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Surrey Advertiser 30th July 2010 15

Back to the future at retro games fest
Computer games may be as popular today as ever but sometimes the old ones are the best – Melanie Hall visits an event where fans play their favourites and discovers the challenges of creating the perfect game for today’s audience
WITH employees spending almost five million work hours playing Pacman when Google celebrated the game’s 30th anniversary this year, the appeal of retro games is far from over. Despite the spectacular graphics and advanced options of today’s video gaming, players chose to return to the world of 1980s technology for a retro computer games festival held in Ash Victoria Hall earlier this month. With games ranging from Pong to Sonic, and played on old consoles such as Atari and Sega Mega Drives, gamers turned their back on the Wii and Xbox 360 for some oldfashioned fun at the Ash Hill Road premises. The festival was the brainchild of Matt Brown, 34, whose passion for retro games inspired him to hold the event for fellow enthusiasts. Matt, who collected around 70 systems for visitors to try, said the appeal of computer games from bygone times lay in their inventiveness and challenges. “A lot of it is about the game play,” said Matt. “Fundamentally, when it comes to it, it has to be an enjoyable game to play. “There’s an awful lot of repetition these days, such as first person shooting games, which are just interpretations on the same theme. “But back then, people were coming up with more unusual ideas. I mean, Pacman, that is a yellow circle going around eating dots and being chased by ghosts.” These days, the computer developer writing code from a bedroom has been replaced by multi-million pound companies, with big bucks riding on a game’s success. It is this high stakes’ risk that is stifling creativity, says Matt. “It’s now comparable to making a film, with the emphasis more on graphics,” he said. Although Matt has a Wii, he says it does not get played much and reckons it has limited appeal for serious gamers. “I think it’s one of those games that people get out for parties but not so much when you are sitting on your own in your living room,” he said. “It doesn’t have the more engaging games that the Xbox 360 has.” The festival, which gave all the proceeds to Ash Victoria Hall to help fund its renovations, also saw a British record being broken, with Sami Cetin beating his own time on Super Mario Kart on the Nintendo SNES.

Sonic the Hedgehog is still a popular choice with some gamers. Sami, 28, who held the world record from September 1998 until April 2004 for the best average time across 20 Mario Kart racetracks, said the original Mario Kart was more satisfying than the new Wii version. He said: “I prefer retro games because they are more complex. I have been playing them for 18 years, trying to discover new strategies and they are very enjoyable.” One of the earliest known interactive electronic games was a missile simulator played on a cathode ray tube with analog, rather than digital, circuitry, and launched in 1947. Pong, released in 1972, was an electronic ping pong game, and was one of the earliest arcade games. In the 38 years since then, computer games have taken massive leaps forward, with one of the most revolutionary new advances pioneered by Guildford’s Lionhead Studios. The company’s team based at the Surrey Research Park is currently developing a Microsoft game for the Xbox 360 that is played without any controller, instead using a motion sensor known as Kinect. The game features a character, Milo, who interacts by using artificial intelligence to recognise the player’s emotions as well as developing as a virtual person. Gary Carr, head of the Milo studio at Lionhead, said: “Milo is at the other end of the spectrum. It’s very different from how games were 30 years ago.” He cut his teeth in the gaming world by co-developing a controversial game that was popular in the mid-1980s called Barbarian, inspired by the Conan films. “Our first game was actually very infamous,” he said. “It was seen as quite provocative, using violence, and featured sex for the first time in a computer game, as it had a page three model on the front cover. “Games were far more challenging back then. These days, they are more of a visual experience but in the early days, you had to use different combinations of button pressing, so it was more technical.” Gary agreed that games had also become less creative, explaining: “In the early days, it was very experimental. “We just did what we wanted to do. Maybe we have lost that

The retro computer games festival was the brainchild of Matt Brown. Pictures: Pete Gardner. desire of trying things out. “Lionhead tries to be innovative so I’m not sure we are guilty of that.” With Milo, Gary said the team was trying to produce an experience. “I don’t think Milo is necessarily going to change the way games are played in the future but we are trying to do something very different,” he explained. “Milo is trying to create a very three-dimensional character that you care about emotionally, you can see that he is developing a personality. “His life can change in a number of different directions. He’s moved house and school and is just at that age where you can guide him.” He added: “It’s like watching a fantastic Pixar movie and being able to interact with it too. “It’s a fusion of two worlds.”

Steve Perry tried hand-held games during the Ash festival.

Children met crew of space shuttle
ASTRONAUTS met Surrey schoolchildren recently in an event designed to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, among mounting concern over the UK’s lack of science graduates. The day saw students from the Raleigh and Dawnay schools meeting crew members of NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis, who returned from their mission to the International Space Station in May. The event was arranged by the Parliamentary Space Committee, whose executive members include Pat Norris, business development manager at Leatherhead space software company Logica. Mr Norris, who worked on the Apollo moon landing programme in Houston, Texas, in the 1967, said Britain’s economy was in danger of sliding backwards unless it bolstered its technology and engineering industries. “I don’t think there’s too much doubt that Britain should be involved in advanced engineering in the future and if we aren’t, our economic future is compromised,” he said. “I think most people recognise that you need to get children interested in things like science and the technologies before they leave primary school.” When asked why other countries such as China seemed to produce so many science and engineering graduates, relative to their size, Mr Norris said it was down to their deliberate government policy. “They just focus resources to produce high school leavers who end up going into those fields and they don’t want to just be doing the low supply end of things – they want to be doing the high technology. “In the long run, without a constant supply of qualified engineers, the economy will just go backwards.” The British space industry turns over £6 billion and employs 19,100 people directly, with 70,000 jobs supported by the sector. “It’s a pretty significant sector, which perhaps many people will not be aware of,” said Mr Norris. “Surrey is a significant part of that.” Logica provides software and systems support to other space firms and produced all the software on the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, launched in 1997. According to Mr Norris, although Logica had not yet faced big recruitment problems, he said it was a growing issue. “Recruiting has been getting more difficult,” he said. “It’s not yet a crunch problem but it’s becoming less easy as the years go by.”

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Jake, Thomas and teacher George Shand from The Raleigh School,West Horsley and Jordon, Leon and Linda Scrase from the Dawnay School, Bookham, with the NASA space shuttle crew.