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Don Goddard interview by hxc - Part One (May 2008)

From Sonic Retro

The following is the first part of a series of interviews by hxc to Sonic X-Treme's Art Director Don Goddard.

The Interview

hxc: What was X-Treme like on the 32x, as we know nothing about it on there? The only screenshots we've seen are of Ofer's fisheye lens.

Don Goddard: Yikes, that fisheye was freaky; in my opinion, it was to cover up the fact that nothing was curved. There were steps everywhere and you couldn't run ten feet before hitting a step or wall. The 32x was a bastard add-on to the Genesis that tried to provide 3D support, only it couldn't texture for "shite", as you UK guys would say.

So Virtua Racing was phenomenal, as was Virtua Fighter, but anything else had major issues with texturing. We hoped to get decent performance with large checkerboards because you could do them as polygons. Then we realized that the 32x could only draw a few hundred polygons and an entire world would be difficult.

So I thought, "Hey, these Doom clones did a damn good job with texture mapping by raycasting and Dark Forces was a Doom-like engine that used pretty nice curved walls. So I tried to create a Doom engine which rotated 90 degrees so you could have loops. I actually got a 32x version working very fast. Unfortunately, we couldn't figure out a way to do more than a single 'rail' style game and we really wanted a roaming 3D thing.

I also came up with a blazingly fast scaled/rotated sprite routine that let us put up thousands of sprites. I had a demo of about a thousand rings and Sonic running around on an invisible plane (black background) and it was 60fps and felt very nice. Shinobu actually showed up after I had it going (it was a "Daddy's and Daughters day" where dads could bring in their daughters to see how they work.) He was floored by it. It's really cool to see a Japanese business guy smile; they almost never do. He was loving it and letting his daughter play it. Needless to say it was just a demo and pretty basic.

After that demo we realized we could abuse sprites really well and I'll bet Chris Senn has forgotten some of the creatures he designed were made JUST out of rings. I think we were going to do a level or set of 'zones' that would have all of these various "ring creatures".

These ring creatures were a unique gameplay concept in that they would look like say a "stack of rings" or one giant ring and would move like a slinky or roll or whatever, then the cool part was when you hit them, They would explode into a bunch of little rings you could collect, so kind of the opposite mechanic of Sonic who explodes all his rings when he gets hit.

We hoped to get all that working and then we started getting into another "phase" where Sonic was being proposed for the Saturn and we still had no solution for the world Sonic would run around on. We also finally hired the other programmer I needed (Ofer Alon.) I was working solo for about 3 months.

Mark Kupper was a tools guy trying to build a 3D modeler animation program for the artists and he had a friend he worked with from where he graduated in Florida, Gary McTaggart. He told me this guy was awesome, crazy hard worker and built a Doom level loader and 3D engine that was THREE times faster than Doom, using the same wad files and textures, and would let you pitch up and down which doom couldn't do.

We interviewed him at Sega about doing Sonic and he was incredible. The demo was amazing, pure assembly, and blazingly fast. Well, we all were clamoring to hire Gary as he would've been ideal, but we kept getting the brush off from management. He was very cheap to hire as well since he had no job before this. They interviewed him; he LOVED the project and Sonic and they ended up never calling him back. He thought he may have been asking for too much.

So we're waiting and waiting...in fact Mark and I and some others would have gentlemen bets about how long it would take ANYTHING to appear after you requested it—you could request a pencil and it wouldn't show up on your desk till a month or two later. We were clamoring for getting some programming help, I'm the only programmer on this thing. Well then, Dean Lester says he has this guy from someplace who did a Mac game and had an impressive demo and he's from the Middle East originally and a Mensa member (we ALWAYS laugh when people claim they're a MENSA genius because it's a joke to get in.)

(Lester was) either fired or quit, but let's just say he managed to piss off almost anyone he had contact with, but it was usually his fault. Dean Lester was a little english guy who I thought was fine, just some guy who had to come down hard on people,


hxc: According to Mike, [Dean] Ruggles just left every day at 4, no matter what was happening.

Don Goddard: Later we would find out Roger Hector was such a nice guy (and though there are many jokes about him, I thought he was a real positive influence, just no strong backbone) that he would always find someone to play 'bad cop' so he could always be 'good cop.' Ruggles was what you guys would call an uptight prick, very trim, to the point, anal retentive and all that. Not a horrible conversationist, but did give off a 'I'm superior' atitude if he didn't have time for you.

So anyways! Dean Lester has us interview this guy and I think they flew him in from very far away, like somewhere in the Middle East, can't recall, and he was okay, kind of a square guy and an odd sense of humor. But also kind of a Dean Ruggles attitude, like 'I know what's great and I don't need to explain all of my details to you guys.' All of a sudden, the guy's hired and on our doorsteps in like 3 weeks and we're like 'what the fuck happened to Gary, what about John Morgan?'

They didn't care; they said Ofer was very expensive but as far as we could all tell he was literally hired because he came through Dean Lester. Ofer was a VERY rough case; at first he would listen and nod his head to what you were saying, then he would just go off and do his own thing. It was truly laughable. We would literally tell him anything and he would go 'yea ok' and then do the complete opposite. Luckily (or not) he got along with Chris because Chris had tons of ideas and no way to express them in an interactive way. Chris was REALLY learning the ropes of design.

Shinobu would tell us and Roger would repeat it that Sonic did not have to be at ALL like the original ones where you had rings, loops and 60fps yet ANYPLACE outside of STI we showed something too would immediately start asking 'where are the rings and what do you collect'? 'Aren't there any loops'? 'How fast can you go?" We were taking a 2d side scroller game into full 3d and they wanted perspective correct textures in a 3d world running at 60fps! This was pure insanity.

Sega is the only place I've been at where you had to program the most optimized version of your code before they would let you move on to a new programming concept. So yeah, I made some really fast code and really optimized stuff, but c'mon, the 32x was ridiculous. Mark Kupper, Manny and several others are this way too. So we tried checking out the Saturn and this frickin' thing was worse than the stories you hear about PS2 programming these days.


hxc: Oh yes, who on earth thought of putting 2 procs in sequence? Stupid idea.

Don Goddard: It sounded like a blast but the Saturn is in no way a 3D machine. It was literally a sprite machine where you could distort the sprite polys (no perspective textures) and it couldn't do many at that. So all of your polys are quads, no 3D tools supported that, so many people just duplicated the last vertice and used them as triangles. We got to learning the 'background chip' and then got Chris Coffin hired. I liked him because he had hard core gaming passion and had just previously worked with John Morgan in a startup venture John was doing. Chris was pretty fun to work with, but he got very paranoid and started making some enemies. He quickly made enemies with Ofer and tried to deny it. Within a few months, there was no one who despised Ofer more. Great team spirit, eh?

Oh, and here's another little gem: there's a classic game by Treasure called Gunstar Heroes and it's all about fighting bosses. One level in there has you beating the crap out of a giant screen sized boss with arms and legs you had to bash off. Chris really liked this and saw how they did this trick to make it look like he was running around a big giant room. It was a illusion that had no real 3d to the room and the rest was rotated sprites.


hxc: So THATS where the circular bosses and the giant fang/metal sonic came from!

Don Goddard: THAT was the beginning of Chris' boss levels was to mimic that.It was truly Chris Coffin's idea and we thought, great, perfect, do it. Pop it in and ship it! It took a LONG time to get it up and running, though. Chris and many of us were really learning a lot about 3D and the Saturn was the worst platform to learn it on. We left him alone and just let him do his thing, which was good. I was trying to get Ofer to cooperate and do anything even in the slightest with what we requested and I'm a nice guy, but not that fucking nice, hahaha. Ofer would go in his office and not come out; he literally locked his door and would ignore anyone he didnt want to talk to. It was freakin creepy and he was right next to mine.

We took a demo over for Tom Kalinski (the really successful Sega president) and a crew of guys to see and they just kept asking for rings and loops and all this old Sonic stuff. I saw Chris Senn's eyes bead up and his jaw go slack and I thought this is just ridiculous. I was killing myself getting all sort of crazy concepts up and going and none of this could do even 10% of what he or others outside STI expected. They all wanted what you saw in the Sonic games for the Dreamcast—high speed 3D roaming platformer.

I overheard a conversation with Roger and others in Ofer's office one day about some new platform and Saturn killer they were working on. I was bothered that I wasn't part of that conversation and at that point really wanted off of Sonic. I pleaded with Robert Morgan to let me do something original that has no license ties and that Ofer will easily want to take the lead on Sonic and Robert very nicely did just that. At that point, it spins off into Chris Senn and Ofer working on this bizarre cube engine that had severe limitations and Chris Coffin doing his bonus game all on his own.

The new platform was nVidia's NV1. The NV1 was frickin' brilliant but only a third as powerful as the 3DFX card. At the time, we saw these 3D cards like you see Renderware and Gamebryo or Unreal Editor today...unproven middleware only for hardware. The NV1 could do what I call URBS with is the same thing as NURBS except they have to be uniformally distributed points along the polygon and they are 9 point polygons. The NV1 could do tri's, quad's and 9 point polys that were very clever and drawing near perfect curves. You could do a sphere in 6 polys!!! Take a box and pull the middles out of each of the sides and you'd have a sphere, though they would cusp at the edges so you really needed 32, but with 32 polys you could do ANY size sphere and it looked perfect.

It could also do amazing color lighting--another thing the Saturn couldn't. The Saturn couldn't light for shit and most games have no light in them. You could like the 8 ouside points of the 9point poly and light the inside a diff color and get a perfect circle of light, no banding whatsoever.


hxc: Wow. Why was this thing never released then?

Don Goddard: Pretty neat stuff...Sega didn't care!... our biggest competitors SegaSoft (very jealous of STI and it's unlimited funding) really didn't care either...everyone just wanted triangles, That's a story in itself, which could've been a MAJOR turning point in rendering and you probably would see very few apps using triangles today if it were not for a couple of fuckups at nVidia.

What was happening was that we were informed that Sega was having a Saturn killer machine being built because they knew the PlayStation would dominate soon. The Saturn came out and was selling bigger and better for six months and did one of the biggest most amazing selling stunts in the history of games—they came out with the Saturn FOUR MONTHS EARLY and they were on store shelves on the first day of E3 and weren't supposed to be out till that Sept.

So, the NV1 was a prototype to show Sega they could do a great card and a truly revolutionary one for the NV2, Sega literally said many times that all they wanted was a card that could do Virtua Fighter III and that fricking game wasn't even going to be out for six months to a year! The console would have come out within months of the arcade release. The nVidia guys were truly brilliant, mathematical geniuses and 3DFX courted us heavily but really were just heavy triangle pushers that showed 3D could be done well in hardware.


hxc: VF3 was running on the Saturn at some point, though? There's a video out there somewhere

Don Goddard: Yeah? I know VF2 was phenomenal that was the killer app when Saturn came out and it was brilliant. Maybe VFIII came out, but more likely for Dreamcast.

Oh here's a couple of other interesting tidbits: Most people have no clue about this and I was informed by someone at Sega but Sega apparently owned a large stake in nVidia—something like 1/3 of their company. The other was seeing Tomb Raider as a prototype that Core or Eidos sent to STI to get our 'opinion' on what we thought of the gameplay and if we were interested in it. Tomb Raider as a demo FLOORED us, truly amazing animation and character movement for the time, not to mention 'locational sound' where the music would play differently depending on your location.

Most people also have no clue that Sega locked in an exclusive SIX MONTH deal with the Saturn meaning that NO other platform could have a Tomb Raider for six months. It did help sell a lot of Saturns. So the NV2 was to be the killer chip that drove the next gen and Sega didn't give a shit about curved surface polygons. The NV1 DID go out as a PC Card with four Sega games ported to it and a whole bunch of demos. Only the demos showed the curved poly technology that it could do. I wish I still had an NV1 card as I have the code and possible a dev kit for it somewhere

Here's the story of why nVidia never made it though. We were attempting Sonic very briefly on this NV1 (Ofer was) and I was doing some experimental game prototypes on it. This thing was a BITCH to hookup the graphics pipeline. It was like someone cutting a cable line with thousands of wires and trying to figure out which wire goes with which other one. It was supposed to be flexible but was truly baffling...much like programming the Saturn, haha. Well, over the next few months (Sonic went back to the Saturn after a month or so) nVidia was trying to sew up all of these loose ends and make this beast do things that are only NOW this YEAR getting in to games. They are four months behind schedule.

Sega says, 'Look, you have to take your design and put this on a chip to see if it will work if we are going to have a new machine. We need to know it will work now so we can have it for Christmas.' Well, 3DFX bragged about ONE thing that stunned us when we toured their location. They said they paid a million dollars for 'chip verification software' that would nearly guarantee their chip design would work in hardware exactly as it was simulated in software. nVidia, to my knowledge, did not do this!

nVidia rushed and rushed, then finally printed a chip (and this, by the way, was directly told to me from a huge nVidia employee, Michael Hara, who I believe is still there in a very high position today!)

They turned on the chip.

Black.

Just Black. Tapped it, checked controls, flipped switches... Nope... just a black screen. Sega dropped them on the spot and the whole nVidia platform.

Actually I think it took two weeks till it went around or got to me. The sad part for me was I had developed a really cool UFO game prototype that Michael Hara says he still remembers to this day (I had inteviewed there about 3 years later and said that was the only demo done with their curved surfaces that was a real game.) I had even floored a group of Japanese execs from SOJ (first time they came out to SOA) who were supposed to be stone faced and never crack a smile. When I presented the UFO game to them they were stoned faced until I turned on a TV with my demo and they could play it—they were smiling motherfuckers and couldn't believe they could play with it. They were like little kids.

After they dropped the nVidia, I think I gave up on Sega. They had 'green-lighted' the whole UFO project, but two weeks later they werent going with nVidia and only had the Saturn. I thought 'oh well, there goes that game', but they said they 'loved the UFO game, do it for the Saturn.' I just shook my head. They had no idea how hard it would be to even do a crappy version of it on the Saturn. The UFO demo had not only curved surfaces but deformable mesh terrain, real-time scorch marks and up to 32 dynamic lights.

So there was some interesting Sonic stuff that happened while I branched off and then quit Sega around June, but I'll save that for next time.


hxc: Alright then, just one last thing. Its a question I hate to ask, but EVERYONE in the community forces me to say it: Do you have much left from sega?

Don Goddard: I have some stuff, but it's all code or demos that run on a particular card or piece of hardware that may not be available these days. I never grabbed much from Sonic X-treme because I had little involvement once we started on the Saturn. I probably have code or a demo or two from Sonic 32x. The funniest one had to be Chris Eberts, it was just a line of about ten polygons that the camera could fly over on the 32x. It took him TEN months to do that! Sad... very sad.

I doubt I have any drawings, though I do have a classic Sonic marketing billboard thing. Manny is a good guy to talk to as well, he snaked a framed version of Sonic 3 that I had in my office for a long time. I also had a couple of collector Sonic pins that were only given to team members and my damn wife lost them because they were pinned to her jacket

I also have a Sega Sports jacket I won for being the best at a Virtua Fighter 2 contest (really funny story there!) And Dave Sanner (did the Ooze and may have been involved with later stages of Sonic) won the Daytona contest and got a cool black jean Sega jacket. My wife has a Sonic doll you could buy at the time for $10. Little things here and there—I have an official SEGA mug and an official STI gold on black mug. Oh and an STI jacket I still wear today, because they made the sleeves extra long just for me, Robert Morgan got those for everyone at STI. Yeah, I'll have to dig up my old Sega stuff, it would be fun to get a dev kit up and running again...ah but who has the time!

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