Tuesday, October 31, 2006

TA-ncient History #7: Prime Artistry

We didn't get our giant CG intro movie with dancing clones, but we still had to make all sorts of fancy pictures for marketing and the game. The universe I wanted to portray would still need a lot of high quality visuals to give players a decent sense of Total Annihilation's setting. We also needed plenty of promotional stuff for E3.

For the game itself, we needed to make a short intro sequence, two victory sequences and a host of what we called mission paintings - The last items being a little visual reward shown to the player after successful completion of a level.

For the mission paintings I organized a simple assembly line. Every 4 or 5 models, the artists would make a "high res" version of a given unit. I put that in quotes since these only had 2,000 to 5,000 polygons. Models with higher poly counts are now common in real time environments. I think there are more polygons than that in Master Chief's left nostril.

These models were handed off to staff artist Jarrett Holderby. It turned out the same cheap, simple tools I chose for the game worked equally well for the mission paintings. Jarrett dropped these models into KPT Bryce, added some textures, rendered an image, then retouched the image in Photoshop and Painter.

It helped that Jarrett was a classically trained illustrator with a couple decades of experience. His eye for composition and lighting were (and are) superb. The Bryce scenes were devoid of grit, smoke, explosions, motion blur and other touches that help bring a futuristic war picture to life. Jarrett's ability to add these things "by hand" to a rendered images without making it too obvious was another rare gift. At top is an early image of Core Prime (a.k.a. Metal World). This setting was used for many pictures, but I don't think this particular image was ever used. I stole some of those textures when I made the metal world map segments.

All the renders for maps and mission paintings were done on Macs. Back artists had both a Mac and a Windows rig on their desks. An early rendition of Bryce existed for Windows, but it lacked the ability to export height maps bigger than 72 pixels on a side. We needed much bigger elevation maps for the background sections. We certainly needed huge height maps for these mission paintings. We mostly used Power Mac 8500's and 7600's. Opening or saving Jarrett's super big print files would take minutes. The same went for applying the simplest filter. The fact that Jarrett didn't go completely insane working on them is a real tribute to his fortitude.

This same technique provided most of the big, lush images we made for magazines and marketing. Jarrett assembled some truly fine scenes, all of which helped to build an image for the game and its universe.

I think this image was made for a game magazine that never got off the ground. It would have been TA's only magazine cover prior to its launch, but that was not to be.

The models from the unit artists were supplemented by additional pieces from the small team working on the movie sequences, giving Jarrett had a pretty decent inventory of models to work with. This added a lot to the scope and complexity of the pictures. Some images are more effective than others, but overall it was a great way to get a lot of pictures made in a small amount of time.

The movies represent another big push for the art team in the weeks leading up to E3 in 1997. More on that in the next TA-related post.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Enough tiles and I can build the world!

Copyright 1995 Squaresoft, Inc.

Yes, another glimpse of our primitive pixel roots. This screenshot is from my time on Secret of Evermore at Squaresoft, Inc. This is part of the market from the desert town late in the game.

There is a certain pleasure in working within limitations. Any artist who worked on console games in the pre-3D, 16-bit era had to get very friendly with tiles. On the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) any given level had a limit of 1024 tiles, each of which could only use one 16 color palette. Little tricks were needed to build everything a level design called for: X and Y flipping, color cycling, palette swapping and tile animations were usually needed to stretch the tile budget. That, and some careful planning made it possible to build the requisite hills, valleys, roads, rivers, rocks and huts in a given level. It was a challenge, but it was actually fun to figure out how to get the most from every pixel.

Evermore was my first experience with an isometric top-down view as well, which came in handy during Total Annihilation.

Above is a page from my production notebook. This has a basic inventory of things I'd hoped to build with the tiles allowance for the market level. Most of my career in games can be summed up by countless pages of random notes and awful doodles like this one. It looks chaotic, but it's amazing how much information I find on them today. Just to make myself seem even more ancient, it's like putting a needle into the groove of a record. Once I start looking through the reams of pages from Total Annihilation or Vince, I can usually place the exact time and place I made each crude doodle and notation.

Games are still subject to many limitations today, but the boundaries are a lot more mushy. Storage is hardly a problem anymore. Movies and audio assets often take up more space than the games themselves. Tile counts and finite palettes have been replaced by polygon counts and texture memory - but a bit of your frame rate or a few seconds of load time can be (and are) sacrificed in the name of "but it's so cool!"

