Part 1 [02/02/2001]

eric yiskis 1 ·Odd Squad
Eric Yiskis, Lead Programmer
Numerology and Talking Snakes

I started programming video games in the”Genesis” era. No, I’m not talking about Adam and Eve running around naked in the Garden of Eden playing hide and seek with God (Genesis 3:8). I’m not referring to talking snakes, magical apples of knowledge, or sea serpents (Genesis 1:21 – 3:1). I had a snake once, a Colombian Boa Constrictor. It didn’t talk (not to me anyway), but it was”hell” on mice. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against magical apples of knowledge — they would be great for fixing bugs before a deadline. (That’s a good idea; I’ll make a note: “producers, please bring magical apples of knowledge instead of Thai food and Diet Coke during crunch time. Thanks. Programming Dept.” Seems like a reasonable request.)

No, I’m not talking about 2000 years ago in biblical times (even though it seems that long), I’m talking about the time when the”16-bit” Sega Genesis was a state of the art game machine. Let’s first talk about the numerology of the situation. (Those of you who don’t believe numerology exists in computers have never heard two geeks have a theological argument about whether a 500 MHz Macintosh G4 is faster than a 733 MHz Pentium III — I have, and it’s not pretty.) First of all, what did they mean by”16-bit?” The Nintendo Entertainment System had an 8 bit processor, and so it was considered an 8 bit machine — makes sense. The Genesis had”16 bit” embossed on the face of it. But the processor was 32 bits with a 24 bit external bus, it had 6 bits of color and 8 Megabits in the cartridge. Which”16-bits?” I guess we will never know. It is interesting to note though, that the Genesis processor ran at less than 8 Megahertz. Would you buy an 8 Megahertz PC? Not likely; it would be ungodly slow!

Now, here we are in the year 2001. We made it through the millennium without frogs falling from the sky, rivers turning to blood or the world coming to an end. We haven’t found any black obelisks with loud mind altering choral music emanating from them. We do have really fast computer and game consoles, though. When it comes out, the XBox will have a processor that is at least a hundred times faster than the one in the Genesis. That must mean that the games we play on them are a hundred times more fun. . . Right? Well, no actually. There are lots of games on the Genesis that are more fun than some of the current games. Let’s face it, there are new games coming out all the time that are really lame (if they work at all). When I buy a PC game, the first thing I do is download the”patch.” .

The awful truth is that the best technology in the world doesn’t guarantee fun; it only creates the potential for it. Some game companies seem to forget this fact somewhere along the way. They will do a tremendously technologically advanced game that isn’t fun, while some other companies are using slightly older technology, but spending their efforts on the gameplay and succeeding in making terrific games. Look at a game like Half-Life . . . they used an engine that was one generation behind, and they ended up with Game of the Year! Conclusion, if it’s not fun, you are wasting everybody’s time.

Okay, so how do we make it “fun,” and specifically how do the programmers make it fun? This is where the real head-scratching comes in. This is where we could really use that black obelisk with the choral music or the magical apples of knowledge from the talking snake. It’s not a straight-forward process, and it’s the topic of my next OddSquad article. –the end