Sad news to report tonight: legendary production artist Syd Mead passed away earlier today at age 86 (obituary). He leaves behind an enormous body of work that has inspired millions and helped define how we envision the future.
Mead began his career in 1959 as an automotive artist, envisioning what the next generation of cars might look like for the Ford Motor Company. In 1961, he struck out on his own as a freelance industrial artist. For three decades, he helped create what would become a familiar look for the future in marketing materials for companies ranging from old standards like US Steel and Atlas Cement to up-and-coming electronics concerns like Sony and Phillips. In the late 1970s, he expanded his oeuvre to include film production concepts and quickly established himself as one of the best in the business. Whether or not you've ever heard his name, odds are you must know some of his concepts, an unreal list of credits that includes Star Trek's V'Ger, Aliens' USS Sulaco, Short Circuit's Johnny 5, 2010's Leonov, Blade Runner's futuristic Los Angeles, TRON's Light Cycles and countless other key visual elements elements that helped define classic genre films. To those that knew him, he was considered exactly as down to earth as his visions of the future were not and is celebrated as someone who made a point of sharing his skills and experience with up-and-coming concept artists, helping to inspire a sense of cooperation instead of competition in the field.
Wing Commander fans may also know that he developed the initial alien concepts for Wing Commander Prophecy. There's no doubt that countless fandoms across the internet are putting together similar remembrances of his involvement in the creation of their worlds and in that spirit we would like to share a brief history of his involvement in Wing Commander. While Origin's marketing made sure that Syd Mead's name was closely associated with the game from its announcement, many people are unfamiliar with what he actually did for the project. Much of this confusion stems from the games' marketing material seemingly promoting Mead as the visionary behind the entire game and some from Origin's Official Guide to Wing Commander Prophecy incorrectly crediting him for some of the game's storyboards, set designs and human ships. In short, Syd Mead was responsible for establishing the look of both the alien spacecraft and the creatures themselves. His work took the form of 2D concept sketches and contrary to popular belief he did not design every spacecraft. Instead, his job was to provide examples early on from which in-house artists would derive additional ships; conversely, he did much more work on the Nephilim creatures themselves than ever appeared in the game.
Wing Commander IV shipped in February 1996 and it quickly became clear that the next iteration of the series would not be business as usual. Chris Roberts departure to form Digital Anvil cost Origin's Maverick team some of its most experienced talent and made Electronic Arts nervous about Wing Commander's future viability. In the interim, artists who did not leave to join Digital Anvil were tasked with assisting other teams working on projects like Ultima IX, Wing Commander IV Playstation, Crusader: No Regret or a number of other unrealized products (including pre-production on Silverheart and Hazardous Duty, a Wing Commander FPS). The pre-production phase of Wing Commander Prophecy, then called Wing Commander V, began in late April 1996 and continued for several months as Electronic Arts held the team in limbo deciding on a new management structure and overall direction for the product. One bright spot of this restructuring period was the appointment of the team's new art director, Mark Vearrier. Vearrier was a veteran of Dynamix projects like Nova 9 and Aces of the Pacific who had gone on to work as a 3D artist on Wing Commander III and IV. Now he was tapped as the lead charged with managing what would eventually become the next game's eleven-person art team For the next four months, he would continue to prove his mettle by overseeing the initial concepts for Wing Commander V's human ships as well as side projects like the new Origin logo animation, the Kilrathi Saga introduction and scheduling for the soon-cancelled Maniac Missions spinoff.
During this time, the topic of bringing in an outside concept artist to help define the look of the series new enemy aliens was brought up. This would serve two purposes: it would give the team fresh material to expand upon as production geared up and it would provide an Electronics Arts' marketing group concerned with the impact of Chris Roberts' departure on players with a 'name' that could be promoted as being involved with the project. Syd Mead, then already a legend, was among the names discussed. Vearrier reached out to Mead who seemed interest and the idea sat dormant for several weeks. At the end of August, the conversation resumed and Mead agreed in principal to work on the project. Hammering out the formal agreement took more time than was expected but by mid-October the contract was signed and Mead's timeframes had been established. As a contract artist rather than in-house talent, Mead would would work remotely from his studio in Detroit, Michigan and provide specified deliverables to Origin in Austin, Texas via mail. The process would be collaborative, with Vearrier providing an initial brief and rough sketches which Mead would develop into full blown concept drawings. As email had yet to become ubiquitous, Vearrier would provide feedback to Mead via phone meetings between iterations of the artwork. Per the agreement, Mead would have three major deliverables: examples of alien capital ships, examples of alien fighters and concepts of the alien creatures themselves. This sort of arrangement was common for films but unusual for games in 1996; it has since become the norm with projects like Star Citizen bringing in top film talent to define their overall look early in development.
