Retro Gamer

PAUL CUISSET

Programmer and game designer Paul Cuisset tells us about a career punctuated with videogame masterpiec­es, discusses his most recent project, Flashback 2, and shares his feelings about the industry, now and then

- Words by Guy Miquel-albert

Hi Paul, which childhood experience­s influenced your creativity as a grown-up?

The major factor was reading. As a sciencefic­tion enthusiast I read a few classics and anything related to technology has always interested me. I also enjoyed Eighties films, coming with new incredible special effects: Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey and

The Terminator are masterpiec­es. Also Star Wars. These films were offering incredible background­s. Computers were fascinatin­g: when the ZX81 was released I realised from watching advertisem­ents how extraordin­ary it was to be able to possess a small computer at home. At the time, computers were sort of a myth: a huge machine in a refrigerat­ed building with many people around wearing white coats. Knowing that it was possible to have the same thing at home triggered something in my mind.

What was your initial contact with videogames back then?

It was in college. I was studying computer sciences on mainframes, very big IT systems [like the] IBM 360. Imagine old-time computers again, with huge boards and white coats running around! In the student club there were a few Apple computers you could play videogames with – small text-based adventure games, or action games, like Lady Tut.

A big early game for you was your port of

Space Harrier to the Atari ST, but you hadn’t been provided with assets or source code. How did you develop this game adaptation?

We coped on our own! The father of Michaël Sportouch, our graphic designer, owned a small camcorder. We used to go to the Champs Elysées’ arcade in Paris to shoot the game, hiding. Once, the arcade’s boss caught us and expelled us. He did not understand what we were trying to do and thought we were competitio­n. We were much more discreet the following times. We had to spend a lot of coins since we needed to record all the game’s levels. We jotted down notes about all the enemy waves, and then reproduced the video recordings through code.

It sounds like a lot of work…

It was very good training requiring a substantia­l amount of work. We learned so much, all the more as it was Yu Suzuki’s works we had to study and reproduce. We had only developed a Breakout-style type of game before, Tonic Tile. It was very exciting for the three young people we were back then, a dream. When they chose our team we could hardly believe it.

Was it usual at the time to port arcade games to micro computers without any of the original assets?

I think it was like this at the time. Developers in charge of developing ports to C64 or ZX Spectrum were not [always] given any assets. Sega would never have provided us with the source code anyway. Small companies signed these kinds of contracts. Elite Systems owned the rights for Europe and we had to cope on our own to adapt the game. Contracts were not as large as they are nowadays.

What was your inspiratio­n when you developed Bio Challenge?

We already developed a Breakout-style videogame, from which you can find some elements. As a programmer, it had been a real technical challenge since Bio Challenge had to run at maximum speed, using some demo makers’ tricks. We were using more than 16

When I imagined a videogame I thought about it as a direct clash between me and the player

Paul Cuisset

colours, and that was above the Atari ST’S limits. The colour palettes had to be changed in real-time. Denis Mercier, the graphic designer, imagined the jumping concept to drop down platforms and kill monsters. At the time, level design and game design did not exist, technical point of view and gameplay were intertwine­d.

So developers had to be a one-man band and be involved in every aspect of their games?

Absolutely. We didn’t have much financial resources anyways, so we had to do everything on our own to reduce costs.

The difficulty in Delphine Software’s games was quite high. Was it the spirit of the times or specific game design choices?

It was really the spirit of the times. There were not so many games on the market and you could spend more time on one specific title. We wanted to make the games last as long as possible. I wouldn’t say we willingly did it artificial­ly. We were just used to challengin­g games.

Such as?

I remember having drawn a map on a notebook playing Dungeon Master for example. I also believe most people playing videogames at the time were not casual or mainstream gamers.

But sometimes the challenge was implemente­d in an awkward way, since the required testing resources were not as plentiful as today. When I imagined a videogame I thought about it as a direct clash between me and the player. We were happy to give them a hard time, and also knew that after overcoming a challenge, the reward would be proportion­al to its difficulty. We were not concerned about the markets and were developing videogames for ourselves. We were lucky enough to meet some success in sales but we were not trying to reach a wide audience.

Why did you decide to create point-andclick videogames? Did you feel the urge to develop extended narrative aspects for your games?

I have always loved telling stories. I am a compulsive reader and I think narrative aspects are essential. At some point I felt the need to create something with more structure, characters and a plot. Arcade games were interestin­g to me on a technical point of view, but less so as a player. I discovered adventure games with Sierra Online: King’s Quest, Space Quest. These were text-based adventure games where you had to type keywords, such as “examine this object”, or “go to this place”. The Atari ST was provided with a mouse, which was not necessaril­y the case of PCS. I knew all Atari ST users possessed a mouse, and this gave me the idea to create a point-and-click interface. You could give directions just by left-clicking on the right spot and choose keywords by right-clicking. It started with the same purpose but with the idea of simplifyin­g Sierra’s system. We chose to implement five possible actions and object combinatio­ns. This simplifica­tion led to the games we developed at Delphine Software.

Is there a French touch in the Eighties’ era of the videogames industry?

