I was obsessed with BioForge as a kid, but I'm not sure I ever left the room where I could beat a blue alien to death with his own arm.
BioForge is a strange game, born from an era when Origin Systems was a development king, a studio hoping to define the term "interactive movie." In fact, that was BioForge's working title before it actually became BioForge: Interactive Movie #1.
The reason we ended up playing BioForge was random chance. Before Unprofessional Fridays, Vinny can often be found poring over the database of Good Old Games, looking for something weird to play. He mentioned BioForge, and my ears perked up. I told him he should just buy it and play it, as my vague memories of BioForge made it seem like the perfect fit. What ensued was easily one of my favorite segments on the show, even though I wasn't playing the game in question.
A few weeks later, I woke up and texted "BIOFORGE" in capital letters to Vinny for some reason. It wasn't planned. The rest is history.
When the credits rolled, some friendly Giant Bomb users offered to help me get in touch with Ken Demarest, the programmer, producer, and director of BioForge. The result is this hour-long interview, which is also available in podcast form. The interview has only been lightly edited for readability, and we talk about everything you might want to hear about. Flutes, backflips, and much, much more.
If you haven't seen us play BioForge, you still have time to catch up.
- Unprofessional Fridays: 04/12/2013
- Backflips 'n BioForge - Part 01
- Backflips 'n BioForge - Part 02
- Backflips 'n BioForge - Part 03
Giant Bomb: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me about a game that came out in 1995.
Ken Demarest: [laughs] It has been a little while.
GB: What goes through your head when you start thinking about BioForge, given that it’s now 2013, well over 10 years ago in terms of when you conceived and worked on that game?
Demarest: What goes through my mind? Well. [pause] The very first thing was that I’m amazed that people are still able to enjoy it in whatever context this many years later. When I looked at it--I watched you guys play it all the way through, the whole damn thing, right? Which might have been an exercise in narrcisism but since, god, the gameplay. Oh my god. [laughs] It’s so...harsh! The first thing that really came to mind was what a testament it is to where we were and how we thought at that time, you know? To some extent, it’s a reflection of who I was back then. I cared about the technology, and that’s really all I cared about. I wanted the game to be great, there’s no doubt about that, and I was super pleased with Jack Herman's over-the-top crazy writing.
GB: It comes across as though everyone on board was a huge fan of the b-movies of the 70s and 80s. Playing it so far removed, it’s hard to tell if that’s intentional or not, given that the amount of space that games writing has come since then. Especially in 2013, is so different than how a game like that would be designed today in order to make sure the player was happy and progressing. All those sorts of things that are incredible parts of game design now, very key to the mass market, but this game just says “Egggh! You’re going to get screwed over all the time, and hopefully you’re okay with it.”
Demarest: Let’s just Nethack you!
GB: Yeah, exactly.
Demarest: Let’s just rogue you and whatever.
I think if you went and talked to Jack, even all these years later, he would acknowledge that he was camping it up egregiously. With respect to all that text, what I said to him was “you know, just do whatever you want. Take it, own it--completely own it.” We knew, even back then, that huge amounts of text seldom got read because Chris Roberts, before he did Wing Commander, did a bunch of other games. One of them was--well, there was just tons of text. But the context was that you had to read it all because it was all in conversations and dialogues and that sort of thing. So the agreement was all that would move into the journal, people could go as deep as they wanted, and I wanted Jack to have the latitude to really unfold something. But you didn’t have to do it. You know that strange ding you were hearing every now and then?
Demarest: It was another journal and another journal entry and another journal entry.
GB: Certainly, I think we probably would have noticed that more if we weren’t playing with a walkthrough that guided us to the next thing. I imagine that would have been the first thing you would have thought of: maybe I missed something in a journal entry that provides some context for either the spot that you’re in or what you’re supposed to be doing next.
Demarest: Yeah, exactly. It did, of course, give you lots of that. You guys were doing what you doing what you need to do, and I’m glad you just chose to do the walkthrough method.
There were a couple times where I was biting my knuckles saying, “do this, do this!” But there were just as many times where I had no idea, actually, what was going to come next. I didn’t know! The number of times that--was it Vincent?--the number of times Vincent died was just unparalleled. It was epic. Epic, epic, epic death. And the flute thing...I really appreciate the flute.
GB: Was it just us that latched onto the flute? Was there something to the flute? Can you ever use the flute for anything? Or is it just one of many objects in the game that was just there to add texture to the world?
