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Jaakko Peltonen interview - Falcon's Eye, U4: Dawn of Virtue

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Jaakko Peltonen interview - Falcon's Eye, U4: Dawn of Virtue

Interview - posted by Saint_Proverbius on Tue 14 January 2003, 20:23:28

Tags: Nethack: Falcon's Eye

Interview with Jaakko Peltonen

1.) Can you tell us a little about yourself? What you've worked on? What you've done?

Jaakko Peltonen: My name is Jaakko Peltonen; I'm 25, Finnish, and a neural networks researcher by profession.

Lately, I've worked on Falcon's Eye and the upcoming Ultima IV: The Dawn of Virtue. Before that there were some minor things - a map generator program for RPGs, some work in a demo group for the 'Assembly' computer festivals.

I also have some older, unreleased game projects - a chess program, a sci-fi strategy/action game - that I might yet release someday. They're quite playable and of fairly good quality but lack some final polish before I'd feel comfortable making them available. :)

2.) Falcon's Eye is one of the better graphical nethacks. Can you tell us what inspired you to make it?

Jaakko Peltonen: Some years ago, I had started to make an isometric graphics engine just for fun. The graphics looked a lot like Falcon's Eye and even supported different elevations. It wasn't a full game, though. I actually first thought of using it for Ultima IV, but I didn't consider that further at the time; instead, I thought of NetHack, which I had played some times previously.

Computer gamers nowadays are used to high-quality graphics, so new players might not become interested in primarily text-based games like NetHack. On the other hand, NetHack's gameplay has lots of intriguing features - e.g. complex interaction between items and creatures. It seemed natural to create a graphical version, to allow players to better appreciate the gameplay. If that brings new players for the game, great!

I myself hadn't played NetHack very much when I started developing Falcon's Eye, so development was rather fun for me; as I got the interface closer to completion I was able to play the game itself further.

3.) Why did you pick vanilla nethack over something like SLASH'EM or another variant for Falcon's Eye? Why nethack over another roguelike?

Jaakko Peltonen: Falcon's Eye is actually intended to work with any version of NetHack. The compiled version I've made available is based on standard NetHack; that's the most widely used version, I believe. But one can easily compile Falcon's Eye for any of the variants too. The full source code of Falcon's Eye is available for download, so I hope people won't hesitate to use it with their favourite modifications.

Of course, if the variant has lots of new items and creatures, such as SLASH'EM, it'd be better to include new graphics for them. I've often considered making a Falcon's Eye-type interface for SLASH'EM (see a certain image on the links page of the Falcon's Eye site...)

Technically, NetHack works well for interfaces like Falcon's Eye, since it's not too tied to text output. In a fully text-oriented game, I might have had to interpret a text screen into graphics. Instead, NetHack calls the interface by a set of easily customized display functions. All roguelikes aren't as well organized in that respect.

On the other hand, I have thought of making a graphical interface similar to Falcon's Eye for a certain other major roguelike as well - in fact, I've made some graphics for it already. I'm not announcing more details on that project until it's further along, though. ;)

4.) What was the biggest problem when it came to making the isometric interface for Falcon's Eye in terms of programming? How about in terms of the art work?

Jaakko Peltonen: There rarely seems to be a single large programming problem - individual tasks are easy, but keeping the whole working right as it grows more complex takes careful planning.

One of the largest problems were how to make everything intuitive for both mouse and keyboard control. NetHack is geared towards the keyboard, but Falcon's Eye has a lot of new features - context menus, pathfinding, tooltip information, new map screens and so on. The old NetHack keys still work, though, and the interface translates all the new mouse commands to sequences of normal NetHack keystrokes.

Making the interface and graphics customizable also took work. Falcon's Eye lets players reconfigure keys and change options like screen size/music/effects. There's no easy way for players to add new graphics, though; I'd like to improve that.

The basic graphical dungeon display wasn't difficult, but there were challenges in adding some new visuals. For example, Falcon's Eye adds gradual lighting to the dungeon, detects corners and edges for wall/water/lava/ice sections, and chooses different wall and floor styles for rooms to add variety. NetHack doesn't provide such information, so the interface figures them out by itself.

Regarding the art, I wanted Falcon's Eye to have a consistent visual style. That's sometimes a problem for tile games - for example, items and creatures are easier to recognize if they're all drawn large, but for realism's sake a horse and a housecat shouldn't be the same size. Falcon's Eye tiles are moderate between realism and clarity.

Even though Falcon's Eye isn't a full 3D game, the artwork is actually made by 3D rendering; almost all tiles are originally 3D models I've created and raytraced with the free POV-Ray raytracer. So if I ever want to change the camera angle or the tile size, I can just re-render the tiles. On the other hand, 3D modeling takes time, since even small objects can have a lot of detail - see the game's HTML manual for some closeups of items and creatures.

