An interview with Colin Jones - this Kickstarter is Slightly Magic!

by Paul Morrison

You probably know by now that, ideally, I want to talk to as many of our Eighties' Gods as possible.  In fact, I have over two hundred folders on my laptop which are dedicated to different programmers, musicians, artists and games reviewers.  I'm being ambitions, and why not?

One of the people I've spoken to most recently is Colin Jones.  Programmer of the likes of Rock Star Ate My Hamster and Grange Hill, and also Automata's revolutionary games iD and Deus Ex Machina, he's renowned for his quirky games with a unique sense of humour... and I've asked him about them all.

Ever seen this? Deus Ex Machina felt like the dawn of a new era of interactive entertainment.

Ever seen this? Deus Ex Machina felt like the dawn of a new era of interactive entertainment.

However, it is another of his games that remains closest to his heart.  Slightly Magic, released by Codemasters, featured a cute but naive and curious young wizard who was left to run amok in his uncle's castle.  Not deliberately, of course... that's just what happens to naive and curious young wizards when they're left alone.

Slightly Magic was a classic, highly rated and fun platform adventure.  It was also intended to be the game that introduced Slightly to the world and set him off on a series of adventures.  Circumstances meant that didn't happen, but that doesn't mean he was locked in that castle forever...

Slightly Magic is Colin's favourite game of his 8-bit classics, and he's decided that now is the time to reintroduce the Slightly character to the gaming world.  Colin intends to release a new, tidied-up version of Slightly Magic, and if successful is committed to finally unleashing its sequel, Slightly Spooky, on the world!  As if that wasn't enough, Colin is hoping to continue the story of Slightly's adventures by programming and releasing the third game in the trilogy too, and who knows where he might go from then?

This can all happen through the wonder of Kickstarter.  Colin has started a campaign through the crowdfunding website to help bring back Slightly, and he spared me some extra time to talk specifically about that Kickstarter campaign.

They Were Our Gods: You have programmed a number of games that could be candidates for a modern remake. Rock Star Ate My Hamster particularly springs to mind, for me, as a game that could really benefit from a remake. What made you decide that Slightly Magic was the game to go with? Is it a game that you've always felt could do with being tidied up? Did you always feel as though you had unfinished business with Slightly? Or is it the prospect of potentially completing the Slightly trilogy that led to you taking this step?

Colin Jones: I felt that Rock Star Ate My Hamster was done and dusted, that I’d done what I wanted to do with that particular game. I’m looking into a kind of follow-up though, but probably not what people would expect. Which must be a good thing.

What a line-up! And never to be seen again. Or maybe they will...

What a line-up! And never to be seen again. Or maybe they will...

Slightly was a different kettle of chips, though. I really loved Slightly Magic as a game, as a little world. I thought it had great potential. I’d always hoped to take the Slightly character into other areas, but the shelving of the follow-up Slightly Spooky left him in a strange limbo. I ran away and hid from the horror of letting him down for 20 years, until I realised there might be a way of bringing him back into our reality.

TWOG: Slightly Magic was a Codemasters game, and they are renowned for keeping hold of their IP with the possibility of using it at some point. Have you always owned the Slightly Magic IP, and if not, how did you come to obtain it?

CJ: I had a great working relationship with David and Richard Darling. After I’d delivered Rock Star I went to see them and we discussed a number of possible projects. I took a few ideas (three actually) for character-based games, and Slightly Magic was the one we all wanted. Because I’d kind of proven myself with Rock Star, and because they were so good at fostering creativity, they were pretty flexible. So Slightly was treated a little different to other games, I suppose, in that he was never completely in-house.

Is this title screen slightly magic, or what?

Is this title screen slightly magic, or what?

TWOG: Kickstarter has really, for want of a better word, kickstarted lately, and especially for games, with loads of high-profile games being funded (and many much smaller ones, too). What convinced you that Kickstarter was the way to go with the Slightly Magic 8bit Legacy Edition?

CJ: I thought I’d give it a try. It seemed silly not to. When I looked at Slightly Magic for the first time in 20 years I was shocked by the quality of the original Spectrum graphics and the gameplay. I actually think they’re pretty good. I’d never seen the original graphics on a really good monitor, I’d only ever played it on a blurry cathode ray TV set. Then I felt a great sense of responsibility, in that if I did nothing, the game, and the graphics, would disappear from our reality. Even though Slightly Magic was very well received, because the follow-ups never got out it’s probably not as well remembered as other games.

TWOG: Rewards can be a big part of any Kickstarter campaign. I think yours are a little more intimate, if that's the word, but perfectly in keeping with the type of campaign you are running. Would you ever consider adding rewards throughout the Kickstarter as some do? For instance, getting hold of some copies of the original Spectrum game and offering them, signed by yourself?

CJ: Well as we speak the campaign needs a bit of a lift, so yes. I’m actually finding it quite difficult to make rational decisions at the moment, it’s taking up all my time and getting a bit claustrophobic.