Demarest: It was part of the fiction. If you played a certain tune on the flute, Dr. Mastaba knew that his mind screw of you had worked. He knew that it had taken because you would automatically play this exact tune, and that’s how he tested whether his subject had gotten the full treatment.
GB: Oh, okay. I loved that some Giant Bomb fans have, then, taken that flute sound and are trying to transpose it into all sorts of different games where you can code your own music. People are trying to get it into Animal Crossing.
GB: It was just one of the weird things that we, weirdly, latched onto. And the death animations were another one, which is also part of what made the game’s unforgiving nature kind of fun? You wanted to see what the hell else they had come up with. The times when the character would get thrown at the screen and the really over-the-top nature, which sometimes felt in contrast to the really--you know, what happened to this guy and what this doctor was doing was pretty screwed up.
GB: We definitely enjoyed those death animations and tried to see as many of them as possible.
Demarest: It was fun making that juxtaposition of how grim--the story is extremely grim. I don’t want to name specific real-world events that it’s like, but it’s like the kind of bad things that can happen in the real-world, and then pushes it so much farther. I think the only way to swallow that kind of thing is with the campyness pill, if you know what I mean. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a Schindler’s List. And though I do believe video games are art, I don’t think that anyone was or even now is ready for a game to try and take on that kind of topic. I know that some people have done it, especially on places like Kongregate and a couple others, where they do these short set pieces in Flash or now sometimes in HTML5. But it’s very, very tricky territory. I want that kind of art to exist, but games are for entertainment, and so it’s kind of a hard call to figure out exactly how to pull it off. But I love the concept of games as art, I do believe that they’re art, but I also believe the tools that we have to make that art are not as wide-ranging as physical art has these days. On the other hand, we have almost all the tools that the movie guys have, so if you consider a movie to art, computer games could conceivably go there. They haven’t for the most part, and nothing has ever risen to the level of, for example, Schindler’s List, or anything like that. In the games industry, we have drama but the industry has not managed to touch people’s hearts at the same level. Now, having said that, we touch people in ways that movies never can. You’re there and it’s interactive. That’s a lot of words to say that I love the idea of games as art.
GB: You mentioned the game was a reflection of who you were at the time, the kind of designer you were, the kind of programmer you were. How would you describe yourself in that period? How do you look back on that period? I know that you said you were very technologically focused, which certainly reflects a lot in the advancements in terms of the modeling and the...flock of birds that you guys came up with to make the character models in the game?
Demarest: For me, it was all about 3D rendering. What could we do? We were in a completely new medium. The meme that was going around Origin at that time was interactive movies. “What about interactive movies?”
GB: I saw that in a couple of articles written about BioForge--its working title was Interactive Movie #1. Then, Wing Commander III came out ahead of BioForge, if I’m getting the timeline right. But it was meant to be part of a series of games from Origin using that moniker.
Demarest: That’s right, that’s true. For me, it was still all about the code. I didn’t have the deep appreciation of the subtleties of game design that I’d like to pretend I have now. [laughs] I’m no rockstar game designer. I know a good one when I see it, but can I come up with it? Not really! Not really. I have learned my strengths and weaknesses over the years, and I’m better on the technical side, I’m better on the product side, I’m better on the CEO and CTO side. But I’d go hire someone else to be a game designer on any game that I created. [laughs]
The flock of birds was actually quite interesting. At the time, all of the motion capture studios out there would do the capture and they would post-process the heck out of it. I thought that wasn’t good enough, so I went and we bought a flock of birds and built a real-time system, which no one had. [It was] to actually translate directly into the editor that drew the BioForge characters [to show] what was happening with the person. The accuracy of the flock of birds was...pretty rough. [laughs]
"If you played a certain tune on the flute, Dr. Mastaba knew that his mind screw of you had worked. He knew that it had taken because you would automatically play this exact tune, and that’s how he tested whether his subject had gotten the full treatment."
GB: It was 1993.
