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Playing Catch-Up: Sensible Software's Jon Hare

Playing Catch-Up: Sensible Software's Jon Hare

October 24, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi

October 24, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi
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More: Console/PC, Indie

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 Britsoft great and Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare.

Hare co-founded Sensible Software in 1986, at the age of 19, and was responsible for a great number of European-centric game classics for the Commodore Amiga and other formats during the company's 12-year run, including Wizball, Mega Lo Mania, Sensible Soccer and the Cannon Fodder series, before selling the company to Codemasters in 1998. We caught up with Hare to find out exactly what happened to Sensible, and what he's been up to since. "I am tired of the bullsh*t talked about Sensible's downfall at the end, about us nearly going bust or bankrupt or whatever," said Hare, via email. "It is a load of bollocks, all we were doing was running a very creative company as sensibly as we could without compromising our creative prerogative. It wasn't easy, but it was by no means a disaster."

In 1995, according to Hare, a 3 million UKP deal was signed with Time Warner Interactive to deliver three products: Sensible Soccer 1998, a follow-up to their popular series of soccer simulations; Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll, an adult-oriented adventure game about the life of a rock and roll star; and Have a Nice Day, an ambitious shooter/strategy title for the PlayStation console. The following year, Time Warner sold their company, including their contract with Sensible, to GT Interactive. "They were a bible belt company," Hare describes. "In 1997, after six months of dragging their heels, they expressed their desire not to be associated with Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll or Have a Nice Day, and these games were removed from the contract. So we just kept the money we had been paid on those games to date, shook hands, and reduced the contract to Sensible Soccer 1998 only." At this point, Hare and co-founder Chris Yates put Have a Nice Day to rest and continued to fund Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll on their own capital. "After investing the best part of £150,000 of our own money and still failing to find a publisher to take on our 'contentious' and still unfinished game during such a conservative period, Chris and I decided to pull the plug on it, too. This seems to be the bit that people don't understand or think was a disaster. You have to remember, £150,000 was only a fraction of the money Chris and I had already made and were still making from Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder royalties." Though there was an offer from Virgin to publish the game in the UK, Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll needed to be a world release, and the plug was officially pulled in early 1998.

Though many would-be historians have speculated that the high development costs of Sex 'n Drugs 'n Rock 'n Roll killed Sensible, Hare is adamant in defending the fact that this just isn't true. "A few years later, I worked out the finances on this Warner/GT contract, and I think the profits worked out at being about £600,000, even allowing for the money Chris and I had invested," said Hare. "Which isn't bad, considering we received about £2.3 million on it. We invested £1.7 million in 4 products, 2 of which were published and 2 of which were canned and we made over 25% profit on the deal as a whole. I am tired of hearing about Sex 'n Drugs like it was a failure when all it was, was a f*cking great game with an incomplete engine and an exercise in cagey business with a very risky product in a very conservative market."

After two hard blows in a row, Hare and Yates decided to sell the company, which by that point had, as Hare describes, "a lack of creative freedom, a huge amount of middle management, and spiraling overheads in the air." At the end of 1998 Codemasters purchased Sensible Software, which merely consisted of "a bunch of source code, IP, and the name 'Sensible Software,'" and Hare moved on to a consultation role, working on the sequel to the Sensible franchise he created, Cannon Fodder 3. "This game stopped and started development three times before eventually being canned, and was another disappointment straight after Sex 'n Drugs that personally I didn't need," he said. "However, I was enjoying my time at Codemasters a lot. The freedom of not having to run a company anymore felt wonderful." Hare stuck around at Codemasters for three years, consulting on titles such as Mike Tyson Heavyweight Boxing (on which he was the lead designer), Snooker, Insane, and Micro Maniacs, until the lengthy daily commute to work got to be too much. "After Codies I had a month or two off to watch the world cup," he said. "August, 2002 to May, 2004 were kind of wilderness years for me. As a 36-year-old man I was enjoying total freedom of real work responsibility for the first time since I was 19 years old when I set up Sensible in 1986. I looked at loads of weird and wonderful stuff mostly as a creative director/design consultant but with the exception of Frontline Command (again for Codemasters with the Bitmap Brothers) none of these products saw the light of day for one reason or another. I also worked with an MMOG start up company called Wicked, an online bank, and at a finance firm, looking for products to acquire."

In June of 2004, Hare founded Tower Studios with Mike Montgomery and John Phillips, who both came from Bitmap Brothers. So far, Tower has published three games for the mobile phone market; Sensible Soccer, British Lions Rugby 7s, and Cannon Fodder, the latter two having held the number one spots in weekly sales, and have several other sports games coming out soon from various publishers. "Also at Tower," he said, "we are developing the side of our business that acts as a production team that can be hired in on any product at any stage of development from concept to mid game crisis, to end of game polishing and putting in a box." Tower Studios can be accessed via the web at its official website. Special thanks to Purple Sensi for its historical insight.

[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]

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