Michael Fernie (interview)
Michael Fernie is a programmer in the video game industry. He has worked on games such as Star Trek: Generations - Beyond the Nexus, Goofy's Hysterical History Tour, Home Improvement, Bart vs the world, Garfield: Caught in the Act, Fear Effect, as well as the cancelled Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors for the Sega CD. The interview was conducted by Billscat-socks in 2012.
Just to start off, can you tell me how you got into the game industry? How were your beginnings as a programmer?
I always made little games on my Commodore 64 computer. I went to college to work in the Aerospace industry. Once I got out of college I kept getting laid off of Aerospace type jobs. Since I was the low man on the totem pole. Once I went to New Jersey to interview for a programming job. I saw a little job listing in a newspaper (no internet back then). On a whim I went down to the company - Absolute Entertainment. As luck would have it the person I needed to talk to was away because his mom was in the hospital. So I ended up waiting in my car all day. We are talking 8 hours.
Every few hours I would go in and see if he was there. After awhile I got a knock on my car window's door. He told me to come inside. He said anyone that had the tenacity to wait in a car all day deserves a few minutes of his time. Since I didn't have any skills or published work they really didn't want to hire me. So I told them I would move down to NJ on my dime and work for crap money for 3-4 months. If they liked me they could hire me for real otherwise no hard feelings.
So he gave me a shot. A week later I packed all my stuff in my car and drove to NJ from NH where I was living. I ended up staying with the company for many years so lots of products for NES, SNES, Genesis, GameGear, GameBoy and Sega CD. A few I did were: Star Trek TNG, Goofy, Home Improvement, a bunch of NES games like Bart Vs the world. Lots of stuff including the Penn and Teller game that never came out. I pretty much shipped a game on every game platform that was out at the time.
How did you get onto the project for Garfield: Caught in the Act?
When I left Absolute I had offers from Sony, Sega and a few other places in California. I ended up going to Sega. The project I was supposed to do was 'Ratchet and Bolts' for the Genesis 32x. The company was about to move and trying like mad to get Eternal Champions CD out the door. So nobody had time for me and my team and the project wasn't really going anywhere. So they just had me look over the genesis docs and do little games and experiments. They put me in the building with the people doing Star Wars 32x. Garfield was already started but having huge problems and way behind schedule. So I was asked if I wanted to [A] Wait until a team could come free to do Ratchet and Bolt [B] Take over Garfield which was a mess and way behind schedule. Well, I was tired of the reading and little games so I jumped onto Garfield. Happy to say that I was able to help turn it all around and get it into shape.
As lead programmer, how much of the games development were you involved with? Did you have input on anything besides what was needed to be coded?
Well, I did all the major programming tasks including the main player and also guided the other programmers we had. Which was two other people. I was involved in all areas of the game including helping with design and figuring out what could and could not be done or finding ways to get it done. This also included changes to tools and engine parts as needed. Of course we did have designers too that did all the heavy lifting in that area but all members could say what they liked and didn't like and offers game play suggestions and what not. FUN FACT: The space level (Petra's) glob looking artwork came from her looking at a Lava lamp. She had one in her office and she got the idea of that artwork by watching it.
Can you recall how long the game was in development?
Not sure how long it was in development. I will look into it and let you know. It must have been over a year. That doesn't count the time before I was on the project. When I got on there wasn't much done and we were WAY behind schedule. Which is part of the reason stuff was cut. I think they also might have made us ship the game earlier than we had planned. Again I will try to get back to you on that but over a year for sure.
How much input on the project did the people at Paws Inc. have? I've been told Jim Davis made suggestions here and there and liked the game, and any Garfield products always go by him before release.
Paws was very much involved with the project. The animation for Garfield was done on paper and then scanned into the game. The person that did those was a paper animator by trade. I believe that Paws either picked him or had to approve of him. So those graphics were done the old way. I think they might have been colored on the computer but down with paper and pencil for the animation. For the Goofy game I did at Absolute we had a paper animator too that came from Disney. It's a lost art and of course everyone now uses the computer for all of it. Jim Davis did have final say in many matters and gave input. FUN FACT: Jim Davis was at E3 the year Garfield came out - we had an event where you could have a lasagna lunch with Jim Davis - it was mostly for the team and press.
