Llamas In Space: Catching Up with Llamasoft's Jeff Minter

By Brandon Sheffield

Jeff Minter is an enduring testament to potential power of independent games. He’s been operating on his own terms for the last 25 years, and shows no sign of branching from his chosen path. Ever an industry anomaly, he has been crafting fantastically pixel-intensive, retro-infused games for years, and actually managing to make a living off it, working from his farm in Wales.

Though he’s always dabbled dually in music visualizations and game software, he’s increasingly been marrying the two. Most recently, Minter completed work on the visuals for the Xbox 360’s music player, and had an alliance with Lionhead Studios for a Gamecube title, which was eventually scrapped due in part to its overly ambitious nature near the end of that console’s lifecycle.

Currently, Minter’s company Llamasoft, with a coding staff of two (as Minter says, the staff has doubled over the years) is creating Space Giraffe for Xbox Live Arcade, with sights on another title down the road. In this extensive interview, we discuss Minter’s work ethic, past projects such as his involvement with the ill-fated Nuon console, as well as Unity, his cancelled Gamecube project.

Minter's most famous game is likely Tempest 2000, arguably the best game on Atari’s Jaguar console. It was such a perfect reinvention of the game that many assume he was the creator of the franchise, when in reality, the creator was David Theurer. Minter merely took the formula and honed it to a point. And it’s on this point that our interview begins.

Gamasutra: When I first met you, this was E3 maybe 1999 or 2000, I saw you at the Nuon booth, and remarked that Tempest 3000 [a Nuon launch title] seemed a lot like Tempest 2000 to me, but I appreciate that a lot more work went into it. I know it makes you mad when people say that.


Jeff Minter
(photo: Vincent Diamante)

Jeff Minter: Well, Tempest 3000 is an evolution of Tempest 2000, really. In a way it was hamstrung by the fact that it was on quite an underpowered system. It was a real struggle to get that out of the Nuon CPU. The Nuon was "interesting" to program on, let's put it that way.

GS: Did anyone at [Nuon maker] VM Labs ever think that they were going to defeat the PlayStation?

JM: What they wanted to do was create a sideways market to the PlayStation. They wanted to get in there early and have a DVD player with additional capabilities.

The trouble with VM Labs is that they ended up being about a year late to market. That really put the kibosh on it. Not enough people took it up. If they had got it into OEMs earlier, I suspect they might have done better.

It really was quite a feat of programming to get the best out of it. If you just coded it with the standard libraries, you didn't really get a lot out of it. To get stuff out of Tempest 3000, I really had to work. That was probably the most difficult job of programming I've ever done.

GS: Really?

JM: Yeah, it was doubly parallel. For one thing, it was a VLIW architecture, which meant that for each instruction tick, you had to compose the instruction itself with little sub instructions sent to the ALU, to the memory unity, and each little part of the chip. You had to order the instructions yourself.

Plus, it wasn't just one CPU. It was an array of CPUs. If you wanted to use them all, you had to make your code so that it was never bigger than 4k, because the CPUs only had 4k of on-chip RAM. So you had to have paging schemes that paged all this in and out. Plus, you had to have a load management scheme which parsed out all the bits thrown at all the CPUs. I actually managed to make Tempest scalable.

Theoretically, if you put it on a system with 16 CPUs, it would have used them all to run more smoothly. But, in order to do that, you really had to understand how this chip worked. Of course, I worked at VM Labs, and I was there throughout its development, so I had a map of that chip in my head at all times so I could do it. But, for most people coming to develop a game, unless you wanted to get beyond just using the simple C+ libraries, most people probably wouldn't have bothered, because it was really hard work to do.

GS: And in fact most people didn't.

JM: Most people didn't, and that's why most games were a bit crap!

GS: How do you feel about the time you spent at VM Labs?

JM: I enjoyed my time at VM Labs. It was interesting because I got to see the birth of a piece of silicon and work very closely with the hardware engineers. I worked with some great guys, I had some good times. I'm proud of Tempest 3000 because on that hardware, it's pretty damn good.


