An interview with Franck Sauer

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Ross Sillifant provides GTW with another new interview, this time with Franck Sauer.  Take it away Ross! …

It is with great pleasure I get the chance to ‘chat’ to another industry legend, Franck Sauer, so Franck, without further ado, could you please introduce yourself to our readers and give us a little background info on your good self, if you could be so kind:

Hey Ross, my pleasure. Well it all goes back to when I was 13, I started doing pixel graphics and small programs in BASIC on my first computer, a Ti-99/4a back in 1982. Making stuff happen on the TV screen was just black magic at the time, and I got hooked pretty quickly. A few years later, I met a friend at school who was programming on C64.

I wasn’t too bad at doing art for the 8 bit machine, so we decided to create a game together in our spare time,  every evening after school. It took us three years to finish it, but the game (‘Never Outside’) eventually got published and it was our entry ticket for the buoyant games industry.

I got hired by Ubisoft to work on 8 bit games such as ‘Iron Lord’ and from there moved back onto independent development on the Amiga. I never stopped working in the games industry since. What I really love about making games is the combination of art and technology, as I’ve never been able to choose one over the other.

Onto the questions:


Q) I’d like to start, if I may, talking about your work as part of the team responsible for Ultimate Tennis (coin-op), which I believe went onto be a huge hit in Germany, but even more impressive cracked the notoriously ‘fickle’ Japanese coin-op market…

Could you talk us through your involvement with the game and was this Art and Magic’s 1st game? If so, that’s one hellva impressive debut. Is it true the team’s involvement went beyond just designing the game, but also the design (?) of the coin-ops circuit boards as well?

Ultimate Tennis was the first arcade game that we published, but we had been working on a beat’em up adventure game before that, a game that unfortunately never went to completion. And its true Ultimate Tennis did sell incredibly well, around 5000 boards worldwide, and that was a real surprise for our small, 8 guys or so, company. I mean top companies such as Konami would typically sell 15000 boards for their top hit games, so we were very proud of our performance.

When we started Art&Magic, we teamed up with a micro-electronic company called Deltatec to design the board. It really was a collaborative effort as we all worked together on the specifications and implementation of all the necessary designs. It’s just incredible when you think about it, a small start-up company starting the development of a new platform, from scratch.

You have to do everything from hardware designs, prototypes and implementation, to writing drivers and tools, establish communication protocols between host PC and devkits, and whatnot, and that’s just before even starting writing the game, that’s just insane. I mean look at Sony or MS, they spend billions creating a console, ok our hardware was much simpler, but still.

During the early R&D phase, my input was about graphics specifications and testing (such as sprites, palettes etc…). I would create test assets and with Yann Robert (who was working on the early driver specs and implementation) we would launch tests on our hardware prototypes and the electronic guys would hook-up logic analysers and oscilloscopes to sample signals and measure pixel throughput. This was really interesting times and I learned a lot about low level stuff. I also helped with the audio specs.

Q) Looking at your C64, Iron Lord, this was, I believe a conversion from the Amiga? So, speaking as an artist, how did you approach what might well have been a fair mammoth task of converting such a project to a lesser platform? and this in turn leads me onto another question I need to put to you, as an artist:

Did you ever feel like banging your head against the wall, as the hardware you were working on simply imposed too many restrictions to what you really wanted to do, in terms of resolution, number of colours that could be used, those you could choose from etc.? Or…are you the type of artist who relished the challenge put in front of you?

Iron Lord was actually a conversion from the Atari ST. But yeah it was a huge project, especially when you look at the tools we had back then. Fortunately we were three artists on the project.

I’m definitely the kind of artist who likes working with constraints. I’m actually very tempted working on a C64 again, if only I had time! You know the C64 demo scene is thriving. I’ll leave that for when I’m retired.