One of the main thing that fascinates me about this game is its history with its cut content. The game has several cut levels that didn't make it into the retail product, which includes Space, Viking, Robin Hood and Ancient Rome levels. Do you remember why these levels eventually were gotten rid of? Besides that it's also known a train section for the Catsablanca level was cut.
Some levels were cut because of time and the fact that the project was running behind when I started. Some like the train level never worked right. The programmer worked on it forever and never could get it working right. Later I tried to fix it or do things but there was no way to make it fun or finish it. Too bad since it was a very cool idea. Never came together. That programmer ended up getting fired or quit and that is part of the reason it didn't get done. The other levels we never did much on like Rome and Viking. I know they were planned and maybe we had designs for them (don't recall) but never worked on them much. FUN FACT: The shirt you talk about - every team member got one. I had mine signed at the E3 event I talk about above.
I assumed with how many levels were cut that it had to have been released ahead of when it was ready. Do you remember anyone being very opposed to the cut levels being ditched? It seems especially unfortunate for Petra, who from what I can tell had that one level.
Yes - I think most people were mad that their levels got cut. In the case of Petra's it was done and working. You might be right in that Sega didn't want to spend the money on the cart ROM increases. As I said I had to fight for hours to make everything fit. The animations for Garfield took lots of room. I do think most levels were done to some point. Some of them being pretty much done. All the reasons you list could be valid as to the why. Some of the time - the decisions would come 'from above' and we never really knew why. We also couldn't fight most of them. If we could Dino level would have be first. :)
Were you involved at all with the PC release of the game? Interestingly enough, that version has the Space level put back into the game. Any idea why that one level was spared?
Not involved but I know the guy that did the port. He was a very good friend of mine. He used my code to port the project and once said that my Player code was very good and well commented and easy to port. Not sure why the space level is in there. I do know on the Genesis version he did have it pretty much done. So they might have just taken the assets and the design and finished it. It could also be that Sega wanted something extra for the PC version.
Apparently in the late life of Sega's "Sega Channel" cable service, there was a release of the game known as Garfield: The Lost Levels, which I assume included most of the cut content from the game. Do you know why they decided to release this?
Don't remember this. It must have been after my division got shut down. I will try to look into it. FUN FACT: There was a Genesis version that had Garfield as the pack in game. Man - I would love to get my hands on that. I saw it at Target even but didn't buy it. Not sure how many they made or how long they were around.
Was the Game Gear version worked on by a team working closely with the team for the Genesis version? Some of the cut levels seem to exist in that version, though the game play mechanics are different. Going by the credits most of the same production staff was involved while a lot of the rest was Hungarian.
Not sure about this one either - might be after my division got shut down. I'm sure they used the same artwork and what not so that might be why some of the credits are the same. They might have also tried to use some the genesis code as a reference for the port. FUN FACT: The genesis version had a maze game were you looked down a mouse hole in fake 3d. You ran around and picked up cheese. It was more of a test and never made it in the game - but something we tried. It was going to be a mini game you could play.
Was the title "Garfield in TV Land" an early title for the game, or a planned alternate for a later release? I've seen before supposedly it may have gone on 32X using that title, though it's possibly just an unfounded rumor.
Not sure about this. But yeah I would assume that was the name. Then marketing changed it or just something they tried for awhile. The idea of Garfield being in the TV was from the start and the focus of the game. FUN FACT: The dino level was supposed to be the first level. It was one of the strongest levels. At the last minute Marketing made us put the graveyard level first. This was considered one of the weakest levels by the team. Everyone was so mad. I know some people that played that level and never gave the game a chance. I always wished the dino level could have been first. I think more people would have liked the game.
Going back to your mention of E3, did you get to meet Jim Davis yourself?
Yes we got to meet Jim Davis at E3. So that is normally in the summer time. So guessing it was that holiday season the game shipped. It was fun meeting him and doing the lasagna lunch. I would be interested if Petra remembers that or not. I remember that she was a normal artist (not pixel or tile artist). It was hard trying to fit her art style into the game. Glad that the PC version was able to have her level in it.
On the whole, how smooth was the development? With how much content was cut it seems like there must have been more ideas and work done than could be used.
