Of course Net Yaroze wasn't the first instance of officially-sanctioned bedroom coding on consoles (for one, starting in 1984, Nintendo developed several versions of Family BASIC for its Famicom). Nor was Sony the first to integrate itself with academia, since in Japan there were already game development schools. But the Net Yaroze still broke new ground when the University of Abertay Dundee in Scotland started its Master of Science course in Computer Games Technology in 1998, helped by developers such as DMA Design (later Rockstar North).
Abertay professor Ian Marshall explains. "It generated worldwide media attention. We made contact with Sony through Scottish games companies such as DMA Design and the course was designed with the help of former students -- such as David Jones of Lemmings and GTA fame. They approached Abertay because we'd provided most of the founding staff for DMA. When they were looking for new staff I said I could deliver the graduates if they could help design the course and support its delivery."
Other universities followed, including Middlesex and Hull Universities. Rob Miles, lecturer in computer science at Hull, describes its start: "We constantly updated our course content and had an opportunity to get hold of some Net Yaroze systems. They were used in our postgraduate graphics course, and also as the basis of final year projects for undergraduate students. Then after a while new things came along and we threw them out -- but I still kept one in my office."
As Swan reveals, however, not all universities delivered on their promises. "Middlesex University was loaned units by SCEE for their games programming course, which unfortunately never materialized. Despite the cancellation I still tracked down the lecturer while on my replacement course. I borrowed a Yaroze for home and later got my own when the addiction kicked in."
Sony proved a keen supporter of British universities, as further detailed by Professor Marshall from Abertay: "I think having many UK games developers as supporters, and the media attention, encouraged Sony to help us. SCEE donated something like 40 Yaroze and gave us substantial discounts on other equipment. We were also given excellent support by Holman."
Professor Marshall also elaborates on the situation in Japan: "We knew about a number of Yaroze courses offered by universities in Japan. At the time we had a very good relationship with Gifu University, and routinely had staff based there for several months doing VR research."
Although the Japanese side of Net Yaroze produced some technical marvels, cross-communication between regions was limited. "Everyone had access to all the territories' newsgroups, although they were separately listed," says Swan. "The Japanese groups were quiet -- we couldn't talk to them because of the language. Occasionally there was a new game, like Terra Incognita, and they'd blow us away!"
This sentiment is echoed by former triple-A developer Matt James of Hermit Games. "The language barrier kept the Japanese scene separate, but they did the most -- running competitions and incubating the best Yaroze teams as Sony teams."
Some of the most impressive Net Yaroze games came from Japan, including the Resident Evil-inspired Yakata (aka Super Mansion), Wipeout-style Hover Racing, and perhaps the most popular, the action-RPG Terra Incognita. Terra Incognita recalls cult classic isometric Sega Genesis action RPG Landstalker, and came close to the level of a commercial release. It was later ported to iOS.
Now working for Square Enix in Japan, Terra Incognita lead programmer Mitsuru Kamiyama explains that game development started as a hobby for him "I found out about Net Yaroze while I was a student and saw an advertisement in a game magazine. I remember I had no savings at that time and yet paid 120,000 yen (around $1,500) which then resulted in getting my electricity pulled. At that time in Japan, the internet was not very common, but its community was active and we were able to gather various works for contests."
In contrast, the U.S. side of things appeared less active, at least from the perspective of those interviewed. According to Matt James, "There were a few U.S. people who came on the European newsgroups, but there didn't seem to be any scene over there. SCEA seemed to do the least to encourage it."
Swan concurs. "The U.S. lists were a bit quieter than the European ones, although there was occasional cross-chat. I think we were lucky in that our members were very interested in community talk and action, and the SCEE support seemed more tangible."
When asked why SCEA seemed very cold to the Net Yaroze, especially given the lack of coverage in U.S. magazines, Holman was keen to state this was not the case. "I don't think SCEA was 'very cold'. Indeed, they had comparable numbers of Net Yaroze members to SCEE. Certainly, all the regions worked with universities, and perhaps we were simply luckier in Europe to have a more fertile ground in terms of interest from universities and magazines. Which again might be due to the culture of the BBC Micro."