13 Questions With... Psychotic Psoftware
Psychotic Psoftware is one-man maestro and game creator Mike Hanson. Coming off the back of the success of Power-Up, a retro-styled shoot-em-up available on Xbox Live Indie Games (Xbox 360) and PC; Mark is currently developing Flix theFlea,a game inspired by his ZX Spectrum playing days. Flix the Flea has just over 10 days left in its Kickstarter campaign at the time of writing. Even pledges of only £1 will get the game. Known for his transparency and honesty with his Kickstarter campaigns, Mike carries this attitude across to his interviews too. Leaving no stone unturned and shying away from nothing, GoPlayThat got a rare treat when they had the opportunity to dissect the brain of one of the indie scene's most promising up and comers.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you: 13 Questions With Psychotic Psoftware's Mike Hanson.
GoPlayThat: Despite today being better known by your solo efforts, you've actually got a bit of a career behind you as a Games Artist. Care to give us some of your highlights?
Mike Hanson: Very true, that. My first foray into game development was when my school made a bit of a mess of a couple of weeks of work experience they had lined up for me in 1993. I really wanted to try my hand at something artistic and fortunately, a former colleague of my mum's was running a little games studio in Liverpool called Denton Design. I got in touch and that's really where my life in games began. I spent a couple of weeks testing and doing art for a Simpsons game, a GBA port of a classic footie favourite (that I'm not sure got released in the end) and a Batmanmovie licence (admittedly not one of the better loved ones, but hey, it was early days and I'd just animated my first Batarang)!
After a few years exploring my career options in comics, TV, film and radio; [I enrolled in a] Media degree course at Bradford University, in England. Upon graduating, I'd found myself relatively mediocre at all of the above, but excelling in (and LOVING) game development. I set about applying for an art job in the games industry and I was soon snapped up by Virtucraft in Bolton (England), as a Junior Artist for their GBA games.
I got to work on a few games in a small QA/Art capacity in those first few months, adding touches to the GBA version of Rocky, a couple of Dexter's Laboratory games and their rather good port of Comix Zone, which was headed up by my soon-to-be Lead Artist and fantastic mentor, Paul Scott.
[I remember having one of my first panic attacks while working on Samurai Jack when] Paul accompanied me outside, offered me a trademark menthol fag, and calmed me down and with a dialogue ending in five words of sage advice which have kept me calm, grounded and focused ever since:
"...and when all's said and done Mike, it's only a computer game!".
Something clicked that day and the game turned from a potential nightmare to a highly enjoyable experience!
I was gutted: before Samurai Jack and the Amulet of Time made the shelves, Virtucraft were forced to downsize. I was amongst those last in: so I was also amongst those first out. However, I was in good company. My friend and producer, John Walsh was in the same boat, but he had a plan...
John's a tough, hard working bloke who doesn't mess about and within weeks of our redundancy from Virtucraft, John and I had set up Rusty Nutz. I think the name of the company came from the fact that the people he'd approached with the start-up, all had ginger hair [except me]. Either way, it was a good name and soon I'd provided a logo and a shedload of mock-ups for early mobile game concepts.
[While we sold ourselves in various scary presentations with potential investors, John and I would stay up all-hours to produce prototypes of game concepts that would work on mobile phones of the day. Take into account that those phones had limited colour and only 4-directional controls.] There was a lot of potential in those early days. It made for a great portfolio, but it didn't pay very well.
It's fair to say that the relentless workload and lack of results got to [the whole team at Rusty Nutz]. After three years of fighting the tide, I found myself being diagnosed with anxiety disorder and signed off work for a few months. It's your basic burnout story, and part of me thinks that while I can preach about not working yourself into a stupor, people in the games industry are just going to do it anyway, and that's probably the only way they'll learn how to respect themselves and their limitations.
In early 2005, after what was now a turbulent relationship with the industry, I took something of a hiatus, escaping down south, hanging out with my dear old dad and making some friends in his town of Horsham. I took the pills and slowly-but-surely got my head back together. In late 2005 I called John to resign my position. It was the right thing to do, although I did it with deep regret, considering how hard we both worked in those early years to get it all started. I was just too inexperienced to take a Creative Director role. Now, I know the reality of what that inexperience means. John and I maintain a mutual fondness and professional respect for one another and I think that's more than I'm entitled to, considering what a mess I was back then.
