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Brian Watson

Brian Watson


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Brian Watson was the coder of the ST version of the game Lemmings. He was also responsible for the conversion of the classic game Menace. He worked as a contractor for DMA Design. Read here how Brian feels about the so called "bad" conversion of Menace and how it all started in the good ol days as a game programmer ...


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Oh No! More Lemmings
Lead Programming

Brian Watson Interview

Written by ST Graveyard

September 27, 2004

1) Introduction
2) Infected with the computer virus
3) The machines
4) The little critters are coming ...
5) Lemmings are here to stay
6) Psygnosis
7) DMA Design
8) Blood money ... or not?
9) The copy protection
10) Menace
11) The beginning of the end
12) The fuzz
13) The others
14) Keeping contact
15) Fave game
16) The comparison
17) What will the future bring?
18) The end ...

1) Can you introduce yourself to the people who haven't heard from you before?
My name is Brian Watson. I am 37 years old and was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1967. I have been involved in writing video games since 1987. I have been using computers since I was about 13 years old. Unfortunately, due to my age, that was only as far back as 1981 (the year of the ZX-80, and birth of the ZX-81). I currently work at Inevitable Entertainment in Austin, Texas. I have only worked at 2 other companies before this. The first, you all know, DMA Design in Dundee, Scotland (1987 to 1993) and the second Iguana Entertainment in Austin, Texas (1993 to 2000). Iguana was eventually purchased by Acclaim Entertainment. I moved from Acclaim to Inevitable to work with a large group of colleagues that moved from Acclaim to form their own company (2000 to present).

2) What were your first steps into the world of computers? What were your first programming experiences? Your first computer? How old were you?
I recall the very first time I programmed a computer very, very vividly. It was one of those moments that totally changed the direction of my life from that moment on. Even though the effects of it took several years to take hold, this was the moment it all changed for me:

I was about 13 years old, 2nd year of high school at Liberton High School, in Edinburgh, Scotland. My math teacher mentioned that the 'math club' that they would have a computer there so they could use it at the end of school that day. This sounded quite intriguing to me, so I became a member of the math club for a day. This machine, rolled in on a cart, had a single line display of those old red single-letter-per-vacuum tube type displays. If I find the right name for it, I'll correct myself. It took punch cards and it had a simple BASIC like language. We had to program it using punch cards! The very first program I ever wrote was the all-too-standard "Hello" program. I thought that this was just THE most awesome thing I had ever seen in my entire, short, life! Never went back to math class since. It was many, many months until I next had the chance to use a computer. When I was about half way through my third year of high school, my teacher let me in on a secret: We had 3 Apple II Europlus' in the math department! And, if I wanted, I could play with it during my own time. Well, I messed around with all the standard BASIC programs that were available: Lemonade being my favorite. I then tried to work out how to make it do things from what these other programs were doing.

I then joined the local computer club at my high school. These kids had Apple IIs, ZX-81s and some ZX-80s. Wonderful! I would cart my old TV set up to my school once a week so that someone else didn't have to cart theirs by bus so we could use their ZX-81.

My very first assembly language program was for the Dragon 32. It was a routine to clear the screen. It was about 1.5K long, (the screen memory for the D32 was 512 bytes). After that, I discovered the assembly version of the GOTO command and the routine got down to about 10 bytes!

3) Which computers did you ever own during all those years?
The very first computer I ever purchased was a Dragon 32. I kinda wanted a ZX-81 but we were at the time just beyond it, just before the Spectrum and I ended up with a Dragon 32. Then there was a Sinclair QL, then an Atari 520STM, then an Amiga 1200, then a 386-based PC, and so on up to the current generation.

4) Let's talk about "Lemmings". What was your specific involvement here? Your tasks?
I was hired, while working in the U.S. as a camp counsellor (more details below) by Dave Jones to do the Atari ST version of Lemmings. I had worked on Menace a couple of years prior to this, and so it seemed that I was a good choice to do the conversion.