I’ve loved working on closed and somewhat limited platforms all these years, although each time a new platform came out I was eager to work on it, but these days it has come to a point it seems much more difficult to me to make a difference on the latest platforms. I mean, technically it would take so much time to teach them inside-out, it’s almost impossible.

Also technologies seem to converge to a point trying to have a tech edge will become irrelevant. You can see studios, especially the smaller ones using off the shelf tech and trying different visual styles instead, such as toon shading to try to stand out from the crowd, but I think it’s becoming harder.

Q) Moving onto (Amiga) Unreal now (a graphically stunning game, if you don’t mind me saying…), backed up with well-deserved rave reviews and a big advertising campaign in the UK press etc…

Would it be fair to assume a lot of inspiration for the game was drawn from coin-ops you and the team enjoyed playing? I’d hazard a guess things like Rastan and Galaxy Force? If this is the case, I wonder if this was because you/the team would have loved to have converted these to the home formats given the chance?

We were definitely looking at the arcade games such as Galaxy Force or Rastan saga with a lot of envy. We would have loved to work on home versions, but I think we were already thinking ahead, about a way to enter the arcade development, whether that meant for us to work for an existing company or start our own.

That was at least from the tech point of view. A lot of artistic inspiration for Unreal was drawn from fantasy illustration books, such as the ones from Paper Tiger publishing. Every time I went to London, I would come back with a pile of fantasy paintings books to study.

Q) Sticking with Unreal, was it also, perhaps the teams attempt to ‘out do’ Shadow Of The Beast in terms of showcase just what the Amiga was capable of?

If so, were you at all…concerned about a conversion to the Atari ST for example, being a ‘lesser vision’ of what you were hoping for? and how did the issue of conversions to other platforms get approached? Did you receive a share of the monies from the ST/PC versions?

We were awed by SOTB and had huge respect for the team at Reflections, but there was a sense of friendly competition at the time, and we wanted to show the world what we were capable of doing on the machine, that was a bit stupid I must say, we should have focused more on the game play instead! I think it shows how we all were (and still are) interested in both art and technologies. But I don’t think we managed to outdo SOTB in any way. They had strong technology and cool graphics way before we did, they were damn good.

Regarding the ST and PC conversions, we didn’t have much input. We went to meet the programmer who was doing the conversion once, but we knew from the start it would be difficult task as we were relying a lot on specific hardware features. We went to see him in Weston-Super-Mare, which is a cool place btw, and spent some time discussing some specifics, and that was it.

We never saw a dime from the ST sales, and I was surprised to discover years later there actually was a PC version. Talk about publisher transparency.

Q) Was there ever a ‘danger’ mixing so many gameplay styles/sections, into a game like Unreal that players would find certain levels a ‘weak link’ and give up on the game and thus a lot of your hard work would never be seen by the players? (This I guess applies to all your games, people rage quit and thus only a fraction of the work you’ve done gets to be seen).

I’m not sure this is a problem specific to our games. I read that most games are only played through about 30% or so on average. So I would guess action adventure games are probably the most prone to early quitting, because they require more investment. Honestly I myself almost never finish the games I play, because I don’t have the time to play them through, so I can relate to that. But even if a small portion of the player reaches the end, I think it’s worth the effort.

We had to split the game mainly because of the way we were working together as a team, but I think gameplay wise it was not a terrific idea. It meant we could not focus on a single set of gameplay mechanics and it meant weaker gameplay overall.

Q) I have to ask about…Agony on the Amiga, yet another graphically stunning game. Is it true its roots, lie far and deep? Originally planned as a follow-up to Unreal, plus elements from a canned C64 shoot-em-up?

Yes and no. It is true it started as a sequel to Unreal, indeed. But as we moved to another publisher, we couldn’t do that. And the story changed along during early development, so that was no longer an issue. As for the C64 shoot’em up, this had more to do with the fact that Marc Albinet had some experience working on a shoot’em up for the C64 called Ylliad, and thus we thought this was a good idea to pick up that genre.

