Earlier this year, MegaBites posted an article on the legendary British developer Sensible Software. The piece concluded by outlining the imminent release of Sensible Software 1986–1999 – a Kickstarter-funded publication that gives a pixel-by-pixel account of the sights, the sounds and the software of this quintasensibly British gaming software house. Hot on the heels of the book’s release, MegaBites speaks to Darren Wall – the owner and Editor of Read-Only Memories publishing.
As a company etched in video gaming folklore, Sensible Software was headed by long-term school friends Jon ‘Jops’ Hare and Chris Yates, who went on to realise some of the late 80s and early 90s greatest gaming successes. Sensible Software provided gamers with unforgettable memories of incredible gameplay, quirky comedy and some of the catchiest theme tunes this side of the Bitmap Brothers. From the creation of Commodore 64 classics, to iconic Amiga adventures, Sensible also went on to create some of the Mega Drive’s most beloved ports, including Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and Mega Lo Mania.
Dust off your disk drives and blow out your cartridges as we uncover the making of a book that gives an account of a software house so vibrant and so revolutionary, it was anything but sensible.
MegaBites: Let’s start with the book itself. What is Sensible Soccer 1986 – 1999 and what were your main motivations in seeing it realised?
Darren Wall: It all started around six or seven years ago, when I made a few trips to Japan. Out there, they publish a lot of magazine-book hybrids called ‘Mooks’. There’s a large number of Capcom publications in particular, with incredible production art and paintings. I bought stacks of these books while I was out there, on Mega Man, Street Fighter II, R-Type and various RPGs.
The concept for the Sensible Book sprung from a conversation with a friend, who was in Japan with me at the time. I had a strong desire to see books containing similar production artwork for the games that I grew up playing as a kid – games by Psygnosis and titles such as Another World came to mind. I wanted to see books that documented the ‘feel’ of what it was like to actually play these games.
MB: From this initial concept, how did you come to be associated with Jon Hare?
DW: We first met around a year and a half ago, when I conducted an interview with him for a friend’s podcast. I interviewed him on the topic of Tower Studios.
Jon Hare, along with Mike Montgomery of Bitmap Brothers, today heads Tower Studios – a company that is responsible for the iOS reissues of the Atari ST classic Speedball. With Jon as Project Leader, Mike Montgomery handles production and licensing.
DW: My initial desire was to create a Bitmap Brothers book and Jon was my first point of contact. I already had a background in publishing, graphic design and art books, so a Bitmap Brothers publication seemed like something I could potentially do. Back then, it wasn’t entirely clear how I would fund it, but I really had a strong desire to see if it was possible. So, I approached Jon and asked if he would put in a good word for me with the Bitmap Brothers, which he did.
Although other projects have taken priority since, Read-Only Memory publishing is almost certainly going to release a Bitmap Brothers book. It’s just a case of patience and waiting for everything to fall into place.
MB: So when did the possibility of a Sensible Software book become apparent?
DW: Around this time, Jon mentioned Sensible Software to me – he’d kept all of his documents from those days and all the Sensible guys were still in touch with each other. He was really keen on the idea of a Sensible book. For me, this was simply incredible. Sensible were right up there with the Bitmaps. Before I knew it, we were round his house, looking through his archive of papers, photographs and old games.
MB: It must have been great to go through all that material. What did you uncover?
DW: Jon had kept absolutely everything. Most of it was over 20 years old. We sat on the floor in his basement and emptied out all these boxes. I remember pulling out endless sheets of paper with grids and diagrams on them. I’d ask Jon what they meant and he would simply reply: “I’ve got no idea!” We would spend hours trying to decipher their meaning.
In some cases we’d stumble upon tables that described the weapon functions in Cannon Fodder, or tables that outlined the gameplay mechanics for Mega Lo Mania. Jon was rediscovering dozens of old pictures and graphs and told me the stories behind each one.
I remember finding a set of old cassette tapes in that basement, upon which were reggae versions of the Cannon Fodder theme and a demo of Goalscoringsuperstarhero – the Sensible World of Soccer theme, where you could hear Jon singing and making up the words as he went along. The 14-year-old in me simply couldn’t believe it!
MB: Stoo Cambridge made a similar discovery recently, which he documented on his blog. He posted a picture of an old box that he found in his garage. If I remember right, there was a sticker on it that read…
DW: ‘The Most Exepensive Disk Box in the World!!’ E-x-e-pensive.
MB: That’s the one!
DW: We were lucky enough to get access to that box. It’s full of floppy disks, filled with bitmaps, raw graphics and sketches. It also includes a lot of material from the Amiga cover disks that Sensible created – Sensible Startest and Sim Brick. The disks also contained a lot of World Championship Soccer II data too. Unfortunately, they were all water damaged – so, I took them down to Jools Wills’ house.
