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Interview with Ken Silverman - 21 November 2005

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? I'm thankful for an interview with Ken Silverman, creator of the Build engine!

Ken Silverman
Ken Silverman

You've probably answered this question a thousand times, and your website is full of information about your life, but I'll ask anyway for the sake of my visitors who have been living in caves on Omicron Persei VIII. Who are you and how did you get your start?

I am Ken Silverman. I am known mostly for my work on the Build Engine, which powered games such as Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Blood, and Redneck Rampage. Before then, I wrote a little game called Ken's Labyrinth.

The first game you distributed is a Tetris game called Kentris. You've put a little bit of everything into Kentris, playing with color, motion, sound and voice. It looks like you're testing yourself to see how far you can go. I think that should be encouraging to ambitious young programmers. I know that I learned a lot by making very simple games like Pong and Breakout and seeing how many bells and whistles I could add to them. How much of Kentris carried over to Ken's Labyrinth, your 3D first person shooter that seems like a huge leap beyond Kentris?

When I come up with new things, I always think about how they can be incorporated into my latest project. Kentris was that killer project in 1991. For Ken's Labyrinth, I borrowed my sound system from Kentris - both the digital voice player and the Adlib music player. I should also note that Kentris was one of my earliest projects to use assembler code.

Ken's Labyrinth was your first commercial game. The story is that aliens from the planet Zogar have created a dangerous labyrinth in which they place species from throughout the galaxy for entertainment. Species that don't make the grade have their planet's molecular structure converted to carbon to fuel stoves that make red jelly. They stole your dog, Sparky, and found out that dogs are the smartest animals in the universe and have basically enslaved humanity. Instead of testing Sparky, they're now testing you. Um... what?

I didn't care about story. People were encouraging me to include one, so I had my brother (Alan) and his friend (Mahesh) throw together a bunch of B.S. to fulfill the void. Later, Mark Rein of Epic MegaGames added the part about Sparky. To me, the story was just one big silly joke. I could care less if it made sense or even if it was related to the game.

The final boss is an infinitely evil and infinitely ugly creature named Ken. Isn't that a little self-defamatory, if not masochistic?

I was a sad and lonely kid in high school. When most kids were socializing and doing normal things, I was thinking about computer algorithms. I thought it was fun to laugh off my pathetic social life in this way.

The game was published by Epic MegaGames. How did your relationship with Epic begin?

Epic contacted me about a week after I released the original Advanced Systems version of the game. Unlike Apogee, Epic was willing to sell the game without requiring too many changes. I was finishing high school at the time, and my parents didn't want this thing to drag into college.

So there you are, going to college as most people do, and Apogee hires you to build an engine for their most ambitious project yet. How did your relationship with Apogee begin?

I initiated contact with Apogee by writing them a letter. They were one of the 15 companies I wrote to in October of 1992 about marketing Ken's Labyrinth. Apogee was impressed with my work, but I decided not to go with them because they would have wanted me to rewrite the game from scratch. When I released the game through Epic MegaGames, Apogee was interested in me again. Apogee was courting me now, probably because Id Software wasn't licensing their Doom technology, and they weren't having much luck writing their own Doom-level engine from scratch.

Were you a fan of Duke Nukem before you started working on Build? Was it exciting or surreal to be making the next Duke game?

No. I might have played Duke Nukem once or twice before I met the team at Apogee. It was one of hundreds of games that I looked at once and then never really played again. I'm sure the Duke guys thought the same about Ken's Labyrinth. Even so, these guys were minor celebrities to me simply because I had heard of the name of their game before. It was an honor to have them using my tools.

In Shadow Warrior you upgraded the Build engine and added voxels. What the heck is a voxel?

The word voxel comes from 2 words: volume + pixel. Voxel objects are 3D objects that are made up of a 3D grid of cubes - just like legos.

3D Realms started working on Blood, but ended up selling it to Monolith Productions. Why did that happen? Did you follow the game to Monolith or was your contribution already complete when it left Apogee?

