Paul Hughes on Privateer 2 Development (June 11, 2020)

ChrisReid

Super Soaker Collector / Administrator



Privateer 2 developer Paul Hughes has posted some neat anecdotes about the development of The Darkening almost twenty-five years ago. He was inspired to revisit the game by director Steve Hilliker's recent release of the video footage in high quality. There's some interesting recollections on the resolution and compression limitations that they faced back in 1996, and he's also got a soul-crushing anecdote about Christopher Walken's credits.








25 years since Privateer 2 - thanks to GOG.COM I can fire it up on my turbo nutter PC. Yeah, the movie compression hasn't quite held up as I imagined... The resolution and pixel doubling certainly helped hide a multitude of sins with bits of latex peeling and what have you. Be very proud! Given the hand we were dealt at the start, miracles were made!

Privateer 2's movies were 320x132, blown up to 640 x 164 with 22KHz stereo sound. It was a VQ codec running with a 256 colour adaptive palette. Lossless Key and Delta frames made up of 4x4 VQ blocks, motion compensated and truncated colour blocks (like S3TC but years earlier!). Its killer feature was its decode speed it would happily decode a P2 movie on a 486-33 on an x2 CD-ROM although P2 needed a minimum of a Pentium 60 as we used the FPU extensively. The chaps at EA Canada really, really knew their stuff - TGV, for the time, was incredible.

EA had a great localisation team - the teams from France and Germany came to Manchester and worked in house with us for a week - super professional, totally knew the subject inside and out - it was a very smooth operation. It could’ve been so much more; alas they burned a whole year going through a couple of different programming teams. We essentially had a year to code up the whole thing from scratch. It was alright I guess. I loved the trading aspect (the UI design was lovely).





The Credit sequence was rendered out by one chap - Mark Goldsworthy - as this was well before After Effects and the like, after rendering the city fly through, each frame was then manually distorted in photoshop one frame at a time and then manually comped together with the credit text. This was a labour of love and took and age to do. Then Christopher Walken's people vetoed it and demanded it re-rendered as his name wasn't as big as stated contractually (X% bigger than all other actor's credits!). Not a fun day!




Last, but not least, here's a brief YouTube conversation between Mr. Hilliker and Hughes.

Paul: Cheers for this Steve - I was lead programmer on Privateer 2 in Manchester. It was a wild ride for sure. Gotta add (to defend my most learned colleagues in Manchester, Slough and Canada) that the video compression, for that time, was as bleeding edge as it got - as you say, before P2 everything was locked off shots with little to no movement - we had to come up with some pretty radical techniques at the time to deal with whip-pans, tracking shots, sudden lighting changes) I was pretty proud of it, but can totally understand for you and the crew it wasn't anything like the (at the time) state of the art Mpeg1 - which required custom PC hardware to decode. If memory serves it was running at 640x480 (320x240 under the hood) at 15 fps with stereo audio, with an adaptive 256 colour palette. I do remember all the outtakes from Brian Blessed - I wish we still had them - I laughed apoplectically for days watching those sweary takes back. Thanks for this - it brought some great memories back. - Paulie.

Steve: Hey Paul, brilliant to hear from you. I do remember you all working flat out in Manchester to get the game as good as possible. The enthusiasm was absolutely amazing. I had to learn so much in a short space of time about gaming and that magical word 'interactive!'

You were all so helpful to me. What surprised me was how small the crew was in Manchester. Incredible what you all achieved. Yes I laughed with Brian on the shoot through 'those takes'. It wasn't in the script to come out of character either - we just did it for a laugh! Still love that sequence today - it was great seeing it again. It was amazing we only had Brian for six hours on set.
Mega regards to you Paul and all the team in Manchester 1995-1996.





Paul: So many tales to tell ! :) What a wrap party we had at Pinewood! Dodgems galore! A few of us went for a sneaky peak at the 007 sound stage too. Hope you're safe and well - they were great days. Clive was the consummate professional. Quite amazing what you pulled off on such a small budget - Wing Commander IV got 10 million to play with after Privateer 2!

