So I’d been a tad curious about the new TFB game for some time now. And I wasn’t the only one, PNF news readers were expressing concerns too. As I had dutifully promised
, I decided to take it up with Paul at a squash game. Why there? Who knows, it just sounded good. Sometimes I do things for no good reason. I always pictured Paul as someone who’d enjoy a manly game of squash. But for weeks he stalled. There was always something he had to attend to, some thing that was really important and that had to be done “right now”. So eventually, I got tired of the wait. My loyal PNF readership was anxiously waiting for answers. Like, all eleven of them. So I cornered Paul and demanded an explanation. Did he not want to play with me? Did he not appreciate my slavering loyalty an unerring devotion? Did he not realize that as a representative of the largest Star Control fan site on the internet I could ruin him? The truth, it turns out, was much simpler.
“Playing squash is for me some how unalterably linked with -eating- squash”, he said with a pained grimace.
With a queasy look on his face he continued; “And I am afraid that a horrible childhood experience has put me off the entire gourd family. Imagine the worst combination of 1960's cuisine -- overcooked, no spices and a requirement to 'eat it all'. I believe that encounter may have ended, well... Exorcistian.”
But feelings of pain and sadness always pass so quickly on Paul’s face. Almost as soon as he had relieved that painful childhood memory, he continued in a most upbeat voice.
“On a happier note, I do make an exception for pumpkin pie, which I consider the perfect food and always a welcome gift.”
I immediately hatched a cunning plan. If he didn’t want to play squash then I’d feed him pumpkin pie! Sometimes I marvel at my strokes of pure genius. Casually, I mentioned that I’d love to buy him some coffee and pie at some stage. Without suspecting a thing, he walked right into my trap. We agreed on a date the following week.
When he arrived at the lovely little bakery/coffee shop I’d selected, I’d already been there for an hour making preparations. There were biscuits. There were muffins. There were little Italian biscottas and English cupcakes. And coffee of all sorts, of course. Espressos, lattes and that weirdly potent Scandinavian coffee were all lined up.
Paul seemed a little taken aback at the huge amount of bakeries, but his hunger got the best of him. You know what they say, the way to a mans heart goes through his stomach. Actually, I think it’s shorter to just go through the ribcage, but who am I to argue with folk wisdom? Anyway, as he sank his teeth into the first chocolate muffin, I opened with a casual question.
“So your new game has been delayed, or at least the schedule has been redone. Tell me, when can we expect some more news on it? There’s a lot of people waiting for it you know”, I said with just a hint of reproach in my voice. I wanted him to be off guard, but not too worried. If he was feeling guilty, maybe he’d let something slip.
“Well”, he said between bites. “First off, let me say that being secretive or discreet runs counter to my very being. Just ask Fred and he will tell you that I never shut up and that I stick my foot in my mouth at a frequency far above the norm.”
He took a pause to taste one of the lattes before he continued; “So the fact that I am once again under the cone of silence causes me great pain. Weighed against this pain is, however, the real threat of being ejected from my own office and the perhaps imagined threat of being cursed by gypsies.”
He glanced around the coffee shop with a worried look and spoke right into the air. “Apologies to real gypsies out there. I really don't mean to stereotype you. Please don't curse me.”
While I was pondering the significance of this, he continued.
“We were within a couple of weeks of announcing the details of the game when, for the very first time in my life, the tippy top of the company asked what more/better things we could do in the game with a lot of additional time? We responded 'polish like crazy', since that's what we see in the best competitive products. Fast forward a month and we have of course found a mess of fun new features (both within the game and in supporting media) to include, though we still reserve several months just for user testing and polish. As to your original question, I'd say that news will be breaking this year. In fact, we were so close to announcing that word did break accidentally on a few sites. We yanked the news as fast as we could, but then it started to spread (seemingly automatically) like the zombie virus. It took us a number of days to stamp it out and I still have a number of Google Alerts set-up in case we missed its brain admit comes back to life.”
While making his zombie analogy Paul was grinning. Not the best thing to do while eating a muffin. He’d been fairly verbal, so I figured I’d follow up with a quick question before he moved on to the cranberry muffins. I might as well push my luck.
“Is there anything at all you can tell us about the game at this stage”, I enquired, trying to prod him into making just the tiniest of slipups. But he was ready for this one.
“Basically, no”, he said whilst turning a cranberry muffin in his hand, perhaps wondering if a healthy muffin can also be a good tasting one.
“I hate to sound like the guys who make 'Lost'”, he continued, “but I can't say anything concrete and I must mix in some outright lies. While not in any universe we've worked within, the new game is perhaps exactly what one would expect from our studio. If you like Melee or Mayhem, there will definitely be a part of the new game you enjoy.”
