I think with Denzil Long we get a Westwood Studios full house, hooray! It’s a pleasure to feature his quick Q&A with our Adrian and it’s quite the insight to working at the legendary company. He’s also got some great advice for any budding programmers…
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
I was just out of school and working for a small company designing electronic circuits and writing software for embedded systems. While this was interesting, video games was my real passion. One day, while reading Computer Games Magazine, I saw an advertisement for an Amiga Game Programmer position at Sierra Online in California. I applied not expecting a response, but to my surprise I got an interview and the job!
Can you remember the first ever game you worked on and how do you reflect back on that particular title?
My first game as a “paid” Game Developer was Conquest of the Longbow for the Amiga by Sierra Online. I really don’t recall much of the particulars about the project but I do remember the feeling excitement of having the opportunity to be working in video games.
Dune 2 was one of my favourite games growing up and my first taste of the RTS genre. What was your exact role on this game and how does it now feel that you helped shape the direction of a whole new genre?
Dune 2 was already in development when I was hired on at Westwood Studios. Having been recently acquired by Virgin Interactive, Westwood was investing in expanding their team. As Software Engineer, my first assignment was to convert Dune 2 to the Amiga Computer and Sega Genesis Console. It was an amazing time to be a part of Westwood Studios in those early days. We really had no idea that Dune 2 would have such an influence in defining a new genre of games. All we knew was we loved playing the game we were building and hoped the players would love it too. The devotion to quality and excellence was a pillar of Westwood Studios’ value and culture and I think that resonated in Dune 2 and is why it became such a successful and genre defining game.
How easy was it to programme Dune 2 on the SEGA Mega Drive and how does this version differ from the PC and Amiga classic?
The Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) version of Dune 2 was significantly more difficult. While the Amiga version was able to stay close to the PC due to similarities (mouse, keyboard, more RAM, etc) the Sega Genesis shared very little outside of the core gameplay systems and design. Most of the code for the Genesis version had to be written from scratch and some of the design elements re-imagined.
Do you have a personal favourite house and vehicle from Dune 2 and are you fan of the film/novel?
Favorite house: Ordos. Favorite vehicle: Sonic Tank. I prefer the novel over the movie. However, no matter what the creative expression, I find the Dune universe to be compelling and fascinating.
How the did the opportunity arise to work on the classic Command & Conquer series and what was your exact role in these titles?
It was a natural transition coming off of Dune 2 to move straight onto C&C. Within just a few months of shipping Dune 2 the team started work on C&C. Joe Bostic, the Lead Programmer on Dune 2, and a few others began work on building an RTS game engine. My role as programmer was to build a video compression and streaming playback system for the full motion video sequences we wanted to use as storytelling and plot development between missions. Today, video streaming is ubiquitous but in the mid 1990s this was bleeding edge stuff, especially considering the constraints of a single speed CD-ROM drive, slow memory bus speeds and no accelerated graphics. Additionally, I worked on various Gameplay Systems, User Interface, lots of bug fixing and Localization.
I really enjoyed the whole look and feel of the universe you helped create for Command & Conquer. Did you know from day one you were working on something special and how do you reflect back on this series?
No, I cannot say we knew with any certainty that C&C would be as big of a hit and influence on gaming as it was. The success of Dune 2 was a welcome surprise and it afforded us the opportunity to take a risk and do something original and completely our own. Expectations were high from all sides, our publisher and parent company expected another “hit”, players wanted “more” and the C&C team wanted to create a new but familiar experience. The risks were equally high as we didn’t want to be confined to an existing IP that would limit our ideas or churn out a mediocre sequel. We all hoped that C&C would be a huge success but it was never a sure thing and we knew we had to give it our all. I think this dedication came through in the final product and that was a main contributor to its success.
We recently interviewed C&C’s games creator Joseph Bostic and he commented that the atmosphere and great teamwork was one of the main reasons why C&C was so well made. What was it like working with Joseph and can you describe the atmosphere while working on these pivotal titles?
In my opinion, Joe Bostic is the father of C&C! Many talented people contributed to making C&C a huge success but it was Joe’s technical leadership and vision that was at the core of what made C&C great. I remember several occasions walking into Joe’s office seeking advice on how to solve a particular problem or gain understanding of a body of code. No matter how busy he was with his own tasks he always took the time to enable others on the team to succeed. Additionally, we had regular internal play sessions, where afterward, the team would gather in the halls to excitedly discuss what we liked and disliked. This almost always resulted in “it would be cool if…” conversations. Some of the best ideas came from those informal discussions.
Out of all the Command & Conquer games you worked on do you have a personal favourite title in the series and can you explain why?
My all-time favorite C&C game would have to be Red Alert 2. It was campy fun and addictive to play. The quality and production value was industry leading.
Blade Runner was a highly respected and mature adventure title. How did it feel to be working on this classic licence and working on a whole new genre?
As with Dune, Blade Runner has a loyal fan following including everybody at Westwood. It was an honor and privilege to be able to work on such a classic, however with such privilege comes a degree of stewardship above and beyond what one feels when working on your own IP. We wanted to create an experience that would stay true to the Movie in a believable way without interfering. No pressure right!? There was a lot of new technology being developed for the first time for this title. We used Voxel Technology that was being developed for C&C Tiberian Sun for rendering the characters and items along with Motion Capture for animations. For the scenes and transitions we expanded upon the Video Compression and Streaming technology that I co-developed for the Command & Conquer movies. Not to mention all the work being done for the AI. It was all ground breaking stuff. Very exciting and challenging.
It was a huge hit with critics but a number of people feel the game (and movie) has a curse that will impact any companies attached to this licence. Do you a have a view on this alleged curse??
Even to this day I have people tell me how much they enjoyed Westwood’s Blade Runner game, so I feel good about what we achieved. That’s all that matters to me.
Do you think there is room for a rebooted version of Blade Runner or even a new game based on the latest Blade Runner movie?
Yes absolutely. It just needs to be done right, in the spirit of the original, without trying to remake or reinterpret what made the original great.
What games/projects are you currently working on?
My most recent project was at Arkane Studios working on Prey which shipped in March of 2017. Recently, I left game development to work in internet/cybersecurity at Duo Security in Austin, Texas, where I get to apply my rich experience in solving the hard problems to a new set of challenges, including protecting organizations worldwide from cyberattack.
How would you reflect back on your amazing gaming career and do you have words of advice to anyone looking to get into video game programming?
Amazing seems a bit too flamboyant description of my career. I certainly had the privilege to work with great teams and truly amazing talent. Along the way I tried to work on teams that had that “spark” of greatness. My experience has told me that the team is more important than the game. Great teams will make great games. As far as advice: learn all you can and spend time writing code. Don’t be afraid to fail, experiment, or try things out. Develop the “soft skills” that will make you a better team member. Be humble. Learn from others. Respect people, build good relationships and above all, be a friend. Your team and the people you choose to be around are more important to your success than any awesome technical skills you can acquire. Develop those technical skills but stay humble.
What are you top three video games of all time?
Super Mario World
Mass Effect 2
Ratchet and Clank
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would it be and why?
It would be a tie between Miranda from Mass Effect or Tonya from Red Alert 2 because they both have strong personalities and would make for great conversations.