An overview of John's career in video games
John was born in Stockport, near Manchester, UK, in 1967, and became interested in home computers at around the age of 13 when the first 'affordable' personal computer - the Sinclair ZX80 - was released. He got a ZX81 for christmas in 1981, and taught himself to program in BASIC.
Upgrading to a ZX Spectrum a couple of years (and a lot of saving up) later, John wrote his first game - a derivitave text adventure called Ghost Town - in 1984, while still at high school. This was sold to the newly formed Virgin Games for £500, funding the purchase of a 14inch colour TV to replace the old black and white portable he'd been using up until then.
John then teamed up with his school friend Paul Ranson to work on a more orignal adventure, Ziggurat (John writing the Spectrum version and Paul the Amstrad version), which was again sold, this time to Software Projects' budget label Software Super Savers, while the pair were in the sixth form at school.
Plans for a sequel were shelved when John and Paul both successfully applied for jobs as programmers at the newly formed development studio Binary Design, despite the fact that John had never programmed in machine code, and 'winged' the interview with a couple of educated guesses. Plucking up the courage to admit this and ask for a bit of help from technical director Mike Webb on his first day, John learnt z80 assembler and wrote his first 'professional' game, Deathwake, in just 12 weeks. He went on to program and design many more games over the next couple of years, including hit games published by Quicksilva and Mastertronic, before leaving the increasingly factory-like studio to form Zippo Games in 1987 to specialise in higher quality orignal games.
Zippo began producing Amiga / Atari ST games for the new 16-bit computers, but changed direction when their response to a request for developers in a magazine interview by Rare led to an early introduction to the world of console development for Nintendo's NES. Zippo developed several NES games for Rare, and John even co-programmed the first live synchronised link up between Gameboys for an unreleased wrestling game, as well as a coin-op for Rare's Razz Board, before the studio became Rare Manchester and John left in 1990.
After a brief spell at a developer called Active Minds, John was invited to come and join Software Creations - one of the few other console developers in the UK at the time - to design and write a game on the hush-hush new Super Nintendo (SNES) development kit they had. John agreed, so long as his brother Ste (still at Rare Manchester) could come and work on the game with him, and the two brothers began work on Equinox, a sequel to Creations' NES game Solstice.
After Equinox John was promoted to become the only producer at the rapidly growing developer, designing and managing twenty games simultaneously at one point. Amongst the SNES games John designed and managed at Creations were Plok, Maximum Carnage and Tin Star for publishers like Acclaim and Nintendo. Creations joined Nintendo's 'Dream Team', one of only a few developers given devkits for the new N64 system, and John worked with Mr Miyamoto at Nintendo on a launch title for this platform.
John and Ste were frustrated by the difficulties of trying to create high quality and interesting games in the increasingly factory like environment of Creations, so negotiated a deal to form a sepreate, internal 'crack' team within the studio to specialise in new IP and R&D with new owners Rage, but Rage backed out of the deal at the last minute, forcing John and Ste to resign.
With no money, no funding, and no business plan in place, John and Ste had little choice but to try to continue with their 'tiger team' plan (as it had become known), forming a new studio rather than an internal team. Starting off in Ste's front room, and in a business climate which had grown increasingly hostile to small development teams and original games, the brothers successfully got their studio off the ground, selling puzzle game Wetrix to Ocean / Infogrames in 1987. Zed Two (as the studio was called, in a nod to Zippo) had a profitable six years, growing to around 20 staff, and successfully mixing original IP creation with work-for-hire licensed games to pay the rent, completing 15 titles (and several more prototypes) before being hit by the double whammy of two clients each failing to pay $1m owed during the same year, and forcing the studio to sell up to their richer neighbours, AIM listed developer Warthog, in December 2002.
Their new parent company hit similar financial difficulties a year later, and Zed Two was closed, and John and Ste made redundent, in early 2004.
Forming another new studio was no longer possible without significant finance, in an industry which was demanding higher and higher production values, with larger and larger development teams, working on increasingly derivitave and conservative licensed games. Facing a choice of looking for a well paid job working on dull movie licesnses, sports sims or driving games for one of the few surviving mega developers, or trying to continue creating interesting games without pay, the brothers chose the latter option and turned to indie development.
John and Ste formed Zee-3 in 2005 to self publish their games online, and began developing new games as The Pickford Brothers, working from home and trying not to spend any money.
Their first indie game - Naked War - was released to critical acclaim, and is considered by the brothers to be the best game they've ever made. They now divide their time between developing new, original indie games, and working as design consultants for various UK console game developers.
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