Jon Hilliard Interview
by Ross Sillifant
Jon, could you please open this interview by introducing yourself to
I grew up in Southampton, England.
I was first introduced into the gaming world, with the ZX-80, and was shown a game written by a friend where a Pi symbol (Rhino ?) chased you around a screen of randomly populated trees (letters).
I taught myself to program basic, and then assembly language on the early systems back in the 80’s… Vic-20, C-64, Amiga. Amiga was the best ! and made several small games for fun with dreams of making it big, but really just for the joy of learning and coding something as creative as a game. I was also into art, sculpting, RPG’s (book and paper variety), various sports and watching WRC rally.
...But by the time I went to college, I had decided I couldn’t make a decent living as an artist… (heh) and chose to pursue programming and took a Comp-Sci degree at Loughborough. While in my final year at Loughborough I wrote my first full game “Blob” for the Amiga, (after exams were finished of course) I sent Blob around to various publishers in the UK, and got a few job offers… psygnosis and Core were top of the list… I accepted the Core offer as the people and offices there seemed more relaxed.
A couple of years and a few games later, my workmate Jason Gee, moved to California to join Player One games, then shortly after, contacted me saying they were looking for programmers. I jumped at the chance, and moved to Los Angeles for sun, surf and programming.
After a few years at Player one, a few of us left to start our own company, Lucky Chicken games, and in various different guises since then, I’ve worked with the same group of guys doing mostly work for hire contract jobs. I’ve worked on console, PC, and mobile, and currently work as a veteran Unity3D Developer TD. I still occasionally make my own indie games on the side :)
I’m now married with a daughter. My interests are still games, bodyboarding when I can occasionally, I drive an Impreza and I keep a longboard (skate) in the trunk of my car for the occasional cruise in the park :)
I understand you came up with the concept for 'BC Racers', so i wonder how much of your 'vision' as it were remained unchanged by the time the game was finished and just what sort of auidance the game was aimed at?
I did? god I can’t remember coming up with that idea, who told you that? or maybe I am going senile earlier than I thought...
Would it be fair to include it as part of the Chuck Rock series perhaps, with you/the team wanting to break away from yet another platformer? and was the game always intended to be on the Mega CD from Sega, as the hardware seemed ideally suited to it.
I’m gonna have to claim brain dead on this one, as I don’t remember much about that game specifically, sorry.
Also (and this might be an akward question to answer, lol) do you personally feel the games themselves lived up to the concept? I've mentioned the Mega CD version which, unlike many of Sega's own MCD games, did at least use the sprite-scaling hardware, but the later 32X and 3DO versions seemed something of a very mixed bag and need of a lot of optimising, performance wise and never seemed to use the hardware potential.
Again tricky for me to remember execution vs design that far back, but as far as the tech went, I do remember that we were always trying to do a bit more than the hardware was designed to let us do, always seemed like fight and a compromise at most turns… how many sprite frames could we squeeze in to make the rotation more smooth, vs how many characters in a race… vs rendering performance.
Sticking with BC Racers, there have been claims over the years the game was intended to be brought to the Atari Jaguar CD, would you know if this was true?
I wouldn’t know. There were always a lot of “what ifs”…. and “maybe” ideas floating around at Core, some would materialize into something solid, some never did, or never got past the idea stage, it was a pretty open /flexible place to work when I think back, everyone was free to present new ideas.
The reason I sought you out for an interview? 'Battlecorps'...OMG this was bloody superb and sadly passed over by many who were put off by the high price and limited range of Triple-A games on the Mega CD.......
Thanks for the kind words ! I have a soft spot for battlecorps. loved that one. One of the earliest MECH games that just really seemed to capture the essential 'feel' of being in a stomping death machine.
You were I believe responsible for the games: design, storyboarding and coding......
This was myself and Jason Gee only. Small team. Joint design, art was all Jason, and the controls / code was me.
I'd like to ask your thoughts regarding the coding aspect of this and indeed the Mega CD hardware itself, as Core Design were one of the very few studios to really tap into the hardware..where as Sega opted mainly for the FMV route and enhanced cart games (3D sections on Batman Returns though were up their with Core's best work), Core seemed straight out of the gate with Jaguar XJ220 and never seemed to look back :-)
Yes, bit proud of this one… really I was a bit inspired due to Mac & Roberto (who made thunderhawk), which had awesome tech. I wanted to do something new with battlecorps also.
