Authors and Interviews

Ste Cork Interview: March 2005

Ste Cork was born in Lancashire, in the north west of the UK. His coding career has spread nearly two decades and seen him work at over a dozen software companies in locations across the globe, including Lancashire, Manchester, Yorkshire, Switzerland and landing most recently with Raven Software in Madison, Wisconsin in the US. In 1989, aged 21 or so, Ste was given the task of porting the classic Chuckie Egg as one of his earliest PC projects at Lothlorien, which had then recently taken control of the struggling UK software house, A&F.
Ste has kindly agreed to sit down and wax lyrical for us on topics such as his career and his experiences at Lothlorien in the late 80s, as well as finally clearing up the mystery of what happened between Mike Fitzgerald, the police traffic officer and the car boot ...
=== Part I: Coder ===
What are your favourite computer games?

RTS and FPSs. On the Spectrum I used to love Lords of Midnight, Nether Earth and Rebelstar. On the PC nowdays I mainly play the Desert Combat mod of Battlefield 1942. I loved Half Life 1, but haven't bothered with HL2 because of the number of people I know who have huge problems with Steam - forget it. If I've paid for something I want to play it without that kind of hassle, even in single player. To have an SP game that you've paid for unavailable because their servers are overloaded or otherwise unavailable is totally unacceptable. If they release it a couple of years later with that removed I may buy it. I know this is a rant, but it goes along with people protecting disks so I can't just take my laptop somewhere without taking a big stack of games CDs just in case I want to play them. Screw that, if a game won't work with Alcohol 120% I won't buy it.

Heh, normal non-ranting is now resumed...
March 2012 update from Ste Cork: I'd forgotten about this interview, but just wanted to say that for several years now I've been 100% happy with Steam, and in fact prefer it for all PC gameplaying because of not having to carry all my various disks around, and getting patches etc automatically. My original rant was based on it being just-another-DRM-scheme back then, and offering me nothing other than hassle for requiring an online connection to play a single-player game. Nowadays I tend to get annoyed when a game *doesn't* support Steam and requires signing up with some other online service ( which I can't be bothered doing ).
Did you always know you wanted to be a coder? If not, how did you get started as one?

I tinkered around with a ZX Spectrum, wrote a game about a year later and got it published, then it went on from there. I'd previously created a number of games on paper boards with plastic pieces, and computer games seemed like the logical extension. Nowday though I mainly do util stuff, which suits me.
As a bedroom coder, what was your first computer? What other machines have you developed with?

ZX Spectrum was the first machine, but I've also written games for the Amstrad CPC, MSX, Tatung Einstein (mail order stuff), PC from CGA days to present, PSX, and the current GC, PS2, XBox consoles. Though everything from PSX onwards was just as a team member, and the code I was doing wasn't platform specific so it really doesn't matter the same now.
How did you end up at M.C. Lothlorien?

I applied to a bunch of companies after publishing my first game, one of whom was A&F since they were only about 25 miles away, but they replied as Icon Design (which was confusing since I'd never heard of them) and anyone that knows the background of these companies will already know how they intertwined.
Do you have any memories you'd like to share of working at M.C. Lothlorien?

Difficult to remember when it was Lothlorien, and when it was Icon Design or several other names.

Not much - wondering if you'd get paid that month, or if your cheque would bounce (their was literally a race to the bank some paydays). Watching the loonies in their pyjamas that wondered round outside occasionally when they escaped from the local nuthouse. Shooting pigeons out the back window with bits of paper fired from elastic bands we'd nailed across the windows... Nothing people would really be interested in...
Are you still in contact with anyone from your days at M.C. Lothlorien?

Tony Williams was the best man at my wedding a couple of years ago, and I've emailed Steve Riding a few times, though I missed hooking up with him last time I was back in the UK.
Could you highlight the most notable games you've worked on - those that are most well-known and those you've personally enjoyed working on most?

Most games that you work on you get a bit fed up with towards the end. I liked the ones were I was in sole control of the contents and could take my time on (like OverKill - I spent ages tweaking the playability of that, and I think it shows), aside from that then probably Elite Force here at Raven was the first really fun one I worked on, since it made such a change to be involved in something that so many people played. Most of my other games were far more limited market exposure (UK and Europe only for the most part). There were several occasions back at Lothlorien/Icon though were I found people playing things I'd been working on during their spare time - which was nice. I remember Brian Beuken mock-shouting at me the next morning because he'd been at work until 3am playing Colony on the Spectrum, thinking he was doing really well, then his base blow up with a power-overload because he hadn't realised that a flashing energy level readout was anything to worry about. Looking back now though most of the games from then (including mine) look pretty bad now.
Of the guys you've worked with, who's skills do you admire most?

