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November 4, 2021

Profile: Retro Interview: Tom Hall

Gaming Nexus devotes equal space to Tom Hall’s upcoming Anachronox and Tom Hall’s brain. An ION Storm founder, Hall tells what made him decide to be a game developer and what he would be if he wasn’t doing what he’s doing now. He also lists many of his influences and discusses Rise of the Triad, Doom, and of course his baby: Anachronox.

Andrew “Kolinahr” Wu

By Gaming Nexus
1998

Anachronox is one of three games coming out of Ion Storm. For all those PC people who want an adventure game with an intricate and large plot, this game might be the one you are waiting for. Using the Quake engine, Anachronox prepares to bring out a new and refreshing gaming experience. We recently had a chance to talk to Tom Hall:  game designer, and expletive V.P of Ion Storm about Anachronox, life, and the pursuit of a really kick ass game.

Gaming Nexus: What made you decide to become a game developer? 

Tom Hall: Two key events: that Christmas when I got the Atari 2600, and June 9th, 1980, when I got my Apple II+.  I was into film making at the time as well, but the computer did exactly what I wanted, quickly, with no middleman.  It was the ultimate medium and it was love at that point. 

GN: Was there a specific game that made a big impact on your decision to make games for a living?

TH: Scott Adams’ Adventure Sampler. I played that, solved it, and was amazed the fun little world one could make, the puzzles one could solve–it was so cool. I made, like, fifteen text adventures. Some of them wound up on Softdisk issues: Aztec Temple, Ed’s Superspy Course, Amusement Park… 

GN:  What are some of your influences when you develop games? 

TH: I draw metaphors and images from everywhere: movies, books, games, life experiences, really good meals–cool ideas come from everywhere. Design-style, I’m influenced by Shigeru Miyamoto, Squaresoft, LucasArts, Chuck Jones (Warner Bros. cartoon director), Terry Gilliam, Alfred Hitchcock.  Ultima III and Wizardry were also big influences. 

GN: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t a game developer? I see you were interested in movies, would you have considered making movies for a living? 

TH: I’d either be a film director, a fiction author, or a comedy writer or stand-up comedian.  I love exploring each of those areas, and games allow me to explore all three. 

GN:  Speaking of movies, what are your favorites? Directors? Genre? 

TH: Wow.  The big question. 

Favorite movies: The World According to Garp, Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back, Hard Boiled, Drunken Master 2, Lawrence of Arabia, The Usual Suspects, Seven, The Shawshank Redemption, Star Trek II, Like Water for Chocolate, The Princess Bride, The Sure Thing, Terminator 2, What’s New Pussycat?, The Doors, Alien, Aliens, Rear Window, Schindler’s List, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Raiders of the Lost Ark, oh god stop me.  There’s hundreds to go.  Recent movie: Contact. 

Favorite Directors: Rob Reiner, James Cameron, John Woo, Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen Spielberg–basically all the directors above do really interesting stuff.  There are too many great ones to mention. Dare I add…budding director Jake Strider Hughes? 

Favorite Genre: well, action movies are cool, but I love all kinds of  movies.  I love variety.  I often put my CDs in a five-disc changer and put in on Random All Discs.  Variety. Mmmmm. 

GN: You started out at Softdisk, then co-founded id, worked with 3D Realms, and now starting out fresh with Ion Storm. Tell me what it was like working with each company and the people there. 

TH: Softdisk: great people in love with their fast-paced work, not-that-helpful management.  Great place to learn your stuff.  Sort of like McDonalds: hard work for stinky pay, you don’t want to stay there forever, but you’ve got your war stories. 

id: Started as an amazing synergy of four, lost a bit of the magic feeling once we got separate offices.  Still the best company in the world for technology and solid game mechanics, bar none.  Quake 2 should rock. 

3D Realms: lots of people that really love their work, but a definite sense of being in id’s shadow.  A lot of conversations about what id is doing, and a overemphasis on shock value.  Still Duke was a damn awesome game, and I’m really looking forward to the new Dukes and Prey. 

ION Storm: this is the dream.  A team of like-minded developers, all focused on one-person’s vision.  Three teams journeying together, share resources, making them stronger than their parts.  Lots of Pepsi and Baked Lays.  Soon to have the coolest development space on the planet.  Life is good. 

