Author David L. Craddock is back with more interviews from his 18+ years writing about the history of video games. In the fifth volume of GameDev Stories, Craddock gathers interviews that recount the creation of four celebrated titles: Star Command, the hit strategy game for iOS; Veil of Darkness, an action-adventure title with a strong horror motif; and Fallout and Fallout 2, the classics that introduced millions of players to post-apocalyptic gaming.
A year or so ago, I published Game Dev Stories: Volume 6. A reader wrote to me in a mild panic to ask if he'd somehow missed Volume 5, since he had volumes 1-4 and 6. I replied that he must have, but when I checked my archives, I realized—lordy, this is embarrassing—that, well, I'd forgotten how to count. Volume 6 should have been Volume 5. Hey, I'm a writer, not a… numberer? Anyway. The Lost Volume collects three massive interviews—two framed as oral histories—that I feel are meaty enough for you to forgive my tenuous grasp on numbers. – David L. Craddock
From the Ever Dark Sky: The Making of Veil of Darkness
I've spent much of my career writing about video games recounting how blockbusters like Doom, Diablo, and Mortal Kombat were made, but I'm just as interested in recounting the making of games you may not have heard of, or perhaps have not thought of in decades. Veil of Darkness is one of those, and one of my favorite games. It was made by Event Horizon Software and published by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), a publisher known more for strategy titles like Panzer General II and the creatively named Twenty Wargame Classics.
I discovered Veil of Darkness in the bargain bin of a K*B Toys and was intrigued by the vampire and his bloody fangs on the cover. At home, I installed the three-disk program and settled in for one of my favorite gaming experiences of the 1990s. Part adventure, part action, Veil plays from an isometric perspective, like Diablo would three years later. You're stuck in a valley trapped in the 1800s, and the only way to leave is to kill the vampire, Kairn, who rules the region with his minions—wolves, will-o-wisps, a banshee, and lots of skeletons, zombies, and bats. Stock horror creatures, but the devil is in the details. You make your way to Kairn by completing a prophecy, each line of which is a riddle you must figure out how to solve.
Veil's story is simple but effective. A lengthy prologue was published in the game manual, and the strategy guide's prose was written as a narrative, a gimmick I loved as a kid. When I couldn't play the game, I could read the strategy guide like a novel! (Rusel DeMaria wrote his strategy guide for Prince of Persia and Prince of Persia 2 the same way, and I read it as many times.)
Years ago, I made contact with several of the developers who worked on Veil of Darkness and asked them to help me tell the story.
Part I: A Family Story
Very few classic games are the product of a developer's first attempt. Or their second, or their third. First comes influence and inspiration. For Veil of Darkness's future team, that inspiration came from childhoods playing board and tabletop games, and being drawn to creative arts.
SCOT NOEL, WRITER: My nephew is Christopher Straka, one of the three owners who founded Event Horizon, later known as Dreamforge Intertainment. One decade younger than me, when we were growing up Chris was more like my kid brother than my nephew. He was always wanted to play games, and at first that meant toy soldiers on the table with the two of us making shooting noises at one another. For me, especially at first, this was just the chore of keeping the kid happy and giving the adults a chance to take a nap, but I could only take making machine gun noises through my teeth for so long.
CHRISTOPHER STRAKA, DESIGNER: I've been around games as long as I can remember. Our family and friends all played games; we were a gaming family. Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my uncle Scot, creating or own war games with plastic army men, string, rules, and quarter flips. My first computer gaming experiences were Pong and an early armored combat game of some sort my uncle purchased for the TV. Curiously, I never played Chess or Checkers.
Scot and I were huge Avalon Hill Board Game fanatics, starting with Alexander the Great. I never managed to beat my uncle because I could never maintain the morale of my armies. That still irks me to this day. Alexander was designed by Gary Gygax, who later went on to co-create Dungeons and Dragons.
We grew up in the days of the game rooms and arcade games; if you did well you were like a rock star with a crowd gathering behind you to watch. Over the years, I've owned every single game console, form Atari and Coleco to the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
SCOT NOEL: As soon as Chris matured enough to deal with it, I started adding rules. "Look, you want your guys to take out my guys, I'll flip a coin, you call it." This quickly advanced to "OK, this string is the range a sharpshooter can fire accurately. This other string is for machine guns. And hey, foot soldiers can only move two inches at a time, I'll let the tanks go six."
