Interview  with Ron McDowell, CTO of Magrathean Technologies creators of Incognito

Recently I had the pleasure to review Incognito: Episode One, an intriguing title from developer Magrathean Technologies. The game, as the name so aptly implies, is the first in a series of Their CTO, Ron McDowell, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

Tell us a little about yourself, your background, your company, and how you got started in the games business.

Two guys named Kyle and Ron, and their financial guru Mike started Magrathean Technologies in 2006 and primarily worked online for clients abroad, it was and has been a group of 3 people. There are two programmers, and our financial officer. Working in virtual worlds like Second Life when they hit popular culture from around 2006 – 2008 it was really a gold rush of creativity for us. We built things like a distance learning system for a school here in British Columbia, Canada. The same school later wanted a circuit visualization system based on an old circuit simulator called SPICE. Other projects ranged from one extreme to the other like furniture stores to simulations of grading you on attempts to solicit pharmaceutical drugs to doctors.

Second Life of course was just a fad, and when that ended in the beginning of 2008 we got into the idea of providing the same technology for free. We had used OSS before but never before had we attempted to participate in the movement. We had spun our own distribution of Mandriva Linux to become a Live CD that would let you run a virtual machine or another box to run one of these Second Life islands locally where you could do whatever you wanted without the need for real world currency.

This was only useful to people in a very small target market, but was, and still is wildly successful. Two years after it's release we are still answering questions about DGiG (Distributed Global Information Grid) which is a mouthful but for people that work in this world and use it as a medium it allows them to test creations and make things before actually uploading them into a virtual world. With Second Life dead we wanted to move onto other things. Learning all this background in rendering engines, sound engineering, rigging, lighting, etc. etc all bleed into the mod and game development field as a whole.

We began browsing for engines that showed potential, eventually finding the NeoAxis engine due to it's use of modern programming conventions like automatic garbage collection and also a obvious push to use as many different libraries like FMOD (for audio), ODE (for physics) and the ability to swap these in and out with programming simple wrappers was just to much to pass up. Experimentation with games creation began.

Interview   with Ron McDowell, CTO of Magrathean Technologies creators of Incognito

Where did the idea for Incognito come from?

We grew up in the 90's playing games, both developers are under 30. Characters like SHODAN, Mario, Quake grunt, Doom marine, Sonic, NOD and GDI, Earthworm Jim, Carmen Santiago, Duke Nukem, etc. are not so much characters as they are embodiments of our childhood. The collective time-sinks that went into each of these characters makes them more than a collection of pixels… the experience only likened to that of a book you cannot put down and must keep reading until the end (for those of you that have had the pleasure of a such an experience).

After over a year of working on various game types like space exploration, RTS, FPS, etc. and also figuring out how to make them seamless as possible in terms of controls and being able to save certain information across all instances. I digress, we needed a name for the project that was taking shape from what was seemingly a sea of madness and interfaces to something that had no face. The unknown, unsure, untitled document… looking back in time on maps they would mark places on maps that no human had ever gone or knew about "terra incognito" or better known as in mythology as "here be dragons" AKA "nobody knows what is out here". It seemed fitting and the name stuck.

What is your goal for Incognito? How did you think it played out in the first episode?

The goal was to create a full 3D game based in our own universe, with our own intellectual property (meaning unique characters, enemies, worlds, style, etc). Furthermore the desire to use an engine we can truly call our own, and not owe 25% (or more) of our soul in royalties to a 3rd party company was an absolute must. With those guidelines we looked at the actual gaming aspect of it, where would you go? What will you do? How will you get there? Who will you talk to? How can we possibly have a game that can incorporate every idea we wanted?

Naturally you look at other games that attempted such things. A good example is Spore from Maxis, fun game with multiple game types however the problem (for us) was that it was not multiple game types it was simply multiple games packed together. You beat one, advance to the other. The idea was there but without the ability to go from one to the other it was lost. Older games attempted things like this on a much larger scale (Ascendancy, Nomad, Star Control II). There are always more, but these are special because we took inspiration from them directly.

Therein was the obvious challenge. Make a game that uses all game types and actually (and truly) switches between them. Everything after this was intentional from main menu acting like a point and click adventure, FPS with RPG elements like inventory and stats, Space trading and exploration on the scale of traversing entire galaxies and the list goes on. This sounds good on paper, but has a tendency to become exponentially complicated for every game type added into game play mix. It took a while to convince ourselves what was enough, and what was to much.

Interview   with Ron McDowell, CTO of Magrathean Technologies creators of Incognito

After a year or so since Episode 1 has been released the general buzz from reviews and comments is that nothing is 100%, yet nothing is a complete failure leaving us in this area of unrealized potential that we as a development company have three other episodes to figure out how to address. As we upgrade things and work on new episodes these changes reflect back through each episode which is why we release them like expansion packs; which also encourages people to play from beginning to end and not jump around since the goal is to tell a story about this old man lost in space. We like where things are and going, we want to make Incognito something awesome but this is a learning process for us and we do make mistakes.

About how long did Episode 1 take to make?

We wanted creative freedom, most of this brought on by working for clients for so long, the urge to make something completely our own was truly there and we had enough capital to spend from working in Second Life for several years. We began messing with NeoAxis and showing off technology demos around December of 2007 which are still on our YouTube channel. Time begins to become somewhat of a blur at that point until December 2009 when we released Episode 1 and normality was restored. So 2 years.

It was an experience neither of us will forget anytime soon, but would do again in every parallel dimension if offered 😉

The protagonist isn't exactly your typical game hero. Where did his inspiration come from?

