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URL: http://www.loonygames.com/content/2.14/feat/


Vol. 2, Issue 14
February 28, 2000
To the Extreme

An interview by Russell "RadPipe" Lauzon.

While they may not be quite as high-profile as their counterparts at Epic Games, Digital Extremes is responsible for a large percentage of the work in last year's ultra-successful Unreal Tournament (and prior to that, the original Unreal). With those two games under their proverbial belts, they've started work on their most ambitious project to date - a massively multiplayer, persistant world deathmatch game called Dark Sector. We sent Russell "RadPipe" Lauzon to their Canadian offices to get the scoop on what the game will be like, and how they feel about Unreal Tournament's success.

- Jason "loonyboi" Bergman, editor-in-chief.

Why don’t we start with, one at a time, your name and function, and we’ll go from there.

Dave Ewing:  Okay.  My name is Dave Ewing and I’m –


Ewing: Yeah.  E-W-I-N-G.

Like the Dallas Ewings?

Ewing:   Like the Dallas Ewings, right, which we watched religiously when I was a kid.

Yeah I did too.  Not that I meant to, but we only got two channels where I grew up.

Ewing: Yep, that was the same with us too.

Pancho Eekels: And Dynasty!

And Knots Landing!   

Ewing: Good old CBC.

Anyway –

Ewing:  Anyway, my name is Dave Ewing and I’m a Level Designer.  Actually I also did sounds and a little bit of textures for UT, but for Dark Sector I’ll pretty much exclusively just be doing levels.  I’ll have to do a lot more than I did for UT.

Eekels:   My name is Pancho Eekels and I’m Lead Level Designer now at Digital Extremes.  That’s what I do, just level design.  Some textures here and there, yeah for Dark Sector there will be a lot more levels.

You’re Lead Level Designer now?  You weren’t before?

Eekels: No.  I wasn’t with Unreal and Unreal Tournament.  Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski is Lead Level Designer there. 

Ewing: Even though we were two teams we were basically doing the same project and we broke it down so we were one team for those two projects.

Yeah I’ve been interested in that whole process because there was two geographically separate teams working on the project.  How did you manage coordinating all your efforts?

Eekels: Well it didn’t go to well and what happened was that for the last part of Unreal it was pretty obvious that we all needed to be together and that’s what we did so Epic came to Canada and we finished Unreal.

How many people came up?

Eekels: <mumble> …Tim… <mumble>

Ewing: <mumble> … Eric…<mumble>

A boatload.

Ewing: So yeah like 6 or 7. 

Eekels: And then there was a few guys popping in and out.  And it was a very small office.

Ewing: <laughs>  Yeah it was a small space.  Hot.  On the weekends, of course, there was no air conditioning.

Eekels: So we had a string of fans around the office.  It was terrible.

That was back when you were in Waterloo then.

Eekels: Yep.  And for UT, Digital Extremes went to Raleigh.  That’s where we finished UT. 

It was your whole company that went?

Eekels:   All the people that were needed.

Ewing: Like the level designers, texture artists.

Ok.  What was Digital Extremes role in Unreal and Unreal Tournament?  Did you split up the level design and that artwork and the engine?

Eekels: We covered everything.  We did a little of coding, Epic did most of the coding, and we did half of the levels.  And basically a little bit of everything.  It wasn’t a defined role where we said, “You guys are doing this, and we were doing that.” 

Ewing: We acted as one team.

Eekels:   Yeah we split everything up.

Must have made it really difficult from a project management point of view.

Ewing: Well management in game development is much different than management in regular everyday business.  There is a hierarchy, so you know who the main guys who are in charge, like Tim from Epic and James from DE, but almost everybody has a choice and is free to go their own way within reason.  You have to answer to the whole group.  There’s not one person you have to answer to.  There’s not like a complex chain of command or anything.  So in that way that whole mishmash sort of thing works well. 

Eekels: And that’s the same thing that we’re doing right now too.  Everybody here has a voice.  Because it’s been proven to be successful for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, so we’re going to keep that same philosophy. 

