Where are They Now: Graeme Devine

By John Keefer, Aug 27, 2012 9:00am PDT

Our Where are They Now feature this week welcomes Graeme Devine, probably best known to Shackers as founder of 7th Guest developer Trilobyte, innovator in the field of video compression, a programmer at id on Quake III Arena, and champion of the Mac as a gaming platform. Devine, now 46, lives in Santa Cruz with his wife, Lori, and daughter, Roque.

Shacknews: In keeping with the theme of the column, what are you doing now?

Graeme Devine: I'm living in Santa Cruz, CA. I started my own company called GRL Games, which stands for "Giant Robot Lizard" or "Graeme Roque Lori," depending on who you ask. We're a small company, and will always be a small company, focused mostly on iOS games (I just made a game called "2-Bit Bub" based on the movie ParaNorman), but it looks like my next game will be the big adventure game I've been designing for so many years.

Shacknews: A big adventure game? Explain.

Devine: I want to make an adventure game that crosses media … that lives in books, comics, albums, as well as a "classic" game, and I want to make it seem real, so the player is the hero. Adventure games now make some character you play to be the hero, yet the old text adventure games it was all about you. I want to make it all about you again.

Shacknews: You've come a long way since you ported Pole Position for Atari at age 17. What was it like starting in such a young industry?

Devine: I was actually 14 when I started to make games. I worked on the ZX Spectrum, TRS-80 and back then the computer game industry was maybe a few hundred people, not the few hundred thousand people it is now. I remember having to go up to London and sit on the doorstep of my publisher's house to get my royalty check. Back then everything was self-taught, there was no Internet, no Stack Overflow to answer questions, no team or even really books on game programming. So it was pretty exciting really.

Shacknews: At 24, you founded your first company Trilobyte, creating such classics as 7th Guest and 11th Hour. When I first saw the games in stores, my first thought was "Wow, two CDs!" But there was a lot to those games. What challenges did you face getting those games compressed to fit on a reasonable number of CDs?

Devine: In the end we could have fit 7th Guest onto one CD, but Martin Alper at Virgin Games said two was better. The big problem was video compression and that there was not a video decompressor built into every computer as there is today with the advanced GPUs we have. I had to write a video compression system and a decompression system that would run on a 386sx (the old 386 that didn't have a math coprocessor, you know, because we didn't need those in the 90s).

Shacknews: When you joined id, you became a champion of sorts for the Mac. You always seemed to have an affinity for Apple products. Was there a lot of opposition at the time for using Mac as a gaming platform?

Devine: If there was I don't remember that. Trilobyte and id both used Next computers, so the jump to Mac wasn't too unreasonable. Making a game for the Mac and for Windows also keeps you honest, since the game is compiled by two different compilers it made the code a lot cleaner. I think one of the reasons that Quake III was so bug free is that we had it running on so many different computers. We always found that to be a benefit and not a burden.

Shacknews: I heard Todd Hollenshead recently say that pulling into the company parking lot at id was like pulling into a sports car dealership. What was the atmosphere like at id while you were there? Had the rockstar mentality calmed a bit?

Devine: It was really all about the game and the quality of the game. Intense focus, even intense emotional focus, on things like shotgun balance and if the plasma gun was too powerful. In the end that made the game great, but there was still a huge intensity to being at id, and that made every day there pretty interesting.

Shacknews: What is your favorite memory from working there?

Devine: I remember once coming into work and there were rocket parts sitting outside John's office door. I had the office next door to him and so I looked at the stuff for a bit, it said "hazardous to health, store safely" or something to that effect and I remember thinking, only John ... He had a wicked sense of humor and would often come into my office and tell me ideas on how something, anything, like a video camera, was designed wrong. You get smarter by being in an office next to John.

I remember being sad when John Cash left, but then happy when it turned out it was for World of Warcraft. Lots of little bits of memories.

Shacknews: While programming for id, you also managed to somehow find the time to be chairman of the International Game Developers Association.

Devine: Not the wisest thing I ever did, but I am proud of doing so and id never once told me otherwise. The IGDA was just starting on its education curriculum, which is the basis of a lot of the university courses today. I got to go around and visit a lot of universities and colleges and talk to people who wanted to get into the computer game industry. That rocked.

Shacknews: After id, you spent a good deal of time at Ensemble. What was the transition like for you in terms of thought process going from a company famed for FPS to one that focused on strategy titles?

