Martin Wheeler Interview and Contest: Win a Copy of Surveillant!

iOS gamers might mistake you for a new developer at first, but it seems that your history in the industry goes way back! Can you tell us a little about how you got your start in videogame design, and your previous projects?

It all began for me with the arrival of home computers back in the 80s. The ZX Spectrum kept me off the streets, programming Pac Man clones in my bedroom while my schoolmates were fighting over girls and rival sportswear brands. I mailed cassette tapes to companies I’d seen advertising in computer magazines, collecting a pile of rejection letters in the process. Then Sorcery was picked up by Virgin Games and became a big hit, reaching No.1 on the Amstrad CPC. I remember, the school career advisor told me “computer games are a passing fad — not a career” and put me down for work experience in a supermarket (ironically, the school had failed my application to do computer studies on grounds that my math was not good enough). I left at fifteen and walked straight into a job with Virgin Games.

From a tiny back room off London’s Portobello Road, Virgin’s ‘Gang Of Five’ team developed some landmark games and the place buzzed with an informal, almost rock ’n’ roll vibe… I met Phil Oakey of the Human League, Marc Almond lived next door and Motörhead’s Lemmy drank in the pub on the corner. Company boss Richard Branson turned up at a party in drag and we chatted about game design. It was surreal.

We were paid peanuts but it was a lot of fun – we went paint-balling and played Gauntlet every lunchtime. I stayed at Virgin for four years, designing their classic platform adventures Dan Dare, Dan Dare II and also Action Force II (both for the ZX Spectrum).

Eventually I left because I couldn’t afford to live in London and the daily commute was wearing me down. I went freelance for a couple of years, ending up at developer Bits Studios where I had a long run designing  graphics for SNES and Game Boy releases (Terminator II – Judgement Day, Spiderman II, Alien3) and  the PC shoot-em-up Nihilist.

Warlocked, the first handheld RTS on Game Boy Color, was my last full game design and gained something of a cult following (it was voted strategy game of the year by readers and staff at Sadly, the sequel to Warlocked was canned after almost a year in development. At that point I got a lucky break in the music industry, landing a record deal with Soma Records which put my games career on the back burner. It’s been a long departure, but with Surveillant I feel I am coming full circle at last. It feels a lot like those days of bedroom coding again.

How has the process of designing and programming videogames changed since your earliest projects? Over all, would you say it’s easier nowadays due to accessibility of information (or, getting platform-specific, any services or utilities Apple offers to iOS developers)? More difficult due to gamers’ expectations and the rising technical specs of the average videogame platform?

There have been huge changes since I began designing games. Twenty five years ago an entire game had to fit into 48K of memory (about the size taken up by a small JPEG). No matter how clever your concept or how innovative your design, the constraints of memory were unforgiving. In comparison, the platforms of today have incredible potential for game designers. With software like Unity, Blender, etc., a small team or even a single person can create a high quality game, especially now that a community of game designers exists, willing to share their knowledge via forums and blogs. I think now is probably the best time to be developing games in that respect.