Words From A Wing Nut: Interview with Lee Montgomery

Last post we explored the Full Motion Video [FMV] game bubble and the flops, and few gems, that made up this moment in gaming/development history. This week, I bring the nerd herd insight from an individual who was intimately involved in development during that age and had hands on with Rocket Science Games’ Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Lee Montgomery is the focus of this weeks post and GamingNerdHerder’s first interviewee (below).

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Lee Montgomery

Lee Montgomery is an Asst. Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico (Electronic Arts Area) with a B.A. in Film from Bard College and a MFA (New Genres) from the San Francisco Art Institute. In his own words: “I am an artist who works in as many areas of the ‘electronic arts’ as I am able.  My interests range from circuit building and bending, radio and TV transmission, computer programmed interactivity, and social engineering.”

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GamingNerdHerder [GNH]: What was your title and roll with Rocket Science Games?

I started as a production assistant, started working as a video editor, and eventually wound up as Asst. Game Designer for the Reactor levels of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and Game Designer for Wing Nuts.

GNH: There were a lot of subpar FMV games released in the 90s but Wing Nuts was solid. What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games did wrong? What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games didn’t do at all?

Funny thing is.. Wing Nuts was originally envisioned as a plug and play purchase from the studio that shot the material for Tomcat Alley on Sega CD.  That’s where all the video came from.  RSG, I think, originally saw itself as bringing Holywood to the Sega CD and so the idea was that we would build an updated “Dragon’s Lair” style engine like the Tomcat Alley engine, but with better compression (because we had engineers from the Quicktime team at Apple writing the video compression).  By the time the games were developed SegaCD had proven to be a short lived phenomenon, and the great sales of Tomcat Alley were revealed to have more to do with Tomcat Alley being one of the only things going for SegaCD.

So we had these assets for what was starting to look like a real dog of a game. So we had to figure out two things:

a) what was it about Tomcat (and thus Wing Nuts) that made it a dog?

b) how do we address those issues.

The Hollywood side of the equation determined that the amateurish acting and cheese-ball plot needed to be very clearly turned into comedy.  So a laugh track and sound effects were added…as well as a series of easter eggs with comedic value.

The game play side of the equation determined that as games like Doom and Virtua Fighter and Mortal Combat were our approximate competition, we needed to ramp up the interactivity… a lot!

Working with the engineer for the game (at the time I could barely get “hello world” compiled) we developed a full HUD and a points based system for taking down enemies.  We basically wrote a game which you played over the movie that coincidentally interacted with the footage.

There was definitely a misguided assumption that getting FMV to play on your machine at home would somehow be the essence of VR.  What many failed to pay attention to was the fact that the layers of compression that distorted the original video did much to remove the viewer from the experience.  Without a sufficient level of interactivity to keep viewers invested you didn’t really have a game.  I am sure there are a bunch of FMV developers from those days that are wondering how on earth the crudely rendered figures of DOOM registered as more appealing than their flat chunky blobs of video.

GNH: From your time spent directly involved in FMV game development there have been many changes. What do you see as the most relevant/significant change in video games from the days of FMV games compared to games being released now and why?

It’s interesting to look at a game like Fallout: New Vegas or Red Dead Redemption [RDR] now (or Grand Theft Auto, where some of the narrative techniques from failed FMV games are being used in a more fluid and engaging manner) within a fully realized 3D world where scenes can be somewhat rendered on the fly, instead of having to load video at 2MB per frame just for the visual appeal.

We no longer have laggy pauses for cut scenes, data loading happens more strategically, but really video always is limited to a linear constructed perspective, you always feel like you are riding a train and you can only tell the train where you want to change trains.  Greater processing power dedicated to rendering 3D worlds allows more of a sense of a world being constructed with nuanced rules you can follow.  A much more rewarding experience.   With Wing Nuts I think we succeeded (to the degree that we did) because the game play over the video had enough rules that one felt like they had some control over the results.  That complexity has just grown over time resulting in interactive narratives that are engaging and truly interactive.

GNH: How did your time spent in game development influence your current and past career choices and your current and past projects/shows?

I certainly would not be doing the kind of art work I do now had I not been exposed to the process of developing interactive content on a professional level.  It was interesting to quickly evolve from someone trained as an editor to someone considering interactivity as part of narrative content.  The work expanded my notions of what a game is and encouraged me to incorporate the game into how I thought about art.

GNH: What games are you currently playing?

I went through a long period of very occasional game playing over the past decade or so, this involved a little Warcraft, Tony Hawk, and Halo…

But recently I got a PS3 and was pretty impressed with RDR, I just finished one time through Fallout: New Vegas, and really enjoyed the depth of the experience, even if the game play sometimes felt a bit random….

GNH: What shows/projects are on the horizon for Lee Montgomery and were can we find more information about them?

I do a project called Neighborhood Public Radio which is currently engaged in a 3 part interactive program at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  You can see more about it at http://www.moca.org/party/npr/.

I also do some video work and generative art using a program called Processing.  I’m very into open source at the moment and am moving to a Linux based system that uses Processing and pd to develop interactive installations.

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I again want to give my sincere thanks to Lee for his time and efforts, the nerd herd appreciates it. Join the conversation in the comments and thanks for the visit.

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