Friday, September 29, 2006

The Lure of The Shrimp Sub

Copyright 2001 Microsoft Corporation

This is the third of the four 3D concept pieces created for the Voodoo Vince green light meeting. Once again, Gary Hanna and his crew did a spectacular job. This portrays Vince in a mini-submersible shaped like a shrimp. It's funny how wonderfully clear the water is. It's like a tropical reef rather than the incredibly murky water one really finds in the bayou country. Real swamp water slooks like unfiltered apple cider, teeming with countless bugs and reptiles. But hey, zero visibility wouldn't be much fun in a game.

I mentioned the four "perfect world" pictures earlier, but I figured I'd talk about them a little more. After a year of meetings, rejections and building a demo we finally landed a deal with Microsoft. We didn't dive into production right away. There was a prototype phase first. We had six months to create a bigger, better, more detailed version of the demo, finish a first draft of the comprehensive general design doc (GDD), and initial draft of the technical design doc (TDD), and a detailed milestone list for the whole project with tasks, assignments and workflow charted out. We also needed to establish how the game would look. All this was wheeled into a conference room for the meeting. These images were brought in on 2 by 3 foot enlargements mounted on foam core (which delighted MS execs promptly snapped up).

The purpose of pictures like the one above was to allow Gary and his crew to create something that approximated how the finished game would look without bogging down the prototype itself. The theory was that we could then make the prototype visually crude and concentrate on gameplay.

That's a nice theory, but we ended up making the prototype as visually strong as we possibly could. Visual polish is a double-edged sword. Everybody says they can imagine how things will look in a rough version, but the inevitable "That's not final art, is it?" question is the bane of artists throughout human history. You just know it was said of the Lascaux bison. On the other hand, if you work too tight you can paint yourself into a corner, visually speaking. We decided to err on the side of polish. Voodoo Vince at six months looked better than a lot of finished games.

That paid off in the green light meeting, though we still had a lot of content to create before the game crossed the finish line.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Vince Storybook

"In the darkest corner of the oldest voodoo shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans was a doll made of rags, twine, burlap and strange unspeakable things. He was named Vince."

My experience in the game industry has taught me that most people don't read... even all-wise, benevolent publishers are sometimes too busy to wade through a long wordy document. I decided to make understanding Vince as easy as possible for busy executives with too many concepts to evaluate. I wrote what amounted to a children's book and put it in the first concept/pitch doc for the game. This may be why I still hear from parents who say their kids are crazy about Voodoo Vince.

Vince's appearance didn't change too much from these early concept pieces.

Kosmo and his goons (Jeb and Fingers) are much as they appeared in the game almost three years later.

Curio (above) and the roustabouts (above right) by Doug "Mr. Prolific" Williams.

The biggest changes were made to the Madam Charmaine character. She was originally called Madam Curio. We changed her name once we discovered there was a professional dominatrix using that moniker (gosh... thanks, Google). We also went with a somewhat younger look for her.

This approach was really well received. It opened doors and led to many upbeat meetings with publishers. I found that just about everybody "got" the idea behind the game. Everybody was enthusiastic about the concept too, but that didn't loosen any purse strings. It took a playable demo to accomplish that. But it was still a great way to establish some basic elements for Vince and his world.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TA-ncient History #3: Mid Nano-Stream

Backdrop for a temporary title screen - Fall of 1996

Total Annihilation came together fast. Really fast. The bulk of the game's code and content was created in less than a year. I credit this to two things: insane work hours and a good preproduction phase.

Preproduction is frequently overlooked and underestimated by publishers and game developers, even today. Taking the time to figure out tools, techniques and a look for a game sounds like good sense, but it is often written off as indulgent fluff. It doesn't always feel like you're producing something, and it's sometimes hard to show that you are (especially to a stressed out executive) but preproduction is incredibly useful. It gets a solid production pipeline in place, and makes it easier for a small core team to share the Kool Aid and quickly indoctrinate new recruits. I firmly believe that every week of preproduction saves at least three weeks of regular development time. It's true. I have notes.

