Talking turkey with Simon Phipps

‘Reverse engineering’ (it makes me feel clever so run with it, OK?) the Monty Python Amiga game for my retrospective article a few months back raised a number of nerdy questions that only one-man, multi-talented development team, Simon Phipps, would be able to answer. How very astute of you; of course I did, he was happy to help, and here’s the interview! …but first an extremely brief rundown of Simon’s longstanding, multifarious career in the games industry to set the scene.

An artist, video game coder/designer and prop maker, Simon first found his feet in the video gaming biz in 1984 upon publishing the sci-fi platformer ‘Jet Power Jack’ for the BBC Micro, Acorn Electron and Commodore 64 via Leeds-based Micro Power Ltd. His big break, however, arrived in 1986 when he became a Gremlin. Not literally you understand, that wouldn’t have helped his cause in the least. Have you seen their hamfisted claws? Picasso wouldn’t have lost any sleep when they began multiplying.

Back then working solely as a graphics artist he collaborated on the Masters of the Universe, Skate Crazy and Dive Bomber (aka Night Raider) projects released for a plethora of popular systems including the ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MSX, Apple II, DOS, and Atari ST, on behalf of Gremlin Graphics prior to the closure of their Derby offices.

In need of a fresh start and new direction in 1988 he co-founded Core Design along with Chris Shrigley, Andy Green, Rob Toone, Terry Lloyd, Dave Pridmore, Jeremy Heath-Smith, Kevin Norburn and Greg Holmes. Operating under this illustrious moniker he would go on to spread his wings creatively, adding 16-bit designer and programmer to his ever-burgeoning CV, in the process devising/contributing to the games we Amigans remember him most fondly for: Rick Dangerous I (1989) and II (1990), Switchblade (1989), Wolfchild (1992), and Bubba ‘n’ Stix (1994).

Leaving the Amiga realm in his wake as fate conspired against us all, in 1996 Simon embraced the role of Designer Planner with Acclaim Studios Teesside where he worked on the multi-format arcade basketball game, College Slam, and action horror titles, ShadowMan (for the Dreamcast, Nintendo 64, PlayStation, and Windows), and ShadowMan: 2econd Coming (for the PlayStation 2).

At the turn of the millennium Simon joined Electronic Arts as Lead Designer where he played a pivotal role in transforming Harry Potter into a video game hero under various guises, across multiple firmly established and next generation platforms. As his position within Electronic Arts evolved, in 2006 his focus shifted towards their Criterion Studio open world racing game, Burnout Paradise (available for the PlayStation 3, Windows, and Xbox 360 platforms), more specifically the online aspects.

His exquisitely tuned skills still much sought after, in 2009 Simon secured gainful employment at Eurocom as Lead Designer where he worked his magic on GoldenEye 007 for the Wii and the follow-up ‘Reloaded’ edition for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

In the run up to the 2012 release of Need for Speed: Most Wanted (a hi-octane racing game available for PlayStation 3, PS Vita, Windows, and Xbox 360), the opportunity arose to return to Electronic Arts, this time to come onboard as their ‘Multiplayer Designer’. Simon jumped at it, yet left the gaming behemoth once again in 2014 to take his career in an altogether more organic, adhoc direction, pledging his allegiance to the indie gaming outfit, Three Fields Entertainment, where he aided the development of their first title, Dangerous Golf (now available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and via Steam).

When he’s not busy sweating blood and SPAM in the games industry, Simon likes to tackle digital, fan and charity art commission projects, sketch, attend life drawing classes, and create props and costumes.

If you’d like to discover more about his past, present and future ventures, no doubt his excellent personal web site already has it covered.

All that remains is for me to say a big thank you to Simon for generously giving up his valuable time to indulge one of his many fans, and to whip out the soft pillows. No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition, not even former Amiga developers…

Q. Did you ever meet any of the Pythons whilst developing the game?

A. Nope – I didn’t. The only people I met were a handful of lovely folks from Virgin Games who were doing their best to help us figure out ways to cram this massively varied and bizarre Universe of Monty Python into an 8-bit game.

Q. What was Python Productions’ input, if any?

A. There wasn’t any that I was aware of. Of course, these were the days when computer games had only a little cultural impact so I wouldn’t have expected much input or guidance.

