Sensible Software’s Jon Hare on the making of Mega lo Mania and the demise of Mirrorsoft

Mega lo Mania 2

In this extract from Read-Only Memory’s Sensible Software 1986–1999 retrospective, studio co-founder Jon Hare – lovingly nicknamed ‘Jops’ in the tome – recounts the making of 1991 Amiga strategy game Mega lo Mania to author Gary Penn. Hare is also joined by fellow industry figures of the time to recall Sensible’s doomed deal with Mirrorsoft…

Mega lo Mania’s involved play is underpinned by the use of tech trees spanning epochs, pre-empting Sid Meier’s Civilization by months, and all wrapped up in real-time strategy game sentiments over a year before Westwood’s Dune II and four years before Command & Conquer. Jops is understandably proud of those facts.

Jon Hare: Yeah, it was certainly ahead of its time. The idea of tech trees was in the design from the start – it was the basis of the game. Mega lo Mania was one of the first computer games to use tech trees. Initially though, the game was called ‘My Little Warhead’ and its logo had a nuclear rocket with a pink My Little Pony wig on. The idea was that you were flying around in a spaceship, controlling the sectors in much the same way as in the final game, with exactly the same structure but it was all futuristic. You had to fly a spaceship and do the combat with all this shit zapping around at the same time. That was the initial idea. I don’t remember the exact moment when we realised it was too hard – impossible really, for players to fly the spaceship while doing all this complicated management – but at some point the penny just dropped that the game needed simplifying. Mega lo Mania was called ‘My Little Warhead’ until six months before its release, when we changed it from spacemen to cavemen.

Gary Penn: Why shift the setting from the far future to the distant past?
JH: It was me realising that what we were doing wasn’t working. We’d been using lots of placeholders and suddenly we needed proper art. In the back of my mind something was saying ‘NO!’ I can remember seeing Populous and those little cavemen. We usually ignored what everybody else was doing, but I saw this and thought it was a good idea. I thought we could start the game with cavemen then progress through Romans, Normans, the Middle Ages, the World Wars, the modern world, the future…

GP: Dramatically that’s a much stronger sense of progression … So how would you summarise Mega lo Mania? Is it a god game? A real-time strategy game?
JH: I used to play a board game called Campaign with my dad. I think Mega lo Mania is based more on that than anything else. Instead of a country you’ve got a little sector and instead of cities you’ve got buildings…

A sprite sheet from Sensible’s cult 1991 strategy game Mega lo Mania.

GP: Mega lo Mania does feel like a board game brought to life, not least because it’s on quite a small scale compared to Populous and Powermonger with their massive 3D landscapes.
JH: Absolutely. I like the way elements can be mined to make weapons. I love that part of the game, the innovation of it. It’s like some of the things I wanted to do with Wizball – finding these things in the ground and mixing them around to make stuff. I like the pace of play … it can be very slow, wandering around, taking your time, designing your weapons, building your army up and attacking the enemy. It’s quite interesting that as you get closer to the nuclear era it becomes a race to get to the first nuclear weapon, at which point the pace changes. I like how that worked out, how it just evolved.

GP: How did you balance the game? Did you just play and play and nudge the numbers as needed?
JH: No. I have to admit that Mega lo Mania isn’t a particularly well-balanced game, that’s one of its weaknesses. That doesn’t really become obvious until the very end. The idea is that all your remaining men get frozen cryogenically for the final level – and that’s how many you have to try and win the whole game. But we never tested it enough … we erred on the side of caution, so it was ridiculously easy to win – you only needed, say, six men to win, not six hundred.

GP: Did you ever use playtesters to provide feedback, especially in terms of balancing play?
JH: No, never. All we would’ve listened to is what people like Tony [Beckwith, producer on Mega lo Mania for Mirrorsoft] told us. He did get some people to play it, give feedback; that was the first time we’d ever had that. I probably moaned, ‘What? What do these kids know anyway?’ My approach to designing is quite mathematical: if you work out your sums right at the beginning, the balance of gameplay falls out of the maths you started with. That’s where all the balancing took place, at an early stage. But we couldn’t predict how the threat of nuclear weapons in the game would change the way it was played. It was a pity we only had AI opponents – what Mega lo Mania really needed more than any game we made was an online multiplayer mode. It would’ve been a fantastic game like that … but it wasn’t feasible at the time. We could have used a serial cable to link two Amigas, but our mantra’s always been to focus on the gear that most people own.