Tempest 3000, on the ill-fated Nuon home console

GS: It's a shame that not that many people will be able to play it.

JM: I know! As I said in one talk this morning, I must've worked for two years on that game and released it to an audience of three. But we'll make up for that now with Space Giraffe. With Space Giraffe we've got a true sequel to Tempest 2000 that moves it on to a new direction, and I'm very happy with that. And also we never have to compromise on the bleeding framerate!

The thing with the Nuon is, we were trying so much on this little machine that only had a 54 megahertz clock. It was coded like a shader. There were lots of maths going on at each individual pixel, and there was no hardware acceleration at all, so it was all done in software. It's amazing that it went as fast as it did. With Space Giraffe on the Xbox 360, we can just chuck shitloads of stuff at it and it keeps rock-solid 60 frames per second. I'm loving that, because there's no compromising anymore.

GS: It's humorous to think that the Atari Jaguar and the Nuon were both doomed consoles that each had one thing going for them in the early stages, and that was the fact that you were making games for them. It's almost as if your appearance on the platform has damned the 360!

JM: I kept hearing that from all over the place, and I just got fed up with it the other day and told people to fuck off! I figure the stuff will speak for itself. The games I worked on on those smaller platforms were more interesting to me. I was always offered more mainstream work, but I worked on the stuff that interested me, really. And it was a shame to work on things for so long and to have them go out to such a limited audience, but it's great now, because we're on Xbox 360, and there's, what, ten million of them out there? We've got a platform!

GS: Plus in doing things that way, you managed to build a kind of mystique about your games as well.

JM: Yeah, and I figure that if Space Giraffe is striking enough, and if it goes out into Xbox Live Arcade and does well, then that's a good statement of intent from us, and it's a good platform upon which to build. I'm pretty certain it will do well. All the results I got coming back from alpha test, all the guys just love it to bits. They're all saying that it's better than Tempest 2000, and it's better than anything that we've done.


GS: Will all of the stuff we saw today make it into the final version of Space Giraffe? I'm guessing the "Cube is not for yiffing" message might get cut.

JM: Well, that's not actually saying that yiffing is a good thing! It's NOT for yiffing! If you actually look at that picture, there's a little no entrance sign. There's nothing actually shown!

GS: Recently we did a postmortem on Toys for Bob's Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, where they described having to remove certain names from their game. Certainly that climate does exist.

JM: Well, I think Space Giraffe is abstract, and you can't really fly into anything within the world. That fox is pretty much the most real-world thing we've got in there!

GS: Have you ever given up on a game? I know that Unity was cancelled, but is it ever going to be resurrected at any point? You've expressed interest once.

JM: The thing with Unity is that it would be a matter of projects. As I've said, we got a year and a half into it and realized that it was going to be too huge. It was too ambitious. Not only did we have the light synthesis generator -- which was actually working -- but the whole idea was going to be genetic evolutionary algorithms controlling everything, and it was just too huge, really.

I think a lot of the ideas are still valid, but they will appear perhaps in smaller games. As a small development team, we can't afford to take on projects that span two or three or four years. We can't do it.


Unity, Llamasoft's canceled Gamecube project

GS: How many people do you have working with you?

JM: Me and Ivan [Zorzin].

GS: That's what I thought. You said "of our size"...

JM: Well, we've doubled in size! There's now two of us! We're also lucky, though, because we've got a lot of voluntary contributions from people in the Llamasoft community. Some of the music is being done by a bunch of musicians who also happen to be members of our forum.

Likewise, we've got other guys helping us out by doing logos and fonts and things. We've got a lot of people who contribute to us because they want to be in Space Giraffe, which is nice.

GS: And that's the final title?

JM: Yeah!

GS: Originally, that didn't seem to be the case. You said, "Well, let's just call it Space Giraffe"...

JM: Well, it just kind of stuck. It all came down to this one forum post, where there was just this one picture. I was working on this little creature, and at that stage it was just called "The Little Creature." I didn't have a name for it. Then I saw this one picture of a giraffe at a watering hole, and it looked just like my little creature standing at the side of the web.

