The Making Of: Trespasser
Seamus Blackley explains how his Jurassic Park game pushed PCS a little too far
with one of know what went wrong When you want to you go to the most hyped games of the Nineties, tells us about the the source. Seamus Blackley triumphs of Trespasser trials, tribulations and by Nick Thorpe Words by Ian Dransfield, interview
eamus Blackley has had an extremely successful career – a programming prodigy with physics engines, a career as a Hollywood agent, the man credited with being the brains behind the original Xbox. He’s done a lot, and he has a lot to be proud of. But 2018 is the 20th anniversary of the one major black spot on the man’s resume – so it’s something we had to talk to him about. Trespasser –a Jurassic Park tie-in not based directly on a film, starring Hollywood talent, offering an open world to explore, and featuring an advanced, cutting edge physics engine… was one of the most notoriously poor games ever released.
“We had written this beautiful software renderer,” Seamus tells us, “And right when we were ready to release, the entire media filled up with all of these crazy, unrealistic promises about the future of hardware. The first 3DFX chip came out at that time, which, of course, was completely incompatible with this elegant software solution we had for drawing our forests. People would plug in the hardware and it didn’t work because of how... it just couldn’t. But people didn’t know anything about 3D graphics. It was still the phase where the
magical computer would make everything right, and when it didn’t, we took the hit. Yeah, it was a hell of a thing, a hell of a thing. Plus I just cocked it up magnificently as a leader, so there’s that also.”
Rewinding a bit, it’s safe to say dinosaurs weren’t the plan – after playing a lead role in the creation of Looking Glass’s Flight Unlimited in
1995, Seamus wanted to move on to a combat version of the game: “[I wanted to] be clever and do something else [Microsoft Flight Sim] couldn’t do, because we beat them the first time by making the airplanes fly properly, and then we could beat them a second time by making an F-16 and showing combat properly.” New management – thanks to new money – had appeared at the top of the studio, however, and its plan was to get Seamus to make more of the same. He disagreed, he resigned (some accounts say he was fired), and after a time he ended up in the employ of one Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Interactive. The movie company with a games division was a different flavour for Seamus, and from the very beginning his enthusiasm to work on a game based on Jurassic Park wasn’t exactly present.
the entire media filled up with all of these crazy, unrealistic promises Seamus Blackley
“Back then it was very much the case that the film people really thought of games as a distraction or a toy,” he says. “I had a different idea about that. I thought that this was an incredible storytelling medium, and I was very serious about it. I was actually very reluctant to make a game based on Jurassic Park because I had had success making games at Looking Glass that were their own stories.
“System Shock, Underworld, even Flight Unlimited were sort of a way of telling yourself a story, and I thought we had an opportunity here. Especially as I had innovated with these physics engines that I had written at Looking Glass, and I said, ‘Listen, the idea of being able to tell stories in worlds where you can have emergent behaviour, where you could actually figure things out yourself and everyone might do something a different way, increases the power of our medium over movies.’”
The Nineties saw an explosion of studios making games aping the movies – the democratisation
of FMV thanks to the CD format saw to that in a big way. But Seamus – thanks to his time at Looking Glass – wanted a different approach: one about the player, their story, and making their own way in things. Something that now, 20 years later, sounds about right for most big FPS productions. Back in 1998 it was tantamount to mutiny.
The idea was to build a game around the concept of not strong-arming the player into doing anything specific. An overarching goal? Sure. A closed-in walkway littered with waypoints and instructions telling you precisely how many steps to take at any given time? Not quite. The concept was player agency and it was central to the entire idea behind Trespasser: “I wanted to build a team around that concept,” Seamus says, “It turned out that the deal of being at Dreamworks was that I could have the money to do that if all I did was Jurassic Park.”
It wasn’t long until the differences between working at a game studio with plenty of releases under its belt and a movie studio with a small games wing became apparent. Executives and management types with zero gaming knowledge got on Seamus and his team’s back almost from the get-go. A lack of understanding permeated, and relationships were often fractious – but the work continued. Slippages occurred, as they would with any ambitious gaming project, but there was little understanding forthcoming from the movie-centric Dreamworks management. All the same, development was chugging along, making progress, and with more time Trespasser was going to live up to the hype that Seamus had been whipping up in the games press. Enter AMD.