Despite that low point, I did get to work on some awesome licences like EyeToy Lemmings for Sony, and even did a spot of outsource-work building tracks in Project Gotham Racing 3 for Bizarre Creations. You can't say fairer than that!
By Spring 2006, the days were warming, the birds were singing, and I was tentatively coming out of my stress fuelled state. My mind had turned back to making games. I was eager to wean myself off the Xanax and to get myself gainfully employed, back to where I left off before getting too big for my boots and trying to run my own company.
I began to apply for 2D artist roles. Astraware were hiring and I got the call for an interview. I was still a bit shaky after my ordeal of the previous months and was highly anxious that I wouldn't be able to handle a job interview. Howard Tomlinson and the guys there tested my 2D pixel art and animation abilities rigorously for an entire day. The whole experience made for a really positive induction back into games. I was familiar with the art packages, with the processes and most of all, I was having fun again! I was hired!
For the couple of years that followed, I blasted out mobile ports of many a 2D PC game, from the massively popular Bejeweled and Tradewinds, to the lesser known Hammer Heads and Insaniquarium.
Astraware moved into their own casual gaming IP: Astraware Boardgames, Solitaire and Casino. I began to discover the benefit of creating high-res art and reducing for the many resolutions required for the various Windows and PalmOS devices. I was organised. I had my act together. I even gave up my 14 year heavy smoking addiction!
By 2008, I was promoted to Lead Artist and was running a small team of fellow artists. I became aware of the real benefits (and limitations) of vector art. Eventually, all 2D elements were vectorised and easily reproducible in all resolutions, including print resolution for marketing materials.
[I took a game called “Tiler” from the company’s archive and gave it a serious visual makeover. I used a style from my university days, with the game being entirely rendered in clay. It became OddBlob]: a visually pleasing top-down game which was a front-page feature on the Apple Mac App Store, securing a financial future for a few more months.
I was also teaching myself practical low/medium poly 3D for use in mobile games. Our first 3D game was the not-so-successful Jetpack Jack on the Samsung Bada: a game of my own design, which was barely a shadow of what I'd originally hoped it would be. This was followed by the much more successful Astraware Mahjong, a subtle, tasteful affair which played directly into the hearts of company's target demographic.
Even so, the pricing system on the App Store had been a real game changer and try as we might, regardless of the sheer amount of games we were blasting out and the impressive array of devices we were blasting them out for, the inevitable company downsizing cost me my art team.
By 2012, the writing was on the wall for my own role with Astraware and on New Year's Day 2013, I was officially unemployed again.
I was down but not beaten. During 2012, my partner had spotted that my work on casual games (that I don’t play) was stressing me out greatly. I needed an outlet. With her help, I dedicated two nights a week to doing my own thing. [It] enabled me to stay sane while making other people’s games. I think this is a common problem for creatives in the games industry, and I felt that my solution was a good one. I decided to have a crack at a game I'd tried to prototype once or twice over the years. A classic styled side scrolling shooter called Power-Up. It had me feeling like everything was gonna be alright.
GPT: What's the story behind the name "Psychotic" and the devilish logo? Is it at all related to your first game being bastard-hard?
Mike: Heh! Nah, Power-Up was always going to be pretty devilish, but that little guy has followed me for years. I was having trouble placing exactly when he came about, attributing his first appearance to my use of him on the Macromedia / Director games I made for my coursework back on my degree in 1999, but I was sure he went back further than that.
Recently, my mum was having a clean out and found my Amiga, along with hundreds of disks full of art and games I'd attempted to make in the early '90s. I never really finished anything, but sometimes I'd get pretty close. Occasionally I'd work with small groups of friends and peers, taking on the role of Artist, but once in a while I'd have a bash with the likes of AMOS, SEUCK or Reality: and when I did, it was under the mantle of Psychotic Psoftware.
I loved how the "Ps" thing was a common occurrence in the Amiga era with the likes of Psionic (the developers of the awesome Assassin) and most notably the Liverpool based powerhouse that was Psygnosis, whose work I adored.
