Interview with Gregg Barnett

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It's 1984 when a small Melbourne games development company called Beam Software created something that was surely a defining moment in computer game entertainment. "The Way of the Exploding Fist" (published by Melbourne House) sold over 500,000 copies in Europe alone, and pretty much got the ball going with the one on one fighting genre. You could say it is the ancestor to combat games like Street Fighter, Tekken, and Soul Caliber of today. It amazed us with its pretty artwork, believable character animation, beefy grunt samples, catchy tunes, and most importantly, extremely entertaining and original gameplay.

I was about 8 at the time when a friend came over with a copy he just bought. I loaded it up on my Commodore 64 with its datacassette, and I can still remember the loading screen, accompanied wiith a sudden loud burst of a kung fu sample. We must have played for hours until unfortunately he had to leave, taking the game with him. I, however, still wanted to play! My 8 year old mind came up with a temporary solution which was to just leave the computer on for as long as I could.. I managed to keep the game running for a couple of days. :)

This article is not about me however. It's about Gregg Barnett. He is the designer / programmer of Exploding Fist (and many other memorable games) and, would you believe, is still making games. His current game, 'Ghost Masters' is nearing completion, and despite his EXTREMELY busy schedule (working near 24 hours to finish off the game and responding to press), he was kind enough to find the time to reminisce with us his days at Beam Software, that karate game, and what he's been up to since....

Ok, just a few questions to let our readers know a bit about yourself. What is your age, where were you born, and where are you currently residing?

I'm 40, was born in Swan Hill in northern Victoria, moved to Melbourne to go to university, then started with Beam Software in 1982, left for the UK in 1992 to form my own company, Perfect Entertainment in London, then in 1999 went on to set up Sick Puppies in Oxford.

Can you write a brief rundown on the list of games you have been involved with ?

Not even sure my memory is that good...a brief list is as follows:

Hungry Horace (C64)
Horace Goes Skiing (C64)
The Hobbit (C64)
The Way of the Exploding Fist
Rock and Wrestle
Fist 2
Aussie Games
Shadowrun
Discworld
Discworld II: Missing Presumed...!?
Discworld Noir
Ghost Master

How did you get into programming games? What company did you first work for?

I always wanted to get into films but also had a great interest in science, so it was the natural thing to do to combine both and start in the then fledgling game industry. The lure of being a pioneer was also strong. At that time Melbourne House / Beam Software were about the only company doing games in the southern hemisphere.

What are your recollections of working at Beam Software?

In the early days Beam was a great studio doing original games - we were as well known and as innovative as anybody out there. It's so different when you're part of a new industry (one many people thought wouldn't last), as opposed to now when it's all big business. Looking back they really were the 'good old days'.

  • The Way of the Exploding FistThe Way of the Exploding Fist
  • The Way of the Exploding FIstThe Way of the Exploding Fist

You've been credited for programming and the design of the game "The Way of the Exploding Fist" on the C64. Where did you get the inspiration or idea for that game?

Like the name implies (it's the english translation of Bruce Lee's fighting style) it was from watching Bruce Lee films (in the days before you could easily get Hong Kong action movies). I also loved sims, especially sports sims, and nobody had done any martial arts sims at that point. Of course, to be fair, the coin-op game Karate Champ appeared in the arcades with similar ideas before we had finished Expoding Fist, so they can claim to be first overall. While the games had different fighting styles and Fist was a specific vision of mine, it has to said that some of their better ideas were an influence in the end.

Do you have any anecdotes on the making of The Way of the Exploding Fist? Were you surprised on how well received the game got?

The way I coded in those days was to design everything out and get each bit in and working before doing a big compile and turning on the whole game so to speak. This meant that nobody saw anything of the game at all for the first two months (an eternity in those days) and were getting a bit edgy as to whether the idea was a good one. I can still remember the day I did my first big compile and got what was effectively the two player game working. Without telling anybody (I intended to surprise them later in the day) I went to make a coffee, and when I came back there was a queue of people playing the game. That's when we all knew we had a potential hit. When you're sort of defining a new genre you can't ever be sure it will work (of course in those days genres were being defined much more than today), but at that moment we were pretty sure. The good reviews just reinforced that belief.

System 3 then faced a lengthy court battle with arcade publishers Data East, who claimed System 3 had ripped off their game 'Karate Champ' with International Karate. Seeing as International Karate came on the bandwagon of Exploding Fist, what did you make of all this?

It has to be said that IK looked a lot like Fist (in places the graphics were virtually identical) but it used the forward kicking (street) karate style of Karate Champ as opposed to the side kicking (realistic) style of Fist. System 3 were probably lucky they didn't hear from our lawyers as well. Unfortunately we can't say we were first overall because of Karate Champ, but we were the first true beat 'em up on home computers, a foundation for others like System 3 to base their games on.

  • The HobbitThe Hobbit
  • Disc WorldDisc World

What made you leave Beam, and what have you been doing since?

Beam had a great pioneering spirit during the early home computer days, but as Nintendo became established and games became big business, every corporate man and his dog got involved and everybody wanted games based on licenses because they thought they were safer bets. We were doing games on comics, tv shows, films, even Bigfoot trucks, in fact all manner of things, everything except big original ideas of our own. It was time to move on and try something fresh. That something was setting up Perfect Entertainment. Similar to what Beam had done at the start by using a major book (The Hobbit) as a means of getting known, I contacted Terry Pratchett and licensed his Discworld books to do a series of adventure games. It was a great arrangement because we got to do totally original stories using his Discworld. Then, after about 7 years I was actually heading back to Australia, when I was approached to set up a new studio in Oxford. This not only gave me the chance to form a great studio and bring on board some of the best people in the industry, but it also gave me the opportunity to develop Ghost Master, a totally original game in a genre all of its own. That was the birth of Sick Puppies.

You've been a game developer from since pretty much the birth computer game entertainment. What things have stood out in your memory?

Computer game development started as a 'one programmer in the bedroom' sort of industry and now is a 30 person on a project big budget industry to rival the movie one. The early pioneering days were the highlight for me, it's not everybody that gets to grow with an industry. The generations of games such as the Mario ones is always fascinating, seeing how initially small ideas blossum and evolve into masterpieces of game design and execution. Obviously the advances in technology and online capability have practically redefined what can be done in the name of computer entertainment. Of course those advances really only provide a stark contrast for the less than marked advances in gameplay which often has to take a backseat.

Of all the games you have worked on, which are you most proud of, and why?

The most exciting ones were Exploding Fist, Discworld and Ghost Master, all games that started with huge expectations which just seemed to grow and grow. The first two backed up with commercial success, here's hoping Ghost Master will do the same when it's finished and released.

  • Ghost MasterGhost Master
  • Ghost MasterGhost Master

Can you tell us about Sick Puppies, and the game that's currently in production called Ghost Master..?

Sick Puppies is a small studio that is devoted to doing fully original games. Ghost Master is a game where you play an afterlife civil servant sent down to earth in control of a small team of ghosts with different powers. You can expand that team and powerbase by laying other ghosts to rest and teaching them new powers in the ghoulroom. It is a mission based game where you must use your ghosts to scare and manipulate mortals. Gamespot gives a reasonable breakdown. (click here for the Gamespot Preview)

thanks for your time in answering the questions!

My pleasure, if you need anything else feel free to ask.

All the best
Gregg

Huge thanks to Gregg, and also to Mike Philbib (senior 3D artist at Sick Puppies) for helping me contact him. :)
More information about Ghost Master (to be released around October 2002) below!

Ghost Master media at Gamespot Ghost Master screenshots page at Gamershell Games Domain Preview Empire Interactive's Ghost Master product page