Richard Cheek (CTA Developments) – Interview

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Richard Cheek is best known for the Amiga classic Sleepwalker, a game as frustrating as it was brilliant. The early Call of Duty games brought to an end a great gaming career. Our Adrian sent him over a few of our most burning questions and he duly obliged.

 

Can you explain to our readers your earliest and fondest memories of gaming while growing up?

My earliest gaming memories are probably playing my uncle’s Atari 2600 when I was about 10. My cousins and I would play games like Pac-Man and Yars Revenge for hours whenever I visited.

Eventually when I was about 12 or 13 I got my own computer, a ZX Spectrum which came with a cassette deck instead of the cartridges like the Atari. I loved that because it meant I could buy and play games, but also make my own and save it to tape. My first ever game on the spectrum was “Halls of the Things” and it was a lot of fun firing off lightning bolts and watching them bounce around the map.

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever video game you worked on?

When I was about 14 I wrote a simple game in ZX Spectrum BASIC based on the Road Runner cartoons. I was young and didn’t know anything about copyright at the time, but I decided it was good enough to get published (of course I was wrong!).

There was a local studio called Oasis Software who created White Lightning, (a sort of very primitive game maker), who I thought would be interested in buying my game, so I saved a copy of the Road Runner game to cassette tape and knocked on their door.

Even though I was just a kid at the time, they invited me in and loaded up the game. Of course their first reaction was I couldn’t use Road Runner, but they also said they liked the art and animation which was when I realized games were created by more than one person and needed artists as well as programmers.

I hadn’t realized this before, but it was at this point that I started to concentrate on art and animation with the goal of working at a real studio when I left school.

I spent a few years freeze framing Tom and Jerry cartoons to learn as much as I could about animation and by the time I left school I had a demo reel created on my second computer, the Atari ST.

By this time Oasis had moved to London but there was another studio called Blitter Animations who had set up shop in my local town.

This time I was armed with a disk as I knocked on their door, and again I was invited in and they took a look at my demo. They were impressed enough to give me my first job working on a ZX Spectrum game called GI Hero. This was a simple right and left shooter published by Firebird Software. Unfortunately I didn’t get a credit in the game, but I created all the character animations and learnt a lot from the experience.

 

You worked on one of the very first Superman video games with The Man of Steel. What was your role on this game and did you feel a lot of pressure while working with this impressive character?

I joined the team in the middle of development on Superman, so I only worked on part of this game. I animated Superman and the enemy’s on the “3d” levels which played a little bit like the old Space Harrier game.

I was still new to the industry at this point and it was only my second game so I still had a lot to learn, but I didn’t really treat it any different than GI Hero and I don’t think it hit me at the time that this was a beloved character with a lot of fans. Today it would be different because all those fans can leave comments all over the web.

 

The Blues Brothers was a great film and you worked on the highly respected game. How much freedom did you while working on this game and how do you reflect back on this particular title?

I didn’t have a lot of freedom on this game because we just converted it from another system. Back then there weren’t really game engines so if a game was created for one system, it wouldn’t easily run on a different system, especially between a 8 bit system like the Commodore 64 and a 16 bit system like the Amiga.

John Scott and myself had just formed CTA Developments and this was our first game. We had friends who worked on the original Blues Brothers for 16 bit systems who needed someone to remake the game on the 8 bit Commodore 64 and we managed to get the gig.

 

 

Sleepwalker was a clever and quite unique platformer. How did you get the idea for this game and what were your early inspirations for this title?

The inspiration for Sleepwalker partly came from a old animation book I had. There was a page with a dog character showing a fast run cycle and on the next page was a young boy who I think was skipping, but it made It looked like the dog was frantically chasing after the boy. I liked this idea and thought back to all the Warner Brothers cartoons where the characters rarely die, but instead when they get squashed, shot or even blown up they just shake it off.

This gave me the main mechanic, an indestructible dog helping a sleepwalking boy navigate a dangerous environment and the rest was designed through brainstorming sessions down the local pub.

 

Can you share with us a brief background of how this game was made?

As I mentioned earlier, there weren’t really game engines back then, so everything had to be coded from scratch in assembly. We didn’t use  high level languages like C or C++ because they weren’t fast enough and we needed to squeeze every tick out of the CPU.

John Scott (my business partner and game programmer) started on getting a scrolling level working while I worked on the environment designs and started to animate Ralph.

Once we had a test scrolling level working with a simple character moving around, we were able to experiment with speeds and jump height until it felt right. After that I was able to start building the levels knowing how far the characters could move and jump to set platform heights and gap distance. I designed all the levels on graph paper first so it was easier to see the everything and tweak things as we progressed.

We had many design meetings down the pub to come up with hazard ideas, like the vampire, electric fish, crushers etc. and slowly the game came together.

 

Did you know from day one you wanted Sleepwalker to be a rescue based title and did bring up any issues when planning levels and the games mechanics?

Yes, I knew from the beginning I wanted two characters with one rescuing the other. I wanted to create something that was more original than a lot of platform games of that time period.

