The Birth of Nox

The Birth of Nox
By John Hight

Originally from hecubah.com (offline)

The second most common comment a game developer hears is “Where do you get your ideas from?” My standard response to that is usually that I purchase them from a small mail-order firm a few miles outside of Phoenix, Arizona. However this is supposed to be about where Nox came from. In the case of Nox, the answer to that question is the Game Developers Conference and it relates to the most common comment a game developer hears which is, of course, “I’ve got a great idea for a game!”

Let’s start at the beginning – which for us was at 1997 GDC, though Nox has been in development for longer than that. Most gamers don’t know a whole lot about what goes on at the Game Developers Conference, and there’s no real reason why they should. The GDC is strictly an industry event where programmers, designers and video game artists get together to discuss the state of the industry and learn about techniques and technologies that we can use to make our games better. Unlike the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or “E3”) there’s a lot less flash and the hype at the GDC. It really is a working conference where developers can, hopefully, learn some new things and maybe get a line on the “next big thing” in gaming (and you can guess how often that happens).

One of the most interesting parts of the GDC in recent years is a program for independent game developers. This is a forum for those “garage developers”, one and two people operations who are just putting together a game out of love of gaming, to hook up with larger developers and publishers. One of the people at the GDC that year was an independent developer named Michael Booth. Now Michael is kind of a quiet, studious guy from Iowa. This in itself is kind of remarkable in an industry that prides itself on being full of rampant extroverts. What made him stand out, though, was a look in his face. It’s a weird combination of quiet confidence and absolute panic that says “I’ve just spent a lot of money to be here because I know I’ve got a killer game, but nobody knows who I am and nobody’s talking to me!” These are the developers you look for. Too much confidence is the mark of prima donna who’ll never be able to work with a publisher or a developer like Westwood. Too little and you’re dealing with someone who may have a great idea but hasn’t done enough development to let others see what they’re working on.

It turned out Michael was a programmer at a driving simulator company who spent his days trying to figure out how to teach a computer AI how to drive like an 85-year-old retiree in Boca Raton, Florida. Michael’s true passion, though was games, so much so that he not only enjoyed playing them, he taught himself how to program them. He would spend his nights and weekends coding crude games, learning the roots of his craft, building up towards putting together his passion, Nox.

Nox was the result of four years worth of Michael’s nights and weekends. The game he showed me at the GDC was in certain ways very different from the Nox you’ll be playing. The graphics were crude, of course, sounds effects were almost nonexistent, there was no real single-player game to speak of, nor was there much of a story line beyond “Dueling wizards in a fantasy universe,’ which, by the way, was how Michael first described Nox to me. What was there, however, was gameplay, gobs and gobs of gameplay.

Michael told me that his basic inspiration for the game was a combination of the old arcade game Gauntlet along with a small helping of Magic: The Gathering and Mortal Kombat-type fighting games. One of the elements he always loved about Magic was the way spells could be countered by other spells that could be countered by still more spells. In the same way, a Mortal Kombat match becomes a symphony of moves, countermoves and counter-countermoves until the person who’s most skilled at stringing together combos comes out the winner. Why, Michael thought, not put together a game that combines those two elements? Use the long string of Magic-type spells and counterspells the same way “Mortal Kombat” players use their moves. What you’d end up with was a cerebral challenge of a wizard duel combined with the incredibly fast-paced action and excitement of a fighting game. That’s exactly what we got. Oh, the concept has been refined a bit since Michael’s initial inspiration, but the game’s still got that head-rush feeling of needing to think at a thousand miles an hour!

I spent two hours at GDC dueling with Michael in this early version of Nox and can honestly say that it was the most fun I had the entire weekend. In fact, the version of Nox that you’ll eventually play isn’t a whole lot different than the one I played at GDC. That’s how complete Michael’s gameplay was. After two hours of playing, I knew I wanted this game for Westwood.

When I presented the game to Brett Sperry and Louis Castle and the other members of Westwood’s management, I didn’t actually have to do a whole lot of convincing. I just let them play the game for a while and let it speak for itself. We figured out how many people would need to be assigned to the title to jack up the game’s graphics and sounds, wrap an appropriate single player game around it and in general get it up to a commercial level release. Our bean counters ran the numbers, found out that it would only take a about a year and a half to get this thing up to speed and out the door. Michael had already done the hard part, spending four years tweaking the gameplay. We made Michael an offer for the game and boom! Like Emeril Lagasse always says, it was just that easy!

Now, of course, we had to keep up our end of the bargain, putting a team together and bringing the game up to commercial level quality. More on the Nox team that in my next update along with the game’s graphics, sound effects and gameplay tweaks. In the meantime – remember, Hecubah is always watching!