Demarest: Their arms would go through their heads and so forth. So we had some very dedicated artists who worked very hard to try refine those animations and get them into good enough shape. But the truth is the computers weren’t really fast enough to do full-fledged animation. Everything had to be done with very stiff hinges at the elbows, [and] especially the shoulders were the worst case. The fact that Lex has been transformed into a cyborg and you meet a lot of robots, people in big suits, and that sort of thing, the art director, Bruce Lemons, who did an amazing, amazing job, he understood that’s what it would be like. All the character designs were meant to accommodate the limitations of the technology, but we wanted to push it as far as we could. I’m still pretty proud [when I’m] looking at it. I look at it, and I feel like “someone de-rezzed this really nice game! Why aren’t they playing it at full-resolution?” [laughs]
GB: I certainly did not beat the game when I was younger, but I’ve talked to a number of people that were subscribers to PC Gamer, and I remember being obsessed with the demo for BioForge that came on the disc. The demo had that intro room where you meet the blue creature, and you can club him to death with his own arm. I remember playing that sequence over and over again because when you were contained in that tiny, little sandbox, largely due to the huge amounts of combat options that you have. Holding control and alt, and being able to use the entire keyboard to try different moves.
Demarest: I’m glad to hear it. It warms my black heart that people actually enjoyed the game. I don’t think that the sales were ever particularly sterling. Recognizing the challenges in the gameplay that are epicly clear in the playthrough, it’s clear why it didn’t sell very much. Having said that, if the gameplay had been remedied, and I think there are just a few things that would go an incredibly long way, I think it could have done better in the market and even more people would have enjoyed it. But I’m super happy that even that small demo took with you and with the people that it did take with. Computer games should exist for people to get pleasure.
GB: I think you’re right that there are, in hindsight, obvious tweaks that could have made it more palatable, but part of the reason the game was so much fun to play, even now, is due to all the rough edges and the randomness and the weirdness. It felt like it was just made so that it could exist, and not to the concession of everything else. Part of that is the appeal, and I think that’s why the people that watched it and when we played it, that’s part of what was the fun. What was around every corner? It was clearly a labor of love, a game like this wouldn’t have existed without people who really wanted to make it. It felt like a game that was definitely a reflection of the people who made it, and not “hey, there’s a market reality that we want to cater to.”
Demarest: BioForge gave me my first gray hair, and it was my first really epic failure as a manager.
GB: You were a director, a producer, and a programmer on the project all at the same time.
Demarest: Yeah. I started this thing up with another fellow named Tony Bratton, who eventually forked off and started making his own project. He, thankfully, did a lot of the 3D stuff because I’m just not talented to do much of that work. Luckily, I had other team members who came on and helped me with that. I wrote huge swaths of that thing, and it was a labor of love. But it turned out to be somewhat a labor of pain because, for me, it was a huge learning process. I went from guy who didn’t understand how to manage a team properly to guy who recognized he had a problem to fix. And over the next eight years or so, I worked very, very hard to reshape myself. It’s interesting, though. I’m super proud of what came out of it, even though… [pause] There was excellent glory coming out of that thing when we were doing the final voice recording. People were very proud of it. There was exquisite pain that came out of it for me, as I learned I was...less than perfect. [laughs] Who expected that? It’s a very memorable time, though, in my life, and it was a labor of love ultimately. One great thing that people got out of that project was because I wasn’t an artist and I wasn’t particularly a designer, people had a relatively free hand on that. Huge kudos to them for what they managed to do. I loved making BioForge, it was real fun.
GB: I know it was called Interactive Movie #1. Was that as much of a mandate as you got? Just go make a thing, and it’s supposed to be influenced by cinema, this is part of the direction that Origin is going in? What were the initial conversations about what this was even going to be?
Demarest: The original concept was “go make an interactive movie.”
GB: That’s it?
Demarest: That was it. “Go define what interactive movies can be, go do it.” So for the start of that, that’s pretty much all me and Tony just doing it and making it happen. Then, gradually, we brought on Bruce. We brought on some designers a little too late, who’d just made the transition from QA. [laughs]
GB: Oh, jeez!
Demarest: Yeah, you know, it is what it is! How many designers could have hired?
GB: There wasn’t a DigiPen, there were way fewer paths back then. QA is a pretty common path for a lot of designers back in that day. You proved that you knew the language of games, even if there wasn’t necessarily a degree to go along with it, which certainly didn’t mean anything back in the 90s.
Demarest: That’s right, that’s right, that’s absolutely true.
