Archive:Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

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  • Published: 22 March 2000
  • Host:
  • Author: Paul O’Connor

The Designer Diary

Part Six: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines
By Paul O’Connor, Senior Game Designer

Our first two games, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, used our A.L.I.V.E. engine. A.L.I.V.E. stands for ‘Aware Lifeforms in Virtual Entertainment,’ and aside from being a handy bit of marketing-speak, it summarizes what we’re trying to accomplish with Oddworld games—they are worlds as much as they are games. Our next game, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, will mark the debut of our A.L.I.V.E. 2 engine. The acronym may be practically the same, but everything else about this engine is brand new.

To the casual player, the first iteration of the A.L.I.V.E. 2 engine wouldn’t have looked like much—a few simple polygons depicting ramps, rails, and walkways; a couple Mudokons walking around, no light effects, no complex artificial intelligence, certainly no significant game design. Just control your 3D Abe and walk around… but, to quote Doctor Frankenstein, ‘It’s ALIVE!’

The day we saw the engine for the first time was a key moment in our design. Prior to the engine’s debut, we relied on documentation, theory, and a lot of hand waving to describe most game elements. Since then, we’ve been able to demonstrate how we’ll handle all sorts of things inside the game. The system lets us zoom in to pretty much whatever resolution we wish, anywhere in the world, so close-up gameplay is possible. Likewise, we can pull back when necessary to show the vast sweep of armies on the march. Best of all, the editor lets us place these camera transitions exactly where events and geography dictate. Sure, you can grab control of the camera and turn things around if that’s what you want to do, but the active camera is so efficient, dramatic, and (dare I say it?) cinematic that you won’t want to. Better yet, the camera has become a storytelling device, changing angle not just to frame your character in an advantageous position, but also to call attention to important game elements. For example, if you run toward the back corner of the factory, the camera swoops around to show what’s in that previously unseen corner of the layout, focusing on the ATM machine found there (the operation of which is the primary reason for entering this area).

Since then, of course, we’ve added textures, animation, enemies, and light effects to the test environment, and now it takes little imagination to see why so many folks are saying Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee is the best reason yet to consider buying a PlayStation2. Keep an eye on the usual places, folks. I’m sure your own glimpse of this wonderful engine will be up on the Net before you know it.