CRASH, July 1987
With two major hits to his
record, Tau Ceti and Academy, PETE COOKE remains
an enigmatic figure. RICHARD EDDY went to talk to him on the
eve of Micronaut One being released by Nexus, and discovered
same facts behind the man.
When Tau Ceti burst onto our screens in December 1985,
most people had never heard of its programmer. We all tend
to think stars are born with a hit on their hands: and for
some strange reason CRASH credited the program to a
Steve Cooke! (It was a Smash in the December 1985 issue.)
But in fact Pete Cooke's pedigree goes way back to 82/83.
Hearing that he was about to complete a new game for Nexus
called Micronaut One, I decided to visit the man at
his home in Leicester and find out more about his work.
Pete Cooke's house is a modest two up/two down in a long
terrace in the Highfields district. His programming area is
an upper room, crammed with computers and synthesizers (he
once played keyboards in a band). And it was here on a hot
sunny day toward the end of April that we sat down to talk,
together with Ian Ellery from Nexus, who'd popped over to
see how Micronaut One was coming along.
It can be fascinating the way programmers who work on their
own arrive at a game design - which arrives first, the chicken
or the egg? For instance, where did Tau Ceti come from?
'It came from a technical idea, I suppose,' Pete began hesitantly.
'I'd seen Gyron, and for along while it had puzzled
me how on earth they did the spheres. It obviously couldn't
be a sprite because they didn't have enough memory to have
that many sprites.
'I finally twigged that they must have used a table of line
widths, and I thought about it a bit, then realised I could
split it three quarters and a quarter, and then it would look
like a shadow.
'I just went away and played with that for quite a long while
and got it so that I had the sun in the sky and the shadow
in the right place. And it sort of came from that, really.'
who was Creative Director at CRL in Tau Ceti days,
remembers his first sight of the hit: 'Tau Ceti was
this funny little square that arrived one day with a horizon
and some objects - that's all there was - just a little square
in the middle of the screen and it had a line in the middle
and some little boxes.'
It's not always a routine that sparks off Pete Cooke's imagination,
though he works from a routine back to a game as often as
the other way round.
I generally start by thinking technically what I would like
to see on the screen, what would look nice that hasn't all
been done before. You think whether it's achievable, technically
how will you do it and how could you plan it into a game?
If you can't, then obviously it's a demo and you forget it
- or it pops up later on when you've worked out how you can
With Tau Ceti the light-and-shade routine worked out,
but obviously there's a lot more to the game than light and
shade. What about the setting, and the little histories?
'It was all made up as I went along. I know a bit about astronomy,
so I looked around for a likely location - because the way
the routine works meant it couldn't be in space; you couldn't
have the sun above because the line-draw routine wouldn't
work, it would have to be on the surface of a planet.
'And I thought 'Right, it can't be Earth because it looks
a bit barren for Earth, it's got to be another planet.' So
I looked round for nearby stars that might be inhabited and
Tau Ceti had a nice-sounding name.'
The display looked rather science fictional, with the controls
and the flashing lights - how did it come about?
'An awful lot was determined by technical things, really.
I thought 'How fast am I going to be able to do this?' Because
filling solid areas of the screen takes an enormous amount
Pete came up with a clever cheat. The problem was sorting
lots of objects into order of distance first, updating their
positions each frame, and doing it quick enough to give an
illusion of movement. Using a full screen, or even half a
screen, proved to be too slow and horrible to play. The solution
was for the display to take up about a third of the screen.
But, as Pete says, 'that brings you to the question of what
goes elsewhere, and the obvious thing at that point is to
say that you need some other information in the game. Then
you say 'Well, the game has got to use these charts' - but
they've got to mean something if they're filling up half the
display area, so you have a lot of things going on that you
need the charts for... and using the charts doesn't take anything
like as much time as it would to copy the top two thirds of
the main display down.'
technical restraints actually helped Pete design much of the
gameplay in Tau Ceti. But with the follow-up, Academy,
Pete seemed to have overcome even those restraints.
