Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
Privateer 2 developer Paul Hughes has posted some neat anecdotes about the development of The Darkening almost twenty-five years ago. He was inspired to revisit the game by director Steve Hilliker's recent release of the video footage in high quality. There's some interesting recollections on the resolution and compression limitations that they faced back in 1996, and he's also got a soul-crushing anecdote about Christopher Walken's credits.
25 years since Privateer 2 - thanks to GOG.COM I can fire it up on my turbo nutter PC. Yeah, the movie compression hasn't quite held up as I imagined... The resolution and pixel doubling certainly helped hide a multitude of sins with bits of latex peeling and what have you. Be very proud! Given the hand we were dealt at the start, miracles were made!
Privateer 2's movies were 320x132, blown up to 640 x 164 with 22KHz stereo sound. It was a VQ codec running with a 256 colour adaptive palette. Lossless Key and Delta frames made up of 4x4 VQ blocks, motion compensated and truncated colour blocks (like S3TC but years earlier!). Its killer feature was its decode speed it would happily decode a P2 movie on a 486-33 on an x2 CD-ROM although P2 needed a minimum of a Pentium 60 as we used the FPU extensively. The chaps at EA Canada really, really knew their stuff - TGV, for the time, was incredible.
EA had a great localisation team - the teams from France and Germany came to Manchester and worked in house with us for a week - super professional, totally knew the subject inside and out - it was a very smooth operation. It could’ve been so much more; alas they burned a whole year going through a couple of different programming teams. We essentially had a year to code up the whole thing from scratch. It was alright I guess. I loved the trading aspect (the UI design was lovely).
The Credit sequence was rendered out by one chap - Mark Goldsworthy - as this was well before After Effects and the like, after rendering the city fly through, each frame was then manually distorted in photoshop one frame at a time and then manually comped together with the credit text. This was a labour of love and took and age to do. Then Christopher Walken's people vetoed it and demanded it re-rendered as his name wasn't as big as stated contractually (X% bigger than all other actor's credits!). Not a fun day!
Last, but not least, here's a brief YouTube conversation between Mr. Hilliker and Hughes.
Paul: Cheers for this Steve - I was lead programmer on Privateer 2 in Manchester. It was a wild ride for sure. Gotta add (to defend my most learned colleagues in Manchester, Slough and Canada) that the video compression, for that time, was as bleeding edge as it got - as you say, before P2 everything was locked off shots with little to no movement - we had to come up with some pretty radical techniques at the time to deal with whip-pans, tracking shots, sudden lighting changes) I was pretty proud of it, but can totally understand for you and the crew it wasn't anything like the (at the time) state of the art Mpeg1 - which required custom PC hardware to decode. If memory serves it was running at 640x480 (320x240 under the hood) at 15 fps with stereo audio, with an adaptive 256 colour palette. I do remember all the outtakes from Brian Blessed - I wish we still had them - I laughed apoplectically for days watching those sweary takes back. Thanks for this - it brought some great memories back. - Paulie.
Steve: Hey Paul, brilliant to hear from you. I do remember you all working flat out in Manchester to get the game as good as possible. The enthusiasm was absolutely amazing. I had to learn so much in a short space of time about gaming and that magical word 'interactive!'
You were all so helpful to me. What surprised me was how small the crew was in Manchester. Incredible what you all achieved. Yes I laughed with Brian on the shoot through 'those takes'. It wasn't in the script to come out of character either - we just did it for a laugh! Still love that sequence today - it was great seeing it again. It was amazing we only had Brian for six hours on set.
Mega regards to you Paul and all the team in Manchester 1995-1996.
Paul: So many tales to tell ! What a wrap party we had at Pinewood! Dodgems galore! A few of us went for a sneaky peak at the 007 sound stage too. Hope you're safe and well - they were great days. Clive was the consummate professional. Quite amazing what you pulled off on such a small budget - Wing Commander IV got 10 million to play with after Privateer 2!
Steve: OMG Paul - Yes I remember those Dodgems at the end of shoot party - were they 'super charged ?!" I heard that extra voltage may have juiced them up a bit or was it the alcohol! What I couldn't tell anyone at the time was it wasn't the end of shoot - we still had another day to do on Kronos! We never used all the explosives on that set - they were wired to go but we ran out of time. Yep, I sneaked onto the 007 set as well - they were shooting 'Mission Impossible' with Brian DePalma ( one of my heroes). So jealous- they were shooting only three setups a day!
It was a fantastic night. Man, that final Kronos sequence gave me nightmares for weeks trying to get it to compress without turning into a blocky mess of Ceefax like artefacts ) Things like this gave way to better and better video playback to the point where just dropping in H.265 video is a walk in the park nowadays. You were a pioneer! I'm sure I have an article from Variety or something similar about the whole approach taken for Wing Commander and Privateer 2 - working with real directors and real movie companies. I'll have to see if I can dig it out.
Hi Paul, I can't imagine how tough it must have been to compress that Kronos sequence. Most of the sequence was shot on film - much higher dynamic range than tape. Thank goodness we lost loads of shots over the two days on set and didn't let off tons of explosives that were all wired to go. A blessing in hindsight! Mega regards!
Paul has been an absolute wealth of information on the development of Privateer 2 for nearly twenty-five years. Deep in our archives, you can find a January 1997 IRC chat on the game's release that LOAF saved. Additionally, he did a wonderful Q&A for us in 2006 to celebrate P2's ten year anniversary.
Original update published on June 11, 2020