Video games nowadays are unbelievably good-looking. Titles like God of War or Final Fantasy XV show high-quality human characters capable of conveying realistic emotions without even a word. This is a long way from where games began as flat pixels walking through a top-down overworld. While gamers can still play all kinds of new 2D and 3D games on their newest console and high-spec PCs, the journey that games development took to get to this realistic 3D look is worth learning more about, and that's exactly what Emma 'Eniko' Maassen of Kitsune Games thought when she launched her Coding History: 3D from Mode7 to DOOM Kickstarter.
Coding History: 3D from Mode7 to DOOM is a series of videos that will cover how 3D video games were achieved from sprite-based 3D dungeons like the original Phantasy Star, to well known early 3D titles like DOOM, going into their history and the process of what was done to achieve their iconic looks. This Kickstarter project was funded in just five hours, and at the time of writing is sitting at over 250% of its initial goal. We were lucky enough to get a chance to sit down with Maassen and ask her about her project.
To start off our conversation, I asked Maassen to share where her love and passion for games began, and it all began with her father. He was a programmer "back when programs came on punch cards," and because of his work, she was always around computers. He would play DOS games and Ultima. Maassen reminisced about when her "dad would map out the whole world for Ultima 4 by hand on graph paper." It was through this access to computers, and her father's software that she also got her start in coding and trying to make her own games.
It was then later in life that Maassen created MidBoss. It was in March 2013 that she created her indie game dev studio Kitsune Games. Kitsune Games has since gone on to create Ultra Hat Dimension in 2015, MidBoss in 2017, and Super Bernie World in 2018. With Kitsune Games now moving into its ninth year, five of which since she moved from the Netherlands to the United States, the studio has grown to be almost a dozen people, including her partner James Yarrow.
Maassen explained that she's always enjoyed figuring out "what makes games tick, figuring out how they did certain things" which is what inspired her to create Coding History: 3D from Mode7 to DOOM. "The information is out there, but it's all a bit scattered and hard to approach," she lamented. She knew she had all of the knowledge through her own research into different 3D approaches, so much like other YouTubers like JavidX9 and Sebastian Lague, she thought to create an accessible package of information to teach others.
The first time I tweeted about it I expected it to be just a throwaway tweet, just putting the thought out there, but people were so into the idea that it got stuck in my head and I had to do it!
With her professional experience in video editing and already having dabbled in these 3D rendering methods, Maassen hopes to "present it in a way that even people who aren't coders can watch the videos and come away with a deeper understanding of the history and evolution of 3D in early video games."
The aim for these videos is to target the 30-40 minute range, after finding that her own attention began to waver around the 35-minute mark, and for these videos to start with the basics "so complete laypeople can walk away knowing more about the high-level concepts." If the videos do happen to get too long to be easily consumed, then they might be chopped into multiple parts. For interested coders, there will be enough information to dig in and recreate the steps in the video so you can have your own working product by the end. For each of the seven core episodes, Maassen also plans to go into a bit of detail on its history and where you might have already encountered that particular style of 3D in your own gaming past.
When asked if there was a particular 3D rendering style she was most excited to share with viewers, it was a toss-up between voxels and the Build Engine of Duke Nukem. Maassen specifically brought up that while the Build and DOOM engines were both extremely impressive, Build is "a lot easier to explain conceptually and a lot more flexible but always got a bad rap as a 'DOOM clone.'"
Some things that Maassen believes people viewing her series with little knowledge of the differences in 3D rendering styles might be interested to learn about including the SNES Mode7 and its inability to produce 3D images by itself, or why DOOM doors can only open vertically. There are a few more things she's really excited for viewers to learn, but we'll have to wait and be surprised.
I think when you divorce it from all the math, code, and fiddly details, these approaches can be a lot more intuitive and approachable than many people think. If I can surprise viewers with that, then I know I'll have done my job right.
The seven styles that were picked were all ones that Maassen was extremely set on from the start, "though [she] did add first-person 3D dungeon crawlers made with sprites and voxel terrain to it after the initial tweet." There was also a lot of positive feedback and requests for other games that did a lot for 3D, like Flight Simulator and Ultima Underworld, but as they were the beginnings of polygonal 3D, they fit better with the already achieved stretch goal (that was achieved in only 25 hours) that are five additional episodes about "how polygonal 3D works and how to create your own software renderer."
On top of the polygonal 3D videos, Maassen's other stretch goals include creating "a retro software 3D renderer for the modern era" and the latest one to be added is Eni's Labyrinth a sample game for the 3D engine for interested coders to understand the engine and use as a starting point. That's not to say that she doesn't have plans for what's next too. Maassen sees this Kickstarter and its stretch goals as three parts of a process to a final product. The videos are to introduce players to the different 3D concepts, the engine will help players implement those learned concepts, and then in execution, you'll be able to have a playable game.
Maassen continued to express her excitement at being able to share such an accessible way for people to play with retro 3D that might not be up to the task of creating a 3D engine themselves.
I love the idea of the 3D engine providing that playground for them to get active with this sort of technology.
We'd like to thank Emma 'Eniko' Maassen for her time sharing her process and passion with us. If you're interested in this experience and want to back the project yourself, you can head over to the Kickstarter page until the end of its crowdfunding period on Sept. 23. The videos for this series are expected to launch in 2022.