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Playing Catch Up: Flood's Sean Cooper

In today's Playing Catch-Up, we talk to designer Sean Cooper about his time spent at the 'heyday' of Bullfrog working on Dungeon Keeper, Syndicate and Magic Carpet, and how his new career designing Flash games like Boxhead feels just

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

April 26, 2007

18 Min Read

Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Sean Cooper, designer of Bullfrog Production’s 1991 Amiga platformer Flood and lead game designer on the company’s 1999 game Dungeon Keeper 2. Cooper’s first experience with computers was at the age of 11, in maths class. He’d always had a passion for technology – he comments that he particularly “loved” his calculator – and after seeing a “box with something in it” outside the class room went to investigate. “I left the maths class, to the dismay of the teacher, and [then] asked what it was,” Cooper recalls. “‘It is a computer,’ he replied. ‘What's that then?’” “I think he said a big calculator,” he laughs. “The machine was an Acorn BBC Micro B. That was that, hooked for life.” Not long after, Cooper’s father bought a BBC Micro for the family, though it “lived in” Cooper’s room. “I would type in games from those type-ins in the middle of magazines, modify them and create my own little games,” he says. “Not very good, but a start.” Cooper began buying tape games as well, noting a distinct fondness for David Braben’s Elite, which he describes as one of the first titles he “really enjoyed”. As time went on, he created more and more of his own titles. “[You would] write them and then get your mates to play them,” he says. From YTS To Bullfrog Productions In 1987, Cooper enrolled with the UK Government’s Youth Training Scheme after finding himself out of work and with “little in the way of qualifications”. With just two weeks left until his 18th birthday – the cutoff age for the YTS - Cooper was offered a placement in an Information Technology Education Centre “By this time I knew BASIC and 6502 assembly and had a hunger for more, started to learn ARM Assembly Language on my Acorn Archimedes.” Cooper was soon offered a position as a tester through YTS with the newly-established Bullfrog Productions, founded by Les Edgar and programmer and designer Peter Molyneux that focused on Amiga development. “[My] first impression was, ‘Wow, color!’” he laughs. “I had worked so long with a limited amount of color, or no way of drawing in 256 colors - although the Archimedes was capable, it didn't have the software at the time.” Over the period of the development of the game, Cooper found jobs added to his responsibilities, and ended up as one of four artists working on the title, along with Glenn Corpes, Andrew Jones and Dan Wheeler. After the game’s release in 1989, Molyneux took a holiday, during which time Cooper and Corpes worked on developing the add-on The Promised Lands for the game. After returning and seeing the expansion, Molyneux decided to inquire more about Cooper’s talents. The Making Of Flood “[Molyneux] said, ‘What else can you do?’ and then I unraveled my work on my Archimedes,” Cooper recalls. “Within a day I was writing and designing Flood.” Cooper describes the 1990 Amiga and Atari ST platformer as a “simple game”, and laughs that very little has actually changed in the way he designs games since that time. “My games are still the same,” he grins. “Guns and grenades and quirky little ideas.” “I just got on with the job - though to be honest it was not a job, it was a hobby and they paid me to do it. You can't complain,” he says with a smile. “Anyway, programming was difficult, but I was surrounded by people 10 years older than me. They knew everything and I knew very little, so you can imagine: ‘What does this do?’, ‘What is that?’, ‘No you’re wrong, I'm doing it my own way’, etc. And that was Flood.” Cooper comments that he definitely felt an element of pressure in working on the game at such a young age, though he adds that “feeling pressure was something that didn't pass until I was 30 years old”. “I just got on with everything and spent all my time coding, designing and loving it,” he says. That pressure wasn’t related to the public perception of the title, even though the title did end up receiving relatively positive reviews from the local Amiga press at the time. “I didn't care at that point, [I just cared about] putting the game in the box and selling it,” he muses. “I never gave a monkey about that. I was just doing what I had loved since I was a young teen. My friends all use to embarrass me in the shops: ‘My mate did that!’, ‘Hey check this out; my mate designed this’.” Moving On To Syndicate After working on Molyneux’s Powermonger as a tester, programmer and map screen designer later that year, Cooper was heavily involved in the creation of the company’s next title, the isometric action strategy game Syndicate while “down the local pub” celebrating. “It was just, ‘How about some guys with guns causing absolute mayhem?’ then, ‘Okay, let's do it!’” he laughs. “The design evolved from that: no documentation. ‘Let's just try some stuff and see how it all fits together’.” The development was similarly unorthodox, with Cooper and friends playing multiplayer games, and working out problems in the design from there. “’That's shit’, one of them would say, I would quickly change it,” he chuckles. “The biggest challenges was coding: fast navigation and the isometric renderer. It had this thing in it called "Cover Sprite"; a function I invented that drew a sprite and masked it a Z-Buffer-like way, although in blocks not pixels. It was a nightmare all the way through developing the game. And still to this day it haunts me, and the same thing happens again and again.” Even with its technical challenges and unconventional design techniques, the staff at Bullfrog – Cooper in particular - quickly realized that the game was shaping up to be something special. “We played it, and played it, and played it, and not once did I get bored,” he says. “I completed it so many times in the course of the development. I played it multiplayer and forced everybody else to play it, even if they didn't want to: there was no democracy.” “Most people working on the game found me to be some what annoying, because I wanted it how I wanted; even Peter was losing control of it. That's what happens when young people with big egos start creating something. Well, with me anyway. The highlight of my career. Even Peter said it was the heyday of Bullfrog.” The game received rave reviews upon its release in 1993, and was ported from the Amiga to many other platforms, including 3DO, Genesis, CD32, PC, Jaguar, Macintosh and SNES. But again, the public’s perception of the title wasn’t Cooper’s chief concern. “The response to the game?” he muses. “Well, ‘Please can I have more money?’ was my response. I love hearing it now; ‘Oh that was such a great game’. But then I didn't care, I loved the game; we even played it six months after release. The original wasn't shipped with multiplayer, but I fixed it shortly after and we had a lot of fun blowing each other up.” The Genesis Of Magic Carpet While other parts of the studio worked on Theme Park, Cooper headed-up the American Revolt expansion for Syndicate, before Les Edgar started calling for another game to be released. Fortunately, Corpes had recently created an “underwater [graphics] engine”, and Cooper decided to use the technology to produce a flying carpet game. “It was all done in fake 3D,” Cooper explains. “X and Y was the plane - because Z in the screen was not right – and Z was upwards. And all the angular math; that would have frightened most coders, but no, I was stubborn. As for the hardware, I think we received many Intel Pentiums free from Intel. So, we could do so much more; I really pushed the amount of life happening in the world and could do more for gameplay. And Glenn developed the 3D rendering and the landscape, reflections, shadows really well, which made it look awesome.” Development began in earnest very quickly, and the deadline for the game was tight. “Out comes the ego,” he says. “Four months? No problem. ‘Right I need this and I need it like this’, ‘No, we are not doing that, we are doing this’, and it went on. ‘What can we destroy?’, ‘Lets destroy the landscape with volcanoes, morph it with the castle building and cut long holes along the landscape with earthquakes’. Again Multiplayer was key: play it, play it, and play it!” “[Development] was quick, and we played it so much and it was just so much fun,” Cooper continues. “Still the idea that I was doing a ‘job’ had not happened yet. So, imagine doing what you love; someone paying for you to do so and then playing and modifying a game all day long and getting everyone else to enjoy creating that vision as well. What else is there in life?” “Well,” he sighs in answer to his own question, “that comes later.” Magic Carpet was released in 1994 to excellent reviews, though the games sales were less than stellar – possibly due to the title’s relatively system requirements. Nonetheless, Cooper produced an expansion pack for the game that saw release the next year, and Saturn and PlayStation ports followed in later years. The studio had begun to change, though – at the beginning of 1995, the company had been acquired by its tong-term publisher, Electronic Arts, and goals were becoming more business oriented. Cooper’s next project, the PlayStation, PC and Saturn racing game Hi-Octane, was developed in just eight weeks using the Magic Carpet engine, as a way to “fill a quarter that didn't have enough revenue”. Cooper laughs when asked how he managed to actually achieve the task, though. “Who knows? ‘We'll give you £40k bonus if you get it done’ helped a lot,” he says, smiling wryly. “By that time I knew how to make decisions and stick to them,” he adds. I really started to trust my gut instinct - I think it is really important. Like a pregnant woman; she knows if something is wrong. I knew it before it happened, so I based all my decisions on non-calculated, un-documented and what felt the most fun. So, that was how we got it done so