Net Yaroze article from
THE FACE March 1998: Vol 3: Number 14.



Text: Jim McClellan
Illustrations: James Jarvis

Index: PAGE 118 YAROZE Sony's programmable PlayStation will let you go from Tomb Raider to bank-raider.
Coldcut's free CD software gives everyone the ticknology to become a bedroom DJ and VJ.
Is this the computer-gaming underground's future? Or is this a fake DIY?


LO-FI All stars

Say hello to Yaroze, Sony's attempt to recapture the spirit of the Sinclair ZX81.
With the aid of this small black box and some downloaded software, everyone can have a private play-station.
Now, from the comfort of your bedroom, you can breed your own Lara Croft. Well, nearly


Visitors to the European Computer Trade Show, the games industry's pre-Christmas hypefest,
which took place in London's Earl's Court late last year, couldn't escape Lara Croft,
the unfeasible pneumatic heroine of Eidos' all-conquering Tomb Raider games. Images of her were everywhere, including the 'real' version in the fleshly shape of actress Rhona Mitra.
A mini-stampede duly resulted as every sweaty bloke in the house (and there were plenty) pushed forward to the Eidos stand to catch an eyeful.
The fuss was understandable. In the run-up to Christmas, the hyperreal Lara was the biggest thing in video games, as it were,
her outrageous curves a symbol of the industry's pumped-up confidence (and the similarly impressive figures on its balance sheets).
However, not everyone at the show was happy.
The odd exception aside, industry cynics suggested that the games biz was in a rut, cranking out the same old genres and ideas.
ECTS did, however, offer a glimpse of what some see as a potential way forward.

Like a lot of other British pop-cultural success stories, from punk to acid house, the currently booming British games industry was built in teens' bedrooms.





In the mini-arcade set up to plug upcoming Sony PlayStation games, there was a smaller stand which drew constant stream of visitors.
The charms of the object-of-desire on display were perhaps not as obvious as those of Ms Croft, but something like desire seemed to flicker across the faces of the blokes round the stand.

They were gazing at a black PlayStation, known as a Yaroze (Japanese for "let's, create" apparently).
Hooked up to a PC, it will let ordinary users program their own Playstation on games.
Of course, bedroom programmers have always been able to develop their own games on the PC,
but up until now the consoles produced by Sony, Sega and Nintendo have been "Closed systems".
The only way to program games for them was to either fork out thousands of pounds on an official games developer kit, or get a job in the industry.

Why is this important? Like a lot of other British pop-cultural success stories, from punk to acid house,
the currently booming British games industry was built in teens' bedrooms,
as obsessed Eighties adolescents monkeyed around on the Sinclair ZX81 and Spectrum, the Commodore 64, the Atari and the Amiga.
Now a new generation has a chance to mess around with a new box, which can only be good for the long-term health of British video games.

At least, that's the theory.
There are a few problems. First up, you need a fairly decent PC.
Add that to the Yaroze's £549 price tag and you need two grand to get started.
In Other words unlike, say, the Spectrum, the Yaroze isn't really in the affordable gift category.
Further, you can't just nip into a store and buy one.

The Yaroze - launched in Japan two years ago - is only available via the Internet or direct from Sony Computer Entertainment,
and to obtain one you have to fill out an application form to become a Yaroze member.
Once you go to the trouble of doing this, you do get a fair amount for your money.
Along with the black PlayStation itself, there are various bits of geek stuff:
software development tools, compilers, debuggers, graphics libraries, bits of sample source code and the like.
You also get support from Sony and access to a special website, where you can download more useful bits of code (or advice),
upload your finished games, or download and mess around with those done by others.
In addition, companies that produce 3D development software packages used by the games industry (eg Kinetix) have begun offering discounts to Yaroze users.

Overall, the system doesn't have that much storage space, so you can't do a graphics-heavy epic like Tomb Raider.
However, Sony argues that this is an advantage, since it will force Yaroze programmers to concentrate on gameplay and genuine innovation rather than graphics flash.
Again, that's the theory. More than a few of the early demos uploaded by British and European Yaroze users are graphics exercises rather than games,
attempts to match the 3D standards of the mainstream.