So I started this one thread in my forum called "The Space Giraffe," and posted that picture there. Within hours, all the gaming sites were reporting "Jeff Minter's new game: Space Giraffe!" At that point, why go back? Space Giraffe is memorable, and people remember it. It may be a silly name, but people remember it.


A work-in-progress version of Space Giraffe

GS: That was partially my fault. I have a friend who reads your forums, and he relayed that post to me.

JM: This was all over the place within a few hours. One of the funniest posts was on Teletext in the UK. There was this post going "Space Giraffe invades Xbox 360..."

GS: Has PETA ever contacted you to make a game? It would kind of make sense.

JM: No, but the weirdest request I've ever had in making games was when I was once offered by a research place in Wales to develop video games for sheep. I guess it was some study into the cognitive abilities of sheep. I couldn't take it up because I was busy with other stuff, but I was genuinely asked to make video games for sheep.

GS: Did you have any ideas about it?

JM: I think we were going to see what kind of interface we would have for it first!

GS: Hoof-based controllers?

JM: "Avoid the barking dog!"


GS: You mentioned that the Jaguar was the first time you ever saw a polygon in action. How do you feel about those?

JM: Well...they're jolly good, and jolly useful, aren't they? At first it was all a bit scary, since I had been entirely sprite and tilemap-based, and at first I thought I'd have to get a calculator out and do real maths, which was scary since I'm shit at maths. Once I got settled into doing Tempest 2000, though, I thought it wasn't too bad and it was actually quite fun.

GS: Are next-gen graphics particularly important to you?

JM: To me, a powerful GPU is more important. I'm not really that interested in doing realism, but in terms of using a GPU as a more and more powerful graphic synthesizer, I'm extremely interested. Pixel shading is heaven to me. It's like it was made for me. It's like a bunch of guys sat down in a room and said, "What can we make that will please Yak?" And then they made pixel shading. Thank you very much!

GS: Yeah, Space Giraffe has things flying all over the place.

JM: The way that game is built, you have sixteen lots of rendering going on in some levels, sixteen 512x512 render targets that combine at the end to produce the final output. And it's going on at sixty frames per second! I love that kind of power. So yeah, give me more!

GS: Is it ever too much? Can there ever be too much on the screen for you?

JM: Not in the way the game is seen now. You could of course just chuck a bazillion things up there, but if you did that, the game would be illegible anyway. There has to be a certain upper limit just so you can read the game. Upper levels where two hundred, three hundred, or four hundred enemies fly in, you're still doing stuff, and the game is still running at sixty frames per second.

GS: I mean, is it ever too much in a visual sense? I was watching that one level and it was difficult for me to parse what was going on.

JM: That was level sixty-four! That's a bit of a boss level, and it's going to be difficult to parse the first time you get to it. Graphically, it's much more intense than any of the previous levels.

So I want that, I want people to say "Oh my God, what the smeg's going on?" But the thing is, if you're actually in there playing it, you can still read it. The cues are always there, no matter how weird the level starts to look. Once you get used to it, you can still play, you can still see, and you can still get through. Part of that is deliberately the difficulty of the game, though. It will chuck graphic overload at you every now and again, not as a flaw in the design, but as a challenge to the player.


Tempest 2000

GS: Until I saw it in motion, I always wondered how I could understand and play Tempest 2000. Screenshots didn't help much.

JM: Space Giraffe is the worst when it comes to screenshots. We put up screenshots, and people see them and think, "What the fuck is going on?" You can't perceive it at all until you see it in motion. Once you see it and start playing it, it makes sense.

GS: A lot of games like Rez attempt to make the musical aspect a lot more interactive, and focus more on music as the primary factor, whereas you seem to focus more on the visual aspect.

JM: For us -- at this stage, anyway -- the music's the background. It's whatever you choose to accompany your journey with, really. There is a certain amount of interaction, and the Neon will be responding in part to the music.

