Over the course of his forty-year career, Jeff Minter (along with the company he founded in 1982, Llamasoft) has produced a long list of influential arcade-style games across a wide range of platforms. This includes titles like Gridrunner, Attack of the Mutant Camels, Tempest 2000, and Polybius.
His games are often mesmerizing, colourful, and entertaining, and feature plenty of references to the creator's love of ruminants (sheep, ox, yaks) and other quadrupeds (camels, llamas). Today, the cult developer (along with his partner and co-developer Ivan "Giles" Zorzin ) lives and works in a small studio in Wales, where he looks after a flock of sheep while developing some of the trippiest and most engaging modern arcade titles.
Case in point - the legendary game developer is just on the cusp of releasing an exciting new reimagining of Atari's legendary prototype, Akka Arrh, later this month. This is a game that Atari's Mike Hally and Dave Ralston were developing in the early '80s that notably failed its field test and was forgotten about for several decades. In 2019, an anonymous user supplied a dump of the ROM to be published online, leading to much publicity and controversy over how it was obtained in the first place. Atari, together with Digital Eclipse, has since published the original game officially on Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration due to its historical significance, but this new version from Minter and Llamasoft aims to modernize and refresh the title for today's gamers.
Time Extension chatted to Minter and Giles (who arrived slightly late) to find out more about the title and working with Atari.
Time Extension: Why did you decide to pick Akka Arrh as your next project? It kind of seems in keeping with the way you previously tackled Polybius back in 2017, which was another game with an interesting backstory to it.
Jeff Minter: Yeah, that's kind of what appealed to me about it. It had a very interesting sort of history to it. It failed its field test. It wasn't really given the chance to be developed into a fully successful game. Then there were only a few of them made and the only known one working was in the hands of a collector who didn't want to release the ROMs. And then somebody stole the ROMs (allegedly!) and released them to everybody else.
Yeah, it's just interesting and the actual game itself looks quite interesting. The geometric surface that the fight takes place on looks a bit like a lotus flower. I also like the mechanic it's got. There's some action taking place upstairs and some downstairs and you have to nip downstairs to deal with the enemies when they overrun you. It's cool.
Time Extension: Yeah, when I looked at the original for the first time it kind of feels like an arcade game that has appeared from a parallel timeline. I'm wondering how did you go about trying to give it that modern treatment and trying to get the most out of that template that it kind of has already?
Jeff Minter: I mean, technically it was fairly easy because it's not very heavy on the polygon count. So, I was able to do some tricks with distance fields in the pixel shaders and get some nice effects there. But really the main work was just altering the design. For one thing, we started off on the back foot already because it was a design that has failed its field test so effectively it wasn't that good of a game, to begin with. So I knew I'd have to do a bit more surgery to it than I did with Tempest.
When I did Tempest 2000, I was starting from the point of a stone-cold classic, so the journey was a bit easier with that. Also, there's a transition that you have to do if you’re taking an arcade game and you’re bringing it to a home version. You have to kind of change the nature of it in a way because an arcade game is set up to kick you off every three minutes and get you to put your 10p in again. A home game really needs to be a bit more gentle than that. It needs to give you the chance to settle down and have a good session and a home player doesn't want to keep restarting every three minutes, because it gets tedious doing that.
So yeah, I have to slow things down and I had to basically try things out until I found something which actually worked in terms of making it an interesting and fun game to play. And that was by far the hardest part of the whole thing really. It took me months and months before I found something that I thought, actually, this is going to work.
There were times when I thought I'll definitely be able to do it. And there were times when I regretted even starting the project and thought I won’t be able to do this. I won’t be able to do it any justice. But, I think, in the end, we kind of found its place and I found what it needed to be. It's turned into quite a cool game now, I think. It's interesting. It’s very much its own thing. It's got a character.
Time Extension: When did Atari kind of come to you with the prospect of working on Akka Arrh? What year was it that they came to you? Because I think it was 2019 when the ROM was dumped online for it and it's only recently that they've kind of released it as part of the Atari 50. So, I'm wondering when was this commissioned on that timeline.