By the Fall of 1996 we were gearing up for full production and adding staff in a hurry. A lot had happened by then. We had figured out our excuse for a story. We had marginally functional tools. We started getting a good feeling about the game.

We also had a new publisher. GT Interactive bought Humongous Entertainment in July of 1996. Chris and I had no clue that was going to happen. Saying we were surprised is putting it mildly. Total Annihilation was started under the auspices of a mom n' pop, bootstrap operation and now it belonged to some guys in New York. Stuff like that happens in business, but there were some moments of stress and consternation.

GT (originally initials for "Good Times") was as surprised as we were. When they bought the makers of Putt Putt, Freddi Fish and Fatty Bear, they were only marginally aware that an RTS game was lurking somewhere in the building. It seemed like a good match. GT had risen to be the third biggest game publisher by distributing Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem. Total Annihilation looked like it might be a good fit for them. The game would certainly get better distribution than it would have before the acquisition. Funding for TA's completion would also be on more solid ground. We did a quick demo for some GT Interactive execs about a month later and they seemed to like what they saw. So, it was full steam ahead.

These screens are mockups from a time when different interface designs were being considered (though the maps and units are all legit). That's why there are structures and vehicles all mixed up on the same menu.

These are from January and February of 1997, or roughly the mid-way point of the production phase. This is just a month before we started making screenshots for our first print ad and our nearly nonexistent preview coverage.

It's still rough, but quite a difference from just a few months earlier. Many units will be familiar to anyone who has played the game, though some saw major changes in the months ahead. Let's have a fun "guess that unit" contest. We were briefly considering a whole heap of team symbols (including some suspiciously like lab glassware) for multiplayer, several of which can be seen here. Those were too hard to see on most units, so we just went with the basic Arm/Core insignias. The engine only supported 640 x 480 resolution at this point, which is why the UI looks gigantic and the units seem ready to crawl up your nose. Dig the groovy yin-yang on the Core Kbot lab.

The build buttons are from a brief phase where I thought a blueprint sort of look might work. We had all those 3D models, so a simple shot of the wireframe seemed like a good place to start.

That brings up an issue we had. There were continual headaches with those itty bitty polygonal units. It was always a challenge to make them distinctive and engaging. Everybody knows what an airplane or tank looks like at a glance, but the same wasn't true for a damn K-bot lab, much less a metal storage facility. The software renderer wasn't helping much either. Textures tended to shift and "swim" a lot. Early incarnations of the engine often had polygons popping in and out of existence depending on the barometric pressure that day. We were genuinely concerned about how our little robots and gizmos would stack up against the crisp prerendered sprites found in so many other games. We knew our game would have an edge once people saw the units in motion, but we were never happy with how the units looked in static screen shots.

This lead to the final version of the build buttons. Ron Gilbert suggested we go with small "glamor shots" to help sell the units visually. At left is an early version of a build menu for Total Annihilation.

The "unit problem" also lead to the creation of our animated screenshots, the first of several novel ways we used that newfangled Internet thing to find and build an audience for the game.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

More Chunktastic Pixel Love

This screenshot is from an unreleased Tarzan game for the SNES. Manley was developing it for the now-defunct publisher GameTek. This image probably dates from late 1993. The Tarzan character was done by Jim Bradrick, a highly skilled classical animator and master chili chef. Jim turned me on to the music of Django Reinhardt during this project, which would later have a big impact on Voodoo Vince.

The background, including the strange blue tree, are mine. This was probably near the ultimate saturation point for 16-bit sidescrollers. I think publishers were shoveling any character with limbs into a sidescroller (and some without).

The project was pretty close to content complete when it was canned. We had stumbled along for a good five months without any real design, apart from what the artists and programmers cobbled together on the fly. The game's cancellation may have been related to the way good ol' Tarzan methodically slaughters his way through the endangered species list over the course of the game. The fact that doing so wasn't even fun just sealed the deal.

