Interview with Owen Thomas - 18 December 2005
This interview ended up being an early Christmas present for me. I've been looking forward to talking to Owen Thomas of ORT Software, creator of AstroFire and TerraFire.
I like to start by letting authors put their legacy in their own words. Who are you and how did you get your start? And what does ORT stand for?
My full name is Owen Ross Thomas, so the name ORT Software just comes from my initials. I'm best known for my games AstroFire, TerraFire, CrossCraze and Astrogeddon.
My first published programs were for the BBC Micro, a home computer that was very popular in the UK during the 1980's. While I was still at school, I earned pocket money by writing short games and graphics utilities for computer magazines. This was in the days before cover disks, when magazines actually printed code listings and their readers would spend hours typing the programs in themselves.
A few years later, Apogee began releasing games using the shareware model, selling directly to their customers. They were the real pioneers of the independent game development scene and a huge inspiration to me.
I remember those magazines. As a child, I used to spend hours typing games written in Commodore BASIC into my VIC 20, which is how I learned to program!
Your first game, AstroFire, looks like a shiny 3D version of Asteroids at first, until waves of aliens start to fly by in formation, which is more like Galaga. What games were the inspiration for this game? Were you trying to use the best elements of a number of arcade games?
Yes, Asteroids was clearly a big influence, but AstroFire was very much a combination of every space shooter I had ever played.
Also, I had just discovered a great 3D graphics program called POV-Ray so I was looking for any excuse to use these effects in a game. Rocks and space ships are far easier to animate than people! AstroFire's graphics look crude by today's standards, but they made quite an impact at the time as it was one of the first PC games to make use of 3D rendered sprites.
Your next game was TerraFire, which doesn't remind me of any other game, other than AstroFire. It seems to take the best elements of AstroFire and add parralax scrolling through levels with walls and other obstacles, gravity, saved games, and even boss fights. Was TerraFire an original concept, and what got you started on such an ambitious project?
The most important influences were two very old games called Lunar Lander and Thrust. I really liked the way these games used gravity as part of the challenge. There's a lot of subtlety to the way you can manoeuvre your ship.
TerraFire is one of my favourite games, but I think a lot of people just play it for a few seconds and give up. The control system and gameplay are a little too different from the simple arcade games they're used to, so there's quite a steep learning curve, but it's the sort of game that really rewards perseverance.
Two years later you created CrossCraze, which seems to be a Scrabble variant. That's a rather different direction from spaceships and aliens. Are you a Scrabble player?
I do enjoy word games like Scrabble, but I had never been too inspired by any of the computer game conversions. They all had dull graphics and clumsy user interfaces. Also, brand-name conversions suffer because the developers aren't allowed to vary the gameplay or offer non-standard features like different board layouts.
CrossCraze was your first Windows game. Did you make the switch to take advantage of DirectX?
Yes, in particular I needed a higher resolution graphics mode so all the letter tiles could be displayed clearly. That was only really practical using DirectX.
In the olden days, when I was using Windows 3.1, most of the games I bought said not to run them from Windows because it wasted system resources. Some games, like Lemmings, wouldn't even run in Windows. How does making a game for 32-bit Windows compare with making a game for DOS?
It's a lot easier to develop games with Windows because it handles most of the tricky hardware stuff for you. Under DOS, you had to write different code for every video and sound card on the market. There were dozens of different brands so you could never cover them all - that's why so many programs failed to run on a lot of machines.
By the way, I notice that your game names are two words with the space removed. Is that sort of your signature? Does it make it easier to trademark the names?
It's actually very hard to come up with names that haven't been used before. I've always used made-up words, but even then, it can easily take a hundred attempts before you find a combination that doesn't already show up on Google.
This year you released a game called Astrogeddon, which is a remake of AstroFire. When I first saw that it had won "Best Action Game" at the 2005 Shareware Industry Awards, I thought "these guys must not have been gamers in the '90s or they would know that this is AstroFire". Then I played the game, and wow! You have totally revitalized that game and are very deserving of the award. I guess this is another example of the staying power of a simple, addictive concept?
Well, I've certainly found it addictive! :-) Actually, one of the reasons I've kept coming back to this particular concept is because it has been relatively neglected by other developers. There have been hundreds of high-quality vertical scrolling shooters, but only a few decent games in the same genre as AstroFire.
I beat AstroFire by carefully destroying ships before asteroids, and then breaking the asteroids one at a time to collect the powerups and avoid filling the screen with dangerous clutter. A patient strategy prevents you from being bounced all over the screen and getting crushed to death. I tried to play Astrogeddon that way, but you have so much firepower that you can't help destroying everything! And why wait? The powerups are magnetically drawn to your ship from within a certain distance, and there is even a time bonus. The screen is always full of stuff and the action never lets up. Even the background slowly rotates as you play. Is this the way you always wanted AstroFire to be? Is Astrogeddon a longtime dream of yours?
I always wanted to fill the screen with action, which is something older PCs couldn't handle, but Astrogeddon is actually a lot more restrained than it could have been. Some shoot-em-ups go totally overboard, giving you so much firepower in all directions that you don't even have to aim at anything. I deliberately avoided taking it that far with Astrogeddon.
Have you considered a powerup that increases the size of the ship's magnetic field?
I did experiment with effects like gravity and magnetism while I was developing AstroFire, but they never quite fitted with the gameplay so they were were dropped from the final release.
So now that you've revived your classic non-scrolling game, it seems like the next step would be to add gravity and scrollable levels again. Will we see Terrageddon in the near future?
Who knows, maybe one day...
Although you couldn't use the DirectX API, modern computers are certainly capable of handling pretty amazing graphics in DOS 32-bit protected mode now. Will any of the extraordinary effects from Astrogeddon ever find their way into AstroFire and TerraFire, or are those projects complete?
Unfortunately it's just too hard to support modern sound and video cards under DOS. If I did ever update these titles, they would have to be completely re-written for Windows.
What tools do you use to create your games?
My early games used a fair bit of machine code. PCs were so slow you really had to struggle to get every little bit of speed you could. These days, I write everything in C++, which is a lot easier.
Surprisingly, I still use POV-Ray for a lot of my graphics - it has a very "mathematical" interface which would horrify most artists, but it's perfect for a programmer like myself.
Are you a fan of DOS games? Do you have any favorites that you still play?
I certainly don't miss all the technical problems we used to have running DOS software, but I still love the simplicity of games from that era. These days, mainstream games are almost all in 3D, regardless of whether it actually helps or hinders the gameplay, and they are often overloaded with complicated features and options. Trying to simulate reality is fine, but there was certainly more variety with DOS games.
Is there anything else you'd like to say or anything that you'd like to promote?
Thanks for helping to promote independent games through your website. If any of your readers want to check out my latest releases, please visit: www.ortsoftware.com
Thank you very much for your time, and good luck in your future endeavors.
Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.