|Hello Stephen! It's a great pleasure to be able to do this interview with you. Please start off by giving us some information about yourself.
Stephen Ian Thomson (SIT). Born 26th September 1969 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Currently residing in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire.
Tell us about how you started with computers in the first place.
As a kid, I was fascinated by early arcade machines and consoles. I had always from as long as I could remember wanted to know how these magical machines worked, and especially how the simple characters were created. One Christmas I was bought an Atari 800XL, and using BASIC made my own geometric patterns. I eventually programmed my very first rudimentary art package using a joystick and the old Atari paddle controllers. Things got better when I got my very first C64 as I was able to use great art packages such as Koala Painter, Vidcom 64 and the obscure Whigmore Artist 64 using a mouse.
What sales pitch did you use on your parents to get the machines?
LOL! Yeah, we all did this with our first computer and I used the classic "it will help with my homework" line. I don't think they bought into it to be honest. I remember my dad saying recently that he knew I was going to do something in games at some point, because I used to stand and look at the attract mode of arcade machines for hours on end just looking at the artwork. I was trying to work out how it was done and trying to see how I would make a better version of the artwork.
What games were your favourites at this point?
I loved Yars' Revenge and other old Atari classics like that. I did like to play the old vector games like Battlezone and Gravitar. I have a memory of seeing Bomb Jack and being blown away by the image of the pyramid and the sphinx (first level I think it was). Also, I loved all the droids in that game. They were very cool!
What was the very first game you worked on?
I did the loading screen for The Ariston Music Editor, a music package for Mirrorsoft, and the intro loading screen and in-game screen for Tetris.
Was the job on Tetris a result of art uploaded on Compunet? Who contacted you to work on it?
It was a guy called Gilbert (can't remember his real name now). He I think actually owned the license when he asked me to do a couple of screens for the game. I'm not sure where I got the inspiration for the figures in those images. Maybe from collage as I was studying sculpture at the time. I do know that I was the first to do the backward R in the Tetris logo though. Gilbert mentioned that the guy who originally coded it was Russian, so I guess it was an obvious choice.
Is there a specific reason the images are in black and white and not in colour?
The grayscale palette is my favourite; it’s an almost perfect range of tones. The way Gilbert described the game to me; I pictured it in black and white. I did want the pieces to be shades on grey too, but I guess that would have been going too far.
Talking about Compunet, were you on a lot?
I didn't have my own Compunet account. It was my good friend Daz who kindly let me upload stuff. Actually, I should have thanked his mom and dad. They probably had horrendous phone bills!
How were you involved in the demo scene?
I was never officially part of any demo team. Instead, I think a lot of my work was borrowed from the Compunet archives. It was an honor when someone was inspired enough to put together a demo using my artwork. I used to get a real buzz out of it. I do remember giving White of The Judges a disk of my bitmaps at one of the computer shows, and him using some of them in his Think Twice 5 demo. I worked on a few C64 demos with various teams, drawing a lot of inspiration from current pop iconography, then got my first real job at Ocean after showing off a recently finished image of Robocop.
Before landing this first job, I was finishing off my diploma of art in Birmingham and wanted to pursue a career as a fine artist. In fact, I had already got a place at Liverpool Polytechnic to study drawing and painting. I had to come to a decision over a weekend what I wanted to do with my career. I think I made the right choice in the end. :)
Indeed you did. What played a decisive role in your decision?
I just thought that computer art was so fresh and innovative and had a future. I loved the limitations and the challenge of making something recognizable out of such a limited resolution and choice of palette.
Was getting into the games business something you always wanted?
I never intended to do games but always wanted to see what it would be like to actually work on a title. I did look at old arcade games at the time and thought it would be so cool to do graphics as a career, but never believed it would actually happen. Again, I have to thank the C64 for a chance to do this.
It's pretty safe to say that the C64 is the best machine ever, right?
Of course! My wife suggested I get rid of it in a clear-out a while back. Not a chance! It’s in the loft, though I do fire it up from time to time. I want to be buried with it. ;)
Did you submit work samples to the games companies looking for a job?
I never really sent any work off. Instead, I got a ticket to the CES show in London one year and just wondered round and asked if there was any work available.
Tell us about how you landed the job at Ocean. You showed them the Robocop picture...
