Retro Interview: Jolyon Myers
From the 8-bit era to Call Of Duty, we reflect on the long and hugely successful career of this artist and designer
Veteran artist and designer Jolyon 'Joe' Myers has been in the games industry from the days of the 8-bit computers, all the way up to his current role at Infinity Ward, and creating beautiful environments for the Call Of Duty series. He talks to games™ about the key moments of his 30-year career
Were you artistic at school?
Art was definitely my favourite subject at school. My teacher was very encouraging to me in my artistic endeavours not only on paper, but also on the computer when I started using my skills on the technology of the time. I also liked history, although I spent too much time on the drawings sometimes required in coursework! I also learned piano up to grade three, and had an astute ear; I could figure out other people’s tunes on the piano and create my own. When I was eventually able to write music on a computer, I was really able to get creative and put all my ideas down relatively quickly.
Do you remember your first experiences of videogames?
I remember often going to Hayling Island and Southsea to go to the large arcades that are not so commonplace today, and being wowed by what I considered great graphics in early games such as Yie Ar Kung-fu. Marble Madness was a game I thought looked really impressive too, and still has a nice but simple style. As time went on, I really loved a lot of Capcom’s graphics, and also Irem’s art in In The Hunt.
What about at home?
The Oric-1 was my first computer, although I do remember being envious of friends with more popular computers such as the Spectrum, even though at the time the Oric was more powerful. Seeing friends playing the games by Ultimate in particular really made me want to try doing graphics on a computer. Knight Lore and Alien 8 definitely caught my attention.
How did your career begin?
After the Oric-1, my father bought the family a BBC Micro Model B. Eventually I learned enough BASIC to write my own line drawing
program to sketch in the rough layout of the image before I started zooming in and adding detail. Once I had created a bunch of images, I sent them to Superior Software in Leeds, as they seemed to be one of the largest companies producing games for the BBC Micro. It seemed like an age before they called me – it was only one week! – and I was asked to do the loading screen for a game called Syncron, which was like a vertically scrolling version of Uridium. It wasn’t long after that I saw that loading screen in a review of the game along with a nice compliment, and at that point I knew I really would like to do this for a living.
Was Domark your first job?
Actually, before Domark I did some work experience in the office of Top Ten Software thanks to Darryl Still. He very kindly
IT WAS A FANTASTIC EXPERIENCE FOR ME AS IT WAS GREAT TO BE COLLABORATING WITH A TALENTED BUNCH OF FUN CHARACTERS
arranged it as I had worked with him doing freelance loading screens for Audiogenic previously. Not long after that, I made an animated cartoon-style movie sequence with music as something I could possibly get work from. I went to the ECTS computer show at Olympia in 1989, and at the Domark stand was able to show off my work directly to John Kavanagh, who was running the development office of Domark in Addlestone, called The Kremlin. Soon after I started there, and that was my full-time career.
What was it like working at Domark?
It was a fantastic experience for me, as it was great to be collaborating with a talented bunch of fun characters. Not long after I joined, we had a Christmas party, and Dominic and Mark [Wheatley and Strachan, Domark bosses] came down to Weybridge to eat and drink with everyone. They were extremely likeable guys, they appreciated my efforts and were very encouraging. Ian Livingstone was also my boss for a while, and also a great guy to work for, obviously quite an icon as well.
After Domark you briefly worked at Argonaut in London before King of the Jungle.
I had become pretty adept at 2D animation, and really wanted to transfer some of those skills into 3D. But I was only at Argonaut for three months before I got a call from my friends Chris and Tony West, who I had worked with closely at Domark. They had recently completed a really cool game called Street Racer, and wanted to set up their own company along with Raff Cecco and Stephane Koenig. I felt bad at leaving Argonaut after such a short time, but it was exciting to start a company with these people, and soon after I joined I got the title of creative director. My first game for them was Agent Armstrong for Virgin, a platform shoot-'em-up incorporating a blend of real-time semi-3d environments and prerendered sprites derived from more complex animated 3D models. This was the first game where I had to learn 3D environment tools and the complexities of 3D animation in 3D studio. Raff had written a great engine that ran at 60 fps, so learning how to limit myself to make sure the game ran at that speed was invaluable knowledge that I still use today. I also did all the orchestral music score on my Roland synthesisers, and created all the FMV movie sequences and sound to go with them. I spread myself pretty thin on that game!
After Agent Armstrong, what else did you work on at King of the Jungle?
