From Me to Wii: Martin Hollis' Journey

By Simon Parkin

[Gamasutra sits down with former Rare game director Martin Hollis (GoldenEye 007) to discuss his career to date, his work on Bonsai Barber for WiiWare, and his thoughts on today's game business.] 

Notable UK developer Martin Hollis has worked in the video game industry for over 19 years, being best known for his work at Rare in the '90s. Having produced and directed GoldeneEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, which sold over 8 million copies globally, Hollis went on to work on Perfect Dark.

He then left the company, which at that time was tied closely to Nintendo as a 'second-party' developer, to be a consultant on the development of Nintendo's Gamecube.

Hollis is now founder and CEO of Zoonami, a UK-based studio whose first WiiWare title, Bonsai Barber, was released in Europe one week ago, and which Gamasutra interviewed Hollis about when it debuted in North America.

However, in a wider interview, Gamasutra recently got the chance to speak with Hollis about how he got into games in England in the 1980s, his route into the game industry, the span of his career, and his current beliefs about the video game industry.

Did you play video games when you were a child?

Martin Hollis: Yeah, to an enormous extent. I had a BBC Micro.

Was that your first computer?

MH: This is quite a good story, so I'll tell it in the right order. So, first of all, my parents decided to buy a ZX-81 because it was the new thing. "Clearly, computers are going to be important. We'll help our son get a computer," they thought. £99.99 was a lot of money, really. Because my dad was a schoolteacher, moderately well-paid -- but it was a lot of money to our family.

And then, when we got it home, the machine didn't work. [laughs] So, we sent it back, and they sent us another one. I assume it was another one. It might have been the same one again. Anyway, it had the same problem: black screen.

So, we sent it off and my dad said, "Oh, well. We've kind of gone off Sinclair." [laughs] "So, why don't we spend £399 and get something that actually works?" So, I was a BBC Micro guy, and I made a bunch of games for it. I played... I don't know how many compilation discs that I had, with 20 games on each disc.

So, what were your favorites then? Chuckie Egg?

MH: Chuckie Egg is pretty good. I'd happily play that today, yes. Chuckie Egg, I'm not sure I could get through 192 levels. [laughs] You get older. I liked a lot of the coin-op conversions. Elite of course, I loved. It came to the BBC Micro first. I have to pretend to care more about the BBC... You know, like "The BBC is better than those other consoles." Still fighting that war. [laughs]

What kind of games were you making at that time?

MH: Not very good ones, I think, if I'm honest. Finding my way.

Well, you're kind of emulating everything you play, then.

MH: Yeah, a lot of emulating. I created some coin-op clones and made a very literal Pac-Man clone as well as a not-so-literal one, that was an Easter-themed game. With rabbits going around the maze.

Oh, nice! Do you remember what it was called?

MH: It was called Easter Maze.

Right, brilliant. [laughs]

MH: I guess I was probably 15 when I made that one. Yeah, it was kind of fun to do because I enjoyed it.

So, was that just for your own amusement? Did you share your creations with friends or anything like that?

MH: No, not always. You know, some of the games I just made and never showed them to anyone. I think that, if everybody died except me, I'd still make games.

So, I love to show what I do generally speaking, and a lot of them were published in magazines for tie-in games, but it's not a necessity. It's not the main drive of my motivation.

Would you say then, that you prefer the process of creating games to consuming games?

MH: Well, I think naturally you need to see fewer and fewer games as you get older because, on average, there's less that's new in each game. Once you've seen a thousand games, it's quite likely that the 1001st game is going to have a lot of similarities with many of the others.

So, I try to find the games that really teach me something new and give me an interesting feeling, a new feeling.

What was the last title you experienced that with?

MH: Well, I'm not too chronological about it but... I told you this before, I really liked Dwarf Fortress. I think that's really interesting. But that was about a year ago now. You know, but it's still sinking in now, how good that is. I plan to play more Spelunky.

Yeah, that's a platform seller for me. I'm going to have to get my own PC in order to play Spelunky.

What about the blockbusters? Are there any that have grabbed you? I mean, you're best known for the ultimate blockbuster...

MH: [laughs] I guess it's true. There are a lot of things that I respect. The games that really sell a lot tend to have a lower density of exciting, new ideas.

At what point did you realize that this is what you wanted to do for a living?

MH: Yeah, that's a funny question. I left university... I'd studied Computer Science -- not thinking of games as a career despite the fact that I was still making them as a hobby -- and I went to a tiny engineering company, just me and the other guy in the office, doing inertial systems, accelerometers and gyroscopes for tracking boats and submarines. I did that for a year, and it wasn't that exciting to me. I liked the technology, but it wasn't that fulfilling.

