With all the attention surrounding the recent release of Black & White, it's clear that there are many people out there who still have fond memories of the work of Peter Molyneux's old company, Bullfrog. Whether they can be classified as a fan base or a support group is hard to say, for while the legendary Guildford developer has had more than its fair share of successes, the equally spectacular failures and near misses make up just as big a part of its legacy. Nonetheless, over the years no other gaming studio has put forth as many original titles or carved out their own niche so effectively. Frog's Legs While Bullfrog itself has stagnated somewhat since the buy out by Electronic Arts six years ago, a number of developers have fled the company's confines to form their own studios and extend the beautiful chaos that many crave. Amongst these was Mucky Foot, whose debut game Urban Chaos received some acclaim but was generally overlooked by press and fans alike. With their second title however they are returning to more familiar turf with a very Bullfrog-styled game called Startopia. The premise is simple : you run a space station (or part of one at least) where your goal is to attract as many aliens as possible by providing the accommodation and services which they require. It has the building and management of the classic Theme games, along with the confrontation and creature development of Dungeon Keeper, all wrapped in a fresh new approach. The idea that you have to keep an eye on the happiness of neutral creatures in addition to managing your own staff and army also opens up a lot of interesting scenarios. Like all of us, visitors to your station have certain biological needs that must be met for them to survive. That means that they need to eat, sleep and defecate in order to live. Not taking these needs into account can set the scene for mucky feet and hostile encounters. Sleep, for example, can be had in anything from berths (which are little more than sealed bed compartments, similar to the infamous Japanese hotels) to luxurious hotels. While some visitors won't mind sleeping in plastic coffins, others will expect a little more if you want them to stick around. The Decks Each space station in the game is a spherical ring called a torus, which is broken up into three different levels and sixteen radial segments on the inside. Each of the three decks has a distinct purpose and is connected by elevators to the other levels so that every visitor on your station can move freely between them. The outermost level is the Tech Deck, which is where all the work gets done. Here is where your employees toil for you to create new toys and research new technologies. This deck is also where incoming ships arrive and your Energy Collector is located, making it the most essential deck of the game, because without it you will have no visitors. Energy is the primary currency of the game and you will earn more as aliens arrive in your space station and use your services. This is then chanelled through a glowing gem called the Energy Collector, similar to the Dungeon Heart in the Dungeon Keeper games, which is the source of your power. The middle level is the Pleasure Deck where your creatures go to unwind. Here activities include drinking, dancing and even amusement rides, and different items are either dropped in as completed units to be activated by your droids or laid out like rooms in Theme Hospital or The Sims, drawing walls, doors and windows before laying out the interior as you see fit. Maintaining your Pleasure Deck will be important for raising morale, which keeps the energy flowing in and the population happy, as well as attracting richer aliens. The last deck is the glass-domed Bio Deck that, unlike the other utilitarian decks, gives your creatures a taste of the great outdoors. Here you simulate the home worlds of different creatures so they will feel more acclimatized to their new environment. You can adjust the landscape using a special brush tool, raising or lowering land, adding or removing water and increasing or decreasing humidity and temperature. As the level's name implies you are actually building an ecosystem here, and interesting things can develop on their own if you're not careful. The Crew Of the forty or so types of alien in the game there are eight different races that can join the ranks of your crew, each with its own strengths, weaknesses and prejudices that must be taken into account when determining the station layout. Everyone on your station has his or her own identity and experience level, and under the right circumstances some individuals can even develop unique abilities, such as the regular boffin who can turn into a super scientist capable of developing special types of weapons. The races are balanced to form a quilt of interdependencies and prejudices that can be woven in many ways depending on your objectives. There are the Thyorian Grekka-Targ, communications specialists who are prone to becoming hackers if they don't have enough work to do. Hanging out in the bars and brothels of your station will be the Kasvagorian, the warrior caste, whose violent tempers can turn on whoever is around. Complementing these are the Dahenese Sirens, temptresses who provide the inspiration for most of your working stiffs. Opposite them are Zedem Monks, religious fanatics who are always on the lookout for new converts. Rising above it all are the hippie-like Karmarama, who spread good or bad vibes depending on how they feel. The Groulien Salt Hogs on the other hand