I did a similar spread of work with the same team on B-movie, and then Galaga: Destination Earth (for Hasbro) and Grooverider, which was a slot car racing game.
you moved on from Kotj in 2003 and ended up in the Us with Pandemic. It was getting tougher and tougher to sell our ideas to publishers or bid for work, and the golden years of British development seemed to be waning. My wife and I had two daughters that we needed to provide for, and it was a really hard decision to leave my friends Raff and Steph, who were the remaining owners left at that time. I joined Blue 52 as one of the founders, Jason Perkins, I had worked with on B-movie while he was at GT Interactive. They had made a great company, at the time over 250 people, and I had never worked in a studio so large. But like many places, Blue 52’s work started to dry up as more and more American publishers chose developers from other, cheaper parts of the world, or on their own soil. It was then that I started to look at the States. It looked like there was a serious opportunity there, and although I had never completely aspired to work there, I really liked the games that Pandemic were making, coupled with the fact that myself and my family could have an adventure in sunny California for a while!
At Pandemic you worked on the underrated Wwii game, The Saboteur.
I was part of over 100 people, so by far the largest team I’d worked with up until then. After a few months as senior artist, I did a talk at GDC about some old-school tricks I was creating to make low polygon stuff look high resolution, including upgraded versions of what I had done on the PS1 working with Raff Cecco on B-movie, as that was a full 3D game running at 60 fps. Once I did the talk, I was made lead artist and developed a lot of the tricks we used to create props and environments for the world. Working on such a large open world, researching all the spaces, building them and filling them all with gameplay was a huge undertaking, but a really rewarding one. It’s the only game I’ve worked on where it was so large, you didn’t know what the design team had added gameplay-wise in certain areas until you happened upon it. The Saboteur was probably one of the most fun games I have had the privilege to make, with a lovely bunch of talented people.
After a short stint at electronic Arts, you began at your current workplace, infinity Ward, in 2011. Did you continue to use your ‘old-school knowledge’?
Yep! On Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, I used it to pull off a Paris level that had you way up in the air in an AC130 plane, showing huge vistas, while still being able to slam down and have gameplay on the ground in the same environment. Then for COD: Ghosts, I created an underwater level that the game was revealed with on a huge 180-degree screen at E3. With Infinite Warfare, I worked closely with Dan
Savage and the vehicle team to pull off huge detailed spaceships, which like my old PS2 games, had to run at 60 fps. I loved the challenge of this game, to try and make a futuristic game as real-world relatable as possible, and I created many models and animated sequences to prove what we could do during the pre-production phase.
it must seem an incredibly different world today – from designing levels within 48k on the ZX spectrum to incredibly detailed and realistic worlds on modern consoles. Do you ever look back and think about that?
I think about the past all the time, as I’m passionate about my roots in the industry,
I’ve been in it so long. I will say I love the fact I’m still using tricks I developed and learned on machines 20 or more years ago, and that the games I make today still benefit from them.
Looking back at your long career, what do you consider your favourite time working in the games industry?
My eight years with Raff, Steph and the gang at KOTJ were really fun and hard work. I was young and willing to work all night and weekends, and do a spread of work. It was a time where I could get away with doing tons of art, video and music for a project, which is something that’s not physically possible for one guy to do on the large scale of games today. There was no period from my teenage years at Domark through to Pandemic and Infinity Ward that I didn’t really enjoy. There were difficult times, but also so many great memories and learning experiences.
Finally, as you are still in the industry today, do you have any career advice for readers wanting to make their start?
I would say not to completely pigeon-hole yourself into just one slot if you are capable of more. Regardless of your actual title, try and use your other skills to prove new ideas or improve ones that exist already. My role at Infinity Ward is a design one, yet I constantly use my knowledge of art and sound/music to help me in my job. For me, it’s made a pretty long career constantly interesting and enjoyable.
I WILL SAY I LOVE THE FACT I’M STILL USING TRICKS I DEVELOPED AND LEARNED ON MACHINES 20 OR MORE YEARS AGO
Myers’ cartoon-like work on Agent Armstrong helped give the Playstation game its alternative look.
Myers continues to work at Infinity ward on the Call Of Duty series
A selection of still art from the Playstation game, Agent Armstrong.
Part of Myers’ work on the abandoned Deadlight (no relation to the Deep Silver game) was this odd-looking monster.
King Of the Jungle’s B-movie was a decent-sized hit for the studio.