Elsewhere, in the same way that first-time guitarists start out trying to master the Sex Pistols' three chords,
Yaroze users have bashed out versions of old retro-faves like Pacman, Galaxian or Mario-style platformers.
Exactly one year on from its low-key launch, the best British Yaroze games are those being done by Lewis Evans.
This isn't that surprising, since Evans works for Sony, doing Yaroze support and writing sample games to show first-timers how it's done.
One of his better Yaroze efforts, Between The Eyes, actually made it on to the free disc of game demos that came with December's PlayStation magazine.
That month's disc also featured another Yaroze effort, Clone, a competent Doom rip-off by Stuart Ashley, also a Sony employee.
Still, even though the games may be — in relative terms — basic, individual UK Yaroze users are beginning to glean some benefits from their machines.
Take Scott Evans (no relation to Lewis), who used his Yaroze to rework the old ball-bouncing, wall-smashing retro-fave Breakout for the PlayStation.
He is now working as a PlayStation programmer at UK developer Codemasters.
"The reason I bought my Yaroze was to get into the industry," he says.
"After a while, I realised that no one was going to pay any attention to the games I'd done on my Atari."
It seems likely that others will follow Evans' route into the games business.

Would-be developers who go to Middlesex University won't even have to fork out for their own Yaroze.
Last autumn, their School of Computing began offering a one-term course in PlayStation programming using 15 Yarozes donated by Sony.
"We first made the link with Sony because one of our students phoned up and tried to blag a games developer's kit for the PlayStation," says Sean Butler,
who helped to write the course but has since left to work in the industry.
"They said, 'No, but would you like to test this thing for us?' " Part of the graphics strand of the computer science degree, the course deals, says Butler,
with "characterisation, narrativity and semifotics", but will mainly focus on the technical problems of modelling believable 3D worlds.
To help the students along, Butler spent last summer working up his own Yaroze game, in which a six-year-old boy attacks a scary spacehopper with a peashooter.
In giving the Yarozes to Middlesex University - and following their lead, the universities of Southampton, Derby and West England now also run Yaroze courses -
Sony is aping the example of Sun Computers and Apple. They too have realised the value, in terms of building brand loyalty,
of waiving immediate costs in order to let young designers get their hands on their products early.

Overall, the Yaroze, which is unlikely to make much money (so far "several thousand" have been sold in Europe, according to Sony, with just under 1,000 in the UK),
looks like another typically smart move by the company. On a basic level, it helps to build up the pool of potential PlayStation programmers.
It gets kids learning to program the Sony way from the start. The Yaroze is also a clever piece of general branding. It makes Sony look open and creative.
Gives them a "power to the people" feel.
"The most impressive thing is the way they've targeted not professionals, but the Eighties-style guy back in his bedroom," says GT Interactive's Pete Hawley,
one of the programmers behind Abe's Oddysee. "With this, you can actually achieve a real, practical, basic workstation at a price that isn't too outrageous."


Often, when cheap-ish technology becomes available, it leads to the creation of an indie sector prized for its risk-taking and creativity.




One of the cleverest things about the Yaroze, in marketing terms, is the way it lets Sony tap into the games industry's current nostalgic mood.
In the last two years, sales of retro-games and emulators which dumb down your hyped-up PC so you can play old Atari or Spectrum games on it have boomed.
Picking up from this, some critics of current games-biz (ie the way companies staffed by hundreds of employees labour on
low-risk rip-offs of whatever happens to he gaming flavour of the month) argue that the way out of this impasse is a back-to-basics approach
— and what better than the democratising force of the Yaroze to spark a new Spectrum culture?
That is, a creative whirlpool that throws up the odd programmer with a keen eye for gameplay and who is less concerned with post-Tomb Raider tits 'n' flash.

Even so, "the games world has changed and things are just a hundred times more complicated than they were back then," comments games developer Peter Molyneux.
He knows something about DIY games culture, having gone from bedroom to boardroom after coming up with the pioneering God-sim game Populous virtually off his own back in the Eighties.
He put the Populous profits into a company, Bullfrog, responsible for some of the big games of the Nineties, from Magic Carpet to last year's Dungeon Keeper.
He recently left Bullfrog to start a new company, Lionhead.
"You could open any magazine back then type two pages of code into your machine and you'd be playing a game.
You just can't do that now on the current machines. It's impossible.
So it's a bit ambitious to say that the Yaroze is going to form a huge community of people creating games.
What people forget about the 'golden era' is that there were an awful lot of crap games.
" Overall though, Molyneux is positive.
"You probably won't get anything. amazingly creative from the Yaroze. But you are going to get more people coming into the industry.
That can't be a bad thing.
"
It's interesting that Molyneux sees fresh talent going into established companies as the main benefit of the Yaroze.
Often, when cheap-ish technology becomes available, it leads to the creation of an indie sector prized for its risk-taking and creativity.