So while you’re designing Dark Sector, you bring everybody together and say, “What do you like?  What do you dislike?”

Eekels: Yep.

Ewing: Totally.

Here’s a question that I’ve always wondered.  You guys are level designers and you’re working on a game that is a lot different than what you’re used to, but you’re still in the design phase.  What are you working on right now? 

Eekels: Well we look at the whole overall picture of Dark Sector and designing the world.  And we broke it down and said okay, we have the disc, now slowly move out.  So the level designers have to be organized in that respect.

I guess what I mean was, you don’t have any tools to work with, right, so you can’t actually sit there and start building levels.

Eekels: Oh no, we do!  We’re using the Unreal Tools.

Ewing: We have the Unreal engine too.

How do you compare Dark Sector to other Massively Multiplayer Online games, would you compare it to something like –

Ewing: Asheron’s Call or something like that?


Eekels: I think it will be very close but science fiction of course.

Let’s go back and talk a little bit more about Unreal Tournament.  UT won a number of awards such as Best Action Game, Best Shooter, etc from a number of publications.  How do you feel about those awards?  Was it a big a surprise to win all these awards?

Eekels: It is kind of a surprise because you don’t expect it.  You’ve been working on the game for so long and it’s getting old in your mind and all of a sudden –

Ewing: It’s not like all of us were watching the awards and thinking, “Oh please, oh please.”  And then all of a sudden, oh we won.  Cool.

Eekels: And that’s kind of cool to hear that.  That means that people actually love your game and that year that we spent in our hot room was not all wasted.

That’s very good.  I’ve done a lot of writing and the books I’ve read on the subject, and I think this goes for pretty much anything where you’re in some type of artistic role, is that first thing you should do is put your acceptance speech on a sticky and place it over your monitor.  And every time you sit down you’re looking at your acceptance speech and you’re thinking, “Ok I gotta make something so good that one day they’re going to give me an award and I’m going to get to give this speech.”  I think it’s the ultimate –

Ewing: Motivation.

Eekels: That’s not what we did though <laughs>.  Actually what it says on top of our monitors is, “Save your work often!” 

Ewing: Oh god.

Eekels: That was the biggest sign on our monitors.

Ewing: Yeah.

That’s very good advice.  There’s nothing like losing a lot of work to make you frustrated.

Eekels: Yeah that’s the worst.

Ewing:   The worst is doing work that you’ve already done over again.

Of the feedback you’ve gotten from UT, what strikes you the most, what really gets you in the heart and says, “Wow”?

Eekels:   I think for me the biggest feedback is people saying that Unreal Tournament is right up there with Quake 3.  And with Unreal deathmatch, we wanted it to be just as good as Quake and give people something different to play and a comparable or even better product.  But in Unreal networking didn’t work all that well.  With Unreal Tournament we are competing with Quake III: Arena, and in lots of reviews,  they  favor Unreal Tournament.

Ewing: Especially when we first started Unreal Tournament.  Everybody was saying, “You’re going against Quake III: Arena?  What are you guys, crazy? You guys are going to get clobbered.” 

Eekels:   And it’s holding up and it’s doing okay or even better. 

Ewing:   That’s definitely one of my answers, but my other answer was, I’m very proud of all the accolades that the level designers got.  Just the one fact is that we strive to make something different, to try for a lot of varieties in our levels and make them, to just try and make them different from the regular style deathmatch levels but still make them fun to play.  But to make people say, “Ah man, I remember that level!”

Eekels:   It’s the thing that sticks in your mind.  Instead of saying, “The one with all those rooms?”  I remember this one like the Overlord map.  The Beachhead map!

Ewing:   Just people remembering your map.  “Oh wow that was such a cool map.”  That’s a neat experience to play in an environment like that.  That was one of the big things to me.

Let’s talk about Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament.  Who was the first to come up with the idea?

Eekels:   Bill Gates.

