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 Jon Burton, co-founder of UK independent software house Traveller’s Tales and designer on Puggsy and the Lego Star Wars series, amongst others.
Various Early Thingumys
Burton developed an interest in computers back in the early ‘80s, through the 8-bit Commodore VIC-20. “My family was visiting my uncle and he had a VIC-20,” he explains. “I typed in one of the BASIC programs from the back of the manual, and the computer made the sound of a UFO landing. I was hooked...“
After getting his hands on a Sinclair Spectrum, Burton decided that his goal was to make a career out of making games. “I spent most of my free time “geeking” away writing endless games, first in BASIC, the FORTH, and then in assembler,” he says. “I finished a few games in assembler on the Spectrum and sent them to a budget publisher called Firebird, but none were accepted.”
Amongst the titles he created were Turbo 2, which Burton describes as a “side scrolling driving-platformer written in FORTH”, Gup, a platform game, Daedulus, a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, and Thingumy, which he explains was like “Lemmings with one character instead of 100s”.
“Years ahead of its time, etc,” Burton adds.
Tales Of Psygnosis
Things really began to change after Burton bought a Commodore Amiga in the mid ‘80s, and became interested in the system’s burgeoning demo-scene, where programmers and artists would create flashy animated exhibitions of the computer’s abilities. They were often, though not exclusively, created by hacking groups, and used to introduce or bookend cracked games, in order to display the group’s skill.
“I started to write a few of my own,” Burton says. “After a few months I met up with a guy who was a freelance graphic artist and we decide to write a game. We produced a basic first pass level of the game and took it to [UK based ‘80s publishing powerhouse] Psygnosis, mainly just for some guidance. To our surprise, they offered to publish it.”
Burton continued work on the game with graphic artist Andy Ingram under the Traveller’s Tales name, and eventually finished the game, Leander, 18 months later. “I wrote a lot of it while finishing my work placement and degree at Liverpool,” he explains. “It was a lot of fun writing the game, but I don’t really have much fondness for it as such. Not sure why. It was technically and artistically fantastic for the time, but the gameplay was pretty generic and repetitive.”
The Shadow of the Beast-esque hack ‘n’ slash game was released on the Amiga in 1991, and proved popular enough to receive a port to the Sega Mega Drive the next year. It also established Traveller’s Tales as a developer of note within the British scene, something Burton notes as having happened “almost by accident, really”.
“We got in at the right time,” he muses. “The Amiga gave us a door in before the consoles took hold. Once we were working with Psygnosis, PCs, dev-systems and so on were provided by them.”
The Trouble With Training
Traveller’s Tales next game also had its roots in the Amiga demo-scene. The demo Puggs in Space by the group Dionysus had impressed the management at Psygnosis so much that they were asked to create a game based around the character; a short, red alien named Puggsy. However, the task proved too much for the group, who pulled out of the project.
“I think it was a bit beyond the guys who created the demo,” recalls Burton. “So in the end, Psygnosis asked us if we could create a game using the character. The only thing really retained from the demo was the design of the main character. However, he was red in the demo and we changed him to orange as the consoles would suffer from colour bleed from the colour red.”
Puggsy, as released, was a puzzle platformer that featured object physics well ahead of its time. “I loved Super Mario World on the SNES and loved the fact you could pick up and thrown the springs and the turtles. I though there was loads of potential with taking that a lot further,” says Burton of the inspiration for the physics. “So I set out to try and create a Super Mario World type game, but with all the puzzles being based on lots of physics objects and them all having loads of different properties like buoyancy, weight, friction etc.”
Puggsy was released on Amiga and Mega Drive in 1993 to mostly positive reviews, but sold poorly. Burton puts this down to the title’s misleading training levels, which he suggests gave the player the impression that the game was a basic platformer, of which there was an enormous amount at the time.
