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The Making of Space Quest

     The following article originally appeared as Chapter Two of Jill Champion's The Official Guide to Roger Wilco Space Adventures, second edition (Compute Books, 1993), and is now reprinted here at the Broomcloset. Although The Official Guide is presently out of print, used copies are still available through various online book dealers. I highly recommend checking it out if you can track it down. "The Making of Space Quest" is excerpted from pages one through seven of Champion's book.
Official Guide

     Before Space Quest, there was seriousness. Sierra On-Line, making its indeliable mark in the computer gaming world, had plenty of serious games. But the company wanted two things: science fiction and humor--or more specifically, something humorous that would appeal to science-fiction fans.

     And what could be more humorous than taking some regular guy with a regular job who looks, talks, and acts like he belongs in this century and sticking him eons into the future in a much evolved--technologically, that is--universe. People are still people--some rotten to the core--and being a janitor still means scrubbing floors. While this guy's universe is filled with typical futuristic apparatus--robots, spaceships, aliens, laser beams, the works--mentally speaking, he's in a time warp. His biggest goal in life is to find more and better ways of doing less work without getting caught. Thus, you have Roger Wilco, sci fi's first "accidental" hero. And in The Sarien Encounter, he gets his first poke at saving the universe.

     Mark Crowe, the artistic half of the Space Quest design duo, was already working at Sierra in design and marketing when Scott Murphy, who became the programming half, joined the company's dealer-returns department. Both were interested in the science fiction/space-adventure genre, and after Scott learned to program, it was only a matter of time before they put their heads together and Space Quest I made the leap from imagination to drawing board. Obviously, these Two Guys from Andromeda, as they came to be known, packed a lot of sci-fi trivia in their heads, evidenced by the numerous allusions to classic sci-fi characters and scenarious they wrote into the Space Quest games. You have to be a real fan to appreciate watching the starship Enterprise disembark from the Monolith Burger in Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers.

Early Space Quest

     The Sarien Encounter followed an exploratory path at Sierra On-Line, since it was one of the first products in a new line of role-playing adventure games the company was hatching. Needless to say, putting the program together was trial and error all the way, and the process turned out to be entirely evolutionary for the designers, with graphics leading the game's storyline. What the text could say was pretty much limited to what the characters were able to do. Ideas and art were developed as the game was programmed to learn what could actually be made to happen. Both The Sarien Encounter and Space Quest II, Vohaul's Revenge, were programmed in Sierra's proprietary language called AGI, or Adventure Game Interpreter.

     Along with action and art, much of the humor in the original Sarien Encounter also evolved spontaneously while the story was being written. In fact, some of the humor was added after the game was completed and already in Beta testing in Sierra's QA (Quality Assurance) department, where programs are tested for bugs and other mishaps. The task there is to walk the character through all areas of the screen while typing in every conceivable command to see what will happen. Strange responses are often returned, and plenty of those were left in Space Quest.

     Space Quest II, although still programmed in AGI, naturally followed a more structured developmental course than did The Sarien Encounter, since it was no longer necessary to complete the game through trial and error. In fact, all Sierra adventure games are now produced following a design document.

     Once a story's been scripted, it's drawn out as a map or flow chart with places, times, events, and actions indicated. These storyboards, similar to those used by advertisers to visualize television commercials, are produced before the game is ever programmed, allowing designers, producers, and others involved in the developmental process to visualize the entire thing before it's transferred to the computer screen. The real advantage to following a design document is that so many bugs can be fixed early in the process and at minimal cost.

     Space Quest III, The Pirates of Pestulon, also fully scripted in advance of its development cycle, was programmed in SCI, or Sierra's Creative Interpreter. This newer, more sophisticated programming language made Space Quest III a true 3-D adventure game. With twice the resolution of AGI, Mark was able to create more realistic, multidimensional graphics, and SCI allowed both Mark and Scott to produce better, more creative special effects.

     Realistic sound effects created by Mark Siebert were also programmed into Space Quest III--another advantage of Sierra's sophisticated interpreter. Using the MT-32 synthesizer, Siebert was able to manipulate voices into virtually any sound he wanted.

     On top of sound effects, music, as in motion pictures and television programs, is essential for creating mood and tone. Sierra hired Bob Siebenberg of Supertramp fame to expand Mark Crowe's original Space Quest musical score. Using a videotape of Space Quest III, Siebenberg viewed the different scenes, keeping in mind Roger's and other characters' personalities, and wrote music for each scene to set the mood. Having a complete musical soundtrack added yet another dimension to Space Quest III, setting it apart from any other text adventure game of its time.

Space Quests IV and V: The Next Generation

     In Space Quest IV, Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, it isn't long before Roger stumbles his way into the future, courtesy of the Time Rippers. When he eventually visits one of his old haunts on the planet Kerona, taken from the original Space Quest I, the difference between past and present is never clearer.

     There, you see a three-dimensional Roger Wilco moving about in the flat, one-dimensional town of Ulence Flats from the original Sarien Encounter. Ulence Flats contains only 16 colors, contrasting sharply with the 256 colors of Space Quest IV. Indeed, the difference between Roger in the two Ulence Flats is so striking, it's almost incredible to believe how much graphics technology has changed since that first Roger Wilco adventure.

     The earliest versions of Space Quest were drawn onscreen by Mark Crowe, using Sierra's own graphics tools. Because disk space was so limited, backgrounds were saved as vector images, which contained instructions for drawing the pictures. When Sierra's art changed to 256 colors, along with greater levels of detail, the method for creating pictures changed.