So we did do a little research in two major areas. We went and looked at story arcs. I, actually, was an English major and did a bunch of writing, so I was very interested in making sure we told a story that fired on all cylinders. So there’s some good backstory there, I’m proud of that. It’s a world that is pretty fully imagined. You go through the arc and eventually discover the alien race, and that unfolds, I think, in a pretty decent way. The other really big one was jump cuts and camera work. We researched camera work, and had to wrestle with the fact that we had finite resources to make enough cameras and enough angles and that we weren’t going to fly the camera through the world. Our preference would have been to make the camera fly through the world, but it was technologically impossible at that time. You’ll notice that DOOM flew the camera through the world and had cardboard cutout characters. We had the awesome characters and the fixed rooms. That’s the comparison. Their mode of game allowed really fast motion, fantastic FPS play. We knew ours had to be about telling a story, and that’s really what we tried to do with that way of doing it. After BioForge came out, Carmack put me on his tech guru email list. He was way more tech guru than me by far, but he put me on that because we had solved the character problem, while he had solved the world problem.
GB: Because of what you guys wanted to do technologically, did that dictate the gameplay design? It’s going to be a character that moves very slow, he can’t get across this world very fast. Okay, well, the way the combat’s going to work is that he’s going to be kind of like a tank because that will slow the character down and allow us to focus on having set pieces and moments fixed into rooms.
Demarest: So that’s all true. I think we were one of the earliest games to do in-game movie scripting. When you saw those cut-scenes, they were completely in the game engine, and they were written with a script that I whipped together to position characters, make them run animations. When Dr. Mastaba's doing this [shaking his hands up]...
GB: Those are some of my favorite moments! They’re hilarious. They’re so great and really endearing. That’s probably the best word for that game--it has heart and it’s very endearing. It’s hard not to love it for those moments like that. You can’t help but smile. It’s just so goofy.
Demarest: Yeah, it is so goofy. And the poor guy lying on the table, who asks you to kill him, he’s got his little scripted headturn animation and up pops “kiiiillll meeeeee!” [laughs]
When you guys chose to kill him, it put you on a certain path. All of those characters that you saw at the end on that computer, those are the people you could have turned out to be. Depending on the choices you made in the game, an origin was chosen for you. If you just killed absolutely everything, your origin is that you used to be a psychopathic killer. That’s why you were experimented on. You can take different paths, you never have to kill him, and you can turn out to be a hippie flower child, if you wanted to.
GB: I thought that was one of the more interesting things about the game that was incredibly progressive for the time. It has a built-in morality system, or at least it reflects upon the player’s choices, but it never tells them. Most games, even today, are very explicit about telling the player that “you’re making a good choice, you’re making a bad choice.” I hate those styles of systems, I think that’s really cumbersome and ends up leading to the player not making truly formative or honest choices because everyone wants to be the good guy.
Demarest: Actually, I’m going to jump back to the prior question a little bit. You talked to the combat and the pace of the combat. For me, that is the biggest missed opportunity. The biggest missed opportunity for BioForge was that there could have been a combat system where the choices you made of moves really mattered. The truth is, even after two years and a full time, we didn’t have enough time to tweak that and to make it work. If I have any regrets it’s that we didn’t find some way to make those choices of moves a bit more meaningful.
GB: If that would have meant that you guys removed the backflip, then I don’t know if it would have been worth it.
Demarest: We would have kept the backflip, and when the cyber raptor, when he swung and tried to whack you with his tail, the backflip would have been the move of choice. [laughs]
GB: That is easily my favorite moment. When Vinny pulls up the text bubble and I just noticed “does that say cyber raptor?” And, then, it cuts you out of that text bubble and a god damn cyber raptor actually appears and you have to fight it. If any moment encompases the surprised nature of that game it is that exact moment of genuine sort of...what is going on? What is this game?
Demarest: I was super pleased when you guys froze the scorpion man, and then intentionally went back just so you could see him alive. But, instead, you got the surprise of being hurled towards the camera. [laughs]
We built that thing and we looked at animating it and said “yeah, no, that’s not happening.”
GB: Were we crazy, or was it actually faster to walk backwards than it was to walk forwards?
Demarest: Uh, I would characterize that as a design flaw.
GB: [laughs] That was our go to thing, having Lex moonwalk his way through all the scenes, in order to get past the mechs a little bit faster.
Demarest: That’s right, that’s right. As far as design flaws go, a) put it on the list and b) it helped you guys. You had to get certain things done.
GB: It felt like a cheat. Just don’t tell anyone! That would be patched out of a modern game.
