In any case, it's an interesting bit of history — even if it's mostly stuff we already know — and a fascinating look into what they were proud of (the enemy AI), and what they weren't (the memory use).
AN OPEN LETTER FROM ID SOFTWARE
Hi. Well, we've just wrapped up development on Keen Episode Five,
The Armageddon Machine. Oddly, Keen 6 was completed before Keen 5,
but we're strange that way. We'd like to take stock of what we've
done and where we're going, and we invite you to reply to this letter
with your opinions and comments.
Keen 4, part 1 of "Goodbye, Galaxy!" is available for download from
this board. If you plan to order 5 or 6, tell us why. If not, tell
us why not. We do want to make games that are the most fun for the
most people. Let us know if you think it is too big, too small,
too fun, too boring, or too whatever.
The original Keen was just a lark, written in spare hours over two and
a half months. The original team was John Carmack, John Romero, and
me (Tom Hall). John Carmack mentioned he'd like to do a game about a
kid that saves the earth or something. I went off and came back with
the starting paragraph pretty much as it reads now: "Billy Blaze, eight
year-old genius..." I originally read it in a Walter Winchell voice,
and Keen was born. John Romero began writing tools to let me design the
levels and such. John Carmack is the "soopah genius" behind the smooth-
scrolling, the new Terminator-style huge letters, the Star Wars text, and
basically all amazing things. I did 95% of the art for the original Keens
(and, well, it shows) and at the end we added an artist, Adrian Carmack
(no relation), who did such wonders as the VortiNinjas and the pictures
of the cities in Keen 2 (as well as all the graphics on Keens 4-6).
A few months later, we wrote a prototype for the new Keen style called
"Keen Dreams." It is available from Softdisk Publishing. It is a
bonus disk available when you subscribe to their monthly game disk,
called Gamer's Edge. Some of our old games are available there, including
Shadow Knights, Dangerous Dave II, Rescue Rover I & II, Catacomb 3-D, and
others. Call 1-800-221-8718 for more information on getting back issues.
We worked on Keen 4, 5, and 6 much longer than anticipated. We had planned
to finish them by September 1st, but adding the cool perspective to the
levels pretty much tripled the time it takes to make a level. Plus I
started getting burned out on level design. Thanks go to John Romero for
stepping in and doing half the levels. His creative input sort of renewed
my interest, as it pumped some new blood into the design.
Adrian's art really shines through in the new Keens, with the huge forest
background in Keen 4 and fabulous title screen for Keen 5. He has gotten
a lot better at translating his artistic talent to the screen. We have
dubbed him "Master of the Pixel" or "the Mouse Monet."
We're generally agreed that Keen 5 is the best Keen we've done so far.
I finally recovered from my level-creation slump and we got back to the
fun sci-fi feeling. All three of the new ones have the edge-hanging and
look up/down that we wish were in all games now. Play the new Keens and
then play Mario and you'll be wanting those features all over the place!
Another biggie was adding the amazing Adlib songs, created by professional
composer Robert Prince. My nephews and nieces are still humming his songs!
Personally, I feel the major area in which we kick butt over all other
games is in the quality of our actors. Most other games don't seem to
think the other creatures in the game need personality or thought, just
move 'em left and right and maybe fire something. Our actors have
emotions and agendas. Sonic may be the best game ever, but all the other
actors besides the hedgehog are just props.
Yet there's lots of room for improvement. Here's our own personal report
card. See if you agree. Or if you can think of other aspects of the
program that were good or bad, let us know.
CINEMATIC FINALE C
The re-done Keen 4 cinematic was okay, but the one for Keen 6
was kinda poor. In the future, we will work for more full
animation and generally to make it more movie-like and less
like looking at vacation photos.
Well, in context. These are some of the best straight EGA
graphics there are. We've caught flak for not having 256-color
VGA yet, but there are reasons. A) these Keens would have been
released about three months later (we've got the one artist).
B) Memory restraints would have meant the game would be more
abstract (no fully painted backgrounds) with less animation frames.
We will have a 256-color VGA 3-D game (as well as 16-color EGA)
to be released in February.
MEMORY USAGE A/D
We use real memory very efficiently, but we use WAY too much of
it and don't cache compressed disk files into EMS/XMS memory.
We thought WE were just fine (having DOS 5.0 and 386s), but 570K
required is a lot to ask for most people.
GAME SPEED A-
The game is no longer really playable on a unaccelerated XT. The
new routines are more efficient than the original Keen, but we're
doing SO much more on the screen that it is slower.
Keyboard is awesome. Two-button firing on the joystick is kind
of a pain. Someday soon we should be getting a 4-button Gravis
Digital Joypad. As soon as we get it, we will support it.
The Adlib sounds are pretty good (we have a special affinity
for the Skypest Squash sound), but we don't overlap sounds
and the music doesn't change contextually. We were going to
put in digitized sounds but ran into memory constraints (and
a lot of people are mad at us for the size of the download
as it is NOW).
LEVEL DESIGN A-
There were a lot of levels that had neat bits, but there's
healthy room for improvement (like Keen 4's Crystalus and
Chasm of Chills--where I hit the pits of creativity).
USER INTERFACE B
The jury is still out on this. Paddle War seems popular, but
let us know how easy this is to use. This part of the game
is still evolving a lot.
We like Keen. I have lots of fun making up silly stuff. The
next Keens will have a much more involved and interesting plot,
so stay tuned.
Hanging on edges, look up/down, slopes, perspective view, Adlib
support (sounds and music), save games inside levels, tons o'
actors, multiple difficulty levels, quick jumping, and more.
We're pretty proud of these Keens. They're big, they're fun (we
still like playing them, and we wrote 'em), and give lots of
play for the dollar. And they are fairly unique to the PC.
We still see much to improve, but we're working on that!
There's probably more stuff, but you'll let us know about it, right?
We're planning to do VGA next time. We were REALLY close to doing a
386-only VGA game, but we were talked out of it. We probably won't do
CGA again, unless there is a big outcry (or a lot of CGA orders).
We will have much easier memory requirements (probably 530K). Coming
up are a 3-D game, puzzle games, and the final Keen trilogy (unless someone
gives us a bazillion dollars to bring him back or gives us the island
We need to know how everyone feels about the size issue. Are we getting
too big for our britches? There is a trade-off here. You can't get
VGA and Sound Blaster support in a 200K download (with more than one level).
Do you think the new pricing is unfair? The games are a LOT bigger and
have tons more work on them. But perhaps we have grown too large. Do you
want smaller and cheaper? Do you want it big and burgeoning? We just
don't know. Tell us!
Tom Hall Creative Director
John Carmack Technical Director
John Romero Tool Craftsman
Adrian Carmack Master of the Pixel