If you’re stuck at home looking for distractions to take your mind off of COVID-19—or if you’ve realized that you don’t actually have to pay attention to your department’s snooze-inducing staff meeting and you’d rather not watch your boss try and fail for twenty solid minutes to get WebEx desktop sharing to work—I’ve got a humble suggestion: how about watching some of our “War Stories” videos on game-design challenges?
We started “War Stories” a couple of years ago with the idea being that we’d sit down with some brilliant game designers and get them to describe to us a moment in their work when it felt like they had run up against an unsolvable (or nearly unsolvable) problem, and how they eventually overcame that problem. Over the years we’ve heard some fascinating tales of programming derring-do from some fascinating folks—people like Sid Meier (Civilization), Paul Neurath (Thief: The Dark Project), Glen Schofield (Dead Space) and even Lord British himself, Richard Garriott (Ultima Online).
(The series is also in active production, and there are two new episodes nearly finished—including one that we’ll be publishing tomorrow about a certain rotoscoped prince, and one coming soon about a certain neuroscientist named “Karan.”)
If you’d just like to click through and explore things yourself, you can jump right into the “War Stories” playlist on Youtube. But if you’d like a little more information first, here’s the complete list of “War Stories” videos and a brief bit of explanation about each one. All in all, there’s about five hours of content to chew through, so this should last you through at least a couple of meetings!
Lord British created an ecology for Ultima Online, but no one saw it
Featuring game dev godfather and world-famous haunted house owner Richard Garriott, the very first “War Stories” video shows how no design survives contact with the enemy players.
How Thief‘s intuitive stealth system wasn’t intuitive to design
Looking Glass Studios founder Paul Neurath explains just how difficult it was to add sound-based sneaking to a PC game way back in 1998.
How poor memory management almost crippled Stardock’s Elemental: War of Magic
Stardock founder Brad Wardell shows us that sometimes you get the memory error, and sometimes the memory error gets you.
How Serious Sam‘s demo (and crates galore) saved the game from extinction
Davor Hunski of Croteam on how sometimes you gotta throw a Hail Mary pass and hope for the best—and sometimes, things work out. Also, crates. So many crates.
How Star Control II was almost too realistic
This one’s my personal favorite, because I’ve idolized Toys For Bob founders Fred Ford and Paul Reiche III since I was about twelve years old. Their description of what it took to bring Star Control II to life, and how they almost overcomplicated the crap out of it, is excellent. Also, they’re fun guys!
How an 11th-hour design decision made Aliens Versus Predators a classic
Sometimes, in spite of how hard you try, a game just isn’t coming together right—the pieces all seem to be there, but they’re not gelling into a coherent whole. That can lead to taking risks with large design changes late in the project—and occasionally you strike gold.
Total War: Rome II’s devs built all of Europe—and the AI ignored most of it
Lead battlefield artist Pawel Wojs on how Total War II‘s design scope was so vast that it seemed impossible, and how they rose to the challenge.
How Dead Space‘s scariest scene almost dragged down the entire project
Creator Glen Schofield is clearly a man who loves his creations, and his methodical explanation of the difficulty behind implementing the game’s “Drag Tentacle” monster is excellent because it highlights how much game design involves not just creating individual components, but integrating them into a coherent whole. Also, Glen’s a talented artist, and we did a whole separate video just focusing on his art.
To make 1997’s Blade Runner, Westwood first had to create the universe
Westwood Studios co-founder Louis Castle on the odd feast-and-famine problem presented by early CD-ROM drives—sure, you’ve suddenly got hundreds of megabytes to play with, but how do you effectively use them through a 150Kbps straw? (It’s also worth pointing out that the game is getting a 2020 remaster soon!)
How Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun (sort of) solved pathfinding
Louis returns for a second video on another difficult problem: in an open-map RTS game with deformable terrain, how do you make all your dudes go where you want them to go? It turns out that pathfinding is a hell of a hard problem to truly solve.
Taming the player-murdering machine that was MechWarrior 5’s level generator
Honestly, this one’s worth watching just for the blooper videos of mechs going crazy.
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