Thirty years ago we didn’t care

Die karitative Non-Profit-Organisation Gaming-Aid e.V. und gamecity:Hamburg bringen die 150-minütige Dokumentation „From Bedrooms to Billions“ am 11. November in einer exklusiven Vorführung in seiner englischen Originalversion auf die Leinwand des Hamburger Abaton-Kinos. Anlässlich dieser Veranstaltung bat nextMedia.Hamburg den Game Designer Simon Butler zum Interview.

Thirty years ago we didn’t care
Thirty years ago we didn’t care

Was Crowdfunding mit der Geschichte der britischen Videospieleindustrie der 70er Jahre zu tun hat, verraten Gaming-Aid e.V. und gamecity:Hamburg am 11. November im Abaton-Kino. Gemeinsam mit den Produzenten des Films und dem Game Designer Simon Butler ist der Dokumentarfilm „From Bedrooms to Billions“ zu sehen, der dank einer nur fünf Tage dauernden Crowdfunding-Kampagne umgesetzt wurde. Wir haben uns vorab mit dem britischen Games- Pionier über die Wurzeln der Industrie, die Entstehung des Filmes und seine Wahrnehmung der deutschen Computerspielewirtschaft unterhalten. Weitere Infos und Tickets für die Veranstaltung gibt es hier.


Hallo Simon, auf welche Weise warst Du in dem Dokumentarfilmprojekt involviert?

I was primarily involved as one of those interviewed for the project, but because I have been in the games industry since it began I was also able to put Anthony and Nicola in touch with a lot of other people who I have met or worked with during the last 30 years of my career.

Wie bist Du darauf gekommen, Game Designer zu werden und wann war das?

I never had any desires to become a Game Designer at all. There was no such thing as a game designer in the 1980s.The Games Industry didn’t exist as an actual entity at that time. It was in its infancy and very few people were aware of it at all. I was finishing my degree and planned to go into advertising when the home computer industry first started to appear. I did one small freelance graphics job for Imagine Software in Liverpool in 1983 and thought I was finished with computer games. I played them in the arcades and I was aware that something was happening with this new industry but I never saw myself as ever being involved again.
Life, however, had other plans for me. I was asked to join Denton Designs; a team formed out of Imagine Software after they had gone bankrupt. I was asked to create graphics for their early titles and I still believed that once this was done I would return to London and my career in advertising.
Thirty years later I’m still in the games industry. Nobody really had titles back then. I knew that I was an Artist, because that was what I created, but the title Games Artist was not something we used as a label.

Welcher Aspekt an From Bedrooms to Billions hat Dir am meisten Spaß gemacht und die größten Erkenntnisse gebracht? Und warum?

My interview was fun, not just because it made me think back through 30 years to find the right memories and then try to formulate interesting answers. It was fun because my bald head was causing problems for the cameraman, so they had to cover the lights in the ceiling with thick cardboard.
It inspired me because the whole experience has made me realize that my job which I never gave any thought to is something that has brought great enjoyment to countless people around the world.  I have had the pleasure of meeting people who played games I have created and they seem to feel they owe me some thanks, which surprises me but also makes me feel humble because to me it was something I did to pay the bills and feed my family.

Wie hast Du den Aufstieg der britischen Videospiele-Wirtschaft erlebt?

Because I came into games at the very start my career has been a rollercoaster ride. Similarly I have seen companies rise swiftly and then crash terribly, sometimes these events have affected me personally. The industry rode a wave that no-one could control or predict the speed or direction and because of that there were always casualties. Some of the casualties were corporate; whole companies would close their doors, vast sums of money would be lost and staff would suffer through unemployment. Other casualties were more personal with people suffering from the overwhelming pressure to create as fast as possible; they would turn to drink or drugs and some would fall prey to mental breakdown or worse. It was a cut-throat time with everyone ready to step over their competitor to get to the top. Top hits were not necessarily the best games. Success was paid for behind closed doors. It was the movie industry and the music industry combined and it grew to be larger and infinitely more successful than either.

But through all of this the industry kept on moving; growing and expanding and building up speed as it moved from year to year. Today’s industry is something no-one could have predicted and I have enjoyed the ride.

Was macht Deiner Meinung nach die Historie der Briten im Hinblick auf Games so besonders?

I think it was probably the sheer volume of product that was created in those early years. Before the movie tie-ins started and the arcade conversions began to take over there was an amazing flow of creative and original thought. Because it was all so new and no-one had done anything like this before, we had total freedom to do anything we wanted. This was probably the last time this industry and anyone involved has truly had such freedom.

Gibt es diese Freiheit heute nicht mehr? War früher mal wieder alles besser?

