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Dave Ellis: Interceptor by cyke Written on 23rd April 2003

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Great logo methinks!

» Cyke: In our previous part you mentioned how there was internal talk of “toys, cartoons, comic books…the whole works” and during Interceptors install a black and white comic cover is shown – is that just coincidence? Either way, can you elaborate more on things that were talked about?
» Dave: A lot of the talk was internal—development team hopes and dreams during Interceptor’s development. Our lead artist, Guy Sparger, was really into the idea, and he and the other artists designed lots of comic book covers, including the one seen during the install. It never went any further than that at the time.

When Hasbro bought MicroProse, we brought the idea of X-COM merchandising up to them and they seemed to love the idea. When we started hiring new people to staff up for Genesis, one of the new artists we brought in was an excellent comic book artist named Brian Hagen, who worked on some of the early issues of Marvel Comics’ Blade comic book. He and I discussed a lot of ideas for stories and such, and he was one of the key artists in creating pre-production sketches for the Genesis characters.

If you have the US version of the X-COM Collector’s Edition, you can see some of the results. Brian did the artwork for the comic on the inside flap, and I wrote the dialog. The characters in that very short comic strip—Murdoch, Git, Psi-cho, etc.—were characters who were to appear in Genesis.

That’s about as far as it got, though…for obvious reasons.

» Cyke: In regards to the retro 50s look of Interceptor, it seemed to be an X-Com theme after Apocalypse, would that be accurate – was such a decision made?
» Dave: Yes, it was a conscious choice. We wanted the technology to be consistent with Apocalypse—plus, Guy Sparger was a big fan of retro art.

That said, we really wanted to distance ourselves from the storyline of Apocalypse—the new aliens and so forth. That’s why Interceptor is set before Apocalypse. We wanted to deal with the “classic” X-COM aliens.

In that same vein, Genesis, which was set immediately after Apocalypse, began (in the opening sequence) with the total destruction of Mega-Primus. We wanted to remove the 50s look and the Apocalypse storyline so that we could get “back to basics” with the new game.

» Cyke: How smoothly did the games creation go? Any major setbacks or hassles? Was there the usual prerequisite of late nights and pizzas all around?
» Dave: The development of Interceptor went extremely well, and we kept the late nights to a minimum. Most of the overtime was during the last few months, as it should be—you can’t work a development team to death for 18 months straight and expect good results! A lot of companies do that and wonder why people burn out. It wasn’t like that in the Interceptor days…not for us, anyway.

The biggest hurdle during the development of the game was the fact that I was working remotely at the time—I was in Hunt Valley, Maryland while the rest of the team was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It worked well most of the time, but there were some inevitable communications problems on both ends. I racked up a lot of frequent flier miles flying back and forth during those 18 months.

» Cyke: One of the things I personally enjoyed about Interceptor was the regular bulletins from the HNN network, detailing revolts of the Cult of Sirius on Earth, Marsec, the loss of the Patton (linking Alliance in there, nice touch) and so on. It really kept the world of X-Com alive and somehow more tangible. What was the thinking behind including these and what went into them?
» Dave: I’m glad someone appreciated that! One of the complaints I had about Apocalypse was that it seemed to bear very little resemblance to the previous games—it felt detached from the storyline somehow.

Since Interceptor was set so far away from Earth, I thought it was important to keep it tightly linked with the X-COM universe. There was nothing in the game itself that would reveal any X-COM history (beyond what was immediately important to the game), so I thought up the idea of the news bulletins to give the player an idea of what was happening in the game world beyond what was taking place on the Frontier.

The link to Alliance was planned at our big X-COM summit meeting (which I believe I mentioned in part I). The UK office was developing Alliance at the same time we were working on Interceptor, and we all thought it was a cool idea to “tease” the next game in the series in Interceptor. Kind of whet the appetites of the fans, as it were.

» Cyke: On recently replaying Interceptor, I was surprised at the amount of swearing that went on ! Comments such as “aliens piss me off”, “I can’t shake the son of a bitch” and my personal favourite “smoked that bastard!” - were certainly realistic – was there any conflict internally about the inclusion of these?
» Dave: Actually, there was, but nothing serious. One of the management team was concerned that his young nephews wouldn’t be able to play the game—he took a bit of heat after it was released when his nephews’ parents heard the language when he was showing the game to them, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to clean up the language in Genesis as a result. It was an ongoing battle that never came to a conclusion. My argument was that the kids would hear far worse in school (I certainly did). Plus, I drew the line at anything that couldn’t be said on network television during prime time. I’ve heard real fighter pilots talk, and I was just striving for realism. Other games have gone a lot farther—Half-Life, for example, made liberal use of ”shit”. And it didn’t bother me a bit.