Jeff Minter: I think we were more or less talking about it during the latter end of 2020, I believe. Atari got back in touch with me and said, ‘Would I be interested in doing something with them?’ And they sent me their catalogue of IP basically. And I was looking through there, seeing: what do I fancy trying to update? [Anyway], I saw Akka Arrh was in there and I thought, oh, I could have a go at that. So yeah, it took a good while for it to find its shape. But I'm quite happy with it now. And they're quite happy with it as well, which is more to the point.
Time Extension: What is the division of labour like on a Llamasoft game now? Because when I spoke to you in the past about Polybius you mentioned Giles was really kind of like key in terms of getting that game to run and creating an amazing engine for it. I'm wondering kind of what was the division of labour on this game, for instance.
Jeff Minter: Well, I always say, “He builds the horse and I get to ride it”. I'll go and get him. He's supposed to be on this meeting. He's sat in his room working now trying to get some bugs out of the blummin’ Xbox version so we can get it through cert on time. He'll tell you what his labour is like at the moment.
(Jeff leaves to get Giles)
Yeah, he's coming. Yeah, he's had a heavy load just recently because he's had to do all the ports and there are like six versions. I think over the course of this he's built us a fantastically cross-platform environment, but –
Giles: — I'm doing Xbox things as we speak. (Sits down)
Time Extension: I'm curious Giles, what has been the hardest version to nail down so far? Is it the Xbox one that you're working on at the moment?
Giles: Well, this is a difficult question. Let's say it's Xbox, in the sense that work on the others has [stuff] we’ve already done. We've already done stuff for Switch, we’ve already done stuff for PS4, we’ve obviously done stuff for PC, and [...] there’s been quite a lot of stuff we’ve been able to reuse or expand from them. With the Xbox, they've changed completely, let's say, the dev kit that they work with, so I had to redo something completely new from scratch in a very short time. And, to be honest, that made me a little bit anxious because the timeframe was really short and I had to relearn basically everything from zero because they changed almost everything.
In that sense, that's been the hardest. Also, it's one of the machines that we worked on less, so there were so many things I couldn't remember at all: [how] is this supposed to work? And I had to get all the documentation studied and all the game [together] quite in the hurry. It came out okay. I mean, it's actually surprising and fingers crossed that it still works well. But, yeah, I mean, it's been the hardest because I had to redo everything brand-new in a very short time. It's still working okay.
Time Extension: It would also be interesting to hear from you Giles — when the decision was made to go with Akka Arrh — what was your kind of input on that decision? Was it a mutual decision to go for that project in particular from Atari's back catalogue?
Giles: It was not like that. The first time I saw this game, I was thinking, this is a game that Jeff could have made because it was so kind of psychedelic, with this flower thing.
It was like, this is definitely a strange-looking game, and I was thinking, I'm sure you could do a lot of things. So yeah, when I saw it, I thought, this is definitely something different — that you’ve never seen before — and I’m sure that Jeff could have done a lot of stuff around it. It’s cool.
Time Extension: In terms of working with Atari, how has that kind of relationship been for you guys? Because I think when I last talked to you, Jeff, it was like a Play Expo or a convention like that, and it was just after you'd sort of got back in touch with them to do Tempest 4000. How is that relationship now compared to previous years?
Jeff Minter: It's basically alright now. They seem to realize that we can give them a bit of value, I think, by doing these updates to their back catalogue. They seem to be making a fairly big deal about sort of Llamasoft’s involvement in Akka Arrh and getting Akka Arrh out to various platforms.
Yeah, I mean, I'd rather work with them than be fighting them basically. I think it’s more productive and better for both of us.
Giles: Well, to be honest, it’s pretty nice to work with them.
Jeff Minter: Yeah, and they’re pretty happy with what we’ve done, which is always nice. They’re genuinely pleased with what we’ve made of this game and I’m quite happy about that. If they’re happy, I’m happy basically. And I think people will be happy. It’s a cool game…finally!
Time Extension: I have to ask, is there anything else that appealed to you from Atari's big back catalogue?
Jeff Minter: Oh yeah –
Giles: Well, we can’t say.
Jeff Minter: I’ve got my eye on something already and we’ve already been talking a little bit with Atari about it. I think they’re waiting to see how this goes first before they give me anything else, just to see if this idea of having their back catalogue updated in this way pans out as they expect it to. But yeah, I’d be happy doing updates of their other stuff.
