Brent Erickson - Noctropolis interview
Ever dreamed of escaping your daily life routine and being a superhero? For Peter Grey, this dream became a reality when Flashpoint Productions and EA transported him into an alternate reality back in 1994, taking players along for the ride. A long time has passed since then, but the gruesome city of Noctropolis hasn’t lost any of its sinister appeal in the meantime. In fact, it's recently gained even more. With a remastered version of the game now released on Steam, we decided it was time to get hold of Noctropolis co-creator Brent Erickson and have a closer look at one of the most atmospheric adventure games from the 1990s. Needless to say, we also used this opportunity to discuss Brent’s projects at Access Software, including the earliest Tex Murphy games. So fasten your seatbelts and join us on another trip down memory lane.
Ingmar Böke: Brent, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers. For those who might not recognize your name, please introduce yourself and give us an idea of what you’re doing these days.
Brent Erickson, caricature-style!
Brent Erickson: Sure. My name is Brent Erickson. I was lucky enough to be around at the birth of the computer gaming industry. From there I was involved with producing more than 30 titles for Access Software, starting with Beach-Head II. After Access, I founded my own game development studio [Flashpoint Productions] and did projects for EA and SEGA, among others. Flashpoint was sold to Bethesda Softworks and I spent another five years working with Bethesda. I left Bethesda and spent some time working on a new company developing automotive simulations, which was sold in 2002. I am currently the Senior Software Engineering Manager for Harman International, a large producer of audio products with brands such as JBL Speakers, Crown Amplifiers, AKG microphones and headphones, and Lexicon and dbx signal processors. It might seem a bit odd that I would end up doing audio software but there is actually a surprising amount of crossover between my gaming background and professional audio. I do actually keep my hand in games through some personal projects. I just can’t keep away.
Ingmar: It would be great if you’d guide us through the development of the original version of Noctropolis. How did the idea for this game come about, and how did you turn it into reality?
Brent: Noctropolis was really the brainchild of Shaun Mitchell. I actually knew Shaun from High School and knew he was an incredible artist. When Access was looking to hire an artist, I tracked Shaun down and ended up hiring him. We started to talk about story concepts and Noctropolis was one that fell out as interesting enough to pursue. In 1992, Shaun and I decided to leave Access and pursue creating the game on our own. We spent several months developing the story, play mechanics and game engine to make it happen. Once we had a reasonable game design document and demo, I contacted a few of my connections in the industry, which happened to include Trip Hawkins and Richard Hilleman from EA. I flew down to the EA offices and presented the game concept and design. At the time, EA happened to be pursuing the “story games” market and was developing some titles of their own such as the The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Noctropolis was interesting and different, and they agreed to provide some funding and distribute the game.
From there it was a lot of hard work. The story was written and re-written several times. The backgrounds in the game are all individually hand-painted. I’m not talking about painting on a computer; these were old school airbrush, paintbrush, acrylic and oil. These were beautiful works of art. We scanned them in and then created the various layers and boundary parameters that allowed the player to interact with the environment. It was a very unique look but was very labor intensive.
The conversation system was also quite complex at the time. There are many paths through the dialog and they each had to be tied, branching and looping in logical ways. Each bit of dialog also had to be scripted just like a movie script, but with the added complexity of having multiple paths. This was one of the first games to shoot video in Hollywood and it was a challenge to get agents and the talent to understand what we were actually doing. At the time there was not even a category for this type of work. We spent a ton of time shooting and editing video. Keep in mind that at this time there was no fancy video capture software. Every tool we used was written from scratch, by myself or my team, right down to video capture and chroma-keying.
When we signed the deal with EA, Noctropolis was supposed to be released on multiple 3.5” floppy disks. Resources were very limited and we worked hard to make it all fit. At some point, EA decided that CD technology had reached an adequate enough adoption rate that we could switch to CD distribution. This opened the project up to some higher quality video and more of it, as well as including more audio and the in-game comic book.
