N64 Console Domain

Exclusive Robotech Lead Developer Interview

As the author of ConsoleDomain's Robotech: Crystal Dreams preview (still available here), I constantly get questions regarding the status of this near-mythical game. People want to know how far along development it is, when it will be out, and whether I really got to play it or not. My reply to most of these e-mails was that the game looked great, played great, and will never see the light of day thanks to Gametek's bankruptcy (Gametek was the company developing the title).

But, that was before I made contact with one of the lead programmers for the title. I learned that there was still a copy of the code in existance, just waiting to be snapped up by a developer with deep pockets. The programmer, Doug Lanford, kindly agreed to an interview about the current status of the game code and to also answer some questions about what it was like working on one of the most eagerly anticipated N64 games to never see the light of day.

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What games have you worked on before Crystal Dreams?

I started out at Sega of America as a game tester, soon after moving to San Francisco out of college. Several months later, Sega started building their first in-house multimedia studio, and hired me as a programmer. I first worked on Jurassic Park for the Sega CD, and then worked on a second Sega CD title (Wild Woody) which came out just in time to go to the bargain bins along with the Genesis and Sega CD. You can get details of all the games I've helped program, as well as a few of the games I tested, on my webpage. (http://www.opusgames.com/games/games.html)

I was then hired by Gametek, where a number of the people I had worked with at Sega had moved on to... they knew I was a Robotech fan, and needed a programmer and some design help.

What was your position at Gametek on the Crystal Dreams project?

Mainly, I was one of two programmers on the project. I was also the story designer, and wrote much of the dialog in the game.

How long had the team been working on the game, and about how far along the development cycle was it?

When I joined Gametek, they already had been working with the license for nearly a year, but most of that work had to be tossed, mostly due to changes in the N64 development system. From the day I joined the company until Gametek folded is very close to two and a half years.

We were about 90% complete, at the stage the industry calls "Alpha". The game was playable, but was lacking any of the game story or the mission creator. Another two, possibly three months, and the game would have been complete, aside from some testing and approval.

What sort of problems did your team encounter during the development for Crystal Dreams? Were there any particular reasons behind the frequent and drastic delays of the game?

Right from the start, we were trying to push the N64 in different ways that most developers. One of the first problems was that we needed to solve was that all the ships in the game needed to be loaded into the 4 Megs of RAM memory the N64 has.

The N64 has a piece of hardware called the "Z-Buffer." It is a method of sorting 3D artwork, so that polygons that are further away from the camera get drawn behind closer polys. Every game I've seen for the N64 uses this feature. However, the Z-Buffer takes up a quarter of the RAM space the N64 has... we would have to take out most of the capital ships in the game if we used the Z-Buffer.

Instead, we sorted the polys in the game engine, coming up with a unique method to do it quickly. In the end, it allowed us to display more polys, since we were bypassing the time the taken by the Z-Buffer. However, it constrained us other ways... the artwork had to be carefully designed to work with the display method, and the game engine was much more complicated than anything I've worked on before or since.

Another problem was our tools... the only art exporter we had was an expensive plug-in for an obscure Silicon Graphics 3D art package, and it didn't work for half the ways we needed to format our artwork. We spent half of the project just building the tools we needed to get the artwork and collision data into the game.

However, contrary to many rumors, the game was always in production, and delayed only once. Although a number of the artists spent some their time on other games, both programmers were always working full time on the project, and it was always the primary project in the office.

When Gametek first got the licenses for Robotech and the N64, they promised a game by the time the N64 got released in North America. That date ended up being unrealistic, and was the only time the project was officially delayed. After that point, Gametek never set an official release date, though a lot of rumors got reported in magazines, announcing dates for us.

What factors lead to the end of Gametek?

In the end, I think it was mainly the change in the cost of doing video games. As the game machines and players' expectations get more sophiticated, the time and cost of doing video games rise. Where it used to cost a hundred thousand to do a SNES Wheel of Fortune game, it now costs a million or more to do even a small N64 game. Gametek was too small to survive.

Did you know your last day of work was coming or did you just come in one day and find the doors locked?

We went into work the Saturday before, all of us making sure to show up, since we knew some of the Gametek financial people were in town. Our boss was kind enough to call us Sunday afternoon after he heard the news, but the first official announcement was Monday, when we were individually led into our offices to pick up our personal effects and files. It was something of a blow actually... we finally had the finish line in sight, so we all figured that Gametek wouldn't pull the plug on us, after letting us get this far.

How did you wind up with the code for the project?

Its fairly common practice for programmers to keep a copy of their game code, much as an artist keeps copies of their work for their portfolio. Also, both myself and the lead programmer frequently worked at home, so there were already backup copies of much of the game there. Between the other programmer and myself, we managed to have copies of most of the game code and some of the tools we built. Of course, neither of us can use that code in future projects, since we don't have the legal rights to the code we wrote at Gametek.

How complete is it? What components are lacking?

We don't have anyof the sound files or the original artwork files, though we have the compiled versions in the game code. That means that I could potentially complete the game software, but I can't modify any of the artwork or sound. However, it would not be difficult to write a tool to convert the art data files in the game files back to something one of the 3D art packages could understand.

If a developer were to pick up this code, about how long would it take to put it together again into a saleable game?

That would probably depend on the experience of the developer... if they were familiar with the N64, then it probably would not take them more that five or six months. I personally could probably finish coding the game in two or three months, but I would need some art and sound help, as well as access to an N64 development system.

Have you had any developers or publishers express interest?

Not that I know of... most of them have their own games to work on, which would cost a lot less than it would to buy the rights to finish the game.

Finally, what are the chances that US gamers will finally get their hands on their fabled Crystal Dreams game?

Although I would do just about anything to see the game completed and in stores, it looks like at this point the game will never be finished. If someone has the several million dollars it would cost to buy the licenses and the game code, and then manufacture and distribute the game, I am more than willing to finish programming it! However, that seems very unlikely after eight months of silence and the next generation game systems already on the horizon.

I will probably carry my one existing cartridge burn of the game to the Robotech convension in Los Angeles next October, so I can at least show a few Robotech fans what we were trying to do. Without a miracle, that will probably be the end of Robotech on the N64.


Copyright Tim Stevens for Console Domain