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 Post subject: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 11:20 am 
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You know, I hate business trips. Especially across the Atlantic. I'm sure it sounds like all fun and games to jettison away to a foreign country and stay at fancy hotels, but in reality it really sucks. The first few times you do it it's all fun and games and you eat too much in the fancy restaurants and pour champagne over the balcony from the 30th floor. But after a while it's just another night spent at another five-star hotel when you'd much rather be home with your family and friends. And jetlag is murder when you just fly in for a couple of meetings. Your brain is still convinced it's a completely different part of the day and doesn't want to concentrate on pie charts and projected earnings during the next quarter. And I hardly pay attention to that stuff at the best of times, I'm only there for the technical details which are typically skimmed over anyway.

Of course, sometimes there are bonuses. At times I can take a day off in the big new country and arrange to have coffee with close friends. Other times no matter how much I call and call I just can't manage to set up a meeting. That was the case this time around. I'd figured on my trip I’d try to chat up the other part of the terrific duo, but I just didn't get any returns on my emails, calls, pages and repeated attempts at invading his dreams. So I gave up on it. Little did I know what awaited.

On the third day of my conference I was taking the elevator up to my room after breakfast when it suddenly stopped between the 12th and 14th floor. Annoyed, I pushed the assistance button. But no alarm went off. No little flashing lights. No automated voice telling me to stand by for an operator. The small room was as quiet as the grave. Just as I was beginning to get worried, the speakers came to life.

"I hear you're looking for me Mr. Pela"

Well, he didn’t say that obviously. That’s not my name. But I’m not going to share my actual name with you fine folks am I? But besides the name, that’s what I heard.

The voice was cool and emotionless, a pleasant yet bland timbre. Very neutral, crisp somehow.

"I don't really have time for coffee and scones, but I didn't want you to go home empty handed".

I have to say, this caught me quite off balance. Despite having met Paul numerous times, I'd never run into Fred. He was always somewhere else, busy or otherwise engaged. But I had no idea he took his privacy this seriously. Figuring this was my one chance, I tried to collect my thoughts and remember what it was I wanted to ask him. After a few frantic heartbeats, my first question sprang to mind.

"Describe the division in labour between yourself and Paul. Common perception is that he works on story and balance factors and you work on balance and technical stuff. Is this correct?"

I'd always been curious about this, and I had based a lot of my interview questions on this assumption. What was I going to do if I was wrong? I waited breathlessly, until the speaker crackled, delivering a cool answer.

"This is a gross over-simplification, but if I only had one sentence to describe our work relationship, this would be a good approximation. He is the extrovert, I am the introvert. He does most of the story and I do the technical stuff. The main reason we have worked so long together is that neither of us feels threatened in a territorial sense by the other and will defer to the other where it makes sense. That being said when we are at our prototyping best (see the answer to your next question), the lines start to get blurred as each sees how to exploit the strength of the other to make the product better than the sum of its parts. We call it 'feeding the hungry monster'. This is where our prototyping reveals new avenues to be explored, which generates more prototyping and asset creation, which in turn reveals more avenues, ad infinitum."

It seems I had my basics somewhat correct. Relief flooded my mind, although his reference to a question as of yet unasked worried me somewhat. I found my second question much more easily than the first and prayed it was the right one.

"There's always a lot of talk about game balance on the forums, and one thing that comes up pretty often is the "crew as hitpoints" thing. Some find the current system valid and vital for the arcade feeling of melee, others would prefer more realism with armour points, damage sectors and so forth. If had a chance to re-imagine melee, how would you do it? The current system or something else?"

The delay was longer this time. Had I offended the mysterious voice keeping me trapped in an elevator? Did my second question not tie into the first one well enough? I tried to not think too hard about whether my interview subject also had control over the elevator safety systems. I felt reasonably certain that Fred wouldn't just drop me to my death, but you never know with programmers. After a long delay the answer was delivered, and to my relief the elevator remained in place.

