Archives of Alexander Holowka alias Undead Zaphire. Now you can find his newer works on bit-blot.com.
Zaphire’s Game Development History
It all started with a little book called “BASIC Fun”. I was eight years old when my dad bought me this book used because he loathed seeing me playing games all the time. At least now if I was going to use the computer, I’d be learning something!
I’d been introduced to games through our first computer: the magnificent Coleco ADAM Family Computer System. I remember being very fond of a Richard Scary game; where you could drive around as the worm in the apple car. (apparently people are fond of the new version as well) We also had Family Feud, which sucked… and Dragon’s Lair, which was exciting, yet too hard.
The Amiga 500 and classic video games
My world changed drastically, however, when we purchased our Amiga Computer. (a 500) Wow. Games by Cinemaware. It Came From the Desert, Defender of the Crown, The Three Stooges… fascinating games that incorporated intriguing story-lines, character development and many forms of game play.
Through the Amiga I was also introduced to many classic games including Bubble Bobble, Rodland, Nitro Boost, Treasure Island Dizzy and Pirates! Each game was cleverly designed and featured amazing graphics. And the sound… MOD music in its prime. ^^
It was sometime after we had purchased the Amiga that my dad gave me the BASIC Fun book. (which you can now apparently buy for 1 cent) This precious tome opened up the mysteries of game programming. Well… at least the mysteries behind small text apps.
The next memory I can recite from my foggy recollections, is when my dad arranged to invite my cousin over to teach me some BASIC programming. At the time we were using AmigaBASIC on the 500. The three of us came up with a basic maze program, that looked something like this:
I poured over the AmigaBASIC manuals, but couldn’t discover how to create anything that looked even remotely like the games that I wanted to play and make.
There was one spectacular AmigaBASIC demo that drew a wireframe pattern while playing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring“… I’ll never forget it. It’s still the most meaningful version of the piece I’ve ever heard, and watching it with the graphics was hypnotic. For some reason, the memory of it brings back emotions.
It was just such a beautiful little program. I printed out its source and spent many hours studying it, but I didn’t have the experience necessary to create anything similar. All I could do was make the program screw up in various different ways by changing small parts of the source.
It looked as though I wouldn’t be able to create the kind of dynamic game that I wanted to with AmigaBASIC at my level of experience. Fortunately, I was introduced to the world of the Macintosh… and more importantly, HyperCard.
Super Nintendo – The First Final Fantasy
Jealous of our neighbor (who frequents the forums as Chief Fruity), my bother and I decided to buy a video game system. Our parents said we had to save up our allowance ourselves if we wanted to actually get the thing. Later we’d learn that they didn’t expect us to be able to be able to wait long enough to save up the amount of money required.
Contrary to their plans, my brother and I managed to wait long enough to gather the considerable amount of money needed to purchase a video game system. (something like $190CAN) The original plan was to get a Sega Genesis to avoid overlap with the Chief’s SuperNES. But in the end we decided to go with what we knew worked. (I purchased a Sega Gensis several months ago for about $25CAN, and I’m still enjoying it).
The Super Nintendo came with the classic Super Mario World, which we enjoyed greatly. We were only allowed to play for 15-30 minutes a day, which helped establish video games as something special in our minds. Savouring each level of a game in that fashion is something that I find hard to do today. Yes, life was good…but it was about to get a whole lot better with the rental of a certain fantasy game…
While at the rental store, hunting for games, my brother picked up a copy of Final Fantasy III and suggested that we rent it. I looked at the cover, and it didn’t look terribly exciting. We ended up renting something else. Fortunately destiny was not so easily swayed. We returned and rented the game at a later date. It was customary for me to read the manuals of rented games on my way back from the rental store, or during the periods of time when I couldn’t play the game.
Final Fantasy III’s manual was fascinating. Hints of story, characters, items, relics… all these details were embedded in this small plastic husk? It seemed unlikely. After a considerable period of extensive anticipation, the cartridge was firmly slotted into the console, the power switch hastily slapped into the on position and I scrambled back to get a good look at the screen, the controller held at a slight angle, as my eyes focused hawk-like at the black screen.
Remember a few paragraphs ago when I mentioned how a certain AmigaBASIC demo had me in an emotional state? It was nothing compared to seeing the march through the snow in the opening of Final Fantasy III. The cinematic feel of the credits rolling. I sat and watched the whole thing, mystified. The intensity and sadness in the music… the mechanical driving rhythm of the magitek trampling across the landscape… the falling snow particles and the distant glowing lights that raised up slowly in the distance as the group neared the town of Narshe.
