BitSummit 2018 - Dylan Cuthbert Interview (Transcript) - Japan-based Nintendo Podcasts, Videos & Reviews!


Friday, May 18, 2018

BitSummit 2018 - Dylan Cuthbert Interview (Transcript)

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During our time in Kyoto at BitSummit, we had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Dylan Cuthbert, famed British game developer and founder and current president of Q-Games. In our interview, we take a look into the past to see what led up to Dylan working with Nintendo on Star Fox, discuss hardware that he used for programming back in the day, hear about a Star Fox mock-up on 3DS and a whole lot more. Read on (or check the video below) to see what Dylan had to say. 
James: Hello, I am now joined by Dylan Cuthbert, the president and founder of Q-Games. Thank you for joining us Dylan.
Dylan: Thanks for inviting me.
James: Absolutely. Big Nintendo fans, obviously. It’s really difficult to interview you, isn’t it? What hasn’t Dylan Cuthbert been asked about Nintendo? Let’s ask another twenty questions about Star Fox.
All: (laughs)
James: Probably not.
All: (laughs)
James: That’s a good to question to ask, actually. What question do you not get asked, or do you rarely get asked?
Dylan: Hmmmmm…Like, how many times I went to the restroom each day. What did I eat for lunch. That sort of thing.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: Everything else has been pretty much covered.
All: (laughs)
James: Famitsu didn’t ask you that?
Dylan: No, no. They’re not quite that deep.
All: (laughs)
James: So, the reason why people who like Japan and Nintendo know who you are is because you kind of “lived the dream,” so to speak. The British person that came to Japan and worked for Nintendo. If we could go a little bit before that, you were younger than twenty when you came to Japan, right?
Dylan: Yeah, I was eighteen.
James: You finished university?
Dylan: I didn’t go to university. I was doing my A Levels. I was in east London at the time doing double math and physics. My teachers wanted to try and guide me to somewhere like Oxford or Cambridge. I was already programming at that point so they kind of sensed that I knew what I was doing.
James: What were you programming on?
Dylan: At that time only Amiga and the ZX Spectrum. Before that is was the ZX81.
James: Google it, Americans.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: The Sinclair Timex 1000, too. Something like that.
James: That was Christmas present? Birthday present?
Dylan: The ZX Spectrum was actually bought with pocket money. I got it second hand with a 16k wobbly RAM pack.
James: And that’s what you started programming on?
Dylan: Yeah, basically. The first computer I touched was the ZX Spectrum because my friend had one. He had an uncle that worked in the factory or something. So he got it as soon as it came out as a present.
James: Sound quite dodgy.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: Well, I used to go around to his house practically every day because it was so cool. We would type up programming code from magazines.
James: Again. Google it.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: We’d type in all these things. We even built up our own language for it because we were so young and didn’t the proper terms. I was probably around 9 or 10. We didn’t know what the word was for double quotes. We just hadn’t come across it. So we called it like, “Those things”
All: (laughs)
Dylan: So we’d say things like, “10. Print. Those things. Hello. Those things.” Like that! So we had our own language for it. After a few months of that, I was finding it so enjoyable that I kept bugging my mom to get me one.
James: She wouldn’t get it, so you saved up your pocket money?
Dylan: Yeah. But she knew someone who wanted to sell one second hand, probably because he was getting a Spectrum. So I ended up getting that as a compromise. It cost me £60!
James: That’s probably like £600 by today’s standards.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: Yeah, a huge amount of money now. It was almost like five years of pocket money.
James: So you started off copying things out of magazines. Adjusting the magazine stuff into your own stuff?
Dylan: Right. And then learning and getting past the concepts of programming and how it works. The BASIC was very slow on my machine, so one day I went out and bought what I thought would speed up the BASIC - an assembler.
James: A physical thing?
Dylan: No, it was a piece of software. It was a machine code assembler. It’s stuff you write machine code with. As a young kid, I had always heard that machine code is faster. That’s what all the magazines were saying. “Machine code is much faster than BASIC.”
James: The direct route to the processor.
Dylan: Right. So, I thought that this must just magically convert the BASIC to an assembler and everything would just run faster. I got it, and it was not that at all! It forced me to learn Z80 because I bought it. I spent another £5 of my pocket money on it and started programming that. That got me into the machine code side of things and from there on I got my own ZX Spectrum and carried on from there. When I was about 15 I got an Amiga. The I moved down to east London to go to a college there. During that time I started programming the Amiga.
James: The college was using Amigas?
Dylan: No, no. This was at home. At the college they didn’t know about that. That’s one of the reasons I quit and joined a company. Almost like the old system where you join the profession that you want to learn from. There was a company called Argonaut Software, of course.
James: I’ve heard of them.
Dylan: They did 3D games. I played a few of them and they were really good. So I decided to apply for a job there. I thought I would be able to learn a lot more there than I would at school that doesn’t know anything about computers.
James: What was the demo made for that?
Dylan: Initially I a 2D demo because that was all I had at the time. I hadn’t done any 3D. I thought about it, but hadn’t done it. The 2D demos were pretty good fun and cool.