I’ve got one particular title that I’ve definitely got my eye on at the moment. And if they continue to like what we do, I’m quite happy to sit there and do it for a while. I like a lot of those old games and I enjoy the challenge of bringing them into modern times and keeping them relevant.
Giles: The only thing I can say that makes me feel like going uhhhh about Atari – the only thing – is that I’m still trying to convince them that ‘Please, let’s make something VR, let’s make something VR.’ They were like, ‘Maybe not, but not yet. Maybe not.’ That’s the only thing I can say I’m struggling about.
Jeff Minter: Well, apart from that one time that chap started going on about the metaverse. I thought, ‘I don’t want to go in that bloody direction’ (laughs).
Time Extension: Yeah, I actually bought PSVR because of Polybius after trying it at a convention. It's kind of endlessly replayable. I feel like I could drop into that quite happily whenever and just have that as a desert-island game.
Jeff Minter: It’s a nice one to go back to because you feel chilled out after you’ve been playing it and it makes you feel euphoric.
Giles: I would say, my only problem with that game is I normally start, then after I pass level 5, I’m already into the zone and I can't stop. It’s like one hour later or an hour and a half and I’m still playing. I can’t just spend five minutes playing that game.
Time Extension: I follow Jeff on Twitter and it seems like you always have a lot of sheep around. Does having them to care for, and having that kind of aspect of your life alongside game dev, help you to stay relaxed and destress?
Jeff Minter: Absolutely! If you go outside and you spend time with the sheep, you can’t really be stressed out when you’re around the sheep because being around them just makes me happy; it makes me smile. And also, you have to look after them every day, it’s a very grounding thing. You can’t get too lost in doing anything else, because there’s always the regular interaction that you have to have with the sheep every day. We wouldn’t be without them because they’re like our little family and they bring us so much joy and they’re so interesting and fun to be with that yeah, I couldn’t be without them.
Time Extension: I mean, when did that start? When did you start looking after them? Because that’s something I’ve always been interested in.
Jeff Minter: I first got two sheep when I moved to Wales in 1987. I think I got the sheep in about 1988 or ’89 and then I spent the years 1994-1997 in America, didn’t really like it there, and then retrieved them – unfortunately, only one of my sheep was left by then. I retrieved the sheep that were left over from where they’d be staying when I was gone and the flock has kind of built up from there. It started out with just one or two sheep and then we got a couple of Llamas in 2001, and then we got a donkey and accumulated more sheep. Typically, we hear about some poor sheep that’s going to go off to be slaughtered and we’re like, ‘No, no, no, we can’t have that’ and the sheep ends up coming to us. Because we are a soft touch really.
Giles: I should explain, almost all our sheep are like that. You know, they all have a story where they’ve been saved from a bad fate.
Jeff Minter: Yeah, we’ve got a sheep who was a pet lamb of a three-year-old kid, and this little lamb had known nothing but love and cuddles but he was getting too old and they were going to send him off to slaughter. I said, ‘No he can’t go off to bloody slaughter’, so he came to us. And we’ve got sheep which were rescued by other sheep, like Brambles.
Basically, the one I just told you about, the three-year-old’s pet lamb, when he grew up, he became the boss of our flock and one time he got over into a neighbour’s field we thought maybe he was chasing the ladies, but no, he’d heard the baaing of a little lamb that had been stuck in a bramble bush and abandoned basically. The rest of his flock had gone off and he was there on his own, so caught up he couldn’t get out. If he hadn’t been found, he’d have definitely died.
But we saw our ram go over and inspect this thing and then Giles went over and found this little lamb tangled in the bramble, untangled him, and we told our neighbour about it. And we thought, if we’ve saved his life halfway, we might as well do the full thing and he came to live with us. So, we bought him from our neighbour, and that’s Brambles.
Time Extension: Are there any sheep or ruminants — anything like that — in Akka Arrh?
Jeff Minter: Not directly, although you will notice that the central turret looks a bit like an ox-head.
Giles: There is a thing about Jerry.