Demarest: I remember when Ultima IX finally came out--I’d actually left Origin by then--I played it like I played most Ultimas. I tried to hack the AI of the enemies to get an unfair advantage because that’s the kind of player I am. [laughs] I still remember in Ultima III, there was one place filled with awesome treasure chests, and they would respawn every time you entered this particular town. If you walked in just the right way, the guards would not catch you with all of that booty, as you left town. I died many, many times trying to find the magic formula, and finally found it. For me, that was very satisfying. I’d come up with a hack--this is why I’m a programmer--that had accomplished a goal that I thought was awesome, and I was super pleased with myself.
GB: You have these static backgrounds that you’re interacting with, but you’re actually able to bounce the laser off. That’s the only way to get through some of the sequences, such as the elevator sequence. Especially when we had, I think, one hit and we were constantly killing ourselves by bouncing the lasers incorrectly. It was really funny, but it was also really interesting for a game to play with physics in that way, which certainly felt like that must have been new at the time.
Demarest: It was completely new at the time. That was another pile-on of new technology. When we sat down as a group and said “listen, what do we want to make next?” and interactive movies were what came up, I really took seriously the idea of pioneering that genre. I wasn’t correct about this, but I felt that pioneering the technology was the most important underpinning. The truth is that pioneering the gameplay was far, far more important, but I couldn’t see it. So with respect to pioneering the technology, every room in the game actually had a not-to-be-seen rectilinear edging to it. We were bouncing the pieces, the polies, off that rectilinear edging. I remember writing that code! [laughs] It was difficult. I took triangles, I used actual pieces of the texture maps from the original model, I spun them arbitrarily, and I bounced them off the invisible rectilinear walls. I remember playing with the gravity. “How much should they bounce?” It turned out the more spectacular thing was to fly them all over the place.
GB: That was the fun, especially with the fixed camera angles. You’d often be in a position to not really judge how you were shooting it, so it became this really fun game of trial-and-error to figure out how exactly that worked. Especially when we were only one hit away from dying, it made it extremely satisfying when you did, finally get that angle together and it hit.
"I remember when Ultima IX finally came out--I’d actually left Origin by then--I played it like I played most Ultimas. I tried to hack the AI of the enemies to get an unfair advantage because that’s the kind of player I am."
Demarest: No matter what we did, you really could never tell. You had no idea what direction you were facing. I remember chewing on that one for a long time. I think the problem was that we didn’t have real-time shadow casting and couldn’t, actually, based on the way the tech was. We looked at it, threw up our hands, and said not on this iteration on the game. [laughs] We’ll go push on other technologies. I play games like Neverwinter Nights, for example, where I’ve got a third-person character view, and they made the smart decision of obviating it. We made it so that if you were within 15-degrees of pointing towards an enemy, we just turned you the rest of the way, so that you could point towards them. But the truth is, you could be within 45 or 90-degrees sometimes and you still didn’t know. We should have been pretty ruthless about auto-turning you, I think.
GB: You guys were pioneering this new directive at Origin. When you guys were putting it together, what was the response from people when they could come by the desks and see what you guys were working on? Were you the crazies off doing something completely new and different or just left alone during that two-year cycle?
Demarest: I would have liked to have been less left alone. [laughs] There would have been value in getting some more mentorship for me and the rest of the team. They eventually threw their hands up, by the way, and brought in Eric Hyman, who actually knew how to manage people. That’s where his credit on the game comes from. Of course, I was sour, I was sour and resentful about it. [laughs] But I’d also had been beaten enough by the problem that I was actually pretty willing to accept it. “Please, come on! Save me from myself!”
We were fairly left alone. When people saw it, there were some interesting reactions. One of them was that when we went to E3, there was at least one magazine that gave us best in show because our graphics were better than almost any game at the time, I would say. And so that was a huge pleasure. By the time we came out, we were still the first game, to my knowledge, that did fully 3D texture-mapped characters and we were using quaternions to do all the arms and stuff like that. We got some pretty favorable responses from that. I think the reviews at the time were sort of in the 87-to-92 range. But, man, they must have been really forgiving of that gameplay.
