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Telling Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story – an interview with Digital Eclipse

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Digital Eclipse has set the standard for retro video game collections.

Releases such as the Mega Man Legacy CollectionDisney Classic Games Collection, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Cowabunga Collection are known for their high-quality game emulation and wealth of supporting materials that range from design notes and cover art to music tracks and comic books.

The release of the Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was a significant milestone for Digital Eclipse, paving the way to the Gold Master Series. This new range aims to provide a deeper understanding of classic game development and the people involved by using documentary and archival material to give more context.

The first Gold Master Series release was The Making of Karateka, which explored the development of Jordan Mechner’s breakthrough fighting game. The latest is Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story, which includes a collection of 42 games – from platforms including the ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Atari 800, and Atari Jaguar, to name a few – plus new interview material with Jeff Minter. It also features unreleased games, early light synthesizers, and a modern update of the classic shooter, Gridrunnner.

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, we spoke to Chris Kohler, the editorial director at Digital Eclipse, about why Jeff Minter and his works are an excellent fit for the second Gold Master Series release.

Thumbsticks: The story of Llamasoft is a excellent, but perhaps unexpected, choice for a Gold Master Series release. How did it come about?

Chris Kohler: When our studio head, Mike Mika, was like a teenager getting into video games in the mid-1990s, he went to the first or second E3. And he went down to the Atari Jaguar area, and there was Jeff Minter, standing there just hanging out. He’s not holed up in a conference room, he’s down on the show floor, he’s playing games, he’s showing off his games. Mika’s like, “Oh, you’re Jeff Minter, creator of Tempest 2000.” He introduces himself, and he finds Jeff Minter to be just this wonderful person who is very, very enthusiastic about helping this random teenager get into video games. The way Mike tells it is, “Oh gosh, if everybody is like Jeff, this is going to be amazing.” And it turns out, there’s nobody like Jeff.

Thumbsticks: How did you decide between making a standard retro games collection or a full-fledged Gold Master Series interactive documentary?

Chris Kohler: One of the very first things Mike and Jeff talked about doing was an early days kind of collection.. We had been working on The Making of Karateka since even really before I joined the company in 2020. Then we released Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, which was the first of the interactive documentaries. For like, two seconds, it was like, oh, it’ll sort of be a standard more collection. It won’t be like one of those interactive documentary things we’re doing. And then like, a half second later, it was like, no, it makes sense that this would be an interactive documentary, too.

Once we had decided to do it that way, it was just, okay, let’s find the story. Let’s not only just talk about who Jeff Minter is but what were some of the struggles that he went through. What was his rise to fame? How did he become that person who was on the pages of all the magazines? Which of those magazines can we get?

Thumbsticks: As someone based in North America, were you familiar with Jeff Minter’s work?

Chris Kohler: I heard of Jeff Minter in 1994, when everybody started talking about Tempest 2000 in magazines like Next Generation, which was an offshoot of Edge. We wanted to bring that perspective of if you weren’t there at the time, this is what it was like, This is how popular this guy was. And of course, you start digging into it and it’s a fascinating story.

He’s the most unique individual in video games, basically. The fact that he’s just been doing it all this time, single-mindedly making the games that he wants to play for himself. There was a brief period where he joined Atari and he was like, “Nope, not for me,” and then he went right back to Wales to be on the farm with the sheep and the llamas and make video games by himself. And that’s what he’s been doing since.

Thumbsticks: Jeff Minter and Jordan Mechner are examples of singular creators. Do you plan to continue the Gold Masters Series by highlighting the work of individual game developers, rather than specific franchises or studios?

Chris Kohler: We want to show the people behind the games. When you download a ROM from the internet, you don’t know who made this, or where or when they made it. You need to know all of that stuff to truly appreciate it. I mean, these are British games, there is British humour. You need to understand that before you play them. One of the things that really underpins it is the people. Let’s tell the stories of the people. And with The Making of Karateka and Jeff Minter, yeah, they’re more biographical. Once you understand who they were, it will be more emotionally impactful to you to play the work of art that they created.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story - Peru

Thumbsticks: Jordan Mechner is well-known for documenting and journalling his work, much of which has been published. On the other hand, Jeff Minter is better known for his freewheeling approach to game development. Does this create challenges when attempting to document his games.

Chris Kohler: People ask, is there concept art? I’m like, there’s no concept art. Jeff sat down in front of his computer with a mug of tea and just typed into the computer. And a week later, he had a video game. There were some things where he would design a sprite on graph paper, so we’d have the XY coordinates of all the pixels and stuff like that. And some of that stuff was still around. But he sold some of his notebooks and some of his designs and sketches or ideas for games. I feel like he was only doing a lot of that when he wasn’t in front of his computer. There’s a scene in Llamasoft where he takes a trip to Peru, and he’s just got his notebook with him the whole time. They’re riding around on a bus, doing these hours and hours of travel to get to Machu Picchu and stuff like that. He’s just filling the notebook with ideas that he’s going to do when he gets home. But if it had been, like, 10 years later, it would have just been just straight programming on the laptop.