Ewing:   Well, ah, as most people know, Quake III: Arena was announced first, but I’m sure they were thinking about that idea for a long time before they announced it as well, but we originally also thought of doing a multiplayer expansion pack after Unreal and we had thought of doing this before we heard of Quake III: Arena.  So I’m not sure who originally thought of the idea first, it may very well have been them.  We did think of the idea before we heard the announcement from id that they were going to do it.  Then we did a collective, “DOH!” when we heard that they were going to do that to and that we would have to release it after them.  Ultimately you always get the people saying that you’re copying their idea or whatever.

Was there a rush to release Unreal Tournament, or were you hoping you would get it into stores before Quake III: Arena?

Ewing:   Definitely I’m sure we were hoping that, but above that was our will to release a game that was absolutely as polished as possible.  We kept saying for those last 6 months that we’re 98% done, but we just wanted to squash all the bugs and make everything as good as possible before we released it.

Eekels:   Whenever you get a new version of the game code-wise, things are fixed in it, but because they got fixed something else got broken.  So it’s always 2 steps forward –

Ewing:   1 step back.

Eekels:   That kind of thing.  So we just wanted to make sure that Unreal Tournament would perform well.

Ewing:   Of course we were hoping that it would come out before Quake III: Arena, but that’s not something that drove us forward.  I mean, both development schedules seemed to change a lot and I don’t think either team really focused on the other team that much we were just making our own game and making it as good as we could.

Eekels:   There is a good thing if you release a product first.  But definitely the decision to release it was when we were sure we had a good game.

I’m interested to know how much you’ll be able to use from Unreal Tournament in Dark Sector, from tools to engine or whatever.

Eekels: We can almost take anything.  Like all of our tools that we have, which is basically the Unreal Editor and some of the modeling tools, and we can take those with us and use them as a base for Dark Sector.

And the engine as well?

Eekels: Yep! 

Or are you building a new engine from scratch?

Eekels: No!  But we will be coding a new renderer. 

And enhancements and features.

Ewing: Everything that we will need to keep Unreal state-of-the-art.  We already have a bunch of ideas.  There will be lots to do to it I’m sure.

I guess that will significantly cut down on development time then.

Eekels: Yes.

Ewing: Yes.  Oh yeah.

Any idea on what kind of release date we’re looking at?

Eekels:  No.  <laughs>

Ewing: Nope! <laughs>

Well you knew I had ask right? 

Ewing: It’s just that you get asked that so many times, even if you just make a guess at something, it always turns out to be: “It’s going to be released at this time!”  and when we just meant hopefully, so we decided it’s a better policy just to say –

Eekels: “When it’s done” is one of the best lines ever. 

Ewing: Oh yeah.

Eekels: In the games industry.

Ewing: It sucks to get everybody’s hopes up.  We’re like that when we’re looking at other games to come out.  Delayed again! It’s just so much better this way.

Do you know what gaming network you’ll be using to support the infrastructure for Dark Sector?

Eekels: At this point we won’t have an answer until we actually signed with someone.

Have you looked at it yet?

Ewing: Yep.  That’s one of the big things. 

If you’re looking at it, then you must be guessing at how many people you could potentially have world-wide connected to the game at any one time, right?

Eekels: Right now we’re looking at the current games --

Ewing: -- like Asheron’s Call and Everquest and what kind of numbers they’re getting.  We’ll generally setup, we’re pretty sure, the same sort of style that they’re doing.  Where they have a bunch of servers worldwide.

Eekels: Several universes of the game.

That’s probably a really good way of doing it, because if you get overloaded you just pop in another server right?

Ewing: Yeah you can pop in another server but I think we’ll do it the same way as in Asheron’s Call, where your account will work on any world, but you can’t bring your character.  We’re still not sure but we’re still working on it.

Parallel universes.  In games like Asheron’s Call you have people online all the time who are support people, who help others, watch for problems, etc.  Are you thinking about something like that?

