Meet The Devs Who Made Indie Games on the Original Playstation
We speak to three developers who started on Sony’s PlayStation dev kit—Net Yaroze—and what it meant to share their expertise and experiences online.
Above: Blitter Boy, by Chris Chadwick.
Remember demo discs? I've been in love with them ever since I received my first, fixed to the front of issue 33 of Official UK PlayStation Magazine.
Said issue was in shops in June 1998, as excitement was reaching fever pitch over that summer's World Cup in France. England lost to Argentina on penalties, and my mum's boyfriend was so angry he broke the TV remote. She bought me the magazine after breaking the bank on a brand-new PlayStation, figuring that a disc full of playable games might keep me entertained on the cheap.
She was mostly right. The majority of the games bundled onto demo discs were garbage, but this disc also contained a Net Yaroze title, Rocks 'N' Gems. I adored it, playing it on a tiny TV in the living room not just during England's loss to Argentina, but for the rest of that summer, too.
It was the first video game to capture my imagination. I spent several hours spelunking through underground mines, collecting all the different colored gems, avoiding all the rocks that would fall and crush you if you lost your concentration for a second.
As a nine year old, I wasn't good at concentrating on much. But I was smitten. Rocks 'N' Gems was a near-clone of 1995's Rocks'n'Diamonds, but I didn't know this—just that if I bought a copy of OPM each month, I'd probably get a cool new game bundled beside a pile of rubbish demos.
These unexpected gifts were made possible by Net Yaroze, a dev kit that allowed indie programmers to create games for the PlayStation. Launching in March 1997, it tore up the established rules of console development, which until that point had been tightly controlled, with developers requiring licensing agreements, expensive development kits and the okay from the console creators to get to work. In contrast, Net Yaroze was well under $1,000, and Sony also made it available to universities in the UK, France and Japan.
To celebrate Net Yaroze's 20th birthday, I tracked down the creators of three of my all-time favorite games made using the mythical Black PlayStation: Gravitation, Psychon and Blitter Boy.
"The Net Yaroze was cooler than cool," says James Shaughnessy, creator of space-based racer/shoot 'em up Gravitation. "The PlayStation was the first console to be seen as cool by the masses, not just gamers. Sony put them in nightclubs, so it was no longer nerdy to be a gamer, it was cool. And a black PlayStation? Sub-zero cool."
Chris Chadwick, creator of the award-winning Blitter Boy: Operation Monster Mall, remembers Net Yaroze as "full of surprises" for a programmer, some good, and some bad. "The lack of ability to burn games to disc was a topic that came up frequently on the forums," he tells me. "Also, there was no Z-buffer, so 3D had to be rendered using the 'painter's algorithm'."
"On the good side, there was a pretty comprehensive library of functions to facilitate game creation," he continues. "True, they were a cut-down version of the libraries available on the full dev kit, but I don't remember feeling I was missing out on something I really needed."
Ben James created Psychon, which he describes as "an obvious Alien Breed clone," a top-down shooter full of darkened corridors stacked with bloodied corpses. For him, Net Yaroze seemed like a golden ticket into the games industry. He'd recently left a job developing Windows applications that was killing his enthusiasm for both his choice of career and programming in general. Net Yaroze couldn't have come at a better time.
When Net Yaroze launched, online communities weren't as prevalent as they are now, and watching a YouTube how-to or Googling for a solution wasn't possible (Google didn't officially incorporate until September 1998). Sony used this to its advantage, creating a private web space for the community to form around. The portal had a private forum and a place for registered members—those who had dropped the $750 (£550) on membership into the Net Yaroze club—to create pages to share their games, which would be dissected by the enthusiastic crowd in the forums.
Sony's nascent Net Yaroze community was one of the first dedicated spaces for indie development, coming at a time when there was no way to distribute homebrew games efficiently.
"It was such an integral part of the system, and of course why they put 'Net' in the name," said Shaughnessy. "Having a single focal place where all Yarozers could go to discuss ideas and get feedback on their early prototypes was priceless.
"There was a real sense of community there, which was much friendlier than you see on public forums now. Seeing other people's awesome work would really inspire you to try and compete, but everyone ultimately had the same goals and was always willing to help each other out."
"Pac-Man is a long-standing favorite game of mine, so I see the ghosts of Blitter Boy more as an 'homage.' I hope that keeps the lawyers happy!" — Chris Chadwick
Sony's only real misstep was that it separated the European, Japanese and US regions into different forums and sites, segregating the growing communities and making cross-territory collaboration difficult. However, having a crowd of people and a safe space to help you make sense of the Net Yaroze was incredibly useful.
While each of the trio had experience with programming before they turned their hands to developing on Sony's black box, they all remember having their own issues, mostly due to quirks with the C programming language or the Net Yaroze's hardware limitations.
Shaughnessy, describing himself as "not quite John Carmack, but fairly competent with programming" after previous adventures in game development, tells me about the biggest problem about Net Yaroze game development. To maintain Gravitation's pixel-perfect collision detection, essential for what is essentially physics-based racer, he had to get technical.
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"Gravitation's maps were all 640 by 512 pixels, so the whole map could fit uncompressed in the 1024 by 512 VRAM, acting as one huge back buffer while still leaving space for the 320 by 256 main display buffer plus all of the sprites. It was pretty much the only way I knew how to do it at the time, to support two-player split-screen and to be able to use the actual VRAM data for the collision detection."