Well, of course there is a whole new wave of indie development today and they can create anything they wish, but they must have the nagging thought at the back of their minds that they probably only have one chance to be successful. So their ideas are always balanced against the question of whether it will sell. Thirty years ago we didn’t care.
I did a sketch one day of a frog with a laser gun. A client came to the office and saw it while he walked around. He asked me what it was and I said “A Cosmic War Toad.” He then asked me if there was a game design behind this sketch and I told him “yes”. There wasn’t, but I knew I could create one quickly. Without asking to see the design, he took my boss into the boardroom and signed a contract for Cosmic Wartoads. This whole attitude of thinking on your feet, creating ideas at the drop of a hat gave the industry a magical feeling that I would like to think translated through the products and reached the players.

Wie ist Dein Bild von der deutschen Games-Branche?

This is a subject very dear to my heart because I have worked a lot in Germany over the last eleven years. I still see Germany as being in its formative years where games are concerned, but because of this German Games companies have great potential. Unfortunately, a lot of them choose not to use it and have gone down the road of what I call “click and wait” titles. (Notice I didn’t call them games. That’s a whole other subject.) Build a virtual farm and buy a virtual chicken. What does your chicken do? It enables you to buy another chicken tomorrow. I will admit that some of these titles are exceptionally slick and very professional and some have been incredibly financially successful, bringing in revenues that real game developers could only dream about. I would not attempt to take away that success nor diminish their professionalism in their achievements; I just think it’s more about revenue streams than creativity or entertainment.
But I do see a lack in what I call REAL game development in Germany and it saddens me. Games that challenge the player, that encourage hand/eye skills, excite the emotions, stimulate the memory and bring rewards for real accomplishment rather than simply clicking a button. Germany has a rich cultural heritage, a history of stories and story tellers. Again, this is simply my view. There are exceptions.
I love the German Industry regardless of what I personally see as flaws. I would rather work here than anywhere and am currently involved with some exceptionally talented individuals on a project of our own. It is not proceeding as planned right now but life, the mortgage and all that financial rubbish just gets in the way sometimes. I press my thumbs.

Seit vielen Jahren bist Du in die Spieleentwicklung involviert. Gab es jemals den Wunsch, aus dem gewohnten Umfeld auszubrechen und etwas komplett anderes zu tun?

I did consider quitting maybe twenty years ago because it had become horribly corporate but this is where my heart lies. It can knock me down and if I am honest there have been times when it has reduced me to tears, but it has never broken my spirit. I believe in what I do. I know people who do not consider this a true career or a “real job”. My Father was one of them. But I truly love what I do. Even when I am forced to deal with people who have never had a creative thought in their lives then that is just part of the challenge. It forces you to think outside the box. No two days are the same really. Sometimes a little bit of normality and routine would be nice. But creative chaos is always fun. And as long as it’s fun then here I will stay, trying desperately to focus on writing a children’s novel at night.

Wenn Du heutige multimillionen Budgets von Spielen mit den damaligen überschaubaren finanziellen Mitteln vergleichst, empfindest Du das als eine befürwortenswerte Spirale oder glaubst Du die heutigen Spiele leiden darunter?

It’s all relative really. I do see the budget for some games and think “You could feed a small country for that!” But it must be terrible working on something so big. I could not take the burden of responsibility. To lie in bed thinking that you are the man designing a game that will cost 50 million euro or more. There is always the possibility that people just will not buy it. That would drive me insane. Working on a small game is no easier. You still face the chance of failure. Losing less still means you lose.
Of course today’s games suffer because of the way things are today. It’s all about franchises. Tattooed musclemen and women with clothes as small as a postage stamp, all carrying guns as big as a bus. YAWN! This is why there is a fantastic and exciting growth in small independent games. People are getting tired of working on one game for four years or more so they quit and do their own projects. The industry has never been healthier and there’s room enough for AAA titles and indies.

Hatte man früher mehr Freiheiten beim Spieledesign und der Entwicklung trotz limitierter Hardware, dafür ohne tausende anderer Spiele im Markt, oder glaubst Du, die Möglichkeiten bieten heute mehr Flexibilität?

As I said earlier, because we were the first we had total freedom to do whatever we wanted. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes less so. The industry reached a point in the middle of its three decades life span where originality was almost a dirty word. We had a period where games were virtually interchangeable and gameplay took a very poor second place to cinematic cut-scenes and phony narrative.
People wrote games for the hardware to showcase their latest routines and all we got were lighting effects, explosions and particles everywhere. Skills like concept art, character design, storytelling and entertainment were pushed into the shadows for quite some time. But now they’re back with a vengeance. Small companies are showing they can self-publish and thrive; the big companies are running scared to a certain extent and know that if they don’t embrace the indie development scene they will lose something truly special. We could be seeing our last generation of consoles, but who truly cares when you have access to the entire world via your pc, laptop, phone or tablet? It’s a great industry. I’m privileged to have been a part of it for so long and if it isn’t done with my yet then I plan to stick around for many more creative years.

Simon Butler – dabei wünschen wir Dir alles Gute! Vielen Dank für das Interview – bis Dienstagabend im Abaton-Kino!