Chances are some of you have been waiting for this for a very long time. Since our first teaser trailer we here at TGL have been building up our exclusive coverage of the cancelled title, Stargate SG-1: The Alliance. Confused about what I’m talking about? Click this link to get a rundown on the content we have in store for you over the coming weeks. To kick things off I have something very special for you today, dear readers. Viljar Sommerbakk was one of the Stargate developers that I initially got in contact with prior to being anonymously sent a working Alpha build. With an extensive list of work behind him with companies such as Funcom, Mirco Forte, IO Interactive and Team Bondi and games like LA Noire, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and the upcoming Syndicate, Viljar is quite an accomplished individual in the games industry. So, after playing the game myself and being in the perfect position to ask the questions, I posed them to Viljar. This is our first official week of Stargate SG-1: The Alliance content, and it’s the perfect introduction to the what’s to come.
One last thing. Be sure to check out my Youtube channel that will contain all the upcoming video and audio content from Stargate in the coming weeks. Enjoy.
Viljar- My name is Viljar Sommerbakk. I’ve been a gamer since the age of seven, and I’ve worked in the games industry since March 2000, in level design/game design positions. My first job in the industry was at Funcom, as a World Designer on the MMO Anarchy Online. I’m currently working for Starbreeze Studios, on the FPS Syndicate.
Retroplayer- Viljar, a game you worked on early in your career was Anarchy Online on which you were a World Designer. Take our readers through what that job entails and why it’s important to the overall finished product.
Viljar- As one of the World Designers, it was my job to do a rough sketch of a playfield, which is a large outdoor area that could be up to four by four kilometers, with back story, points of interest, roads, villages etc. I would then build the playfield with our in-house tools. This involved shaping the terrain (heightmap based), texturing it using pre-made generic textures (grass, rock, sand etc.), and placing meshes/objects (houses, rocks, grass, trees, bodies of water etc.). I then added monsters, wildlife and NPCs as well as interactive objects. I also built all guards and vending machines for the game using in-house tools. For those that played AO, the playfields I did were Pleasant Meadows, Lush Fields, Mutant Domain, Mort, Old Athen and Omni-1 Trade. As you can imagine, without World Designers, there wouldn’t be a world to run around in, so it’s an integral role in any game development project.
Retroplayer- Before joining Perception and working on Stargate: The Alliance what was your knowledge of the Stargate universe? Were you a fan of the TV show yourself?
Viljar- I liked the show before joining the project, but I wasn’t yet a fan. I had seen the odd episode here and there, but didn’t have the overview you get by watching the series in chronological order. I had also seen the original Stargate movie the TV show was based on, and loved that. Working on the game, however, I started watching all the episodes in the correct order, and quickly grew to love the show. I’ve seen all the episodes of all the three series, and also the TV movies that came later, and I’ve considered myself a fan for a long time now.
Viljar- When I started, SGTA didn’t have any designers on board, but there was a prototype and a lot of ideas and levels in progress. The short version is that I started by designing/refining the core mechanics of the game, and then designed and refined the levels and level logic/story with the level designers. After this work was mostly done, I then oversaw implementation of everything in the game. This is a prolonged process however, that involves everyone on the team, and some things get thrown out, and others are added as development of the game progresses. All this becomes part of your daily duties, and also include things like user interface, OSD (or HUD), maintaining game design documents, feedback and development of the AI, tweaking and balancing game elements (weapons, NPCs, vehicles etc.), and analyzing all aspects of the game to find improvements.
Viljar- I think so. The FPS genre gives you a certain closeness to the environment, and the characters and events around you, and allows you to see the Stargate characters from a perspective that is close to watching them on TV.
Retroplayer- While the FPS market wasn’t as saturated as it is now back in 2005, it was still rather active. What made SG-1:TA stand out from the rest?
Viljar- At the time, we had a few features that were new and fresh, original even, but that have since appeared in other games, and many are now the norm in triple-A games. We had a great friendly combat chatter system, which, at least to fans of the show, was enhanced by the fact that you had SG-1 characters saying things that were in character, helped by the awesome effort that the actors from the show put into their lines. We had a simple, but powerful squad command system, and some original weapons, taken straight from the show. We also tried to tie the game to as much Stargate lore as we could, which I think the fans of the show would have appreciated.
Retroplayer- Take us through how the team went into developing the new enemies, the Haakan. Was it important to create villains as memorable and as threatening as the Horus guards?
Viljar- The Haaken came about from a desire to add something to the Stargate lore, to have some memorable impact on it. We were even told by one of the producers of the show that SG-1 would mention their encounter with the Haaken in one of the episodes. That would have been awesome! Designing the Haaken, we came up with a set of abilities for them, and then had several concepts drawn that embodied their nature as we saw it. We then picked the concepts we thought looked the best and coolest. You only fight the Haaken late in the game, so we wanted them to be even more dangerous and menacing than the regular guards from the show.
Retroplayer- While playing SG-1:TA I found that a lot of care and attention was put into making it look and feel like the TV show Viljar. Do you think you were successful at this and how important during development was it to make the game resemble the TV show in tone and style?
Viljar- I think we were successful at that. Between the characters interacting and chatting away as you would expect from SG-1, to the story line, environments, weapons, vehicles, enemies, that were pretty much all lifted from the show, I’d say we went a long way towards being faithful to the show. It was important to me to make a game that the fans would feel was authentic Stargate.
Retroplayer- From a developer standpoint what does having a device like the Stargate in a game add to the possibilities of gameplay?
