Andreas Axelsson worked at Digital Illusions and coded the amazingly popular games Pinball Dreams, Pinball Fantasies and Pinball Illusions.|
Kim Lemon was fortunate to talk to him about the good old Amiga days.
Hi Andreas, please introduce yourself to our readers...
The name's Andreas Axelsson, "Axl" among friends. As a 34 year old I quite enjoy living in LinnÚstan in Gothenburg. Less nightclubs, more restaurants, better coffee. Apart from eating out I enjoy mountain-biking and Shaolin kung fu.
How did you first get into computers?
My mom had an appointment with a teacher where she was studying and to keep me occupied I was instructed to play "masken" [Lemon note: A Swedish snake game] on an ABC80 in the teacher's office. It was clear from then on that life would be rather dull without computers.
How did you guys in Digital Illusions meet up? What are the others doing now?
I met Fredrik via some friends in the nearest town as The Silents was arranging a party in the community center. My demo group at the time, "The Ultimate Sector", was present and I met Fredrik, Ulf and Olof there. The mutual interest in computers and relative proximity made us keep in touch and together with The Silents we arranged another party later the same year, or possibly the next. At the time I had learned quite a bit about the Amiga and was persuaded, after a lot of nagging by Capone, to join The Silents during the very same party. The rest of the initial DICE guys turned up within a few years from various places, mainly via the scene and college.
Nowadays I mostly talk to Markus and Olof. Olof lives a few blocks from me and Markus and I always kept in touch ever since we met. Fredrik runs a company in Canada and used to run the DICE studio there, but EA shut it down after they acquired DICE in Stockholm. The time difference makes our communication sparse, but I went to his wedding two years ago. As for the others, we rarely have time to meet, but we usually have a very good time when we do.
Let's talk about pinball. I take it you were a fan of real pinball games?
As much as I could be with only a few ones available in Alvesta [Lemon note: Small town in southern Sweden] and mainly in some scrawny places where I probably shouldn't have been going considering my age at the time (or indeed any age). My dad's motorcycle club had an old game as well. I guess that's where I first got to try one. I also played every pinball game, good and bad, that I could find on whatever computer I had close at any given moment. I'd say Olof was the real Pinball Wizard, he both played a lot and was rather skilled.
Who came up with ideas for the tables?
I came up with most of the layout for the tables, since I was the only one who knew how to do it, technically, and I had to test everything with the ball-handler to make sure you could hit everything before we spent too much time on art and scoring. We got a lot of ideas from real tables, especially on ramp placement and where one could put targets so that you could actually hit them skillfully. Olof was the one who had the most ideas for scoring and effects, while Markus made up all the art.
How long did it take on average to develop an Amiga game?
Pinball Dreams took three years and was all made in our spare time after school and during holidays. It provided immense amounts of experience so I'm not sure it would have become better had we worked on it full time. Pinball Fantasies on the other hand was done in six months, but it was of course built on the same engine.
How were the pinball games developed?
We focused on the ball handler from the start, and I'll talk more about that later. After that we implemented all the features we believed we needed on one table, Ignition. The feature set was pretty much based on what any real table could do. As we then added more tables, we discovered more and more features that we wanted to add. Sometimes we managed to gather the entire team for a week of collaboration, but most of the time we just communicated over the phone, sending builds over the modem. Ah, that huge old box from US Robotics, you could fit the equivalent hardware inside a virus these days, short of the connections.
Were there any major issues during development?
Not really, apart from me destroying the master build just before we were about to go to ECTS to show it. I solved in the last minute, I had forgotten a debug flag which couldn't be active when run from disk. That was really stressful as I'd spent my last money on the ticket.
Which tools did you use?
We used Devpac and Deluxe Paint almost exclusively. Some version of Sound/Pro-Tracker as well but I don't remember the exact one. We wrote our own player anyway. We did some small converter tools as well, nothing extraordinary. The disk writer tool was custom as well, but the duplication company failed to copy the disks so we had to simplify the format in the end.
How did you manage to get the ball moving so realistically? Was it tough?
