7/17/2013 6:46:21 AM - Interview with Denis Murphy of The Gaming Liberty

Here's an interview that I gave to Denis Murphy on 3/21/2013.

- TZ




Denis Murphy (DM):

Give us a brief background on yourself (perhaps a bit about your programming history).

Tony Zurovec (TZ):

I was growing up just as computers were starting to enter the home. I always had a strong affinity for anything technological in nature, and incessant pleading on my part eventually convinced my father to purchase a Timer Sinclair ZX-81 for me. I started programming on that machine and learned a few valuable lessons, but even back then its 16K of RAM – an upgrade from the default 1K - seemed pretty limiting. I never managed to successfully save any of my programs to tape, and thus whenever I turned the machine on I’d have to write a new program to amuse myself.

I played around a bit on other people’s Apple IIs. I can still remember staring at the mail-order prices in magazines month after month and resigning myself to the fact that they were far beyond my financial reach. Even back then, Apple stuck to premium pricing. I got a Commodore 64 when they were first released, but wound up returning it when I found that the “voices” that they advertised so prominently wouldn’t actually allow the thing to create human speech that sounded like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica.

I eventually got an Atari 800XL, and that machine changed everything for me. I spent countless days and nights programming it. I must have started at least a dozen games – and didn’t come close to finishing any of them. I guess I had more ambition and imagination than perseverance in those days. I spent a lot of time on bulletin boards, but long distance back then was extremely expensive and one bad month led to an astronomical phone bill and a week of painting my grandmother’s house as recompense. That led me into phreaking, and I had soon written my own long distance access code scanner. I never paid for long distance again. It’s probably somewhat ironic that the most sophisticated software I ever created on the Atari was something designed for sheer mischief. I called it a “Bulletin Board Destruction Set”, and not only finished it but wound up rewriting it from scratch several times, each time in an attempt to shoehorn ever more functionality into a memory space that seemed more and more confining every day.

I moved on to the Commodore Amiga after that. It was the first machine for which I had access to lot of books explaining its hardware and software, and that helped result in a rapid advance in my programming capabilities. I quickly learned ‘C’ and adopted it as my programming language of choice, although compiling was painfully slow until I invested in an exorbitantly expensive and spectacularly fast Motorola 68020 CPU. I began to get much more serious about creating utilities and games that might one day earn me a bit of money and save me from a dreary lifetime of electrical engineering, and eventually wound up spending the better part of a year developing a game that I called “The Deceiver”.

DM:

How did you come about joining Origin Systems?

TZ:

In 1990 I was working on a tile-based fantasy game for the Amiga – similar in concept to the extremely popular Ultima series, but with far more advanced graphics and a lot of dedicated editors – that I called “The Deceiver”. Origin was one of the most high profile computer game developers in the world, and a friend of mine moved next to a guy that was dating the founder’s sister and also worked for the company. I spoke with the guy and got him to set up an interview for me, and in late 1990 ventured up to Austin to show off my game.

The funny part of the story is that in those days I would have gladly worked for Origin for free if I could have afforded it, but I’d recently bought an MR2 Turbo and had a very large monthly car payment. I’d gone to college in Austin and knew exactly what it would cost for me to live there again, and even though it killed me I had to turn down their first two offers. Dallas Snell, Origin’s General Manager at the time, called back a third time and offered something close enough to what I needed that I figured that I could just make up the difference by living on ramen noodles and crackers in perpetuity. I spoke with Snell a year or so later, and he said that the demo game that I’d shown was so far beyond what aspiring applicants typically showed that they never had any doubt that they’d be hiring me. If I’d have known that then I might have held out for a fourth offer and managed to afford some spaghetti or something.

DM:

After working on a number of games with Origin Systems, you began working on Crusader No Remorse, a game in which you had plenty of creative input. How did the idea of Crusader come about, and what did you hope to achieve with it?

TZ:

One of my favorite childhood games was Castle Wolfenstein by Muse Software. The technology was so primitive when it was released for the Apple II in 1981 that its execution was highly flawed, but some of the fundamental ideas behind the game were absolutely fantastic. Every so often – as computing power continued to increase – I’d think back about that title and how much farther I could push the basic concept with modern technology. Crusader was my answer to that question.

I hoped to achieve a couple different things with Crusader. On the practical side, I wanted a commercial success that would justify Origin entrusting me with the time and money to develop additional projects of my own design in the future. Simply aiming for commercial success, though, struck me as an awful waste of opportunity. As I noted in the official game guide in 1995, I wanted Crusader to make a political statement – in essence, to immortalize a bit of how I thought about the world. I saw a real danger in society’s inclination to gradually – over the course of decades and centuries – trust government with ever more power, and I thought that as a result the distant future would be far more Orwellian than most people realized. In that regard, Crusader is a cautionary tale, but it’s a lesson that I don’t think most people will ever grasp due to the inordinately slow progression from free society to oppressive dystopia.