I was never a fan of the FMV games, I thought they were a cop-out. More a movie than a game. The hardware of the system (sega-cd) was designed to allow a perspective texture draw of a flat floor, and then you typically stuck scaling sprites on top. We did that but then took it to the next level… With some careful thought, I figured out that you could trick the flat floor drawing system, into drawing textured (fake) perspective walls. It took a bit of work, you get a bit of wasted render overhead for each wall drawn, and the perspective on the walls is a bit wonky, but in the end it looked great, and no one else had done it yet. So I was really proud of that one.
What was the hardware like to work with, compared to the stock MD hardware?
You had a faster CPU, PCM soundchip etc etc, but you were still limited to the limited colour palette and screen resolution etc as before (sure clever coding allowed more colours on-screen, but you still only had 512 to chose from.....). Yeah, back in those days, that was just how it was.. you didn’t think too much of the limits… more of wow… if I arrange it right I can get 256 colors !!! which was probably a ton more than previous hardware. You were thinking of how you could squeeze out a bit more, or clever ways of making things look more detailed / lush than they really were.
Did the hardware limitations ever have monumental effects on your game design I wonder?
Probably yes, but you learned what the hardware could do, then designed around that for the most part. The better you learned the hardware, the more you could try to innovate. Thunderhawk, soul star and Battlecorps are good examples of trying to get outside the hardware box.
Also do you feel Core pushed the MCD hardware as far as it could, with Battlecorps and Soulstar? Both of these seemed to be maxing out hardware and benchmark titles, technically...
Yes. agreed. Couldn’t push anything more without just dropping frame rates.
If there was 1 serious 'flaw' with Battlecorps, it was the lack of a save game option or password, this seemed like a major oversight, any reason why this option was left out?
Agreed, but I can’t remember what the case was with this. It could have been time-related, or a management decision, or just plain forgotten, but honestly I can’t remember.
Core converted likes of BC Racers to numerous formats, Soulstar was being done on 32X and Jaguar CD (Soulstar on Jaguar nigh on complete) and I always felt Battlecorps;Special edition if you like, would have worked really well on the Jaguar CD, but perhaps Core felt the platform was'nt viable enough? and/or it'd be going up again'st the Iron Solider series?
I don’t ever remember it being discussed, so I can’t comment.
You would'nt of been aware of any other planned Jaguar games would you? Press was full of claims that things like Thunderhawk, Swagman, Tomb Raider were all headed to Jaguar CD, as well as BC Racers, but your P.R guy, Richard Barclay told me the Tomb raider screens in Edge on Jaguar CD were mock-up's and Edge knew this, so I've always taken press claims with a hefty dose of salt.
I’m not aware of any titles that were planned, but that comment from Richard sounds spot on.
A lot of it was probably about PR, and getting attention, or seeing if there might be a demand. But it's my understanding (from interviews from Edge back in the day) that the concept for Tomb Raider was dreamt up a good few months before BC Racers had been finished (so during the Mega CD era) and the issue was making a workable 3D camera on existing hardware so game was put on hold....
I can’t answer that for sure, but there was a lot of pre-production, and experimentation on TR before it really got rolling. That could account for the various timelines. There were issues with the cameras and the dual hand aiming I seem to remember.
Have you managed to get in touch with Toby Gard ? (tomb Raider creator, designer and animator) he is over here in LA also now. Cue claims it was then brought out and planned for early 'next gen' formats, Jaguar CD being one of them, but if it had, it would of looked very different to the PS1/Saturn version, as hardware not geared up to do full screen texture-mapping. Any thoughts?
Agreed it would have looked very different, probably a good thing that never happened.
Is it true you were approached by Toby Gard, to be part of the Tomb Raider team, but you (gasp) turned it down? If so... any regrets looking back at that decision?
Yep, totally true. It’s easy in hindsight to say why?… but I was working with Jason Gee, happy little team on stuff like BattleCorps… Toby and the Tomb Raider game idea was new and unknown, and sounded like a multi year project… I liked the short-sharp creative bursts… I think BattleCorps was probably 6 months give or take.. in Hindsight, IF I had joined the TR team, the history of that franchise might have been very different, and maybe I wouldn’t be in California now… haha, maybe a good thing I didn’t join that team ;) who knows.