Nobuo Uematsu‘s haunting theme will never leave me and neither will the experience of playing Final Fantasy III. It was at this point that I realized that this was the kind of game I truly wanted to make. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to captivate players in the same way that this game had just captivated me. I wanted to express emotions through interactions, visuals, sounds. But more immediately, I wanted to get back to playing the game! ^^;;
The early Macintosh and HyperCard days
While I wasn’t overly impressed with the Mac’s lack of color, it was definitely a good place to start rolling my own games. Plenty of simple game demos existed, little point and click adventures, and when I saw the Talking Moose, I was awestruck and pumped.
I developed a number of game concepts on a Macintosh laptop, borrowed from my dad’s school. (which unfortunately has been sold to someone; it still contains all of our games) I worked on some games with my brother, including Adventure Agents – a HyperCard platform game that used icons for dynamic characters. (there were no sprites in HyperCard, so to have moving characters you’d have to create a transparent button with an icon on it. you could change the current button icon, hence the animation)
My personal projects started off with The Evil Island; which was an adventure game with RPG combat and stats. I did a lot of my work on paper, and at one point I had a list of all the variables used in the program.
Fantasy Quest was a step up from The Evil Island. It still let you choose classes and combat enemies, but it had more of a storyline. (plus a crazy boss that was like giant killer stove) It also featured some of my first game music, written out with HyperCard play commands. I still have backups of this game on floppies, so if I can ever find a Mac Classic with HyperCard installed, I’ll be sure to grab some screens and music samples for the site.
I also worked on animations with HyperCard. One that stood out was a ship battle, between two flying saucers. There was no interpolation or “tweening” in HyperCard, so each frame had to be drawn individually. This was a precusor to my work with Blender.
Junior High – The QBASIC Phase
It was around this time that our family bought a new computer. At first I was upset because it was not a Mac… and I feared missing HyperCard and all its user-friendly glory. Of course my young naive self (well at least a younger-and-more-naive-than-I-am-now self) was mistaken. The world of the PC would lead to the world of the internet, which would reveal many countless wonders. (and not all of them related to human anatomy).
The end of Junior High was a major turning point in my life and my game development career – I met The Computer Nerds. In a school where the word nerd was used to insult people, this group of fellows took pride in it. In fact, they specialized in programming, robotics, joking around with teachers, reciting Monty Python sketches and hanging out in the library. (they also had really gay fights with each other in sleeping bags; i avoided participating in that – they deny it now of course) It was through them that I was introduced to QBASIC. It was also with them that I found my first competition.
Up until this point I’d been developing little game concepts to my own critique; and while I was constantly challenging myself (since nobody else understood what the heck I was up to anyways), this group gave me an actual target to gauge my abilities by. This spurred me on to learn QBASIC over the summer of Grade 8. I had tried learning C in Grade 7, but since everyone else was using QBASIC, I abandoned it before getting too much further.
My first QBASIC project was a little test game called Bobby Balloon. The goal was to avoid the enemy; Tacky Tack. (hey, it was just a test project!!) Upon completing the basic gameplay for a couple of levels, I felt ready to tackle my dream RPG project. Little did I know that I’d be tackling the same dream RPG project for many years to come.
Welcome To C and Allegro or Why Isn’t There a String Object?
The first of my numerous attempts to learn C started with following a book from the library, step by step, through each of its silly exercises. Even though knowing this would be tedious and unrelated to game programming, I only made it part way through the book before getting bored. Fortunately other books were more interesting.
One was a completely abstract look at C++, which was great for a base understanding, but useless for doing anything practical. Others were about multimedia production, and offered some vague insights into graphics construction, but nothing concrete for use in games. All of this knowledge was useful, but none of it was right on the money for what I wanted to learn.
University – The Death of Zaphire Productions
I can’t stress how much I don’t care for university. While I realize that its a great thing for many people, it just doesn’t work for me. The main problem for me is that I missed out on the computer science program for my first year, since I had received credit for it from getting a 5 (highest) on the AP exam for Comp Sci in Grade 12. So my first year was spent working on such topics as Math, Philosophy and Film… which while they are interesting topics that I wouldn’t mind talking about with people, having certain interpretations of Philosophy and Film shoved down my throat wasn’t my idea of a good time. I spent a lot of time wondering “What the hell am I doing here”.
The majority of my spare time was spent working on ZP projects. The most notable being Ending World. In its new form, it rivaled anything else going on in the freeware RPG world visually. A good chunk of the visual advantage was thanks to Mantoli, who sketched out and modeled many of the backgrounds and environments. The largest problem on EW was always the design. There was never a clear plan of what the game would be in the end. Only an idea of how to start. Once we got far enough, we had learned so much more that it seemed a shame not to start over and re-develop with the new, improved techniques. Ending World really lived up to its name by not ever being finished… just constantly being in the process of finishing.