Not to be confused with Sensible’s Jools Jameson – the co-designer and programmer of Cannon Fodder, also with a starring role as one of the game’s playable recruits – Jools Wills is best known as the founder of ExoticA.org.uk, an online archive of classic Amiga music. Jools Jameson today spends his time in Canada, as the CEO of Greenhill EnviroTechnologies.
DW: Jools Wills is a bit of an Amiga guru and developed this incredible method, whereby he managed to restore the majority of Stoo’s disks. By prying the disks open, he took out their magnetic media and cleared them up them with CD cleaner fluid. He dried the disk internals, flattened them out between some heavy books and housed them inside new disk casings. Incredibly, he managed to recover a lot of the data, but most of the disks were damaged beyond repair.
Thanks to Jools, we were able to recover much of the amazing artwork that you find in the book. We rediscovered titles such as Mirror, Signal, Manslaughter and Jon’s drawings for My Little Warhead – a sci-fi exploration RTS game that eventually became Mega Lo Mania. As part of our Kickstarter campaign, Jools also mixed the audio for the vinyl record, which we offered as an additional tier.
I would have been more than happy to fill the book with existing artwork and screen-grabs, but finding all that lost material and all those forgotten titles was the most enjoyable part of the whole process. We owe Jools so much for everything he did. Stoo couldn’t thank him enough.
MB: You also had Gary Penn on board as your writer. How early on did this come about?
DW: In my first formal meeting with Jon, I outlined what I wanted the book to be like. I took along a number of art books and history textbooks, explaining how I wanted to mash the two formats together. I really wanted our book to have a personal, conversational feel about it. I didn’t want it to be told as a third-person documentation of the Sensible story.
Jon suggested Gary, as they had both grown up together and had known each other from a really young age. They had that rapport and I knew Gary could make Jon feel comfortable, which really translated well in the book – you get that sense of familiarity, that sense of Jon’s personality coming through.
Gary was also a video games journalist, who later moved into the games industry. He could really press Jon on the technical aspects and press all his buttons in the right places. This is something that becomes apparent later on in the book, where Jon pours out about Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll – a title that Gary felt completely at ease in letting Jon know how he felt about it.
As much as I worship Jon and Sensible Software, I don’t think I could have pressed Jon in the way that Gary did. It was really important to have an interviewer who could openly disagree with him. That sense of having two people who are really close, confessional, honest and enthusiastic was pivotal to the success of the book.
MB: It sounds much like the relationship Jon had with Chris Yates – the other half of the Sensible business partnership.
DW: It does indeed and therein lies the book’s standout element – half of the Sensible partnership isn’t present! Chris Yates makes no appearance. I was initially quite worried about this. Me and Gary spoke quite early on – how could it be a book about Sensible Software without Chris Yates?
We managed to track down Chris through a third party, where we learnt that he simply wanted to distance himself from the industry. Reading the book, you realise that you couldn’t have hoped for a more intense time in the industry, so it makes sense that someone of Chris’ personality – someone who is quite private and reserved – would prefer to leave that behind and move on to pastures new. We were very lucky in the fact that you get a sense of Chris’ personality in both Gary and Jon’s comments.
The book really gives you a sense of the balance between Chris and Jon – Chris being the thoughtful, pensive one and Jon being the voice and the business head. From this stable foundation came all the the fun elements that Sensible came to be known for – the music videos, the funny anecdotes…
MB: Dominik Diamond…
DW: Dominik Diamond! He was someone that I really wanted to have in the book. Just the mention of his name evokes such a strong sense of that era. He represents everything about the video game journalism of that time – he was irreverent, funny, but really smart and took gaming deadly serious. Domink’s journalistic voice was definitely something that I wanted to carry over into the book.
It was great to learn that Jon knew Dominik and that he also loved Sensible Soccer, to the point that he attended the Sensible Soccer World Championship.
MB: He also makes another appearance on the Read-Only Memory website, if I’m not mistaken.
DW: Oh yes! We got hold of an old Anglia TV news bulletin that reported from the Games Master Expo ’93, which I was at incidentally! While the TV crew interviewed Dominik, he was playing playing Sensible Soccer against Jon. The funny thing about that clip is that you can see Jon in the background, who was taking the game really seriously. He slotted an endless number of goals past Dominik, who was trying really hard to remain professional in front of camera.
MB: Weren’t the news crew involved with that bulletin also responsible for the Cannon Fodder video shoot?
DW: That’s right. The Sensible guys took down the crew’s details. Six months later, when it came to shooting the Cannon Fodder promotional video, they called them up and the rest is history.
MB: Let’s talk a bit about your company. What is Read-Only Memory?
DW: We’re all about gaming history and the publishing of engaging books that cover important moments in gaming history. A lot of video gaming books in the current market seem to cast their net quite wide. There’s an infinite number of books on general gaming history, for example. Very few of these books strike the balance between quality games journalism, artwork and visual appeal.