We spend a lot more time creating wonderful visual content nowadays. I have no complaints, since that's my bread and butter. But the spiraling cost of developing a game has grown along with our technical horizons. Games now take years to make, rather than months. Back in the SNES era, when a cartridge was full, it was full. It was kind of nice to have that clear line in the sand.

Do I have a big, important point? Nope. I just wish I hadn't run out of tiles before I could make some hanging pots and pans for that one merchant's stall. Dammit.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Vince Cutting Room Floor #3: Roachfort

Why do I keep repeating myself? All this concept art is by Doug Williams who is brilliant, blah, blah, blah.

So many ideas... So little time. It's important to aim high when designing a game. As the realities of the development process have their filthy way with your ideas it's always good to have more ideas than you need waiting in the wings. Change and compromise are like an unholy Master-Blaster out to thwart your good times at the Thunderdome of game creation. You've got to be ready to roll with the punches and come up with good alternate plans, even when Tina Turner has a wrist crossbow pointed at you and... um... you get the idea.

As I said in an earlier post, I sort of wish Roachfort had been cut in favor of the riverboat level, but that's just the hindsight talking. There are some great things in the level, but many ideas were scrapped during development. It seemed like harmless little bits and pieces along the way, but I think the overall quality of the level suffered as a result. Nevermind the fact that the water table in New Orleans is about three inches underground, making large subterranean caverns pretty damned unlikely.

At the heart of the biggest change were the residents of Roachfort. I originally planned to populate the subterranean world with effete French cockroaches who still thought it was the 18th century... hence the name. The Rochefortians were to be vain and silly. They believed the surface world is a myth and that their dank sewer is the center of the universe. Someone like Vince wouldn't fit their world view, so he needed to travel in disguise using a tattered, unconvincing cockroach costume.

The last big alteration had to do with Vince's escape from Roachfort. In the first draft of the design document Professor Ethel was a bit more helpful. Rather than abandoning Vince like a complete jerk, she makes her escape using Vince himself for balloon material. This was based on a mini-game where players would have steered Vince around sharp pointy things as he ascended a long twisty pipe leading to the surface world.

One thing that doomed these parts of Roachfort was the way I approached the design. Rather than create a coherent system from which puzzles and gameplay could flow, I wrote a lot of "one off" stuff in this level (I did a bit too much of that in the whole game, really). The time and effort needed to make the exploding gas cannister puzzle the airplane level and the laundry basket ride cut into more atmospheric goodies like these poor, deluded cockroaches.

It was a trade. I didn't get to recreate the court of the Sun King with bugs, but that plane was pretty cool.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ye Olde Downtown Tulsa

One great pleasure I've discovered about this self-serving blog is finding new things lurking in pieces of old art and memorabilia. Until lately, I seldom took the time to look at this stuff or reflect on my strange little career. I now find myself looking at artwork from old projects in a whole new light.

I managed a team of about 35 people during the development of Kingdoms. I also worked with a half dozen or so external contract artists, most of whom worked on illustrations for the game's cinematic sequences. The contractors varied a lot in their experience level, ranging from veterans with decades of experience (like the aforementioned Greg Call) to fresh young talent, right out of art school.

One of the veteran illustrators was a man named Dale Rutter, a long time instructor at the Art Institute of Seattle. Dale was primarily responsible for painting a panoramic view of the capital for each of the kingdoms in our story. Above is his lovely painting of Lendra, the capital city of Veruna... the side with all the nautical stuff. Upon closer examination, I can't help but think that some of the city seen behind those evocative, ancient battlements has a distinctly modern look.

In fact, I'm sure of it. This looks more like the sort of place you'd find insurance brokers, condos and health clubs than the seat of power for a distant magical land. Dale has a reputation as something of a prankster, so I'm guessing this was intentional.

Good one, Dale. Too bad it took me almost eight years to notice!


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

TA-ncient History #6.1.4: First Ink Amended

Those of you familiar with the high journalistic standards here at Ton of Clay know the premium I place on the truth -- A premium so high only the very rich can afford to bribe me. I started thinking about my reference to the ill-fated demo map called Boris. Was the map really 100x100 screens?

I had to verify this for you, the reader. Yea, though I sift through many a worn CD-ROM, risking flying shards of frail, shattered disk in my eye, I will persevere. Anyway, I got curious and found the remains of the original map earlier this evening.