The thing with the old man was that we didn't want another shaved military grunt running around killing aliens in the sake of completing quests (but that does have its own appeal). Inspiration was anti of everything that makes up almost every game character out there. Soldier becomes a banker, super-powers become certificates in business administration and accounting, ego and fate become suicidal tendencies and drug abuse problem. Enter John Smith, a nobody with real problems.

We were not sure if it would stay this way… but near the end of the project the stock markets began to crash and fluctuate wildly in real life. We knew we had the right character and made him work at an Investment Banking firm and fleshed out more of the company he works at in the intro and beginning parts of Episode 1.

There are a lot of different game-play types in Episode 1. Tell us about your goals for each and how you think they turned out in the final product.

The goal was sheer scale in the simplest of words and to make it seem believable in a linear sense. In the end we had a system where you could be traveling around hyperspace between galaxies in a sector of a larger universe. You then travel to a particular galaxy in hyperspace and "enter" it, locate a planetoid of interest and "orbit" it. Once around the planet you could scan it and decide to take resources with your automated army of replicated probes and drones or land on it if things required a more personal touch. Exiting your ship, walking down the exit ramp, enter a building and then go into a mine and into a cave inside this planet you just landed on.

Interview with Ron McDowell, CTO of Magrathean Technologies creators of Incognito

You then of course can reverse this and go all the way back to hyperspace, it was at this point we decided we had enough to make a story around. We think we achieved the goal we set out to in the beginning and made a game that successfully blends many different game types together in a somewhat linear experience. By somewhat linear we're referring to how Incognito allows multiple paths but they lead to same result.

What was the most difficult thing about making Episode 1?

One of the hardest things was finding a good writer, we had the engine picked and prep-work complete. Even to go so far as creating concept art, a lot of this done by friends in their spare time. There was our Universe Sector 42 populated with tons of galaxies with hundreds of planets and moons. So much data but no place to go! I think it was a daunting task to maybe ask a writer to fill this mold and keep in mind game-play mechanics at heart but still maintaining that tongue in cheek Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy humor.

After going through about 4 writers from friends and friends of friends and things like this we outsourced the project on and put everything we had on there. One of the first responses was a guy by the name of Andrew Robinson. He specialized in the sci-fi area and after reading his existing material (which I shameless plug now! Lexa and the Gordian Maze of Terra) we let him do what he does best and we went back to coding the infrastructure of the game world.

Reading his story for the first time was like seeing the next 5 years of your life ahead of you, every sentence and paragraph you quantify as work and things to be done and it was kinda breathtaking to know "this is what we are going to make". Was also tons of pressure off our shoulders to know that we had a story now and motivation skyrockets as you start to bring that story to life.

There are a lot of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy references in the game. Exactly how influential was it to you?

To put it in the fewest words we want the memory of Douglas Adams and the style of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy universe to live on! There are movies, books, and we want to fill the game category. The game world itself has direct references at times such as Don't Panic! logo in HEIDI's virtual representation of the ship to hidden items like towels and maps of Norway that litter the game world. Another half of this is in code… the sheer amount of things in the game based off or randomized with the number 42 are just mind bogglingly ridiculous!

Interview with Ron McDowell, CTO of Magrathean Technologies creators of Incognito

You aren't able to save your game unless you're in the space flight portion or doing an autosave. Was this intentional or the result of a technical limitation?

The reason for this is we treat experience on planets like an instance of something happening. It is in our personal opinion the game should be about mastering the level to gain access to the next part, not mastering the level to gain access to the next part with a time machine you can access at any time. Games are afraid to allow players to fail or be prepared these days (IMHO), we did not even have auto save for the longest time but enough people sent emails and changed our minds. Now we have auto save. The world is right once more!

In all seriousness we will change it if enough people complain. This is apart of the experience of making games for us! We will take all this feedback and factor it into future Episodes until we reach the end of this story. In our defense games like Uplink and World of Warcraft ultimately are where these ideas came from for anyone wondering.

How successful do you think Episode 1 and Episode 2 were in terms of your own expectations? Where do you see the series going from here?

Being successful (on the Internet) is fairly subjective and we take everything with a grain of salt to say the least. When we first released the game we were so anxious that one of our developers went to clinic to check out chest pains he was having. Nothing serious at all, doctor just told him to calm the heck down and relax wound up so tight in anticipation of… *drum roll* peer review.

Then it happened our first review! Was it going to be the next Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing failure spectacular?! Or was it maybe going to be like the new Half-Life?! I mean until people start talking about what you made you have no idea what will happen. Like we mentioned before the reception seems to be that nothing is 100%, but nothing is a complete failure making for a good first effort from indie company. Being episodic means we have a chance to improve on this framework and we will until the story ends in Episode 5.

You have some other projects listed in your portfolio such as web development and a desktop video player. Are games going to be Magarathean's focus in the future?

Incognito is our only focus at this time. All other projects are pre-Incognito and we are still moving away from it, but get support questions about these products and don't want to abandon our users. We also believe in roots and remembering where you came from is important as company.

Any last thoughts? Words for aspiring developers?

Don't take criticism personally! The gaming industry has very diverse needs and at the end of the day we as developers want to fill our target markets with games people want to play because they are fun. A few other things… don't worry about locking down your files leave things open up so others can see how you constructed your worlds, give away editors and API so people can re-make and create new things with your game. There is a lot of controversy around DRM and pirates and all this it is a very sensitive subject but the best approach is the passive aggressive one. If your game does not sell well, do not blame pirates, blame your game. Pirates have money too, let them play the game and keep expanding your products and offering more and more for your customers so your asking price is pathetic to their actions. 

Big thanks to Ron for taking the time to speak to me. Here's hoping we see more from Magrathean in the future.

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