This is a very hard question ! I believe all French developers reject this designatio­n. At the time we didn’t like being related to it because it was describing a specific type of adventure game. There has necessaril­y been an influence and a specific genre associated with our culture: maybe we insisted on the storytelli­ng and artistic aspects at the expense of the gameplay, sadly. [Laughs] At the time the English developers had a great feeling with action games when we were more focussed on narrative aspects. I don’t really know if there was a French touch, but we influenced each other because we all worked more or less together. We necessaril­y impregnate­d each other, coming from the same society, same culture, same environmen­t. We were all in touch with each other, and maybe this created this specificit­y.

We didn’t care about the market, our concern was focussed primarily on whether our game was fun to play or not

Paul Cuisset

Flashback was originally going to be a game based on The Godfather series. How did you eventually end up developing Conrad’s adventures as we know them?

We were planning on developing The Godfather

in the future, as I was suggested to do, implying mafia organisati­ons and corporatio­ns. Conrad was a Corleone. We started creating the background and reached a result that was quite far from the original licence. One year later, they were quite shocked when we introduced the game to them, and they said it would not be possible to sell the title as a The Godfather

videogame. [Laughs] On the other hand they reckoned the game was quite impressive and decided to sell it as an original title. Then I modified the story to take as much distance as possible from The Godfather.

You also said “no” to MGM as it wanted you to make Fade To Black a James Bond title. That wouldn’t really happen nowadays.

At the time, videogame companies were often managed by programmer­s who enjoyed playing games. It was very different. Geoff Brown from US Gold was open-minded enough to publish Flashback. As a CEO he could make decisions very quickly. There was no need to gather a lot of people, a whole council to make a decision. We just shook hands! [Laughs] I remember having worked with Interplay on Future Wars. Brian Fargo came visiting us in Paris, we went to the restaurant and signed right after. Budgets were also much lower. It was much easier, choices were made with your heart.

What were the main challenges to take up in order to implement 3D during Fade To Black’s developmen­t?

We had to face many technologi­cal constraint­s. A full polygon engine was hard to imagine. Eventually, we remained quite limited on this project. The latter started way before the first Playstatio­n was released, using a networked polygonal engine. We were using PC software, less powerful and not really designed to create 3D games. The whole engine was programmed as software and we decided to use a raycast system, more or less like Doom did, to create the levels.

How did that turn out?

The result was we were quite limited in terms of game design, which made me feel frustrated, since the first Flashback was a platformer where you could jump. Our engine required ‘flat’ levels where you couldn’t jump at all. We also had to find out and create all the rules about the use of an in-game camera. These rules were discovered later on by the industry, and I believe we were the first to use a shoulder camera – you take out your gun and the camera closes up and places itself on your shoulder. We had to solve many issues since it was our first 3D game, and there weren’t many other examples already released by the industry. It has [often] been a beautiful adventure, but quite complicate­d.

Toby Gard, Tomb Raider’s designer, used the third-person camera mode created for Fade

To Black, and improved it. Do you have any regrets about not applying for a patent?

At the time nobody used to apply for software patents so I never thought about it. But I

had many regrets about the fact Tomb Raider was what we really wanted to create, what we could not design since we were using another technology. We urged Sony to send us a Playstatio­n developmen­t kit but it wasn’t possible, unfortunat­ely. Only some developmen­t teams, well-considered by Sony, could access the kit.

Tell us how you developed the popular arcade racer Moto Racer?

Moto Racer’s starting point was once again an experiment. At Delphine Software we were working then on Silicon Graphics stations, and were provided with a local network. It was really rare at the time. All the machines were connected. I was working on another project, developing Darkstone’s engine and its colliding system, specifical­ly. I created a small demo where you could control little cubes in different background­s. We were having so much fun that these cubes became motorbikes. I then added network code and we ended up playing a motorbike game with a Capture The Flag feature. It became one of our lunch break’s favourite activities and we decided to make something out of it because it was so much fun.

So a demo turned into the actual game?

At the beginning Moto Racer was much more ambitious, an open world where you could travel around a 3D island with many tracks. It was unfortunat­ely oversized and we had to give up on the open world. I then reprogramm­ed the engine completely to create something smaller, a classic racing game. We had the framerate, the speed, and it started like this.

What is your personal opinion about retrogamin­g? How did you feel when Evercade’s Team17 Amiga compilatio­n reached the UK sales’ top 40 chart?

I completely understand the nostalgia. Back then our perspectiv­e was close to what you can find in auteur cinema. We had a different artistic vision, a freedom. It was very similar to indie games developmen­t nowadays, but with a budget. Teams were more creative. When we put forward a project, we didn’t care about the market, our concern was focussed primarily on whether our game was fun to play or not. Today developers are also concerned by the same thing, but with a high sales figures ulterior motive. The market was also more responsive: less games and smaller competitio­n. Today it is harder to launch a creative project, considerin­g the amount of games available on the market: it is way harder to make your mark on the scene.

What are Flashback 2’s new features, in comparison with the first game?

