Interview: Ste Pickford (Co-Developer Of Plok)

Ste-Pickford-InterviewWith the recent news that Super Nintendo cult title Plok is receiving a much deserved comic strip revival, we managed to get a hold of the game’s co-creator Ste Pickford to talk about the much loved title and the cartoon it’s inspired.

Ste Pickford is best known for helping to develop a number of games alongside his brother John Pickford. The two are famous for games such as the aforementioned Plok, water puzzler oddity Wetrix, and Magnetic Billiards on iOS - and have been working in the industry for 20 years. We spoke to Ste about the process in getting each comic drawn, how the idea of the project came about, and also about the game itself – including the frustrating reason why it didn’t have a save feature...

Interview with Ste Pickford

RetroCollect's Simon Reed: Where did the idea for the comic come from – did a fan suggest it, or was it something you came up purely with yourself?

Ste Pickford: The idea of a Plok comic strip was something we came up with ourselves. I enjoy drawing comics in my spare time, but typically my comic strips are individual, personal anecdotes, featuring myself, friends and family, rather than fictional characters.  

I usually blog them on the Pickford Bros website but they aren't really Pickford Bros work, they're just personal projects. John always has story and character ideas, so it seemed a natural fit for us to put our heads together and make a comic strip between us. I'm kind of puzzled as to why we'd never thought of doing this earlier.

We always had lots of background work done for Plok, the other characters in his world, locations, etc., so it seemed a good idea to make use of that.
I think we're usually so caught up in the work of making video games that doing a non-game project together isn't something would normally occur to us.

We do get a lot of fan requests for a sequel or for a re-release of the SNES game. A comic strip felt like a good way of at least partially responding to those requests, while also doing something surprising and interesting at the same time.

RC: Can you explain the process in creating each strip?

SP: This is new to us, so we're learning the process as we go along at the moment. We didn't start publishing the comic until we had five strips completed, and ideas for a few more ready to draw. 

From now on we're planning to publish a new episode on the website at the same rate that we finish creating new strips, so that we'll always have about four in the queue ready to be published. We're not sure if that will continue, or at what frequency the strips will come out.

We're hoping for at least one a week, maybe a little faster sometimes, with the possibility of quickly writing and drawing a strip and publishing it within a day or so if the right idea comes along. We are still primarily focused on developing new video games, so the comic strip is strictly an evenings and weekends project for us, to be done in between making games.

The process we've started with is that John and I discuss ideas for characters and the direction of the strip, as well as just odd details or lines of dialogue or images we want in there. From that we pick out a couple of ideas that will suit a single strip, then I break that down into panels / dialogue, and sketch a rough layout. Once we're happy with that, I draw the strip.

You might be surprised that I draw on paper - on A3 Bristol Board, and then ink with a .5mm Rotring Pen. Because in some ways the comic strip is a break from regular work, I'm really enjoying the excuse to step away from the computer in the evening and draw on paper, as I'm in Photoshop on the computer all day for the 'day job' of making video games.

Once inked, I scan the strip in, then I use Photoshop to colour and add the lettering. I keep sending the scans over to John along the way, and we might tweak the dialogue or alter a couple of details before the strip is finished and ready to go.

Ste-Pickfords-Plok-Sketches

RC: Can you give any hints as to what areas/characters future strips will explore – or are you trying to keep things as secret as possible?

SP: It's not so much that we want to keep things secret, more that we're making it up as we go along and we don't know what's coming yet! I will say that we're not limiting the Plok comic strip to just the world of the game.

We want to re-introduce characters first seen in the game, and other aspects of the world, but we also want to make Plok aware of the real world, and add a contemporary, up-to-the minute angle to the strip.

RC: Moving onto the game Plok itself, the SNES was hardly short of 2D platformers back in the early 90s – so what made you confident it would stand out in such a bustling genre?

SP: It wasn't really such a competitive market at the beginning of the project - Plok is actually older than it seems, as we started developing the game as a coin-op called Fleatpit at our earlier studio Zippo Games, several years before we joined Software Creations, but the project was never completed. Certainly when we started designing the game and coming up with the key game mechanics, there were hardly any platform games of this type.  Once we moved to Software Creations we did Equinox on the SNES, then pitched our Plok game idea internally and the project began. 

