An interview with Privateer 2 developer Paul Hughes

As part of our Privateer 2 10th Anniversary celebration, programmer Paul Hughes was kind enough to answer some of my long standing questions about the game.

Q: I'm sure I have all sorts of specific questions I could ask about how the game itself works, too, if you have time and memory -- I've always wondered where the registration numbers on the randomly encountered ships come from...

A: We were pretty proud of the size of the universe - although we had "action sphere" style jumps a la Wing Commander, you could actually fly from one end of the universe to the other (if memory serves at full pelt and with infinite fuel it took around 48 hours to fly from one end to the other passing all the various planets and ships along the way). We did all sorts of crazy stuff with Brender to get a decent framerate with all the ships and lights hurtling around - about half way through we shifted to floating point math and zbuffered everything which was no mean feet on an unaccelerated P60 at 640x480.

I wish we could've done P2 (or even P3!) with the stuff we created for Starlancer - the mission system and editor on SL was a monster! I'd love to revisit that Universe one day.

Q: 48 hours to cross the universe -- that's worth a try some slow weekend. Any idea how you would orient your ship?

A: Just point it in any direction and fly! The universe is a HUGE cube that wraps at its extents

Q: I seem to recall some of the early Privateer 2 promotional material talked about a 'big ship', the size of one of Wing Commander III's action spheres... am I imagining that, or is it something that was removed?

A: Doesn't ring a bell - although we did have some pretty big ships (that gave us no end of problems due to zbuffer precision errors!). Actually Kronos' ship was massive, plus there was this one huge space station.

Q: Do you know who wrote all that material in the Booth System? There's an amazing number of ship descriptions, character biographies and so forth. That's the beauty of Privateer 2's universe -- it always did far more than it needed to, which made it seem so alive. I went through all the ship files to grab screenshots for our new guide a few days ago... and there were *70* ships -- not counting space stations, guns, missiles, planets, debris, etc.! That has to be more than twice what any Wing Commander game included (and then beyond that, look at how detailed the in-game ship art is: here -- you can see all the hull plates, little safety arrows, some kind of text block... it's awesome, immersive stuff that the game never went out of its way to stick in anyones face!)

A: The basic text ideas came from Phil and Nick the actual meat of the text came from a chap called Mat Miles-Griffiths that worked on the manuals down at EAUK - he wrote tonnes and tonnes of quality prose. We were chuffed to say the least! A lot of the magic of the ships were down to Phil Mellor's designs and textures and Nick's modelling. When I first visited the studio they had dye-sub renders of all the realtime ships up on the walls - I was gobsmacked - and thought I've gotta work with these guys. Twelve years on I still am!

Q: What about... the decision not to use cockpit graphics? It's still the standard in space games today, but Privateer 2 was (as far as I know) only the second game to do it. Was this a technical decision, a gameplay decision or just following Wing Commander IV's standard?

A: I think that was down to me squabbling with Nick and Phil - something along the lines of you can have a lit cockpit or a few more ships flying around. They chose the latter. On Starlancer they beat me into submission onm the cockpit views!

Q: In terms of how the game runs, it was a real surprise after Wing Commander IV -- it could display all sorts of ships at once smoothly on a slower system. You probably had a lot to do with that -- was that a big goal of development, or just a side effect of having used BRender instead of the RealSpace stuff they did WC3 and 4 with?

A: We wanted to push the envelope on the space battles - we wanted lots of ships and laser bolts, no sorting errors (thus the zbuffer), and realtime lighting. It was a combination of Brender, some tricky dirty rectangle tracking of the frame and zbuffer and gobs and gobs of x86 assembler! When I came on board the plan was to use RealSpace and EOR (Origin's Editor) - some of the original programming team were having real problems getting anything going (and left), so I suggested to catch up on lost time why not buy in Argonaut's Brender - Tony, Brian and Myself put together a demo using Brender in two weeks and it looked lovely and, well, the rest is history. Essentially we did the whole space combat game from scratch in nine months.

Q: I mentioned this one before -- it's puzzled me for... ten years now. Do you know how the 'registration' numbers for the random ships worked? All the random ships would have an eight digit license number -- something like "H344_565F". Are those randomly generated or is there a pre-set list or a logic system assosciated with them? (I guess I've always wondered if someone could play 'ship spotter' and go around identifying all the different ships...)

A: Alas, the random shapes had randomly generated registrations - nothing fancy - pick a random letter, followed by six random digits and a final random letter.