The first package of artwork from Detroit arrived at the end of October and large 18"x24" printouts of the pieces were hung in the Maverick team's conference room and hallway for feedback from the larger team. That feedback would be collected and then passed to Mead by Vearrier. The team was very happy with the overall look to the point that work on building the first Mead-designed model in Alias, the next step in the process for creating individual ship assets, began immediately rather than waiting for his final delivery. It was a happy case of the first direction being the right direction and the next two months would see an ordinary back-and-forth to provide feedback and drill down on different ideas. By the time the development team broke for Christmas in 1996, Mead's final artwork had been delivered and the game had moved into full production.
In terms familiar to the average Wing Commander Prophecy combat pilot, Mead was directly responsible for the design of the Kraken ship killer and the Manta and Moray fighters. These pieces would be modeled in Alias by production artists at Origin and then roughly twenty additional ship designs would be derived from their appearance. Mead explained his process: "The Aliens, I thought, should incorporate a queasy level of organic growth detail which would look appropriately weird and also indicate an exotic method of manufacture. The [fighter] cross section is axially hexagonal. The 'capital ship,' is immense in story scale, measuring about fifty kilometers in length. The command level is at the top. The spherical front end opens in an iris-like maw that can spew out hundreds of bio-mechanical fighter ships to form a frightening attack."
In addition to his defining work on the game's alien ships, Mead was also responsible for a considerable amount of work on the alien (later called Nephilim) characters themselves. While the aliens appear only briefly in the game on comm VDUs and in a short cutscene, the game's designers sought to lock in a much fuller concept of them which was to have been applied forward to future stories. In total, Mead designed three different castes of aliens: drones, lieutenants and queens. The drones would appear as the game's normal pilots (though they were never modeled in Alias), the lieutenants are the 'warlord' aces which kidnap Commodore Blair and the queens would not be included in the game at all (though they were sometimes referred to as the 'mother creature' in taunts). Mead describes his process for imagining the aliens: "Creating the alien characters for WING COMMANDER V was a challenging exercise in combining several morphologies, something I have been doing since childhood. I have always been fascinated, for instance, with the mythical horseman creature known as a centaur. The Alien character set had to reflect a hierarchical social and command structure. What more natural 'fascistic' model than the colony-mind genetic imperative so elegantly exemplified by ants, bees and wasps. The bottom social order were the solder Aliens following the 'worker bee' and the 'drone' example. I decided on a six-legged physiology, using the rear set as the primary weight and mobility support. Having thus established a kind of bipedal locomotion, the middle pair of legs became an additional mobility assist when rapid turning or climbing was required. The forward set became the 'arms' with a kind of hand gesture and grasping function. The middle hierarchy were the Lieutenants. This level had a vestigial 'royal' carapace growth at the junction of head to thorax. And the 'queen' commander class had an elaborate carapace with distinctive silhouette 'points' on either side of the carapace. To further distinguish these royal variations, only the queens had the additional identifying characteristic of carrying weaponry mounted into the carapace plate."
Although Origin would not develop additional alien designs, Mead remained proud of the work. In 2001, he published an art book titled Syd Mead's Sentury which included a look at some of his Wing Commander artwork. He would also go on to incorporate some of the alien pieces in his regular convention slideshow, sharing the work directly with interested audiences around the world. Mead would note that he never personally saw the final application of the designs because as a Macintosh user he was never able to play the finished game.
Syd Mead's influence on Wing Commander came late in the game but it was unquestionably significant. In addition to defining the new enemy, his alien aesthetics were used in much of the promotion for the game and his name was routinely mentioned in interviews. In a better world, his artwork for Wing Commander Prophecy's new enemy would have inspired multiple future games and his work on the deeper background of the aliens themselves would have become an essential part of the universe. Of course, it's still possible that could happen someday! Regardless of Wing Commander's future, Syd Mead leaves behind a legacy of unparalleled visions that are unlikely ever to be equaled; he will be missed.
We are again sad to bring you news that another Wing Commander veteran has passed. Artist Micael Priest died on Tuesday, September 18. Mr. Priest was an Austin legend who began drawing concert posters in the early 1970s. His artwork and connection to the music scene is recognized as a major factor in the 'weird Austin' sensibility that defines the town to this day. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Priest was also an employee of Origin Systems during the company's heydey. He worked extensively as an artist on the Ultima series, including Ultima VII, Serpent Isle, Ultima Underworld II, Runes of Virtue II, Ultima VIII and the first three iterations of Ultima Online. True to the all-hands-on-deck spirit of the era, he even posed as the model for Remarro Monik in Bioforge, one of the potential identities the player must discover (pictured.) Wing Commander fans will best know his work on the multiplayer spinoff Wing Commander Armada and the Origin FX screensaver.
