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Merlin Racing - An Interview With Miracle Designs

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[NUON-Dome] - We're proud to have a little Q&A with Phil, a programmer, from Miracle Designs. Of course, they're the company behind Merlin Racing!

[N-D] - First off, Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Miracle Designs?

[Miracle Designs] - I got my first computer (an AMSTRAD CPC) in 1985/1986. After fooling around with it for a while I got interested in the world of programming and created my first few programs in BASIC. I really spent a whole lot of time in front of that little neat 'wonder' thing. After a couple of years it began to become a bit outdated and I moved on to the Commodore Amiga. There I learned MC68000 programming and my interest into creating computer games started. With a couple of friends we made our own version of Pong and later on some kind of shoot 'em up game. During this 6 year period on Amiga I did all sorts of things, which helped a lot to become a decent programmer.

When I was around 19 it was time to go to university (CS). After 3 years of fun and not passing any examinations because of too many parties and no time left to do any studying, I met an old friend who had setup a small company called "Visual Impact". They were working on a Jaguar title called Hyper Force (which has recently been published for Jaguar owners). After visiting their place Peter (one of my buddies causing all those examination failures) and me realized we wanted to create computer games too. A month later we got inside the Atari booth at ECTS (thanks to Alistair Bodin) and signed our Jaguar NDA and Developer Application. A few weeks later we got our own Jaguar devkit. Miracle Designs was born...

[N-D] - Tell us the history of Miracle Designs. When did the company start and what titles have you produced?

[MD] - I told you how the company got started, so after finishing Atari Karts, we took a really long break... Then we got a PSX development system and put our first steps in the world of 3D graphics. When we finally finished our first PSX game prototype, we were contacted by Bill Rehbock (our former producer at Atari for Atari Karts) who had just left Sony of America to join VMLabs. He told us what VMLabs was working on and we decided to give it a try... After signing the NDA we got our first development kits and started NUON development... On NUON I had to write a custom 3D graphics pipeline named M3DL, which was licensed by VMLabs to include in their SDK environment. Meanwhile the rest of the team members were working on Merlin Racing. So our published projects so far are:

Atari Karts - Atari Corporation
M3DL - VMLabs, Inc
Merlin Racing - VMLabs, Inc

[N-D] - You were the first to release a game for NUON. How did you come in contact with VM Labs and how long did you work on the project?

[MD] - As I said, we got in touch with VMLabs through Bill Rehbock. The development of M3DL and Merlin Racing were almost parallel and as far as I can remember it took around 2 1/2 -3 years to get the projects finished.

[N-D] - What was your experience working with the NUON platform? Difficult to write for? Easy to take advantage of? Were there major difficulties being among the first developers to work with NUON hardware?

[MD] - As NUON has 4 separate processors it is quite different to write for. In order to take advantage of the processing performance most processing intensive routines need to be written in assembly. Being amongst the first developers proved to be quite a challenge, because you had to start from scratch and there was almost no reference/sample code to take a look at to determine how things should be done. Due to the fact that the VMLabs engineers were still working on the Bios code things were changing regularly and it was necessary to update our own code. All in all we are happy with what we have been able to achieve so far.

[N-D] - What did you set out to accomplish with Merlin Racing? Were you able to realize that goal?

[MD] - We wanted the game to be much better than Atari Karts... Atari Karts lacked missiles and the like because the deadlines were so tight. We also wanted the vehicle controls to be good and AI characters to be challenging. Furthermore the game is fun to play, and that was our biggest concern. I think we realized most of those goals, although there are still plenty of things to improve upon.

It is a pity the game is not doing well with respect to the gaming press, but there seems to be quite an anti-NUON tendency. If a masterpiece of programming such as Tempest 3K were to make its debut appearance on PS2 it would have been a killer application but now it is just 'normal'. I have seen bigger companies with much bigger budgets release worse software, which was received quite well. Anyway, every person is entitled its own opinion, so I respect his or hers as long as they respect mine. The only thing I can say is if people spend $20-$25 on a NUON game it is a fair price. What do you get for that kind of money these days ?

[N-D] -Graphically, do you think a future NUON game from Miracle Designs would improve due to your experience on the hardware? Or do you think you tapped the NUON chip as much as you could?

[MD] -I am convinced a future NUON game from Miracle Designs specifically designed for NUON would improve a lot on the graphical side. I think we reached 60% to 75% of the NUON chip performance.

[N-D] - What, if any, inspiration did you have for the game's characters? How about the racetracks?

[MD] - As I am a programmer I wasn't really involved too much in the design of game characters and racetracks. We wanted to have a set of different personalities and our producers at VMLabs made suggestions. My personal favorite race tracks are the space levels though...

[N-D] - The music is very fitting for the game. Can you tell us about who wrote it? It sounds like standard midi instrumentation. Is it midi played thru the NUON processor, or red book audio streamed from the disc?

[MD] - Harald Riegler and his associate of Wild Element Studios created the music. These are the same people who are doing the audio for IS3. We got in touch with them through Marc of Eclipse Software Design. The audio was originally written in midi format to allow for fast network download times (Streamaster). At the end of the project the midi files were converted to streaming audio because the streaming audio playback proved to be less time consuming than midi playback on NUON.

[N-D] - There have been some reports of the game hanging up during the 'loading' screen. I have experienced this a few times. As far as you know, is this a hardware or software problem?

[MD] -It is definitely not a game software problem. Personally I think it is combined problem of Bios firmware and DVD drive hardware. You need to check with the VMLabs engineers to get the exact answer though. Sorry I can't be of any more assistance.

[N-D] - Are there any cheats or Easter eggs in the game that we should be looking for? Being able to play as the bosses is definitely cool.

[MD] - There was not really much time left to include Easter eggs. It is possible to play tournament mode as Merlin himself though...

[N-D] - What are your plans for the future? Any chance of another NUON title? We here at NUON-Dome would be thrilled.

[MD] -

We are currently negotiating with VMLabs about future projects and things are going really well. We know most of the VMLabs software department people in person and we are getting along quite well. After all we at Miracle Designs are just a bunch of enthusiasts doing this for fun. Since VMLabs gave us a chance to work on their hardware we will support the NUON platform as much as we can. So yes, there is a big chance to see more NUON software from Miracle Designs. As I liked your sample CD I wouldn't be surprised if it included some Wes Powell tracks either... ;-)

Additional comments:

Furthermore, I would like to congratulate you and Kevin with your work on NUON-Dome. It is one of my favorite fan sites and I visit it every now and then. I would also like to emphasize we are always seeking for new talent and if somebody feels like he has a really good idea for a forthcoming NUON title don't hesitate to get in touch with us. Game ideas, design or artwork are welcome. Send us an e-mail!

[NUON-Dome] - Thank you for the kind words, Phil. We look forward to your upcoming NUON developments! Thanks for the great game that is Merlin Racing =)

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