Steve: OMG Paul - Yes I remember those Dodgems at the end of shoot party - were they 'super charged ?!" I heard that extra voltage may have juiced them up a bit or was it the alcohol! What I couldn't tell anyone at the time was it wasn't the end of shoot - we still had another day to do on Kronos! We never used all the explosives on that set - they were wired to go but we ran out of time. Yep, I sneaked onto the 007 set as well - they were shooting 'Mission Impossible' with Brian DePalma ( one of my heroes). So jealous- they were shooting only three setups a day!

Paul:
It was a fantastic night. Man, that final Kronos sequence gave me nightmares for weeks trying to get it to compress without turning into a blocky mess of Ceefax like artefacts :eek:) Things like this gave way to better and better video playback to the point where just dropping in H.265 video is a walk in the park nowadays. You were a pioneer! I'm sure I have an article from Variety or something similar about the whole approach taken for Wing Commander and Privateer 2 - working with real directors and real movie companies. I'll have to see if I can dig it out.

Steve:
Hi Paul, I can't imagine how tough it must have been to compress that Kronos sequence. Most of the sequence was shot on film - much higher dynamic range than tape. Thank goodness we lost loads of shots over the two days on set and didn't let off tons of explosives that were all wired to go. A blessing in hindsight! Mega regards!

Paul has been an absolute wealth of information on the development of Privateer 2 for nearly twenty-five years. Deep in our archives, you can find a January 1997 IRC chat on the game's release that LOAF saved. Additionally, he did a wonderful Q&A for us in 2006 to celebrate P2's ten year anniversary.

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Original update published on June 11, 2020
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
Christopher Walken's people - agents? I suppose if non-techy people don't really care how long it took to make because it's in the contract, so it's gotta be redone. Wonder if it meant the whole lot had to be redone or just the section with Chris' name.

A lot of this reminds me of the behind the scenes technical work to get things working in DOS' conventional memory limitation of 640 KiB. We really are spoiled these days in terms of technical resources for development. I wonder if they could have used up those pyrotechnics just for fun after the project was finalised...
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
Man, I get such cognitive dissonance when I read Privateer 2 people looking back on their game with such fondness. As a developer, I can totally understand that even bad projects seem pretty great in retrospect. Nonetheless, it was an objectively bad game, shipped in a half-finished state. This is no reflection on the people who made the game, presumably the circumstances were very complex. Still… there are much more interesting stories to be told about P2 than what we're getting.

If Paul Hughes is reading this, what I'd really like to hear is: what is the other side of the story with regards to the infamous Privateer 2 playtester's perspective post by Anthony Salter? Certainly, the criticisms levelled against the game in that post were spot on. So, what actually happened to this feedback - did it even filter through to the development team? And did they themselves, internally, also try to ring the alarm about the gameplay problems? I know from experience that sometimes as a developer you lose the objectivity to even recognise your gameplay is bad until the reviews come in (and even then, you're like, "what are they talking about?!"). Is that what happened here, or were the problems noted, but no time was available to rework the game?
 

Pedro

Admiral
I’ve heard this opinion before, but usually from you Q :)

It was definitely rushed out, how many games ship with a bug warning in the box?
But bugs and a few balancing issues aside it was an objectively good game. I seem to remember it getting reasonably good reviews reflecting this.

Not great, but still very enjoyable.

The flight engine was smooth and massive step up from the stuttery rotations of wc3/4.
Visually it was also a step up.
The difficulty was well balanced (shame about the random encounters) and I certainly found the trading more rewarding than P1.
 

AD

Finder of things, Doer of stuff
Man, I get such cognitive dissonance when I read Privateer 2 people looking back on their game with such fondness.

I don't get you at all here. This just sounds like being negative for the sake of being negative. You need to put his comments into some context here. All the recent discussion about The Darkening started with the FMV director talking about the limitations of FMV at the time the game was made and his disapointment that their hard work was shown in such low resolution/quality, and here Paul rightfully praises the hard work done at the time to make it as good as possible. That's the whole genesis of the video tech discussion that he's remembering with "such fondness". And in the same breath Paul says " It could’ve been so much more; alas they burned a whole year going through a couple of different programming teams. We essentially had a year to code up the whole thing from scratch. It was alright I guess. I loved the trading aspect (the UI design was lovely). "

"It was alright I guess" isn't exactly high praise for the final outcome. And it would definitely be interesting to hear more about his overall feelings on the final game but this definitely isn't him just claiming something is more than it was out of nostalgia.
 