The soundtrack was another area that received a lot of attention and I still occasionally get people asking if there is a way to get the soundtrack in a “modern” format. Over the years I had become friends with a musician and composer, Ron Saltmarsh, who was working at the Osmond Studios at the time. I told him about our project and he became interested enough that we eventually became partners in creating a gaming sound and music studio called Symphonix. Ron eventually left the company after Bethesda Softworks acquired us, but he went on to work on Grammy-winning albums in Nashville and is now a Professor at Brigham Young University. Noctropolis was one of the first games I know of that used fully mastered CD soundtracks during gameplay. It could also do MIDI-based music.
Ingmar: Please describe the story and setting to readers who have not played the original game.
Brent: Noctropolis is a story about a character named Peter Grey whose life in the “real” world is not so great. He ends up being transported into an alternate reality inspired by his favorite comic book. In this new world he assumes the role of a dark hero and must solve a series of puzzles through interactions with the environments and full motion video characters. The environments are dark and moody and the characters are quirky.
Ingmar: Noctropolis introduced us to several colorful heroes and villains. Which ones are your personal favorites?
Brandy Snow as Top Hat
Brent: That’s a hard question because my memories of the characters are a mix of the personalities we created and the personalities of the actors that played them. I think Stilleto was an interesting character and Hope Marie Carlton (the actress who played her) was fantastic to work with – very smart and professional, but also fun, in addition to being beautiful. I also thought Top Hat was an interesting character – kind of a female version of the Joker from Batman. An actress named Brandy Snow, who was a hoot to work with, played her. I actually randomly ran into Brandy not long ago on a flight from San Francisco and we ended up reminiscing about the project. There were so many characters, ranging from Hollywood talent to our own employees.
Ingmar: There was some controversy accompanying the original release of Noctropolis. Please tell us a little more about that. How much did that controversy impact sales and marketing?
Brent: Well, Noctropolis was one of the first games, that I know of, to actually have a topless scene in one of the video sequences of Stilletto. I’m sure it was the first that EA had produced. At that time the industry had just started to push a rating system forward. The rating system was voluntary and Noctropolis was rated “M” by EA. Some may say there were actually two topless scenes but the scene with the Succubus character is actually strategically cropped. We were definitely pushing the limits and it was a tough choice to cross that boundary. It was met with mixed reviews. Some called it a cheap publicity stunt, others praised us for pushing the limits.
Ingmar: What do you remember about shooting the FMV sequences?
Brent: From the outside looking in, it would probably seem that shooting the video would be a lot of fun. The truth is it was a lot of work with brief periods of fun. As I mentioned earlier, the FMV sequences were all scripted like a typical Hollywood script – but ten times more work because of all the dialog paths. Then there were hours of setting up the blue-screen background and getting it properly lit. Cameras, tape recorder, audio equipment was next. Then rehearsals and makeup and props. Then the actual shooting of lines – usually multiple “takes” per line. Then the teardown of the equipment and finally the capture and final editing of the video. It amounted to very long days.
At the time, there was no digital video. We shot on BetaCam, which had the highest quality and best professional-level equipment. Working from tape seems archaic today. It would take hours just to review the footage we shot so we could choose the best takes. The video was then captured, more or less a frame at a time, and then composited into a video using our own tools. The audio was captured separately and then combined and interleaved with the video. It was all very manual but we did the best we could.
A little known fact about the video in Noctropolis is that most of it was actually shot twice. Early in the project, we worked in Hollywood. Casting calls, costumes, makeup, studio, equipment, etc., were all hired in Hollywood. We met and cast some fairly well known talent. About half the characters were shot in Hollywood until I got a call one day from an executive at EA who told me that the project was way over budget and that the shoot in Hollywood was not approved. This was all news to me. We shut things down and I flew into the EA offices in Redwood City to meet with our new Producer. EA apologized for the problem and told us to go ahead and complete or reshoot the video sequences using our own local talent and resources. We were able to find some great actors in Utah and we pretty much did everything else ourselves. Some of the costumes we used were the ones made in Hollywood but we did all the rest. Luckily I had several very talented veterans of the theater that worked for me. We pulled it off.
Ingmar: Can you tell us about any of the Hollywood talent that was originally cast?