One thing I would like to explore in the future is making music more involved with the game, so that the type of music you put on would determine how the level played. Some music might create a more chilled level, whereas heavy metal and heavy techno might be more intense. I've got so many ideas, but we can't do them all on the first outing.

There came a point when we had to say, "Look, I've got brilliant ideas about this, but we've got to stop it here, finish it off, and get it out the door," because we haven't got time to put everything into one go. We haven't got the budget. We need to get it out there to earn some money to afford to do the next thing. I'll come back to ideas like that as I do new games.


GS: A lot of those games seem to be somewhat inspired by your stuff, and it would be like everything was coming full circle to have your games influenced by audio cues.

JM: That's definitely something I'd be interested in exploring. I've done a bit of work on algorithm-generated music, and I'd quite like to do a bit of work along those lines. Also, I need to get a couple of good games out on Xbox Live Arcade so I've got some dev time to play with.

GS: Money-wise, how have you survived throughout the years?

JM: Basically, we've survived on the stuff that we've made through the visualizer, and just stuck that in the bank. Thankfully, we have got low overheads, so as long as we keep the sheep and ourselves fed, we can keep going. We didn't want to take any funding, because if you take funding from Microsoft, at the end of the day, your returns from the released product are a lot less than if you don't. We figured we'd go out on a limb and self-fund, and then hopefully do better when it's released.

GS: Your fanbase will certainly come out to buy the game in droves. Where do you think they came from?

JM: They're just people who love what we did over the years. There's a lot of people who liked Tempest 2000, and there's people who have been interested in the light synth side of the work, more than the games. I think that probably worked as well, since it's so closely integrated.

In Europe, there are people who remember me from twenty-five years ago, when we were doing stuff with Llamasoft. It's amazing how many of those people are still around. When we started the Llamasoft forum four or five years ago, I expected there to be about fifty or sixty people there who remembered the old days. I think we've just passed 2,500 members, and it's a big, thriving community. I'm quite surprised about that.


A work-in-progress shot from level 64 of Space Giraffe

GS: It is pretty astounding. I don't think a lot of independent developers get that kind of following.

JM: It's not just about Llamasoft, either. If it was just about Llamasoft and all they ever talked about was Llamasoft and games, then I wouldn't be inclined to go there all that much, really. It wouldn't feel like home. As it is, it's a bunch of like-minded people and Llamasoft is just a common interest, but we talk about lots of things there. There's lots of clever people, there's other coders, there's lots of industry people there. It's just a good, interesting collection of people.

GS: You draw a lot of inspiration from retro games, but Unity seemed to be a new concept. Was it an original game, or did it draw on other things?

JM: It was pretty original, despite the fact that it was a shooter. It had this whole idea of evolution going on, and the way you played it would change the way the enemies were constructed and how they behaved. It didn't know whether it wanted to be Defender or Spore, and you know how long it's taken that guy to develop Spore, so if we'd stuck with that I'd still be doing it now.

There just came to a point where we realized that it's diminishing returns. It's a shame, since that's the first game I've never actually completed in about 25 years. It was disheartening, because I heard a comment from someone working at a game magazine saying that Space Giraffe was going to be vaporware. I mean, fuck off! In 25 years, I've had one game which hasn't made it, and all of a sudden you're discounting everything I do as vaporware. So, I had to tell him to piss off, basically.

GS: How important do you think it is to make something that's original, as opposed to nostalgic?

JM: I think it's perfectly fine to draw inspiration from old games, but people expect more than from what's in old games. In Xbox Live Arcade, it's nice to have the old emulations, but you tend to get them and play them for five minutes here and five minutes there and then put them away and don't play them much anymore. You need modern thinking as well. You need to address what today's players want. They want something a bit more lasting, something a bit more deep. They want something that uses the new hardware as well.

I like the way a lot of classic games are designed. They were fashioned within such a small space, with such a small collection of behaviors that together added up to make something that was bigger than the sum of its parts. That's the kind of design philosophy I'm using to develop Space Giraffe, but it has to go a bit further, and it has to be much longer, deeper, and much more rewarding to today's audiences.