At this point he appeared to have zoned out completely. He just kept turning that muffin over and over in his hand. Perhaps I was going to get some real usable quotes now?
“In another sense, we are trying something so new, it blows my mind.” he continued with a distant voice; “We have a magical glowing leprechaun cave that contains all the goodness of the universe, though we leave it unguarded and instead spend decades just weaving. Man, that was stupid. Couldn't they have put in one deadfall trap or a polar bear or maybe just a damn gate?!”
Apparently not. Instead, I coughed in a discreet manner and handed him a tray of biscottas. Paul jerked out of whatever trance had fallen into, and looked at the tray with suspicion in his eyes. In order to distract him, I quickly followed up with my next question.
“Is this new endeavour a cross-platform release, or will it be for only one console?”
It was the wrong question to ask. He looked at me as if I was a Shofixti warrior caught in the Maidens bathroom and answered in a sing-song voice.
“[Insert official statement here] Activision is committed to having their best titles be multi-platform.” Then he continued in a more thoughtful voice: “There is also this new word that keeps popping up in meetings which I can't say out loud, but as you know, a dime rants.”
I was tempted to tell him I don’t even know what a dime is, but I figured I’d best press onward, offering him and espresso and serving up a new question at the same time.
“How does the TFB team feel about doing original IP instead of spin-offs again? Is there a tangible difference in how you approach it?”
Knocking back the espresso, Paul began to talk in a pretty animated voice. Perhaps it was just the caffeine, but this seemed like an emotional subject to him.
“Speaking for myself, Original IP is much more fun to develop, since it constantly engages my imagination”, he said while beaming off a crazy grin. Apparently he is caffeine sensitive. Oh well, at least he was making sense again.
“I am up in the middle of the night much more often these days.” he continued with the same smile plastered in place.
“In Madagascar there were exactly 4 penguins, no more no less. But now I can have one billion penguins. With shotguns. Now there's what should have been in that cave, guarding the MOST IMPORTANT THING ON EARTH.”
At this stage he seemed really hyped and I was beginning to get worried about the possibility of a cardiac arrest. But he calmed right down, settling into a reflective mood.
“The hard part about original IP is that it has a horrible batting average as projects go. Sadly, almost all of them fail to earn a profit, so if you want to make big money as a publisher, you probably want to include a big percentage of licensed products. Of course, if you rely only on licenses, you never get to own anything, so you DO need to fund original development. Publishers are largely defined by the way they resolve the tension between these two opposing motives. In terms of a tangible difference, I find that with an original IP we need to keep everyone informed much more carefully, since there is no reference 'bible' available which risks making the creative process a bit chaotic. Here's an excellent memetic analogy -- Instead of having a cast of well-trained and well-armed penguins, we have a herd of agitated luminescent sheep all of whom want to run in different directions, so I spend a lot of my time trying to keep the glowing-sheep-memes moving along a coherent mountain trail... of the mind! In case you were wondering, I am not so good at analogies.”
Well, this time I managed to follow his thoughts somewhat better. Feeling that we had established good rapport, I fired off the next question pretty quickly, before he had time for another espresso.
“You've mentioned that there are a lot of people involved, more than a hundred. When you made the SC games there were a lot fewer people involved. Are these additions mainly "grunts" (graphics, sound and so forth) or do you have a larger story team now?”
Paul winced a bit. I could tell he didn’t like my wording. Once again I had broken the spell.
“I would never use the word 'grunts'” he said in a loud voice as he looked around the coffee shop with a nervous twitch; “because they would wait until after work and beat me up. Instead, I would say that the creative, handsome and friendly staff are mostly involved with 3D asset creation - character models, rigs, animation clips, visual effects, 3D level mesh and surfaces. Even the placement and scripting of interactivity is vastly more time consuming in 3D than the good old 2D world of Star Control and Archon. Those are about 70% of our staff, most in our Tiki bar/office and some at other studios around the world. 15% are programmers and the rest are production staff. We also have 4 dogs and a bird. And occasionally a bat, which is unnerving.”
I ignored the animal bit. It was time to spring a bigger question on him. I’d been hearing some rumors that I wanted confirmed. Let’s see him talk his way out of this one.
“Is “Above and Beyond” really a TFB SC sequel?”
Biscottas sprayed everywhere as Paul guffawed heartily.
“No, I’ve seen a lot of excited traffic about that, but I honestly have no idea what that’s about”
Oh well, so much for my scoop. At this stage Paul’s alarm in his phone went off. After glancing at it he made a grimace and got up. The interview was over for now, and we hadn’t even gotten to the cupcakes. I still had questions, but the rest would have to wait for next time. For now, this was all we were going to get.