|★ GAMES ★ AUTEURS DE JEUX ★ DON PRIESTLEY) ★|
|Don Priesley||Don Priestley|Popular Computing Weekly)|
A nice little earner
Graham Taylor talks to the mind behind Minder, the game
You'd be forgiven for thinking that all that was involved in the production of a computer game based on a popular film or TV program was the handing over of a large sum of money for the right by the software house, followed by a quick rummage in the basement to see what item of dross could be started up and shot out into the market place as quickly as possible for some instant bucks before the reviews come out.
Movie spin-offs are frequently so dire that they are almost more feared in the Popular offices than platform games with names that alliterate. But there are exceptions - games that really do seem to have been created with the mood and style of the original in mind. Ghostbusters was one and it looks as though Minder will be another.
But how does a programmer turn film into game? What does he do if someone came up with the idea of a game based on the immortal, inimitable Minder? A dreary road chase game? Help Arthur Daley collect the 12 cases of stolen goods and put them in his lock-up, but watch out for the falling plain clothes branch? Thankfully, Don Priestly, programmer of Minder, didn't think any of the above were a good idea.
I have, although I wasn't consciously aware of it before interviewing him, always been a fan of Don Priestly's work. In particular. I always loved a management game he did called Dictator where through bribery, corruption and maglomania you ran a small banana republic as long as you could. Minder can be thought of as a sophisticated East End version of Dictator.
Don is a whizz middle aged person with a beard rather than a whizz kid. He has a manner you might call business like with a smidgen of mad professor. He says of the Minder game, "Looking at the program on TV I felt I could create a reasonable or even good program and on balance I think it has turned out to be good." From an hour or so looking at it I would say it is better than good, but then Don just isn't the sort of person who could say Mega! with a straight face let alone a exclamation mark.
Was Don a Minder fan prior to writing the game? "Well, to be honest, 1 don't watch TV much but if Minder was on I did stop to look at it. When developing the game I watched every episode I could and videoed them to view them again to try to get the right feel."
What conclusions had he drawn? "It seems to me there are several ingredients in the shows I had to get into the game: firstly it is about people and not just cardboard cut-outs, secondly it has a very distinct series of locations and language, and finally it had to be funny."
The game has essentially three locations. the Winchester club where dealers, assorted low lifes and, on occasion, Mr Chisholm can be found, the lock up where the goods Arthur Daley buys and sells are kept and various dealer locations where yet more deals are made. "I decided against the car lot because all that could happen there was the buying and selling of cars and I thought that would become boring.
One thing that Don's specifications for the game meant was that the game should be populated by many 'characters', people who were always around adding atmosphere. Since the game also had to be graphically interesting, there was the question of how to show lots of different people who aren't simply featureless stick insects. "I wanted people's faces and then hit upon the idea of a sort of rogues gallery." In practice what this means is that when you go to the Winchester club you see an assortment of different faces like a series of wanted posters.
"The routine for drawing faces is set for the faces of specific people like Terry and the dealers, but can create randomly generated faces for other people." An important feature of the game is the 'real time' which means that different people will be found at different locations at different times.
The question of dialogue is a major form of pseudo East End language which marks the series. For example, a dealer offered me a nice line in coats for about £60 each and Don invited me to haggle with him. I thought of the most nonstandard, round about way of expressing the idea, something like 'cor, leave it out, squire, make it £46'.
To my amazement, the character came back with a better offer having understood my input.
The same thing works in reverse if you try to sell something - in a sense you bring the style of the TV program to the game. How does it work? It took me a while to figure it out and I'm not going to spoil it for you, but let's just say it doesn't require the most sophisticated language analysis routines known to mankind.
But what about Terry. In the program all he really gets to do is lug stuff you've bought and sold about and occasionally protect you for a small amount of money. Hadn't Don diminished Terry's role somewhat? "I watched the program over and over again and that's all Terry does. Arthur is always the leader, he's the entrepreneur. Terry only acts when Arthur has gone over the top or needs rescuing. He isn't really very motivated otherwise. The reason his role seems bigger is because of the way its acted, subtle looks and glances that make the program great, but are impossible to program."
As the game was developed, it has been changed here and there. "The main thing has been simplification; in earlier stages there were more complex haggling episodes; for example, you had to agree a price for Terry to work for you, now he always gets the same amount.
"I changed it simply because the game plays better; sophisticated isn't always more fun."
In terms of the way it reflects the TV program and playability, the finished game is better than anyone could have hoped for and being able to type in things like 'leave it out, squire' and not get 'I'm sorry I don't know what you mean' is bliss.
I'm out out to get a box of big cigars and a funny hat.