“We had the physics engine, we had the sound system for the search engine,” Seamus says. “We had an event-driven story that was going on that handled all sorts of permutations. We had actors for one of the very first times, playing new characters in a game. We had Minnie Driver. We had Richard Attenborough. And we took it very seriously. We tried to write a really good story that was deep and revealed more things about Jurassic Park.
“At that point, it was the biggest picture that had ever come out, and so Steven and Universal giving us the opportunity to do that was a big deal, and we took it seriously. It was very exciting… right up until we had this AMD deadline.”
Seamus doesn’t remember the specifics, but a deal was signed with AMD that tied Trespasser into a set release date. Funding was dependent on hitting this date, so no more delays could be factored in – whatever the game was by October of 1998 is what the game had to be. Seamus is adamant with six to nine more months banging out the dents and tuning it up, Trespasser would have been a totally different beast. That didn’t happen.
it was the most miserable thing professionally i could have ever imagined Seamus Blackey
s per the AMD contract, in October 1998 Trespasser was released. Time has popped on the rose-tinted specs, and there’s a loyal, dedicated fanbase for the game still going strong to this day, doing wonderful things for it and banding together as a community like only truly great fans can. But none of that changes the fact that Trespasser was terrible. Near-enough broken, it had been hyped to ludicrous levels, released at the wrong time, rushed out the door, and left to rot in the cells after summary trial by public opinion. The game sold 50,000 copies, or thereabouts, and by all reasonable thinking should have been entirely forgotten by 1999. Yet here we are, still talking about Trespasser.
But why? Well, in short, it had some phenomenally good ideas for what could be in – what should be in – games of the post-arcade era. No lives and energy bars, no HUDS and onscreen hovering indicators, or scores and credits: just a realistic simulation of a fantasy setting, offering the sort of immersion you literally could not get in any other medium. Trespasser is still talked about because it brought together so many then-unique,
now-standard elements and honestly tried to make something truly special out of them. It failed, sure, but we all know those who play god love a trier.
The immediate aftermath wasn’t quite as considered, though, and the prerelease hype behind Trespasser had pushed it into a corner it had no chance of backing out of. It all turned into an experience that took Seamus many years to really move on from: “I was 27 or something,” he explains,”and I didn’t have any ability to stand up for myself and so I didn’t, and it was the most miserable thing professionally I could have ever imagined. Shipping something for people to look at and evaluate, all your peers, that you know isn’t done and doesn’t quite work right – worse, something that’s trying to innovate in a bunch of ways – if it’s not working right, might just stomp on that innovation. That’s what Trespasser did.”
But hindsight is a powerful tool. Coming to terms with the project and the changes it forced Seamus to go through personally and professionally have left the man in what seems like a better place
– as well as a place where explanations behind Trespasser’s many failures make sense. “There was no 3D hardware when we started the project,” Seamus says. “There was no idea there ever would be 3D hardware. The 3D hardware that existed was made by Silicon Graphics and was built in
their machines that cost millions of dollars. There were some people working on graphics cards, and they released them and, if you recall, the first generation were crap and didn’t work.
“We were doing texture mapping and all this stuff that had to do with that, and the reason that there wasn’t was because making the graphics hardware that could deal with data in that way is difficult to do. We needed to draw the forest, and so we needed a very clever algorithm that could draw things we take for granted today, but back then there was no way. You know, we were on machines that had 4MB of RAM if they were really good.”
Seamus admits he’s amazed what the team was able to get working, even for Trespasser’s compromised release. “We had a game that could have been the whole future of games,” he enthuses. “The way we talked about it was like that. I mean, maybe we should have been more conservative in promoting it, but we were excited. We thought we were bringing the future, and we had shipped games that did stuff – I’d shipped physics that were amazing and new and novel, and we’d shipped renderers that were amazing and new and novel in System Shock, and interactive storytelling. We’d done it, shipped it, got awards for it, and so we were really excited to do this.”