The street, as William Gibson once said, finds its own use for things. Can that happen with console games, courtesy of the Yaroze?

Perhaps the real problem for the Yaroze is that the games industry is in transition.
With a set of decks, an electric guitar or a drum machine, and some composition software, bedroom wannabes can quickly crank out a noise which sounds not too far off the professionals.
That isn't the case with games. They're just too difficult. It wasn't always the case.
Back in the old days, technology was so rudimentary, it created a level playing-field.
But for now, you need teams of artists, designers and programmers to get today's technology to come up to the audience's expectations.
Things will change, according to some games industry gurus. In the future, fluid 3D graphics will become trivial, a matter of course, and the level playing-field will return.
Good ideas will get to the top. Once again, anyone will be able to have a go.

In the meantime, if you want to change the games world as we know it, you need to do it via the established industry. And if you want to get into the industry, one of the smartest things you can do is buy a Yaroze.
Despite the odd qualm, Peter Molyneux is enthusiastic. "It's exactly the type of thing I Would have got when I was starting out"
Yaroze is at www.scee.sony.co.uk/yaroze/




CORPORATE RAIDERS


It would take a nation of PlayStations to hold them back

No one embodies Britain's DIY computer culture better than Coldcut.
Their independent, mixed-media empire may be centred around the production of music but Matt Black and Jonathan Moore are increasingly focusing on software creation.
Specifically, tools that bring music and visuals together in the self-styled concept of the 'Video Jockey'.
They quietly slipped out a suite of self-help utilities on their last album, "Let Us Play": called Play Tools,
they included devices which allowed users to create their own music and graphics. Crude but interesting,
they were a foretaste of what Coldcut are to produce this year.

"Play Tools are about expanding people's minds beyond hack-'em-up thumb-candy," says Black.
"The best way to grow this scene is to provide the tools so the next generation - artist and design collectives like Audio Rom, Anti-Rom and Modified - can develop.
We're also going to release software that allows live VJing. We want to move people off of decks and onto laptops.
"

While music and art encourage low-level innovation, the games market is less able to accommodate an underground.
At $12 billion, the global games market is larger than the film and music industries combined,
but developing a game costs hundreds of thousands of pounds - which bedroom producers don't have.

Thus the Yaroze is the best example of go-it-alone innovation - even if its arrival represents DIY culture being imposed, top-down, by a corporate behemoth.
Which is why the only alternative, bottom-up programmers with any scope for subverting the mainstream, are people like Coldcut, doing so from a specialised niche.
That, or disaffected former major league players with the experience to subvert from the sidelines.

Even then, with no cash you've no dash.
The easiest way around this is to establish a name for yourself With a hit game for a major company and then break out on your own with a fistful of financial backers.
This is exactly what Toby Gard and Paul Douglas have done. The creators of Tomb Raider recently formed their own independent company, Confounding Factor,
as an antidote to working within the strict confines of the increasingly corporate UK games industry.
"There's never been a suit in here since we started," puffs Gard. "The people who make the decisions here actually like and play games."

Others are less fortunate than Gard, with his multi-million-pound backers.
Ian Bell is a veteran of the UK's games industry, having co-written Elite for the BBC Micro in the early Eighties.
He's become disillusioned at the domination of a once vibrant and creative indie games scene by the major games publishing houses.

"Leading-edge games are becoming harder for individuals or small teams to produce as platforms become more powerful," Bell says.
"Kids who, ten years ago, would have been writing 32K computer games, are now creating techno music instead."

"The UK industry exists to make money. Snuff-fasts like Doom are morally repulsive in my opinion.
I don't think you can blame the suits entirely. There seems to me to be a fundamental lack of imagination.
If you want quality, make arts funding available. The problem is that programmers are trying to create games which will g them a large advance.
This means pandering the publishers' ideas of what will sell." Jake Barnes


Some pics of article.


Contact: info at netyaroze-europe.com