Brent: Oh, boy, tough question, that was a long time ago. Most of them were "B" movie actors (we did have a budget). Some of the people I can recall right off that we either talked to or cast were: Cynthia Rothrock, Jeff Speakman, Julie Strain, Fabio, and Brandon Lee. We also used the award-winning Burman Industries to do prosthetics and some makeup.
For the final casting in Utah we had some really great talent such as Hope Carlton (Stiletto), Brittney Lewis (Succubus), David Jean Thomas (Father Desmond), Michael Berger (Darksheer), and Arsenio Trinidad (Whisperman) to name just a few. Full cast can be found here.
Ingmar: You were witness to a time in the industry when FMV seemed to be the next big thing. What do you remember most of those days?
Brent: The first “interactive movie“ that I experienced would have been the classic arcade game, Dragon’s Lair. Although lacking in interactivity, it demonstrated the potential of video in games. Later on, Sewer Shark and Night Trap followed a similar structure with limited gameplay. When I did Mean Streets there were no other games that had video content except for maybe an opening sequence or title screen. Chris Jones and I knew that the current technology limited our ability to develop characters without a lot of background text and effort from the user. Video could establish the personality and intentions of a character in a few seconds. I set about figuring out a way to compress frames of video along with synchronized audio into a form that could fit on early floppy disks and play on limited CPUs. I remember the late night in my basement office when I finally got it working. I had compressed about ten seconds of video down to a few thousand bytes of memory. I immediately called Chris and told him the news. This was originally developed on a Commodore 64 computer entirely in assembly language.
At that time there were only a few options for capturing images into a computer. There were some scanners that could grab a frame of film and a few video capture cards such as the Targa series cards. These cards could barely capture video at 15 frames per second at low resolutions. There was no video capture or editing software – so we wrote our own software to do it all. Our software could control the Targa card and capture video and allow us to add audio and export to my compressed format. Looking back on it, it was pretty amazing stuff.
The other technology that was just in its infancy was green-screen or blue-screen chroma-key technology. It was just starting to be used in movies and TV and there were no commercial products that supported it. If I remember right, the Targa card could do some form of it but not very well. So we wrote our own. Our software could “key” onto a certain color and would use various techniques we developed to remove that color and similar colors and blend the edges of the remaining video image onto a background image. Using the blue-screen caused a lot of problems when shooting. The background had to be lit just right and we had to be very careful about costuming and small details. Blond hair was the worst because the blue color would bleed through the hair and was difficult to remove. But we figured it out and it worked reasonably well.
Ingmar: What potential did you see in FMV at that time, and do you feel like the format was dismissed too soon?
Brent: Video has the incomparable ability to establish the personality of a character. The human mind is incredibly sensitive to facial expressions, eye movements, and contradictions in what is being said and what is visual being presented. Our understanding of what a character is actually saying is a combination of the audible and visual communication. There is no other medium that can do this.
Video is still used in games but is used more as cinematic sequences that contribute or set storyline. It’s very effective for this but I think its greatest value is in character development. In that sense, maybe it has been dismissed too soon. It’s a lot of work to do and is quite expensive both in resources and in cash. Motion capture has become the current standard, for many reasons. But even the most sophisticated motion capture still falls short of capturing the important, subtle nuances of the human character.
Ingmar: As far as I know, EA used to own the Noctropolis rights. What happened in the meantime, and how did the enhanced version of Noctropolis come along?
Brent: EA originally owned the distribution rights to Noctropolis up until it was de-listed and then had the option for two years after that. After that expired, the rights reverted back to me.
Early in 2015 I was contacted by Night Dive’s President, Stephen Kick, over LinkedIn. Stephen introduced himself and let me know he was looking to augment their current “classic” game lineup which included some really great games like System Shock 2 and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. I did a little research and decided to let Night Dive give it a try.
At various times I have thought about re-releasing some of my old games – maybe doing a mobile version or something. The early games are actually a lot of work to move over. They were generally written in assembly language and moving the code to a modern language like C++ is not an easy task. Night Dive did a great job with it. I was impressed. I actually did do some coding on the new version. I rewrote the video playback system. It is a fairly complex system and I actually still remembered (mostly) how it all worked. It was fun to get back into that code for a bit.
Ingmar: What improvements does Noctropolis 2015 offer in comparison to the original version?
