Eurogamer: The challenge of getting maximum performance from Saturn always seemed to be linked with exploiting that dual-CPU set-up. How do the challenges of the '90s relate to working with parallelisation needed to get the most out of today's platforms?
Ezra Dreisbach: It's the same kind of deal, but on the Saturn you needed to use all the processing power available in order to get decent graphics performance. Today, there's plenty of easily programmable processing attached directly to the graphics hardware. So you don't need to struggle to use every resource to maximise graphics performance. You can, for example, make a perfectly good PS3 game while completely ignoring the SPUs. There are probably lots of peripheral tricks you can do, but it's not central anymore.
Eurogamer: Now that it's ancient history, can you tell us anything about the first Saturn versions of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake that were in development before Lobotomy took over? Were they really that bad? How did Lobotomy come to land the conversion work?
Ezra Dreisbach: We never saw them. At the start of that project we got the source code to the PC games and that's it. Those other guys were probably trying to port the PC source code to the Saturn, which I'm pretty sure is impossible. What Lobotomy did is take Powerslave and port the content of those games into it. We had to cut up the PC games' art to fit, rebuild the levels, and program new AI to run all the stuff in them.
I wasn't involved in how we got the contract. We probably got it because Powerslave was good for a Saturn FPS, and also because we underbid it. The ports contract turned out to be suicidal. Even while shipping both at reasonable speed, Lobotomy was unable to make payroll completely. This is because, straight ports being impossible, we had to almost rebuild each game. The immense effect required for this versus what we were paid for the "ports" is probably what sunk us.
Eurogamer: You were an established developer with a string of solid games and some incredible conversions, and yet to us gamers, it looked as though you just faded into the background...
Ezra Dreisbach: Between contracts is a dicey time for any small game company. Even healthy ones don't have much time to burn before they must sign a new one. When the port contract was complete, Lobotomy was deep in debt (mostly to employees). We tried to get a new development contract with someone but really we didn't survive long enough to have realistically signed one.
Eurogamer: Post-Lobotomy, we know that you moved onto the excellent PS2 Baldur's Gate titles, but can you fill us in on what you've been up to since then?
Ezra Dreisbach: After Champions of Norrath, I quit my job at Snowblind and started working independently on more experimental things. They were too experimental to become anything useful and eventually I needed to make money again. When I came back from the wilderness Xbox Live Arcade was selling a lot of copies, and I wanted to make something for it.
You don't often have a game design that you know works but yet no one else is exploiting. That eliminates the big gamble of trying to design something new, so Death Tank seemed like the lowest-risk project. Who knows if a lot of people will like it, but at least I'm pretty sure a few people will really like it.
Eurogamer: Let's talk Death Tank. What can you tell us about the genesis of the game?
Ezra Dreisbach: After Saturn Powerslave was finished there was some downtime. I wanted to make a multiplayer game using the Saturn multi-tap and I was thinking about the transformation that the idea of "real time" had brought to strategy games. I tried to think of other game styles that could be transformed by the same idea, and there it was. The name "Death Tank" comes from an Atari Combat-like game I had half-made some years before joining Lobotomy.
I started to put it together at work in my office, and it really had its debut at a party given by Paul Lange, Lobotomy's president. After that, the call to battle would be broadcast over the office intercom from the Lobotomy basement at noon and 5pm every day. Usually I would arrive about noon, so the first thing I did every day was play two 20-round games of Death Tank. This continued for what must have been at least a year while we worked on the PC FPS ports, and I used the feedback to gradually tighten the game into what it became.