Micael's loss has been felt especially hard in the Austin music community and other Origin veterans have spoken particularly highly of him. Fans should know that he represented the best of what Origin did in the 1990s: tapping the talent of all sorts of artists beyond professional game developers to create unique, unforgettable worlds. I would encourage any Wing Commander fan to read the Austin Chronicle's full obituary which details his fascinating life. An earlier feature on his life is available here. Raph Koster has posted his thoughts here. I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that the true heart and soul put into our favorite game worlds by people like Micael Priest that is what continues to make them so appealing. The Chronicle calls him "a walking, talking, real-life cowboy hippie cartoon character artist," which is as great an epitaph for a truly creative soul as any I've ever heard. Thank you, sir.
There’s a star system named after me in the Wing Commander universe. It’s the result of an overworked designer at Origin needing to fill a giant map with hundreds of names quickly, but it may still be the single thing in my life that I’m most proud of. But where there were hundreds of systems to fill in, there were only a handful of encompassing quadrants. They reserved the names for real legends: there’s a Roberts Quadrant, of course, and then each of the executive producers got one… Mark Day, Rod Nakamoto, David Downing, Adam Foshko.
And then a select few Maverick team members had the honor. Ghorah Khar, the treasonous Kilrathi planet from Wing Commander II, is located in the Isaac Quadrant, named after the genius behind the RealSpace engine. The Ladyman Quadrant, named after Origin’s master of manuals, encompasses the Terran Confederation’s leeward expansion. Half the battles of the original Vega Campaign took place in the Douglas Quadrant, after the man who redefined the look of the series’ ships in Wing Commander III. And my star, the Lesnick System? I’m proud to say it’s located squarely in the middle of the Shelus Quadrant.
Pete Shelus started his career at Origin working on Tactical Operations, the Strike Commander mission disk and quickly proved his mettle. His credits on Wing Commander III are confirmation of the whizbang engineer he’d quickly proved himself to be: “Polygonal Collisions,” and “Math & Algorithms Consultant.” He went on to help out with Wing Commander IV and to serve as lead programmer on the 3DO port of Wing Commander III, still to my mind the single greatest after-the-fact PC-to-console conversion ever developed. He worked on the plan for Chris Roberts’ aborted version of Privateer 2 and when Chris to form Digital Anvil he became the Maverick Team’s lead programmer on the so-technically-ambitious Wing Commander Prophecy. After all that, he went on to keep creating worlds with Warren Spector’s teams at Ion Storm and Junction Point.
But that’s all on MobyGames. I’ll tell you right here that Pete was someone special. One of my happiest memories was visiting Origin back in 1998, shortly after the Secret Ops release. Pete was one of a handful of Maverick Team members present that day, and he treated a scraggly teenage fanboy who was almost too nervous to speak like he was just as important as any journalist or executive producer. That meant so much to me at the time, and I try and carry it with me to everything I do today. By all accounts, that was the universal reaction to him. Check out his February, 1996 ‘Employee of the Month’ submission from Origin’s internal newsletter:
We stayed in touch, over the years, and he was always kind enough to answer some esoteric Wing Commander technical question or clear up some other bit of trivia from the old days. Long after anyone’s involvement with the franchise was a distant memory, he was still so gracious as to make it seem like you were making his day by writing to him to ask about this-or-that.
Several years back, after another one of these all-too-common tragedies, I put out a call for memories of the great 3D artist Paul Steed. Pete was among the first to reply with memories of his friend, and I sent him a note with my condolences and catching up. He wrote me back the following, which today brings me to tears:
Thank you and thanks to your team for keeping Wing Commander alive. I still remember the day I met Chris Roberts at some promotional event at some computer game store where he told me I should apply for a job at Origin. I did, and he hired me. How lucky can a guy be? Who gets to work on their favorite computer game franchise? Almost nobody. But I did.Pete, you were a great engineer and a better man. I’m glad to know that you appreciated those days at Origin, that you valued the experience that made so many of us happy and that you had pride in the incredible things you did and made. It’s always cold comfort, but the games and the stories your expertise made possible will live on past any of us. And you will be missed.
I'm forever grateful for my good fortune, the friends I made on the way (like Paul Steed), and people like you who support the game that started my career. Thank you.
