Sensible Software: 1986-1999


Written by James Read
23 Sunday 23rd September 2012

Sensible Soccer, which was first released on the Amiga in 1992 (but eventually on over a dozen formats), was in many ways the first truly great sports video game - and certainly one of the most popular. Its creators, Sensible Software, went on to develop other fantastic early-90s titles such as Cannon Fodder and Mega Lo Mania (as well as some fairly silly ones, like Sim Brick and Sensible Train Spotting).

One of the things the company is best remembered for is its brilliant humour and pixel art style - making use of a miniscule amount of visual data to breathe life into virtual slide tackles and gun battles. Graphic designer Darren Wall (behind Hot Chip's album artwork) doesn't think their contribution should be forgotten, so he's started a new publishing company (Read-Only Memory) to work on creating the first in a series of high-end books documenting gaming history in a visually spectacular manner. We spoke to him about the project just as his Kickstarter campaign overfloweth (as of publishing he's just exceeded his $30,000 target - but he tells us "additional pledges will go towards making an even bigger, better book").

So,  how'd you get started on the project? It'll be your first book, right?

The idea came about after a trip to Japan where I bought a few extremely luxurious books on game art. The Japanese have a healthy video game book market and produce a lot of what they call "Mooks" which are magazine/book hybrids packed full of glossy game art, sketches and design documents from the games. I've always wanted to buy similar things about the games I grew up with as a child in the UK but they just didn't exist.

I then had the creeping realisation I could do something myself. I've been a graphic designer for about nine years now and five of those were working in-house for various publishing companies, so I had amassed a lot of knowledge on how to go about it. I had a vision for how I wanted it all to work and two years later it looks like we're well on our way to making our very first book!

Tell us about how you envisage it (both content & design-wise)?

Simply put, our aim is to please both die-hard gamers as well as the fussiest design geeks.

Great writing is incredibly important. I'm a huge fan of the writing from early game magazines like Zzap!64, The One and Amiga Power, where the tone was incredibly creative, funny and irreverent. That kind of games journalism is harder to find now so I'm so excited to be going back to these writers and working with them for our books. For our Sensible Software book we have enlisted Gary Penn, who is one of the biggest names from that era, and he's been incredibly enthusiastic and ambitious about the sheer amount of detail we'll be going into. I can't wait to read the first drafts!

Design-wise, we're aiming for it to feel as special as possible. With the advent of all things digital I feel books really have to earn their right to exist physically now! We'll be using multiple paper stocks, special inks and we'll even have an inset sketchbook containing the early doodles and sketches which went into making the biggest games. Half of the book will comprise a visual journey through the games with lovingly stitched together level maps, animation sheets of the characters and intro/end sequences. We want the book to be as visually immersive as the games themselves.

You're funding the book's publication through Kickstarter, and it's looking like you've got a good shot at making the $30K goal. What will you be doing with the money if you succeed?

Yes! I can't quite believe how well we're doing! It's great to know I wasn't alone in wanting to read this book. The $30,000 covers production of the book, writing, copy-checking, indexing, storage and lots more besides. If we go over our goal then I'll be putting that back into the book itself to make it that bit more desirable. I have a feeling we could easily fill another 100 pages with material so perhaps that will be the primarily upgrade.

Why Sensible?

When people talk about that formative moment in your teens when they discovered The Smiths or read their first great novel, that was what Sensible meant to me. They embodied British creativity and eccentricity while having a clear, focussed obsession with the fine mechanics of gameplay. I think a lot of people feel this passionately about them so I felt it was our perfect first book and a statement of our intent as a publisher.

How'd you get working with Hot Chip on their (awesome) artwork?

I went to college with Owen [guitar and keyboard] and knew them from first moving to London back in 2003. I ended up doing a lot of their covers over the years which was always great fun. As a child of the 80s and 90s there's nothing bigger for a designer than working on a record cover! I grew up with Peter Saville and Mark Farrow covers filed next to my video games - I hope I bring some of that spirit to Read-Only Memory.

It's probably a little early to be thinking about future projects, but if the Sensible Software book happens, what's next?

We are already working on a couple of things which I'm really excited about. I can't spill the beans yet I'm afraid to say, but I can hint that these upcoming releases are in very much the same spirit of the Sensible book. Have I just given it away a bit? Probably.

Lastly, what have you been playing recently?

I tried playing Minecraft with my girlfriend recently but found it impossible to maintain any semblance of a normal life. Even bathroom breaks became massive, tantrum-inducing inconveniences. That game is a bit too good…

Generally I play older stuff, I'm a huge sucker for Sega's Shinobi series, and I've been recently been playing the Game Gear version from 1991 as I missed it first time around.

Sensible Software: 1986-1999 is due for release the beginning of next year. If you would like to contribute to the project, check out the Kickstarter page.

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