Anthony Morone, Game Director & Frank Roan, Lead Programmer

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Q: What were the differences between Wing III and Wing IV? What were the challenges?

AM: Well, we feel that Wing IV was more of an artistic endeavor than a technical one. Remember that Wing III was basically a new medium in terms of developing an engine and using full motion video for the first time. We were so busy developing the technology for that, that the gameplay came second. Whereas in Wing IV we didn't have the need to develop the technology again, so we basically spent most of time in resolving gameplay issues. For example, we literally spent about six months doing the mission design. This was before any coding was done on the missions. The Technical Design Assistants (TDAs) worked with the scriptwriters from January until about May or June just doing revisions of scripts, checking for continuity of the game, and allowing for an increase of flow between the space flight and the movie aspects of the game. So basically we've just been concentrating on developing a good game.

Q: You said the TDAs got to work with the writers. Did you get to have a lot of influence as programmers?

FR: Our titles don't cover everything we did. We sat with the writers for the first month or so. We did more than work with the design; we helped with everything. The TDAs had a lot more input than they ever did on Wing III. And Tony and I got to do more designing than we ever had before.

The technology — in Wing III we tried to go vertical with the technology, where in Wing IV we tried to go laterally with the technology. In other words, with Wing III we said "let's do technology," where with Wing IV it was "let's take the technology that we have and expand it." Wing III had about two gigs of data done in 22 months, where Wing IV is about 4 gigs of data done in 11 months. Basically, that's twice the volume in half the time. Everything we did in Wing III has been retouched in Wing IV. The objects have been re-textured, every byte has been tweaked. Tony says this is what Wing III could have been like if we had another year. Actually, I would say beyond that, because we've gone so far beyond the Wing III storyline that we've taken it to a new level. This is probably better than if we had spent another year on Wing III.

Q: Because you have a better story?

FR: Because we had the chance to rethink it. We spent so much time concentrating on technology that even if we had another year we would just have done even more technology.

AM: In terms of the code, we basically finished Wing III, took a couple of weeks off, and then went back into full development mode on the Wing III code base. As far as the code goes, we basically reopened the book and started writing from where we left off. In terms of the content, we included a lot of fresh ideas. I don't want to make people think that Wing IV is a cheap rip-off or a cheap sequel. It's definitely a lot of fresh ideas.

FR: We're big gamers. I've been a Wing fan since Wing I. I played it religiously, both Wing I and Wing II. It was a thrill to get a chance to write Wing III. So when we went to Wing IV, we had so many ideas left over ... the way I see it, this is basically the customer getting the chance to write the game. I've always been a game customer, a player. I'm the audience we are writing for. I've been the audience, and I continue to be that.

Everybody enjoys being drawn into the game, and I've fond the way to do that is to enhance the environment, make it like you're there. The wingmen are more organic in that there is more life to them. The missions are not always what they appear. You can be flying a mission when it turns out that the mission needs to be scrubbed for something else — something that just pops up. We tried to make it so that there was something cool around every corner. We tried to vary the pace. In Wing III it was basically fly around and kill things, and once you've played the first five or ten missions you're going to kind of get the feel for them. There were some cool things, but that was basically that. Here there is always something new being introduced, like a new weapon halfway through or ending up in a new place or new ships. We tried to introduce ships all the way through. In Wing III you got them all at the beginning.

AM: Everything is really dynamic this time. The wingman-selection interface — you'll see your list of available pilots shrink and grow throughout the entire game. Sometimes you might go out and escort some new fighters back to the base, and after that you will get some new pilots that you can fly with. Then you'll get people defecting and leaving your ranks. It's dynamic throughout the entire game, and that should hold people's interest.

FR: The game's so much more complex now. With the missions — when you add complexity, you also add a number of things that can go wrong. There are so many new problems we've introduced for ourselves by adding new mission commands. For example, we added a tractor beam. So now we have to worry: what happens if he tries to tractor in a capital ship? What happens if he tries to tractor in asteroids? Why should you not be able to? Some say, no, it's a bug; or you say, sure, you just blow up when you do it because the systems aren't capable of it. I don't mind given someone a knife and letting them cut their own throat if they want to. I don't like saying, here's a knife, but you can't do this and this and this because you "wouldn't want to." Let's see what the user wants to do.

Q: Is it what you envisioned when you started off a year ago?

AM: It's always evolving, I guess. You start with a particular idea, and that's a big part of the problem why software products tend to be late. People never really want to stick to their original ideas because when you get into the development of it ...

FR: ... you come up with better ones.

AM: Yeah. You get some momentum going and you say, well, geez, since we've come this far, why don't we just do this? And we start adding more features. So really the design goes throughout the entire development process.

FR: It's never complete. A programmer never thinks his code is done. He just thinks it is shippable at that state. And it's the same thing, I'm sure, with all sorts of other mediums. I don't think I've seen anyone say, this is perfect. I cannot add anything else or make it better. You always can. So we take a snapshot, ship it, and if we have the time we will either keep working on it or go on to other products. When I was designing and working on Wing III we got so many game ideas that we just kept jotting things down. By the time we're through with that one project we have ideas for 50 more. Also, we have a gameflow programmer that completely redid our gameflow. That looks amazing. He's come up with a lot of his own ideas.

Q: When you say gameflow, you mean the part in between the missions?

FR: Gameflow is when you are on the Lexington, when you are on the Intrepid, etc. There is so much you can do with screen layouts. If you make the graphics look better, the game feels better. It's difficult to describe. There's a real passion to the stuff that we've done. It comes out. Look at the gameflow, for example, the nuances and special touches that have been put into it.

AM: We've got a pretty good team because we have a lot of veterans from Wing III. We all knew the process and we were able to do things efficiently. We've also added new talent to kind of freshen up some of the things. For example, in Wing III when it was time to enter your callsign, basically all you did was enter your callsign. There was a bland little screen where you typed in your name. Jason Hughes decided to spice that up by turning it into a huge log-in process as if you are logging into a huge mainframe computer. You get the feeling that there is more to logging in than just typing in a word — it basically adds to the fictional universe that we are trying to create.

FR: As a gamer you take for granted the main pieces of the game. Of course there is going to be space flight and gameplay and all that. But it has always been the little nuances that you appreciate. It's always the little details that you add that people look for. I've always likened it to the craftsmen who did the great Gothic churches. You've got these workers who did the lattice work in the attic way at the top that no one is going to see. They do it because they are passionate about their work and they believe in it. Some day someone does walk up there and sees it, and he says, "Oh wow, I can't believe someone put this much detail into such a small portion of the project." But they did it, because they wanted to, not because they had to. No one came to Jason Hughes and said, "We want you to make this really cool." We said, "Hey, do the gameflow." He slept here many nights and killed a lot of his own time just to put in the details that he thought he wanted to see in it. He loved what he was doing. I think that was true for everyone on the project. That's what really drives people to do a good game. Not the pay ... it's basically just loving your work.

Originally published in Origin's Official Guide to Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom, 217-220.