It seemed only right that I created my own homage to that and Psychotic Psoftware was born circa 1992. I suppose there's a lot of early games industry heritage packed into that little logo. I must've been about 14 when I came up with it. Actually, I keep meaning to dig those early versions of the Psychotic logo out for inclusion on my YouTube channel. Thanks for reminding me!
GPT: Are you still working over at Lightwood Games while you complete your solo work? If you are, how have they taken to your projects?
Mike: Oh yeah. Well Kat, the Lead Programmer at Lightwood Games is actually a former colleague of mine from the Astraware days so when they needed someone to work part time, she knew I was just the person for the job. The guys had been following my progress with Psychotic Psoftware and with Power-Up, so they knew that I had a comfortable and practical work environment at home. I was also making it common knowledge via my social working channels that my mornings were dedicated to job hunting, while my afternoons were reserved for Psychotic.
The guys at Lightwood were only too happy with this organised distribution of my workload and offered to replace the morning job hunt with a morning job. They get to continue the steady release of quality, consistent casual games. I get to pay my bills and still make the games I want to in the afternoons.
The industry's a tough place for a small company to survive in at the moment and the model for how thing are done is always changing. In fact, I'm not sure there'll ever be a set-in-stone way in the British games industry again. We independent game developers are a hard working bunch and we live a very symbiotic existence these days. I actually rather prefer it this way if I'm honest.
If you check out the credits in Power-Up, you'll see that one of the biggest backers of the project was in fact, Lightwood Games.
GPT: Starting your solo campaign into the world of games development with a shoot-em-up is a bit brave. Fans of the genre have high standards. Was it your first stab at making one?
Mike: Definitely, but I think that really goes back to one simple fact. When I started Power-Up, I had no intention of releasing it. Power-Up was simply a means of making something that I'd like to play, in a bid to keep loving my work and not lose my cool, like I did a few years back.
I have to admit that [I’m not a hardcore SHMUP fan, but] more a lover of retro games in general. I feel I have a close affinity and deep understanding of a great variety of retro game mechanics, tapping into the values of what makes them the loved and respected totems of the formative years of my generation. While I could have all but forgotten these values, I've been tinkering away at them in a hobby format for over a decade now.
It was only really with the XNA version of Power-Up that I tired of the solitude and started to Tweet about my hobby. As it happened, when I did start tweeting, there was a sizeable response to it. While I have a lot of respect for a good SHMUP, I'd like to show that I'm not just about the one genre.
GPT: As well as the game itself, we here at GPT are big fans of the Power-Up soundtrack (available here!) Do you have a musical background, or are you naturally a multi-talented git?
Mike: Well, thanks very much! That's very kind of you to say so. I suppose I have a music background as much as I have a background in anything else. Like with art and coding, I just took an interest and taught myself how to do it. I think I've always been a bit of a creative soul.
As a kid, I played trombone in the school orchestra. It wasn't so much an interest as a parental attempt to find out if there was an interest or talent there. As it happened, there wasn't. I was the only kid in that orchestra who couldn't figure out how to read music. I thought nobody had noticed, but recently, my mum let me in on a secret my instructor had shared with her. Turns out he'd known it all along. However, what was confusing to him, was how I'd managed to pitch every note on the instrument and memorise entire songs without referencing the redundant sheets of music in front of me. Of course, I'd just developed the skill as a coping mechanism: a way of getting through orchestra practices. Yeah, so it wasn't enough to raise me above a third-trombone proficiency level, but it was enough to blend me in with the crowd in a performance and that was fine with me.
A few years later, I'd discovered a love for classical music and '90s Brit-Rock. I formed a number of rock/metal bands with various groups of mates, with varying levels of success. I wrote all the songs having developed an affinity with composing and memorising catchy melodies, while getting increasingly proficient with the whole lyrical side of things. Those songs won us a “Battle of the Bands” in 2003 and earned us a bit of a following in all the big musical pubs and clubs of Liverpool, Warrington and Birkenhead back in the day, though I doubt there's much of our stuff on the internet these days.
Every now and then I rattle off a few tunes, though there's often something of a mishmash of influences in there. If you search Bandcamp for Mike Hanson and The Bedroom Ghosts, I'm sure you'll bump into a few.
GPT: I believe I'm right in saying 2-Bit Games are porting Power-Up over to iOS. What's your involvement on that version, if any, and how does it feel hand to your baby over to somebody else?