GN: With 3D Realms, you developed one game for them that I think was really over-looked in the first battle of first person perspective games. Rise of the Triad, I thought, was really ahead in its time in terms of multiplayer options and other features which wouldn’t appear until “Quake mods” came out.  How disappointed were you when it didn’t turn out to be as big of a hit as DOOM did? 

TH: Well, I knew it wouldn’t be anywhere near DOOM with the technology it used.  The tons of cool features were my trying to make up for the old technology, and sort of being stuck with the World War II theme. Triad innovated sorted frags, nine different deathmatch games (including Capture the Flag), rocket jumping, eleven player net play, ability to change the environment (gravity, items, and so on), enemies that avoid missiles and respond to your actions–so many things, but it was just so behind technologically that it had little chance. 

GN:  While Rise of the Triad added many new elements to the genre, there was one feature of the game which I thought held it back: 90 degree walls. Was it your intention on having only 90 degree walls or was it an engine limitation that couldn’t be changed? 

TH: The reason Rise of the Triad was limited was this: I was too nice. When we stopped working with id (it was to be Wolfenstein 3D Part 2), we had a chance to start out with a less-limiting theme and concept. But the artists were upset that six months of art would be thrown out. Then we had a chance to use the Build engine–but the programmers were almost to the point of tears at having to use the less stable (at the time) Build, and to throw away all their work on the tall-walled Wolfenstein-style engine.  Plus for me, it was hard to throw away my work on thirty levels.  But had I listened to my instinct and reason, rather than worrying about upsetting people on the team or throwing away work, Triad (or whatever it would have been named) would have rocked, and made us rich.  As it was, it innovated, but all the innovation was hidden in old-style technology, and seen-before enemies.  Even if it had simply been in Build, it would have made a lot of dough. 

GN:  What’s the wackiest idea you came up with and implemented into one of the games you help create? 

TH: Hee.  Can’t tell ya.  It’s in Anachronox. 

A popular one from an old game was the Foobs in Keen 3.  They walk along whistling a happy tune, then see you, scream in terror, and start running.  If you touch them, they are so scared that they explode harmlessly in a puff of yellow fur.  A lot of personality in those 16 x 16 dudes. 

GN: How important to you is plot to a game, more specifically, an action game? 

TH: I think plot and story are _very_ important, even if you never say another word during the gaming experience.  Here’s an example.  The movie _Aliens_ would have been really fun if it was just scary events and aliens jumping out and stuff, exploring the colony.  But (James) Cameron gives you one image–it takes three seconds to show on the screen–of all the colonists transmitters all in one place near the reactor. That one image gives the people purpose, and while there’s a lot of action and tension, there’s a long-term underlying tension of approaching that really bad place.  That’s what makes it a deeper experience.  You know you’re in danger, but there’s the undercurrent of dread and foreboding that is present as well.  It makes the experience that much more intense and fun.  Getting to a switch knowing monsters are around is fun.  Getting to the sacrificial temple to rescue your friends knowing monsters are breathing down their necks–that is fun and grippingly tension-filled.  You’re like Luke–you have to go and help your friends. 

GN: Tell me about Anachronox… 

TH: That’s a big question. Anachronox is a 3D 3rd-person sci-fi RPG.  It is in the style of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy–you lead a party of up to three characters through an epic story with hard decisions and spectacular battles.  It uses the Quake engine, which means a beautiful environment to walk through, awesome in-engine cinematics for important info, and amazing battle sequences. 

GN: Lemme see if I can get more specific with the questions about Anachronox. First off, What kind of setting is it?  

TH: Sci-fi futuristic.  You will travel across three dimensions and many planets, but you start in Anachronox, a city floating inside the huge Sender at the center of our galaxy, called Sender One.  Senders are planet-sized chrome spheres with spikes sticking out of them.  The spikes emit radio signals, and if you hone in on the radio signals, you suddenly find yourself rocketing through a hyperspace tunnel and appearing by another Sender elsewhere in the universe. 

