Saturday, February 24, 2007

TA-ncient History #9: A New Cave

Okay. Before I get into the whole E3 thing I had some other odds and ends to cover...

The months leading up to E3 in 1997 were what you'd expect. For the first year of work on Total Annihilation I averaged 65 hour work weeks, but this soon went to 75. 80 and 100 hour weeks were common. This isn't a big deal to anyone who has worked in games. This was universal with the whole team on Total Annihilation. It's fair to say that most of the game was created in one type of crunch mode or another.

A screen from June of 1997. This was the last iteration before the look of the UI was finalized.

Features were flying in and my old temporary art was replaced at a steady clip thanks to our ever-growing art team. Units were in decent shape. Clay Corbisier, Mike Fisher and Keven Pun had been making them for almost year at this point. But I was still doing all the background and interface art.

An early, cheesy pass at the mission briefing screen. My layout would remain about the same, though the color and texture was much better in the final version.

By the spring of 1997 we finally added a few background artists and things picked up there as well. Artists John Baron and Mark West started with Bryce template files I supplied, but added plenty of their own ideas along the way. John came up with a handy Photoshop action file which aligned the height map to the rendered images more or less automatically. I was using a crude system with registration marks and basic eyeballing before this came along. Steve Thompson and Casey Burpee rendered a lot of trees, rocks and other planetary decor items.

Help with the background art came along a bit too late. We were barely able to create the custom maps needed for the missions, leaving very little time for modular map sections. This is why there are so many oddball chunks of terrain in the original Total Annihilation map editor. We did a better job planning the map assets for Core Contingency and Kingdoms, but I always wish we'd done more modular, reusable map segments for the original TA. Then again, there are tons of great tilesets thanks to the 3rd party community.

The biggest big change in early 1997 was to our workspace itself. Until then, the Total Annihilation team was scattered throughout the building occupied by Humongous Entertainment. Humongous went through a number of dramatic growth spurts over the years, and the company filled a series of rambling, segmented spaces at the Woodinville West business park as they took over more and more of the building. Except for a few of the programmers, most team members were sprinkled in ones and twos throughout the premises.

The Total Annihilation team was working in nooks and crannies throughout building A.

All this changed when Humongous nabbed yet another suite in building B, across the parking lot. The Total Annihilation team was finally in one place. The air had a strange stank to it. The floors were always kind of springy, but at least we had a cave of our own. The previous tenant had left all their furniture months before and never returned, so most of us finally stopped working on the ubiquitous folding banquet tables that have supported countless computers in the game industry.

The TA team was eventually housed here in building B. A suite on the second floor (other side of the building) is where we finished TA and TA:CC.

A large space downstairs was occupied by an evangelical church whose weeknight activities often spilled into the lobby area. We would carefully tiptoe around groups of kids reciting bible lessons as we made our way back from dinner to continue work on a game about killer robots. The whole thing felt pretty surreal.

TA was no longer the only game in the works for Cavedog. Preproduction for Amen: The Awakening, was underway at yet another office park a few miles north in Canyon Park. Good & Evil was also in the works, only months after we started Total Annihilation. A flying shooter called Glider Wars had already been started and canceled before TA ever made its debut.

Before TA was out the door, Cavedog had all sorts of irons in the fire.

Humongous itself was doing great with its kid's titles and was outgrowing office space faster than it could be leased. The church was nice enough to lend Humongous it's space for its weekly company meeting since the company had grown to over 150 people by this point.

The new space had good and bad sides. It was great to have everybody in one place. I wasn't wearing out a pair of shoes every week just checking in with the art team, and it was easier to pull together for TA's last big push. This definitely helped to cement the team's identity. The down side was that we didn't feel as much a part of Humongous, or even the rest of Cavedog for that matter. I think the fact that Cavedog wasn't so much one company, as a collection of separate fiefdoms would prove harmful to its long term success.

I was no longer sharing a dank little room with Chris, but there was almost no time for the spontaneous brainstorming that characterized our first year on Total Annihilation. We were both managing more people and the game had to get out the door. Working on TA at this point was less about chemistry, and more about just surviving.

The project had plenty of momentum by the middle of 1997. Once we got through E3 it would be time for the final stretch.

Ok... Next up, I'll really talk about E3. Really.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fun With Sculpy Chapter 2: Tombstone Serenade

After dealing with RL fun for the last couple of months, it's nice to get back to something meaningful, like posting time wasting diversions on this blog.

Yes, I slowly made my way through the process of finishing the Vince statue I mentioned here 30 or 40 years ago (above). Below is how the statue looked with after the basic sculpting was done. I used some mineral oil to give some surfaces a smoother, more finished look, though the piece is still covered with finger marks and crude details that a better sculptor might have refined and improved. I shoved this in the oven and baked at 275 degrees per quarter inch of Sculpy. The polymer doesn't change much in appearance after it is baked, though it seems to lighten a bit.

Now that the Sculpy was hardened into a plastic-like substance, I broke out my aging liquid acrylic paints. I didn't really have a strong vision for a color scheme, so I went with some basic, unimaginative hues. I did a couple coats of the base colors, then did a couple more coats of dry brush work to give things like the tombstone a bit more texture.

I should have used the macro setting, but here is a fuzzy detail of the flipside of the tombstone.

And that's it. I finally got that sculpting bug out of my system. I did another piece while I was producing this one, but I want it to be a surprise for its recipient. I'll post pics of that one once I ship it and the deed is done.