are indifferent to their surroundings, and make up the lowest levels of your workforce. Rounding out the species are the X-Files styled Greys, who staff medical areas, and the research workhorse Turakken who have a head up on the competition. Beyond the aliens in the market for work there is a super race, the Pulvakian Gem Slugs, who are only attracted to the finest stations but can spit out gems of pure energy which will greatly enhance your power. The Workers The hiring and management of aliens involves a number of subtleties that can't really be deciphered at this point given the complexity of the game, but a few details have emerged. For example, employees don't contribute to your energy total, so recruiting the most powerful isn't always in your best interest since they also give out the most energy. Employees are the only ones that will advance your technology and aid your expansion though, so you will have to hire some of them sooner or later. Some creatures are room-specific, such as the floating DJ in the disco, and one, the Orophux, is even a room in itself. You also have an army of droids at your disposal which, like the imps in Dungeon Keeper, keep your station running and need no coddling to make them happy. Droids can be moved anywhere on the station via a transportation beam simply by picking them up with the cursor, so they can immediately be sent wherever they are needed. There are different varieties ranging from maintenance to security, all of which need to be maintained regularly to prevent them from breaking down. Other aliens in the game fall under the heading of uninvited guests, such as vermin that can get into your food supply and hostile creatures that evolve on the Bio Deck. You can also find yourself fighting rival station keepers, although combat is controlled in the same indirect fashion as the rest of the game - the player instigates a raid or defensive manoeuvre and the game then decides who does what on your behalf. If direct confrontation isn't your cup of tea, you can also use spies, saboteurs, assassins and mutineers to get ahead. Conclusion Rounding out the features that everyone seems to crave these days is multiplayer support, complete with a Gamespy lobby server. This will pit up to four station masters against each other, fighting for control of the entire station. And then there's always the question of the release date. The latest word from one of the developer droids toiling away in one of the darker tech decks at Mucky Foot is that Startopia will arrive on earth some time in June. It's often the little things that have been the downfall of many otherwise great games of this ilk in recent memory - Sierra's city building series and Bullfrog's own Dungeon Keeper games come to mind. Melding satisfying conquest into what is primarily a resource management game has always been an elusive goal to say the least, but the good folks at Mucky Foot are well on their way to achieving this. If not .. well, as many a Bullfrog fan has been known to say, "there's always next time". - Startopia screenshots
Picking up where we left off last week, we continue our chat with Scott Miller of 3D Realms to find out more about the state of the gaming industry, and his own company's work on the eagerly anticipated Duke Nukem Forever... Dukology The original Duke Nukem 3D broke a lot of ground in terms of level design and modifiable landscapes, but unfortunately due to it being an unaccelerated DOS game that can't easily be played over the Internet, it doesn't have the same presence as many lesser games that followed it. The post-apocalyptic levels which made up the first episode and demo of the game were a breath of fresh air next to the uniform castles and dungeons that players had grown used to from id's games. Yet even though Duke Nukem 3D is considered by many to be one of the best games ever made, no group of developers emerged as the geniuses of Duke Nukem. The only individual who is generally associated with the development of Duke Nukem 3D is Richard Grey (aka The Levelord), who left 3D Realms to form Hypnotic (now known as Ritual) shortly after Duke Nukem was released. "Richard Grey knows how to keep himself in the limelight", Scott told us. "For example, he wrote several magazine articles while working on Duke Nukem 3D, he's a prolific plan file writer, and he does a lot of interviews. Now then, this isn't a knock against Richard at all, but it just so happens that the other Duke developers prefer a lower profile, and so no one ever hears about them." Which begs the question how many of these low profile people are still left from the original Duke3d team? "From Duke Nukem 3D we have George Broussard, Project Leader, Allen Blum, the lead level designer, and Lee Jackson, sound artist and musician. This may not sound like many, but the entire core team on Duke3D was only seven people, with many more who did spot contributions. George maintains the vision of Duke Nukem and is the overall master of everything that goes into the game. Allen has been involved with Duke Nukem since his conception, back in 1990. The original coder of all the Duke games, Todd Replogle, retired after Duke 3D." "I will say this, the Duke Nukem Forever team is the best, most professional team we've ever had, and the game will reflect their enormous talent and dedication. We have 16 core people on the current team, not including voice talent and other contributions from contractors." Divine Intervention One of the big changes for Duke Nukem over the past year saw the Gathering of