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Postmortem: DreamWorks Interactive's Trespasser
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Postmortem: DreamWorks Interactive's Trespasser

May 14, 1999 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

Editor’s note: This Postmortem appears in the June issue of Game Developer magazine. Due to space restrictions in the magazine, we were forced to shorten it somewhat. This article contains quite a bit of additional information not printed in the magazine version.

"One seldom hears the true story of what happened at the place where the world changed. How it began. What were the reasons? What were the costs?" -John Parker Hammond

This quote from Trespasser’s intro movie serves just as well to open the real story of a game development team’s struggles to develop a breakthrough dinosaur game as it does to open the fictional story of Hammond’s struggle to develop a biotechnological breakthrough and clone dinosaurs. The parallels between the Trespasser project and Hammond’s cloning project were numerous: ambitious beginnings, years of arduous labor, and the eventual tragic ending. Hammond’s diary, as related in the game itself, dwells on the past and never attempts to explain Hammond’s future direction now that he has failed so grandly - this postmortem is intended to be much more forward-looking.

Trespasser was begun by two former employees of Looking Glass Technologies, Seamus Blackley and Austin Grossman. By the time the game was rolling, two more ex-Looking Glass employees would join the team, and our common background was instrumental in setting the direction for the project. Looking Glass’s most distinguished products, Underworld I and II and System Shock, are games which in some ways are still ahead of their time, specifically in the areas of object-rich, physics-based environments and emergent gameplay.

Quake did not even ship until after coding on Trespasser had begun, and to the Trespasser team with its founding in Looking Glass’s design-focused philosophy, it represented the stagnation of 3D games rather than the step forward it was proclaimed in the press. Quake did nothing to extend the basic first-person shooter game design standards of "find weapons and keys" which id had first created in Wolfenstein 3D, and replaced the fairly-consistent atmospheres of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom with a bizarre mishmash of medieval and science-fiction themes. Trespasser was intended to be a high-technology game where game design and world consistency came first.

Trespasser concept sketch
[zoom]

The Jurassic Park license was inevitable from the start, for a couple reasons. The obvious reason was that Lost World was on its way and expected to be a gigantic hit, and standard Hollywood thinking dictates that all projected hits be exploited seven ways to Sunday. The less obvious reason was that Seamus had been working on a physically-simulated biped model originally intended for Terra Nova, and had been shopping it around to several movie animation groups working on dinosaurs before ending up at DreamWorks Interactive.

The pie-in-the-sky concept for Trespasser was an outdoor engine with no levels, a complete rigid-body physics simulation, and behaviorally-simulated and physics-modeled dinosaurs. The underlying design goal was to achieve a realistic feel through consistency of looks and behavior. Having an abandoned island setting was a useful way to exclude anything which did not seem possible to simulate, such as flexible solids like cloth and rope, wheeled vehicles, and the effects of burning, cutting, and digging.

The game would play from a first-person perspective, and you would experience the environment through a virtual body to avoid the "floating gun" feeling prevalent in the Wolfenstein breed of first person games. Combat would be less important than in a shooter, and dinosaurs would be much more dangerous than traditional first-person shooter enemies. The point of the game would be exploration and puzzle-solving, and when combat happened, it would more often involve frightening opponents away by inflicting pain than the merciless slaughter of every moving creature.

"Limited but rich" was a phrase which was used often early in Trespasser’s development. This phrase describes a game design philosophy consisting of choosing a reduced feature set, but putting more sophistication into each feature. Although solid-body physics based entirely on box-shaped solids might seem like only a rough approximation of the real world, the thinking was that a perfect simulation of solid boxes would be so much more flexible than the emulated physics of previous games that our gameplay would be deep and absorbing.

Trespasser concept sketch
[zoom]

Likewise, though we would only have a few different types of dinosaurs, the dinosaur AI system would allow them to react to each other and the player in a large variety of ways, choosing appropriate responses depending on their emotional state. Sophisticated, fully-interruptable scenes would occur spontaneously rather than requiring large amounts of scripting, and observing the food chain in action would be as absorbing as playing the game itself. Interacting with the limited but rich features would lead to "emergent gameplay," the grail for many of Looking Glass’ best thinkers since Underworld I shipped and fans began to write in describing favorite moments - moments which had not been specifically designed or even experienced by the team itself.

The original plan for Trespasser certainly seemed like a good one. It was very ambitious, but the team had made tradeoffs for implementation and execution time from the very beginning, such as not attempting to do multiple or moving light sources or Quake-style shadow generation in order to accommodate arbitrary numbers of moving objects and long, wide-open views. Unfortunately, there is a difference between having a plan and successfully executing it, and the product that we eventually shipped was as disappointing to us as it was to the great majority of game players and game critics.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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