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Jake Simpson of Raven

Jake Simpson of Raven interviewed

Jake Simpson is "originally from a small town on the Thames Estuary called Herne Bay. I went to school in Canterbury and then went to University (actually, it was a Polytechnic back then) at Hatfield in Hertfordshire".

Today he is hard at work at Raven Software in the USA, helping put the finishing touches to their new first person shooter, Soldier of Fortune, and playing with his newest toy - a Sony PlayStation 2 and development kit.

We dragged him away from his work earlier this week to chat to him about how he got from Herne Bay to Wisconsin, and of course his work at Raven...

The C64 Days

"I started out when I was a kid, as so many of us do", Jake told us. "I worked in a computer shop in Canterbury for a while, called Kent Micro Systems - it's long since out of business now. I went through a Spectrum, an Atari 400, an Oric 1, and finally settled on a Commodore 64. I couldn't afford a BBC Micro at the time! :)"

All of which no doubt sounds like a string of gibberish to you young folks, but back in The Day the BBC Micro Model B was THE machine, an object of desire for geeks throughout Britain, with 32K of memory, 8 colour graphics, and an optional 5.25" floppy disk drive!

Ah, the good old days...

"Anyway, I remember playing Attack of the Mutant Camels, one of the first C64 games available in the UK, from Llamasoft's Jeff Minter. I was amazed at the gameplay, and I wanted to know how it was done. So, when the Commodore show occured at the Novotel in London, I jumped on a train and went up there to meet my hero."

"He was (and still is) an EXTREMELY cool guy, and he gave me tons of tips and encouragement. I even got to visit him at his home in Tadley a few times."

And so Jake began learning to program his own games... "I bought a book on assembly language, and a tape based (tape based!?!? What was I thinking???) assembler and shut myself away for a weekend and learnt assembly."

"I remember my first assembly language program, it moved a sprite up the screen if you pressed one key, and down if you pressed another. When I ran it, I pressed the up key, and the sprite just appeared at the top of the screen, when I pressed the down key, it appeared at the bottom of the screen."

"I was sooo confused. It turned out that I had no delay loop, and the program was executing so fast you didn't see the sprite move. Ahh, happy days."

Having learned the basics of programming, it was time to do something useful... "I hooked up with a company called Lynnsoft - another dead software house - and wrote some conversions of games for the Spectrum, C464, and C64. We did conversions for EA, Firebird, and Ultimate Play the Game, who became RARE."

It wasn't all fun and games though, as Jake told us... "I got burnt in a deal with DOMARK, so I backed out of games for a while."

Jake Simpson

Magic America

Disenchanted with the fledgling gaming industry, Jake crossed the Atlantic to work in America. "I came to the States on Jan 11 1991, so I've been here almost exactly 9 years now".

And as Jake explained, the move may have saved his life. "The day after I got here the IRA bombed the railway station that I used to use in London, at the exact time I would have been there. Talk about divine intervention! :)"

Acts of God and terrorist bombings out of the way, Jake settled into his new life as a consultant systems analyst. "I came here originally as a Cobol II programmer / consultant. My degree is in systems analysis, and that's what I had been doing for a couple of years since graduating."

"I was here doing the consulting for about a year, then I met my wife to be, we were married, and voila, instant green card! This enabled me to do other things, so I went for a job I saw advertised in the paper for games programmers."

"It turned out to be for a head hunter that took an interest in me. He put me in touch with Williams (which became Midway), and after 7 interviews I got the job."

"The rest, for me, is history."

Mortal Kombat 3, one of the games Jake worked on at Midway

The Battle of Midway

So what was it like working at Midway?

"Very interesting", according to Jake. "Midway is an interesting mix of creative personalities and inter-office politics."

"The money that can be made there is pretty intense. Those that create the initial Arcade hits get a cut on the home conversions, so the money can get pretty large."

"When the potential for large scale personal wealth gets out there, then the office politics all of a sudden start to mean something. Inter-team fights could get pretty nasty..."

It wasn't all bad though. "They have some of the premier games designers in the world working for them - Ed Boon, who was one half of the team that created Mortal Kombat, Mark Turmell, who created NBA JAM and NFL Blitz, and of course Eugene Jarvis, the genius behind Defender and Robotron."

"They produce quality games, and they get paid accordingly."

After a while though Jake felt it was time to move on again, and try a different challenge.

"Working on arcade games as your main focus is very different from working on the PC. At Midway, up till NFL Blitz, all games were done in pure assembly code, they only moved up to C a couple of years back."

Jake talked to several companies developing for the PC, but in the end he decided to join Raven.

"Raven were the ones that impressed me the most", he explained. "And I could see myself both making a difference, and learning a lot from them."

"Six months of being here made me twice as good a programmer as I was when I got here, both from working with id's code and also from interacting with the people that were already here."