"I would say one of our cardinal beliefs is that simulation and fun do not necessarily correlate. We actually tried shields/armor in melee and battle groups during interstellar exploration and encounters. The added overhead of managing these detracted from the 'fun' rather than adding to it. I think I spent roughly two months working on battle groups that you could send on interplanetary missions, composed of combinations of your escort ships, and we threw it all out. Similarly Paul spent a lot of time designing the distribution of planets, based on the type of star, and the minerals, life-forms, weather, tectonics, etc. that would result from that. And while it's academically interesting and consistency is comforting in certain ways, we could have spent a lot less time on it without a significant loss of game play and fun.

Another of our cardinal beliefs is rapid prototyping. If you can get to testing and iterating the experience quickly, then you can prove or disprove your ideas in short order. So in terms of re-imagining melee, I don't have a ready answer for you. When we are able to prototype game play meaningfully, we will iterate, iterate, iterate. Of course, the implication here is that what comes out the other end will be something Paul and I and any beta-testers think is fun and damn all the naysayers and consistency hobgoblins."

I felt things were going well, we had returned to the prototyping. But now I was worried about remembering the correct phrasing of the answers. I had no pen and paper, and my memory is famously shoddy. As if he was anticipating my every move, I was given a promise to receive these answers in writing as well. Relieved, I pressed on with my next question.

"Currently there are a few threads discussing the validity of a Star Control MMO out there. Is this something you could see in the future, or do you feel that the format isn't right for SC?"

This time the answer came without hesitation.

"Well, we've never been shy about leaking into genres. So why should MMOs feel safe from our taking a leak on them? It's harder to tell a story as we did in SC2, but we managed some story in SC1 even though that wasn't its main focus. I don't think either of us would be particularly motivated to be a driving force for an MMO, but we would certainly maintain polite interest."

We were gaining momentum here and I felt that the best thing would be to press on before my faceless partner grew tired of his games.

"Speaking of game formats, besides melee the jump between SC and SC II was pretty big. Have you got any thoughts on in what direction you'd like to go when the third part in the octet comes out? RTS? Point'n click adventure? FPS? Something else?"

The elevator was quiet for quite a while. By now the small space was growing warm and I was beginning to feel quite claustrophobic. As I wiped my brow, the air-conditioning suddenly kicked in. Somewhat unsettled I realized that Fred was probably not only keeping me captive, but watching my every move. Like an Arilou, only less discrete. Still, the cool breeze was welcome. Finally, the answer arrived.

"It's still too early to say, but just choosing between 2D versus 3D is an order of magnitude decision in the amount of work and time. We're leaning to 2D, because we can actually imagine doing that in our spare time with fundamentally just the two of us. We realize that there are a large number of people who would sacrifice large parts of their existence to work on this with us, but we aren't at that place yet -- and we are still employed by Activision and wish to remain so. Genre also is undecided, but if it's 2D that would seem to eliminate, for example, FPS. Oh, and don't think I didn't notice 'octet'. That's a bit cheeky of you, but I appreciate the attempt."

I could sense a distance in Fred's voice here, emotionless as it was. The interview was drawing to a close and if I wanted more answers I'd better ask my questions quickly.

"Besides going underground and finishing the game at a secret location, what was your favourite thing about making SC II. What stands out in your memory? And what is your greatest regret regarding the game"

Suddenly, the elevator started moving. As it progressed upwards I received my answer.

"My favourite thing was bringing a new ship 'on-line', implementing its attacks and special powers, and running it through melee. You must remember that neither Paul nor I imagined that what we were creating was going to resonate so strongly and for so long. We knew we were making a game that we would like to play, but we also knew that Accolade did not really care and we thought that would be the general response. Regrets? I honestly don't really have any. More time would have been great, more money, more experience, better sales, better reviews at the time -- but I want those things with every game we put out."

We were drawing close to my floor now, with just seconds to spare. Desperately I blurted out one last question.

"There's been some mention of a mysterious Fred&Paul side project on the forums. Would you care to shed any light on that?"

