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Five-Minute Interview with the Chiefs of Game Developers
—by Jade Dragon

Have you ever wondered about who the people are behind the games you love? What they look like? What they eat? Well, I came up with 5 questions for my five-minute interview with the leaders of popular game software companies. We will feature one Chief each week. And I've also got a photo of each Chief I've interviewed, so that you can see what they look like. As for what they eat, that's highly classified information.

Cascata Logo

Back in August 2002, Cascata released a Pocket PC game called Cube Head, a solid first title with which to open a gaming company. But not until they published Master Thief for Palm OS, with its Lara Croft-ish heroine, did fans start to take serious interest in this game developer’s story. We interviewed the founder of Cascata, Neil Wooding. He shares his insights on Master Thief’s development and gives us a little peek at what’s coming.

Jade Dragon: Master Thief has raised the bar for developing Palm OS games. Tell us, how did you come across the Deity engine? What did the engine give you and what did you do to push the engine to its limits in terms of AI and graphics.

Neil Wooding: I had previously worked with Aaron Ardiri, of MobileWizardry fame, on a game project, and was shown the engine during one of our meetings. I immediately saw the potential for a 3D game on a Palm and suggested a partnership to develop this further.

We took the raw engine and then, over a period of 6 months, refined the artificial intelligence (AI) to include a range of different features. These include; the improvement of the z-buffering & actual shading of different lighting effects; the decision to add ‘gravity effects’, as well as a range of infra-red features; also the decision to expand the opponent AI, so that they could also interact with each other, as well as with Nebula – so for instance, now when you fight a guard dog, its barking will attract other guards to your location.

We were particularly interested in making sure that the AI engine & the 3D engine were developed into two distinct & separate parts. This gave us the potential to provide an expandable development toolkit for different scenarios & missions, puzzles, characters and weapons. For instance, you will see a range of new characters, traps and weapons in future mission packs that have not been seen before. This helps to make each mission pack unique and fresh.

Neil Wooding of Cascata Games

Jade Dragon: From a game developer's point of view, how have Palm OS 5 and the new ARM family processors opened new horizons for game development?

Neil Wooding: Palm OS5 has provided a wider range of technical capabilities for the 3D engine, especially as it allows us to provide a 320x320 3D environment in the game – thus pushing the speed of the processor. In fact, the 3D engine has been slowed down in the ARM version of Master Thief because it was just too fast!

We were really honoured to be asked by Palm to attend the Tungsten|T launch event in New York late last year. And we were really chuffed to discover that Texas Instruments chose to use Master Thief™ to present its OMAP chip to the Press. We had always intended to support the Palm OS 5 and really take Master Thief to the next level. I guess you could say that the event timing really allowed us to work alongside the development of the platform itself and harness its power. With increased processor speeds, improved screen resolutions and audio drivers, Palm is really picking up the pace with its OS5 platform.

Jade Dragon: How did you dream up our heroine Nebula? Will she have more cat-suits in the future?

Neil Wooding: Ahh… the famous Nebula. Like all heroines, she was an amalgam of male fantasies, with a certain air of mystery. The Master Thief concept was always designed to be different from the “Doom” type of game on the market, in that we wanted to mix game play, action and puzzles together. So, it seemed to be all about poise, lightness of touch & artful mastery of skills beyond just strength, and it seemed really right to create a woman character. I’m certainly not making claim to any particular originality in terms of the archetype itself. Nebula certainly shares characteristics with Catherine Zeta Jones’s character in the film “Entrapment”, and Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider genre. What I like is the open-endedness of this lady character with a mysterious past. This gives us the scope to reveal more in future missions…

As for Nebula having more cat-suits, that remains to be seen. I would open the floor to the creativity of our game players here and invite them to put forward ideas they might like to see brought to life… I can assure you that she will have a wider range of exotic weaponry and tools to be integrated into the suit in future missions.

