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2, Issue 14
February 28, 2000
interview by Russell
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
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 –
Like the Dallas
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
that was the same with us too.
Pancho Eekels: And
And Knots Landing!
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.
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?
I wasn’t with Unreal and Unreal Tournament. Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski
is Lead Level Designer there.
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?
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
How many people came
yeah like 6 or 7.
then there was a few guys popping in and out. And it was a
very small office.
Yeah it was a small space. Hot. On the weekends, of course,
there was no air conditioning.
we had a string of fans around the office. It was terrible.
That was back when
you were in Waterloo then.
And for UT, Digital Extremes went to Raleigh. That’s where
we finished UT.
It was your whole
company that went?
the people that were needed.
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
have made it really difficult from a project management point
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.
while you’re designing Dark Sector, you bring everybody together
and say, “What do you like? What do you dislike?”
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.
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.
no, we do! We’re using the Unreal Tools.
Ewing: We have the Unreal engine too.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the engine as well?
you building a new engine from scratch?
No! But we will be coding a new renderer.
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.
that will significantly cut down on development time then.
Ewing: Yes. Oh yeah.
idea on what kind of release date we’re looking at?
Eekels: No. <laughs>
Ewing: Nope! <laughs>
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.
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.
you looked at it yet?
Ewing: Yep. That’s one of the big things.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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 –
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.
like to be immersed.
Oh yeah. Absolutely cool. That’s something we’ll exploit to the
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.
a character in Dark Sector be building his stats and gathering items
that will make him more powerful?
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.
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.
a real reason to play everyday then.
Yes. That’s one of our biggest things.
The character development will be, for sure, at least as big as
any RPG. But just hopefully going in a different direction.
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.
will we see items bought and sold on ebay?
Accounts and stuff? Hopefully.
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.
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!”
you worried at all about addiction?
addiction? Like students dropping out of school because they’re
playing Dark Sector?
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.
I have heard of some people flunking college because of games.
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
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.
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
Sector is set in the future, is that right? We’re going to have
It’s going to be in the near future. It will be a recognizable
5 years in the future? 100 years? 1000 years?
20 to 30 years.
Maybe 50. And it’s based in the Earth’s solar system. We haven’t
got out of our solar system yet.
That leaves a lot of room still.
Yes it does.
of room. So we’re looking at 20 possibly 50 years in the future.
I’d say more like 50.
we’ll still have weapons that are popular today?
Different versions of them, probably.
this is still big design stuff.
Yeah we are concepting a lot of weapons.
and monsters, and I guess everything right?
and monsters and spaceships, oh my.
Uh oh I just opened up a can of worms.
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…
Moons of Jupiter.
of Jupiter! What else can you tell me about the game at this point?
I can just say, for myself, that this is a game that I’ve been wanting
to play for a long time.
Exactly. We’ve been talking about this, tossing it back and forth
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.
there any pressure, internally or externally, to do Unreal Tournament
There was a time when we talked about perhaps doing that. It floated
around with a lot of other ideas.
I think it was a natural thing to talk about.
But for us we were really ready to do something different.
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.
That’s the other thing too. Everybody on our team was so excited
to do this project. We were like giddy school kids.
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.”
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.
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.
guys, you’ve been terrific. Next time I think we should have clothes
on when we do this interview.
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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