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KOTOR II: Interview with Frank Kowalkowski

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KOTOR II: Interview with Frank Kowalkowski

Interview - posted by Exitium on Thu 24 June 2004, 02:57:08

Tags: Obsidian Entertainment; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords

Frank Kowalkowski is a Senior Programmer at Obsidian Entertainment and he was nice enough to answer a few questions. His current game is Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, which is slated for a winter release on both the PC and Xbox platforms. The current programming team on KOTOR 2 also include: Adam Brennecke, Anthony Davis, Rich Taylor, Dan Spitzley, Jay Fong, and Chris "Fearless Programming Leader" Jones.

1) First, would you like to introduce yourself and talk a bit about your current capacity at Obsidian?

FK: My name is Frank Kowalkowski, I am a senior programmer on Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. I will be leaving the team shortly to head up the programming effort on our second title which is another big project for Obsidian. I’ve worked on just about every aspect of The Sith Lords, mostly because our lead programmer Chris Jones was careful not to task me to anything too time consuming in the event our second project launched earlier than scheduled. The result was that I got to touch a lot of little aspects of just about every system from the rendering pipeline to the file system.

Probably the most noticeable system I’ve coded was the new item creation system, though it’s only about 5% of the total work I’ve put into the project.

2) Your first game that made it to market was BG:DA2, which was of course back when you worked at Interplay. That makes two impressively high profile games in a row for you. What were you up to before BG:DA2?

FK: I got my start at Novalogic. I was working on a PS2 version of the Delta Force series that never shipped and the team was ‘dissolved’. I moved on to Codefire, which is legendary for it’s rather ‘interesting’ history. I got plenty of Xbox development experience there which was the primary reason Feargus called me in for the interview on DA2. When I moved to California to break into the industry, I vowed I would one day work for Black Isle. It took me two years in the industry to do it, but it was worth it.

3) While working on BG:DA2 the team faced numerous obstacles and difficulties. If I recall correctly, didn’t a lead get hurt while working on the project?

FK: Our programming lead suffered a physical trauma to his foot that left him unable to walk for months. Still, our producer brought a dev kit to his house and he worked from home as one of the most productive members of the team. We never would have shipped on time without his dedication.

The team also faced several other obstacles. Our lead designer didn’t have a PS2 dev kit until late August (QA passed the build in the first week of October only 2 weeks late). All the artists and designers were sharing one dev kit for a very long time. Interplay was strapped for cash, so there’s little anyone could do with dev kits being as expensive as they are. We also faced horrible attrition rates near the end (aka crunch time) when people saw the writing on the wall at Interplay and left. We went though the most intense part of the crunch short-staffed. Still, we managed to implement almost every feature we set out to include. I can’t express how proud I was of that team. Two more weeks and we would have balanced the difficulty, but that’s in the past. We learned some more from that project and we moved on.

4) When you left Interplay for Obsidian, were you aware that you would be working on KOTOR 2? And what were your initial thoughts when you first realized that you would be working on it and the Odyssey engine.

FK: Yes, I knew about The Sith Lords, but that wasn’t the primary reason for leaving Interplay. Getting The Sith Lords for a first title was a good indicator that Obsidian was thinking long-term. I knew the Odyssey engine was similar to the Aurora engine, so I was pretty jazzed about getting to peruse the source code. I was a NWN junkie for a long time, playing the OC and expansions and writing my own modules. It’s a fantastic toolset.

5) You've worked with the Snowblind engine on BGDA2 and now the Odyssey engine on KOTOR 2. Could you compare them? What some of the strengths and weaknesses of each.

FK: There’s almost no comparing the two engines other than to say they both have pretty good toolsets for the designers. Danien Chee, one of the BIS programmers, further modified the Snowblind toolset into a massive project management front end. He saved us months of development time and made the whole build process accessible to anyone on the team. Graphically, both engines do the job and do it well.

As far a weaknesses, I can’t really say as there’s anything too drastic with either engine. What weaknesses people may perceive from playing the game are actually a result of some of the engine’s greatest strengths. Eliminating those weaknesses would create noticeable vacuums elsewhere.

6) When BioWare handed over the Odyssey engine for Obsidian to get started on KOTOR 2, how much assistance did you receive? Did they give you their development tools and software or did you have to create your own, and how much modification did you do? Did you spend a lot of time on the phone with the guys at BioWare when you were first learning the engine, or were you fairly independent?

FK: There was quite a bit of initial support to get us started, but most of us here come from Black Isle where we had experience working with BioWare and their code base so the transition was relatively painless. Those of us who hadn’t worked directly with BioWare in the past had experience working on existing engines, so we were all down with OPP (other people’s programs) BioWare was certainly there if we needed them.

7) Did you do any special research before starting work on KOTOR 2? How many times did you play through the game? Is there anything you saw that begged to be added or changed?

FK: I played the original KOTOR as the Light Side Jedi. I didn’t really think about changes until I read the design doc (DD) for KOTOR 2. I think the team nailed most of the complaints. My only issue was that I could get through the game just spamming Critical Strike—that’s been resolved as the other combat feats are much more useful and a bug with Power Attack has been addressed. Now it’s more of a decision of when to use a specific combat feat rather than relying on ‘Ole Critical’ to get you past everything.

8) Many fans have been asking for mod tools for KOTOR 2. Several RPGs in the last few years have shipped with editors (Neverwinter Nights, Morrowind, Arcanum, etc.). I'm betting that the tools that you've worked with aren't as polished and friendly. Would a Neverwinter Nights module-maker be in for a shock if presented with the tools that you're using for The Sith Lords?