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!
It was definitely rushed out, how many games ship with a bug warning in the box?
But bugs and a few balancing issues aside it was an objectively good game. I seem to remember it getting reasonably good reviews reflecting this.

You are correct, Privateer 2 was highly reviewed pretty much all around. The spawn balance really stands out today but I don't think it did in 1996... I remember my big reaction was WOW, this runs amazingly well on my 486/66 that could barely load Wing Commander IV earlier in the year.

(It wasn't uncommon for Origin games to ship with those warnings, though they usually disguised them as 'manual addendum' sheets. The original Privateer had one basically telling you you were out of luck if you had a Gravis sound card regardless of what was printed on the box...)
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
I’ve heard this opinion before, but usually from you Q :)
Yes, well, my opinion is surely the only one that matters ;). No, but seriously - it's far from only my opinion, and you know it :). You've been at these forums long enough to know how divisive P2 was, and it certainly didn't all come down to the "it's not really Wing Commander" controversy. You can see quite a lot of negativity on GOG as well, and the reviews aggregated on MobyGames, while more positive than I'd expect (what is it with all those crazy-high German scores?!), also aren't all wonderful. The lowest score it has is 50%, and that's from Computer Gaming World, which is certainly a respectable publication (though, to be fair, the 90% it got from Edge is very impressive).

The difficulty was well balanced (shame about the random encounters) and I certainly found the trading more rewarding than P1.
Eh, no. Just. No. Praise the graphics. Praise the storyline. Praise the acting. Heck, even praise the awful pirate taunts. I'll agree on some of those, disagree on others, but generally, I'll accept there's room for differing opinions. But if you tell me the difficulty was well balanced - surely, you're just messing with me now :).

I don't get you at all here. This just sounds like being negative for the sake of being negative.
Oh, come on, AD. Sure, I sit around all day, just waiting for an opportunity to be negative. It's what I live for 🙄. I read the above, and then I went back to read (possibly re-read, hard to remember that far back) the much longer and substantial Q&A the CIC did with Paul Hughes back in 2008 - you know, the one linked right there in the article. You're explaining to me the context of the above - well, the Q&A is the context of my comments, and why I commented on the fondness. Ultimately, I guess my point is simply that I'd like - I'd genuinely like - to hear what the P2 team have to say about the game's problems, especially the ones described by Anthony Salter. If that, to you, is just being negative for the sake of being negative, then I guess I'm guilty as charged.
 

ChrisReid

Super Soaker Collector / Administrator
Oh, come on, AD. Sure, I sit around all day, just waiting for an opportunity to be negative. It's what I live for 🙄. I read the above, and then I went back to read (possibly re-read, hard to remember that far back) the much longer and substantial Q&A the CIC did with Paul Hughes back in 2008 - you know, the one linked right there in the article. You're explaining to me the context of the above - well, the Q&A is the context of my comments, and why I commented on the fondness. Ultimately, I guess my point is simply that I'd like - I'd genuinely like - to hear what the P2 team have to say about the game's problems, especially the ones described by Anthony Salter. If that, to you, is just being negative for the sake of being negative, then I guess I'm guilty as charged.

I hate to derail what should be an engaging discussion about an interesting topic, but you kind of already did, so here goes. If you scroll through your post history, you could draw the conclusion that you do look for opportunities to beg negative. This whole post is just pops back and forth between negativity portrayed as tongue-in-cheekyness and pseudo sincerity. It's not how you would ever approach someone and ask them about their work. Claiming to genuinely want a response from Paul about why the game sucks so much is one of those "So, have you stopped beating your wife?" leading questions. You started off talking about cognitive dissonance, which is basically saying there must be something broken in his head if he likes the game he made so much, and then state that his casual personal reminiscing wasn't entertaining enough for you since there are "much more interesting stories to be told." You either actually truthfully don't care if Paul responds or you have a social misunderstanding that prevents you from realizing what a shitpost this is. I try not to make it a habit to just come down on people here, but this isn't the first (or twentieth?) time we've gone down this path before.
 