You would have to ask Scott Miller, George Broussard, or Jason Hall about the specific reasons for the split-up. From what I hear, things weren't working out very well - they disagreed on what would make a good game. I visited the Blood team a total of 3 times - the final time was at the Monolith office.

Another Build game that started its life at Apogee, Powerslave, was also sold before it was completed, this time to Playmates Interactive. Did you work on that game at all?

I visited the Lobotomy office just once, where I worked with John Yuill. I think I helped him implement network code.

Besides the games from 3D Realms, Build found its way into games all over the place. Among them are William Shatner's TekWar, Witchaven, Witchaven II: Blood Vengeance, Redneck Rampage, Extreme Paintbrawl, Nam, Redneck Rampage Rides Again: Arkansas, and World War II GI. This seems to cause many people to call you a god. Do you ever get overwhelmed by that kind of fan response?

I'm impressed that Apogee was able to market my engine as well as they did. It's not the quantity of games that matters, however. If there was no Duke Nukem 3D, Build wouldn't be known like it is today. An engine is only as good as its best game. If people want to call me a god, that's their business. I usually just say 'Thanks, I guess' and move on.

Games based on Build were even released in 1998 and 1999, long after most companies had switched to Windows. That's quite an accomplishment.

Thanks, I guess. : )

One of the games based on Build, Extreme Paintbrawl, has been listed by many sources as being one of the worst games of all time. Is that embarrassing for you or is there an emotional separation between creating the engine and the games that are made from it? Is Build still your child when other people license it?

I only care about the 3 games that I was heavily involved with: Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, and Blood. Extreme Paintbrawl was so late that it didn't matter. At the time, I was little upset over Witchaven being the first commercial game to be released with the Build Engine. I would have preferred it to be Duke, but it didn't matter in the end.

In the years since then, game physics have gotten ever more realistic. People seem as excited about each new engine as they are about the game that comes with it. Are you ever tempted to work on the next new killer engine?

The market has grown so much that the majority of game players are no longer technology geeks. Most people don't care if a car flips over naturally or in a cartoon-ish way. These days, it's the content that sells games. I've already written a few "next" engines. The only one I actually completed is Voxlap: a full-blown voxel engine. In retrospect, it was a 3 year experiment gone bad.

Your website has a great variety of games that you've written over the years. I was particularly interested in your chess game. It uses a brute force algorithm which depends on an enormous amount of processing power. I'm a chess player, so I was able to beat it at any level that ran in a reasonable amount of time. If I try to get the difficulty level high enough to challenge me, the computer takes forever to think. Are you a serious chess player? Can your creation challenge you?

I am not a serious chess player. If I was, I would probably have implemented castling and capturing pawns "en passant" the right way in my game : ) I'm only good enough to beat non-players. I usually lose to the default AI in my chess game. If you want to get your ass kicked, try my much newer checkers game : )

Speaking of computers challenging humans, artificial intelligence is a familiar topic to you. Do you have any concerns about computers becoming smart enough to turn on humanity as in 2001: A Space Odyssey/The Terminator/Ghost in the Shell/The Matrix?

No, I don't worry about these things. That's just Hollywood trying to make a buck. I am much more afraid of humans than machines.

In 1997 you returned to Brown University and completed your education. Was this because you had accomplished everything you wanted to do in gaming, or was it just time?

No, I'm never satisfied with what I've done. I returned to college for many reasons: loneliness in the state of Texas, fear that my competition was growing too fast, and pressure from my parents to finish college while I was still young.

I'll push my luck. What's next for Ken Silverman?

If I told you, I would have to kill you! Actually, not much. I don't think I'll be re-entering the gaming scene anytime soon.

Do you still enjoy DOS games? Are there any oldies that you still find yourself playing?

I don't really play games anymore. These days, the closest thing to that would be testing new things in JonoF's ports, or maybe a Kentris match against the computer because somebody reminded me of it. : )

Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything that you'd like to promote?

Sure, I'm always happy to promote my personal website : )

Thank you very much for your time, and good luck in your future endeavors.

You're welcome.

Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.