I often wonder what makes the minds of game developers tick. How do they come up with such fanciful ideas that morph into entertaining gaming experiences? I had the delightful pleasure to interview Ste Pickford, one of the co-creators of the character Plok.
Masamune: Thank you for granting me this interview. What inspired you to get into game development?
Ste: Oh, good question. I actually always wanted to be a comic artist as a kid and got into game development by accident. My brother John got a ZX81 computer in 1981, then a ZX Spectrum a year later, and started writing his own games. I used to play games on the computer when I got a chance, and because I liked drawing I used to draw sometimes on the computer using a little art package my brother had written, just for my own amusement.
He got a full time job programming games at a newly formed game studio, and as I was still at high school, I asked him if he could try to get me a week’s work experience there, as I thought it would be fun to have a week off school messing around on computers. I ended up doing two weeks work experience, drawing loading screens for 8-bit computer games, and the boss of the studio offered me a job when I finished high school in a few months time.
I was planning to go to art college after high school, but decided to take the job – just for a year or so to earn a bit of money – before going to art college a bit later. The college thing never happened and I ended up staying in game development.
Masamune: Can you describe the process of creating the Plok character? What is Plok exactly?
Ste: We were making a coin-op game at our studio Zippo Games, for Rare, using their Razz Board coin-op hardware. The game was to be called Fleapit, and the first idea we had was the fleas that were jumping about everywhere, and hatching from eggs, and leaving a horrible trail of slime all over the place.
John’s next idea was for a main character to be some kind of hangman – almost like a baddie – wearing an executioners hood, so that was the starting point. I did a couple of rough little sketches of a man in a hood.
We also had the idea of making all the limbs out of separate sprites. This was a technical idea more than an artistic one. It meant we could have lots of animation for the main character very cheaply, without storing loads of frames of animation. Each full frame of animation for a sprite character was a fair amount of the limited RAM space available, but if we just had a single frame for the body, head, and just four or eight frames for the small legs and arms, that wouldn’t take much RAM at all. We could then program the movement of all these limbs, having a fully articulated character with loads of actions and moves, without needing to draw extra frames. If we needed a crouch or a jump we could just program some new positions for the existing limbs rather than drawing a new frame. Also, and this was much more valuable, we didn’t need to draw and store loads of inbetween frames for each action, instead the code could move each limb smoothly from one pose to another, effectively generating as many frames as we needed on the fly.
This separate limbs idea fed into the design of the character, and then we made him bright red and yellow to offset the grimness of the executioner’s hood.
Ste: The SNES was the best system around at the time, and got the biggest sales, so you didn’t need a reason to put your game on the SNES. The only reason you wouldn’t put a game out on the SNES was if you didn’t have access for one reason or another, as becoming a licensed developer was difficult back then and there were very limited release slots. Software Creations were in the fortunate position of being a SNES developer, so we naturally targeted the SNES first.
Masamune: Can you describe the development process of creating a Super Nintendo game?
Ste: In the case of Plok on the SNES, we already had a playable prototype of Fleapit, the coin-op game. I don’t think we had the hardware any more once we were at Software Creations, just videos of it being played, but I still had a lot of the graphics. Although, I think the only graphics that actually made it into the SNES game were Plok himself and the Fleas.
So we started by recreating the sprite system and movement of the main character, copying from the Fleapit videos, and John Pickford explaining to the programmer John Buckley how he coded the original (we didn’t have the actual code). A lot of time was spent getting the feel of the main character right, even before there were any environments. The running and jumping and limb firing were tweaked A LOT.
Then we just built the game from there. John the programmer would add features to the game one by one, adding collision and environments and enemies, and Lyndon the artist would draw the graphics and build the levels. It was just a two man development team, with myself and my brother co-designing the game with the team, and acting as producer and art director respectively. The audio team were kind of separate, working on several projects in the studio at the same time, so although they did brilliant work on Plok, they weren’t full time on the project.
As the game developed we had some animators join the studio, and one of the animators created the animated sequence of Plok and the harmonica for the title sequence.
As we got close to completion we brought in a focus group, which was something we’d never done before. We had a room full of people playing the latest build and we watched how they played and what they liked or didn’t and where they got stuck. A lot of people found the game too hard, so that led us to re-designing the first eight levels to be much easier, as what we had were effectively ‘advanced’ levels, designed as each feature was added, and not ideal for brand new players. We didn’t want to throw away the original first eight levels though, so that led to the idea of Grandpappy Plok’s flashback, and we used the original eight levels in the black and white sequence.
Masamune: Was there a sequel in the works for Plok in the 90s?
Ste: Nothing was in development, but we had started on design ideas. John and I worked on expanding Plok’s world with new characters and locations, and we had ideas for a Gameboy spin off.
There was a Sega Genesis conversion underway at the studio as well, but that never got finished.
Masamune: Plok is trying to make a re-emergence in the present era. Why should today’s gamers take interest in him?
Ste: Haha, that’s not something I’m good at answering. We make the games and the comics that we want to make, that we enjoy, or we find funny. We hope people like them, but I can’t really say why someone should take an interest. Have a read of our comic and see if you like it. If you do, stick around. That’s all I can offer!
Masamune: Is a current-gen Plok game in the works?
Ste: Nope. We don’t have the resources to do a modern Plok game at the moment to the standard we’d like.
Masamune: Could you talk about the Plok comic? What went into this decision?
Ste: The reason for starting the comic was threefold:
1. We wanted to do something with Plok, but as I’ve already said, we didn’t have the resources to make a new Plok game to the standard we’d like. So we thought maybe we could do something different with Plok that wasn’t a brand new, expensive modern video game. The idea of doing a comic felt natural once we came up with it. The comic could effectively be the sequel to the game, but now in a different format. We felt that we could do a comic justice with the time and resources available to us, and that a 20 year old video game character reborn into the modern world of games and webcomics would be an interesting angle to allow us to do something fresh.
2. The indie games we were working on were taking a long time to make, and we were missing the feeling of finishing a project. The idea of doing a weekly comic meant we could have that feeling of satisfaction of finishing a project (a single page episode), and publishing it and getting an audience reaction, once a week, rather than once every few years.
3. I just wanted to do a comic strip.
Ste: Games or comics? We’re working on finishing two mobile games. An adaptation of our PC two player strategy game Naked War, for iOS, and a new game called I Sent My Monkey To The Moon, also on iOS. The latter is built from a playable prototype we included in our iOS game Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint. Comics, probably not at the moment, as the Plok comic takes up all our free time. We would like to do a Grandpappy Plok spin off, as a full page, black and white, old newspaper ‘sunday strip’ style comic, but we haven’t found time to work on that yet.
Masamune: Do you have any advice for budding video game developers out there?
Ste: Hmmm. Video games seem like a very difficult environment to make a living in at the moment, so my best advice would be think carefully, but if it’s what you really want to do, go for it. Learn to program though. Don’t aim to be a high level game designer without any practical development experience.
Masamune: Where do you see Plok in the grand scheme of things 10 years from now?
Ste: Haha, we don’t think that far ahead! With any luck the comic will be still going, there’ll be reprint books of all the older episodes available, and maybe a cartoon show. And a movie. And a new video game!
Editor’s note: Check out the Pickford Bros. website to find more information on their activities.
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