THE CREATION OF
A PC-BASED IE TITLE: PRIVATEER BY ORIGIN SYSTEMS
I certainly never
planned on smuggling Brilliance, especially with the frequent searches
by the militia. However, the increased cash flow soon helped soothe my
It all started so quickly, I hardly had time to think about it. Hearing
rumors from a bartender about a heavy fixer by the name of Sandoval on
New Constantinople, capitol of the Gemini Sector, it seemed like a good
idea to head there and try to pick up some work.
All I found there was a very nervous man, who offered me a smalltime
merchant mission hauling ore to a refinery. Oddly enough, he wanted me
to hang on to a strange ancient artifact for him during the mission. By
the time I returned to New Constantinople, Sandoval was dead. I ran
into a woman by the name of Tayla who informed me of Sandoval's death
(I'm not so sure she didn't have something to do with it herself).
I had heard rumors of an operator by the name of Tayla for quite a
while. Mostly in seedy bars where people thought I might be interested
in smuggling contraband. Tayla herself seemed to be innocent enough,
and better still, she knew about this strange artifact. Promising to
give me information on the artifact after my return, she sent me on a
typical merchant mission, transporting iron to the planet of New
Still, she offered no information other than my life would be worth
little if I hung onto the artifact long enough. This of course only
served to pique my interest in discovering the truth about it. My
adventure started with a small shipment of the illegal drug Brilliance
to a little known sector of the Humbolt quadrant. It was true, I found
out, that she had bribed the militia patrols to ignore my contraband
cargo. They performed their normal cargo searches only to come up
empty. It made me wonder how corrupt the militia really was, and how
'safe' they kept the shipping lanes. The thought did not last long,
however, when I was searched by a second militia squad who obviously
were not bribed. They found the Brilliance, and opened fire while
telling me I would not make it out of the quadrant alive.
Fortunately, I had just upgraded my lasers and shields, thanks to the
profits from my legal trade runs. The militia light fighters proved no
match for my upgraded ship. Surprisingly enough, I found that
destroying those who upheld the law was not harder than destroying the
occasional pirates and retros (Church of Man fanatics who use
technology to destroy technology).
This started my decline into the world in which I now live. I have been
involved in countless smuggling missions from a pirate base hidden in
the asteroid field of the Pander's Star system. I've worked for such
notable personalities as Lynch (an organized crime boss). Lynch
suckered me into my first assassin mission by sending me to deliver a
message to someone (his enemy) who immediately opened fire. Lynch
himself later tried to have his goons ambush me in order to get the
Now with a price on my head, I'm performing escort missions for the
University on Oxford, trying to weasel my way into their library
archives in order to get more info about the artifact. If I can just
keep those pirates and retros off my clients long enough, I should find
some answers in the university's archives.
Overview of Privateer
And so goes the storyline of Origin System's Privateer. Released last
fall, it is still entrancing players with its rich plot and nefarious
characters. Privateer continues on in the same universe as the highly
successful Wing Commander series: the 27th century. The Wing Commander
series focused on a war in the far future between humans and an alien
race called the Kilrathi. Those games always put you as the
soldier/space combat ace flying the missions of the Confederation.
Privateer, on the other hand, places you in a much more flexible
situation as master of your own destiny.
As a fortune seeker, you have access to over 60 different
bases/planets in about 90 systems. You start out with a rickety ship
and a few cash credits, and from there perform various merchant
missions to make money. As you build up wealth, you can use it to
purchase a better ship, or upgrade your existing ship with better
shields, more cargo space, bigger engines, and so forth.
Even though it is grounded in exploration and trade, Privateer
is still mostly a space combat simulator. Even if you decide to run
legal cargos through well-patrolled systems, you'll still bump into
pirates and retros (or even stray Kilrathi if you wander too close to
the edge of the frontier).
Most of the gameplay is based on a first-person viewpoint.
When piloting your craft, you see the interior of the cockpit, and you
can turn your head left or right to look out the side viewports. When
docked on a base or port you can see all the available exits and simply
click on one to enter. To engage an individual character in a
conversation, you simply click on that character and a conversation
Currently Privateer is only available for IBM compatible
personal computers with 386-DC or higher capacity CPU. The system needs
VGA graphics capabilities along with at least 4MB of RAM and 20MB of
free space on a hard disk drive.
The Development Process
Game development at Origin Systems follows a fairly structured and
organized approach. When a designer comes up with an idea for a game,
the designer submits his idea to a review board. The review board
evaluates the idea and decides whether or not it is worth
If a game design is approved, the designer gets a software
engineer (programmer) to help develop the idea further. What follows is
a period of research and development where the designer and programmer
work closely together to build the basic framework of the game.