But the parts didn’t come together in time, the technology of 3D cards didn’t interact well with Trespasser’s software solutions, and the whole thing just ended up the perfect mess. If we didn’t know any better, it would almost seem like
Dennis Nedry had sabotaged a few backends at Dreamworks on his way to buy some shaving foam. Nevertheless, as Seamus says, you don’t ship something innovative unless it’s perfect – and Trespasser, not to hammer the point home too much, was far from perfect.
But that wasn’t down to a lack of ability or effort: “All of the guys who were able to do this were guys who had Phds and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics and math, because it’s hard,” Seamus says, “Not today, where you have an engine and you have a card, and everybody knows the card and how much memory and all this stuff and it’s all solved.”
he relative simplicity of utilising a physics-based engine in the creation of a modern game is worlds away from what the Dreamworks team had to deal with. Countless elements – rendering, clipping, ballistics, anything you can think of, it all had to be invented by Seamus and his coworkers. The end product might have been a rush-job, but the groundwork Trespasser laid didn’t go unnoticed. Many post-1998 tiles owe a debt of gratitude to this high-profile failure.
“It’s weird and screwed up,” Seamus says, “I mean, I think a lot of the stuff was a good idea, and a lot of people would copy those good ideas and then made it work right. That’s something that I think we’re really proud of. Everyone on the team should be really proud of that, and I think they are...
“Now, that said, I was an idiot and I ran the team terribly,” he continues. “I had been very successful at Looking Glass because we had guys around who would ship a lot of games, and when I went to build my new team in Los Angeles, I didn’t have that structure around and I really needed it. I had been so successful there that I was arrogant, and I screwed up pretty badly. I made myself into the guy writing all the physics, which was a huge research project, and I did well. I got pretty far compared to the teams of people who did it later, and all by myself... but it was while I was also running a project. That’s ludicrous. It was a horrible experience for the team to go through, I am sure.
“I learned a lot, and as a result we have Xbox, to be frank. I mean, that’s the trade. Upset about Trespasser? Go play Halo.”
It might sound like a joke, but Seamus is just being pragmatic here – Trespasser wasn’t what it should have been, it was mauled by the press and public, sold very few copies, and contributed to the downfall of Dreamworks Interactive. It was, by all fair measures, a failure. But it added so much to the world of gaming both directly and indirectly – from the features borrowed by other titles, latterly turned into expected, base level elements that don’t even raise an iota of surprise these days; through to Microsoft’s entry to the world of console gaming. Without Trespasser and its huge, public failure, we probably wouldn’t be in the situation we are today – Seamus recognises this, and is magnanimous about it all.
There is still a part of him, though, that looks back on Trespasser and wonders… what if? “It’s pretty good to bookend things, you know? I had the experience of getting to bookend the Duke controller issue on Xbox, where we reissued a new Duke controller. That was one of the things I didn’t enjoy about Xbox, but now it has a happy ending. I think the happy ending on Trespasser is that it’s coming around. It’s like Kipling said: ‘Everything turns out all right in the end. If it’s not all right yet, it’s just because it’s not the end yet…’ or something like that.”
i think a lot of the stuff was a good idea, and a lot of people would copy those good ideas and then made it work right Seamus Blackley
creative solutions to» [PC] The open world approach allowedNamely: hiding on a roof. problems like multiple raptors and no guns. » After Trespasser ’s development finished Seamus Blackley leftMicrosoft to Dreamworks Interactive for help create the Xbox.
good to shoot the dinos, » [PC] It never actually feels in any way about Trespasser.. and – for once – that’s actually a positive
» [PC] An epic battle betweenT-tex and Triceratops? Nah, more like a particularly badThree Stooges skit.
» [PC] The detritus of what was there before on Site B is sometimes captured well, but most of the time the island’s just empty.
» [PC] On the list of more egregious failings on Trespasser’s part, this doesn’t rank highly. But it is very Trespasser. Half-life about Trespasser, » [PC] There’s an ever-so-slight feeling of fare well for the latter. though comparisons between the two never
an arm was difficult when » [PC] Aiming with this wonky tentacle of got a raptor in your face. things were calm, let alone when you’ve
» [PC] Because the simple act of picking something up should definitely involve this much fiddly difficulty.