Yes, we have an interview with the Build engine supremo himself – Ken Silverman. Without further ado…
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the gaming industry?
My first commercial game was Ken’s Labyrinth. It started as a technical challenge to myself to see if I could reproduce the engine from Wolfenstein 3D. Once I had it running well, I had my friend, Andy Cotter, make a few levels for it. He did some good stuff and it motivated me to continue to add features. At the time, we were just working on a cool demo and while we joked about the idea of commercialization, we never expected to actually do it and make money from it. Then one day, I was showing it to a cousin of mine and my dad recognized that the game may have some commercial value. He then had us slap on a story (because every game had to have a story), and some shareware purchasing information, and we put it on a BBS. We got a lot of phone calls and mail orders during those first few months.
What was the first ever game you worked on?
That depends on what you consider a game. I used the BASIC language through my early years. My first game was probably a “Guess a number” binary search type game. I probably also wrote a “type your name” game where the computer picks a random compliment or insult, though knowing me, they were surely all insults. The earliest notable game that was saved (in this case on a cassette tape) is a Pacman game for the TI-99/4A (http://advsys.net/ken/ti1984.htm), programmed in 1984. My brother (3 years older) did most of the programming at the time, while my role was to draw the maze with “HLIN” and “VLIN” statements. I didn’t get into C programming until around 1991. At the time, I was working on a Tetris clone and I found QuickBasic to be a bit lacking. So I ported it to Microsoft C and it became Kentris. I didn’t release it to the general public though. In January 1993, I put out Ken’s Labyrinth and that’s when things changed for me.
When working on Duke Nukem 3D did you know from day one that you were working on such an important title?
Absolutely not. When I was first told that the Duke Nukem guys were interested in using the Build Engine, I vaguely remembered a 2D platform game that I had played a few times in the past. It was cool to be meeting the creators of a game that I had heard of. What I didn’t know at the time, was how motivated Todd Replogle and Allen Blum were, and how compatible they were to my tools and coding style. That, I believe, is what led to their game being finished first and its success.
How easy was it to build the engine for Duke Nukem and was this engine used for any other games you have worked on?
When I started in 1993, I didn’t have that much experience in many of the systems, such as a flexible sprite system, network code, how to manage art assets, and how to write a sound engine (this was later taken off my plate). I had also never worked with other developers in coding before, so figuring out how to split my source code into a callable library was a challenge for me. Luckily, the games each took several years of development, so I had time to figure all these things out.
The Build Engine was used in many games besides Duke Nukem 3D. Here is a list of them:
While I mostly stuck to working on the engine code, I did end up making small contributions to Duke Nukem 3D. I also spent a lot of time with the Shadow Warrior and Blood teams.
What was it like working at 3D Realms and how did it compare to working in much smaller developers?
The only other game developer I ever worked for was Epic, and they never had an office for me to relocate to. With Epic, my work was pretty much all done by phone or modem. Meanwhile, 3D Realms had an office in Texas. It was great being able to see other people using my tools. I was never bored there. When you work remotely, you lose that experience.
Ken’s Labyrinth is clearly a game close to your heart. Did this title help open doors for you when working on future first-person shooters?
Of course. It helped that I had a finished game out there, even if it was substandard. The guys at Apogee Software laughed at the poor quality of my game, but they respected my skills. In the middle of 1993, Apogee wanted to license Doom, but Id Software wanted to keep it to themselves. Apogee’s next best option was to hire me.
What do you think is the most important first-person shooter ever made?
I would have to say it was either Wolfenstein (3D) for being the first good and popular one, or Doom for its many innovations, including full screen texture mapping and network code. Doom also had a hold on the market for several years – a testament showing how far ahead they were.
Which game did you have the most fun working on and can you explain why?
It’s hard to choose one. Whether it was Ken’s Labyrinth or the main Build Engine games, what made them special were the teams. Whether we were sharing progress every week or every day, it was really cool to see all the contributions from others. That stuff really motivated me and kept me on track and that’s what made it fun for me.
What are your views on Duke Nukem Forever and do you feel there is room for another Duke Nukem game?
I feel like I made the right choice by leaving 3D Realms when I did. If I had stayed, I don’t think I could have done much to improve or speed up their development. 3D Realms tried to do too much with limited resources. While I enjoy the Duke Nukem character, I can’t really say I would care to play a new Duke Nukem game. I wouldn’t say Duke Nukem Forever ruined it. I just haven’t been following the industry anymore. I would be very interested to see a Duke Nukem movie, however (seconded! – Ed).
If you could travel back in time and work on any video game, which game would you have loved to be involved in?
I suppose I would choose one of my own games so that I write the systems the right way the first time. There are a bunch of things in Build which could have been done better, such as the texture mapping for slopes, better ways of handling room over room, and cleaner network code.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am currently working for Voxon, on the Voxiebox, which is a swept-volume volumetric display. You can read more about it here:
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
I do not drink alcoholic beverages, so if the opportunity ever came up I would probably decline.