Although they have only recently begun to distribute in North America, 21st Century Ltd. are one of Europe's larger software developers and distributors. Started by Andrew Hewson, after the failure of Hewson Associates (an early games house developing for 8-bit machines), 21st Century's success has been built on the remarkable popularity of its pinball simulation games: "PINBALL DREAMS" and "PINBALL FANTASIES". Indeed, the casual observer familiar only with the PC market might be forgiven for regarding 21st Century as nothing more than a pinball simulations specialist. This, however, is some way from the truth as much of 21st Century's business is distribution and contract development work for other software houses. 21st Century also have a significant business developing and marketing in-circuit emulators for console cartridge development.
The interview with 21st Century was conducted at their main offices: a modest collection of pre-fabricated buildings tucked away in the picture- postcard village of Blewbury located in the rolling countryside 15 miles (25 km) south of Oxford. Needless to say, after the thirsty work of watching demos and a question and answer session, interviewer and interviewee repaired to the local pub to continue the discussion in `traditional' surroundings! Your intrepid correspondent can of course assure GameBytes readers that the conduct of the interview was in no way influenced by the consumption of "Brakspear's Ale". Many thanks to Paul Topping of 21st Century for putting up with (and answering!) a lot of questions and supplying some excellent Beer...
GB: Pinball simulations - it isn't exactly a mainstream games development activity! How did 21st Century become a specialist in this area, and how did you come to do so well out of such a seemingly small niche.
21st C: Well, when the company started up after the failure of Hewson Associates it began by looking for (Amiga) games to publish. The original pinball game (Pinball Dreams) looked good, so they decided to give it a go. From there on we never looked back - it sold like *crazy*. Better still, it continued to sell well. It is not unusual to have a game that sells well 2 or 3 months after launch. With enough marketing, any half respectable game will do that. The real trick is to still have a decent income 8, 12 or 18 months later. With Pinball Dreams we'd hit upon just such a format. In fact `Dreams' is still selling steadily - it is, for example, bundled in with Commodore's Amiga CD-32.
GB: So who was actually responsible for the coding of the original Amiga version of Pinball Dreams?
21st C: The main developers were a bunch of Swedish students. The main coder was a guy doing mechanical engineering who'd got into coding demo's and ended up doing a demo of ball-bearings rolling down slopes with some of his friends. The whole point about this demo was that they did it *properly*: modelling elasticity, surfaces, and so on. It was then that they thought of doing a really accurate pin-table simulation. This they sent to a variety of software houses, but apart from 21st Century the only interest was from a really small back-room operation. Needless to say, 21st Century got the contract.
GB: The original developers' background presumably explains why the ball simulation `feels' right in the games?
21st C: Yes, you'd be amazed how much effort went into the ball model. It really is impressively detailed. It is a lot more than just velocity and position. For a start it is very important to model the ball's spin. A lot of the skill in playing a real pinball lies in allowing for, or even exploiting, the ball's spin.
GB: Like saving a ball by catching it with the very tip of the flipper?
21st C: Yes, exactly. On top of that you have to take into account the different surfaces the ball is rolling on. In our games there are 8 different surface models that control the way in which the ball rolls and brushes against the pinball furniture: wood, plastic, metal, three different rubbers and so on.
GB: Modelling all this physics is presumably pretty processor intensive. It must have cost you some headaches when you ported the games to different platforms?
21st C: Well yes. You can see that from the CPU requirements for the PC version of Pinball Dreams - 386SX and upwards. What was really tricky, however, was getting the game to run on the 16 bit consoles. They're *really* short of processing power. We managed it in the end though.
GB: What about the follow-on game `Pinball Fantasies'? Did you develop that yourselves?
21st C: No, that was done in Sweden as well, but by a different group of people, friends of the original developers in fact. They did a another really excellent job. Fantasies actually has *lower* hardware requirements than Dreams on the PC. It will run quite happily on a relatively modest 286 machine. That's because, by that time, they'd figured out a way to do smooth scrolling without having to redraw the whole screen each time. You're not really supposed to be able to do that with the standard VGA hardware but with some really hacky tricks it is possible.