I'm going to 'touch' on The Scottish Open, but not so much the game itself, as i'm not a Golf fan, period :-), but as the game appeared on DOS, Playstation and Saturn, i wonder if you were involved with the console versions and IF so, what you thought of the 2 rival platforms......
Yep, I coded the PC version and engine, and ported at least one of the console versions. The consoles allowed adding texturing to the terrain which was the main nice feature.
I liked the fixed architecture of console, that lets you know the limits Coders would either seem to complain the PS1 O/S was too rigid (though many then worked around it) but then you'd hear complaints that Sega had made a right pigs ear of trying to beef up the saturn, to compete with PS1 and as a result it was overly complicated to code for and something of a mess. Just wondered which camp, if any, you feel into....?
I coded both, and really they were just different beasts, somewhat similar performance, but I’d have to give the nod to PS1 overall for a straightforward development experience and fairly powerful architecture. Sega still was clinging a little to hardware thinking of the past I think. Whereas PS1 was thinking… let's just let it render a lot of polygons.
Talking of awkward to code for platforms...(seamless link there :-) ) you were 'Programming director' for Casper: Spirit Dimensions (Lucky Chicken Games-great studio name there) which appeared on PS2 and Game Cube. Now, as an Ex-Amiga coder yourself, any thoughts on Sony's approach to the PS2 hardware, as it seemed to be a return to the Amiga/ST days of learning the hardware and tricks of... over time, whereas Nintendo with the GC, seemed to offer ease of development, but less to learn and thus discover from the hardware over time...... oooh I miss the amiga days….
68000 assembly, the co-processor, blitter, awesome sound system. haha that machine ruled. Well yes you might have to learn a bit more of the hardware to extract all the potential… but then again…. the potential was there for the taking if you put the effort in… result out = work put in. But admittedly it was getting a little complex. The results were clear though, and that console sold very well.
You also coded on :PS2 Underworld and Aqua Man on Xbox/GC so I wonder how far behind it's rivals the PS2 really was?
Underworld was both a joy and a horror to work on… we loved the license, the movie makers, screen gems and Sony were awesome. That game was made in record time initially 4 months of pure hell crunch. But it was so much fun to work on. In the end we ported it over to xbox as there were issues getting it published on PS. When we ported to Xbox, the visuals were pretty much the same, but we could animate alot more characters on screen at the same time…. so we did.
Let us not dwell on Aquaman… low point of career. it had good potential, stymied by terrible design limitations from on high...I shall say no more. We did have the best ever flowing hair in a game though. haha
You were again coder+director for GBA Robotech: The Macross Saga, a classic, old-school shooter.did it feel 'good' returning to old ideas, simpler hardware i wonder? Game looked fantastic, but level design, was sadly let down by a lack of creativity many felt, you needed situations where progress was only possible by using the various 'stages' the Mech could transform into, but did'nt seem to get them :-(
Thanks for nice comments, yeah we all really got into this one… it's a great license with some fond childhood memories watching the show. We put in the effort to be true to the show which the fans noticed. But agreed, there were issues…. We got the mechanics and visuals down well, including the various transformed versions of the mechs... But it meant a lot of time was spent on that, and really it was several games in one, so there was a little too much to do… really it needed a couple more months of polish time on the levels.
Back onto subject of Core Design:
Were there ever any degrees of truth to the claims that Sega had been looking at Fighting Force to become Streets Of Rage 4 at 1 point? also (and this might have been after your time) Sega commisioned Core to do the behind closed doors, Scud Race tech Demo, to showcase the power of the Dreamcast to developers?
Again, might not be your area, but Jaguar CD Soulstar, this was I assume coded in-house and not given to external team to produce?
N64 Tomb Raider, started, but canned due to contractual agreements? (cough, same reason perhaps Saturn Tomb Raider 2 never happened, Sony bought console exclusive rights) or can we not talk about this? :-)
Don’t know, internal politics I guess…. you’d need to get an interview out of Jez (Boss).
Long shot Q's but a man's got to ask.
