's!
But you are right with ADS not supposed to be a games developer. That sort of came by accident. The ADS in its original format was supposed to be a support centre for the existing external development that was still underway after the sad demise of the Dorking Studios. What had happened is that when Philips made the desision to shut down Dorking, there were a lot of titles being developed elsewhere that relied on its resources, such as Digital Video Encoding for the mpeg movie sequences. Back then it was a big thing to encode something to mpeg and needed thousands of quids worth of kit. You couldn't just run it through a windows converter. Software encoding was not an option. And you had to do it by hand to do it well, set up the cut scenes, otherwise you'd get major artifacting (Thats the big oity toity a-level word for those weird squares you get when you're trying to watch porn on your computer!). The number of times I've had problems setting up non-standard Intra Matrixes on non-standard output resolutions. I can tell you Lost Eden with its wide screen aspect ratio was a total bugger!
But I digress. There was never any intention of the ADS being a developer. Of the few of the Old Dorking crew who were offered the chance to join, many declined because of one reason or another. So it basically began life as 3 blokes (Me - CGI and Digital Video, Paul Reid - Inhouse net work guy and Tim Page on the coding side)... sitting in a tiny office in Redhill, packed to the brim with millions of pounds worth of the latest computers, animation tools, and Digital/Analogue Video Equipment. Which was cool because I taught myself a lot by having access to this stuff. I was listening to MP3's, originally the Audio standard for mpeg-1 many years before anybody else had heard of them! We'd answer the phones all day and It just was "The IT Crowd" but for real.
Then to ease Tims support Job. The old 'have you tried turning it off and turning it on again trick didn't work with CDi, we had to replace the programmers that decided not to take the ADS role, so I got him in touch with these gamers I'd met in mosely who were writing shit hot PC games from their bedroom. Andy Morton and Tom Drummond. When they joined Pac-Panic (or pac attack as it was originally called) was going to be published by Philips. Andy Morton wrote a multiplexer that could fill safe areas with animated sprites (A MEAN FEAT on CDi), so the go ahead was given to add the CDi version to the catalogue. That was the ADS entry into games development as a sole entity, though we had a hand in a lot of the other games out there too.
Devin: Philips ADS remained, until recently one of the unsung heros of CD-i games development including Pac-Panic, Arcade Classics and Atlantis - The Last Resort. Now Atlantis and Arcade Classics is sure to be an interesting story all by themselves! For now i'd like to focus on the first game developed by ADS in Pac-Panic. This particular game simply oozed quality from the retail package complete with closed slipcase which was very unusual for a European release including seperate manual and the standard CD-i jewel case. In comparison with rival systems where the game went by the name Pac-Attack the CD-i version was glorious with spectacular use of colour, animation and sound this quality lacking from any of its counterparts. What made this version so special to ADS in what turned out to be an award winning title for the studio?
Johnny: Well for all of us I think Pac-Panic represented a major chance and a perfectly timed one for us all to prove our skills. Pac-Panic might never have made it to CDi. The machine used a 68020 chipset, which was a 68000 series (like on the amiga) but with all the stuff you really needed to make Amiga quality games in assembly took out. As Pete Dabbs would testify, basically all the tricks you could do to save processing time like shifting data to act as a quick multiply rather than adding up stacks - saving loads of clock cycles and stuff wasn't an option. I wont talk about that now cause it makes me sound geeky, and there might be chicks reading this. But you really had to push the machine to get anything like that.
Our job at the ADS was to help the worlds developers cross over to the machine. We had a few tricks that we sort of developed ourselves. Mostly down to Andy Morton and Tom Drummond, a couple of genius old school programmers. When people looked at Pac-Attack on the other versions, the amount of animated sprites at any one time was considered undoable on CDi. Bear in mind all our contempories had dedicated graphics hardware. CDi never did, but we took a look at it and Andy developed a multiplexer that allowed you to fill the whole screen with animated sprites. This was bloody amazing on CDi and once that was out of the way we knew we could not only match the other versions but we could make it better.
Where the other machines like the Genesis had 2 layers of 8 bit colour, CDi had DYUV mode which was similar to HAM mode on the amiga, so the backdrops could be 24 bit colour. On top of this, we weren't limited to 8 colours or anything for our foreground sprites, we could use 256 colours. Namco sent us the original assets from the genesis. But ours were better. I was a big Pac-Man fan. Its what got me into video games and just to have my name on the re-emergence of the new generation was pretty damn cool. So I put my heart and soul into it. Andy and Tom deserved a bit of glory too, Where as its a much harder job, its never as much glory being in a research role as it is making your own game! So we set out to kick ass and show the guys at the top how we did things 'down town' so to speak.
Must of worked, cause we got the pretty box and won the award 'n stuff. We still to this day aren't sure if this is down to our 'post production' antics.... Which involved us travelling around London every weekend and going into all the Games shops and switching all the copies of Pac-Panic with whatever was listed at number one on the display racks. Though I'm not sure you should publish that! [Devin: Wouldn't dream of it!]
Devin: Arcade Classics soon followed suit with another quality classic conversion. What challenges did this represent and can you share your memories developing this outstanding compilation.
Johnny: Yeah man! We just took the same approach but this time we had 3 games to do. The same sort of issues emerged. The number of animated sprites that Jason had to pump around for Galaxian, which him being the 'new' guy and fresh from his degree, Andy thought he'd never cut it. Of course he turned out to be the most amazing genius we could have ever wished for and the other coders were impressed. We could have done with him back in the early days. Games may have come out differently.
