Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Ste and John Pickford, developers of SNES platformer Plok!
and Nintendo 64 puzzle title Wetrix
, amongst many others.
The UK born brothers’ introduction to home computing came in 1981, when John, the eldest by two years, received a Sinclair ZX81 for Christmas. He proceeded to teach himself BASIC on the machine, before upgrading to a ZX Spectrum a few years later. Ste, who notes that he “always wanted to be a comic artist as a kid”, comments that his own beginnings in working with graphics on the ZX81 came about “by accident, really”.
“John was more into computers than me, but I loved video games,” he says. “I think the bright colours of video game packaging hypnotized me in the same way that the bright colours of comic book covers did. John wrote an 'art package' on his ZX81, and I we both used it to draw pictures on. When he got a ZX Spectrum he wrote another and we messed around with that. I think both of us had 'computer generated' pictures which we'd drawn and printed out, published in the letters page of our favourite comic, 2000AD
, at some point.”
In 1984, John, still in high school at the time, wrote his first game; a Spectrum text adventure with basic line graphics named Ghost Town
that he describes as “not very good”. Nonetheless, the game was purchased by the recently formed Virgin Games for £500. After developing the graphical text adventure Ziggurat
- which saw a release on both Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC - with school friend Paul Ranson in 1985, John applied for a job at the newly established Binary Design. Despite not knowing Assembly Language, John was successful.
“On the first day I plucked up the courage to ask my manager Mike Webb for help,” he says. “To my relief he didn't fire me, but helped me out and I was churning out passable assembler by the end of the week.”
Armed with his new found knowledge, John programmed the Spectrum version of war sim Deathwake
in just 12 weeks, with Ranson working on the Amstrad port. Meanwhile, Ste had picked up industry work of his own thanks to Webb, as a graphic artist on Elite’s Amstrad port of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins
. Though he was only paid £50, the project gave Ste a taste of the industry that proved addictive. So much so that, when presented with the opportunity of a week’s work experience at Binary Design in early 1986, Ste jumped at the chance – though there were other motivators, too.
“I got a work experience placement doing loading screen graphics at Binary Design, which I took because it meant a week off school,” he recalls. “They offered me a job at the end of it, which I accepted, initially planning for it to be a 'year out' earning a bit of money before I went to art college to continue on my planned career path towards being a comic artist. Of course, I never went to college, and continued making games, just doing some amateur comics and fanzines as a hobby.”
Although the brothers were in the same office for much of 1986, they worked on separate projects; John programming titles including Max Headroom
and Glider Rider
, while Ste did art on games like Xeno
, and, more famously, the hand animation for the hit dart simulator 180
“The first game we made together, with John programming and me doing art, was Zub
, but for both of us that was our fourth or fifth title,” Ste explains. “I helped out a bit with the design for Feud
. John designed the game, but I drew the map for the design pitch, then the graphics.”
- a deathmatch game featuring two wizards, one of which was controlled by computer, and the other by the player - was the first title that John had designed, without programming. Released for the Spectrum, Amstrad and Commodore 64 in 1987, it proved enormously successful, selling almost 200,000 copies. However, uninspired publisher-dictated designs, like Defcom
, which Ste describes as “dreadful”, and the increasingly pressured deadlines of Binary grew too much for the brothers, who set off to found their own studio, Zippo.
“Four of us left Binary to start the studio,” says Ste. “We had a dreadful falling out with one of the partners, which was difficult at the time. We learnt a hell of a lot about developing games and managing teams.”
After working on Amiga and Atari ST titles for the rest of the year, the company answered the call of Rare, who were after developers for the NES. Zippo worked on Wizards & Warriors 2
, amongst other titles, before being folded into Rare under the name Rare Manchester in 1990, soon after which Ste and John left to work with Software Creations. One of the first titles the brothers worked on for the company was Equinox
in 1990 - which meant that the company was in possession of what they believe to be the first SNES outside of Japan.
