Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Weekly Update

I am going to try and start a weekly update, which will give us a look into Z Sculpt, and what goes into developing and porting Return to Dark Castle. This week, will focus on the rumroed PC port, and development of Return to Dark Castle, via an interview with Zack Morris.

Jon God: So, when was it decided that there would be a PC port of Return to Dark Castle?

Zack Morris: Well, I can't say anything conclusive about this, because nothing is set in stone and SHFF is not sure about the ramifications of doing a port, but I can say that it is something we considered soon after finishing the Mac version. Before that, the prospect was just too ominous.

Jon God: Does that mean you've given up on Mac gaming?

Zack Morris: Definitely not. The Mac is a bigger market now than ever before. Lately we've given up on limiting ourselves to just the Mac, because the market is fairly small compared to the vast ocean of all platforms combined. The iPhone store has been a big surprise, so if something like that was implemented (either through the iTunes store or otherwise), we'd see the Mac market more closely approach its actual size of maybe 10% of PC games.

Jon God: I recently brought up to you Mac Game Arcade a similar system to Steam, but for mac, which falls in line with what you were just saying, does that mean we can look forward to seeing your older games, or newer games from you on this or similar systems?

Zack Morris: The other Zack and I are busy making our game engine compatible with the iPhone and other platforms so that we can "write once and run anywhere". This is comparable to the workload we faced when we ported Dark Castle from OS 9 to OS X. After the engine is updated, we are going to recompile all of our games under it so that they can be rolled out under other portals. We'd very much like to get modernized versions of all of our games into as many venues as possible, especially the low end since they might find new appeal there.

Jon God: Have you been watching the success of the retro acrade games on Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and Wiiware?

Zack Morris: More like being blinded by it. Those platforms are revolutionary, as big a paradigm shift as the internet was for shareware back in 1995. The difficulty lies in being in the right place at the right time to anticipate new markets. It's apparently much easier for a Flash developer to get on Xbox Live Arcade than it is for the typical baggage-laden Mac or PC developer. That's why we're updating our engine to be not quite so Mac-centric. I correspond daily with a guy making a tidy sum from his iPhone game, and he has big plans for the Wii.

Jon God: Looking at the success, of say, Jonathan Mak (Creator of the PlayStation Network game, Everyday Shooter) does it seem like a path you might want to follow? For clarification, Jonathan Mak was a independent game developer, who was found by Sony, and now has a mutli-game deal with them, and they give him breathing room to make whatever he wants.

Zack Morris: That's what I would call a path to stardom. Not everyone can be a Jonathan Mak (back in my day I aspired to be John Carmack, hah), but we can all aspire to be better artists, designers and creators. My hat's off to him, but I think perhaps we are too far down a different trail. Success for us will be having a stable presence on the web and developing markets, and make enough from that to be an independent studio. Shareware games were somewhat of a means to an end for me, so I don't see myself as having the passion to be in the spotlight, so to speak.

Jon God: I know your hands are tied in terms of what you can say about the future of Return to Dark Castle due to SHFF. However, if it were up to you, would you want to port Return to Dark Castle to some of these services? (Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, iPhone games library)

Zack Morris: I would very much like to port Dark Castle, but truth be told, I'd like to see our engine ported so that we have a full cross-platform library. Then we get all of the rest of our games ported for free, like people using SDL or other libs.

Jon God: I know you cannot talk numbers about the sales of Return to Dark Castle, but compared to your expectations, how is it doing?

Zack Morris: It's doing far better than any of our other games ever did. We've been able to work fairly independently now for 6 months, and I've paid down my student loans and other debts substantially. The problem is that the Mac market is not so much limited as it is remote. The signal to noise ratio is enormous. We'd probably see 10 times the sales on the iPhone, not so much because it's a bigger market, but because it's more convenient than anything that's come before, once you pay your "iPhone entry fee". The total sales are perhaps a little lower than our original expectations, but the possibilities that have opened up because of it, far exceeded our expectations.

Jon God: Moving back to the development, what were some problems that came as a surprise when original developing Return to Dark Castle?

Zack Morris: The long duration of the final push from release candidate to final was unexpected for sure. Also, memory management became a non-issue in OS X, so much of our optimized OS 9 code to get DC3 running in 20 megs of ram became cumbersome. Zack did all of the actual game programming, and I remember he spent the most time fine-tuning the level engine and sprite management. I spent the most time making optimized blitters and 16 bit color code for PowerPC, which surprisingly became slower than plain loops when Apple move to Intel. So the biggest surprise of all was Apple constantly changing their code base. We just never saw that coming when we thought we were done back in 1999. When we came to terms with that, I suppose I was surprised how easily we adopted OpenGL or moved from 8 to 16 bit color. I'm still surprised how cumbersome input devices and force feedback are on all platforms. So there are hurdles we ran into by using the wrong approach. For example, Quicktime is a tremendously complicated API that does things that Flash does trivially. So at first glance, something that DC3 does that looks simple was actually very complicated. The swinging ropes use a complex blitter that's a few lines of code in OpenGL. In a way, all of DC3 came as a surprise, both in complexity and time required, but at each step of the process, I can't see how we could have done anything differently. It was a perfect storm of setbacks, but we learned a lot of what not to do. And, I am grateful every day that we aren't the Duke Nukem Forever guys!