This is a sort of interesting halfway point in the look of 16-bit tile based games. Lots of games still had little tiles... a "chicklet" look to their backgrounds. The limits of the NES were still embedded in how many developers worked. But games started to appear with a more thoughtful approach to how tilesets could be used. Lush, rotoscoped games like Flashback and even Disney's Jungle Book got a lot of developers thinking differently about tile graphics and animation. I was shamelessly ripping off Flashback with the background foliage here.

Just a year or two later, games like Earthworm Jim and Donkey Kong Country would take tile graphics even further, just in time to see the platform give way to the first generation of 3D consoles. As usual, developers start getting the best from a piece of hardware right before its trip to the scrapyard.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Vince Cutting Room Floor #2: The Skeeterhawk

Of all the stuff from the Voodoo Vince cutting room floor, this is probably the cuttingest roomy flooriest. You see, once a project gets underway and the tires of software production meet the asphalt of reality in the great rally race of gaming excellence, a lot gets changed, rearranged and just plain hacked off.

The Skeeterhawk is a good example. I originally planned a sizeable riverboat level between Brusque Manor and The Bayou. The Skeeterhawk (ol' Southern slang for a dragonfly) had some ambitious ideas, including the illusion that the whole thing was steaming up the Mississippi. Vince would be trapped aboard until it reached its destination, which would naturally happen after he fought a bunch of monsters, solved some thorny puzzles and a emerged victorious from a climactic riverboat race.

Kids just love them zombie riverboats.

The whole game was ambitious. It's always good to aim high so there is still something decent left after the inevitable cuts occur. There were things I really liked in this level, but some of the puzzles and characters didn't quite come together the way they should have. Given more time I'm sure it would have shaped up, but there was a schedule to keep and everybody felt it made more sense to focus on the quality of other levels instead of just churning out some potentially shakey real estate for Vince to explore. It was a sad day, but the Skeeterhawk was sacrificed on the altar of expedience and common sense.

Man, I hate that altar sometimes.

Supersweet concept art by Doug Williams (again)

In retrospect, I have to admit I wish I'd nuked Roachfort instead (more on that later), but you know what they say about hindsight: It can really suck.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Bat Lady... With Flapping Action!

This is Thirsha, head honcho of Zhon from Kingdoms. A fine leader in spite of her wacky ears.

An amazing amount of content is created for nearly any game. We had over twenty artists on the team for Kingdoms plus another half dozen or so contract artists working off site. In addition to all the units, maps and interface art there was an incredible heap of pictures made for the cinematic sequences known as the Book of Darien.

This painting is by the brilliant illustrator Greg Call. Greg did portraits of the four monarchs as well as the superb box art for Kingdoms. He was a real treat to work with. Besides being a talented artist and a nice guy, Greg put a lot of effort into learning about the world and its characters before tackling this assignment. I especially like the winged figure worked into the vambrace and the subtle Zhon insignia on the spear.

This piece was seldom seen in its original state. It was cropped and heavily compressed in the movies or reproduced at a small size in various print ads. Here's the whole picture in all its batty goodness.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Voodoo Shop Triviata

Madam Charmaine's voodoo shop serves as the setting for the game's front end in Voodoo Vince. After flying through the front window after the sundry logo screens, most users probably zoom to the crystal ball to continue their game, but using the joystick will take the camera from one corner of the shop to another. If you look in the background, you'll see some pretty silly things.

Before the level artists went to work filling the shop with a lot of nifty Voodoo clutter, Doug Williams came up with a whole lot of ideas for various decor items. Here are some of his funnier ideas.

I think everyone needs a pickled businessman in a jar. Not everything made it into the game. I know the Zombie Flakes, the carton of chicken milk and the poor little trapped bug are pretty easy to see in the background at different spots around the final version of the shop. The saucy "Men of Voodoo" video cassette didn't, but there's an idea waiting to happen if I've ever seen one.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

TA-ncient History #2: The Non-Story Story

What the hell?!? Did Duke Nukem and Vanilla Ice have a love child?

Total Annihilation was well received for it's gameplay and design innovations, but there was some criticism for its lack of a deep, engaging story. The heavy hitters in the RTS genre all had swell movies, choc full of the best cut scenes 3D animators and B-list actors could provide.