Mike: Yep. 2-Bit is making the game. When I was running the Power-Up Kickstarter, I ran into a bit of an issue. I'd made my goal and backers were still putting in. I was on the verge of saying "Ok, stop now" as I didn't have anything else to spend the money on! Then, a programmer friend of mine, who enjoyed the game, asked if he could port it to iOS.
I hadn't even contemplated the idea up to that point, but he was very eager. Now, I've done a lot of work-for-free in my time, so I make it a policy not to have anyone ply their trade for me with no recompense. I'd rather go without, or learn myself, than ask someone to do something that I can't without the means to pay them. That said, I had these extra funds coming in, so we struck a deal. It was something in the region of this: I'd buy a bottom-of-the-range Mac, then whatever was left would go into funding him for the development of the iOS/Android versions of Power-Up. I'd also throw in a few extras like a logo for his company, as we both knew I wouldn't be able to offer much financially.
Everything about the iOS version is his work. All I provide is the artwork (re-drawn and re-rendered at double its original Xbox size for the higher resolution iPads) and the sound and music in a format he can use. Lately, to share the load, one of my larger tasks has been to spawn the enemies in the iOS version in a way that best emulates the enemies in my Xbox/PC versions of the game while he codes their behaviour.
As the iOS version is coded so differently to mine, there's going to have to be a little room for error here and there, but this is to be expected. Sure, sometimes I find myself thinking "there's no way we can make this particular feature a carbon copy of the original" and sometimes such a realisation makes me uneasy, but then my mentor's words from 2002 kick in and I remember "It's only a computer game!" That's when I relax, resolve to do the very best I can and concoct a good acceptable solution that does the closest thing to justice to the original. It was this philosophical method of thinking that got me through the more trying parts of the original version of the game. It'll do us no harm now.
GPT: What was going through your head as Power-Up built momentum? I think it's fair to say it's done pretty well across all platforms and has received coverage in printed press too. Feeling chuffed?
Mike: Oh definitely. There have been moments of acute anxiety, but I try not to lay the pressure of what anybody else thinks get in the way. It's not like I'm working with massive budgets or huge demand. I still haven't seen any income from Power-Up yet, so there's no wages to pay, no lifestyle to maintain. In fact the reality of the situation is I’m living a bit hand-to-mouth in the hopes that all this work comes good at any time now.
With regards to the game itself, I made it in the image of something I'd want to play. When I had inspiration for a feature to improve the experience, I put a lot of work and time into making that happen. When the game needed balance to make it more or less challenging, I took the time to balance it. I made Power-Up because I love that era of games. I loved the process of making it too.
Everything from the first weapon design and baddie AI ideas, to the building of those giant 3D boss models, the creation of explosion sounds, derived from simple cymbal crashes. Even the direction of the anonymous voice-actress friend who voice “HATI” in the game. Power-Up was a labour of love and I'm glad to see that it was well received.
Sure there were some people who didn't like it, couldn't get on with the controls, hated some of the visual decisions that I made. One reviewer despised the music. Power-Up was mostly ignored by the bigger indie press, but that's to be expected. It's not the most fashionable of indie game types at the moment and I'd be amongst the first to admit it.
That said, for the most part, the response to Power-Up has been overwhelmingly good. Much better than I could ever have expected, but I'm not about to get ideas above my station. I was as surprised as anyone when Retro Gamer covered it! When Gamasutra asked to feature my blog on it I was like "who? Me??" I'm still very early to this game development lark. I'm still very much learning and sharing as I go. I probably just got lucky with Power-Up. Still, there's only one way to find out, and that's to make more games!!
GPT: GoPlayThat are based in Madrid and we were very surprised to see your next game (Flix the Flea) is based on the very first Spanish video game ever made: "La Pulga" (Bugaboo The Flea outside of Spain). Were you a fan of the game when it was first released, or was it something you stumbled upon recently?
Mike: I loved the imagination behind La Pulga. It is very deeply embedded in my psyche. I was a 10 when I first discovered it. [I had some friends who brought a 48K Spectrum and a suitcase full of games over to my house] and we proceeded to indulge in a good few weeks of gaming sleepovers during one golden summer holiday.
