Interview:Hardcore Gaming 101 2010

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Hardcore Gaming 101 2010

Date

2010

Interviewee

Dale DeSharone

Interviewer

Hardcore Gaming 101

Description

DeSharone describes his history with Phillips and the development of the CDi games.

Source

[1]

How they came about

Mr DeSharone was originally a primary school teacher who became involved with early Atari home computers, creating software to help teach the children in his class. During this time he sent programs to the Atari Programming Exchange, winning both first and second prizes. Desiring a change of career he moved into full-time software development.

Dale DeSharone: I just sort of fell into it by accident.

Once involved with games full-time, Mr DeSharone created the much loved Commodore 64 classics: Adventure Creator, Alice in Wonderland, and Below the Root (if you like 2D adventuring I highly recommend Below the Root - utterly brilliant), and also co-authored several books with Herb Cole. He then worked on other titles, before becoming involved with Philips.

Dale DeSharone: In 1987 I moved from Northern California to Boston, Massachusetts, to help build a CDi team for Spinnaker Software. Spinnaker had a deal with Philips to produce seven launch titles. I eventually became manager of the development group. I had originally planned to be at Spinnaker only one year as Philips was planning to release the machine in 1988. That one year turned into four, due to constant delays with the hardware emulation systems and the operating system. It was dreadfully slow and severely limited what was possible. If you look at the scrolling in Link or Zelda you'll see that you can only scroll about 2 or 2.5 screens horizontally. This was dictated by the video memory available.

Mr DeSharone went on to explain at length all the technical problems with the system, from an inability to properly stream audio, the poorly interfaced infra-red controller, slow 68000 processor, problems with saving and so on. It's a miracle what developers managed to squeeze out of the CDi, and even then AIM (American Interactive Media, Philips' CDi software publishing arm) didn't want games.

Dale DeSharone: It was just obviously not a game system and Philips was actually very clear in telling us that they didn't believe the market for this device was games. There was a subtle hostility toward games that I noticed from the upper echelon of execs at AIM . Philips thought that people would buy the machine for home educational purposes. This all changed after the launch of the CDi platform because the only titles that actually sold were the game titles. After the launch of Spinnaker's seven CDi titles I left the company. Spinnaker did not have plans to continue CDi development. I chose to start a new development company and was able to get development funding from AIM. Most of the CDi team from Spinnaker left to join this new group.

Now things start to get really interesting, as Mr DeSharone reveals some truths about the Philips and Nintendo agreement.

Dale DeSharone: This is where the Link and Zelda story begins. Somehow, Philips got a deal with Nintendo to license five characters. As I understood the arrangement, it wasn't a license of five games but five characters. A number of developers pitched AIM with ideas. I think AIM chose to go with the biggest names that Nintendo had at the time. We pitched separate ideas for a game starring Link and a separate one with Zelda. The development budgets were not high. As I recall they were perhaps around $600,000 each. We made a pitch that we could maximize the quality of the games by combining the funding to develop only one game engine that would be used by both games. This was in 1991-92 and even at this time a U.S. technical employee cost about $100,000 per year to support (salary, taxes, office space, equipment, insurance, administration costs). This was also a time when a 1GB hard drive cost $3000. We had a team of three programmers (other than myself), one audio engineer/composer, four artists and a producer. We had a single freelance writer who wrote the scripts and helped design both games.

So the studio was formed and work began. Wishing to hear more, I asked about the atmosphere of the time and what it was like creating these games.

Dale DeSharone: Wow, well, as I recall, it was a pretty rough time. We had just left Spinnaker, we had a new group of people, so we were creating an office in Cambridge. At the same time we had this group of animators in a couple of apartments. As I recall I would be going back and forth from the office in Cambridge, working with programmers, working to build the engine, back to the animators, going through the script and teaching them the process of how they were going to get the animation done. Also, hiring the U.S. based artists who were working on the game artwork itself. We had, maybe just a little over a year to produce them. So it was pretty tight.

The games were released simultaneously, and the rest is history as they say (see further pages for specifics on audio, visuals and gameplay).

I asked some more general questions, such as what he thinks of games development today and also of Zelda's Adventure, the third Zelda game on CDi.

DD: To put an entire Triple-A game together and creating it, requires so much money, and such a huge team these days. I really have seen a lot of different companies, and every game has its story. Not just the story of the game, but a story of what the situation was in terms of how it was built, where it went, and what the different facets are. You know, in terms of timing, and money, and constraints from the hardware, and constraints from the publisher. So, you know, I have a lot of compassion and empathy for all of the companies that get great games actually made and out the door. (laughs)
JS: Actually, what was your opinion of the third Zelda game on CDi?
DD: You know, I never played it all the way through. I saw part of it, and then sort of lost interest. It didn't really draw me in. How about you? Did you finally get it?
JS: Yeah, I didn't like it very much. I thought it was absolutely terrible to be honest. It felt rushed, like they'd brought it to market having only finished it to 50%.
DD: Yeah. It could well have been. (laughs) It could well have been only 50% finished.

