Retro Interview: Stoo Cambridge
Sensible Software is arguably one of UK’s most famous and pioneering developers to have existed during the Eighties and Nineties. They created several classic videogames, won countless awards and inspired an entire generation of gamers with their 16-bit graphics and offbeat sense of humour. Behind some of that magic was Stoo Cambridge, a young designer from Ilford, Essex whose love for videogames started at a very early age with the release of the Commodore VIC-20. Through interviewing Cambridge, it quickly becomes apparent not only how passionate and dedicated he is to his craft, but also how much blood, sweat and tears he’s put into his work over the course of his extensive and rather envious career. We sat down with Cannon Fodder’s resident Elvis lookalike to discuss his humble beginnings, the game that shaped his career and finally the possibility of mouthwatering reunion between the Sensible Software team.
First off, could you tell us about your first computer?
The Commodore VIC-20. I was probably 14 or 15 at the time and my parents bought me it as a Christmas present. Some of the first games I played were amazing; mostly by Jeff Minter. Games like Abductor, Laser Zone, and Traxx. They completely blew me away. They were so much like arcade games – which is saying something because the graphics on the VIC-20 were pretty naff.
What first sparked your interest in a career in videogames?
My best friend got a Commodore 64 for Christmas. My parents didn’t want to spend that kind of money, but a year and half later, they bought me a Commodore 128 and it was absolutely fantastic. I remember playing these games and thinking, ’What better way to earn a living?’. That was probably the catalyst for me.
What was the first game you created?
I had a game that nearly came out on the Commodore 64, which was a Shoot’Em-Up Construction Kit hack. I called it Battle Ball and Power House were meant to publish it, but as luck would have it they went under just before release. I didn’t even get a cassette. Thankfully, I still got my advance that allowed me to buy my Amiga 1000 and to then start creating a portfolio on Deluxe Paint.
How was it that you got the job working at Sensible Software?
I was freelancing at the time and I saw an advert in one of those bi-weekly gaming magazines. I can’t remember which one exactly but at the back of every issue they had a couple of pages of jobs and that’s where I saw the advert for Sensible Software. I remember thinking that I had nothing to lose, so I put a disc together and sent it off with zero expectations. The fact that I got a letter back asking me to come for an interview let alone got the job left me absolutely gob-smacked.
How big a change was it for you going from freelancing into a job?
It was a really exciting time for me because not only was I going to work for this company who I really admired, but it was the first time I’d ever lived on my own. Back then, Sensible was still in Cambridgeshire, so I had to move out all my stuff from my parents’ house in Ilford, so it was a really big step for me.
Tell us about your first day at Sensible.
At the time, Wizkid was still being finished. Chris Chapman was putting the finishing touches to Mega Lo Mania and everyone was talking about doing a cover disk for Sim Brick – which was like a piss take of SimAnt. So anyway, I thought, ’I’m the new guy, I’m going to impress them here’. So I said I would do the art and Jon Hare (Jops), the creative director, said ’Great – but we’ll need it finished by tomorrow morning.’ So my first experience of working at Sensible was actually pulling an all-nighter to create the Sim Brick cover disc for Amiga Power.
Was Sensible Software as relaxed an environment as we’ve all heard?
It was very relaxed. In fact, we had loads of radio-controlled cars in our office, which we were always playing with. The first office was next to this old railway line and we used to take the cars out and launch them off the side of the platform when we wanted a break. In the end we had this massive bank of AA batteries that were kept constantly on charge whenever we wanted to take the cars out. That was the kind of place Sensible was. Also, it didn’t really matter what hours you did, just as long as you got your work done in the end. If I wanted to take a few days off to relax, I could, providing I had got everything I needed to finished. That was just the way it worked there.
Give us an idea of how you approached your work on Cannon Fodder.
Well, the way I’d usually start was to choose a couple of colours to use as the base, and then I’d built up my palette as I went along. It was very rare to start with a full palette and have 16 colours ready to go. If anything, I used to use about ten and have reserves. But the most difficult thing was animating it. I’ve always said that one of the hardest things was learning how to get the sprites on Cannon Fodder to look like their arms were moving backward and forward when they’re walking. I mean, how do you show motion using only three pixels? My solution was to use a dark colour when the arms are back and then as it’s coming forward you would get lighter using say, three shades of grey. I don’t know if anyone else did that, but that was the only way I could get those sprites to look like they were moving. Some people in certain games didn’t bother and they looked like matchstick men, but I wanted to make those little soldiers look as good as they possibly could.
Did you get quite precious about the colours in your palette, given that you were limited to 16?