quickly. The game was okay. It was never meant to be anything else.” On To Gene Wars, Virgin Next, Cooper was brought in to “make the design work” on the real time strategy game Gene Wars - a move that saw some degree of tension between him and Molyneux. “The game was never going to get done, so we discussed this and I decided to take over,” he says. “The game was so complex, and I remember window after window popping up; it was like trying to battle with early versions of Windows 95 and play a game at the same time. So I made the design work and got it out.” Reviews for the game on its release in 1996 were little more than average, and Cooper comments that he “did not enjoy playing it”, though he feels the overall “objective was met”. “This was a slight problem,” he says thoughtfully. “Maybe I had stopped caring, and maybe I thought results were a measure of success.” Cooper left Bullfrog soon after, and went to work with Virgin Interactive. “You cannot compare Virgin to Bullfrog, however,” he says. “This was the first time I realized that I was doing a job, and this affected me a big way. No longer was it a hobby and having fun and playing games. It was the first time people had lives outside of work - that is was I saw, and I remember it so well: ‘Are you not staying to play a game?’ ‘No, I am watching a program on TV.’ What was all that about? Well you know - we all know now - but I didn't know at all. All I felt was that these people really didn't want to be doing this! Wow! Anyway, after a while, I played the release of [Bullfrog’s 1997 game] Dungeon Keeper and thought very little of that, realized that Peter had left; so we could really do something brilliant. I think I felt that Peter was in my way or something. It’s really hard to recall.” Back To Bullfrog Again Molyneux left the company the month after the release of Dungeon Keeper, in August of 1997, and Cooper took the chance to head back, leaving the project he had been working on, Heist, in the hands of others. “I think I felt that I could go back to Bullfrog/EA,” he comments. “Peter and I had banged heads with Gene Wars, and [after I was] out of his control it felt like a release. Also, Hi-Octane was another problem for him: the games were not good enough. But who would care if the [owner of the] company you loved and had treated you so great sold it on to some one else?” “I would do the same now,” he admits, “but then, it was our company; we worked really hard and had so much fun creating games and I think Peter had just thought, ‘I have had enough of Bullfrog’ and sold it. Well, that’s what it seemed like, but really it was a very smart business decision.” “So how did I feel really?” Cooper muses. “The end of an era.” “I have been trying to tell him for years that without him I would not have done all the games I did,” Cooper says candidly. “Peter was inspirational: there are very few people I got on with and he and I just started churning out games; we ran the dev teams in the studio for quite a while. If it had been anyone else I would not have wanted to do any of it.” Still, with Molyneux gone, Cooper was in control of the Dungeon Keeper project, working first on the Dungeon Keeper Gold expansion, and then on a sequel, which he began by asking himself what it was he didn’t like about the first title. “I answered all these questions,” he says. “One of the main objectives was pacing: Dungeon Keeper lacked pacing and it all felt pretty much the same. Command and Conquer influenced this a lot at the time - the pacing of the multiplayer was perfect. And then the variety of what the player could do and what the player had to achieve was addressed. More variety please!” From Bullfrog To... Bond? After the release of the game in 1999, the studio gradually began to fold in, with the last product bearing the company name and logo hitting shelves in 2001. Cooper once again left, though he stayed within Electronic Arts, and headed to San Francisco after being offered work on the James Bond title Everything or Nothing, which was released in 2003. He notes that he felt “very pressured” working in a different country, and adds that it was “culturally very different; even the language had its problems”. He had already worked out the core design of the game before leaving, though – specifying “action, action, action” as a general goal. “Jumping, diving for cover, massive explosions, adrenaline pumping enemies who scared the shit out you,” he enthuses. “However, with every development cycle he who has the louder voice is heard the most. I guess some of [the core design] got through but as always, the problem with any game is time. The schedule was tight.” “Anyway,” he grins, “the game turned out okay, right?” While in the U.S., Cooper also became involved in the core design of EA’s The Godfather title. “The Godfather stood for a few things and everybody would have expected it to be that way: gun fights, fast driving, drive-bys and, of course, intimidation. [Creative director] Philip Campbell and I wanted this; we wanted to have a mechanism that allowed the player to intimidate the characters