Below is the transcript of an interview I did with Susan Manley, former lead artist and project manager for SSI and now a COO and Executive Producer for Olde Skuul. If you prefer to watch the videos, click below for the automated playlist of the entire series. Otherwise, enjoy!
Matt: Hi, folks, I’m here with the great Susan Manley, the COO and Executive Producer of Olde Skuul. Formerly, she was the lead artist and project manager of SSI, a company you’re probably familiar with if you watch this show. She was also the first ever project manager for internally developed projects for a little company named Electronic Arts. How are you today, Susan?
Susan: I am good. I think that I was employee 236, so we weren’t too small then.
Matt: Let’s talk about Olde Skuul. You’re the COO, and the CEO is Rebecca Heineman. How did you and Becky meet?
Susan: We met at a party. I had been talking to R.J. Mical for some time through Facebook, but hadn’t met him in person. He invited me to a party, so I grabbed a friend of mine—Maurine Starkey, who I met at SSI many years ago, and went to the party. I wasn’t having a very good time—there weren’t many entrepreneurs there, just a lot of Sony people. I was a little bit bored, and I was teasing R.J.—“Where are all the girls? There’s just a bunch of these game geeks.”
All of the sudden, Rebecca walked in with one of her friends. I greeted her at the front door, and I must have intimidated her, because the first thing she did was show me a picture of her girlfriend.
But we ended up sitting on the couch and talking nonstop for the next three hours. I’d never met her before, and we had a lot in common, which was really funny. I actually worked on Bard’s Tale IV. I was the project manager—the person who brought in Victor Penman, who killed it. That’s a story on its own. Maurice Starkey and Chuck Sommerville were there, and we were all chatting in the circle.
Matt: We’ll have to come back to this Bard’s Tale story. Last time I talked to Becky, she was telling me about the Battle Chess game. Have there been any updates on how it’s doing?
Susan: Battle Chess has been released on early access on Steam. We’re not quite finished with it yet. We intend to come back to it, but I’m not entirely sure when. The only thing that’s not there in its complete form is the tournament system. So you can play Battle Chess, you can keep your scores, but you can’t tournament.
Matt: Did you have anything to do with the animations or artwork?
Susan: No, that was one of the few games I didn’t do artwork for—that was Jennell Jaquays. Instead, I got to do the test matrix for the game. I haven’t done one of those in a long, long time.
Matt: What about Dog Football?
Susan: We just started that project with Judobaby, and we’re enjoying it quite a bit.
Matt: I wasn’t even aware that dog football was a sport until a couple weeks ago.
Susan: I hadn’t heard about it either—actually, I heard about it right after R.J.’s party, where they met as well. I didn’t know the full story of Dog Football either. Apparently, it was designed by someone I worked with at Electronic Arts: Dave Rolston.
Matt: It’s a small world.
Susan: It’s a really small world. Dave was a huge fan of Madden football, and I was talking to my team the other day—my tester, John Turp. And he said, this plays a lot like Madden. Dave used to play that all the time during their breaks.
Matt: I’d rather play the Dog Football than Madden.
Susan: You know what? I would to. Nothing wrong with Madden, but it’s a known quantity. I want to know what all the unknown stuff is in Dog Football.
Matt: I notice you also brought in your first male employee, Trevor Snowden. How long has been onboard?
Susan: We started talking to him back in March of this year. He approached us, and at the time we were doing Battle Chess—we didn’t have anything else to do then. We liked him. So Rebecca and I started talking about the next set of projects we wanted to do, and where Trevor could fit in. So I called him and had a pep talk with him. He got totally excited and said yes, count me in. He’s been actively doing stuff for us since May.
Matt: It must be interesting being the minority—the only male in a game studio. That might be a first in the industry; I don’t know.
Susan: That’s entirely possible. We did a press release for him and said he was the junior child of our group, with only 21 years of experience.
Matt: Only 21 years! Wow.
Susan: Trevor is a blast. He’s really fun.
Matt: Before anyone kills me, we’d better find out about Bard’s Tale IV. So you were part of the development or design team for that project?
Susan: I was the project manager. But with my art background, I could look heavily at what they were doing. With Bard’s Tale IV, they were trying to take three different game engines and meld them together. So you had, basically, a forward dungeon crawl scrolling hallway engine. Then, Chris Erhardt, who was the producer on this project, wanted it to switch into a sideways viewpoint when you went into combat, so you could fire arrows or fight with a sword. That was an entirely different game engine that needed to load, and would need similar looking artwork. Then there was going to be a topdown strategic view of the map where you were adventuring, so you could scroll up and see where you were. Nobody had really done that yet. There had been some minor work like that—such as the little windowed projects we did at SSI, where you scrolled through a hallway, and it’d load up pictures. But no one had done three different applications.