Raven Software

Raven

The atmosphere at Raven was a complete change from the intense and at-times vicious life at Midway.

"I have to say that the guys that run Raven, Brian and Steve Raffel, really are pretty good at what they do. I have never been a place where you can have a meeting, have someone effectively rubbish what you've just written, and walk out feeling that you really can do better, and by god, you should."

"At other places I've worked, people would be slitting their wrists after a meeting like that!"

Over the years Raven have gained a reputation for licensing engines from first person shooter masters id Software, and then extending and expanding the engines to do something often completely different with them.

Wolfenstein 3D became Shadow Caster, Doom became Heretic and Hexen, Quake became Hexen II, and Quake 2 was turned into Heretic II and Soldier of Fortune. Their latest project is Elite Force, a game based on Star Trek : Voyager and using the Quake III Arena engine.

As well as saving development time by removing the need to code a whole new engine of their own from the ground up, this also has an useful side effect, as Jake explains.

"Since we use pretty much exclusively id code, all the programmers are able to hop from project to project and settle in really fast. Of course artists and animators have always been able to do this, but since programmers can too, it really helps promote an 'all for one' atmosphere."

"Raven is like a huge extended family. There are usually three projects going at once, one in crunch mode, one in the middle, and one just starting up. Crunch projects get most of the people, and the start up is usually only two or three people, who often get called in to help out on the crunch project."

"Strangely, no one objects to this at all, since you know that when YOU get into crunch mode and need help, those you just helped will be there for you."

Heretic II, Jake's first project at Raven

Heresy

Jake's first project on joining Raven was their third person action game, Heretic II.

"I was originally doing the Software Renderer and making it 16 bit", Jake told us. "I wrote a ton more than was actually used - I had fog working and so on, but it was just so slow that we dumped fog entirely."

"Gil Gribb - our techy supremo - came in and helped me optimised some of the assembly we had written, which was cool. It all makes for a better game."

"Then I got turned loose on other stuff - effects for shrines, tweaking network play, adding bad fish... I ended up all over the place at the end, touching and messing with everything."

"At one point Pat Lipo, the chief programmer and applications manager here at Raven, asked me to step up to the number 2 spot on Heretic II, and once it was released, he basically gave the Expansion Pack to me to get done."

"Of course feature creep occured on that, but it was all necessary I tell you, NECESSARY!! HAHAHAHA! Sorry..."

Um .. yes. Anyway, Heretic II was released, critically acclaimed, but for some reason failed to sell as well as everybody was expecting.

"Heretic II was the best game that never was, if you get my drift. We are all extremely proud of it, and we definitely think that it proved that third person action games could be fun. We haven't seen the camera done as well in any other game to date."

"It was a shame it didn't do as well in the stores..."

Star Trek : Voyager - Elite Force

Delta Quadrant Blues

With Heretic II finished and the free expansion pack released, Jake found himself shuffling between different projects as he waited for his own project (codenamed "Project 3") to start up.

First call - Elite Force.

"I was working with James Monroe who is lead programmer on that project. He was elbow deep in trying to merge in code from id, manage the programmers, do research into new technologies, and keep track of everything else he had to."

"I came in, did some research for him, implemented the lip synching stuff, fixed a problem with the normals that the game uses to calculate shadows on models, and helped out with a bit of managing."

There were problems though, the biggest of which was that id Software released Quake III Arena six months later than they had originally intended to, and the engine was being constantly changed and updated throughout that time.

This obviously held up Raven's work on the project, as Jake explains. "Trying to hit a moving target is never fun. We expected the Q3 engine to be done long before it was, and this definitely had an impact on our delivery dates too, not least of which is that we can't release [Elite Force] too close to Quake III Arena."

"We got to a point in the process where most of the Q3 engine was done, rendering pipeline wise, and so when we got updates, we simply cut and pasted those changes that we wanted into the code base we had."

"You might say that Voyager is based on an early build of Q3, with more up to date bits pasted in."

There were other problems as well though, as Jake told us. "Of course, [the Q3 engine] is missing a ton of stuff we are used to, like save games and the whole single player infrastructre that is present in Quake 2. But then we are paid to expand the engine, so that's what we've done."

"There are the drawbacks too - the lack of big outside areas is something we have to come to grips with. Unreal Tournament and Tribes certainly make the most of this type of thing."

"Also, there are some other drawbacks that aren't readily apparent, since the way that Quake 3 Arena is designed circumvents these problems. You don't know that they are there until you try to do something out of the ordinary."

"Carmack is nothing if not pragmatic. He makes his engines to play the games he wants to produce, not the ones we want to, so sometimes we do have to delve in and modify lots of stuff."