Jops blatantly pauses for thought…
JH: I say that … but in retrospect, I do wish we’d done it now. There was a lot of pressure and tension at the end of Mega lo Mania. I remember a period when Chipper and I were regularly working until four in the morning and there were many nights I’d be driving home seeing double because of a lack of sleep. One night I worked until I was literally sick on the way home. It was overrunning massively – a year-and-a-half in development was by far the longest we’d ever taken to do anything and it could’ve gone on longer. We got there in the end, of course … and got to number one, which we were very pleased about. It deserved better than what happened.

Chris Yates, Jon Hare and Chris Chapman in a publicity shoot for the game.

GP: What did happen?
JH: We started to talk to Mirrorsoft about the next stage in Sensible’s evolution … we showed them early demos of Sensible Soccer and then Cannon Fodder – we signed a deal with Sean Brennan and Tony Beckwith in a pub round the corner from a trade show at Earls Court, I think it was.

Sean Brennan was sales and marketing director at Mirrorsoft at the time and heavily involved in signing up developers. He saw great potential in Sensible and was keen to sign them.
Sean Brennan:
Sensible had original, quirky ideas and had the ability to make highly playable games that were addictive at the outset. They also always instinctively knew what the core gamers wanted, which made their games easier to market. As a publisher it was easy to make a difference in those days … if you had modest financial backing you could sign great development talent, make a game in six months, spend relatively little on marketing and make a good profit.

Tony has a vivid recollection of signing Sensible…
Tony Beckwith: We’d negotiated the terms of the contract and had printouts ready for signing … but there was one problem: the contracts had to be witnessed by an independent third party. So we looked around and got the pub barmaid to sign them both … I wonder if she ever knew that she’d witnessed a famous moment in gaming history! I think the development fee was something like £33,000 for Sensible Soccer and £40,000 for Cannon Fodder. Amazing how low budgets were in those days compared to the multi-million budgets we see today.

Recalling the signing to Mirrorsoft brought it all back for Jops, too…
JH: Chris and I went and had a few drinks with Sean and Tony in the bar at this trade show – tequila, beer; too much in half an hour. But we were celebrating signing a three-game deal. One of the companies at the show had a waltzer in the middle of the event so we went for a ride on it … Big mistake. I ended up throwing up everywhere. Anyway. So we’d signed Mega lo Mania, Mega lo Mania II, Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer to Mirrorsoft. This is the next era of Sensible… everything’s looking great, it’s feeling really good, like we’re about to go somewhere, and then…

Each of Mega Lo Mania’s eight different eras carried its own set of rules.

Jops sighs and slowly shakes his head…
JH: Two months after Mega lo Mania came out – before we’d even got our first royalty cheque – Mirrorsoft go tits up … and we nearly went under with them. We had the three new games signed up but no advances paid by this point; nothing substantial anyway, other than perhaps a small initial payment for signing the deal. The timing was a fucking disaster. We’d been very much relying on the Mega lo Mania royalties to keep us ticking along. We lost at least 75 grand of our royalties when Bob Maxwell jumped off his fucking boat. We lost 75 per cent of our fucking turnover that year and were so nearly fucked. Mind you, some people weren’t getting their pensions, so you could say we got off lightly.

The usually upbeat Tony Beckwith recalls these dark days with a clear note of melancholy …
TB: Those were just really awful times. I had no idea that things were going to fall apart when Robert Maxwell’s death was all over the news. I thought things would carry on for us. Then one day, just prior to Christmas, Sean Brennan came into the office and said, ‘This man’s a liquidator, Tony. I’ve been trying to explain to him that we have the strongest software line-up of any publisher in the games industry right now, but he won’t believe me. Can you try and convince him?’ It was all true: Mirrorsoft was on top of the world, but the liquidator wouldn’t be convinced.

You can read the full story of the legendary UK developer in Read-Only Memory’s Sensible Software 1986–1999.