     Space Quest IV was the first game in the series to use digitally scanned artwork for the background, although Roger's character is still drawn onscreen using bitmapped images. And while Space Quest III was a tremendous visual improvement over the first two games, it still doesn't compare with the realism that makes up the characters and backgrounds of Space Quest IV, Space Quest V, The Next Mutation, and the new enhanced version of The Sarien Encounter

     If you go back to the beginning to see exactly what creating these games involves, the best place to start is with the script itself. Before any work is begun, the designers rough out a first draft of the story's plot, including with the outline sketches of different scenes (rooms) that will be involved in acting out the storyline.

     Rooms are constructed of 16 priority bands, much like a horizontal grid, which determine where objects will be placed and where animation will occur. Control lines are added to establish where Roger and other characters can move in the room. For example, priority bands and control lines working together allow Roger to walk through an angular tunnel without passing through its walls. In the tunnel maze of Space Quest V, those same devices prevent him from passing through walls or going anywhere other than through the passageways where he belongs.

     Once a room in constructed, artwork for that scene--usually an acrylic painting on illustration board--is digitally scanned into the computer's memory. The result is a lifelike background of depth and detail. As for Roger himself, other than closeups, you normally see a character that was created in a box 33 squares high and about 16 to 18 square wide. Changing the colors of the squares makes Roger appear to move as his shape and direction are modified. The background color, which is always invisible, assumes whatever color is behind it in the scene, which is how Roger is able to walk around or behind a building rather than through it. Roger and other objects in a scene are animated by displaying a series of drawings in rapid succession the same way the individual cells of a filmstrip are given "life" when the filmstrip is put into rapid motion. And, just as a motion picture requires hundreds of individual film cells in a strip to achieve smooth movement, Roger's ability to move or perform an activity also requires hundreds of pictures drawn in different formations.

     Once the story's plot has been approved and agreed upon, the design crew begins the tedious process of programming the story, which involves writing detailed analyses for every room in the game. The easiest way to approach this tremendous task is to divide the game into different sections and concentrate on one section at a time. For instance, when programming Space Quest IV, the Planet Estros was considered one section.

     At this point, since the plot outline has already been drafted, next on the list is to map out the scene and then decide what will happen in each room of the map. Rooms are numbered and are always referred to by number. For example, one of Scott's descriptions for a room on the planet Estros in which Roger is carried away by the pterodactyl would look something like this:

Estros Buttes Area


view.303 - vEgoPteraGrab


The first time Roger enters this room (which will be from room 305) he is picked up immediately by the giant Pterodactyl. NewRoom to 297.

Subsequent visits should he return to the area will be uneventful. Adjoining rooms are 305 to the north and 310 to the west. Things will be controlled by the buttes region regarding the Sequel Police.

     Detailed room descriptions like this also include where and what music and sound effects should occur. Dialogue is included when it occurs, as the following example shows. In this scene, Roger must make his way past the Sequel Police and into the time pod. If the player moves correctly, Roger makes it to the time pod safely. If not--well, see for yourself.

Supercomputer Landing Bay Area



view.530 - vSPHQStuff
view.017 - vSPoliceNoGun


This is the Time Pod bay. Roger can arrive here either on foot from 535 or materialize in a Time Pod from 531. He could also come from 531 without materializing if he were to get in and back out without traveling anywhere.

The first time he walks in from 535 he won't appear immediately. Two time pods are parked here. Before Roger enters, a third will materialize. Two Sequel Police will exit the pod and walk to the dispatch terminal upscreen. At this point, Roger will enter from the right side. Roger will overhear the Sequel Police making their verbal report to the dispatch terminal.

"I have just completed a scan in the Labion sector of Space Quest II. No sign of presence at this time."
If Roger walks upscreen he will be spotted and terminated by one of the Sequel Police.

Fire upon Roger first delay 2 seconds after end of animation loop.

"Some people just won't follow instructions."
Death message

If he walks downscreen he will be able to enter one of the pods undetected.
'Hand' on pod - move him over if necessary.
Roger enters pod
Door closes - sPodDoor
NewRoom 531

     Although at this point, the programmers follow the script as closely as possible, dialogue and actions can still be changde if necessary. For instance, the description for this room (530) originally called for two time pods to be parked and a third to materialize. In the final version of the game, only one time pod is parked, and the second one materializes. Obviously, a complete set of programming notes for one game can be hundreds of pages.

     Sierra's talented staff spends many, many hours putting the program together; they also spend hours playing the game over and over to ensure that everything runs smoothly and that all bugs have been cleared (the QA department). With this new generation of games, the final touch comes from its fully orchestrated original score. If you've had the foresight to buy a SoundBlaster or the budget to buy a Roland MT-32 for your computer, Space Quest IV and V, and the new Space Quest I sound like movie productions. In fact, the entire effect from opening credits to the end is the closest thing you can get to an actual movie on your computer screen.

     The only thing you won't hear is audible dialogue--at least not speaking parts. However, in the new Sarien Encounter, you do hear the Arcada's computer on the intercom warning that the ship's self-destruct sequence has began. And, in The Next Mutation, Roger's exclamation each time he slips and falls is obviously the sound of a male voice.

     Can the universe handle Roger Wilco with pipes? Well, the recently released CD (multimedia) version of Space Quest IV, Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers, has fully spoken dialogue. Maybe it's time to buy that CD-ROM drive you've been wanting--and you can judge for yourself.

     This article is reprinted from Jill Champion's The Official Guide to Roger Wilco Space Adventures, second edition (Compute Books, 1993; ISBN: 0-87455-2818).

Comments, questions, suggestions...

Roger Wilco and related materials are © Sierra On-Line.
Space Quest is a registered trademark of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
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