Prey Designer’s Journal #1

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by Paul C. Schuytema, Prey project leader
(12/12/97)


This is the first in a regular installment of journal entries by Paul Schuytema and the rest of the 3D Realms Prey team.

When a Hindu travels to a temple, he does so not for worship but rather for darsan, meaning “to see or to experience.” In the Hindu faith, the gods are many, and catching sight of even one of their unique images is a very important spiritual task, perhaps the most important of all. This act of seeing is so important that it extends beyond the gods to unique temples and sacred areas. Places such as the Ganges river (which is said to flow from heaven to the earth), the high peaks of the Himalayas, or such seemingly innocuous sites as a crudely fashioned alter standing crookedly in the dusty soil just outside of a small village all hold important facets of the whole life experience. In the Hindu faith, taking in as much as possible, in all its subtle variations, is one of the primary means to celebrate the mysterious splendor of life.

In a much more mundane manner, we gamers thirst in much the same way. If a certain game turns our head, we tend to seek out all titles in that genre, experiencing them all for that special (or not-so-special) something each one gives us. We groove on Red Alert, so we rush out and buy Total Annihilation, Dark Reign, and Age of Empires as soon as they come out…just to see what’s there. Monotheism is not a principle of gaming.

This polyfidelity holds especially true in the 3D action gaming community–we love this genre and constantly quench our thirst by seeking out new variations. But we are a rabid lot, and for our darsan, we need more than just a novel game experience. We want to see what’s going on underneath the hood and what the development process is all about.

page1shot1That’s what I hope I and the rest of the Prey design team will be able to do here. Beginning today, we will be providing you with some unique looks into the development of our game. We think we’re doing some pretty exciting things on this project, and this opportunity to share some of our victories, as well as defeats, is most certainly a welcome one.

Why We’re Here

What we’re trying to accomplish with Prey: A Talon Brave Game is to create the action game we’ve all deeply wanted to play but haven’t found yet. We want the game’s visual fidelity to be such that the suspension of disbelief is not just extreme, but total. We want the action to be constant, challenging, and engaging. We want to be riveted to the game–exhilarated and frightened at the same time. We want to be able to do things that just wouldn’t be possible in our flesh-and-blood reality. And we want to participate in a story and a universe that absolutely drips with coolness.

These are the goals we set for ourselves, but the task is massive indeed, and can lead to a strange, almost manic frame of mind. At times, we brim with confidence in our efforts; other days, the water seems a touch too deep. Ten months ago there was no competition to speak of, and although we were motivated, there seemed to be no obstacles in our path. Now, as more and more developers strive to push the envelope, we see the bar rising higher and higher each month. This isn’t disheartening–on the contrary, it has fueled our efforts to an even greater extent.

Several years ago, nearly every significant game utilized its own proprietary technology. Now, more and more, technology is being licensed rather than built, and developers are focusing their energy on deriving content from a solid foundation. At this moment in time, the competition is particularly fierce within the action game genre. If one developer misses a step, three others are there to quickly fill the void. What a surreal environment to develop a game in!

As a result, Prey is one of the increasingly rare beasts that is growing into a game through a schizophrenic development path; to meet our own expectations of the game, we must develop new technology and the game’s content at the same time. This sometimes forces us to make educated guesses about the direction we’re heading because, of course, time is always a constant pressure. On the technology front, developments are advancing across the board. With the remarkable technological progress the industry is seeing right now, we feel that we have a moment in time where we can really stand out on the technology front. But if we slip, there are already hounds at our heels.

Of course, all of this can confuse the primary goal–we want to create, in Prey, a game that’s a ball to play. All the technology in the world doesn’t add up to squat if it’s used to deliver a substandard or lackadaisical game. On the other hand, a solid game built on dated technology doesn’t serve the player well either.

The Frozen Moment

As I’m writing this, our three programmers are wrapping up their first eight weeks of “technical seclusion.” We carved out the last 90 days of this year as a time for these guys to polish, refine, and mold the myriad Prey engine systems into tight, general production code. In just a few hours, in fact, we’ll come together to learn of last month’s progress–what’s solid and what still needs work, what unexpected avenue must we pursue, and what wondrous technology must we hold back until the next game.

shot3aOn the design side, we have nailed down our vision for the first episode of the game, and Matt Wood and John Anderson are pounding away on their assigned levels. Allen Dilling is putting together some final actor models that he’ll soon turn over to Scott McCabe for texturing. Then, it’s time to assemble some of our primary weapons from their mishmash of seemingly discontinuous content: design, the DLL behavior code, the model, the textures, the animation, the sounds, and the pyrotechnics.

On the story front, the entire saga of Prey has been sculpted in rough form. Now I’m working through the arduous process of tuning the story. All elements–character archetypes, plot events, motivations, forces, and derivative story elements–need to be checked and balanced.

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Team Energy

A game is a tapestry, woven from the creative energies of the development team. Not that many years ago, a development team often consisted of just a pair of programmers, working into the night in a basement. Today, a development team can be several hundred strong, each contributing their vital fibers to the weave.

At 3D Realms, we keep our teams small. Part of that is derived from the nature of the games we develop–action games tend to be less sprawling, as far as content is concerned. We don’t have an hour of FMV to write, shoot, and edit. We don’t have hundreds of backdrops or complex 3D scenes to render. We’re working much closer to the experience than that, and too large a team dilutes the project.

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Our Prey team numbers less than a dozen, and each team member is entrusted with a huge stake in the game’s ultimate success. If one of us stumbles or falls, the game will suffer serious damage. Kind of scary, but it’s a wonderful challenge. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and we’ve accepted the challenge.

Each member of the Prey team possesses unique skills and creativity that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. During the coming months, you’ll hear from the individual team members as they share their experiences with you. I hope we will have victory upon victory to share, but we will also share the frustrations and disappointments. At the end of the long process, you will know all about the sweat and energy that we’ve poured into this title. And we will have a game to share with you.

Until next month!