Monday, March 30, 2009

Trench Warfare in the Interactive Multimedia Revolution, Part One


I posted a version of this on PoE-N, back in the day, but all threads pre-1/1/2007 were purged, including this tale. I may go back and do a "Part Zero" to provide a little more exposition, but this is basically how it began. It gets weird beyond belief before it's all done.

In 1991, post-Gulf War 1, the aerospace industry crashed and 40,000 engineers were out of work in Los Angeles alone. The flight simulator company where I'd worked for seven years laid off the engineering staff in January 1992 (right after the holidays THANK YOU sorry credit card companies) and I was left unemployed with a brutal mortgage. Months passed. Girlfriend left me for some asshole, behind on the house payments, unable to find work, broke as hell, general gloom. Forward to late July.

I got a gig playing saxophone on a cruise ship and went to LAX to pick up my ticket to Miami. Cruise ship gigs can be wildly profitable if you don't blow it all in port; you can come home with forty grand pretty easily. It was something a lot of my musician friends had done, and the general consensus was that everyone should try it -- once. This was a Thursday; I was supposed to fly to Miami the next Monday. I bought a copy of the LA Times to kill time before the ticket counter opened and was perusing the classifieds when an ad caught my eye.

Activision had somehow materialized in Los Angeles and was looking for programmers. I hit the pay phone, interviewed the next day, got the job, cancelled the cruise ship gig, and started work the next Monday. I believe it was the day after my thirty-first birthday.

I was the only full-time programmer on staff. The Bay Area version of the company had folded, and the rights to the name were bought by Bobby Kotick. (When I name names here, it's only when they're a matter of public record anyway.) Six employees out of the original staff of hundreds (most of whom had been laid off long before) were brought down from NoCal to form the new company. Bobby had an operation called "The Disc Company" (TDC) which was basically a duplication, packaging, and shipping operation for software. TDC and Activision people worked in the same room. There were about 35 employees total when I joined, five of them named "Eric" if you can believe that, so when someone called out "Eric!" a bunch of heads would pop up out of cubicles.

One thing that helped me get the job was a fractal landscape generator I'd written, called (ta-da) Planet E. (I named a blog after it, once.) I'd brewed up the fractal generator starting in about 1989 or 1990, but I had nothing better to do while out of work in the spring of '92 and wrote a 3D (actually 2.5D) grayscale renderer for it. It could animate in a limited fashion, and I could record the animations as .FLI files, a format native to Autodesk Animator (at which I was an expert) similar to todays animated .GIF. I also owned one-third of a licensed copy of 3D Studio Version 1 that some friends and I had gone in on as part of a side project we did outside work. I could drive it pretty well, and that turned out to be a good thing down the road.

It had been my ambition for a long time to write a computer game. I'd been doing flight simulators so I knew 3D, and for a while on the side I ran a big pirate software BBS (anyone remember The Central Scrutinizer?). One of the games that got uploaded was MechWarrior, which I played and loved. It was done by Dynamix (Red Baron, the Aces series, Tribes), later bought by Sierra and since run into the ground. I remember looking at MW and thinking "is there anything at all going on here that I don't know how to do?" After a little reflection, I decided the answer was "yes;" I'd never programmed sound other than MIDI, never programmed a joystick, and I'd only used hardware accelerators for 3D since my days in the early '80s working on military sims. I didn't have a clear idea of how to fill a triangle quickly.

It was an amazing feeling to have wanted nothing more than to be a game programmer for so long, then come to work at Activision doing just that. This was 1992; colleges had no game programming curriculums, there were no game development schools. There were not a lot of people doing it. During the interview, I was asked more than once if I'd ever wanted to do games -- I guess they expected applicants would be just looking for any kind of programming job. When I answered "Yes!" the reaction was always something like a mildly surprised "hmmm -- make sure you tell that to (the next person you talk to)."