The only other objection—one that I did take seriously—was that one of the team was opposed to using the term “goddamned” in the dialog. When he expressed this concern, I immediately changed the line to “damned”.

» Cyke: Did you guys get any feedback about including yourselves as crew pics in the game ( btw that’s some cheesy grin you've got going on with that thumbs up in yours) ?
» Dave: Actually, we got no feedback whatsoever on that (cheesy grins and all). We did it to save the artists a bit of time. All they had to do was retouch some images of the team (and the other volunteers) rather than creating a bunch of character images.

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Who said death was an ugly business?
» Cyke: You’d previously mentioned that a certain hard-core element of X-Com fans in cyberspace were very ‘closed’ to a non turn-based squad game. How much of a worry was the thought of this and did you feel the odds were in any way stacked against you?
» Dave: I bought wholeheartedly into the idea that X-COM could span many different game genres just like the Star Wars franchise. As a diehard fan myself, I didn’t feel that a space combat game or a first-person shooter was out of line with the X-COM idea—provided it was done with a strong sense of what X-COM was in mind. I think that both Interceptor and Alliance were very much X-COM, and I felt that both would win the fans over.

In retrospect, I suppose it was too soon to go off on such a tangent. I still feel that Interceptor was a sound game idea—I just don’t think that the X-COM brand was established enough to go off in such a new direction at the time. I also don’t think we had enough time to make Interceptor all that it could be.

» Cyke: How much balancing went into the actual combat part of the game? I’m not much of a flight sim player personally, so I didn’t get hung up on any lack of realism. I took it largely to be a fun ‘arcade-y’ blast, and frankly a lot of them – the non linear nature equals a lot of alien killing for sure. Was there a deliberate drive to keep battles on the shorter side? The general high quality of your wingmen would support this in my view.
» Dave: A lot of balancing went into the space combat portion of the game, believe it or not. At the time, we were playing the game every day and we were all good at it. We felt that the balance was there. It wasn’t until we had a marketing focus group play the game that we realized that the missions were too repetitive and lacked variety. We did our best to beef things up by adding some scripted missions (the alien artifact retrieval missions, the pirate base missions, etc.), but it wasn’t really enough to compete with the type of deep scripted missions that appeared in our competition at the time (Descent Freespace, for example). I wanted to generate the missions on the fly rather than scripting them for two reasons—I wanted the game flow to be similar to that of the first three X-COM games, and I wanted the player’s actions to directly affect the game flow. That ultimately worked against us mission variety-wise.

What you can’t necessarily see in the game as it was released is your effect on the aliens’ operations as a result of initiating missions. For the most part, the aliens play by the same rules as you do. They have star systems producing “money”, and they use the money to build their equipment, bases, etc. If you attack an alien outpost and destroy it, you impede the aliens’ economy in the same way as the aliens impede yours by destroying your outposts and OPPs (ore processing plants). I wish there had been a better way to convey that in the game.

As for the high quality of the wingmen, you can thank our AI programmer John O’Neill. One of my biggest beefs with the LucasArts X-Wing series (one of my all time favorite game series by the way) was that your wingmen were idiots. At best, they could be counted on to absorb a few hits for you. They were seldom of any help, and frequently shot you instead of shooting TIE fighters! I told John about my qualms, and he proceeded to write a pilot AI that was so good that you could often sit back and let your wingmen do all of the work.

This sort of worked out, though, because the game is so hard! At the time, when we played every day, we on the team thought that the people who said the game was too hard were just being wimps. As it turns out, having played again recently, I agree with the critics—the game is tough! I was happy for the wingman support until I got used to flying again.

» Cyke: Ok, now a question I’d ask any designer of any game – time for a post mortem! In a perfect world, if there was anything you could go back and change or tweak, what would it be? You did previously mention “We came up a bit short on Interceptor for a number of reasons”.
» Dave: We were on a tight schedule (18 months), and we were out to prove that we could make the deadline. This was the first major project for the team, and we wanted to show the company that we could do it! Plus, the company needed a product in that time period, so we couldn’t slip.

We made two major mistakes. First, we didn’t get the whole game running until almost a year into the project. We had the strategy portion going, and we had the combat portion going, but we didn’t get the two linked until very late in the game. Had we gotten a complete prototype up and running earlier, we could have spotted a lot of the pacing and mission issues early enough to do something about it. As it was, it was too late by the time the problems were discovered to do more than add a few scripted missions, change a few research paths and hope for the best.

