A Net Yaroze PlayStation plus paraphernalia. Image via Wikipedia
In 1993, it took only four people to make Doom. Fast-forward to 1999, and on games like Syphon Filter, Medal of Honor, and Spider-Man, you had staffs of 20 or 30 people. Today, the big-budget games come out of factories, 200 or 300 employees strong. What qualified as a major release 22 years ago would rank today, in terms of manpower, alongside independent games. A development team that at the turn of the millennium could put out something triple-A in scale has increased in size tenfold.
When the Net Yaroze software development kit launched in 1997, Sony's PlayStation and Nintendo's N64 were booming and big publishers like Activision, which that year acquired both Raven Software and Centresoft, were buying up the small studios. Console development, prohibitive of anyone not signed to a label, was closing its fist—it was only the Yaroze development kit, sold in the UK for around £500 [in the US for $750], which let young games-makers, from committed coders to casual hobbyists alike, squeeze through the fingers.
"The difference between Yaroze and full PlayStation development wasn't that big," explains Matt James, founder of Hermit Games and a former Yaroze enthusiast. "It was missing some of the low-level stuff—there wasn't a debugger, for example—but if you wanted, you could port Yaroze code over to the full PS1 kit really easily.
"What I remember is sitting in the bedroom of the university house share I had in Fallowfield, Manchester, around 1998, and going through the red Yaroze manual, trying to get better at coding C and learning how to make stuff. It was always a matter of changing code, rebuilding, running, and then hitting reset on the Yaroze PS1 and running again. It may be more to do with me than the reality of the situation, but I felt like an outsider to the game industry. It was good to have our little separate community of people making games."
But open as it was, Yaroze developers wanted better distribution. Typically, the only place you could send your game was the online forum available exclusively to other enthusiasts. Getting it in front of the public was a bigger challenge.
"We kind of knew going in that we wouldn't be burning discs with our games and giving them to friends," says Scott Cartier, creator of the Net Yaroze game Decaying Orbit and now game engineer at Playfirst, "but it was still a bummer that the only people who could really try our games were other Yaroze members. Only later did the UK Official PlayStation Magazine start putting Yaroze games on its cover discs. That was awesome. It meant non-members could finally try your creations."
Head onto eBay and find Official PlayStation Magazine's demo disc number 42—it came with the February 1999 issue and contains a "Hall of Fame" collection of 14 Net Yaroze games, an excellent showcase for what independent console developers back then were creating. There's this arcade game, Bouncer II, made by a guy named Scott Evans. You have a kind of see-saw, with a man sat on each end, and you have to move it back and forth Space Invaders style, the idea being to continually bounce the two fellas up into the sky to collect points. Then there's Haunted Maze by Edward Federmeyer, a really quick, surprisingly polished stealth slash twitch game where you have to avoid zombies throughout several ever-changing mazes, all set to weird, keyboard versions of classical masterpieces.
Gameplay from 'Psychon'
My two personal favorites are Psychon, by Ben James, which feels like a spiritual ancestor of Hotline Miami, and Clone, a terrifying Doom knock-off created by someone called Stuart Ashley. There are also some great technical marvels. Total Soccer Yaroze is a smooth, fast-paced soccer sim by Charles Chapman and Terra Incognita, by a Japanese collaboration called Team Fatal, is a fully-fledged, bona-fide RPG. They're all basic by today's standards, and a few of the Yaroze hits—such as the Pac-Man-like The Incredible Coneman—are unabashed rip offs, but they each have something. I don't like the word "charm"—it's patronizing—but in the context of the late-1990s, when game development was mutating even further into corporate behemoth, I can't help but admire the Net Yaroze's bedroom sensibility.
"I think you could get away with more back then," says James. "I suppose certain rules of game design have filtered through now and lots more people are aware, things like blind jumps in platformers or just general trial and error stuff."
"The further back in time you go, the more game development feels like you were a hacker," says Cartier.
A game like 'Hohokum' shares a spirit with Yaroze titles of old. Image via PlayStation
But there is, of course, a flip side. The Yaroze games themselves felt, and still feel, like outsider art, but the initiative was created by Sony, about as big a gaming corporation as you can get. The PlayStation's late-90s surge signaled a departure from open-door PC gaming, and a move towards a more prohibitive industry. But it also preluded a corporate attitude that, in the past two years, has come back around, better organized and more fully formed. The spirit of a console maker reaching down for independent developers, spearheaded by Yaroze, is alive today in Sony's Strategic Content Team, which has brought to the PlayStation 4 games like OlliOlli, Hohokum, and Octodad: Dadliest Catch. The original PlayStation perhaps marked an ugly turning point, where games and game development became a mysterious, closed system. But its plucky cousin, Net Yaroze, was a look at what consoles could one day offer.
"The Yaroze program is a reflection of how seat-of-their-pants PlayStation was at the time," says James. "They gave their employees the freedom to run and produce a program like that, and I think there's an analogy to their team now, people like Shahid Ahmad and Ben Andac (who both work in the Strategic Content Team), who have the individual freedom to go out there and sign up developers.
"Things are so much better now. There used to be a narrow view of what games could be. I remember at my first games industry job, in around 2000, saying I'd like to make a monochrome game, and it just being a laughable idea, like you just wouldn't find anyone to work on it with you, let alone publish it. But there are loads of people out there now reaching for something better or more personal, or controversial or thoughtful or more adult. And they're finishing and releasing games."
So Net Yaroze occupies an interesting, conflicted place in gaming history. It launched at a time when hardware and publishers were pulling the ladder up on development, when the closed ecosystem of consoles was encroaching rapidly on the open PC. But it was also a progenitor of the talent-search programs we have now, of how console brands would eventually circle back around and clear room for independents in the mainstream. Just as Scott Cartier continues to work in commercial development, it's telling also that Matt James is releasing a collection of his work, called hermitgames LP, onto the PlayStation 4. What began as independent developers, gaining traction thanks to the well-placed faith of console makers, has come back again. And despite today's factories, where hundreds of employees is the standard, in the spirit of Net Yaroze, individually written games continue to gain ground.
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