I saw an advert for Rare, and I went for interview, not too seriously, I think. And we hit it off, and I was happy to be there. I was very happy there for a long, long time. I said to Chris Stamper later that I think to a lot of older people, a career in games is like running away to join the circus.

It's like, "I don't want my child to do this!" It's difficult. And I think credibility... Maybe they don't care about games, but I'd like them to see the games industry as a serious thing.


So, your first title at Rare was Killer Instinct?

MH: Yeah, that's exactly right. I was a programmer on the team. I guess I was like fifth or sixth on the team. They grew the team really fast from... They had two experienced people, Mark Betteridge and Kevin Bayliss, kind of programmer and art. I think all of the other eight guys in the end were all recent graduates or something like that, not professionally experienced at making games.

Rare ramped up a lot of projects like that in that time. Really, in a way, it's mad, but it worked, really well. During that time I did a lot of cool techy stuff for Killer Instinct. It was a CPU-rendered game, so we had to write all the code to draw every pixel. That was fun. It's some nice tech in there in a loop, optimizing.

So, what would you say that you learned from that project that you then took to GoldenEye?

MH: [laughs]

Because they're obviously so completely different.

MH: Yeah, well I wasn't much involved in the design of Killer Instinct. It was kind of a team consensus thing, but not much of the design. I was there to help make a good fighting game.

What did I learn? I learned that it's really exciting to draw amazing stuff. I remember on the SGI the scrolling backdrop of the leopard's head. Seeing that on the SGI, a hundred frames rendered? It blew my mind, really. I carried that into GoldenEye. The technology was a major drive for that game.


Killer Instinct

How did the pitch come about for GoldenEye?

MH: I heard a rumor in the company that a couple of the guys from the Donkey Kong team had gone to a PR party with the stars and press of the new Bond film. Tim Stamper wasn't too interested, I surmised, and Gregg [Mayles] wasn't that interested.

So, it sounded like it was a bit cold, so I went to Tim, and I said, "Well, you know, I'd like to make this. I'm a Bond fan." And he said, "Yeah, okay. You should probably write a document, and I'll take a look."

How quickly did it progress from that document? Was it an immediate kind of agreement?

MH: It was as clear-cut as that. Basically, from the moment of that conversation I was working on GoldenEye full-time for nearly three years until it was done. I don't know when it was greenlit.

It's funny, you know, I'd heard as well that Nintendo announced Rare was doing it before Rare had agreed to do it. But it's an important relationship, and so they had to try and work that out somehow. I guess something I had done had maybe impressed management, and they thought maybe I'd be okay running my own project.

That's amazing. So, you went from a kind of junior programmer to lead designer and producer in a single title?

MH: Middle programmer.

Right, okay.

MH: [laughs] I think these kind of distinctions make me chuckle.

They're more important these days; they seem to be, I guess.

MH: Yeah, and it gets more and more important the bigger project you're on and so on. I think in fact it's really, really hard to put your finger on who contributed what. It's really tough to know... You can have five people, and they think, "Well, I made that game," and it's probably true. They're all right.

What do you think about the roles in teams becoming more defined? Is that hampering creativity?

MH: I think it does hamper collaborative creativity, which I think is the most efficient kind of working. I want to hear other people's ideas because I can see there's a good chance they'll be better than mine.

It's like tennis. You can bat an idea around, only it changes from being a ball radically on every stroke, and then you end up with something that's fabulous. All you can really say is, well, the room, the conversation, made that idea.

And this was something that happened during GoldenEye's development, right? Am I right thinking that at that very early stage, you were kind of thinking it'd be a bit like Virtua Cop?

MH: Yes. I know what I liked. Mark Edmonds, who was the first guy on the project after me, liked Virtua Cop. And B. Jones and Karl Hilton. We liked Virtua Cop. That was what we were excited by initially, and it felt fairly makeable. It didn't feel too big in scope. But, you know, meanwhile, I also had some ambition, and I guess the other guys had some ambition as well, to make it something that wasn't so shallow in a human sense. We like the visceral, and immediacy.

So, at what point did it move from an on-rail shooter to more of a 3D roaming FPS?

MH: When we started to believe we could really do that with the technology.