 

Ralph, the canine hero for Sleepwalker seemed to have a lot of personality and boasted great animation and graphics. How do you reflect back on this character and was he ever touted to star in any future games?

Thanks, he was fun to create. Throughout the design process of this game, I kept thinking back to the great Warner Brothers cartoons like Tom and Jerry, the Road Runner etc. and wanted a character similar to those. We had a lot of limitations thanks to memory and processor speed, but I was very happy with the way he came out.

Once Sleepwalker was finished on the home computers, we turned our attention to Nintendo and planned to make a console version. Ocean Software, our publisher, had just acquired the license to Eek the Cat, which was a fun new cartoon series about a helpful cat. Ocean wanted to make the console versions use Eek and after watching some of the episodes we thought it was a good idea so poor Ralph was replaced with Eek.

 

 

Which is your personal favourite way of rescuing Lee from danger, and was there any other ideas for the game, that sadly never made it into the final version?

My favorite rescue animation was when Ralph bridged gaps and let Lee walk over his shoulders, but even though it was a hindrance I also loved the squashed flat Ralph waddling around.

I’m sure we had ideas that didn’t make it, but to be honest I can’t remember any. This was a long time ago now.

 

Sleepwalker was the official Comic Relief game of 1993. How did this opportunity come about and do you think this partnership had a big impact on the game’s exposure?

Ocean software where approached by Comic Relief to make a video game, but the deadlines where too short to create a good game from scratch. Because of the tight deadlines, they instead showed Comic Relief some of the games that were already in development which of course included Sleepwalker. Thanks to the animation and humor Comic Relief liked Sleepwalker and it was decided to officially use it for the next Comic Relief event.

At this point the game was already well into development but Comic Relief wanted to add their own input so we added the bonus levels which they designed.

Working with them was a lot of fun, even if they didn’t quite get the limitations of 90’s computers.

I’m sure this added a lot to the game’s exposure, especially as we were able to get Lenny Henry to do Ralph’s voice, but I hope the game was good enough to stand by itself even if this didn’t happen.

 

Do you think there is scope for a new Sleepwalker title using modern graphics and would this be a title you would be interested in working on?

Actually, I have thought about this recently as platform games seem to still do OK on Steam. I don’t own the copyright anymore to Sleepwalker, but I’ve thought of other ideas that could work as well. Who knows, I might do this at some point in the future.

 

Is it true Cheesy was initially touted for a Atari Jaguar release? And, if so, how much of the Jag version was completed and why was it ultimately swapped to a PlayStation exclusive?

Yes that is true, we spent about a year on the Jag version before dropping it in favor of the PlayStation. The Atari Jaguar was advertised as the first 64 bit 3d console and on paper it all sounded great, however in reality it wasn’t as powerful as the PlayStation and we couldn’t quite get what we wanted out of the system.

We decided to cut our losses and make the switch rather than release a game that wasn’t up to our original design.

 

The Atari Jaguar homebrew and development scene is thriving today! Would you ever consider finishing Cheesy for this particular platform or releasing any code or graphics for the game?

I don’t have any of the original code or artwork for Cheesy anymore so it would be too hard to complete it on the Jag, but as I mentioned above, we were having problems getting our vision to run on it anyway.

 

 

Cheesy was on the first 3D platforming titles. Was it very different working on more traditional 2D games and then moving to 3D?

It was an amazing experience coming from a flat 2D screen to something that could move in 3D. I remember trying to learn 3D packages like 3DS and Real 3D to find the best way to create the artwork all the time thinking I never wanted to go back to 2D ever again.

At first Cheesy was just meant to be a 2D platform game in 3D because that is what we were good at making, but the more I played and learnt about 3D the more ideas I had and the game ballooned into a mix of platform and 3D levels.

 

Cheesy received mixed reviews. Why do you think this game didn’t quite resonate with fans and would you have done anything different if you could approach this game again?

I think we didn’t quite understand the difference between 2D and 3D at the time and started out to make a 2D game in 3D. Of course this changed over time, but its main levels were still a 2D platform game.

As well as this, the controls where also a little more clunky than the faster pace of Sleepwalker which I think didn’t help it. Today I would spend a lot more time on the controls and get them to feel more like a 2D platform game, fast and responsive, but adding in millions of real time lit polygons would also help.

Back then Cheesy was made of only 600 triangles, while the bad guys had about 300 to 400. It was very limiting.

 

What was your exact role on the impressive Call of Duty 2 and how did you get to work on this amazing game?

Call of Duty 2 was a great experience and still one of my favorite games I’ve worked on. For the first Call of Duty all the art and animation was created with 3DS Max which was the preferred software in the gaming industry back then, however Infinity Ward wanted to make the switch over to Maya because it had better animation tools and was the standard in the movie industry.

I had worked with Paul Messerly (one of Infinity Ward’s animators) a few years previously on a small project and he contacted me about their switch to Maya because I new both 3DS Max and Maya at the time.

After meeting with Infinity Ward and seeing the original Call of Duty game I knew it was going to be big so I signed up to help convert the animation pipeline from 3DS to Maya.

