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~=  MY INTERVIEW with MIKE LUTYNSKI  =~

            I was contacted by Mike Lutynski, one of the programmers for the PC/Mac remake of Killing Time, and he was nice enough to grant me an interview about his background as a programmer and his experience working on a forgotten gem from the FMV era of gaming.

            Mr. Lutynski, how old were you when you started programming games?

             I was 10 when I first started, back in 1980. I learned to program because I saw a Phoenix arcade machine and thought to myself, "I want to make that!" My games were wannabe copies of what were in the arcade at the time, like Space Invaders, yet I couldn't wrap my head around how to make the player's bullet move at the same time as the enemies.

             Nice! What was your first computer then?

             My first computer was a Sinclair ZX80. This had a temperamental membrane keyboard, a paltry 1K of RAM, and a screen that could not animate anything, so was completely useless for games. Yet like an iPhone, it had a simple industrial design that made it desirable for its own sake.

            It's a cute little machine if nothing else. I'll add a link to oldcomputers as well, for the curious.

            What was your favorite computer for programming, out of all the computers you've used in your career? Favorite for whatever reason, like efficiency, ease of use, nostalgia...

             For programming, definitely the Apple II+. I used one for about 6 years, an eternity in computer years, and a testament to its forward-thinking design.

            The Apple II+ was certainly limited... yet it seemed there was always some clever way to surmount those limitations, which endlessly fascinated me. Applesoft BASIC not fast enough? Learn 6502 machine language! Can't mix text and graphics side-by-side? Make a character shape table! Sound effects too primitive? Plug in a Mockingboard, or blatantly copy someone else's polyphonic code and call it your own!

            It was hacker heaven, and I was addicted to the point where I finally had enough money to buy a next-generation computer, I could only get another machine in the Apple II family, even though there were much more interesting machines, like the Amiga. It was addiction to quality engineering, and I was such a fanboy toward Steve Wozniak, for his lucid design choices.

             A lot of brilliant games were made for the Apple II, if I remember right. Castle Wolfenstein immediately comes to mind.

             Yes, Castle Wolfenstein, Aztec (my favorite), Drol, Archon, Ultima I-IV, Choplifter, Lode Runner, Marauder, Karateka, Dino Eggs, Transylvania... many of them astounding for the experience they could evoke in 64K.

             How did you finally get into the gaming industry?

             I got into the gaming industry through my connections and reputation in the Apple II world.

            I had spent 5 1/2 years passionately writing a 3-D program called "Animasia 3-D" for the Apple IIgs. The market wasn't there, but when a fellow Apple II friend was hired at a game company called Logicware, he put in a few good words for me, and I jumped at the opportunity to leave Florida for Los Angeles.

            For a young man to get paid to make games, it is like a dream come true, only that some of the games were not exactly ideal, like some children's games. And that's where the fantasy breaks down and reality comes in.

             I've heard horror stories from other game designers.  If I remember right (again) the team behind "The 7th Guest" formed their own company because the alternative was "work on a McDonald's game for the nes."  Fuuun....

            Did your programming jobs come in varieties other than videogames once you established yourself in the industry?

            Yes, my programming jobs were varied besides videogames. Nothing notable to mention, though.

            How many games have you worked on to date?

             Just enough to know that if I'm not working on what I'm passionate about, then I'm not going to bother. It's too much work for too little addition to the collective works of mankind. I've seen too many games just become a tiny cognitive blip and disappear into nothing. "Is it really worth it?" is something I've asked myself often enough.

            But to answer your question, 6 commercial ones that I remember, Killing Time PC one of them.

             What makes you passionate about a project, then?  That is, what sort of project grabs you to the point where you feel it's worth the blood, sweat, and tears to make it a reality?

             The sort that have something to say. That take a solid position.

            It doesn't have to be something noble or grand or anything like that, but it has to be clear and deeply meaningful to the other person. I would be happy to shed the blood, sweat and tears if someone were to say, "okay, let's explore 'joy' in a game, I mean really explore it!" That would get me excited.

             Is that how you were attracted to Killing Time? The project knew exactly what it wanted to be?

             No, I had no such choice. I was hired for Killing Time, and I didn't even know it.

             That's odd...How exactly were you drafted onto the programming team for Killing Time?

             I was drafted into it when I heard one or two sentences about my responsibilities, like, "you'll be working on Killing Time", but I didn't know what that meant.

             The PC version was made for Windows 95 according to the manual.  Was it difficult to design games for Win95, given its reputation for instability?

             It was heaven, actually. We developed on Windows 95 for Windows 95 and I remember it being solid for the most part. Plus a flat, 32-bit address space; hardware floating point; CD-ROM drives becoming standard; and 16-bit video. I loved every minute of developing for it.

            Plus, since the Internet was nascent and the spread of viruses, trojans and whatnot was so minimal, this meant that user PC's weren't encumbered by bloated anti-virus software. So the OS that came out of Richmond is what people used, versus now where computers are bloated out of the gate by OEM's sensing a buck-o-tunity. This is where I normally, passionately segue into the benefits of Linux, so I'll stop here :)

             It's too bad it's such a pain to get Win95 games to run anymore.  I still have my Win95 library and haven't been able to play with it for ten years.