Shoot’em ups are supposedly easier to work on than say, action-adventures. They are more focused, and I think we were conscious of the fact that we needed to focus a little more on the game play mechanics. Furthermore, there was the fact that one of our programmers, Yann Robert was no longer available, as he was doing his military duties.

Q) Did you always plan to have the main sprite as an Owl? or did Psygnosis decide they wanted it used? Talking of Psygnosis, just how much creative freedom were you/the team given on Agony? and given it was a 3 disk (?) game, was there ever a concern it might be too costly to produce I wonder?

In the original idea, we were thinking of doing a spaceship that would be the futuristic version of the dragon found in Unreal. But as soon as we knew we would not be doing a sequel, we chose an Owl because of the nature theme that we wanted to bring up throughout the game. That’s why we thought it would be a perfect match with Psygnosis. But they never asked us to create an Owl; it was our decision, based on the visual identity of the overall game.

We had maximum freedom during development, our producer Steve Riding was really there as a support, to help us raise the quality bar even higher. This is what publishers should always be doing. I’m afraid things have changed for the worse in most cases. The number of disks was definitely an issue, and should we have included the cinematic that was supposed to introduce the game’ story, it would have taken even more space. That was a blow for Marc who had been working on the cinematic for a while, but 3 disks was the maximum Psygnosis could afford, and rightfully so.

Q) Would you mind talking us through the ‘creative’ process for your Amiga games? You/the team always seemed to be pushing the hardware further and further and there was always that stunning eye for detail and perfection. Stunning artwork, fluid animation, lots of parallax, 3D etc. etc.

There must have been compromises along the way, so just how hard was it to ‘drop’ features you really wanted to use?

I don’t think we dropped that many ideas, because we would build up ideas based on the machine specs. Typically, as a technical artist, I love to read the technical specification of the machines (and/or engine) I’m going to work on before starting any work.

Even today, I often find myself reading some specifics about this GPU or that architecture. I also talk a lot with programmers. Then, ideas start to come up, like we could do this or that to circumvent some limitations. I always have like a pool of cool images in my mind that just wait to materialize, and when I see the technical potential, I start mapping that to those images I’ve been dreaming about, and boom.

Q) Also, as an artist, would you mind if I asked where you ‘draw’ (no pun intended) your influences from and how many real-world/fantasy/Sci-fi influences made it into your games?

Mostly from outside the games industry. I’ve never looked much at other games thinking; wow I’d love to do that. Not in artistic terms at least. My main influences are from the cinema (all the classic 80’s adventure films), from the real world seen through lenses, and also from fantasy and classical paintings (such as the Hudson River School). As I said, I drew a lot of inspiration from the Paper Tiger series, and also from the Dungeons & Dragons series at the time.

Q) Also which other artists (gaming and ‘real world’) do you, yourself admire?

Definitely Roger Dean, Tim White and Rodney Matthews were of great inspiration at the time. All the painters from the Hudson River School too. And there are tons of great artists today I really admire although they are too numerous to list their names, but you just have to look at the hundreds of superb concept arts from great studios like Naughty Dog, or film studios, to understand there are tons of fabulously talented artists out there that deserve admiration.

Q) With English, not being your 1st language, did it ever throw up any hiccups in dealing with UK publishers at the time and add an extra hassle-factor to game making? (hope that question comes across ok) and what was your impression of the UK coding scene during the Amiga/early PC years?

To me, ‘we’ seem to have lost what was once a flagship industry here, as everything is now produced by massive teams, with huge resources for a global market.

When I was a kid, magazines available here in Belgium for the C64 were in English (such as Zzap! 64), so I was used to reading, but barely spoke the language. Nevertheless this never was a real issue with publishers, and Psygnosis especially was really on the same wavelength and communication was ok. It certainly would have helped had we been natives, but I don’t think this was real issue.

