- DESIGNER DIARY: 4PLAY -
by Scott LeGrand
In the Beginning
On September 23rd, 1993, my roommate (who I believe Bill thinks was
Doug Engel) and I were invited by Bill Rehbock to come up to
Glendale, California to see the very first video games running on
the Atari Jaguar. Besides playing a really crude edition of
Checkered Flag, we pitched a space combat game called "Singularity"
which we indicated could better be called Star Raiders 2000. Bill
told us that the name was already taken, but that he'd get back to
us. One month later, we met Tom Harker across the Internet and he
agreed to act as our interface to Atari and I conned^H^H^Hvinced
my wife (then fiancee) Stephanie to write the soundtrack. In
November, I drove and Tom flew to Santa Cruz and we met for the
very first time. Tom was here to trade away the 8 bit line of ICD
tools for a cool 1950s monster mobile. The next day we drove up to
Sunnyvale, navigated our way to 1190 Borregas avenue and played
Tempest 2000 and Cybermorph for the first time.
Big time! We're on our way and making it...
We walked away that day with a very early prototype of Aliens
vs. Predator, along with a deal for 2 development systems. By then
the game had been renamed to "Star Battle", in honor of a game I
had written on a high school mainframe back in 1980 about which I
still get email now and then. On December 24, we received our first
alpine board in dysfunctional condition in a Fedex box. After
several frantic phone calls, we were sent a second, functional
alpine board and Doug kept the first in order get medieval upon it
with a soldering iron. Within a week, we both had working
development systems and the evolution of the game that became
BattleSphere began. The kicker is that since there was no backing
of any sort for this game, we would have to develop it entirely in
our spare time while maintaining full-time day jobs. Our advice:
Don't do this. Our original estimates were that we could have the
entire game coded in 12-18 months. Bzzzzt! Wrong! We had yet to
encounter the black hole that was Atari developer support, as well
as a myriad of inexplicable bugs and random flaky development tools.
They like us, they really like us!
6 months later, we showed off the very first demo of the
polygon engine at SCES '94. The demo makes an appearance in the
AEO SCES '94 Video, for those of you collecting BattleSphere Trivia
and anyone there could see we ought to have sued the pants off of
Nintendo over the N64 logo, but of course, they must have thought
of the thing first, they're Nintendo. Things went well, but I wish
it had been a playable demo by that time, but c'est la vie, we were
just getting introduced to some of the many jaguar hardware bugs
and part-time development already sucked. Six months later at WCES
'95, there was sound, the first pass at the music engine, primitive
collision detection, and a simple game involving rescuing animated
astronauts. The game was now called "BattleSphere". This is really
starting to take too long, isn't it?
Trouble ahead, trouble behind...
5 months after that, BattleSphere had its last trade showing at
the very first E3. This was the first place we ever demonstrated
networked dogfighting. It was a resounding success and numerous
professional aviators commented on the quality of our flight engine
compared to what they could play on the PC and other systems. This
demo almost never happened, because a insiduous bug in the hardware
forced some last minute rewriting practically on the show floor. Of
course, the real star of E3 was the Playstation unveiling, but we
were happy with our reception. After all, at this point, the fat
lady was clearing her throat for her Atarian anthem.
They said we were daft to build a castle in the swamp!
At this point, we realized we were behind schedule. I decided to
take 3 months off and Doug took a month's worth of accumulated
vacation time off from work and go full time on game development.
From July through September, BattleSphere became my one and only
obsession. In that time, we went from a primitive dogfight engine
to networkable deathmatching with the infamous subsumption
architecture AI. A fun footnote here is that but 2 days after we
got the AI marginally running, a mysterious request came from Atari
for a demo. We sent it off, only to find out later that they
secretly put the badly behind Battlesphere head to head with the
completed Space War 2000 in a focus group. Guess who won and who
got cancelled? This pattern repeated itself in October when Atari
demanded working networking code from us on a Friday, to be
provided by the following Monday, for incorporation into Iron
Soldier II or it wouldn't have networking. Ah, the fun final days
of Atari. However, we now had a solid demo for showing off to
potential backers of a PC or PSX edition and the search for a
future past Atari began.
Is there life after death?
Although we knew at this point that Atari was pining for the
fjords, we decided that BattleSphere was not enough of a game to
actually release the thing (in retrospect, this was a BIG BIG BIG
mistake). So now, we commenced development of the play modes. Atari
died in January, 1996 and the Gauntlet play mode first appeared in
March of that year. It was soon followed by the BattleSphere and
training play modes, and that took us into early 1997 since we
still didn't have any funding for a PC version, despite a one year
search leading to 10 or so pitches with big publishers who just
couldn't grok the networking, the 3D, the jaguar, or some random
combination of the above (or possibly our failure to closely
resemble the current trendy genre). In March of 1997, I quit my
science career, leaving behind 8 years of dedicated research. It
was painful and we once again considered releasing BattleSphere at
that point. However, we faced the concorde fallacy that we had
already put too much time into the thing so why not make the Alone
Against the Empires play mode and call it a day. This play mode was
completed by October of 1997, and there's nothing like it on any
other platform. And that's when the playtesting began. It's oh so
much fun to put a game into beta when you have no money.
Thankfully, a dedicated crew of playtesters put their own free
hours into the thing and now, 8 months later, BattleSphere is
And on day 1745, God said "Ship it already!"
Oh, you thought this was the end of the story? BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Silly you, now we have to get the sucker encrypted and produced so
it will actually run on other people's jaguars. But, it will
happen. And when some twit naysayer tells you it won't, just
remember how many times they said we'd never finish the thing.
May your urine be fresh and frothy!
Scott Le Grand
Team "The Mess that is BattleSphere"