            Yes, there are some creative games from that era. Blood is one of my all-time favorites, and it runs perfectly under DOSBox, albeit a DOS game. I find where there's a will, there's a way. Linux's Wine does a good job of running many older games, and I can use VirtualBox (with Guest Additions) to run anything else that needs a true Windows host.

             Blood is easily on my top ten action games list.  I bought it at GOG.com last year and finally got to play the expansions.

            Can you tell us why the PC/Mac version of Killing Time was a remake rather than a direct port?  Was it just the project leads' stylistic choice or a matter of necessity?

             I had to ask Rebecca Heineman, the lead technical programmer, for her recollections because I wasn't part of that decision process. She says:

            "It was done because the 3DO version wasn't as good (Level wise) as the PC games of the time. The levels were really small and designed for the limited 3DO platform. We did huge levels that loaded quickly so it appeared it was one giant world.... When compared to PC titles at the time, the 3DO version was really simple."

             Yeah, that makes sense: the 3DO version would need a shot in the arm to compete with the shooters on the market.  The PC version made better use of the ghosts as well, probably because the locales were more realistic.

            Which aspects of the Killing Time code did you work on?  Did everyone have their designated areas of the engine to code?

            Yes, everyone had their designated areas of the engine to code, yet the engine was pretty much fully in place when we began, which was due to "Burger" Heineman's excellent pre-existing code. I only added a little to it. By the way, her novel proposal was to "stack" the levels so that you could have true under/overpasses, something that was technically impossible in a Doom-style engine. We were mentally prepared to do it, but as it turned out, we didn't have the right level editing tools, nor enough time to implement that approach. So we would up with the most expedient "just ship it" solution, which was a regular Doom-style engine but with fast loading levels to give the appearance of one large map.

            Mainly, I supported the level designers by making tools they needed. Cleverly, we came up with re-using the Build engine's wonderful level editor (from Duke Nukem 3D) and converting those maps internally to our Doom-style map.

            I also took all the ghost movies, cleaned them up, and wrote code to play them in the level. I heard those movies play over and over and over... way too many times. Hearing Tess harumph is still embedded in my brain.... arrrrgh haha.

            I implemented the cheat system, so if you typed in SCOOBYSNACK, you would get max health. Just don't type in IDKFA...

            So it was mostly tools for the level designers: boring but necessary stuff.

             Yeah, seeing the movies over and over again would probably drive anybody out of their mind.  I really loved the actors in the game, though: they were a lot of fun to watch, which was rare for the FMV era of gaming.

             Yes, it was rare to have actors in a game, and I can't think of any other first-person shooter that had them.

             How much of the code did "Burger" Heineman produce before hiring the other programmers?

             I went to the legend herself, and had a quick back-and-forth recollection:


            Burger: For Killing Time? I wrote the entire game. Each project, I recall having anywhere from 5% to 100% of the work.

            Michael: I know. I think I only wrote a handful of functions.

            Burger: Yeah, it was a handful. Not many.

            Michael: But I guess what would be interesting to know is how much of the engine was made for other projects before Killing Time?...

            Burger: The engine was written from the ground up for Killing Time.

            Michael: ...I'm trying to remember which game your Doom engine was powering before KT.

            Burger: I did the DOOM port, and it inspired a lot of Killing Time

            Michael: I guess I was confusing your other ports with your original code

            Burger: So there were many similarities, mostly because we were using DOOM level editors. So I had to read DOOM data, with a lot of extensions.

            Michael: I remember now

            Burger: My engine had a lot less limits than DOOM. Which was why we were able to do levels that would crash DOOM (We used DOOM when I was writing the new engine as a stop gap)

            Michael: oh yes

            Burger: I remember having to write a brand new object system, because Killing Time could "snapshot" all the monsters when you switched levels, and restore the "snapshot" when you went back, so everything was undisturbed

            Michael: I remember the attempt at wanting to create under/overpasses with stacked levels, but if only you had more time

            Burger: Yep, I even had a prototype, but we couldn't write a level editor to handle it in time.

            Michael: yes, that would've been a major undertaking in itself

            Burger: That was what killed the idea. The engine could handle it, making the asset editor prevented us from actually taking advantage of it.

            Michael: I remember Steve [Parsons, business side of Logicware] even asking if we could make it multi-player...! haha

            Burger: Oh, yeah.... Ha ha ha

            The entire game was all based on a single player experience. The concept of doing a multiplayer game with those levels... You'd spend most of your time lost, just looking for ANYTHING to shoot.

            Michael: did you make any tests of the under/over aspect working? I don't remember seeing that

            Burger: Yes, it really wasn't hard. I added a "level enumeration". I had a floor level/texture, ceiling level/texture, followed by more... It was a simple for loop to draw it.

            However, making the level editor deal with this data format and display it? OMG, I gave up after a week of effort

            Michael: hmm, wish I got to see that, would've been something for a Doom engine

            Burger: Yes, it would have, However, we did have a deadline and we needed to ship it.

            Michael: "just ship it!" [an in-joke saying we used to have when we were pressed for time] and then Quake came out and it was moot

            Burger: Bingo. Which was really why the engine was never used. again that is.

