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volume 1, issue 27

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Serious Brass Ones
(A peek inside the world of Derek Smart)

By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman

 

n the brief history of the gaming industry, few people have been able to claim a third of the things that Derek Smart can claim. A quick list of some of what he can say: that he worked on the same game for a decade, that he went up against publisher after publisher...and won in the end...and that giving a game away for free over the Internet despite being almost 50 meg in size can actually be beneficial for a game.

One look at what Battlecruiser 3000 AD claims to do, and you'll probably laugh out loud. The game sounds like a Wing Commander clone, no doubt about it. But once you sit in the pilot's seat, and realize that you're actually sitting on a virtual spaceship, complete with virtual officers and a full virtual crew, in the middle of a virtual universe, thats inhabited by a number of populated planets...well...suffice to say the laughter fades away to absolute astonishment.

How a game like BC3K ever got made is the stuff of legend...and it's all thanks to the sheer...chutzpah of Derek Smart. We caught up with him to find out just how the heck he did it, and how much more he can cram into the genre that at first glance seems to be out of ideas.

What were you doing for a living before work started on BC3K?

I was an industry consultant on a variety of projects mostly geared for the vertical market. I also worked as an engineering assistant to consumer sales divisions for several IBM partners around the world. In between gigs, I was also studying part-time for some degree, certificate or another.

What was the original version of BC3K? How much like the current version is that game?

Actually, the original 1992 version was v1.0 and the 1993 one was v1.01. However, once the game went commercial in Oct 1996, it was branded v1.0 and the UK version release in March '97, was v1.01. If you want to really see history, you can download the original 1992 and 1993 versions from these URLs. Note: This is the first time I have re-released these demos in several years. Your question made me go and dig them up from DAT tape. In fact, by running these originals and comparing against the 1996 release (even the free version) and v2.0, you will see how far the franchise has come.

www.bc3000ad.com/downloads/BC3K1992.ZIP (1 MB)
www.bc3000ad.com/downloads/BC3K1993.ZIP (6MB)


What kind of a programming background did you have when you started work on BC3K?

High level C, was just getting on the C++ bandwagon, Assembler etc. Also have COBOL, Basic (all forms including Qbasic), RPG II/III, Lisp and a little known language, Turbo Prolog, which became the reason I wrote my own language, AILOG (Artificial Intelligence and Logistics). My involvement in the vertical market and demand for bespoke applications exposed me to the field of AI and graphics.

The Borland suite of products, became my platform of choice over the years. I then added the Pharlap DOS Extender to the suite when I moved to 16-Bit PM because the game was getting quite huge. Dabbled in Zortech C/C++ for a while. Canned it and then moved to Watcom C/C++ and never looked back. Started using Visual C++ about a year ago when work on the WIN9x 32-Bit sequel, Battlecruiser 3020AD started. We are still using Watcom and the Rational Systems DOS extender for BC3K v2.0.


Playing BC3K, you can see a number of influences, ranging from Infocom-style text adventures, to traditional flight sims, to real time strategy games. What were some of your initial influences?

Back when I started, I was playing the Infocom games, the Starflight series, Elite, Sentinel Worlds 1, Echelon and the Star Fleet series. I still have all these games in my extensive software library. If you are familiar with these games, then you should be able to see how they affected and augmented my design specs for the BC3K series. As the games industry progressed, games like Jetfighter, F15 Strike Eagle, Gunship, Tank Platoon etc, further influenced certain aspects of my design. In fact, I first got the idea of allowing the player to switch from ship to ship, from playing with Flight Of The Intruder.

As the game's development racked up the years, I imagine more titles/developers were added to that list...was Wing Commander an influence, or did you pass it by completely?

Yes indeed but Wing Commander was not an influence. It [WC] was only dealing with one aspect of what I had in mind - space combat. For its time, it did a darn fine job of it. I wasn't influenced by it simply for that reason. It was less ambitious than what I had in mind. Chris and his team did a darn fine job and paved the way. If knew then what I know now, I would have
released some version of BC3K around the time of Wing Commander 2 in order to get in there. But (a) I didn't want to compromise my ideas and my dream and since I had enough money to live on, there was no incentive to rush (b) I didn't have the team at the time and my knowledge of 3D graphics and game development was not advanced enough for me to pull off something of the complexity I was shooting for.

It's been (over?) ten years since work started on BC3K. That's an incredible amount of time to spend on a single game. Do you have any regrets at all?

Well those years were not spent on a game. They were spent in the research and development of a suite of engines upon which the game I wanted, could be built. The only regret I have is when I quit a paying career and got suckered into entering this industry to work on this full time. Even when it was part-time, it was fun because it was a hobby. When Mission Studios came along, I had to make a decision to either continue doing this forever or do it full time and get it over with. That notion actually started with Three-Sixty Pacific, my first bona fide publishing contract. Back then, I was still working/studying and Tom Frisina didn't have an immediate problem with me continuing part-time until my current consulting contract ended. Of course, good thing too because once I went to my first E3, the contract was terminated because they determined that it was not good enough to compete with the Wing Commander series. I went home saddened but more determined to finish my game.


