Authors and Interviews

Neil Thompson Interview: July 2010

Before Neil Thompson spent two decades building his artistic reputation at such well-respected studios as Psygnosis, Curly Monsters and Sony working on huge, technically ambitious titles like N-Gen Racing and WipEout HD, and when taking on his current role as Studio Art Director at Bizarre Creations overseeing state-of-the-art games like recently-released racer Blur was almost unimaginable, Neil worked for small developer Icon Design, in an unassuming office in Manchester. Back in 1988, Icon Design was the result of M.C. Lothlorien's takeover of A&F Software and young artist Neil was about to take on the job of creating new graphics for A&F's most popular franchise. Paired with coder Pete Waterfield, they were responsible over a few short weeks for bringing the company's previously best-selling 8-bit Chuckie Egg title to the more powerful Amiga and Atari ST platforms.
Neil has taken time off from his responsibilities at Bizarre Creations to step back in time to tell us about life working next door to a massage parlour, his time as a member of the infamous "Beer Crew" and how he still managed to squeeze in his visually striking 16-bit re-invention of a classic license, including an explanation of just why Hen House Harry was surprisingly transformed from a farmer into a loping, jumping egg!
=== Part I: Computer Graphic Designer / Digital Artist ===
Your recent spotlight in Retro Gamer Issue 77's Desert Island Disks segment covered your early career admirably, so we won't re-hash that here. Apparently, your first computer was a BBC Micro, one of the most popular Chuckie Egg platforms. What are your memories of the beeb, favourite games etc.? Did you make use of it for non-gaming purposes?

My father was a maths lecturer at UMIST and it was he that brought the Beeb home for us to play with... my fondest memories are of myself and a friend playing Elite for days at a time... and also Zalaga* (or Galaga - I forget which :). It was purely for games as far as I was concerned and while it was an entertaining diversion, I never considered myself to be a hardcore gamer or computer nut - far from it!

* Ed: Zalaga was Nick "Orlando M. Pilchard" Pelling's technically innovative BBC Micro port of Namco's classic arcade game Galaga.
Would you consider yourself to be more of a digital artist - i.e. an artist who happens to work with digital platforms, or a computer graphic designer - someone who provides a functional component to software projects, which happens to stray into the creative art territory?

Definitely the former... I've always seen the computer as an expensive brush, nothing more and games are the medium in which I choose to pursue my art...
You started at Icon Design in 1987, presumably quite a while after M.C. Lothlorien had bought out A&F Software, and morphed into Icon Design. Ste Cork, author of the later DOS version of Chuckie Egg, told us he recalls that the company returned to the Lothlorien name, and maybe even Tudor World towards the end. Do you remember much about the history of the company while you were there, and the various rebrandings it went through? Were you there when it closed? Any idea when that was?

It was Icon Design when I joined and yes, it did change to Lothlorien while I was there. As I understood it, all the equipment and premises was in the Lothlorien name and when Icon Design got into trouble financially, they simply closed it and we all came into the same building the next Monday and we were a new company: Lothlorien!

There were numerous occasions when we weren't paid at the end of the month and it seems amazing now that most people stuck by them until the end. I left when the Psygnosis offer came along as it was simply too good to miss (and I'm very glad I did). I certainly wasn't around for the Tudor World name change: it's the first I've heard of it...

I do remember being extremely happy there, it was a great bunch of people to work with and I was still very young: we spent a lot of time drunk...
You appear to have joined Icon Design after the initial wave of 8-bit success that both A&F and M.C. Lothlorien made their names with. What was it like to work for the company at the time?

In a word: disorganised... I don't think anyone really had any idea on future projects or company growth, it was all hand to mouth. The company expanded to have three offices at one stage (Prestwich was the original site, but then there was a site in Ardwick (Manchester) where I worked briefly and where Chuckie Egg was done and also in St Helens), but it wasn't sustainable and it ended up back at the Prestwich site, which was amongst a row of shops. At one point a massage parlour opened up next door, which made things colourful for awhile...

The things I really remember are the camaraderie: playing football at the local park at lunchtime, going to the pub (the infamous "Beer Crew" that drank every Friday night) and some parties thrown by Steve Riding who was the exec producer at the time...
Did you work with any other CE related guys at Icon Design? (e.g. Doug Anderson, Mike Webb, Sean Townsend, Pete Waterfield, Ste Cork, Martin Holland) Did you keep in contact with anyone or cross paths down the line?

I worked with Doug Anderson on the Vale of Shadows project as well as Pete Waterfield on both CE and Kickstart. Ste Cork and I did the Nebulous conversions for Hewson and while I sat in the same room for a while as Martin Holland we never worked together on a project. Ste and I have exchanged emails occasionally (he's at Raven over in the US) and I'm still friends with Anthony Anderson (another of the artists from that time who is now at Sony Liverpool), but other than that not really...
=== Part II: Chuckie Egg Artist ===
You worked on the graphical Amiga/Atari ST 16-bit makeover of Chuckie Egg in 1988, with Pete Waterfield doing the coding duties. Did you collaborate closely with him on the title, or did you just supply the artwork in a suitable format?

As I recall we sat next to each other for awhile... there wasn't a huge amount of collaboration as I don't think either of us took the project too seriously :)
Was anyone else involved? The game's music sounds particularly recognisable as an Amiga/Atari ST-style thumping soundtrack. Was there a musician involved?