            Michael: cue Tess: "Pity."

            Burger: :P

 

            I'm grateful that Burger was able to contribute a bit of insight to this as well.

            Quake seemed to smash the competition's chances like a brick through plate glass that year. And it really is too bad that PC/Mac Killing Time couldn't be multiplayer -- maybe respawning monsters would've balanced things? Who knows.

            Now I'm wondering what the work environment was like at the office. Did you guys interact a lot or was everyone confined to their own caves until the project was done?

             The work environment was so much fun! There were near-daily, office-wide LAN deathmatches. One of the company co-founders was across the hall from me, and I'd hear, "Hey Crypto! (my nickname) Come join in the game! C'mmmmon!" We were virtually required to participate in the games during work hours, and whatever work-related frustrations we had before the match, we were feeling much more relieved afterward :)

            Sometimes the office deathmatches got personal, and I remember at least one fist-fight that broke out among two programmers afterwards. Something about unfair, cheap tactics to goad the other into a response. And it worked. The office manager, a woman, had to get between the two pugilists, haha.

            One project was running tight toward the deadline, so the external project manager got us to work longer by offering to buy us each an arcade game machine of our choice. So I had two arcade game machines in my office, a Pac Man and a Pac Man Jr. I remember that they used to warm my office in the winter and some of my co-workers would come in to play a game to blow off some steam.

            Yes, we interacted a lot over the central meeting area, or by playing games, or just walking by each other's offices and seeing what was happening. It was very much a boy's fantasy job.

            It's any wonder how our games actually shipped, ever.

             Gawd, I wish I had a job like that...

            What was the biggest challenge you faced while coding Killing Time? That is, for yourself and/or for the team as a whole.

            The biggest challenge was not knowing how to manage my time nor the project's. I was working a lot, nearly living there, especially toward the end of the project, and the result was more stress than I knew how to handle. I was young and inexperienced in this regard.

            Other more mundane challenges were figuring out how to create a reliable build process. It was all very hacky and by-the-seat-of-our-pants. "Would some art asset disappear? Would it get overwritten?" I would roll into work in the late, late morning praying it didn't blow up somehow.

            I've never worked on a game design team, but I can see that sort of stuff causing a lot of stress, like when the design department decides to get rid of a game aspect you were almost done refining.

            Was part of your inexperience due to having never worked on a game of that scale before? Or were there communication issues between the design and programming departments as well?

             Well, if there were any communication issues between the design and programming departments, it would just mean we were too lazy to walk a few doors down to the other person's office. No, the communication was very fluid.

            My inexperience was both technical and personal. Technical in the sense that I relied on other veterans like Rebecca "Burger" Heineman or Scott Campbell to light the way for me, which gave me a sense of security.

            But the interpersonal part was definitely the hardest. I was lacking essential people skills and I didn't even know it. Looking back, I had to take myself completely out of the youthful, immature computer gaming industry to grow in that regard. Young, self-absorbed male computer programmers are not people I want to hang out with even now.

             I don't envy you that part of the job.  I imagine they're a lot like young, self-absorbed gamers, except with massive "hacxing skillz" ego.

            What does the future have in store for Mike Lutynski? Any exciting projects in the works?

             I left the gaming industry, but it didn't leave me. I have ideas, lots of ideas, but not enough time at the moment. Someday, somehow, they'll get out there, and the territories I want to explore are the mind, consciousness, identity, humor, joy... that kind of stuff.

             Think you'll give indie game design a shot?

             Absolutely! I already have a game on the side. It has no Tess, but hey, maybe for an Easter egg? ;)

             It's been a blast listening to your insight, Mike.  Any closing thoughts for our readers at home? or tips for those who want to get into the game industry?

             Thank you, it's been fun for me too :)

            "How to get into the game industry?" Well, the worst thing you could do, from my point of view, is to be desperate to make games and also be unaware of the realities of how humans work. Why? Because it's so easy to be taken advantage of.

            For example, you're single, you likely have low self-worth, you want to "just make cool stuff", you don't have any work/life balance, and that's a setup for personal disaster when negotiating with someone who knows how to say the right things to get you to do cheap work and lots of it. Mental and physical health suffers, and then because the market is so saturated, you're expendable and replaceable.

            I'd say this: if you want to make meaningful things, then don't go into the game industry until you have something to say. I mean, you're absolutely dying to say--that is, you have passion.

            Otherwise, your intelligence and problem solving skills are dearly needed by others to help alleviate suffering and bring about the flowering of other people's potentials. You'll make less money, sure, but you'll be richer than *all* of your game industry peers in maturity and personal development. And then come back to the game industry, because then you'll have *plenty* to say that no one else is saying.

             So I take it this is definitely not an industry for the young and naive, much like show business?

             I'd say it's not yet a healthy industry, but I can't say what industries truly are.


When sitting at a computer, Michael Lutynski is a computer programmer, user interface designer, and passionate Linux advocate. (michael dot lutynski at gmail dot com)






Killing Time is property of Studio 3DO.

Website managed by Mike MacDee (at yahoo dot com).
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