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Pedro

Admiral
It's the least well regarded of the main games/ two privateers, but only by a little and it's better regarded than all of the WC:A games.
Moby games has the reviewer average in the 80s, a user average of 3.8, GoG has the user score at 4.1. These aren't scores of hatred.

Now P2 is devisive but from those numbers it's impossible to say it's "objectively bad". The consensus going by the numbers is it's a popular title.

When I say it's well balanced in terms of difficulty I mean it. As LOAF points out random encounters were a ****. But the difficulty didn't have spikes, it increased at a natural rate encouraging the player to go out, earn credits, beef up his ship at frequent intervals rather than all at once (RGO for example, I had to restart multiple times and just grind missions for ages, after which I didn't do many non story critical missions at all). There was certainly no FF8 "you got to the end of disc 3 without leveling up? Your game is now over" moment.

I'm personally a huge fan of the game, stupid as it sounds when I was in hospital with orbital cellulitis, which was life threatening, the main thing on my mind was getting back to it (the morphine probably helped keep my priorities trivial, but still I'd been really enjoying it).
Paul Hughes was kind enough to get the team that remained at travellers tales to sign a couple of privateer 2 boxes for me (one which went out on a CIC birthday), it would be a shame if he was those comments.
 
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Michael Paul Cottam

Space Marshal



Privateer 2 developer Paul Hughes has posted some neat anecdotes about the development of The Darkening almost twenty-five years ago. He was inspired to revisit the game by director Steve Hilliker's recent release of the video footage in high quality. There's some interesting recollections on the resolution and compression limitations that they faced back in 1996, and he's also got a soul-crushing anecdote about Christopher Walken's credits.










Last, but not least, here's a brief YouTube conversation between Mr. Hilliker and Hughes.



Paul has been an absolute wealth of information on the development of Privateer 2 for nearly twenty-five years. Deep in our archives, you can find a January 1997 IRC chat on the game's release that LOAF saved. Additionally, he did a wonderful Q&A for us in 2006 to celebrate P2's ten year anniversary.

--
Original update published on June 11, 2020
After drinking a bottle of whisky that Erin Roberts gave me I went to see my wife (to be) parents the next morning; it did not go well. I'm still telling stories of that party night. I remember Phil beating me up in the blow-up boxing ring for way too long, he enjoyed that... Running through the 007 film set was fun! Working with Paul is always amazing. We were pioneers, not privateers. I helped Paul Steed make models for WC in Texas while learning how to do it for Privateer. Those WC models were the very first game engine models EVER. This was a kick ass project... The work Paul and Tony did laid the path for many things to come. Nice to hear from Paul again! He's a genius!
 

Michael Paul Cottam

Space Marshal
We started making that game in a very, very small room inside a graphic studio that belonged to another company. Just three or four of us at first. Nick and Phil played a Robin Hood TV show constantly; I can still remember the music intro. We made the first trailer to sell the game idea to EA/Origin in that room. Paul and Tony arrived later when we moved into a small 3 bedroom house. That house was amazing fun, there were images of all the ships on the walls. The image of the team that Paul sent out was taken in our last office. One day the head of EA UK came to visit the house, he had us move out as soon as possible. I'm in the photo, in the middle with the bright white shirt. I look older now. But I'm still making games. I'm AD on 4 AAA projects working in China. I'm working on some crazy stuff.
 

Michael Paul Cottam

Space Marshal
There has been another story going around for 25 years. The one when I was said to throw my monitor down the stairs of that 3-bedroom house. It was not quite like that. Most weekends I took the computer and monitor to my home or to Cardiff where my wife to be lived. I worked during the night over the weekends to get Privateer done. One Monday morning I dropped my monitor going up the stairs and a rebel was born. Monitors were big and heavy back then, and I was carrying a cat! That said, life in the industry was way different back then, we were rebels. Wingmen for rent in a digital world. "But my credit was sweet enough" (another line)!
 
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