Hope each of you is safe and healthy.
This month I have four topics concerning the Chimeran Lamassu, Hero Leveling, the Ultimate Artifact or Grail, and a new ‘HoMM3 Recollection’ about the emergence of MP3 compression technology during development.
Until next time.
Fanstratics Game Director & Designer
Fanstratics Troop: Lamassu
Exotic and mysterious, the Lamassu is a fierce beauty and ferocious combatant. Equipped with a two-handed long sword, she is a flying, lightning-imbued melee fighter. Gifted with an Energy siphoning Enchantment, the Lamassu can transfer Energy between herself and other Troop Divisions. This ability also gives her a greater Energy capacity, along with the added option to evenly disperse accumulated Energy to all Allied Troop Divisions.
Not much to say regarding this one. It was easy to conceptualize, and we breezed through the thumbnails, the rough, and the final render.
Fanstratics Question: How will the hero leveling work in FST? For example, in HOMM3, it only takes 3 levels to become an expert in any magic. In HOMM4, you need 15 levels for the same. At the same time, in HOMM3 it is not necessary to know the schools of magic in order to learn the corresponding spells, especially if there are artifacts, for example, a Tome of Earth Magic or Tome of Water Magic.
Hero leveling, and associated elements, will adhere closely to the HoMM3 method. After all, FST is a spiritual successor to HoMM3, and I want to keep it simple.
HoMM3 Question: A small question regarding the development of HoMM3. Was there any specific reason why the message about the grail disappearing when the hero carrying it is defeated? The ultimate artifacts in HoMM2 have that message (and are also excluded from the loot gained by defeating a hero).
If I correctly recall, this mechanic was created in HoMM2 and carried over into HoMM3. Its goal was twofold.
First, was to prevent the ‘passing around’ of the Ultimate Artifact from one Hero to another.
Second, was to prevent an ‘abuse’. Specifically, the player would identify a CPU Hero digging for the Ultimate Artifact, then sit by and wait until the CPU Hero had found it. After it was discovered, the player would attack and defeat the CPU Hero, and take the Ultimate Artifact. To incentivize the player to dig, and be the first to find the Ultimate Artifact, the aforementioned mechanic was incorporated into the game.
HoMM3 Recollection: MP3’s.
Toward the end of the workday at New World Computing (NWC), I heard Ben Bent talking rather loudly from his office. Clearly, his conversation was not ‘business’ related. Curious, I rose from my desk and went next door.
In his office, at his secondary computer, Ben was playing over the internet, a PvP game of the recently released Army Men. Despite Ben's conversation occurring via the typewritten in-game chat, he was audibly arguing with an anonymous opponent, who attributed his ‘unreasonable’ loss to the typical strategy game scapegoats: game balance, map balance, cheesy tactics, etc.
Me, stepping inside Ben’s office, “Having fun?”
Ben, with a laugh, “I am. Not sure about this guy.”
Ben quickly turned his attention away from me and back to his game.
Ben, typing in chat, exclaimed, “Oh yeah? Two of three?”
Slipping in behind Ben, I leaned up against his desk to watch the 'rematch'. As their game began, I couldn’t help but notice the music coming from Ben’s primary desktop computer. It was the tail end of Blondie’s 'Heart of Glass’, and it caught my attention because... well... it was an ‘older’ song from 1979. As it finished playing, it was followed by another ‘older’ non-Blondie song: The J. Geils Band 'Freeze Frame'. This was unusual.
At the time, in 1998, there were only two general methods for listening to music on your computer. First, was to play an audio CD via the computer CD-ROM drive. Second, was to listen to a low-quality broadcast from a radio station mirroring its content to this new thing called the ‘internet’.
Me, assuming Ben was listening to a radio station, “You listening to an 80’s music station?”
Ben, continuing to play Army Men, “Huh? Oh. My computer? No. Those are MP3’s.”
At this point, Ben's opponent rage quit and disconnected from the game.
Ben threw up his hands, “Fine. Be that way. I win.”
As Ben was finished with his game, I pressed him on this new and very unfamiliar topic.
Me, “What’s an MP3?”
Ben, “It’s a digital music file. It really compresses the file size, so you can put a bunch on your hard drive. I've got my entire CD collection on my computer."
Ben pointed to his computer’s screen.
Ben, “You play them with this program called Winamp. It can shuffle all the tracks and make playlists.”
Leaning back, I looked at Ben's computer screen and saw the application running with its iconic default skin.
Me, “Kinda like your own personal radio?”
Ben, “Yeah. Something like that. Mark (Caldwell) has a folder on the network where a couple of us have copied our CD libraries to share. You’ll have to ask him for access. He doesn’t want everyone overloading the network.”
Me, “How did you copy a CD?”
Getting up from his secondary computer, Ben stepped to his desktop computer, “There’s a step-by-step tutorial online. I’ll email you the link.”
Like so many in the office, I had brought to work, a large stack of personal music CD’s. Over the course of the day, while I worked, I would use my computer's CD-ROM drive and listen to them... one at a time. Using Winamp, with a complete archive of my music, was an exciting idea. Just as exciting, was all of the MP3’s assembled on the NWC network. Instead of borrowing a CD from someone, I could simply copy it to my computer.
Leaving Ben’s office, I walked the breadth of the NWC office and into Mark’s office. I believe he was talking to George Ruof when I entered and caught his attention.
