Lucasfilm Interviews - Part 2 from issue 11

This is the second and concluding part of GARY PENN's grueling long distance phone marathon, with the innovative programming team at Lucasfilm. If you missed last month's part, sorry, because it stopped as abruptly as this one starts (space problems as usual). Gary had spoken at length to DAVID FOX, Project Leader for RESCUE ON FRACTALUS before being handed over to CHARLIE KELLNER, Project Leader for THE EIDOLON. Finally he talked to NOAH FALSTEIN, Project Leader for Koronis Rift, in the middle of which the editor's heavy hand came down. So now we pick up again, discussing conversions from Atari to Commodore machines. For the home team it's Gary Penn, and on the other side of the Atlantic and American continent it's


"Ron Gilbert, who is our Commodore programmer, we hired expecting him to do a fairly straight conversion, but early on he became involved in the design process and one thing that we're very proud of is that the actual program was identical for very large parts of Koronis. Since we use all the same development system here, we actually used the same files and identical programs for most of the internal parts of the game and even a fair amount of the graphics."

"Really, all that we had to do that was specifically different was when you get down to the very lowest level of drawing the pixels on the screen. That helped us a great deal, particularly later on, because it became very easy to add some new software and new changes, that it was just a matter of a few minutes work usually to adapt them over to the other machines once they had been written for one machine. By the end, chunks were being written first on the Commodore and first on the Atari and swapped back and forth interchangeably."

Noah worked only worked on Koronis Rift as Gary discovered when asking him about his overall involvement with the company. "No, I came in just at the end of the development cycle for Rescue and Koronis Rift, and I helped a very minor amount with some of the testing and the polishing. But really about the only credit I can take for it is that I get to have my picture in the back of the Rescue manual, and that's about it."

Of course no game's development is complete without a game testing session. Noah explained the procedure to our man with the mouthpiece. "Well, we test them first internally in that we have available people who will come in and our coworkers will pilot them and take a look at them. And also Epyx, who did our domestic marketing and production, provided some playtesters for us. Some kids who'd played their games and had sent in the cards expressing an interest to help, and they brought them in for - I guess for Koronis we had two sessions."


So considering that the Lucasfilm projects were originally envisioned as an Atari experiment, what brought about the decision to market versions for other machines? "That was because the original games group was started through Atari. There were some very close ties to Atari and it wasn't until Atari folded and changed hands really, that we ended up making them for other computers - - although there were some plans early on to make the conversions anyway. The reason that we ended up primarily with Atari games at the beginning was because we were dealing so closely with Atari. We're generally of the opinion that the Atari is a better computer for graphics at least, and it's easier to do fairly spectacular things on it. But of course our Commodore programmers are just as excited about the Commodore 64. It's really a matter of viewpoint. There are things that you can do on each computer that will show it off best, and that's what we've been trying to do - we're trying to emphasise on each one."


Photo of Dave Levine
'Ballblazer' Project Leader
David Levine is a man
whose eyes run on grids.

It was easy enough for Gary to begin asking Dave questions about this game as it is almost worlds apart from the other Lucasfilm games in terms of style. Where and how was the concept for Koronis Rift originated?

"Okay, well, you have to keep in mind it preceded all of the other Lucasfilm titles, except Rescue, which was at the same time," began Dave "I've always wanted to build a device which allowed people to play with invisible forces, such as magnetic fields, and to have these things manifest in such a way that you can actually manipulate forms from action into distance, like you have some kind of mechanism to play with. The original conception of the game was to provide as realistic an environment as possible and to keep people as an important part, it is necessary to involve more than one person in it."

"Then it becomes a social interaction - the computer becomes a, or is in the case of Koronis Rift, a neutral concurrent medium of interaction between two people. You do not play against the computer or you're not testing your skills or abilities against someone's program but instead you're given an equal opportunity to play against another person."


When asked about problems with the artificial intelligence required, Dave replied, "The only problem with the artificial intelligence was that we had to put it in. The game is a two player game and it was designed to be as such. Atari, at the time of development, insisted on having a one player version because that was their company policy, and so we hooked up the computer, actually worked a little bit of artificial intelligence for the droid partner idea - the practice partner. But they don't play like humans. They're not intended to play like humans. They're also not intended to be entertaining - the game is strictly a two player game. A lot of attention was paid to constructing the game in such a manner it was something like table tennis, where you have an inert physical system that moves about with computed high enough precision to actually become a sport, as opposed to a game."