DM:

Crusader was the first title you worked on that wasn't already part of an established franchise. Was this liberating/daunting for you?

TZ:

It was a bit of both. I really liked working on the Ultima series, but I found it frustrating and constraining at times – far more so towards the latter half of Ultima VIII. It’s very difficult to sacrifice two years of your life and see a game that you played for hundreds of hours in your youth veer off into what you think is completely the wrong direction, and to have no ability to change it. In the end, I wanted to be able to create a world of my own, and I definitely wanted the final say on what would go into it.

It was extremely liberating – exhilarating – for me to be able to design my own game and fiction, but it was also incredibly nerve wracking. It didn’t help that there was nothing like Crusader out in the market. It occurred to me on more than one occasion that even if the game eventually turned out exactly as I wanted that it might not find an audience. As issue after issue came up during development, all that I could do was keep pushing ahead and going with what I liked – with what I personally found appealing.

DM:

For Crusader how did you manage to become a director on the project among other things? Also, creatively what did this entail?

TZ:

As mentioned, I had grown increasingly frustrated with the design direction of Ultima VIII, and in late 1993 I started to seriously think about what I would do after it shipped and there was a break in the development schedule. I had already proven myself as an extremely technical lead programmer with a good sense of game design, and wound up pitching a real-time strategy game after seeing Westwood’s phenomenal Dune II. That idea got shot down because Origin’s management didn’t think that the genre could generate sufficient sales to justify the investment. As a result, I started thinking about what else I could create – in a reasonably short period of time, with a relatively small team - with the technology that I’d been developing for Ultima VIII. I probably considered a dozen different ideas, but kept coming back to Castle Wolfenstein. I didn’t think that its fundamental ideas had ever been done justice, and I saw an opportunity in doing a story-driven action game that would be visually different than the multitude of first-person shooters that were hitting the market at that time, and that would intersperse enemies with a detailed world filled with a variety of traps and puzzles. I wound up writing a fairly extensive document detailing the background fiction and primary game mechanics, and made the initial pitch to Richard Garriott – Origin’s founder and the head of the Ultima production group - in his office. Crusader was approved a short time later, and I started recruiting my team.

Creatively, my responsibilities on Crusader were extremely diverse. I wrote all of the original background fiction, recruited and/or hired all of the team members, operated as Producer, Director, and Lead Programmer, handled the budgetary issues, worked extremely closely with the art and design leads to ensure that I got the look and gameplay mechanics that I wanted, worked with marketing, creative services, and my lead artist on the box design, manuals, clue book, and advertising materials, and many, many other things. I remember running down the halls on many occasions because my schedule was so tight and walking would have cost me precious minutes. At any given time, there were usually at least half a dozen things that demanded my attention. It was the most fun that I ever had in the gaming industry, and the most exhausting.

DM:

How exactly was the engine improved compared to when it was used in Ultima VIII?

TZ:

There were a large number of significant improvements made for the Crusader engine, but because I had designed the Ultima VIII engine far more intelligently than its predecessors the changes were able to be accomplished with a relatively small programming team…and some very long nights.

The most obvious improvement was the addition of support for high resolution Super VGA graphics, which as noted required the creation of a snapping camera system. A completely new music system – featuring digital samples rather than the lame FM synthesis that was standard with other PC games – was also added. A very flexible and capable trigger system was created and allowed the designers to craft the intricate levels. The artificial intelligence was rewritten from scratch and gained entirely new features like auditory ranges and line-of-sight awareness. Support for ranged weaponry - which included all sorts of things like auto-targeting functionality and optimizations to the collision detection system – was also added. Those are just some of the larger changes that were made to the engine – there were many, many more.

DM:

Tony, in our previous interview in 2010, you said that you felt Crusader was “a game for the microwave generation”, due to the fact that you could jump in, and whether your played for 20 minutes or 2 hours, have an equally satisfying experience, both narratively and gameplay-wise. Could you explain this a little more in detail.

TZ:

Every once in a while I’d get five or ten free minutes and look for a simple game to burn a bit of time, and I thought that was fairly representative of a good number of potential players. Many people in modern society can’t devote large amounts of contiguous time to a game, but they can find a few minutes here and a few minutes there.