GB: One of the things that impressed me (and some of the pinball players I showed the game to) is the way the games handle scrolling around the ball. There seems to be some kind of clever look-ahead involved so that you get to see the bits of the table where the ball is heading for rather than just a fixed area around the ball. How is that handled?
21st C: Well it isn't quite look-ahead. What actually happens is that there is a kind of invisible margin around the display. Beyond that margin, the closer the ball is to the edge, the faster the game scrolls the screen to bring it back towards the middle. Simple but effective.
GB: Real pinball is a very tactile kind of a game. Talking to keen pinball players it seems that stuff like sound and classy artwork is very important. One of the comments I got about Dreams and Fantasies is that, in some respects, the music and sound is more reminiscent of previous generation pinball machines rather than the current state of the art. How would you respond to that?
21st C: Well yes that is partly true. However, it does depends on the sound-card you have. In Pinball Fantasies things do sound noticeably better if you have a good sound-card. You have to bear in mind modern pinball's have pretty fancy sound systems!
GB: So do you actually use the stereo and so forth in more advanced cards?
21st C: Absolutely. For example, we're quite unusual in providing proper support for the Gravis Ultrasound. That sounds really good. Another thing we're very proud of in Pinball Fantasies is the sound driver we developed for the ordinary PC speaker. If you use a lot of processing power, it turns out that you can use the little bit of capacitance in the speaker circuit to get more than just on/off control of the speaker driver.
GB: A kind of pulse-width modulation...?
21st C: Yes, something like that. Anyway, if you have a reasonably fast computer you can get quite tolerable sound effects and music. Also, another thing you have to bear in mind, is the sheer volume of sound-effects and music you need, even in our existing games. It isn't so much the main tunes and sound-effects but all the various `reward' special effects and tunes played when the appropriate pinball features are triggered: replays, multi- balls, bonuses, tilt, and so on. If you don't do something different for these things the players soon get pretty fed up. Multiply that by the four different tables simulated and you get some idea of the volume of work involved. One of the things that really irritated us with some of the reviews we got in the computer games press was the attitude that `it's only a pinball game - play it for half an hour and you've seen it all'. That couldn't be further from the truth! It is all the rare, hard-to-get features and the subtleties of the ball simulation that we feel make our games. Also, as with real pinball tables, table design is a big piece of work. You can't just do a pretty picture, stick on some pinball furniture and a ramp or two and expect to end up with a pinball worth playing. It took 6 months or more to work out the table designs in our games.
GB: Both Pinball Dreams and Pinball Fantasies, although new on the PC in the US, have been out for some time in Europe. What new products do you have in the pipeline?
21st C: Well, the thing that's closest to completion is a set of four new tables for Pinball Dreams. We're going to do this as an add-in disk and as a CD-ROM. The CD will include the 4 original tables, the 4 new ones, plus a professionally ray-traced intro, and a multimedia presentation on the history of pinball's. The artwork and sound we're developing for the new tables will obviously build on and improve what we've done for the original four. The add-in will also update Pinball Dreams with the new screen and sound drivers that we developed for Pinball Fantasies
GB: A multimedia history? That's quite an unusual component for an action/reflex game? Does it really fit with the kind of people buying your games?
21st C: Obviously, we think it does. You have to bear in mind that the people who buy our games aren't necessarily your typical teens / early twenties PC games players. Quite a lot of our buyers in the PC market are older, They buy games they can play casually to relax in a break at work, rather than something to spend hours over. We think the multi-media thing will actually have quite a lot of appeal to this type of person. Also we're very keen to exploit some of the potential of the CD format rather than just push out our old software on a different medium. We wanted to add some value rather than just churn out shovelware.
GB: What about things further away from release?
21st C: Well, we're already working on the third game in the Pinball series: Pinball Illusions. We're thinking very hard about how we can improve on our existing simulation and graphics engine for this. Stuff like using SVGA graphics, or a 3D perspective presentation rather than a 2D one. We're really pulling out all the stops on music and sound effects for this third game: with a good sound card wired to decent speakers it should be something really special to listen to!