Most of my work was technical, building the animation rigs and tools for the animation team but I did manage to get a little animation in, I made the climbing over wall animations.

 

Out of all the games you have worked on, which title are you most proud of and why?

It has to be Sleepwalker. I’ve worked on bigger and better games, but Sleepwalker was my own design and it achieved a lot for its time. It had great reviews, raised money for Comic Relief and was a lot of fun to work on, especially meeting people like Lenny Henry, Joanna Lumley and Richard Curtis to name just a few.

 

Did you ever start work on any video games that were never completed, and if so, what titles do you think would have been a success?

After Call of Duty 2 I moved from LA to New England and worked at Firefly studios on Civ City Rome. Once this was complete we moved onto a hack and slash fantasy game called Dungeon Hero for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. I loved this game, it was third person with lots of action and sword fighting animations as well as dismemberment and lots of blood effects.

Unfortunately this was in 2008 when the financial crash hit and our publisher, Game Cock, lost all its funding which ended the project. It was a shame, I believe this game would have done really well.

A few years later I started on my own hack and slash for mobile called The Goblin Abyss, but after a couple of years working on it the mobile industry had moved to free to play style games which didn’t interest me so I put it on pause for a while.

I’m presently working on a redesign of the Goblin Abyss called “Stabby, Stabby, Loot, Loot”. A slightly more humorous hack and slash with a lot blood, but in VR.

 

 

We are massive Amiga fans at Arcade Attack. What was the Amiga like for creating graphics and animation and do you look back on this particular computer?

The Amiga was a amazing computer for it’s time and I even beta tested the Amiga 2000 before it’s release. I loved its blitter chip which allowed us to move 2D sprites around the screen at lightning speed. It also had twice the number of colors on screen than it’s competition at the time, the Atari ST although both the Amiga and ST were a massive step up from the previous 8 bit generation.

 

How do you reflect back at your time working at CTA Developments and why did you choose to leave the gaming industry?

CTA was a lot of fun, but very different to today’s studios. Back then we made games with just a few people, a programmer a artist and a musician. Today’s big budget games rival movies with hundreds of people sometimes across multiple studios which makes it a lot less personal.

Over the years my job has changed from game designer and animator to 3D character technical director, which means I do a lot of character rigging and animation for movies, TV, and games.

I’ve worked on various TV shows including Terra Nova and movies like Snow White and the Huntsman as well as a lot of Lego animations and TV adverts. At the same time, I still create small projects on the side and I started experimenting with VR a few years ago when I released a little game on the Gear VR called Jogger. This got a lot of attention at the time because you jog on the spot to move forward which I found eliminates VR Sickness.

 

Are you a gamer in your own time, and if so, which are your three favourite games of all time and why?

Yes, I still play a lot of games but ranking my top 3 is hard as I’ve played so many.

I think I would have to say that one of my top games is the original DOOM. When it came out it was like nothing else and I was amazed at the graphics and game play. I’ve probably completed that game many many times and played multiplayer for hundreds of hours.

To this day DOOM is still going strong and recently I played DOOM VFR multiple times as well. It was the game that made me upgrade my Oculus VR to room scale with extra sensors.

Gauntlet Dark Legacy on the Gamecube is another game I’ve played multiple time, but this was the game that got my wife into gaming making it even better. We stayed up playing coop way too late on many occasions when we should have gone to bed because we had work the next day.

Still going by number of hours played, I think the original Gears of War might be in my top list. I remember first seeing it at Firefly studios and it made me go out and buy a Xbox 360 that weekend so I could play it. Funnily enough, when I completed it and the end credits scrolled by, I saw John Scott’s face scroll past in the programming credits.

 

You now work as a freelance animator. How does this role differ from your time in the video game industry?

I’m presently working at a small animation studio called Atwater Studios, although I still do a little freelance from time to time.

The main difference with doing just animation and rigging is I know what’s needed before I start working on it. By this I mean we have a script and storyboards to map out all the animation and things don’t change that much.

Things like movies and TV shows are even less likely to change because they have already been filmed and actors can be reacting to a imaginary creatures that need to be animated later.

In games we do have a game design and an idea on what is needed, but sometimes things that sound good on paper don’t work very well in the game so it’s a much more experimental approach and things change all the time.

 

What projects and / or games are you currently working on?

At work I’m working on a small animated short that I can’t say much about yet, but personally I’m also working on a new third person action RPG game in VR called “Stabby, Stabby, Loot, Loot”. It’s still very early in development, but I have the basic mechanics and story designed and I’m working on testing out the main character controls to get it just right.

I want fast paced action where just 1 or 2 fast sword attacks can kill a enemy and spray a lot of blood on the ground allowing the player to run through hordes of enemies hacking them to pieces.

At the moment I’m working on this by myself, but once I have a prototype fully working I might hire some help so it doesn’t take years to finish by myself.

 

If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?

This is a tough question, but I think Guybrush Threepwood, because who wouldn’t want to drink grog with a pirate!

 

Adrian

 

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