I thought that Crusader could allow people to progress in small increments if they so chose without having to sacrifice anything that would really be missed. As a result, there are no empty rooms in Crusader – there’s always something of interest. There are multiple solutions to the numerous puzzles contained within the game, and the solutions are always in close proximity to the puzzle and thus don’t require extensive searching, which I found tedious and boring. The path through the levels is predominantly linear so that you always know which way to head, and the sections are cordoned off behind you to prevent you from accidentally backtracking into an area and wandering around rooms that you’ve already inspected, or even getting lost. As a result, you can play Crusader through to completion in a single extended session, or gradually progress over the course of hundreds of five-minute sessions.

DM:

For Crusader were you technically doing anything that wasn't done before in previous games you worked on?

TZ:

Crusader led the gaming industry forward in several important areas. It was the first PC action-adventure game to utilize high resolution 640x480 256-color Super VGA. That was a hugely controversial move at the time because no machine could render an entire Super VGA screen quickly enough to allow for smooth scrolling – something that had been standard in most action-adventure games for several years. Thus, Crusader had to adopt a snapping camera system that only occasionally forced the screen to update its position. That sacrifice was viewed by most as unforgivable, but I was absolutely resolute in my belief that it was a fantastic trade-off, and I was willing to bet the game on it. I thought that the visual quality enabled by Super VGA was so superior to VGA that players would view it as revolutionary.

Crusader shipped exclusively on CD-ROM. Prior to that, practically every game that wasn’t based upon full motion video – like Rebel Assault – shipped on floppy disks. That was done because every PC contained a floppy disk drive, but only a much smaller subset contained CD-ROMs. Origin’s marketing department thought that a diminished potential audience would result in dramatically lower sales. I argued that a lot of people that wouldn’t purchase whatever inferior product could be delivered on floppies might spring for a radically enhanced game that took full advantage of the massive memory present on a CD-ROM. The argument raged on and off for several months, and all the while I just kept having the team produce content as if we were shipping on CD-ROM. Eventually, we had gone so far in that direction that there was no choice but to discard floppies as a potential distribution medium.

On the design front, Crusader broke new ground in establishing the concept of environmental destruction. I’d been loaded to bear with machine guns, plasma rifles, rocket launchers, and every other weapon imaginable countless times in other games over the years, but regardless of how much firepower was eventually unleashed the environment itself was always unaffected. I thought that it would be far more interesting – far more fun – if the environment dynamically reflected the chaos that occurred during a firefight. When the shots started flying in Crusader, computer panels would explode, monitors would shatter, and glass walls would crumble to the ground. As more and more destructible detail was added, the testers responded with ever more glee - it actually felt like a lot of firepower was being unleashed, and they’d never seen anything like it. Wreaking havoc on the environment became a game in and of itself – something that was every bit as enjoyable as the actual combat.

DM:

Could you talk a little about Echo Base, how it served as hub for missions within the game, why you thought this was important, and if you felt this almost RPG-like aspect of the game successfully helped build the world of Crusader. If so, how?

TZ:

Echo Base’s primary function was to provide the player with motivation and context that would draw them deeper into the story. It helped establish that the Resistance was severely outnumbered and outgunned by the government forces, and that their only chance of turning the tide was to employ hit-and-run tactics while they gradually recruited more and more of the frightened populace to their cause. Their limited numbers and the need for extreme secrecy lent believability to the idea that individuals – like the player’s character - would be sent out alone on important missions. There was a lot of information revealed during the missions, but the base allowed the player to put an actual face to a variety of individual characters. They saw firsthand the distrust and fear that people felt towards their character, and that made the gradual transition to trust and respect more poignant. The betrayal that was eventually revealed was made all the more bitter by the fact that it largely negated what had effectively been the reward that you received after each mission – a slowly improving relationship with the characters in the base.

DM:

Did you expect it to receive the critical praise it got?

TZ:

I still remember Origin’s head of sales approaching me the week after the game’s release - just prior to an executive meeting - and stating, “You’ve got a hit on your hands.”

I loved developing Crusader but the reality is that it was also incredibly stressful. It was the first time that I was able to call all of the shots, and I had no way of knowing whether or not there were a lot of gamers out there with similar tastes. At one point, unrelenting anxiety led me to believe that I was getting an ulcer. After almost a year and a half of spending every waking moment on Crusader, that one simple, unforgettable statement marked the point at which I finally started to relax.

The reviews came rolling in after that, and they were extremely positive. The game won several Action Game of the Year awards, kicked Doom out of the top spot on Computer Gaming World’s Readers’ Choice charts, and held the #1 spot there for almost a year. Most games that do well – just like movies - generate huge sales in their first and second months and then fall off significantly. Crusader started out with fairly good monthly sales figures, and those figures then hung at pretty close to that level for almost a year. I always attributed that to good word of mouth – to people telling their friends about the game.

I was surprised by Crusader’s commercial success. I’d hoped that No Remorse might generate 100,000 sales or so – something that, in those days, would qualify the game as a certifiable hit and ensure that I was able to continue developing my own games. In the end, No Remorse sold well over a quarter million copies and generated a higher return on investment than any other standalone product in Origin’s history.

