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Interview with John Passfield - 31 October 2005

Just in time for Halloween, I spoke to John Passfield, the man behind Halloween Harry and other classic games.

John Passfield
John Passfield
I'll start with the obligatory question about who you are how you got your start.

My name is John Passfield and I'm married with a beautiful daughter. I'm also the Creative Director of Pandemic Studios, Australia and was a founder and co-owner of Krome Studios. I'm one of Australia's pioneer computer game developers having had my first game published when I was sixteen going on seventeen years old.

I grew up in a small country town in Australia and it was here that I fell in love with computers and I discovered my first computer game at a local show during the early eighties. The game was a text adventure called Colossal Cave and I remember reading on screen about a dwarf in a hall. There was an axe in the room so I typed "get axe" then "throw axe". It responded with:

>You killed a little dwarf. The body vanishes in a cloud of greasy black smoke.

I was absolutely amazed that it knew what I was going to do and was instantly sucked in. From that moment on I knew that I had to make games.

I pestered my parents to get me a computer and they eventually broke down and bought a VZ 200 then a Microbee. During the summer school holidays I decided to write a game and created a Pengo clone (a game about a penguin with ice cubes) that I called Chilly Willy. I sent it off to a local publisher and they bought it. The following school holidays I created Halloween Harry and sold it too. This was in 1983/1984.

Like most things in my life it seemed too easy so I decided to go off to university and study computer science so I could get a real job. After all, there was no way you could make a living writing games. Anyway, I worked in a telecommunications company for about two and a half years before I decided to leave and have another crack at making games again. I joined forces with an artist and began to remake Halloween Harry. Then we met up with Tony Ball and Robert Crane and started work on Amazon Queen at the same time. Next thing you know we've got two publishing deals. From there I never looked back!

One of the biggest influences in the early days was a top guy named Eric Matthews. He was one of the founding Bitmap Brothers (Speedball, Xenon, Magic Pocket, Gods) and co-owned Renegade, the coolest publisher in the world. He gave us our first big break and helped open my eyes to the potential of the games medium.

I love Colossal Cave! A 550 point version for the Kaypro 4 was the first computer game I ever played, too. Those little dwarves ended a lot of adventures prematurely. If not for questions about the legality and ethics of distributing an unauthorized port to the DOS platform, not to mention picking one from the dozens of ports, it would already be on my site.

The other interviews I've read from you have focused on your latest projects, but I'm an old DOS guy and I haven't even played those games. I want to start with the older stuff. Where did the idea for Halloween Harry come from?

Halloween Harry is based on a game I originally made and sold when I was in high school. The original Harry was a 13 level platform game programmed on the Microbee computer system that was popular in Australia in the early eighties and was pre-DOS. I sold the game through a company called Honeysoft and managed to make some pocket money to spend while I attended university.

The original idea for the first Harry game came from the first Ghostbusters movie. In the Microbee version Harry was a Ghost Hunter who was charged with ridding the city of all forms supernatural evil. The final boss was a witch in a room surrounded by spiders and hands reaching up from the ground. All drawn in wonderful 2 color graphics!

The DOS version was a remake in title and spirit only. We introduced a lot of new elements like the flame thrower and jet pack and the whole alien/zombie vibe.

I really love the intro to that game. There's that great musical score that sounds like it was originally for electric guitar, and the characters looked like anime. It caught my attention right away.

Yeah, the music was pretty cool. It was by Steven Baker and George Stamatiadis. Steven Baker was 17 years old when he did the title music. He's classically trained and is still making game music - he recently did the score for his brother's new game Tumble Bugs (http://www.casualgamesarcade.com/tumblebugs.htm).

The look was definitely anime influenced. The artist was a huge anime fan.

I consider the game a platformer, but that usually means controlling a character who can jump twice his own height to get from platform to platform. Harry doesn't jump at all, he uses a jetpack. Was that a deliberate attempt at realism or just something cool that made it possible to navigate through the levels more easily?

Actually the jetpack was a happy accident. Originally Harry was supposed to do a regular jump, but Robert Crane, the lead programmer, just added it in one day. We loved it so it stayed. In the end it turned out to be a curse and a blessing. It was great in that it added a whole new game play element - but it meant that Harry could go anywhere which made level design more of a challenge.

Yes, I suspected that the ability to go anywhere might have been problematic from a design standpoint.

Halloween Harry was published by Apogee. How did your relationship with Apogee start?

We originally signed Halloween Harry to an Australian company called Manaccom. They had a deal with Apogee to distribute their titles in Australia (including Doom at the time) so they introduced us to Apogee. Apogee then sublicenced the game to Formgen who released it commercially.

After the game had been out for a while it suddenly received a name change. Why was the name changed to Alien Carnage?

This was done at the request of Apogee, our US publisher. Scott Miller wasn't (and still isn't) a big fan of the name Halloween Harry. Apogee thought the Halloween Harry name was too seasonal and might limit sales to October 31st. In hindsight I can see his point of view, but I really like the name Halloween Harry. In fact, I don't think he was too fussed on Alien Carnage either, but he preferred it to the original title.

Do you like the new name?