“The training levels at the start were added very late in the day in response to publisher input, and the result was that a quick play on the game would give the impression of a basic platformer, when in fact 4 or 5 levels in - out of 69 levels - is where we originally wanted the player to start,” he notes. “It was just deemed too complicated for beginners, so the training was added.”
Out Of The Back-Bedroom
Following that, Burton and team worked on the SNES and Mega Drive versions of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which allowed the company to move forward yet again in terms of professionalism and expansion. “Psygnosis was in the process of being bought by Sony and Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a film created by Sony,” he explains. “We got a reasonable advance for the game and so we could get an office and start hiring up people. Bram Stoker’s Dracula really paid to get us working at a more professional level. Up until then it had literally been 'back-bedroom' stuff.”
Though the game received only average reviews, Traveller’s Tales clearly impressed higher ups at Sony, who contacted the company in regards another license they had recently acquired. “Sony Imagesoft had pitched an idea to Disney for a Mickey Mouse game,” says Burton, “originally to tie in with his 65th birthday and penned by Dave Jaffe - bless him! The problem was that the pitch to Disney was hugely ambitious and had no basis in the reality of what technology could achieve.”
“We created a couple of demo levels for Disney which they thought were running on the Mega CD but actually were just running on a basic Mega Drive,” he continues. “This impressed them so much that we got to make the game for them. Once we had gained creative control of the design of the game and could make what was possible on the system, we ended up with what I think is one of our best games to date.”
The creative control afforded to the company was for Mickey Mania, in fact, far beyond anything that had been allowed for previous Disney games, notes Burton. “One cool thing is that if you lost a life, a short sequence would play showing Mickey holding up a lily and dying. That seemed fine at the time, but we later learned that that is the only time that Mickey Mouse has been depicted as dead! 'We Killed Mickey Mouse' – maybe we should get t-shirts made.”
“Ask me about working with Jaffe some time...” he adds, tantalisingly.
The title was released for Mega Drive and SNES in late 1994, with an expanded version released for the Mega CD shortly after. Burton comments that the CD format offered the company the chance to push their games further. “We loved technology and trying to achieve things on the hardware that no-one else could. On the Mega Drive we had full screen rotation and scaling, particle systems, 2D physics, 4096 colour displays, and a full screen Wolfenstein engine at 30fps. The Mega CD gave us more hardware to play with and we had one of the most advanced video play back engines of the time. Eurocom even licensed it from us for Mortal Kombat.”
Traveller’s Tales continued their relationship with Disney the next year, working through the Buena Vista Games publishing arm of the company on Toy Story for the 16-bit consoles.
“I think we understand how Disney works, and they trust us to get the games done to a high standard and on time,” Burton explains of their continuing relationship. “They need the product in the marketplace on time, and we’ve never let them - or anyone else - down. I think my favourite Disney license to date has been the Toy Story series, although [ The Chronicles of] Narnia [in 2005] was very interesting to work on. The first Toy Story game was the first game in history to launch day-in-date with a movie.”
1995 saw the PlayStation and Sega Saturn released in Europe and the US, and Burton became interested in working with the new technology as soon as possible. However, it would be another year before the company was able to move on from 16-bit, due to being offered their biggest license yet.
“Sega approached us and said they wanted us to create a new Mega Drive game,” Burton says. “We said that we didn’t want to work on the last generation of machines anymore. They said that the game they wanted us to work on was Sonic. We told them how much we loved working on the last generation of machines!”
Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island was released in late 1996, and was one of the last titles for the aging machine. While this meant it was competing with not only the two 32-bit machine, but also the recently released Nintendo 64, Burton used that chance to show off the company’s knowledge of the console.
“Sega supplied the game design and level layouts, so we implemented the gameplay, created the technology to run that kind of game on a Mega Drive and created the rendered graphic style and so on,” he recalls. “The engine that ran that game used every trick in the book and was the culmination of everything we had learned on the 16-bit consoles. The animations was decompressed in real-time, the backgrounds were streamed from ROM, and the game even had a 13 second full screen rendered intro FMV, running off cartridge!”