It was pretty intense from a technical point of view, but what they hadn’t realized…They had an assistant producer doing most of the design. Unfortunately, since he’d never done it before, he didn’t realize he needed transition art between the different viewpoints so that the parts melded—so you wouldn’t be in an ivy covered hallway and suddenly in a stone dungeon.
When I pointed this out—when you add the transitional art, the art budget is doubled. That means a lot more time, more overhead, more loading…It was an intense nightmare. They never did quite figure it out.
By the way, that was the first internally developed project from Electronic Arts that hit one million dollars. That was a lot of money back in those days.
About five or so months into it, we had a high level meeting with management, and I said there’s only one person I know who could sit down and logistically figure it out—to get a product out of it. That was Victor Penman, who I worked with SSI. Victor had product and process managed art and design together at SSI. They called him up, and asked him, and he thanks and hates me for that. It was hard. It was one of the highest end products they had then.
Matt: I wonder what happened to those assets.
Susan: I couldn’t tell you. About seven or eight years ago I threw away several boxes of disks.
Matt: Uh oh!
Susan: I know. I did some art for that game. I did an animated horse—
Matt: It had horseback riding?
Susan: Yes. I didn’t like what they had done, so I went in and fixed their horse character.
Matt: Susan, I guess you’ve been involved with computers since your very earliest childhood. You were telling me about how your dad worked at UNIVAC and Burroughs, and did the guidance systems for missiles.
Susan: My father was a rocket scientist, yes.
Matt: That must have been the source of endless jokes.
Susan: Actually, yes. My earliest memories are coloring the printouts that he used to bring home from work. The giant X’s and O’s images. They brought home the punch cards and we filled them out. This was a big thing to do back in the 60s and 70s. We recycled everything. That’s about all I knew about computers at the time, until one time my father us to UNIVAC and we actually got to walk into the computer room. I remember how big the reels were and how cold it was, because they had the air conditioner way up.
Matt: UNIVAC…How big of a computer was that?
Susan: I don’t know. It was spread all around the perimeter of a 30 by 30 room.
Matt: Wow. Now we have more computing power in an iPhone.
Susan: Yes, apparently.
Matt: Your brother was also into computers, right? He took you to San Jose state to play Hunt the Wumpus and Star Trek. You also mentioned a game called Rats. You have to tell me about that!
Susan: Okay. My brother was an engineering major at San Jose state, but he also had some computing classes. When he was doing his labs at night, he’d get lonely, so he asked me to go along with him. What would I do there? He said he’d put me on a computer to play. My only thoughts of a computer at that time were based on the science fiction I had read. I had no clue what I was in for.
These computers had no monitors. If you did something, you had to print it out. I played Star Trek, the game, which was written by college students, apparently. We were printing out the moves, and the starfield was made up of ASCII characters and the stars were asterisks. The ship was a V. It was bizarre. Everything was going on in your head. Eventually, they got monitors, so we could actually see what was going on.
Rats was a game where you had a multi-story building and slow and fast rat poison. You had to place it out in the building and kill all the rats before they repopulated. It was a bizarre lemonade game. You were preserving and using resources to try to maximize the effort.
Matt: Sounds like it’s well overdue for a Kickstarter reboot. Now people talk about frames per second; I guess back then it was lines per minute.
Susan: Right. And how many decision points you’d have, and what kind of decision points you could make. Yes, no, and what else.
Matt: Was this the point where you knew you wanted a career in games?
Susan: Actually, I got into that more when I found out about other people who played other types of games. When I was 19, I got into AD&D, 2nd edition. I was dating the guy who was the dungeon master, and he dragged me to the game. I’d never been to a game like that. They played in a garage.
Since I was the first female to attend their game, they all wore costumes and had dry ice. They made a big impression. I stayed and played for the next year and a half. It was a lot of fun.
Matt: What was your character?
Susan: I had two, just in case one got killed. I had a lawful good dwarven fighter, and a half-elf bard.
Matt: Female characters?
Susan: Yes, both female. The dwarf and I ended up adventuring almost two years. Her named was Berdimere.
Matt: So is this what led you to games for a living?
Susan: No. I wanted to be an artist for LucasFilm. I wanted to do the computer graphics for the movies. That was when Star Wars was really popular, and they were doing the high end stuff.
However, I got sucked into managing a computer games store in San Jose, California. Some friends of mine had bought the Commodore Computer Center directly from Commodore. There was one in San Jose and another in Santa Clara. They wanted to open a store that was purely just games. They invited me to be the manager of it.