5.) What sort of things can we expect in the future of Falcon's Eye?

Jaakko Peltonen: Here are some things I've though of:

- more graphics and sounds, especially more creature and
item tiles
- savegame compatibility between versions of NetHack with
Falcon's Eye and the official versions
- 'Static' animations, such as flickering torches, creatures glancing
about and water running in fountains. I'd also like to add 'dynamic'
animations like walking and attacking, but they're more difficult
to implement - yet more things for the interface to figure out. :)
- music that responds better to game events like battles
- less bugs (I hope) ;)
- perhaps also free camera zoom, so you can see more of the cavern
at once

I'm always open to suggestions, though, so if there's something crucial missing, one can always email me or discuss ideas at the message forums linked on the Falcon's Eye website.

6.) Have you considering making a major variant to the NetHack rules? Or perhaps another rogue-like? Even making an entirely new one?

Jaakko Peltonen: Sometimes, but I think I'd partly be reinventing the wheel. The NetHack rules have evolved over many versions; there'd need to be a really good idea or reason to drastically change them.

7.) You're currently working on a remake of Ultima IV as well. Can you tell us what impact, if any, working on Falcon's Eye has helped with such a large project?

Jaakko Peltonen: Any large project involves a lot of learning; from the work I've done on Falcon's Eye, I've gained new programming and art skills, and efficiency to get tasks done quickly as they appear. I've also learned to use a lot of programs that have since become common art/programming tools for me.

Overall, though, I feel that Ultima IV: The Dawn of Virtue (U4:TDoV) is a many times larger project. In the first place, it's an entire game, not just a new interface! With Falcon's Eye, NetHack handles the underlying gameplay, but U4:TDoV is a ground-up remake - everything has been made anew.

U4:TDov is also much more graphics-intensive; it uses 24-bit graphics with fully rendered landscapes, 3D polygon characters, spell and weather effects, lighting, all in a real-time engine.

8.) Of all the Ultima games, why did you and the rest of the team pick Ultima IV? Why did you pick Ultima over another series of CRPGs?

Jaakko Peltonen: The Ultima series has been a major part of computer RPGs. We've enjoyed the games and know them well, which helps us make a detailed remake.

Ultima IV is one of the most important games in the series - it introduces many of the key concepts like Britannia, the Avatar, the companions, the eight Virtues, the Codex and others that remained important throughout the rest of the series. It's definitely a game worth revisiting.

9a.) Can you tell us a little bit about the artwork of the game? What inspirations you drew upon to create it? What's your favorite type of thing to work on, model wise?

Jaakko Peltonen: (Note: I broke this into two questions)

There're several kinds of art involved in U4:TDoV - landscapes, 3D creatures, creature/item portraits, interface.

The landscapes are created as detailed 3D models, raytraced and then postprocessed in various paint programs. For example, currently I'm adding details to the town of Trinsic - fallen leaves, patches of grass and cobblestones to liven it up.

The original Ultima games obviously affect how I try to create the landscapes. There's a lively, colourful art style in the Ultima games, and the locations are filled with small details. I've looked at photos of old buildings and castles from across the world for architectural examples.

Ultima games have used a distinctive drawing style for manuals and in-game portraits. While the style isn't exactly the same in U4:TDoV, I've tried to keep an 'Ultima feel' to the art so that e.g. character portraits aren't completely photorealistic but intended to look like drawings/paintings. The portraits are usually based on detailed pencil sketches that I scan, clean up and colour with the computer - a few are made completely in a paint program, though.

The creatures are textured 3D polygon meshes. They're created in various 3D modelers, with moderately low polygon counts, to allow lots on-screen at once. I then create textures for them with a 3D paint tool I created for the purpose, and animate the result with another self-made tool. There are separate animations for idle glancing around, walking, combat and other situations. It sometimes takes thought to get all the fantasy creatures to look natural in motion.

The creature models are perhaps my favourite art - they take much time to create, texture and animate, but when they're done it's nice to set them roaming around the land. :) The current character models are set, but later on they'll change to match what equipment the characters are wearing.

9b.) What are you the most proud of in the game?

Jaakko Peltonen: I'm not sure I can pick a single best thing about the game - if one aspect stands out, doesn't that mean the others need more work? ;)

One feature I like is how the landscapes fit together - the outdoors world is a huge, seamless map, so you can journey in the wilderness and look for new places you missed earlier.

Another is interactivity - you can at least examine most interesting objects or sights; you can open windows, light lamps, drink from fountains, douse campfires, and so on, and the dialogue system is fairly advanced.

