Jon Beltran de Heredia (Pyro Studios) – Interview

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We’re big fans of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines as many of you will have twigged! So, not content with tracking down Ignacio Perez-Dolset, Adrian then went after the game’s lead programmer Jon Beltran de Heredia to answer some questions as well. Thankfully, Jon is such a lovely bloke he duly obliged!

 

What are your earliest and fondest memories of playing video games while growing up?

I played a lot with my brothers on the handheld Nintendo Game&Watch Donkey Kong and similar machines. Basic LCDs, but still so amazing to our 9-year-old eyes.

I think I was later really impacted by Ghosts’n’Goblins and especially Terra Kresta, on arcade machines. Those were something to get me drooling so easily! And of course, you couldn’t get this kind of thing at home.

My first gaming experiences were with a ZX Spectrum at my cousins’ in Irun. I think Saboteur and Abu Simbel: Profanation must have been the first games I ever tried, I was mesmerized! More than about playing, I was incredibly excited about being able to create a world that was alive inside a tiny box. I think that’s what drove me to programming. When I got my own Spectrum, I think my fondest memories are about the game ‘Head over Heels’, by Jon Ritman. For reasons I don’t fully understand (probably I just couldn’t believe such a huge world could fit in that 48kb machine). But again, I was more focused on trying to learn to create something, more than playing!

The first computer I tried to write some code on was an Olivetti P6040. Text only with a tiny printer and 10 character display. My friend’s architect dad had one, and we tried to write a game, but our understanding of what a game is was too limited. I still have very fond memories though!

 

How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?

I started learning to program by myself and it was many years of not being to discuss any of this with anyone, I lived in a small town (Vitoria-Gasteiz), and my only access to information was via books and magazines. Later on, I met some other programmers, and especially, I met some very experienced ones using FidoNet (this was before the Internet…). I had been learning 2D and graphics programming and was somewhat following the early PC demo scene. The programmers in the demo scene back then I got in touch with were in the games industry, actually creating games and commercializing them. After a few projects that didn’t fully pan out, Commandos was the first main project I worked on.

 

We are huge fans of Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines here at Arcade Attack. How did you first get the opportunity to work on this masterpiece and can you reflect on the early planning stages of this game?

I was collaborating remotely form Vitoria-Gasteiz where I lived, I had started a company producing and commercializing software for sports good stores. We had many clients, but it was kind of not going anywhere. I was a lot more excited about games. I was experimenting with AI code and had prepared a demo that featured units moving around in a freely polygonal 2D environment, using pathfinding routines, and some fun stuff such as “panic mode”. When a unit got stuck for more than 5 seconds, it would just choose to enter “panic mode”: move around randomly for a few seconds, and then try getting to its goal again. It solved a lot of problems and it was kind of fun to watch. This was right after having tried to start a games studio with some friends in Madrid and failed. Some of the people from that initiative were starting to work on three new game prototypes at Pyro Studios (back then still called “Paradise”), I showed it to that team, and they bought it from me and integrated it in the prototype. It ended up becoming the logic that moved soldiers around Commandos maps.

Shortly afterwards, I moved to Madrid to join the team full time, to work on getting the first mission ready as a demo to pitch the game to publishers and hopefully get one of them to fund it (which ended up being Eidos).

 

 

Can you give us a quick summary of some of the main challenges of programming for such a complex and detailed game like Commandos?

The game was developed over around 18 months, the last 12 (when I moved to Madrid and joined full time) barely leaving the office even on weekends. It was hell.

It was still great because creating something so new and ambitious always is. The source code was around 250,000 lines of C++ and assembly language code, the team that completed it was about 18 people, and almost every single thing was a huge challenge. I was already pretty good at programming, but I was leading the work of the other programmers, and I was by no means good at leading a team (serious understatement right there).

I supplemented the total lack of managing skills with my programming skills and a huge amount of work. I think I knew nearly all those lines of code by heart at some point 🙂 (fortunately most of them are gone from my memory).

The main team spent months working 10 hours a day 7 days a week. Sometimes we’d “chill down” to only 6 days a week and it would feel amazing to have Sunday off. You should only do that kind of work for life-changing work, and that production was for everyone involved, so no regrets there.

 

Do you have a a personal favourite Commando, and if so, can you explain why?

Probably “Whiskey”, the dog in the sequel, which I spelled that way when writing it down for the first time, not knowing I was giving it an Irish or American slant 🙂

 

Why do you think Commandos became such a huge hit across the globe especially from quite an unknown developer at the time?