Chris loved this. He found lots of ways to cheat, but he loved it. He started complexifying the rules himself, adding reinforcement and terrain rules. Then we found the old Avalon Hill board game Alexander the Great by Gary Gygax. For both Chris and myself, a life-long love of true gaming had begun.
Event Horizon, Veil of Darkness's publisher, came many years after Chris and Scot bonded over games. First, there was Paragon, and with Paragon came one of the uncle-nephew duo's most powerful artistic forces.
JANE NOEL, ARTIST: I've always loved games. With two brothers and two sisters close in age, we played cards and board games constantly. I remember as kids when we first got Pong that you could play on a TV. There were four variations and we played for hours.
I had never really considered a "career" in games. In the 80s that wasn't really a career track you'd ever heard of – especially in Western PA. I just knew I wanted to do computer art. I saw an ad in the paper for a part time computer artist. I sent my resume and samples and got the job at Paragon.
Paragon Software is not in any way related to Event Horizon and Dreamforge. Starting at the beginning—or from what I know as the beginning—Paragon Software, located in Greensburg, PA, was founded by Mark Seremet and FJ Lennon in either 1985 or 1986. They created Master Ninja for DOS before I was hired. Chris Straka, a founder of Event Horizon, was hired because of his martial arts expertise. I don't recall how they did it, but Chris modeled for the ninja poses. Tom Holmes, another Event Horizon founder, was the lead programmer.
CHRISTOPHER STRAKA: I met Jim and Tom at Paragon Software. Tom and I were employees; Jim was a subcontractor hired to port Paragon titles to the Atari ST. I was initially hired as a martial arts consultant and did all the choreography for the DOS game Master Ninja: Shadow Warrior of Death. That was in 1986.
The owners of Paragon at the time approached me because the first product they wanted to do was a martial arts product. I knew Paragon owner Mark Seremet from high school and we had trained at the same martial arts school. I started training at age of 13 at a small school in Greensburg, PA. I trained mostly in Tae Kwon Do and Judo. The game we were trying to beat was Karateka, a Broderbund title that was available across several early computers, including PCs, Atari, and Amiga.
Although Master Ninja is a "ninja" game, the moves are all Tae Kwon Do and Judo, techniques no real ninja would be likely to perform. Beyond the choreography, I designed how the various martial arts moves would interact with one another and I contributed some puzzle-solving elements. It was kind of rock-paper-scissors at that point. We did break up the action occasionally with an adventure game arcade sequence. I remember they filmed all the moves that were required for the game. This was before the days of green screen and motion capture; still they were able to transfer the film into data.
I liked the environment and they liked me enough to keep me on in data entry and customer service after my Master Ninja tasks were complete.
JANE NOEL: At that time, they'd already released Master Ninja for DOS with an outline character. With CGA and even EGA graphics, there wasn't much you could do to show detail. When I started, they were just beginning work on a new game, Wizard Wars, and needed to do Commodore 64 and Amiga versions of Master Ninja. Initially, most of my time was spent on the two versions of Master Ninja. I remember the programmers would port the art from one format to another and you'd have a basic outline or shape, but would need to detail it.
I remember working on a Koala Tablet on the C64, a very early drawing tablet with a stylus. It was an experience. The C64 had some weird graphic restriction that you could only have 4 colors inside a certain grid of maybe 16 pixels. If you accidentally dropped a 5th color into the grid, it would randomly change the work you'd already done. By comparison, working on the Amiga in Deluxe Paint was a dream! It would let you pick 32 colors. (DOS EGA would let you use 16 – always the same 16 and they weren't great colors to start with). I remember Tom Holmes wrote a program that we used for Wizard Wars – it would load the EGA art and it would show a couple different versions of the art in CGA so you could pick the best one.
I worked on artwork for various versions of Master Ninja, Wizard Wars, Guardians of Infinity, Spiderman & Captain America, Mega Traveller. Several of those were uncredited. Most of these Paragon games were done on DOS, Amiga, Atari ST, and C64. Much of the art would have started on the Amiga and ported to the other versions.
Several years ago, I found some old Amiga disks and got them transferred so I could see the art. When I opened them in Photoshop, they looked about the size of a postage stamp. I don't recall the resolution of the Amiga, but I'm guessing 320x200. I remember working for days, pixel by pixel, on one background.