Making of Expendable: Exclusive interview with Phil Scott - English Version

When a console is launched, especially in our country, there's often a flurry of games, and the public tends to gravitate towards the safe bet. Thus, when the Dreamcast arrived on European soil, buyers were particularly keen on titles such as Sonic Adventure, Virtua Fighter 3 Team Battle and SEGA Rally 2. The other games, out of the fifteen or so available, then shared the rest of the cake. These included Blue Stinger, Incoming, Monaco Grand Prix Racing Simulation 2, Power Stone, Speed Devils, Trick Style and Millenium Soldiers Expendable. 

The Dreamcast was released on October 14, 1999. As far as I'm concerned, I got the console a few weeks before Christmas, at the very beginning of December, and I remember spending hours on the first demo that came with the official Dreamcast magazine. I was so excited that I bought the magazine before I even had the machine, and I remember often looking at that demo disc and thinking how great it was going to be. As we'd chosen SEGA Rally 2 to play with my brothers, it was through this that I discovered the first level of Sonic Adventure (with the killer whale, what a slap!), as well as Millenium Soldiers Expendable, a futuristic Ikari Warriors super well done! I've always had a particular fondness for less blockbuster games. It's something I often talk about, but Terre de Jeux is precisely my space of freedom that allows me to talk about anything and everything, and above all to shed light on works that the general public generally doesn't give a damn about. 

Quite often, it's the high-potential games that are highlighted (even more so today), but it's enough to mention a few works that went a little unnoticed at the time for positive comments to emerge on the networks. Some people have fond memories of exquisite moments spent on more modest games - or, at any rate, those that very often ended up in magazine zappings. As far as I'm concerned, I have many examples of such games, and Millenium Soldiers Expendable is one of those works which, in my opinion, marked its era. Adapted from the PC to SEGA's console, it was both a technological showcase for 3D accelerator cards, and also a good arcade game, very fun and playable cooperatively. So I decided to contact Phil Scott, co-designer and technical manager of the 3D engine, who kindly replied. It's an opportunity for me to present you with another exclusive interview, and I'm all the more pleased because this is a work that has a special resonance in my heart as a gamer. 

Can you tell us how it all began for you? Was it a career you dreamed of as a child ?

Haha… I originally wanted to be an architect… because I’ve always been fascinated by buildings, but then I got interested in computers at school. There was a small group of us who became obcessed with them, and then programming and well… I didn’t become an architect :)

You've been involved in games with very different concepts. What can you tell us about your early career and your experiences at Tynesoft and Flair Software? You were fully involved in the rise of the PC as a medium for video games.

Tynesoft had a USA publisher called Thunder Mountain who kept asking for PC ports of games. I’d had a bit of experience using PC’s when I was at college for doing serious medical software. One thing lead to another and myself and another colleague started trying to make the PC do something that resembled games. That in turn lead to us getting some games done and we grew from there. I was only 18 at the time, but like about 50% of the Tynesoft crew were my age or a year or two older we just got on with it. The rest were folks who’d been writing a lot of the early 8 bit stuffso I learned a ton from them.

Flair came out of the ashes of Tynesoft really. Nearly everyone had worked at Tynesoft when we started it. Again, this was a chance to really try to make the PC do interesting things. Probably the biggest change was to make PC a first class platform , and we ended up developing a lot of the tools on PC after the first couple of years.

Can you tell us about your arrival at Rage Software? According to your Linkedin profile, it was during the advent of 3D accelerator cards. Can you tell us about a typical day at the studio? Do you remember what the atmosphere was like? Was it an open-plan office configuration?

By this point I’d gotten to be known as a PC specialist really. I’d shipped a ton of games on PC, so pretty much knew it inside out. Rage (Newcastle) was setup by a bunch of folks who I had worked with previously at Flair (note the pattern forming here). Rage Newcastle had done a couple of other games before I’d arrived, and they embarked on their most ambitious project which was a 3D submarine game, which was somewhat like Aquanox or Subnautica. That ended up not being finished for a few reasons…. But thats games.

The studio atmosphere was great because even when I ended up leaving a five years later , the team was still really small, close friends who’d known each other for a long time. The office was quite a small space over two floors which ended up being programming and audio downstairs and art / design and general level building upstairs. We moved to a new place not long before I left , which was a different layout again but generally things were split the same way, just different room configurations.