Between us, we collaboratively gave Gauntlet a run for its money, had a crack at the rock-solid Sceptre of Bagdad, escaped from the King's Keep and basically wiped the floor with Blind Panic... but one game that evaded us was the fantastic, but frustrating Bugaboo/La Pulga. Over the years, I tried, tried, and tried again but I've never quite been able to evade that bird thing and traverse the cave, to pop out at the planet surface.
One evening back in 2011, my partner and I were having one of those evenings in front of the telly with our 2nd screens out. I was having another crack at my old nemesis via a Speccy emulator and harping on about how the look-around functions are overcomplicating what would otherwise be a good mechanic, but are kinda necessary due to the game's terrible scrolling. Ultimately, I was saying I repeatedly feel drawn back into this foreboding, yet cosy cave to have another go, at least once every few years. She suggested that I stop talking about it [and try to recreate what I liked about the game]. So I did. I felt that given my close relationship with the original game, my variant of it was actually half decent.
GPT: Musically, I'd imagine that Flix the Flea will be quite a departure from the electro-rock stylings heard in Power-Up. What do you have planned?
Mike: Oh definitely. Now while I'm partial to building something grandiose and upscale using orchestra and choral samples, with a techno wrecking ball of big beats and occasional rock-guitar, I'm definitely not a one-trick pony.
I thrive on variety and I'm particularly looking forward to composing the music for Flix in a completely different manner. I'm yet to get the instruments together, though I have a few good melodies hummed into my iPhone, which are ready for the job.
I think barely anybody noticed that with Power-Up, one of the big keys to consistency for that soundtrack was to keep every melody on it in the same key, then to do the same for the game's sound effects. Subtle, but it works well to hang it all together in a game. Don't ask me why, just play the first stage of Sonic the Hedgehog with that in mind and you'll see (hear) one of the many reasons why the game is off to such a good start. Well, I'll probably be applying a similar stance to the music in Flix, creating a main title theme which will suitably accompany the music in-game.
This time, rather than keep the game's soundtrack in the same key, I really want to experiment with building on a single theme. I'm thinking that the first cave will be mostly ambient. A kind of atmospheric background bass note, perhaps of a rather distant nature, moving around the suggestive undercurrent of the melody to come, along with the whistling of the wind through the dark caverns of the surrounding caves. Then, with each level of the player's progression through the game, I might add another instrument or two, building the music up along with the pace of the game. It will broadly be a bouncy affair, though mostly in minor chords for a sense of danger and foreboding, but using instruments reminiscent of retro gaming and the underlying cuteness of the character and art style in general. There's a lot to consider and as usual, the music is coming along in that organic way that all elements of all of my games seem to do.
GPT: I'm personally a big retro-head and started out with the Spectrum 128k. There are so many games that didn't reach their full potential because of hardware limitations. What was it about La Pulga that made you feel so inspired?
Mike: It was absolutely that. The limitations of the Spectrum were Bugaboo's (La Pulga’s) only failing point for me. It was that jerky scrolling which would often lead to an untimely encounter with the bird, if the player hadn't previously endured the drawn-out process of looking around first. I didn't want to navigate those keys and look around. I still don't. It just detracted from the simplistic beauty of the control system. When it came to re-making that experience, for me, the looking-around element was the first that would have to go.
Luckily, I had the technology to do something more effective with the scrolling, though at the time of writing, there's still a bit of balancing to do in my version when it comes to pre-empting the position of the bird.
Beyond the failures of the original game though, I saw nothing but opportunity. See, there's something extremely visceral about the concept of the character being stuck at the bottom of a deep, dark cave. I really liked that. I remember playing Bugaboo with my childhood friends, the lights out and a duvet draped over the top of all of us while we took turns controlling the eponymous flea and the whole atmosphere felt both immersive and vast.
Even playing it today, I get a sense of immersion from that big, ambient cave that other platform games just don't have. There's something so rich and tactile about the environment of a deep-dark chasm with such simple design elements; that uber-jump, a monster flying around and an exit to reach. I just had to try to reproduce it on my own terms. I also think that this is why I've put so much thought into the sound and music for Flix, though again, at the time of writing I'm yet to implement that side of the game properly.