Q: Equally obscure - do you know what triggers the game to start sending pirate cruisers at you? I'm making an index for a ships guide out of the little VDU pictures (here's a sample) and am having a heck of a time finding one of the cruisers.

A: Basically it was a big lookup table for every nav point in the universe had a %age probability for each type of pirate being introduced around that zone. When the player got within a set distance from the action sphere centre the next chunk of universe was shifted into your range along with any pirates, planets, etc

Q: And here's the loaded question -- how do you feel about Privateer 2 being part of the Wing Commander universe? You guys created this amazing new world that could clearly stand on its own in the same way as it benefits the whole of Wing Commander. At what point in development did the game go from being 'The Darkening' to 'Privateer: The Darkening'?

A: Not really sure on the politics / marketting behind this one... When I joined EA it was Privateer 2, then a couple of months in we had to rename the game as (I beleive) there was already another P2 in development over in Austin. A few months further into development it was renamed P2 - The Darkening and we built some 3D versions of some of the ships that were in Erin's original. I can understand why it was branded as a Privateer game (in the same way the original Wing Commander was billed as "from the creators of Ultima"), but I can also see why die-hard Privateer fans (and I was a fan of Privateer myself) felt short-changed. I think our universe stood up on its own merits, but I can understand why it made sense to brand it as it was. I was proud to work on a) a game by Origin/EA and b) one called Privateer.

Q: How closely did you work with the team doing the full motion video shoot? I know there was some disconnect between the guys doing the game in Austin and the guys doing the video in LA on Wing Commander IV, but I never got the impression about Priv 2. Was one aspect done before the other, or were they simultaneous?

A: Erin was down at Pinewood at the shoot as were a few of our art guys to make sure we got the shots we needed for the interactive sets. Most of us popped down to the set at some point is Pinewood was only a few hour journey from our office. It was all done in parallel - the booth and interactive set stuff was being written during the shoot, and whilst the editing was going on we were writing the space combat, once editing was over it was all PCs to the pump to compress all the movies and setup the interactive branches.

Q: I would certainly love to see you revisit the Tri-System or any other aspect of Wing Commander someday. You never know, EA is always rumbling about bringing it back. I hear from some producer or another every six months or so who wants background information to pitch a new game -- it's just a matter of time until one actually works out.

A: I would love to also. You hear the rumours all the time about a comeback for the WC universe, that would be a total blast, and as most of the original P2 / Starlancer team are still working together or are still in touch I'd love to get everyone back together to do it. Just think of the visuals and immesion that is possible nowadays, combined with all we learned about space sims from P2, Starlancer and Battlestar.

Q: You mentioned doing art of some of the original Privateer ships -- is that where the 'unknown ship' mission in Privateer 2 came from (where you find a Talon from the first Privateer)?

A: That's the puppy - its amazing how many people recognised it

Q: Was there anything you really wanted to do with Privateer 2 that didn't work out? Anything that had to be cut for time or memory constraints or somesuch?

A: Nothing springs to mind - although I'm sure Erin and Nick had a bunch of stuff they wanted that I've blocked out! The only thing that springs to mind is that we dropped the movie subtitles as we just didn't have enough time or the tools to put them in efficiently back then

Q: Who was responsible for mission design? I love how there's 200-odd missions laid out instead of a generator like the original Privateer... but that must have been quite a lot of work.

A: Types of mission were down to Nick, Phil and Erin which were coded up into the mission language - all the missions were put together, scripted and tested by the P2 art team. That's what I loved about the whole P2 team, everyone just mucked in. All the artists were granted honourary programmer/designer status!

Q: How did you script everything out? On the other FMV Wing Commanders, everything had to be done in advance -- you had a linear movie script with points for missions... it seems like there'd be more freedom by design in Privateer 2. Was the movie script (by Diane Duane?) something that described how the entire game world should work, or just the video segments?

A: The core FMV based missions premises and story arcs were laid down by Erin, Nick and Phil (with Nick's brother Simon), then Diane Duane and Peter Milligan wrote the screenplay (putting the meat on the bone). So early on we new what the core and sub plot interactive missions needed to be. The nice thing about P2 is you could have upto five missions running simultaeneously so we could arc away from the main plot with sub missions and then bring you back into the main plot on your travels

Q: What were the limitations of the engine, anyway? How many ships could you have on a screen before it broke? There were some missions that were a lot larger than anything in Wing Commander III/IV that didn't seem to cause any problems...