Ewing: Yeah I would kind of like to see that because I’ve been helped out several times by support people.

Eekels: Again that’s something we have to look at in the future.  It’s one of the many things on the list that we are looking at.

You’re still in the design phase, I understand, so a lot of this stuff is still on the board to be talked about.   Are you still working on the design doc right now?

Eekels: Yeah we have the overall design doc done, but of course there’s going to be tweaks.

Ewing: And added to.

Eekels: And taken off.

Ewing: If there’s one thing we found from development of both UT and Unreal, things change.  When you’re designing a game, especially with the open concept that we have, things change so often, not drastically, but there’s so many changes and shifts, minor shifts, and even some major shifts in direction that go on.  Having a hugely detailed design doc before you even start is sometimes a waste of time.  That’s how a game gets to be, and it really helps the game to be able to change with the times.

Eekels: The design doc is designed to give the team a direction, and how you get there is not important.  It’s a starting point.  The major elements in the game that dictate gameplay, you can think that out beforehand, but along the way you’re going to have to tweak and massage that.  In the end you’ll have a nice game that you will have fun playing.  You don’t want to have something in the design doc that turns out to be an annoyance factor in the game.  You want to be able to redirect that. 

In games like Everquest and Asheron’s Call, periodically they release new missions into the game, or new campaigns.  Will you be doing that sort of thing in Dark Sector?

Eekels:   Definitely.

Ewing: Yes.  One of the things we found really cool about Asheron’s Call, just the one thing where it stops snowing and there’s this big event coming and it really –

Eekels:   I bought Asheron’s Call solely because someone said, “It will start snowing tomorrow in Asheron’s Call” and I though Oh that’s cool, and I went out and bought it.  And I played it for a while and I liked evolving gameplay and settings.

You like to be immersed.

Eekels:   Oh yeah.  Absolutely cool.  That’s something we’ll exploit to the fullest.

Ewing: I think that’s something, as Massively Multiplayer Online games become more prevalent, which I think they certainly are, and there’s talk of quite a few new ones coming out that the ones that evolve in the coolest ways are going to be the ones that do well so we’re really planning on that.

Will a character in Dark Sector be building his stats and gathering items that will make him more powerful?

Eekels:   We won’t be going into as much detail as your standard RPG.

Ewing: As far as stats and that kind of stuff goes, a lot of our updates, things to improve your character, are a lot more tangible stuff and more materialistic.

Eekels:   So you get instant feedback.  Instead of, “Ok I have to build up this number so I can do better at this,”  I think we’re taking a little bit away from that complexity and adding instant feedback like adding your strength of whatever.

Ewing: Which is what you need to do. We’re trying to meld the RPG and First Person Shooter type aspects.

Eekels: We’ll take the cool parts from each.

So there’s a real reason to play everyday then.

Eekels: Yes.  That’s one of our biggest things.

Ewing:   The character development will be, for sure, at least as big as any RPG.  But just hopefully going in a different direction.

Eekels: Yeah you don’t want to have it just be persistent.  That doesn’t make any sense.  It will definitely be that you will have your character and you can add all kinds of stuff and you can buy all kinds of stuff.  And there’s this evolving world around them.  And we’ll have an underlying plot throughout the game.

So will we see items bought and sold on ebay? <laughs>

Ewing:   Accounts and stuff?  Hopefully.

Eekels: Sure.  We will definitely be looking at all the cool features in all persistent worlds games, and not just the material ones but also the fun factors.  Like what’s really fun about this game. 

Ewing:   Once you’ve played like 200 hours of this game, what makes you want to play still 400 more hours.  I’ve played so many hours of Asheron’s Call and there’s still guys that are so much higher level.  We want the same sort of thing for our game definitely.  You can look at a guy and say “Oh my god, look at the armor that guy has on.  Woooah!” 

Are you worried at all about addiction? Eekels: No.