We started the project firmly convinced we could somehow pull together long, ambitious, jaw-dropping cinematics. During the first couple months, Chris Taylor and I laughed ourselves silly with random ideas for a premise. If we ended up snorting teriyaki and Diet Coke out our noses, we'd put it in the story.

We were leaning toward an extremely, violent, comedic style that would be familiar to fans of the Venture Brothers today. We knew we had a central figure in the Commander. We had a limited budget, so we figured he would be the only real character in the intro movie. The idea was that the Commanders were identical clones who were at war over the shape of the glassware in which they were spawned.

Yes, I'm serious.

One had a regular test tube as part of his insignia. The other had an Erlenmeyer flask. I went home one weekend and whipped up a storyboard for a long, drawn out space battle between two gigantic starships, ending with both Commanders crashing on a desolate alien world. There, they would duke it out to the death. Hot n' spicy... Total A style.

Here are some excerpts from the insanely long storyboard...

Don't worry. We came to our senses. It soon dawned on us that we could have no such thing in the game. We thought the ideas were a hoot, but they would have cost more than the game's whole budget to make. Keep in mind that Total Annihilation was made for a very modest 1.2 million bucks. Game developers spend more than that on Red Vines and spa treatments these days. We scaled back to simple mission briefings with static graphics and settled for a short intro sequence, and a couple of short movies for the end of each mission series.

A while later, we came up with the names of the sides. Chris and I batted names back and forth like "The Syndicate," and "The Corporation" for our villains. Chris shortened that to simply "the Core." Unit artist Clayton Corbisier came up with "the Arm" for our so-called good guys. He just liked the sound. We did too. Chris then asked me to go home and come up with a simple backstory one evening. He said, "Just some good guys, some bad guys and some reason they're fighting. That's it."

I came back the next day with a document outlining the war between the Arm and the Core, along with some history and possible story arcs for the game. Here is an excerpt:

"Once, the galaxy was united and whole — ruled with scientific precision by the Core. Their citizens lacked nothing. At the zenith of their civilization, the ultimate dream was realized: immortality.

"Those receiving this awesome gift were selected by Core Central. Their minds were carefully recorded as an advanced digital simulation. Weak and fallible human flesh was cast aside and a perfect, artificial body of dreadful abilities housed the remaining consciousness. This guaranteed that the best and brightest minds could be of use to society indefinitely.

"This practice made certain factions uneasy — most notably the best and brightest minds in the galaxy. Not every promising leader looked forward to this “immortality”. Gradually, this faction united and chose to live where the influence of the Core was weakest: in a remote spiral arm of the galaxy. As their numbers grew they became known simply as the Arm.

"This war of ideas became a war in fact. Uneasy with an increasingly vocal opposition, the Core decided to squelch this provincial backwater.

"At first, the Core had a clear advantage. Most of the population and resources of the galaxy were still theirs. But the Arm had a certain resourcefulness that stopped the Core’s best attempts to eradicate them. The Arm learned something new with each encounter, eventually building a war complex to rival that of the Core. What started as a minor skirmish soon blossomed into a vast conflict which would last for thousands of years."

This was later spruced up by veteran game writer, Dave Grossman for the now-familiar (and much catchier) intro sequence to Total Annihilation:

"What began as a conflict over the transfer of consciousness from flesh to machines escalated into a war which has decimated a million worlds. The Core and the Arm have all but exhausted the resources of a galaxy in their struggle for domination. Both sides, now crippled beyond repair. The remnants of their armies continue to battle on ravaged planets; their hatred fueled by over four thousand years of total war. This is a fight to the death. For each side the only acceptable outcome is the complete elimination of the other."

Ah... That's better. Above is my rough storyboard that served as the framework for the intro cinematic to Total Annihilation. Proper units and many more shots were dropped in later, though the Arm Commander didn't change that much.

