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Killing One’s Children - lessons from Fathom

April 14th, 2008 by Rob

One of the more challenging aspects of making something for public consumption is tossing out features that once were deemed to be ‘great’ .. but as the project moves forward, becomes less and less relevant and appropriate. Any creative person knows this as a distasteful duty … feature films are filled with scenes that don’t make any sense to the viewer, put there by the writer/director early on .. and left until the bitter end because they never had the ‘heart’ to toss it away. The tossing away part is a BIG challenge.

I call the tossing out part .. ‘killing my children” .. I dunno where I got the name .. maybe from Dorothy Parker, the famous writer. Basically I “kill my children” whenever I ruthlessly rip out an early feature that either never worked right and kept breaking something else .. or I never got to polishing quite right anyway and so it always stuck out. They are called “my children” because typically these are the features that got me and everybody else all worked up early on, and then over time, we realize that they really don’t work any more and we have so much better stuff now anyway, that the only reason to keep the feature there is because of some nostalgic reason that only the dev team cares about anyway .. “oh we can’t toss that … don’t you remember how excited we were the first time we got it working?”. So one day I just rip the thing out and I usually felt better about it immediately. I have come to believe that a hallmark of a “pro” is their willingness to be ruthlessly savage in killing their children.
Because if you don’t kill certain children, they haunt you FOREVER.

A good example is in FATHOM, the way the dolphin jumps out of the water. That animation, actually, was completed before the game was even started. Michael Becker and I were talking about dolphins one day, and the next morning, he shows me a rough version of a dolphin jumping out of the water. So I stuck it up on the screen, and started writing a kernal where the dolphin could swim around under the water. And the game grew from there.

But I never really liked how the dolphin jumping out of the water never really seemlessly segued from the dolphin swimming up from under the water .. it’s a real cheat, obviously .. at some point I take away joystick control from the user and just smash the animation up on the screen .. letting the user control the dolphin again when it lands. The “right” way to do it would be to actually move the dolphin itself OUT of the water and either morph it into a seagull right in front of your eyes … OR .. have the dolphin arc and dive back in to the water … with a little splash animation. Such is how I wanted it to work, anyway.

But nobody could bare the thought of tossing out the little dolphin jump animation .. after all .. such had been the genesis of the whole game … that animation was truly a “precious little child” .. and my wanting to “kill it” was quickly shot down by Dennis Koble … and when we disagreed .. Dennis brought in the marketing people, and Bill Grubb, the CEO .. and they beat me up pretty bad that it was fine as it is. So that little animation remained … and to this day .. I can’t look at Fathom because of it .. it’s just sooooo annoying knowing that another week or so would have made the dolphin jump sequence sooooooo much cooler. Ever since then, I make it a point to kill my children a LOT earlier in the dev cycle .. tossing out our early first efforts that looked great the first time, but as we got better at the task at hand, quickly became “second rate” .. turning into an acne faced teen, at best. If left too long, the ‘ugly teenager’ becomes even uglier sometimes .. a true eyesore, that lingers forever after. Because once the thing ships, one’s adorable little child has all of a sudden become a ‘good for nothing grown up” who will long outlive everybody involved.

Making Crane Cry — The Origin of Cosmic Ark

April 14th, 2008 by Rob

The competition between 2600 developers ‘back in the day’ was OUT OF CONTROL. Sure, we were paid salaries, some of the lucky ones were even paid a modest royalty. But let there be NO DOUBT .. when we showed up at the June Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, where Imagic, Activision, and Atari rolled out their new releases for the upcoming Xmas season … there was SERIOUS competition going on. Deadly serious. The pecking order was Activision, then Imagic, with Atari holding up the rear. My former colleagues at Atari ran over to the Imagic booth, were we smugly showed off Demon Attack, refusing to say ONE WORD about how the graphics were done. But as soon as they left, I remember running over to the Activision booth straight away and seeing Pitfall for the first time, and just getting SICK over how crisp and clean the execution was .. and how much gameplay was squeezed into a 4K ROM. I was inconsolable for the remainder of the show …. no joke. And the Activision guys were so much more smug then we were .. here’s how smug they were.

David Crane never even bothered coming to see the Imagic stuff, which really annoyed the stuffing out of me. None of them came by, actually. Whitehead, Miller, Kaplan … not one of them ever came by. If I wanted to chat with them, since we had all worked together at Atari … I’d have to go to the Activision booth, and ohh and ahh over Pitfall a few more times. Seriously, I mean, weren’t these guys even CURIOUS about what we had done at Imagic? Like Crane can’t be bothered to come by and take a little peek, what?

It was totally about “one upsmanship” in those days .. and NOTHING to do with money. Not from my perspective anyway. I vowed to myself that the next time Imagic was at this show, a year later, that I would show people something so cool on the VCS, that even David Crane himself would have no choice but to come by our booth and check it out. And then he would start crying. That was my goal. To show Crane something so cool that he would have no choice but to start crying because he didn’t know how it was done.

And such is when the starfield from Cosmic Ark was born. In that moment of pure competitive resolve. The whole reason I made Cosmic Ark, was to show Crane the starfield and hopefully offer him a tissue.

The starfield already existed .. it appeared one day from a total accident, btw … a few years earlier I was stumbling through making the kernal for Missile Command … and was trying to reposition the ball graphic over and over again for some reason, and I think maybe I put the wrong value in the wrong place at the wrong time, I dunno … all of a sudden this cool starfield just APPPEARS on the screen, like a magic trick. I had NO CLUE why, or what was going on. Nobody could figure it out … but it seemed to be pretty replicable on any unit.

Anyway, Cosmic Ark was made for the express reason to show off the starfield trick to Crane and Whitehead .. no other reason. And one year later, there was Cosmic Ark featured in the Imagic booth at CES … and about two hours after the show opens .. sure enough .. Crane and Whitehead come strolling by .. just as casual as they can be .. “dum de dum, dum de dum”. Obviously they could not appear overly interested in Cosmic Ark .. but it was just as obvious that it just TORTURED them … they walk up and down the aisle three times .. it made me SOOOO happy. Finally Crane just cannot take it anymore, and comes over and ever so subtle, chats me up “how ya doin, Rob? Cosmic Ark looks great, blah blah”. We make nice for about three minutes. “I like the way you are using the Playfield for the stars, Rob”. GAWD, I was soooo luvin life at that moment. Can he be any more obvious in his attempt to probe how the starfield was made? Of course I said NOT ONE WORD, other than “Yup, it’s just the playfield, obviously”. Truly a memorable moment in my young life!

So yeah, make no mistake … the 2600 was ALWAYS about who could show the coolest stuff .. and NEVER about the money. Obviously we all knew that the coolest stuff would usually get the most money anyway at the end of the day, but our motivation was to blow each other away .. plain and simple.