GB: Presumably with SVGA you could display the whole of a pin-table at once without the need for scrolling...
21st C: Actually, that really isn't the case at all. The problem isn't resolution it is size. If you put the whole of a table on screen at once the ball becomes a tiny blob. In SVGA it simply becomes a higher resolution tiny blob! A real pin table is physically very large: you'd need to use an enormous monitor if you wanted to give a good simulation without scrolling. Once you've played a little, the scrolling actually becomes quite natural. It kind of mimics what your eyes would be doing anyway, following the ball on a real table. The only significant drawback is the extra difficulty involved in aiming shots at targets high up on the table. However, that too you soon get used to, and we design our simulated tables to minimise the problem.
GB: Speaking of real tables: although the themes of your simulated tables are very much in the style of popular pinball machines the sounds, artwork, layout, and so on are very much your own. Did you consider licensing artwork and so on from the manufacturers of real tables?
21st C: We certainly considered it. However, there are a lot of problems quite apart from the licensing issues. It turns out that simply copying the layout and features of a real table in a simulation really doesn't work at all well. Because of the different perspective playability suffers a lot. Things just don't work the same way when you've got a 2D top-down view rather than a 3D view. The Artwork is even worse: for it to look good on a PC it really has to be created with the limitations of low-resolution 256 color VGA graphics in mind. Obviously, that isn't the case with the original artwork of a pinball machine.
GB: You also mentioned moving to a 3D perspective view. That would presumably add quite a lot to the feeling of realism. I could imagine it being a quite a useful selling point...
21st C: Unfortunately, moving to a 3D perspective view isn't without its pitfalls either! We've experimented with this quite a bit and it turns out that it makes it much harder to aim shots. The problem is that without the depth information you'd get from two eyes in the real world it becomes much harder to judge angles and relative positions. Of course that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a way around this problem or that we won't use it, but we certainly want to give it more thought. For example, we might consider providing a button that allows the player to switch between 2D and 3D views according to the situation. A lot depends on what we can get to work well.
GB: Are you considering diversifying away from Pinball? Are there any other non-pinball PC games under development?
21st C: We're thinking of doing a platform game for the PC. Although there is an abundance of this kind of thing on the consoles and on the Amiga, the PC has relatively few. Very few indeed, if you're looking for something high-quality. So that's what we're aiming to do: a really sophisticated platform game for the PC - loads of high-class artwork, really good music, a huge playing area, and so on. Beyond that, however, it really is far too early to say much. It will be a good while before there's anything concrete implemented and even then things could change quite a lot.
GB: A common thread in the type of games you develop seems to be extensive music and artwork. This kind of thing certainly can't be knocked up overnight by programmers working in their spare time. Where do you source this material from? Do you do it all in-house or do you hire in freelances?
21st C: What we do is keep a database of people who we can contact when we need something doing. For each person we record what their specialities are, what they've done before, etc. Then, when we start a project we try to choose people to fit the jobs we need doing. Quite a lot of the people in the database are there because they sent us an interesting demo or some other sample of their work. For example, some of the sound-tracks for the add-in disk were actually done by a 17-year old. A few years back, he sent us some music he'd done on his Amiga. We thought it was pretty impressive stuff and likely to be useful, so when we started work we got in touch and hired him to do the music for one of the new tables. However, I wouldn't want to give people the impression that getting this kind of work is easy: it is a pretty competitive business. A lot of professionals from TV and radio have discovered the games market and aren't averse to earning some money there. For example, another of the people we work with has done themes for one of the major UK commercial TV companies. This chap earns big league royalties, but he'll still quite happily work on music for a video game.
GB: You mentioned that the pinball games have proved remarkable durable, selling steadily if not spectacularly month after month. What do you think is behind this longevity?
