Seamus Blackley

The designer of the original Xbox and developer of games such as System Shock, Flight Unlimited and Trespasser, where his background in high energy physics came into play, Seamus Blackley has been involved in the gaming industry for over twenty years, and being the enthusiastic, approachable and genuinely nice guy he is, he agreed to take part in an interview with us about his time at Dreamworks Interactive and more specifically, his work on Trespasser.

A few week ago we asked you to post any questions you’d like to ask him, and here are the answers!

 

Here we go:

Here we go indeed!

 

How much creative freedom were you allowed in the design process of Trespasser?

Nearly total, which I didn’t appreciate until I was much older. This was because of Steven [Spielberg], who is an actual gamer (of the sort who actually knows the classic Konami cheat codes, pays attention to the release dates of new games even now, and has a library of thousands of games which he actually plays).

 

Spielbergs Games Room

 

When your team was designing the environments for Trespasser, what kind of references did you have for designing abandoned structures?

Well, our imaginations, and some field trips to “wrecked stuff.” Terry Izumi, the art director, did a great job of figuring out how to conceive, prototype, and build a whole island. Remember that nobody had really done that yet like we needed, so like a lot of things, we were starting from total scratch. These days, people understand how to responsibly manage big processes like this, but we were really shooting from the hip. Exciting, and scary. ExScary. That could be the Trespasser development code-word.

 

You worked on a revolutionary technology that wasn’t matched for years to come. What was the creative process within the team and who was  responsible for keeping the technology in line with game-play and the Jurassic Park universe?

Well, like most things, you wouldn’t try it if you knew from the start how hard it was going to be! We had three really hard problems: We had a renderer that had to draw a friggin’ JUNGLE (in 1996), an animation system that had to handle totally emergent gameplay, and a design problem of making all this fit together and to be fun.

In previous games I had worked on, like the Underworlds, System Shock, and Flight Unlimited, we had written simulation code and tied them to game systems and it was really fun. So it seemed not unreasonable to try making a world where the initial conditions were set for all sorts of awesome adventures, and the player would have the freedom to tell themselves a great story through their OWN actions, not the scripted kinds of play that were usual at that time.

Now, of course, we know how difficult this is, even in small pieces. But really it felt like the future, and I felt like we were ready to take it on. And it nearly worked

 

 

How did the ever growing press coverage feel. Was it exciting or more of an overwhelming experience? Was there an impact on development because of it?

Trespasser was being developed right at the dawn of internet game press and fandom, so it was a really chaotic feeling. The emergence of online press coverage, and instant audience feedback was novel, exciting, and terrifying in equal measures to everyone in the business at that time.

Like with the emergence of graphics hardware, which also caused the earth to shift under our feet as we wrote our specialized super-high-object-count renderer, it made it confusing for us to figure out what the right thing to do was at any given time. It was kind of crazy.

These days, all of this instant press seems normal, and with hindsight you can see where lines are between over- and under-hyping games. But at the time, we had NO CLUE. It was crazy, and the reactions in both the positive and the negative were totally scary.

 

 

Here are some small photos i found from when CGW visited the Dreamworks offices. You can see the editor having a go at holding the shotgun Anne style, with only one hand. The middle image is green clay used for modeling the island geography.

 

CGW visits Dreamworks Interactive

 

That’s Johnny Wilson. What a day that was. Look at that young Seamus!

 

Trespasser is unfortunately known for not bringing in the sales it deserved. If you could change one thing about the production what would you do differently?

I would have assigned the 25-year-old Seamus a strong producer, who would have bullied him to restrict the scope of innovation to something manageable. I wanted to make this beautiful vision that I had for this amazing island become real, and I was too young and stupid to realize that less is more.

Fortunately, the painful, brutal lesson of that was hugely responsible for the existence of Xbox and some other stuff that I have been lucky enough not to screw up—so at least there’s a bit of lemonade from some pretty sour lemons.

 

Would you be open to the development of a second Trespasser?

Who wouldn’t?

 

Who do we have to get a beer to get a proper re-release of the game?

I’m not sure, but you can try sending beer to me, and we will see what happens!

 

With the current generation of game engines, if you could do a re-release of Trespasser, would you consider using CryEngine 3? If not, what current engine would you choose?

I look at these modern engines with some real melancholy, because they look like what I saw when I closed my eyes and imagined the game. Back then, before hardware, we had to be extraordinarily clever with the technology to even consider doing this.

One point that I think is important to understand is that it was really unfortunate that the 3D hardware started coming out near the end of our development. The 1st gen hardware was really bad at doing outdoor stuff—it was optimized for Doom really. So all our image metric stuff, and all the stuff that drew a smooth landscape out to miles, not to mention the surface mapping stuff, didn’t work on it, and we looked foolish for it. This was sucky, because it was a really clever system, and when it was running in software it looked amazing for the time. But of course by the time we released, the hardware was driving APIs (and the press and hardcore buzz) and thus our engine had to operate in a kind of no-man’s zone that made it look crappy.

