OutRun defined a generation of driving games in the 80s. Not racing, not a simulation, yet it was one of SEGA’s biggest ever hits. And this is how you could play with it at home: meet Martin Webb.
About 30 years ago, if you wanted to play a video game you could either go down to your local arcade and blow coins until the owner shut all power down or you spent all that money to buy a video game console, or even better: a microcomputer, for a good reason. I got to talk to Martin Webb, developer of the Commodore 64 version of the highly acclaimed arcade hit, OutRun:
At the time the UK government was promoting information technology by running articles on “whizz-kids” - kids that made it big by writing their own programs and got rich. They were photographed in Porsches in magazines. In fact, it was all a lie. There was no truth in it. These kids didn’t have Porsches... they had... they lived quite modestly.
Martin was one of those lesser-socializing young ones who escaped reality and created their own virtual reality in their computers.
School was a mess. It was a real low-down facility. The students didn’t care. The teachers didn’t care. I had a really hard time with English, Maths and all the other subjects. But when the the school was chosen for a project to teach computer science, I jumped at the opportunity. My parents bought me a Sinclair ZX and I started writing my own programs. Within months, I was teaching class. Within a semester, I was showing the teacher new things in BASIC.
One of the iconic games at the time was OutRun from SEGA, a major hit with its Miami Vice-esque coolness of driving a Ferrari Testarossa with a blond girl in the passenger seat, pulling huge drifts on the most beautiful roads on the planet, choosing the route at your will. The were no opponents, no weapons, no boosts, just pure driving in the wonderful surroundings to a magical soundtrack. An absolute drivers’ fantasy. In many ways it is the perfect arcade game.
At the time I was totally into cars, so I was writing racing games. I had one with a Porsche, racing the same way as in OutRun, fitted with a dashboard, a steering wheel - you name it. One day, one of the magazines was running an ad from US Gold, looking for program writers for their coin-op conversions. I told my dad: “This is it, we should do it.”
Due to the harsh difference between arcade cabinets and microcomputers - even consoles -, differences between various ports were immense, too, at the time. In some cases it took 7-8 years for home versions of an arcade game to catch up with the original. It was not merely simple porting, but recreating the game to a much lower-spec. machine. US Gold was one of the publishers that dealt with arcade game recreations to home systems, housing CentreSoft software developing company.
We went to US Gold’s office in Birmingham, and already in the parking lot there were Ferraris and Porsches. We went to see Geoff Brown - founder of the company. Turned out the Ferrari Tesstarossa was his. We met Geoff and I saw they had an OutRun cabinet. He asked if I was interested in doing the Commodore 64 conversion. I showed him the Porsche game I had done. He was very impressed. Within half an hour I got the job. There were no specifics asked to do as the game I did was pretty much in accordance with OutRun.
They moved a cabinet in my house so I could play it and see how it worked. My father was taking measures at it: he was recording the track, every turn inch by inch - he was really good at it. He did the graphics, I did the coding on an Atari ST, then loaded it to the C64.
The process wasn’t easy or painless, though.
I finished the music-selection screen quickly, but the real challenge was how to get the game working. Speed was a priority. For me, that was the most important part, so we kept the graphics to a minimum as possible. It was fast, but still a bit chunky. Also, we didn’t include the forks, because it would have been too complicated.
We worked 20 hours a day, sleeping 3-4 hours, and then my dad woke me up and urged us into continuing. I was 18 years old, I felt like crying. This went on for months.
Finally, the game shaped up and went back to Geoff Brown for previewing the game.
He liked it very much. He said we should totally do the four other stages. Originally, our game had only one route to run through, which we had to expand to five. It wasn’t just the sections - it was writing a new loader and everything. Moreover, they wanted to publish the game for Christmas and I had only few months left and a holiday booked. Geoff told me to cancel the trip and that he would pay me another one after - which he did, very nice bloke. If I was in the same situation now - being 47 - I’m sure I’d have second thoughts about it, but then it was like “Ah well - let’s do it!”
So we did the rest of OutRun with a route selector offered at the beginning of the game. Went back to Birmingham - this is a few days before Christmas - for a final test of the software. There was a huge room full of people testing the game simultaneously. All of a sudden one of them put their hands up and said: “I’ve got a bug.” Geoff looked at it, it was a blank screen and then he turned to me: “You must fix it right away.” I was shattered. All that work invested in the game and now this. But I had no choice, they were ready to print 20,000 copies on the spot for the Christmas pre-sale.
So I did it, they went on with the game and I went off to Mallorca for a holiday, and while I was there, the game started selling. In fact, it went No.1 in Spain during my stay and quickly it become the best-ever selling game in the world at the time.
Not much after I got a call from SEGA US in San Francisco - I can’t remember the guy’s name - and he said: “Hi, I’m this-and-this from SEGA US, we really liked what you did with OutRun and we would like to ask you to do the US-version of your C64 version.” So I flew to Chicago and did the NTSC equivalent. I actually managed to edge the game out a little bit, so the US-version is better, it runs much smoother.
How did Martin benefit from the deal?
For developing the game, me and my dad received 20,000GBP for the six months we were working on it and revenues from the sales. I didn’t get much from the US-conversion - they went a bit tricky with the contract - but had I received revenues from that too, probably I would do really well now. But I wasn’t doing it for the money. I was doing it for fun - that’s all I could do and I loved it. Had not my dad been hard on me - pushing me each and every day, waking me up early in the morning - I would have not gone this way at all. I’ve been programming since, that’s all my life.
In fact, he has written a few more games after and he’s still in software development, travelling around the world, working on his latest project, Tillify.
Tillify is one of my largest projects to date, I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now. It’s a cloud PoS enabling you to track your business anywhere in real time - no servers or any sorts of hardware needed.
And what about OutRun?
Looking back now, it’s surreal. I often think about sourcing a cabinet and had I had the time, I would really like to go back to my conversion’s source code, going through it, see where it could be improved, fix bugs, whatever, and then put out the ultimate version so people could play it.
We hope it will be so.
Here are (almost) all versions of OutRun, including Martin’s:
Model & Ferrari images are from Fran2013’s Flickr channel, rest of the images are of Creative Commons licence