Anachronox is a long-dead alien city where people think an alien race with some sort of space plague was quarantined and died.  The first party to enter the city died horribly.  It was purged for ten years, but still no one trusted it, so the scum of the universe started settling it, putting gaudy humanesque things on this ancient landscape and on ancient buildings.  Anachronox (anachronism + nox) literally means “poison from the past”. 

Floating outside Sender One is the bright twin to this dark city, Sender Station.  It is the shiny center of galactic commerce.  You journey to other planets taking off from Sender Station and using Sender One to travel there.  

GN:  What made you decide to choose the Quake engine for the game, instead of other 3D engines or writing one from scratch? 

TH: Our company philosophy is “Design is law.”  That means we want to do designing, not wait for an engine to be completed.  Our intent was to license technology for a stable, reliable, known canvas to work on. We looked at Quake, Unreal, Prey, and other techs, but Quake was the only finished, pre-tested stable tech at the time.  And it rocks. 

GN:  I heard there is a Japanese RPG that you have to play before you can work on Anachronox, what is it and why is that a requirement? 

TH:  That’s Chrono Trigger.  It is in my triumvirate of classic game experiences: Ultima III, Wizardry, and Chrono.  Each gave me war stories that I can recall with friends and sigh at.  Chrono is a brilliant game, my favorite way far above the Final Fantasies (though I am drooling over FF VII).  The involving story, the multiple endings, the combo attacks, the contextual battles, the variety of actions you can perform–I could go on and on.  It rules and is a big influence on Anachronox.

GN:  There aren’t really any Japanese style RPG’s for the PC, is Anachronox an attempt to bring some of those elements to PC?

TH:  Definitely.  Playing games like Chrono Trigger is so fun, but PC-only folks really have no clue about these kind of games.  And man, playing that game I really wanted a mouse. :)

GN:  What do you project to be the minimum requirements for Anachronox?

TH: To be happy, P200, 32Meg, 3D card recommended.  You’ll be able to play Anachronox on a lesser system with no 3D Card, but it is going to rule on a P200 with a 3Dfx.  Such incredible stuff is going to happen.

GN: Will there be any multiplayer options or is it strictly a single player 3D RPG?

TH: You will be able to co-op through Anachronox with three people, and possibly play a 3rd person deathmatch…

GN:  How long have you had the idea for creating such a game as Anachronox?

TH:  I’ve always been creating big universes with tons of characters. This is the first game where I’ve been able to unleash myself. Anachronox, the idea has been gelling since mid-last year.  Anachronox the dream has been with me for years.

GN:  How is combat going to be handled? I take it it won’t be a shoot-out ala Quake.

TH:  It will be turn-based, like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII. It allows a lot of interesting things to happen, and lets you watch cool stuff in the best way.

GN: With the Elemaker utility (which allows custom weapons to be built by combining other weapon parts), do you see people on the net trading different type of weapons they created? 

TH: That’s the whole idea.  I hope people will invent weapons we never thought of.  I just hope Elemaker can keep them fair and balanced! Otherwise, that ruins the fun.

GN:  I take it we can expect your wacky brand of humor in the game? (:

TH: Well, I can’t help it. (:  My best humor comes from the characters, so it’s funny every time, because they are just acting like themselves.  It’s not a bunch of goofy jokes that are only funny once.

GN: Any advice for people starting out in the game development field?

TH: Don’t.  Give up.  You’ll never make it.

Now, if you still want to get into it, pursue it like you’re a stalker.  Keep the goal in mind and let no one detract you from it. If you have the drive, you’ll find a way.  I could tell you how I got here, but that doesn’t work anymore.  If you _have_ to do it, you will.  If you don’t _have_ to do it, don’t bother.

GN: What was your best experience at E3?

TH:  The Eidos party.  No question.  Luscious Jackson, Grooveline, dancing with friends–man, that was a BLAST!

GN:  … and your worst?

TH: Getting our laptop stolen with the Anachronox demo on it.

GN:  Last words for those people out there who are expecting Anachronox?

TH:  It is going to be nightmarishly awesome, tons of fun, and well worth the wait.

Oh yeah, and I’m still waiting for “designer groupies”.  Ah, well. :)

Microphone cover photo by Alex Cole on Unsplash

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