However, when Dave was asked whether he was satisfied with the Commodore version his reply was, "Truthfully, no!"

Gary mentioned the lack of sound effects but was otherwise surprised by Dave's reply. Mr Levine elaborated, "Well, I just don't think enough attention was paid to them (the sound effects). The person who originally did the sound effects for the game is no longer with us, and that was one of the problems. But, the major problem I think with the Commodore version is its lack of high resolution and the graphic presentation. The game dynamics themselves are exactly the same as the Atari version and the two run at exactly the same speed. So, that was of primary importance - in order to make the gameplay the same as the Atari version. The game originally was not designed with conversion in mind, and so it made extensive use of the advanced hardware in the Atari, so as to perform the animation of the grid and so on."


Bearing in mind some of Dave's reservations about the C64 version, did he have any other plans for 'future sports' in mind ? "With Koronis Rift we tried to introduce a genre of first person video sport, and my hope is that it will be maintained and advanced by our group and that the genre will be developed. I personally don't have an interest in further developing the genre - my interest was in creating it. At this point I'll be moving on to creating a new genre of a different type."

But perhaps most astonishing of all was Dave's inexperience in the computer games field. "It's the only video game I've ever written. I was a computer scientist by profession, and hired by the company into the games division. I've always liked computer games and decided that well, if I'm going to do this, then I should write one that I will enjoy playing - that is done right. I approached the problem from a computer science point of view, and what was relatively rare, or unusual, in computer games was to provide a mathematical model of an environment that's being simulated, and to provide a program which renders the mathematical model in some form of first person perspective. It was myself and Peter Langston who worked on the game. Peter did the music and the artificial intelligence for the droids. It took roughly a year of development."

"It's unfortunate that it (the Atari version) hadn't gotten marketed sooner - I don't know if you're familiar with the history of the first two products, but they hit the public long before they were intended to, through piracy. There was a version of Commodore Koronis Rift that was deemed unacceptable for market by us, and it was rewritten. And that one got out as well. So, what used to be, to me, a sparkling, pure and clean concept in games has gotten muddled.It's an unfortunate thing hopefully the game itself will have enough integrity to stay it out. The Intention of the game is to provide something that can be moved to all future machines - the basic games concept itself is valid regardless of the hardware, and then newer machines will just have fancier graphics, faster frame rates and higher precision."

"It's an extremely complex program, but the complexity is internal. And the complexity is not an arbitrary kind of complexity as most games that I see, are. This has a coherent kind of complexity, in that we're modeling some pretty subtle aspects of high precision of a physical system - it's really a physical simulation, and the reason that it's complex to the player is because natural physical situations - are complex. The complexity comes from the precision and the resolution of its computation, and what it does is allow the player to react at very fine and subtle levels of skill, with a high degree of timing, precision and accuracy. And this is something that just has never, never appeared in any other computer game."

"The only things that have ever come close are say, the old Lunar Lander games - those are also high precision physical simulations and you had to be really good - but they were flat. The whole idea behind this was to provide an alternate physical reality. There's no- there's very little attention paid to contriving the situation, and contriving roles and that for the player. Instead, what we tried to do with it is put the player into an artificially created, natural situation and it actually comes through in the richness, the energetic effect so that it's not a contrivance - it's a natural outgrowth. It's a reflection of my design philosophy. You can be assured that the next thing you'll see from me will be based on the very same principles."

After a couple of hours spent running up Lucasfilm's phone bill, the interview was brought to a conclusion. On the other side of the world, some of the most gifted and experimental games programmers around, began their day no doubt planning their next masterpiece. Meanwhile, in that tiny haven of West Midlands civilisation called Ludlow, some tired journalists were packing up and heading for the Bull Inn, now eagerly anticipating Lucasfilm's next title but more importantly to get some cool beer to refresh poor Gary Penn's throat.

This feature was typed in/OCRed by Brigadon - Zzap!64 Online

Lucasfilm Interviews - Part 1