With help from others on the forum, he managed to find a way to get this to work, and admitted that he would have quite easily been able to support four player—except Net Yaroze games didn't support Sony's L-shaped Multitap. There were other problems, too—James briefly mentions something about constantly frying serial cards, due to the Yaroze's fondness for what he simply calls static.
Developers on the Yaroze had access to the full power of the PlayStation, but they struggled with the inability to load files from a CD in real time. This limitation, not a problem for regular PlayStation releases, meant that Yaroze games had to fit onto the console's 2MB of RAM. Factor in the 500k of memory that the kit needed to make the magic happen, and a title produced using it had just 1.5MB to make everything work. For comparison, last year's iPhone 6 shipped with a thousand times that much RAM. These games really were running on next to nothing.
Chadwick was 29 and out of work due to health complications when the Net Yaroze was released. Concentrating on learning all the intricacies of the system was a good way for him to focus his energy. The result of his efforts was Blitter Boy, a "bit of a mishmash of ideas and inspiration" that wasn't supposed to be a game, starting out as a way for Chadwick to simply learn the system.
The result is a psychedelic romp through a shopping mall, blasting ghosts while you try to rescue crying babies and lead them to an escape portal. No, really. Design choices were made based on what looked cool. Babies followed the titular Blitter Boy around because Chadwick loved the way that tiny chicks would follow Flicky around, in the game of the same name.
And about those ghosts that float around as the game's enemies. "They were a blatant rip-off of Pac-Man," Chadwick admits, with a shrug. "The back story to Blitter Boy was something about all the baddies from the games in the shopping mall arcade escaping and running amok. Pac-Man is a long-standing favorite game of mine, so I see it more as an 'homage'."
He laughs, adding: "I hope that keeps the lawyers happy!"
The game went on to win the 1998 Game Developer UK Competition, after Chadwick was persuaded to put it forward by Sarah Bennett, a member of Sony's Net Yaroze support team. "Without her encouragement, I doubt I ever would have entered, so thanks to her for that."
"It was all pretty surreal," he continues, "like a bit-part actor suddenly finding themselves accepting an award at the Oscars. I was genuinely shocked to win, and it felt great. I'd dreamed about making games for a living since I was a teenager, and all of a sudden I felt like I really may be able to make it happen."
"When I spotted an advert for the Net Yaroze in a magazine, I found my calling. I instantly knew that not only was it what I wanted to do, but I now suddenly believed I could do it." — James Shaughnessy
Shaughnessy's Gravitation was the runner-up in the same competition. But he was unsure of where to go next once the game, which he'd made right after graduating from university, was out there. "I'm more of a petrol-head, and I actually wanted to work in Formula 1," Shaughnessy admits. "That was probably to do with the computer side of things. But I hadn't worked it out, so my vague, non-specific speculative letters to all the F1 teams came to nothing."
"When I spotted an advert for the Net Yaroze in a magazine, I found my calling," he continues. "I instantly knew that not only was it what I wanted to do, but I now suddenly believed I could do it—and what I couldn't do, I'd simply teach myself."
Shaughnessy adored Gravity Force on the Amiga, and saw a gap on the PlayStation for a game that recreated its exacting physics, and its two-player racing and dogfighting. So, that's what he set out to make on his own.
This do-it-yourself attitude, the spirit of developers overcoming any and all challenges put in their way, came to be emblematic of Net Yaroze. The disc mounted to the front of OPM44 in February 1999 featured a demo of Metal Gear Solid alongside the Net Yaroze hall of fame, containing 14 different titles developed on the kit. They're not all gold, naturally—but to a much younger me, with so much time on his hands, they were priceless. I still have the disc—and my partner's PlayStation to play it on—to this day.
Ironically, the "bedroom" vibe that permeates not just the three titles I've profiled here, but the entire library of Yaroze games running on the PlayStation, lead to many people moving into the groaning machine that the games industry was becoming in the late 1990s. Both James and Shaughnessy went on to work for Codemasters, while Chadwick landed a role at doomed PlayStation developer Eighth Wonder, a second party studio that was shuttered before releasing a single game.
James and Shaughnessy have made their way back to indie development, with Psychon 2 and Super Grav respectively—both came out in 2016. Chadwick admits he's thought about reviving Blitter Boy, but isn't sure how best to go about it—he tells me that the console he came closest to working with was the ill-fated Ouya.
Twenty years on from the release of their forefathers, these newer titles feel weirdly out of place. Psychon 2 is brightly light, with clean lines and slick AI replacing grim corridors and "infected" enemies who charged from side to side with little thought for their self-preservation. It's not worse than the original Psychon, but it's different. For James, it's an excuse to finally finish the game he wanted to make back in '98.
"The levels [of Psychon 2] are more varied, there's more to do in the game, and it's more polished than the predecessor," he says. "Hardware and development tools are more powerful now, so the actual development was smoother, and much more pleasant."
Sadly, most Net Yaroze games are consigned to history. Video games, as a medium, often age poorly, and the technological limitations of many Yaroze titles mean they've aged worse than most. While the demo discs are currently easy enough to find on eBay and similar sites, they are, inevitably, slowly vanishing into retro-gaming collections. And as they do, they take with them evidence of one of video gaming's most interesting, and important, indie development communities.