Days in the studio… good question.. We got a lot of work done. We’d learned how to be efficient. They could be pretty random to be honest just dealing with things as they needed to be done. Probably different to a modern studio we didn’t do big sprints/scrum* process. Everyone pretty much knew what needed doing and we’d just get on with it.

* In the creation of a video game (or other), we speak of the agile method. Work is organized into sprints, i.e. tasks that must be completed before development can continue. The scrum, meanwhile, is a process that facilitates collaboration within teams to achieve these famous sprints. Yes, I'll grant you, it's technical.e particular resonance in my gamer's heart. 

The first thing that strikes you when you see the introduction to Expendable is its uncanny resemblance to The Matrix. Can you tell us where the concept for the game comes from? What were the inspirations (movies, books, etc.) behind the project ? Was there any mention of an alien invasion from the outset?

The ideas … it’s a bit of an eclectic mix. We knew our CEO loved Ikari Warriors/ Commando… We all loved real arcade games… so the game had to have lives , scores and continues. The two player coop thing really evolved from that. At the same time Starship Troopers was showing at the movies and we loved the notion of hoardes of enemies…. Thats probably where the alien idea came from…. And the term Expendable is a line from the movie Rambo*.

* In the 1985 film Rambo : First Blood Part II, Sylvester Stallone uses the term "Expendable" for the first time. In the original version, the term would become a recurrent one in the actor's career, so much so that he would use it for the famous Expendables film series.

What's really interesting is that Expendable, which was a superb technical showcase at the time, was promoted by a number of manufacturers including NVIDIA, ATI and 3DFX. Can you tell us about the technical developments brought about by Expendable? What was your philosophy when working on this project? Well, Liverpool had Incoming which came a good few months before we did. Birmingham was working on Hostile Waters. We ended up shipping after Incoming but before Hostile Waters… Both great games.

Really it was a great deal of learning. Drivers from most folks were really immature. Fundamentally the thing I was determined to stick to was using DirectX rather than individual API’s such as GLIDE. 

To a degree it was about how big of an explosion could we really make… it turned out really big.

We had to build things modularly too so that was a core tenet of how things were built. 

I think it was the first game to ship with bump maps … We supported 3 types, Emboss mapping, EMBM ( aka the Matrox G400 type ) and Dot3 bump maps which are commonplace now. We also had stencil shadows*, which was super new and only supported by a couple of vendors and we also had S3TC/DXTC support which again was probably one of the first games to support compressed textures in hardware.

* Also known as Carmack's Reverse or Z-Fail, this is a technique for adding shadows to a 3D scene.

Lighting wise, I’d come up with a different way of solving the lights as a uniform solver, so any particle, weapon or pretty much anything could be a light, so it was effectively unlimited moving lights….

We just loved that we could have so many bullets and particles.

The entire game was built in the editor , which had all the scripting in it. This was super new at the time as it was akin visual scripting, and you could just hit run and try it out. This saved us so much time in development.

Two things that somewhat go unnoticed but was an enormous amount of work was the two player co-op and the camera work. Lots of tricky problems with puzzles needed to be solved for both single player, and two player situations… you could drop in at any time as a second player to get that whole arcade feel and that really did take some getting right. We always wanted the cameras to frame the action in such a way that you’d have clear view nearly always of the action. It was really nice to see that Edge magazine in their review picked up on this in particular.

For the purposes of the interview, I replayed the game (which I've loved for a long time) and the first thing that struck me was that from the very first scene, you're in for a real treat: lighting effects, smoke coming out of ventilation grilles, rain, blinding lightning, etc. In the blink of an eye, you're in for a real treat. In the blink of an eye, you know you're in for a very visually polished game. Was that the intention?

We just wanted to blow stuffup as that was satisfying. That in turn makes things feel polished. The little touches were to a degree just habit from the way we’d always made games. If you dont touch the controls and the screen is still alive, then it feels like a real world.

The characters appear smaller than their surroundings. The distant view makes it easier to anticipate enemy fire. Did you make this choice for this reason, as well as to give more scale to the sets and effects?

The scale was a real juggling act at times. We wanted you to see so much but not too much.

There is a prototype mode you can get to using the easter egg mode which put the camera into a MDK style view. We argued a lot about if we should switch but it

would have made the 2 player thing much less important and split screen felt like a cop out. … so it made it in as an easter egg.

