Stoo Cambridge (Sensible) – Interview

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Another fantastic coup for our little site. We’ve been a fan of his since the 90s and it’s been a pleasure to finally get the chance to pick his brain. Introducing Sensible Software stalwart, retrogaming guru and all-round lovely bloke Stoo Cambridge!

 

Stoo, it’s an honour to feature you on the site!

Hey it’s no problem at all.

 

How exactly did you enter the video game industry and what was the first game you ever worked on?

You could say I dipped my toe in video game industry around 1987 when against all odds I managed to get a SEUCK C64 game published, well almost! I was learning to code at the time on the Commodore C64 which was a major step up from my previous computer, a Vic-20. I spent ages building up a small collection of assembly language routines with the aim of writing a game, but it was the hacked together S.E.U.C.K. title that really gave me a taste of earning money from what was then a hobby. Power House Publishing signed the game and the advance paid towards the then new Commodore Amiga A1000; a rather expensive computer to own compared to the likes of the 8-bit machines of the day but oh so desirable. In some respects if it wasn’t for that C64 game, Battle Ball I would not have bought an Amiga until later and the likely hood is that I may not have had enough of a portfolio to show when opportunity knocked a few months later. Funny to think that an unpublished C64 SEUCK game was the catalyst for my video game career! Oh I should add I was lucky enough to have received my advance for Battle Ball before Power House Publishing went under, jammy or what!

I later got my first break creating all the graphics for the game, Renaissance-1 published by Impressions in 1990. From there I worked on a few other titles before landing the dream job with Sensible.

 

We have had the honour of interviewing Jon Hare in the past. What was it like working with him and are you still in touch?

I was a big fan of Sensible’s 8-bit games so was gobsmacked when I was offered the job working with the guys and forever be crowned Sensible Stoo! The job came about after I’d sent a disk to them in response to an ad they had placed in one of the bi-weekly magazines. The feeling of sheer disbelief, excitement and elation I felt still makes me smile today. It was crazy cool being given such a break with a development team I’d so strongly admired!

As for working with the guys, Jon gave me enough creative freedom to get on with things with direction provided when required to keep things tight. It was as new to me as it was to them having another artist join the team. Up until that point Jon had done all the graphics on the Sensible games; all of a sudden I’m there and I guess it was a new experience for both of us. Thankfully we all got along really well which I guess shows when you look our output at the time. I think the chemistry between us was there from the off and that certainly removed any barriers that would have hindered the creative flow.

As for seeing any of the old team, Jon, Chris (Chapman) and I do try to meet up over a breakfast when we can but with schedules and commitments it’s not as often as we used to these days. A proper Sensi Breakfast Reunion you could say!

 

How has the role of a game animator and artist evolved over the years and what inspires you when you set out on a new project?

The tools available now compared to what we had back in the early days certainly make the job less technically frustrating. Creating a tile based level map would require a propriety editor to be written which would be functional but hardly ever user friendly. Often cryptic key presses and combinations would have to be memorised with features added as and when required. These days tools like Tiled not only do the job brilliantly but are also free, though I’d recommend donating as it’s a fantastic tool and has a wide array of options we just didn’t have back then.

As for inspiration, well I draw it from pretty much everything that’s around me. I always do as much research as possibly which is far easier now with the Internet than it was back in the day when even email was unheard of. Nature never lets me down so a simple walk through the local woodlands near where I live often sparks ideas, even if it is just to clear my head and offer a change of environment. I’m a big fan of old Sci-fi so I guess you could say I draw some inspiration from that too, even driving around it’s funny how a spark of an idea will just pop in there.

One thing I will say is the job of an artist used to be far less fragmented. With that I mean one artist would be responsible for all the graphics in the game, from designing the background tile-sets to animating the sprites to doing the menu graphics and even providing all the incidental stuff that wraps the game together. Today unless you’re a small team, art is divided into key areas and allocated to a specific artist within a larger art team.

 

 

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

Cannon Fodder! Why? Well, because it played so damn well, and despite being a total nightmare to finish in the end we somehow managed to pull it off. It’s a game I’m very proud to have been a part of. Having said that I couldn’t bring myself to even look at it for about a year after release as I played it non-stop over the 2 years or so we took to develop it. I really had had enough of it, so when the final master discs were sent to Virgin I was just pleased to see the back of it. After a short break and some well over due sleep I returned to work on a Have a Nice Day (Office Chair
Massacre) and Sensible Golf.