Brent: Most of the game is exactly the same as it was in the early ‘90s. The main enhancements involve improving the mouse and keyboard support, and it has a remastered soundtrack. Of course it now supports modern computers systems and graphics cards. There were several bug fixes also made (yes, the old game did still have some bugs in it).
Ingmar: Do these fixes also include removing the dead-ends from the original game?
Brent: Of course software is never 100% bug free (the "programmer's disclaimer") but as far as I know, the dead-ends that were found in the original code have been fixed. Ironically, a couple of these were fixed in the original game in an update that never went out. Back then it was much more difficult to release any sort of patch or update so the fixes never made it into the hands of users.
Ingmar: What aspects of the game are you especially proud of, and what elements could have worked out better?
Brent: I think the game had a very unique look and feel. The way we generated the artwork was very labor intensive but allowed for some very interesting perspectives and moods. The video was also a step forward in quality and quantity.
If I could go back I would work on improving the quality of the animations, especially the player walking. When we started the game we were very concerned about memory use so we limited the number of frames of animation to make sure we could fit all scenes in memory. By the end of the project, memory was starting to be less of an issue and we could have added additional frames and had some "transition" frames to smooth out the change between animations (for example, from walking to standing or from walking left to walking right).
Ingmar: In an earlier interview, Shaun Mitchell said that he wrote a sequel to Noctropolis before Flashpoint was acquired by Bethesda. Even though the game never went into production, it would be neat to get a little insight into that proposed sequel.
Brent: We had several concepts floating around but nothing was developed to a full design state. We also had some other concepts for “story” games that followed similar fantasy or ethereal worlds. When we were purchased by Bethesda we also had access to some of the IP (intellectual property) there and we developed some concepts around extending or branching off of those stories (Redguard and Daggerfall, for example). Bethesda was really more focused on the RPG genre and never ended up developing any more “story”-style games.
Ingmar: Do you see any possibility that there might be a new Noctropolis game at some point in time? Could crowdfunding ever be an option?
Stiletto in one of Noctropolis's hand-painted cutscenes
Brent: This is something I have thought about. I have several files of concepts and preliminary designs that I could bring to life. Mobile platforms bring some added technical possibilities for gameplay that I want to explore. Cameras, GPS and sensors, and cloud connections all have possibilities to enhance a “story” game experience.
I’ve watched some of my friends in the industry do successful Kickstarter (or similar) campaigns, such as Ron Gilbert (Thimbleweed Park), Tim Shafer (Broken Age), Chris Jones (Tesla Effect) and Chris Roberts (Star Citizen) to name a few. It’s definitely worth looking into when that time comes.
Ingmar: You had already been working on games for several years before you joined Access Software. Please give us an overview of your pre-Access activities.
Brent: I published my first game in 1978 called Trek For Riches. It was for the TRS80 Model 1. I was 12 years old at the time. I actually didn’t own a computer yet (they were very expensive) but just happened to be racing my BMX bike on a track that was behind a local University in Washington State. Before and after practice I would spend time in the computer lab there. I was introduced to games like Zork and was captivated by the ability to create your own story based your choices. So I made my own. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I did a bunch of odd jobs and finally earned enough to buy a Timex Sinclair ZX81 kit and built it (I still have it). I rewrote my games in the BASIC language that the ZX81 had on board. From there I bought a Commodore VIC20 and then a Commodore 64 and started to learn assembly language. From there I wrote three other games before being hired at Access Software during my junior year in High School.
Brent's first games, stored on cassettes
Ingmar: How did you get involved with Access Software, and what are some of your early memories from working there?
Brent: I would frequent a local computer store that carried Commodore equipment and one day met Steve Witzel, the store owner. I told him about my work on games and he told me about a local company that was just starting up and gave me Bruce Carver’s name and number. I called up Bruce and basically pestered him into taking a look at some of the things I had done on the Commodore 64. He hired me to help on Beach-Head II and update SpriteMaster with some enhanced functionality. I was the fourth Access employee.