TWOG: One of the rewards is to have your own room in the game. This is a very personalised and original reward. Would this be a room that would appear in all versions of the game but would only appear personalised to those individual backers, or would it be completely hidden away for all but those backers?

CJ: It should be in all versions of the game. When I looked at the original game map I realised that there was an unused room, which never actually got used in the original versions, right next to the start. Not being so short of system memory as in the old days, I thought I could offer people their own room which they could name, with their own portrait on the wall. I’ll put all the portraits in all the formats of the game they’ll fit into then give each person some sort of code to make their own room a part of the game. That way they can swap codes with friends or show them off at Slightly Magic parties.

That could be your picture on the wall!

That could be your picture on the wall!

TWOG: Your intention is to gain access to Ouya's “Free the Games” campaign, which will double your funding if successful. Have you considered any other options for the future, for instance, Steam's Greenlight?

CJ: I’ve got to consider any and every option. App stores, Steam, guerrilla-media viral think-tanks. The funny thing is, of course, that digital distribution is something that anyone can set up from their own website. But yes, I’ve got to consider everything. OUYA will be fantastic, to see Slightly on a games console, played with a proper gamepad.

TWOG: Allister Brimble is committed to doing the music for the Slightly Magic 8bit Legacy Edition. You must be thrilled that he's aboard... for you, how important is he to this project?

CJ: I am totally thrilled that Allister thinks the project is worth doing. He’s one of the most successful games musicians around and he can turn down anything he doesn’t feel like doing. So his involvement must be some sort of marker of the quality of the game.

TWOG: Would you be handling the graphics yourself?

CJ: For Slightly Magic I’ll be porting over the original Spectrum graphics, and altering the colour of the odd pixel. I designed the original Slightly sprite myself, but Chris Graham did the majority of the graphics. Then for Slightly Spooky I plan on doing the majority of the graphics myself, on paper with pencil and ink. I’ve developed a style which I think can carry Slightly through to today, and also open him up to a wider audience. It’ll be great. I’m really looking forward to it.

TWOG: Will you be keeping the speech from the 128K version? Might you add more to the new version?

CJ: The Amiga version had loads of speech, so there’s a temptation to include all that too. I’ll have to see how it goes. I want to put in an audio commentary too, with little bits of information and insights into the game.

Oooh, look at this! The Amiga version of Slightly Magic. Expect Slightly Spooky to look a little like this...

Oooh, look at this! The Amiga version of Slightly Magic. Expect Slightly Spooky to look a little like this...

TWOG: Which platforms do you intend to release Slightly Magic 8bit Legacy Edition on?

CJ: OUYA, PC, Mac, Linux should be the definitive versions. Then iOS and Android, probably with on-screen controls. The plan after that is to be able to release Slightly on any new formats as they open up to indie developers.

TWOG: If you get to complete the trilogy, what are your plans for the games, aesthetically? Slightly Magic appears to have that classic Spectrum look, albeit cleaner and with no attribute clash. Will you follow suit with the other versions or would the be more modern in appearance?

CJ: Yes, Slightly Magic will be the original Spectrum graphics without the platform limitations. Then Slightly Spooky should be a cartoony feast of multi-parallax joy. I’m daring to use my own artwork more these days, so I hope it’ll have a style which is both original and attractive. I’ve got to respect the original Slightly Magic, but then use the lack of limitations today to produce Slightly Spooky, then hopefully the third game, which has been developing in my subconscious for 20-odd years.

TWOG: One of the faults of Kickstarter, or more accurately with many backers' understanding of Kickstarter, is that people tend to treat a backed project as a pre-order and then get annoyed if the project slips beyond its target date. You have set a target date of March 2014 for the Slightly Magic 8bit Legacy Edition... how confident are you of hitting that date? Have you already started work on it already or do you have certain things in place to make the programming of it any easier or quicker?

CJ: Well none of my games have ever arrived on time. Ever. But I’ve got two things which might just change that this. The first is that I’ve finally realised that none of my games ever arrive on time. So I’ve added a certain amount of time to my original estimate. The second is that development systems are so much better these days. And I can’t mess about with the original version too much. Plus I’ve got so many other games that I want to do, and yes, I have started porting the graphics over and I’ve decided how it’s going to be programmed...

Look! I've just solved a puzzle. Aren't I clever?

Look! I've just solved a puzzle. Aren't I clever?

So there you are.  All being well, Slightly Magic will be coming back to thrill and delight, and on all manner of systems too.  Not only that, but his original trilogy will finally be completed for us all to enjoy.  I'm always happy to hear of projects like this, especially when they're being undertaken by the original programmers.  It means we get to see their visions realised.

If you haven't backed this Kickstarter, I would love you to give it serious consideration.  You're not really backing Slightly Magic... that's just the starting point for a much grander adventure.  It's like getting a refresher course before embarking on a new and magical quest.  That's exciting to me... for just a fiver (unless you want to go higher), I hope it is to you, too.