Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, sits down with video game composer Tim Follin.
Follin is perhaps most notorious for his early work, starting at the age of 15 at Insight Studios, where he scored games such as Agent X, Chronos, and Bubble Bobble for the ZX Spectrum home computer. After a year or so he moved on to Software Creations, making a name for himself with scores for the home computer versions of Bionic Commando and Ghouls and Ghosts (both the Commodore 64 and Amiga variations), Silver Surfer and Solstice for the Nintendo Entertainment System, and – along with his brother Geoff – Super Nintendo scores for Thomas the Tank Engine, Equinox, and Spider-Man and the X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge.
"For me, Software Creations at the start was a very enjoyable place to work," Follin told us via email. "We had a lot of fun!" But, as many of us know all too well, the ideal work environment can only last so long. Co-workers left, politics ran high, and the office environment - and indeed, the office itself - took on major changes. "The new offices seemed built specifically to divide us up and choke any enthusiasm for the job we might have had," he said. "They were I think four floors high, and each floor was designed with three isolated rooms, just big enough for one or two people, and one main room, just big enough for about three." Follin and his co-workers lost trust in the management. "We were being paid peanuts compared to the money the company was making," he said. So in 1993 Follin moved on to greener - much greener - pastures.
"Malibu Interactive had started advertising for staff to work in either their U.S. or Derby offices, offering a much higher salary, so a number of people from Software Creations had already left to go and work for them," he said. "I called them and told them I had a small team of people – two programmers, a graphic artist and me – wanting to leave SC and work for Malibu, provided we had a local office to work in." Surprisingly, Malibu conceded, and in a matter of weeks Follin and his team found an office in nearby Warrington. Geoff Follin would join them shortly thereafter; he was taking a trip around Africa at the time.
Not many will remember Malibu, the startup comic book company who tried to build an empire with their line of copycat superheroes. "The problem with Malibu was that it was a comics company, and the management had little knowledge of video games or the games industry, so it was inevitable that they soon ran into big problems," said Follin. "Although the programmers and artist in our team did a fair amount of work, the company was badly managed, and Geoff and I found ourselves doing very little for the best part of a year." Unsurprisingly, Malibu collapsed within a year, with only one shipped title - the universally-shunned Prime for the Sega CD, based on a comic book about a young schoolboy who can turn into a lump of anatomically-embarrassing lump of muscle mass at will. "The music we did was suitably cheesy," he said, referring both to the above and the unreleased Firearm.
After Malibu, Follin found himself as a freelancer by default, a role he's played ever since. "I like the free time," he said, "but I don't like worrying half the year whether I'm going to get any work or not." Initially Follin and his brother Geoff worked together, doing MIDI music for London-based Probe. "We soon realised that there wasn’t going to be enough work for both of us," he said. "Also, Geoff had started moving towards other areas (he’s now a teacher), so we went separate ways." Follin has only been involved in a handful of titles since then, most notably Batman and Robin for the PlayStation, Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future for the Dreamcast (and, eventually, PlayStation 2), and the multi-platform Starsky and Hutch. "I’ve also done a few Game Boy projects and some completely unrelated work for the local education authority, designing video teaching aids," he said. "Writing for Ecco was quite enjoyable, but I was constantly frustrated by a lack of equipment and resources – such as a string orchestra and choir!"
Follin went on to detail his frustration. "My self-imposed curse is that I love the sound of real instruments and have a deep resistance to synthesised music. It’s possibly because I’ve never had a decent synthesiser, but whatever the reason it’s led me down the dreaded path of simulation and samples, which as every composer knows can only end in tears!" Despite his extensive (and expensive!) GigaStudio library of simulated orchestra sounds, Follin remains frustrated. "And of course game music budgets never stretch to hiring real musicians," he said. "I think I’m really a band member working alone. It’s getting to the point now where I’d rather be doing anything other than writing music – anything that pays as much for the same amount of work, that is! But the stress of worrying whether I’m going to get any work each year is getting too much for me these days, so I’m now looking for a permanent job. Which is probably not going to be music related."
Follin has experimented outside of music, particularly with a couple of interesting short films, viewable on his website. "Film has always been something I’ve been interested in," he said. "I used to harbour desires to write film music, until I realised that the chances of writing for a really decent film - let alone any film at all - were so remote that I lost interest in pursuing it. But in recent years I’ve written and directed (and produced and done the music for etc, etc) two short films, made on tiny budgets, which have led so far to some work as a director of photography on a documentary shoot in Egypt, and may possibly lead a directing job, which I can’t say anything about right at the moment in case it doesn’t happen. If it does, the films will have been worth making!" Of his shift to film, Follin commented: "I suppose it’s like music. If you get an idea, and you can see how to make it work, you have to follow it through just to satisfy your own curiosity. I think I have the same enthusiasm now for film making that I had for game music when I started back at Software Creations in 1987. We all change I suppose!"
Follin is still involved in games, to some capacity. "I’m just finishing the music for Lemmings on the PSP," he said. "It’s been a pretty tight deadline and I’ve never done as much music in as little time before. I’ve also had to do the sound effects and lemming speech, which was fun!" Follin has no other game projects lined up for the future, and it's entirely possible that Lemmings might be his video game swan song, so to speak. "It looks as though I might be heading for a change of career," he said. "I’ll just have to wait and see!"
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]