Read-Only Memory’s aim is to be deliberately niche and focus on individual subjects, whether they be hardware, a software house, or an individual game. We endeavour to create bespoke books to suit the content and to go into as much detail as necessary.
MB: Kickstarter played a significant role in realising that ambition. How much development had gone into the Sensible book before you came to launch your Kickstarter campaign?
DW: We had done a lot of the research beforehand and had pretty much confirmed every contributor. All the legal business was complete, all the contracts had been drawn up and signed. I had also constructed some preliminary designs to show how the book would look. Obviously, this changed dramatically through the course of the campaign. One thing that hadn’t begun at this time was the writing.
One advantage of Kickstarter is its ability to function as a proof-of-concept. I remember launching the campaign at 8 am, without having had any sleep the night before. It was a Friday morning and I felt so unsure that it was going to work. Before we knew it, we had made $8,000 in the first 24 hours. I was genuinely stunned when it started to take off. Within about a week of the campaign being online, we had received some great feedback. It was from that point that we started writing the book.
More than anything else, it was the overwhelming response that was the biggest deal for us. The amount of online conversations that sprung up really confirmed that there was a gap in the market for this sort of project. It was great to hear from all these people, who were just like me and really wanted to see the project happen.
MB: It must have given you a tremendous confidence boost.
DW: Definitely. I remember being at the launch night. It was wonderful to see everyone who had bought the book, who had contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and were all on exactly the same level, in terms of their appreciation for the subject matter. Everyone had the same reverence for all the things that made Sensible special. It was simply fantastic.
MB: Did you face any particular challenges during the Kickstarter process?
DW: The challenges presented themselves a bit later on, when we were well into making the book.
We reached a point halfway through, where we realised that we had so much content – so many games were covered, Gary had drafted so many chapters, that we knew we had to delay its release and add more pages. Originally, it was going to be 298 pages. In the end, we had to add another 40 pages. As a result, we had to deliver it three months later than originally anticipated. I remember feeling really annoyed with myself when we had to push it back, especially when it came to posting the Kickstarter update, where I told everybody it was going to be late.
Those things are tough because you don’t want to let people down. We had raised all this money that everyone had donated and we had to carry tremendous responsibility. By working in such a public way, you really felt the weight of expectation – let alone the fact that we had the legacy of Sensible Software to consider!
MB: With all this online interaction, I suppose you could argue that the book was very much ‘alive’ before it was even released.
DW: There’s a loyal fan-base out there with fond memories of Sensible Software who, even to this day, remain loyal to everything that it represented. There’s no question that the comments and the feedback that we received from these fans fed into what the book became. I remember one particular example where someone mentioned a magazine cover disk that I didn’t even know existed. If we’re going to make books for hardcore fans, having people like this onboard straight away can only help us in the long run.
MB: What was it about Sensible Software that attracted these fans? What made Sensible so special?
DW: Not only did they have a talent for making great games, they also had a knack for making games that were instantly quotable, games that you could sing along to and share a common interest in. People recount the games in the same way they would a TV sketch show, almost Phythonesque in essence.
Going back to Sensible’s 8-bit days, although there was less to play with, there was always a gag or the occasional intentional spelling mistake. Sensible were the kings of creating these moments of humour – these idiosyncratic, quintasensible quirks. The aim of the book was to portray these moments – to evoke that feeling of playing the games, to convey that ‘hit’ of what it felt like to be in the worlds that Sensible Software created.
MB: As a gamer, what Sensible moments do you most fondly recall? What’s your favourite title?
DW: Mega Lo Mania. It was the first Sensible game I really sat down to play and saw through to the end. I remember playing it in an intensive three-day session and it had a remarkable effect on me. I’d never played a real time strategy game before – or a ‘god game’, as they were called back then.
Having gone back to play Mega Lo Mania and grab screenshots for the book, it made me realise that it hasn’t dated whatsoever. It’s an incredibly atmospheric game, with absorbing ambient music. From today’s perspective, it’s simply incredible to think that Jon and the game’s Lead Programmer Chris Chapman first created the game on graph paper, working out how the entire game would work, using just a pen and paper.
MB: Let’s sum up by looking at the future of Read-Only Memory. What can you reveal?
DW: It’s a pretty open secret that we really want to release a Bitmap Brothers book. I imagine it will be similar to what we’ve done with the Sensible book. They still have a lot of their old production art to hand, which is amazing. Fingers crossed, we’ll be able to do something with them next year.
Apart from that, there’s obvious areas for us to explore – Brit-soft companies for example, of whom we are chasing up quite a number at the moment.
In terms of Read-Only Memory’s future, it’s all about balancing British books with those of a more international focus. I’d like to publish books on topics that would appeal to the American and Japanese markets in the same way that our Sensible book has. Arcade gaming is certainly something we would love to look at. It’s just about picking subjects that mean something to people and translating those moments into great books.
Sensible Software 1986–1999 is out now and available from readonlymemory.vg