in Profiles | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Come Play with Me

Sony's programmable PlayStation

in Profiles | 01 JAN 98

It seems unbelievable now, but when the home computer industry took off in the early 80s, most videogames, and a lot of professional software, was created by lone programmers working from home and distributing their products themselves. Videogame legends like Matthew Smith (Jet Set Willy) and Sandy White (3D Ant Attak), began by plugging away on ancient 8bit computers at home; the Darling brothers started their now multi-million pound company, Codemasters, in their bedroom as schoolboys. It was an era of great experimentation and creative freedom in an environment free of market testing, external product evaluation and endless development meetings.

By the early 90s, however, cheap home computers like the Commodore 64, and later the Amiga and Atari ST, were dead, replaced by the ubiquitous, ever-more powerful PC, and a glut of videogame consoles. Unfortunately, developing even the simplest game on the former was complex affair requiring artists, animators, coders and the financial support of massive multinational corporations. Pro- gramming for consoles like the SNES and Megadrive required all of the above plus a development kit costing many thousands of pounds. The industry, it seemed, had completely outgrown the amateur coders who virtually created it in the first place.

Many veterans felt that things changed for the worse when bedroom programmers were shoved to the outskirts of creative development. One of these was Ken Kutaragi, Sony Computer Entertainment of America's CEO and creator of the PlayStation - one of the most successful pieces of computer entertainment hardware in history. His idea was to develop a cheap, programmable version of the console which could be used by anyone with a PC and a smattering of the programming language C to develop their own PlayStation demos and games. Sony launched its Net Yaroze project - a streamlined development kit for the home programmer - first in Japan and then earlier this year in Europe. The distinctive, black, programmable PlayStation allows the user to develop demos on a PC using a C compiler and then run them through the console, a method similar to the way professional developers create games for the domestic machine. Admittedly, the graphic libraries and software routines supplied are scaled-down dramatically and CD access is very limited (Yaroze games can't be played directly on a normal PlayStation), but Sony reckons there's enough power for talented programmers to create near-professional games.

Sony has also set up a website for Yaroze users where they can swap code, help each other out with technical queries and generally work together on ideas. This is perhaps what makes the project, and the philosophy of it, so fascinating. Sony refers to Yaroze owners as 'members', and sees its home programmers as a part of a multinational co-operative of developers. Check out the spiel in the Yaroze brochure: 'We believe that the concept of borders between countries, districts and areas will be lost in the on-line global community. [The Net Yaroze project] allows members to co-operate on projects wherever they are in the world'. This explains the use of the word Yaroze - a Japanese term meaning 'Let's work together'.

The industry as a whole seems to be taking the project very seriously. Graphics company Autodesk is offering its modelling package, 3D Studio, to Yaroze members for a massive price reduction. Similarly, Metrowerks has developed a version of CodeWarrior, its integrated development environment package, for Sony's machine, which makes C programming much easier. Intriguingly, many professional games programmers have purchased Yaroze kits and are getting involved with debates on the website, adding credibility to the project and giving amateurs first hand access to valuable insider info and technical advice. Even academia is taking notice of the project: Middlesex University is currently building a Yaroze lab to integrate PlayStation development into its Applied Computing and Computer Graphics courses - another indication that Sony's machine is not viewed as simply an obscure hobbyist platform.

In fact, all of the companies involved with Yaroze point out that it provides an excellent way into videogame development. Users are now sending their demos to studio directors as interactive CVs, and they're getting results. Sarah Bennett, Yaroze product manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, points out, 'we have received an extremely positive response from games companies who are even advertising for people who have experience on Net Yaroze'. Feedback from employers seems to reflect this assertion. As Jonathan Cartwright, Studio Head at Corrosive software, states, 'Yaroze is certainly an excellent way of rapid-prototyping an idea and presenting it to a publisher as a way of getting a job. The fact that the system is limited is also a bit of a benefit. If someone can program something good under quite harsh restrictions, then it means they're disciplined about programming'. Which is probably the true reason behind Sony's investment in a seemingly philanthropic endeavour. The innovation programmers are capable of when they don't have to worry about profit margins and the input of fellow developers could well inject a much needed sense of originality into PlayStation development. As Bennett puts it, 'members have total creative freedom to explore and create new genres which would not be possible using the professional development kit'. Today's amateurs, then, could be tomorrow's key developers, capitalising on their early experiments to create wildly unusual gaming concepts.

The question is, how talented are these part-time game creators? Naturally SCE is positive, claiming that the standard of software produced by Japanese Yaroze members is equal to that of commercial titles. To back up this confidence, Sony recently released two CD-ROMs full of demos from Japan and Europe. Each contains some reasonably promising items: amongst the Japanese contingent there's a very short but marvellously accomplished spoof on Final Fantasy VII, and a well-structured platformer, Terra Incognita, which makes great use of varying camera views and landscape levels. From the Europeans, there are a couple of Pac Man clones and several very rough 3-D engines, but the stand-out contributions are Stuart Ashley's rough-but-recognisable Doom copy, aptly named Clone, and Ira Rainey's sparse third person shoot 'em up HSFK. None of the material is anywhere near professional standard at the moment, but it's early days yet and the web site has become a vibrant community of creative minds, leading to a return to programming values of old. As Rainey puts it, 'for me, at 28 years of age, the Yaroze has brought fun back into my programming life. I can now remember why I spent all those late nights picking bugs from my C64 assembly language; for the joy of creating worlds, and ultimately playing something that I have built'.

Ultimately the Yaroze project may make an enormously positive contribution to the computer software industry. Many of the early mavericks who shaped the way things work today have now settled into nice comfortable jobs, in pleasant pan-global publishing houses, rolling out gutless sequel after gutless sequel. There are no individual quirks in videogames any more - all the impurities and off-beat ideas have been ironed out by marketing men, desperate to make each title fit into a well-known genre. By slowly filtering into the mainstream industry, Yaroze members could well turn things around.

There could be more to Yaroze than videogames, though. Sony's Q&A leaflet simply states, 'There are virtually no rules. The software you can develop may not have anything to do with a game as it is defined by today's market place'. As Evans explains, 'Some people are writing a variety of peculiar programs which involve unusual geometric 3-D shapes, disturbing camera angles and dynamics'. Could Yaroze become the next site for the growing number of multi-media artists currently channelling all their creative resources into the PC? If so, Sony may be about to have its 'No rules' maxim tested to the limit...

Anyone interested in applying to become a Net Yaroze member should ring Sony Computer Entertainment Europe on 0171 447 1616