Robin's career in game design and computer graphics got triggered by the release of 3D Construction Kit. After his first few releases as shareware and licenseware, it was time to go into a more commercial route. Late in the Atari ST's lifespan, Robin created the game Alien Thing, together with programmer Martin Millner. Find out all the history and much more in this interview.
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2) The first hardware
3) Computer graphics
4) The Atari ST
5) The One Magazine's Competition
6) Secret Weapon
8) A commercial adventure
9) Martin Millner
10) Tools used
11) Nosferatu productions
12) Sound effects
13) Top Byte
14) ST Format
15) Director's Cut
16) 3D Studio Max
17) Atari Falcon version
18) 3 level demo
19) Mine Sweeper
20) Solar War 2
21) Life after the ST
23) Playing games
25) Final words
A competition in the magazine The One was the perfect incentive to finish the creation of a complete game.
Infiltration was the game made for the competition in The One. It did not make it, so Robin released it as shareware.
For the graphics in this version of the game, Robin was inspired by Dan Malone, of Bitmap Brothers fame.
1) Hello Robin, please introduce yourself to the people who have never heard of you before.
Hi. My name is Robin Ball. I’ve been a videogame artist for more than 20 years. I started off doing shareware and licenseware games on the Atari ST while I was still at school and then Art School. Once I left I moved into commercial games. Initially for small independent developers working on the PlayStation One, then moving into AAA development for large developers about 10 years ago.
2) When did your journey with computers start? What was your first machine?
I was fascinated by computers from an early age. I was always on the look out for arcade games wherever we went. In those days you’d see them everywhere like in chip shops or the local train station.
In terms of home computers, I remember my dad bringing home a ZX 81 that he borrowed from my uncle one weekend when I was very young. That was probably my first direct contact with a computer. Then I had access to a BBC at primary school. I stayed after school quite often to play games on that.
I had friends with consoles like the Atari VCS and home computers like the Spectrum and Commodore 64. I often used to go round to their houses and we’d play games on them together.
My own first computer was a Mitsubishi MSX that my parents bought me. They weren’t very common in the UK. They were very similar to the Spectrum in terms of hardware, but with better sprites, a proper keyboard, joystick ports and built in Microsoft Basic. That was where I started making games.
3) Why the fascination with computer graphics? Did you know from the start you were never going to be a programmer but a graphics artist and game designer?
No, I did start by programming. I used to type in programs from books and magazines, and then because they never worked first time, I’d have to debug them. And that led into altering them and changing the graphics. I never got very far when I tried to program games from scratch. My ambitions outpaced my programming skills. LOL. I was really more interested in game design than the programming side of things, so I was more into using various game making construction kits.
4) When did you first use the Atari ST and why? What do/did you think of the machine?
The MSX was too primitive to be much good for graphics, so when the 16bit home computers were released I was very interested in their graphical capabilities. They were too expensive for my parents to afford for quite a while though, so I saved up my pocket money. I was in secondary school at this time. The Atari STFM was the best value 16 bit home computer at the time so was the obvious choice. I got the Discovery Pack, which came with a handful of games, Neochrome, a paint package and STOS, the game programming language. This was a great start for an aspiring game designer, programmer and artist.
5) Your first game Infiltration was created for a competition with ‘THE ONE’ magazine. But it never got selected. This game was completely made using 3D Construction Kit. Why your fascination with this tool? You did a lot of work in the 3D construction kit community?
Yes. I was fascinated by 3D graphics on the ST. Carrier Command was one of the games that came with the Discovery Pack. And while I could never make head nor tail of the game, I found the possibilities of 3D graphics really interesting. So when the 3D Construction Kit came out I was really excited about being able to make 3D games myself. It was the perfect combination of 3D graphics, puzzles and adventures. All things I was really into. I’d started multiple sprite-based games in STOS and static bitmap adventures, but never got close to finishing any of them. The competition in The One really gave me a focus and incentive to finish a game. I’d planned most of it on paper before even getting 3DCK.
6) You mention you created another game called ‘Secret Weapon’. This game is nowhere to be found in the Atari scene (to my knowledge). Do you still have a copy you like to share. Can you share a bit of the history of this first person adventure game? What was your inspiration?
Actually, good news on that front. Secret Weapon is available on the internet. A couple of years ago, the Unofficial 3D Construction Kit website contacted me about it. They asked me if I still had a copy and I found I did still have a working disk, so I uploaded it for them. It can be found here.
7) Secret Weapon was released as licenseware through LAPD. You mention ST Format gave it a really bad score, and say they didn’t even play the game. How did you feel about it and did it affect sales? Do you remember which issue this was?
Haha, I’d completely forgotten about that, but I was obviously sore about it at the time as I mentioned it on my personal web page. It sounds like they never made it out of the first room, which considering how big the game is, isn’t much effort to put into a review.