'It used a lot of similar routines, but essentially I rewrote
it all, because it's amazing how much better you can do things
in a year. For instance, in Tau Ceti you've got the
list of objects and, because there's a lot of things they
can do, I needed 20 bytes for each one to tell it various
flags about whether it was running away, whether it was shot,
whether it had a door and so on.
'At that point it started to become fixed - I had all the
routines to step through it and sort it, and at the end I
found I'd left a byte unused. Well, you just say 'Sod it',
it's just not worth it; to times it by 20 is not too difficult
(times by four and add one and then times by four again, which
is all quite easy SHIFTs and ANDs), but to times it by 19
is actually slower, so it's better to be 20 long.
'I wanted it to be 16, just four SHIFTs, but given that it
wouldn't fit, it was worth throwing that space away. When
you start you don't know what it's going to need at the end,
you're always guesstimating along the way - 'How much space
is that going to take?' You think about how much memory there
is and think 'Well, the code is going to be roughly this much
and the data has got to fit in that much'.
'Continually, as you're working along, you're thinking 'Maybe
I can compress a bit of it somewhere', or 'I'm going to have
to rewrite the code to save some space'. Second time round,
of course, you've got the hindsight of having done it and
knowing that it fitted in this much space. It saves a lot
of fiddling, so that speeds the game up.
Was that why Academy turned out much more of an arcade
game than an adventure?
'Yes. I mean, the code's more efficient. There's a couple
of basic things I did that speeded it up an awful lot that
I should have done in Tau Ceti. I spent a lot of time
optimising Ceti routines, but it still scanned every
object, every frame, to see whether to draw it.
'But I flagged each one based on a field of view, so if you
flag each one in that area, once each pass-round; then you
know it couldn't possibly get from there to there in the 15
times round, and you've eliminated most of the processing
straight away. It's immediately 60 per cent faster for that.'
With the experience of Tau Ceti and Academy
behind him, Pete might have drawn heavily on the same routines
for his next game, Micronaut One. But...
'No, basically I ditched the lot. It works in a totally different
way. It got to the point where I thought I could do another
'safe' game, but it gets less challenging after a certain
'And there was the move to Nexus - I thought it would be
better, having moved, to do something different. It wouldn't
annoy CRL as much, for certain; and it would look a lot better,
and yeah, I was bored with doing another Ceti game.
'In fact, I'd got another one sketched out which was going
to be a bit like Psytron, in that you were defending
something. But I didn't think I could make it different enough
using the same sort of display, and I'd long wanted to do
something with tunnels, cos there's been a lot of things attempted
but they haven't quite worked, right back from New Gen's 3D
'There's I, Of The Mask, which again looks stunning,
but actually it was just a set of frames - it must have been
because you couldn't actually do anything in the tunnels but
go forward and back.'
Did Realtime's Starstrike II help?
'It gave me a few ideas, but it suffered awfully from being
a subsection in a larger game. I looked at it and thought
'The big problem is junctions', and that's what none of them
had, cos you can't do them that way. Drawing a tunnel is a
doddle - it's four lines converging to a vanishing point,
and you just move it around. But branching tunnels is totally
different, and I spent ages thinking about it.'
to say, Pete cracked it. Micronaut One's routine has
a list for the tunnels; it starts in the section you're in
and says 'that's the visible window at that tunnel'. Then,
using what he describes as a 'recursive descent', it stacks
that as the visible window of the screen and looks to the
next two sections, gets two visible windows, and down it goes.
By the time it gets to the far section it's got a tiny window
and then it clips all the lines to that window.
'Effectively what happens,' says Pete, 'is that the program
is doing hidden lines, but not having to actually draw solid
surfaces - so it's just lines, which means it can be very
fast. I thought Starstrike II was too slow and too
simple, and stuff like 3D Tunnel with attributes just
didn't work, so it had to be fast, and the way to do that
isn't to draw solid shapes all over the screen, but to find
some way of working out which areas you can see and which
you can't, and just clip the line to it.
