Making of

Rama Story and Overview document

STORY AND OVERVIEW, Revision E (1996.02.17): click to view

Sierra Chest Interview with J Mark Hood about the making of Rama (05/19/2011)

While the Rama page was being set up in the Sierra Chest, we decided to contact Mark Hood, the game director, who kindly agreed to answer questions about the development of the game. What we received went far beyond our expectations: very detailed answers, some behind-the-scenes stories and more, an absolute pleasure to read. A very big thank you to Mark Hood!

SC: How did the whole idea of making a computer game about Rama get started? Did Gentry Lee approach Dynamix/Sierra? Was there perhaps a big Arthur C. Clarke fan in Dynamix who came up with the idea?

MH: Gentry Lee approached Dynamix with the idea. Tony Renneke, then President of Dynamix, was a big fan of the idea, and started talking with me and others about it at management meetings. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a great idea.

Gentry Lee and Arthur C. Clarke

SC: Many computer games, which are based on books, often get criticized for deviating too much from the original storyline. On the other hand, a game should not be too linear, providing the gamer the flexibility to freely explore the environment. How did the designers of Rama decide where to draw the line? How much flexibility did you allow in the game design?

MH: Gentry had in mind several "adaptations" of the story that would make great puzzles when he first brought us the idea. The Avian, Human, and Octospider Lair entrances based on their number systems were actually natural outgrowths of the story. Sci Fi writers tend to think about traits of their creations that go far beyond what is actually presented in writing, in order to give the story authenticity, so things such as Octospiders having a Octal based number system, were natural. We decided early on that weaving together the puzzles with story elements was the way to make the game play great. Richard Hescox, an amazing Science Fiction artist, was instrumental in bringing the story to life through puzzles. He took broad concepts and made them work. His contributions went far beyond Art Direction and design, and really implemented story into the media.

SC: The environments of Rama are simply stunning. How were the landscapes and city scenes exactly made?

MH: Hescox conceptualized every setting and environment based on much reading and meetings with Gentry and team. We decided early on that the best way to make this game would be with a small core team, and outside contractors for the environments, and we decided that since each area was supposed to look different anyway, we wanted to use different teams and see what each could bring to the table. Richard tirelessly directed each outside team, while I managed the production.
Technically there were many 3D technologies used for the backgrounds: 3DStudio Max, Bryce, Alias and Renderman were all used in house and by the various contractors. Mapping out the areas, making sure the orientation to the cylindrical shape of the world were correct, etc took a lot of time and energy, and that was mostly Richard, although in house artists at Dynamix did a lot of the actual composting of the cylinder into the backgrounds.

Arthur C. Clarke at the computer with Mark Hood by his side (picture courtesy Mark Hood)

Bangkok concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)
Trash biot concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)

SC: We also like the various inhabitants of Rama, particularly the biots (concept artist Richard Hescox). How did Derrick Carlin handle the animation of these characters?

MH: Derrick actually did all of the living creatures in Alias on an SGI workstation, and Cyrus Kanga did the biots in 3DS Max. Alias at the time was much better at fluid organic movement, and 3DSMax was more efficient for us to use for mechanical animations, and Cyrus was great at it. I still remember Derrick's first animation of the Avian jumping through an open door above the players head and knowing we were doing it right. Richard conceptualized them and story-boarded the animations. Small details like the knees being backwards on the avians (like a bird) and the octospider talking through light colors around it's head were written about, but had to be actually drawn and animated. Storyboards were written, and backgrounds were accelerated in wireframe to make sure we had the alignments right, and then the artist animated them into the wireframe backgrounds and they weren't all rendered with textures until fairly late in the process.

Spider biot concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)

(click to enlarge in new window)
Shark biot concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)

Avian concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)
Octospider concept art (courtesy Richard Hescox)

SC: Why the decision to use live actors for this game and how did the casting go? We noticed some of the actors were also voice actors for Torin's Passage and later on returned for roles in Betrayal in Antara, Police Quest: SWAT 2 and Starsiege.

MH: I had just finished up Phantasmagoria, and it was the first million unit seller for Sierra. Live video in adventure games had a short window when it was "hot" and we were right in the middle of that. We had learned a lot about what to do and what not to do from Phantas, so it seemed like a natural.
Casting was laborious, and Gentry vetted all of the cast members and even went to Hollywood to meet some big stars. I don't actually remember our actors doing anything else at Sierra, but I moved to Bellevue after RAMA so that very well could have. I have seen several of the actors in parts on TV and in movies since. We had the Director of Photography from Tremors 2 as our DP also, Virgil Harper. Jim Carey coordinated a lot of this and found us a lot of the movie making staff with his connections.

SC: Could you say a few words about the game engine?

MH: Well, it was SCI, our object oriented scripting engine for adventure games that we had used for years. I was very familiar with the system, as I had written a lot of the high level system code in Oakhurst, and I knew we could do a First person engine with it even though Sierra had only used this engine for third person games until then. I was the loan programmer for about 4 months, and just worked with the artists to come up with the interface and navigation system that worked and would be easy to program, then I hired programmers to put the game all together, and had some from Dynamix who knew SCI from doing a Space Quest game there [note: Space Quest V: The Next Mutation]. We were using a movie technology that was proprietary to Sierra from one of our acquisitions. Jim Carey and I made some big decisions early on that kept the video looking perfect. We shot it all digitally, and most shots at twice the size we wanted for the scene so that we could have plenty of resolution, then we kept the actual display areas on the screen very small so that we could use "No loss" compression on the video for most scenes. We didn't want to have fuzzy video walking over pristine backgrounds, and we didn't want the "blue edges" that were so common back then with blue screen composting, so it was as much about process as technology to get it right. Look at the blue grey edges all around characters in Phantas, then look at Nicole walking onto the screen in RAMA and the difference is clear.

Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1996: the Rama crew and people of Tele-cine posing in the blue screen room. (courtesy of James R. Carey)

SC: We presume the blue-screen scenes with Arthur C. Clarke were filmed in Sri Lanka? If so, how did you manage to get that done from a logistical point of view?

MH: This was one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of the project. Arthur sent us information back that the only place in Columbo (Sri Lanka) that could handle this within our budget would be a group called Tele-cine. I contacted them, by email, then had several conversations with them on the phone, and we really didn't know what to expect. I knew I needed air conditioning for Arthur (who was 80 at the time), we needed blue screen, and we needed ultimate. When we arrived in Sri Lanka (after 23 hours of flight and connections) we first noticed the city in sort of a military lockdown. They were on high alert due to some threats from the Tamil Tiger's opposition forces, and so we were told that we were not going to be staying in the hotel that we had booked (Oberon) due to these threats. We went through several armed checkpoints, 5-6 of us in a van and arrived at our modest hotel. The next morning I noticed that CNN International had a story on about Sri Lanka, and all of a sudden the picture was fuzzed out, and glen miller music was playing. They had censored the news story. I looked out of my window, and saw two armed guards below me on the street, and I saw smoke in the distance. It turns out that a suicide bomber had blown herself up at a kiosk across the street from the hotel that we were supposed to be staying at, and had killed some 80 people. Apparently the military police had seen windows in the hotel shatter (from the explosion) and thought they were being shot at and started shooting back into the hotel killing a few tourists.
The actual shoot started after about 3 days of visiting with Arthur, going over the script, visiting etc. It was a room the size of a basketball stadium with no blue screen and one, little portable sized air conditioner about 20 feet up on the wall. We reminded them of the blue screen, and they painted it that evening. We had something like 6 people at our assistance at all times from TeleCine, and our own staff and crew. We lined up Arthur through the Ultimate for the shots and spent 3 days shooting the various scenes and some additional footage. All of the other scenes were shot in Seattle, right on the ship canal, and I still remember doing second and third takes because of tugboat whistles walking over the dialog.

Columbo, Sri Lanka, 1996: Jim Carey and Arthur C. Clarke pose together (courtesy of James R. Carey)

SC: Which was the hardest part in the design of the game?

MH:Navigation, definitely. There's still parts I'm not fond of, particularly in the plazas, but it was a constant struggle. We added the little compass rose late in the game to help. We didn't want it to be purely 90 degree turns, but some of those little angles made it quite confusing to navigate and we added a lot of landmarks to help the player visually understand where they were.

Game screenshot, the Octospider Plaza. Navigation in Rama could at times indeed be painfully hard

SC: The music, composed by Charles Barth, is quite different compared to a for-lack-of-a-better-word "traditional" adventure game, yet very atmospheric and fitting. Could you say a few words about the music choice?

MH: Jim Carey recommended Chuck for the music, and after listening to tracks from many musicians we decided to go with him. Gentry really wanted a "Vangelis" style, and I really wanted each lair to feel different and appropriate for the area. I wanted human lair to feel like human music, octospider to sound like octospider music etc. We spent a lot of time going over visuals, and matching in music, and in the end I think I programmed in most of the music myself because I was so familiar with what Chuck was doing. We added some guitar licks from Neal Grandstaff also to the human lair. Chuck was great to work with, always got stuff on time, and I think nailed it.

SC: At the end of the game, Arthur C. Clarke refers to a sequel of Rama. Was he referring to a new novel or was there a plan to create a sequel to the game?

MH: I think we left it open ended on purpose. I would have loved to have done another game with Arthur, Gentry and team, but it was not to be.

SC: Anything else you would like to add?

MH: This was certainly one of the tightest teams I've ever had the pleasure of working with. We kept the core team small, which was important, but the skill levels and passion we amazing. Every single person in that credit list worked hard and did a great job, and I can't even imagine it coming together without Richard Hescox, Jim Carey (who really produced all of the video shoots) and the support at Dynamix. Richard, Cyrus, Derrick, Mark Brenneman were the core of the Art team with a lot of great additional help, and Steven Hill, my lead programmer, really helped keep the schedule on track. Gentry was amazing to work with also, and I got to work with him later outside Sierra on Exploring the Planets. That man knows how to travel, and everything is an adventure.
The trip to Sri Lanka will remain with me forever. Watching the 5 foot wingspan bats fly over the city each evening in Columbo, watching the sunset on the beach, playing table tennis with Arthur, and having his excitedly showing me video taped recordings of parts of Star Trek where they talked about theories he was interested in will always be remembered. Little stories that Jim and I chat about from time to time we'll always remember, like our DP in Sri Lanka nearly getting run over by a herd of elephants while he was trying to film them.
Working with Jim on the video was just one of the most rewarding experiences ever, because he is tireless, and we both had the same goal...absolute perfection, and while i won't say we got it, we got darn close and there's no way we would have without Jim.

Columbo, Sri Lanka, 1996. Dr Clarke, his adopted family, and some of the crew pose near the end of the shoot (courtesy of James R. Carey)