While I couldn’t get my computer to repeat ‘Hello World’ on the screen if my life depended on it, I have learned through painful experience which programmers I can trust and which I can’t. There are guys that will duck and weave on the simplest question, and then there are the guys that are so rock solid, you always take them at face value.
One such rock is software engineer Todd Johnson, the lead programmer on Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. His mission for the last year has been to lead six other programmers in creating a new game from the bones of the old. On paper, Todd’s job might have looked easy. After all, this new game is based on an existing software ‘engine.’ All he had to do was pop and swap old art and design with new, right?
‘There is very little from the old game that didn’t get worked on,’ answers Johnson. ‘We changed how files get loaded off disc, how objects communicate with each other, the way levels are laid out, the animation compression, even the arrangement of VRAM. We added new characters as well as motions and AI to existing characters.’ Limited RAM means that using an existing engine could even prove a problem. ‘Every change required a search for something to remove or streamline,’ says Todd.
On top of everything else, there is pure innovation. Of all the features in the game, ‘I would have to say the QuikSave feature is the most impressive,’ says Johnson. ‘A big reason this game will be much more fun than the first is the ability to save anywhere. The frustration of dying and playing the same thing over again is gone.’
And then there are the things you have to dig to find. ‘I literally spent months working on the Mudokon emotional states,’ says Todd. ‘The feature is more of a fun factor for the player who treats the game like a toy and just goofs off with it.’ When you get your hands on the game, line up a bunch of Mudokons, slap the first one, and watch the carnage that ensues.
With seven programmers, not to mention dozens of designers, artists, and directors all providing input, an already complex project can become impossible. How did Todd keep everyone moving in the same direction?
‘The most important thing is to have one programmer in charge of a mechanic or character. Then that person can identify conflicts in various requests from their familiarity with the code,’ Todd replies.
‘During the debugging period, this structure breaks down because everyone is in a rush to get things fixed. Our safety net here is version control software, which allows us to roll back the code or simply look at previous versions.’
So, now that the engine is screaming in top gear, and all these cool features are on hand, isn’t it a natural to do another 2D game?
‘I will personally kill whoever tries to suggest Abe 3,’ replies Todd.
OK, pal, I’ll take you at face value.
— Paul O’Connor, Oddworld Inhabitants, 27 October 1998
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