If you have a memory to share or would like to include your condolences on WCNews, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
A bit of technical background to set the stage: the original Wing Commander doesn’t store or display its ships using 3D polygon data, like most modern games. Companies like Spectrum Holobyte were starting to use polygons for their air combat games, but the result wasn’t especially attractive at the time: untextured geometric objects that left you wondering whether you were looking at a triangle or an F-16, a set of cubes or a tank and so on. Chris Roberts wanted more detail for Wing Commander’s immersive, ‘interactive movie’ atmosphere. During the R&D phase for his next big game (then called Squadron), Chris decided to forgo polygons and instead, inspired by Lucasarts’ Battlehawks 1942, create a system based on pre-set bitmap images. It took about two months of work, but the result was stunning for the time. Each ship was stored as a set of 37 pre-rendered image showing the craft from every possible direction. The game engine would then swap, rotate and scale sprites based on the players’ perspective, making it appear as though you could be smoothly maneuvering around a detailed object from any angle. It was this tech breakthrough that helped sell ‘Squadron’ to Origin’s executives at the time; it was quick, beautiful and like nothing else on the market!
With Wing Commander in production, the next challenge was creating all those ships! The ship building ‘pipeline’ on Wing Commander worked largely the same way it does on Star Citizen today. First, a concept artist, in this case Glen Johnson, created line art of the twenty odd ships required for the finished game. You may not know it, but you’ve seen much of this art before: with a couple exceptions, it was used in the Claw Marks manual (and some of those exceptions later appeared in a Computer Gaming World supplement.) From there, a powerful computer would be used to create 3D models of each ship, which would be turned into the hundreds of individual bitmaps needed. But there was one problem: no one at Origin in 1990 did 3D artwork.
Unlike companies today, Origin in 1990 didn’t have a large in-house production staff. It’s largely forgotten, but the company primarily published independent authors’ games at the time, taking a cut of the proceeds and letting the creators retain the rights to their properties. Those creators would set their own budgets, hire their own people and so on in addition to using resources provided by the company. Chris himself wasn’t an Origin employee until the day Wing Commander shipped! Wing Commander started life with just two artists on the team, neither of whom worked with 3D (not unexpected, since 3D art was in its infancy, and unheard of in games.) Chris opted to solve this problem by outsourcing the creation of the ship models and images to a company dedicated to such tasks. With that charge, producer Warren Spector reached out to a small company located in downtown New York City: Process Animation.
And that’s where Mary comes into the story! A tiny operation, Mary’s company Process Animation took on the task of creating Wing Commander’s now-beloved spacecraft. Working from Glen Johnson’s striking line art, she created a 3D model of each Wing Commander ship. Using a program called Sculpt 3D on her Amiga, Mary created the exceptionally (for the time) detailed, ray traced ship images you see in Wing Commander. The Hornet, the Rapier, the Dralthi… all created outside Origin, on an Amiga by a woman in New York City! Each image was done individual byte by byte, until the ships were ready for primetime. She delivered the individual motion frames and the 3D files to Origin on a budget, and those became the ships that most everyone here spent their youth’s flying and blowing up.
Mary isn’t credited in Wing Commander, but she created part of the game that can’t be forgotten (per her contract, Process Animation should have had a credit... but it doesn’t appear in the intro.) Looking at the individual Wing Commander bitmaps, each one is more than the sum of the concept art. There’s a distinct style that immediately sold you on the nascent Wing Commander universe, from the tantalizing glimpses of the Confederation and Kilrathi logos to the uniform color schemes (green and white camo for human ships, tan, yellow and red Kilrathi.) Like everything else in Wing Commander, Mary’s artwork hinted at a greater world that further brought you into the game.
I was lucky enough to get to chat with her in 2013, just as Star Citizen was taking hold. She was surprised anyone would be able to track her down, but was good enough to chat about the old days with me until both of our lives got in the way. She immediately struck me as a very kind person, and she was certainly happy to learn she was remembered and that her work was still appreciated. It goes without saying, but I was genuinely saddened to learn she passed away in March… an unsung hero of Wing Commander’s development, a talented artist and an outright good person. You can’t ask for much more of a legacy than that! So here’s to Mary, and to our always remembering the folks behind our favorite games.
Star Citizen's Hornet, the great great grandson of the 3D model Mary rendered twenty five years ago. Note that the color scheme lives on today!
(For anyone interested in the rest of the story, vis a vis 3D ships. Chris Roberts introduced Origin to Autodesk 3D Studio for Wing Commander II, training up traditional artists to build and render 3D ships in-house. This technology was used for Wing Commander II and several spinoffs. For Strike Commander, Chris revisited 3D polygons thanks to another technical breakthrough by another late, great artist, Mr. Paul Steed, that would allow them to be easily textured for additional detail.)