'It looks about four sections ahead and then it simply stops.
After about two sections it stops drawing the floor because
that looks cluttered and horrible, you just get a black mess.'
At this point we paused, partly to look at Micronaut One
(for last month's CRASH preview), and partly to go
for lunch at the local Indian. Over the poppadoms I asked
Pete about his background, and how he got into computing.
Is there a dreaded ZX81 skeleton in his cupboard? Laughing,
Pete admits it all.
'I used to be a maths teacher you see. The whole thing started
when I was teaching - I got hold of a ZX81 in 1981 and then
a Spectrum and took it up as a hobby. I ran a little club
for various of the kids sort of 14, 15, who were dead keen,
and I'd bring stuff along I'd done and say 'Have a look'.
Eventually some of them turned round and told me I ought to
sell them. They just hassled me till I sent one off, and it
got snapped up and from then on...'
Pete knew very little about programming - just what he'd
picked up doing his maths degree. He played around with BASIC,
and started learning machine-code routines. But what was that
first game he sent off?
Invincible Island? The Richard Shepherd adventure?
So long ago! And indeed CRASH Issue One's LIVING GUIDE does
credit Pete Cooke with the game's authorship.
followed it up with another adventure for Shepherd, the well-loved
Was he well paid for those early efforts?
'Yes, I think I was. Comparatively, it hasn't gone up a lot
since then! I got a lot from Urban Upstart - it sold
a lot and it kept selling. But after that the market bottomed
out for adventures, though I did a couple more for Shepherd...
one was called Inferno, based on Dante's Inferno.
'It was interesting, but it was a bad project to get into,
it didn't work as I had wanted it to. The constraints of the
book were too much in the end. For an adventure it became
'The other I wrote on the 64, Up A Gum Tree. It was
the best adventure I did.'
He'd packed up teaching to become a full-time programmer
- but, having earned lots, he spent six months on Up A
Gum Tree and got just £500 for it.
'I thought I'd better look round for a job. I gave up work
at exactly the wrong point - when the real drop-out came.'
But he did another project with Richard Shepherd - Ski
'Fighter Pilot had been out long before then, but
Ski Star was the first 3-D vector-graphics game that
wasn't a Battlezone or a flight simulator. You could
design the courses and pick things up and drag them with this
cursor stuff - I think it was one of the first games to use
icons as well. I scrapped icons after that - they're terrible.
'I've played too many games where it's 'What's this icon
doing then?' In the end language is the best way of communicating
we've got, so why don't we use it? I'd like to write a game
with no words in it, something that's so transparent you don't
have to use language at all.
'But I don't think that the in-between ground works - you
have a weird mishmash of these wiggly, squiggly symbols. They've
put me off the Atari ST a bit. I keep thinking I'd like to
get rid of this and get a good on-line interpreter back where
you can do things quickly rather than having to wander round
After Ski Star 2000, Richard Shepherd went under and
disappeared from the software world, leaving Pete as a struggling
freelance without a software house to market his games. Enter
Ian Ellery and the company he then worked for - CRL. Ian takes
up the story...
'I got this little cassette,' he recalls, 'through the post
with this little letter (adopting kiddie's reading voice)
- 'Dear CRL, I've written this game called Jackknife,
which is a lorry-driving simulation. From Pete Cooke' - and
I expected 'aged 13¾' after that. The first one didn't
load. He sent me another and I still thought it was a kid
sending me a program. I loaded it up and I saw what was a
very original game - I wasn't sure how commercial it was,
but it was still very playable.'
The game was, of course, renamed Juggernaut - presumably
a more commercial title.
How did Pete come up with the weird idea?
'I had a mate,' he says, 'a mechanic-cum-car buff, who wanted
to be a long-distance lorry driver. He saved up for this £100-a-week
course, went away to Birmingham on it, and came back having
failed it. The problem was reversing - it's impossible.
'I thought about it and played with little models, and it
is a bit strange - when you push it one way it goes the other
and it just buckles up.
