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Interviews

Jeff Minter

The legendary Llama master on retro gaming, assorted beasties and his new software synth Neon for Xbox 360

Boot up your Xbox 360 this November and the chances are one of the first things you'll notice is the shining lights, pretty patterns and soothing music of Neon, the software synth and visualisation software which decorates the 360's new front end.

Funnily enough for such a cutting edge console, Neon is actually the product of a man who made his name during the formative years of the golden age of gaming, Jeff Minter, he of the long hair, bushy beard and strange obsession with llamas.

His fans include such luminaries as Louis Theroux, Aphex Twin and most pertinently Microsoft head honcho J Allard but Minter has always had a modest outlook on life and gaming. He lives in a small Welsh village and as you'd expect he has a rather unique relationship with animals (no not in that way you mucky pup), as he shares his existence with herds of llamas, sheep and pygmy goats. We tracked him down to hear his thoughts on life, gaming, llamas and the Xbox 360.

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How and why did you get into the games industry?

Jeff Minter: I'd taught myself to make games for my mates on the school Pet (made by Commodore in the early 1980s and one of the first successful home computers). I was about 16, there were very few decent games around, so I decided to write my own. I never thought about it as a career, I was just doing what I thought was a good thing.

Many of your bestsellers were 'homages' to arcade classics like Defender. Why didn't later classics inspire you?

Jeff Minter: I got more into doing my own thing later on. Everyone starts off doing a clone of something, but slowly you develop your own ideas. And I covered my favourite classics with Llamatron and Tempest anyway.

What do you miss most about the golden age of 8-bit programming?

Jeff Minter: It was done and dusted so quickly - you could turn out a game in a month and they were small, almost instant projects. Now you're there for a year or two and you don't get the immediacy. But I wouldn't have it any other way, because look at all the stuff you can do - it's amazing. I'm doing things I couldn't imagine before. The 8-bit days were great times, but these are great times too.

You concentrated on developing for consoles for much of the '90s. Why so little for the PC?

Jeff Minter: It's a question of what was interesting at the time - Pcs weren't games machines, you had CGA graphics and I chose the Atari Jaguar. It's different now, but it's still a nightmare compared to consoles - you have to deal with so many configurations - it's a tremendous burden on developers to do all the platform checking. If you're a small company like us, with only two people working code, given the choice you'll pick consoles.

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Unity's never going to come out is it?

Jeff Minter: There's no plans to release it at the moment. It's a huge project, it'd take me two years to do and I'd rather do more short term projects. That's not to say ideas from it won't surface anywhere else. Hopefully we'll be doing some games work on it on the Xbox 360. The Neon engine's pefect for the trippy kind of games I do.

Is Neon a game, is it an orchestration kit, or is it so alien to the common conception of technology that it doesn't really fit into any category?

Jeff Minter: It's definitely not a game in that there's no objective, no boss. It's an interactive entertainment experience. I men one of the things I've always striven to do is to interact, where you can do something where you can get involved, so you're not just listening to the music, you're performing along with it. With Neon, multiple users can use it at once, the first time a couple of guys came down to try it out, we were jamming for nine hours together, just us, a big screen and some good music.

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