I hadn’t used a home computer much. I’d used a computer at a zoo where I worked to do the books, but I’d never used them much. Except for playing Wizard and Princess when I was 19. That’s a Sierra On-Line game.
Matt: The one with all the rocks. And the snake.
Susan: Yeah. I called them “guess the word” games. You were always trying to figure out the operative word that would make it do something. You had to have good spelling.
But the games store is what got me into the games world. I was interacting with all these folks who made games, but also looking very critically at the games to see what was able to be done. We had all the different systems there; we had the ones that could do voice commands—there was the B-51 Bomber Intellivision game. We also supported some less common systems, like the Astrocade and the Odyssey. All of these different machines played completely different styles of product. It was interesting.
We also had the small computers at the time, like the VIC-20, the C64, the Atari 400 and 800, and later the 1200.
Matt: Did you have a favorite?
Susan: I liked the C64, quite a bit. The reason I liked it was it was instant boot up, easy to understand—I could actually program it.
Matt: You probably recognize this? (I show my T-shirt with the C64 loading command on it).
Susan: (Laughs). I used to have my pokes memorized. I would impress the engineers at EA—I’d say, “No, that’s poke blah blah.” They’d go, “Oh, my God!” I should have worn my old T-shirt from GDC that says “Hex and Bugs and Rock’n Roll.”
Matt: The store was named Video Adventure, right?
Susan: Yes. I unfortunately did not name it. I wasn’t there. But we got lots of calls from people looking to rent movies. Video stores back then were really popular.
But we were one of the first computer game stores, and we right there in west San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley.
Matt: I envy you. That must have been incredible. You were at the hub of the C64 phenomenon. What kind of people came into the store? You mentioned some Atari executives had come by?
Susan: One of their vice presidents. I don’t remember his name. But he came in and asked me some questions about what was selling and why. He brought in about 12 engineers one night, and I sat down for about an hour and answered all kinds of questions about what consumers were looking for, what they asked about, how long things stayed popular, what drew people in.
Matt: What’d you tell them?
Susan: The consumers didn’t find out about the product from magazines. It was whatever was on the kiosk at the store. Quite frankly, the things that ended up on the kiosks had really great demonstration modes that drew people in. They had really interesting gameplay video, story video, and back and forth. The demonstration mode was really important—we saw the same thing in the coin-op world. People were more likely to drop their quarters into a game that was self-explanatory. Not everybody read the game mags.
The average guy who wanted to spend a few hundred bucks for a machine for his kids hadn’t read the magazines; he came in and asked us.
I had a bunch of adults who’d come in and buy games, and then hide them from their kids for a few weeks so they could get really good at them and beat them badly.
Matt: I’m sure nobody does that anymore.
Matt: So these Atari machines didn’t have good demos?
Susan: Some of them did. Of course, if it was cartridge-based, you could only have so much of your game space allotted to those things. So they had to write routines that would let the game auto-run as the attractor rather than a separate program. So it was an engineering feet. They did a lot of very interesting things.
Matt: You said you dated Jay Stevens of HES. What’s that?
Susan: Human Engineered Software. They were an early C64 and VIC-20 company. They were started by Jay Balakrishnan. They were around for, gosh, about 8 or 10 years. I forgot who bought them.
Matt: What kind of stuff was it?
Susan: They had a lot of arcade products, some of the early C64 stuff that was on tape.
At the time, Commodore had adopted William Shatner as their spokesperson. HES had Leonard Nimoy. So I got to meet him at CES the next year. One of my friends actually taught him how to use a computer.
Matt: You also had some input on the 3DO. I know that console seems to have a cult following nowadays. So you didn’t think it had enough RAM? (Laughs)
Matt: Is that what it amounts too?
Susan: That was not my consensus. That was the consensus that I got. I had the privilege of working with all of the engineers that were doing the internal development at EA, and we had our own little floor in our new building at 1450 Fashion Island. We called it The Fourth Floor, and literally it was me and about 20 guys. They were some of the brightest minds in games. It was pretty fun to be up there. Anyhow, at the time I was really intrigued that Trip was trying to start this whole new game platform and that he was really pushing the graphics on the product and that he wanted to marry it to all of these other technologies. Basically, he wanted it to become what the Playstation and the Xbox have become today. He envisioned all that. And so, I was asking my fellow developers, “What do you think of this box?” I was also looking at it, quite frankly; we had the ability to invest in the 3DO when the stock became available, and I was trying to figure out if this was a good investment. I said obviously, “If Trip’s in it it’s going to sell.” How long it does in the long run I don’t know, but it’s going to sell. Anyhow, my fellow employees basically said that they thought it was cool; however, the thought it was hampered because it didn’t have enough memory. The problem is when you’re showing full video at 32 frames per second so you don’t get any herky jerky that you have to have enough RAM on top of that to actually have interactivity, which means to be able to off in any direction at the time. So, either you can have a game and little movies, which was already being done on the Sega-CD system, or you had to have a really beefy system. Trip actually had a big meeting where he invited all of the development teams from EA into a big room to present us with what’s inside the 3DO. He had handed out the technical documentation before that for everybody to look at it, and he went through his entire grand vision of what he wanted it do and what he was doing about the business plan and all these other really cool things. So he got to the end of his presentation, and he asked, “Does anybody have any questions?” And no one raised a hand. Now Trip is an amazing leader, and he’s a very vocal person, and I think that people didn’t want to say, “Hi your baby has warts,” you know?