Not a good question, but there were only five floors left. Four. Three. With two floors to go I received my answer.

"I've left some pretty broad hints in the previous answers. I'm working, in a hobbyist sort of way, at home on a foundation for myself. Because I'm not really a big fan of working on something without an application, I can think of one obvious application on which I can work that resolves that problem. The pace is currently and understandably slow, and until I get further and until Paul has had some chance to think about things, progress will be agonizing to some who lack patience. Luckily, besides being an introvert, as I mentioned in question #1, I am also cruel. So it's win-win for me."

As the final sentence finished, the doors opened and several Indian businessmen in suits piled in. They looked at me with some confusion, but my mind was too preoccupied to pay them much attention. I rode down to the lobby with them in silence.

On the way up, noting untoward happened in the elevator. As I stepped into my room, my phone beeped. I had one new email, containing my questions and the given answers. The interview was done with.

The rest of my stay was eventful, but somehow diminished by these events.


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 12:21 pm 
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Slylandro gasbags
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Lukipela, you're a great story writer, but when I want to read news or an interview, I don't want to be forced to read a story. :)
Anyway, thanks for getting us this interview.


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 12:27 pm 
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Interesting interview. I always love reading what they have to say about anything.

With regards to their side project, is that the one where Paul said that he jotted down some notes in his desk somewhere a couple of years ago?

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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 12:40 pm 
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That's creepy how he managed to stop the elevator, put on the AC, and things like that. At least some of our questions are answered. But he's Fred Ford, what should we expect? Those crazy, awesome two men who first created the great Star Control are unexpecting men, who do unexpected things. As said here.

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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 12:43 pm 
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Angelfish wrote:
Lukipela, you're a great story writer, but when I want to read news or an interview, I don't want to be forced to read a story. :)
Anyway, thanks for getting us this interview.


Skip every paragraph that doesn't have a quote around it and you get the pure interview, hopefully that enhances your enjoyment. :)

Also, we have some proper news articles coming up as well soon enough, so you'll hopefully have your fill.


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 1:29 pm 
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Slylandro gasbags
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Lukipela wrote:
Angelfish wrote:
Lukipela, you're a great story writer, but when I want to read news or an interview, I don't want to be forced to read a story. :)
Anyway, thanks for getting us this interview.


Skip every paragraph that doesn't have a quote around it and you get the pure interview, hopefully that enhances your enjoyment. :)

Also, we have some proper news articles coming up as well soon enough, so you'll hopefully have your fill.


thanks :).


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:31 pm 
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Fred Ford wrote:
I would say one of our cardinal beliefs is that simulation and fun do not necessarily correlate. We actually tried shields/armor in melee and battle groups during interstellar exploration and encounters. The added overhead of managing these detracted from the 'fun' rather than adding to it.

This is really encouraging to read. I've always held the opinion that one of the cornerstones of what allowed SC2 to be so great is that the creators didn't sacrifice fun for realism. It's good to see that this was not an accident, but is something which still guides the development of new games. This makes it all the more likely that they can make another game which is in the SC2 league, if given the opportunity.

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Another of our cardinal beliefs is rapid prototyping. If you can get to testing and iterating the experience quickly, then you can prove or disprove your ideas in short order.

This is something which only really got through to me relatively recently. Trying to get everything perfect on the first try will often leave you with nothing usable (Nothing concrete that is; you do gain useful experience). In my case, heaps of half-finished projects.

It's clearly visible in the SC2 code that it is an evolutionary work. In many places there are hacks upon hacks upon hacks.
This must have cost Fred a lot of time on occasion, when the existing code at the time wouldn't be able to support what they were trying to do, and he had to rewrite large parts. (The thing with restructuring this kind of code is that when you pull on one string, the entire fabric falls apart, because everything is interconnected.)
But at the same time, I think that SC2 wouldn't have existed if they had tried to design it all in advance. Pragmatism often wins from perfectionism.