No idea.. it might have been Dave Whittaker (of Shadow of the Beast fame) I seem to recall he did some work for Icon... alternatively it would have been a guy called Tony Williams, who was the in-house musician (I'm still in contact with him so I can find out...)
Did you have any direction at all, perhaps from Doug? or was it just the basic brief of bringing the original title up to date? Did anyone consider enhancing the game beyond it's original scope?

No, no and no :)
What can you tell us about the project's development? e.g. Do you remember when development started on Chuckie Egg? How long were you given to complete it? Were there any major development issues? Were there any differences between the Amiga / Atari ST versions? What tools/languages/technologies were used - apparently you have good things to say about DPaint? :)

I honestly can't remember... certainly used DPaint for the sprites and originally we had some hold and modify screen grabs from our favourite movies as the backdrops taken through Digi Paint, but these were obviously lost further into development for copyright reasons...
It's no secret that Pete wasn't a big CE fan (he made his feelings clear with a hidden message in the game's easter egg/cheat!). The 16-bit ports' gameplay did not go down well with fans of the original - the game felt very awkward to play, especially when trying to jump. Obviously, the intention was to cash-in on the success of Chuckie Egg but was there any real love left for the title in the company at that point, or was it produced strictly by the numbers?

I doubt that there was any reason to do it other than to try and monetise existing IP...
Were you aware of Pete's hidden message?

I wasn't... what does it say?

Ed: If you enter your name as CHEAT-PETE on the high score table the scrolling message on the title screen is extended to include:

Your enhanced graphics in these ports really stand out, and give the game a very distinctive look. The pseudo-3D platforms in CE are especially striking. What influences did you draw on? Turning Harry into an egg seems to have confused some players, a few of whom initially mistook him at first glance for a a Mr. Potato Head-type spud!, what was the thinking behind that change?

The 3D platforms I recall just seemed to work better on the original digitised backgrounds and they stayed! As far as turning Harry into an egg... well this will horrify CE fans, but I didn't take the original game into consideration whatsoever... I fancied making him an Anthrax themed egg (baseball cap and boots) and did it and no one questioned it, so that's the way it stayed. I must confess to not having done any research on the original title at all... had I done so it might have been a different story. Obviously in this day and age it would have gone through multiple rounds of concept approval and sign off, but back then it was "Hey, I wanna do it this way"... "Ok".
The backdrops in CE appear to be gloriously imaginative, but do have a tendency to obscure the action a little bit. Was that sort of thing the result of rushed deadlines, or was it the sort of effect that was perhaps common in this kind of game on those platforms? Was there any trick to creating them?

Not that I recall: I didn't do them all and I can't remember who did, I'm afraid...
The graphics in the Amiga/Atari ST Chuckie Egg II ports seem to be less stylistic and more detailed than the first 16-bit releases. Bonzo the dog in the first few screens of Chuckie Egg II looks particularly good. Were you involved with the sequel ports at all? Any idea why the egg smashing animation when Harry loses a life was removed for the sequel?

I didn't contribute to CE 2, I think I'd gone by then.. not sure! Don't know why they removed the egg smash... that was my best bit! :)
What were your thoughts on the completed Chuckie Egg ports both back in 1988 and now, looking back? Do you have them prominently displayed on your CV or do you see them as early games which are "best forgotten"?!

Honestly, it was a matter of weeks not months to do the graphics and I was more interested in the time contributing to other original titles Lothlorien was doing... I'm glad I have my name attached to such an historic franchise even in such a small way, but these days I would only mention it as an anecdote after dinner with the port and cigars rather than a meaningful way of gaining employment :)
=== Part III: Final Thoughts ===
Chuckie Egg is considered by some to be a classic license (hence this site ;) and whilst that may not have been particularly apparent at the time, what do you think about the fact that years later you're being asked about what is probably a very small title in your softography? If you'd had any idea CE would become as well-remembered as it has been, would you have approached the project any differently?

Every game you develop is one that you hope will be remembered fondly down the ages... it is so rarely the case! Remember at the time I was new to both games and the industry so CE meant very little to me as a brand. Had I known 20 plus years on I'd be asked to talk about it, I wish I'd spent more time on those sprites! :)
Are you surprised by the continuing popularity of Chuckie Egg, over other games of the time which have fallen by the wayside?

Yes and no... I still harp on about Phoenix being the greatest game of all time to anyone that will listen; so everyone has their own particular vintage favourite...
What is your view on simple, classic games in comparison to the modern expensive blockbusters you're working on these days? Perhaps you weren't a CE gamer in the past, but you listed Galaxian as one of your all-time favourite games in your Desert Island Disks - a legendary title from the golden age of arcade machines. Do you have a preference over whether you generally prefer playing one of the recent cinematic epics or the simplicity of a classic arcade game?

I think games today are just very different... a different sport if you like. We're much closer to the experience of those old arcade classics with some of the iPhone and Facebook apps of today whereas the epic console titles that we see now are beginning to really push the boundaries of what we consider gaming to be. Games have always got to be fun and to be fun they generally have to confirm to fairly simple rules of play that can be picked up quickly... so in that respect there's little difference between old and new. The graphics are better so the sense of player immersion in a virtual world is improved, but the essential experience of repetitive gameplay is the same.

Which do I prefer? Both have their merits ;)
... and, finally - is there anything you'd like to leave us with? Shameless promotion on future projects can go here. :)

Not really, but its been a pleasure remembering the old times and making me feel like a dinosaur.



Many thanks for taking the time out to talk to us, Neil.