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INTERVIEW: IAN THOMPSON-YATES

Please provide a one-liner introduction
Freelance Technology Consultant living on the Gulf of Mexico.

How long have/did you work in the videogames industry ?
Several times over the years, on and off. 80's, 90's and twenty first century. But seemingly never for extended periods.

Which companies did you work with? Any titles we'd know ?
Midlands Atari Centre, Novagen, Novaload, Magnetic Storm and Bullet Proof Software come to mind. Bullet Proof became Blue Planet Software, and I worked with them intensively both in Brighton England and in San Francisco. The title we were working on at that time was code named Search for the Black Onyx. I'm fairly certain it was never packaged for release. It was a huge multi-national attempt at a 3D world. The artwork was all bespoke Roger Dean. We had offices in Yokahama, San Francisco and Brighton. We were developing it for the Sony PS2 and PC. I worked alongside Martyn Dean, and for the most part had a blast! It was all about motion-capture, and we really felt like pioneers! That would have been early 1997. Blueplanet owned Tetris, but I had no involvement in that one.

How were you recruited by Novagen ?
I had just left The Midlands Atari Centre, and I stopped by at the shop to talk to my friend and previous boss - John Spring - when I asked if he still knew Bruce Jordan. Novagen previously had offices above the Atari shop and had moved to Moseley. I rather bluntly said "call him, I'd like to work for Novagen". He did, and I was late for my first interview with Bruce. He was not happy, but re-sceduled me for another day. We got along good and he employed me. I guess you could say I recruited myself! I must have been rather arrogant and headstrong back in those days!

How long did you work with Novagen ? When was it ?
Not long, maybe a year, it seemed like longer. When? 1986? I think Mercenary was shipping, and we were working on the Targ Survival kit and Damocles.

What exactly was your role ?
That is not an easy question to answer. Pretty much everything from making the coffee (Nescafe Blend 37) to public relations to product testing. Bruce had a passion for a particular hotel in Portugal, and would fly there every opportunity he got. So I ran the place when he was on holiday. Other tasks included keeping clean glasses and a bottle of Bells Whiskey in the fridge. At 6pm like clockwork the whiskey and glasses came out for drinks. Oh and I was in charge of keeping Bruce stocked with Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes (only ever the blue pack). Another role was to sign off on the gold masters at Ablex, the tape duplication house. They'd make a high-speed dupe and stand around nervously whilst I loaded it on, say an Atari 16bit machine and confirm that it was good. They'd then hit the green light for the night crew and the Bosch duplicators would go into action kicking out tapes at a phenomenal rate. Quite impressive. Some of the cassettes of the worlds biggest music bands came off those very same machines.

What's your favourite anecdote of this time ?
There are many. Contrary to popular belief, Paul did not run the company, Bruce did. And that was a good thing, the only reason Novagen ever had products reach market was solely because of Bruce. He was a total workaholic. I was informed in no uncertain terms that whilst I was on the cheque run to Paul's house (to get cheques signed, to pay bills), that I was never to talk to Paul. Get in, get out. You see Paul loved to show people what he was working on, and it was not always relevant. Whilst Bruce was very protective of Paul's intellectual property, he also knew he and I would talk, maybe for hours, and this was not cost effective for the company. One time I was there and Paul had a circuit board on the floor in front of the TV. I knew I had to ask. It was a decoder. He had analyzed a scrambled signal from satellite, and self developed a board that would de-scramble the signal. His face lit up when I asked and he explained to me how it worked and what was involved. I was mesmerized by his talent. It worked beautifully.

Any other memories from that time you'd like to share ?
According to Neil and Nick, their memory of me was with my feet up reading a glossy magazine, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. One afternoon there was knock on the office door. Two school kids in schools uniforms stood there. They asked if this was Novagen Software. They explained to me that they were huge fans and that they would do anything to work there. We made a big effort to keep our location secret for this very reason. Impressed with their ability to sniff out the offices, I informed them that I could not offer them money. This did not deter them. So I employed them in the packaging room, populating Targ Survival Kit boxes. When Bruce returned from Portugal, he asked "who the hell are are the two school kids, and why are they working?". I explained that they were free of charge and damn good at the job. Soon after he put them on the payroll, and they went on to become involved in the design of Damocles. Smart kids.

Are you still in contact with any other Novageners ?
Yes, I still occasionally video conference Neil Toulouse, we are still to this day best friends. Sadly I seem to have lost touch with Nick Bacchus. I have not spoken to him since I phoned him out of the blue from a Guitar Centre parking lot in Mobile AL. Random.