“The only drawback was that the Mega Drive couldn’t scroll the screen fast enough in pseudo-3D to give the truly sonic-speeds, which I think was one of the criticisms of the game,” he admits.
Nonetheless, the game received positive reviews, and Burton notes that Sega was “very happy” with the company’s efforts. Sonic 3D was also ported, just seven weeks later, to the Saturn, in order to make up for Sega’s cancellation of the US produced Sonic X-treme, which had been intended for release on the console. This cancellation also pushed Traveller’s Tales into the development of another Sonic game for the console – the racing title Sonic R.
“Sonic R was actually a Formula One game for the Sega Saturn,” reveals Burton. “It took six months from start to finish [to convert the game into a Sonic title], hence the low number of tracks.”
An Independent Necessity
Following that, Traveller’s Tales began working with Disney once more, first on A Bug’s Life, which was published by Sony, then on a series of Toy Story related titles published by Activision. Burton notes that while working with different publishers is undoubtedly a necessity for an independent developer, it’s not without its problems.
“Each publisher has its own methods and procedures and that takes time to get used to, and can be incredibly frustrating,” he comments, adding the time spent on the Sonic titles illustrated “how useful it was working with a company like Sega who understood games”.
This became even more clear in 2001, when the company worked with Universal Interactive for Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex. “[It] was meant to be designed by Mark Cerny, who designed all the others, and published by Sony,” says Burton. “Vivendi/Universal fell out with them and we had to go from a free roaming game to a standard Crash game with a reduced time-line - 12 months - and having to design the game ourselves from scratch.”
A Haven For Mercenaries
In comparison to previous games in the series, The Wrath of Cortex fared averagely sales-wise, and was widely criticised for adding nothing new to the series. Burton moved on to a new title, Haven: Call of the King, a genre spanning game he describes as “a very personal project”.
“I programmed the main gameplay, movement, pickups, and camera, designed the whole game, art directed, wrote the story, etc.” he notes.
“I wanted to make a game like Haven ever since I played Mercenary, an old wire-frame game on the Amiga,” he continues. “As a player, I loved the slow reveal of the size of the world and being able to gradually break out of the traditional bounds expected in games. Playing Haven starts you in a village with basic platform gameplay. As you progress you get to ride across a fractal landscape, get a speed boat, then a quad bike, then a sailing boat, then a plane, and eventually a spaceship. Each step allows you to realise you could explore more and more of the game world. You could literally take off in a space ship from a level, fly around the whole fractal planet or off into space to another planet and land by a castle on another world and run off into the dungeons.”
“Oblivion kind of touches on what we did, but we literally were on another planet, and that was on a PS2. However, that proved to be Haven’s undoing. Because the first hour was basically a platform game people would play the game and right it off as another platformer,” he notes, adding that “this was a lesson we singularly failed to learn” from the experience with Puggsy 10 years earlier.
“That is how games playing has changed since Mercenary,” he muses. “You used to play a game for hours and discover everything, now games have to hit you with everything in the first hour or you won’t buy it, or journalists who don’t have time to play for much longer, just write it off.”
However, despite the poor sales, the game remains a very special project for Burton, not simply because of the time and effort he invested in it, but because of the game’s deeper meaning. “The game storyline was written to be an allegory of the Christian Gospel,” he explains. “As a Christian, I have always wanted to try and create a 'Christian' game, but that is incredibly difficult as the whole basis of Christianity is for you to give your life to Jesus, and trust and pray to God for help and guidance. That doesn’t make for the best gameplay. Can you imagine ‘Press X now to let God finish the level for you’?”
“In games, you want to be the hero, and Christianity is all about humility, which is the opposite of you being the hero,” he continues. “However, C.S. Lewis wrote a popular story which was an allegory of the Gospel, called The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. He created a compelling story with pro-active characters, that also had a gospel message.”