 

Speaking of Cannon Fodder, to say it’s an overtly political game is a bit of an understatement, but was the slant more a reaction against what was (and still is) a very hawkish culture in gaming, or an attempt to translate the ethos of anti-war works like, say, Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, into a game?

I don’t think we were thinking that far ahead to be honest when we started development of the game. It certainly evolved into something with a sense of meaning once the hill screen was introduced. We had a big list of names for all the conscripts; originally we were going to have 2 names per soldier but we ended up going with first names only and boy once they went in did it change the game!

All of a sudden you felt a connection to the sprites, it sounds daft I know but getting your men through mission after mission and then losing one, really had an effect. Even though they were a handful of pixels in less than 16 colours they became more than the sum of their parts once they had names. I believe it is from there the anti-war message of the game began, for me anyway.

 

Were the missions thought out first and the levels designed accordingly, or would you work on an interesting level structure and then decide what kind of missions would fit?

We spent a lot of time editing the missions as the difficulty of the game had to be just right, plus first impressions count so getting the early playable was key to retaining a players interest. During the early days of development we just had a collection of individual level maps so the structure in the final missions was really down to rating these maps in order of skill and difficulty which we then used to create the missions as they appeared in the final game.

Once ordered each mission was tweaked and adjusted until it worked as intended within the realms of where it sat in the Mission/Phase line up. There were a few which were just drawn on screen in the editor and then tweaked to make something playable but for the most part they were planned on paper and put together using our propriety level editor Jools wrote for the game.

 

Was there any element of competition with Bullfrog with regard to Syndicate, which was released shortly before, and which has a similar viewpoint and mission-based level structure?

No not at all. I recall seeing a preview of Syndicate in one of the Amiga magazines and thinking it might be similar to what we had been working on but once I played it I realised it was a totally different game. There is a brief moment when you doubt what you are doing is going to stack up against other titles but that sense doesn’t last long.

 

Cannon Fodder caught some flak when it came out because of the perception that some of its imagery was offensive. Did you have a feeling the game could attract controversy, especially after Desert Strike attracted some ill feeling the year before?

Apart from the infamous Poppy episode which was a bloody pain the arse at the time, I didn’t really take much notice of any of the other stuff in the press. I was tired and worn out from finishing the game and anything negative in the press was just bullshit so I just took no notice of it. When you work on something so intensely for so long you view it differently and that’s what I did. I couldn’t even look at the game for many months after it was out as I’d had enough of it so taking notice of some nonsense in a newspaper didn’t even register.

 

Was Cannon Fodder 3 ever in the works and would you ever consider working on a new Cannon Fodder title in the future?

I was never aware of an official third game during the Sensible days, certainly not before Codemasters bought the IP. I know Jon did work on a third game after the company was sold but it was canned for reasons I’m not privy to. A real shame as from what he told me it was really shaping up to be a worthy addition alongside the first two. There was that abomination Codemasters released under the CF3 name, but I don’t really think that warrants a response, lol.

As for working on a new Cannon Fodder game, yes why not! I would be delighted to be involved in a new game, I don’t think it will happen but if by some chance I was asked, then yeah let’s do it man! Maybe a spiritual successor via crowdfunding would work? I’m in but it would have to be pixel art and be in the same style as the original or it just wouldn’t be Cannon Fodder!

 

 

Moving on to Sensible’s other “monster” you mentioned earlier, was it a struggle to get the player name rights for Sensible Soccer, or was it something that was relatively minor at that point in time?

I really don’t know to be honest as I never worked on the original game, Jon created all the graphics for the original Sensi Soccer with Chris Chapman writing all the code. I know we had a researcher, Mike Hammond who provided all the data for the game and from what I recall it was quite lengthy.

Funny thing is I’m one of the only Sensible team members who doesn’t really follow football, and with a passion too! Most of the “Footy” talk in the office went way, way over my head; to this day it still does! I’ll watch the World Cup when it’s on but that’s pretty much where I draw the line.

 

Does it have any resonance in retrospect that the first Sensible Soccer was released right as Division One was becoming the Premier League?

That’s quite an interesting point, I don’t know, but what a great coincidence?

 

How many people at Sensible were hardcore football fans, and who did everyone support?

During the early days it was pretty much everyone, apart from me, when asked I always say I support West Ham but not to the degree of watching every match or even going to games, but because of my geographical heritage. Jon Hare supports Norwich City, Chris Chapman supports Liverpool , I don’t know about the others, oh I think Jools supported Sunderland.

