A Sensible Chat - Part 1 from issue 61


Photo of Jon from Sensible Software
Jon dreams up his next game with a hookah!

Despite their typically modest name, Sensible Software have long been recognized as one of the most original and successful programming teams around. Games such as Wizball, MicroProse Soccer, and Parallax are C64 classics. While The Shoot-'em-up Construction Kit (SEUCK) is one of the few game designers to work well, and the only one to work brilliantly. Sensi (as they're known to their friends) are to the C64, what Ultimate used to be to the Speccy.

Robin Hogg undertook the five hour haul to the hamlet of March in East Anglia, to have an expenses-paid five course meal with 'jovial' Jon Hare (graphic genius) and 'cuddly' Chris Yates (programming prodigy). Between burps and slurps their glittering careers were reviewed, and the future previewed.

Finding March in March was surprisingly challenging : zooming around East Anglia in a Peugeot 205 revealed more mazes than Parallax. But once there I was soon being ushered into the 'legendary' Griffen hotel for a scrumptious meal, with prime steaks all round. As we waited for our starters Jon spilled the beans on their his- tory.

'Sensi Software officially started up four years ago, but before that in 1985, Chris worked on the Speccy conversion of the C64 oldie Gandalf. It was jokingly titled Sodov the Sorceror [work it out] and the name alone assured the game's moment of success before disappearing into obscurity. Chris did most of the graphics and I helped him out while working on a college course doing nothing the usual!.'

'I knew Jon from the fifth year of school,' interrupted Chris. 'We formed a band with two other people 'band' in the gravest sense of the word! I played rhythm guitar brilliantly (of course) and Jon sang unfortunately - and played lead guitar. We were playing '70s freaky rock music but a bit more enjoyable, sort of like Pink Floyd. The band was Touchstone and we played around the Essex area, but distance forced us to split up about a year ago.

After work on Sodov Sensi did a stint for System 3, doing a few graphic screens for International Karate although Archer Maclean redid them so it was a waste of time. At the time we were working through middle men, LC Software, one of whom was to become a woman! It's weird but a few years ago we found out that the boss had had a sex change! He was Mike before and now he's a Patricia! He could have been called Michaela or something! Very weird!'

The bit-part work continued with static screens for Spectrum Skyfox, the forgettable Flyerfox, and Lone Wolf In The Ice Halls of Terror - 'part two of the Lone Wolf series which never came out'. They also did Twister (no nothing to with the very silly 'board' game for contortionists but the notorious Twister: Mother of Harlots promoted by lingerie-clad dancing girls!). 'We wrote and developed the program, did everything in fact and then Mark Cale put his name to it, although he actually just sorted out the deal for us,' Jon commented.

'Years back Mark had the storyboard for The Last Ninja,' said Chris, 'he asked Jon to do some static screens and graphics for it.'

'But I didn't do anything!' Jon concluded, raising interesting questions about what might have been if Ninja had been a Sensi product.

Eventually Jon and Chris heard about a government small business scheme and officially set up Sensible Software in 1986. 'We thought that at least rather than get ripped off by middle men we'd get ripped off a bit less in our own company!' remarked Chris. They'd also suffered with some awkward software houses. 'We did a conversion of Runestone in two weeks, didn't get any money for it though - Firebird said it was too slow. It's funny but it was their loader that slowed it down! They tried to change it but it didn't work and never got published in the end!'

Galax-i-birds was the first Sensible Software Inc. game, a unique reworking of Galaxians with such comic baddies as dodos, budgies, old IK+ characters, and even a few balls from Bounder. Galax-i-birds was eventually released by Firebird in August '86. In the ZZAP! review Julian Rignall said, 'To be honest, this game is a load of rubbish, but it's enjoyable rubbish . . . graphics are poor, sound is awful, but I love it!'

Amazingly Sensi jumped straight from this jokey budget game to Parallax, the astonishingly well programmed Sizzler which eventually appeared on ZZAP! 45's megatape. Asked about the inspiration for the game, Chris said, 'We both saw a coin-op with parallax scrolling, which I can't remember the name of. When we took Parallax to Ocean they took one look and signed us up. Six months of toil was rewarded with its release in October of '86.'

And what of the planned sequel?

'We had always planned to do sequels to all our games. Before, it was just a matter of finding the time but now I can't see it happening, we're going to move onto other things.'

But if, for example, Ocean paid them lots of money to do Parallax 2, would they?

'Well, money isn't every- thing! Nine months is a long time to be tied up in any game for us, and we don't want to be left behind [in the advance of software and hardware technology]. We'd have to see.'