Susan: Because they didn’t want to feel pinned in that argument, and they probably hadn’t talked amongst themselves all that much either about it yet. Anyhow, I knew that a lot people did think there was an issue, so I raised my hand, and I asked Trip, “Who helped you design this?” He said, “Well, Luc Barthelet had. Why?” I said, “Well, I think the general consensus is that it doesn’t have enough memory.” And I explained what I meant by that. Then he turned and looked at the crowd and said, “Who agrees with Susan?” And, the entire crowd raised their hands.
Susan: So, I had opened up the can of worms, and you could tell he just started sweating on stage. And, I felt really bad because I knew that he had just returned from Japan to actually sell this in to all of the Japanese partners to manufacture and he had a price point in mind for manufacturing and what needed to be inside the box, and all of the sudden he was finding out that he needed to have more memory.
Matt: So do you think that’s what led to its demise?
Susan: I think that that lead to the Japanese not being that enthusiastic.
Matt: Um hum
Susan: But I don’t know for sure. I don’t know all of the politics. I do know that it was a pivotal time in pre-the game system being there. We didn’t have a prototype yet, you know? They were still working that out. This was all still on the drawing board, and we were starting to make software tools for it, but we didn’t really know how important it would be. Actually, I remember how excited the executive team was when they came back from their first E3, and the 3DO had been shown because they got a lot of positive response, and they came back and threw a lot of cash into development for the 3DO team, which was awesome. The 3DO team was a separate team than from the team that I worked with, by the way. So, they were all headed under Lucy Bradshaw. She was actually running that development team. We were only loosely aware of what was going on over there. We were working on all of the big console stuff that was making all of the big cash cow to fund all of that.
Matt: I’ve got a project management question for you.
Matt: So you know I’ve had some people on the show before: Robert Sirotek. I don’t know if you know him.
Matt: He was on a while ago and we were talking about how they were sinking all this money into this Australian branch. How the guys just never came through with the product. They just kept asking for more time, more resources. I’m kind of wondering, you know, from your point of view how do you know it’s time to pull the plug on this or I’m going to go ahead and give them another 6 months? How does it all work?
Susan: Okay. There’s a couple of different things. You have to develop a schedule that allows you to monitor progress, which means what can you see and what can you do and what’s noticeable at every point in time. Some of it is going to be underneath the surface: it’s an iceberg. With the engineering stuff, yeah, it can be really difficult because when they are still putting together the things that are going to make the display engine or whatever else only another engineer can go in and look to see if it’s being put together. The other thing that goes on is a lot of tasks. Unless they’ve been done before by that particular team, they don’t necessarily know how long they are going to take, and they might need guidance on how to do them, so there are a couple of factors that come into play. If it’s a new team working together for the first time and they’re working on a new platform, it takes time for them to gel with each other and to gel with the platform, and so there are slip issues definitely. Everybody is going to make things in their best guess. We never schedule tasks that are less than 2 days or longer than 2 weeks, and tasks should be defined so that you can tell when they are done. With art tasks in order to truly be done, an art piece needs to be all the way through the process and ready to be put in the game. There is a lot of art processing that’s done after things are drawn that people will tend to forget, and I’ve seen that be a really big gating issue while there’s an engineer off doing a lot of art processing (chuckles) right before alpha instead of actually doing the code which is only thing he only can do. I used to a lot of process management, which was “no, no, no, no, no.” You know, you don’t have your engineer processing you art. You don’t have an assistant producer processing your art, or even necessarily an artist processing the art unless you need an artist to review it after it’s done if there’s something that might be changed. There’s a lot of interesting things about all of that that really can pull in the amount of time that it takes to get something done by playing the right expertise or the right person.
Matt: So what do you think was the biggest fiasco (chuckles) in you time there?
