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INTERVIEW: PAUL HUGHES

Paul Hughes never worked for Novagen. But in the small world of videogames, his path crossed Novagen's a few times - and quite interesting ones!


Hi Paulie. Could you provide a one-liner introduction?
I'm Paul Hughes I'm 51 and have been programming video games for 38 years. I'm probably best known for the Ocean Loader in my past and LEGO Star Wars in the present.

Just in case one line wasn't enough... Can you describe your professional career in videogames industry?
So, I had my first game published for the Vic-20 aged 13 (I'll spare my blushes with the title!) and from that point on have been writing video games on just about every platform known to man.

I got to know you through an interview you made for c64.com, speaking of an unexpected meeting with Paul Woakes when you were working at Warthog. Can you tell us more?
That was around 2002. Shockingly Paul came to Warthog to interview for a job! His CV landed on my desk and I nearly fell off my chair! The "interview" consisted of me pitching why he should come and work for us followed by one of our business guys coming in and talking about licensing his intellectual property when he mentioned he still owned all the IP. I immediately set work on putting a GameBoy Mercenary demo together. Alas the paperwork never got signed and so the game was furloughed.

Paul had worked with Archer McLean at Awesome Developments in 2001. He was also working for this Lighting software company at the time. How did this happen?
Well, Paul enlisted a recruitment agent to shower the industry with his CV and it landed on my desk. I think he was looking for a job back in games as (if I remember correctly) he was at the time working on software for processing supermarket loyalty cards which was as boring as hell.

Did you keep a copy of Paul's CV? ;)
In hindsight I wish I had! That said it contained Encounter, Mercenary, Backlash and Damocles... You're SO hired!

What else did you talk about?
It was a fascinating chat with him about the inner workings of mercenary's 3D (I'd ported Elite to Z80 ten years previously, so we swapped war stories!). When he found out I wrote Freeload for Ocean all the stories about Novaload and the licensing to Ocean came out.

The famous story of NovaBil "the evil pirate"! Heared he copied Novaload (Novagen's C64 fast loader) so Ocean could stop paying for it?
The Novaload/Ocean story has always been quite a bit of hearsay. Paul was still genuinely upset by the whole episode, convinced Bill at Ocean did lift Novaload (thus NovaBill in Mercenary). I really felt for him, but at the same time I knew Bill and couldn't see him doing it.

This is an old story now, but since you worked at Ocean, what's your opinion on it?
After Bill left Ocean (he was a bloody lovely bloke, we never found out officially the reason for his leaving) and I brought in my own loader, after a few years they asked me if I could write a version for Spectrum and Amstrad as they wanted to cut the costs of licensing Speedlock (the Spectrum/Amstrad protection of choice). I declined as the fast loader bit was easy (I knocked something up in a couple of days), but protecting software requires a deep understanding of the target platform. Whilst I knew the C64 inside out I knew next to nothing about the hardware idiosyncrasies of the Spectrum and Amstrad that would form the core of a protection system, so someone else took on that challenge.
I recall it was used once before the duplicators had problems with it and we had to quickly reinstate Speedlock whilst sat at Ablex the duplicators.
I wouldn't be at surprised if they had asked Bill to do the same for the C64 back in the day, but again, I just couldn't see him doing something so nefarious.

Did you know then Speedlock had been co-founded by David Aubrey-Jones... Who ported Mercenary to Spectrum and Amstrad?
I did indeed; David Looker (David's business partner) used to pop downstairs to the Ocean dungeons to have a chat about what things he was up to he mentioned DAJ was porting it to the Spectrum - and what a job he made of it too!

What happened next with Paul Woakes?
We thought we had a deal for re-imagining a few of the Novagen properties after Paul visited. The recruitment agent hit us up for his fee as Paul had told him he had signed a deal with us - which wasn't strictly true - nothing ever came back signed and he went off the radar again (I guess he told the agent that to get him off his back!). I was gutted nothing came of it.
I actually started doing a visual port of Mercenary to the GameBoy after speaking to Paul and thinking we would acquire the publishing rights. Doh.

Do you think you kept this demo safe somewhere?
The demo code is one of the few things I didn't hoard when Warthog wound up much to my chagrin.