The ball was the first problem we tackled. We knew that if we were to make the game at all, we wanted the ball to be as good as possible. So we put this guy, Ulf, who's pretty clever when it comes to these things, on the task. He's the kind of guy who'd think vector graphics looked cool and instead of reading a book about it he'd figure it out on his own. Anyway, after about six months he called back and said he got it to work. After that we just had to add details like materials and target detection. And the game, of course.
The ball feels a bit heavier and slower in Pinball Illusions, was this intentional to give the game a heavier feel or due to technical limitations?
The ball handler was modified back and forth to add new features like multi-ball and vertical flippers so it was tweaked and optimized several times. I don't really remember if the different feeling was intentional or not.
Is the source code and raw graphics for your games still available?
Almost all of the source and most of the graphics. Some of it is only available on some backup disks that I've spent some time trying to restore, but so far I'm missing the correct version of QuarterBack, and I don't know which one it was. I've lent the disks to some guys who are working on a port. If they manage to restore it then it's great. Then again, the disks may be completely useless too, so I'm not expecting too much.
What do you think of Olof's music? Did he write it specifically for the games or was it already made?
It was custom made and absolutely great. The intro song was written in an hour or so. Since we had to play sound effects on top the music only uses two, sometimes three channels in-game. Olof was absolutely great at getting nothing to sound so good. Unfortunately I'm plagued by a curse which makes me incapable of writing a completely bug-free audio-player so I think there are some things that don't sound perfect in the game.
Which table is your personal favourite and why?
I probably played Ignition the most, since it was the first table. So in a way that's my favourite. On the other hand I think the tables in Pinball Illusions were overall a lot more fun.
If you type "the silents" in Pinball Fantasies, it says "The Silents strikes back with another nasty little game". Were you a member of this scene group?
All of us who made the three games were members of The Silents. The game was born as we got bored making demos. One of our danish members had drawn a pinball table for fun. That's what sparked the initial idea.
Pinball Illusions only includes three tables, were there initially any plans for making 4 tables?
I don't really remember the exact reason. We did include four tables on the PlayStation and Saturn versions however. It's possible that we got limited to four disks on the Amiga. The final table is called "The Vikings".
Beside the pinball games, did you work on any other Amiga games?
I was working on another game, Malfunction, which was eventually canned as I got bored of working for a while. It was supposed to become something like what System Shock eventually became several years later, only in 2D. I remember I got really upset when I saw that one. It was a "Hell they stole my idea" kind of feeling. It didn't stop me from playing it a lot however. I also did some minimal guest coding on Benefactor.
Did you make a tech demo of a pinball routine to take to publishers to see if it would work before making the game, or did you simply decide to create a pinball game etc. - ie. how did the games get published?
As I mentioned before, the ball handler was the first thing we did. Then we put together just enough to get the Ignition table to a reasonable standard before we took the game to ECTS. We had a mock-up of Steel Wheels with us too as I had just figured out how to fit ramps into the memory a week before we left, but it was nowhere near finished. We knew next to nothing about the business and had not really contacted anyone before we went there. So we just walked around showing the game to anyone who wanted to see it. Most people said it'd be impossible to sell a pinball game.
Once you had done Pinball Dreams done, was it easy to get the other games published?
After Dreams, it was quite easy to get Fantasies and Illusions sold. 21st Century pretty much begged us to do them. Benefactor was harder, although not too hard since Psygnosis recognized some of the success of Lemmings in it. HardCore was moved from Amiga to MegaDrive and then canned with only two known bugs left to fix. Psygnosis shut down their 16 bit development overnight, that absolutely sucked. I still bring out the ROM image sometimes to play it. I believe we could put it out for download, but last time I looked at it the contract with Psygnosis still held us back.
Did you make money based on royalties of sold copies, how did you tell how many games had been sold?
Unfortunately we had to rely on the publisher and all of our revenue came from royalties or advances on royalties. I'm not saying they cheated us, just that it'd been nice to be able to verify the numbers somehow. We did make a few bucks in the end however.
Did the publisher rip you off in any way?