DM:

What was your goal for No Regret that wasn't already achieved with No Remorse?

TZ:

I thought that No Remorse turned out exceptionally well, but the reality of the development schedule was that we were always very pressed for time. That meant that the game shipped with a multitude of small issues that – when taken as a whole – prevented the game from reaching its full potential. The sales department wanted another Crusader for the following Christmas, but that meant a schedule barely half that of the original. Incidentally, that’s why there is no numeral in No Regret’s title. Numeric sequels in those days – as opposed to mission disks - usually included significant enhancements to the game engine and mechanics, and I thought that it would be dishonest to pitch the game as something that it was not. No Regret would be a standalone game and contain far more improvements than a mission disk, but it wouldn’t feature any dramatic changes. I always thought of No Regret as something like Crusader V1.6. The sales department hated that decision, but the original’s success gave me enough clout to get what I wanted, and I wasn’t interested in trying to maximize sales at the expense of integrity.

I saw No Regret as giving me the opportunity to polish all of the rough edges in No Remorse, and at the top of the list of the things that I wanted to address was the consistency of quality. It took several months to establish the right level of detail for the game art in No Remorse, and after a standard was established there wasn’t time to go back and update all of the initial work. As a result, the quality of the art varied a bit more than I’d have liked. With all of the technical issues out of the way, No Regret was able to set an even higher bar for the art quality, and maintain consistency throughout the entire game. The same type of problem held true for the level design, and it was addressed in similar fashion.

I sat down with Jason Yenawine for a couple of days and we incorporated his Wing Commander video playback system – which was much better than what we had in the first Crusader – into No Regret. Its superior image compression and support for 16-bit color made a dramatic difference in the presentation quality of the cinematic elements.

The control scheme for No Regret was overhauled so that it felt more fluid and responsive. The enemy AI and pathfinding were improved, which made combat a bit more challenging. The list went on and on, and while most of the changes simply made what was already good a bit better, the overall effect was that No Regret felt considerably more refined than No Remorse.

DM:

Do you feel that the stripped down Playstation/Saturn ports lost any of Crusaders magic? (For instance, in the fact that Echo Base isn't even in them to the degree it is in the PC version.)

TZ:

I was against porting No Remorse to the consoles. I knew that they didn’t have enough horsepower to do the game justice, and I thought that the sacrifices that would have to be made in order to get the game running would result in financial failure in the hypercompetitive console market. As but one of many examples, the high resolution Super VGA that I’d deemed absolutely critical to the success of the PC version wasn’t even remotely possible on the consoles. The outside developer responsible for the port actually did an amazing job in getting as much functionality onto the consoles as they did, but in the end, it all played out pretty much exactly as I expected. The PC version outsold the console versions by an astronomical margin.

DM:

It's been 17 years since Crusader No Remorse was released, yet it still has quite a strong fanbase. Why do you think it has endured so long?

TZ:

I think that Crusader’s use of high resolution Super VGA graphics helped cement its place in some people’s memories. PC games had utilized low resolution VGA graphics for almost a decade when Crusader came out and showed the player something that looked dramatically better than anything they’d previously seen. The jump from VGA to Super VGA was gargantuan in terms of the increase in visual quality that it allowed, whereas every resolution increase since has had less and less of a noticeable impact.

I think that Crusader’s destructible environments are also a large part of the reason why so many people remember it so fondly. Crusader didn’t just present the player with a dramatically better looking environment than anything that had come before it – it also allowed you to blow that environment to smithereens. During the development of Crusader I used to always explain that people inherently like to break things – it’s a bit cathartic, and something that you can’t often do in the real world without consequence. Crusader allowed the player to arm themselves with all manner of weaponry, dropped them off in a beautifully detailed China shop doused in napalm and brimming with enemies, and basically said to the player, “Go get ‘em.” I mean, really…who’s going to forget the first game that let you do that?

Crusader’s gameplay mechanics were also pretty unique for the time, and lent a level of depth to an action game that was extremely rare. I’m sure that quite a few people would list the wide variety of traps and puzzles, the multiple solutions to the different obstacles, and the dizzying array of weaponry and death effects as being at the top of their list.

All of those things were important, and I suspect that the halo surrounding the game is largely the result of so many uncommon things having worked so well together. I know that some people really liked the fiction, but I’m not sure where they’d rank it in terms of the game’s most memorable aspects. Crusader’s background fiction is probably the thing that holds the most appeal to me, though, because while the game’s graphics and gameplay primarily live on in memories, ideas are immortal – they’re just as relevant now as they were when I wrote Crusader.

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