Was it all about old titles, did you ever talk of possible new games ideas?
We spoke about, initially porting Mercenary and Encounter to the Gameboy as a starting point and to see how the working relationship went.

There are some Youtube videos with a Mercenary Gameboy Color demo. Do you know anything about it?
I remember seeing that GBC demo; mine was on the original Gameboy (all monochrome) and never really got shown outside of Warthog. I did know of the GBC version; a friend of mine owns Thalamus Interactive (who were going to publish it), but some issues came up contractually and the conversion fizzled out. Gutted for them.

Speaking of demos... It seems you saw Psygnosis's Damocles for PC running?
The Damocles demo was shown to me circa 1998/99 by one a former in-house Sony/Psygnosis programmer that came to work for us. From what I remember it was pretty much finished too. It was so far ahead of its time fully lit software perspective correct texture mapping years before anyone else came up with fast ways of doing it!

How did you get to see it, did you ask as you knew he was a former Psygnosis programmer? Or was it on his CV, meaning that some programmer at Psygnosis actually worked on the game engine?
It came up in conversation one day we were talking about Novagen and Paul and he said he had a beta copy of it lying around on a CD one day he brought it in and I got to play it. Psygnosis were purely the publisher on Damocles everything was done by Paul. The chap was just a huge fan of Mercenary and Damocles and so blagged a copy of a pre-release version.

I'll challenge your memory: could you provide us with a few more details? Was there some music? Apart from the graphics we can see on the screengrabs, where there stunning differences with the original version?
Alas I don't typical programmer I was more interested in the technical side of it; looking a polygons stretching off into the distance; looking for the tell tale warping of affine texturing (there was none!). It was "just" Damocles as I remember it, but running at 640x480 with 256 colour textures and real time lighting.

Can you tell us how you felt when you discovered Mercenary games (1, 2 and 3!), did you play them when they were released?
Oh yes. In my school days I worked at a computer shop at the weekends and when Mercenary appeared we used to play it on the projection TV they had in the store. Over time a bunch of regulars bought the game and we slowly mapped it out and worked the puzzles between ourselves. It created a little community!

Since you're a C64 expert and the Mercenary Site is more focused on 16-bits versions, was there something special in Novagen games you enjoyed more on 8-bits versions than 16-bits ones?
Genius is used far too much these days, but Paul really was one! He really thought outside of the box to pull off visuals that really shouldn't have been possible on a sub-1MHz 6502. I first became aware of Novagen on my mate's Atari 800 where he had Encounter running on it. I mean, c'mon, this was Battlezone but with filled 3D running at full pelt. It was even more impressive on the C64 as its 6502 was almost half the speed of the Atari (which ran at 1.8Mhz).

Do you know if there had been plans doing Damocles on C64, or if the game was only ever considered for 16-bits release?
Alas I do not, but looking at the scope of Damocles I think even the might of Paul couldn't have crammed so much into a C64.

Did you play Battle Island, the only C64 game from Novagen which was not released on 16-bits?
I didn't play it at the time, but discovered a few years ago when tinkering around with a C64 emulator. It was very different for Novagen; like a huge Commando it was very competent as 64 titles go, but I guess when the 16 bits arrived people started clamouring for 3D.

What are you up to these days? What keeps you up at night?
I currently work in game technology, but using it to create high-end, hyper real VR simulators for training the emergency services.

Just an additional question about Ocean: Oric is one of the few successful (6502 based) 8-bits computers in UK that never got its version of Mercenary. Ocean only made 3 games for that machine (Hunchback, Mr Wimpy and Road Frog). Do you know the reason for that? Small market?
So, this goes back to when Ocean were originally known as "Spectrum Games" the logic was they put adverts in the press for several titles and said they were available for the main computers of the time, then they waited for the orders to come in if the amount of orders didn't justify the cost of development they just refunded the orders and didn't go ahead with the title on that machine. Unfortunately in the UK at least the Oric was a bit of a damp squib and just didn't have the market penetration to justify porting the games to it.

What are you up to these days? What keeps you up at night?
I currently work in game technology, but using it to create high-end, hyper real VR simulators for training the emergency services.

Paul Hughes
11th April 2020

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