Sensible Software 1986-1999

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This book is one of the first Kickstarter projects I have supported. Coming from Read-Only Memory Editions, kicking off their publishing work through this first book about a legendary developer of games such as Cannon Fodder, Sensible Soccer, Wizkid and more… I had high expectations when it came to the book, and now that I have been through it, I have mixed feelings to share with you about it.

It was a good read overall. It’s mainly focusing on the 2-founders kind of story, which is very similar to many other video games startups stories out there from the 80s or even later. I have read Masters of Doom in the past year (I talked about it not too long ago) and there were many similarities in the way the companies started and operated, except that the Sensible Software case took place on British ground and the cultural differences were clearly apparent. Masters of Doom took a 3rd person approach when telling the story, while the Sensible Book is mainly a bunch of interviews regarding the career and productions of Jon Hare and Chris Yates from their early years to the decline of the company in late 90s.

sensible

One of the key issues with the book comes however with this very starting point. Somehow Chris Yates, one of the co-founder of Sensible Software, did not want to take any part in the book and apparently retired from the industry. Therefore the main voice telling the story in the interviews is basically Jon Hare’s. It’s better than nothing, but it would have been much better to provide a dual perspective on what they went through, which is precisely what Masters of Doom did very well. We can never really be sure about Jon Hare’s objectivity concerning the events in the company because we are precisely missing another key actor in this play.

jonhare

I am very familiar with the 80s and 90s scene since I was gaming a lot during these years and watching closely through magazines and TV programs what was being released, so I know the context of the book, and I played most of the Sensible Software games on the Amiga. However it’s a shame the book completely forgets to explain the context in which these games were created. The hardware race. The changing tastes among gamers. The expanding market towards more casual gamers and a young adult audience. Etc. Its focus is solely on the games made by Sensible, and while we have once in a while a comment here and there about what’s happening behind the scenes, market-wise. I was not aware that around the time of the Playstation, even a successful studio like Sensible Software could not get a publisher to sign up for a new 2D game. Everyone was pushing for 3D, 3D, 3D. The book needed more of that kind of stories and background. It’s nowhere near enough for people who did not know that period very well. It’s a missed opportunity to help the reader to fully appreciate the context in which Sensible Software was evolving in, really.

The interview pieces are basically structured as chapters, focusing usually on a single topic. I really liked the part where Jon Hare explained the struggle the team had to convert the very successful Sensible Soccer 2D game to a 3D version for the newer machines out there. Everything was a pain to produce in 3D, and in the end the most attractive element of the Sensible Soccer series, i.e. its playability, was lost in translation. Jon Hare comments: “Fucking 3D”.

While the interviews provide usually a good read, overall the book feels a little poor in terms of contents. And sometimes I feel that Jon Hare repeats itself from one chapter to another, and some parts could have been cut because they did not bring much value. When discussing a particular game, I would have liked to be reminded about the critical and public reception of the game, how these games were different from what was being made at the time, especially from a third party standpoint, not just from Jon Hare himself. Once again, the interviews touch a bit on that subject now and then, but it felt like an afterthought more than anything. Most chapters read like interviews transcripts without much added content to it. It’s alright, but I expected much more from a definitive book about Sensible Software. A book is supposed to be a book, not just a collection of quotes.

picandtext

Visually, I also have a problem with the choices made. It feels very uneven. It is kind of divided in two halves. The first half is made of thin paper printed in orange text on white background with very few pictures, while the later half is a high-quality, artwork rich part, focusing on the graphic elements of the Sensible Software games. I understand what they wanted to do, but I found it pretty annoying when reading. You get an interview where someone talks about a game and there’s no depiction of it at all.

text

You have to go and open the later part of the book to find the said pictures or screenshots. It feels awkward and absurd. I’d rather have the pictures at the right time at the same place as the text. While there are some photos of the Sensible Software team members in the first half of the book, here again they felt out of place. Somehow most of them are not placed at the best possible spot versus what they refer to. More frustration. On top of that, the artwork part was disproportionate in the book. Some of the illustrations were really unnecessary (seriously, several full pages of sprites??), and did not deserve to take so much space for nothing. Overall, I would say the design of the book was a disaster. It was not done right and made the content appear worse than it actually is. I hope they learn their lesson here as they work on their next book about the Megadrive from SEGA.

A Wall of sprites, seriously ???
A Wall of sprites, seriously ???

So, would I recommend this book? Well, I did certainly learn a few things, and the beginning of Sensible Software were entertaining to say the least. The last part was also worth it, where Jon Hare explained how the company failed to deliver game after game towards the end of the 90s, for a number of reasons… the founders being busy with real life, overcommitment, lack of management of other team members, too large teams… Sensible Soccer and especially SWOS were so successful that it had become the cash cow of the company and it kept their finances going until the very end. Maybe that was the key issue: they didn’t need to be hungry for success anymore. In a way, reading the end of the book felt a little depressing.

Anyway.

For a first book, it was alright. I did support their next Kickstarter book about the Megadrive, because I expect them to further improve on the formula. They have proved that they can at least deliver, which is way more than some people who give advice to others on how to make a successful Kickstarter campaign.

A bon entendeur, les amis.

PS: This is a good time to recommend playing the excellent games from Sensible Software on the Pandora, either on the C64 emulators (VICE) for their first games or the Amiga emulators (UAE4ALL) for their later ones. Sensible Soccer is particularly awesome on the go.

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3 Comments on "Sensible Software 1986-1999"

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levi
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Yeah, I backed that kickstarted too and got my book before Christmas. I’d tend to agree with your criticisms, though at least we get input from Jools, Stoo and Martin Conway amongst others which helps contradict Jon where his recollection gets a bit rose-tinted or whatever. I ended up reading the book with two bookmarks, which helps as the pictures are roughly in the same order as they are referred to in the text, with a few exceptions. I guess it was a bit cheaper to bind the book in this slightly old-fashioned way, but I didn’t mind too much.… Read more »