Happy Birthday from Billy Cain Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Update ID

A few weeks ago we asked veteran Wing Commander Prophecy developers to say a few words in honor of the game's tenth anniversary. Now Lead Designer Billy Cain has answered the call. He's really gone all out, giving us a big history of the entire production! Check it out - it clears up a lot of questions fans have had about the production:

"Wing Commander: Prophecy was a really awesome experience for everyone involved. As the lead designer, I guess I have a few secrets I can tell about the 'making of.'

A little about what's happened to me since shipping WC: P. After Prophecy shipped, we were working on a game called Battle Cry, which was to be a 3D spiritual successor to Golden Axe, with an epic story. The Ultima honchos decided it was too much like Ultima, so it lost executive support at just the same time I was offered a job at another company. I don't like to leave in the middle of anything, so I told the team at EA and Origin that I had a great offer and that if they would like me to stay on, I would be glad to, but they could not match what I was being offered. I went to another company for a few years and worked on Crimson Order, a 3D Tactical Squad Based Real-Time Strategy / Action game. It was coming together and we had gotten a ton of great press when the owner of the company shut us down after a lawsuit (settled out of court) with his backers.

After that, I signed on with Kalisto, who were working on Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius for PS2 and GC. We were in the middle of negotiations for SpongeBob SquarePants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman, which we eventually got and I produced for PS2 and GC. During the production, Kalisto France (our parent company) closed their doors and we went independent and re-named the company BigSky Interactive. However we were not able to set up another gig to follow SpongeBob and Jimmy, so we closed our doors, found everyone jobs, and exited gracefully. SpongeBob went on to win Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Game of the Year and did very well. We were very proud of what we accomplished in 11 months on it.

After a couple of months, Matt Scibilia, Grant Pimpler and I (all ex-BigSky) decided to open a studio (Critical Mass Interactive, Inc., or CMI) that catered to the type of productions that we did at BigSky Interactive, which used over 60% contractors to keep costs down and morale high. We were sick of the ridiculous turnover after going into QA, so we set up clearly defined deliverables for our contractors and they delivered! We believed in this model so much that we built our new business around it - except this time, we were managing contractors for other studios.

This model has been very successful for us, and even though Grant got married and left the business, Matt and I have kept CMI going through thick and thin since early 2003. You can read tons of background about all of this at www.criticalmassinteractive.com.

But back to why I was asked to speak here. Wing Commander. Let's put the game into perspective. Chris Roberts had created Wing III because it allowed him to do the movies he wanted to make and it was among the first games to really use CDs to their potential. It had a side-effect of capitalizing and driving the growing PC-CD market. It was a huge success. EA wanted... nay demanded... a sequel to it and they wanted it by the next Christmas season. So, Chris said no and they said yes. This was the beginning of the end. Chris went to Hollywood and started shooting without a complete script (not the best idea), shot on film (extremely expensive), and EA went ballistic. Origin was working on the game engine to ensure delivery of a game, but also delivery of a game that could be translated easily. You see, in order to ship Wing III on time - many things were hard-coded to work in English. Artwork that could have been multi-lingual needed to be coded so that it would work. Yes, this made translation next to impossible, but it shipped on time. A miracle by all accounts. But Wing IV had 2 imperatives - ship on time and be easy to translate. The team did it.

Then Chris left EA / Origin.

It was at this point that the future of Wing Commander was in jeopardy. He had a non-compete, I believe, so he couldn't hire away any of the team for a while so this was the chance to create Wing Commander V. The team knew how to make a Wing, but needed direction and focus. This took a while. At the beginning, there was a Wing PlayStation team (that I was responsible for) that was working alongside the PC team. Phil Wattenbarger was the lead designer on the PC side, and I was the Associate Producer for the PS team. Two things happened relatively near one another: Phil announced that he was leaving and EA budget cuts meant that we had to fire the PS team. I was asked to take over Phil's position and to remove the PS team. That was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life.

It was at this point that we needed to lay down some ground rules as to what constituted a Wing Commander game. I didn't want to lead the design as a 'whim,' I wanted to do it the best I could with feedback from all the major players - since I had never 'designed' a Wing from scratch before. I sat in the 'War Room' with all the major players from the previous Wings and had them describe what they thought Wing Commander was until I had it distilled into a cohesive outline.

I felt it was critical to get the game back to its roots of arcade 'gameplay first' and get away from a keyboard with a million buttons to press, so I spent weeks designing everything about the interface to revolve around the fewest button presses possible. I made it so that the script called for all the 'required' movies to play automatically while players cycled from the Rec Room to the Briefing Room. If there was an 'extra' movie, they would be attached to the 'postage stamp' animations that you see sitting at tables or standing at the bar, etc. The reason that this was done was because on Wing IV, there were too many letters from fans saying that they couldn't find the right person to talk to that would 'turn on' the mission. This was completely unacceptable. In fact, many of the changes to the game came from the post-mortems of Wing III and Wing IV. These documents were put together by the QA and CS teams after the game shipped for use internally, but they were crucial for creating the initial design for Wing V.

Other changes were little noticed, but I believe were critical to a more mainstream success of Wing Commander. Players no longer needed to radio their main capital ship and ask for clearance to land. You got near the ship and it happened automatically. Of course for purists, we left in the option to turn this off and do it the other way, but I don't believe many people did that after experiencing it the other way. We also added an option to 'turn off movies,' and in order to back that up, we added an in-flight reminder movie to tell you what your mission is. This turned out to be a great idea because the GBA version could use those lines and it fit the property well. Changing your power distribution was as easy as pressing one button and moving your joystick, but this wasn't necessarily required.

All in all, I was happy with the general direction of the game.

There are literally hours of stories that can provide some insight into the game's production and lifecycle. Here are a couple of highlights...

We were under the schedule gun from the very start. Christmas or bust. At the beginning, EA's sales expectations were very low and they did not even expect to sell over 200k copies. This affected team size, morale, budget, and the movie budget.

We had to make the budgetary pain from Wing IV go away for EA. This was a constant pressure throughout our production.

Our E3 "behind the scenes" showing literally doubled the sales figures based upon support from the retailers that saw it.

The original script was much longer, but EA cut our movie budget from something like $6 million to $1 million. This meant that we had to cut tons of original content and go to lots of reused shots. It might have been different if we had a locked budget from the beginning, but we had to make those cuts. Players noticed the lack of a great script and this was the main reason for it. We had to make do with what we had. And I am still proud of what we accomplished given those resources.

All in all, Wing Commander: Prophecy is one of the games I've worked on that I am most proud of for many reasons. We shipped in time for Christmas (barely), we made a game that is fun to play, and we did it all in spite of all the obstacles that were in our way. Now I just need a 3DFX card and an old machine so I can see it the way it's supposed to be seen. :)

If anyone wants to contact me for consultations, speaking engagements, or work on their game titles, please contact me through www.criticalmassinteractive.com.

Sincerely,
Billy Cain

Thanks so much; this is so much more work than I expected! You can also read previous birthday notes from J. Allen Brack, Sean Murphy and George Oldziey.

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