Q. Do you know if any of them ever played it?

A. No idea, I’m afraid.

Q. You mentioned in a preview article that Virgin insisted on you changing certain elements of the game. What weren’t they happy with?

A. When we started making the game, the guys from Virgin were really insistent that although we’d made a successful comedic platform game in Rick Dangerous, they wanted us to make something different that really embraced Monty Python. I think, in hindsight, their biggest fear was that we would simply repackage Rick Dangerous with a graphical change. That was never our intention, but I think that direction misguided us for a while.

We stepped away from trap-based gameplay and tried something different: making the challenge of controlling Gumby in his many forms more important to the gameplay. So, for example, the bird and fish forms required you to work against buoyancy/gravity and the spring form was about steering Gumby accurately to control the bouncing. Also, we wanted to break away from the small 24 x 21 pixel sprites that featured in Rick, creating characters that were much bigger on screen and that allowed me to draw better representations of Gilliam’s artwork in the game.

Moving so far away from lots of things we’d learned on Rick, we spent a lot of time trying to make these things work. And it was very difficult for us all – the Virgin Games guys doing their best to steer us in the direction they wanted (while being so enthusiastic about Python and asking for as many additional sketches to feature in the game) and we on the team trying to accommodate that while creating new gameplay, keeping away from the things we’d learned on Rick.

It all came to a point maybe about 6-7 weeks before we finished where none of us was satisfied with the game. I had a meeting with the guys at Virgin and someone suggested: “Why can’t it be more like Rick Dangerous?” That was the turning point. It opened the door for us to play down the emphasis on controls and rework all of the levels from scratch and incorporate a simple trap system and other hazards.

To do this, we came up with a plan where I basically went home for 4 weeks and worked around the clock 7-days-a-week designing, coding, programming, drawing the graphics for all formats and scripting all of the animation sequences. Every Monday I went into the office to deliver a new level to the team for them to replicate across the other formats. It was exhausting work for me, and tough on the guys but it was the necessary decisive step we had to take to get the game out of the door and draw a line under it.

Q. Do you still have any of the assets that were cut before the final version was released?

A. It was surprisingly lean. Everything I drew we used. In the final stretch, it was much more about building new levels with the art that I had and then adding stacks of new characters and incidental sprites for all of the little animation sequences.

Q. After watching four series of Flying Circus in a single weekend, did you never want to even hear the words Monty Python ever again?

A. That is the curse of working on any license that you love. It’s like working at the sweet factory. You get to a saturation point where the neurons responsible for appreciating the thing that you loved wear out and your taste for them dwindles.

While I don’t regret being involved in making games on licenses like Monty Python, Harry Potter and James Bond, I will admit that after having spent so much time immersed in them and deconstructing them my enthusiasm for them is quite diminished. That’s why I draw the line at Batman and Star Wars – I grew up loving those stories and so would never want to lose that by working on them.

Q. Do you know how well it sold?

A. I have absolutely no idea. Folks who make games rarely see sales figures on the majority of the games that they’ve worked on.

Q. Entering ‘Pooky’ into the high score table activates an Easter egg, and the same word is also used as a cheat code in Rick Dangerous and Rick Dangerous II. Who or what is ‘Pooky’?

A. It’s a pet name for my wife, Jayne. Dunno where it came from but we’ve been married now for 28 years and I still use it from time-to-time.

Q. Who is Anton Wimble?

A. I really can’t remember. I’ve Googled it and that’s come up with nothing. I’m wondering if it’s a name from something in one of the Python spin-off books (“The Brand New Monty Python Paperbok” or “Monty Python’s Big Red Book”) that I used for lots of references when making the games. I think I got rid of my copies of it long ago so I can’t check. But I certainly wouldn’t have made something like that up – I would’ve pulled it from a Python reference somewhere.

An extract from the game’s instruction manual

Q. Were you were aware that the Python programming language was being developed at the time you were working on Flying Circus? Is that something you could have used if it had been available?

A. Nope! I think the first time I heard ‘Python’ mentioned as a language was a few years ago at Criterion Games where the programmers used it for writing small scripts to reformat pieces of data. My coding knowledge was all about close-to-the-metal machine code for those ancient machines that just would’ve died even trying to execute the smallest amount of high-level coding.

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Croak!


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Zoom!


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Pinball Prelude


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Outrun


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Commando


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