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.