Gameplay addiction?  Like students dropping out of school because they’re playing Dark Sector? <laughs>

Eekels: I had so many games.  I played so many games.  And yes I blew some courses because of them.  But I don’t know.  It didn’t do me harm in the long run.

Ewing:   I have heard of some people flunking college because of games.

Eekels: Yeah but that’s also a little bit of responsibility that you have for yourself.  You can’t just take a two-week holiday and play a game. 

So it’s the sort of thing where, if you’re going to dropout of university, it doesn’t matter what kind of game you’re playing, really.

Eekels: Yeah you could be addicted to going out at night or whatever.  Addicted to watching movies all day.  For someone to be addicted to our game, that’s a compliment to us.  I don’t think we worry too much about that.

Dark Sector is set in the future, is that right?  We’re going to have futuristic weapons?  Eekels: It’s going to be in the near future.  It will be a recognizable future. 


Like 5 years in the future?  100 years?  1000 years?

Eekels: Maybe 20 to 30 years.

Ewing:   Maybe 50.  And it’s based in the Earth’s solar system.  We haven’t got out of our solar system yet.

Oh interesting.  That leaves a lot of room still. 

Eekels: Yes it does.

A lot of room.   So we’re looking at 20 possibly 50 years in the future.

Ewing:   I’d say more like 50.

But we’ll still have weapons that are popular today? Eekels: Different versions of them, probably. 

I guess this is still big design stuff.

Eekels: Yeah we are concepting a lot of weapons.

Weapons and monsters, and I guess everything right? Eekels:   Yeah.

Ewing: Weapons and monsters and spaceships, oh my.

Spaceships!  Ewing:   Uh oh I just opened up a can of worms.

Well when you mentioned anywhere in the solar system I’m thinking spaceships, and maybe you’re going to the asteroid belt, and maybe the corona of the sun, and uh…

Ewing:   Moons of Jupiter.

Moons of Jupiter!  What else can you tell me about the game at this point? Eekels: I can just say, for myself, that this is a game that I’ve been wanting to play for a long time.

Ewing:   Exactly.  We’ve been talking about this, tossing it back and forth for –

Eekels:   And we say, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if…and that would be so awesome to do…” and now after Unreal Tournament we said, “Well let’s do it.”  And we looked it over and the bigger picture, and we found it feasible so we started.

Was there any pressure, internally or externally, to do Unreal Tournament 2? Ewing:   There was a time when we talked about perhaps doing that.  It floated around with a lot of other ideas.

Eekels: I think it was a natural thing to talk about. 

Ewing:   But for us we were really ready to do something different.

Eekels:   To hang around too much in the Unreal universe for us was not --- we wanted to do something different, something that we would enjoy to the fullest.

Ewing:   That’s the other thing too.  Everybody on our team was so excited to do this project.  We were like giddy school kids. 

Eekels: We got so many responses from people saying, “I have been waiting for this game.  I can’t believe you guys are doing it.”  And “Oh it’s going to be so cool.”

Ewing:   In a way, we’re so excited and happy to be doing this, but it’s also a little scary too because there’s so many expectations out there so many people.  So many people have been waiting for this kind of game, and they all have their own expectations and ideas on what it’s going to be like.  I know that people are going to love our game, but you always have that little fear in the back of your head, “Oh what if my idea is different from everybody else’s” but it’s been nice so far.  Everything we’ve released we’ve got really positive feedback and comments on. 

Eekels: But definitely, because of our open mind, because of our ability to have the whole group in there, and criticize the hell out of the game while we’re making it, I think that it’s a pretty safe bet that the game will be fun to play.  So if somebody looks at the game and says, “I thought it was going to be different,” but they played it they’ll still have fun.  It’s not like we’re going to make something that’s totally off the wall.  It’s a logical step.  It will be fun to play.

Thanks guys, you’ve been terrific.  Next time I think we should have clothes on when we do this interview.


Eekels: Okaaaaay!  Don’t put that in!

- Russell "RadPipe" Lauzon currently holds the world record for using the word "exhumed" 15 times in a single sentence.


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