24 years of game programming: thrills, chills and spills: part 2

If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you’ll probably want to check it out here.

1995 – Legend Entertainment – My First Industry Years

I was finally working full-time in the game industry at Legend Entertainment and couldn’t be more thrilled! No more sandwiching game coding in between contracting gigs. I was with a company that has produced a large number of award winning titles, gotten them published and distributed – all with a company of under 20 people!

I started out coding in Watcom C on a daily basis and working in crunch time on a game called Star Control 3. I was thrilled working with industry veterans from the Zork era! We even had an inhouse testing team. I can honestly say I’ve never worked at a company that ran as smoothly and without contention as the time I worked at Legend. There were blips on the radar, but over-all development fell into place extremely well during my years there. This is a testament to team dynamics. Get a good team that works well together and keep them together.

I learned so much while at Legend. These guys were experts at what they did. It was amazing being able to sit in on the entire development process – creative, technical and other. A lot of my best practices I learned while I was at Legend and over the years this feeling never left me. We’re talking about game development done the way everyone dreams of it being done. Projects would often times have just a few coders on them for most of their development cycle. I can say that I never saw a game canceled while I was at Legend – and had never heard of one being canceled before I joined them. They ran lean and mean and couldn’t afford that kind of wasteful slack. This had an extremely positive effect on morale needless to say.

At the time we were writing DOS based games that used SVGA libraries to build 256 color 640×480 games. The WATCOM compiler let us overcome DOS’ one meg memory barriers and access all of extended memory. We had to support a dizzying array of low tech video cards and collection of VESA video modes. But boy was it fun.

From a philosophy standpoint I finally started to get behind the understanding that old rules change. Optimization was still king, but design came first. Things I had previously considered wasteful were trivial on 486 systems with 4 meg of available memory. I began to realize that when working with a group of programmers design and communication were of paramount importance. These things had to be worked at, they just didn’t fall out naturally.

By 1996 I was coding in C++ in Microsoft (Visual) C++ and we were working on a game library using Direct X 5 for Windows 95. DirectX was all the rage. The access to hardware sprites and features was a major boon. OpenGL was at the time still too high level(slow) and lacked ubiquitous support. Of course we weren’t using DirectX for Direct3D at the time. Direct3D was a few revs a way from being usable. But uniform driver support for 2D sprites and pages was a major plus in itself. However 3D was on the horizon and I was very curious.

While I was at Legend I worked on 3 games and saw 5 games ship – all with a group of under 20 people; including the testing department, customer support and marketing! I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for everything they taught me and breaking me into the game industry.

By 1997 I would find myself somewhere new. I had a hunger for cutting edge 3D and a company in NJ was doing that and more. They were actually producing their own OpenGL compliant hardware for the military using an off the shelf Glint chip (from 3D Labs) and a proprietary in house ASIC they had built for voxelized 3D terrain rendering. I was now at ASPI!

1997 – ASPI

ASPI was another opportunity to work with a small group of brilliant people. The engineers that worked on digital logic design considered machine language high level. They used custom software to produce their own ASIC’s, soldering them to the boards in-house. I had already become very sold on object oriented development at the time. I had definitely drank the cool aid. I picked up a copy of Design Patterns by the Gang of Four and fell in love with it. Years later I would spend plenty of time examining the ways that novice coders abused OOP and design patterns. But in 1997 I was still loving learning all the ins and outs. I picked the few patterns that fit the API we were developing and got to work. It took a bit but I got everyone on board with tightly optimized C++ (which at the time many saw as an oxymoron). I had realized that C++ could give you the low level control to maintain C like speed. And I liked it – a lot.

I was now using OpenGL and MESA(an opensource OpenGL) and accepting the fact that on modern machines – OpenGL definitely was worth the minor performance loss. Back in those days there were still camps that wanted much lower level access to graphics hardware to eek out every last bit of power. We even got to write our own custom drivers for MESA under SCO Unix.

The cards were awesome and we ended up calling them the “True Terrain 3D”. The military had a contract to buy them up and deploy them. They were able to ingest DTED data and use LODed voxel planes to create amazing looking terrain. We interleaved access to the frame and depth buffers with the Glint chip and OpenGL/Mesa to add polygonal features. This was in 1997 and at the time polygonal 3D cards couldn’t come close to generating the terrain that the custom cardset could. Not in the under $20,000 price range at least.
I loved everyone I was working with but invariably even cutting edge high tech couldn’t keep me from wanting to go back into the games industry. Somehow high tech and “serious games” were exciting, but games were still in my blood.
By 1999 I was back in the industry working on a submarine sim at Aeon Entertainment in Baltimore.

But we’ll cover that in part 3….

7 thoughts on “24 years of game programming: thrills, chills and spills: part 2

  1. Ben

    Makes for an awesome read, i myself am looking at getting into the game industry, however my 8 years experience has been in the business software arena (RDBMS and C# / VB / asp etc) so i don’t hold out too much hope as i don’t see alot of my skills being transferrable. Shame. would be a dream come true.

    Can’t wait to read your next installment!

  2. Eddie

    will we ever see part 3?

  3. Steve Riley Post author

    Good point Eddie:) I’m in crunch mode now – but will make this the topic of my next post:)

  4. Dustin Dettmer

    Fun writing style. When will we see part 3?

  5. Buu

    Interesting post. However I think there’s a discrepancy: DirectX 5 didn’t come out until 1997 (unless of course Legend got a pre-release copy). Regardless DirectX 5 introduced DrawPrimitive which finally made Direct3D worth using. Prior versions required the use of execute buffers which were the equivalent of being raped in the eye socket (with said eye still there).

    Sorry, I just -had- to nitpick.

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  7. Pingback: 24 years of game programming: thrills, chills and spills: part 3 of 3 | Programming Matters

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