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Mercenary's menu Interview

(25.07.2000)

[Dave] - Dave Ellis (Vicious Cycle)
[Yurg] - Yuri Bushin (Freelancer)

[Yurg] Thank you very much for an interview. Many people here, in Russia, found painful Hasbro Interactive decision to fire Genesis team. And I am really glad to hear that this talented team didn't got lost!

[Dave] Thanks, Yuri. Happy to oblige!

[Yurg] Dave, tell us something about you. How did you got to game business? How your carrier is being doing? What project you were working on?

[Dave] I got into the games business a little over 8 years ago at MicroProse Software, at the studio in Hunt Valley, Maryland. I started out in customer service, then moved into quality assurance. After about two years, I became a game designer. I worked on over twenty different MicroProse games, including Civilization II, Klingon Honor Guard, X-COM Interceptor, and Civilization II Multiplayer Gold. I moved to the Chapel Hill, North Carolina studio in 1999, where I was lead designer on X-COM Genesis until Hasbro closed the studio in January, 2000.

[Yurg] Everybody knows, you were concerned with entire XCOM series. Could you tell us what was your degree of participation in first four pieces of this series?

[Dave] About six months before the stuidio was closed, I was appointed creative supervisor of the entire X-COM series. It was my job to expand on the history of the X-COM universe and make sure that all future games fit properly with the mood and storyline of the series.

I was not involved in the actual production of the first three games, though I did write the official strategy guides for each of them. I was the lead designer of X-COM Interceptor.

[Yurg] Dave, what was the begining of Chapel Hill Studio?

[Dave] Originally, the Chapel Hill stuido was an independent company called Shadow Masters. That company, made up of Mike Denman and Paul Rowan, did several projects for MicroProse as a third-party developer. In 1994, MicroProse (then owned by Spectrum Holobyte) bought Shadow Masters and turned it into the MicroProse Chapel Hill studio.

[Yurg] What did you feel when the Chapel Hill Studio team was fired? Did you got any reasonable explanations of reasons of this Hasbro Interactive decision?

[Dave] We were shocked. There was no warning whatsoever. The first we knew of it was December 7, 1999 when several Hasbro Interactive executives showed up and read us a letter from Tom Dusenberry (Hasbro Interactive's president). We were very surprised. X-COM Genesis was ahead of schedule and it was looking incredible. Everyone from Hasbro was very pleased with what we showed them. To be shut down under those conditions was the last thing we expected.

The reason given for closing Chapel Hill (and the studio in Alameda, California)was a "soft PC games market which produced lower than expected profits". They said they had to make cuts and we were it. Our opinion was that Hasbro simply didn't realize that making hard-core PC games--as opposed to computer board games like Monopoly--took a lot more time and money than what they were used to spending.

[Yurg] Dave, what was your level of participation in Genesis development? How long Chapel Hill Studio team was working in this project?

[Dave] I was the lead designer on the project. I had been working on the concept and early design elements for over a year. The artists and programmers had been working on the game for about 9 months.

[Yurg] I hope its not a secret. What was the Genesis you were working on? What did you aspire in in this project? How the game should looks like? And what was the main features of game engine?

[Dave] It's not a secret, since X-COM Genesis will never be produced now!

Genesis was a return to the original type of X-COM game--squad-based combat with a strategy element. Everything that made the first game great--research, base building, intercepting UFOs, and of course intense combat featuring squads of X-COM soldiers armed with futuristic weapons--was to be included in Genesis. You can see some screen shots of what the game would have looked like at this address:

http://www.tacticalplanet.com/xcom/gen/index.html

The game featured a true 3D engine with moveable camera angles, multiple zoom levels, and massive, interactive environments. We were just starting to work on the AI and we had one map partially running when Hasbro shut us down.

{Yurg: You also can find Genesis screens here.}

[Yurg] Did you plan Genesis to be real-time or turn-based? And what was Genesis degree of completeness?

[Dave] Our plan was for a real-time game with what we called a "tactical pause". This combination allowed you to explore maps quickly (thus avoiding the problem in the first three games of having to search turn after turn for the last alien who is hiding in a dark corner), but also allowed you to pause the game to give troopers orders. Trooper commands were more extensive than in previous games, and we planned to include a number of tactical formations for squad movement as well as a wide array of individual actions.