Developers acquiring the publishing rights to the franchise. Scott explained what this new agreement meant and how it came about. "Quite simply when Infogrames bought our publisher GT Interactive, they brought a new mindset and working relationship that didn't fit with us very well, so it was agreed by us and Infogrames to part ways. We then contacted several top publishers who we thought would make a great new partner with us, and Take 2 won with the highest bid for the publishing rights. However, this is not for the entire Duke franchise, still entirely owned by 3D Realms, but for the publishing rights to Duke Nukem Forever and the entire back catalog of Duke Nukem games already under the publishing umbrella with Infogrames." Hindsight is 20/20, and many Duke fans have speculated why certain decisions were made regarding the Duke franchise. Specifically why did 3D Realms make a few add-ons and then move on to a super ambitious sequel, instead of going the Doom to Doom II route and releasing another Duke game with new content and a slightly better engine? "We didn't have much of a choice", Scott admitted. "Making the add-on made sense because we didn't have the time to make a quick sequel, mainly because we had to help the Shadow Warrior team finish their game, which ate up a year of our time. It was only after Shadow Warrior's release that we started thinking about doing the next Duke game, very early in 1998." Under The Bonnet Nowadays a fair number of developers are actively trying to establish their game engines as brands in their own right and grab some of the action that companies like id and Epic are getting selling their technology. 3D Realms had one of the first successful endeavors in this area with the Build engine, which powered quite a few games in its day, yet the decision was ultimately made to license, first from id and eventually Epic, instead of building a new engine for Duke Nukem Forever. "We actually tried to stay in the engine business by creating Prey and its groundbreaking portal engine, but unfortunately, that game and engine didn't work out due to it being a very complex project and not being directed internally by us in the proper manner, so we cancelled the entire project. We plan to try again with a new engine after Duke Nukem Forever's release, just because we're seeing diminishing advantages to engine licensing, unless you want to make what amounts to a professional conversion or mod." After the cancellation of Prey, 3D Realms decided to focus on only one game at a time from here on out. "The world doesn't need more games, it needs better, more innovative games. So for us that means working on one game at a time and putting all of our best ideas in that one game. We discovered that while working on two games at once, Prey and Duke Nukem Forever, we had to split our best developers across two teams and finds ways to limit some of our best ideas for one game and other ideas for the other game. So now that we have experienced working on a single game with everyone pulling together, it's by far the best way to go." Science and Industry One of the more interesting tidbits in a recent New York Times article was an Activision official revealing that their average game now costs $4,000,000 to develop. With multi-million dollar budgets and three to four year development cycles, it doesn't seem like there is much margin for error. Scott Miller has a unique perspective on this being simultaneously a developer, publisher and shareholder in several game companies, so we asked his opinion on where the industry is headed. "It's headed for further stagnation", was his gloomy response. "Publishers will take less risks as costs rise, and we're going to see more sequels and fewer new games that take chances by exploring new styles of gameplay. With the cost of games rising so high, fewer developers will be able to afford to make the games they want to make, and be under the publisher's thumb to make games in genres that are safe and proven." "The game industry is having the same growth issues as other industries, like the movie industry. For example, when a movie like Alien comes it, it sets a new standard for any movie that follows that tries to tell a story about scary aliens on a spaceship, and so far no other movie has beaten Alien. And likewise, Star Wars is still the highwater mark for sci-fi space adventures. It will take a major effort and money to beat Star Wars. The same thing is happening within all of the gaming genres, with certain top games setting hard-to-beat standards, like Starcraft, Half-Life, and Diablo 2. So as the bar rises it becomes harder and more costly to leap over it. "This is why publishers spend more time and money on developing games, to leap over that rising bar. In the game industry, playing limbo leads to bankruptcy. But then, so can always trying to beat the best. I think publishers should spend more effort on mixing genres in new ways and creating games that forge into new areas, avoiding heavy competition in established genres, and perhaps setting a standard in a new genre." Forever? In the meantime 3D Realms continue their work on Duke Nukem Forever, which many are hoping will be the first 3D action game to reach the high standards set by Half-Life. We didn't ask when it was actually going to ship, because we knew the answer would be the ubiquitous "when it's done". Another question that did seem relevant though was whether or not Duke Nukem Forever would actually be seen running on PCs on the show floor at E3. While that isn't always an indicator that the game is less than a year away from shipping, it's a start. Scott told us that "the current plans are [for] no interactive demo. But we do have something special planned, and people will get to see a lot of new content from the game". Take from that what you will, but the odds are Duke Nukem will be waiting a little while longer before his grand return to the small screen. - Scott Miller interview - Part One The Engine Licensing Game