It's pretty basic stuff, but there are some influences I can cite. I had been reading books with vivid portrayals of what might become of humanity if digitized simluation of human consciousness were a reality. The first was Feersum Endjinn by Iain Banks. The second was Permutation City by Greg Egan. Banks deals with a fantastic distant future where the dead live on in a digitized afterlife using a vast computer built into the crust of a planet. Egan portrays early attempts at digitizing a human mind using a more contemporary setting. Both are great reads, by the way, and influenced my thinking when I went home to cook up that skinny premise for TA.

The inclusion of nanotech was for pure convenience. This was about the time we were trying to figure out how to portray construction in the game. It would have been too complex and time consuming to have little guys with hammers and scaffolds every time something was built in the game. It also wasn't futuristic enough. We needed something like magic, but with a thin veneer of science around it. Nanotechnology to the rescue! Two other books influenced my thinking here - Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. The former has a great segment describing the formation of a building inside what amounted to a gigantic glass jello mold. I thought something like that might fit our super cool futuristic war pretty well. Diamond Age vividly portrays nanotech used in both fabrication and warfare. I proposed the "nanolathe" as the basis for our construction technology. One of the programmers came up with a particle effect (sort of like futuristic space pee) and we were set.

For all that, it's still not much of a story. We were about to enter the Great Real Time Strategy Bloodbath of 1997 and we had a plot you could sum up in one paragraph. Were we crazy?!?

Yes and no.

The lack of story might have turned off a wider audience, but it left plenty of room for all sorts of great expansion and extrapolation. There was room for players to project their own imagination into the story. After I handed off that doc, I didn't write another word about the TA universe. That was okay. Everybody else ran with it. The mission designers added a ton of ideas and all sorts of interesting plot twists. Fan fiction has taken the saga of the Arm and the Core to a whole new level. The Core is no longer a two dimensional villain, and the Arm isn't just a bunch of pouting malcontents. A real, vibrant universe now hangs on the bones of Total Annihilation's spartan backstory.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Not for all the test tubes in the world.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Flaming Zombie Rats

Copyright 2001 Microsoft Corporation

This is another of the early visual prototype screens produced by Gary Hanna and his awesome team in the Fall of 2001.

People have sometimes asked why our version of the French Quarter was so twisty and bendy when the city of New Orleans was originally laid out using straight Cartesian principles. That's mostly a question of art direction, but I'm convinced that part of this has to do with the city itself. It just feels bendy. After a few Hurricanes, everything does. Even Descartes would have a hard time finding his hotel.

Ah, flaming zombie rats. We hardly knew ye. These were probably my favorite concept among the first generation of monsters we created for Voodoo Vince. They sort of floated around the French Quarter moaning and farting little fireballs. They were eventually cut and replaced with the Bomber Beetles. They were charming, in a bizarre sort of way, but were too lackluster and sad once we saw them in action.

Another part of the game that saw numerous changes was the combat system. The first approach we tried can be seen in the way Vince is attacking the hapless FZR. At one point we tried a system where all combat was carried out by Vince harming himself. Each time he stabbed, beat or burned himself a jolt of magical stuff would create the appropriate reaction in the enemies.

It had potential but there were some intrinsic problems, most of which had to do with Vince feeling too isolated from the monsters. I'll get into that whole story in a later post.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

TA-ncient History #.05: The Happy Layoff

This should have been the first post in the TA-ncient History series since these pictures predate that first TA screen by a few months. What we have here is one of those things you can chalk up to fate, coincidence, kismet, or whatever you choose to call blind stupid luck.

Before coming to work at Humongous Entertainment and hammering away on Really Cool War Game with Chris, I worked nearby at Squaresoft, Inc. in Redmond. That studio created Secret of Evermore for the SNES, but 16-bit consoles were on the way out. While our fate was being decided some of us worked on concepts for possible future titles. A small group of us started tossing around ideas for a real time strategy game. Warcraft 2 was a huge craze around the office and we were pretty thrilled about the notion of working on an RTS game.

The concept was tentatively called Alien Reign, which is ironic given how similar that is to Dark Reign, a much anticipated competitor to Total Annihilation. The concept never got past the early half-baked zygote stage, but some interesting things occurred along the way.