Last month we learned that Larry Latham, producer and director of the Academy animated series, had passed away. Several years ago, when VEI was working on the Academy DVD transfer, Universal's source tapes were found to be missing some footage. LOAF recounts how Mr. Latham graciously donated his own copy of the show, so that the series could be released whole. Here's the full story:
Back in 2011, I was contacted by Universal with a polite, informal cease and desist -- we own Wing Commander Academy and you have episodes on your site, blah, blah, blah. I wrote back that of course we would take down the episodes immediately (and politely let them know we actually posted them with their permission... it was just given twelve years earlier before anyone thought streaming full TV episodes would be a thing.) I mentioned in my note that we loved Wing Commander more than anything and that we very much wanted to help spread the word. Was there, per chance, a home video release in the works? The woman who had politely threatened to sue me wrote back. Her entire job was writing these letters to people, and none of them had ever replied nicely or offered to help with anything. She was so grateful and promised to write me back as soon as she could say something.
Almost immediately, I got a phone call from a fellow at a publisher called VEI. He'd just licensed Wing Commander Academy, and the rights search had been at his request. He was going to put the entire series on DVD, and wanted to make sure the marketplace was ready for it. We spent several weeks going back and forth; I provided him several gigs of key art from the series, wrote box and ad copy, suggested some extra material for the discs and so on. Then, he wrote to tell me: they'd received the raw footage from Universal and for whatever reason about ten seconds were missing from one episode.
Oddly, I knew exactly which episode it was going to be: On Both Your Houses, which had a strange, glitchy original airing. No one had any memory of the issue, but there was some trouble with the production somewhere along the line. But ten seconds of the episode were missing, and did I think he could get away with having a disclaimer? No, I said, we're going to find those ten seconds. I provided raw copies of the show and my highest-possible-for-a-teenager-at-the-time off-air dubs from 1996. But the result was pretty low quality, and obvious.
Anyway, long story short: you can see the brief 'lower quality' footage in the episode. That's Larry's tape, shipped off with no payment or other reward just to make sure that Wing Commander fans got to see the whole story. He was a genuine, stand-up guy, and we're poorer for having lost him. Larry sent me a package of Academy sketches before he died, which I'll try and get scanned and online as soon as possible.
Bearer of bad news, Wingnuts. One of the best of our best has passed on.I never got a chance to interact with Mr. Latham myself, but by all accounts, he was a genuine fellow with a passion for working with students to teach the creative arts. Few people are aware, but he actually did the Wing Commander community a big favor several years ago when VEI was developing Wing Commander Academy on DVD. Universal's source tape of the episode "On Both Your Houses" was missing about ten second of footage. LOAF was able to connect the two, and Larry graciously donated his personal copy of the original episode so that the series could be released whole. You can find the CIC's Academy section here. It includes the series bible, draft scripts, crew bios and more. Please take a moment to keep Mr. Latham in your thoughts as you peruse the material.
Larry Latham was the producer on Wing Commander Academy, the 1996 cartoon series on USA Network that I'm sure we're all familiar with. Despite working a lifetime in animation it was one of his few Producer credits.
I hate to say that despite my own long interest in animation and passing knowledge in Larry's main credits (he won an Emmy for his work on Disney's Talespin), this post isn't about his work but the man himself, a man that I got to know very briefly over the last few years.
BanditLOAF had asked me to track down Larry in anyway I could, in an effort to archive anything from WCATV he might have. Remembering that a lot of the crew on the show originally came from Universal Cartoon series ExoSquad, this gave me a perfect excuse to start talking to Will Meugniot who forwarded me on to Larry. Originally, I got the feeling that Larry was a little confused why anyone was asking about a show that lasted 13 episodes for one year, but he was very welcoming and humorous in his exchanges. I sat down at my work computer one day to find he had added me on Facebook and left a wallpost...
"Justin, Will told me you were looking for stuff on the Wing Commander Acadamy show. I produced and directed it. I'll be glad to share whatever I know or have with you, just let me know."
We had many brisk exchanges (much of it not about Wing Commander, but don't tell anyone that) and he was a very pleasant, very knowing person. He was very happy to divulge production secrets and brief glimpses into the production process of the show. He understood I was a fan and was part of a group who wanted to help keep his work remembered; he seemed very flattered by the idea that someone wanted to give him a legacy of sorts.
A few months after our first exchange, he started responding less and soon revealed a cancer prognosis. You can all tell where this story is heading already...
His originally quick replies in email and twitter started to peter out, but he still took the time to reply occasionally. After claiming immense frustration with a personal project on a Facebook status, he left a comment "Damn it Justin, you're already a writer! Do the work!" which meant the world to me (and was the kick in the ass I needed).
As time went on, he updated occasionally - struggling with the prognosis but slowly winning - and still drawing his webcomic "Lovecraft Is Missing". His lack of communication became commonplace, and so his passing was a quiet one. Weeks of not updating turned to months... and then stories on his Facebook from former students and coworkers filtered in. Larry passed on November 2, but I and many others didn't know until after Thanksgiving. I get the feeling he wanted to be remembered by people who knew him instead of it being a "public event".