“It was a monster of a machine,” recalls John. “A huge Unix box paired with an ICE (In-Circuit Emulator) version of the SNES. Because the entire SNES was running as a hardware emulation you could do all sorts of fancy debugging not possible on later devkits. I believe Nintendo of America visited our offices just to see it. Amazingly, they had never seen a SNES at that point.”
“It didn't seem such a big deal back then as it would be now,” muses Ste. “We'd just come off working – in secret - on the NES for years, when most of our peers were working on 8-bit or 16-bit home computers, and we were introduced to the Game Boy, and started on a couple of Game Boy games before the machine was released in the west, so working on this new SNES felt fairly run-of-the-mill at the time.”
was not actually released until 1993 – at which point it had been changed somewhat from the Pickfords’ original designs - the duo worked on a number of other 16-bit titles for Software Creations, with Ste promoted to Art Director, and John promoted to the company’s only producer position. As well as licensed titles Maximum Carnage
and Cutthroat Island
, the brothers developed 1992’s Plok!
, which saw them retain, for the first time, their own IP.
“We'd already designed and written [an unreleased] Plok
game called Fleapit
, self funded, for coin-op hardware while we were at Zippo Games, so we were coming along with existing IP and a fully formed character, world, and game mechanic, even if no game had been released incorporating Plok
,” Ste notes. “That was how we were able to retain ownership of the character and name.”
“I think we were very lucky with Plok!
,” says John. “It's extremely hard for creators to keep hold of their own IP - it's also very important.”
“Heh, that was bloody difficult,” laughs Ste.
While sales of the game were far from blockbuster standard, the game sold solidly over an extended period, and remains a favourite of many SNES platform fans – something that clearly has more meaning to the brothers.
“Commercial success?” replies Ste. “Don't know. Don't really care either, because little or none of the money ever filtered back to us from any big selling games we've done, so I don't like to think about it too much!”
Later in the decade, as one of the only publishers provided with a Nintendo 64 devkit, the company began working on launch games for the system, which saw John briefly working on Mario Artist
, though his contributions were eventually discarded due to disagreements between Nintendo of Japan and their American counterparts – this also resulted in the title being released on the Japan-only 64DD system.
A Zed And Two Pickfords
Soon after, again becoming frustrated by what they perceived to be a lack of creativity in the company, the Pickfords attempted to set up a separate studio with the blessings of Software Creations’ new owners Rage, only to have the company pull out at the last minute, which left the brothers even more disenfranchised, and saw them resign from the company altogether.
“After being embroiled in some large, directionless projects at Software Creations I wanted to get back to basics and re-learn game design from the very basics,” says John.
Working from Ste’s spare room for their first year, the brothers formed Zed Two - named in tribute to Zippo – and eventually sold Wetrix
to Ocean. Zed Two continued working with the company (who had, shortly after the release of Wetrix
, become Infogrammes) for a number of years, returning, ironically, back to developing licensed titles, including Taz Express
When the publisher folded, the company picked up freelance jobs before being bought out by Warthog. However, after just two years under the larger company’s wing, Zed Two were closed down, which left the Pickfords jobless, and with decisions regarding their future hanging in the balance.
“Looking around at what was left of the video game industry in the North West of England, we had a choice of trying to get work making mobile phone games, or trying to get work on massive teams making big licensed sports games, or leaving the video game industry,” explains Ste. “We chose neither, and decided to try and continue making games, but on a smaller scale, and see if we could find an audience big enough to make a modest living from.”
Ste and John set up their latest company, Zee-3
, in 2004, with their first game, the critically acclaimed Naked War
seeing release in 2006. Ste comments that the game represents a success for the duo “in terms of achieving our aims”, as well as in terms of “making the game we wanted to make, and being happy with the results”.
“I think we've got better and better and designing games throughout our careers, although that's not always apparent from the products we've finished, because they've generally been compromised by the commercial environment in which we were working, and the released game was rarely finished to our satisfaction,” he continues. “Naked War
is the best game we've ever made, and it’s had the least interference from outside agencies - publishers, manufacturers, etc.”
“Yeah,” agrees John. “In terms of achieving what we set out to do, Naked War
is the most successful.”
