'Cannon Fodder is a bit like Dad's Army': The history of Sensible Software

'Cannon Fodder is a bit like Dad's Army': The history of Sensible Software
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

December 6th 2013 at 12:50PM

Free extract from Sensible Software: 1986 – 1999, the UK development legend's new biography

Following a successful Kickstarter project last year, new book publisher Read Only Memory has released its first title, Sensible Software: 1986 – 1999.

This biography chronicles the history of one of the UK's most iconic development studios, as well as the origins of smash hits such as Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder – and we've got a free taster for you right here.

In the extract below, the book's author and former games journalist Gary Penn speaks to Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare about some of the crucial decisions behind creating Cannon Fodder.

Sensible Software: 1986 – 1999 is available now from Read Only Memory's official website. It costs £25, plus postage and packaging for non-UK customers.

cannon fodder

Penn: So, Jops, Cannon Fodder represents the first Sensible game where neither you nor Chris [Yates, Sensible Software co-founder] took the lead in your relevant disciplines.

Hare: Yeah. I’m a control freak though, and my way of exerting control was through the level design. Every single level was drawn out on squared paper with coloured pencils, with each feature or enemy positioned meticulously. In terms of level design, Cannon Fodder was the most methodically planned game we ever did.

Penn: Even more so than Mega lo Mania or Sensible Soccer?

Hare: Yeah, I planned out all the different types of weapons, the vehicles, locations, backgrounds, animals – everything we’d need to populate the game. Then I worked out how many levels we’d have, the number of missions, and so on, and then plotted the features into a matrix, explaining the equivalent feature for each level. So, in the jungle levels for example, the floor obstacles were quicksand, and for the arctic levels the equivalent were patches of thin, cracked ice.

I knew the first level would take place in the jungle and so would the second, but I wanted every level to have something new – like a river you could swim across or run around or a tank you’d never been able to use before. I planned everything in a table and drew maps for Stoo [Cambridge, visual artist] to build in a level editor.

Penn: So were you giving Jools [Jameson, programmer] and Stoo a degree of freedom but with some backseat driving?

Hare: The way I like to work when I’m in a lead design or direction role is to control the structure with clear instructions but give each person the freedom to express themselves. If they do what they want and it works out well in my eyes, then great. If not I ask them to tweak it until it’s right.

Every single level was drawn out on squared paper with coloured pencils, with each feature or enemy positioned meticulously. In terms of level design, Cannon Fodder was the most methodically planned game we ever did.

With Cannon Fodder we wanted to retain the scale and perspective we’d established with Mega lo Mania and Sensible Soccer, which meant Stoo could run with that and interpret the style in his own way. In terms of background and level construction, as long as Stoo matched my paper plans, he had free reign to develop the look and feel of the Cannon Fodder world.

Penn: Was Cannon Fodder an idea that had been bubbling under for a while? What were your influences?

Hare: In a way it was a nod to the very first war game Chris and I designed before we’d even touched a computer – back in the summer of ’83 on his dad’s wallpaper table. Chris would stand at one end with me at the other and we’d fight a war on this drawn out battlefield using pencils, markers and rulers. The setting and the layout weren’t dissimilar to the actual jungle levels in Cannon Fodder.

We were also influenced by Ocean’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, but we wanted to develop the idea of controlling a team, rather than just a single soldier. Then Lemmings came out and we played that a lot in the office. That was a great game. Cannon Fodder was all these things coming together – three different influences from three different times: our childhood, the 8-bit era and a contemporary game.

Penn: So this was a war game from the outset?

Hare: It was always a war game, that’s for sure. After we had managed to get the little soldiers running around, the next thing we needed to do was make a map editor.

Penn: Presumably to give these gun-toting guys somewhere to play?

Hare: Yeah. Quite early on we decided they should be able to split into different groups, which came about because we wanted to encourage strategic play to complete each level. From there we developed the idea of giving them basic orders, like shooting on sight or lying low. The booby traps, mines and spikes came in quite early on too; the vehicles were added later on.

Cannon Fodder

Penn: Given the theme, the features almost suggest themselves. It’s basically toy soldiers and all that entails. There’s also a whiff of war games you’d play as a kid, inspired by films and Commando comics and the like.

Hare: Yeah, there’s some of that in there. I’ve always thought there are two types of kid in the playground: the ones who play football and the ones who play war. I didn’t grow up with brothers and I didn’t like violence or aggression and was very timid. I was a football kid ... Cannon Fodder was for the kids who played war. I’ve only ever had two ‘fights’ in my life, one when I was a kid with my neighbour, which just involved me jumping on him and then sitting on him, because he was cheating at football. The other was a stupid playground squabble with my teenage friend – I booted his briefcase and in response he spat in my mouth and shoved a cheese sandwich in my ear ... It wasn’t exactly Queensbury Rules fisticuffs.

Cannon Fodder is singing from a similar hymn book to Blackadder Goes Forth – it’s very British. In Britain we laugh because we feel uncomfortable with the tension of what we consider acceptable.

What we wanted to do with Cannon Fodder was to evoke this archetype of Vietnam-based warfare where the general attitude was, in the immortal words of Edwin Starr, ‘War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing!’ You fight and win or you lose and die – which, kind of ironically, makes it an ideal subject to base a game around. There are lots of elements that lend themselves to fantastic gameplay mechanics. In war there are vehicles and guns, which are interesting and fun to play with; it’s dramatic.

Penn: That’s true, although Cannon Fodder is quite a different take on that thinking.

Hare: The initial content – the jungle setting, the first one we did – is very Vietnam. But the game is really a mishmash of that and World War II – it’s a bit like Dad’s Army as well. Ultimately, I think Cannon Fodder is quite a naive take on war. The game reflects the sensibility of average British males of my age; men who didn’t grow up in a country that required National Service. It’s an outlook symptomatic of a certain generation of post-war Brits – it’s Cold War thinking.

Cannon Fodder is singing from a similar hymn book to Blackadder Goes Forth – it’s very British. In Britain we laugh because we feel uncomfortable with the tension of what we consider acceptable – there’s an internal contradiction and a peculiarly British fight against our baser instincts.