Devine: I think it was pretty easy really. It's funny, at id we LOVED to play RTS games. At Ensemble we loved to play FPS games. Ensemble was larger, had Microsoft backing it, but had an environment that meant the game came first. So I loved it there.

Shacknews: Had you been a fan of Halo before taking on Halo Wars? What were the challenges bringing the FPS into an RTS format, especially since RTS on console was still fairly new?

Devine: Christian Antkow and I played Halo on the Xbox at id. We were surprised a first person shooter worked with a controller. I was also lucky enough to know the guys at Bungie since, if you remember, Halo was first introduced as a Mac OS X title. I liked Halo.

We focused at first on getting the controls to work and used Age of Empires II to do that. I think making the problem of the controls working and then how to make a Halo game work as an RTS into two separate problems made things easier. I'm really proud of the end result.

Shacknews: I remember that you were still putting the finishing touches on Halo Wars when Microsoft announced it was closing the studio in late 2008. What was your mood like trying to get through crunch mode of such a high profile game with such a pall hanging over your head?

Devine: It was not fantastic, but the team was fantastic. We held together, we finished the game, and we made the best RTS game on a console ever. Nothing since Halo Wars has improved the RTS model on the console and the sheer number of people asking me almost daily about Halo Wars 2 makes it stand out.

Shacknews: Have you thought about what you'd do with a Halo Wars 2 if you could make it?

Devine: I think the main thing I want to do is to get the crew home. We left the game on a cliffhanger because we thought there was going to be a sequel. With Microsoft owning Halo there's not much options available really, but the fans want another Halo Wars (I hope) and eventually that will make it happen!

Shacknews: You moved on to Apple after Ensemble. Having been a Mac champion for so long, that must have been a dream come true. What was it like working with iOS for games and ensuring quality?

Devine: It was fascinating. I hadn't been on that end of the stick before, so suddenly you're dealing with the internals of glass latency, networks, what makes games better on iOS from the inside. Everyone who works at Apple is incredibly smart, warm and did I mention smart? It made me feel like I was the guy moving in slow motion, but the folks there can solve any problem put before them. That was incredible.

Shacknews: John Carmack has said that you were able to help with id's mobile initiative while you were at Apple and made things a bit easier for him. What did you two work on?

Devine: John would still write or call with ideas. He was incredibly interested in mobile games and he provided a lot of feedback on things like the OpenGL drivers and how timing worked in games, how the event loop worked on the iPhone etc. John cares about milliseconds, Apple does too.

Shacknews: Obviously your time at Apple convinced you that iPad and iPhone gaming was the next big thing because you started GRL very soon after you left. Has the experience been what you expected and do you find iOS games any more or less rewarding than 7th Guest or Doom 3?

Devine: I think the iPad and iPhone gaming market is a lot like the game market in the 1980s. It's small teams, small development times, okay to make a game that's risky. So I love it here.

Shacknews: What did you learn from running Trilobyte that made it easier for you to take on the huge task of starting GRL, especially in a floundering economy?

Devine: I am really good at making games with small teams. I suck when it comes to 60 person companies. GRL is always going to be small and nimble. Four of us made 7th Guest in nine months above a tavern in Jacksonville, Oregon. That.

Shacknews: What would you say is your most rewarding experience to date in your game development career? Your biggest disappointment?

Devine: Same day. The day Trilobyte went under was the best and worst day of my life. My worst because it was everything, it had every chance to succeed but we were young, maybe a little reckless, and our egos got in the way of doing the right thing. The best because it woke me up to the reality that working 24/7 isn't what life is about, it turned out I had a three year old daughter I had never really played with and that day I vowed to change. And I did.

Shacknews: Are there any trends that you see right now in the games industry that excite you or worry you?

Devine: Metrics and monetization strategies. The race to design a game that is all about getting the next micro transaction out of the player. Games are about being generous with fun and too many designers are now focused on not being generous with the fun. Games are not black boxes you AB test into profit, they are wild imaginative gambles. That's how we got the genres we have today, by making those gambles, and not enough people are being inventive enough these days.

Shacknews: How can fans keep up with what you are doing now? Twitter, Facebook, chain letter?

Devine: I'm @zaphodgjd on Twitter, just search my name on Facebook or look me up on GRL Games. It is really good to be back on Shacknews. Thank you!

Click here to comment...

Comments

1 Thread | 47 Comments