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Greg Tomko-Pavia Interview

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The following interview has been adapted from email correspondence held during August 1996 between myself and Greg Tomko-Pavia of Sierra On-Line who was responsible for some of the systems programming of Phantasmagoria. Greg provides many fascinating insights into both the game and Sierra On-Line in general. Many of these questions have also been raised in other sections of this Web subsite. It is only here that their answers are fully revealed.

Anthony: What are your main duties at Sierra On-Line?

Greg: As a systems programmer, my involvement with games is mostly behind the scenes. I am in charge of the SCI language (a proprietary, object-oriented programming language that our applications programmers use to develop adventure games). As such, a lot of my code is in all the games, but it is generic code: individual games are adapted to suit their own specific needs. I also help out near the end of the game cycle to find those nasty bugs.

Anthony: If no files were duplicated and the game involved seemingly endless disk swapping, approximately how many cds would Phantasmagoria comprise?

Greg: The duplication comes from duplicate VMDs and RBTs, which you can check by inspecting directory listings, and from duplicate resources built into the res*.* volumes. My guess is that there would be just one fewer cd-rom disk [ie: 6 cds total] if there was no duplication. Note that more than just continual disk swapping would result with no duplication. The game would be essentially unrunnable without at least duplication of the code resources. I believe we placed the full code for the entire game on each cd. It makes sense because our compiled SCI code takes up very little space compared to other resources like audio and video.

Anthony: What does the file extension VMD stand for and how did this type of file evolve?

Greg: VMD stands for the French analogue of "Video and Music Data". The VMD movie playing technology and tools come from our Parisian subsidiary Coktel Vision. When Gabriel Knight 1 (GK1) shipped (our first game to use video), we used AVIs for Windows and a proprietary format (SEQ) for DOS. Along came Phantasmagoria and we could no longer afford to duplicate all our movies and ship in both formats. Coktel helped us out because their player worked in both DOS and Windows. Since then, we have made tremendous improvements in the VMD engine, optimising it for our needs.

Anthony: Why were older, unused versions of some of the VMD files left on some of the Phantasmagoria cds?

Greg: This is just an artifact of how the cds were built. The programmer who built them probably had a batch file which grabbed all the files found in certain directories and included them all on the cds to which you refer. If obsolete or unused files were not previously deleted, then they were included on the cds too. Programmers don't always know which are used and which aren't, so they copied everything. The artists probably didn't delete the duplicate VMDs because they thought they might have need for them later.

Detailed description of each of the Phantasmagoria VMD files

Anthony: How would you describe the nature of RBT files?

Greg: Robots (RBTs) are something we developed here in Oakhurst [California, USA]. The games SWAT and Kings Quest 7 (KQ7) used this file type extensively. What we needed was a way of playing video, but have it blend into normal room art instead of occupying its own rectangular area. Room art consists of a background pic overlaid with various animating cels (traditional lingo: sprites). The cels each have a priority that determines who is on top and who is behind in the drawing order. Cels are read from *.v56 files (another proprietary format). A Robot is video frames with transparent background including priority and x,y information. Thus, it is like a cel, except it comes from an RBT - not a v56. Because it blends into our graphics engine, it looks just like a part of the room. A RBT can move around the screen and go behind other objects. The upcoming game Lighthouse makes full use of RBTs.

Description of each of the Phantasmagoria RBT files on CD 1

How RBTs were replaced with v56s in Phantasmagoria 2

Anthony: What type of information is contained within the res*.* files?

Greg: "Res" stands for "resource". These files: ressci, resaud, and ressfx (all commonly called "vols") are large resource volumes. They contain compressed code, background pics, cels, music, sound effects, and game text - just about everything except video - all packed together. So, if the game needs the code resource 250.scr, it will look in the resmap (which has been loaded into memory at game startup) and find the offset for it. Then it will go to that offset in ressci and read in the data. This allows us quicker access than having to go through DOS or BIOS calls to examine directory structure and find individual files.

Anthony: What are the steps taken to incorporate MIDI music into Sierra games?

Greg: First, the musicians/composers build the MIDI files using their Rolands. Once they are finished, they get converted into Sierra proprietary *.SND files. The transformation is one way. Those SNDs are then built into vols. While it is possible to unpack the vols, all you would get are the SNDs - no MIDIs.

NOTE: Requiring further information, I asked chief Phantasmagoria composer and musician Mark Seibert if he would mind making some comments about his role in producing the game's music. He replied:

I wrote the music for the opening, the ending credits, and all of the movie scenes. That totalled about an hour and fifteen minutes of music. Digital audio was used for the choir, the guitars, and other live instruments. The other musicians took my music and themes and then arranged them to fit as background MIDI loops for the game.

Later he added -

I'd be happy to send you some *.mid files, but the ones I have will not play on your system. Such MIDI music was designed to work specifically in my studio on my equipment at Oakhurst. The digital audio music I composed for Phantasmagoria was used for all the movie like sequences of the game. The MIDI music that played in various spots are adaptations of music from those sequences. These adaptations were all recomposed in Oakhurst by other musicians.