Above are the sections of Boris, assembled in something approximating the original design. Each square chunk was about 5 by 5 screens (2560 pixels on a side). I recall now that the plan was to expand this by placing large strips of open water between each type of terrain. So, the ultimate goal for Boris was probably closer to a mere 40x40 screens. Much smaller, but still insanely big for an average computer in 1997. The real problem was partly the physical dimensions, but also the high number of memory-gobbling unique tiles in this design.

In retrospect, Boris just seemed like 100x100 screens, much as memories of a playground bully can make them seem like they were ten feet tall, with a helpless nerd in one hand and a twisted jungle gym in the other.

I regret the the lapse in accuracy extremely. I apologize to my vast readership - but I mostly apologize to Boris. He just wanted to be loved and probably came from a tough neighborhood. Boris was, if anything, simply ahead of his time. Poor little fella.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

TA-ncient History #6: First Ink

Copyright 1997 - Imagine
Ironically, a sequel to our producer's most famous game graced the cover
of PC Gamer the same month as the first Total Annihilation preview.

Getting the press interested in yet another real time strategy game in 1997 was no easy feat. Approximately 24,000 RTS games came out that year. A new game from an untried studio wasn't exactly catching the eye of editors and journalists. The glut of RTS games created intense competition for the hearts and minds of gamers. Some publishers were putting big money behind promoting their entries.

Many upcoming games engaged in what I call bullet point warfare. Lists of features and visual gimmicks were dutifully recited in prepress coverage and endlessly compared and debated by the nascent Internet community. A week didn't passed that some helpful person would come into our office and say "Gosh, this game XXX from XXX has unit morale, cyborg pez dispensers and dancing pie charts showing alfalfa comsumption... Do we have morale, cyborg pez and pie graphs?" We did what any good developer does when asked about stuff like that. We completely ignored it and concentrated on making the game.

Our ship date had floated around for about a year. We changed it twice, but by the spring of '97 we were finally pretty sure we would RTM (route to manufacture) in September. Ship dates don't seem as stressful when nobody knows you exist. We were getting a little anxious, though. US game magazines had a lead time for stories of three to five months -- some still do in spite of competition from gaming websites. That's pretty simple math. It was already March and we still weren't sure how the world would ever hear about Total Annihilation. We had that spiffy print ad figured out, but E3 was just around the corner. We needed to make at least a decent splash or Total Annihilation would be in the bargain bin before Christmas.

Word finally came down that we would get a preview story in PC Gamer (US version). A staff writer from San Francisco would come to the Humongous/Cavedog offices in glorious Woodinville, Washington. We were told the plan was for a one page write-up in their preview section. We geared up by pushing even harder to make the game presentable (old multiplayer UI below) and to create high resolution assets for our future marketing needs.

It wasn't enough that we already had maps bigger than any other RTS game. We had to do something truly awe-inspiring... something that would astound and amaze. Ron, Chris and I jointly conceived of Boris, a 100x100 screen behemoth (Editors note: See next post). Maps that size are no biggie to the TA 3rd party community these days, but we attempted this with a mere P200 with 64 megs of RAM. I stayed up for days rendering and assembling pieces of Boris. The stability of the engine was still fluctuating from day to day. We didn't really know what would happen.

It's pretty obvious what happened: My PC went into shock and curled up whimpering in the corner for days after my first attempt to load Boris. After those days of sleep deprivation and stress, I still shudder when I hear that name. We had to make do with our regular maps, which served us perfectly well.

There is an expectation that games are built using piles of slick concept art. It won't do to give magazines some doodles on a stained burger wrapper. Nope. Concept art has to look like it came from the halls of Skywalker Ranch or Ridley Scott's wet dream. The visual standard for games today makes walls of concept art a common sight. We didn't have much stuff like that for Total Annihilation. The design for a 40 polygon tank isn't much to look at.

So, we faked it. We had some great artists who were fully capable of making froo froo art like that. We were just too busy to make it most of the time. But it looks swell in a magazine article, so Kevin Pun (another Square alum) whipped up some nice juicy marker comps of units after they were already finished and in the game. Here are his wonderful, tarted up takes on some TA units.

PC Gamer never used these for that piece, but they were handy for other articles and interviews that came along later. We fed the marketing and PR machine at GT a steady stream of high resolution renders and more concept art for months to come.