I think you’re right with the idea that the golden age of UK development is probably behind. Back in the day, there was a massive amount of top UK developers. I’ve always admire the UK scene, if just for its incredible SID musicians! I think it goes back to the ZX81, Speccy and BBC Micro when the development scene really exploded (also with the C64, but that was less UK specific).

Just look at all the publishers from the era like Imagine, Mastertronic and the like. I could not recommend enough the documentary film ‘From Bedroom to Billions’ by Anthony and Nicola Caulfield. This film sums up the UK industry like no other, they did an incredible historical work.

Today like you say, the industry is global and AAA development requires international teams, but I can only hope digital distribution and indie garage development can bring back some talented individuals to the scene. Look at Jeff Minter, he’s still there !

Q) Moving onto your PC work now, looking at No Respect, this was I believe your 1st project to use a ‘Voxel based’ 3D Engine?, this seemed to go against the grain, in terms of established coding practices of the time, so I wonder why you went with this approach and how pleased you were with the results?

The main reason was the level of geometric detail you could get with polygons at the time was really low. When we looked at nature outside the window, we could only see extremely complex shapes that we would not have been able to depict with a few polygons. So we started looking for other ways of modelling 3d objects, and we stumbled upon voxels.

We actually started working on Outcast, then Infogrames (our publisher at the time) asked us to validate our technology by using it on a smaller project. That’s how No Respect started.

We were quite pleased with the results, until some folks from voodoo fx came up with 3d hardware accelerated polygons and destroyed our little voxel dream.

Q) Moving onto Outcast now, did this use ‘refined code’ from No Respect? Also, the game seemed yet again (as did No respect) to showcase your raw talent and that of the team you were working with, animation was 1st class, the 3D engine seemed revolutionary, the art and A.T.D seemed simply spot on..you/the team must have been proud to receive glowing praise from what can be a very cynical industry (UK press etc.).

Was it rewarding to see your hard work recognised time and time again? Also how did you feel when you had what you might have considered ‘unfair’ press?.

Yes the core engine was pretty much an advanced version of the one used in No Respect.
It was very rewarding, and is still now, seeing it is still regarded today as something special. The sales however were quite depressing. We really expected more, and the internal problems at Infogrames were really a blow to us, as we had been working for four years on the game and were witnessing internal fights over what game to promote internally because it fitted a particular white collar agenda.

It was not just internal politics of course, the mere fact many gamers were looking for a hardware accelerated games instead was depressing. Some would only see the game’s low resolution without even looking at the content of the game itself. That was depressing, even more so it was understandable, and we couldn’t do anything about it.

I don’t recall the press being unfair. Most articles praised the game depth and didn’t stop at the game’ software renderer limitations.

Q) Did the UK Press and its habit (Edge in particular) of ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ ever annoy you?  Basically they’d be full of praise for a game at preview stage/s…nurturing hype and expectation for games, right up until game ‘flowered’ and they reviewed it.

No Respect seemed to be a prime example, graphics engine (rightly) praised at preview, now having its limits singled out, Edge (un named) reviewer making out preview folk were won over by games visuals when they looked at it, when in fact it was an ‘average console-style blaster’ 6/10 etc.

Not sure this is exclusive to the UK press. I think a lot of the press want to believe in the potential of innovation and are sometimes as unrealistic as the developer themselves, only to realize when the product comes out that some compromises had to be made and the game doesn’t necessarily live up to the hype.

Although it was a tour de force to make No Respect due to the publisher’s pressure, I’m not sure 6 out of 10 for the review were that unfair to be honest.

Q) Is it ok to ask just what happened to Outcast 2? Rumour has it there was a difference of opinion between the vision for the game the publisher had and that of the team designing the game. What happened and how far along did coding get?

Not just that, we had internal problems after Yves left, about a year into development, and his successor started designing the game in the wrong direction we had some trouble re-aligning the studio’s vision.