It was completely heartbreaking.

 

Ashton Anderson the Producer of Primal Carnage has pointed out that Jurassic Park: Trespasser was dinosaur title, ahead of its time. Do you think if presented with the opportunity of a re-release, would it do better?

I think the audience understands that there are lots of different kinds of games that take place in 1st person now, which gives designers a lot of freedom to innovate. When we released, the audience saw anything in 1st person with guns as Quake or Doom, and was mad when the controls were different. Now, our controls were half baked and crappy, which also needed to be fixed, but I didn’t understand at the time that if you want to give someone a new experience, you need to put comfortable handles on it. Changing the interface from what people knew, whilst also changing the fundamental tenets of gameplay in the way we tried in Trespasser, was far too much.

 

Silly to ask, but have you ever heard of us prior to this interview? Do you and your ex-colleagues converse about Trespasser?

Guys, the amount of grief that the team has received over Trespasser is pretty comical. So– you betcha– when your site was pointed out to us we felt pretty good that we had helped make something that made you guys happy. I want to really sincerely thank you all for that, and to tell you that I am really impressed by all you have accomplished. It means a lot to me, and it’s very cool.

 

How did you end up working on Trespasser at Dreamworks Interactive?

Well, I had just shipped Flight Unlimited, which was a hit at the time, and was beating Microsoft Flight Simulator, which was kind of the gargantuan C.O.D. of that era. We did that by making the airplanes really fun to fly (using physics!), and by doing something that MS couldn’t do—aerobatics. Next up, I wanted to do an air combat game, with online multiplayer. I had even gone and flown the simulators at US Air Combat command in Virginia, which was amazing. But, ironically, the financial success of the game caused my company to bring in new management, who wanted me to start replicating the features of MSFS instead of continuing to out-innovate them. I said no, and we parted ways.

I got a call from a recruiter from this “dreamworks” company that nobody had ever heard of, and I took them up on a free trip to California…

 

What were you tasked with on the Trespasser Team?

Well, it was my idea and I was the boss. So everything, at the end of the day, was my responsibility. I give me a D-.

 

How did the various team members get along?

We got on really well, and especially well given the completely uncharted territory that Uncle Seamus had sailed everyone out to. The stress became at times, as it does in all game projects, totally insane. But hey, no broken bones, so that’s a win.

 

What happened with the team between when Trespasser was finished and when it was finally disbanded?

Well, I don’t really think that the game is finished. We had a ship date that we had to make, and somehow we made it, and of course the victim was the game, and the audience. It was a very painful moment. People took time off, some stayed at DWI, some left; I went to hide out at Microsoft…

 

What projects have you been involved with after that? We all know about the XBox, but I mean, aside from that…

Well, after failing to hide away at Microsoft, I was forced to learn how the business of games and entertainment worked in order to actually get Xbox to happen. When I was imagining a PC-based console, I was really nervous, because the last big idea that had flooded my imagination was Trespasser– and it was sooooo painful. So I resolved to make sure that I had what I needed, and most importantly that I had the self-honesty to make it work.

The result was that I took this crazy foray into business and entertainment finance, which included starting a finance company, and ended with me running a division of a Hollywood talent agency, doing deals and financing for my friends in the game business. It was all secret and I was totally behind the scenes, but I’ll tell you that we put together more than a billion dollars’ worth of game deals and structured finance for companies from Harmonix, to Insomniac, to Respawn, to That Game Company, to Double Fine.

You know what’s weird, is that now there are these two groups of people who know me in the game business: one group who think of me as a programmer and creative person, and another group who think of me as a suit. So how weird is that?

 

Regarding Trespasser, we know at least three levels were scrapped during development, all starting with the letter “P”, coincidentally: Pine Valley (PV), the Plains (PL) and the Plantation House (PH). PV is the one from which there were more screenshots and other info floating around, and then we finally got to see it when a beta surfaced a few years ago. PL is next, with a couple of screenshots, some info and some concept art by Rolf Mohr, and PH is the one we know the least about (we know where it was located thanks to a texture found in another level, and some sounds from the audio files originally belonged to it, but that’s all). Do you know anything about those missing levels? Do you happen to have any artwork, renderings or screenshots from those levels which you could share with us?

I have nothing, sadly. But apparently I hate the letter “P.”

 

Was there ever a Trespasser Press Kit released? We’ve noticed some info and pictures repeated through various websites…

There may have been… I don’t remember. But as I said above, it was totally chaotic at the interface between print and internet, and we may have decided that a website was all we needed in the brand new era of the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY™.

 

Do you have any other Trespasser-related assets (development screenshots, unused textures/meshes, concept art, 3D renders, photos of the team members at work, video of the game demonstration at the E3 or ComDex, anything like that) which you could share with us?

I may, but that would involve a trip through old boxes of stuff. You know, the Greeks believed that nostalgia was a disease.

 

Did you ever play Trespasser after its release to see the results of your work? If so, what did you think of it?

