|★ GAMES ★ AUTEURS DE JEUX ★ THE PICKFORD BROTHERS interviewed by DARRAN JONES (2008) ★|
|John Pickford||Ste Pickford||Pickford Brothers||Ste Pickford Gallery|
In the cut-and-thrust world of the games industry, it's rare to find a business association that has lasted over 20 years - especially when both partners are brothers... We catch up with John and Ste Pickford to chart their two decades of designing, developing and innovating
Any gamer worth their salt should be familiar with John and Ste Pickford. Over the last 20 years the brothers have swum against the industry tide and delivered a series of quirky and original titles across a variety of formats. Transfixed with videogames since the early days of the industry, the pair have run their own studios, worked with big names in UK development, and were the first in Europe to work with certain gaming platforms. But, as with so many stalwarts of programming and design, the Pickfords'first gaming experiences were with some classic titles and machines of old.
"I was hooked on videogames almost from the moment they first appeared - Space Invaders or Atari's Sprint are probably the first games I actually saw," Ste says. "I found them puzzling at first because my only experience of arcade machines were fruit machines or Penny Falls, and they all involved trying to win money somehow. The lack of a 'prize' slot on the machine and the concept of games which you paid money to play, but no matter how well you do you can never win your lop back, was strange at first." Strange it may have been, but Ste, like his older brother, was smitten; by the time John got his first Spectrum ZX81 in 1981, the brothers were struck with the gaming bug.
John was the first to break into the gaming industry by getting a job at the newly formed Binary Design in Manchester in 1985. He was a programmer and earned "the princely sum of £6,000 a year". A year later Ste came to do some work experience at Binary, where he started off designing some loading screens and ended up staying an extra week in order to design more. So impressed was boss Andy Hieke with Ste's work that he decided to hire him. "I was the head of the art deépartment by the start of 1987," Ste recalls.
GOING THEIR OWN WAY
John and Ste quickly built up an impressive portfolio of titles that included the likes of Glider Rider, Amaurote and Feud, and the brothers worked on an impressive average of one new game every two months. After two years, however, the Pickfords upped sticks and formed their own studio, Zippo Games, to work on the Amiga and Atari ST. After just two titles (Cosmic Pirate and Voodoo Nightmare), Zippo joined forces with Rare and began working on titles for the NES - which, at that time, was unknown in Europe.
The brothers found thetransition from computers to the new breed of consoles quite a revelation, not least because of the new standards of quality control they encountered. "Not only were the games so, so much better, they were all bug-free and finished," Ste marvels. "Most computer games of the time were really just riffs on a single idea, not often properly crafted into full products. Console games... were designed to be played and enjoyed for much longer. For computer titles we used to just increase the speed value on every new level, until presumably the game would crash or become unplayable - we didn't know because we couldn't play games that well."
"It was the sheer professionalism and polish that was required that made the change so different," John adds. "Games actually got tested, no bugs were tolerated and it was expected that a game could actually be completed. It was a big learning experience and very valuable."
Zippo's partnership with Rare proved interesting for the Pickfords; not only were they one of the first studios to get their hands on NES development kits before anyone else outside Japan (producing the legendary Solar Jetman in 1991, but they were the first developers in Europe to begin work on the Game Boy. Rare bought out Zippo at the end of 1989, renaming the studio
Rare Manchester. John claims it was thanks to Rare that he and his brother really "got into" consoles, but despite learning a lot from the Twycross-based developer, Ste's memories aren't all happy.
"Rare were great to work with on an even footing, when we were a company being subcontracted to do work for them," reveals the younger Pickford, before explaining that it was a different story after the buyout. "They were over-strict, imposing arbitrary rules from 'head office' which weren't in the best interests of the studio. It became very miserable very quickly."
Clearly not happy with their situation, the brothers moved over to Software Creations in 1990 (where they got to play with one of the first SNES development kits in Europe) and they created titles such as Plokl, Equinox, Maximum Carnage and Tin Star. They were also involved with early work on the N64 - an art package called Creator was later modified to become Mario Paint 64, though it only got released in Japan.