My cubicle was right across from the "office supply" cubicle. Among other things, they had samples of software to send out to reviewers or whatever. I liberated what was probably the last new copy of MechWarrior in existence. I still have the disks and the poster.

My job was doing the Windows versions of a couple of children's games. Activision had a thing they called MADE (Mediagenic Adventure Development Environment) which was pretty interesting. It was a game engine written in C, which ran a LISP interpreter with multimedia extensions. Both games I worked on had exactly the same executable, just different data and scripts. Of course, in those days, Windows graphics sucked big hairy donkey balls and the MSDOS version ran basically ten times as fast -- if I ever meet the guy who invented the Win 3 palette manager he's going enjoy buckshot castration -- but it was a fast education and I worked like ten bastards. One day I realized I'd been there a month and hadn't written a single floating-point instruction. The flight sims were tens of thousands of lines of nothing but float.

Activision was really looking for someone to write the LISP scripts, but aside from one class years before in college, I hadn't dealt with it much and was by no means an expert. They hired me anyway for general programming duties, and brought a LISP programmer on board a week or two later. His name was Joseph Chow, and he was a really nice guy. I ran into him at E3 in maybe '95, but that's the last I've seen him. If anyone knows his whereabouts, please clue me in.

My projects were produced by Eddie Dombrower (Earl Weaver Baseball) and led by Bill Volk (Mac Challenger, among others). Eddie was producing Return To Zork at the time -- a lot of people remember some of the sound bites ("Want some rye? 'Course ya do!") but to have been in the office all day long while things like that played over and over as people worked on the game was like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard. Eddie recently (3/09) released a version of Earl Weaver for the iPhone / iPod Touch called EWB Baseball. I have a huge amount of respect for these two gentleman, and consider the time I worked for them one of the high points of my career, and certainly one of the fastest learning experiences of my life. Bill kept me just thiiiis far above my head the whole time, and it was a choice between sinking, or swimming like a bastard. I swam, and it was worth it many times over.

I routinely worked fourteen or sixteen hour days. Part of it was that I couldn't stand to go home, because my mortgage was in serious trouble and it broke my heart a little every time I went there. Part of it was that I was terribly lonely after breaking up with my girlfriend and I had nothing to go home to. Part of it was that if I finished the projects on time, I'd get a fat bonus that would go a long way towards paying off the arrears -- and part of it was I loved the work and was having a hell of a lot of fun. I settled into a "ten in the morning until two in the morning" routine, sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Once I just slept through my alarm, and woke up as the sun was going down about six o' clock in the evening with that two-second rush of utter panic you get at times like those. I frantically called Bill, and he just laughed, saying he figured that's what had happened.

Unlike nearly everyone else in the games industry at the time, I had years of realtime 3D experience. The projects I worked on didn't use it, of course, and nothing else was going on that was 3D, either, but I made sure to drop enough casual hints that everybody knew I was "the 3D guy." I figured when something in 3D came down the pipe, I could slide right in. I knew that 3D was going to be the dominant force in games in the years to come, but sometimes I thought I was the only one that felt that way. Activision's theme song at the time was "Full Motion Video! Full Motion Video!" I never saw the point of FMV beyond cutscenes or the occasional accent in a game, but the company (and most of the few other game companies) were convinced that people mainly wanted to watch television on their computer, with the occasional button press.

The first day I was there, I made friends with the head tester (one of the few that had come down from NoCal) and the soundman. Talking with the sound guy at lunch, I asked what games were in the pipe for development. He mentioned "oh, MechWarrior 2".

I decided right then that that thing was mine.


-FutureShock- said...

So far so good. I can't wait to hear the rest.

Almagest said...

Heh, funny; EWB was another one of those games that I loved as a kid. It was great to discover that the original author has revived the game on a modern platform.

Chris said...

oh wow, I just got back into MW2/GBL/Mercs and was googling around for any interviews or articles or whatever with the developers. wasn't expecting anything this good! please continue it.

jymset said...

10 years on, it would still be a great story to hear about. Would you be willing to share more?