“So that’s what I tried to do with Haven. The good guy was called Athelion (a The-Lion?), the bad guy was called Vetch (Witch?), the traitor who caused the world’s downfall was called Dasis (Ju-“Das Is”-cariot), and so on. There are loads of things like this in the game. The only problem was, the game ends with a cliff-hanger ending paralleling the Crucifixion. As no sequel was ever made, there was no ‘after 3 days…’ scene and so the full story was never told.”
“However,” Burton adds, “for the eagle eyed Christian game players, Puggsy had a room with a bible verse in huge letters and Sonic R had the Christian Ichthus - fish symbol, like on the back of cars - above the houses on the first track.”
Building Brick By Brick
Following another Disney license, this time for THQ, and a more successful return to the Crash franchise, Traveller’s Tales began work on the Lego Star Wars license. The company began the game under the guidance of Lego Interactive, until Lego Group decided to move out of the video game business.
“The key management people at Lego Interactive started a small publishing company, then called Giant Interactive, to produce the game,” says Burton. “That company had the exclusive rights to Lego interactively. As I saw how well the game was turning out, I could see the potential of the Lego rights moving forward. After lots of discussions we realised that we could work very well with Giant Interactive and a developer driven publisher could be a very nimble and effective organization. So we bought Giant Interactive and it’s working out pretty well!”
The title was released at the beginning of 2005 to very positive reviews, and quickly went on to top sales charts around the world. “We knew we were onto something with Lego Star Wars, but we didn’t know if everyone else would ‘get’ it,” recalls Burton. “It was great when we realised that we had managed to bridge the kids/adults gap with a title that appealed equally to both.”
The team immediately began work on a second game, based on the original trilogy of movies. One of Burton’s main aims was to improve from the first title, by taking on board criticism levelled at the game. “We definitely feel we learnt from the criticism,” he notes. “The second game was much bigger, and the vehicle levels were a lot more fun and easy for kids to play.”
Proof that the goal was met came in the form of a British Academy Video Games Award for gameplay for Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, a feeling Burton describes as “unbelievable”.
“We spent the rest of the night periodically pointing to the bronze award in the middle of our table and shouting in disbelief ‘We won a BAFTA!’” he laughs.
With the company about to release Bionicle Heroes, as well as having revealed that they will be working on a Lego Batman title, the future seems positive for Traveller’s Tales. Burton puts this down to the company’s reputation for “producing good games, on time, on budget”, as well as their established position within the industry,
“We are big enough and successful enough not to need development advances, which allows us more control of exactly how a game is made giving us more chance of it being as good as it can be in the time available,” he explains. “A lot of developers have to make endless changes often at the whim of publishers who think they know better or they don’t get paid. If we don’t agree with the changes, we can just push on making the game we feel is right, and the publisher can pay us when it’s finished. That’s not to say we don’t listen to publishers, we just don’t have to make obviously unnecessary changes just to massage the ego of a high up publisher ‘suit’.”
“We are obviously a successful developer and that remains our core business,” continues. “We have just acquired a small studio, which gives us a bit more capacity, but I think we will stay at 4-5 teams in total, as the number of people required to create games now is getting a little silly, and we don’t want to end up expanding into an uncontrollable mess.”
Burton also notes that solid plans for the company to expand their publishing business exist, and that he is interested in focusing on that in years to come. “As distribution goes on-line, the publishing side of the company will gain strength. At the moment we have to partner with other publishers for distribution, which dilutes our brand.”
“We are also diversifying into children’s TV a little, as it is a demographic that we understand, and it will give us control over the IP’s we create,” he adds.
“Ultimately,” he concludes, “I guess we want to be the most successful independent developer in the world, and as we will have sold over 40 million games next year, that target looks achievable. Each thing we tackle brings new challenges and new experiences. And I truly believe this has just been the first step.”