One of the (many) legends about BC3K is that you actually were living on the street while working on the game...is there any truth to this?

Hmmm, I'm not aware of any such thing. You are probably reading into a quote I took out of Ed Dille's preview of the game in PC Ace magazine and which I recently added to a rebuttal of the GA-Source review of BC3K v2.0. He was simply trying to make the reader understand how determined and ambitious I was. Nothing else. I come from a fairly wealthy family and one thing I've always had under my belt was that I could always quit, go home and start my life over. I'm still here because pride and ambition are the most infectious diseases imaginable. Let's not even begin to talk about ego and self-esteem. I have enough degrees and experience to work anywhere I please, even go back to consulting. But doing this was a choice I made a long time ago and a decision that I will live with or die for. There's no turning back now.

I have always lived a comfortable life. Back when I had more money than I do now, I did what I wanted. Once I started doing this full time and publishing deals started to influence my idea of what I wanted to create, I was left no choice but to dip into my savings, borrowed money from my mom, maxed my credit cards etc. The kind of things you've read about developers doing when trying to get a game out.


You had not one, not two, but *six* publishers in the course of BC3K's development. What's your opinion of game publishers in general, and what makes Interplay (your current publisher) different from your previous ones?

Actually, if you have read the history you will see a note about each of them and what happened. I don't feel proud at having six publishers. Heck, most people can't even get in the door. My ability to strike deals borders on two basic factors (a) I know my technology, my game and my abilities and that of the team I have assembled and therefore, can sell it [the game] (b) You would think that publishers would know a good game or technology when they see one. However, this has not been the case for me. I think it has always boiled down to "...heck, if this crazy lunatic actually pulls this off, we could make some money".

I reached my prime in the industry during a time when the industry was crying out for innovation and new ideas. It still is and I'm that much older, wiser and less financially secure than I was back when I started. T'is a bitch, ain't it?


As far as opinions go. My opinions of publishers have not changed. Outside of the six that I actually signed with, I have negotiated with quite a few over the years and all that I can say is that some game publishers are the most corrupt, dishonest and blatantly heartless entities in the industry. Don't take my word for it, look around you, read the press, talk to the developers and partners who get burned on a daily basis. A well-known industry heavy weight developer recently said to me "developers are strictly a money ingester, and they MIGHT deliver a (good) product one of these days. Publishers are often better off investing their money in the stock than in a developer's title, think of that." So you see, everyone has a different opinion. In fact, I talk about this extensively in an article I did for the Jan '99 issue of Game Developer magazine.

At any rate, the good thing is that with the advancements in technology and the Internet, we[developers] won't have to put up with crap from publishers much longer. Hey 'ang on a minute, scratch that, what I meant to say was that other developers won't have to put up with this crap for much longer 'cause I sure as hell don't, which is why I'm always out on a limb and branded a renegade. With me, you always know where you stand. Publishers are a necessary evil and I think the game industry is going to end up like the movie industry one day soon. Mark my words.

Interplay, though my problems have been restricted to control issues such as production (you probably know about the fiasco regarding the printed manual etc), are probably no different from any other publisher simply because they are publishers. My signing of a distribution deal with them (different from a publishing deal) has not altered my opinion of publishers in general. Interplay are a reputable game publishing company whose upper management are from the old school. Guys who probably won't compromise integrity if they had a choice. That's why I called up an old Interplay acquaintance when I suspected that a re-release of the title was necessary. Sure they have problems but I have not been exposed to them due to the isolation that my deal provides. Therefore, I have nothing bad to say about them. Especially since, going into this deal, they knew who they were dealing with and I made it quite clear that I will do the job if left alone. I don't do well with people who think they can push me around because they are in a position to do so. They listened, it worked, here we are today.

In fact, I was paired with a very understanding and hands off kinda producer. Anyone who has had the pleasure of dealing with Jeff Jirsa, I know, feels the same way. Man, there were times when I was really about to walk off a ledge and he was there to drag me back. The industry, I'm sure, has one like him, but, we need more. I know guys like that over at Mission Studios, Tom Ptak and Matt Harmon are the same way. Guys from the old school whom you can trust. I'm sure that anyone who knows me, knows for a fact that this means a lot to me. There were times when hints of higher level pressure trickled in, but somehow, it worked out and we got BC3K v2.0 out the door on time (at least for me). The good thing about my Interplay deal is that (a) they left me alone to do my work and my own thing as long as I didn't breach my contract (b) I only had two or three people to deal with and was therefore shielded from any high level interference.

 

(continued on next page)

 

 

Credits: Illustration © 1999 Michael Krahulik. Serious Brass Ones is © 1999 Jason Bergman and Derek Smart. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll get you a publishing deal you'll never get out of. Muhahahahah.