Interview with Simon Butler

I joined Ocean after leaving my previous employer under a cloud. Canvas was an offsite developer for Ocean but their lack of professionalism caused me to leave, potentially to return to advertising. Gary Bracey must have heard of my departure because he called me the next day and asked me to come to Ocean for an interview. Before I knew it I was part of the in-house team in Manchester.

I was responsible for the entire game design; maps levels etc.

The original intention was to create something that could hopefully be as good as Knight Lore from Ultimate, a game that still stands up exceptionally well even today. I wanted to work on an original title that was not tied into any licensed product, but inevitably for obvious financial reasons Ocean decided that a "movie tie-in" of sorts would generate greater revenue so my game, which was tentatively called "The Inspectre" became "Universal Monsters".

There was no actual movie to tie this into but the franchise of Universal Monsters was due to celebrate an anniversary of some sort, 50 years maybe.

The process of making the levels work as a puzzle based arena was a simple game mechanic that was tried and trusted then and even exists to this day, find blue key to open blue door etc and traverse dangerous, enemy filled levels that have traps and perils in order to accomplish this task. Wash, rinse, repeat...if you catch my drift.

At first I was the only artist on the project but as it progressed it got bigger and bigger, especially once the license was attached to the project. I was adamant that the graphics would be cute and small, something like the characters in Head Over Heels, but Universal, like all movie studios wanted their characters to be large and easily identifiable. We veered away from total reality and kept a black outlined, cartoon-style which I have always felt was my forte but none the less the characters became far bigger than I originally wanted and this affected the style and development of the game in many ways. Firstly, the sheer volume of work became greatly increased and I knew that I could not cope with this alone so called upon Martin to step in as joint artist on the project. I knew Martin well and trusted him implicitly and he came up trumps with some great sprites and some lovely animation.

Mike Halsall created a map editor for putting the levels graphics together into workable maps, but the graphics were created on Deluxe paint on the Amiga.

Isometric is always a pain and I shan't say where but it's certainly way south of the neck area.

Having said that it offers more challenges than side on flat 2D work. It eats up tiles like nobody's business if you attempt to get any great level of detail into things, but this very problem brings about some great fun as you attempt to make the most of the tile restrictions set upon you.

Unfortunately there were not going to be any confrontations between the monsters themselves, the main protagonist was an Indiana Jones style hero, complete with battered leather jacket and fedora, but the monsters were mere roaming villains that would patrol certain areas and could only be disposed of with the discovery of particular items, amulets, talismans etc.

The exact mechanics of this have long since left my aged-raddled brain, but this is reasonably close to my intentions.

As stated above the inclusion of the Universal characters changed the entire design from what would have been a "fun" isometric platformer with elements of Knight Lore and Alien 8 into something completely different. We were forced to make the characters "true" visual representations of their original design and the sheer increase in size just changed the whole thing in a heartbeat. Because of this size issue the backgrounds needed to be in scale to the characters and the number of tiles to build a door for example, that was in scale to these new larger monsters was at times just horrific and the backround assets just disappeared at a phenomenal rate.

Movie tie-ins are a nightmare. Or they were, before games became ultra violent, neo-porn products with their insistence on explicit gore, mutation and little or no originality in anything so that one zombie/undead/alien horror title looks virtually identical to the next.

20 years ago it was a real problem because movie studios put such strict guidelines on an industry they knew almost nothing about and restricted the creative process accordingly to such an extent that when they saw the product the could not understand why things didn't look like their multi-million dollar movie.

The inclusion of the tie-in on this particular project slowed the development process down so much it was instrumental in killing it.

None of them. There were none.

All of them.

The game ran away from us. The graphics were too big, the inclusion of the "famous" monsters restricted the design; the studio wanted them as heroes and not villains. It was a mess that was never resolved. It dragged on for months and months, well over a year I think; I have memories of it taking in excess of 15 months, I could be wrong. As time progressed it became a chore rather than the joy that was normal for most game development. It was not a fun project to work on.

After a while we were simply creating graphics for something we almost knew in our hearts would never see the light of day.

Graphically I think with what Martin and I created a game could have come out of it so from our side of things maybe 80-85%. But it was never going to happen. The game wasn't running right, and nothing seemed to go right.

Looking back at my work, I am not particularly "proud" of any of it. I was very workman like. Get the job done, in time, under budget. I seldom polished my craft like so many of my peers. I never worked unless I got paid and if the client was happy with what I did that was enough for me.

But there were times when I genuinely felt happy with what I did. Addams Family on the Snes was one of those times as the team I worked with were consumate professionals; James Higgins and Warren Lancashire, and working with them was wonderful. I genuinely looked forward to going to work while on that project.

I am still working in the industry, chopping and changing from graphics to game design. With the slow, sad demise of pixels on everything except indie titles on the pc and handheld consoles I veered more towards design although in my current position in Hamburg I have been called upon to step into the breach with the departure of a particularly snarky little Italian to create game graphics again, albeit with vectors this time. All of this is very new to me and as such quite exciting.

So once more I have a spring in my step, even after all these years.

So, having taken time away from an horrifically close and painful deadline to answer your questions I must get back to work.