There was a point when we were doing the backgrounds and I hadn’t put blue in my palette because I was trying to keep things realistic. I thought the water in the jungle wouldn’t be blue – it would be green and murky and horrible. But then Jops said we’ve got to have blue water, and I remember getting very annoyed because I’d spent all this time on the graphics and I didn’t have any room left in my palette. So I had to remap the tile set to have an extra colour to accommodate the blue. It was frustrating but the thing is, like I said before, you build a palette up from the start. You don’t just go, ’I’ll have four colours for explosions, two colours for the uniform’, you have to build it up as you go and you make sure each colour has got multiple uses. Red for instance is used on the explosions and also on the crates. Everywhere you look there’s reuse of the colours, whereas now you wouldn’t do that because you’re no longer restricted.
How annoyed were you when the British Legion complained that you’d used their poppy in the game design?
Don’t talk to me about the poppy. I think I invented new swear words when that happened. I never thought drawing some poppy I bought off an old boy from the British Legion would cause so much hassle. I’m not an egotistical kind of artist, but I liked that poppy and we were up against the clock on so many other things at the time. So, when we had the British Legion kicking off, saying we were glorifying war and that we couldn’t use it, I had to start all over again. I had to go out searching around fields in Saffron Walden just to find an actual poppy to redraw. I had to redo all the lovely bitmap work on the main titles and then all the other screens as well. It was a nightmare and the last thing we needed at the time. Thankfully, the game didn’t suffer and, in truth, the publicity probably did us some good; but it was such a pain in the arse.
In your opinion, why do you think so many people failed to acknowledge the game’s anti-war message?
I think a lot of people misinterpreted what we were trying to do. The media, sensing a story, jumped on the bandwagon and made us look like we were glorifying war, which as anyone who hass played that game can tell you, is completely ignorant. It illustrated to me the complete lack of understanding the wider press had of videogames, and in many ways it hasn’t changed. Even now when someone’s shot, there are still sections who will blame it on the fact the guy with the gun played videogames like Grand Theft Auto.
Why was it that you decided to leave Sensible Software?
I could see the way the company was heading during the middle of production on Sensible Golf. The writing was kind of on the wall. Something had changed and the office was getting quite big, and the place felt empty, even though it was full of people. Before that, it felt like a load of mates, having a laugh, making some great games and enjoying the process. But when it got to the stage when there was all these people walking about – many of whom I didn’t even know – I thought this isn’t ’Sensible’ anymore. It was very sad because I didn’t want to leave. In many ways, I felt like David Tennant in Doctor Who just before he’s about to regenerate into Matt Smith. I was thinking, ’I don’t want to go’, but I had to. That’s around the time I decided to leave to start my own company.
Are you surprised that Codemasters (who now owns Sensible Software) hasn’t decided to experiment on the iOS platform with some of the IP?
Not at all. I don’t think the management has the vision to resurrect those old titles to be honest – as much as I’d love them to. But then, you only have to look at what they did with Cannon Fodder 3.
Can you give us any insider insights into your time in charge of Abstract?
When I started my own company with Chris Denman – who I met at Sensible – it was great. We were very fortunate to get the deal we did with Telstar and they loved the platform idea for Joe Blow that we sold to them. We had offices in Braintree and everything was going really well. It was almost like Sensible 2.0 and we were having a great time creating Joe Blow, but then it very quickly went tits up. Telstar overspent, they pulled the plug on Joe Blow as they were closing shop and we were unfortunately one of the projects that couldn’t get rescued by another publisher.
Other than Joe Blow, were there any other games that fell by the wayside?
There was a project I was working on with Gary Numan that never happened. Without giving too much away, it was a vampire game that focused on the quality of feed. So if you fed on old people, the life force you received was pretty low, whereas if you fed on a kid, you received a lot more. I think we called the project Black Hunger, which in retrospect isn’t a very good title, but Gary’s music at the time was going through quite a dark phase and it would have been perfect for it. It was a bit of a shame that we never got to see that idea through.
Do you miss working in that collaborative team environment or do you prefer working as a freelancer?
When we closed Abstract it was a bad, bad time for me. I remember thinking I couldn’t do this again. I couldn’t set up another company because I lost too much the first time. That’s why I’ve been freelancing ever since. But if tomorrow someone said there was going to be a Sensible version two, I’d be there in a shot.
Have there ever been any conversations about reforming Sensible with some of the old team members?
We’ve talked about it, and we were thinking of doing a project a year or so ago. We did a few sketches, had a few meetings, but nothing ever really transpired. Everybody was sort of doing their own thing and I suppose when you’re doing your own thing you prioritise your own work over any collaborative stuff. I mean, we’ve all got families now to provide for as well. One day, maybe, who knows?