Interview by Peter Ward
What did you want to do when you was at school for a career and what was your first job?
I wanted to be a Palaeontologist when I was a child and get paid to dig up fossils but it wasn’t to be. I had a paper round to start off with, for a massive £3.50 a week. I had a job I hated putting the hard bits in moccasins so they’d keep their shape in some factory that smelt of glue after school a couple of nights a week. Hated it. Then I worked at the Co-Op, working 10 hours a week for the princely sum of £10. After that I was a Saturday lad at the local computer games shop called ‘Northampton Home Computer Centre’ then once I’d left school in the summer of 1986 I went full time.
The Commodore VIC-20 was your first computer is that your favourite computer or do you have a different favourite?
No it wasn’t. I went to see my school mates’ Lee Plowman’s Vic 20 when I was nosing about to see which one I wanted myself but I didn’t like the big fat graphics much. I decided on a ZX Spectrum, that was the one most my mates at school seemed to have so I was guaranteed a nice supply of games to copy. So I got a nice shiny and new rubber keyed model on my 14th birthday on June 12th 1984.
When and how did you to get into game industry?
I was fiddling about with graphics when I wasn’t playing games. Started off doing really simple line drawings then gradually started to experiment with attributes, adding colour. Luckily I still have all that old stuff so you can see, almost with each screen, how I got better and better. So I was working at the computer shop and showing off bits that I thought were good and my boss, Graham Wilson, said I should try and get a job doing the graphics for the games. I didn’t think I’d get anywhere with it, you know, you’re your own worse critic. Didn’t think any of it was good enough. But I didn’t want to be working in the computer shop for ever so I sent some stuff off and ended up with interviews with Elite and Ocean and the latter offered me a job so I upped sticks and started there at the start of February 1987.
What was your first day at Ocean like and who made you feel welcome?
I was nervous as hell. Was late too. Had a massive breakfast before leaving the hotel I was in then with the nerves, I had to sit on the top deck of a bus which was full of smokers so I thought I about to vomit so had to get off the bus early so I didn’t spew in front of everyone and walked the rest of the way to town where Ocean was. It was ok, they didn’t mind once I’d got there. I only really saw Lee Cowley and Gary Bracey on my first day. Lee sorted me out with some equipment to use and a desk to sit at and Gary asked me to do a loading screen for an educational game called ‘Never Go With Strangers’ which was being given away, where and with what I don’t know. So I did it. It was a bit rubbish. I just drew something out of my own head. I should have planned it our first, then it might have turned out better. By the end of the day it wads done. I was a bit disappointed with being given that on my first day. I wanted to start on a proper game.
Your first project at Ocean?
The next day I was asked to do the loading screen for ‘Mag Max’ on the Spectrum and then the Amstrad, which I’d never used before. This was more like it. I’d heard of this game, it having been advertised for quite a while, it was one of their delayed games, of which there was a few around 1986 and the start of ’87. So this was my first piece of work I had to do that you would be able to buy in a shop. So I worked really hard on making it the best thing I’d ever done up to that point, which, by the time I’d got it done, over a few days, it was. I was also asked to redraw the main Spectrum in game sprites as they looked a bit weedy. I still have those original sprites too and mine definitely look better than the ones that were in it at that point.
What is the funniest thing and most frustrating thing that happened to you at Ocean?
ooking back, it was when I got a strip-o-gram on the 17th birthday there. It was HORRIFIC at the time, I was painfully shy back then. Everyone was told to go to Gary’s office and we were all stood round the room along all the desks and then this woman came in. I was mortified! In front of all the big bosses as well. The most frustrating thing was the quiet periods I had between games where there wasn’t much for me to do. I’d perhaps get the odd loading screen to make. For example, Ronnie Fowles was just finishing up the graphics to ‘Arkanoid: Revenge of Doh’ on the Spectrum. I’d probably said to him that I was ‘f*cking bored today’ and seen me moping about so he just asked me if I wanted to draw the loading screen instead of him, so I did. See, if you’d spent months doing the graphics to a game you usually wanted to do the loading screen at the end of it. It was fun to do it. But I guess Ronnie was getting bored of the job and didn’t want to do it as he left Ocean after doing that game. I loved doing loading screens. Wish I’d done more.
What is your favourite game you have worked on during your time at Ocean?
It has to be ‘Wizball’. It was the first game I worked on, that was actually released in to the shops, it got a Crash Smash, a Sinclair User Classic and a Your Spectrum Megagame. I didn’t expect any of that to happen as, as far as I was concerned, the game went out unfinished. Some much stuff was left out, graphics that I had produced, no Bonus level either. Still, it’s a wonder it came out at all seeing as the programmer disappeared before the game was even half done.
When and why did you leave Ocean?
I left at the end of 1989 but then went back later on in 1990 and ended up working on ‘Total Recall’, they needed all the help they could get to get that done as the out of house developer was making a right mess of it. I left for 2 reasons, 1. I never settled there, I went home every weekend and was home sick and 2. Those periods of having to go to work and then spend the day doing nothing had got too frequent. I was bored too often. Had I been a bit more mature and a bit older I would have FOUND something to do and stuck it out.
What sort of jobs did you do freelancing and who for?