James: What kind of things are we talking about here? Platformers?
Dylan: Yeah. Like a Turrican style thing. This was on the ZX Spectrum. It was a game were you strafe and shoot monsters and go between stages.
James: Top down, or from the side?
Dylan: Side.
James: Oh, okay.
Dylan: Then on the Amiga there was a game I made where you are shooting balls around on the screen. It was pretty simple as I kind of rushed it for the interview.
James: (laughs)
Dylan: They were really impressed with them, but they really wanted somebody who could work with 3D. So I went back home, feeling rejected. I then thought to myself, “Well, I’ll try to do some 3D.”
James: Where does the Game Boy come into this?
Dylan: That comes a bit later. I go back to Z80 after this.
James: Okay.
Dylan: I made a 3D demo on the Amiga and I sent it in on disk to Argonaut. I told them something like, “I made a 3D demo now, give me a job!”
James: (laughs)
Dylan: The next day, I got a call from them. Jez (Jeremy Elliot “Jez” San, founder of Argonaut Games) said, “Saw your demo. It looked great. Start tomorrow.”
All: (laughs)
Dylan: I was still at school at that point, so I just quit and went to work. When I was at Argonaut, I helped out on a few of their titles. But then, we had just kind of discovered the Game Boy at a CES. We brought one back. I was told that if we were going to develop games for this, “You’re going to do 3D on this because you know the Z80. You worked on a Sinclair Spectrum!”
James: Where is the correlation there?
Dylan: There’s a Z80 in the Game Boy.
James: Oh, okay.
Dylan: So, the Game Boy has a Z80 in it. I went back to my roots for that.
James: That’s Gunpei Yokoi using old chips for the hardware then.
Dylan: Yeah, old chips basically. That’s right. Something like ten years after the the initial release of the Z80.
James: Right.
Dylan: That’s where it all kicked off. I worked up a 3D demo on the Game Boy. Nintendo saw it and the flew me over to Japan.
James: How did they see that?
Dylan: At CES.
James: Publicly.
Dylan: Right.
James: So they just walked by and saw it?
Dylan: No, I think Jez was hustling a little bit more back then.
James: (laughs)
Dylan: There were two CES’s a year. The winter and the summer. Jez would be at every one. He would just take anything he had and go around and try to show it to people, as many people as possible. At one point, it got into the hands of a new, very hungry producer at Nintendo of America called Tony Harman.
James: Okay.
Dylan: He ended up quickly showing it to the people that made the Game Boy. They were like, “How the hell did you do that?!” It was so beyond their imagination of what the machine was capable of.
James: So, Mr. Yokoi was one of the people to see this?
Dylan: Right. Mr. Yokoi and Takehiro Izushi, who is more of an engineer type. Izushi was the original programmer of the Game and Watch games.
James: Right.
Dylan: So, they saw the demo and decided to have me flown over. They wanted to meet me. Two weeks after that, they flew us over and I was in Kyoto for a week. i got the full tour. I met Mr. Miyamoto, Mr. Yokoi and whole bunch of other people.
James: I think the story after that, we’ve heard that before.
Dylan: Right, right.
James: It’s interesting to hear what happened all before that.
Dylan: Yeah. It’s kind of like the build up to everything.
James: The prequel. I like that.
Dylan: Yeah, yeah. The early days of the gaming industry.
James: Now, I’m a big fan of the FX chip. Congratulations on your brand new game, Star Fox 2.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: Yeah. Just finished it last year.
James: (laughs)
Dylan: Finally, finally got to the last bit of code on that.
James: (laughs)
Dylan: We just couldn’t work out what to do. We finally put everything in place and it just worked.
James: Congratulations.
All: (laughs)
James: I saw the launch party pictures. They were great.
Dylan: (laughs)
James: It was interesting because the original Star Fox was never released on any Virtual Console. I don’t think we ever heard an official reason as to why that was. It was always assumed that the FX chip was not possible to emulate properly. As we all know, we’ve been playing..well, some bad people have been playing on emulators since the 90s. When we got to the Wii U, it was like, come on! The Wii U can do it if a 1990s Pentium 2 could do it!
Dylan: (laughs) Exactly, right. I doubt that could have been the reason, really. Maybe just the effort, really. I don’t know.
James: They never asked you for a little bit of help to make that happen?
Dylan: No, I never heard anything about anyone trying to do that. They might have, but I never heard anything about it. Maybe they just didn’t think about it? There could have been licensing problems as well. So I don’t know. The (Super FX) chip itself was owned by a company in Germany called A and End or something. That company was half owned by Argonaut and half owned by Nintendo. There could have been some legal complication there, but I haven’t heard anything directly. I’d love to know!
James: I hope it comes out on the Switch or something like that.
Dylan: Yeah, it would be great on the Switch, on that screen. Get a good frame rate or something.
James: (laughs) Finally!
Dylan: (laughs) Finally up to 60 frames per second.
James: 11 frames.
Dylan: (laughs) We actually knocked up a demo on the 3DS.