At the time Chapel Hill was shut down, Genesis was about a year from being complete.

[Yurg] Do you and your colleagues at Vicious Cycle worry that you didnt complete Genesis?

[Dave] Well, there wasn't really anything that we could do about it so why worry? We actually did approach Hasbro about finishing the game after Vicious Cycle opened, but legal restrictions surrounding the closing of the studio prevented us (or anyone) from ever finishing Genesis.

[Yurg] Certainly, you like XCOM, because you were connected to this project. But its interesting to hear your own opinion about tactical games. What do you think, what the tactical game should be? Do you like real-time or turn-based games and why?

[Dave] I think that it depends on the game and its level of complexity. Personally, I usually prefer turn-based games. I like to have time to think things through. Games like Command and Conquer and Starcraft, while they are great games, frustrate me because I just can't click fast enough or keep track of where all my troops are!

That said, I think that real-time is appropriate for some games. I also beleive that real-time games tend to be more popular these days. Genesis was a compromise. We intended to build in the fast-paced action of a real-time game, but with the pause feature for the people who need a little time to think about their next actions. Since I am such a turn-based fan, I would have made sure that all the planning and thinking elements of the turn-based X-COM games were present in Genesis.

[Yurg] Was it hard to base new company? What was the difficulties?

[Dave] It's definitely not easy. Although I was involved in the early stages of setting up the company, the company's owners--Eric Peterson, Wayne Harvey, and Marc Racine--shouldered almost all of the burden and continue to do so today. There are so many things to do at the beginning--getting initial funding, finding office space, obtaining computers, buying office furniture, setting up the administrative functions of the business, and so on. At the same time, you have to come up with game ideas and find a publisher who wants to pay you to develop them. If you can't do that, everything else doesn't matter.

With a lot of hard work (and a few industry contacts) Eric, Wayne, and Marc managed to get the company up and running in an extremely short amount of time.

[Yurg] Tell us about Vicious Cycle. What the size of company? Did you invited new employes, as you plan several months ago?

[Dave] Vicious Cycle officially opened its doors in April. We currently have 11 employees, so we're still pretty small. Everyone working here at this time formerly worked at the Chapel Hill studio. Once we get our current project up and running, we'll probably add a few more people.

[Yurg] Dave, screenshots showing abilities of engine, developed by Vicious Cycle, are just tremendous. Are we really able to see those reallistic landscapes in games based on your engine? How interactive is the world based on it?

[Dave] Thanks! :-) The screenshots on our website are from our PC technology demo, which took the artists and programmers about three weeks to develop. All of the shots are in-demo shots, and are part of an interactive world. (In other words, they're not pre-rendered animations.) The demo map covers an area of about four city blocks, and the two demo characters are free to move around just about anywhere within that space.

[Yurg] Did you give the name to the engine? Developers usually gives it nickname :), but they seldom advertise it.

[Dave] Not really. Most of the time we just call it "the engine". But we have, on occasion, called it the "Vicious Engine".

[Yurg] Could Charactarize capabilities of engine? What can it do? And what degree of its completeness?

[Dave] Here's our official feature list at this point:

* Unlimited light sourcing through the use of pre-calculated vertex lighting
* Light mapping and other multi-texture effects
* Character Studio export for instant character animation
* 3D Studio MAX particle system support
* Full featured level editor
* Vertex morphing support

It is capable of producing highly detailed interactive environments on a large scale at impressive frame rates.

The engine is still in its early stages. Our programmers are in the process of converting the existing PC engine so that it will operate on PS2 and X-Box. That will take a while.

[Yurg] Is it true, that engine intended for powerful graphical systems like PS2 or XBOX? How things are going to be with ususal computers? All of this new playstations are very popular, but the main market is PC. Do the Vicious Cycle engine work with equal productivity on all this platforms?

[Dave] Our intention for our first product is primarily to support PS2 and X-Box, though there is some possibility of a PC version as well. The primary game marketplace, economically speaking, is currently console systems and not the PC. Which platforms we support in the future is largely dependent on the requirements of the publishers we work with.

[Yurg] Dave, do you plan to release something like advertisement movie to show abilities of engine at work?