21st C: As far as we know a good part of it is simply the appeal of pinball's themselves. Pinball is inherently pretty timeless: almost everyone knows what a pinball is and quite a few have had a go and enjoyed it. That isn't the case with more sophisticated things like role-playing games and flight simulators. Furthermore, pinball is something you can play casually - half an hour at lunchtime for example - rather than something that you really have to think about and spend hours on. As such, we reckon we reach a much broader class of customers than most games. Certainly, our registration returns for the PC versions suggest our buyers are typically rather older than the usual PC games buyer. We're guessing, but we think a good number are professional people buying our games to play on `work' machines. A slicker, more exciting, alternative to the games that are bundled in with Windows as it were. We're not alone in this assessment either: we've just set up a bundling deal with Word Perfect in Germany.
GB: You mean if you buy the latest version of Word Perfect in Germany you get a copy of Pinball Dreams thrown in `for free'?
21st C: Exactly. Another thing that helps a lot is the fact that our games run on pretty modest hardware. There are still a *lot* of PC's out there with 286's or slow 386SX's. There simply aren't that many well-presented games that run well on that kind of hardware any more. The same also applies for sound: very few games really make much effort to use the PC speaker. Yet, there are a heck of a lot of PC's out there without sound cards: machines in student labs, office machines, parents' machines, laptops, and so on.
GB: What about future games? Are you considering dropping support for 286 machines.
21st C: We aim to have our games run on at least 85% of the current installed base. However, that isn't such an easy thing to judge even if you do a lot of market research by wading through registration returns and so on. Whatever happens, we certainly won't be asking for fast 486 machines or anything remotely like that.
GB: What about the argument that if you program for state of the art hardware now, people will still by buying your games in 2 or 3 years time as they upgrade?
21st C: Well, personally, I just don't believe anyone in the industry actually aims to build games that will run only on the latest and greatest machines. It is simply that ambitious projects over-shoot and end up requiring rather more hardware than the programmers had originally intended. I bet most software houses would dearly like to have lower hardware requirements in their latest products. After all, what if a competitor were to release something almost as good that runs on twice as many machines? You can bet the people buying the more modest game won't upgrade to the slightly better, but much greedier, program when they upgrade their machine.
GB: Who do you see as your main competitors?
21st C: Well I guess Amtex, with their simulations of real tables, who spring to mind first as our main competition. The only other people are Epic with `SILVER BALL'. However, we think we've got a significant edge over both these companies because of our authentic ball model.
GB: How do you see the games market developing? You're involved in the consoles market as well as PC's: according to finance/business press gross margins are, apparently, noticeably higher in the consoles market. Could you see yourselves gradually drifting away from PC's?
21st C: No not all. First of all you have to bear in mind that the PC market is still growing very rapidly. The console market is more mature. Also, for software houses at least, profits on console cartridges really aren't *that* wonderful.
GB: What about SVGA and hi-color, or even true color? I would imagine your artists and programmers could be pretty keen to explore the possibilities opened up by more colors and higher resolution.
21st C: Well, at the moment there simply aren't nearly enough people ticking the SVGA box on our registration returns. A lot of people still only have ordinary VGA cards, and we don't want to exclude them from buying our games.
GB: What about the new super-consoles - do you see them becoming significant competitors for the PC?
21st C: We think is simply to early to tell. For example, our programmers are very impressed with the Atari Jaguar. We think it is the right kind of machine at the right kind of price to follow on from the current 16 bit consoles. The hardware is impressive, and they're aiming to sell it at around 200 pounds, with a CD drive for another 100 However, you have ask whether Atari have the financial clout and, given previous embarrassments, goodwill to launch it succesfully.Authors note: past experience suggests US street prices are roughly the same in dollars as UK prices in pounds.
GB: Apparently, you've only recently started selling in the US. How difficult did you find that? In the past it has been notoriously difficult for UK companies to start up in a market where there are invariably already large well-established US competitors.
21st C: Well it wasn't easy, but on the other hand it does really help when you can say to people: ``Last year we sold over a quarter of a million units in Europe''. Actually, I think we've reached the half million mark now, all told. Those kind of numbers tend to make people take you seriously.
GB: Thanks for the Interview!This interview is Copyright (C) 1994 by Andrew Stevens for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.