I think it's something that Geometry Wars did very well, but then again, after you've played Geometry Wars for more than 30 minutes you've seen everything that's in it and it just gets faster. With Space Giraffe, each level is its own different graphical theme. There's a bit more depth and substance, and you get the feeling that you haven't seen it all within the first half hour.


GS: People really seem to associate you with Tempest, so much so that some think that you created the game.

JM: I think I kind of took it over somehow, because Dave Theurer doesn't seem particularly interested in the games business anymore. I remember when I was working on Tempest 2000, I was hoping I would have some kind of contact with him. I contacted Eugene Jarvis when we were working on Defender 2000. But Dave Theurer was already doing his graphics format thing he does, and didn't seem interested at all.

I heard in one interview where he was asked whether he minded if people were doing updated versions of Tempest, and he said he didn't really mind. He just didn't really seem to care about Tempest anymore, and it was a shame. So I took it over a bit. Probably a bit too much, seeing as how people think I created it!

To be fair, I'll always give credit to Dave Theurer first in the Tempest games. He's always the name above mine. I believe we should give credit where it's due.

GS: You mentioned that you never tell a story in your games. Would you ever want to try to do that?

JM: Not really. I don't think that's really my style. I'm all about giving an immersive feeling with appropriate feedback, and I can do that in different ways every time. I'm not really a storyteller. I don't want to tell science fiction stories, or horror stories, or anything. I'm going straight for the essence of game, really.

I'm not saying that storytelling is bad; it's very good. I enjoy lots of story-based games, and I enjoy lots of traditional games and realistic games. But what interests me creatively is working in the abstract.

GS: Peter Lee from the casual developer GameLab said that he moved into games because he was in advertising, and advertising always felt like it was about promoting something else. In games of this type, the only value is the games themselves. The only reason the game is fun is because the game itself is fun.

JM: I believe that a game should be fun and rewarding in and of itself, regardless of whether you make progress, and regardless of whether you get a high score. You should always step away smiling, and step away feeling good. That's why I don't like certain kinds of games where you have hard bosses and you get to the point where you just want to throw your joystick through the screen.

If you're swearing at the screen and not enjoying yourself anymore, you won't play. You'll get to a point and then you'll stop because the game just winds you up. I want games to always be a pleasure to pick up and play, even if you don't always do your best, and still walk away with a smile.

GS: Frustration can still be a good motivator, though.

JM: Absolutely. It's a delicate balance. You don't want to make your game a walk-over, but conversely you don't want to make it so you'll walk into brick walls every five minutes. I think what we've done in Space Giraffe is quite nice because there are two ways you can play it. You can play it very defensively, and it's not that hard to play it defensively and make a good bit of progress. But if you play defensively, you won't get the extra lives, so you need to play aggressively as well, to build up the bonus points you need to get extra lives.

So if you have a level you find very difficult, you can play defensively to just get through it, and if you're confident with another level you can play aggressively to get the maximum amount of points out of it. There's a wide path through the game.


Another work-in-progress shot of Space Giraffe

GS: Through things like Xbox Live Arcade, the arcade style of game seems to be coming back. It seemed to be in sincere danger for awhile.

JM: It is coming back, because sometimes you want that sort of thing. Sometimes you just want to sit there and have a good old blast and not sit there and work your way through some forty or fifty hour epic.

GS: Have there ever been times where you thought about giving up on games entirely due to financial or creative reasons?

JM: Not really. There have been times where I thought I might like the light synth thing more than games, but after a period of working on light synth, I was gagging stupid for more game stuff. It was always there. I just enjoy the process of making games. Games and light synth have been really strong in my life since 1984, and now I think I've brought them together and can enjoy both at the same time.

GS: Who else do you think is doing good things to bring back the old style of gaming, or at least that aesthetic?

JM: The Geometry Wars and Mutant Storm guys are doing a fantastic job. It's good to see that kind of stuff. There are developers who have the same ideas as I do, who want to make games that give homage to the past but have enough to satisfy present tastes as well.

