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Colony Wars: Lead Programmer Mike Anthony

Lead programmer, Mike Anthony, caps off my final installment of the Colony Wars interviews.

Isaiah Taylor

October 3, 2011

8 Min Read


This has been an amazing experience to write about and to learn from. In the final entry [for now] of my Colony Wars saga, the lead programmer for the original game and it’s sequel, Mike Anthony, contacted me. Mike Anthony was apart of, what I would like to call, a dream team. Everyone who has worked on Colony Wars seems to have been rewarded with an amazing career after the space-sim’s success.
He currently works at Treyarch and has been apart of their Call of Duty team. His resumé post-Colony Wars includes: Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, James Bond: Quantum Of Solace, and Call of Duty: Black Ops.
At the beginning of this journey I was hoping to contact anyone who had worked on a Colony Wars game. Now I can say I’ve had the privilege of talking to the most brilliant minds in the games industry. I can only hope I can meet everyone personally to thank them. Until then, I’m hoping Mike Anthony’s story will suffice.

"I was the lead programmer on Colony Wars and Colony Wars: Vengeance and its nice to see that people remember the games fondly.

We truely enjoyed developing those games for the PlayStation, I remember the game started from the Krazy Ivan code base, way back in 1996.

Mike Ellis, myself, Steve Davies and Marcus Goodey had some down time after Krazy Ivan and we started talking about the kind of game we'd like to work on.

It was the beginning of the PC arcade emulator explosion (MAME) at the time and we thought, "wouldn't it be great to work on a modern space combat game" but make it more arcadey.

The first thing we did was take the Krazy Ivan code, turn off the planet rendering and collision, replaced the player robot with a space ship model, knocked up a star field and so it began, we had a space ship flying around.

We started with a very small team and prototyped space combat gameplay.

After six months Marcus left the team for a job in America but Psygnosis saw the potential of the game we were prototyping and green lit the project with a full team and added the talents of Chris Roberts and Lee Carus to fill the open slots we had for full production.

In retrospect, we had a very talented team for the time, Chris is an awesome graphical engineer and created many of the special effects that set the game apart.  Gavin Dodd joined the team and developed from scratch a PC mission editor with our design lead Mike Ellis that allowed Mikes team to independently build the 80+ levels in the game independently of programmer assistance, quite a new thing for the time.

Mike Ellis developed the story line, designed the mission content for all the levels and was also hands on in putting a number of the levels together himself using the mission editor.

I worked closely with Mike on the gameplay and feel of the controls so that we had that slick “arcadey” feel to the gameplay.

Lee Carus joined as our graphical lead, he added the Psygnosis touch to the look of the game and did some great looking intro movies and in-game cut scenes that helped give the game an epic feel.

Game development tools were very basic back then, no source control software, i just backed up the code once a week onto a CD to be safe.

Each department working on the game had very experienced staff who had worked on a number of previous titles for Psygnosis and we communicated well, pushing each other to add more and more features as it snowballed into the space opera that was finally shipped.

The job I appreciated most from production though was making sure we had a budget each night to buy an Indian or Chinese meal to help us through the late nights.

Technically, we achieved many things with the engine, awesome effects all hard coded in assembly language, data streaming, smooth consistent frame rate (A key ingredient to the arcadey feel of Colony Wars), a robust mission editor that enabled us to quickly move onto Colony Wars: Vengeance and complete that game in a record 10 months, advanced collision detection algorithms (all coded in asm again) that enabled hundreds of bullets to fly around space, colliding at a triangle resolution against the space ships, while still maintaining a smooth frame rate and a unique script language designed and written for Colony Wars that enabled Mike Ellis's design team to give each space ship multiple sets of priority commands in a macro style language.

The game really snowballed during the final months and we were all very happy with the final results, the team felt like we had created an epic space opera and a unique gaming experience.

The game became so large that at the last minute we had to split the games data onto 2 CD's, that introduced a few technical challenges for the time.

I still look back fondly on Colony Wars, although it was a lot of hard work and many long hours to get in in a box, we had a very well balanced development team.

I've been in the industry for almost 20 years now, and currently work at Treyarch in Los Angeles.

For the last seven years I've been working mainly on the Call of Duty franchise, having worked on Cod Finest Hour, Cod 2 Big Red One, Cod 3, Cod Black Ops, as well as spending time as the lead programmer of James Bond QOS and Spiderman 3.

You should checkout the games history (on moby games) of the original game developers of Colony Wars, Mike Ellis, myself, Gavin and many of the team have gone on to work on successful titles since the Colony Wars days." -- Mike Anthony

IT: Were there endings/weapons cut in Colony Wars: Vengeance?

Anthony: To be honest I'm not sure if any weapons were cut, Mike Ellis passed on design specifics for each weapon to the programming team and we implemented them as per the design. Its possible weapons were cut but I wasn't part of that decision making process.

As for the number of endings, the design team really wanted the player to feel there was replay value after completing the game, so they developed the multiple endings structure, that even allowed you to progress at times if you failed in a battle. To complete the game down a branch structure the player would only play about half the available missions, which means the designers have to create an awful lot of missions to give the player enough gaming time for a playthrough. It was very ambitious for the time and I like to think we achieved our goal of offering the players incentive to replay the game multiple times to see what they missed out on.

IT: Do you feel the space-sim genre can be revived at this point and what do you think it would take?

Anthony: Yes it definitely could be revived. I've always felt that subsequent new platforms the PS2 followed by the Xbox360/PS3 have opened up the opportunity to revisit the genre and use the machines extra power and resources to create an all action space combat game. Mixing close quarter fighter vs fighter action with some exploration of space. I always wanted to work on the possibility of flying a fighter and docking with a large space ship, then allowing the player to get out to explore in a fps environment for short periods, before exiting the ship for more space combat.

Something like a 60/40 split of space combat and fps fighting within gigantic space ships that you have disabled and infiltrated. Imagine combining the space combat of Colony Wars with the exploration and gameplay of Dead Space, that kind of experience is something I'd like to see happen one day.

IT: Finally, 20 years later, and you now work for one of the largest development studios in the industry. What are some of the new development challenges you face versus the hurdles experienced in your Colony Wars days?

Anthony: Teams are so much larger these days its a completely different development process to ship a game.

Today being a lead is almost completely a management role with very little hands on development on a day to day basis.

Back in the 90's lead engineers were expected to take on any role needed to get the game shipped, anything from player controls, framerate optimization and gameplay behaviours, there was always a different challenge every day.

Today everything is planned in very precise detail, we have huge departments 30 or 40 people for each discipline and of course the on-line experience is redefining the way games are developed.

I do miss some of the daily "fly by night" experiences back in the 90's and some of our best work came from just iterating on an unexpected idea that worked.


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