Larry was the captain of a ship that added to the greater WC canon and he even defended the product from some people who wanted to turn it into a cheap cash-grab. He gave us a lot with those thirteen episodes (along with Adam Foshko as a creative producer) but more importantly - he was a really good guy and a good friend for the three years I knew him.
His obituary (which was the first news most of us got) - here
The announcement from his wife on his webcomic - here
Terrible news to report today: author Aaron Allston passed away yesterday at the age of 53. Aaron Allston was a traditional ‘pen and paper’ game designer, one of many who made the transition to Origin Systems in the late 1980s and helped give the company its distinctive culture during the early years of the Wing Commander and Ultima franchises. Today, Aaron is best known for his incredibly successful (and critically acclaimed) Star Wars novels, but for hundreds of thousands of Wing Commander pilots, he was our first portal into a new universe. He had a monumental impact on shaping the Wing Commander universe and drawing players in to the first game in the series, and the world is poorer for having lost his talents.
Aaron’s mark on the Wing Commander franchise was indelible: he was the man behind Claw Marks. The “Onboard Magazine of the TCS Tiger’s Claw,” Claw Marks was an astonishing piece of in-universe fiction included in the box of the original Wing Commander. The booklet didn’t tell you how to play the game, it treated you like you were a 27th century fighter pilot catching up on the news between missions. The ship specifications, pilot-of-the-month bios and in-universe editorials became the standard for the franchise going forward. Chris Roberts has always sought for an immersive game experience, and the inclusion of Claw Marks meant that Wing Commander offered it before the player could even insert the first disk. Aaron went on to serve as designer and writer for The Secret Missions, Wing Commander’s first mission disk. The Secret Missions took Wing Commander’s existing structure and a collection of cutting-room-floor ship graphics and turned them into the epic story of the Tiger’s Claw’s trip behind enemy lines to battle a Kilrathi superweapon. The product was an unexpectedly massive success. Wing Commander players clamored for more action in their new favorite universe and in the process set the stage for first years of physical game “add on” disks and then DLC development that continues today.
While The Secret Missions was Aaron’s last published involvement in Wing Commander, it was not his last time writing in the universe. In 1995, Chris Roberts brought him back into the fold to create the series bible for a Privateer television series. The television plans were bold to the point of insanity: Origin would simultaneously produce a pair of Privateer games, Privateer 2 and 3. The first season of the television series would begin after the release of Privateer 2 and run for a year. Game and show would have different protagonists, but the two would team up in occasional crossover episodes… and then after the conclusion of the show, would appear together in Privateer 3 to finish the series’ year-long story arc together (if that wasn’t enough, Aaron also pitched the idea of episodes that would tie in to the then-in-production Wing Commander IV.) Plans for the game and series fell through, and an entirely different Privateer 2 was developed instead. Aaron once remarked that he thought this for the best; his initial pitch had gone on to be “sexed up” by Hollywood (including the addition of a non-ironic planet of Amazon women.) You can read Aaron Allston’s original Privateer the Series pitch here.
Aaron was also a major part of the Ultima series, taking writing duties on the first PC spinoff, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire. Savage Empire took the Ultima VI engine to its fullest, delivering the Avatar and his companions to a world populated by dinosaurs and other prehistoric terrors. True to his roots, Aaron went on to develop his own Savage Empire pen-and-paper RPG, which he made available to friends and family in Austin. Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire is available today as a free download from GOG.
I was lucky enough to know Aaron. Our first interaction was in 1995; he was tickled to discover that an early iteration of our Wing Commander Encyclopedia featured an entry for “Captain Aaron Allston” (as he is credited in Claw Marks) along with a hand-scanned picture of the magazine editor cartoon. Over the years, he was always generous with his time in answering questions about his work on Wing Commander and the early days of Origin Systems. In the early 2000s, Aaron was a regular fixture at Dragon*Con. The CIC staff would always make a point of attending his Star Wars panels and then after presenting him with stacks of Claw Marks to sign. I can’t say that he enjoyed the attention, but he was always thoroughly happy to stick around and sign everyone’s booklets and share a few words about the old days. It is almost appropriate that he passed away on Thursday during a convention appearance: he was the rare combination of a genuine talent and someone who was always willing to go out of his way to interact with his fans.
If you knew Aaron Allston or if you were influenced by his work, please let us know in the comments.
There is truly terrible news today, as we have learned that programmer Tony Stockton passed away yesterday. Tony worked on Privateer 2: The Darkening and was the man responsible for the game’s incredible booth trading system.