Eventually, however, the brothers once again yearned for their own studio and in 1996 Zed Two was created, though the early days weren't easy. "Setting up Zed Two was very difficult," confirms Ste. "What we were trying to do - develop fresh, original IP and new game ideas with a small, dynamic and focused team - was totally against the flow of what the rest of theindustry expected. No publishers want original games, they only want clones of current hits. They also don't want small independent
"It was very hard in the early days," agrees John. "Ste and I had to live on very little for the first year or so, although things gradually got easier as cash flow improved and at one point we were doing very well indeed. Sadly, we were hit by two non-paying publishers, which pretty much wiped our reserves." Nevertheless, the Pickfords have fond memories of their two studios and cite them as their most enjoyable working environments. "I know it was my own company," says Ste, "but we had a very enjoyable, productive and creative atmosphere going, and had just about the best team of 20 or so people I've ever seen. It's a crying shame that such a strong and productive unit has now been broken up."
We'd have to agree, because the founding of Zed Two saw the Pickfords'ideas blossom and it was easy to see the direction they were intending to take. You only have to look at the likes of Wetrix and Aqua Aqua to realise that the studio held plenty of promise; Wetrix in particular is a classic example of how the brothers'experimentation with ideas would eventually evolve into a full game. "I was really interested in interactive environments and one of the ideas kicking around was simulating water," says John. "Originally we were planning on using the system as part of a bigger game but when we got it working it seemed to have potential, so we spent a month creating the basic game prototype."
The 'bigger' game in question was going to be called Vampire Circus, but the Pickfords were busy having fun with the water technology. "We wanted to simulate water and fire and other elements," says Ste. "Water came first and the technology demo was so much fun, and we needed a deal so badly, that we decided to cheekily turn that into a game, then hopefully return to Vampire Circus later."
The Pickfords never got round to finishing Vampire Circus as Zed Two was bought by Warthog in 2002, only to be closed down just over twelve months later in February this year. Understandably, the brothers have found this frustrating, not least because they've been severed from some of the work they consider to be their best. "We've got better over time, so I'm more proud of our more recent titles - Sticky Balls and Pillage I'm very proud of," says Ste. "I'm so proud that we managed to get an original game with original IP to market in to the current industry climate, which is very, very hostile to such products. Wetrix and Aqua AquaVm also very proud of because, again, we managed to get an original game to market and keep ownership of the IP with Zed Two at a time when this was considered pretty much impossible without a big hit or lots of funding behind you (we had neither). What's disappointing is that after so much personal struggle and effort to keep the ownership of these IPs with Zed Two, John and I have now been separated from Zed Two and have now lost the rights to the games that we put so much
What's particularly galling is that Sticky Balls is now in development for Sony's PSP (a video of the game was shown at E3 this year), but the Pickfords will never see the fruits of their labours. "Sadly, I've lost the rights to that game and any involvement with its ongoing development, which is probably the most frustrating thing that's ever happened to me/' says John.
With this in mind, it's hardly surprising to learn that the brothers are planning to go independent again. Last April, the pair set up Zee-3 so they can distribute their own games online. The site isn't live yet, but it will let them work on the titles that they want to make, which has always been their aim. "I'm proud of the games where we got a chance to express our ideas," reveals Ste. "Sure, they were all compromised one way or another by time and budget constraints or publisher interference, but generally we did better work when we were left to it."
Having owned their own studios before, though, they know that they may have a tough time, particularly in the current industry climate. "It's almost impossible to get funding for an original game nowadays,' laments John, "and judging by the lukewarm critical response to Future Tactics[the Pickfords'current title] it seems production values and licences are valued more than interesting gameplay and ideas. Nowadays, to reach the market a game has to fit neatly into an existing category whilst providing thecorrect number of unique selling points. The only hope for fresh, exciting games seems to be the indie scene. I think a lot of frustrated game designers and programmers are looking at the internet as a way of reaching an audience for their work."
It's a thought that's mirrored by Ste. "The industry's got better and worse in different ways at the same time," he says. "It's better in terms of the quality of games and talent of the people involved, the professionalism, time and money available, and the place videogames have secured in our culture. It's far worse in terms of the opportunities and freedom afforded to game
Frustrations aside, John and Ste are determined to carry on making the kind of games that they want to play and have even considered doing a George Lucas and returning to some of their older titles. "It is an idea we're toying with for now," admits Ste. "Some of those games have great ideas that were poorly implemented or not thought through well enough at the time. I wouldn't want to do a remake that wallowed in nostalgia. I'd rather a proper modern remake which brought the ideas bang up to date."
"A lot of our old Speccy games aren't that good, but there's a good idea at the heart of them," agrees John. "I'd love to take games like Zub, Feud or Glider Rider and develop them properly." With interest in retro gaming booming, they could be onto a winner. In the meantime, however, it seems the brothers are more than happy to drink beer, watch movies, play games and spend time with their families, while planning their next moves in the industry. And when they're back, we'll be there at the