* Whether on PC, Dreamcast or PlayStation, Expendable offers a trick for playing with a shoulder-mounted camera. 

Although this is an arcade shooter, there's a certain desire for narrative in the player's progression. There's the metro that almost knocks you over at the start of the game, for example, or the alien spaceship that crashes a little further on. Things happen all around the player. How did you create all these scripted sequences? They were all done in the editor that we created… anything in game was done in that.

It’s pretty amazing what the team did with some of those things.

We always wanted to keep you on the seat of your pants so to speak…

We could script events and then switch on their AI, then switch it off… and they go into a sequence etc….

Another element that struck me when I played the game again was the morphing system. When the aliens' mother ship appears, it creates a crater in the ground and we see the ground subside. Was this visual effect difficult to achieve? I cant remember who came up with the idea that needed it… probably Duncan Hall or Roger Bacon, but the implementation was easy enough and again it was just all done in the editor.

To progress, the player needs coloured cards. Was this system inspired by Doom or a game like Loaded?

I dont recall where we got the idea from, but I suspect it’s probably Doom . Pointless reinventing something that worked.

Was the two-player mode envisaged at the start of development or was it added along the way?

Yes, 2 player was fundamental from the first week of development and all the way through.

There was a network play version of the game that we had played with for 8 player deathmatch but it got cut during dev, and then finished for the asian releases of the game with a bunch of new levels. It never made the rest of the world releases. I dont recall why.

Are the camera changes, which occur from time to time, for any other reason than simply to vary the player's point of view? In particular, there are closer-up phases in some levels.

This is so you can always get a good view of what was happening at all times. It was very deliberate.

The bit inside the spaceship and the bonus levels when you play as single player are a nod to the easter egg mode. ( aka Bucket of Chicken mode )

Who is behind the cinematics? Was it Cathy McBurney? They're funny. Cathy did all the FMV, and near all if not all the animations for players and enemies. The in game cutscenes were a mix of Duncan, Roger and I think Pete did some too.

Cathy did all the FMV, and near all if not all the animations for players and enemies. The in game cutscenes were a mix of Duncan, Roger and I think Pete did some too.

What can you tell us about the game's musical atmosphere and sound? The least we can say is that the game manages to capture the impact of the explosions.

Sound was really important … we wanted the guns to be satisfying, and the explosions to be big.

Working with Gordon on this was great…. We came up with a system where he could just keep using sound.

The game had Dolby Surround and full 3d Audio, and we had learned a lot from the previous project about sitting things in spaces around the player so you can hear it all.

Gordon did an immense job on the audio…. I think he made something like 1500 sound effects alone for the game. Each surface had footstep sounds that matched what you stood on.

What are the main differences between the different versions of the game (PC, Dreamcast, PlayStation)? Were other versions, such as the N64, planned? Dreamcast came late in the day. The PC version was finished, and PSX was following along. GPU’s had really been a game changer in terms of what we could do, so it made taking some of the content hard to PSX. Dreamcast was very much a typical PC type performance of the time so was a good fit. It was a launch day title around the world in the end. I dont think we ever really thought N64 was possible.

Many years afterwards, myself and a couple of colleagues from those days did a remake and put it out on Android and eventually shipped on the first NVIDIA Shield ( the clamshell one) on every device. That no longer is available, but to get it running on a handheld after being a PC showcase title 15 years previously really did show the march of time and technology.

Looking back, what do you take away from your time at Rage Software? Rage was ahead of its time. I look back with great fondness. You can make great things with a small group of amazing people, with some real industry legends from the 8bit era as colleagues that you can learn from always.

The CEO told us to always aim big and shoot for the stars… so always do that. Bold, but it really pays dividends in many ways.I left in October 2000 for NVIDIA. The Newcastle team went on to finish Rocky which is a tremendous game. Probably the biggest takeaway was that now and again the magic of ‘WOW’ can still happen when you least expect it. Expendable had a few of those moments in making it.

Expendable is still talked about fondly by an awful lot of people so to leave a mark like that just made us all feel proud I think. 

A huge thank you. In our profession, there's often a tendency to focus on the big licences and the same games, but what I prefer to do is talk about the games that have left their mark on many gamers, but that haven't had the same media impact as the big games. Expendable is a great one to do these days.

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