Our real unit designs were certainly nicer than something on a burger wrapper. Below is a real first design pass for a Core aerial unit by Mike Fisher, the artist responsible for the bulk of the Core units. I usually asked for a quick pencil treatment so I could sign off on a unit design before the unit artists waded into 3D land. Mike always worked with wonderfully clear schematics, worthy of an engineer.

It would have been about April of 1997 when Michael Wolf from PC Gamer paid us a call. Michael was a reviewer who later became the disk editor of PC Gamer. Michael is now a PR manager over at Microsoft's Windows game division. He arrived late in the morning. My impression was that he may have expected yet another C&C clone and I can't blame him. As we showed off our game he seemed to grow more impressed and excited as the interview progressed, asking lots of good questions.

Ron, Chris, Michael and I piled into Chris's Mazda 626 and went to lunch at a local Chinese place. I only remember that because I have a strong recollection of ignoring my wonton soup while riffing on the notion of the Core Commander writing a lonely hearts advice column. That later made its way onto the Cavedog website as a semi-regular feature.

If you read this early coverage, you'll notice Ron's name sometimes comes up more than Chris's. His name is the only one mentioned in the table of contents above. The industry at large hadn't really heard of Chris, Cavedog or our game yet. Ron was an acknowledged industry heavyweight. His background as a design god at LucasArts and the upcoming Monkey Island sequel (though unrelated to Ron) sometimes made him a focus for journalists who came to look at TA. Ron was always gracious and pointed reporters right back to Chris. He really believed that a designer should speak for his own game.

Copyright 1997 - Imagine
I almost forgot about the button layout that sort of looked like a skull. Oooo... Spooky.

When the preview finally hit magazine stands in their July issue (on the street in June) we were amazed. It was as nice as a preview gets. Phrases like, "...it could very well be the most revolutionary real-time strategy since Dune II" had us pinching ourselves (we did that to stay awake anyway). The timing couldn't have been better. This was the edition of PC Gamer that was circulated at E3 that year. Our ad was in other major game publications that month as well.

We had plenty of good buzz going into E3. Now we just had to get the game halfway polished for it's big debut on the show floor.


Friday, October 13, 2006

A Tangled Rope

This is the last of the visual prototype images we brought to the Voodoo Vince green light meeting. Just about every picture shows Vince doing something different. We felt it was important to show as much variety as possible by putting Vince in a variety of settings and in an assortment of vehicles. Here we see him swinging his way though a fanciful forest canopy. Of the four mockups, I think this is one of the prettiest. It's definitely in the top four.

During the creation of this picture Gary Hanna jokingly referred to all the bright, radiant plant things as "glowberries." We didn't really have glowing bits like that in the final version, but that did provide part of the level's name, Glowberry Tangle. For players who don't like bottomless pits (and there are many), this level was pure hell since the whole thing is one big bottomless space with thin, twisty tree limbs to land upon.

Different modes of travel always create interesting issues for art, design and technology. Keeping the camera under control, physics, strange clipping and character behavior all present different challenges. This visual test depicts a cable-like vine for Vince to swing on. We soon found that making a polygonal model look convincing as a rope (in real time) is pretty damn tough. A solid rope object also did some odd things when it passed around or through the in-game camera. We opted for a string of stretchy particles instead. This avoided strange rope malfunctions and pulled Vince away from the camera quickly, which helped to avoid clipping and a loss of orientation.

Original take on the Glowberry "perfect world" image by Doug Williams

The illusion of distant foliage in Glowberry Tangle was done simply by wrapping the level in some layers of leafy texture, forming a surrounding tube of sorts. Again, the original take on this didn't work out. The original has a light, distant sky layer with a slight gradient to it. This tended to make the leaf backdrop stand out more, and look more fake. The brighter, more intense backdrop also competed too much with the branches and landing places, making an already challenging level even harder. So, the final version (again) made use of a simple dark backdrop with the distant tube o' leaves mostly obscured by distance.

A skilled player can breeze through Glowberry tangle in mere minutes, never suspecting the long list of boring decisions that went into its creation. That sort of makes me wish a "directors cut" of a game were possible, with running commentary so players could be made aware of the developer's self-centered, long winded thoughts. That wouldn't work for me as a player, though. I'd probably get distracted by some comment about the code or art while a monster is going to town gnawing on my leg.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Carnival DePrave

Nothing beats a worn out, deserted carnival for sheer atmosphere and spooky good times. The level artists did a great job creating Kosmo's base of operations, the Carnival DePrave. This was the final location in Voodoo Vince. Once the level designer John Baron finished laying out the platforms holes and the structures, Doug Williams created these superb black and white mood pieces. The level artist (also John Baron, come to think of it) worked from these to create the final level art.