We had Rak in full swing now on art, so with me freed up more we had another chance to make the games better than the contempories. We didn't want to get labelled a conversion house, so making them better than the rival machines versions. When to be honest for this sort of game; Multi-sprited Arcade games, CDi was possibly the worst equipped on the market. Thats not to say it was bad, I mean look at Dragons Lair, 7th Guest, Burn Cycle. Try coughing up those puppies for a genesis... No chance! This time we worked from the arcade machines. Namco sent us all the original stuff, apart from Ms Pacman where they sent us a whole mother board from the first generation machine! The original chipset! So we took the graphics pixel for pixel.... And er... then I added more colours.
I played pacman a lot and also miss pacman. There's a real skill to playing it, Jason and I started messing about with the mazes and found just by putting up stumps so the player could stop would bring in a whole new strategy. Long tunnels added a turbo panic to the play so in my spare time I made some extra mazes. Namco thought they were cool too, so they stayed in. I was sorta proud of that. Man I sure hope chicks are reading this bit. It makes me look dead cool dunnit. I designed mazes for Ms pacman girls!
It was during the development of Arcade Classics that Paul Reid got drunk and puked on Flavias carpet. Paul did an amazing job of entertaining us like this. I think he somehow held the crew together. We were poles apart really, but somehow there was a real team spirit. That shows through in the game. Even to the credits. Of course when it came to do the credits I'd been a bit miffed after Pac-Panic had had loads of people coming in the credits when really it was 5 guys in an office so I made up a few of my own names; Yvette Miepies... Thats how you say "You've ate my pies" in brummy, added the office cleaner who I fancied (Beth) and put in my local pub. Because the ADS where always shrouded with mystery we got away with it. Unprofessional... Yes, but F*cking funny!
Devin: Before Atlantis - The Last Resort was released the precursor, Ram Raid was given as a covermount on the UK based CDi Magazine Issue 17 in April 1996. Establishing the basic gameplay mechanics for Atlantis with a completly unexpected 3D engine it also incorporated on-line downloads and competitive leader tables. Do you know what brought about this revolutionary (to CD-i at least!) technology bringing not only 3D graphics but also an element of on-line play into the arena?
Johnny: God Yeh. That was amazing. I still remember that day I saw the first demo. I was stunned, everybody was stunned. We met this guy from the Research Labs round the corner. They don't make games. They make chips. You should have seen that place. It was incredible, that's where all the research goes on. I watched Video on Demand there, 15 years ago! And Clarkey was a rocket scientist. By this point I'm still amazed at Andys multiplexer, then this guy comes along. Talks softly, doesn't even try to promote himself, then with programmer graphics of cartoon bricks wall promptly loads up.... DOOM On CDi!
So you've just got the first online CDi system working, you need a game to show it off. Your console can't actually do very good games. You need a miracle, Paul Clarke had written one in his lunch break.
So we were put in touch with the guys at CD-online. Who were all ex philips, branching out to the new set-top box technology. This was ten years ago. Clarky bought the rocket science. They developed the communications. We got a proper musician, and the ADS were Game Design. So this time it was Myself and Rak that had the brunt of the work. It'd been years since I'd done game design, having branched out into graphics in the late 80's, so the chance to get back onto that on such an innovative game was pretty cool for me. Rak got the chance to branch out into 3D.... He later went on to work in that field in movies and TV. That game made us all pretty famous.
We had meeting after meeting to see if we could bring it into the online arena. We sadly had to accept that the rest of the world hadn't caught up with us yet, as data transfer rates weren't fast enough to send packets of live data. Then we came up with the challenge system where a players performance would be logged, and leagues were made. That was the game that would have single handedly saved the platform if it had not been for the other events that were happening higher up the ladder at the time.
Damn I wish I'd never gone and dropped out for a life as a roadie. Still
Devin: With the release of Atlantis - The Last Resort any mode of on-line play was lost. Do you have any idea why this was cut from the final product?
Johnny: Well there are conflicting stories on this. But actually Atlantis was never intended to be an on-line game. Ram Raid should have evolved into the on-line version, Atlantis was a challenge based game. A linear game with a plot, set missions and a challenge. Ram Raid had started to evolve, but all this happened at the time when Philips was letting CDi die.
Wanna hear a sad little story. When Lance Mason who hired me all those years ago at Dorking showed me CDi magazine, before I started, we were talking. He was unsure about hiring me because I was fresh from the streets of Birmingham and homelessness. So I promised him I wouldn't let him down and one day that magazine would have my artwork on the front cover.
Atlantis came out at the exact time CDi magazine published its last issue in Europe. On the day we were clearing out the ADS office after we'd been shut down. A parcel came from Sander in the Philips homelands where the Dutch version was still published. I opened it up. Atlantis was on the front cover and in the centre spread. ADS games were 30 percent of the charts. I bunged it into the box with the rest of the stuff, and that was the end of an era.
Devin: Can you share any further anecdotes to drench the CD-i communities appetitie?
Johnny: Loads. Some unprintable.
There was the time I told Paul Reid I needed him to stand on an ironing board and pretend he was a cyber-surfer so I could animate his actions for the cyber-surfer in Ramraid. This was of course a lie. I'd already animated it and just wanted to see if he'd do it!
There was another time Jason and myself blew up hundreds of balloons on the night shift, and filled the office with them completely for the dayshift. Actually I really better not tell anymore just yet. We had a bit of a reputation for being pranksters, and I'm not sure the others would want any of this online just yet!
Johnny Wood was interviewed by Devin
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