It is interesting that you can actually often see in the code which parts have been hacked on right at the end. Loading and saving is spread all around the code, for instance. It would have been a nightmare to implement and I expect that there would have been many bugs to solve there.
On the other hand, some parts, like the planet generation, comm and ship code, are done rather generically. While not very clean by today's standards, you can actually see some sort of object orientated programming. I actually expect that it hasn't been this way from the start, and that this has been the main cause of those months of work which TFB reportedly spent on trying to make future add-ons possible.

Notwithstanding my earlier remark about pragmatism, and without intending to denigrate Fred's achievement, I think that the development of SC2 would have benefited from some advance architectural design (though not as much over-design as I have been prone to). I bet that Fred will have reached the same conclusion.
I wonder what his code looks like now, after 18 years of additional experience.

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So in terms of re-imagining melee, I don't have a ready answer for you. When we are able to prototype game play meaningfully, we will iterate, iterate, iterate. Of course, the implication here is that what comes out the other end will be something Paul and I and any beta-testers think is fun and damn all the naysayers and consistency hobgoblins.

This is also good to read. Over the years, I've seen a lot of remarks from people in the UQM community about what they would have done to make the game even better, or which a sequel should do. And often, they are pitfalls which were, imho, rightly avoided.
Some examples:
  • More realism. But more real isn't necessarily more fun, and can even be the opposite. And it usually takes time in development which could have been spent to make the game more (and longer) fun. A special case of this is 3D (although you can have 3D graphics without 3D gameplay). Another special case is explaining how things work or why things are the way they are. But just making a joke about it or hang a lampshade over something which does not make sense, just increases the enjoyment, while explaining too much just hinders the immersion in the game.
  • Additional features. But more complexity will often result in less immersion in the story.
  • Less repetition, specifically in planet exploration for minerals. I do partially agree with this, but the fact is that the more repetitive or quiet parts of the game serve as a contrast to other parts, heightening the excitement from them.
  • Faster travel. When under way from one side of the map to the other, you're not really doing anything. However, the hugeness of the map also helps to raise the feeling of exploration, and hence, adventure. For me, one of the great parts of the game experience was to find out that this huge, seemingly empty space, is actually teeming with life. And with the great musical track for HyperSpace (which was very important in this respect), you'll still be entertained while travelling.
  • No in-game tracking of information. But having to mess with pieces of paper has a charm of its own, and helps to raise the feeling of mystery.
  • Time limit. It's annoying when you have to start over due to running out of time. But the sense of urgency helps with the immersion in the game, and makes the Kohr-Ah threat more real. Some people (like myself) try to be very thorough in exploring every part of the game (some even try to investigate every star system), but once you accept that you're probably going to have to start over anyhow at least once, you'll be having a lot more fun. (This could have been made more clear, though. In the manual perhaps.)
  • Unresolved questions. I understand that some of the questions which remain open at the end of the game were due to a lack of time (such as the full nature of the rainbow worlds or the Orz). But at the same time, these are what still keeps us talking about the game.

So I'm glad to see that Fred and Paul are using their own judgement, and if either one of them happens to read this posting, I hope it serves to encourage them to keep doing just that.


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sun Oct 10, 2010 4:49 am 
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Angelfish wrote:
Lukipela, you're a great story writer, but when I want to read news or an interview, I don't want to be forced to read a story. :)
Anyway, thanks for getting us this interview.


Don't listen to him. You have the best interview flavor text I've ever read, mostly because you clearly don't take yourself very seriously, so I love reading these pieces.


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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sun Oct 10, 2010 5:50 am 
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I agree, its much more fun to read when you exaggerate the formality/unusualness of meeting with the creators of StarControl and engaging in a spontaneous interview about said game seriess :)-smf .

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 Post subject: Re: Interview with Fred Ford
PostPosted: Sun Oct 10, 2010 6:28 am 
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Great interview! I really love how he basically says they're working on their own SC2-2 prototypes in the middle of everything else.

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