Sunday, November 16, 2008

Underengineering Undead

We learn more from our failures than from our successes. In A Developer's Life Stages, the first stage is The Underengineer, in part inspired by this poignant failure.

As a college freshman in late 1992, I started making an Ultima VI-like role-playing game.

In researching this post, I went through my journals from that time period to try to figure out exactly how Undead failed. One glaring issue is that ~75% of the journal was about girls, with the remainder divided among writing music, painting classes and working on the game. While totally expected for a distractible teen, given the difficulty of the task and a rapidly approaching deadline (discussed later) it's not a good indicator of eventual success of the project. Nevertheless, software development is a human activity and must coexist with other human activities. Initially, I was more interested in producing an Ultima-esque demo that would get me a job at Origin Systems.

I met a classmate in my speech class at school named Alex Kapadia. Alex had some experience with sound programming and was a game fanatic. I showed him what I'd built, he was thrilled and we began collaborating. At the time, we were playing a game called Solar Winds distributed by a small shareware company called Epic MegaGames before it shortened its name and became known as the world-class developer of Unreal and Gears of War. Each time the game ended, up popped an ad by Epic requesting developers to send in their games for publishing. We sent Undead to Epic and awaited a response. We didn't have to wait long. In early summer 1993 we knew that we would be working with Epic. We sent several versions to Epic over the following year. As it started to gel a bit, we began working more closely with them.

JOURNAL 12/06/93: Talked to Tim Sweeney (president of Epic MegaGames) today. Wow, he knows games. He gave me a lot of good suggestions. He's looking into an artist and musician for the game. He was talking some intense MONEY!!!!!!!!!!

Tim estimated that the game would make Alex and I $40,000, which was an unfathomable amount of money for me as a 19-year old.

JOURNAL 12/08/93: Today Dan Froelich, musician and composer for Epic called me. He lives in Kansas City (that's crazy!) and works for Informix. He told me a lot about how the game publishing thing works. After finals week, we'll get together.

We did end up getting together, Dan, Alex and I at Manny's, the finest Mexican restaurant in Kansas City. He told us a lot about Epic and the business of developing shareware games. He also brought beta copies of Epic's Xargon and Ken's Labyrinth, developed by wunderkind Ken Silverman.

JOURNAL 12/15/93:

From Tim Sweeney (via E-mail):
Date: Wed, 15 Dec 1993 04:28:24 -0500 (EST)
From: Tim Sweeney <70451 .633=".633""">
Subject: RE: Undead & Pinball
Message-id: <931215092823_70451 .633_fhg40-1=".633_fhg40-1""">
Content-transfer-encoding: 7BIT
Thanks! It's great that you and Dan live in the same town. I hope you'll be interested in working with Dan - he's been with us on Jill, Kiloblaster, Brix, Solar Winds, Adventure Math, and Xargon and his experience working with these projects would be helpful in addition to his music! I'm looking forward to seeing more of Undead! It's the best "first" game any author has shown us. Judging by your coding and artwork, your game has great potential and you have tremendous potential as an author. Undead still has a long way to go in developing a story, creating all the artwork, and turning it into a fun, unique, and successful shareware game, but it looks like you have the perserverence to see it through to the end. Keep up the great work!

-Tim, Epic MegaGames
(3:22 AM - normal business hours for we game developers) :-)

A House of Cards

In late 1993, we believed Undead was going to be an enormous hit. The possibilities appeared endless. Even so, I was starting to deeply fear that I wouldn't be able to finish it. Undead had grown in complexity so much that modifying it was becoming difficult. It was approaching 20,000 lines of C and assembly and because it had no higher level architecture to speak of, I was losing my ability to understand it. Disparate pieces were tightly coupled. There was no layering of subsystems. Significant numerical values were hard-coded everywhere. Every line of code I added made it harder to work with. It was like going from troweling wet concrete to chiseling hardened concrete. This was a classic case of underengineering and I was unequipped to fix it. I was scared. Instead of confronting that issue, I began obsessing over the art - most of the development time was now spent in DeluxePaint getting the art just right.

JOURNAL 03/02/94: Undead is gaining bugs as I try to fix it! Argh. And it's having memory problems -- specifically, not enough static memory.

Worse yet, I had a deadline that I hadn't yet shared with Epic. In a year, more or less, I'd be leaving the country for two years without access to a computer. Now, I suspect I could have fixed Undead's woes given enough time, but I didn't have that time.

Man on a Mission

I grew up in the Mormon (LDS) church. Although I left the church many years ago now, at the time I was devout and determined (and expected) to become a missionary (I'll write sometime later about why this was the right choice, despite my eventual leaving). Around March 1994, I called Tim and told him that I had committed to leave for a two-year mission to central Mexico sometime around September. Understandably, he wasn't happy. I'd naively assumed (wishful thinking) that I would be able to get everything done before leaving in the fall. He knew better.

JOURNAL 03/26/94: BAD NEWS. Tim Sweeney got the copy of Undead. He told me he thought it was fantastic, but that there was no way on earth I was going to get it done before August. In addition, he said it would be absolutely obsolete when I got back. 03/27/94: I didn't realize how upset I was about what Tim said about Undead not being done until I woke this morning and I had been having nightmares about it all night. Of course he's right and I knew it anyway.

Obsolescence was always on our tail and we felt its pressure even during development. The style of game that Undead represented was an Ultima VI class game when the RPG state of the art was Ultima VII and in 1993, Doom (as shareware no less!) splayed the writing on the wall for all 2D games.

Perhaps, as a project, this was doomed from the outset for many reasons. The most obvious was my leaving before it was done. Compared to what I build today, though, the game was not at all complex. It should have been straightforward to build it in a year-and-a-half. It's been said that programming ability manifests at a young age, while skill in software architecture comes much later. In the end, I knew the dark secret. It wasn't merely unfinished, it was unfinishable.


zadam said...

That last sentence is magic! I will remember and try to impart that wisdom onto all that are ready for it :)

It certainly helps to put ones' previous 'unfinished' projects in the more realistic light they deserve.

Nice work.

Anonymous said...


refactoring code is the hardest part. Sorry to hear about your tough learning experience...

That is one thing I learned the hard way as well. Engineering code starts for me way before the computer is turned on. Mostly on paper! :)


RyanB said...

Wow, the game looked great, considering you were a highschool kid with no previous experience.

And 15 years later, I'd go out on a limb and say a reliable process for software estimation still doesn't exist. Maybe in another 15 years...

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