'There seemed to be an idea in that and it gradually metamorphosed
into a game all because he said how difficult it was to reverse
an articulated lorry. I put loads of stuff in about ferrying
freight around so you didn't have to do too much reversing.
But that was essentially it.'
Juggernaut wasn't a commercial hit, but it covered
its costs sufficiently to encourage an Amstrad conversion
which Pete did himself, and fire CRL's enthusiasm for Tau
In between Tau Ceti and Academy, Pete did Room
10, a Ping-Pong game, on the Amstrad.
'I wanted CRL to put it out as a budget game and they wouldn't.
I said it ought to be around £4 cos that's what I thought
it was worth. I did it on the Amstrad because it was a chance
to use the colour display - you can have a coloured floor
and a coloured ball over it without attribute problems. It's
the simplest game there is.'
Finally, the time had come to ask the Big Question - why
did Pete move from CRL to Nexus?
'I like Clement Chambers, the boss of CRL,' says Pete carefully.
'He's a nice bloke and I get on well with him, but the reason
I joined CRL was an advert that Ian Ellery put out, and the
thing that worked at CRL was me working with Ian.
'Essentially it wasn't much to do with Clement. Clement would
come in and ask how things were, and he'd be pleased when
the product turned up. But it wasn't Clement who'd seen the
demos and seen what the potential was.
'When Ian left CRL I thought, 'What I've got is a fairly
good relationship with Clement, but it isn't a working relationship'.
Obviously Ian, who had gone to Nexus, was interested in working
with me again as things had worked out alright before.'
Perhaps Ian enjoys working with Pete because he delivers
programs on time...
'I'm always late, but never terribly late,' Pete replies,
'If there was ever a wait it was worth it,' adds Ian agreeably.
'No, I've never been six months late but then you can't when
you're freelance because there's no wage, you know - if it's
late I don't eat!'
All Pete Cooke's games have been original, developed from
ideas of his own. Has he ever considered doing an arcade licensed
conversion, or working within a team?
'No, I'm not interested. Well, I can't say that about any
arcade licence, but I can't think of any offhand. I don't
like the philosophy behind them - the philosophy of the quick
buck - and games I play are not like that. My favourite game
to play is Revs, and it took me six months to crack
it. Now that isn't going to appear on an arcade machine, is
'As for programming teams on such projects, I think they're
actually graphic designers, and looking at the games I don't
see any programming in them. When I looked at Jack The
Nipper I thought 'This looks really nice, very pretty',
and then I saw it moving and they all move in diagonals and
I thought, 'Oh no, why?' It's a trivial thing to have a look-up
table and a shallow diagonal, so it looks realistic rather
than bouncing off walls.'
'I wouldn't work with another programmer, but a graphics
designer - I can't draw so somebody else has to do it, and
And what's next after Micronaut One?
'There are three ideas waiting in the queue. One's about
nine months long. I've got a routine that'll do solid 3-D.
If you say 'Let's remove the need to do updates ten times
a second' - say something like Lords of Midnight, where
the frame rate is slow but very effective - then you could
do an incredibly detailed 3-D display with solid surfaces,
and you could move around it. I suppose it could be very interesting
as a sort of graphic adventure. Again in first-person perspective.
'Second on my list, I suppose, is converting Micronaut
One for the Atari ST, which Nexus really want me to do.
I'm looking forward to learning the 68000.
'And the third one is quite a simple idea - I don't know
whether I should give it away. It's a shoot-'em-up. There's
a lot of parallax scrolling games - this is the ultimate -
perspective scrolling. You can have shadows - you've seen
pictures of Stonehenge at sunset - imagine shadows of rocks
and boulders actually changing like that as you go by, and
just a spaceship over the top with a shadow, zapping things.
It's something simple like that.'
'To be written in coffee breaks!' Ian retorts.
'It baffles me that there's so much stuff around that you've
seen before,' muses Pete. 'I've got millions and millions
of game ideas floating around waiting for somebody to land
on. I've never found it difficult thinking of ideas - it's
more difficult limiting them. Picking and choosing, I suppose.'