GB: But I think that’s a lot of games of that era. This modern, much more hand-holdey design is a product of the last 10 years or so. People just were spending much more time and were much more forgiving, especially when you were making something that was different. It was hard to judge too harshly when you can’t necessarily look at it and go “well, this is how they should have done it.” That’s much easier to do in 2013. [laughs]
Demarest: Yeah, that’s all true. Of course, the meme now for game design, especially on social networks, with pioneers like Zynga and those other guys, you cannot lose the game. It’s impossible. In fact, the real meme is that you will never have a setback. You will only progress more or less rapidly. You will follow what I call the Tetris reward cycle. If you decompose a game like Tetris, you can see that every time you get a new piece, it’s a small reward, and that happens frequently. Every time you fit a piece, it’s a slightly bigger reward, but it happens slightly less frequently. Every time you remove a row, [which is] even less frequent but an even bigger reward. And the same thing for clearing a level and getting the highest score you ever got and so on and so forth. Wing Commander broke down into that perfectly. Its reward levels were I shot, I hit, I finished the mission, I upgraded to a new ship, I won the game, blah, blah, blah. That kind of reward system still exists in the modern games, but now they’re layered over with this “you will not really be allowed to fail” motif. I would contrast that with Minecraft. So Minecraft is clearly much more a game for geeks. I think it’s only sold maybe 15 million, a mere 15 million. [laughs]
GB: You’re right that most social games are ostensibly for the mainstream or a large audience and yet Minecraft, a game that has no real explicit goals and does have a failstate, that’s the game that has proven to be essentially Legos for a whole new generation of gameplayers. Yet, if Zynga was to make Minecraft, it would be a much different game.
Demarest: A very, very, very different game. This is the point I’m getting towards. Almost everybody plays Minecraft and is killed by a zombie in the first night. That will do one of two things to you. It will either turn you off to the game and you’ll leave and you’ll never understand the incredibly deep, rewarding parts of it, or it will piss you off and by having a setback, you will be inspired to learn whatever it takes to not have happen again. I think it speaks to people’s character. Not everyone has that character. It’s very clear that the mass market doesn’t have that character. Programming is full of frustration, for example, and the act of creation is full of frustration. So I think that creative people will latch, for example, more onto Minecraft, than onto the more modern gaming style. Do you know that when FarmVille started to run out, Zynga moved 90 million people off of FarmVille in a matter of 30 days [and] over to CityVille? They migrated those accounts. That was people actually logging on and playing and voluntarily signing up for CityVille because they loved Farmville so much. 3 million people a day. Of course, back when we were making games, if you sold a couple hundred thousand, it was flabbergasting. That was amazing! That mass market meme is what it takes. It’s very clear that’s what it takes to be able to have 90 million people playing your game. And you know what, I will always be the one who wants to die. If there’s nothing at stake, why am I playing it? And here I am doing yet another start up. We’ve just closed our seed round. If there’s nothing at stake, why play?
GB: What are you up to these days? I know you haven’t been explicitly involved in traditional games for a while now, if I’m correct.
Demarest: Yeah, that’s true. The last one I did was [where] I was CTO of Arcadia Entertainment. Arcadia was trying to make massively multiplayer online games for the Facebook crowd. It turns out you only need 2D graphics. It’s true, though! It costs one-third or less as much to produce. The funding ran out on that one, unfortunately before we were ever able to find out we could hit that crowd properly. But others have tried and it’s just not mass markety. 3D is not very mass market. That’s one of the interesting lessons learned. You need it to be dead simple to play, so not really my cup of tea. As I saw the market moving more and more in that direction, that inspired me to find new things that I found interesting.
What I’m doing is called Appsoma.com. Appsoma makes it easy for scientists to process the enormous amount of data that they are now seeing, especially in areas like genomics and proteomics. They are either studying the human genome or sampling drops of blood or saliva to see what your body’s [makeup] looks like. They can, for example, tell you whether you’ve got liver cancer without opening you up, biopsying your liver, and actually sampling it. [This] is a fantastic advance, a fantastic advance. I’m not one of the guys who understand all that stuff. I deeply respect the guys who do, they are brilliant scientists. But they’re scientists first and they’re coders a very, very distant second. Why should they have to trouble themselves? I’m sure they’re using all their neurons to remember the, I don’t know, tens of thousands of pathways we’ve discovered for how proteins function in the body. If I can help them move along faster to do some of the society-transforming things that they are now in the midst of doing, I’d be very happy to do that. That’s what Appsoma do that. A human genome can be up to four terabytes in size, a drop in blood, all the proteins get to be about 30 gigabytes in size. In the old days, a good sized hard drive.