A: My memory is fuzzy on that - in hindsight it was a pretty good little engine all things considered, its limits were, I suppose, when you had big ships up close - as all our dirty rectangle tracking wouldn't help speed things up when all the screen was filled - we were massively fill rate limited. We could get some pretty big battles going on as long as you didn't get too close to a hoarde of ships and as the art team built anything upto 8 detail versions of every craft on the game we got away with murder!

What I do vividly remember was writing optimised texture mappers for power of two textures (to speed things up) and asking the guys to try and get as many power two textures on the ships as possible. When the game shipped and I was archiving everything off for head office I realised there wasn't a single power two texture in the game and so the engine was resigned to using THE slowest rasterising method in the Brender arsenal! It could've been 30% faster! Doh!

Q: Did you work on the Windows 95 conversion, or was that some other group?

A: I did the original port on my own, but as EA Manchester's days were counting down fast (some of guys moved down to EA's HQ), I handed all that I'd done down to the guys in EA's Langley office when we parted ways and set up Warthog. A bright chap down there by the name of Martin Griffiths finished everything off and got it in a box. Rather embarassingly (I can't remember if I forgot to put it in, or, Martin took it out) the frame rate limiter was removed and thus on PCs > a Pentium 90 it ran too fast to be playable!

Q: Do you have some favorite element? A favorite ship, mission, environment, something of that nature? Which version of the box art did you prefer?

A: I preferred the UK box art - but we were biased - there were problems with the packaging in the UK, so Paul Chapman (the chap that did all the funky graphics on the Booth) did the box art, manual and posters for the UK version. We still have his six foot P2 poster adorning my room in the new office)

I loved the whole Booth System and the trading element (I've always loved Elite) - doing the Interactive Movies was fun - talk about being thrown into the deep end! Huge budget, tonnes of FMV and all had to be crammed onto 3 CDs.

Q: You mentioned thinking about a Privateer 3 earlier... would that have been a direct sequel to Privateer 2, or would it have been another entirely new setting?

A: It wasn't hugely far on - it was less about the story arcs and characters and more about how to improve the trading (having stocks and shares), making a bigger living universe and much more complicated mission system.)

Q: How did developing StarLancer work? Did you do everything in England? I remember seeing it demo'd at Digital Anvil in Austin while they were working on the Wing Commander movie (which had combat sequences that ended up looking a lot like StarLancer).

A: All the programming and game art was done in the UK - Digital Anvil did all the flashy FMV and worked closely with us on the design, content, missions etc. Erin and Eric were over frequently to chivvy the troops and buy lots of KFC, Pizza and TGI Friday's!!!

Q: ... and the subtitles! I always wondered about that. Origin Tech Support told us, at the time, that it was impossible to add them... and then they showed up translating a Spanish port. I'm hoping to find a P2 script someday so some fan can reverse-engineer them in.

A: As a test I subtitled the Hal Taffin sequence (and in fact the code is still in there to parse and display the subtitle chunks) - but as we had no real dedicated tools for putting the movies together (even the movie compression was done on the command line) it took ages - it took around a day for a 30 second sequence with all the trial and error of keying the subtitles to the correct frame code... I think the guys over at Origin had a more sophisticated tools set for editing and putting that kind of stuff together.

Q: You mentioned problems with packaging in the UK... does that have anything to do with whatever happened to the manuals? The UK version has two really cool booklets... and the US release got a sort of cut down mix of the two, with strange little changes.

A: Not sure what happened with the manuals - different marketing departments with different cost of goods I suppose. I guess the European market got the better deal as we got the full manual. In the UK we didn't get the Deluxe Edition (although the OSI guys sent me a box over that sits in pride of place at my home office).

Q: I found the reference to the 'big ship' I mentioned earlier. It's from a 20-page Privateer 2 preview booklet that PC Zone Magazine in the UK put out: "Indeed, there's one particular ship which is so huge, it's actually bigger than the entire univers used in Wing Commander III. Flying from one end of it to the other would take you a very long time indeed, and attempting to blow it up with your phasers probably wouldn't be a very good idea either." I have no idea what that could be. There's a picture of you in here, though!

A: That quote does ring a bell - the PCZone supplement was superb - we got awesome coverage in Europe. That said I'm not entirely sure I know what its talking about either! There were certainly some big ships in P2, and quite possibly bigger than a WC action sphere - but I'm not sure it would take that long to fly the length!

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