I never really had a formal interview at Ocean. I remember walking up to Gary Bracey at the Ocean stand with a disk of my bitmaps. He loaded up an image of Robocop that I'd finished the night before (with by weird coincidence had an Ocean logo on it). I had no idea that Ocean had the rights to do this game and remember him quizzing me about how I knew this as it had only really been announced officially at the show. It was an embarrassing moment, but I said something like: "Oh, I knew Ocean always did the coolest licenses" or something like that. Anyway, it got me the job!
This is a great story! What happened after this? Did you go to Ocean the following Monday and got assigned to a game?
I think I started about a week later and was put on Robocop. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Honestly, I couldn't believe my luck.
Was there anyone in particular you remember that helped you getting started?
Lorraine Starr was sort of the office big sister and she looked out for us all. Such a nice person Lorraine is, and I hear on the grapevine still a great project manager and still working in games.
What about starting with game graphics? Did you have any previous experience with sprites, backgrounds, and fonts? Because up to this point, you'd only done hires screens, right?
Well, I did do some artwork for an arcade conversion called Soldier of Light. For that game, I did my first real sprite animation. I had dabbled in some simpler sprite work before, but nothing to that level. The game never saw the light of day as far as I'm aware.
What was it like working at Ocean? Was it really a dungeon like so many described it? Any amusing stories you might be able to share?
Brilliant! Honestly, the best working days of my life. There was such a great buzz about the place, and the city too for that matter. It was around the time the whole Manchester scene was starting up. Amusing stories? I do remember Gary Bracey getting hold of a hand held crossbow (he'll probably go mad at me for telling this story). He thought it would be a great idea to fire it down one of the corridors through the doorway at the far end of the building. I remember us all shouting "Fire in the hole!" or something like that. Gary fired it just as John Meegan was walking past the other side of the door. Sufficed to say, there was bad language from Mr. Meegan. :) You have to remember that health and safety was nonexistent back then.
What about the atmosphere in the corridors? Judging from the videos @ theoceanexperince.co.uk, it seems you had a lot of fun!
Awesome! Every one was like family to me. I think I was only 17 when I started there and it was a bit daunting at first, but everyone made me feel really welcome. Because I had the same interests as everyone there, I fitted in really quickly.
Was Ocean a well-run company?
Yes I think it was, and that had a lot to do with Lorraine, Gary, and Steve Wahid. We were a very productive company and produced a lot of games for the number of people who worked there.
Looking back on the games you did on the C64, are you pleased with the end result?
Yes, I'm really pleased. A few years ago, I visited a few retro sites to track down some of my old titles expecting to cringe when I saw the screenshots. But I was pleasantly surprised, especially with my loading screen work.
When you were assigned to do a game, how much time did you usually have to finish the graphics?
Time differed depending on the individual elements within a given level. In general, I think Ocean was pretty generous with the amount they gave us for a project, so we had time to labour over each part well.
Was there a lot of planning involved before you started drawing or did you make things up as you went along?
We planned how long each level was going to take, but as far as individual pieces of artwork, I always started with a blank screen an a few pieces of reference material. If I was really lucky, I had some in-house drawn concept art. This was the method I always used on the C64, and it worked well for me.
What about design manuals for the conversions?
Hahaha! Ahem, sorry, no. We really weren't that organized. I remember for the artwork for Operation Thunderbolt, we had the arcade machine, so I looked at the sprites, then ran back to my desk to copy what I had seen. Not an exact science, but it worked. We did get some photos of the logo, but not much else.
Which C64 game you worked on are you most pleased with?
The Untouchables. It was so different to anything else out there at the time. It was such a great movie and one of the few games that didn't have aliens or spaceships in it. I loved recreating a feeling of 1920's Chicago.
Tell us about the production of this game, from the initial meeting to finished product.
I remember Gary Bracey telling about this license he'd got and asked us to do a series of mockup screens of what the game would look like. This sort of concepting was rare for any sort of games made at the time, and it gave me a chance to do some actual proper artwork. Anyway, we had decided to do multiple game types for each level and worked all of these game types out in various brainstorming sessions. It was a very ambitious undertaking with the multiple game types, but we managed to work through each level and made it look really close to the original concepts.
There's lots of graphics in the game; in-between scene hires pictures, backgrounds and plenty of overlay sprites. What was most fun to draw?
