The Magic of Interactive Entertainment, Second Edition
by Mike Morrison and Sandy Morrison
Overview of Privateer
And so goes the storyline of Origin System's Privateer. Released last fall, it is still entrancing players with its rich plot and nefarious characters. Privateer continues on in the same universe as the highly successful Wing Commander series: the 27th century. The Wing Commander series focused on a war in the far future between humans and an alien race called the Kilrathi. Those games always put you as the soldier/space combat ace flying the missions of the Confederation. Privateer, on the other hand, places you in a much more flexible situation as master of your own destiny.
As a fortune seeker, you have access to over 60 different bases/planets in about 90 systems. You start out with a rickety ship and a few cash credits, and from there perform various merchant missions to make money. As you build up wealth, you can use it to purchase a better ship, or upgrade your existing ship with better shields, more cargo space, bigger engines, and so forth.
Even though it is grounded in exploration and trade, Privateer is still mostly a space combat simulator. Even if you decide to run legal cargos through well-patrolled systems, you'll still bump into pirates and retros (or even stray Kilrathi if you wander too close to the edge of the frontier).
Most of the gameplay is based on a first-person viewpoint. When piloting your craft, you see the interior of the cockpit, and you can turn your head left or right to look out the side viewports. When docked on a base or port you can see all the available exits and simply click on one to enter. To engage an individual character in a conversation, you simply click on that character and a conversation ensues.
Currently Privateer is only available for IBM compatible personal computers with 386-DC or higher capacity CPU. The system needs VGA graphics capabilities along with at least 4MB of RAM and 20MB of free space on a hard disk drive.
The Development Process
Game development at Origin Systems follows a fairly structured and organized approach. When a designer comes up with an idea for a game, the designer submits his idea to a review board. The review board evaluates the idea and decides whether or not it is worth investigating.
If a game design is approved, the designer gets a software engineer (programmer) to help develop the idea further. What follows is a period of research and development where the designer and programmer work closely together to build the basic framework of the game.
After a period of time, the designer and programmer take their results back to the review board. At this point, if the game still looks like a winner, more funding is provided and a development timetable is set. Artists and more programmers begin working on the project. Programmers and designers work hand-in-hand to get the artwork and data merged together into a workable game.
Toward the end of development, the music and sound effects are added. The product goes into testing six to eight weeks before shipping. Product testing includes Beta testing and play testing. Designers and programmers track down any bugs or software problems that arise during this time. The public relations department kicks into gear by sending press releases to prospective members of the press. At last the product is bug free and it ships (hopefully on the projected ship date). Based on sales and customer response, a sequel or add-on product may be added, and the development sequence begins a new.
For Privateer, designer Chris Roberts came up with the initial game concepts. As the designer of some of Origins greatest games, Roberts is held in much respect. Roberts designed the hit Wing Commander series, along with Times of Lore and Bad Blood. Naturally, with his successful background, Roberts did not have any trouble getting the approval of the products review board for Privateer.
When Privateer was introduced, the only similar games on the market where fairly old ones called Elite and Space Rogue. They both featured arcade style action, and communications with other characters. In-house at Origin there really were no other game ideas in competition at the time.
The main goals in the design of Privateer were to create a commerce trading system within the Wing Commander universe. Another goal was to provide a game with random missions that players could play over and over again. That freshness ensures the game never ends.
Some initial ideas never quite made it into the final game. One such idea involved player finances. The game initially enabled players to get loans from banks or other (less reputable) characters. In this scenario, you might run into debt, and be pursued by creditors or bounty hunters which were after the price on your head. Privateer took about a year and a half to make, and so during this period, many such ideas were dropped while others were developed and added to the game.
Tom Kasselbaum, a game designer, joined Origin at the start of Privateer and jumped straight into game design. His background involved some computer programming, a lot of math and physics. "A lot of what a game designer does is data manipulation," says Kasselbaum, "setting up missions, setting up the universe. We also go through and make sure the game stays within the initial constructs. Privateer had a lead designer, who had a pretty good image. As the game was fleshed out, the programmers would say whether or not certain features were doable. If it couldn't be done in a reasonable fashion, the design was modified. By staying with the entire project, the game designer gave the programmers more freedom."
The game designer sticks with the project through development, right to the end. According to Sasselbaum, "I work with a lot of the artwork. And I'm in charge of overseeing the artwork. The game designers and programmers stick with the entire project. Artists, on the other hand, will go in and out of various projects."
As a game designer, one of Kasselbaum's responsibilities involves directing the artwork and programming. He solves a graphics problem by telling an artist what he wants, then puts the artist's product into the game. The programmers take care of the music. The lead designer oversees the main musical pieces to make sure they sound good with the game and fit his overall design.
Rough sketches are created and approved before work begins on any artwork. For the computer graphics, the artists at Origin Systems used 3D Studio from Autodesk for all the 3D work. The two-dimensional painting and animation was done in Deluxe Animator by Electronic Arts, and an internal drawing program called "Eor".
A number of artists worked on Privateer, including Chris Douglas (3D Artists), Danny Garrette, Brian G. Smith, Beverly Garland (who did the scenic art), Jake Rodgers (3D Artists) and Bob Frye. All together, the artists spent about eight months working on Privateer.