When reviewing the seminal figures in the history of PC games, it would be hard to find anyone who has been more in the middle of the action than Scott Miller. As head of Apogee Software he is credited as inventing the episodic game demo when he originated the use of demos to sell shareware side-scrollers. His next big coup was playing a crucial role in the creation of id Software, by enticing the company's founders to leave their jobs at Softdisk and make a go of it on their own. The story of how he did this gives an example of his creativity. Softdisk was a wholesale publisher of low-end arcade games, publishing one game a month which they sent to people who subscribed to their service. Scott noticed some promise in these games and wanted to get in touch with the developers, but Softdisk opened all the mail before it was forwarded to them so as to keep people like Scott from doing this. They did, however, forward on comments from fans to the developer directly, so Scott wrote a number of fan letters with different names and comments, but all with the same address. One day John Romero, who had the fan letters posted above his desk, noticed that the address and phone number on all of the fan letters was the same and called the number to find out what was up. The rest, as they say, is history. History Apogee worked with id until the release of Doom before parting company and becoming a competitor. In keeping with the new fad of first person shooters, Apogee changed its name to 3D Realms and embarked on developing its own games. The company had early success with the sequel to one of their side-scroller franchises, Duke Nukem. With the release of Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms proved themselves to be one of the premier developers in the industry as the content rich but technologically challenged game held its own against Quake. But since then 3D Realms has become better known for what they haven't released than what they did. One of their premier projects, tentatively called Prey, went through a number of development teams before finally being cancelled last year. One of the main objects of simultaneous scorn and hope in the game press for the past couple of years has been the long anticipated Duke Nukem sequel Duke Nukem Forever, which has gone through its fair share of development woes since it was first announced four years ago. 3D Realms, weary of the drubbing that overhyped titles such as Daikatana and Trespasser have received in recent years, has held back all but a few details about the game, only saying that it will be out "when it's done". Nonetheless, Duke Nukem Forever has perennially made the list of anticipated releases for the past couple of years. This testament of anticipation shows that despite the fact that 3D Realms hasn't released a game in three years, their reputation as an innovator is still secure. 3DA According to Scott, 2000 was a good year for the venerable first person shooter genre. "We're seeing the genre experiment and expand with games like Alice, Rune, FAKK2, Deus Ex, and No One Lives Forever. Even Daikatana introduced AI sidekicks, though later Raven's Elite Force did it better by limiting what the sidekicks could reasonably do and script-faking much of their AI. This isn't to say that these were all great games, but at least we see new ideas and gameplay being tried, and that's always good in the long run." Scott did have some reservations about continuing to use the term "first person shooter" though, telling us that "the term FPS is now sorely outdated, because many of the games I listed are not pure shooters, nor are they first-person games. I think we should adopt a better catch-all term like '3D Action', or 3DA for short. A side-benefit of this change would be removing ourselves further from the use of the word 'shooters', which only hurts our industry's reputation." One issue that has some observers scratching their heads is the industry's obsession with the 3DA, when other genres have come to make up the majority of the PC Data top 10. This has led many to wonder why there is a perception that 3DA is the dominant genre of PC gaming. "I think it's often perceived as the top genre because it's where the most exciting technical innovations most often occur", according to Scott. "3DA games are the most interesting to look at because they most accurately recreate the real world we live in, and in general people have a fascination with 3D graphics. But while some of the most successful games of all time have been 3DA games, like DOOM, Duke3D, Quake, Unreal and Half-Life, there have of course been many non-3D game superstars, like Diablo, Command & Conquer, Starcraft, Myst, Roller Coaster Tycoon, etc." The Multiplayer Equation Another major issue that developers have to deal with today is whether gamers should expect future 3DA games to have both the great single player scenarios of Half-Life and similar titles in addition to the myriad gameplay options of dedicated multiplayer games such as Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament. Specifically, should