I don't really have an answer to that. It's like who's my favourite book author, there's no one clear winner, different people are good at different things.

I know that sounds like a cop-out answer but these days when you don't have one person coding or drawing etc an entire game by themselves it gets too specialised to pick people out as being the one I admire the most. No-one shines in all fields now, they can be a great tech-head for instance but no nothing about making games fun.
Of the games you've worked on, which have generated strong fan communities and are any still active (e.g. Soldier of Fortune)?

Leaving aside the obvious one of why I'm doing this interview, then probably Voyager: Elite Force (for people making their own mini Star Trek movies) and Jedi Knight 2 for the seriousness people place on things like the sabre dueling (
What can you tell us about the contents of your current work .plan?

I don't keep an actual .plan file, but I'm currently working on 3 projects at Raven. XMen2, Quake4, and another that I can never remember if it's been announced or not. I float around depending on what's needed.
=== Part II: Chuckie Egg Developer ===
Did you receive any royalties from your port or were you just paid a flat rate to work on it?

It was an in-house job, so it was just wages for the time it took (which wasn't an awful lot, even when they didn't bounce).
The tight deadline for completing your PC (CGA/EGA/TGA) port of Chuckie Egg was just a single month. Who else had a hand in it and what were their contributions?

The late Martin Holland drew not only the backgrounds but also the static platforms you walk on, in the correct positions. I then grabbed a char-iser function from Paul Murray's CGA/Hercules/EGA/Tandy DOS port of Palace Software's Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax (aka Epyx's Axe of Rage) to get that data into a platform structure for collision and spriority* purposes, then the rest was just sticking in the usual generic code (sprites, IO etc) that went into every game. The bird behaviour I asked Doug Anderson about and coded them to work as he described.

* "spriority" is a C64 term that was also applicable to software-sprite machines (ZX, PC etc). It's short for sprite-priority, meaning making sure the right ones go in front of or behind other sprites (since there was no Z-buffer back then). Though for Chuckie Egg it was really simple, the background goes on, then the foreground movers, then finally a bodge layer of red pieces over the parts of the ladders that go through the platforms, so it looks like Harry etc are slightly 3D in those areas.
For the geeks, what languages and tools were used in the development?

Optasm (I forget the version) for the assembly language. EC for the text editor. That's it.
Can you remember anything of note about the development - did you experience any problems?

No. It wasn't complex enough to have any problems, though it's a pity we didn't have better clock-compensation code in the sound (which I just plugged in from someone else) since it turned out that the faster the machine was the slower the music played. Machines from about 2 years after that didn't work at all, other than the Tandy version. Heh.
What were your thoughts on the results of your labour, both back in 1989 and now in 2005? Do you have it prominently displayed on your CV or is it one of those early games which is "best forgotten", as described by your bio on Raven's website?!

You mean CE itself? To be honest I didn't really care about it particularly. It was kind of nice to be working on a version of something that I'd enjoyed before getting into the industry commercially, but it was a simple game written for a dying company, and in the end almost no-one ever saw it.

I don't put it on the Raven website because it all seems so irrelevant now. This business isn't like the music one were things last for decades and they're still comparable with (if not better than) modern stuff. The only ones I care about from that era are the ones that I wrote myself in spare time and got paid royalties for, those had direct financial consequences for me and it was nice when people wrote in to magazines about them. The commercial stuff was just a job, and with such tight deadlines you could never do too much with them as regards tinkering. Lothlorien got most of their income from budget companies like Mastertronic or obscure ones like Argus Press during the period I worked for them, so we knew nothing was ever going to be epic.

The main difference between then and now for me is the money and stability. Raven / Activision are great companies to work for, and I don't worry about not getting paid or being made redundant. We also get to work on big games now with more people per project than most of the companies I've ever worked at had under their roof. It's totally different.
As an old ZX Spectrum programmer, presumably that format was what you based your port on. What do you think of the original SPECTRUM 48K release and how do you think yours compares to it (answering along the lines of I-can't-remember-I-havent-played-either-of-them-for-15-years is acceptable ... :)?