It's not bad, but I prefer Halloween Harry. It has more character.

Apogee also swapped episodes 1 and 3 so that the shareware version started in the sewers instead of the office. Why did they make that change?

I think that was to offer some variety from the registered version.

The game has since been discontinued. Do you have any plans to sell it again or release it as freeware?

I own the rights to Halloween Harry and Zombie Wars and am currently looking into different avenues for the series. I love the character and the game and would love for people to experience it again.

I've recently been in discussions with some people about taking the game in to the handheld market. How that turns out will affect which next steps I will take in getting the game back into the PC market.

Flight of the Amazon Queen is a point-and-click adventure, which is a totally different direction from Halloween Harry. What took you in that direction?

Believe it or not we actually worked on Halloween Harry and Amazon Queen at the same time! Man, talk about biting off more than you can chew. Both games were created by a core team of four people.

I'm an avid comic book fan (and comic writer/gag strip artist) and love the idea of telling stories in games. When I first saw The Secret of Monkey Island a light went off in my head. I saw that you could do a funny, comic book style game on a computer. So, the next step was to create our own point and click adventure game - and being fans of Raiders of the Lost Ark we came up with a lighthearted homage to that movie. Thus Flight of the Amazon Queen was born!

How did you try to make Flight of the Amazon Queen different from other adventure games?

We didn't set out to make it different. We just wanted to make an adventure game. Two original ideas we had at the time were 1) an Indiana Jones style adventure game (we had no idea LucasArts had one in production at the same time), and 2) the graphical icons for the user interface. Although I think another game came out soon after with a similar interface. Really, we just wanted to make a fun adventure game and I think we succeeded admirably.

I didn't realize that you developed Flight of the Amazon Queen at the same time as Halloween Harry. Flight of the Amazon Queen was published by Renegade Software. Why wasn't it an Apogee title?

Apogee was a shareware company and at that time adventure games did exceptionally well as commercial releases. I don't think we even considered Apogee for the title. Looking back now it would have been interesting to see if a shareware adventure game would have sold. We also wanted to work with a publisher who would pay advances against royalties and at that time our relationship with Manaccom and Apogee didn't work that way. Basically we made the game and supplied it for a very small fee - I think the lead programmer may have been paid a thousand dollars or so. The head of Manaccom joked at the time that that he paid us in pizza and Coke - which was about right :-)

Cast of Zombie Wars
The cast of Zombie Wars

Halloween Harry returned in a new game called Zombie Wars, which was a Windows title. Did you switch operating systems because it allowed you to do things that couldn't be done in DOS, or was it because the world had switched to Windows?

We switched because the world had switched to Windows. Unfortunately the world had also switched to 3D - so we were behind the eight ball when it came to cutting edge technology. Which is a shame because I really think we hit our stride in terms of game design and balance with Zombie Wars.

How did you approach the sequel? Were there things that you hadn't gotten to do in the original that you finally got to do? In what ways did you want it to be better than its predecessor?

The main aim was to create a fun sequel and learn from the experience we gained making Halloween Harry. We wanted new weapons, more enemies and better effects. The one mistake we made was replacing the Flame Thrower with the Photon Cannon. Some people weren't very happy that we took away their beloved Flame Thrower.

Halloween Harry was even going to be a cartoon. How did that come about?

We are big fans of cartoons and comics, so it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Were you planning to write any episodes or have creative control over the series?

We actually wrote a complete series outline and a pilot episode. I'm the co-creator of TY the Tasmanian Tiger which is a Playstation 2, Gamecube, Xbox and Gameboy Advance game, so these skills were useful years later when I helped put together a series outline and wrote a script for a TY the Tasmanian Tiger TV series pitch. We managed to sell the concept to DPS Film Roman.

Ultimately it never aired. What happened?

Krome Studios happened. Gee Whiz! Entertainment joined forces with another company to create Krome Studios and this new company focused on kids games and sports titles. Halloween Harry wasn't owned by Krome Studios so there was no interest in pursuing the TV show or any further Harry games while we ran Krome. I left Krome earlier this year and became the sole owner of the Halloween Harry, Amazon Queen and other properties.

Are you disappointed that it didn't make it to television? Would you ever try again?

It would have been cool if it had made it to TV, but there's still time. I learnt a lot during my time at Krome and would definitely give it another go.

Will there be any more Halloween Harry games?

Definitely.

Games have gotten pretty advanced, but I'm still addicted to the simplicity of the old DOS games that I played in my youth. Are you a fan of DOS games? Are there any oldies that you still find yourself playing?

I generally don't categorise games per platform, so I end up playing all sorts of stuff on handheld, console and PC. Although I still like to play some of the old Infocom games every now and then and I have a real soft spot for the old LucasArts adventure games like Monkey Island, Sam and Max, and Day of the Tentacle.

Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything that you'd like to promote?

If you like to play fun games, check out www.casualgamesarcade.com. It's a site I've set up with some fun stuff coming out of the casual games space. Casual games remind me a lot of when I first started out with Halloween Harry in the old DOS Shareware days.

Thank you very much for your time, and good luck with your future projects.

Thank you for taking the time to get in touch!


Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.