a game like No One Lives Forever put in multiplayer support even if it's not up to the level of a multiplayer focused game and then get slammed for it, or should they go the route of Alice and ignore multiplayer options all together? "Whenever a genre matures, two things usually happen: 1) it branches in several directions that focus on specific play styles within the genre, and 2) it borrows play elements and styles from other genres. This is what we are seeing happen with 3DA games, such as Unreal Tournament and Quake Arena which are focusing on multi-player gaming, and other games like Elite Force, Alice and No One Lives Forever, all focusing on single-player gaming." "It's no longer easy to support both single-player and multiplayer gaming within the same game. The problem is that single-player and multiplayer have different play styles and different level design requirements (single-player levels tend to be linear, while multiplayer levels need to have many circular paths). It requires a lot of extra time by the developer to support both of these diverging play styles within the same game, so that's why we're seeing the genre split in half, with most games support either one or the other but rarely both." From this statement we wondered what we could infer about Duke Nukem Forever. The always-diplomatic Mr. Miller left us with the following tidbit; "all I can say on this topic is that we plan to include multiplayer with several game modes. Since we are using the Unreal Tournament engine, a lot of this is already in place for us to take advantage of." It's A Mod, Mod World Over the past six months the big story in multiplayer gaming has been the tremendous popularity of the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike, which has more players online at any given time than all other 3DA games combined. Valve has shown that with proper support, mods can generate new sales. "I don't think Counter-Strike re-established the importance of mods, but instead raised the importance to a new level", Scott told us. "Since Wolfenstein 3-D we've seen mods, with players hacking into the map structure, coding level editors, and making thousands of new levels, some with coherent themes. It was this hacking and proliferation of user levels that gave id the idea of making DOOM easy to modify from the start. And interestingly enough even before Wolf3D we saw people hacking into the original Duke Nukem (mid-1991) and creating editors and levels." "Mods were born from the efforts of players from day one, and it just took us developers a few more years to catch on and begin making our games with ease-of-modification built-in. Counter-Strike is the current gold standard, but it's likely that eventually we'll see even greater, more successful mods." Rebirth of Shareware In Scott's June 22, 1998 .plan update he wrote: "Geoff asks, "Shareware, where are you?" The answer is not that shareware has changed, the answer is that the entire game industry has become hyper-competitive, and this makes it very tough for small, unfunded teams to surprise the world with something that stands out. It's sad, but it's the price of progress." Given that the mod community seems to be providing the opportunity that shareware used to, but there's no financial gain, we asked Scott if publishers would have to start offering more incentives to mod authors to keep this movement going? "The short answer is 'yes', at least if we want to see high-quality mods like Counter-Strike, which I believe is funded by Valve. Valve has done the best thing possible by supporting mod makers with funding, and other developers and publishers should take notice of the results." - Scott Miller interview - Part Two Tom Hall interview
Immersion, the developer of the force feedback software used in DirectX and whose chips power most of the force feedback paraphernalia on the market, wants you to get more sensation out of today's games than merely sore wrists. In a joint venture with Logitech they have released a new series of mice called iFeel, which can vibrate to simulate different textures using Immersion's TouchSense technology. While the mice have been on the market for a couple of months now, their main obstacle thus far has been a lack of support for TouchSense in games. Patches have been released for a few of the more popular shooters, and at least two games ("Battlezone II" and "Soldier of Fortune") now ship with TouchSense support out of the box. But the killer app to showcase this new hardware's abilities has been lacking. This should be remedied soon though, thanks to the enthusiasm of Peter Molyneux, who has gone all out to put over a hundred TouchSense friendly textures into one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the year, "Black & White". These will include everything from being able to feel your creature's fur to spells crackling as you cast them, and even the sensation of fish nibbling at your hand when you poke around in the water. Additionally the game will include an extra challenge which will only appear when the game detects a TouchSense enabled mouse. Whether or not this move will help to make TouchSense enabled games commonplace or not remains to be seen, but it is encouraging to see hopefully revolutionary games paired with potentially revolutionary technologies. While the cynics among us would point out that the chance of failure is twice as great this way, we will hope for the best and keep an eye on this story as it develops. In the meantime, check the official press release for more details.