Hmmm... In retrospect, the entryway to the carnival has a somewhat goatse-y look to it. Shame on anybody else who thinks that.

Every level in a game like Voodo Vince is a big accomplishment, but each one is filled with reminders of things that might have been. The Carnival DePrave was, if anything, a bit too empty and deserted. I had hoped to fill the booths on the midway with playable minigames. But our ship date was looming. The mini-games ended up as static pieces of background art, but you can still see the original idea thanks to the textures in the level. John Baron thought up most of the games while doing the initial level design.

The final in-game textures were given a wonderful air of festive decay by Dan Cole. You can almost smell that bilge water taffy.

I can only imagine what sort of bent mischief these might have turned into. All you super elite Ton of Clay readers will notice that Madam Charmaine's original name makes a slightly modified appearance. All of these images incorporate bits and pieces of walls we photographed in and around New Orleans.


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Homespun Voodoo

The incredibly rare Voodoo Vince doll. These have sold for millions of dollars on eBay.

The most common question I get via the Beep Industries website (next to "Are you guys dead?") is from people who want to know how they can buy, beg, borrow or steal a bona fide Voodoo Vince doll. We would have dearly loved to see vast heaps of shoddy Vince merchandise, dolls included, but that was not to be.

A Vince doll was made (above), but it was mostly sent to members of the gaming press. The crew at Beep and some of the Microsoft people snapped up the rest. It couldn't have been more than 100 or so dolls, total. I managed to get three. One is on the shelf in my office. Another is being kept in its wrapper for my kid when he's old enough to really enjoy long, pointy pins.

Speaking of which, one sad aspect of the promotional dolls is that they didn't include Vince's pins due to the usual hand-wringing and liability concerns. Vince without his pins is, well, just a doll. The pins you see on my doll were made by my good friend Patrick Hoynes. He melted authentic Mardi Gras beads onto antique hat pins, creating pins as lovely as they are dangerous. That earned Pat the third doll from my small supply.

It's sad. Given the lukewarm reception Vince had in some quarters, those dolls would have been better off in the hands of eager Vince fans. Maxim magazine mailed theirs as a gimmick to a random recipient. I stongly encourage indifferent members of the gaming press to put theirs up for sale on eBay. Contrary to my caption above, you will only make a few bucks but it would help to right a great wrong and restore balance to the gaming nerd cosmos.

This lack of dolls hasn't dampened the spirits of determined Voodoo Vince fans. Since no Vince merchandise exists, they've made their own. Over the last few years I have received some great pictures (and one actual doll) from fans who have made t-shirts, artwork and quite a few home-made Vince dolls. No mass produced chotchkey will ever match these for personality, warmth and all-around coolness.

One lucky Vince fan received this statue for her birthday from her very talented son:

I have to smile every time I look at these. When I think about the hours these must have taken to create, I'm simply amazed. This proves that an idea can live on in the hearts of gamers long after the machines that play them have been converted to goldfish bowl case mods - with or without the help of marketing.

This final image by a grade schooler is better than any sign-off I can think of.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

TA-ncient History #5: The First Ad

Some of you old timers might remember the first print advertisement for Total Annihilation. I think that ad scored a first for Cavedog. Or a close second... maybe third. Definitely no more than sixteenth overall. I'm positive.

Y'see, print ads for games almost always followed a time-honored format. Crack open any game magazine from before 1997 and you will see that the advertisements are remarkably homogeneous. They all looked something like this:

This dates back to the time when game art was relatively crude, so some sort of swanky art or a big juicy photograph would be used to build an image for a game. The game itself usually couldn't do that. A character with only twelve pixels just doesn't have a lot of presence.

The thing is, game ads still looked like that decades later, even after in-game art started to look reasonably slick. It's a common design even today. I don't blame ad agencies for doing this. I'm sure they can crap out nineteen of these in a single afternoon and still have time for some blow and a round of golf. And to be fair, it's a pretty common approach to any print ad. It works for selling lotion and cars... Why not games?

That is exactly the sort of ad the marketing firm working for GT Interactive showed us when they came by in early 1997. We hated it immediately. We knew the game would have only one or two print ads before it launched and we wanted them to have maximum impact. Chris and I were adamant that we sell the game with the game. We insisted that the ad feature a full two-page screenshot.