5) Can you tell us a bit about the history of Lemmings? How did it start? And how many people really were involved in it? Where did they get the idea to create such a game?
Mike Dailly ([url]www.dailly.org[/url]) has his version of exactly the same story on his web page. The VERY first time I saw Lemmings was just after I had returned from the good-ole-US of A in September 1989. I had just spent the summer as a lead counsellor and teacher doing programming for kids between the age of 8 and 13. I had taken my own Atari ST over with me. This was AFTER doing Menace on the Atari ST. DMA Design was currently situated on Meadowside in Dundee. Dave had rented a very small office from his in-laws to use for the company. I came in one day, after college, and Dave sat me down and showed me this demo of a game idea they had come up with (to the best of my knowledge, it was a collaboration between Dave Jones, Mike Dailly and Gary Timmons - my recollection is a little fuzzy on this). Dave sat me down in front of an Amiga, told me that this was a demo he had just shown to some other people of a game idea. It was VERY simple. The Lemmings walked on the landscape and pretty much all you could do was to blow them all up. No climbers, blockers, builders, miners or diggers by this time. Just simple. I almost fell of my seat laughing when I first saw, and heard the infamous 5-4-3-2-1- 'oh no!' boom!. I was blown away by how satisfying that was!

6) How did you team up with Psygnosis? And how were they to work with? Tell us about that company...
The first dealings with Psygnosis was during the Menace days. Of course, Dave dealt with all of that part of the dealings. I was still at college and had no intention of getting fully involved on the business side of things. Dave just did his thing. Got the distributor for Menace, then Bloody Money and just stayed with them. Psygnosis took the position of publisher. It wasn't until Lemmings 2 that they started to get involved in helping with the game design and production.

7) How does DMA design fit in this picture? What did they do?
We all were DMA Design. Dave Jones worked very hard to make it. I don't know if he had a particular direction in mind but my recollection was mostly that he saw doing games could be a great way to make a living and have fun doing so. DMA Design was formed by Dave. Tony Smith, if I recall correctly, was the first person to be a contractor for DMA, and I did Menace (sorry, guys, I know it was bad but I was just learning and I was up against the Amiga!). Dave started a business, proper, when he first got the office in Meadowside. I was still at college. Dave dropped out because it started to take too much of his time. There's a good period of about a year or so of when I had little to do with DMA Design. I was too busy with college.

8) A more sensitive question, but I just gotta ask. Since Lemmings was one of the most successful games on the ST, did you make a good living out of it? you have any idea how many copies got sold?
Well, not directly. DMA Design made a significant amount of money, as a whole, from the Lemmings game. It funded much of the company expansion all the way through 1993. I did get some money, as a bonus. That appeared around the time I bought my own flat. Dave made that a bonus to me to get me there. Other than that, I had no direct payout from the Lemmings game. Lemmings helped pay for several new game attempts by DMA. It paid for the move to Discovery Park. I have no idea how much Dave Jones made personally out of the whole thing but I do believe the vast majority of the money was fed back in to the company.

9) Lemmings featured a nifty copy protection. Can you tell us more about this?
To say I was never involved in the hacking community, would be less than truthful. So I did have a small idea of how the games were hacked. My friends in Edinburgh created their own little hacking group called the 'Sub Humans in Turkey'. Never did much but Gordon was a great distributor. He went on to form Sinister developments (www.kewlplace.com/sinister/). He still duplicates the Jaguar games that he and Dave Cowan did. Dave Cowan now works for Visual Sciences in Dundee.

However, I did realize the way to deal with hackers was to keep them at bay for a while. Trying to stop them hacking the game was one approach, but what do you do after that? Well, my thoughts were to make them THINK they had hacked the game. It just was a trivial form of protection but it was, to the best of my knowledge, effective. The music for the Atari ST was held in an executable overlay of code. I do not fully recall the reason for this, but this is how our music was distributed to us.

The protection method, I believe was the Rob Northen protection, was based on an oddly sized data track on the disk. Now, it wasn't hard to crack it if you knew what to look for. However, since our music was in an overlay, which changed with each audio track, I used that chance to put a security check tied in when the 11th audio track overlay was initialized. This would then check the protection track. The track seek did not seem out of place as it had just read a bunch of data from the disk. Of course, I had put the protection check in earlier and had it just outright crash when it failed. That was one of the decoys. However, when this 11th audio track check failed, all it would do was reset the values sent to the IKBD controller. It would set the limits of the mouse position way outside the normal screen range. This always seemed totally benign until you went off the top or off the bottom of the screen. Then the mouse cursor, since it was not properly clipped (on purpose) would start to write over program memory. This would cause the game to crash at an unexpected point. It did seem to take several more weeks for full hacks of Lemmings to appear. But I would be VERY interested in hearing from those that actually hacked the game early on, what they did.