Susan: The biggest fiasco at Electronic Arts…oh my goodness. Um…as I sit here and try and think… I saw a lot of cash get wasted obviously on Bard’s Tale, and I think that part of it was we just didn’t know how internally to make a product of that size and scope. They were trying to emulate what they were doing down at SSI on a grander scale, and with people who had not been through the process except for me, and I had only been through it from an art point of view at the time. So, I wasn’t able to help enough that’s why I pulled in Victor because I wasn’t an expert on the game mechanics and how they should go together. I just knew that artistically things were not lining up. So, yeah, we flushed a million dollars down the toilet on that product. I would say that was pretty big. Other big gaffs…um… I can’t think of any others that were really huge. I’d say that one thing EA did do was put in a lot of monitoring in place in general to make sure things were moving along and had regular check in periods, and people needed to get together to see what was going on. That was my whole job there was literally weekly you had to come into the “confessional” and confess your sins and asked to absolved to move forward. Basically, I ran my project teams a lot differently, which was to allow people to explain where they were at, what they needed to do, and what if any problems that they had. We were able to off-load work or expertise to approach things differently if we were having problems and it really helped. I also helped a lot of the teams talk to each other, so let’s say they needed to make something specific to manage art in one particular product, we would make that tool available to other teams, and they could modify it as needed for their products, so that we were not repeating work all over the place. This was the most interesting thing especially based today’s development where a lot of people are working inside of other engines that where things are already defined where you’re working in Rail or you’re working in Unity. Every game engine in those days was made usually from the ground up. Although engineers had their own individual tools, they were making things to spec for that individual product, and they were all one-offs. It was kind of the wild and wooly. You never knew exactly, I mean, when they were first doing 3D technology they were rewriting everything from the ground up.
Matt: So, speaking of wild and wooly…(chuckles)
Matt: I was trying to wrap my head around, you know, they’re doing games for Genesis, they’re doing games for Super Nintendo, Windows 3.1, which doesn’t necessarily seem like a gamer’s paradise there, and I’ve heard it can be difficult working with the Japanese console games. Any thoughts on that? I’m kind of curious about what it was like targeting 3.1 Windows.
Susan: On 3.1 Windows, we were really lucky they brought in this Windows genius who was a self-taught engineer by the name of Michael Curry. I still know Michael today.
Matt: Um hum.
Susan: Although, he doesn’t work on games anymore, and Mike figured out how to make it work. He did things inside of Windows that weren’t supposed to be possible. He still does that. (laughs) Anyhow, I don’t know any of the specifics about what challenges they faced necessarily inside of all of that, but I do know that he was able to make the product work. Working with the Japanese, the biggest problem we would always have is that we would send things off to be final reviewed before manufacture, and they would frequently find things our test teams hadn’t found. You know some extreme case of something that would cause a problem in the game, so you couldn’t complete it. One of the problems with products that become more complex is the possibilities of getting passed a certain point in the game without collecting a certain item or having enough points or whatever that would trigger something else much later in the game. They called them the Snafus, and the designers and producers were responsible for making sure that all of the different things had to be accounted for.
Matt: Just a couple few last questions here.
Matt: I also noticed that you had some input on some of these games, right?
Matt: I’m talking about the ball cam in Golf. You said that was inspired by David Letterman, so I looked this up, this chimp on roller skates that was something.
Susan: Okay, yeah. I was frequently walking around the cubes where all of the different engineers and artists worked, and I went back to deliver some schedules to Michael Kosaka. He was sitting in a cube with David Bunch and they were playing some game on the Super Nintendo, which I hadn’t seen the Super Nintendo prior to this, but this game had come out of Japan, and I don’t know the name of the game, but I do know that it went into mode 7, which is this scaling graphics mode. And, I had never seen anything like that. It was some sort of parachute game where you parachuted out of planes and then it went into mode 7 where to show these things scaling as they came to the ground, and as an artist I was absolutely flabbergasted. How were they doing that, you know? Never seen anything like that before, so I talked to Michael about it, and he explained it. So, I was really intrigued, and Michael was working on the Super Nintendo version of Golf at the time, and I said, “Gosh, you’re going to have to do a ball cam.” And, he just looked at me like I was green, you know? At the time I was inspired because David Letterman used to do all these wild things with cameras on his show if anybody’s ever watch Late Night with David Letterman, you know? In the old days one of the favorite things they used to do was take things up to the top of a building and throw them off. They would throw watermelons and television sets and just about anything you would want to see go down 20 floors and explode, and they were doing this in New York City, and it was really funny. Then he started doing things with a camera, and he had something called the “monkey cam,” and they mounted a camera on the head of a monkey and they had whatever the monkey saw. (laughs) And then they would put a camera on a person’s head and fly the person through the audience and above on wires. They did all these really strange things. So, you got this point of view that you would not normally get. It wasn’t a fixed point of view; it was a moving point of view, and it was based on somebody or something in the room. So, yeah, it just hit me that you could do an actual ball cam on the game and be the ball. They did the ball. The ball cam. came into being after that. Now I don’t know if Mike had thought that separately, but I do know that I had said that to him.
