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GameTales: Cray YMP

At id, we were always looking for a better way to develop our games. In the beginning we developed games for DOS machines on DOS machines. In 1991, John Carmack investigated the NeXTSTEP operating system, and decided that cross-development on a superior platform would result in a better game and a better development experience. We all converted over to NeXTSTEP at the end of 1992, after Spear of Destiny.

Because we were developing on such powerful machines in an amazing operating system, development of Doom went faster than normal. The level editor that I wrote, DoomEd, was far beyond anything that ever appeared on DOS, even in the years after Doom’s release. We could run Doom in a window and debug its code right alongside it in SuperDebugger. It was bliss.

While developing Quake, we continued to use NeXTSTEP and we upgraded our machines to faster ones with Intel processors and a couple with PowerPC’s in them. NeXTSTEP could run on about 4 chip architectures back then and compile code for all of them so we could run QuakeEd, for example, on an Intel-chipped NeXTSTEP machine even if it was developed on a 68000 chip machine.

Simply put, NeXTSTEP was awesome for many years and nothing could touch it. That remains true today after NeXTSTEP’s transformation into OS X.

During Quake’s development, John Carmack started thinking about what might be better than NeXTSTEP. The idea of the entire development team working inside the same machine seemed pretty interesting. The machine would be insanely fast, so it would have to be a supercomputer for all of us to work on it at once. That means it would be able to crunch whatever crazy data we needed to create our upcoming worlds.

John decided that a Cray YMP supercomputer would be pretty cool to check out and see if we could all move over to it. Each person would have a hardware interface board that had keyboard and mouse inputs with video output on it. We would route all the cables to our desks and all be working together inside a Cray supercomputer.

We started getting pretty excited about the idea, so Jay Wilbur contacted Cray to see about getting a deal on a YMP. Jay got them to agree to sell us one for $500k if we put Cray supercomputers inside Quake, somewhere in the environment, possibly all over the place if it made sense.

John and I were all for this idea, so we said, “Let’s do this.” and I started experimenting with how a C-shaped Cray would look inside Quake. How it needed to be lit. How big it should be. What kind of textures we should use. Where it would go, and why it would be there.

I thought that powering the slipgates would probably require a supercomputer. So I should probably have a Cray connected to every slipgate, since the military-themed areas are supposed to be modern day settings.

After getting settled on the idea, and thinking the Crays would only be in select areas, disaster struck.

Cray was bought by SGI, Silicon Graphics, Inc., in February 1996.

All pending deals were canceled; our supercomputer dream crushed.

I changed the Quake slipgates to be smaller and simpler than the Cray-powered versions. As an homage to the Cray Dream we had, I put a roomful of computers in my only deathmatch map, The Abandoned Base, DM3.

Shortly after I released Quake on June 22, 1996, John decided that developing on Windows 95 was the way to go. His first project was porting QuakeEd over to Win32. I left id on August 6, 1996.

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GameTales: Axe Attack!

Heeeeeeere's Johnny!

It was dark in my office in 1995, warm, and I was busy programming QuakeEd. I had my stereo playing Great White, Ratt, George Lynch and all other manner of hair metal. I was in my element - in the zone.

At some point, I needed to go to the bathroom. I went to my door, turned the knob, and nothing. The door wouldn’t open, the knob turning and turning. I was thinking, “Seriously?” The building materials were not grade-A, apparently, at our building in Mesquite, Texas.

I needed to get out, the pressure now mounting. I called John Carmack on his phone extension, 13.

“Dude, I’m stuck in my office. My doorknob doesn’t work anymore. I think you should chop down this shitty door.”

“I’ll be right over.”

I heard a noise on the wall, which had to be John getting his $5,000 custom axe off its mount. He walked in front of my door and tried the knob. Sure enough, the knob doomed the door to a swift death. John was telling the others in the office nearby that he was about to rescue me from my new prison.

Good thing I decided to stand with my back against the same wall as the door.

BAM! The first swing came through the center of the door, just a little, and sprayed wood fragments across the room, bouncing off the opposite wall.

BAM! More wood, splintering and flying. I would have been injured if I were standing in the middle of my room.

After about twelve good swings, the center of the door was completely obliterated, and I could climb through easily. I ran to the bathroom as everyone was laughing about the violence that just took place.

When I got back, I got the doorknob off and swung the door fully open. Later on, we tapped the hinges out and put the door in the storage room. A new door appeared the next day.