I think it hit several notes very well in a great combination. Amazing graphics for the time, bringing lead model figures alive. A whole set up with great sound, voices and other expressive tones doubling down on this “living model” effect.  Great puzzles adding up to meaningful missions. Devilishly hard but always understandable in retrospect when you fail, which becomes a factor that greatly hooks players to the game.

The market didn’t care who the developer was, most people didn’t even know it was developed in Spain. The publisher (Eidos) had very good distribution worldwide, and the product sold like hot cakes.

 

Did you initially feel a lot of pressure when starting work on the sequel and did your team know exactly where you wanted to take the series?

A great deal of conceptualization work for Commandos 2 was done in parallel with the development of ‘Beyond the Call of Duty’ (the mission pack) and some early graphics engine development too. The main new elements were very clear early on: a new graphics engine with pre-rendered backgrounds and four camera angles; indoors/outdoors, other more generic troops helping the main Commandos; gameplay that would be a little bit more lenient when you made a mistake (at least giving you the chance to recover). But bringing the whole new gameplay to work together well and with good mission design was really hard and happened during the two years or so of development, which was also quite stressing for everyone involved.

An important not-well-known fact is that it was an entirely fresh code base, we threw those 250,000 lines of code all away and wrote 1,000,000 fresh new lines of C++ code 🙂 this time, with a much cleaner architecture.

 

 

Were there any game play elements or game ideas that were touted in the production of  the Commandos games that sadly never made it into the final version?

I remember one thing. In Commandos 2, the initial plan was to have a full recreation of the massive Shinano battleship. There wasn’t enough time and it was decided to leave it out, even if some parts had already been recreated. FerBXB and two or three members of the team felt so upset about that sad fate that they decided to put in overtime on their own to guarantee that it would end up in the game, finally as a bonus mission with a few indoor areas recreated.

 

The original Commandos games look like they are going to get a HD makeover! How exciting will it be for a whole new generation gamers to experience your great work?

I’m looking forward to it! And I may even play one of them, now that I won’t be thinking so much about all the bugs involved in every corner of the game 🙂

 

Are you still in contact with your ex-colleagues from Pyro Studios and would you ever be tempted to get together again and work on a new Commandos game?

I am in touch with a lot of them. If I ever work in creating a game again, I think it will be as a game designer. And I think it will be something completely different from Commandos. Enough WW2 for one life! 🙂

 

Are you currently still working in the video game industry and if so, what games or projects are you currently working on?

Over the last few years, I have been working together with Digital Legends Entertainment where several ex-Pyro people are working.

In the last few years, I’ve been focusing on game analytics, both creating the technology to gather and analyze massive amounts of data about what players are doing, and using it to try to make the games better. Three years ago I started a company called Katoid to create and commercialize some kick-ass game analytics technology, together with another ex-Commandos guy. We are hoping to help a lot of teams make their games more enjoyable over the next few years!

 

Did you ever start work on any video games that were never completed, and if so, what titles do you think would have been a success?

I think it’s rare the game developer who has not started multiple titles that didn’t get completed due to various reasons. These days, large game companies such as King kill 80% or more of the games they start developing. Back in the day, it often happened because we were not experienced enough to complete the game, or determined enough, or our ideas were not clear enough (which, in the case of companies, it all manifests as running out of funding).

In my case, I’m going to make a special mention to my first solo game project that I worked on in 1990, written in C and assembly language on a 286: “Unkh”, a platformer that never saw the light of day but obviously would have been a massive success had my 17-year-old me been mature enough to complete it all the way to release, here is a never-before-seen screenshot (and please excuse the graphics by yours truly, if you think they’re ugly, you should see the code!):

 

 

Are you a gamer in your own time, and if so, which are your three favourite games of all time and why?

I’m not a hardcore gamer per se, but of course I’ve played many games over my whole life. It’s tough to select only three, but here we go for three that did mark my life in some way:

– Xenon 2 for PC – which I spent more hours disassembling than actually playing, but which taught me so much about the making of games

– Lemmings – do I actually need to say anything about that?

– And lately, a big hit for me, MIRTS on iOS by Amir Rajan (the author of “A Dark Room”), which is a distillation of RTS to its essence and which has helped me understand RTS games to a depth I couldn’t before, despite the hundreds of hours playing Age of Empires or Starcraft.

 

If you could personally be friends with any of the Commandos elite squad who would you choose and why?

The spy. That guy must have the most interesting stories.

 

If you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?

Guybrush Threepwood of course, for a round of grog, and I’d ask him how it feels to have your first name given by a Deluxe Paint file name!

 

Adrian

 

 

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