I could'nt do this interview without asking about Blob (Amiga), your 1st commercial game? and one which had your graphics re-drawn by Billy Allison?.Not only did you seem to come from nowhere with this one, but you seemed to split the fickle UK Amiga Press clean down the middle :-)
Yep, as mentioned in my intro…. I wrote Blob at university in spare time… Thats why it came from nowhere :) and the design was fairly unique (top down) it was intentionally hard to play ( I like twitch games ) So some got it, and some didn’t. :) Billy drew all the animation frames for blob… I had only drawn a single frame character. But all the Blocks/Tiles are still all my artwork. I recently made a short iOS game as kind of a homage to Blob called Jumpkin for last halloween. Top down, touch control game. You can find it in the app store.
AP/AF seemed to love it, where as The One and C.U were'nt so keen.... As someone just starting out, did you then or indeed ever, really take much notice of what The Press thought of your work?
Sometimes, yes… but usually take the good comments to heart, and ignore the bad ones. Can’t please everyone right ?
Look out, it's the 'bog standard question I have to ask' :-) Ok, any: Atari Lynx/Panther coding or Konix Multisystem coding? any other Lost games (any formats) I've yet to ask about?
Hrmmm none of those I think… probably several lost crappy games I made on amiga or c-64 before blob… not worthy of mention. One lost game on PS1, made a whole game of Hotwheels stunt track driver on PS1, compete with loops and all… then found out there had been a licensing mistake, and we couldn’t publish it… bummer !!
Jon, what are you upto these days? (Please plug anything you like, lol) and what are your plans for the future, could we hopefully see someone like yourself at the forefront of developing flagship games for the upcoming range of 'affordable' home VR systems perhaps?
I’m working at GPC games in Malibu, making iOS/Droid games… We are working on our first original, as western tactics game…. The Feud… http://feudgame.com
Also coming soon “Duck Dynasty” and “Hotel transylvania 2 free to play games for iOS and Droid.
For my personal indie projects, please checkout “Devil’s Peak Rally” for iOS and Droid.
... also I am currently working on an early demo for a multiplayer six-axis space shooter called “Thrust” for PC, inspiration are the games Forsaken and Descent with a bit of a new twist added ;) and maybe also for VR. I haven’t released much info yet, but please follow my twitter for more updates soon. @game_fun_dev
Which of your games are you the most proud of (and why)? and which games have you looked at/played over the years and thought.. I wish I'd written that!
Good Question… Several answers all for different reasons.
Most proud... Blob (Amiga), as it was original, my first decent quality game, got me into the games industry.
BattleCorps, for unique use of the hardware…. making the horizontal floor drawing hardware, to render vertical textured walls.
NHRA 2005 Drag racing (PS2)…. I went really deep into the physics, and details of how the cars work, including engine and torque curves, simulating wheelies, Steering wheel and pedal controllers with force feedback, also made a soft-body collision system for realistic crashes, and worked directly with the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) mechanics and drivers to get both the physics and driving spot on. Pro Driver Ron Capps was nice enough to come drive up to our offices several times to play the game, and give feedback on the feel and gameplay.
Devil’s Peak Rally.. (iOS/Droid) as it was my first solo foray into mobile, and as I am a rally fan, was a labour of love really. I was really happy with the way the cars drove, they felt realistic, and drifted like a rally car, yet with a simple mobile control scheme, it tooks months of tweaking to make that work just right. Also made a semi-procedural track engine to make one huge 12 mile track from a small data set, the track was modelled loosely on famous pike’s peak hill climb.
What have I bought?… What do I wish I worked on?… too many to name… But my fave game of all time is Tribes. Wish I’d worked on that. It’s so hard to master, but so much satisfaction in the gameplay of that game… I still play the latest iteration on a fairly regular basis (as ‘Vader’ on US west coast server). After years of playing it… surprising gameplay events still keep happening, it never gets old..
Other games I love and would have enjoyed working on…. L4D, Portal, Unreal Tournament, Elite Dangerous, Colin McRae Rally, (I met him at x-games and got him to sign my copy of the game. Great guy. RIP).
In general I would have loved to work on games with outstanding touch/feel, gameplay or tech achievements.
Note :- there are a lot of games I love to play, but probably would not have enjoyed working on… hehe, so none shall be mentioned.
Jon a huge personal thanks for your time and your work over the years, it's been awesome to be able to put these Q's to you....
Thanks very much for the interview, it was fun remembering some of the old times.
=> Return to Interviews of ex-Core Design members by Ross Sillifant <=