The story about the axe attack got around. Magazine journos that came by for interviews wanted to see the door that Carmack destroyed. We showed them. We took pictures with the door, some of which were published. The ruined door became an iconic item almost as venerable as the DOOM chainsaw.

Alas, no one at id thought the door that important, and it was taken to the scrapheap during our office remodel of 1996.

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GameTales: The Bilestoad

Michael Abrash, John Carmack and John Cash

We were in Quake development. It was at the beginning when things were going smoothly, not the last seven months that turned work into a very dark place (from December 1995 on). But, I digress.

Michael Abrash, the legendary programmer, was working at id and occupying the space where Tom Hall, followed by Sandy Petersen, resided – out in the open in the black id cube building in Mesquite, Texas. One day, Michael had a visitor by the name of Ken Demarest. Ken has been in the game industry for many years, starting in 1990 at Origin Systems, and who, eight years after this story, worked at my Ion Storm Austin office.

Ken Demarest

Ken and Michael were talking about old games. Little-known to many, Michael Abrash co-programmed the PC game, Snack Attack II, with his friend Dan Illowsky, who was already a well-known Apple II programmer due to Snack Attack’s popularity as a great Pac-Man clone.

Michael was talking about Snack Attack II, published in 1982, and Ken said, “Oh, we’re gonna start bringing up old games, eh?” Of course, anyone talking about old games has my interest, so I came out of my office and exclaimed surprise at learning that Michael had programmed Snack Attack II with the added surprise that I had no idea there was a sequel to the Apple II version!

Ken then mentioned the old Ultimas, and I replied that I had played all of them and beaten 1 through 5 (Ultima 8 had been released the year before, in 1994). I told Ken, “Look, pulling out Ultima as an old game to impress me doesn’t work because it’s too big and popular. Everyone knows about Ultima. Have you ever heard of The Tarturian? Now that’s a rare game!”

Ken hadn’t heard of The Tarturian, so I told him a little bit about it. I said I had a metric ton of Apple II games and knew them all very well. Then, the following exchange happened:

Ken: “You know, I’d be really impressed if you had The Bilestoad.”

Me: “I have it.”

Ken: “I mean the original retail version.”

Me: “I have the original 1982 gold label retail floppy.”

Ken: “Seriously? I’d be really impressed if you had it here.”

Me: “I do. In fact, I am going to blow you away. Right now, in my office, The Bilestoad is currently running on my Apple IIe.”

Ken: “Seriously? Holy shit, I gotta see this!”

Ken follows me into my office, and on my original computer desk from 1985, was my Apple IIe with The Bilestoad running in demo mode – silicon knights hacking away at each other with digital axes, replete with pixelated blood spilling on the green field.

Ken: “Now that is impressive.”

Food for thought: Why did I have my Apple IIe running that day, and why did I put in The Bilestoad and leave it running in demo mode? Ken is the one who brought the game up, not me.

My life is full of seemingly impossible coincidences.

History Lesson: The Bilestoad was Marc Goodman’s hack-em-up Apple II action game that became a classic because of its violence and bloodshed. The game was so controversial that Marc used a nom de plume, Mangrove Earthshoe, so he could continue publishing games under his name free of stigma due to The Bilestoad. Unfortunately, this was his last game.

It’s hard to detect, but Marc was attempting to play the song “Fur Elise” while simultaneously running a game. On the Apple II, this was one of the most difficult programming tasks, and very few programmers got it working right. The absolute master of this technique was Jim Nitchals, triumphantly displayed in his 1982 game Microwave.

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Subnodule Gone Live

I spent some time last weekend and created the entry for my game, Subnodule. I’ve received some emails recently asking me about more information concerning its development. The resulting article is a template for how I plan to address each of my games – there are lots of links, music, pictures, and as much recollection about the game’s development as I could dredge up.

The Games link at the top of my pages will take you to the list of games with which I’m credited. There are other game links there you should check out as well.

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A Second Look: The Secret of Mana (Square, 1993)

The Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2) is a game well-liked by many, and it has an overall aura of positivity around it. The soundtrack by Hiroki Kikuta is amazing and legendary, just read the wonderful review over at Chudah’s Corner.