In a touching moment, the recent Star Citizen reveal began with a tribute to the late Paul Steed in the form of a Bengal class carrier that bears his name! In some ways it was quite fitting that Chris Roberts chose to reveal his latest labor of love at the GDC Online conference as Paul himself was for a long time a GDC Advisory Board member.
The Games Developers Conference has set up a memorial fund to support Paul's family in their time of need.
"We like to tell ourselves that we're a young industry, but we're not so young anymore. This summer we've been confronted by our own mortality with the sudden death of Paul Steed, a pioneer of real-time 3D graphics who was an icon of the brash early days of the game business. He died on August 11th at the age of 48 and is survived by his wife and children.
Unlike most of us, Steed didn't labor in obscurity. If you were involved in games during the '90s – whether as a professional or as a fan – it was hard not to pay attention to Paul Steed. He worked on some of the seminal titles of the decade, notably the Wing Commander series and the Quake series. He produced the first demo for Xbox 360, presented a Game Career Seminar Keynote at the Game Developers Conference, and was a leading exponent of art outsourcing – proving that he could remain topical for nearly two decades. Always outspoken and always controversial, he was not a typical game artist – but he was the most public exemplar of what we do for people both inside and outside the business."
– Steve Theodore | Undead Labs, GDC Advisory Board
There is truly terrible news to report today: world renowned game artist Paul Steed has died.
Paul was best known for his work on the Quake franchise, but he got his start in the industry as a concept artist at Origin. One of his first assignments was doing gameflow storyboards for Trade Commander, later Privateer. His impressive ability to draw beautiful women, which would later be one of his well-known trademarks, was already apparent in some of those sketches.
He quickly developed a preternatural talent for low-poly modeling, a burgeoning skill suddenly in demand in the early 1990s as gaming made the transition to 3D environments before home computers had the horsepower to render truly complex objects. Paul was the best in the industry, using his genuine artistic talent to manipulate simple shapes and low resolution textures into believable--and beautiful!--fighter planes, spaceships and skyscrapers.
His credits at Origin read like a list of games you should play: Privateer, Strike Commander, Tactical Operations, Wing Commander Armada, Wing Commander III, Wings of Glory, Bioforge and Wing Commander IV. Faced with the prospect of losing him to another company, Origin offered him a chance to pitch his own project. The result was a never-realized racing game concept called Cyclone Alley.
Paul went on to create many other famous worlds for Id Software and a host of other developers. He wrote books on 3D modeling and served as Creative Director for Microsoft, where he helped launch the Xbox 360, and Atari. He founded and worked for Exigent, a 3D art outsourcing company, for five years. In recent years he had returned to game development in Austin. Paul was also a veteran, serving six years in the United States Air Force before becoming a game artist.
I corresponded with Paul on occasion and can say that he was a genuinely good person and always willing to spare time to answer questions about the early days at Origin. The industry has lost a truly great developer and the world has lost an incredibly talented artist. Paul was an essential part of Origin during its greatest days and we fans are forever in his debt that he shared his talent to help build our universe.
Chris Roberts provided the following memories, which best sums up how truly important Paul's contributions at Origin were:
Here's a story from the beginning of Paul's career that illustrates the impact he made in the video games industry. We hired Paul at Origin just out of the Air Force to work on Strike Commander. We didn't have the budget to hire a "proper" artist but we liked Paul's attitude and saw talent when he came in for an interview so we invented an art design assistant position for him.
Strike Commander was my follow up to Wing Commander and we were pushing the boundaries of what you could do on PCs. We had gouraud shading and real 3D texture mapping before anyone else had tried it in games. Originally we didn't think we could make the planes look cool enough in real 3D so we were going to use sprites rendered out from 3DS Studio, which is how Wing Commander 1 & 2 were done. We had built a utility so we could model and texture low poly buildings and objects for the ground terrain (this was long before such niceties as API and SDKs in things like 3DS Max and Maya to be able to import meshes into your engine).
We gave it to Paul to build objects as an early test. He came into my office a few days later and said "I want to show you something" and then proceeded to show a beautifully built 3D fighter inside our engine. Because of Paul's work and talent we decided to junk the Wing Commander sprite rendering and everything went 3D, including the cockpits - many years before anyone else had done any of that in a game. That's a testimony to Paul's talent and vision in our industry.
I'll miss you greatly.
I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work with Paul Steed and the privilege to call him a friend. Some of my best memories of Paul are working with him on designs and ideas for Privateer 2, before our version of that project was cancelled at Origin. Like many great artists, Paul lived his life hard, created amazing works of art, and left us too soon. I will miss him.