 

In a wider sense, was there any other developer Sensible felt was a particular rival in those days?

I don’t think so, no. Any rivalry perceived in the press was as far as I’m aware a creation of the press. Any fellow developers I met were always greeted with a sense of camaraderie. I think the Bitmaps were hailed at one point as rivals but that was never the case.

 

Sensible Software was comparatively slow in getting into 3D graphics. Was that something you were pushing for, or were you comfortable working with the trademark Sensible ‘look’ at the time?

I believe we left it too late to develop a good foundation of core code to take advantage of the new 3D technology. We had the PSX development kit in the office which Chris (Yates) was using for “Have a Nice Day” (AKA Office Chair Massacre). I’d started learning 3D Studio 4 at home and even bought a PC so I could get to grips with it in order to get the art done as quickly as possible. In hindsight the levels we were creating were just not right technically, they were using far too many polygons and our inexperience and lack of learning time meant things just didn’t go anywhere. The frame rate wasn’t too great and time was ticking by.

I think if Chris had had more time and the pressure of having to get something out in record time was not applied then I’m sure we would have made the transition with success. Chris was a brilliant coder after all and I do feel quite sad that we missed the 3D boat. Funny thing is, now you can go onto any digital publishing platform and buy 2D style games, things have I guess gone full circle in that respect.

 

What was the feeling in the office around the time of the Warner Interactive deal? Did you personally feel optimistic at that time?

I’d already made my mind up to leave during the development of Sensible Golf and I knew that Have a Nice Day was likely to be my last project with Sensible. I can’t recall how I felt exactly but it wasn’t optimism that’s for sure. The old Sensible I’d joined had long gone with that warm, close knit feeling of working within a small group of ‘mates’, well it just wasn’t there any more. I was in the process of setting up my own on studio to develop Joe Blow so that really took my focus during my final months there. Crazy times indeed!

 

Did you do any work on Sex, Drugs and Rock n’Roll, or were you working primarily on Have a Nice Day and Sensible Golf? What happened on “HAND” and why was it never released?

I wasn’t involved with SDRR. I did see the art as it was being designed and created and on occasion some of the video segments but that was about all I saw of it. As for Have a Nice Day and Sensible Golf, these projects kept me pretty busy. It was just a shame Sensible Golf was released unfinished and lacked the polish and humour it should have had. I’d like to have done that game again if I had had the chance. Some of the graphics I’d planned to redraw
before release but time was being cut short so the game went out with them in. Mainly the player sprites which were not really up to it. Not good really is it? It’s not a bad game but it falls short of being up there with our other titles, just lacked the detail and some of the humour.

 

Can you explain the atmosphere at Sensible Software offices during their golden period in the 90’s and how do you reflect looking back on these days?

Oh it was brilliant! We had such a good time making games back then. The work was hard but it was rewarding and with a machine like the Amiga there was a wide scope for experimentation without feeling the limitations imposed of the previous generation of computers. It was an exciting time indeed to develop games and is a time filled with so many good memories. I do look back now and just wish it had lasted longer.

 

 

If you could work on a sequel to any Sensible Software title, which would you choose and why?

I’m quite torn between Sensible Golf and Cannon Fodder when it comes to sequels. Sensible Golf because it was never fully finished; I had so many ideas for it that just didn’t make it to the final game. (possible crowdfunded project idea maybe?)

Cannon Fodder because, well it’s Cannon Fodder! Certainly doing another game now would be bloody brilliant as the technology and tools available far exceed what we had back then. Doing one now retaining the look and feel of the original down to the pixel art would be great. It would be awesome wouldn’t it!? (Maybe another crowdfunding idea..lol)

 

What projects and games are you currently working on?

My day job which is mostly non-game related (whaaaaaat?? – Ed) and rather unexciting as I’m not a full time game
developer these days. When time does permit I am working on a 2nd Blobbit game Blobbit Push, which will closely be followed by 3rd Blobbit game called Blobbit Drops! That’s a lot of Blobbit for your buck there! I’ve also been writing a book which seriously expands the back story of Blobbit and the world in which the game is set. One day I’ll get round to finishing it! I’ve also got a few literary projects in the pipeline too.

 

If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?

Now that’s an interesting idea. I’d say probably the main sprite from Space Harrier, does he have a name? I’d get him drunk then “borrow” he’s awesome flying gun thing and take it for a spin, who knows maybe I’d make to through to the fantasy zone, Get Ready!

 

Adrian

 

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