Audio

The music is the most instantly gratifying element of LZ and difficult to argue against, since online gameplay videos and the scant MP3s from Galbadia Hotel do not lie. It's in no way like other Zelda music and there is no traditional Hyrule tune, but this for me emphasises the music's quality. It's unique, eclectic and very unusual, sounding like a medley of ethnic instruments and themes. South-American Panpipes, African percussion, a strong middle-eastern vibe, plus a lot of delicious 1980s synth. Overall the music is quite unlike anything else I've heard in videogames - surely such diversity is a good thing?

Dale DeSharone: We created the music in our studio. Our composer was Tony Trippi, [He spells it out], who had worked with me at Spinnaker and then came on board, and worked with me at the new company. So he created all the music for both games. We were working on the games simultaneously, so we were working on the script, on the design and the artwork, and the animation to both games at the same time.

Unfortunately the voice acting was atrocious, being the first thing which people criticise. It was poorly acted, with apparently no attempt to match what was onscreen to what was being said. Hence why we have a skinny blonde girl trapped in a Viking longboat on top of a mountain, with her overlaid character-cinema instead showing a bloated fat woman with red hair, while the voice is that of someone with a thick Texas accent (please, whatever you do, ignore the cinemas). The idea of overlaying animated character portraits onto the in-game action is an ingenious one (done superbly on Popful Mail for the Turbo Duo, if you want a comparison) - but unfortunately it's a wasted effort when the animation is sloppy and acting poor.

Though it was perhaps out of Mr DeSharone's control, since as he explained, they used union actors.

Dale DeSharone: Of course, we auditioned local union actors, AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] actors, and chose the voices for the game. There's about 10 minutes of cinema in each game, so there was a fair amount of audio to edit.

If you've not got access to the games, I highly recommend checking out some videos or MP3s to experience the unique and high-quality music on offer.

Visuals

The in-game graphics are another highlight of LZ, especially the backgrounds, since rather than being traditional pixel-based sprite-art, they have a Claude Monet-like pastel impressionist quality. This should be evident from the screens - strokes from when the backgrounds were first painted are still visible. Over the years only a few games have tried experimenting with different visual styles, which elevates LZ to the plateau of titles like Okami (Japanese brushwork); Donkey Kong Country and Killer Instinct (CG renderings); Skullmonkeys (claymation); Rakuga Kids and Rakugaki Showtime (graffiti); Saga Frontier 2 and Legend of Mana (water color) plus of course, Yoshi's Island (wax crayon), among others.

This was a direct result of the CD medium being able to hold the higher resolution scans, and it's a pity that not more games have tried being a little different. Also as clever, as previously stated, is that character dialogues are introduced via portrait-cinemas which overlaid onto in-game action. The problem though is that all the FMV-style cinemas are of a very low quality.

The reason for this proves fascinating: a bunch of Russian animators were flown over and placed in an apartment, then drew everything. Not to offend anyone from Eastern Europe (my surname reveals that I too hail from that area), but when you think about it, the post-communist east-bloc styling is painfully evident in the cut-scenes, and for anyone who enjoys Japanese anime (a staple in most videogames) or the kind of output from Ghibli studios, then those in LZ aren't very palatable.

Dale DeSharone: AIM was of course expecting some type of full-motion animation in the games and I was trying to figure out how we were going to do that on the budgets. A mutual friend put me in touch with Igor Razboff. Igor was also interested in starting a new technical company at this time (1991). He had a PHD in Higher Mathematics and Computer Science from the university in St. Petersburg, Russia. He had been in the U.S. for twelve years and had worked at Bell Labs and Computer Vision. The Perestroika was beginning and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Igor wanted to return to St. Petersburg for the first time in twelve years and build a company there that would provide some type of service to U.S. companies.

What Mr DeSharone describes next is almost like outsourcing (bringing foreign workers over to do the job.)

DeSharone: Igor and I got together and we talked about what type of business we could start in St. Petersburg. And I had seen numerous animated films coming out of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. So I thought, well, we could probably do animation over there'. So he went over, found about six people who had some experience with 2D animation, and of course they didn't have the expertise that U.S. animators have. U.S. animators have been paid fair amounts of money, for decades, to learn animation. And they were more scattered over there, in smaller studios. But we had about half a dozen people, and we brought them over here to the U.S. for 6 months, and put them up in an apartment, there are a couple of apartments near where I live, here in Massachusetts. And, gave them computers, and scanners. Most of them at that time worked on paper, on animation paper, and then scanned it into the computer, and cleaned up the line and colours on the computer, and then we transferred it to CDi. We may have also written a CDi tool that would let them view it and clean it up on the CDi player itself. The animators had varying levels of skill, in terms of animation.