Yes. What I first thought was that I wanted to travel back in time, and be the producer that the young stupid Seamus so clearly and sorely needed. It’s part of what inspired me to be an agent—to be that guy, who can help things work out for creative people.

I was also really impressed by the work of the team, and for the promise of the concepts. But at the same time, I have this crazy guilt that the failure of the game closed off a whole area of game design that has rarely been explored since. It’s the Trespasser crater. It needs to be opened up again.

 

Do you think Trespasser would have fared better if it had been done more recently, with the advances in PC hardware that only became available after that time?

For sure. Time spent on content, and design, and tune, and not on development of moonrock technology, would have taken a lot of pressure off, all things being equal. But who can say?

 

How involved were you with the story of the game? Did you come up with anything and/or collaborate with Austin Grossman? Were there other story ideas considered before deciding on the final one?

We went through a lot of story ideas. Austin and I were talking about ideas like this even before we left Cambridge for LA. But listen, in case it’s not obvious, Austin is a hella talented story teller and writer, and all that worked so well in the Trespasser story is due to his labor, and love of the material. Everyone should get his new book, YOU, by the way.

 

Assuming, the game didn’t fail at what it planned to achieve, how do you think video games as a whole would change? Half Life came later in 1998, which (obviously) overshadowed the physics of Trespasser in public reception, and Half Life 2 would standardized the general physics interaction of video games.

Yikes! Who knows. I love HL2, so I’m happy that I didn’t screw that up

 

“Would have been” “could have been” type questions are always interesting, do you think it even “could have been”, or was the entire project to good to be true?

Given, say, a year of extra time, do you think it could have worked?

Given an extra year, and a little guidance, I think it would have had a chance at being pretty great. But who can tell? Maybe it would have just imploded! I remember being really jealous that Tim got a lot of extra time to finish Unreal, which is really a wise call in our business. In most cases, unfinished is a lot worse than late.

 

The physics system in Trespasser was your baby, how much work went into developing the setup achieved in the final product and how much heart ache came from the realisation that the hardware at the time simply did not support the complexity of some ideas for gameplay?

Well, in order to make it fast enough, it had to be compromised in various ways. Today, there’s power to do analytic constraint and such. In the 90s, it was tough. The real issue, honestly, was that it was too much for me to do physics and also be in charge, and I never figured out how to fix that. Back then, there were no books or libraries on game physics, it was all research, and it was really, really hard.

 

What fraction of the development time was spent waiting on the C++ compiler?

It felt like 103%

 

Did you ever stumble over some new technology and think “If we had THAT back then, it would have helped a lot”? (It can be anything. Coffee machines, programmable gfx cards, search engines, debuggers.)

Yes, transistor density

 

All the assembly code… did it improve frame rate notably, would today’s compilers make it obsolete?

The assembler is what made much of it possible, full stop. Today, it’s different, because CPU’s are highly threaded, and to boot the CPU/GPU integration is important, and also complex. So it’s a less human-parsable operation. So I don’t think there’s a clear comparison. What a disappointing answer!

Interesting aside… I can remember being able to look at hex strings and tell what fixed-point numbers they represented. I would watch these huge lists of hex digits flying around and could tell if the integrator was operating well, or was clipping or filtering too much. My how the IQ drops with age.

 

Regarding the complicated memory management which decompressed files from the CD-ROM to the disk and then mapped as much of it to RAM as possible, reducing texture resolution if necessary… Was the team aware from the start that they have to be that conservative with the hardware of their customers or did you focus on getting a project done and look at the exact target hardware only in the last few weeks? (Since back then, 1 or 2 years meant a lot of change in the market.)

You have to think of these things from the start, and engineer all the systems around it, which we did. Fortunately these days it’s a ton easier.

What makes me feel old is that some single image maps in modern games are bigger than our whole runtime! Grandpa needs a Geritol™ kids!

 

P.S I really liked how the dynamic sound system worked! And the first time I opened a door by pressing a rifle against it, felt very natural. It really let the engine shine. Even today you can at most hope for a lowered gun or similar when running into doors.

F*ck yeah.

 

Did you upload the beta and the source code ?

Negatronic.

 

When and how was the decision to have a female character made, and was Tomb Raider an influence?

 

A sketch of Anne

 

We made that call pre-Lara. The idea was to make a non-traditional character, so that we could use it to tell a new kind of story. We were actually kind of bummed that TR had a woman!

 

It seems like the Dreamworks team had complete freedom to explore any ideas they had, regardless of how revolutionary they were at the time (and still are). Was this creative freedom a result of being a new company, or because progress was being overseen by a less than experienced (in the games industry) Steven Spielberg?

See above!

 

Were any dinosaurs cut from the game? And if you could add any other dinosaurs into Trespasser what would it be?

Don’t get me started ;)

 

On behalf of TresCom and all the members, i’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for us.

I want to thank you for making me do this. I remembered a lot of awesome stuff from the development of the game. It’s rare and exciting to have the feeling that you are touching the future, and we were lucky to live there for a couple years.