The first Access office was in the upper floor of the company that Bruce and Chris worked for. It was an engineering firm called Redd Engineering. Chris was both Access's accountant and had input on the creative aspects as well. I think, initially, Chris was probably there mostly to run the business aspects of the company while Bruce concentrated on the products. Bruce’s brother Roger Carver also worked for the company. Bruce and Roger were definitely highly technical. Roger came from a military background where he was exposed to computers and started programming. From my perspective, Bruce would take on the highest technical aspects (anything involving lots of math or complicated logic) and Roger would focus on things like animations system or game mechanics. It's really hard to pin it down like that, however, because we all just did what was needed. Roger was an excellent golfer and really helped make Leader Board and Links feel and look right.
Bruce was a “jack of all trades” and quite a perfectionist. Bruce designed many of the product boxes and even did the graphic layout of the boxes. I remember watching Bruce spend hours and days designing, cutting, gluing and folding different box designs. I remember him buying a set of airbrush markers to paint a gradated box cover (I think it was Mach5). I learned a lot from Bruce regarding what was "finished" and how to complete a project. Bruce would work and rework something until it felt right and worked right.
We also had a lot of fun at Access. We often spent our lunch times in the early days playing Frisbee Football or Frisbee Golf at a local park. When we first moved to our own building, Bruce had a small basketball court built inside and we would spend time playing hoops after work or even during lunch (sometimes it got very heated. ) Foosball was also popular. Roger was definitely the champ there. He could really play well. Bruce, Roger and Chris also all played instruments. Bruce on guitar, Roger was on bass if I remember right, and Chris was a very good keyboard player. They would all jam at various times of the day and anyone could join in. I would pop in on the drums every once in a while even though I had no idea how to play the drums. I think Bruce and Chris also wrote most of the music found in the early games.
Ingmar: Do you have any role models among adventure developers/companies that have had an impact on your own approach to this genre?
Brent: The early text adventure games are what piqued my interest in story games. I never met Tim [Anderson], Marc [Blank], Bruce [Daniels] or Dave [Lebling] but they certainly had an impact on my future.
Wizardry also had a large impact on my early games. It was one of the first games that had a graphical representation of the world.
I loved Ron Gilbert’s games and of course I played the classic Monkey Island through several times. I thought his games had a good balance of adventure and humor. I got to know him and Shelley Day in the early days of the Game Developers Conference.
Speaking of the GDC, I definitely learned a lot from the conference and founders there: Chris Crawford, Tim Brengle, and Brenda Laurel to name a few. I think I attended the second conference when there were only about 100 attendees. I’ve even spoken at the conference.
The King’s Quest series also inspired me. Roberta’s reworking of fairy tales was fantastic.
I also love the Ultima series of games. Though not in the same genre as “story” games, they still have deep stories and character interactions.
This was also the time that I was getting interested in the “business” of gaming. I’ve been lucky to get to know many of the game industry’s early leaders like Trip Hawkins, Richard Hilleman, Chris Weaver, Richard Garriott, John Carmack and many more. All have inspired me in different ways.
Ingmar: Before I get to Tex Murphy, what are your recollections of the other games you worked on at Access Software? Please share some of your personal highlights from that time.
Early 3D graphics in Echelon for DOS
Brent: Echelon was actually a product I proposed. We had been developing some 3D technology for Leader Board (which was actually a pseudo-3D) and I wanted to do a game somewhat like BattleZone with what we had. After several iterations, Echelon emerged as a futuristic space combat game. The original name stuck. Echelon was one of the first true 3D games for the C64. I think the only other at the time was Elite. As you can imagine, true 3D was difficult, especially on a CPU with not only no floating point processor but not even a multiply and divide instruction. In Echelon we needed to display objects and terrain at a large distance. I came up with a technique that would allow us to project objects out a great distance and still have a fast update (well, relatively fast; I think we were at 5 fps). The other challenge was putting all the data together. This was all done by hand using large sheets of graph paper and hand-extracting point and line data. There were no 3D modeling programs at the time. Echelon also used a little device that Bruce and Steve came up with called the LipStick. It would basically allow you to “talk” to the game to fire your weapons. It was a bit gimmicky but was very unique at the time.
Countdown was one I actually had a great deal to do with. Not only did I program the thing but I did a significant amount of the design work. Countdown was a bit of an experiment but it did well and is one of my products that is still mentioned fondly.