Their next game was even more amazing, the Sensi piece de resistance the utterly brilliant Wizball, which took about nine months to develop. What made them write it?

'Oh man!!' responded Chris. 'Er, well, we wanted a good game with all the best elements of our favourite arcade games. We played Dropzone for four months solid, the Nemesis and Salamander coin-ops as well. We kept going into the arcades and seeing more and more games. Wizball took nine months, a pregnancy! The same time to spawn a game!!'

Luckily for the C64 gaming world Wizball was no phantom pregnancy and became the cover game for July '87 with a Sizzler to boot, even though it reached the now Gold Medal status of 96%.

I blatantly enquired how much they made for Wizball? '1.50!' came the less than serious reply! Were they still receiving royalties?

'I wish we were!' both cried in unison! The news that Wizball was being converted to the Nintendo NES brought a dark cloud of disappointment and frustration over the proceedings the thought of millions of sales flashed before them and and [sic] not a yen coming their way.

Obviously they hadn't realised it was going to be such a massive hit?

Photo of Chris and his Lotus Esprit
The fruits of success - Chris's beloved Lotus Esprit.

'After Parallax we took Wizball to Ocean and signed up with them. They more or less said that they weren't planning for any other format releases and they doubted it was going to sell that well. That's one reason I guess why Ocean are as big as they are, they're very shrewd with a better business sense than us! We certainly didn't know how successful it would be, we just wrote a game that we thought was good; one that we'd want to play ourselves.'

Their next project would allow thousands of other people to do something similar: The Shoot-'Em-Up Construction Kit for Palace, released in December '87. 'SEUCK started off as a series of graphic code utilities written by Chris, which was expanded into a construction kit.'

After two hits for Ocean why did they go to Palace? The money?

'No, actually we knew Matthew Timms there, a good friend of ours who's now at Domark. Also Palace are a very honest company, one of the most reliable around [sic .']

'SEUCK was turned around in six months which was pretty intensive for us with quite a lot of work crammed in.' But it paid off with a Gold Medal, if ultimately no rating!

What of a horizontal scroller version of SEUCK a la Nemesis, complete with 'multiple' weapons and all that? A SEUCK 2 perhaps?

'I don't know, maybe. If we did one it would be a lot more flexible with a lot of the boring bits taken out, put in lots of graphic libraries, in fact it would be totally rewritten.' As it happens Palace are certainly interested in a sequel, but nothing is settled as yet with any release date at least a year away.[sic ']

And what did Sensi Soft think of Amiga SEUCK?

'I was slightly disappointed by it.' admitted Chris.'The scrolling was a little on the slow side but we'll definitely improve on it a lot with SEUCK 2!'

With SEUCK under their belt, the royalties started to flood in and Jon splashed out on a BMW 535i. while Chris succumbed to the classic programmer temptation and got a Lotus, followed by a Porsche and currently a very sporty red Lotus Esprit. Incidentally the Porsche was sold to Martin Galway, the nephew of the famous flautist and a first-class freelance musician who was briefly a part of Sensi.

The offbeat blast-'em budget game Oh No! pro- vided light relief after the rigours of SEUCK. This was their only '88 release as the company began to work with Origin, the US RPG specialists who recently won a Gold Medal for Space Rogue. Sensi embarked on a massive RPG adventure titled Touchstone (remember the band?). 'For two years we had been working on the gameplay and story for Touchstone, a traditional storyline fantasy RPG but with a twist in it. It became so big and very intricate. We originally wanted the player to be able to approach the game through one of the many plots and sub-plots.[sic ']

'Origin decided that the American market (that it was primarily aimed at) was changing towards the Nintendo consoles. There was no deadline as such but admittedly we weren't making much progress. Origin are good to work with and it was an amicable decision to stop the project in November of last year. The project is now dead but we still hold the copyright and we'd dearly love to see it come to life. The good thing about it is that it's adaptable. As we've worked on the story for eighteen months, and the gameplay for six months, it can be a text adventure, a Cinemaware-style game, even an arcade adventure, whatever - a game to suit the client.' As yet there's no word on any interested software house. Fingers crossed though.

Thankfully their next project suffered no such delays. And in early '89 Jon and Chris rocketed to the top of the 64 programmers league with Sensi-Soccer, otherwise known as the classic MicroProse Soccer. After the likes of Wizball why a Soccer game?

'To tell the truth, there were no good football games around. We'd seen Match Day 2 and that was alright but we wanted to do a game that we could play, a fun game. It took five months to write, not long but it took a long time to get the cheques through for it! Writs were involved to get the money out of MicroProse and with the departure of a certain person (no names!) from the company we finally received a large cheque. It was very frustrating as we had a lot of bills.' Why did they go to MicroProse, the war sim specialists?