Well - it was okay. After I got on there we had to work our butts off to get everything done. I don't think the project was that smooth before me since it was so far behind and going nowhere. I do know we worked lots of crazy hours to get everything done. Lots of time to make up. It wasn't just me - the whole team worked lots of hours and put in great work to get everything done. I know that I worked thru our normal week off at a Christmas break. There was lots of stuff we did that never made it in the game. FUN FACT: My first day on the project I convinced our producer to take the whole team to Battletech center which was a play where you could fight each other in mechs - it was a video game where they are all linked up. I did this because I wanted a way to help bring the team together and get us working well.
The alien level was cut from the genesis version - but we had a fully working version of that level. This was the one ported to the PC. I think it was cut because it wasn't that fun and also because the glob artwork was a memory hog. We never could cut the level down enough. During development we were ALWAYS running into memory issues. I had to spend so much time trying to save here and there. It was a big pain in the butt. The PC of course didn't have this problem.
I also now believe that all the other levels were working to a certain level. But were cut mostly because of time. There was no way to get them all done and in a final state when they wanted to game out. I know for a fact we had assets for most of those levels. Can't remember which ones exactly.
As I said the El Train was cut because it never worked right. It also wasn't that fun and the people in charge thought it wasn't worth the time and money to fix it. I think it was also because they were planning on cutting some levels anyways.
Moving away from Garfield, how long have you been involved with Flying Tiger Entertainment? I don't want to get ahead of myself by asking too much without knowing for sure, but I know that they apparently had a title called Rachet and Bolt for the Genesis that eventually switched to the 32X before being canceled altogether. Any idea about that game?
I was at Flying Tiger for 8 years. Got laid off not that long ago. They might have had that project. But that is the one I was hired to work on for Sega (see answer above). I did do a sample version of the game while at Sega. You could walk and shoot and switch between the two robots and had a sample level and a few enemies to kill that blew up into bolts you could collect. It was more of a proof of concept and something to help me learn the tools and Genesis. I do know they had designs and wanted to do it at some point. It could be that Flying Tiger was going to make that game. But that was before my time. When I got to Flying Tiger they were just starting doing mobile games for phones and had done a few hand held games. So not sure if they ever worked on that game or not.
It's interesting you worked on several games that never made it out. That Penn and Teller game is definitely the most interesting, especially since it's been put out on the net now and even has support from Penn and Teller themselves, since people do a fundraising event for charity every year where they play that Desert Bus minigame for 24 hours. I'm assuming you're aware of that game having gotten out? It's certainly one of more interesting preservation efforts out there.
Yes I know about the Penn And Teller game being out. I find it very interesting that people are playing it. Penn and Teller were VERY involved in making the game. This included doing voice sessions with their friends like Lou Reed and Debra Harry. They both appear in the game. Both Penn and Teller thought the game was great since it was mostly gag games and things that you could trick your friends with.
A few FUN FACTS. At a company meeting Penn and Teller showed up and did a show for us. Huge surprise to everyone in the company. Another FUN FACT - there was a contest where if you made it to the end of Desert Bus and provided a screen shot then the prize was riding the Desert Bus - for real with Penn and Teller to Vegas. Just like in the mini game - lol. Another funny thing was that Sega had to play the game real time to test it - those Sega testers really hated us. Another FUN FACT - a bug splat was added to the window at the halfway point of the mini-game. FUN FACT - I did the tool that made the animation for MoFo The Psychic gorilla match the audio. Very fun project to work on - too bad it never came out.
I have worked on many games that never came out. It's a shame. One fun thing was for the Star Trek Generations game we did - the game boy programmer (I was doing game gear) got to go to Paramount and read the script before the movie came out. They locked him in this room without paper or pen. He was only allowed to take out what he could remember. The game was based on that. He was a HUGE Star Trek fan so that was nice for him.
Do you recall working on a Sega Genesis version of the Home Improvement game that came out for SNES?
I know the Home Improvement for Genesis. My task was to port the SNES version to the Genesis. I had helped a small bit with the SNES version but I was the one that was doing the Genesis port. They decided not to finish the port - not sure why. Maybe sales were not good for the SNES version.
- Michael Fernie on Giant Bomb.