Well, we did get a rather lousy pay from some of the conversions, especially on Game Boy and some other 8-bit platforms. That was probably part of what made us go separate ways later.
Another issue was that the Pinball Dreams PC conversion was rather crappy so we found a Swedish team to make the Pinball Fantasies conversion. Since it turned out to be so much better, the publisher demanded that we provide them with the PC source, threatening with legal action and withheld royalties. So we spent a day combing the contract for details and sent a fax back that they had no rights whatsoever to code not developed by us and that we'd bring them to court in Sweden if they persisted. The matter was resolved rather swiftly after that.
How many copies of the games did you sell?
I can absolutely not remember. About half a million of the PlayStation version of Illusions I think, much less of all other formats and versions. It was all on a previous version of the DICE website.
Do you believe that software piracy had a serious impact on the number of sales?
It's very hard to know for sure. At the time, fifteen years ago, there was no internet to speak of, very few games magazines and even fewer places you could buy games. The scene absolutely was a contributing factor in getting the information out there and the scene was a large part of the user base as well. Where I lived at the time you could hardly get hold of games without copying them, so I would probably never have become so interested in games if I hadn't had access to cracks. On the other hand, when Pinball Dreams was released I formatted every single crack I had and started buying everything. I still don't even use unregistered shareware. Today though you can buy almost everything from anywhere, and finding information about games is a matter of Google, so I think the excuse of availability holds less today than it did back then, regardless of what the "information wants to be free" enthusiasts say.
Did you buy the magazines that reviewed your games? What did you think about the reviews in general?
We bought pretty much anything where we were mentioned and most reviews were really great. The worst one started something like: "I don't see the point of making a pinball game on a computer". Well duh! I've got a large binder in the basement with copies of the best ones.
How did it feel back then to be involved in development of such amazingly successful games?
It felt really great. In the beginning things were extremely cool, but after a few years it became more of "been there, done that", as do all things when you live them. From the outside it must have been like we took big leaps every now and then. For us it was gradual change day after day. I only really took notice of the magnitude of it all as I quit DICE last year. Man, did we start all that back in my bedroom?
Name drop some of your favourite Amiga games!
Populous, Lemmings, Monkey Island, The Chaos Engine, Gods
Do you still own or use an Amiga (or WinUAE) today?
I sold my private A4000 to DICE way back, just to get some extra money and I lost my A500 during a move long ago. But I tend to boot up WinUAE now and then.
What's your best memory from the Amiga days?
Being awarded "Developer's Choice Award - Best Game 1992" at the Amiga Developers Conference in Orlando was rather sweet.
Fredrik calling me at 03.00 telling be about Pinball Dreams being available for download. Two weeks before the street date.
Your games are highly praised by the Lemon Amiga visitors with tons of positive comments and high scores. How does it feel to see your creations are still entertaining people after so many years?
It's really great to hear that we've made a positive impression among so many people. Even my father-in-law knew who I was long before I met his daughter.
How do you compare the games released these days to the ones released back in the old days?
New games tend to come with a lot of tutorials and help, so I think it's easier for new gamers to get into play. Games have become increasingly pretty too, but most games seem to be just that, same old stuff in a new outfit. I usually become happy whenever someone makes a good job with an old idea, but that doesn't mean it's innovative.
The best innovations seem to come with the new input methods, like cameras, dance-mats, guitars and of course the Wii controller.
How did you feel about the Amiga dying and people moving on to PC?
For us it was a business decision, plain and simple. And we actually worked for several years on the PlayStation and SEGA Saturn before we got started with the PC. And to be honest, I never truly worked on a PC game during all the time at DICE. I always kept myself assigned to the console versions.
Thank you for your time! Any last words?
I'd like to thank everyone who's played and enjoyed our games over the last 17 years. It's been a tremendous journey and I wish everyone could experience what we did. It was amazing. Thanks for your time.
After this interview the Lemon Amiga members wanted to know more about Andreas - take a look at this forum topic (Andreas username is axl).
||Interview done by Kim Lemon for Lemon Amiga, April 18, 2007