'Well, there was no problem getting people to see the game, we advertised in all the mags as you may remember and got loads of phone calls.'

MicroProse obviously offered the best deal, and surprisingly Ocean weren't all that interested enquiring through a third party but not pursuing the game any further; obviously they thought two football games would have been too much. But as it turned out, even a year on MicroProse Soccer is still by far and away the best C64 footie game, beating all the new licence-based releases into the ground. 'In fact, SEUCK wasn't the biggest seller for us, Soccer was. We're still getting good royalties for it.'

However, they were disappointed with the 16-bit conversions by the Electric Pencilcil Company (Zoids, Fourth Protocol etc). 'Kick Off probably cost us a lot of money as it was released at the same time, although the 64 version was a pile of crap! [Well, he's honest!] We're not millionaires but we've made other people millionaires!'

'The MicroProse Soccer sequel is coming soon in time for the World Cup rush but it's nothing to do with us. Fortunately it's now being called World Cup Soccer or something like that instead of MicroProse Soccer 2. Not that there's a lot we could have done about it if it was called MicroProse Soccer 2!'

Their most recent release was of course Insects In Space, my favourite game on the superb, Sizzling Fourth Dimension compilation from Hewson. 'We knocked up Insects in two months over Xmas '88, we showed it to every budget house under the sun but no-one wanted to know. Eventually Hewson took it, but it was a bit weird as Hewson paid for the game and it never came out (until now). It was planned for their budget label (Rack-it) but they stopped all that shortly after.'

And what on the Rhineland possessed them to write Insects?

'It was a bit of fun! Just a bit of a laugh! St Helen Bak, stupid name!'

And the risque sprite with the big boobies?

'They could have been warts!' Errh, sure!

After lunch, in the 'temporary' Sensible Software den (Chris's house) I was shown the new tennis game that the duo have been working of for a year now. Planned for a midyear release. Palace are currently finalising the title, which they hope to get a big licence for. And after that?

'I dunno,' Chris shrugged, maybe we'll have a few months research and development first, we've already got the basic idea for a new game . . .'


We'll do a proper preview on the tennis game next month, but for now I can tell you it's an unofficcial follow-up to MicroProse Soccer with one- or two-player tennis action around the world.

Game Issue Reviewed %
Galax-i-birds 17 (Sep 1986) 60%
Parallax 18 (Oct 1986) 93%
Wizball 27 (Jul 1987) 96%
SEUCK 32 (Dec 1987) N/A
Oh No! 38 (Jun 1988) 80%
MicroProse Soccer 59 (Mar 1990) 90%
Insects in Space 59 (Mar 1990) 94%

Instead of a look-down viewpoint a la Passing Shot with sprites, the game employs superbly animated vector graphic players with triangular heads, which move surprisingly fast. Palace's Richard Joseph has come up with a maddeningly catchy rendition of the Wimbledon title music, but to know more you'll have to wait until next month. Rest assured it's going to be a typically Sensible game in its own Sensible way! But in the meantime I had one last question for Sensi: were they going to take on the new technology and abandon the C64 like others have?'

'Well, funnily enough we were going to go on about how the C64 is dead and all that malarky but when you think about the sales of the C64 and the Amiga. . . We're going to be continuing for some time yet (with the C64). The Amigas are pretty good in their own way but the 64 is still good. When parents go into the shops, they don't look at the computers, their hardware specifications and all that, they just look at the price.'

Our thoughts exactly, but what of the mythical C64 console?

'It's a very interesting idea but they'd have to get the price right and of course there's the Nintendo to compete with.'

What came as a surprise to me was the fact that the Sensible Software team don't get to play games that much, particularly their own!! 'We simply don't have the time.' came the joint reply. Chris confessed to playing Pinball Wizard on the Amiga (the name of the publisher escapes us all at the time) and also MicroStyle's Stunt Car Racer. 'Stunt Car Racer was good, too good in fact, we had to destroy the disk! There's something about the game that holds the attention, even if you complete the practice courses you still want to play through the game - in fact the computer was too good! That's what we want to incorporate in our games, for the computer to make mistakes.'

A sort of Artificial Intelligence?

'Yes.' enthused Chris. Actually, if anybody can show a flair for programming and game design then come to us. . .

'Yes, come to us,' Jon interrupted, 'if you're young and want to be exploited!!'

Doesn't sound all that Sensible to me, Jon!

This feature was typed in/OCRed by Iain