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Up Close and Personal with Matt Burch

Some folks enjoy meeting the people behind the scenes of Ambrosia, some are curious about what goes into a new program, and some are just plain nosy. So each issue of The Ambrosia Times we will interview a member of the Ambrosia family.

[Matt Burch]

This issue, we are talking with creator of Escape Velocity, Matt Burch. For more information about this soon to be released game, see the Escape Velocity Preview chapter.

Ambrosia Times: What sparked the idea for the concept behind Escape Velocity?

Matt Burch: I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars. I've always dreamed of being Captain Kirk or Han Solo, flying around the universe and thwarting evildoers, or just looking to make a quick buck. EV grew naturally out of those wishes; it's a game where you can be whatever type of person you want.

Ambrosia Times: I'm a big Star Wars fan myself. Is the finished version of EV different from what you first thought of in any major way?

Matt Burch: Funny you should ask... Actually, I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to create a game like EV but quit early because it was such a huge project. Escape Velocity as you see it now grew out of a project code-named "Merc" which I was working on in spring of '95. If you were to look at early copies of that project, you might recognize EV in there, but there are a lot of new things that have been added since. For the past five years or so I've always had the same vision in my head of how I imagined my Dream Game, and I think EV is as close to that ideal as it gets.

Ambrosia Times: Wow, it sounds like Escape Velocity has been swimming around in your pumpkin for some time. How long did it take you, roughly, to actually code the program?

Matt Burch: As of this week (the first part of October) the code for EV looks like it's basically done; what remains is scenario design and plotting. I started in April, so I've been working on the code for about six months. I've found that my programming gets faster and faster as time goes on: my last game took a year to write, the one before that nearly two. Extrapolating this trend forward, I can just imagine myself churning out something like Wing Commander III in a weekend. ;-)

Ambrosia Times: Well, we would be glad to work with you on that project too ;-) . How did you get started programming?

Matt Burch: I've been programming computers since ever since I can remember. I guess my first programming experience was on my dad's TRS-80; I've written games (for my own amusement, and of varying degrees of complexity) for that machine, the Commodore VIC-20 and the C64, the Apple II, IBM clones, Macs, and even a 6502 microcontroller board which had to be programmed in machine language. :-) Of all those computers, the ones I've had the most fun with have been the C64 and the Mac.

Ambrosia Times: I remember the TRS-80's from High School, and actually used to own a C-64. Just a month or two ago I gave it to a local children's home with the hopes that some young prodigy would get a hold of it.

Are there any other programs out there with your name on them?

Matt Burch: As far as other games? Well, most of the stuff I've written has been for my own enjoyment, to test my programming skills.

Ambrosia Times: Everyone is curious about what hardware is used to create decent computer games. What kind of system did you create EV on?

Matt Burch: Compared to the fire-breathing monsters at the Ambrosia offices, my system is pretty pokey. I have a Quadra 630 with 36 megs of RAM, 1.25 gigs of storage space, and a 17-inch monitor. I've got my eye on one of those cool 8500s, though! $-)

Ambrosia Times: Actually, we all gather around a Newton for our computing needs. What was your most important computer purchase, besides the base system?

Matt Burch: It's really a toss-up between more RAM, a bigger hard drive, and a big monitor. If you're really serious about programming games, all three are almost a necessity.

Ambrosia Times: Big is better, I see. What kind of software did you use to create EV?

Matt Burch: To write the code, I used an ancient copy of THINK C. The graphics were done with Infni-D, KPT Bryce, Superpaint, and Photoshop. Of course, I also got a lot of mileage out of Apple's hyper-useful ResEdit.

Ambrosia Times: That's a nice little tool kit. For me one of the many benefits of working here at Ambrosia is having access to some powerful software. What is your favorite game for the Macintosh, besides EV of course?

Matt Burch: Of all the games on my hard drive, I'd have to say that A-10 Attack! is the one I enjoy the most, because I'm a huge flight-sim nut. A-10's flight model and physics are the best I've ever seen in a sim; pity the interface is so poor and the mission set is so tiny. :-\

Ambrosia Times: I have yet to try that one. I hear it is by the same fellow responsible for Hellcats, so it must be good. Where are you from, and is programming your "day" job?

Matt Burch: My home is in Colorado, but I go to school at the University of Kansas, studying computer engineering. Programming is more of a "night" job, as that's the only free time I have to work on it! :-)

Ambrosia Times: Exactly where were you when Nicole Brown Simpson was killed?

