Friday 9 November 2012

Olivier Nallet Interview

Andrew Pine                                                                                                          

Amongst the stories told about the Jaguar none is more interesting than the story of Shen. At one point a group of friends developing games in a bedroom in Paris Shen became a full-fledged studio when Atari saw what they were capable of and decided to capitalise on this talent in order to fill their library of games.

Olivier Nallet was a young software engineer full of ideas and optimism when Virtual Xperience; who were lending Shen their dev-kit on the weekend approached Elysee Ade; then manager of Shen and asked if they could take over from their internal team and produce BurnOut full time.
“We worked on BurnOut for about six months and then gave the game to Atari via Virtual Xperience,” said Nallet, “they wanted more killer games for the Jaguar and we were a cheap opportunity.”

At this point Atari became more engaged with the development of the game. They asked for features to be added including the addition of Jag Link support but this was too unstable. “They even requested we change the name of BurnOut to Super BurnOut.”
Due to the fact that Virtual Xperience had a 50% cut in the royalties from games produced using their hardware Shen received roughly $100,000 for their work on Super BurnOut. “My part was probably around $11,000,” said Nallet, “things were extremely different compared to now.”

A common attitude that pervades the internet is that the Atari Jaguar is a broken down machine that lacks the technical capacity to produce games of any quality. This is untrue according to Nallet. “Even if we had to code everything in Assembly (code), the ‘Graphics Processing Unit’ and Digital Sound Processor were extremely fast. This was very similar to the PowerPC / SPUs combinations that you find in the PS3.” However; unlike the PS3; “(in regards to the) Jaguar DSP’s they could directly access the whole memory - albeit more slowly - so you could keep your code structure and Direct Memory Access optimized as needed.”
Later; when Nallet was optimising the Super BurnOut engine for development of Stellar X he pushed the Jaguar even further. “I split the whole screen into 8 zones…every sprite was split in pieces to fit each zones. That worked really well, and we never saw any video glitch with it, even when we had thousands of sprites / tiles moving / scaling at the same time. At that point, the whole game was developed in GPU.”

“A lot of games were only using the 68K and a little of the "GPU" and used the DSP for sound” according to Nallet; lending credence to the notion that it was developer incompetence and not hardware concessions that made development for the Jaguar difficult. “I knew I had to push the GPU and DSP for Super BurnOut to stand out.”

As for Stellar X itself? “Stellar X was a vertical 2D shoot them up (think Raiden),” according to Nallet, “Environment and sprites were pre-rendered with 3DS and integrated in the game. The entire environment was constantly moving, there were several layers moving independently in every direction, bay opening and sprites appearing.” It was in the early stages of development when Atari shut down with approximately 30% of the game completed. Unfortunately all that remains of it are memories for Olivier; of a more innocent time when Atari kick started his career in the world of video games.