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Postmortem: Surreal Software's Drakan: Order of the Flame
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Postmortem: Surreal Software's Drakan: Order of the Flame

April 18, 2000 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

The merging of great concepts from many different sources in order to create a new, better whole is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of human innovation. Drakan: Order of the Flame uses this notion to full advantage by combining action and adventure game concepts with sword combat, aerial battles, and simple RPG elements. It is a true hybrid of many proven gaming concepts. But this attribute made Drakan’s development doubly challenging because we had to create a game in which multiple elements worked well independently yet blended together seamlessly. Perhaps this is analogous to the way developers must work well as individuals and effectively as a team.

Origins of the Team

Because Drakan was Surreal’s first product, the story of Drakan’s development is also the story of Surreal’s development as a company. Surreal’s creation is the classic game development story in which four ambitious recent college graduates decided they had nothing to lose and formed a game company. These four founders contributed four critical skills to the team: art, programming, design, and business skills. None of us had ever run a company or managed schedules, but we all loved games, and we knew what it took to make a good one.


Lead designer Alan Patmore had always played games and had the business savvy to complement Nick Radovich’s business experience and connections. I had been programming games and graphics since the age of ten, so even though I didn’t have experience working at a game development company, I did have the skills and motivation. Mike Nichols, our creative director, came from within the industry and was the only member with any titles under his belt.

Our initial goal was to develop several game concepts and a solid technological foundation that we could pitch to game publishers. This would get us the funding we needed to pay ourselves and start hiring programmers and artists without having to involve venture capitalists.

Once we got project funding, we were able to quickly build a strong team of artists, programmers, and designers who all played games. Some of the team came from other game companies — lured by the informal atmosphere and the focus on games, not profit. Others were inexperienced with game development, but had the skills and fresh ideas we needed.

From top to bottom: Arokh’s polygon mesh, alpha-blended wings, and the final version.

As the technology lead, I was determined to build Surreal’s foundations on its technology. By retaining rights to our engine and tools, we always had something to fall back on if a game design was cancelled by the publisher. This also allowed us to develop multiple game titles from one generic technology and license the technology to other companies. Any investment in time that the programmers and I put into the engine could be quickly put to use on another project if anything went awry.

We initially moved away from the popular Doom-type engines toward a landscape-style rendering engine in order to set our games apart. There were many unique ideas that we could build from this: flying, underwater environments, outdoor deathmatch, and so on. But the technology was not only about rendering; the tools had to empower the designers and be general enough to support almost any game. So I designed a toolset in which every game-specific property and behavior would be provided by the game code itself, and the editor would be just a generic interface to the underlying game specifics.

Origins of the Beast

After pitching several game ideas to all the major publishers, we finally sold the first “dragon” concept to Virgin Interactive Entertainment (VIE) in the summer of 1996. The concept was very different from today’s Drakan. The first concept was for a dragon RTS game in which the player’s dragon could fly around taking over villages and forcing them to do their bidding. VIE wanted a more arcade-style shooter game to fill a slot in their product line, so we started developing a fast-paced, third-person dragon-flying game.

Concept drawing for Drakan’s mountain world.

It was not until early 1997 (when VIE began cutting projects just prior to closing its doors) that Surreal sold the Drakan concept to Psygnosis. Psygnosis saw the strength in our team and gave us complete freedom to perfect the design. We wanted more of an RPG feel, but as a dragon, the player was limited in what he or she could carry or interact with. Adding a human rider was the best solution, and a female character was the natural choice since she would be the ideal personality to offset the dragon’s immense size and power. With an increased budget under Psygnosis, we hired more team members and increased the art and game-play content to a level that the press called “ambitious” at our public debut at E3 in 1998.

The production under Psygnosis allowed us to expand the technology as well. We added real-time lighting effects and expanded the simple height-field landscape engine into our seamless indoor/outdoor layer technology. Critical to this technology was Psygnosis’s willingness to drop support for software rendering (a risky marketing decision at the time). This allowed us unprecedented freedom. We switched over to true-color textures, increased the polygon counts throughout the game, and built arbitrary geometry for our worlds. The downside to relying on 3D hardware was that we faced serious compatibility challenges — the game would have to run on almost every 3D card. This also meant battling Direct3D driver bugs, and the possibility that we would be inundated with technical support calls, since people would not have software rendering to fall back on if the 3D hardware failed to work correctly.


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