This interview was conducted by eK via email. We'd like to thank Tom Hall for taking the time to do an interview for a community so small. Tom Hall is currently working at Ion Storm as a game designer and has previously worked at id and Apogee.
First could you give us some basic info on you and your past/current projects? My name is Tom Hall. I was born in Wisconsin, and got my first computer, an Apple II+, on June 9th, 1980. It was love. I made like a hundred little games on it. Later, I got a degree in Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. During that time I did some side programming for a teacher: educational software for learning-disabled kids. After college, it was Softdisk, then founding id and doing Keen, Wolfenstein, and DOOM; then Apogee/3D Realms, for some of Duke II, Rise of the Triad, Terminal Velocity, the story for Duke 3D (just took an hour or two, no biggie), and the starting year of development on Prey (though it's quite a bit different now). Then I co-founded ION Storm, I'm now working on Anachronox (pronounced "uh NAH kruh nox"). It is cool.
What was it like working at Softdisk and why did you and the others leave? It was fun, hard work, and sometimes harrowing. My coworkers were all a blast to work with, pretty much. The upper management had more of a use-the-stick, keep-'em-down kind of mentality, combined with a penchant to stick with the status quo that didn't allow a lot of innovation. However, many monthly software collections got us all a great variety of experience. I've worked on every type of program from spreadsheets to card makers to games. It was the perfect place at the time to hone my skills.
I had been sneaking into the Gamer's Edge department at night, after it was formed around Romero, one of our submitters that we hired (John Carmack), and another guy. I would sneak in at night from the Apple department, doing level design and game design. We worked really well together. After a while, they asked if I could replace the manager in the department, who wasn't doing that much and wouldn't program in C (assembly only). The management wouldn't hear of it. That was disappointing.
Around that time, Carmack had come up with a method of scrolling the EGA screen (back when computer graphics had 16 colors) smoothly. Softdisk couldn't do this because it was still supporting _CGA_ (FOUR colors)! So, one night Carmack had finished the sprite over a tile background code. It was the foundation for a game. I looked over at the Nintendo we had in the corner, which had Super Mario Bros. 3 on it. I said to Carmack, "What if we did the first level of Super Mario...tonight?!?" Carmack smiled, and said, "Let's do it!" I was busy copying the graphics, converting them into tiles, entering data to give certain tiles solidity and so on, and entering the map, tile for tile into Romero's TED editor. John had gone home for the evening. Carmack was blazing on making the program ready the tile info, making the character jump and so on. I made a title screen "Dangerous Dave in 'Copyright Infringement' ", since it was a total ripoff of Mario.
At 5:30am, we finished, slapped the demo on a disk, and put in on Romero's desk as a surprise. We went home and crashed. When we got back, Romero said he couldn't work for three hours. He said his first thought was "This is it! We are SO out of here." He talked to Jay, who didn't believe him, and then he said he was serious. We actually contacted Nintendo R&D, who said put a demo together. We worked on it for a week, sent it off, and apparently it got to the head table, with Shigeru...but they didn't have a PC division and didn't want one. So we thought, hey, we'll make our own game. We needed a topic. I asked if they cared what topic-sci-fi, fantasy, whatever. I think Carmack mentioned a kid that saves the galaxy or something. I went off and fifteen minutes later, came back with the paragraph that you see in Keen 1. I read it in a Walter Winchell voice (he's a nasal 40s radio/newsreel announcer). Carmack clapped after I was finished, and we were off and running. During the middle of the project, Adrian joined the department, and we had a _real_ artist!
We got contacted by Scott Miller of Apogee, and once Keen was published, it was making enough for us to live on, so we quit and formed id.
