Pete Cooke’a name will be immediately memorable to anyone with a ZX Spectrum. Originally a teacher, Cooke soon moved over to videogames full time upon the sale of his first game. Famed for his love of pushing machines to their limits, he created the incredible Tau Ceti, a game that for many, managed to out-Elite Elite. Here he talks about his early days in the industry.
So finally we have Pete Cooke In The Chair!
[Laughs] I haven’t been hiding, I just find it strange that people have an interest in things I did over 30 years ago!
So you moved to Leicester when you were a young man?
Yep. I went to university here and did a maths degree. After graduation I tried to make a living playing in a progressive rock band. But then punk came along and that was the end of that. So I did a post-graduate degree and got a job teaching maths to 11 to 14-year-olds.
We’re guessing your involvement in computers and programming began then.
It was only a small department and I was there when the government said it needed to get computers into schools. I think it was around 1980 they sent us an RM 380Z [an early 8-bit microcomputer from Oxford-based Research Machines) which was a huge brick of a thing, text only and something like 1K of memory. The head took one look at it and gave it to the maths department and I volunteered to explore it further. No-one knew about computers; I’d seen one at university when we visited the computer department once. It was a huge mainframe with lots of men in white coats looking after it. But the RM – to be honest, it was very weird and a bit complicated.
Home computers were in their infancy – you must have soon acquired one?
When Sinclair released the ZX81 I sort of lunged at it [laughs] and bought one as soon as I could. I remember it arrived on a Friday and my partner was away that weekend; when she returned on the Sunday evening I hadn’t slept one wink! It all made sense now: you could give the computer commands and it would do stuff, work out logarithms and formulas that would take a mathematician a lifetime.
Did you begin to make your own programs?
I pottered around making character-based graphics, got to grips with BASIC and just carried on when the Spectrum came out. I set up a computer club at the school and took in programs that I had written. Eventually I wrote a simple text adventure and showed it to some of the students who said it was seriously good and thought it was better than some of the stuff in the shops!
Why an adventure game?
They were interesting, and it was the idea you could explore somewhere. Also, I didn’t have the skills then to design 3D or animated graphics, although I’d been reading about AI and language parsing. It could also [have] been the influence of games such as The Hobbit, or maybe just the freedom appealed to me. I wrote it from scratch with bits in BASIC and tiny bits in assembler, but essentially hand-coded. The kids said I should try and get it published and I told them they must be joking; I was only doing it for a laugh and to see what I could do. But I sent it off.
Many don’t know this, but Pete also worked on Geoff Crammond’s
Grand Prix series.
Invincible Island was published by Richard Shepherd Software – why that company?
Maybe they had been publishing something similar… I can’t honestly remember why; I just sent it to them. Then one day they rang me up and told me they’d like to buy it for £1,000! I was only earning £500 a month teaching, and they were offering me two months’ wages for something I was doing as a hobby. It sold okay, and that was the start of it all…
Of course Urban Upstart was your most famous adventure game with an unusual setting.
I just thought there’s no point doing a fantasy setting like everyone else was. It did quite well, I made some money. Richard Shepherd encouraged me to do another adventure, which I did. But I eventually became restless with the format. Upper Gumtree, the sequel to Urban, was my last text adventure. I suppose I’d done it, knew how to do them and wanted to move on. Just sticking an image on the screen and some text was fine, but the machines were getting more powerful and I wanted to start animating stuff. I was quite fascinated by 3D and, being a mathematician, was intrigued by all the perspective transformations and matrices behind it all. I needed a new challenge.
We notice around this time you were also credited with a couple of programs from the Horizons tape which was bundled with the ZX Spectrum 48K+ model.
Oh yes [laughs], that was weird! I was approached by Dorling Kindersley and I knew nothing about the tape, just that they wanted a couple of utilities. I already had the UDG generator utility and I wrote Maze Chase as well. The strange thing was, I got it all working and sent it to them and they said they wanted it to work with the shift and the cursor keys. I thought it was madness, but it was only when the new version came out and these programs were bundled with it that I realised the keyboard was different. I was gobsmacked when I saw those two little things on the Horizons tape.
Your first major game and a huge step up was just around the corner. Tell us more on how you got the idea for Juggernaut.