Jon God: Has the delay of the level editor surprised you?

Zack Morris: Yes and no. The editor itself was essentially done the day we finished DC3 in-house. Unfortunately, we didn't anticipate how much effort would be required to actually ship DC3. It took us many months of testing and bug fixes. So you multiply that amount of loose end cleanup, with the potential for people to really shoot themselves in the foot with the editor, and I can see why SHFF is hesitant to release it. That said, at some point you just have to let people run with it. Now that the initial sales of DC3 have run their course, I'm hopeful that SHFF will release the editor. Its release is tied into some other decisions that I won't go into, but there is a big support workload involved, similar to the one we faced and continue to manage, involving the Replay system.

Jon God: When do you expect we will hear about Z Sculpt's next projects?

Zack Morris: Well, Zack and I just started a new schedule at our day jobs that has me working 3 days per week and him 2. Before that, we were working too much overtime, which left us just 2 days per week to meet and write code. We should release an iPhone app in a few weeks, then an update to DC3 to fix the graphical bugs people have been experiencing on the newest Macs, and then our engine should be updated enough to release updated versions of some of our games. We are constantly diligent, which is hard to demonstrate to the public, so it's mostly a matter of finalizing our engine. I would say that just 10% of our time goes into actual game design. The techniques I learned for internet play in Khufu are going into the engine, and Zack and I each have a new game planned for early spring, which we will announce on

Jon God: Just a few more questions.

Zack Morris: Ok.

Jon God: How was it to finally release something you had been working on for so long?

Zack Morris: It was a huge weight off our shoulders. We don't want to go through that long of a development cycle again. Luckily we won't have to, because computers are finally starting to stabilize. There really is a best way to do most anything, which wasn't reflected in the underlying code of OS 9, which is what DC3 was based in. Now we can use modern techniques for a much faster turn around time. We have converted our engine to OpenGL, OpenAL and have rewritten some of the cryptic Apple file management and input device code using the standard c++ libraries and HID. We are still going to do 2D games, but they will have a much richer feel to them, more like a Flash game, except without the performance penalty.

I've personally started talking with more Mac developers, so have learned volumes about lua scripting and other rapid application development tools. If you base a game off of standard libraries, you don't have to worry about Apple changing them. That means that probably over half our workload just disappears for the next game. Which doubles our productivity and potential for success.

Jon God: What have you thought of the fan reaction to Return to Dark Castle?

Zack Morris: It's pretty overwhelming, but not so much so that I can't still be a part of it. *Smiles* We don't get flooded with emails or constant IM requests. I think the DC fan base is quite savvy and down to earth. Many of the fans have helped us with Khufu beta testing and I consider their comments invaluable. For the most part, feedback has been positive, but it's hard sometimes when people criticize bugs, because they simply don't understand how big the DC3 code is, or how many other projects we juggle. I often wish we only developed for a single console, like the Super Nintendo, because support would be a non-issue. I hope they aren't too disappointed with the setbacks, because honestly I think I would be in their place. For example, I'm no fan of DRM, and sometimes I wonder if we arrived at an acceptable compromise with eSellerate. The iTunes and iPhone stores seem to have found a middle ground. We have fixes in the works for inconveniences people have faced, and I really think that this stuff is getting better over time, albeit slowly. Hopefully the level editor will spark a renewed interest in DC3. We go through these long periods of inactivity and then a burst of new releases, so if people are still around when that happens, they won't be disappointed.

Jon God: Any closing comments?

Zack Morris: Just that, we are grateful to everyone for hanging in there, and never give up hope. Look at what's happened in the world in the last couple of months. Anything is possible, and I may not remember the years 2001-2008 very fondly, but they were pivotal years in my life. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, that sort of thing. After a decade of working on DC3, we hadn't really stopped to think what life would be like when it was done. But now, we're starting to think in new ways we hadn't anticipated. Zack and I feel like we've reached about 5% of our creative potential. We want to try making some tools and games to just make life a lot more pleasurable. Success doesn't have to involve great struggle to still be sweet. There are other ways of working and living. Thank you for the questions, I hope I answered them satisfactorily. And thanx for running such a great forum, I think I've enjoyed your community more than I've actually played DC3

Jon God: Alright, thank you for your time, and thank you for helping deliver a wonderful game to all those who've long been waiting for it.

Zack Morris: Thanks, 'till next time!

There you have it, I would keep your fingers crossed for more info from SHFF on the level editor.


Each week, I hope to have a puzzle for you to solve, which will somehow relate to Dark Castle. This week's puzzle is in the form of a description without the word it belongs to, relating to castles.

Description: The Arrow loops in the Merlons.

What am I?


Feel free to send in feedback, what you did/didn't like, what you'd like to see, ect, as I would love to hear it.

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