I didn't have any preferences at all. I enjoyed all of it. I did like doing the in-between level bitmaps, especially the last level one of Kevin Costner. I don't think we could use his likeness though so how it got into the game I don't know. :) I remember doing a sort of end sequence when one of the main villains is chased across a rooftop by Elliot Ness. In the movie, the villain is shot and falls to his death landing on and smashing a car. I wanted to do an animation from the eyes of the bad guy as he falls to his death.
Was it cut out? Because I don't remember a specific end screen like that.
I'm not sure. It was right at the very end after the rooftop run. It might have only been on the disk version.
I had a look, and yes, the falling and the blood splatter are there. Nice. Was The Untouchables also the most fun game you ever worked on?
Yes. I remember drawing a lot of concept work for this and signing out loads of books from the library so we could get an authentic feel for the environments.
Which game didn't turn out that well?
Beach Volleyball – enough said!
On the C64? Programming, graphics and music is credited to Colin Gordon. Is there a story behind this? Judging from the title screen and the map of the world, it looks like a port from the Amiga. The in-game graphics is pretty and looks properly pixeled though.
I didn't know my name wasn't in the credits. Damn! I should have kept my mouth shut. ;)
If you can choose one hires screen to include on your CV, which one would that be?
I love the Total Recall image! I was really pleased with the likeness of Arnie. That and The Untouchables title probably. Sorry, that's two isn't it. :)
Do you remember pixling on the Total Recall one? Was there a paper sketch?
Yeah, I remember it well. I had a preliminary of the artwork and copied from that. I spent a long time on it with a couple of false starts. The finished piece shows a much closer cropped version of the portrait. This was because I wanted enough pixels for the eyes to be given enough detail.
The in-game screens are amazing too, especially the one with Johnny Cab and the one with Cuato. How long did it take to draw these screens?
I literally had no time, but as I wanted to give people value for their money, I put in a lot of late nights. I guess loading screens were the closest thing to storytelling – and I planned to do a lot more – but never got to finish them.
Active Minds was supposed to do Total Recall, but things went really wrong. Simon Butler has amusingly written about this on the Games That Weren't site. A guy called 'CG' had kept Gary Bracey in the dark about the progress of the game, and it would have been a total disaster if a new team hadn't been assembled. Do you remember what happened at this point?
Ah, right. I do recall but not totally (no pun intended), something going on, but I just put my head down and made the various loading screens. I was rushed on the very last image, the Cuato one, and I didn't finish that off. I literally had to stop half way through, hence the simple background.
Was there anything that drove you insane about drawing on the C64?
I hated the attribute colour switching that occurred when drawing bitmaps. I eventually did most of my bitmaps in Vidcom 64 using cursor keys as it kept the colours consistent. I could then change the default palette to tweak the image afterwards.
Did it bug you that the pixels in hires colour mode weren't square?
I didn't mind the C64s fat pixels at all, and I accepted the restrictions well. It drove me to improve my skills with these given limitations.
Did you have a lot of artistic freedom when drawing?
At art college yes, but I liked the challenge of creating likenesses on the C64. That's why I created so many portraits, I think.
Tell us a little about your drawing technique, because I would describe your pictures as the next thing to a photograph – they're that good!
Thanks. I remember taking some of my work to a local computer store. The guy who owned the shop didn't believe I drew them at all and thought I'd digitized them. I used a technique I'd learned at art college called negative shape drawing with a lot of my copied work. This involved not actually looking at the image, but instead copying its component shapes. This is a good technique with any kind of portrait or still life painting and makes an image far easier to breakdown and compose. My self-portrait was taken during a photography class at art college specifically as a C64 project. Because it was a simple image, it only took a couple of hours to complete.
What programs did you in general use when drawing?
Vidcom 64. The images were then taken into Whigmore Artist and recoloured.
Because of time limits, could you sometimes feel that you were not totally pleased with your work – but it had to go because of the deadline?
Generally, I always made sure that I planned a project so I didn't have to rush anything at the end. I made sure that plenty of time was dedicated to any loading screen and title logo. The situation with the Total Recall bitmaps is the only exception, I think.
What was the most challenging bit to draw in Operation Thunderbolt?
The scaling enemies were a nightmare! I used Tony Crowther's 3-in-1 Editor (I'm not sure whether I should mention that), and I used the page left and right feature as a rudimentary animation tool to draw all the elements in characters. I have to say a big thank you to Brian Flanagan as he helped out a lot on the project.