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw the game. Somehow, I was already excited about it before it was released. Maybe it was because I was waiting for a Zelda-like game on the SNES from Square (that was one of the team’s important design decisions – to make a Zelda-like action RPG), or maybe it was the already great reviews of Final Fantasy 6. Square was a company to watch.

I put the SNES cartridge in, and for the first time, I heard Angel’s Fear. Back then, this caliber of music was rare. The song portended quality and an experience not to be missed. Then, as the opening lines appeared with white swans flying across the screen, I saw the credits begin…… PROGRAMMED BY NASIR.

That stopped me.

For so long, I wondered what had become of my game programming hero, Nasir Gebelli. I didn’t know that he had moved to Japan in 1986 to program the Final Fantasy games, and that he almost single-handedly saved Square from extinction. I didn’t know how many games he made at Square before Final Fantasy I. This was the first evidence I had that he was alive and well and still making games.

Jumping into the game, I immediately noticed the innovative ring menu system. Everything was crisply programmed, Nasir-fast, and the graphics were at the height of SNES quality. They would be bettered in subsequent years by only a few games, Seiken Densetsu 3, Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger among them. So far, everything was what I had hoped for.

I started playing the game and loved having two players able to co-op. I played until I was distracted by something else. I came back later and played some more, but I didn’t get very far. Years pass.

Eventually, I started playing the game again and made a conscious decision to start at the beginning since it had been a while since my last play. Again, the same thing happened – after a while, I got side-tracked and eventually stopped playing. I even gave it another shot after a few more years had passed with the same result.

Why wasn’t I able to finish this game?

I had to think about this for a bit. It most definitely wasn’t the music, because that part was great. The ring menu wasn’t laborious either. So, no user interface issues for me. I did have some difficulty getting through the castle, because the werewolves moved very quickly and dealt harsh damage. But, the final time I played, I did get past that part.

No, I finally figured that the game just wasn’t that engaging. It didn’t feel cohesive; it didn’t flow like a game of high quality does. High quality design never has the player wondering what they should do next – they should already know the next step. They should not wander aimlessly in the world with everything inactive except the one object they need to click on. The reason the game felt this way, I suspect, was because the game was originally developed for a Super Nintendo CD system that Sony was developing for Nintendo. When the deal went south and Nintendo decided not to release a CD add-on for the SNES, Square had to make the game fit on a cartridge. So, they cut and cut and cut the game down: story, maps, dialogue, everything. The game had to fit and fast. The deadline was approaching.

Anyone in game development can tell you that this is a recipe for disaster. The end of development is so crucial to the finished game becoming itself, taking on its ultimate personality, that shipping it before it’s a cohesive experience is basically throwing years of effort and money into a fiery pit.

It was also likely affected by the English translation that Ted Woolsey had to do in record time that, due to a fixed-width font, greatly limited the words he could put on-screen and kept a great story from English-speaking audiences.

Compounded with this scenario was another wrinkle in the plans. Nasir Gebelli’s work visa had run out, and he had to leave Japan. Square moved Nasir and the entire development team to Sacramento, California, Nasir’s home, and Secret of Mana’s development was wrapped up in the United States. I’ll say that again.

Secret of Mana’s development was completed in the United States, in Sacramento, California.

Learning this final chapter in the development history of Secret of Mana was a revelation to me. The Seiken Densetsu series had always been a very Japanese set of games. I hadn’t considered they could be anything but. Yet, to learn that the lead programmer was a legendary Apple II game programming Iranian and the game was finished in Sacramento, California boggled my mind. Considering the ride this game took in development and how it plays, it all makes sense.

Secret of Mana retains a positive aura with the caveat that the experience can be messy to navigate (just focus on getting past the first 30% of the game) but may be worth the time invested if only to say you actually finished the game.

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A Second Look: A New Series

Upcoming – “A Second Look” is a new series of posts that offers perspectives on a range of media which has, for one reason or another, caused me to take a second look. Expect a variety of topics to be covered. My second look might be because the game illustrates top form in some way. It could be something that perplexed me. It might be a musician that I find myself going back to again and again.

I hope you enjoy it.

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Stormwind Redux

As a follow-up to my previous post about Stormwind’s texture misalignment, well, even after Patch 3.3′s release it is STILL misaligned where everyone entering Stormwind can see it.

But, if you’re flying in or out of Stormwind, you can see the carefully aligned texturing on the top of the wooden beams that was completely neglected on the bottom side.

Please. Just fix it.

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