James: Oh really? To get the 3D version (Star Fox 64 3D) going?
Dylan: Yeah. We took the Star Fox ROM, probably from an illegal source on the net.
James: (laughs)
Dylan: Then we emulated it just to see what could be done with it.
James: Oh, on the 3DS?
Dylan: On the 3DS, yeah.
James: To get that in 3D?
Dylan: Yeah. It ran in 3D and at 60 frames per second.
James: I guess you got inspiration because they were pushing the 3D Classics label. What would make a good 3D Classic? Star Fox.
Dylan: Yeah. So we spent a month or two doing that. Just to see what happens. We showed it to Nintendo, but they weren’t interested, unfortunately, at that point. Maybe the timing was a bit wrong. Maybe a bit later would have been better.
James: That and the Virtual Boy are the most obvious things to put on the 3DS. Never happened.
Dylan: Yeah.
James: So, what’s interesting when you look at your career, it’s like - Nintendo. Then there’s a stop. Then there’s Sony. Then there’s your new game now, Pixel Junk Monsters 2, which is coming to a Nintendo platform again.
Dylan: It’s also on Playstation as well.
James: Right.
Dylan: We’ve come to a multi-platform for that now.
James: I don’t know of anyone else in the industry who has done this kind of perfect 50/50 split  between Nintendo and Sony.
Dylan: Yeah, yeah.
James: That split was around the time of the Wii?
Dylan: Yeah, it was about at the time of the Wii. We came back with the 3DS. We did Star Fox 64 3D on the 3DS. After that, we started making The Tomorrow Children for Sony on PS4.
James: Your first Q-Games game was for Sony or Nintendo?
Dylan: It was a Nintendo game. Digidrive on the Game Boy (Advance).
James: Digidrive, right!
Dylan: There’s a DSiWare game as well, but we worked on the Game Boy Advance version first.
James: Yeah, yeah.
Dylan: It was actually released after Star Fox Command, or about the same time. We had made it a year earlier, but it felt like we just released three games at one time on Nintendo systems. We had done experiments with Nintendo before that as well that didn’t get released. It was kind of fun. We were doing a lot of experiments directly with Nintendo at that point. So we did the Game Boy Advance version of Digidrive, then we also did a DSiWare version of that. We also did…oh, what’s it called? The names are different in different territories. Trajectile.
James: Penta Tentacles.
Dylan: Starship Defender and X-Returns or X-Scape in North America. Amongst all of the games we made, I’m particularly proud of those games that we made in that period of time. We made four games in one year for DSiWare and they were all really highly rated. But because they were DSiWare, hardly anyone played them!
James: Well, you couldn’t find it on the DSi Shop. It wasn’t your fault.
Dylan: (laughs) Exactly. Exactly. If they’re still there, go get them. Go buy them now!
James: There might be a cut off point for that, though?
Dylan: The run on the 3DS, though, I think?
James: Yeah, yeah.
Dylan: So they should still be there.
James: The DSiWare Shop itself might not be.
Dylan: Yeah, exactly.
James: With the gradual transition from Nintendo to Sony, what were some of the reasons behind that? Was it because the Wii era was very restrictive in terms of what you could do, like creative restrictions?
Dylan: Yeah. And you couldn’t self publish. With PSN, suddenly we had the chance to self publish.
James: Ah, okay.
Dylan: Even Microsoft, it was hard to self publish (on Xbox 360). They still had a lot of restrictions.
James: Yeah, but some things had to be in order.
Dylan: Yeah. You had to have a publisher in between you and them. With PSN, it could really just be us publishing. We kind of broke the mould. We were the first really small developer to do our own publishing on PSN.
James: What was the relationship between you and Nintendo at that point? Obviously, you had a lot of friends at Nintendo but you weren’t making any games for them at the time.
Dylan: Yeah, well we kind of crossed over. When we were doing the Pixel Junk stuff, morally speaking, we could do both. We weren’t taking money from Sony or anything, so it was fine. When we did The Tomorrow Children, which was more of a joint development effort (between Q-Games and Sony), that was when we said, okay, we can’t do any more Nintendo stuff at the moment. That was only like a four or five year period, though, when we were making The Tomorrow Children. Now that’s finished. We can, as with Pixel Junk Monsters 2, we can do Switch stuff now. We’re planning another couple of Switch titles as well. We can’t say what they are yet.
James: Demo available now for Pixel Junk Monsters 2, on the Japanese eShop.
Dylan: Yes. It’s out in Europe as well. America should be very soon.
James: That’s cool. It’s good to have you back, as a Nintendo fan.
All: (laughs)
Dylan: Yeah, exactly. So, that’s it really. We’re going to be making even more stuff. I personally really love the Switch.
James: Yeah, it’s a nice system.
Dylan: Exactly.
James: Pixel Junk Monsters 2 looks really good on the Switch, too.
Dylan: It looks great. It looks really good on it. It really stands out, I think.
James: Cool. Anyway, thank you so much for joining us. Until next time.
Dylan: Thank you. Cheers.

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