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Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
Posted by Ryan on 3 December 2012, 18:45 GMT

Over the weekend, Alex "builderboy2005" Marcolina released his TI-83/84+ version of Portal Prelude, a release that is certain to become an instant classic for calcs. We've been watching him for some time, and he has built up a nice little library of entertaining, stimulating, and unique bits of software over the past few years. With Portal Prelude being received as a great success throughout the community, we decided to catch up with Alex to see where he stands, where he has been, and where he's going from here. Click through to see the full interview, and make sure to show Alex some serious appreciation for his outstanding work!

ticalc: Let's start out with a little background information. Where are you from, what do you do, and how did you get into calcs? Tell us about yourself!

Alex: I am from Saratoga, California, and I am currently studying at the University of California Santa Cruz, in the Baskin School of Engineering, working towards a degree in Computer Science - Game Design. I originally got into calculator programming my sophomore year of high school. I had had my TI-84+ SE for about a year and I had noticed the PRGM button before but never knew what to do with it. In my sophomore year trigonometry textbook there was a simple example of how to program a simple Quadratic Solver, which finally piqued my interest in that little PRGM button enough to figure out how to use it. I spent the rest of the semester making math programs for everyone in the class, and the second semester making small "screensaver" programs with the pixel commands. After about a year, I finally figured out how to use "getkey", and that was when I started making games. Not long after that, I released my first Basic game ever, the original Portal.


Prelude ticalc: Let's talk about your latest release: Portal Prelude. You have stated that it was in a state of development in one form or another for around 3 years. Can you give us a broad overview of what the development process was like for you?

Alex: I always start development of a game with the engine first. Interestingly, I got the portal mechanics finished within the very first day I worked on the project! I spent the next few months implementing the 3 major components of the game: buttons, cubes, and plasma balls. It was around this time that I started running into memory problems, which was the largest thing responsible for the long production time (besides a lack of free time!). The fact was that I wanted a game that wasn't just a levelpa-ck, but was like Portal in that it was a puzzle game filled with a story that you could follow along. For the longest time, I couldn't see how that would be possible given the memory limitations that I was hitting. Both the switch to [Flash] App form and the compromise in term of how much story I was attempting to put into the game was what allowed the game to be finished.

ticalc: For Portal Prelude, the animation is extremely well-executed (I am quite obsessed with that death animation), and you used some very clever visual tricks to enhance to presentation (e.g., the "elevator" animations). What is your artistic process like for the sprites and animation with consideration the display constraints imposed by the TI-83/84 display?

Alex: Usually the animations start from something that I want to implement and continue as I make compromises to deal with the limitations of the hardware to end up with something that satisfies me. I think it is important to start at what you want rather than what is possible, that way you don't lose sight of what you wanted to create in the first place. It's just important to be able to make the compromises that allow your vision to become reality.

Peggle ticalc: You have demonstrated a proficiency for coding physics in the past. Was Portal Prelude a big step away from something such as the Chainfire library in terms of implementing the physics?

Alex: Actually, I would say it was the other way around. Portal Prelude was one of the earliest exploration into calculator physics for me, and things like Chainfire and Zedd were only started after I had gotten the basic physics completed for Portal. Portal definitely has some unique physics rules and constraints to it, and I would say working within those constraints was what allowed me to become familiar with Axe and calculator physics enough to be able to complete libraries such as Chainfire and Zedd.

ticalc: How did you get into programming? What types of programming have you done aside from z80 calcs, and on what platforms?

Alex: The very first programming I ever did was for this little LEGO computer called the RCX from the Lego Mindstorms kit, which allowed you to build robots out of LEGO blocks and then program them to do what you wanted. At that point, programming was the aside and building robots was the main theme. It wasn't until I picked up the calculator that I actually started to see programming as something that I would want to do for a living. I now know Java, C, and C++, with Java currently being my best language and one that I have made quite a number of small applet games with. Over this past summer, I was interned at a motion control company called Leap Motion, and that was where I was able to exercise and expand my C++, as they had me building small demo's to use with their software.

Trapped ticalc: You have progressed as a z80 programmer rather rapidly. What have your experiences been like moving from entertaining TI-BASIC titles to BBC BASIC to using the Axe Parser, and so on? What are your favorite experiences with programming, broadly speaking, and what have been your most useful learning experiences with programming for z80 calcs?