We were actually very close to signing the game up directly with Nintendo as publisher.  Mr Miyamoto told us that currently (when we showed them the alpha version) the game was the third best platform game after Mario and Sonic, but if they worked with us on finishing it he would help us make it the second best, after Mario. Unfortunately the Nintendo deal didn't happen, so I guess the Tradewest deal was a sort of back-up plan.  

Nintendo went on to make the brilliant Yoshi's Island after they'd had a close look at the early version of Plok, and while Yoshi's Island is a much better game, we can definitely see a few ideas in there which look as if they were 'inspired' by Plok.

They game took a while to complete, and it was only around the time it was released that loads of other character based platformers appeared on the market, and people started getting sick of them.  I remember reading reviews of Bubsy the Bobcat, with reviewers complaining about yet another character platform game, just before the release of Plok, and I knew we were in trouble then.

So looking back it appears as if Plok was part of a fashion to make me-too games, but it wasn't at all.  It was just that it took us so long to get the game to market, lots of other people caught up and made similar games but got them out before us.

RC: Probably the most ambitious game you had developed up to that point, what part of Plok are you the most proud of, looking back?

SP: I probably can't pick a single thing, but what I was most proud of with Plok was that it was a complete package.  We'd made games before with great graphics, or a great play control idea, or great structure, or some other great feature, but which were maybe let down by other aspects of the product.  Plok felt complete.  We had original ideas, great graphics, great play control, brilliant levels, wonderful music, it was well coded, and felt like a really solid, high quality game.

RC: How exactly did the idea of a character with removable limbs – a strange trait to be sure - come about? 

SP: That I can't exactly remember.  It was John's idea, I know that.  I've even got some really early sketches from about 1988 or 1989, where I've drawn a little character with separate limbs, on John's instructions.  John wanted a sort of hangman or executioner character to start with, hence the hood, who was a bit evil and killed things, but I think he also came up with the separate limbs as a coding idea, as he liked the idea of both coding them all as separate objects as a way to get loads of animation (by moving each limb separately) without having to draw & store loads of frames of animation in memory.  So it was an optimisation technique to start with, I suppose.

RC: How much input did you have in the (excellent) music that the Follin brothers composed for the game – or did you just leave them to it?

SP: We always worked well with Tim and Geoff, and they made fantastic music for our games, and I think to a certain extent that may have been down to how we worked with them.  We had no input at all into the actual music, as John and I are not musical at all, and never presumed to suggest musical styles or asked them to change a tune or anything like that.

John always had strong ideas about the mood he wanted to inspire, so did spend a lot of time discussing that aspect of the soundtrack with them.  I think that worked well as Tim and Geoff got quite clear directions about the type of thing that was required, or at least what feeling we wanted to invoke, but they were completely free to choose how to achieve what was needed.

It was always a lovely surprise when a new tune was finished and given to the development team.  

RC: Finally, what was the thinking behind a lack of a save or password system for the game – is this something you regret not including, or was it a deliberate design decision?

SP: It was a deliberate decision, and is absolutely something we regret.  It was a big mistake. The story is that we really, really wanted a battery backup in the cartridge to save your game.  For a long time the project was self-funded without a publisher, so we just developed the game based on having this feature available, and then for a time we thought the game was going with Nintendo, so there wouldn't have been a problem including this.  The deal with Tradewest was relatively last minute in terms of development time.  Battery backup used to cost an extra dollar per cartridge, on top of the cartridge manufacture costs of around $7 or $8 that Tradewest would have had to pay Nintendo, and Tradewest told us they weren't prepared to pay the extra for the battery.  We argued, and fought back a bit, but they wouldn't budge.  So, at the last minute it was suggested that we switch to a password save instead.  We didn't like that because it meant that passwords could be published in magazines and anyone could instantly get to any level in the game by typing in someone else's password.  We were a bit precious about our game, and thought that would spoil the flow of the game, and the feeling of achievement gained from fighting your way to the later levels, so we put our foot down and refused to allow the password system.

We hoped the secret warps would work instead as shortcuts to later levels, but they weren't enough.  The game was just too hard, and should have had a password (although battery backup would have been better!).

Sorry!

Don’t worry Ste, we forgive you – and we thank you for your time. You can find the first two entries in the Plok comic strip here.


Last Updated ( 11 August 2013 )  

Simon Reed

An avid collector of retro handhelds since getting a Game Boy Pocket back in the 90s, perhaps his most embarrassing gaming moment was when he got involved in an eBay bidding war...for a Tiger Game.com game. Also has a interest in sports and likes to write features connecting them with games whenever possible.

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