A Talk With Crystal Dynamics' Developers on Solar Eclipse

We would like to first thank Eric and Andy at Crystal Dynamics for taking the time to talk with us on their latest project, Solar Eclipse (currently available for the Sega Saturn). Also, thanks go to Troy for his help in get everything running on Crystal Dynamics' end so that this interview could be conducted via IRC on 11/27/95.

R.I.P.: How about we start off with introductions on each of you?
What do you do with Crystal Dynamics?
Eric: Hi, I'm Eric Lindstrom, Lead Designer on Solar Eclipse.
I create and implement 32-bit action games.
Andy: I'm Andy Trapani, and I'm the Producer of Solar Eclipse.
Eric: Okay. What I really do is try and slip as much past the producer as possible.
R.I.P.: How did each of you get your start in the video game industry?
Eric: It was an accident. I was running from a failed career in industrial engineering,
and I answered an anonymous ad for 6502 assembly programmers. During the interview, I was politely told that I didn't have enough experience, but was asked if I'd like to become a game tester. Two days later I was a tester Epyx, Inc. That was spring '87, and it's been downhill ever since<G>.
Andy: Like the old man, I got my start in testing.
I've been with Crystal since summer of '93. I moved from testing to design, then from design into Production.
Eric: Makes it sound like you couldn't hold down a job.

(Screen Shot)

R.I.P.: (to Eric) How did you get involved with Crystal Dynamics?
Eric: An interesting way that I got involved with Crystal.
I was working at Electronic Arts, writing game manuals and hint books, and doing game design. A friend of mine who was working at Crystal (which had yet to release it's first title) contacted me and called me over. It turned out that one of Crystal's founders was Madeline Canepa, who I had worked with back at Epyx. So basically, it's who you know.
Andy: The older folks get by on "who they know".
The young turks get by on talent.
R.I.P.: So, where did the idea of Solar Eclipse come from?
Eric: The same ba*&%ard that seduced me into joining Crystal,
asked me if I wanted to design a 3-D shooter, or take the back exit<G>.
Andy: The basic philosophy we have here at Crystal Dynamics,
allows people to work on projects that interest them most (makes their dreams come true). Most designers, artists, and programmers, usually "earn their keep" on a project first, before moving onto their "dream" design.
In all candor, we (the development team) wanted to create the best 3-D shooter ever. We wanted the gameplay to have everything you'd find in a fast action 2-D shooter, coupled with all the pulse-pumping adrenaline you get in 3-D space.

(Screen Shot)

R.I.P.: How long did it take to develop Solar
(from initial concept to finished product)?
Andy: From inception to completion, Solar Eclipse took about 16 months to develop.
Since we we're developing on a new platform (Sega Saturn), the first few months were spent figuring out how to get the most out of the Saturn's dual processors. We also spent a ton of time doing conceptual design. I think the fruits of our labor come across, when you witness the frame rate that we've achieved, the sheer number of polygons we've pushed, and the overall depth and quality of the art and the gameplay.
The depth comes across in the 33 levels, which are spread across the nine moons of Saturn (that doesn't include all the secret levels :) Each new world offers the player some new interaction, with over 70 objects and bosses, each with their own unique behavior (A.I.), and animations.
By the way, PlayStation owners can look forward to Solar Eclipse in Q2 of '96.

(Screen Shot)

R.I.P.: So would you call Solar a "dream" designed game,
or one of CD's regular projects (ie: a sign of things to come)?
Eric: When I was asked if I wanted to do a high end 3-D shooter,
the Total Eclipse method of generating terrain was an obvious asset. Aside from that, I designed Solar with the intentions of making it the most satisfying 3-D shooting experience, independent of any other factors. On the Saturn, we had more options technically, which gave me more freedom to design the environment and play experience the way I wanted it to be. We were able to have more and more complex, high speed enemy interaction, while maintaining a high frame rate.
R.I.P.: Was the "terrain generator" the only part of the
Total Eclipse engine brought forward?
Eric: Actually, no code was taken from Total Eclipse.
Terrain generation is just a methodology. We used the same mathematical formula to generate the terrain, but the Solar Eclipse engine was built from scratch.
Andy: In terms of gameplay experience,
we wrote all new code for a new platform, designed a completely new engine, created totally original features, in order to give gamers a completely original, 3-D shooting experience.

(Screen Shot)

R.I.P.: What kind of software/hardware, set design, etc...
went into the development of Solar?
Andy: In terms of hardware/software: the artist rendered all of the graphics in 3-D Studio.
The designers mapped out all of their levels using a combination of Adobe Photoshop, and Crystal's proprietary layout tools.
Eric: What was interesting from a designer point of view,
was how the designers and artists had a closed communication loop. The artists would draw an enemy in 3-D Studio, and we designers would process it through tools, and actually drop it into actual game levels. We could change it's position, behavior, speed, animation, what have you. Every enemy has it's own unique behavior (there are over 70 enemies) and animation. So each new object looks AND behaves differently.
Andy: As far as the Full Motion Video goes,
Solar Eclipse features over 40 minutes of FMV, meshed with awesome 3D graphics. The video stars Claudia Christian (you know, Ivanova from "Babylon 5").

(Screen Shot)
[Claudia Christian shown center]

The video comes in two forms: the "bookend" format which delivers the storyline before and after each mission. The other part is the comm-unit, which keeps the player in tune with the other pilots flying the various missions. The comm-unit appears during gameplay, at the lower right portion of the screen. Throughout the course of the game, the player receives over 500 unique transmissions that not only bridge the storyline between the bookends, but also gives the player crucial battle tips, tactics, and navigational instructions. The comm-unit is not about gratuitous FMV. It's about actually guiding the player through the game to victory, and keeping him/her informed.
R.I.P.: Wow, it certainly sounds like a lot of thought went into this title...
This brings me to my last question... I've been playing the game and ran across a still screen that had something to do with a "house". Can either of you tell me about that?
Andy: Sounds like you stumbled across a secret level.
R.I.P.: Well, that about covers all of my questions.
Are there any last words each of you would like to pass on to our readers?
Andy: If anyone has questions about Solar Eclipse,
they can feel free to e-mail me at CrystalDyn@aol.com, or call or customer service at (415) 473-3434, and ask for Chris.
Adios, and I hope everyone enjoys Solar (by the way, it's on the shelves today!!!).
Eric: Thanks. Buy my game :)
R.I.P.: Ok. Thanks guys for taking the time to talk. Cheers...



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