Programmers at Origin Systems are known as software engineers. This title is definitely more descriptive of the work of a programmer. In creating software, the programmers are engineering very precise relationships between the available hardware and software-based instructions.
The programmers at Origin use 386- and 486-based personal computers for development. They use C++, along with some assembly language routines, for programming. Because C++ enables programmers to create modules that can be reused from game-to-game, programmers do not have to "reinvent the wheel" every time they create a new game. The assembly language routines enable programmers to squeeze the most speed out of the personal computer for animation and other computer-intensive operations.
The programmers were Reinaldo Castro, Alex Jen, Edwin Herrel, Arthur DiBianca, and Charles Cafrelli. Like the artists, the programmers worked on Privateer eight months.
Music and Sound Effects
Music and sound effects have become just as important to video games as they are to motion pictures. You would hardly expect to see a new feature film without a soundtrack and spoken dialog. Likewise, all computer games today have either a sound track, digital sound effects, or both.
Dana Glover composed all the music for Privateer. Glover comes from a professional background in music. He created the Nightshift Network, a group of composers that has been ghostwriting for motion pictures for the past thirteen years. Glover's work was heard in movies such as Rain Man, Misery, Robocop II, Apocalypse Now, and Beetlejuice. For sound effects, Nenad Vugrinec is the expert at Origin. Vugrinec has created sound effects for several Origin games, including Ultima VII and Strike Commander.
After the pieces of a new program are brought together and a workable version is created, the testing begins. Testing can be divided into three stages; Alpha testing, play testing, and Beta testing. Alpha testing is usually performed by only a few people at Origin, or sometimes only the project leader. Because there are usually a large number of glitches and problems in early software, Alpha testing requires someone who has an intimate understanding of the software programming. This knowledge enables an Alpha tester to distinguish between minor and major code problems. After Alpha testing is completed, a Beta version is released for further testing.
Dan Orzulak of Origin Systems has a fun job as play tester. The responsibility of a play tester is to play games and uncover software bugs. A software bug is a glitch or mistake in a program. The mistake can be caused by an error or a typo on the programmer's part, or by an unexpected event that occurs when a game is played. The ways bugs manifest themselves are as varied as the bugs themselves, from totally freezing up the computer (the most common result) to throwing graphics garbage on the screen.
Play testers look for any bugs in the software. When a problem is found, the tester documents and reports it back to the programmers. The programmers correct the problem, then send the play tester a new version of the program. The play testers also keep a close eye on the artwork. If any pixels appear out of place, or some piece of art is difficult to understand, the play testers report this to the art department, and artists correct the problem.
The seven play testers at Origin Systems also do customer service. After playing a game for weeks on end, they are naturally the most qualified to handle technical support calls from customers. During the testing period play testers have some input on game designers. Their goal is to make the game easier and more fun, so they may suggest new features, change the game flow, or make the game easier or harder to play.
Play tester's reactions to Privateer were very similar. According to Dan Orzulak, "Everyone really liked the game. I've played 300 to 400 games in my lifetime and I feel it's one of the best I've ever seen".
When it came to suggesting changes for Privateer, Orzulak explains: "There were a lot of things people wanted in the game, but most were too difficult to implement. So we tried to focus on simple things that would make the game easier and more fun. One change I recommended, that made its way into the final game, was to allow the user to double-click the mouse button to access the computer console. Another change made by play testers was to add a second weapon to the tarsus (the initial ship that a player gets when the game starts). This extra weapon on the Tarsus made the game easier for new players just starting out".
The play testers also keep notes about playing the game. These notes, along with extended details about playing the game, maps, and hints, are compiled by the Creative Services department at Origin. Creative Services then produces a "Play Testers' Guide" to assist players and make the game more interesting. The guide includes detailed of all the game's solar systems and asteroid belts. Each mission has a full step-by-step walkthrough. Detailed charts are provided for each weapon and various trade opportunities.
The Beta version of the program also moves into a phase known as Beta testing. In the Software Industry, Beta Testing is usually performed by a select group of users (the customers). Origin, however, doesn't use outside testers due to the fear of software piracy. For Privateer, Origin used a bonded company, as well as their own inside testers. Both tested Privateer for a number of weeks, on many different computer configurations, and reported any bugs to Origin.
About three months prior to the release of Privateer, the Marketing department kicks into gear and sets up advertising. Advertising is the key to a successful launch. As soon as the product ships, press releases are sent to major media outlets.
Initial consumer reaction was outstanding. Privateer sold out in most stores, and is now available worldwide through Electronic Arts distribution. A lot of people really liked the randomness to the game, including the mission generators. There were only a few negative reactions. Some players didn't like the fact that you can't stop at any bases during a mission. Some have complained that the guns don't have automatic fire.
The concern about landing at other bases during missions was an original concern of the designers. But as the programmers developed the cold, it became a very complicated process. First, the game would have to deal with cargo that was on your ship, selling it our keeping it. Secondly, there would need to be a timer added to a game, to make sure that a mission got completed and that the cargo was still valid by the time you eventually got it to its destination. These and other problems caused the programmers to reject the ability to land at bases during a mission.
The Future of Privateer
With more than 50,000 copies of Privateer sold in the first few months of release, there will definitely be some type of follow-up game. It may be Privateer II or a Special Missions disk. Any new game ideas, even spin-off games, must go through the complete review process. A good market response always makes it easier to design and introduce a sequel.