The quality of the Ultima series and recent role-playing games places large expectations on U4:TDoV. We're currently preparing a playable demo of the game, and we'll be very interested to hear what people think of it.

10.) Ultima IV: The Dawn of Virtue will feature more dialogue than the original game. Can you tell us what additional types of dialogue we can expect to see? How much more depth will characters in the remake have over that of the original?

Jaakko Peltonen: We've paid much attention to the dialogue. The original game had very short conversations with people; some characters only had one-liner responses to simple questions like 'Name' or 'Job'.

U4:TDoV has much longer, full-sentence conversations with both multiple-choice replies and keywords, so you can both ask people about 'normal' things and find new topics through the keywords. The conversations are very important for the game.

People's responses can vary depending on your character, e.g. based on various skills, who you've spoken to earlier, and other factors. You can get and solve quests through dialogue, gain companions, it can affect your character's abilities and reputation - people will remember what you've spoken about. I think the characters will be quite personable.

You'll be able to converse both with the people you meet and companions in your party - they'll sometimes also add notes to your journal. There's also a lot of writing in in-game books and in item/area/spell descriptions.

Our writers Laura Campbell and Ewan Munro have experience writing Ultima fan fiction, and a detailed knowledge of the Ultima series. We've talked a lot about plot and world details and how to make them consistent with the series. These discussions can be very interesting. :)

In the conversations, we're able to add background detail to both the people and the world - for example about the many changes that happened between Ultima III and Ultima IV. Ultima IV also has philosophical aspects we'll be able to explore through the dialogue.

11.) What type of combat will Ultima IV: The Dawn of Virtue have? What are the elements of the remake's combat system do you feel are the most exciting or the most fun?

Jaakko Peltonen: Combat is real-time but you can pause at any time and give commands while paused. There will be both melee and ranged combat as well as magical attacks.

There was an article at RPGCodex some time ago that discussed combat systems; the 'real-time with pause' system wasn't considered good there. In my opinion, though, the crucial thing is how the system and the battles fit together; well-designed battles emphasize the strengths of the system. Good AI is essential here, so that combat doesn't become an unorganized brawl. Another is that there has to be enough for the player to do during combat - e.g. several types of attacks to use, alternate tactics, items to use and other choices.

In U4:TDoV there can be up to eight characters in your party; you can then arrange them into smaller teams to work on several objectives at once. For example, perhaps there are several groups of enemies - archers, melee fighters, magicians, that you need to protect against simultaneously.

The current combat AI in U4:TDoV works fine but it's fairly simple, and I intend to improve it in many ways for the final game, so that enemies could try to flee/regroup, work in concert, target weaknesses, and otherwise use good tactics against the party.

The current attack/movement system is also simple; I have considered additional options (special movement types, attacks, defenses) for variety. They are fairly easy to include, so it's very possible they might appear in the final game, depending on how useful/balanced they are.

The equipment and magic system and how items/spells/skills affect the 'mechanics' of combat is also important. In the system I currently favour, armour (except shields) doesn't affect the chance of a successful strike. Instead, it absorbs a portion of the damage, and eventually worsens and breaks. One good effect from this is that common items continue to be useful; you can't depend on a single 'best' weapon/armor, since they may break. Magic is based on preparing reagent mixtures beforehand, and launching spells with magic points (mana). You need to anticipate what mixtures would be useful before combat starts.

12.) Will there be any additional characters in Dawn of Virtue? Additional items? New areas?

Jaakko Peltonen: Yes, yes and yes. :) The original Ultima IV was published many years ago, and the technology of the time was much more limited than today's. Besides the completely reworked engine, graphics and audio, we've been able to much expand and embellish the game world and its people.

There are many new characters Trinsic region alone - that's the area players can explore in the upcoming demo. All the original characters are present as well. There will also be new types of hostile encounters - both new creatures and variations of creatures from the original.

There are lots of new items in the game - several varieties of armour/weapons, mundane items like keys/bags/food, magical scrolls and potions, magic or other special items and more.

You'll also be able to interact with items in new ways - for example, examine and repair items, use them on landscape features, or combine items to improve armor/weapons, create potions, or solve puzzles. There are a lot of possibilities - it's almost like an adventure game in that respect.

There'll be numerous new locations - caverns, wilderness sites, dwellings, buildings with several floors. Also, the presentation in U4:TDoV is quite different, and there are many new details (sights, encounters, quests) in the old areas too, so there's plenty to explore everywhere.

13.) Any plans for the future after Dawn of Virtue is complete?

Jaakko Peltonen: A vacation? Nahh... ;)

Thanks, Jaakko Peltonen! Good luck on Nethack - Falcon's Eye and Ultima 4: Dawn of Virtue.

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