Andrew Pomianowski was half of the team behind Starball. Andy did all the graphics using Degas Elite. He was inspired by the legendary Bitmap Brothers and much more. In this interview, he shares some of the details in the creation of this classic PD arcade pinball game.
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The full table in Starball contained 24 colors. This was accomplished by palette switching. There are 3 main portions with 16 colors each.
An earlier WIP shot of the ST version of Starball, with the top graphics integrated. The Bitmap Brothers influence is clear here.
1) Can you introduce yourself to the public?
Hello, my name is Andrew Pomianowski, and I developed the graphics for Starball many years ago while studying for my degree in Manchester. I was born and grew up in England, and after completing my education I started a career in the field of computer graphics. As this developed I found myself moving over to the United States, most recently to the Seattle area where I now live with my wife and son.
2) Tell us about your history with computers. When and on which machine(s) did it all start?
For me my first machine was a Sinclair ZX81 (so that probably gives people an idea of how old I am ). It was a wonderful introduction to the world of computers despite being such a limited system – I have incredible memories of playing games such as 3D Monster Maze, which played so strongly into my imagination as a child. It seemed like a window into a new world.
3) When/How did your fascination with graphics start? Did you also code back in the days?
I think I have always been fascinated with drawing and sketching, and that extended to taking art classes and examinations during my school years. I also found myself developing a strong interest and excitement around computers, which were just becoming more affordable and as a result widespread. At that time the two interests did not really mesh together, as computer graphics capabilities on those early machines seemed very limiting, and so I actually spent a bit more time on the computer playing games and teaching myself some basic coding.
To answer the second part of the question I have actually spent a great deal of my career in software development – my degree is actually in Software Engineering - although I am nowhere near as good at it as Dave is .
4) When did you buy an Atari ST and why?
I can’t remember exactly which year it was that I got an Atari ST, but I believe it would have been 1987 – it was a 520 STFM model. Going back to the earlier question about my fascination with graphics it actually really started with the ST, and I actually got it primarily to explore computer graphics – in comparison with what had gone before it seemed to me to be the first system that combined relative affordability with really interesting bitmap graphics capabilities. That’s not to imply that some very talented people hadn’t managed to make some great artwork even on earlier systems like the Spectrum and C64, but the ST’s capabilities seemed approachable, with no strange limitations like attribute regions. The fact that it could also be a great system for gaming was a nice added bonus as well.
5) Let’s talk Atari now. In the amazing interview you guys did with Richard Karsmakers of ST-News, I have learned that Dave met Andy through a friend of his, when he was showing a shoot ‘em up he was working on for the Atari. But when did you guys know you wanted to create games together? And whatever happened to that shoot ‘em up? How far did this project go and is there still something left of it today?
I’m betting Dave still has the code for the shoot ‘em up kicking around somewhere . We never got very far with it, but there were some early test graphics developed, and some interesting and very ambitious ideas explored (such as trying to replicate the sine-distorted fire background seen in one of the levels of Thunderforce III on the Sega Megadrive.) Horizontally scrolling shooters were never really the ST’s strong suit due to architectural limitations, but I remember thinking that Dave had developed some great code.
Not sure when we first decided we wanted to create games together – I think really it was more that after we met and discovered our common interests we decided we wanted to create something, and then it turned out that the something was a game...
6) How did the Starball project start? Where did you get the idea from to create such a cool blend of a pinball game with a shoot ‘em up? Who’s idea was it? What can you tell us about the history of Starball?
To quote Pablo Picasso – “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”. Dave and I were playing a lot of games on the Megadrive at the time, and one of them that we really enjoyed was Devil Crash (or Devil’s Crush in the original version). I can’t remember exactly when or how we decided to do it, but I am sure it was Dave’s idea – as I recall he put together some ball collision and physics routines and then I just started to build some graphics on top of it and it went organically from there.
7) What was the inspiration for the graphics? The alien, the face, it almost has something HR Giger like ... Which tools did you use to create them?
The inspiration for the graphics came from a lot of different sources – the game was developed over quite a long period, and certainly not all of the ideas were there at the start. I was still very much learning how to do graphics that fit within the necessary restrictions imposed by the design of the software. I had learned some of this putting together the initial test graphics for the shoot ‘em up, but this was on a much larger scale. Doing full screen pictures was one thing, but fitting graphics to a design for the table and developing sprites and animations was quite a different challenge. In some cases the table design elements might have to be a particular shape for gameplay reasons, and then I had to retroactively work to build some graphics to approximately match that shape.
Some people may have noticed that the flippers in Starball are set at a much shallower angle than is typical in computer pinball games - this actually dates back to the very earliest test code for the game. Dave had created the test version and this included the first flipper graphics - because we went on to build the whole game around that initial prototype we inherited the flippers, and never really thought to change them. By the end of the project that decision was so ingrained in every aspect of the game that it would have been incredibly difficult to change, so the flippers are, in essence, the oldest graphical feature in the whole game…
I certainly took some inspiration from films like Alien, and also from game genres that I had seen over the years and artwork that I admired such as that of the Bitmap Brothers – I was a novice in this field after all, and this was my first real attempt. I think that each area of the main table was tied somewhat in style in my head over to the bonus tables as well – the more organic bottom level tying into the Eggball subgame, the center section with the construction of the spaceship being linked to Invaderball, and the top section with the tiled background to the Arkanoid stage. This might have been a bit more subconscious than an intentional design choice though.