I wrote a little list of what I'd like to happen in [the] interior. You know, I'd like Bond to come down the road. This will happen, that will happen -- but quite narrative-driven. I guess 10 percent of it actually got put into the game, but it kind of set a tone. We looked at Super Mario 64. I guess it came out mid-way through our development, and it was amazing. We took the idea of five objectives from that.

That's interesting. Because when you started, you didn't really know anything about the N64, did you?

MH: No, that's true. It was not designed yet.

So, that becomes the primary challenge, designing a game where you've got no boundaries.

MH: The partnership had been made with SGI, but the hardware wasn't... There wasn't a 20-page doc.


So, how crucial were those boundaries once they were set, and you realized what the limitations were of what you'd be able to achieve? How important was that in defining the game?

MH: Maybe we were fairly lucky in that we made assets that worked on the SGI, and it was our guess, it was our feeling that they could be made to work on the N64. That turned out to be right. But that kind of pushed us, too, because it didn't go to well at the beginning. I don't recommend making assets for a platform that doesn't exist, in general. But, you know, it helped with pushing the technology.

When you saw Mario 64, and gained a better idea of what was achievable, was there anything that you kept on from those early days of wanting to make a light gun game?

MH: Yeah, a huge number of things. The limited number of shots, the need to reload. That was totally from Virtua Cop. It was more real, and it gives you a little bit more to think about, and it creates more situations that are entertaining. The animation, all the effort that went into animation.

What distinguishes the kind of animation you were using there to the FPS titles of the day?

MH: Well, we went all out for motion capture. That was another thing interesting. We probably had two hundred moves, maybe, in GoldenEye that could be blended and sliced.

What was kind of the greatest technical challenge of the project?

MH: Yeah, can I draw a line around that? Probably the most exciting things to me looking back was the intelligence, and I mean that in a very broad sense, the way the enemies would move and react, and also how they were competent to actually navigate an entire level.

At what point did that come together?

MH: Navigating the level came really, really late, but the way enemies react to you, that was more like midway.

Did you ever have a sense that you were making something quite special?

MH: I think you never really know a game, whether it's going to strike the audience as special. We were mostly focused inwards on what made us excited, and I think that was the best way. I wanted to make games for non-gamers and to reach out to many people as possible.

I don't like the attitude on looking down on people and saying, "Well, we don't want you to play the game." I wanted to welcome everyone, and I still make games like that. Even when I was a child, I made games for my younger siblings.

So, after you launched, the game really took a while to gather momentum, didn't it?

MH: Yeah, I think it did, yeah. It wasn't the normal pattern of a big spike, lots of sales, then rapid tail-off. It ramped up.

Were you disappointed initially about how it was performing?

MH: Yeah, I think a little.

At what point did you really notice things changing?

MH: Well, [we] kept a good track on rental data in the U.S.

From video stores and things like that?

MH: It was collated, but yes.

So, you saw those rising and sales following?

MH: Well, they didn't rise that much. I think sometimes they went up a little and sometimes down a little. In the general picture over like a year, it was pretty flat. But it was, you know, like 200,000 a month.


Goldeneye 007

How long after the release did you break a million?

MH: Actually, maybe I misremember those numbers. That question makes me think more. I really do not know. I really do not know.

I heard a story that at the time, Rare had a royalty agreement with its staff, where, for every copy of that game was sold, a pound went to the development team, which was then split up according to your seniority. And because of GoldenEye's immense success, that kind of caused the company set-up for royalties to change. Is that true?

MH: Well, Rare certainly did pay teams royalties. For GoldenEye, yeah, I made some good money on it. I don't think the management necessarily thought we needed to change this because people are making money. That doesn't make any sense to me.

So, that part of the story doesn't compute for me. I think that it's a fact that in the game industry you get more and more support from publishers and so on. They're providing more and more volume in many respects, and they're soaking up more money because of that.

What made you decide to set up your own studio?

MH: Well, I suppose that I always had some kind of seed of an idea to do that. It felt like about time to go, and I said, "I'd like to leave after this project ends," but Rare wasn't comfortable with that. So, I didn't choose the time, but I did choose the game. And I did a bit of traveling around, and went to Redmond to help those guys to design the Gamecube.

At that time, did you have an idea of the next game that you wanted to make?

MH: No. I mean, I had a bunch of ideas, but... I don't think I generally work like that too much.


When did the idea of Bonsai Barber come around?

MH: Yeah, that's a really tough question to answer categorically, because there are so many stages in the fermentation of an idea. So, one of the things, like a little spark of ignition was, I was looking at procedural brush in a shareware paint package. You could drag them out in a line, and it made this kind of tree. It was a fairly wacky painting brush. It felt really nice to stroke it down and grow a tree in two seconds. Turning a corner, having a tree felt really nice.

