Jon Hare on games, life and Sensible Soccer

The industry veteran talks shop

With Sensible World of Soccer re-released on the Xbox Live Arcade just before Christmas, we thought now might be an interesting time to sit down with the man that started it all, many moons ago, welcome Jon Hare...

Hello Jon, thanks for taking the time to speak with us, and my congratulations on the launch of SWoS on the Xbox Live Arcade. I've certainly enjoyed reliving my childhood with this release; to what do you attribute the game's enduring appeal?

I think the game has an element of timelessness about it in the same way as games like Chess, Tetris or Monopoly. The graphics are largely symbolic and the gameplay is fairly intuitive so the player is not judging the game on what it looks like or how cool it is, but how it makes them feel. It responds to the player like the player is in control, which is very gratifying given the built in lag in a lot of games today.

On another level the depth of game modes is second to none, certainly in soccer games and possibly in any game on the market. That game has 26,000 players in it from all over the world and over 100 different preset full real world competitions as well as infinite customisability of player tournaments and player teams.

When we made the game we made a conscious effort to create a real world of football. We were the first game to include black and blonde players, the first game to acknowledge that countries like Poland, Australia and Yugoslavia even existed in footballing terms. What that gave us is a huge worldwide fan base that has never lost it’s loyalty to SWOS, for the last 10 years fansites have kept the game alive with there own leagues, there is a mature league with about 4,000 members in Germany, it even has it’s own Sensible Soccer merchandise…. These fansites have kept the game alive…. and I am truly grateful to all of them for it.

Is there anything you'd like to change about SWoS on the Arcade, and do you think the game might benefit from an aesthetic overhaul?

All it needs is the tackles/headers working properly on the non-host machine… everything else is perfect. The game was designed on Amiga to be as near perfect as possible and this is the most faithful conversion of that game that has ever existed…. Thank you Codemasters, Kuju and my old friends Mike and John.

Would you like to see Sensible Soccer return in some form as part of an entirely new game? I'd simply love to get stuck into a fully updated version of SWoS, with all the latest teams, players and perhaps some slicker visuals to really set-off the classic gameplay.

Well of course latest player and team data would be nice but last time I heard FIFAPro were charging something like $500,000 for the privilege of their limited protection offering of current football data. Perhaps the government could explain to us why newspapers can use names, editorial and even photographs of clubs and players every day to sell their papers and not have to pay them a penny while we have to pay $500,000 per sku for some flaky kind of protection from an invented body for the exploitation of the computer games industry because no-one really understands it except that it is meant to be loaded. I think this is straightforward ignorant prejudice against our industry and is morally indefensible, but then again this current government never gave a fuck about small British companies in any industry, in any case, so what do they care. After all EA can afford to pay for it.

The only way to put in the updated data is for the public to pay for it by the price of the game going up…. But it is a nice idea.

Regarding graphical enhancements, we have tried twice now to use 3D graphics with Sensible Soccer gameplay and it does not work. The gameplay needs the animation to be able to react quicker than is physically possible. However there are probably a number of enhancements that would work in 2D. I am not sure how worthwhile these are though, they would have to be on the periphery of the game (ie trainers, crowd, linesmen, guys singing national anthems, subs warming up, etc).

Moving on to your present role as development director at Nikitova, I notice you seem to be getting involved with the DS and Wii quite a lot. Are you enjoying the opportunities presented by these platforms, and how do you ensure use of the innovative controllers doesn't descend into the realms of gimmick?

Good question as both controllers have so much flexibility that from a designers point of view there are many routes to take to achieve the same objective and selecting the best route can be very tricky. For example:

DS: We just completed a game on Nintendo DS called Showtime Championship Boxing (it will be out on January 18th) the control system works both with the stylus and the shoulder buttons to throw punches. Initially we wanted to use the stylus to draw the punches because it was fun and innovative. But when we later transferred the punches to the shoulder buttons as well we realised that hardware wise they are far more responsive, which is everything you need in a fighting game, so now everyone uses the shoulder buttons to punch because they feel better, even though the Gimmicky use of the stylus to draw punches is more original and hardware specific.