The more people like that who get into that, the better, and I think they do good things for that style of gaming as a whole, if there's a nice choice of people doing their own styles. There's enough room for everyone to have their own style. I don't think anyone can ever copy the style of Space Giraffe, since it's so intricately based on the Neon engine that you'd need to copy the Neon engine first before you'd be able to do that. It's easier to try and make your own style than to reverse-engineer that.


GS: The Neon engine is running on one of the 360's cores, right? Does Space Giraffe actually tap into that?

JM: No, Space Giraffe has its own version of the Neon engine that's being a lot more optimized since it was put into the Xbox.

GS: I was wondering if you'd managed to hide a game in the Neon engine somehow.

JM: No, we were so tight on space, we couldn't. It was like we had 128k to work with, so there wasn't much room to put Easter eggs in there. The only Easter egg in there is a picture of a yak.

GS: Are you still free to develop for anyone, or are you contracted to Microsoft?

JM: We're still free to develop for anyone, though the only contractual restriction we still have with Microsoft is that we can't do a light synth for the PlayStation 3 or the Wii. We are allowed to use the Neon engine in a game, though.

Given that the PS3 and the Wii are already out -- and the PS3 already has its own visualization solution and the Wii doesn't have anything alone -- they've made their decisions already with regard to what they want. Now it's out of the game, so we can just do what we want.

GS: Are you interested at all in the Wii so far?

JM: Yeah, I love the Wii, and I'd love to work on it some day. It's just a question of marshalling the time for it. After we've done this, I'd like to get cracking on another Xbox Live Arcade game, but one day I'd certainly like to work with the Wii. The controller gives me plenty of ideas as to how you could incorporate that into a game.

GS: Do you think shareware could still actually work? I know it didn't work as well with Gridrunner++ as it had worked in the past.

JM: It can work, but it needs effective distribution in order for it to work very well. Effectively, Xbox Live Arcade is shareware, but you've got this marvelous distribution channel that gets out to everybody. The trouble with Gridrunner is that you put it out and it gets out to a few places, but if people don't hear about it, they're not going to buy.

GS: Do you actually own sheep?

JM: Yeah, I have five sheep, two llamas, a goat, and a dog.

GS: Do you actually use their products?

JM: No, they're just pets.


Ginger, one of Minter's pet sheep

GS: Do you have a farm?

JM: It's a small holding. It's not as big as a farm, it's about seven acres.

GS: Are you basically the Welsh game development community?

JM: Pretty much! I don't want to say that and offend anyone else, though. I just don't know any other people in Wales doing it.

GS: I was always curious as to whether it was just you out in the field, or if there was something like the IGDA in Wales.

JM: I doubt it. I'm not that close to the rest of the development scene, really. I tend to shut myself off in my own little place and do my own thing. I don't look at a lot of what other people do.

GS: It's nice that people are still interested and pay attention, because a lot of the time, people can sometimes disappear when they don't.

JM: Yeah, it's quite nice that people still remember this stuff and still keep an eye out. The Llamasoft community helps keep people aware of what's going on.

GS: And that in turn spurs on press awareness as well.

JM: I think a lot of people in the business remember what we were doing in the old days, and they know we're still around and keep an eye out. Whenever we do something, we always seem to get a lot of favorable press about it.

GS: Did Microsoft contact you for the Neon?

JM: Basically, my business dev guy saw what we were doing with the light synth we'd been using with Unity, and he knew this one guy he thought would be an evangelist for the Xbox 360. So he brought this guy to a party at my place, and we showed off what we'd done on the GameCube, and so he went back and started bending J. Allard's ear.

And what was weird was that J. Allard had apparently been a fan for years. I went out and met with him at another party where I demonstrated an early version of Neon, and apparently he'd been keen for me to do the whole boot-up sequence for the original Xbox. He tried to contact me through e-mail, but the e-mail he sent ended up going to one of my old email addresses that I wasn't using anymore, and I never got the e-mail. We would've loved to do the visualization stuff for the original Xbox as well. I was really quite surprised to hear about that.

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