Because I was excited, I showed it to our artist, Graham Galvin and he said, "Ah, that's interesting. But you couldn't really make a game like that." I said, "No, I think you could. Programming it, it's quite doable. It's quite doable."

And a few months later he came out with a picture of a character, a human being, quite Japanese style, coming out of a barbershop fantasy world, big scissors over the door. And that kind had a shrub on his hat. We all thought that was hilarious. We developed the game design out of that scene. But really, this story is just like the first 20 percent.

How long did development take on that title?

MH: Well, we were on-again, off-again. We worked through three prototypes really. The first was created by pretty much two guys over a period of three months, and we were off again for a while, then on again, another prototype, then off again, then another prototype, and that merged into a full production. From start to finish the project lasted a little over two and a quarter years.

So, at the point of the third prototype, were you showing this to Nintendo?

MH: No, we talked to them a lot more than that. I guess about once a quarter we'd show them Bonsai to find out their opinion.


Bonsai Barber

Have they been hands-on with the creative direction of the game then?

MH: I don't really know how to answer that because... I see them trying to help me. I've worked very hard to listen to what they tell me about Wii, Nintendo, and how they see this game fitting into that. I'll take their points from them, but they'll always say, "We suggest this", or "We suggest that." I know they know that it's really my game.

What's their primary concern when giving advice: the underpinning systems underneath or the art direction?

MH: That's an interesting question. Nintendo said very little about the aesthetics and look of the game, but I always was happy with that. I never felt like we were lacking there. Maybe I had more confidence in the aesthetics; maybe I had less confidence in the writing.

Their most valuable input came at the end with hammering down all the little nails that stand out. Menus. They have an incredible wealth of knowledge about how to make sure that 100 percent of your players can navigate your game and comprehend each step through the menu systems and rewards.

One of the things we were kind of disappointed they didn't give much direction with the text. It was mostly all in English, so that's understandable. In addition to that, Nintendo itself, NCL, does not traditionally consider the writing to be a paramount consideration, I think. That's my impression, at least.

That's interesting. You look at titles like Paper Mario and the quality of the writing is very high...

MH: Yes. That's totally an exception. So, through the window of the game, I see that Paper Mario has a team who has a totally different view on how to go about making a game. And it's really nice, I think, that a large company can respect that and allow that to come into fruition. But by and large, in general, that's my impression with Nintendo: that text and story is of secondary concern.

Do you perceive a difference between say Nintendo and Sony, in terms of the input the offer as your publisher?

MH: I'm sure that how you are treated, especially with Japanese companies, depends totally on the nature of your relationship; how they see you, how you see them. So, if you're talking to Sony Liverpool, you're going to get a different thing than Sony London or Sony in Tokyo. And then there are sub-groups within that as well. So, it's a big organization. It's made up of a lot of people, and really, you're interacting with individuals.

So, what sort of games do you enjoy playing at the moment in your downtime? Do you play games to unwind, or do you want to do other things when you get home?

MH: Do I play games to unwind? Yes, I definitely do. Not a great amount of time. Searching for new things drives most of my game playing these days. And I tend not to spend a lot of time in each game when I'm doing that. Increasingly, I feel that you can sense what's in the game early on most of the time.

Do you ever wish that you could play games just purely as a consumer without knowing the things that you know? Do you find that lens spoils the experience?

MH: Well, the person that you are completely, is driven strongly by what you do. I would not choose to be a consumer of games as opposed to a creator of games. There's no way I could choose to do that. That's just set in me, and I'm very happy to live in this time when I can make games. I'm very happy I wasn't born a hundred years ago because I think it's wired into me to want to make games, and given that I'm going to do that, it's hard to see them as non-game-makers see them.

But yeah, very often, you can see the artifice more rapidly, and you'll think, "Oh, they made that decision for this reason, to make people feel this or make people feel that." It's inevitable because you're really a professional player... that's what your brain's wired up to do.


Through that lens, who are the geniuses working today?

MH: [laughs] I cannot tell from simple reason that I don't know necessarily who's really in charge of making a game turn out the way it has. And I don't believe too much in the auteur theory of games making.

I believe very strongly in the group, so I can talk about what groups are working really well at the moment. Can you call a group a genius? If you can, then... Except for the case of indie games where in a lot of cases, it's pretty clearly one person.

Yeah, one or two guys.