The fortunate thing for us with The Making of Karateka was it was only the fact that Jordan documented everything in the way that he did which allowed us to do a collection based on one game. We couldn’t do that with one of Jeff’s games, because there wouldn’t be enough content to sustain that. Fortunately, we’re not doing one Jeff game, we’re doing 42! Sometimes the only thing that exists is the game. And then you try to do a little more research around it, you know, and understand.

Fortunately, Jeff wrote [2009 eBook] A History of Llamasoft as well. And we did more research, of course, but with Jeff, it was like, let’s do all the research we can to really supplement this as much as possible.

Thumbsticks: There must be a temptation to include every piece of archival material you discover. What can you reveal about the editorial process? 

Chris Kohler: Well, I know someone like me would probably want everything. So that’s where the design of the interactive documentary comes in, because you’re thinking, oh, it’s not everything. But, in fact, it kind of is. The nice part about what we’re doing is that you can’t put everything into a film. You can’t even put everything into a book, but you actually can put everything into the interactive documentary video game, because it’s nested on layers and layers of abstraction.

Thumbsticks: Can you explain how the timeline structure used in Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration and the Gold Master Series helps you tell these stories?

Chris Kohler: The horizontal timeline is the big story. When you see the vertical timelines dropping down, that’s where we dig a little deeper into this subject matter. Even then, within a vertical timeline, you can get a big gallery. That’s as deep as you can go.

Sometimes you get into a vertical timeline that’s like, here’s, you know, 50 pages of notes. You’re not supposed to read every single one of them, but some people do. You get the choice. Do you want to go through absolutely everything in there and spend 10 hours? Do you want to just see the gallery, flip through and then keep going? Or do you want to just go on the horizontal timeline and quickly get a sense of what’s going on? All those things are totally valid, so it really does let us be comprehensive.

Thumbsticks: Both Gold Master Series releases include prototypes and unreleased game versions. How do you feel about making them available to a wider audience?

Chris Kohler: What’s important is even if a prototype was already online, there’s so much friction between figuring out, how do I get this? How do I get this into an emulator? How do I mess with the settings of the emulator to get it running? Once I actually get it running, what Apple II keys would I have pressed? And how do those correspond to the keys on my Logitech keyboard in front of my IBM PC? There’s so much between you and enjoyment.

What our great engineers are able to do is add the UI, add the controls, do the investigation, figure out what the controls are, add a controls menu, and then also get it running correctly. Often, when you launch a game in The Making of Karateka or Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story, you’re not just like spinning up the emulator and loading the game. You’re probably launching a save state in which we’ve done a whole bunch of stuff to get it running, and then we save it at that state, and that’s where you start. I’m very lucky to work with the people that I work with.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story - Gridrunner

Thumbsticks: On the flip side, you also include Gridrunner: Remastered, which is a brand new modern update of a Jeff Minter classic. It’s a bonus that could easily justify a separate release.

Chris Kohler: Yes, we’re incredibly generous! We always try to add something like that because we feel like that is part of history, too, or part of hopefully hooking somebody in. Maybe the thing that hooks them in isn’t necessarily the historical materials. Maybe it’s the new version, and maybe playing the new version, which is crafted for modern players to give them the feeling somebody might have had playing this back in the day.

Maybe that’s the best way to make them a Gridrunner fan? Then maybe they go back and try the originals, having a little bit more understanding of how it works It makes that original core gameplay more accessible in some respects, by modernising it.

Thumbsticks: Feedback for the Gold Master Series has been overwhelmingly positive. Has this helped secure the next release and opened doors for new series and developers?

Chris Kohler: Prior to us getting some of these interactive documentaries out there, we had been pitching this to other publishers. Typically what happens is, they’re, interested, but say “that sounds expensive,” or “that sounds like it’s going to take too much time,” or “why don’t you just do it the regular way?” Now that we’ve shown that people react to it very well, we can hopefully sign other projects that in the past would have simply been separated out into a retro collection. Whether it’s a full thing or not,we can do it more this way, and so we’re really excited about that.

Thumbsticks: Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story will have a particular resonance with British gaming enthusiasts. How did you go about capturing the spirit of the time?

Chris Kohler: I realised I’m writing about your country’s history, so I have to do this, justice. It’s coming from an American perspective, and I felt like that was the best way to do it, instead of pretending to be British. These games are made at a certain place and at a certain time, so how do we reflect that?

Here’s a picture of the street that Jeff grew up on. Here’s the London Planetarium where he showed colour space for the ST. Here is a cup of tea. Here are things that we can show you to reinforce this notion that this was a certain place at a certain time. It’s not a place that exists anymore, but it was real, and it was a specific thing.

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story is out now on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, and PC.

We’ll be publishing more reports from this year’s Game Developers Conference soon.

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