Wii: The problem with the Wii controller is that it does not work in the way you imagine it to, it can only gauge rotation and acceleration and has no concept of distance. This means that the concept of tracking hand movement in 3D space is impossible, so our initial design for the Wii version controls before we analyzed the hardware properly had to be radically redesigned (this was our first Wii game). So now we use hand movement to break the game down into a series of set animations like, body block, dodge, left jab, right hook etc., which essentially could work just as well from buttons, like the DS version, but instead we are using hand movements to essentially simulate the pressing of a button, without this the animation system would fall over. In actual fact this system is less suited for fighting games than In2games Gametrak, which I did some design work for a few years ago on Real World Golf.

Essentially Wii hand movement should be restricted to right hand only for most games as left hand (Nunchuk) is mostly used for walking around and using the C and Z buttons as “Shift” Buttons. I think we will find with time that it becomes standard to have most hand movement restricted to flicks and rotations of the right hand only at certain key points in the game (it is also tiring to constantly move your arms around, which openly discourages long term game playing, as games makers we like people to get into our games and play them for a long time).

Your new project, 'CCTV', sounds interesting. What can you tell us about this game?

For me it is a breath of fresh air as it is the first totally original game I have worked on since 1998 (except for one or two others that never saw the light of day). In CCTV you play the role of a Police Security Officer who uses CCTV cameras to identify and apprehend criminals big and small in an effort to clean up the streets of his city. The game works in 1 player, 2 player co-op and 2 player competitive modes and is presented in a light-hearted manner, treating police work in a similar fashion to Cannon Fodder’s representation of war. CCTV is fast paced and totally designed around the hardware of the Wii and DS. As the game hots up the decision making of the player becomes more and more frenzied as he must wait for the fellons to commit their crimes on camera and then pick them out of the crowd and encourage them to grass up some of the bigger fish in the local cesspool of crime.

You recently hinted that a Cannon Fodder revival could be desirable. What would stay the same and what would change if you could bring this game back in some form?

Well it depends on the format. An XBLA version should just be a conversion of the Amiga original like SWOS.

I designed Cannon Fodder 3 for Codemasters in 1999, the development stopped and started 3 times but the design would still hold up well today on all the major formats, it would be nice to see them pick this up again for Wii, 360 or PS3. It is a 3D game presented in a modern Disneyesque style, here you are in charge of the world’s peace keeping forces, with a lot of emphasis on developing character skills of a select squad of SAS style troops. At the same time there is a complex international story evolving as 5 separate Al Qaeda-style organizations threaten to terrorize the world. I loved designing this game, it is very comprehensive, I hope Codies still remember it exists.

Are there any other classic series' you'd like to see brought back on platforms like the Live Arcade, in a similar manner to SWoS?

Apart from Cannon Fodder, of our old Sensible games I would love to see a proper multiplayer version of Mega-lo-Mania on XBLA, now that would be amazing, I love that game and think it is probably the most under rated of all Sensible titles.

Also Heroes of Might and Magic would be fantastic. It is my most played game of all time.

You seem to be a busy chap! I gather you're also working as a consultant on various online projects, as well as 'something' football related. What can you tell us about these projects and your input into them?

Over half of my time these days is spent as Director of Development for Nikitova Games. However I have also spent the last nine years now as a Consultant, both as a games designer and in a Business Development capacity.

Currently I have a number of different long-term, several days a month style, design consultancies that I am working on, most of which at present happen to be Online Games with PC as their main format. Yes there is some football content in there too, I seem to have always had at least one football game on the go in some way or another since about 1988.

Speaking generally for a moment, what do you make of so-called 'next-gen' games? Are there any particular games that have impressed or disappointed you?

Good question, I am not an avid player of time consuming games as I do not have time to play them and when I do I tend to play all night sessions and my work really suffers. Of the next-gen games I have seen I thought Assassin’s Creed looked amazing, but the controls are a touch complex, I have been enjoying playing Spyro on the Wii with my daughter, I am yet to see anything mind blowing on the Wii although I have not got all of the top draw Nintendo titles yet. I also recently played Guitar Hero on 360 which as a guitarist I found a little annoying to be stuck between either jumping between too many keys at once (5) without any muscle memory of where they are yet, or having to miss out notes in the rhythm (which is just confusing).

Finally, what does 2008 hold for Jon Hare?

A clarity on perspective of who I am and happiness that I have so many people in my life that I love and feel loved by.

I am 41 now (over half way there J), and so far I have been lucky and I am generally pleased with my achievements. Now I need to work out just what it is I want to achieve with the next 41 years of my life.

Thanks for your time, Jon!

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