I don’t remember which issue it was I’m afraid. I don’t think I have a copy any more. I’ve got most of my good press, but probably threw that one away, LOL.
As for whether it affected sales, I don’t know. I only made about £25 from it, but who can say if that was down to the review or if it was genuinely too complicated or unintuitive.
Editors note : It was issue 84 - page 35
8) After the non-commercial games, you went the commercial route. Your first endeavour was a game called Alien Thing. A concept you came up with after being disappointed with Alien Breed on the Amiga. What do you remember of the history of this project?
Yes. Alien Thing came about initially as I’d seen screenshots of Alien Breed and thought that looked like fun, but it wasn’t available on the Atari ST. So I set about making something similar to what I imagined it was like. I hadn’t actually played Alien Breed at the time as I didn’t have access to an Amiga, so it was more like making another top down shooter also inspired by the movie Aliens than a clone of Alien Breed. When I later did have a chance to play it, I didn’t really like Alien Breed. They weren’t that similar in the end really.
9) Alien Thing was programmed by Martin Milner of 999 Software, how did you two meet? And have you ever met in real life?
After it didn’t prove financially worthwhile to do shareware or licenseware games, I thought it might be a better idea to try something more commercial for this game. I approached IDS and Vic Wright suggested I work with Martin Milner. We’ve never met in real life. The game was mostly developed via the good old postal system. I didn’t have a modem back then (or even a phone when I was at college). I’d work on graphics and level layouts and post the data to Martin along with design ideas and he’d program them and post back the results, feedback or ideas of his own.
10) You did all the graphics in Alien Thing. What tools did you use to create them?
I used many different paint packages on the ST over the years, but by this time I’d discovered Deluxe Paint suited me best. you could do full screens, background tiles and animated sprites with it. And it was fast. I much later used the PC version which is more like the Amiga version and I actually preferred the Atari ST version with the horizontal layout.
The game was programmed in STOS, along with the compiler and an extension called The Missing Link. This added a number of useful options such as pre-shifted graphics, which were needed to scroll in smaller increments than 16 pixel tiles. The ST didn’t support pixel level scrolling. This approach was quite a memory hog which is why we ended up only using 8 pixel scrolling with one shift. The map layouts were initially sketched on graph paper and then laid out in the STOS map editor.
11) Your company was called 'Nosferatu Productions'. Why this name?
Haha. Before I started Alien Thing, I’d been working on a concept for a graphic novel about a self made vampire. The visuals were to have been dark and high contrast with heavy shadows like German Expressionist cinema. The character was to be called Nosferatu in homage to the film. I just used him and the name as a logo.
12) Alien Thing is a really good game, very professional looking and it featured some great sound sample effects. Do you remember where these came from?
Thank you very much. I was pleased with the visuals at the time, but immediately felt I could do better when I was finished. As for the sound effects, I don’t really remember. I think those were from Martin. Or maybe they were from a Public Domain collection.
13) The game was published by Top Byte software, the commercial arm of Power PD. How did that came about? Have you ever spoken to James Matthews (head of Top Byte)?
I don’t remember Top Byte. According to my old web page we were initially working for IDS, but they got bought out, then Top Byte stepped in, but later dropped out and I think Martin self published in the end. I certainly have a home made copy with a CD jewel case and cut foam card liner to hold the disk in and colour photocopied cover.
14) When Alien Thing was released, it only got only got 68% in ST Format issue 75 (you must have really hated the magazine by then), they thought it 'was a good blast, but way too easy'. So you guys answered by releasing Alien Thing: Expert Edition a harder version of the original. This seems to have been released in record time. What do you remember about this version (the creation of it)? Was it released as a standalone version or an upgrade if you already had the original? If so, what an epic solution to the problem. It was reviewed 4 months later in STF 79 and got a nice 84%.
I didn’t remember the Expert Edition until I looked it up. Haha. I think it must have been mostly Martin involved in that update. I don’t think we changed many graphics, so I didn’t have much involvement.
The main changes were way more aliens, eggs and slime which requires the flame thrower or laser to burn off. It’s way easier to run out of key cards and ammo than the regular version, which I feel was a bit unfair. Key cards, ammo and lives were random drops in lockers, but weighted so you were more likely to get the one you needed most, which I felt added to the tension in the original. This version threw that balance off a bit. It IS much harder though.
15) After Alien Thing, you started working on a ‘sequel’ … Alien Thing: The Director's Cut. On your website you mention this game was what you imagined the first one should have been. What were the biggest differences ( gameplay wise ) in your opinion?
Yes. We had intended to greatly increase the variety of enemies and gameplay. It was going to have selectable weapons, more enemy types with different behaviours. There was to be more variety in the mission objectives and a neat two player mode where one player was the aliens. They’d be able to control the nearest alien until it was killed, then switch to another one.
16) The graphics in this new game are at a whole other level compared to the original. And what strikes me are the intro graphics. These were made using 3D Studio Max on the PC in 256 colours. Were you finally planning on leaving the ST and moving to PC?
