Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

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Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Multimania »

I found this digging through some files today, and don't recall it having ever been posted anywhere. I think it was one of the things unearthed when that source code backup was found a few years ago — a quick search doesn't find a copy anywhere online, despite it being billed as an "open letter". I guess it was never published.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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).

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).

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
of Bermuda).

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

Id Software
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Nisaba »

this letter is a golden. history, everybody!
thanks for sharing.
Foray in the Forest progress:
92% Programming || 95% GFX || 92% Levels || 98% Creatures || 90% Story || 94% Music || 95% SFX || 96% Extras

Other projects:
- Play Commander Keen on a GameBoy
- The Lynx Nyx
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Benvolio »

This is neat!
The original Keen was just a lark
Lol it's dominated much of my life. I guess life in general is a lark.

I'm glad they stuck with EGA for Keen, even if it wasn't necessarily their preference.

I just love all the talk of downloads, it simultaneously connects us to that time and disconnects us. Connects us, because the games were so frequently downloaded just as nowadays. But disconnects us when one reflects on just how different the internet/precursors of net were from what we have now.
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Ceilick »

This is really neat.

For me the most intriguing thing is in regard to level design. Tom considering both Crystalus and Chasm of Chills as "hitting the pits of creativity" is so bizarre to read, as personally I consider both to be fantastic, memorable levels. His statement on getting burnt out on level design does however make a lot of sense in reference to Keen 6, as I consider a lot of the design there abysmal and uninspired.

This has me actually very curious as to who designed what levels, and when exactly Johm Romero stepped in (the letter seems to suggest it wasn't until Keen 5, leaving both 4 and 6 to just Tom).

Edit: Oops, I got the Chasm of Chills and the Cave of Descendants mixed up. I can definitely understand the Chasm of Chills being in the pits of creativity lol
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Quillax »

This is valuable history right here! Thanks for sharing, MultiMania! I knew Adrian Carmack did the VortiNinja sprites, but I never knew he did the city graphics in Keen 2! Maybe if we offer Microsoft the island of Bermuda if they give Tom Hall the rights for Keen in return, they might agree!
Ceilick wrote: Fri Apr 02, 2021 23:12 This has me actually very curious as to who designed what levels, and when exactly Johm Romero stepped in (the letter seems to suggest it wasn't until Keen 5, leaving both 4 and 6 to just Tom).
Energy Flow Systems and Brownian Motion Inducer has the signature of John Romero and Tom Hall respectively. That might tell us who designed which of those two levels. Not sure about the rest, however.
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by proYorp »

I love this kind of behind-the-scenes documentation. I don't recall seeing this particular letter before, so thanks for sharing your findings!

Funny that this whole thing started as a "lark." I guess the best works are the ones you have fun making. I've heard this before, and it rings true here too.

It's so interesting to read how the original team had a lot of the same creative struggles and concerns that modders of these same games do today. I didn't know Adrian Carmack had improved so much from the time he joined the team to when they were finishing the Galaxy trilogy (I was under the impression that he'd joined with all the skill you could ever need for something like this, having just got out of art school). Inspiring. The Keen 5 title screen really is one of the best pieces of artwork in the series.
And then creative burnout... Crystalus is definitely not my favorite level, so it's interesting to hear about the potential reason behind that. It's so sad that Keen 6 got the short end of the stick in regards to level design creativity. The environments and creatures are my favorite out of all the Keen games, and it'd unquestionably be my favorite episode if only the levels were a little more fun. Keen 5 definitely had the best levels, and as such my favorite episode tends to switch between 5 and 6.

I wonder what they mean by contextually changing music. Like tracks that drop in and out depending on where you are in the level? Did they do things like that back then?
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by monochameleon »

This is a really fascinating read...I know that I had a few issues getting the various Keens to run on my earliest computers, so I can appreciate the commentary on the use of memory (the game kept telling me I should unload my TSRs, I was 5, I didn't even know what a TSR was). Interesting to hear Mr. Hall comment that Crystalus and Chasm of Chills were his "pits of creativity", and always good to see the inspiration the team could bring to each other with Hall crediting Romero for getting him out of those pits. Reading about id and their history, I always felt that Carmack's tech was probably a bit over-prioritised compared to Hall and Romero's creativity - and when the latter is put on the backburner you get something like Quake, which was technically impressive but almost totally uninspiring. Tech is only ever the basic part of the equation - if you can't do something creative with it, all you've got it a demo.

Thanks for sharing this - it's a wonderful thing to see.
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by Quillax »

proYorp wrote: Tue May 25, 2021 2:32 Funny that this whole thing started as a "lark." I guess the best works are the ones you have fun making. I've heard this before, and it rings true here too.

I wonder what they mean by contextually changing music. Like tracks that drop in and out depending on where you are in the level? Did they do things like that back then?
Yeah, while you'll run through some rough spots, you should overall have fun with your hobby/job! Personally, if like 95% of my project is just torture, I'd want to work on something else. The stress is just not worth it.

About the music, I assumed Mr. Hall was saying that the music would change depending on where Keen is at in the level. Like, in Border Village for example, the Kick At the Pants song could play when you're above ground, and whenever you're underground, you would hear a different song, one that's more suitable for underground areas (like Too Hot maybe?). So basically what you assumed. I don't know if any DOS games did that back then, but I know Mario did that since the original Super Mario Bros. I wonder if such a feature is possible to include in a source mod. That might be something K1n9_Duk3 -- or someone with such high knowledge of how DOS games work -- would know.
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Re: Goodbye Galaxy Report Card

Post by K1n9_Duk3 »

One of the earliest examples of an interactive soundtrack that I can think of would be the LucasArts iMUSE system as heard in Monkey Island 2. LucasArts patented iMUSE, so any other company would either have to license iMUSE or come up with an approach that is different enough to not violate the patent.

Simply changing the music without any fancy transitions is easy. BioMenace did that (invincibility music that changes back to the normal song when the invincibility runs out, victory music after killing a boss) and Duke Nukem II had all of the boss levels start with a calm piece of music that changed to a more fitting tune as soon as the boss wakes up.
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