10) I heard you were involved in the ST version of "Menace". Is this true? And what do you think of this game?
Yes. I'm sorry.

11) Can you tell us about the history of this classic?
Ah! Yes, the history of Menace. Now, I think from the question above, we've established that it didn't turn out too terribly good. That doesn't mean to say there's no colourful stories surrounding it. Menace was my very, very first video game programming job. I had done many things on the Sinclair QL and I knew Dave from the computer club at Kingsway Tech in Dundee. He had just gotten his Amiga. I had joined Dave in the 2nd year of the B.Sc Science degree course at Dundee Institute of Technology. Dave was already well in to the hacking scene on the Amiga. He had written many, many scrollers for various hack groups. Him and Dave Smith got together to work on a game concept (they had both done work together to do some hack demos). I recall quite vividly, during 1987, Dave sitting in the back of Computer Science class, writing out maps on a piece of grid paper for Menace. He would sit and write block numbers in on this piece of paper that he would later enter in to his Amiga. One day, Dave came to me and asked me if I would do an Atari ST version of Menace. I had never done anything of the like before but I liked to write very fast and concise assembly language code. I said yes. Sure. Why not? The following day, I went to the Silicon Centre in Antigua Street in Edinburgh and bought an Atari ST 520STM (the one with the external floppy).

12) You created a lot of anger in the ST scene when you wrote to ST format telling them Menace had bad scrolling and this was due to bad hardware in the ST. What are your feelings about this now? After playing the game, most ST fans had no problem with the scrolling. Why the negativity? Wouldn't this affect the sales and thus your salary?
Oh, I was a young little purist at that time of my life. I've learned a lot since then. Obviously, it's clear that even with the limitations of the ST, I can be proved wrong. I think it's clear that Wayne Smithson proved me wrong with Anarchy. That was an amazing piece of work. Making that machine do what it really was never supposed to. I think a good part of it was that I was really pissed with Atari. If they had done just a couple of extra little bits of hardware goodies with the ST, we would have been able to produce much nicer looking games. Menace was not good. It was a pale comparison to the Amiga version of the game. But I challenge anyone out there to tell me how on earth we could have done a dual-playfield side-scrolling 50fps shooter on the ST? Most of the time on Menace was spent scrolling the screen! The Amiga just didn't need to do this. Now, I do know that we can actually fake the ST in to doing hardware scrolling using the 50/60hz screen flip. This was discovered a couple of years after Menace was done.

13) Did you create other games for the ST? Or in general? tell us about it.
My programming experiences of the ST were Menace, Lemmings and Lemmings 2. I did start to work on Gore and Walker for the ST but decided that college was more important. By the time Lemmings 2 came out, the home computer era was coming to an end and to be dominated by consoles. I worked on some Genesis games, 32X, SNES (Quarterback Club American football game, Pirates of Dark Water), PlayStation, Saturn (QBC again), Nintendo 64 (QBC 98 - the best one, Turok, Turok 2, AllStar Baseball, Re:Volt, Shadowman, Hockey and other QBC versions - each getting successively suckier). PlayStation 2 ( Tribes:AA, Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, The Hobbit, Area 51), Gamecube (The Hobbit, Defender 2000), XBOX (The Hobbit, Area 51). Of all these systems, the best designed are the Nintendo 64 and the Gamecube. The systems are elegantly designed, very simple yet very powerful. My least favorite is the PS1 and PS2. The system design on these things is hardly elegant.

14) Are you still in contact with your team mates of then?
The games industry is a small business. You may only be talking about 4000 to 5000 people who have been in the industry longer than 10 years. I see friends from various places every once in a while. I had to do some contract work for Electronic Arts on Medal of Honor: Rising Sun (online PS2 component) and I bumped in to Russell Kay at Visual Sciences (still in Dundee). Turns out he was doing a whole ton of work for the Borg too! I've only seen Dave a couple of time since I left Dundee. Every once in a while, I hear a little about what's going on with some friends. Mike Dailly is working with Simian Industries in Dundee. Dave Jones is now running Real Time Worlds. As for others, we'll like I say, I hear little bits here and there.