Thank you very much. I’d been greatly inspired by The Chaos Engine by The Bitmap Brothers. I thought the graphics by Dan Malone were amazing. I wanted to try doing something with a forced perspective in a similar fashion. Pure top down was quite difficult to identify with the character or really show them interacting with stuff. It was also difficult to show much of the environment except the top of walls and the floor. This viewpoint allowed the player to see more of the character and what things are supposed to be like the lockers and terminals.
It was a lot more work doing the sprites though. You can’t flip and rotate them as much. It took a lot longer to draw them.
By this time I was studying Fine Art at Art School and had access to 3D Studio (DOS) on the college PC (not 3DS Max at that time). I was using it for quite a lot of my art at the time. It just made sense to start using it for more complicated 3D objects and lighting. I didn’t own a PC of my own at the time. I couldn’t afford one. I had no real intention of moving to the PC as a platform, but I did play with the Doom editor and did a Quake mod while at college.
17) Alien Thing: The Director's Cut was planned for a 1997 release. There was even going to be a Falcon version (which would support the 256 color graphics of the intro (compared to the down converted graphics to 16 colors on the ST) and more … That were some very ambitious ideas in 1997, when Atari was completely dead. Why did you guys even start on the sequel at that point in time?
Haha. Naïveté and optimism. By the time I was done with Alien Thing, I felt I could do much better and there were many ideas we hadn’t explored or had come up with too late to implement.
I had bought a second-hand Falcon during development of Alien Thing to aid development and was keen to make the most of its improved capabilities.
18) All we have in the Atari scene is a preview/demo version of the Director's Cut. Whatever happened to the full version? Does it exist?
No I don’t think it ever got any further than the demo. A combination of things happened. The royalties from Alien Thing were basically non-existent. I think I earned about £200 total from the project. I had hoped they would be substantial enough to fund the new game, but they weren’t. Not even slightly. Before Alien Thing was finished, IDS, the original publisher had been bought out and we were unsatisfied with their new management’s lack of interest. Ultimately Martin ended up self-publishing if I remember rightly. The bottom had completely dropped out of the Atari market and no-one was interested in commercial projects on the Atari any more.
19) You did one more title with Martin called Mega Mines, a mine sweeper clone. Care to share some of its history?
I didn’t have much involvement beyond providing Martin some sprites, background tiles and a title screen.
20) You mention a game Solar War 2? I guess this never came about?
I don’t think so, no. It was another project of Martin’s.
21) What did you do after the Atari ST?
I had finished my Fine Art degree and had to get more serious about making money, so I reluctantly had to leave the Atari world behind. The new 3D consoles had recently come out. With my background and interest in 3D graphics and the popularity of the PlayStation, I was keen to get involved with that.
So I got a job. While it was primarily the sprite and tile map graphics I’d done on Alien Thing that got me the job of a 2D artist, I quickly moved into doing 3D objects and backgrounds on the PlayStation at a little company called Pixelogic (not Pixologic who make ZBrush). I’ve been working on commercial videogames ever since. Initially small scale independent studios, and in more recent years a large scale AAA developer.
22) When I check your LinkedIn page, you are now working for Rockstar? That seems amazing. What projects have you been working on and what do you consider to be the coolest thing you have done so far and why?
Yes indeed. While I can’t talk about what I’m working on now, I did work on both GTA V and Red Dead Redemption 2. Both were amazing projects to have worked on. It was a great privilege to have been involved in such phenomenal games. I did a lot of the set piece destruction in GTA V, like the ship sinking scene and the vault explosion in the prologue. That was a lot of fun.
23) So you are still heavy in the games industry, but are you a gamer? And if so, what is your all time favorite game and why? Retro and/or new game…
Yes I still play and enjoy games. All sorts from AAA epics, to independent games to retro. It’s hard to find time for too many epics. I have a bit of a backlog I only played God of War fairly recently. That was amazing. I also love the Switch. No-one makes games like Nintendo. And it’s a great platform for indie games and retro collections.
My all time favourite games are a toss up between Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and Uncharted 2. The Naughty Dog guys put so much polish on their games, I really admire them.
24) If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be and what would you ask? (Who do you look up to?)
I’d love to meet Dan Malone and Mark Coleman of The Bitmap Brothers. It was really seeing their work that inspired me to strive to become a videogame artist. The things they were able to do with the 16-bit home computers was like magic to me back then.
I’d ask how they managed to make such rich vibrant colourful graphics with only 16 colours. And how they chose their palettes considering everything had to use the same colours at the same time including backgrounds and all the sprites in any given level.
25) Do you have any final words of wisdom you like to share with the Atari community?
Thank you so much for your interest. I really didn’t think anyone even knew Alien Thing existed, let alone played and enjoyed it recently. I am pleased. Keep doing the things you love and chase your dreams.
Full documentary available here!
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