The Mak­ing Of: Tres­passer

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS -

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.

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