I had a mate who was keen on becoming a truck driver, but he came back from trying to learn and said he couldn’t do it; he said it was fine until you came to reversing. So I thought about this mathematically and wrote a little program to simulate the way you turn one way and the trailer goes the other. And although reversing wasn’t a big part of the final game, that was the idea, that little model, that inspired Juggernaut. I wanted the articulation and real physics and once I had that it was just a question of putting a game to it. So what do lorries do? They deliver stuff. I called it Jackknife with the original concept in my mind. CRL renamed it.
Why did you choose CRL?
I have no idea… I may have been approached by Ian Ellery [CRL’s software manager]. I don’t know.
You were still working freelance, how did the deals work financially?
For my first game, Invincible Island, Richard Shepherd simply bought the game outright. But for everything after that, I insisted on royalties. I didn’t need an up-front payment – I funded the development, although Juggernaut wasn’t a great seller as I think it was a bit of an oddity. As soon as I’d finished it, I was busy working on my next idea, which was to be some kind of space adventure.
An early photo of Pete (left) taken back in 1986.
This would be possibly your most famous game: Tau Ceti.
I had seen a game called Gyron by Firebird and wondered how on Earth they’d got these huge shapes to zoom and move around. Obviously they couldn’t use pre-mapped graphics as there wasn’t enough memory for all the frames, so they must have been generated using width tables. So I thought if you did it fractionally, you could have a shadow on it and that was the start of Tau Ceti. I got that working and it looked brilliant. The way the shading worked meant the light had to be low, but I realised it was a natural fit for a space game, something based on planetary surfaces like the Moon. Then there were a lot of other influences such as Elite and Star Trek.
Where did the name come from?
My mum and I were keen on astronomy. I went and looked at what G-type stars are nearby and I noticed one that had a nice name. I built the game from pre-mapped cities, the player jumping from one to another, with the plot drawing a lot from my love of classic science fiction novels, particularly Larry Niven and Isaac Asimov.
How did it all fit into 48K?
With a lot of jiggery-pokery! I would use tricks such as generating data from a random seed, so when you zoom in on a city it expands the data from some compressed form. And of course the view screen was small because the more data you copy across every frame, the longer it takes and the slower the game gets.
Your efforts were not in vain. Tau Ceti was a smash. A Crash Smash, even.
I have vivid memory of driving up to Ludlow with a pre-release version of Tau Ceti – they were lovely guys. And as for the review, I was dead chuffed, but I knew it was going to be good. I was still teaching, and the kids said it was fantastic, a reaction I’d never had before. So I knew even at an early stage that this was worth taking time over and getting absolutely right. I thought if this doesn’t succeed, that’s me done!
You were still freelance – was Tau Ceti all your own work?
Ian Ellery did some of the static graphics and the loading screen. Everything else including the sound, was me – it took me about six months to do.
Pete is still making games. This is Zenfit for iOS.
Do you remember the strange triangular box for the game?
It was a very clever idea, and I took it as a sign CRL were investing heavily in the game by trying to do something different. But the boxes were flimsy.
Tau Ceti was a huge hit critically and commercially. How did your life change after its release?
It didn’t really… although they [CRL] took me out for a Chinese meal in London to celebrate [laughs]. But despite [that it was] never going to make me a millionaire due to the limitations of the market, I did very well out of it. And of course CRL were soon pressuring me for a sequel which I didn’t want to do unless I could improve the concept in some way. So I did Room 10.
Ah, Room 10. Ping Pong in a box.
[Laughs] I liked the idea because it was in 3D and it was different. I wrote it very quickly as it’s a simple game and gave it to CRL. I wanted them to release it as a budget game because it was so simple, but they put it out at full-price. It got less than glowing reviews.
By now the pressure for a sequel to Tau Ceti must have been colossal.
It was, and I came up with the ‘academy’, formed to train skimmer pilots. This meant I could have a variety of missions and make the game more interesting.
And famously, Academy had an option to design your own skimmer.
I was dead chuffed with that. I got the idea from a C64 program called The Pinball Designer, which I hadn’t played, but read about. I thought that was a good idea, to give players the flexibility to design your own layout. It was challenging, but fun and once I’d sussed out how to do it, it just took time. That’s what I’m like: unless it was interesting to me on a technical level, I wouldn’t do it, and I was keen to do things that no-one had tried before. One of my biggest bugbears in games was when kids would say they got stuck on a certain level and would give up and not see the rest of the game. I wanted players to be able to play the whole game, which was why you could complete the missions in Academy in almost any order.
Notable Pete Cooke games
You can read the rest of our interview with Pete Cooke in issue 126. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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