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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: 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.
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.
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.