We were just ramping up on 3D at Squaresoft during the completion of Evermore, and I was interested in finding tools that would be simple and easy for artists to pick up and learn quickly. KPT Bryce seemed like it had possibilities. I also wanted a look that wasn't obviously made of tiles like most RTS games. I hoped our backgrounds could have larger pieces of nicely rendered terrain.

These pictures from March of 1996 are the result. I did the terrain. The buildings and robot were designed by our art director Daniel Dociu then modeled and rendered by Square's resident Alias guru Brad Clarkson.

This concept never went anywhere, but it helped get my brain in gear for what was to come. Some of the same factors would help my approach to building the art for Total Annihilation. The art crew at Square had little 3D experience -- most of the original TA crew had even less. Some had never worked in 3D at all. Accessible tools like Bryce and Lightwave helped make TA possible, and reasonably quick to produce.

This little thought experiment helped set the stage in more ways than that. Squaresoft laid us off and closed their Redmond office in the Spring of 1996. There were some very talented people looking for work, including our staff composer, Jeremy Soule. I doubt I would have given Humongous a shot if Jeremy hadn't encouraged me to check them out. Our presence there eventually helped to pull in other former Squaresoft folks, like programmers Bartosz Kijanka, Rick Saenz, Jeff Petkau (inspiration for the Jeffy) and artists John Baron, Rebecca Coffman, Jarrett Holderby and Peter Fries, all of whom contributed a lot to the Total Annihilation products. So, Squaresoft's loss was definitely TA's gain.

It's a small world. I was sitting in Redmond thinking up ways to incorporate 3D art into an RTS game. It turns out there was a guy just a couple miles away working on an engine for an RTS game with 3D height maps. Once those two thing met up, very good things started to happen.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Main Street Lower GI

Voodoo Vince was lucky enough to have some fine, fine level designers and artists.

Above is the sort of crude approximation I would make for the level layout guys. This is a diagram for Main Street from the very first draft of the Voodoo Vince design doc. You might noticed one or two things called out that didn't make it into the game. But, like all our levels, it ended up being much more rich and detailed than my rudimentary, blocky concept. John Baron and Joe Mullenix added incredible hidden tunnels, strange knick knacks and controller-crushing platform challenges. The artists went on to make it cool, beautiful and filled with all sorts of inside jokes and visual puns. More on that later.

This is a simplified shot of the final geometry for Main Street. Anybody who played the game and got lost there can now see why. I always thought the top-down shots of our levels had a very intestinal look, which makes sense since Vince usually goes in one end and out the other.

Bon App├ętit!


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pixelus Maximus

Copyright 1993 TecMagik

I couldn't resist. Back before I became the mighty gaming magnate I am today, I was a humble pixel jockey. I worked on a number of games for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System at a small development house in Issaquah, Washington. The company was called Manley & Associates (later the late EA Seattle). It was my first job in the game industry.

This is from the Pink Goes To Hollywood sidescroller Manley developed for TecMagik, starring the license-alicious Pink Panther. I noticed most of the development credit on the web is incorrectly copied from the Sega Genesis port by a different studio, which was in fact based on Manley's SNES version.

The picture is made up of sprites and background tiles I created for the Robin Hood themed level using the venerable workhorse of game art: Deluxe Paint from Electronic Arts. This dates from 1993, the heyday of 16-bit consoles.

Just look at those luscious pixels! Ye gods, they're huge! They could put an eye out. These are pixels to be reckoned with. I used to name each of them. The one in the upper left is Chet. A family of five could live inside pixels like that. Each 16x16 tile only had 16 colors, all of which strained my 386 running Norton Commander to the limit. You had to make each one count. None of this willy nilly RGB stuff. There was no spooling your bloated assets to a hard drive. Nosiree.

Screenshots were usually pretty lousy back then. By the time they were screengrabbed, separated into CMYK and printed in magazines (there wasn't much of an Internet yet), you usually ended up looking at a mushy little postage stamp. So, here is some stuff from the original assets in all it's glory. Savor the days when game art was like a mosaic floor in a very fancy bathroom.