Jade Dragon: Obviously there will be more locations and missions for Nebula. Could you give us a little teaser on what's coming?

Neil Wooding: The next mission – 10,000 leagues – is based on a mission on a submarine deep below the Gulf of Mexico. The mission will be to steal warhead codes for the nuclear missiles onboard a Chinese Xia SSBN nuclear submarine. It involves cramped quarters, difficult puzzles to solve and the constant threats you can expect with being underwater in a machine powered by nuclear energy!

We have plans for about 5-6 more missions to be completed by the end of the year. Another mission concept is to take place deep within a bunker, hidden in the high peaks of a mountain. We have new graphical effects planned for this mission including “snow storms” and a lot more guards to fight.

Again, if any of your readers would like to suggest a mission concept, we’d be only too glad to co-author something!

Jade Dragon: Have you had any new ideas for the game based on feedback?

Neil Wooding: One area where we have had feedback on the game is in the area of ‘hints & tips’. We have recently had a number of emails requesting assistance on how to crack certain puzzles, in order to go on and finish some levels. If there is a real demand for our producing some kind of document that gives users the key to cracking some of these puzzles, we can certainly look at this. We would welcome emails from game players with their thoughts on this topic.

Jade Dragon: I know that you've got a couple of cool Pocket PC games in the works. Are you developing any new Palm OS games?

Neil Wooding: We have some plans for future games on the Palm OS, and clearly we are excited by what can be achieved with the new processor. It’s probably worth pointing out that we are a specialist designer & publisher of games & digital media on small ‘mobile’ formats. For example, we have a number of projects on in the mobile phone space, which we will announce in the next 6 months. As a multi-platform publisher, we are not limited to any one particular platform and games like Master Thief may appear on other formats soon.

Jade Dragon: Now a little about yourself. How did you get in to developing games for PDAs? What's it been like for you?

Neil Wooding: I have always been an avid board game player! Most of my… (nope, I won’t call it a misspent youth!!!)…time was spent playing D&D, and gaming on my Amiga. Some years ago, when working for Psion, the UK handheld PDA manufacturer, I got to see first-hand the potential for entertainment & gaming on handheld devices. I guess that was a turning point for me, in terms of spotting a way of bringing together my love of games, my belief in living a mobile lifestyle, and my original trained skills as a graphic designer. And I have always been interested in exploring new ideas.

I should add though, that it took me 3 more years to go from that point to actually starting the business up! Well, they often say that you first plant a seed, and then wait a while for it put up shoots ! Clearly, it’s a different ball game running a start-up business…say in relation to my last role at OgilvyInteractive as a mobile specialist working with global clients. Again, I think that experience strengthened my awareness of what people really enjoy!

Well, now we are moving pretty quickly, and we’ve already expanded our portfolio of ideas into a substantial catalogue to develop in the next couple of years. As you can see, my interests and skills developed alongside the games industry, and I just decided to take the leap. It is fun and rewarding, and I have a great in-house and extended team of creative, passionate, talented free thinkers around me! I can’t imagine going back to a more conventional job right now… so, let’s hope that some good fortune is one the cards too! (excuse the pun) .

Jade Dragon: How often do you play games? What is your number one favorite?

Neil Wooding: As you might imagine, I don’t play games as often as I would like to! Nowadays, most of my time is taken up with product development & testing, and taking part in meetings. Of course, the development of new mission levels for Master Thief keep me occupied.

When I do have time, I often play either Halo or Lord of the Rings on my Xbox. My partner, Ali, got me the Xbox when she used to work at Microsoft (actually, she supports me on many Cascata projects when not doing her own consultancy work).

Otherwise, I enjoy playing our own PocketPC title, CubeHead, (which often requires wrestling the device away from Ali, who is definitely addicted!) Otherwise, I like great little games such as Astraware’s Diamond Mine.

That said, I honestly don’t think I have a Number One favourite… I love all types of games!




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