MH: Yeah, so Spelunky is a good example of that. As far as I know, that's one person. Dwarf Fortress is another one. So, I would be happy to use the word "genius".

[Warhammer Online's] Paul Barnett speaks of how he thinks the teams who make games are kind of like bands. There may be a huge number of people involved in making a record, from technicians, A&R and so on, but it's that core band of four or five musicians who give the music its character. Like you're saying, it is a group, it is a very small group...

MH: I use the band metaphor, too, yeah. I'd rather have a band than an orchestra. I prefer not to be a conductor. I'd rather get to be in with the musical instruments.

More democratic, yes.

MH: Yes. I do believe in that. You know, very often, somebody does have to say, "This is how it's going to be," otherwise it becomes difficult to make progress. On the other side of the coin, I see design as an intelligent search for the best solution. Why isn't it that other people are going to be able to find the right answers if you can communicate the problem?

Looking back now, which of your games are you most proud of? All the way back to those most formative titles on the BBC Micro.

MH: Pride is an interesting question. I think it's important. It's classified as a sin, but I think it is important to be proud of your work, and I think if you're not proud of it, that would be a big problem. I personally wouldn't want to work on something I couldn't be proud about.

But for me, I tend to want to rely on my own judgment. I want to satisfy myself, it's that kind of pride. And for me, right now, I feel the project that's changed me the most is Bonsai Barber. I feel a really intense pride about that game. I know that Nintendo loves it, I love it, and I learned an immense amount through building it. I'm a changed person because of this game.

You used the word "changed" twice there. What do you mean when you say that the game's changed you?

MH: Well, I like nature. And in a way, I've spent a lot more time with nature making Bonsai Barber, and that's changed me.

Do you mean staring at Bonsai trees...?

MH: I have always loved looking at trees. I think trees are amazing things. I love looking at the sky, I love looking at trees and parks.

But surely, the virtue of trees and parks is their tangible reality, the counterpoint they provide to the virtual nature of our games? The trees and plants in Bonsai Barber are fake, no?

MH: Yeah, they are. But we're holding a mirror up to nature.

So, you still found that enriching.

MH: Yes. Because I spend a lot of time looking at virtual trees, and I can see real trees better now.

Did that happen with the guns in GoldenEye?

MH: Yeah, certainly. When I went into GoldenEye, I wasn't interested in guns at all. When I came out, I knew quite a bit about guns.

Through that game you could better understand the beauty of Hollywood combat?

MH: I think it's a fact that can't be denied. The stories you are told, or the stories you tell yourself, have an immense influence on you. I think that's an important fact.

So does that lead you to challenge not just game designers, but also artists to consider the responsibility they have for the things they build into their worlds?

MH: I believe there is a great responsibility, very much so. I'd like to make games that enrich the world somehow.

This might sound evil, but I don't think that guns are evil. I think that in general, conflict is a part of the world, and that can't be eliminated. I think the black and the white, they can't exist without each other.

There's also an aspect of making videogames where guns perform a real utilitarian function. They're something that enables player to interact with a world with more efficiency and reach than almost any other human tool.

MH: Yeah, I agree with that, but even so, I feel regret that almost everything in games is funneled through the interface of the gun.

Yes, but we don't really have anything better do we? I guess maybe a bow and arrow?

MH: On one hand, it's a pattern of thought that people have fallen into because there are so many games that function like that. But it's also a security blanket. Maybe that sounds patronizing, but it's a positive thing as well as a negative thing because you can actually make a game more reliably if you use design scaffolding from previous games on proven successes.

Nonetheless, I have to be honest and say I do feel sad that I see so many things funneled through the interface of a gun. And I'd like to try and make a small contribution to opening out games to think about other tools, other human tools and other methods of interaction, tool-free.

Thanks to GoldenEye, do you feel some responsibility for guns becoming the primary tool in video games?

MH: Yeah, I do, but it's important to not get weighed down by anything. You have to relax to get into a place where you can think of ideas. I don't think you can get in the ropes about it and feel a great Atlas-like burden.

Why do you play video games?

MH: Because I believe they connect more deeply with human beings than anything else -- other than other human beings.

Because they allow players to get inside of the minds of the designers, offering a deep insight into their creators?

MH: In a way, yeah. Yeah, in a way. And because I like expanding our world. I love the world and the way it is, but I like to see other worlds, too. I want there to be many parallel universes that I can duck between, and games provide me that option.

You play video games to escape, primarily, then?

MH: I don't see it as escape because you're already somewhere.

More like tourism, then?

MH: I see it as teleportage. I play games to teleport.

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