Waking Graeme Devine
By Jason "loonyboi" Bergman
any people know of Graeme Devine, but few people really know much about him beyond the fact that he made 7th Guest and now works for id Software. In fact, Graeme has a history in the gaming industry that goes back to its earliest days, and he's worn almost every hat there is to wear. This includes publisher, developer, programmer, CEO, hero and villain, and of course...designer. I caught up with Graeme for a few questions about Quake 3, all that stuff he did before id, and the industry in general. Enjoy.
How did you wind up in the gaming industry?
It was one of those "self taught" deals. I started to program on the TRS-80 in the late 70s, sold games, worked my way up through Activision, Atari, Lucasfilm (the old Lucasfilm Games that did Ballblazer), Mastertronic, Virgin, and a bunch of my own companies before ending up here at id.
What's this I hear about you having worked on Pole Position?
I did indeed work on the British and Japanese versions of Pole Position.
How did that come about?
There was an ad in the paper and I answered it. I was at the time working out of my bedroom and Atari had an allure on me.
Before starting Trilobyte, you worked at Virgin Interactive. Why did you start your own development house?
Well, it wasn't intentional. We went to Martin Alper, Virgin's CEO with the game design for The 7th Guest, which we insisted would be a CD-ROM title. CD-ROM at that time was exactly zero percent of the game market. Virgin was beginning to eye the console market, so Martin fired us (nicely), and gave us a contract to develop 7th Guest. Thus, we started Trilobyte.
The 7th Guest was an incredible success for you. What do you suppose people reacted to in the game?
I think people reacted to several things. Firstly the showcase in technology, secondly, it had mood, and thirdly, it appealed to families playing as groups.
Do you feel the game was released at just the right time? Would it be as successful if it were released today?
I think it was released at the right time, it bootstrapped the CD-ROM industry and the sales of 486 chips for a long time. I think a 7th Guest done today, using today's technology, if it still had mood and the game design to draw in the family to play together would do even better than the original.
You made an interesting design choice with 7th Guest that has yet to be repeated: you actually made the game in "letterbox" format, or a 16:9 aspect ratio. Why this decision?
Both Rob Landeros and myself were big laserdisc collectors. We loved watching movies like Bladerunner in letterbox. I remember we rushed home one day to watch the letterbox edition of "The Shining". It was so good, we sat through it several times.
Despite 7th Guest's success, few (if any) developers have bothered to try this aspect ratio since. Why do you suppose that is?
Because not too many games these days really do anything groundbreaking?
Am I correct in my assumption that Quake 3: Arena can be played letterboxed? (Logically it would seem that way, since Carmack has said it supports flatscreen monitors and HDTV.)
Yup. Works awesome in letterbox.
Back when you were working on 11th Hour, you said, "Look at the big winners over the last few years - Tetris, Lemmings, Super Mario Bros., T7G, Doom - all are really, really simple to play. Too often, programmers & designers trash good work by 'oversampling' the player (creating too many options and complicating the screen)." Is this something you've adhered to ever since?
I sure hope so. It's as true today as it was back then. Most games continue to oversample the player and lose out on the larger crowd because of that. In some cases that's fine, but if you're trying to make a simple game, tacking on endless meaningless features to the simple game design will detract from your focus.
Are you applying this philosophy to Quake 3: Arena?
I think we do. I'd like to think it's a principle here at id as well. The game is certainly a very raw arcade game.
The success of 7th Guest inspired the short-lived "silliwood" idea: that FMV games could be made for enormous sums of money, and still succeed. As someone at ground zero during all of this, what did you make of it?
Umm. I don't think I quite got on board with that. Design design and then some more design.
With its 4 million dollar budget and enormous crew, 11th Hour is still one of the most expensive games of all time...what's it like working at id where there's such a teeny development group?
I like the teeny development group. I learnt a hard lesson with 11th Hour of how not to make a game.
Care to share some of that wisdom?
Big teams, big money, big FMV. The separation of story from the user was not the best idea design wise, although the game did really well. I think T7G was the better design, and games should always get better with sequels.
Weren't you working on a 3D multiplayer-only title at Trilobyte? (Back when it existed, of course.) Also, what caused you to leave Trilobyte? And of course, how the heck did you wind up at id?
Yup, Extreme Warfare. It may yet still see the light of day in some form or another, but it probably has gone. It's very hard to put down 2 years of your life though. I was unhappy running a company when I wanted to design and make games and wanted to sell the company. TLC beat me to it by buying Broderbund, and TLC did not like multiplayer games, so our source of income dried up. I've known John Carmack here for many years, he said id was looking for someone, so I signed up!
What is your role at id?
My job title is "designer". But my role is also to coach and look after people. It's a change from being CEO.
Were you a fan of id's games back when you were at Trilobyte?
Nah, never played them.
Of course we were! The number of hours we spent on those games…
You have a long history of games programming...are you doing any on Quake 3, or are you simply using this experience to help you in your current duties?
I'm just here getting the game complete right now. I'm happy to take a rest programming for a while. John is the king programmer so it's been an education in mind stretching for me.
One of the big eyebrow raisers about your move to id, was the fact that your games have traditionally been story based in some way...and id has never really bothered in this area. Will Quake 3: Arena actually have a plot?
Nope. No plot. And to address the other point, my games at Trilobyte were story based. My previous 30 or so games were quite the mixture.
What sort of game structure will Quake 3: Arena have? Much has been said about the "Street Fighter" model, but is there anything you can tell us about how this will apply to the flow of the game?
Quake 3 is a very simple game, it harkens back to arcade games like Robotron and the early Street Fighter games. The departure for id is to focus on this style even in the single player game, it's obviously the component that has longevity, so bringing it to the single player game is a good decision.
Do you find working on Quake 3: Arena a challenge from a game design perspective compared to your previous projects?
Every project is different. I wish they got easier, but they never do.
This weekend, the Q3Test was released for the Mac OS platform, but not the Win32 or Linux platforms. Why the decision to do this?
The drivers were not ready for the PC and we couldn't release them because people have agreements with Redmond to release only certified drivers. We would have released on all platforms if we could have, but the idea for the Mac only test became very valid and is actually good thinking. Expose bugs which are our bugs on the Mac, which is a small audience, before going to the masses.
Has the fan reaction been intolerable, or are people understanding of your intentions?
On the first night, yeah, they were pretty pissed. But since then most people have moved to the positive support side of things and calmed down as the reasoning settles in and word of the how good the game is reaches people.
- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman is the editor-in-chief here at loonygames. He wishes he had G3 to play Q3Test on about now.
Credits: Illustration © 1999 Michael Krahulik. This interview is © 1999 Jason Bergman & Graeme Devine. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or we'll write you out of the script.