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Postmortem: Presto Studios' Star Trek: Hidden Evil

November 19, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Change... it is really the only thing you can count on in this industry. And if you cannot adapt, you are pushed out of the way. That was the situation at Presto Studios years ago as real-time 3D engines slammed onto the gaming market. In response, the decision was made that Presto would follow this trend and create its own 3D engine. For those that do not have any knowledge of Presto Studios, it is most widely known for the creation of the Journeyman Project series of graphic adventure games, ala Myst. Beautifully prerendered backgrounds, puzzle solving, and Director programming is what built the company. But now the founders had decided to push aside all that they knew in an attempt to make their mark in real-time 3D. So a group of programmers were hired with the experience and knowledge to create a new engine from scratch. The first released product from this effort, Star Trek: Hidden Evil, is a clever blend between where Presto was and where it wants to be.

We entered into a partnership with Activision in order to create the first game with their new Star Trek license which was acquired from Paramount. Due to our experience with prerendered adventure games, we were given the task of creating a prerendered action/adventure title. They wanted a mission based game with step-by-step hand holding instructions to appeal to casual gamers. They wanted it to be small so that casual gamers would not be intimidated. They wanted it to have beautiful backgrounds with real-time characters moving through out the scenes with per-pixel depth sorting. But most importantly, they needed it to ship in one year so as to hit Christmas 1999 and thereby fit into Activision's grand marketing view for it's entire line of Star Trek games. In the end, I believe we succeeded in creating exactly the game Activision and Paramount wanted even though it was a rough road to our final goal.

Our development team consisted of two very different groups of people. The programming team was mostly new to the company with serious experience in doing real-time 3D games. I, the lead programmer of Star Trek, came from Volition, Inc. of Descent and FreeSpace fame. The chief technology officer of the company has fifteen years of 3D graphic pipeline experience. Our artificial intelligence programmer has a Ph.D. in his field. We were the programming core that helped ease the company into its first real-time game.

The production team mostly came from the other side of the gaming world where design and rendering quality are top priorities. They mostly came from the teams that created the Journeyman projects for Presto years ago. Luckily, there were a few new artists with real-time 3D experience that helped bridge the gap between the two camps.

The production was divided into these two sections: the real-time group and the prerendered group. The real-time group was responsible for creating character and object models, animation states, cut scene animations, collision geometry, and gameplay logic. These tasks were done through 3DSMax along with a suite of in-house development plugins that were used to export worlds, objects, animations, and gameplay logic. The prerendered group was responsible for designing the scenes, creating background images, and prerendered cut scenes. This was done in Electric Image with Photoshop touchups.

We Delivered What We Promised

Even though details of our game changed wildly between initial conception and final execution, the fundamental goal was thankfully consistent: create a mission based, action/adventure game for casual gamers. And our final result hit this target extremely well. One of the major factors in our success was our push to always error on the side of "too easy." A piece of market research out of Activision stated that of people that own game-capable PCs and enjoy watching Star Trek, only a small fragment had ever purchased a Star Trek computer game. Number one reason as to why they had never bought one: "They look too difficult." That was our market. We wanted to give casual gamers the opportunity to be in an episode of Star Trek. We wanted them to be able to talk to Picard and Data, walk around and examine objects with their tricorder, and shoot things with their phaser. That is Star Trek, and therefore, we decided that would be entertaining for the fans.

 

Star Trek: Hidden Evil (left) represents a new direction in game development for Presto Studios (right)

In order to appeal to novice gamers, we chose to keep the action side of the game simple. Our market is not looking for death matches with fast paced projectile warfare. Instead, we simplified the concept. Auto-aiming was a large factor. Since the game has a fixed position, 3rd person camera, having to control your character in order to aim at another would simply be too difficult; therefore, a simple cone test determines if you are facing enough towards an object for your character to automatically lock his aim onto the position. In order to promote longer life, we kept the damage done by enemies very low, while keeping the player's phaser strength high. We tried to remove as much "twitch" combat as possible and rely more on the entertainment derived from the sudden shock of a new enemy jumping (or flying) into camera view and the following pleasure received from watching them fall from a phaser blast.

Puzzles were the other main gameplay aspect that we needed to balance towards the casual gamer. We kept the puzzles challenging and with good rewards to propel the players forward. Finding new breathtaking areas to explore and watching real-time objects react to things you do, these make excellent rewards for puzzle solutions. In ten missions, there are five entirely different locations to explore from the Enterprise to an ancient underground civilization. Each with its own feel and gameplay. This gives casual gamers hours of entertainment from just exploring the world.

We Delivered When We Promised

A big success that I'm sure our publisher Activision would agree with was our completion of the game on time. In September of 1998, we entered into a contract to deliver a gold master CD to them in mid-October 1999 and we hit that mark with the product they wanted. This almost guarantees the game's success from a financial standpoint since it will make Christmas. Software retailers will be selling Star Trek: Hidden Evil with Jean Luc Picard on the box. Holiday shoppers will recognize the face and the name, and that will most likely get them to pick up the box. From here, it's an easy $29.95 to purchase what they know as opposed to scores of other more expensive games that are unknown to the casual gamer.

By hitting our gold master deadline, we stayed within our budget. The game succeeded in being a small, low cost adventure that will not overwhelm a first time gamer. Whenever a game slips, costs begin to rise due to salaries and resources are drained from other projects. Your profit margin is eaten into quickly during the time past your deadline so of course finishing on time is extremely important for the financial wellbeing of your company.

Being released on time also saved money for Activision. Every year, a major publisher releases a half dozen or more titles during the Christmas season. By getting our project finished in October, we freed up valuable resources in their QA department. By completing the product within the timetable that Activision had been planning on for the last year, we did not force any massive rescheduling of their advertising plans. Shipping a game on time is good for everyone involved, from the developers, to the publishers, to the consumers.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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