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volume 1, issue 22

Today in loonygames:

New!! The Archives have been cleaned up, fead links fixed, and printable versions restored! Also, don't miss the new comments on the front page!

Livin' With The Sims: theAntiELVIS explores the wild and wacky world that is Will Wright's The Sims, asking the inevitable quesiton, "is The Sims the first step toward a virtual life where everyone is Swedish?"

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Pixel Obscura: Josh Vasquez's regular look at the convergence of film and videogames.

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Behind the Curtain:
Mechanical Evolution

By Matt "Thraka" Gilbert


What I get, as a console programmer on a bleeding edge machine, is as follows: a development system that looks something like a high school science project; development tools that are often buggy and barely adequate; a set of iron bound tomes written in human blood, containing arcane knowledge that has not been entirely translated from Japanese to English; and as much phone time as I want to technical support, who are almost as clueless as I am. Yes, thatís correct: there are a number of poor bastards who exist only to explain to me and my brethren just what the hell the grimoire is trying to say. (Judy, baby, you know I love you forever!) They say that dentists have the highest suicide rate, but I suspect that they donít count the cases of spontaneous human combustion amongst console technical support.

Lest you mistake this as a slam on console manufacturers, let me remind you once again: things move fast in this business. You never have enough time. The show must go on.

So, here I am a complete idiot about the hardware in my hand. I read the manuals, and I try to work out a plan. The art staff is looking at me and drumming their fingers: they want to know hard numbers: what kind of bit depth can I give them for their artwork? How many textures? How many faces? I try to give them a number that I wonít have to change too many times. Itís never enough. The artists are professionals, and they always want infinite space. Needless to say, it ainít there. I do my own juggling act, and try to work out something we can both live with. And, you guessed it; itís never really the number either of us would like. Why? Because there is only so much storage space, and so much CPU power. And, to top it all off, three out of four times, weíre wrong and we have to scramble to make up the difference at some point in the future. I rewrite my graphics engine; the physics programmers struggle to find a way to reduce the calculations they are doing without sacrificing the feel of the gameplay; the artists tear their hair and curse while they redo textures with fewer colors and reduce their 3D masterpieces to pale, faceted shadows of their former glory. The in house management smiles nervously at the idle talk of mass suicide via Rube Goldberg renditions of Dr. Kevorkianís little machines. The publisherís producers bite their nails in painful impotence, praying that this will all come together, that we havenít overestimated the capabilities of the machine and the team. We get on each otherís nerves, we ask forgiveness for our failings, and we keep slogging toward the prize.

And one day, if weíre lucky, we find ourselves playing our game and saying, "hey, man, this rocks!" Assuming the licensing hasnít fallen through, and that our schedule hasnít slipped beyond redemption, we keep hammering at it until itís done.

Finally, itís QA, testing, bug fixes. This is standard for any sort of development, really: simply, a large group of people play the game over and over, testing various features, etc. They report where they crashed, or where graphics glitches show up, etc. This usually goes on for a month, sometimes more, as you get lists of bugs and fix them, then submit new revisions.

But now, thereís a new hurdle: standards. Our trusty console manufacturer has a vested interest in making sure that our game doesnít suck, and that it doesnít piss off any touchy-feely pressure group. In addition, the console manufacturer likes things to be a certain way; maybe he wants a certain button to always behave as ĎCancelí or something like this. And, naturally, there will be certain hardware that we are required to support, such as some special controller, or force feedback device, etc. If your producer and/or lead tester is on the ball, they have already made you aware of these things, but even the best can be surprised by a new set of standards. Depending on the project, this can be a breeze, or a nightmare of self-censorship and design compromise. But hopefully, your standards issues got bugged in QA, and you breeze through.

After you get the great rubber stamp blessing from the console manufacturer, youíre pretty much done. Masters are submitted for burning to CD or EPROM. You go to Vegas.

Next time: how second and third generation products raise the bar, and some discussion of the differences from PC development.


- Matt 'Thraka' Gilbert is a console programmer, currently working at StormFront Studios. These are his own ravings, and have nothing whatsoever to do with his employer.


Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Behind the Curatain is © 1999 Matt Gilbert. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. And ignore the man behind the curtain. He's just got a shotgun aimed at your head...nothing to get alarmed about.