Me, “Ben told me about MP3’s.”
Mark laughed, “Ah-ha! You want to be part of the club.”
Me, shrugging my shoulders, “I guess.”
Mark turned to his computer, and with a couple quick mouse clicks, opened a window displaying all of the top-level network folders.
Mark, “Do you just want read access or read and write access?
Me, “Well, I was going to copy all my CD’s and put them on the network, just like Ben did.”
Navigating to the 'hidden' MP3s folder, Mark created a new folder with my name and the necessary permissions.
Mark, “Do you know where to get Winamp?”
Me, “I’m assuming Winamp.com?”
Mark, “Do you know how to copy the music from your CD’s?”
Me, “Ben said he was going to send me a tutorial.”
Mark, mildly surprised by my eagerness, gave me the side eye, “Okay. Let me know if you need help. It’s pretty cool tech. It compresses music to like 10% of its original size. All the information for making and playing MP3’s is freely available online. If I wanted, I could make my own Winamp-like MP3 player.”
Me, “Are you?”
Mark, giving it a second thought, “Eh. I’d have to support it, and I’ve got enough work to do.”
Returning to my office, I sat down at my computer and navigated to the ‘hidden’ MP3 folder... now visible. Inside, were numerous subfolders, each named for a different NWC employee. I opened the folder named ‘BenB’.
Ben's complete music catalog, comprised of several hundred music tracks, appeared before me. There was too much to pick through, so I looked for and saw the folder for ‘The Best of Blondie’. After making an MP3 folder on my computer, I copied over all of the Blondie tracks. I wanted to look through the collected music and grab all of the tracks I found interesting, but I chose to wait.
Opening Outlook, I spotted the email sent by Ben. Inside, I found the link to the website with the comprehensive CD 'ripping' instructions.
Following various links, I downloaded and installed Winamp and Exact Audio Copy (EAC). After successfully ‘testing’ Winamp, by playing Blondie’s ‘Dreaming', I decided to attempt my first 'rip' with the music CD already sitting in my computer’s CD-ROM drive: ‘Saturday Teenage Kick' by JunkieXL.
Despite the album's last track being over 17 minutes, and making me think the program had stalled, EAC finished its work. Using Winamp, I played ‘track 1’. It worked. Success. I had ripped my first music album and made my first MP3.
Over the next couple of weeks, while I worked in my office, in the background, I ripped most of my CD collection and put it on the network. When it came to ripping and listening to my own music, my conscious was clear. When I download MP3’s created by others... well... I knew I was playing in a very gray area.
Many of the issues emerging around MP3’s, reminded me of ‘Home Taping’, where you would borrow a music cassette tape from a friend, take it home, make a copy, and return it to your friend the next day. Technically, this was an act of piracy and echoed most of the copyright issues still being debated today.
At the time, I never gave the ‘piracy’ aspect of MP3’s too much thought. Even with a high-speed internet connection, most people did not have the knowledge and patience to comb through Usenet, download the correct files, and ultimately reassemble the final MP3’s. At this point in history, MP3 sharing was small-scale, but a year later, in 1999, Napster would debut and change everything. A year after Napster, BitTorrent would debut and throw open the lid to a virtual Pandora’s Box of potential piracy. ‘On a small scale’ no longer applied, and with the mass sharing of music online, sales and profits were clearly being lost.
In the end, I cleared my conscious by separating 'my music' from 'everyone else's music'. I looked at my downloaded MP3’s as a ‘work in progress’ shopping list. Eventually, I purchased CD’s for all the MP3’s I had personally downloaded, but admittedly... it took a fair amount of time.
Getting back to HoMM3 game development, in the last quarter of 1998, Mark was hoping against hope HoMM3 would somehow ship for the Christmas season. In getting ready for this potentiality, he created installation CD’s for testers at both NWC and 3DO. From the outset, HoMM3 was envisioned as a 2-CD product: Install Disc and Play Disc. Somewhere along the line, 3DO decided HoMM3 should not be a 2 CD product, but a 1 CD product. No reason was given. Mark assumed 3DO was simply being cheap.
Looking at the game’s digital footprint, this was the breakdown...
Program and graphics files: ~150 MB.
Sound files: ~15 MB.
Music files: ~716 MB.
At ~881 MB, HoMM3 was ~231 MB over the 650 MB capacity of a typical CD-ROM, but the Music files utilized the WAV file format. While WAV files can contain compressed audio, game music typically uses the uncompressed LPCM format for audio CD play. This was the case with HoMM2’s music, and I believe this was the intended case with HoMM3’s music.
Frustrated and angry with 3DO, perhaps inspired by his fascination with MP3 technology, Mark did something relatively refreshing and unusual for NWC. He made an exception and embraced a relatively new technology.
Using publicly available information, Mark worked with John Bolton to build and incorporate an MP3 decoder into HoMM3. With a minimal performance hit, it worked perfectly, and Mark was able to compress all of HoMM3’s music from ~716 MB... down to a mere ~65 MB.
Ultimately, this move accomplished an odd developmental trifecta. 3DO got its penny-pinching wish, Mark spat in the eye of 3DO management, and HoMM3 easily fit onto one CD-ROM.
To my knowledge, HoMM3 was the first computer game to utilize MP3’s... and personally... I think it was instrumental in popularizing Paul Romero’s music.