One of the most important things to do when talking to game designers is to get information on upcoming titles. People who read these ramblings want hard-core facts, and the questions must be structured to affect that outcome. But after countless articulations, it becomes a little dull asking the standard set, including, "How cool are the weapons?" or "What 3D cards are supported, and at what resolutions?" These things are important, but there is another gauge that is more subtle, and perhaps as significant -- the excitement of the designer as he or she discusses their game.
It is rare to find someone who discusses their game with the remarkable enthusiasm of project leader Seamus Blackley. He does not sound like someone making a digital entertainment product; rather, he comes across as a gamer making a game about which he is "stoked." During our telephone call, his voice modulated from quiet and introspective to loud and ecstatic, but his focus at all times was on the things he feels makes Trespasser one of the coolest of the upcoming batch.
His excitement is all the more notable for its endurance. In 1995, he and co-designer Austin Grossman left Looking Glass Technologies, and setup housekeeping at Dreamworks Interactive, the upstart gaming arm of Stephen Spielberg's film studio. The duo had been paired on the renowned PC title System Shock, and Spielberg approached them about creating a licensed game based on his special effects-laden dinosaur flicks. Eager to evolve 3D games, the pair set forth with a group of engineers, programmers, artists, and designers to bring the dinosaurs back to life on their own self-contained, digital island.
The prolific team started with little more than the blessing of Spielberg, and the ambition to create unprecedented realism; no compiler, no graphics libraries, and no age-old DNA were on hand to ease the effort of the initial steps. As the lead designer states, the process of creating a foundation-shaking game from scratch can be "a nightmare." Now, in 1998, the fruits -- or perhaps underfed brutes -- of their labor will be unleashed on our computers. Pick one scene from either film, augment the terror through making it a first-hand predicament, and that is the game. Still, as thrilled as we are that the release is at hand, no one is as excited as Blackley, whose singular goal for the project from the start has been for it to be fun. Is it possible to doubt such ardent enthusiasm?
The phone rings, and Blackley picks it up and responds with a terse, "Hello?" We exchange pleasantries, and I am asked to wait a moment before commencing the interview. Furious tapping, not unlike the sound of someone hammering down alien aggressors in an arcade, can be heard in the background, then a triumphant voice issues forth over the phone:
Blackley: All right! I win! I catch six bugs. I am in the eternal battle between the testers and the programmers, and feel like I am making some headway.
AVault: Is that a difficult role?
Blackley: Well, it is interesting to be the producer, write the physics engine, and be on the programming staff. It gets a little hairy.
AVault: What has the journey of creating this game been like?
Blackley: We thought of the initial concept when Spielberg came to us and said he wanted to do a Lost World game, and that he didn't want to do "a licensed game that sucks." We said, "How about we do a digital sequel to the film?" He was really into that, because he is a big gamer. That was in early 1996, and we had just been hired on at the end of 1995 after leaving Looking Glass. We had nothing, not even a compiler, so the game was born from a standing start. No programmers, no test database, no graphics libraries, nothing. We had none of the stuff we needed get it done, so it has been a hell of a journey.
AVault: How arduous has it been taking this concept from nothing, and coding it into existence?
Blackley: Immensely difficult, but at the same time very rewarding. There is nothing like the feeling you get when things start to work. When you see a tester sitting down and really enjoying themselves while playing it, that is the payoff. It is always a struggle to do something new. For instance, our enemies don't have guns. The Raptors and T-Rexs have to run up to you and eat you. Aside from the fact that no one has done physically modeled characters and gameplay before, no one has had enemies in a 3D game that didn't shoot back. No one has done puzzles like we have done. All of these different unknowns have been terrifying on one hand, but as things start coming together, it's a tremendous relief, and we are very proud the ideas are working. On top of that, as a gamer, I am incredibly stoked, because amazingly cool things are happening in this game that I have never seen before.
AVault: Has Trespasser been modified from its initial concept?
Blackley: A little bit. When we first started working on it, we thought we would make this amazing, big environment that could tell a cool story, like when you were a kid and would explore your backyard. Sort of like Shigeru Miyamoto, the incredible genius at Nintendo. His concept of game design is to make it feel like when you were a kid, and were exploring behind your house. We had the idea of creating a game like that. What we discovered is that it was extraordinarily fun but at the same time we were missing something if we didn't go for the dinosaur combat and puzzles.
AVault: I imagine most of the reasons for the long development are technical?
Blackley: Absolutely. And again, because we just started out with nothing. No game we are competing with this year, or supposedly last year, since it seems like everybody has slipped a bunch, has started out from nothing like that. It is incredibly hard, and requires a lot of people, and a huge amount of time and effort. Actually, these days, with all of the graphics hardware, changes with DirectX, and different machine configurations, it can be a real nightmare.
AVault: How supportive has Dreamworks been throughout all this? Was there ever a time when they pressured you to put a wrap on the game and release it, or have they been supportive throughout?
Blackley: Remember, this place is run by Spielberg, and he is interested in quality. The reason I came to work for Dreamworks is because of that. Here is a place where people know how to make money based on creating outstanding products. We wanted this to be a really great game. A lot of game companies say, "Yeah, quality products are the most important thing. It's very, very important to ship quality products." But when it comes down to the grind, and the board is on their back, it's, "No, let's just ship it!" Yet every single time, the company goes down, because no one purchases a bad game. Spielberg and the other people running Dreamworks learned that lesson a long time ago in films. It can be very painful pushing back deadlines, and it's a risk, but in the end, the only successful products are those that take risks.
AVault: How involved is Spielberg with the development of Trespasser?
Blackley: He looks at it frequently. It's kind of funny, because he has no time for anything. He is an extraordinarily busy guy, but he really loves games. He comes by a lot and plays it, and makes exactly the same comments about things that gamers do. I mean, he is a true gamer. So he is terrifically supportive, given the kind of stuff we are doing. What can I say? It is rare enough to have a boss or CEO who is himself a gamer and knows what he is talking about, and is aware of what else is coming out. It is rather incredible to have a guy as powerful as Spielberg be involved with the project.