The other mistake was not having any outside input on the project until three months before release. Once again, the game difficulty issues, the pacing issues, and the mission similarity problems would have been revealed early enough to solve them had we had a focus group play the game a few months earlier.

Another problem was release timing and categorization. We were up against a couple of major space combat games at the time—Freespace was one, but I forget what the other one was. Maybe Wing Commander 5?

Anyway, we weren’t a typical space combat game—we had a whole strategy game on top of that—but we were inevitably judged as a space combat game and came up short compared to the competition. Our competitors had a lot more money to spend (the budget of the Wing Commander games often exceeded $10 million with a team of 40 developers, whereas we had a little over $1 million and a team of 14). They also had the luxury of concentrating on a single genre—space combat. We had to divide our resources between the strategy game and the space combat game.

» Cyke: Was there anything planned that for time/resources/money couldn’t be implemented?
» Dave: Honestly, the only thing we had to skimp on was time to “tweak” the game at the end of the development cycle. And that was a huge mistake, as I’ve already indicated.

I can’t recall that there was much that was omitted. I think there might have been some additional ships (alien and X-COM) that fell by the wayside early on, and I know there were details about star systems and such that were omitted (different stars’ effects on space flight and combat, etc.), but by and large most everything we planned made it in.

» Cyke: How swiftly after finishing Interceptor did Genesis start to happen? And I’m guessing this wouldn’t have been too hard a pitch to make?
» Dave: I’ll take some flack about this answer from my ex-teammates, but what the heck…it’s the truth!

Development on Genesis didn’t start until almost 6 months after Interceptor was shipped. We were working on Civilization II Multiplayer Gold at the time, but that wasn’t really the reason. Many members of the team were tired of X-COM after Interceptor and, for a while, I was the only one interested in doing another X-COM game. I wrote the initial Genesis proposal, but not many people on the team were interested in looking at it. This was when Hasbro was taking over, and many of the Chapel Hill team members were looking at Hasbro’s list of available Atari titles, hoping to find something interesting there that piqued everyone’s interest. I was the only X-COM advocate at the time. We had little sense of direction during this period.

We also worked extensively on a Monopoly idea based on The Simpsons (which was eventually turned down). It wasn’t until after that that we started looking seriously at X-COM again. We hired a lot of new people, and the new folks were really excited about working on an X-COM game. This inevitably spilled over onto the Interceptor veterans (most of them, anyway), and we were all working toward the same goal (finally). The studio also had a second title, one based on an Atari license, so eventually everyone was happy again.

» Cyke: Tell us about where the team for Genesis came from. Were many of them hardcore X-Com fans?
» Dave: Almost all of them had played X-COM before, but they came from a lot of different backgrounds. We had some of the finest artists I’ve known working on the game, most of whom are still in the industry (but scattered to the four winds at this point). Our programmers were great, too, and we were well on our way to creating something really awesome.

» Cyke: What sort of tech demo did you do for this, and how detailed was the design doc?
» Dave: At the time of the layoff, we had a tech demo that allowed you to run around in a city and fire non-lethal projectiles. It was a test bed for all of our effects, including path finding, lighting, building geometry, etc. It was from this demo that all of the existing Genesis screen shots were captured.

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Another good day in the office
The design document was incomplete at the time of the layoff, but some sections—the back story, the economy, the combat, and the research tree—were done. (I still have it.) The aliens and many of the human NPC characters were also designed, sketched, and fleshed-out. I’d say there are about 400+ pages of written material on Genesis and, as I said, the document was incomplete.

By way of reference, the Interceptor design document was about 800 pages long when it was completed.

» Cyke: Where did the name Genesis come from?
» Dave: It was Guy Sparger’s idea, actually. Guy left the company before we started developing the game, but he suggested the name during the early stages of discussion. We wanted to come up with a title that conveyed the idea of starting over—re-kindling interest in the X-COM franchise by going back to the roots of the game. Depending on your point of view, it could be biblical or Star Trek in origin. I look at it from a Star Trek point of view—life from lifelessness. We wanted to re-inject the excitement and mood of UFO Defense back into the series, and we wanted to kind of erase the events of Apocalypse. We wanted, in other words, to start over. Hence Genesis.

And that’s part two! Part three gets into detail on X-Com Genesis, including actual excerpts from its design documentation and exclusive production artwork – I guarantee if you’re an X-Com fan you’re going to love it!

In the meantime to see X-Com Genesis in action, surf over to Ben Clowards website HERE as it has videos of Genesis in action as he was the lead character animator!!

Part 1: Dave Ellis: Early Days
Part 2: Dave Ellis: Interceptor
Part 3: Dave Ellis: Genesis


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