Heeeyyy... There's an idea.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Loving Ink for Vince

Well, cool! The fine folks over at Play Magazine compiled a list the top 25 character platformers of all time for their September issue. Our boy Vince managed to snag a place among some pretty stellar company. Go snag a copy if you haven't already. Buy two so you have one in mint condition to show your grandchildren.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vince Cutting Room Floor #1: Toxic Alley

Setting a game in New Orleans just seemed like a cool idea since my first trip there in 1996. No other place in the US has that amazing sense of carefree creepiness. After we received the letter of intent from Microsoft, ten of us went down there. This was partly to celebrate finally landing a publisher after a year of shopping the concept, but most of our time was spent gathering an immense trove of visual reference.

Beepsters in New Orleans

We poked around in the bayou, various plantations and of course the city itself. Besides the usual touristy pictures we took many gigs of texture reference from walls, streets, puddles and trees. The textures you seen in Voodoo Vince really are from New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

Now where is that pesky Crawdad Jimmy?

This was taken near a backwoods hunting shack. The water was teeming with alligators. The fanboat driver/guide was kind enough to advise against trailing our fingers in the water, otherwise the gators might enjoy a "Fing-uh Mac-nugget."

We had to spend a lot of time in the French Quarter. It was strictly business. Yup. Uh-huh.

After we got back to the Northwest, and I dove into writing the design doc for Voodoo Vince. This was in the Spring of 2001. I was aware that flooding was a persistent issue with New Orleans. Even the first city engineer in 1718 advised against building a city there saying "Dudes, this place is gonna flood... a lot!" or something like that... only in French. I thought a flooded portion of the French Quarter would make sense as part of the destruction our villain levels against New Orleans. And no ordinary flood would do. I specified water oozing with toxic waste.

Copyright 2001 Microsoft Corporation

This segment of the French Quarter was to be called Toxic Alley. The idea was to have Vince use a frail hanglider to go from one end to the other, using updrafts and tiny landing places while avoiding powerlines and the toxic waters below.

Copyright 2001 Microsoft Corporation

In light of events a year ago in New Orleans, it is fortunate that this part of the game was cut, though there are some eerie parallels. This sub-level of the game never made beyond the first draft of the design document. Toxic Alley only exists today as pieces of concept art by the ridiculously talented Doug Williams.


Friday, September 01, 2006

TA-ncient History #1: Pixel People

I went to work in May of 1996 at Humongous Entertainment. I was hired to be the lead artist on something called Really Cool Wargame. For the first six months I shared a tiny, stuffy room with project lead and creator, Chris Taylor. That was a great time. By the time we finished preproduction we had concocted the Cavedog Entertainment brand to set our dark, explodey game apart from Humongous Entertainment's delightful family fare. The game was also given its final name, Total Annihilation.

Total Annihilation is pretty well known for its polygonal buildings and units, but in the summer of 1996 we were building a game that only had polygonal vehicles. We fully expected to use 2D sprites for buildings and human characters (yes, humans). Here is the sole surviving composite of Total Annihilation in its infancy, dating from June of 1996.

Copyright 1996 Humongous Entertainment

It's pretty silly, but keep in mind that one month before this the game consisted of a day-glo green mesh on a blue background and an untextured 20 polygon tank. The Commander is the big silly muscle guy beneath the placeholder, um... I'll say airplane factory. His strange appearance can be explained by an early version of TA's backstory, but I'll save that for a later post.

Once we were allowed to raise our minimum spec to a mighty Pentium 90 and a huge (though still laughable) 16 megs of RAM, we did some tests and decided to go all-polygonal for anything that moved in the game. The Pixel People were thankfully banished to the scrapheap of things that might have been. The rest is gaming history.

I have an immense trove of TA and Cavedog related memorabilia. I plan to display some of it on this blog. My mouldering heap includes concept art, original drafts of a couple different backstories, storyboards, early box mockups and loads of other strange stuff. So, stay tuned for more obscure crap than you can shake a D-Gun at.