Apart from the scaling enemies, did any of your work cause any particular headaches, or even result in disagreements with anyone?
Because a lot of the graphics were sprites, we didn't have much left over for the environments. That was a real issue because every element in the game counted. I wanted big explosions but we just couldn't do it. A very difficult project that one. There weren't disagreements, but we were stressed out trying to get it all working.
The in-game graphics for Navy Seals is a true work of art, especially the backgrounds and how tastefully you've used the colours. Tell us about your work on this game.
Thanks Andreas. Yeah, I loved that game. I guess it wasn't as popular as the other games and not as big a license, but it had a grittier plotline so it was a chance to push the quality of my artwork. I specifically designed the art so there were a lot of silhouetted shapes in the background. This left more memory to focus on elements that counted. I added a strong light source to most of the levels so there was a lot of atmosphere. I was also experimenting with colour using horizontal bands of different colours to make extra shades. At the time, I worked out how to get an extra 15 shades of grey so I could sculpt shapes much better.
You mostly worked on platform games, Navy Seals included. Was there another style that you would have liked to have worked on?
I always wanted to work on a shoot 'em up game (and I still do).
Navy Seals was your last game on the C64. What did you move on to?
I ended up moving onto some research and development work with Alan Shortt. We were dabbling into doing arcade machine work and had a working prototype of a Hudson Hawk game. Jump from 16 to 256 colours was a shock at first, but I loved every minute of it! It's a pity that the game never saw the light of day as it was looking really good.
What rules and routines did you have to prevent game code and graphics from leaking to crackers?
Just don't give them a disk of you work, I guess. :) Security was fairly tight at Ocean and leaking anything would have been an instant dismissal.
Did cracking bother you? Was it something that was talked about a lot at Ocean?
It was, but again, a difficult thing to avoid, especially as a lot of the games were on audio tapes. It sort of made it impossible to prevent. Ocean was keen on the cartridge tech as I remember.
Are you still in contact with your old workmates?
My old friend Bill Harbison started www.theoceanexperience.co.uk a while back. I'm speaking to loads of old friends again thanks to him and his excellent work. I think we're planning some sort of re-union later this year so we can all compare waistlines and receding hair!
Tell us about working with John Meegan, the programmer of most of the games you worked on.
John was famous for his razor wit and acidic one-liners. In fact, I had a couple of people laugh at me when I said who I was working with on my first day. Me and John got on really well. We did have our fallouts from time to time, but you have to remember we were under a fair bit of pressure and worked late all the time. John was an excellent programmer and had a very measured way making sure everything got done on time. I used to be the one with the out-there crazy impossible ideas that would have added months to the schedule, so John was good at keeping what we did achievable.
Here follows a list of other people worked with. Please tell us a bit about them. If there's a name you don't remember, just leave it out. And of course, if someone's missing, feel free to add the name.
Awesome programmer. I worked with him on the Hudson Hawk arcade machine as previously mentioned. He was heavily into PCs back then, and I got the chance to do higher resolution artwork.
C64 artist who had a very clean style and made excellent sprite animations.
I recently got back in contact with Brian again. He is still in game development, primarily making his own IP for the Nintendo DS, I think. He is now living in Japan.
A great producer. I did bump into him years ago at Sega in San Mateo. He was working for Boss Studios, I think.
Never worked with Dave, but he was a good bloke and a great laugh. Very technical. I think he was the person who invented the hires sprite over lores sprite trick for most of our C64 games.
One of the bosses. I was too scared to talk to him. ;)
Good old Gary Bracey. A good bloke. He had a real passion for games and saw them being "as important as movies one day". He used to get a bit of stick for that line, but who's laughing now, eh?
Not sure where Ivan is working now. I know he is still into games development though.
James moved to the States and worked for one of the start-ups from Acme Interactive, Left Field Productions. Another excellent programmer.
John B moved to the States and worked for Acme Interactive and then Left Field.
Not sure what John P is working on. I remember him being a whizz on the Amiga, and he was one of the first people to get one that I knew. A great animator.
The other one of the bosses I was too scared to talk to. ;)
Me and John used to have such a laugh! A funny bloke. My studio was next to his, and I've heard him painstakingly compose some of the classics we know today. John is living in the States now.
I met her briefly. I think she did the Amiga conversion of The Untouchables.