How did the idea for Commander Keen Series come to you, how has it evolved from your original basic idea? When I went back to my office, I think the things that influenced me were numerous. There was Chuck Jones' "Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2 Century". And a short story called something like "A Study of the Worp Reaction", in which an autistic kid goes out to the junkyard behind his parent's house, and keeps bringing back pieces of stuff, each seemingly perfectly fitting with each other. One day he gets up on top of the pile of garbage, gets inside it. It rises off the ground, with a glow underneath, then settles to the ground. Then he slowly takes it apart day-by-day. That was cool. The "Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket" comes from a George Carlin routine about instead of deodorant, people could put bay leaves under each arm-doesn't stop the sweating, but you smell like soup. Someone smells a soup smell, and the other person goes, "No, I'm 'Bean-with-Bacon'." Obscure reference, to be sure, but this is the first time I've mentioned it. :) The style of the paragraph was based on the 30s and 40s serial shorts, like Buck Rogers. Keen grew more and more a combination of my childhood, and Chuck Jones' amazing visual style.
What was it like working at id during the early years? It was awesome. We had just enough money to survive, and we were working 16-18 hours a day, and loving it. We were all in one room, all listening to loud music, all playing the same games, all critiquing what we liked about them, and all doing completely separate tasks that we were all very good at. It was perfect. I think it was really perfect until Town East Tower for me, when everyone was in a separate office. I really missed that sort of social workplace.
What was it like making the first 3 keens? We were taking home our computers, using every spare minute for development. We did the Keens in 2.5 months, at night and on weekends. Romero and I did the episode three levels in two days. It was crazy, but we were so in the zone. It was insanely fun.
What was it like making Keen Dreams, and the other id games that came before Goodbye Galaxy? As part of leaving, we agreed to do games so the Gamer's Edge product could continue. At the time, I really didn't want to do a Keen for them, but we needed a ramp-up for the next Keen trilogy. I was eventually convinced. We were doing this game and some other game at the same time. It was kinda crazy. But doing all those different types of games (puzzle, shooter, platform, and so on) was incredible training. You'd have to work for a decade on normal-sized games to get that experience. We did it in a year.
What was it like working on Goodbye Galaxy and Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter? How was it different from working on Invasion of the Vorticons? Deciding on the tilted perspective made things look really cool, but the levels look a lot longer to make. I think the overall art design was a lot cooler, though I have a definite place in my heart for the original Keen development. We were in Wisconsin (my home state) for most of this development. We got convinced to make the third game a commercial game, which I think hurt sales of the first two a lot. Getting a trilogy seems great. Getting the second half doesn't seem at cool. They still did decently, though.
Since we'd moved to Wisconsin in the winter (I wanted to move in the summer, but the rest of the guys wanted to enjoy the boathouse in Shreveport for one more summer), we didn't go outside much, and we worked long hours. We moved back down south, to the warmth of Dallas.
I had done most of the art in the original Keen trilogy. With Adrian working on this new set of Keen, his skills honed over many games, the art was looking awesome. We did Keen 4, then Keen 6 (Aliens Ate My Baby Sitter), and then Keen 5. We did Keen 5 in one month. That was an amazing amount of work, but it's probably the favorite Keen, even though it doesn't have a Dopefish
What do you think of the other Commander Keen projects that are being made by 3rd parties under the approval of id (i think)? It's really cool to see people loving Keen so much that they want to extend their experience.
What did you have planned for Keen 7? Do you think Keen has any future? Well, I don't want to talk too much about it, as I may do it someday, but as you know from the end of Keen 6, Mortimer McMire is back, and he has big, bad plans for the end of the Universe as we know it...
If I can ever get the rights back to Keen, or if I can strike a deal with id so I have creative control of him forever, then you'll see Keen again. I don't want to start Keen back up, only to have him taken away again if he's successful. That just wouldn't seem fair.
I would love to do another Keen. My last idea for Keen 7-9 was a game world was 3D, and at certain places the camera rotated with you for different games. It was halfway between Super Mario 64 and Pandemonium. This was two years before those games came out. I wish I'd been in a place where I could've made that happen back then.
I do miss the good ol' days of Keen. I love the universe and the gameplay, and I'd love to make another chapter in the saga. We will see how the future unfolds....
Okay, that's it! I gotta get back to work. Take care!