I don't recall seeing this before. It's not like we thought it up. It was just a matter of time before giant screenshots became commonplace, but Total Annihilation was certainly one of the first games to do it. There was some resistance from the agency. The concern was that (gasp!) the pixels would be visible since a computer game couldn't match the print resolution of a magazine. That sounded fine to us. It would absolutely show gamers what they were getting.

We did have one advantage. GT Interactive owned the fold-out ad space inside the cover of all the major PC gaming magazines for a couple years running. This prime real estate was mostly used for big versions of the standard formula above, but we would get that spot for one or two display ads before the game hit store shelves. Chris, Ron and I wrote the basic copy which the ad folks polished up a bit. I did a rough layout then went to work creating a big, big screenshot. Here is the original image:

Okay. This was the original image, but Blogger crunched it down quite a bit.

A few months later, Total Annihilation would later have a built-in screen shot key command. We could take snapshots like this with no problem - but we didn't have that feature at this point. I had to take a series of smaller shots and drop them onto the original .PCX file we imported into our map editor. I took a second shot with the mesh view enabled and did a small mask reveal in Photoshop to communicate the 3D-ness of the terrain.

It had the desired result. Between this ad and our first preview coverage in PC Gamer, we went to E3 in 1997 with lots of good buzz around Total Annihilation. Several competing RTS games had print ads almost identical to this (including the landscape mesh) within a year. Giant full page screenshots are pretty commonplace now, but you still see plenty of that Game Ad 101 ethic between the pages of magazines to this day.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Family Portrait

I always liked this one. It really helps to give some idea of how much content is created even for a modest game like Voodoo Vince. Just about every character is here, except for a couple of the zombies from the Zombie Guidance Counselor level (though zombie football player and zombie chef are representing for the team). One of the doomed critters from the Sausage Factory might be missing too, but that's understandable.

This picture was used in the Voodoo Vince preview in Play Magazine, and on the back tray of the official soundtrack CD, but hasn't been shown much outside of those things. The characters were done by the Beep animation crew (based on Doug's concept art, of course). Gary Hanna did the rendering using Mental Ray.


Monday, October 02, 2006

TA-ncient History #4: Dogs, Yaks & Boron

By the Spring of 1997, Total Annihilation was shaping up nicely and the public was about to get its first glimpse of the game. Our first magazine previews, print ads and E3 were just around the corner. We'd known from the start that the game couldn't be released under the wholesome family-friendly Humongous label. It wouldn't make sense for their audience, or the one we were hoping to reach with TA. This didn't stop some of us from drawing pictures of Putt Putt bristling with guns. A new name and a completely different image would be required.

Chris and I tossed around ideas for names from the start, but nothing jumped out at us. We opened it up to ideas from the whole company.

I compiled all the suggestions that rolled in. We heard some standard software developer-ish sounding names with "mega" and "soft" in the name. A couple programmers raided the element chart, submitting ideas like "cobalt" and "boron" Since we worked in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, we heard plenty of pleasant names incorporating rain, fish, mountains and more fish. After sifting through these, Chris and I narrowed it down to two choices: Cavedog Entertainment and Frozen Yak Entertainment, both of which were his contributions.

We liked both names. I did some crude doodles in my notepad during a meeting.

I fleshed them out a bit more at home that evening. Here is a rough Cavedog.

These two pictures were pinned up on the wall of the office Chris and I shared. It was put to a vote, and Cavedog won by a narrow margin. The pooch was ready for prime time. That sorry looking Frozen Yak wasn't completely lost. It was unearthed as part of an April Fools joke on the Cavedog website about a year later.

The Cavedog logo ended up on all the usual things like business cards, letterhead, hats and the all-important t-shirts. I've done a lot of logos over the years. I still think this is one of my better efforts. I wanted to evoke paleolithic cave paintings, while keeping the lines simple enough to stand out, even when printed very small.

It did. I was relaxing at home in 2000, watching my favorite family entertainment, The Sopranos. It was season two, episode seven... the one called D-Girl. Toward the end of the episode, Sal "Big Pussy" Bompensiero was having a heart-to-heart with AJ in his room when something in the background caught my eye.

Could it be? A TA: Core Contingency poster in AJ's bedroom?

It is! You can just make out the Commander to the right, but the Cavedog is plain as day.

And there you have it. My small supporting role in television history. It's fitting that the Cavedog shared some screen time with the Big Pussy character, since both would be bumped off within the year.