Matt Burch: I was standing on the grassy knoll with Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis, why do you ask?

Ambrosia Times: Just as I thought, I bet you didn't even notice Jim Morrison hiding behind the tree. Is it true that some of the graphics in EV are the result of a model rocketry hobby?

Matt Burch: Well, I used to build model rockets when I was little, and a couple of the ship designs in EV are loosely based on my memories of some of my favorite Estes kits.

Ambrosia Times: I remember the one that would take a snapshot after launch. Those that came out usually were black & white blurs. What prompted you to work with Ambrosia?

Matt Burch: I knew I wanted to release EV as shareware, so that the maximum number of people would be able to play and experience it. I knew Ambrosia was widely regarded as a major force in the Mac shareware industry, such that it is, so it was a natural choice. I'm really glad I did chose Ambrosia, because John, Andrew, and Cajun have all been great to work with. (er, sorry Gayle, I haven't had an opportunity to talk to you yet!)

Ambrosia Times: Thanks for the vote of confidence. You get your date with Gayle after release, sort of the carrot and stick theory. Now that EV is almost complete, what projects are you moving onto?

Matt Burch: Um, I've got this really great project in mind called sleeping. I'm planning on working on it at least eight hours a day. Seriously, I have no idea what I'm going to do next. For me, programming games is like smoking: I always tell myself, "this is the last one, I'm quitting after this," but somehow I always fall off the wagon. :)

Ambrosia Times: I really hear sleep is over-rated. Where do you want to be with your life 5 years from now ?

Matt Burch: Assuming I'm not hit by a bus, I'll probably be a graduate student in five years. What I'd really like to do, though, would be to have a job where I could get up at noon, program games until sunrise, and not have to worry about anything else. :)

Ambrosia Times: I think the magic word is "Consultant." Primitive tribes would give consultants their own hut, as much corn and grog as they want and only call upon them in times of confusion. The consultant would work his magic, and the evil confusion would be dispelled.

What can you tell us about EV's artificial intelligence?

Matt Burch: I put a lot of time into tuning EV's artificial intelligence (AI) routines, trying to make them do intelligent things. There are no fewer than six AI types in EV, each with their own "personalities." Each AI is basically a three-layer state-based automaton, with a finite number of behaviors defined for each layer. What this means is that EVs AIs have a set of actions that they combine to perform some pretty cool-looking tricks.

Ambrosia Times: Ok, but can you teach a dog to roll over? EV has several characters traveling through space that folks meet up with. Can you tell us about one or two?

Matt Burch: My favorite characters are the ruthless pirates you occasionally run into. When you initially encounter one, you aren't too cautious, because they're usually flying a wimpy-looking ship. But when they start to attack you, you're in for a big surprise. :) Another thing I think is cool about these guys is how they are actually cowards at heart, and will run away if the fighting gets too intense.

Ambrosia Times: A hah! With this personality profile I shall be able to hunt the pirates to the very edges of your universe... Besides computers, what other interests do you pursue when you have time?

Matt Burch: During the school year, if I'm not at my computer I'm probably somewhere else on campus doing something else with computers. :) Hey, I am studying computer engineering, after all...

When I'm at home in Colorado, I can usually be found out communing with nature: hiking, mountain biking, and downhill skiing are all favorites of mine. Other than that, I like sitting down with a good book, going to movies, (such as seeing Apollo 13 for... what was it, the sixth time?) or just watching TV - especially "The X-Files." (The truth is out there!)

Ambrosia Times: I hope you are able to separate the two disciplines. I hate it when my PowerBook battery runs out just before a stunning mountain sunset. What is your favorite WWW page, and why?

Matt Burch: I don't really have a favorite page, but the one I seem to frequent most is the MacWEEK homepage. I really enjoy being able to read braking Macintosh news as soon as it hits the presses, without having to pay for the whole magazine.

Ambrosia Times: Those MacWEEK guys do stay right on top of things, don't they? What's this about a bet between you and Andrew?

Matt Burch: Well, it's not so much of a bet as an agreement: If we release EV before the end of 1995, I get a new pair of speakers. If we don't, well... I'm sure I'll have to do something nasty, like cleaning out Hector's cage or determining first-hand the heat released by an exploding lithium-ion battery.

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