AB5 and James Vernon Interview
Posted by Ryan on 2 October 2012, 15:25 GMT
Few series have a graphing calc fandom comparable to that of the Alien Breed series, the ever growing and
impressive set of titles released by James
Vernon. In case you didn't know, James is pretty much prolific. He has accrued a number of featured programs for
different platforms, all of which are a testament to his ingenuity, creativity, skill and dedication. Having spent well
over a decade composing these titles, and with the recent release of
Alien Breed 5, we thought that it
would be a good time to catch up with one of our favorite heroes and take a peek at his inner workings. Without shame,
we celebrate the many valuable contributions that James has made to the community over the years, and he was gratious
enough to talk with us about his motivations, interests, and future plans. Click through to see the full interview, and
make sure to grab yourself a copy of Alien Breed 5. You didn't need to pay attention in math class today anyways.
ticalc: What are some of the motivating factors that have kept you working on the Alien Breed series for such
a long stretch of time? How does this coincide with your other interests, personal or professional?
James: Probably nostalgia more than anything. I'm a sucker for old school games, and Alien Breed was always one
of my childhood favourites that even to this day I'll still occasionally play on an Amiga emulator. It just so happened
that earlier this year, I'd been tinkering with some Z80 for a bit of fun, and within the space of a few days, played
the original Team 17 Alien Breed again. On top of that, I was never entirely satisfied with my previous attempt at an AB
game for the calculator, so I started brainstorming on what I would do if I tried making a new instalment. Most of all,
it was just a lot of fun to do some Z80 programming again. Even at the age of 30, I still get a kick out of turning a
calculator into a primitive gaming platform :)
ticalc: In what ways have you grown as a programmer over your time of working on this series? Are there things
that you do differently as a result of your efforts on Alien Breed?
James: Over the last 5-7 years, I haven't really done a lot of programming, but I did notice one thing in
particular when copying bits of code from
Alien Breed IV over to AB5: there were many times when I'd look at a bit of ABIV code and wonder "why did I do
this the hard way?" and then rewrite it in a more efficient way. And no doubt if in 10 years time I looked back on the
AB5 code, I'd frown at it just as I recently frowned at a lot of my ABIV coding :P
ticalc: What do you have in store for the future with the Alien Breed series? How about Alien Breed 3D? Or an interactive fiction
version of the game? :P
James: I guess an assembly version of AB3D isn't entirely out of the question, although I don't have much
knowledge in raycasting, etc. In terms of AB5, I already have a short list of minor adjustments/improvements, so no
doubt in the next few months I'll release a small update. I also have tentative plans for adding further levels, and
possibly with that, adding more features to the game, such as more to interact with in-game and more enemy variations.
It all just comes down to time & motivation. I'd also love to tackle 2-player co-op linkplay, which was one of the
drawcards of the original Amiga AB games.. So we'll see. I currently have another 83/83+/84+ project I'm messing around
with, so I'll be focusing on that for the time being.
ticalc: You are clearly a big fan of the series. What are some other games / series that you draw inspiration
from or, alternatively, for which you have a big place in your heart?
James: Lots of different games over the years.. I grew up first with an Atari 2600, then a Sega Master System,
then the Amiga 500 computer, and then finally went to PC in the mid-90's. There are so many games that I've been hooked
on over the years, but a few that jump out are the Wonder Boy series on Sega, Golvellius (which was Sega's answer to
Zelda), the original R-Type, RPG's such as Monkey Island. Later on, I got into Warcraft II and then Starcraft, although
I suck at RTS. These days I'll go between World of Warcraft, Diablo or Minecraft depending on my mood. Currently it's
mainly Minecraft and WoW that occupy my gaming time.
ticalc: Could you walk us through your planning and implementation process for when you set out to start and
complete a project?
James: With AB5, seeing as I'd already made so many versions in the past, I didn't want to make another one just
for the hell of it. So the first thing I did was put together a list over a few days of improvements/features that
weren't in the previous versions that I wanted to achieve. Once I had a short list started, I started going through each
item and thinking about how they could be achieved. Once I was confident enough that AB5 could be sufficiently better
than ABIV, I went full steam ahead. A lot of the basic game engine was taken from ABIV, but rewritten more efficiently,
and also extended to allow the larger levels. From then on, there wasn't a whole lot of planning or forethought. I
literally just kept a text document called "to-do", and I would add things to this list as I thought of them, and then
strike them off once I'd implemented & tested them. When it got to the point where I felt the game coding was 80-90%
complete, I started level designing. At first I was lazy and wrote a very simple on-calc editor, but that sucked and I
eventually wrote a decent Windows editor. Writing that Windows editor alone was a crash course in C# for me, basically
taking my limited C & Java experience and reading a few online tutorials. Finally there was testing. During the first
couple of weeks of September my band was on tour, so I spent a lot of time in the van on my TI-84+ playing through AB5
over and over!
ticalc: We know that at one point, you had said that you no longer programmed as a profession. What types of
programming did you or do you still enjoy outside of work?
James: Oddly enough, I've probably only spent about 6-12 months of my life actually programming for a job, which
was writing an interface for a CAD program for laser cutting. I do some very minor SQL work in my current job, but I
wouldn't call it programming. It's simply setting up reports, doing some database maintenance, etc. A couple of years
ago I started writing a PC game using the XNA package, which was my only previous exposure to C#, but that quickly
fizzled out, partly because I suck at pixel art and then I lost motivation. I would like to eventually write & complete
a PC game one day. But for now, I'm still well entertained by my TI-83 & TI-84+ :)
Thanks for the interview, James, and we hope that you stay with us for decades to come!