Matt: That’s a really cool idea. I don’t know any way you could even with modern technology could put a camera on a ball, and replicate that experience.
Susan: Well it certainly wouldn’t be Steady Cam. (chuckles)
Susan: That’s the camera that moves the game just forward. (chuckles) But yeah, it adds a lot to the game when you have those flyovers as the ball because you see the green approaching. You see all of the field as you’re clearing it. It makes for a totally different experience.
Matt: You also invented the palate switch for the Mutant League Football game?
Susan: Yes the Mutant League Football. They were making that an 8 megabit game. It was a small game. I don’t think it was a 16 megabit. Anyhow, they wanted a lot of different play fields, and they were trying for these really different, far out, alien terrains. The artist was having a hard time because they had to all fit in a relatively small amount of space graphically. His name was Arthur Koch, by the way. So I said to Arthur that he try to define the character set, so he could have alternate palates, which is the set of colors that you turned on or off and create two different landscapes with them. He thought that was a really cool idea and off he went and did that, so basically what you could do was imbed graphics with graphics just with a simple palate switch, which is just literally a single pixel change. You can turn one picture on and another off, and so he put the ice landscape underneath, I think, it was a moon landscape. I can’t remember at this time. So, each one of those landscapes had slightly less colors; however, they were contained within the same set of characters and conserved space. So, it allowed us to have more playfields in the game, which made the game way more interesting.
Matt: Do you happen to follow his kick starter project to remake that?
Susan: Oh actually, I followed it for a little while then I kind of dropped off. I don’t know what ended up happening.
Matt: He came up pretty far short.
Susan: Oh that’s too bad. That’s Michael Mendheim, right?
Susan: Yeah, yeah. No that’s too bad. I actually advertised it on my Facebook page. Manheim is an interesting character. He draws some really extreme, really cool, comic book art. It’s inspired by that rat fink type stuff from the 70’s and 60’s. I really liked his art style, so I would have liked to have seen that game.
Matt: Mmhmm. So, just a few last questions.
Matt: Most of which are about the Imagination Network.
Matt: This is something I would like to know more about.
Matt: Maybe we should start off with “What was it?” Then move on to “What happened to it?” (Chuckles)
Susan: The Imagination Network: This is really cool because this started long before I ever got there. It started; apparently, Ken Williams, the founder of Sierra Online, wanted a way for him and his mom to play Bridge, so playing computer games online across the country together. So they created this system to do it, and then they started creating like a LAN: a place where you could go and play several different types of games, and you went to different types of areas to play different types of games. It ended up being card and board games. Eventually, they had action products: a flight simulator called Red Baron. Each one of the LANs was themed, and it was supposed to draw different demographics of people. Anyhow, I got there just after the whole company had been sold to AT&T, and AT&T thought that it was going to be a part of their retention strategy to keep consumers using AT&T. Then they decided that they were not going to do that. (Chuckles) I arrived just after the deal had been inked, and the deal that they had purchased, Imagination Network, for so much prepaid development time from Sierra Online to develop some more games for release. Well, at the time there were a lot of other online gaming systems. There were places like Kesmai and a couple of others. There’s a couple of different types of online games, and the games that Sierra was making were like the LAN type games to be played on a local network not on an internet, so they were not used to dealing with as much latency as we were dealing with. They were not used to the number of players we would put into a product. And so we had these great big epic games that we wanted to put on the system, but we had to be able to spawn many instances of them and support them all and allow people to meet up and play against each other and the list goes on.
Matt: Was this pre-internet?
Susan: Actually, this was pre-internet. Imagination Network was a dial-up service when I got there. We re-architected the system and created an entirely new platform on Windows ’95 to release. At the time to we also got bought by AOL. We were planning to be internet Win 95 service prior to that then all of a sudden we’re Win 95 service underneath AOL and dealing with an entirely different design principle once again. Not just latency issues then but extreme latency issues because AOL people were almost all on dial-up at the time because that was how people got their internet service when they didn’t have DSL, which you had to be close into a service to have DSL. You couldn’t have it out in the urban regions. As a matter of fact, I know that for a fact because I had to get a long distance DSL where I lived and that didn’t come along for a while because I happened to live on a hillside. Even though I was where “wealthy people” were, they were not installing cable access up there for the longest time. So anyhow, the AOL players wanted downloadable games, and AOL wanted downloadable games. So all of these great big games we had in production for Imagination Network were CD distribution to play intensive things like Mission Force Cyberstorm. We had Trophy Bass.