Never got to work with Martin, but what can I say, the guy is a legend.
Martin and me used to be a bit of a double act and had a similar sense of humour. Not sure where he is nowadays, but he was a talented concept artist and ZX Spectrum pixel pusher.
Matthew is a great bloke and could extract incredible sounds from the SID chip. I loved his Navy Seals tunes! Really modest too. He never thought his stuff was ever good enough – but it was.
Mike was ZX Spectrum programmer extraordinaire and became the director of Left Field Productions in the US.
I never worked with Noel at Ocean, but he did end up working for me at Clockwork Tortoise in the US. Noel used to make amazing effect sprites.
Another good friend of mine. Paul was responsible for all the loading tech and getting the masters together. Without him, a lot of the games wouldn't have seen the light of day.
He used to work with Andrew Sleigh on the C64.
That's great information, thanks! As you know, we want to preserve as many memories as possible, so I think it's time to preserve some Ocean gossip as well. Spill the beans!
Ah! That would be telling and get me into trouble. ;)
Aw, come on! :)
Let's focus on the C64 again then. Do you see the machine as just a step in your career or was it a major inspiration?
I have fond memories of the old machine. It punched above its weight on a number of levels, and it’s a real icon of 80's culture.
What impressed you most about the machine and for what reasons?
The colour and the sound. It really was ahead of its time for a lot of reasons. It seemed to be pushed with every new wave of games that came out. People were finding new ways of doing things that seemed impossible. That gave me a buzz! I've not looked at many demos, but one of my workmates Wai (WHW) says that coders have created video and textured polygons. That's simply amazing!
What was the worst thing about it?
The colour purple. What use was that, eh?
What was your favourite game and demo?
Blimey, that's a tricky one. I think Wizball or Paradroid. And any demo with Bob Stevenson's artwork in it. :)
Was there a game you would have liked to draw the graphics for?
Oh, I have to say Wizball. I wasn't at Ocean when Sensible Software coded it, but I would have loved to do anything on that game. It's still a classic and something that is crying out to be a Nintendo DS game or something like that. Awesome stuff!
Was there a game that you looked at and thought: "I could have done that much better"?
Parallax. I would have loved to have made the art for that game, and I would have done a better job (sorry Sensible guys).
What other artist(s) did you admire?
The work of Bob Stevenson was always really impressive. He gave me a lot of inspiration with use of colour, etc. I loved his Juno bitmap in particular.
What about favourite programmers and musicians?
Jonathan Dunn, Andrew Braybrook, John Meegan, Martin Galway. Rob Hubbard, Jeff Minter, Tony Crowther, Chris Shrigley, Matthew Cannon. There was so much talent it's hard to remember them all to be honest.
There are lots of nostalgic things going on right now like the Back in Time Live event, retro radio stations, people still active making demos and games, etc. What was your spontaneous reaction when you heard about it?
I just started reading up on it all. I'm amazed there are so many events going on! I would love to attend one at some point.
You recently got bit by the pixel bug again and sent me a self-portrait you had draw in the PC based Project One paint program for this very interview. Was there a kind of "back to the roots" feeling going on when pixling again?
I loved it, I really did. I'd forgotten how difficult it was and how a single pixel out of place could throw off the whole image. Good fun. I'm going to try some of the other modes that I never got to try at the time and see how they work. Watch this space.
What have you been up to since the C64 hey days? What are your current activities?
I'm Research and Development Art Director at Blitz Games Studios. It's a great place to work, and in a lot of ways has a similar family atmosphere to the Ocean days of old.
What's the most valuable experience you've got from your career in the games business?
I think it's not to take things too seriously, and if you're having fun making art, the player will have fun playing the game.
Stephen, we're reached the end of this interview. Thank you for your patience with all the questions! Feel free to send greetings to anyone who might remember you.
It was a pleasure Andreas, thank you. :) My wife Simone who is the ever patient game dev widow and my fiercest critic. My kids, family, my sister, my mom and dad. All of my Facebook buddies and everyone who I've worked with, especially the old Clockwork Tortoise guys. Jobbee (John O'Brien), Robert Hemphill, James Maxwell, Chris George, and Andrew (Joey) Headon. I'd also like to say hi to Leigh Griffiths (LRJ) who helped me a lot during my early 64 days. Thank you buddy!
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