On the tool front I used Degas Elite almost exclusively – it was simply the art package that I had first got to grips with on the ST, and something I felt comfortable using. It was challenging dealing with the colour palette shifts on the main table. Dave and I wanted an appearance that was more colourful than most ST games to make it feel more console-like, so we had to switch out colours. The table was several screens high, and the palette shifts were not matched up exactly with the boundaries of those images. Degas Elite naturally had no built in support for this kind of palette swapping in real time, so I remember having to flip palettes back and forth manually on a regular basis to see what I was working on, and I could only really check how the areas worked together by integrating them into the game to view them there.
8) Starball is chockfull of references to other classic games and has other links to pop culture. There are bonus levels inspired by Arkanoid, Space Invaders, Jeff Minter and of course … The Jimmy Hill chin bonus...Care to elaborate?
Not sure how much I can remember about all of these .
For the subgames I think we both just picked out some example genres that we felt we could match across easily into a playable pinball experience, altthough Eggball did not really have any specific game as inspiration. In the case of the Jeff Minter level that one was intended to be a bit more hidden in how to unlock it – I think we were both fans of Minter’s work and felt that it would be a fun easter egg.
The various pop culture references were just based on things that we and our friends found interesting and fun at the time I think – perhaps not the most professional methodology, but then again we were just students getting through our degrees, and I think that we needed to have fun with the development of Starball in order to keep our interest levels up. There is a huge amount of effort that goes into any project like this, and it all had to be done in our spare time.
9) Another thing that strikes me is the intro music. It was composed by the one and only Dave Mos (aka Spaz) of The Lost Boys. Was this track specifically made for the game? Do you remember any details about this collaboration?
I was fortunate enough to share a couple of my University courses with Tim Moss, and when I told him we were working on an ST game he was generous enough to offer to provide us with one of his brother’s music tracks for the title, along with the replay code. It was not written specifically for Starball – I think they had more-or-less finished their involvement with ST Demo development at that time with the release of Ooh Crikey Wot a Scorcher, and so they had some assets lying around that weren’t otherwise going to be released, so we got lucky.
10) Starball was also released for DOS. It was more successful commercially. Did this give you any satisfaction? And are there any differences, technical or gameplay wise, compared to the ST version (apart from the 256 color graphics upgrade)?
My recollection is that Dave wanted to try to follow up Starball and turn it into the start of our own company developing game software, meanwhile I got a job offer pretty much straight out of University from Argonaut Software and went to work for them on 3D graphics technology. I told Dave that if he was successful in getting set up then I would quit and come and work with him, and so he spent the next year or so first converting Starball to run on the PC and then turning it into something that could be sold to provide a basis for the company.
He was successful in getting a deal to complete the PC version, and then he needed the work to be done to update the graphics, and so I quit my position at Argonaut and started working on some updates. It was very much still the same base graphics, and I did not have much experience in the tools on the PC, so looking back at the results I think they ended up being a bit variable in quality, and probably betrayed their humble origins too much, but it turned out to be enough to get us a start.
11) After Starball you guys ditched Atari, and rightfully so, even though you both hated the PC platform. However, you talk about the development of a beat ‘em up? Was there ever anything done for this game? Do you remember anything about it?
I believe I did some work on background graphics and a few character sketches, but nothing beyond that. I’m not sure if any remnants of this exist anywhere – perhaps Dave has some.
12) Did you do other games with Volume 11 for other systems perhaps? Or did you work together on other software after the Starball adventure?
We actually put quite a lot of work into a “Starball 2” that we had a contract to develop, but unfortunately the company we were working with folded, and without that money coming in we were unable to continue with the development. We ended up switching tracks at that point, and Volume 11 became a company that provided software engineering and optimisation for the emerging PC 3D hardware acceleration market. We turned out to be quite successful at this – just as well I learned how to program as well as how to make graphics as it turned out .
13) What are you up to these days?
I have spent many years developing graphics technologies, and currently I work for AMD in the Radeon Technologies Group.
14) Are you a gamer? And if so, what is your all time favorite game, old and/or new?
I am definitely a gamer and always have been. My all time favourite game is probably Elite and its spiritual successor Elite Dangerous, but there are many other games and genres that I enjoy as well.
15) If you could have a drink with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask?
I think if I had to pick one person it would likely be Richard Feynman, who I really learned about only through biographies after his death, but whose story I immediately found inspiring. He worked on so many incredible and influential ideas that I’m sure it would be amazing to be able to share some time with him. I guess picking one thing out to ask about - he gave a lecture in the late 1950s on the opportunities of miniaturization in many fields including electronics, and I think it would be remarkable to be able to get him to reflect back on what he thought then in light of where we have reached today.
16) Any last words of wisdom you like to share with the Atari community?
No wisdom as such, but I must admit to still paying quite a lot of attention to developments that occur on the ST and the Falcon to this day, both in the demoscene and elsewhere. When I think back on the many computers that I have owned it is still the time spent on the ST and the Falcon that probably provides me with the fondest memories, as this is where my interest in computers really turned into something tangible that went on to set me up for the life and career I have had since then. I am still amazed to find the occasional video or article pop up today about Starball, and I’m really grateful to have had the chance to work on something that people enjoyed and still remember.
Check out the Starball documentary for even more info.
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