I would love to work with these guys again. Unfortunately, I don't think I could do Dundee again.

15) What is your all time favorite computer game?
This is got to be soo damn corny. Lemmings. Believe it or not, of all the games I've ever worked on, there is ONLY one that I have got hooked on. That was Lemmings. The only version, apart from Lynx, that I played through all the way (without any form of cheating) was the Archimedes version. Turns out, that on the 2nd last level, you could not complete it because the instant your Lemming dropped out of the hole, the game was over! The people who had done the Archimedes port had a small logic flaw when there was only 1 Lemming ever alive in the level. They never caught it because none of them could ever get to the last few levels! Hah! My friends and I spent MANY hours playing this. It was just too much fun! Well, Krysalis fixed the bug and out it went.

After getting these questions, I downloaded a copy of Lemmings and I've been sitting playing it with a friend over the last couple of weeks. I am still totally surprised at how addictive and fun the game is. We're only as far as Tricky/18. I do remember all the solutions, after a little while but it is quite funny watching someone play it for the first time.

16) What do/did you think of the Atari ST in general, compared to other machines?
Well, this has caused me a couple of issues here and there. The Atari ST is no Amiga. And, no huffing and puffing could ever make the ST anywhere close to the capabilities that the Amiga had. Mind you, I loved the simplicity of the ST. It was a hard challenge to make it perform even close to the level at which the Amiga could perform. Lemmings was an interesting test. The Amiga was blessed, from the start, with a blitter. It was an excellent little piece of hardware. The ST got one at a later stage. However, the ST did have the advantage of being about 10% faster than an Amiga, processor wise. Lemmings involved up to 120 small 8x8 sprites. The amount of time it took to set up the BLITs on the Amiga was significant, so the cost of rending a sprite was somewhat similar. In the end, the Amiga could render about 120 Lemmings before dropping from 25fps. The ST, hit that limit at round 90. Not that bad at all if you ask me. Compared to the other machines that were available at the time, the Atari ST was quite powerful. The PC had crappy CGA style graphics, if you were lucky. The biggest threat to the ST was the Amiga. Mind you, both of them got side-swiped by the Mac. If either had gotten in to the educational market, we may still be talking about Atari (the REAL Atari) or Amiga today. Unfortunately, both of them got scuppered by bad marketing. Today, of course, we're dominated by the PC. Unfortunately, of all the machine designs that were around at that formative time, the PC was definitely the most clumsy and ugly. The choice of that damn 8086 processor has haunted us since. DAMN YOU IBM!

17) What are your future plans?
I have come to the conclusion I will be a games programmer for a very, very long time. I am currently working at Inevitable Entertainment on Area 51 (online) for PS2 and XBOX. Yet again, it's one of those groups of people I see myself working with for a very long extended period of time (10½ years so far). However, I can see myself taking a little break and going off to do something a little more 'normal'. The online portion of console games is still very embryonic. They are a very different beast than PC online games. There is a totally different crowd that play console games versus PC games. I want to work towards producing an engrossing and encompassing online aspect to a game. I'll leave all the massively multiplayer games to the PC community and I'd like to stick to the small team based games. If you get the chance, check out Tribes: Aerial Assault for PS2. We worked on that several years ago and, even though it didn't do very well in the market, it is a fine game and I'm proud of it.

18) Would you like to share something else with us? Some final thoughts?
I have been very fortunate to be a participant within the games industry at a very formative period of time. I have worked on some of the most complex hardware available at that time (by today's standards, that old hardware can do nothing spectacular). I have continued to be exposed to the very, very latest of high performance hardware that there is. This is an amazing career. It's not just a job, it's a passion. I have met some interesting and very bizarre people and I would strongly recommend it as a career path to anyone. The hours can really suck though.

However, those times that we had in time-of-old where we swapped floppies, bitched over one game taking up an entire floppy disk are over. The young ones of nowadays have their own version of the Atari ST scene. They will never know what it was like and how neat it was. We do though!

That is really nicely put, Brian. Thanks a lot for this interview, it was fun!

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