Although the brothers both note that the original designs they have both worked on have produced games that they are proud of – singling out Feud, Plok!, Equinox, TinStar, Wetrix
and Sticky Balls
as particular favourites – Ste adds that he has “been less than happy with most games” prior to their latest effort.
“We've never been fortunate enough to work with, or for, a publisher with any faith or long term vision,” he says. “We've always been at small dev studios working with publishers who need titles out for this year end or quarter end, whatever state they are in, and we've always been fighting to make good games against the commercial need to get something out quickly to generate cash.”
“We're a little envious of those internal publisher teams who get the chance to make flagship titles - the Halo
s or Ico
s or Zelda
s, where the priority is to get the game right, rather than get it out for a certain date, or those developers who were fortunate enough to have had a successful title earning them the right, and the cash, to spend the time getting their next game right: the ids, Will Wrights, Molyneuxs, etc of this world.”
Part of that, he suggests, comes from the fact that he doesn’t feel they have been “noticed that much at all”. “We don't have any kind of reputation which can get a project greenlighted, or guarantee any sales - probably because we haven't stuck to one genre throughout our careers like all the famous and successful game designers,” he laughs.
“We had a great concept - and early prototype - for a driving game a few years ago at Zed Two,” adds John. “It centred around realistic mud which could be moved around. Sadly, we couldn't get a publisher interested because we weren't seen as a driving game studio.”
Back To First Principles
The freedom of running an independent studio clearly has the Pickfords excited, though, with Ste noting that “to experiment with new gameplay mechanisms, modern big development teams are a horrible environment in which to work”. He adds that he feels Naked War
represents “a pretty substantial product for an indie game”, and suggests that their “next game will be something smaller”.
“We wanted to start with a substantial game, rather than a tiny little puzzle game or something, just to show that we were serious about making indie games - that we weren't trying to knock out cheapo puzzle games to make a quick buck. However, we still need to pay the bills, so we'll probably knock out some cheapo puzzle games next to make a quick buck!” he laughs.
“We have two or three puzzle game ideas we want to develop. We also have a couple of large, sprawling, internet community based game ideas we want to try - things which would expand massively on Naked War
, or which Naked War
might be a small part of, but it all depends on the time available, what ideas we have, and how desperate we are for food.”
“Ste and I just came up with a concept in the pub on Friday,” adds John. “We'd had a few pints so it might be nonsense. Ideally, it will feature a licensed Bernard Cribbins song.”
Ste suggests that there is also scope for previous, underdeveloped ideas to be revisited by the company. “A lot of the games we've made were based around ideas which we didn't get a chance to explore or develop properly, due to time constraints. We'd like to go back to first principles with some of those ideas, and start again, making new games based around the concepts which were the starting point for our previous games.”
“Quite a few of our games felt half-finished at the time,” agrees John. “It would be great to really do the ideas justice.”
Which ever way the brothers choose to express their current freedom, Ste notes that he feels that they have learnt much over their careers about how to run a studio – and, though he’s quick to add that they’re “still learning today”, suggests that the brothers’ ability to effectively communicate makes a genuine difference in what they’re doing.
“We've probably made almost every mistake it’s possible to make in business, development, and game design, and hopefully learned a lesson from each one. We tend not to repeat the same mistake,” he muses.
“Designing original games is difficult,” he adds. “It helps to have somebody to bounce ideas around with, which is probably the same in any creative field, but it also helps to have some support within a team. If you are trying to design something new there is always resistance from the development team, and success often comes down to the force of personality of the designer, or the energy to continually persuade or encourage the developers who don't get, or share your vision, or don't want to risk doing anything different.”
“That can be a lonely job, especially when you are doing something experimental and you are not 100% sure yourself that the idea will work. It’s helpful to have at least one other person who gets the idea, and who can support it within a team.”
“It's a lot to do with communication,” says John. “We understand each other so well that we can implement each others ideas pretty accurately. In the past it's been frustrating working with people who don't 'get' an idea or simply refuse to buy into something new.”