Matt: Did you do any work for the Neverwinter Nights online?
Susan: No, I did not work on Neverwinter Nights. I’m well aware of it but I never actually did any work on it. Cool stuff though.
Matt: So I notice that when you say AOL bought it out you didn’t actually seem cheerful on that point.
Susan: It was hard because everything that we had been building towards was to create this service where you could connect up and play long distance. Kind of like early version of Steam, but we would have to distribute CD’s to people. Instead, it ended up being downloadable assets, so most of the products I was working on were null and void, and it was hard to try and put an action product through AOL’s service. At the time AOL’s architecture was all packets between players got sent to AOL in the East Coast and then came back. The latency issues were doubled, you know? They didn’t allow for UDP only TCP/IP.
Matt: Do you think that’s where they went wrong with it?
Susan: Well, there are security issues. There was a lot of discussion with our engineers about creating a new flavor of UDP that was a blend of TCP/IP. Are you familiar with what I’m talking about, by the way?
Matt: I’ve seen these letters in this sequence before, yeah.
Susan: (laughs) Sadly, as a producer I get to know a lot more about all of the magic things that make games work.
Matt: Like when you have to open up ports on your router and it’s UDP or whatever.
Susan: (laughs) TCP/IP is a packet protocol that allows the computer to send a message and then send another message saying “Did you get that?” When the other machine responds back with what’s called an Ack then it can send the next message.
Matt: An Ack?
Susan: Yeah. So you’ve heard the term Ack probably?
Matt: Now I have. (chuckles)
Susan: It’s a confirmation. Anyhow, TCP/IP literally requires an Ack for every piece of information that it sends and it sends them in these little concise bytes, which means that it’s really slow because it has to do twice the trip in order for it to put the next piece of information out. UDP says, “I’m going to blast you with this whole bunch of stuff. Here’s a packet. Here’s a packet. Here’s a packet. Here’s a packet. Oh, did you get all that? Yes. Here’s some more.” (laughs) So, it doesn’t have twice the trip for each piece of information, and that was the big difference. It was a speed issue as far as the round trips because literally when you’re connecting up all of these people who live all the way across the country, and everything had to get funneled from AOL and back out again that was where the problems were. This is where distributed cloud support came into being because you needed to put game servers on both the East coast and the West coast and in the middle of the country, so it could route those packets appropriately.
Matt: Yeah, I remember back when AOL was sending out those little canisters (chuckles). I think I still have a couple of boxes of those things.
Susan: We used to make coasters out of all of our dead DVD’s and dead CD’s. Actually, John Manly and I were really funny. EA would have a dead bin for all of the products that were bad, so we would pick up all of the Deluxe Paint ones and make them into coasters on our table at home, and of course it was a $500 paint package, so people would freak out when we would put coffee on our disks. (laughs)
Susan: We would be like no really they’re dead disks, and they just couldn’t compute, you know? Now, we realize that was just a 5 cent piece of plastic, but we used to do that with the DVD’s too. Making it into coasters. It really tweaks people’s brains. (laughs)
Matt: If I could just wrap up here, I noticed you also worked on a Mattel Barbie Sports Game.
Susan: Yes, I did.
Matt: And after you took a little hiatus from the gaming industry and then came back for that. I mean what was it about that that made you want to come back?
Susan: I actually got a plea call from Jesyca Durchin. (laughs) Who was a friend of a friend of mine: Gano Haine, and Jessica needed somebody to stop and go into the development house up in San Francisco and figure out what was going on and see if the product was actually getting done. This is actually one of those cases where the engineer was doing the art processing and I let them know. But, I also got to know why Mattel wasn’t really effective in getting their products out. Apparently, this product was hitting alpha and they still didn’t have a signed contract, which meant that the developer was getting any development money or support just a lot of deadlines. (laughs) And, they actually had no guarantee that they actually had a deal, which is the other thing that is pretty amazing to me that anybody would actually develop under that premise, but what the developer did to limit their risk was to literally after getting the art done they had only one person on the project who was the engineer leading all of the development for it. But, he was doing all of the art processing too, and it was one of the reasons why alpha was getting later and later because he was trying to process all of the art into the game instead of have a junior person anywhere doing that. They had all of those junior people all off on paying products. (laughs)
Matt: How do you feel about the concept for the Barbie Sports Game?