Alex: I will always have fond memories programming in TI-BASIC, even though I don't do it nearly as much anymore, since it was the first language that I ever programmed a game in. I feel that BBC BASIC was a great experiment and an awesome application for the calc, but I found its interface frustrating at times and ended up favoring TI-BASIC in the end, even though I had enjoyed the power that BBC BASIC had to offer. I had never really been the type to program with assembly, because even though it offered power and speed, it was difficult to program on-the-go, which was my favorite thing about programming for calculators in the first place. The Axe parser was the perfect language for me in that regard, as it gave me the same portability and quick-prototyping that TI-BASIC did but with the added superspeed of assembly. I think that programming for the z80 has been an experience in itself.

ticalc: What would you say is your strongest programming skill, your skill that needs the most work, and the area of programming do you avoid at all costs?

Alex: I would say my strongest programming skill would be my intuition and ability to quickly think of ways to solve a problem. I would also say I am weaker in terms of my knowledge of different languages, and the finer details of the languages I do know. I cannot think of an area of programming that I would avoid, but let's hope I never find it!

Vortex ticalc: What project or projects are you going to be working on in the near future, and what is your dream project?

Alex: I am tentatively working for a super small game for the Omnimaga Apocalypse Programming Contest, but we shall see if I get that done in the small amount of time that I have left. In the broader range, I am excited to work on a new Real Time Strategy game/engine for the calculator. I have started work on it a little bit in the last couple months, and I am excited to see what it might become! As for my dream job, my sights are set high. I expect nothing less than Half-Life 3.

ticalc: Anything else that you would care to share with the readers?

Alex: Once again, I would just like to thank you guys for the awesome opportunity, everybody who helped me to get Portal Prelude to its current finished state, and the community in general for always being supportive and generally awesome!

We would like to thank Alex for taking the time to sit down with us for the interview, for sharing his programming experiences with us, and, of course, for Portal Prelude. We'll keep our eyes open for Alex's next big hit!

  Reply to this article

The comments below are written by ticalc.org visitors. Their views are not necessarily those of ticalc.org, and ticalc.org takes no responsibility for their content.

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
annoyingcalc Account Info
(Web Page)

Well, this project was one of my most wanted projects for a LONG time, and finally it has been published, this deserves a news article, I bet the POTY for this year will be portal hands down!

Reply to this comment    3 December 2012, 19:41 GMT

Re: Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
Ryan Boyd Account Info
(Web Page)

It will actually be in next December's POTY contest, as the cutoff for entry into this year's POTY contest was December 1st.

Reply to this comment    3 December 2012, 20:09 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
annoyingcalc Account Info
(Web Page)

Oh, hm I guess Alien Breed 5 will get my z80 vote

Reply to this comment    3 December 2012, 20:37 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
ThunderBolt  Account Info

I hope next years POTY will be a close one, then, because that will mean we have some pretty awesome releases o_o

Congrats Alex!

Reply to this comment    3 December 2012, 22:08 GMT

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
Sorunome  Account Info
(Web Page)

This seriously is one of the most epic calc games made.

Reply to this comment    4 December 2012, 00:47 GMT

Re: Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
matrefeytontias  Account Info

I clearly agree, but why is it not featured ?

Reply to this comment    4 December 2012, 17:30 GMT

Re: Re: Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
Ryan Boyd Account Info
(Web Page)

Oh, it is ;)

Reply to this comment    4 December 2012, 21:28 GMT

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
Patrick Prendergast  Account Info

Well done builderboy, this is a fantastic project and a deserved feature. Also very cool to gain an insight into the life of an esteemed community member.

Great work!

Reply to this comment    4 December 2012, 21:18 GMT

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
NanoWar Account Info
(Web Page)

Congrats on the well deserved feature!

Reply to this comment    6 December 2012, 00:50 GMT

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
TC01 Account Info
(Web Page)

Ars just did an article on this (see URL)!

Congratulations- I always love it when awesome calculator stuff gets posted about outside the community.

Reply to this comment    6 December 2012, 02:02 GMT

Re: Portal Prelude / Alex Marcolina Interview
qhsscalcguy Account Info

I loved this game. truly loved it. But if you are playing the actual portal game that is built in (the portpk AVAR file, not the editable PORTPACK AVAR file) then you will find that lvl 38, has glass blocking the middle, making it impossible to win. I looked in PORTPACK AVAR, and found that the appvar did not include the glass that makes portpk impossible to win. Also the ticalc file for portal prelude includes a portal2 but is actually empty. what's u with that? Another problem is that Saving File script that comes up after I quit. if you try to open portaled, u might find your calculator crash in a way that will make you have to remove the batteries then put them back. So, overall, great game! Truly ingenious! but there are many kinks and buggs too.

Reply to this comment    1 December 2013, 22:06 GMT

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