I'll always have a soft spot for the "feel" of Spectrum games that somehow has never been replicated on any emulator, ever. I actually liked the keyboard for playing games on (crappy for typing on of course), and the fact that you could hear how busy the CPU was by listening to the "fizzing" noise it made, though apparently not everyone could hear that.

I think the speccy version was the best. Mine seemed more like a console, all smooth and floaty, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.
It's believed this site is exclusively releasing the port you coded, for the very first time (at least, we've found no evidence of any other release!) - so it's unlikely anyone will have had a chance to look for any, but are there any hidden cheats or easter eggs in your port that noone knows about?

I'd have to find the source code. 99% certain there's nothing there though, I didn't have the time to do much with it.
It's well known that Chuckie Egg has no end, as such. However, and it probably varies with each version, does your port loop round when it reaches a certain level or is there anything of note about the later (41+) levels?

Errr.... I don't know. I honestly can't remember. I think it was probably chickens, then the released bird, then bird and chickens, then after that I'm not sure if it did anything different.
Is the source for your port of Chuckie Egg still kicking around? This site has been developed with - almost exclusively - open source tools. We wondered, if the legal issues were sorted out (if we ever track down Nigel :), whether you'd be in favour of releasing the source code? You never know - someone might be mad enough to try and extend it ... Editor's note: Fancy producing a Chuckie Egg 3, readers? Get in touch!

I have it, but no. There were common functions in there that got used in a number of PC games for different companies (probably, that's the way we worked to churn them out so fast). Best to play safe.
Does anyone in Real LifeTM (your friends, family, colleagues, bloke in a pub etc.) know you coded a version of Chuckie Egg? What do they think?

Most of them would say "what's that?" I think, then if explained to them probably would just go "Oh", and talk about something else.
Did you realise at any point, either before or after you landed the job of writing a port, that Chuckie Egg was going to be regarded by some as the classic that it is now?

I thought it was pretty much dead by the time I got to do a port, and am surprised people care about it nowdays. The PC port was ( to me ) little more than one of those retro game pack things that people release nowdays to make a P4 processor spend about 0.000001% of its CPU doing what a Z80 had to work flat out at.
Are you surprised by the continuing popularity of Chuckie Egg?

Gobsmacked, in fact. Though I admit to nostalgia myself and tend to instantly buy old TV programmes on DVD from my era (still waiting for a set of every episode of "The Goodies"... ;-) which is equally baffling to people who weren't around at the time.
When was the last time you played Chuckie Egg (and which version)?

A couple of years ago on a PC, just to see how old fashioned it looked and how much CPU the task manager showed.
Can you remember what level of Chuckie Egg you used to (still can?!) be able to get to - on any version?

I played the ZS one through each level with the chickens (hens?) then the flying bird, then I probably gave up since it was repeating after that.
There have been many retro remakes of Chuckie Egg, do you have any thoughts on those?

No. I'm afraid it's just an ancient and very simple sprite / platform game to me, and I just don't get the excitement.

Heh, sorry...
What, if anything, do you know of the legal status of Chuckie Egg - either your port or the brand in general?

No idea. Pick and Choose might have all the rights, or just PC. I don't know.
What are your views on the future of Chuckie Egg?

You'll hate me, but the honest answer is: Don't know, don't care.
Have you ever felt inclined to knock up a modern follow-up? :)

Absolutely not. I can't even be bothered doing a profitable modern game in spare time (though it'd have to be fairly simple). To appeal to anyone other than rare enthusiasts would be pretty much impossible. I hardly even have time to play games at home (to my chagrin), much less write them. Kids do that to you...
=== Part III: Final Thoughts ===
Now, what was all that about the car-boot / traffic cop?

Just that apparently Mike Fitzgerald was pulled over for speeding once in the UK and when the traffic cop saw the boot full of Chuckie Egg tapes he let him off the ticket, saying it was thanks to that game that his kid wasn't out on the streets every night or something. Not sure how true it was, but I like the thought. I think video games are great for that kind of thing. Here at Raven when we released the original Soldier Of Fortune and some of our guys were at E3 they were approached by more than one law-enforcement type who said that their wives had noticed them being a lot calmer at home because they'd had a chance to blast a whole bunch of bad guys in-game.
Do you like eggs? :)

... and, finally - is there anything you'd like to leave us with?

Go out and buy "XMen Legends", it's awesome ;-)