FK: The Sith Lords levels are all pre-lit and exported from MAX. This already adds a level of complexity not seen in Neverwinter Nights and would remove the ability to create levels for most people. There are dozens of similarities between the engines, but just as many differences. No, I don’t think it would be a ‘good thing’ to release the toolset as it currently exists.

9) Have you ever helped to create a game engine from the ground up? Would you prefer doing something like that, or would you rather work with an existing engine and move from game to game a bit more quickly?

FK: At Novalogic we were trying to create an engine from scratch while plugging in bits of Nova’s other technology. I’ve learned that if you plan to start an engine from scratch, it’s probably best to start with a clean slate. I personally am a game play freak—but I’ve also started to get more involved in low-level engine work. I wouldn’t mind creating an engine from scratch, but making cool games is at the top of my list. If it requires us to build a new engine, so be it.

10) Of the games you've played recently, what are some things that you've seen that have made you say, "Wow! That programmer is really impressive." Have you seen anything in other games that have inspired you to do some new things in KOTOR 2?

FK: It’s impossible NOT to analyze a game you play. I thought when I first started in the industry it would ruin my ability to enjoy games. It hasn’t, but I still do look at stuff and go ‘that’s clever’ and also come to a conclusion pretty quickly about how something similar COULD be implemented in our engines. Sometimes I’ll see a feature that will start a train of thought that leads to something completely different that gets implemented.

11) How often do the designers ask you for something eye-rollingly difficult or impossible? How many eye rolls has Avellone caused you--or have you lost count?

FK: Many a programmer is going to cringe when I say this—but nothing is impossible. Everything is a matter of time and usually presenting a timeframe for implementation is the best way for the designer to make a decision on what they want. Yes, I can do feature X, but it will take 3 weeks and it means feature Y won’t ever be fully implemented before we ship. Sometimes it’s worth doing feature X, sometimes it isn’t worth the hit to feature Y.

I can think of one instance on this project where we had grand ambitions for improving a certain aspect. I sat down to look at the existing code and realized we wouldn’t be able to make the full set of changes without rewriting the entire system. What was already there was very cleverly written and was capable of everything the first game needed, but we did have to cut some of our more ambitious desires. We reassessed our improvements based on what we discovered and managed to get some good improvements into that system.

12) If you’re able, what is the most difficult thing you have had to do so far, on any game?

FK: On DA2, it was ‘letting it go’. There’s always more you want to do on a project, even after the months of 16 hour days. At some point you have to decide to ship it.

13) Obviously the programming team must work fairly closely with the designers. How closely do you work together with the artists and animators on The Sith Lords?

FK: Programming superstar Jay Fong works with those guys almost daily. He’s been responsible for many of the new graphical features you will see in KOTOR 2 (weather effects, frame buffer effects, etc). He’s also helped them address animation and model difficulties. Chris Jones also works with them fairly closely. It really depends on your programming role, but I think everyone on the team has had to sit down with an artist at one point.

14) The designers often get all the fame, while the programmers are often like the drummers of the band, under appreciated. I am guessing that this leads to a bit of a rivalry. Any interesting pranks to share?

FK: Drummers get all the chicks. Programmers are more like the bassists—it’s hard to notice good programming, but it’s very easy to notice bad programming. There’s actually a close relationship between design and programming, so I don’t think anybody really feels the need to prank someone because of their position. If you get pranked, it’s because of who you are, not what you are.

15) You're really active on the message boards of the games on which you've worked. Have there been any instances in which thoughts and opinions expressed by the fans have had an impact on you or the game?

FK: Sometimes it happens. Sometimes a fan will post something and it will open the flow of ideas in someone. We may not implement the idea, but that idea may have got us thinking about something that DOES get implemented. We‘d be naïve to think we have all the answers.

What many gamers should also realize is that while we like to hear from them and like to listen to them, many times we have tried their ideas or something similar to them and they simply don’t work. Also, because we don’t reply to an idea or implement an idea we may have liked doesn’t mean we aren’t listening. There are many reasons ideas and features never make it into a game.

16) What many people, including some of you co-workers, might not know about you is that you’re an amateur physicist. For those who don’t know it, can you share some of your keen insight into the relationship between missing socks and the ever expanding universe?

FK: (For your reference)"The laws of physics do not apply to dryers--socks can and do simply cease to exist. However, conservation theories would imply that with each sock that vanishes one should be appearing somewhere? If you have cats, you know that place is under the bed or behind the dresser (or wherever they hang out when you aren't home). Then again, the theory of an ever-expanding universe could be supported by the loss of mass due to sock vanishings (if it happens in large enough quantities, what appears to be a localized phenomenon on earth could be a widespread problem on a planet of evolved millipede people--imagine the number of socks THEY are losing per year). Over billions of years, that's a lot of socks (especially if they make their socks out of heavy materials). Has anyone ever tried to dry one sock at a time to see if it vanishes?")

Yeah, sometimes I have one of THOSE days. And our cats still steal our socks when given the chance.

17) Lastly, which path through the game are you looking forward to playing through first when it’s completed? Light side or Dark side?

FK: Light Side, because it’s always more tempting to play the Dark Side =)

Thanks to Frank Kowalkowski for his time, Capelworth for his help with questions, and again thanks to the LucasArts P.R. staff for their help.

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