[Dave] Not at this stage. At this point, we still can't make an announcement concerning the product we're working on. We recently updated our website to include one of our character animations, however. You can see it at http://www.viciouscycleinc.com/services.htm.

[Yurg] In june Eric Peterson told that cant announce what is the game the company is working on. Does anything changed? Could you reveal the veil of mist? If you cant announce details tell us in general what is the game genre?

[Dave] Unfortunately, no... we still can't say anything about the game. We can tell you that it is an action game that's destined for Playstation 2 and probably X-Box. That's all we can say at this time. (But keep watching the website for breaking news!)

[Yurg] Dave, sorry, you cant work on XCOM, unless Genesis is resurrected. Does it mean you won't be working on tactical games at all? Do you plan to take part in game of this type?

[Dave] I'd love to work on a Genesis-type game again. My background is primarily in strategy games and simulations, so I would certainly like to design those types of games again. Should the opportunity arise for us to work on such a game, I would definitely welcome the opportunity.

[Yurg] Dave, about Genesis again, what do you think about future of this project? Recently it was news that some XCOM7 is planned. Sorry, it not the Genesis... Maybe you know what is the destiny of things developed by your team?

[Dave] Well, I know for a fact that Genesis is dead and cannot be resurrected. And I have heard news that another X-COM strategy/squad game is in the works (and is currently being called X-COM 7). While I understand that X-COM 7 is, indeed, a game that is similar to the first two X-COMs, it has no relationship to Genesis.

As I understand it, the terms of the studio closing legally prevent Hasbro from using any of the elements--story, art, or code--developed for X-COM Genesis. Nor can anyone else use it. All the things we worked so hard to accomplish on Genesis are lost forever.

[Yurg] It is interesting to know about your preferences in game world. What are your favourite games?

Well, as I said, X-COM UFO Defense and the Civilization games (especially Civilization II) are my all-time favorite PC games. My current favorites are Starfleet Command and The Sims. I also play a lot of Crazy Taxi (on the Sega Dreamcast).

I will also always have a love for classic arcade games--the ones released in the early and mid-1980s, especially. I've recently started collecting arcade video games--a hobby that takes up a lot of space!

[Yurg] You are a creative person. What is the best in game development and what is the main headache? Any job has two sides- pleasant and ... unpleasant.

[Dave] The best part about game development is being an active part of an industry that has been a huge part of my life since I was a child. I was 10 when I played my first video game (Pong), and I've been hooked on computer games ever since. Getting a job in this industry and being able to play an active role in creating games that carry on the legacy of computer entertainment is extremely gratifying.

The unplesant aspects are the instability of this business and the role that large corporations and short-term trends play in the creative process.

In my time at MicroProse (in all its forms), I witnessed 13 personnel layoffs. (The 14th was the one that closed Chapel Hill.) Talented people often fall victim to budget cuts. Sometimes, these cuts are necessary and prudent. But more often, they're just the result of poor planning and short-sightedness.

As for the creative limitations, game developers are more often than not forced to follow current industry trends rather than being given the opportunity to strike out and do something new and innovative. That's why so many companies are abandoning PC development in favor of consoles like the PS2--currently, console games sell way more copies than PC games in the US, so everyone is turning to console development. It's also why you see so many game clones on the market--fifty different games that look and play like Command and Conquer, for instance. There are exceptions, of course -- The Sims by Maxis is a great example of a truly original game idea, and a very successful one at that.

Don't get me wrong--game development is a business, and companies have to do whatever it takes to make money. But hopefully, some day, we'll all be given the chance to create truly innovative games rather than just following the pack.

[Yurg] Maybe you want to tell or to wish anything to our readers?

[Dave] All of us at Vicious Cycle would like to thank the gaming community for their interest in our new venture. And, as former members of the Genesis team, we truly appreciate your support of us during the rough weeks following the closure of our studio.

And keep an eye on our website at http://www.viciouscycleinc.com for exciting new developments from Vicious Cycle!

[Yurg] Thank you very much for interesting conversation. I wish great successes to you and your colleagues! I hope we hear something from you in nearest future about Vicious Cycle games. And readers of Freelancer will be eagerly waiting when you return to tactical games!

[Dave] Spasibo, Yuri.

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