Jeff Minter: Oh yeah, Jerry’s baa is in it. Every now and then, on completion of a certain thing, there’s a chance that Jerry’s baa will come out. And there is a cow mooing in there as well. And there’s an Elk scream when you die. So there are some ruminant touches in there, even though they’re not fully obvious.
Time Extension: Something that’s probably worth asking you – I won’t ask you directly whether it exists – but there are rumours/reports that there might be some sort of Jeff Minter/Llamasoft collection on the way. Would you welcome something like that that summed up your career across all the different platforms?
Jeff Minter: Could be interesting.
Giles: Could be interesting.
Time Extension: It's definitely putting you on the spot, but it would be interesting to see.
Jeff Minter: If it was going to be done, I’d want it done really well.
Time Extension: Would you personally want to handle it or would it be something that you hand off?
Jeff Minter: Well, I think there are people who could probably do it better than me. I’d certainly help them put it together. I’ve got stuff here, which could be scanned for archive. Maybe it has already been scanned for archive. You never know!
Giles: Who knows!
Time Extension: And how do you balance these types of jobs, like working with Atari but then doing stuff for yourself, or for Llamasoft to publish?
Jeff Minter: At the moment, we tend to be fairly sequential. We pick one main job and we work with it until it’s done. Because if you end up trying to do too much stuff in parallel, you end up with a bunch of unfinished projects quite often. And at the moment, we have to concentrate on stuff that’s going to get us paid.
Unfortunately, doing stuff through Llamasoft that’s published by Llamasoft, it’s almost kind of not worth doing compared to doing the stuff the way we’re doing now through Atari. With Atari, you get known payments at milestones and you know the job is going to get funded. Whereas sometimes you do something speculatively with Llamasoft and put it out there — because we haven’t got any marketing budget or marketing skills — and it may get great reviews but make about 50p.
So, in the end, I’m almost kind of happier just doing jobs like this for Atari where I can still be fully creative with them, but at least I know I’m going to get bloody paid for them.
Time Extension: With Akka Arrh, is there anything in particular from your back catalogue that you feel is similar to this? You mentioned before the idea of modernizing Tempest was a similar exercise, even though there was a far less heavy lift on that game.
Jeff Minter: Yeah, Akka Arrh is its own thing really. It’s almost like a tower defense game where you are the tower. I haven’t done anything like that before, but in some way, it follows the classic arcade game-style profile. I can’t really say it’s like anything I’ve done before and it’s also very like things I’ve done before both at once really.
The overall shape of it, you’d look at it and go, ‘Yeah, that’s a Llamasoft game’, but I wouldn’t say it’s like any particular one before. In a way, it’s quite nice to get a bit away from Tempest. Some people only know me as the Tempest guy. Some people even think that I made the original Tempest, which is fully wrong. In fact, at one point, I was doing a mode in Akka Arrh where the enemies were coming down from the top and they were going down to the bottom deck and I thought, should I make this into a Tempest tube-y thing, and I decided not to in the end because it was too Tempest-y. I didn’t want to put that in there. I wanted it to be its own thing.
Time Extension: In terms of Tempest, do you feel there’s any unfinished business there now or do you feel like you’ve done all you wanted to do in terms of working on that? It feels like Tempest 4000 felt quite definitive.
Jeff Minter: Yeah, I think the only thing I would maybe like to do with it before I move on, though I don’t think we’ll ever have the chance, is to do the VR version of Tempest 4000, which is basically pretty much always existed anyway.
We did a VR version for TxK, which is what evolved into Tempest 4000, and Atari had us take that out. I would quite like them to say, ‘Hey, you know, put that back in.’ Not alter the game in any other way, just put the VR stuff back in, because Tempest works really well in VR, you’d be surprised. It’s really nice to play in VR. It looks great. And the bits where the web shatters and you zoom through space, it’s fantastic stuff. It would be really nice to put that in.
Apart from that, I don’t want to do any more new Tempest, I’m all Tempested out, I think. I’d rather have a romp through other stuff in Atari’s back catalogue if I’m going to do more Atari stuff. Maybe let somebody else have a go on a future version of Tempest, and see what they do with it. They may come up with something completely different to me. Tony Crowther did his own sort of tube shooter thing, didn’t he? He did N20. Maybe give him a crack at it.