After a period of time, the designer and programmer take their
results back to the review board. At this point, if the game still
looks like a winner, more funding is provided and a development
timetable is set. Artists and more programmers begin working on the
project. Programmers and designers work hand-in-hand to get the artwork
and data merged together into a workable game.
Toward the end of development, the music and sound effects are
added. The product goes into testing six to eight weeks before
shipping. Product testing includes Beta testing and play testing.
Designers and programmers track down any bugs or software problems that
arise during this time. The public relations department kicks into gear
by sending press releases to prospective members of the press. At last
the product is bug free and it ships (hopefully on the projected ship
date). Based on sales and customer response, a sequel or add-on product
may be added, and the development sequence begins a new.
For Privateer, designer Chris Roberts came up with the initial game
concepts. As the designer of some of Origins greatest games, Roberts is
held in much respect. Roberts designed the hit Wing Commander series,
along with Times of Lore and Bad Blood. Naturally, with his successful
background, Roberts did not have any trouble getting the approval of
the products review board for Privateer.
When Privateer was introduced, the only similar games on the
market were fairly old ones called Elite and Space Rogue. They both
featured arcade style action, and communications with other characters.
In-house at Origin there really were no other game ideas in competition
at the time.
The main goals in the design of Privateer were to create a commerce
trading system within the Wing Commander universe. Another goal was to
provide a game with random missions that players could play over and
over again. That freshness ensures the game never ends.
Some initial ideas never quite made it into the final game.
One such idea involved player finances. The game initially enabled
players to get loans from banks or other (less reputable) characters.
In this scenario, you might run into debt, and be pursued by creditors
or bounty hunters which were after the price on your head. Privateer
took about a year and a half to make, and so during this period, many
such ideas were dropped while others were developed and added to the
Tom Kasselbaum, a game designer, joined Origin at the start of
Privateer and jumped straight into game design. His background involved
some computer programming, a lot of math and physics. “A lot of what a
game designer does is data manipulation,” says Kasselbaum, “setting up
missions, setting up the universe. We also go through and make sure the
game stays within the initial constructs. Privateer had a lead
designer, who had a pretty good image. As the game was fleshed out, the
programmers would say whether or not certain features were doable. If
it couldn't be done in a reasonable fashion, the design was modified.
By staying with the entire project, the game designer gave the
programmers more freedom.”
The game designer sticks with the project through development,
right to the end. According to Sasselbaum, “I work with a lot of the
artwork. And I'm in charge of overseeing the artwork. The game
designers and programmers stick with the entire project. Artists, on
the other hand, will go in and out of various projects.”
As a game designer, one of Kasselbaum's responsibilities
involves directing the artwork and programming. He solves a graphics
problem by telling an artist what he wants, then puts the artist's
product into the game. The programmers take care of the music. The lead
designer oversees the main musical pieces to make sure they sound good
with the game and fit his overall design.
Rough sketches are created and approved before work begins on any
artwork. For the computer graphics, the artists at Origin Systems used
3D Studio from Autodesk for all the 3D work. The two-dimensional
painting and animation was done in Deluxe Animator by Electronic Arts,
and an internal drawing program called “Eor.”
A number of artists worked on Privateer, including Chris
Douglas (3D Artists), Danny Garrette, Brian G.
Smith, Beverly Garland (who did the scenic art), Jake Rodgers
(3D Artists) and Bob Frye. All
together, the artists spent about eight months working on Privateer.
Programmers at Origin Systems are known as software engineers. This
title is definitely more descriptive of the work of a programmer. In
creating software, the programmers are engineering very precise
relationships between the available hardware and software-based
The programmers at Origin use 386- and 486-based personal
computers for development. They use C++, along with some assembly
language routines, for programming. Because C++ enables programmers to
create modules that can be reused from game-to-game, programmers do not
have to “reinvent the wheel” every time they create a new game. The
assembly language routines enable programmers to squeeze the most speed
out of the personal computer for animation and other computer-intensive
The programmers were Reinaldo Castro, Alex Jen, Edwin
Herrel, Arthur DiBianca, and Charles Cafrelli. Like the
programmers worked on Privateer eight months.
Music and Sound Effects
Music and sound effects have become just as important to video games as
they are to motion pictures. You would hardly expect to see a new
feature film without a soundtrack and spoken dialog. Likewise, all
computer games today have either a sound track, digital sound effects,
Dana Glover composed all the music for Privateer. Glover comes
from a professional background in music. He created the Nightshift
Network, a group of composers that has been ghostwriting for motion
pictures for the past thirteen years. Glover's work was heard in movies
such as Rain Man, Misery, Robocop II, Apocalypse Now, and Beetlejuice.