Appsoma helps scientists process that data, it gives them an online IDE so they can do coding more easily, it helps them manage the data, it helps them public or private cloud resources or grid computing, which a lot of the supercomputer clusters happen. Or even [on] any machine, they can even install the little Appsoma daemon and, bam, it’s hooked into the network. The thing that I think I’m most proud of is that someone can do work at one university or commercial institution, share it with anyone else, and it’s guaranteed to run. Because they don’t know things like version control, to be able to give it to them and not have to worry about it and not have to learn it, moves them along much faster and I’m very proud of that.
GB: Do you have any itch to go back to games at some point or is that something you’ve left behind?
Demarest: [pause] Well, I have to finish playing out Appsoma, of course. But, having said that, there’s clearly a game that needs to be created. Let me start by saying, I have the deepest respect for the Mojang guys. Notch is, clearly, a genius, and I couldn’t be more ecstatically happy that he found the new genre that he found. Not many people can say that they’ve ever crafted a genre. I kind of did with interactive movies. Genre didn’t go anywhere! [laughs] But I did it! I also pioneered, by the way, massively multiplayer online RTS. How many of those are there? [laughs]
GB: But at least they exist! You can check box it.
Demarest: I did the first one, by the way. How exciting! I love pioneering stuff. So, anyway, he came upon a genre. Super exciting. But after a certain time, they lost their way. This is my belief. At least a year-and-a-half-to-two years ago, they should have shifted all their resources--forgive me, Notch, but I have to call it like I see it--off of trying to make advancements in the game onto making a really easy to install API. The community has made things that are far better than anything that Mojang has produced. They should have embraced that two years ago. It’s really clear to me that a Neverwinter Nights...you remember the Aurora toolset? Beautiful, amazing piece of work. I once traveled around the country in an RV for 18 months with my dog, my wife, and my two-way Internet satellite dish. I spent January parked in my parent-in-laws’ driveway building a Neverwinter Nights mod.
GB: I remember people saying, famously, that a lot of the community content for Neverwinter Nights was a lot better than the actual content that shipped with the game, which was a testament to the tools.
Demarest: I agree with that. There was some incredible stuff. I managed to reach the top ten, but, then, was quickly driven out by people who were better game designers than me! [laughs] No giant surprise there. But...I pushed the technology! [laughs]
What I’m working around to is that the game I would go build would be something that was, essentially, a Minecraft that opened itself to awesome, awesome community content. That 3D block-based world is perfect for everything. He’s left it sandbox, which is the right choice, [but] failed to embrace open community API, which is the wrong choice. If it had been truly embraced, you would see complete re-dos. You would see RTS, you would see RPG, you would see interactive movies. You would see all sorts of incredible stuff. It’s an untapped opportunity waiting to happen. I would love to assemble a team for that because Mojang’s not going to do it. It’s pretty clear to me that opportunity will forever be left sitting on the floor.
GB: One last thing I wanted to ask you about BioForge Plus. There’s some video footage on YouTube and I guess the source code floated up a couple of years back, but there was a BioForge pseudo sequel in development at some point. Were you involved with that at all, or was that something completely separate?
Demarest: No. I was completely uninvolved with it, actually. After BioForge finished, I left and started a new company and created that MMO RTS that I talked about, which was NetStorm. By the way, NetStorm...there are still people hosting NetStorm servers.
Demarest: Oh, yeah! If you want to go find another completely obscure game that nobody really knows about, it’s NetStorm! [laughs] It’s still out there, you can download it for free, it’s essentially abandonware. It’s very light on your bandwidth because we built it when modems were still in use, but it’s a graphical MMO RTS kind of thing. The MMO part is gone because no one can really host that, but, yeah, it’s out there.
GB: When you finished BioForge, did you feel like there was more to do in this world? Or was it “hey, we took on this challenge, we did as much as we could in the time that we had, I’m going to go move onto the next thing, I don’t need to see what happens after you get off the planet.”
Demarest: No. I left it as a cliffhanger waiting for a sequel on purpose. I wanted it to become a franchise. However, after I left, they handed it off to another fellow, and, to me, every direction that it was going was the wrong one. I felt really uncomfortable, actually, having our baby kicked like that. I was very dissatisfied with it, but I was gone and I was doing something new. That was their IP to do with as they wished. I’m relieved that it didn’t continue forward.
GB: Ken, I really appreciate you taking some time to chat with me. I think it’s hysterical that you watched the video, so thank you for doing that, as well.
Demarest: I haven’t laughed so hard in a really, good long time. It was great. [laughs]