As far as the future for music in Sierra games goes, I really hope that we never do another game with MIDI music. Being able to use real live recorded music has given us the freedom to be much more creative and expressive.

Further information on the Phantasmagoria MIDIs

Anthony: Why are the save games for Gabriel Knight 2 [GK2] up to 700 times larger than those used in Phantasmagoria?

Greg: GK2 used traditional SCI save games. Phantasmagoria used special save games. If you think back to typical Sierra adventures, we let you save the game anywhere. Often, the screen would be full of animating objects, your character (ego) would be anywhere on screen, and other actors (NPCs) would be at other places. In order to save all this information at any point in the game, we would actually save a memory image. Basically, it was all the data we would need to completely reconstruct that exact moment back in the computer's memory. That's why our save games are usually so large. In Phantasmagoria, there is no ego (Adrienne isn't a traditional Sierra ego - no walker and no automatic turning), and little animation to worry about. So, all we need to save is some game flags, the room number, and chapter. We decided not to use the traditional save game technique, but to write a simpler one. In the end, this decision was of questionable merit because it made the chapter 7 chase rather difficult to save properly. I remember programmer Chris Carr having to call me in a couple of times for some rather tricky bugs. Still, he managed to put it all together. Chris added that chapter 7 "arcade" sequence himself. I think he suggested it to [Phantasmagoria designer] Roberta [Williams].

Anthony: Whose idea was it to incorporate the elaborate bathroom using Easter Egg into the game?

Greg: Sounds like something Carlos [Escobar - a programmer] would do. Carlos worked with [game designer] Al Lowe on far too many Leisure Suit Larry games.

Anthony: What has Sierra been doing to promote Phantasmagoria overseas?

Greg: Earlier this year, Sierra made a joint venture with Pioneer in Japan. They are porting several of our games to Japanese platforms. I got to go over to Tokyo for a week to help out with KQ7 and Phantasmagoria. My colleague, Chris Smith (head of the systems group), and I developed a subtitle engine for displaying Kanji subtitles for the VMDs in Phantasmagoria.

Anthony: On what Japanese computer systems will Phantasmagoria appear?

Greg: I believe it's already on the NEC variety of the Japanese PC.

Anthony: Besides Japanese, into what other languages has Phantasmagoria been translated?

Greg: I'm pretty sure of French, German, Italian, and maybe Spanish.

Anthony: Will Phantasmagoria appear on a console gaming machine such as the Sony PlayStation?

Greg: Last week, I met with two engineers from Japan. They are going to port Phantasmagoria to the Sega Saturn (Japanese only). I'm not sure when they plan to release, but maybe by Christmas. We looked briefly at porting to the PlayStation, but found that the machine was too limited for us to use easily. I know everyone touts the incredible processing power of the Saturn and the PlayStation, but the fact is that they are all still kids machines compared to the PC and Macintosh. The PlayStation has only 2Mb of RAM. This is next to nothing for us. Our engine alone is 1Mb, and our background pictures (hi-res and soon even hi-colour) will take up another megabyte. In order to "shoe horn" the game code and resources into the PlayStation, we would have to do considerable work on the code. It just didn't seem like we'd get the return on our investment to justify the expense.

Anthony: How do you summarise your own thoughts regarding Phantasmagoria?

Greg: My personal contribution to Phantasmagoria wasn't really so major. The turning point for me occurred shortly after GK1 shipped. At that point, Sierra had lost two employees, one was the programmer in charge of the SCI language (a senior systems programmer), and the other was the lead programmer for "Scary Tales" (the early name for Phantasmagoria). I was given the choice of either of those two jobs. I sweated this decision like no other. But I chose to go into systems and become the new SCI guy. I don't regret the decision, not in any way. I still got to help out with Phantasmagoria, but I also got involved, at least to some extent, with every SCI game we ship. Still, I must say that I'm surprised Phantasmagoria has done so well. Presently, we've sold over 700,000 copies - more than any other Sierra game. I can't account for it. In my opinion, Phantasmagoria suffered from weak writing, acting, and direction. On the other hand, it had Roberta's design skills, and there's no question about her ability to design a fun game. She knows more about adventure gameplay than anyone - she invented the graphic adventure. The game also has marvellous rendered art and a magnificent score. But I don't understand why GK2, to my mind superior in every detail, isn't doing nearly so well. What do I know...I just write code!

Anthony: Who is the lead programmer for Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh?

Greg: Jerry Shaw. He and I worked together on GK1. Then he worked on KQ7, while I became a systems programmer. Finally, he was made lead programmer for GK2. When he moved up to our corporate office in Bellevue [Washington, USA], he was immediately put in as lead for Phantasmagoria 2 (P2). After all, P2 is being done up in Washington rather than California.

Anthony: Do you have any final comments regarding the second installment of the Phantasmagoria series?

Greg: P2 looks like it will be amazing. The video is as good as GK2, and the story is compelling. It will be out before Christmas this year.

If you liked this interview, please read the following interview with another Phantasmagoria production crew member

Roberta Williams - Designer

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Title - Introduction - Gameplay - Plot Synopsis - Sound and Visual Effects - Main Characters - Censorship Issues - Miscellanea

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