We finally fired the guy and started the story over again with some solid gameplay designs. However, this whole process had little impact on the technology development that was running in parallel. A bigger issue was the mere fact our budget was lowered several times. From an initial 7 million down to 5 million, and then 3 million, in the course of a few month. This was of course due to the collapse of the stock market and Infogrames was taking serious hits.

In the end they had to cancel the game because they could not afford it and had to divert the money to their internal studios, simple as that. I mean for an AAA console game these amounts were becoming ridiculous anyways. If you start planning, designing and hiring for a 7 million game, there’s no way you can cut that down to 3 million in the course of a few month and expect everything to run smoothly.

The PS2 was also ridiculously difficult to program for, especially when you consider most of our programmers only had PC experience, and certainly no PlayStation experience. So building a strong technology from the ground up was incredibly expensive. When the game was cancelled, we had the foundations for some solid tech, but it was nowhere near complete, especially when you look at the tool chain that was incredibly primitive.

The runtime was somewhat efficient as can be seen in the demo (but also very unstable), with lots of innovative techniques, and all running at 60 frames per seconds and all that. But putting the scenes together was a pain because of the poor tool chain. There would have been a lot more work necessary in order to deliver a full game, and although a lot of assets had already been produced, not much was integrated. I’d say honestly that the game was maybe 20% complete or something. This was nowhere near finished.

Q) Speaking of Lost games, what others projects sadly never made it and does source code still exist? These can be from any platform, Amiga, PS2/PS3, PSP, DS etc. etc. Plus did you ever get offered any work on formats like the Atari 8 Bit/Konix Multi-system, Atari Lynx, Jaguar or Panther?

Sadly a lot of project I worked on never made it. Hopefully, the published titles list is longer, which is quite a feat!  The first unpublished project was on the Amiga in 1991, a green beret clone Ubisoft was thinking of developing, for which I only made a few graphical resources.

Then came Spell Singer, the arcade game that was supposed to be our flagship title. I have not been able to recover the source code nor the source art for this one as all the ROMS and known backups were lost during a move of Art & Magic years after we left the company. Another unfinished project was Tintin, a commissioned prototype by Infogrames.

The list goes on as I worked on prototypes and unfinished games on platforms such as PS2, PSP and PS3. I’m still in the process of writing post mortems on my website about those unfinished projects as it requires a lot of work to recover the resources, capture videos and document the development processes. But it’s certainly an interesting work.

I never worked or was offered to work on the systems you mention. Although we evaluated the option of making Spell Singer to the Sega Megadrive at some point.

Q) Also, just how frustrating was it to see a game canned, due to reasons beyond your control and did you ever feel you were wasting your time starting out on something else that might never see the light of day?

It is certainly frustrating, but not uncommon in the games industry. A lot of project get canned at various development stages, it’s just how it goes.

However, I don’t feel like completely wasting my time, just because there’s is so much to learn every time. I think you have to be in that state of mind, to think there’s some chance a project never see the light of day, but that’s just part of the process and think about what can be learned along in any case. I’m not saying that’s easy, sometimes you feel depressed, but it’s a general attitude that’s beneficial I think.

Q) Final set of questions, so, is there any games you’d of loved to have worked on, but never got the chance? any interesting stories from your time in the industry you can share with us? and what are you up to these days?

I’m not thinking of a particular game, but I certainly would have loved working on consoles in the 8 and 16 bits era, a time when I could only afford to develop on micro-computers. Also I would have loved to work on the original PlayStation and be part of the cultural phenomenon that this platform was at the time.

Today I try my best to split my time between teaching real-time computer graphics for video games, working on a personal game and electronic projects, and continuing helping in the development of Outcast, as we launching version 1.1 of the original game in a few days, with tons of little improvements for modern PCs such as native high resolution, pad support and more.

It’s been fantastic to be able to put these questions to you, huge thanks for giving up of your valuable time.

Thank you!

You can check out more from Franck on his website at http://francksauer.com/

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