For sound effects, Nenad Vugrinec is the expert at Origin. Vugrinec has
created sound effects for several Origin games, including Ultima VII
and Strike Commander.
After the pieces of a new program are brought together and a workable
version is created, the testing begins. Testing can be divided into
three stages; Alpha testing, play testing, and Beta testing. Alpha
testing is usually performed by only a few people at Origin, or
sometimes only the project leader. Because there are usually a large
number of glitches and problems in early software, Alpha testing
requires someone who has an intimate understanding of the software
programming. This knowledge enables an Alpha tester to distinguish
between minor and major code problems. After Alpha testing is
completed, a Beta version is released for further testing.
Dan Orzulak of Origin Systems has a fun job as play tester.
The responsibility of a play tester is to play games and uncover
software bugs. A software bug is a glitch or mistake in a program. The
mistake can be caused by an error or a typo on the programmer's part,
or by an unexpected event that occurs when a game is played. The ways
bugs manifest themselves are as varied as the bugs themselves, from
totally freezing up the computer (the most common result) to throwing
graphics garbage on the screen.
Play testers look for any bugs in the software. When a problem
is found, the tester documents and reports it back to the programmers.
The programmers correct the problem, then send the play tester a new
version of the program. The play testers also keep a close eye on the
artwork. If any pixels appear out of place, or some piece of art is
difficult to understand, the play testers report this to the art
department, and artists correct the problem.
The seven play testers at Origin Systems also do customer
service. After playing a game for weeks on end, they are naturally the
most qualified to handle technical support calls from customers. During
the testing period play testers have some input on game designers.
Their goal is to make the game easier and more fun, so they may suggest
new features, change the game flow, or make the game easier or harder
Play tester's reactions to Privateer were very similar.
According to Dan Orzulak, “Everyone really liked the game. I've played
300 to 400 games in my lifetime and I feel it's one of the best I've
When it came to suggesting changes for Privateer, Orzulak
explains: “There were a lot of things people wanted in the game, but
most were too difficult to implement. So we tried to focus on simple
things that would make the game easier and more fun. One change I
recommended, that made its way into the final game, was to allow the
user to double-click the mouse button to access the computer console.
Another change made by play testers was to add a second weapon to the
Tarsus (the initial ship that a player gets when the game starts). This
extra weapon on the Tarsus made the game easier for new players just
The play testers also keep notes about playing the game. These
notes, along with extended details about playing the game, maps, and
hints, are compiled by the Creative Services department at Origin.
Creative Services then produces a “Play Testers' Guide” to assist
players and make the game more interesting. The guide includes detailed
of all the game's solar systems and asteroid belts. Each mission has a
full step-by-step walkthrough. Detailed charts are provided for each
weapon and various trade opportunities.
The Beta version of the program also moves into a phase known
as Beta testing. In the Software Industry, Beta Testing is usually
performed by a select group of users (the customers). Origin, however,
doesn't use outside testers due to the fear of software piracy. For
Privateer, Origin used a bonded company, as well as their own inside
testers. Both tested Privateer for a number of weeks, on many different
computer configurations, and reported any bugs to Origin.
About three months prior to the release of Privateer, the Marketing
department kicks into gear and sets up advertising. Advertising is the
key to a successful launch. As soon as the product ships, press
releases are sent to major media outlets.
Initial consumer reaction was outstanding. Privateer sold out in most
stores, and is now available worldwide through Electronic Arts
distribution. A lot of people really liked the randomness to the game,
including the mission generators. There were only a few negative
reactions. Some players didn't like the fact that you can't stop at any
bases during a mission. Some have complained that the guns don't have
The concern about landing at other bases during missions was
an original concern of the designers. But as the programmers developed
the code, it became a very complicated process. First, the game would
have to deal with cargo that was on your ship, selling it or keeping
it. Secondly, there would need to be a timer added to a game, to make
sure that a mission got completed and that the cargo was still valid by
the time you eventually got it to its destination. These and other
problems caused the programmers to reject the ability to land at bases
during a mission.
The Future of Privateer
With more than 50,000 copies of Privateer sold in the first few months
of release, there will definitely be some type of follow-up game. It
may be Privateer II or a Special Missions disk. Any new game ideas,
even spin-off games, must go through the complete review process. A
good market response always makes it easier to design and introduce a
The Magic of Interactive Entertainment, Second Edition. Mike Morrison and Sandie Morrison: 1994, Sam's Publishing.