Aaron Giles

Programming War Stories

LucasArts Entertainment Company

The famous LucasArts “Gold Guy”
The famous LucasArts “Gold Guy”

My tenure at LucasArts Entertainment Company was short but sweet. I quickly became a rising star at the company by busting out 9 MacOS ports in my first year. Then I was told that I should be working directly on the games instead of porting them, so I joined the Outlaws team and had a blast working on that. I continued by taking lead on the Jedi Knight expansion pack, Mysteries of the Sith.

Then I got the chance to see an early workprint of The Phantom Menace and started working on a new Star Wars game, but my heart really wasn’t in it, and I eventually left to go work on emulation technology at Connectix. However, it bugged me that the old SCUMM adventure games wouldn’t run well on modern Windows systems, so I went back and did a complete set of Windows Ports as a contractor after I left.


MacOS Ports

Dark Forces was my first official port
Dark Forces was my first official port

My first job at LucasArts was to port their upcoming game Dark Forces to the Macintosh. The biggest challenge was that Mac users expected us to double the screen resolution while at the same time reducing the memory footprint of the game to nearly half of the DOS version’s 8MB.

As part of this porting effort, I got the chance to travel to Austin for an Apple-sponsored PowerPC Games Kitchen, where I collaborated with Eric Traut from Apple on a highly-optimized pixel doubler. Through an interesting quirk of fate, my next job would be working for Eric at Connectix.

Full Throttle was the first SCUMM-based game I ported
Full Throttle was the first SCUMM-based game I ported

While working on Dark Forces, I also began porting Full Throttle, which used a combination of the famous SCUMM adventure game engine plus the INSANE video playback engine developed for Star Wars: Rebel Assault.

Awesome fan art from a happy Mac user
Awesome fan art from a happy Mac user

Since the SCUMM engine powered all the LucasArts adventure games dating back to the original Maniac Mansion, I also decided on my own to create Mac ports of Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max Hit the Road. Luckily, marketing decided to release these unplanned games anyway, and gained a few fans along the way.

The Dig was the final DOS-based SCUMM game
The Dig was the final DOS-based SCUMM game

The next games I ported were Rebel Assasult II and The Dig, both of which used game engines that I had already done most of the work for, so it was just a matter of incorporating new features and improvements to get them out the door.

By this time, I had begun to educate the other developers on how to write portable code, so my porting efforts got easier and easier. The Mac ports of Afterlife and Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion went quickly enough that I was semi-adopted by the Afterlife team to help do some last-minute optimizations (which also benefited the memory-starved Mac port).

My final porting effort was the casual desktop game Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures. Unlike the other games, this one had been designed for Windows from the start, using MFC, and posed a number of challenges in bringing it over to the Mac. But I loved the concept so I persevered. Too bad I never got the chance to port the sequel, Yoda Stories.


Outlaws was LEC’s first full-fledged Windows game
Outlaws was LEC’s first full-fledged Windows game

Of all the games I worked on at LucasArts, Outlaws is probably the one I’m most proud of.

Outlaws was the first LucasArts game to run on Windows instead of DOS. At the time, Microsoft was pushing Windows 95 and their new DirectX libraries for games.

DirectX was brand new when we did Outlaws
DirectX was brand new when we did Outlaws

Unfortunately, we didn’t really trust Microsoft’s libraries: things were pretty unstable in those early days. So every major subsystem in Outlaws was designed around DLL plug-ins that allowed us to easily substitute non-Microsoft libraries for video, sound, etc.

One of the big challenges Outlaws faced was that the in-game cutscenes were significantly longer than in any other LucasArts game to date. This was a problem because the INSANE video playback engine would slowly de-sync the audio and video over time on some systems.

The dreaded final shovel at the end of the opening cutscene
The dreaded final shovel at the end of the opening cutscene

Even worse, the opening cutscene was almost 10 minutes long, and there was a bit at the end where a shovel is dramatically jammed into the ground. If there was any timing discrepancy between audio and video, the mismatch would be painfully obvious there.

To solve this, I came up with a mechanism to use the audio playback as a clock and time the video to that. I distinctly recall watching the full opening cutscene in a conference room with the top folks in the company holding their breath until the shovel scene played with perfect sync.

Outlaws was also LucasArts’ first multiplayer network game, and we unfortunately discovered midway through development that the networking layer was just not holding together. So I and co-worker taught ourselves a crash-course in dead reckoning and other network play techniques, and rewrote the networking system. In the end it held up admirably, regularly surviving 12–16-player games at work.

The Outlaws expansion pack added support for hardware 3D acceleration
The Outlaws expansion pack added support for hardware 3D acceleration

For the expansion pack, A Handful of Missions, I was heavily involved in porting the game engine to use hardware-rendered 3D graphics, supporting both Direct3D and 3dfx Glide via our plug-in system. The step up to hardware rendering allowed us to run at higher resolutions and really showed off the game well.

The soundtrack is amazing
The soundtrack is amazing

Today, if you can find a copy, I believe the 3D versions will still run without too much struggle. And of course the soundtrack (by composer Clint Bajakian) is still widely considered one of the best videogame soundtracks of all time. Check it out!

Windows Ports

To be super honest, Day of the Tentacle was one of the main reasons I wanted to revive the games
To be super honest, Day of the Tentacle was one of the main reasons I wanted to revive the games

To me, the quintessential LucasArts games are the SCUMM graphic adventures, from the original Maniac Mansion up through the last one, The Curse of Monkey Island. The problem is, with the notable exception of that last release, all of them were originally written for DOS.

In late 2001, having been away from LucasArts for 3 years, this was beginning to bother me more and more. I loved to fire up the games and play them from time to time, but getting them to run on modern Windows systems was getting increasingly difficult.

So I proposed an idea: how about we update all the games, dating back to Maniac Mansion, to run on top of Windows? It might sound like a lot of work, but recall that I had already ported a number of the games previously to run on the Macintosh.

The LEC Entertainment Pack included my updated Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road (but an old version of The Dig)
The LEC Entertainment Pack included my updated Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road (but an old version of The Dig)

As it turns out there actually was a bit of interest in building updated versions of the original games. So, armed with the original game sources, I went back and converted all the classic adventure games to run on top of a modern Windows system.

Unfortunately, they weren’t all released, but at least some got to see the light of day starting in 2003. Full Throttle and Sam & Max Hit the Road appeared on a couple of compilation CDs, and I heard that international partners might have picked up a larger set, though I never heard for sure what they were.

Finally some more of my ports were released on Steam
Finally some more of my ports were released on Steam

Things went dead for a while until 2009, when I was told that LucasArts were creating a special edition of The Secret of Monkey Island, and also prepping several of the old classics for release via Steam, based on my Windows ports. In the end, I was happy to see the two Indiana Jones games released (Last Crusade and Fate of Atlantis), plus the “talkie” version of Loom, and The Dig.

Who knows? Maybe in the future, the rest of the games will make an appearance!


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