in the game, threaten them or just shoot them. I wasn't around long after the team started as I left to go back to England to work on a new title.” That new title was the console release of DICE’s Battlefield, which Cooper describes as being “really quite cool” upon its release in 2005. Soon after that, though, he decided to leave EA, due to “personal reasons” and the way his “life was going”. “EA is a great company to work for, and my career there allowed me do all sorts of projects,” he says. “However, I had a chance to go on my own and I did.” Striking Out On His Own He used the opportunity to start his own company, which focuses on the creation of small Flash games. “What I really thought was, why spend one and half years writing a game, when you can deliver a lot fun in two weeks?” he questions. “I have ideas and it started to get really hard to convince people that these ideas could work in [a particular] time scale, so I went back to basics.” “What is really fun about gaming?” he continues. “Well, for me it is simply picking up a game, playing it and feeling that it is not work: I just wanted to be entertained! So hopefully, the games that I am doing now deliver this. Also, we get to offer the gaming experience for free and - no disrespect to the games industry - but there is ever increasing amount of rubbish produced that some companies should be held accountable for. All other markets/industries would have a Watch Dog company on them for selling such rubbish. Just imagine what would happen if a steel company delivered bad quality steel after which buildings fell down!” “Games don't kill but they certainly burn a hole in your pocket,” he chuckles. Flash Success For Boxhead Currently, he notes that he is most happy with Boxhead, a series of simple 2D shooter available through his site, as well as a number of other Flash gaming portals like Crazy Monkey Games. “Why am I so happy with it? Because the people that play it: 100,000,000 plays world wide. The people at Newgrounds love the game, and the reviews reflect this.” “This is probably the highlight of my career,” he says, “as you can see the response. Not from reviewers, not from peers, but the audience that it was intended for. Making this visible has really been an eye opener. I think Boxhead is awesome not because of the game but because people tell me that they enjoy it, and that is the biggest reward.” There’s also the possibility that the title could see a release on other platforms, as long as a few conditions from Cooper are met: “the game remains fun, unique-ish, quirky and free”. “Free?” he exclaims in mock surprise. “Nothing is free really, but to the consumer it is. Microtransactions are something I'm looking into; if people really love the game and want a lot more, then they can simply expanded their game cheaply or expensively depending on how far they want to go. A bit like the arcades use to be. I never felt ripped of from putting £1 into an arcade machine. So, yes, other platforms and a wider audience would be great, if it is kept affordable for the consumer.” “My goals are simple,” he says. “Create fun, simple and unique games for an audience who like to game for free. My next step is to build games that the audience can interact with, change and re-release. Games that gamers can re-create. We have something called wOne Designer coming out soon. The Player can design their own levels and we'll release them across the internet for them, for everybody to enjoy.” The Future For Cooper With the latest in the Boxhead series seeing release in the next week or so, Cooper declares that he is “moving forward not backwards”, and adds that he feels going back to development in a traditional studio environment would be misstep. “I am happy, creatively motivated and having so much fun doing what I started out to do over 25 years ago,” he smiles. “I must be mad...” “I love creating Flash games,” he continues. “From design to coding to art to sound, I can do it all – well, some of it better than others. I can create my design from start to finish, uninterrupted by anyone else. I think we get caught up too much in 3D: everything must look real, or cartoony, what about the game play? Isn't that what keeps the player playing, the artwork just get them sucked in. Again, in my opinion, I feel that all too many times we think about the wrong things when creating games, and if ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ are not at the top, don't do it.” Cooper admits that he finds the medium restrictive at times, but comments that this is part of its charm. “All platforms are restrictive, just in different ways. So I have this Boxhead game: I could put four zombies on screen and the game comes to a grinding halt. Okay, let's change the way it works and think about it in a different way, not how Flash should be used. To be able to put a game together in a short period of time is the thing that keeps me going.” “It reminds me of the very first computer I ever used,” he grins.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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