Viljar- The Stargate is a fantastic story/motivation device, in that it allows you to travel anywhere you can imagine, to encounter any earth culture, to any sci fi/fantastic setting you can think of. It lets you to break the rules and have all kinds of interesting environments in the same game.
Viljar- The creators of the show weren’t involved on a day to day basis, but we still had a close working relationship with them, and they helped out in several areas. They gave us access to all the episodes, answered any questions we had about how things worked and lore. They also gave feedback and advice on the story and dialogue, and Peter DeLuise directed the voice over shoot. They also gave feedback on some of the game features when it was felt they didn’t fit with the Stargate universe. An example of this is the special ability that Daniel Jackson develops during the game, the “Hand of Light”. Originally he could put enemies on fire with it, which isn’t really in line with Stargate nor the Jackson character. After we were made aware of this, we reworked the power to emanate from the Light of the Ancients, condemning those that are engulfed in its light to a different plane. We were essentially able to dress up the ability to be more in line with Stargate lore, while keeping the base functionality intact thanks to input from the creators of the show.
Retroplayer- In your own words Viljar, why was Stargate: The Alliance cancelled?
Viljar- There were many events that led up to this. JoWooD, the publisher, was no longer on board, so we needed a new publisher. The new publisher needed to be approved by MGM. We were able to secure a new publisher, but that publisher didn’t get approved by MGM, and Perception was unable to keep going without money. I’m speculating, but I think MGM doubted we would be able to finish the game in the timeframe we had, to the quality that they wanted. Also, work had already started on the Stargate MMO by a different studio, and I’m assuming that this new project were viewed as having a better chance of success than SGTA.
Viljar- People were disappointed and downed by the fact that all the hard work they’d put into the game was for nothing, and of course concerned about the fact that we suddenly were without a job.
Retroplayer- Fans were quite disappointed SG:TA was never released. Speaking as someone who has played it the game retained the look and feel of the show and had many interesting elements to it. It’s a true shame it never saw the light of day Viljar. I can’t help but feel that SG:TA was the Stargate game the fans were waiting for, a game that felt a part of the Stargate mythology. How do you react when even today- 5 years after cancellation- fans are still talking about it online?
Viljar- It is nice to see that people still talk about the game online. I only wish they could have seen it, even in the alpha state it was upon cancellation, just to hear their opinions on it, and to see if they agree that we were developing a Stargate game for the Stargate fan.
Retroplayer- Upon playing SG-1:TA, I was surprised by just how finished it was. The music, sound effects, rough cut scenes as well as full voice acting by the entire SG-1 cast were present. Cutting out legal politics how did you personally feel after spending time and devotion on the game to never see it released?
Viljar- I was the lead designer on SGTA, with many responsibilities. There were still a lot of polish work and bug fixing left, but the finishing line was in sight. The team worked hard and long hours on it, and Stargate fans were eagerly anticipating its release. The cancellation weighed heavily on me, to the point that I left Australia not long after for Norway, my home country. I also shunned away from any lead position for several years after the experience, not wanting to put so much of myself into projects for a long time. It broke my heart when Stargate: SG-1 – The Alliance was cancelled, but I’ve managed to get over it in time, and I’ve since started to accept bigger responsibilities. It’s always tough when a project you’ve worked hard on gets cancelled, but the cancellation of SGTA was extra hard because of my creative position on it and the fact that I love the Stargate franchise.
Retroplayer- – At the end of the game design document it says, “At the end of the day, all is well. However, Anubis is still out there, and due to Oma’s active involvement in making the Haaken vessel vanish, the Wraith are made aware that the Ancients are still alive… To be continued?” Assuming it did well was there talk during development of a possible sequel?
Viljar- We had no plans for a sequel at that point, but early pre-production work had started on a Stargate RPG, with ties to Stargate: Atlantis.
Retroplayer- To the best of my knowledge Perception still retains the rights to any SG-1 game. Do you think development of SG-1:TA should be continued in some shape or form?
Viljar- It would be awesome to see SGTA completed! All graphic assets and levels would have to be updated to today’s standards, but the voice over files would still be fine to use. Some areas of the game mechanics would show their age today, since games have matured and gamers expect things to behave in certain ways, but the story, voice over, and game features stand up today, if modernized slightly.
Retroplayer- Since your days working with Perception you’ve worked on games such as LA Noire and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Many would assume that how SG-1:TA turned out might put someone off working in the industry. Does the games industry still excite and challenge you as much as it did when your first entered into the industry?
Viljar- I’m a gamer and a game developer. It’s a large part of who I am, and I can’t really see myself doing anything else. You take the bitter with the sweet, and learn lessons along the way. Very few things beat seeing your game on the shelves. After three years in the industry I thought I was an experienced game developer, but after 12 years I’ve learned that you never reach a point where you really know how to make a game. You might know the components that go into it, but there are no guarantees that it will work and be fun, so there’s always a rush when you find the cool and the fun in a feature you’re working on. I’m still excited about working in the games industry. You gotta find what you love, as someone famous said.
Retroplayer- Viljar, it goes without saying that there will be plenty of people reading this who, back in 2005, were eagerly awaiting the release of SG-1:TA. Do you have a message for them all?
Viljar- Thank you for the interest you showed during development of the game, and I’m sorry we never were able to release it.
Retroplayer- What’s next for Viljar Sommerbakk?
Viljar- Right now I’m working hard at Starbreeze Studios on the reboot of the Syndicate franchise. Not sure what I’ll be working on after that, but there’s never a dull moment in the games industry, so by the time this is live, I’m sure I’ve found the next thing to get excited about!