What's your all-time favourite computer or console ?
I have three dream machines. Non of which I have ever owned. The first, and probably the coolest is a Thinking Machines CM-2. Next would be a Cray-X MP. And thirdly a NeXT first gen (Cube). Other computers that I find particularly appealing include, Atari ST, Apple Macintosh, Sinclair ZX81 (my first cpu) In terms of consoles, I found the Intellivision console to be most impressive and ahead of it's time, and have very fond memories of the Sony PS and PS2. Design wise I was always besotted with the Atari 400, which I owned although I spent thousands of hours more with many an Atari 800XL. For the record, whilst I have always been a huge fan of Atari (and Apple for that matter), I never liked the Atari VCS (2600), I found it to be the most disappointing of all consoles.

What's your all-time favourite game?
That's easy. Williams Defender. Everything from the gameplay to the graphics and especially the sound effects just smacks of genius. Second place is also easy too - Wipeout 2097 by Psygnosis on the PS2. Stunning physics and gameplay, with design by DR, who were my favorite design house at that time. Oh and not forgetting a brilliant soundtrack - Neil Toulouse bought the album! I seem to remember being very impressed with the look of Koronis Rift by Lucasfilm, but I'm fairly certain the gameplay sucked. WRC on PS 2 was also a favorite. Other favorites might be Homeworld (II) on the PC and Crystal Quest on the Mac.

Is there a particular developer (code, gfx, whatever) whom you consider as a genius / pioneer / extra-talented ?
I always remember being impressed with the work of Martin Schmitt and Kai Krause. Kai as you may remember went on to do Kai's Power Tools and Bryce. Very popular on the Mac platform. I knew both of them, but was particularly good friends with Martin. Their work was very graphics orientated, but never games to my knowledge. Paul Woakes was simply out there. Super talented. Looking back at the platform constrains we had back then, he was obviously a genius.

How do you feel about people considering the '80s as the videogaming golden age, and the associated hero-worship of some of the people that were part of this ?
I'm in agreement with the idea that the 80's were the golden age, but in reality it's simply a matter of scale. Novagen had one coder, and a handfull of support staff. The code had to be very very clever and super tight, because of all the constraints, tiny memory, slow processors etc. Many years later I was given a guided tour of Acclaims UK offices by Fergus McGovern, and I realized that without the constraints, you needed a whole fleet of staff, mostly creatives, to chew up the massive workload big memory and 650MB a CD could give you. Games got big and complex. It does not mean that there are not still super talented people out there. I had the same experience whilst at a venture capital meeting with the two boys at Codemasters, they had like five times the amount of staff that I was expecting. As for the hero-worship, why not. We all know that Steve Wozniak has every right to be worshipped, even though Steve Jobs gets 99% of the media coverage. As long as things are kept in perspective and the history is written as accurately as possible I think it's very healthy. If anything, many of the pioneers of computing are under-promoted. People like Grace Hooper, Delia Derbyshire and Seymour Cray. Too many of the real talent never gets pumped by the media, preferring instead to remember movie stars.

The controversial question - about emulation! Have you noticed the number of emulators on the net ? Have you heard about MDDClone the PC version of Mercenary made by a fan ? Does it bother you if such a clone is freely distributed ? What do you think when you see some of the other games you may have worked on freely available on the net ?
Without the infrastructure to deal with sales, I say it's OK for people to steal the code and enjoy the product, because they have no way to pay for it. I feel good about the time and effort people take to play Novagen games. It's nice to know the games are still being played. In a way it's like people are respecting the work. Technically it's intellectual property infringement. It's criminal. My suggestion would be to code port the Novagen games to iOS and release them via the Apple App Store. I think Damocles on the iPad would be dead cool.

Have you visited The Mercenary Site? If so, any feedback ?
Most excellent! Keep up the good work!

What are you up to these days? What keeps you up at night ?
Analogue music, vinyl and tape in particular. I love the sound of my Nakamichi 700, Sony Densuke 5M and Sony PSE-4000 turntable. Work wise, I'm back in the tech sector after a break of more than two years. It's great to be back! I'm working mostly with Apple stuff - everything from ePUB design to field support.

Anything else to say ?
I'd like to say Raspberry PI. Oh, and a big thank you to my partner Kimberly for standing by me in times of crisis and making me very happy!

11th June 2012

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