Right, this was after I’d left Ocean, around 1990. I did some work for a company called ‘Creative Materials’ who were based near where I live now, just up the road from me in Prestwich. I don’t think anything came out though. We were working on some “Goblins’ game which was nothing but a ‘Lemmings’ rip-off. I still have the tiny graphics which I managed to animate rather nicely. I did some work for Probe, worked on ‘Alien 3’ and ‘Back To The Future 3’ on the Megadrive, I only did bits and bobs on those. Then me and another ex-Oceaner, Paul Hughes, were working ‘Flood 2’ for Bullfrog which was our own design. It was all looking rather spiffing, spent about 6 months working on it then just as the ball started to roll with some velocity and we were about to sign contracts, it all fell through. That’s when I gave up doing graphics for a living.
Would you ever like to reunite the old Ocean team for a new project and are you in touch with many of the old team?
In a dream world where we all lived close enough to be able to drive to work and all work in the same building and make some games again, of course I would. But that’s a dream world, people aren’t the same people they were back then, we are spread out all over the world, it just wouldn’t be practical. But it’s like asking the Beatles if they are going to get back together again, isn’t it? It would never ever be the same as it was back then. But, with the wonder of the internet, you could maybe do it where we just all worked in our own houses. People don’t have to be in the same room, town or country anymore. You can draw a graphic, email it half way across the world then a few hours later get a file containing a file with that graphic in sent back to you.
Lots of us are still in touch. Some of them I never lost touch with anyway. I’ve never lost touch with Simon Butler, we have remained friends since 1987. We’ve had some really really great reunions these last 5 years. We all just fall back in to it, like 1987 was last year. It’s really bizarre how that happens. I think it’s maybe because of the age we were at back then. Leaves a big impression on you and when you meet up with people from that period, I had just left home, was in an exciting dream job, you can carry on a conversation you had with them 30 years ago like it was yesterday!
ell us what your current working on?
NOTHING! I am in the process of leaving my current job and getting a new one and I have no projects on the go in my spare time either.
I enjoy some modern games but feel more love for the smaller teams of the past I feel the fun factor has gone in modern games and are more like movie productions; games can be bug ridden now as patches can be made. in the past we didn’t have updates and in app purchases. What is your view of our industry now?
I think all those big budget games, the big sellers, they all look the same to me. Walk around, do stuff, shoot things. It’s like, imagine it being 1988 and only having ‘Driller’ (by Incentive) variants to play and every other game is a variant of that. I do try and have a go as my partner likes them more than me, but I can never get very far and I just give up anyway.
Here are some questions about retro games:
My favourite computer was my Amiga and 2 of my favourite games were Cannon Fodder and SWOS 🙂 and my favourite console the Megadrive do you have a favourite?
Fav’ computer is still the ZX Spectrum and my my fav console is the N64. Loved it when it came out, kept all my games and stuff from then and recently bought myself an Everdrive for it which is brill. I will never have to buy an N64 off eBay again. Amazing what they can do nowadays ay! Oh and I have a Divide for my Spectrum but there’s still something special about loading a game from tape and reading the inlay, working out the keys and looking at the art on the box and the loading screen while it loads in. Yes I know it probably sounds a bit demented, wanting to do that when you can just press a button and a game loads instantly.
What is your favourite retro game?
I can’t possibly say one. Spectrum games ‘Tir Na Nog’, ‘Avalon’ & ‘Dragontorc’, ‘Boulderdash’, ‘Sabre Wulf’, ‘Jet Pac’, ‘Zombie Zombie’, ‘Manic Miner’, ‘Dynamite Dan’ loads. On the N64 I really love ‘Shadowman’, ‘Donkey Kong 64’, ‘Banjo Kazooie’, ‘Quake 2’ (the only N64 I finished, recently too, without cheating). ‘Wizball’ on the C64 is still a fav, it’s easily the best version of that game.
Do you still game on the current consoles if so whats your favourite game?
I do try stuff out but, as I said, I get bored easily. The one I’ve spent the most time on is ‘Star Wars: Battlefront’. It’s because you can just turn it on and have a blast, you don’t have to follow a story and remember where you are in it and where you’ve already been. Just turn it on, shoot some Storm Troopers, blow some things up and turn it off when you’ve have enough. I did get quite a bit of time out of ‘Skyrim’ when that came out, but then got to really hard part I couldn’t get past and gave up. Oh and there’s ‘Rare Replay’, spent lots of time on that. I thought what they did with the Snapshots for the old Spectrum games was great. Giving you time limits and tasks to do that aren’t in the original games. That was nice so I’ve spent some time having fun with that.
Whats the worst game you have ever played?
Too many to mention. I’ve been going through my MAME files recently, sorting them out and getting a good, solid collection of ‘Favourites’ to keep me occupied on quiet evenings. I’ve come across some really awful arcade games while trying out the titles I don’t recognise. But I can’t name one, I don’t remember them once I realise I will NEVER play that game again. I do save a screenshot though so that I don’t mistakenly waste time testing it out again.
Finally what game or feature would you like to see on Retrogamesmaster in the future?
Some thing on ‘Shadowman’ for the N64, I don’t recall reading about that game much or an interview with someone from Ocean who hasn’t been interviewed very often. There’s still a fair few people who haven’t said much about their days at Ocean. I would think people are sick to the back teeth of hearing me waffling on. Get an interview with Martin MacDonald, Dave Collier, John Brandwood or the other Mark Jones, the one who did the C64 ‘Arkanoid’ and the Amstrad ‘Renegade’ and ‘Gryzor’. Or, even better, persuade the blokes from ‘Gargoyle Games’ to answer some questions, no one’s managed to persuade them yet! There you go, some homework for you! 🙂