The stress of being in university and attempting to complete EW on a deadline was quite substantial. I was relying on a few people who promised great things, but, unbeknownst to be, didn’t have the intention of actually getting them done for the dates that they specified or in the manner that they implied. These frustrations led to some angry confrontations which ultimately ended in the disbanding of the team. The reality is simply that my goals were not in line with what anyone else wanted to do. Everyone else was content to go to university and continue working in whatever field they ended up in; whereas I was trying to start a game company. The facade of the team quickly slipped away, and I finally admitted that it had been me all along making this thing happen. I had hoped to spark the desire in others to follow my lead and jump in full heatedly, but that was an unreasonable expectation for me to have. These weren’t game developers; they were multimedia, art and engineering students and gamers. This admission was both depressing and liberating.
University – Introducing Complex Games
It was another completely unexpected development that finally set my focus completely on game development. I was surfing the net during a break at the University, when I suddenly had the inclination to search for “Game Development + Winnipeg”. Lacking anyone to talk to about game development in the “real world”, I was hoping to find maybe a user group or a forum or at least an amateurish site about somebody’s project. What I found was quite surprising.
Complex Games was apparently a Winnipeg game development start-up company. They had screenshots of a game engine in process (looking rather primitive at this point) and large section of ambitious concept shots. I was both intrigued and offended. Obviously the site was exciting, but I also felt threatened. Up until this point I had nurtured a dream of running a Winnipeg game development company; and now it looked like someone was beating me to it.
I opened up talks with Noah from Complex Games via email. We got along very well right off the bat. My initial idea was to propose some sort of ZP / Complex merger, but seeing as ZP was all but dead at this point, it was a pretty silly idea. But I couldn’t know about something like this and not be involved in some way. So putting my foolish pride aside, I agreed to meet for talks about joining as a programmer. It was arranged that I’d meet Adrian, the lead programmer and Noah at the library where I’d spent so much time with my head buried in programming books before.
Upon meeting Noah and Adrian, I was surprised to see that they were rather like myself. I had been expecting business types; fortunately I had been mistaken. We all got along quite well, and decided that I should join as a programmer. I matched what they were looking for, since their engine was built with C++ and used DirectX. I had extensive C++ experience (or so I thought) at this point and I had set up a simple DirectX engine before. I was enjoying talking to these guys so much, that I was rather disappointed when the meeting ended. Little did I know that we’d all be essentially living together over the summer to finish the game demo for the IGF.
My involvement with Complex started gradually. I started out just trying to get the code to run on my hopelessly outdated HP. Eventually I became involved in creating the GUI and the character collision physics. As time progressed, I became more involved and less timid about modifying other people’s code. Eventually I was helping with engine restructuring. Things quickly escalated, as the team prepared to launch into full development of a demo to be submitted to the IGF.
|The Crotch Monster – Best Bug Ever!|
If this all sounds rather dreary, I suppose upon past reflection it must seem that way. But being there in the moment was all we could think about. And reaching our final goal was all that I cared about. So I wouldn’t say that I felt uncomfortable at all.
The re-birth of Zaphire.ca
So in the midst of the chaos of the two other projects, why would I decide to restart my own initiative? The main motivation was because I had started taking curling lessons and its just too hard not to work on Extreme Curling now, for which is an awesome weight loss regimen. To put it aside would have be up all night worrying about it, so I might as well be up all night working on it. 🙂
Its been interesting going through the process of writing this history. It brings back memories of when I visited my grandmother, who was then diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. That would have otherwise lain dormant. Speculating on what I could be writing here in another year is fascinating, yet ultimately a waste of time – we’ll all just have to see how it goes!
Complex Games Inc.
Our name in the building directory
Upon completing the IGF demo, we managed to raise enough money to become a corporation, rent office space and pay ourselves a decent salary. It definitely felt like we were making it somewhere. The process of moving into the office was exciting and exhausting. While it was something that we all wanted to get done; like most things, it took a long time to get the process rolling. When it finally did, we all had a fun time moving in.For eight months we worked on redeveloping the engine from the ground up. The new build was far more stable and usable. The game ran significantly better and sported far more effects than our last demo. We were eager and excited to be in our new space with our new machines, ready to make our game the best it could be.
Our first disappointment was the failure of the demo at the IGF. While not entirely surprising, knowing how the game was rushed together during the crunch, it was still a rather depressing moment. Our concept was not really in line with what the IGF was looking for. We were attempting to be original and commercially viable; not just innovative. Perhaps we made it too hard on ourselves, but without the IGF demo we would have had a harder time continuing to the incorporation stage.In any case, development continued.
The team made a trip to E3. The game was demoed there to some publishers, but nothing has yet come to fruition for Gladiator. Complex eventually ended its lease of the office space, and at the end of the summer the team decided to give Dungeon: Gladiator a break.