Susan: Actually, I thought it was a cool idea. They had snowboarding and all these great 3D rendered Barbie characters were actually really well done. I thought it was odd that there couldn’t be an intermixed game where you had both male and female players, you know? I guess you would have Barbie and Ken or whatever, but they decided to make girl centric games at the time and a lot of people did that by going to the extremes, which, you know, it’s Barbie and it’s pink, or it’s G.I. Joe and it’s green and camo and they’re shooting with blood guts and gore. And there was no happy medium in the games, and I was surprised, and you still see that there’s no middle ground where things are not pink or blue. (laughs)
Matt: What color is halfway between pink and blue?
Susan: Something probably muddy and ugly. (laughs)
Susan: But you know what I mean. You have hard time making things that appeal to both, and I think that’s silly. There’s certainly lots of other things you can do to intersperse, you know, that would appeal to both in a game.
Matt: It seems to come back to what we were talking about early with the Curse of the Azure Bonds well you know we have to cater to our audience which is all male.
Susan: But your audience will only always all be male.
Susan: And actually nowadays the video game audience is largely female, so it switched. It’s switched quite a bit. It depends on which particular platform you’re talking about, but there are a lot more female players nowadays.
Matt: So I thought we could end with this note: I really enjoyed your, what is it, confessions of a game developer, or something like that?
Susan: Oh you mean Confessions of a Video Game Designer?
Matt: Yeah, Confessions of a Video Game Designer piece, and at the end of that you’re talking about how video game designers are like chefs. So that caught my attention. I thought that was a really good metaphor. You know a good chef has to sample and taste not just the dishes but also all of the ingredients that go into it. I was wondering if you would elaborate on this a little bit on this image.
Susan: Sure. I think of it as you have to get into the heart of the technology and make sure that you’re doing the processes the best that they can be that you’re using the best tools so you can get things envisioned the best. You have to be extremely creative with how you envision how a product will work. Many times games are not underneath what they seem to be on the surface. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors that go on, and so if everything was real physics it would be real boring. Just like in a role-playing game we don’t put in the bathroom and the kitchen, you know? Because those are not the fun parts of playing a game. You don’t want to think about that when you’re playing a game. You want to go around and kill monsters and have epic adventures to find treasure. Yay! Save the princess, you know? You don’t want to do the mundane things. Although they build in mundane things and call it grinding it’s not the most fun aspects of the game. You want that roller coaster ride. In order to do that whoever is managing the product and helping envision the product really needs to get into what the technology can do, what can be displayed, what is the most compelling thing that players want to think that they are actually doing, and you want that rush and it has to come on a fairly regular basis because that is your reward. I just accomplished something amazing, and the something amazing can’t be pressing the A button 40 times in a row.
Matt: (chuckles) Collect the 12 bear asses.
Susan: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly. It needs to be a little more elaborate than that. There is a mental game on top of the mental game. It’s not just a physical game. And, it’s true also for how we envision the games in themselves, you know? Are we using the best technology to display what it is we want to display? Will that player actually get that feeling of being there? Will it supersede all of other stimulus in the room? And that’s when you know you really have a game because people won’t be paying attention to anything else going on. They’re busy doing the game. (laughs)
Matt: That’s an excellent way to end this. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about that we didn’t get to?
Matt: Anything you want to mention? I know you’ve done the expresso thing.
Susan: Expresso fitness is actually a way to take people’s minds of exercising through sort of playing a game. It’s more of a simulation that what I would have wanted it to be. The fitness bike is in fitness clubs everywhere, and they are still out there, but they are not doing as well as had hoped. It was supposed to make exercise fun though. Instead of running on a hamster wheel and watching little LED lights race up depending on how high your heart rate was going up or what incline you were going up on a stationary bike, it was supposed to be adventuring in real places and having the ability to play some minor games along the way or even just race yourself in your last instance or keep up with the pacer or racing the other virtual players. It was supposed to allow for like you and I to get onto a stationary bike in two different places in the world and go have a ride together and be able to talk to one another.
Matt: That sounds cool to me.
Susan: Yeah. You know what? The biggest motivation for exercise is actually to go to the gym with a friend, and so you’ve got to show up. Your friend is going to be there right? The other thing that makes it fun is that when you’re not thinking about the exercise but instead having some sort of adventure. It’s like with the games you can go into a zen mode, so that was what Expresso was supposed to be.
Matt: That’s probably going to drive my spell checker insane. (chuckles)
Susan: (laughs) Yeah. I didn’t name the company. (chuckles)
Matt: Thanks again, Susan. It’s been a lot of fun.
Susan: You’re welcome. Thank you.