GPT: Paco Suarez, one of the original duo who worked on La Pulga made a sequel to the game in 1991 and revisited the concept in 2011 with QQ#2 The Flea - touted as a "remake" of the original game. Have you played those versions of the game, or is Flix the Flea a "what I would have done", based on your experiences with the original game?
Mike: Flix is very much based on the original Bugaboo/La Pulga. In fact, back in 2011, while I was making the first draft of Flix, I was going for a straight remake of Bugaboo. Then once I was happy with it as a little game in its own right, having considered that itch scratched, I put it away and effectively forgot about it. It was shortly after that (and a couple more half-finished games, using Director) that I began my little XNA journey and came up with Power-Up.
After getting Power-Up out on the PC, I was backing up my hard drive and came across a batch of my recent Director experiments. I thought I'd have a play of a few of them and was reminded of how much fun my little flea game was. Then the ideas came thick and fast. Suddenly I wanted to do more with it. I did actually look into Bugaboo remakes and discovered QQ#2 a just before committing to Flix. My first response was one of a sinking heart. Some of the technical feats in QQ#2 are way beyond me and visually, the game is beautifully crafted, but I got over it. I noticed a couple of key issues with QQ#2, which made me feel justified to continue with my endeavour.
While it was a great game in its own right and clearly born of the Bugaboo concept, I felt it had more in common with the Buggles concept from back in the Amiga days. Buggles was a nice platformer and mimicked the flea-mechanics quite successfully, but lacked somewhat in design and originality. Buggles was also populated with homing enemies. Ghosts (which I suspected were graphically nicked from the early Ghostbusters game), simply homed in on the player's position, unaffected by the terrain and basically acting as a sort of slow countdown to imminent death. This, I felt detracted greatly from Buggles' potential and thankfully QQ#2 didn't share this particular feature.
What it did share however, was a penchant for small, segmented, well-designed levels, which somewhat cramped movement and acted as a series of set-pieces within a larger level. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. In many ways QQ#2 is a much better game than anything I could ever offer and I admire Paco's continued work on the sub-genre, but I prefer his original game. I felt that in quantising the action to these small rooms, QQ#2 lost something of the scale and unpredictability which was synonymous with Bugaboo. Also, while the enemies were beautifully rendered in QQ#2, there was something about their simplistic movement that had me feeling like they'd been added as hazards, rather than intelligent life-forms hell-bent on making a meal of your flea. This felt like a diversion from the original idea, which was something of a relief. I decided to push on and see where my variant on the theme would take me.
GPT: You have a very honest approach to your Kickstarters; laying out the exact costs involved and letting people know exactly where there money is going. Do you think this is why Power-Up was such a successful campaign?
Mike: I think that my transparency had a big part to play in the success of Power-Up's Kickstarter campaign. I also think it was down to a combination of other factors too. I had a heck of a lot of the games art and music completed. I had a couple of trailers out there in the world, so it wasn't such a stretch for a potential backer to see what they were backing. I also made it abundantly clear that it was just me making Power-Up and that I'd be available on a daily basis to engage with.
I was making daily updates and putting massive, cool looking bosses into the game during the course of the campaign. I was really pulling out all the stops to get noticed and to get my five grand. But, first and foremost, it's like you say, people appreciate honesty and transparency. I know I do.
GPT: There is little known about your next project, Diz other than it will feature claymation which is, unfortunately, rarely featured in games. Care to tell us a little snippet of what to expect?
Mike: Absolutely, actually, my blog is a good source for back-story on stuff like this. Diz was actually my very first go at a Director game, and as such, it looked and played a bit ropey. That said, there was something about the consistency of its design and the challenge of progression that really resonated with my peers and lecturers in my university days. In 2004 I actually remade it and did a much better job, but nobody really got to play it.
I've always had a soft spot for my little blue alien, so I decided to carry my newly acquired, albeit slightly wobbly C# skills over from XNA to Unity and see how Diz fares there. As you suggested, claymation is woefully underused in games, and when done well, it really makes for a unique-looking visual medium. I like a bit of variety in my games, so I'm really looking forward to getting my hands dirty with this one: literally!
It's very early days yet but Diz and I are gradually getting on our feet. If you'd like a visual reference for what to expect from one of my claymation games, do check out Astraware's OddBlob.
In the meantime, I'll carry on getting Diz up to scratch and I'm sure that screenshots and production pictures will follow.