So many! 30 years have passed. In terms of

We were planning on developing The Godfather in the future […] Conrad was a Corleone

Paul Cuisset

level design and game design, many things have evolved. Flashback 2 is way more permissive than the 1992 Mega Drive version, which was very challengin­g. I tried to keep a 2D view, because it is in the game’s DNA, but with some depth. Because we actually are in 3D, cameras move forward and backward. We broke the 2D barrier by letting the main character move to the front or to the back. We simply created depth to give the player a feeling of freedom. From a narrative point of view, things are different, too, much richer. The narrative spine stays simple but there is much more text. Actually, the team finds the story complicate­d. [Laughs]

You’ve also added interactiv­e dialogues to the game, haven’t you?

Yes, but nothing too complicate­d. It is not Cruise For A Corpse, where you can find keywords allowing you to talk to other characters, where everything is based on dialogs. Flashback 2 is an action game, with another dynamic.

How does Flashback 2 meet the expectatio­ns of gamers?

Fans from the very beginning will be very happy to get back to known places and rediscover the background, with much more depth. We can understand much better what happened and what will happen. We revisit Flashback’s universe, but everything we could not express in 1992 is implemente­d in Flashback 2.

Do you have any examples you can share? The first episode was not very chatty, many things were only quickly referred to, quite superficia­lly. To design Flashback 2 we created a huge database gathering all the facts and events that can occur in Flashback 1 and 2. About today’s players, it is quite complicate­d because they’re not from my generation. Young team members worked a lot on this. It is their sensitivit­y.

So does the team for Flashback 2 comprise of just new developers?

The team also gathers veterans. Thierry

Perreau worked with me on the first Flashback

and Raphaël Gesqua, music composer on

Flashback 2, also worked on the Amiga version and its soundtrack. We are grandpas (not yet, I hope) and young, almost freshly graduated from school, developers. This wide gap is interestin­g because it creates emulation. At the same time we don’t always understand each other on some specific problems. We don’t always share the same vision. I hope you can feel this playing

Flashback 2, there is something young and something older at the same time. I hope young people enjoy playing the game, enjoy its story and gameplay. The latter is quite complex and the game is challengin­g.

Is it as tough as the original?

Not as much, but not very easy, though.

Two controller sticks are necessary to move Conrad around and fight and you need to be at ease with this to enjoy the game fully. Flashback ’s DNA implies a challengin­g game and we didn’t go completely mainstream with this episode. We want to please gamers, people who like challengin­g games, not necessaril­y hardcore gamers.

Was handling Conrad with two sticks implemente­d right from the beginning?

Yes. We would have been otherwise too limited in terms of gameplay, since the latter is in 3D. Dual-stick gameplay gave us a good compromise. I think it works quite well and gives a good dynamic. You need minimum skills, of course, to master it. You can use keyboard and mouse on the PC version and we hope the experience will be good with this interface.

Originally Flashback 2 needed five hours to be beaten, 20 hours are needed now. What happened?

There are many things to tell! It is a quite complex story and there are many things to do when you evolve in the game. We even had to get rid of some features because we did not have time to put them in place. Eventually we restrained ourselves! [Laughs] If it had been possible, the game would have been even longer!

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? » [Amiga] There’s no rest for inspector Raoul Dusentier on this cruise on the Karaboudja­n.
» [Amiga] There’s no rest for inspector Raoul Dusentier on this cruise on the Karaboudja­n.
 ?? ?? » [SNES] Delphine Software’s one and only VS fighting game Shaq Fu features the basketball star Shaquille O’neal.
» [SNES] Delphine Software’s one and only VS fighting game Shaq Fu features the basketball star Shaquille O’neal.
 ?? ?? » [Amiga] Future Wars offers beautiful graphics created by Eric Chahi, the game designer of Another World.
» [Amiga] Future Wars offers beautiful graphics created by Eric Chahi, the game designer of Another World.
 ?? ?? » [Amiga] Omnipresen­t humour is one of Delphine Software’s point-and-click adventure games trademarks.
» [Amiga] Omnipresen­t humour is one of Delphine Software’s point-and-click adventure games trademarks.
 ?? ?? » [Mega Drive] A classic from Eighties science fiction: Conrad has to survive a deadly TV show.
» [Mega Drive] A classic from Eighties science fiction: Conrad has to survive a deadly TV show.
 ?? ?? » [Playstatio­n] A green target follows Fade To Black’s Conrad when he is in the presence of enemies.
» [Playstatio­n] A green target follows Fade To Black’s Conrad when he is in the presence of enemies.
 ?? ?? » [Playstatio­n] Fade To Black possibly uses the first third-person shoulder camera ever in videogame history.
» [Playstatio­n] Fade To Black possibly uses the first third-person shoulder camera ever in videogame history.
 ?? ?? » [Nintendo DS] Mister Slime’s great stylus gameplay is one of Paul’s most refreshing concepts.
» [Nintendo DS] Mister Slime’s great stylus gameplay is one of Paul’s most refreshing concepts.
 ?? ?? » [PS3] The horror game Amy, offers a wide range of situations and a frightenin­g cast.
» [PS3] The horror game Amy, offers a wide range of situations and a frightenin­g cast.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom