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LucasArts' Secret History: Loom: Developer Reflections

29 May, 2008

Mark Ferrari

Being a digital background artist for Lucasfilm Games, as we were called back in the late 80s, was a dream job that happened to me more or less by accident just a few months into my career as an illustrator back in 1987. Working with people like Steve Purcell, Ken Macklin, and Ron Gilbert was a supremely enjoyable honor I would fully appreciate only many years later when I had experienced more of the less impressive alternatives.

Making computer games was a much more inventive and collegiate venture in those days, and work involved A LOT of creativity and laughter. We were striving to invent games that were original and distinct from previous titles. The computer games we made back then were very much about storytelling, and often introduced you to interesting characters who traveled through interesting places meeting bizarre and entertaining inhabitants, talking with them, exchanging jokes, solving puzzles, learning secrets, outwitting enemies and saving friends. It was not all just running through some cad-generated hallway mashing buttons and shooting everything that moves without even talking to any of it. Gamers were meant to think and wonder then, not just react in reflexive spasms. Loom took this 'thinking' aspect of gaming to some new heights, and was, in a number of ways, a ground breaking landmark both for me as a digital artist, and for Lucas film games. On the conceptual side, it was one of the most deeply 'thought-oriented' and philosophical titles that had yet come along. On the art side, it was a significant departure from the then established norm.

Back then, all the art in games was hand-rendered by the artists, not algorithmically rendered by a 3-D cad program, so individual artistic styles often made a very noticeable difference in the look and feel of a game. My style ended up having a big impact not just on Loom, but, through Loom, on EGA games in general for a while, but to tell that story, I have to back up for a moment.

I was brought to Lucasfilm Games by Gary Winnick, the division's then art director, who approached me after seeing some of my artwork at a Bay Area sci-fi convention. Being hardly out the gate then as an illustrator, I was over-awed by his invitation to come work on Skywalker Ranch, but had to tell him that I had not only never played computer games, but was a technophobe who had never so much as touched a computer. He just told me it was easier to teach a good artist to use a computer than to teach a computer technician to be a good artist, so I shrugged and happily accepted the job. Some of what I accomplished as a digital artist during the next three marvelously enjoyable years at Lucasfilm was due in large part to my complete ignorance of both the genre and its technological parameters.

The first game I did background art for was Zak McCracken. Having had a crash course in the use of "D-Paint," (Deluxe Paint II by Electronic Arts), the then industry-standard tool for generating 2-D game art, I sat down to create a whole game's worth of environments and visual atmosphere with just one, fixed, EGA pallet containing only 16 unalterable and utterly grotesque colors: black, dark gray, light gray, white, dark blue, light blue, cyan, yellow, mustard brown, dark red, poppy red, peach, magenta, acid-hot pink, grass green, and acid-chartreuse. What was I expected to draw with such a pallet but a bad children's' book or an acid trip? (Tella Tubbies had not been invented yet.) The only solution I could think of was to 'dither' pixels of these 16 useless colors together into 'checkerboard' blended fields, which would read visually as more useful alternate colors.

I had barely begun doing so, however, when I was swarmed by programmers, 'all in a dither' one might say, who explained in panicked tones that "dither didn't compress in code," and I mustn't checkerboard pixels like that, or the art file sizes, (then measured in tens of bytes), would go through the roof! ... If I'd known anything at all about computer games, I'd have known that. Everybody else did. So, I dutifully rendered screen after screen of Zak McCracken background art in 16 garish solid colors, and we got a pretty cool game set in some entertaining environments as perceived by a circus clown on pupil dilators. Nonetheless, I could not help imagining what the game might have looked like if we could have dither-blended those colors into a wider array of more appropriate shades.

Just to scratch this itch, when the Z M project was finished, I sat down one morning at my work station and rendered a twilight scene with a rising moon and stars over receding oak tree-covered hills, all rendered smoothly and subtly in dithered EGA colors and gradients. Then, in silent protest, I simply left the picture up on my monitor when I went to lunch. An hour later I returned to find Lucasfilm Game's then lead programmer, genius Ron Gilbert, (later of Humongous Software fame), and the division's then head, Steve Arnold, in front of my monitor, enthusiastically debating 'why' dither could not be compressed in code. ... Within two months, it could, and Loom was this new technique's first result - sometimes comically referred to in the subsequent months as "the new house style."

To compliment Brian Moriarty's wonderfully poetic and philosophical game concept, the art director suggested a visual background style reminiscent of Eyvind Earle's backgrounds for Disney's original Sleeping Beauty Movie. Happily, I was no longer required to render them in solid EGA colors. I was allowed to dither to my heart's content. When people would come in to watch me dithering away at Loom's backgrounds, Steve Purcell would shout, "Don't watch him! It'll hurt your eyes!" The result was a 16 color EGA game that looked more like a 256 color VGA game to people, and got rave reviews from many quarters for all kinds of design and game-play innovations including this new EGA graphics technique conceived by some no-name too ignorant to know better than dithering pixels. Later, I went on to make similarly ignorant and inappropriate use of color cycling to achieve fully animated environments that could be stored and run on platforms with then very limited storage and processing capacity.

Sadly, the advent of now ubiquitous 3-D graphic technologies quickly rendered all that - and me - irrelevant to the gaming industry. But man, what a nice ride it was while it lasted. Those were early, but exciting days, and though I didn't fully realize it at the time, my three years with Lucasfilm Games in Marin turned out to be the most creative and enjoyable of my illustration career. I always think of the great folks I worked with there with tremendous admiration and gratitude. Working with them was always inspiring, and shaped much of my subsequent professional life as I did digital work for a host of other entertainment software companies.

Today, still in love with storytelling, I have moved on to writing as my medium. Having just seen the publication of my first fantasy novel, "The Book of Joby," from TOR books in New York, I am currently finishing the next in a whole flock of other novels circling the airport in my head. For further info, visit my website: www.markferrari.com

George "Fatman" Sanger, Sound

I got the LOOM gig through Dave Warhol, now of Realtime Associates. He also was programmer on my first gig, Thin Ice for Intellivision. He also got me back into the industry after The Great Crash of '84. AND when Richard Garriott called Dave to do music for the Wing Commander gig, Dave suggested that Richard call me. So that's Dave Warhol. Nice guy. Plays trombone.

Now, I had never met Brian Moriarty, but as I recall he just mailed me the scores to seven or so movements of Swan Lake, and said, "go." What's not so obvious might be:

  • That musical choice was a brilliant one, thematically.
  • It was highly unusual to feature so much "quality" music in a game.
  • The interface was based on music. People have been trying to do that ever since. In many ways, LOOM still holds the trophy for best use of music in that regard.
  • It was highly unusual for a game developer to help that much (in an actually helpful way) with music! Those scores cost money ya know. And it's hard to just "guess the notes" from a CD, which is usually what happens.
  • The game came out as one of the first to support the rare and exotic MT-32 sound module, the next step up from the then-cutting-edge Adlib type cards. I was only asked to arrange the music for MT-32, which was relatively easy given the kind of demands that soundcard support can make on a musician. Hence I was free to deal with the musicality of the arrangement more than having to struggle with the mechanics.
  • LOOM ads would have that slogan "art by real artists." Whatever the hell that means. One can certainly say that the Swan Lake music is "music by real musicians."
  • I used Mark of the Unicorn Performer on a Mac, which did not even BUG let alone crash for the five or so years I used it. The interface was perfect, and it always performed as expected. It spoiled me. I didn't have a PC yet. Ah. Happy Days.
  • I bought a Seiji Ozawa (SP?) CD and, using the tap-tempo feature of Performer, tapped along with his recording, copied his tempos, which was a hugely expressive part of the music. It was radically different from most "classical music on a computer," which was usually done with a fixed tempo and came out sounding deathly cold.
  • I took a second and third pass through the music, matching my dynamics and instrumental balance to his.
  • There was even one spot where the time signature was ONE/ONE (musicians will poop here) and the tempo was so fast that the file wouldn't play back on [popular sequencing software] Cakewalk. Dave W. called Greg Hendershott (Cakewalk founder, and I think at that time sole employee) who said, "Why would anybody want to do any music that fast anyway???" He fixed the program to accommodate us, but I recently noticed that even my modern version of Nuendo has an upper tempo limit of 300 BPM, which I think makes the same assumption as Ancient Greg of Yore. Greg and I are friends now. I think. Before he read this, anyway.
  • LOOM was the one game I worked on that my parents played all the way through. My first very bonding casual conversation with Brian Moriarty at my first GDC was on this topic. "What other games could my parents play?" Brian says, "um.. .Monkey Island, maybe, and, um, nothing else." "WHY IS THAT???" "I KNOW! I KNOW!"
  • At that GDC, they gave out the first game awards. Two of the three nominees for best audio were LOOM and Wing Commander. WC won. Origin kept the award, but I made my own certificates (2 copies), got Chris Roberts (under protest) and Dave Roach (then audio direcor at Origin) to sign it, and gave a copy to co-composer Dave Govett and kept one. I should give another copy to my friend, now bandmate, Marc Schaefgen, (http://www.captainsofthechessteam.com) who did all the FM for that. That's the hard work right there. But I digress.
  • LOOM shipped with a mood-setting story on an audio cassette. I was disappointed that I wasn't called up to do the music for that. Poor me.
  • A Japanese company put out a CD of Swan Lake that was "inspired by the score for LOOM by George Alistair Sanger." WOW! It even featured a jazz quartet. I gotta listen to that again now. Brian sent me a copy. See how nice he is?
  • Brian also sent me a signed and numbered copy of the finished game. Nobody has done that since. We're talking 25 years in the business.

Dave Warhol, Sound

I had done a few soundtracks and soundtrack conversions for Lucasfilm Games when I got the opportunity to work on Loom for Brian Moriarty. He wanted to use the music from Swan Lake, which of course is an integral part of the game. When I first heard about it, I thought it would be cliche! Thankfully nobody listened to me, and it turned out to be one of the many contributors to the game's success.

I was contracted to do the PC music and for the first time to support the Roland MT-32, the then-state-of-the-art synthesizer module being used for games. I didn't personally have the bandwidth to do the MT-32 arrangements, so got George Sanger involved in doing that.

To this date, I have never seen Swan Lake performed! But it will ring with familiarity once I do.

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