Still, it wasn't all bad news though, and despite all the problems Jake seems enthusiastic after his work with the engine.

"The Q3 engine as it stands is pretty damn cool. There is a ton of experience and experimentation in it that saves us so much time it's unbelievable. The shader system alone is worth the price of the engine."

Exclusive new screenshot - Soldier Of Fortune's night vision goggles in action

Mercenary

"I was never intended to be there for long", Jake comments about his time on the Elite Force team. "Project 3 was supposed to get going at that point."

It didn't though, and so he found himself helping out on Soldier of Fortune, which is currently in crunch mode.

Unlike Elite Force, Soldier of Fortune is based on the Quake 2 engine. Switching from one project to another has given Jake the chance to compare the two engines up close and personal, so we asked him what it was like going back to the older engine after his work on Elite Force.

"There is A LOT of Q2 in Q3", Jake replied. "The main differences are the rendering pipeline, networking, and the AI."

"From what I've observed of id code, they choose a couple of major modules of an already written game, go back to the drawing board for those modules and re-do them from scratch, incorporating all new knowledge they have gained from experience and experimentation."

"The rest is left as it was in the last game. That's certainly how it appears to be in Q3 from my perspective. God knows, the sound code in Quake 3 looks suspiciously similar to that in DOOM!"

Scary...

This has proven to be a big advantage for Jake and the other programmers at Raven though. "Going between the two is not as a traumatic experience as it may seem. They have the same roots, so it's not that difficult."

Exclusive new screenshot - sniping in Soldier of Fortune's CTF mode

Soldiering On-line

Jake's main work on Soldier of Fortune has been helping to program the multiplayer options for the game.

"There are ton of multiplayer modes in SOF", he told us. "Normal deathmatch, team deathmatch, Arsenal, Assassin, CTF, and Realistic. Normal and team deathmatch need no introduction, nor does CTF really."

"Arsenal is where you have to kill everyone with every weapon, and Assasin is where you are assigned a specific target. The better you are, the more people are assigned to target you. :)"

"Realistic is a mode in the same vein as CounterStrike and Team Quake. No health, only so many weapons can be carried, proper location based damage with the relevant consequences and so on."

Currently they are working on polishing all these multiplayer modes and making them "as stable as possible, and as fun as possible". And the best part is that all these modes will be available "out of the box" when the game is released.

So, why should we buy Soldier of Fortune? We asked Jake what he liked about the game...

"It's just plain fun", he replied. "We think so, but then we would wouldn't we?"

"It's very real, very fast, and very intense. It has a decent storyline that draws you in, and it's graphically very pretty. It's also totally customisable, so you get exactly the type of game you want to play."

Jake confirmed that the game is still on target for a March release, and told us that Raven "are just finishing up the QA candidates for the demo over the next couple of days, so if all goes well, expect the demo pretty soon."

The PlayStation 2

Project 3

With Soldier of Fortune nearing completion, Jake is finally getting started on the mysterious "Project 3" that he mentioned earlier in the interview.

What was the hold up?

"Project 3... Well, I can reveal that we are embarking on a PlayStation 2 project next! This project should have got started a while back, but we've been waiting for Sony to thump up the dev kits so we can get started."

"They are here now, and we are just starting preliminary research. I can't go into any more details than that right now, since most of what we intend is a little hazy and subject to change dependant on market research."

What does Jake think of the PlayStation 2 and it's development kit so far then?

"I don't have that much experience with it right now", Jake admitted. "I'm still concentrating on finishing up my stuff on SOF before delving into the mysteries of the PSX2. I attended the developers conference in San Jose a while back, so I know what I'm getting into, and my background in assembly on the arcade machines I used to make will help here."

"It's a complete dev kit in that you can actually develop on the target machine if you want to - the dev kit is a PC built around the PSX2 core. However, they went Linux, and since I'm a Windows boy I'm waiting for delivery of CodeWarrior for the PSX2!"

"The dev kit looks pretty - does that count?"

Er, thanks...

Boddingtons, The Cream Of Manchester - this one's on us ;-)

Conclusion

After less than two years at Raven, Jake has already contributed to three games and is about to get his own project for the first time, working as lead programmer on "Project 3".

"Raven is a crazy place to work", Jake told us. "Some of the email threads that go on should be bound and published."

But although he seems to have settled in happily in the crazy world of Raven in deepest darkest Wisconsin, there are a few things he misses from the homeland...

"Beer, chocolate and British TV! You can get BBC America here on satellite, but it's not the same. It has adverts on it for one, which is weird. The chocolate here is crap - Hershey's tastes like stale Cadbury's. Yuck."

"And the beer. Well, there are one or two decent domestics, but by and large it's not that good. Give me a Stella Artois or a Boddingtons any day."

And on that note...

-

Soldier of Fortune preview

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