Olivier Nallet has had a career in video games more distinguished than most. From developing Atari Jaguar favourite Super Burnout, to Omikron, to churning out hits for the EA Sports machine, he’s been there and done it all. Adrian popped him over a few questions to quiz him about those times, working for Valve and the lovely things he’s doing for Oculus.
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
Actually, Super Burnout was the first game I worked on. I was the programmer on the game, and I was handed a Jaguar dev kit, a folder with a few hundred pages of technical info for the Atari Jaguar and I had to figure it out. It was fun to work on it, but due to the multiprocessors it was quite challenging. It was similar to programming on PS3 with the PowerPC and SPUs, which I worked on many years later. The DSPs were fast, and there was a very good sprite engine for the time. The game was initially called Burnout, and when we showed it to Atari, the marketing folks told us that we should add the Super to it.
We had to develop the game rather quickly, despite learning the console from scratch. Some of the implementation was very crude (like the AI). I wish I had more time and experience to improve it. Everything was written in assembly after all, so there were some challenges and the code could not be overly complex. I wish I had the time to integrate JagLink in the game (peer to peer between two Jaguars connected directly). Unfortunately, I only had a few weeks available to me before launch when Atari gave us the JagLink HW, and despite having it running in most cases, I could not make it completely stable enough in time for the release date.
Did you ever start work on any other Jaguar games?
After we were done with Super Burnout, we started developing Nexus/Stellar X, a vertical shoot them up, in the same family as Raiden.
There was some very cool graphics, and applying the learnings from SBO, I started maximizing the hardware, and everything was moving everywhere (like panel moving in the background to expose a new map, etc.) It was my best code at the time, a bunch of cool tricks, barely anything on the 68000, everything on the DSPs, and pushing the sprite engine to its limits.
When Atari closed, we had to stop, and hard pivot to something else, and we spent a while developing some other prototypes on PC.
Unfortunately, I did not keep a backup of the game, it got lost over the years (noooooooo!!! – Ed).
How did you get the opportunity to work on Adidas Power Soccer 98?
As we were prototyping some other games, we got put in contact with Psygnosis. They had Adidas Power Soccer (APS), and they wanted to ship a much better version for the 98 World Cup in France.
It was 18-24 months away, and they wanted to reduce risks as we were still a young team/company. So they asked us to first ship APS2. If we did well, we would have the contract renewed to ship APS98. To further hedge their bets, they were developing Adidas Power Soccer International at the same time as we were taking over the APS code base to build APS2.
If I remember correctly, APS International and APS 2 shipped close to each other, like less than 6 months apart. In that first period, we had time to ramp up on the PlayStation 1, the APS code base, add made a ton of optimisations and improvements to allow for better graphics, better music, better effects, etc. It was a quite a different game at the end.
As we shipped the game on time and with a higher quality than expected, the contract got renewed for APS98, and we added more polish and improvements from there.
What was your role on the cult Dreamcast favourite ‘Omikron: The Nomad Soul’ and is it true that a PlayStation version was in the works?
I was lead programmer, then became CTO at the end of Omikron. Actually, a bit over a year before we finished Omikron PC, I was initially hired to be lead on the PlayStation version.
We made some good progress on it, but it was very challenging, the PS1 would not do much compared to a PC with a real 3D card. And memory was extremely limited, load times were challenging. The PC version was not going well, and we were going to be late. I took over the engineering team, and with a lot of crunch and effort, we shipped the game on time.
It was not easy, but the game looked really cool at the time. As the PC version was getting shipped, Eidos asked us to work on the Dreamcast version, so with a small team, the PS1 team IIRC (Jean Charles Merignac and Christophe Vivet), we converted the game in 3 months. It was really challenging, but we shipped on time.
How did you get the opportunity to work on a number of Madden NFL and NASCAR titles and were you always a fan of these iconic series?
After Quantic Dream, I moved to Florida to work at EA Tiburon. I initially worked on the tools supporting their games at the time (Madden, NFL Street, NCAA, Nascar). When we had to work on the first version of Madden X360 and PS3, it was all hands on deck, the game Madden could not afford to be late, it had to be a launch title for these next gen consoles.
My experience with C++, assembly, optimizations, DSPs, etc. helped quite a bit.
I was actually more interested by the technical challenges than the game themselves actually. 🙂
Is it true you worked at Valve?
After many years at EA Tiburon, I joined Valve in 2010 to work on the PS3 version of Portal.
I worked on multiple optimizations on PS3 and X360. This was one of my best experiences in the game industry, a highly polished game, we worked hard but it felt effortless, everyone was good at their job.
And the game is still very good, 10 years later.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working at Oculus, working on system UIs for the Go, Quest and future secret devices. The HW and SW is improving every year, so that’s quite an interesting field.
A lot of technical challenges, as well as making sure we are building the right products. AR is the next big thing, and there are a ton of challenges there too.
What’s your advice to anyone looking to enter the video game industry?
There are many schools to teach you about making video games nowadays. Unity and Unreal are making learning very easy too. You would need to figure out which specialisation you are interested in, and pursue it while avoiding distraction.
The game industry changes quite a lot every few years, and its work/life balance is not always the best. But the constant is to learn new skills (often at home on side projects), to work on more challenging projects, and looking into raising the quality bar.
Down the line, programmers can move to the general tech industry, artists and writers can move to video production (cinema, TV, etc.) Being flexible on how your skills can be applied is a strength and it will help as the industry is not the most stable.
You will need to be passionate about what you are doing, and need to be very good at it. This will help joining the best teams and projects, and get a better work/life balance.
What are your personal top 3 video games of all time and can explain why?
Only 3? That’s not fair!
When I was a teenager, I spent countless hours on Dungeon Master on Atari ST. I definitely have fond memories of that game, very scary at night too.
Pretty much any game from Naughty Dog. Very polished games, with an amazing mix of technique and graphics.
Pretty much any game from Blizzard. 🙂 Awesome gameplay, spent hours on Starcraft/Warcraft/Diablo games and a hat tip to Super Mario 64, because it revolutionised 3D platformers.