World Class Leader Board
Leader Board had some interesting “firsts”. I already mentioned the fact it was our first 3D game. The second is that we used a “rotoscoping” technique to digitize the golf swing. We recorded a golfer swinging the club (I think it was Roger Carver, actually) on videotape and then overlaid a sheet of graph paper on the TV screen. Roger then colored each pixel by hand from each frame of the swing. He then digitized it a pixel at a time into sprites. The result was an incredibly smooth golf swing that had not been seen before. The development of Leader Board also allowed me to branch out of the Commodore 64 platform. At the time, the AtariST and Commodore Amiga had been released and we wanted to explore developing for the platforms. I got an AtariST and ended up writing World Class Leader Board for it. The original Leader Board’s golf courses had no details such as sand traps or trees. I added these in the AtariST version and they were then moved into the Commodore 64 version. Of course Links came along a little while later and was one of the first games we did on the Amiga.
Ingmar: So now: Tex, a series beloved by many adventure gamers. What do you recall most about the production of Mean Streets?
Brent: Mean Streets was heavily inspired by the campy early detective movies and mixed with a Blade Runner-like environment. Chris and Doug (Vandegrift) used to make 8mm movies when they were young (actually they still did them when they were grown up). Mean Streets took this love of movies and moved it into the realm of point-and-click games.
Mean Streets was the first to use a pseudo-FMV. The actors were mostly people who worked at Access, with a few actors and actresses who were hired locally. It was all very new. All the video was shot right in our office. It was great fun. Chris playing Tex was a hoot and was quite convenient. Since we were learning as we were going, we could reshoot Tex’s scenes and dialogs many times over, and we did.
Mean Streets was also the first game I know of that used digitized speech. It used our newly developed RealSound technology to play back digitized audio. At the time the Commodore 64 only had an FM synthesis chip that was not capable of playing back digitized audio. We figured out a way to make it do this and that really made the characters come to life.
Originally the design was based around doing a full flight simulator in the game. The technology was originally developed for Echelon; we decided that would be a unique thing to do. Roger Carver ended up mapping out and digitizing, more or less, the West Coast. It was mapped out on a bunch of taped-together graph paper sheets. Specific areas (such as San Francisco) were done in much higher detail. It was painstaking work. But it added something unique to the game.
On the PC side it was the first game Access produced that supported VGA graphics. 256 colors was a lot back then compared to the 16 color EGA graphics we had been using. We still had to support EGA and we came up with some cool technology to do color reduction down to 16 colors.
Ingmar: What do you remember about developing Martian Memorandum?
Brent: For Martian we went back to the more traditional point-and-click style adventure. More work was spent on the story elements rather than on the travel aspects.
This was also the game that used actual FMV. We advanced the technology to the next step where we could do real video sequences. We also began to hire real actors and actresses. Working with outside actors required a different level of discipline in our dialog and story. I think it resulted in a bit more polish in the story.
Martian also introduced a more sophisticated dialog system that used some branching rather just some preset paths or database inquiries. This also added to the depth of story.
Ingmar: What motivated you to leave Access Software?
Brent: I think it was really a combination of things. I had been at Access for nearly ten years. Before Access I had run my own business. I kind of missed that. Access had also grown larger, which made is less personal to me. I had also made many contacts in the industry and people had started to ask me to do products for them. Shaun and I had started talking about concepts and we just wanted to pursue them. All these things together made it the right time to take the leap.
Ingmar: If you had stayed at the company, what direction would you have liked to take the Tex Murphy series?
Brent: I think Chris did a great job moving it forward. The non-immersive world was always a little bit of a problem for the detective genre. You really need a more free-form way of searching for clues and interacting with the environment. We always kind of knew that when 3D technology was advanced enough, that was the way to go for the environments. The technology just wasn’t there and wouldn’t be for several more years.
Ingmar: Thank you very much for doing this, Brent. We wish you all the best with the enhanced version of Noctropolis, and hope that a wide number of adventurers discover this gem the second time around.
Brent: Thank you for the stroll down memory lane. It’s been a pleasure sharing it with you.