Lead Programmer - Wing Commander: Prophecy
If you would like to share your thoughts or memories about Paul with the community, please contact us.
Two days ago, we reported the sad news that Origin and Wing Commander artist Brian Smith had passed away (story). At the time, I wrote that I wanted to know who Brian Smith was. Thanks to his friends, we have: Billy Cain, Carol Roberts and Todd Yarbrough have all written in to help us remember their friend. They have my most sincere thanks. I'm also proud of the community - fans have written notes, drawn pictures and rendered space fighters in Brian's memory. It seems appropriate to me; you're a good group. You can find all of that at our memorial page. We'll continue to update it - if you'd like to contribute, please contact us.
(For those interested in more detail as to what Brian did on the Wing Commander games, his friends passed along a copy of his resume. He did character and VDU animation on Privateer and Righteous Fire and concept sketches for Wing Commander III.)
We've just been informed of some sad news: a member of the Privateer development team passed away earlier this week. Brian Smith was an Origin artist who worked on Privateer, Righteous Fire, Runes of Virtue 2 and the Longbow series. We've put together an online memorial here. I've tried to put together a few words - we would like very much for fans to send along their sentiments to be posted as well. The work that he did affected us all and it seems important that we remember him.
Updated: Billy Cain has kindly forwarded Brian's obituary from the Austin American-Statesman:
Brian G Smith, 53, passed away suddenly Oct 14, 2007 near Snowmass, Colorado. He graduated from Lanier High School in 1973, and became an amazing artist. His two main loves were sci fi and art, and he combined them in everything from traditional paintings to computer games, and even a 10-foot long spaceship model with a control panel, lights, and tons of moving parts. His astounding multi-panel ceiling paintings resembled views from spaceship windows. Brian worked at various computer game companies, including Origin Systems. He loved riding his mountain bike and playing with his cats, Cora and Puma. He leaves behind his mother, Marlene of Manor; and sister, Laini Giles of Milwaukee, WI; plus numerous good friends. A memorial gathering is planned for Sunday October 28 at 2:00 p.m. For more information, call 512-301-3479 and leave a message for a return call.
There has been a death in the family: we've learned that John Watson died earlier this month. Mr. Watson was a veteran of Origin Systems who got his start testing games like Omega and Knights of Legend and eventually became a major writer, programmer and designer for the Ultima series. Along the way he also impacted several classic Wing Commander titles, doing artwork and QA on both Wing Commander I and II. We've tried to put together a few words in his memory:
In Wing Commander III, Colonel Blair begins Cobra's funeral: "I didn't know [her] well. Doubt that any of us did." It's a compelling moment: like the player, Blair has dismissed Cobra as a background character, unworthy of his attention. In those few words he admits, too late, understanding that she was an integral part of the squadron.We have put a permanent memorial page online here. It also includes a list of his projects and memories submitted by others in the community.
I didn't know John Watson.
I wish I had. His credits read like a childhood fantasy. He did artwork for Wing Commander II, one of the most beautiful games ever released. He wrote dialogue for Ultima VII, a title whose engrossing world is unmatched fifteen years later. He playtested Omega, Knights of Legend, Savage Empire and half a dozen other projects that more than any other collection represent an age when computer games were put together with nothing but spit, glue and love. He helped program Ultima Online, a game that changed PC gaming forever, and Crusader, a game that probably should have.
I have only scattered pieces in fading documents and old diskettes to look back at now and try to understand him: there's an angry letter in a 1993 Point of Origin, demanding to know why no one has explained the company's new phone system yet. There's his famous tuckerization, "Watson's Disease" in the original Wing Commander. There's his "Cheesy Book" easter egg in Ultima VIII. There's the 1994 AOL transcript where he and Richard Garriott met their fans face-to-face in the wake of Pagan's unpopular reception. There's the DOS kernel hack he programmed to give the game enough memory to scrape by. There's the Ultima IX script he wrote, widely considered by fans to be superior to the finished product.
But then there's the games themselves! Wing Commander, Ultima, Crusader... he touched all of them in some way. They're the games who made us who we are today, the games that form our shared youth, the games that we look back at for our fondest memories. He didn't have his name in lights like a Chris Roberts or a Richard Garriott... but he was essential to making Origin games the labors of love that they were.
I didn't know him outside of his name on my credits. I wish I could have. I don't know what kind of person he was or when he was born or what he did for fun - I don't even know what he looked like. Ultimately, all I do know that his work had a huge impact on my life and those of my friends - and, regardless of everything else, that's one hell of a legacy.
Please, share your memories - we'll post them here. I doubt many of us knew the man, but every one of us did know his games. Honor him in some small way by sending us a note about what those games meant to you.
(Please contact email@example.com to contribute.)