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For this interview, I had the honor of speaking with Carl Muller, a man who has worked on such games as Mortal Kombat 2 (Saturn game), FifaSoccer 96 (SNES game), Batman Forever (SNES game), Judge Dredd (SNESgame), Pagemaster (SNES game), Junior League Super Soccer (SNES game), VirtualSoccer (SNES game), Speedball 2 (C64 game), Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles(C64 game), Last Ninja (NES game), Days of Thunder (NES game). And this is just a handful of his programs. He climbed the ladder of the industry,working from tape machines to making some of today's biggest selling games.All of this experience makes for a very unique conversation and perspective into how people find fun in computer-mediated experience.
DM) Was computer programming your initial passion?
CM) Until the age of 12 I wanted to be a travel agent. Then I met my first computer and fell instantly in love.
DM) Then where did you start with computers?
CM) At school in Fiji, I would hurry through my math classes to complete my homework before the end of the lesson, so that I could spend the rest of the period at the keyboard of a CBM 4016. It had a monochrome text screen, a staggering 16K of memory and not one but two tape drives! Naturally I wrote only games on it. I would wander around computer shops in the town and write games on their display machines -Commodore PETs and TRS-80s. In those days computer magazines were full of type-in listings of games. After I typed in one such program on a VIC-20, the shopkeeper sold it to a customer! I led a sheltered life at home in New Zealand writing games for my computers in BASIC and 6502 machine code(first on a VIC-20 then a C64). The machines yielded many interesting technical secrets (such as how to put sprites in the border)but my lack of artistic ability left the games looking rather worse than they played. Writing them without the aid of an assembler, graphics program or a disk-drive also made them slightly harder to develop. This lead me to collect several rejection letters from publishers, including some people I later worked with.
DM) And when did all of your effort pan out?
CM) At 16 I wrote to a games company in Australia(the nearest one I knew of) and asked for a job. They told me to get a degree, so I did. Still a teenager when I finished my honors course, I contacted them again. They told me to join them right away, without an interview. So I emigrated again and was very happy that I had finally got into the industry, and was working on a real, commercial game (Days of Thunder for the NES). My heroes, people like Jeff Minter, Nick Pelling, Tony Crowther and Matthew Smith, who had peopled the Computer and Video Games 1985 yearbook, had been writing games for ages already, and I had felt left out living on the other side of the world from all the exciting games companies, and the Compunet-based demo scene. Joining Beam Software changed all that and my 8 years commercial games programming since has been, on the whole, a lot of fun.
DM) Do you think personal gaming systems like Nintendo and Sega be eliminated by PC's?
CM) No. Firstly, there will be a niche for dedicated games systems for a long time to come. The graphics hardware has been nicer than PC, and unfettered by bloated operating systems. Also there is something rather nice about buying a game and knowing that it will work first time. Secondly, companies such as Nintendo and Sega will maintain their own identity even if they do get out of the hardware business--they still would write good games. Thirdly, Hiroshi Yamauchi enjoys the control over third-parties that having his own system provides far too much to let it go willingly.
DM) How will the Internet affect gaming?
CM) I used the Internet 10 years ago to land an overseas job, so I appreciate that it takes a while to change its character. Mainstream games will continue to support networks, in much the same way as they have supported LANs since the days of Populous. Massively multi-player persistent worlds have also been around for a long time (as MUDs) but with the right circumstances they have the potential to be a social phenomenon. Betting your shirt on such a game is still a risky choice though.
DM) But the speed of machines has also been increasing dramatically. Should this have a great affect?
CM) The power of machines doubles every 18 months, so the problem is how to slow it down (to keep release schedules reasonable, say every 5 years) rather than to speed it up. This is needed to provide a stable target platform (i.e. console games work. PC games don't work half the time). We would have no trouble using up more polygons, more mass storage, more RAM, higher resolution textures and much better sound. It's harder for an artist to draw a decent 80 polygon model than a decent 8000 polygon model--they're good at using up machine power. Also, it takes a few years / projects before each machine is used to its fullest. Look how long it took C64 games to fully utilize the machine!
DM) How will/has shareware affected the games industry?
CM) Shareware has been useful in providing a few people, such as ID, with seed money, but it has had its day. With the spread of the Internet, everyone is used to getting software for free, so I have heard that no-one registers shareware anymore. People used to write free "demo" software before shareware became popular, and they will do so again, either as training for becoming commercial, or as a pastime (like the former head of AutoCad, who is keeping his programming hand in by writing HomePlanet). But shareware itself is less important than two years ago.
DM) Who are your idols ?
CM) Shigeru Miyamoto, for designing the best games ever to grace this planet with their appearance. Alan Turing, for saving the world but being pushed into suicide by an uncaring society. Eugene Jarvis, for his early work (not Cruising USA!)
DM) What do you play in your free time?
CM) Mario 64, Discworld 2, Dungeon Keeper.
DM) What's your all-time favorite game?
CM) Mario 64.
DM) Where do you see the next generation of games as going?
CM) This year, fancy dynamic lighting effects on 3d worlds are in. A good example of this will be our game Forsaken. Blended Motion capture with soft-skinned textured models will also be common, especially for sports games. Gameplay will have to reflect more subtleties to reflect the increased degrees of freedom of both the graphic display and the controllers.
DM) And for two to three years down the line?
CM) For Christmas 1998 or 1999, I would want a game to include soft-skinned landscapes. Wave Race 64 showed how to do this with one surface. It needs to be done with other parts of the landscape as well. Graphics acceleration would make possible smooth movement of undulating shapes, but the tricky part to get running fast would be collision detection. When this really gets hairy is when the topology of the geometry changes--think Lava Lamp here. This technology will allow games to look more organic. Support of multi-player gaming over LANs and the Internet will remain as standard. There are many interesting things that can be done over the net which are held back more by financial reasons than technical ones. Gameplay will seem to progress less rapidly, but the addition of an extra dimension to many genres of games has led to a huge increase in complexity for the same end result. The effect of this is still being worked through. Sequels offer the possibility (if the will is there) to build on the existing display mechanism and game physics with innovative new intelligence routines. Even for original next-generation titles, peoples experience with 3d platform, exploration and fighting games will reduce the amount of effort needed in future to implement the physics, allowing them to concentrate more on gameplay.
DM) And lastly, what can we expect coming from you in the future?
CM) Well, there's Ultra Soccer (N64 game). This has just been announced through the official UK Nintendo Magazine. It has a good chance to chart well in Japan and Europe this Christmas. It has the potential to be the best ever soccer game on a console or computer (it certainly already is the best-looking one!)