This created quite an ironic situation: a Japanese company (Nintendo) licensed out their intellectual property to a Dutch company (Philips), which then funded an American company (Animation Magic, under the tenure of Dale DeSharone) to creates games with said IP, in turn bringing over Russian artists to create the cinemas.

As stated though, it's best to ignore these completely, since they will only taint what is an otherwise expertly crafted pair of games.

...

Gameplay Development

When considering the gameplay of LZ, you need to realise that development began in early 1991, with only two previous Zelda games having been released on the NES. Link to the Past on the SNES was only released in the November of 1991 in Japan (hitting the U.S. roughly 6 months later in 1992), and prior to release would only have been viewable deep within Nintendo's R&D lab in Kyoto. This means that, due to not much source material to work from and little if any information about LttP available, LZ collectively was developed to be the third game(s) in the series. By the time the team would have had access to LttP, development of LZ would have already progressed a fair amount. Though Mr DeSharone did explain that the entire team had been fans of the first two Zelda titles.

The level of influence which Philips, AIM and Nintendo had was insignificant, and I provide for you here an unedited interview segment with Dale DeSharone, regarding development.

JS: Did Philips, or AIM, or anyone else have specific influence in terms of design regarding the games? Did Nintendo contact you when you began development?
DD: Um, no... We came up with the design for Philips and then...Did you ever look at the other Zelda game, that the different developer produced?
JS: Zelda's Adventure? Yes.
DD: They went with a very different type of design look. No, Nintendo's only input was we ran the design document and character sketches past them for their approval. They were mostly interested in the look of the Link and Zelda characters. I think the Link and Zelda characters were in somewhat of a formation stage back then. Because really, the characters didn't appear very detailed in the Nintendo game. They were mainly visible, you know, on the box covers. (Author's note: I believe he was referring to the Japanese box art, which featured character designs, in comparison to the low resolution graphics found in-game on the NES)
JS: So, quite a lot of creative freedom then?
DD: Yeah, there was quite a bit of creative freedom. And Philips, they didn't have a lot of input into the design either. One of your questions was why we didn't go with the top down, and I think Philips would never have approved that. Because they would have thought that looked old, and wasn't making use of the CDi capabilities.
JS: Of the previous two Zelda games one was top-down and the other was side-on. I was wondering why you went with one style over the other.
DD: If Philips had seen a top down design, they would have said that it didn't... They would have looked at it just visually, as opposed to gameplay. And that was what they were most concerned with. Does the CDi game look visually different from other game or computer systems, and are we making less use of the graphics? The possibility that the top down might have been more fun for gameplay, wouldn't have affected them. So we definitely pushed for the side view.
JS: What kind of source material did you use during development?
DD: Really we only had... of course the two Nintendo games that had come previously from Nintendo, and um... Then box art from Nintendo in terms of the design of the characters, and booklet artwork. Otherwise there wasn't anything that came from Nintendo.

Considering this situation, it would be unfair to criticise LZ for being unlike LttP or other Zelda games. The series' identity was still only forming, and Nintendo gave little direction in how they wanted it to be. In isolation, the creativity shown by Mr. DeSharone's team works well.

Conclusion

I have a lot of sympathy for LZ and those who developed them, since much of the criticism is unfounded, written by people who've never played the games, and this has no doubt resulted in people avoiding them. The facts need to be clarified and documented.

I explained my motivation for the interview to Mr. DeSharone, asking if he was aware of the intense criticism LZ had received and what his reaction was.

Dale DeSharone: Yeah, we had been aware of criticism following the release of the games. I can understand that people were disappointed, I think probably in terms of... I guess they made comments about animation, but also in terms of gameplay and design. Given the amount of time we had, and what we were creating at the time in terms of company infrastructure, I thought we did a good job. You know, we weren't Nintendo. And Nintendo makes fantastic games, which are exceptionally well tuned in terms of gameplay. And they have amazing game designers. So, I would imagine that anything was going to fall short of that, in terms of the amount of time and energy that Nintendo puts into gameplay. Given the amount of time we had, and the fact that we were developing two at once, on a platform that was pretty limited, although the Nintendo machine at that time was also pretty limited and they did a great job with it... At the same time Philips was expecting, and I think we were all expecting, more graphics, more production values in terms of music, visuals, animation... So there was a lot of push there. You put effort into that, and it doesn't go elsewhere. I felt that, given the circumstances, we did a good job. It could have been better, of course it wasn't Nintendo.

They weren't Nintendo games and they are by no means perfect (is any game?), but if people look past this, and accept them for what they are - fun, challenging, 2D adventures, albeit with poor cinemas - then they provide a lot of enjoyment, especially when you consider their infamy. To find a hidden gem is a wonderful experience, but finding a hidden gem in something regarded as terrible is even better!

...

Special thanks to Dale DeSharone for answering questions, and www.quebecgamers.com for supplying images.