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Interview: Doug Lanford (SOA Programmer & Tester)

They say that opportunity only knocks once. That may be true, but sometimes a great experience can fall right into your lap, and it can lead to an entire career. Doug Lanford had this happen to him, and a chance at game testing resulted in him working on some of Sega’s best-known titles, as well as a thriving career in the gaming industry. Lanford spent a good four years at Sega, working as first a tester and then a programmer. Through it all, he was able to add his own grain of sand to the Sega 16-bit magic.

Lanford left Sega in 1994 to pursue other gaming ventures, and after spending time with 3DO and a few PC gaming companies, he moved on to work on games for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Currently, Mr. Lanford resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sega-16 recently had the chance to speak to Mr. Lanford about his time at Sega.

Sega-16: How did you get started as a tester at Sega? Other testers we’ve spoken to have said it was about as simple as answering an ad in the newspaper. Was this the case with you?

Doug Lanford: That’s exactly what happened with me… I graduated from college with an Electrical Engineering degree in spring of 1991 and then moved out to San Francisco to look for a job. However, there were very few entry level engineering jobs at the time, so I survived for a few months doing temp work. One day, during a lunch break, I was looking in the San Jose Mercury News classifieds, and saw a tiny add that just read “Game Testers” and a phone number. I called it and ended up with an interview at Sega a couple of days earlier.

I almost didn’t get the job… they thought I was way over-qualified for it, but I managed to talk them in to it.

Sega-16: Your first game was Kid Chameleon, a fan favorite and the Sega Technical Institute’s first release. What was it like jumping into such a massive project on your first day?

Doug Lanford: It was a lot of fun… Kid Chameleon was pretty close to finished at that point, so I just ended up spending a bit over a week have a blast playing the game, while learning the testing procedures.

Sega-16: You were somewhat familiar with Dungeons and Dragons when you tested Warriors of the Eternal Sun. How hard was it to make sure the game developers stayed true to the source material? There are more than a few games out there that don’t have much more in common than the name.

Doug Lanford: It wasn’t very difficult, but it was sometimes mind-numbingly tedious… I was handed a set of the D&D manuals, and told to write up a bug anytime something in the game didn’t match. In the first few days alone, I must have written up more than a hundred bugs… at that point nothing was tuned remotely correctly.

Eventually (after about a month of this), versions of the game started to come along that started to fix the D&D problems, though…. WOTES was very broken when we testers first saw it… most of the games we would test for two weeks to a month. I spent more than four months (at least part time) testing WOTES…. In the end, it turned out to be a fun game, though.

Sega-16: This was the only role-playing game you’ve worked on. Coincidence?

Doug Lanford: Yeah, its pretty much coincidence… I’ve enjoyed playing various RPGs over the years (I’m a huge fan of the Xbox Knights of the Old Republic, for example). I just never ended up working for a team that happened to be making one. A few years back, I did prototype a homebrew RPG for the Game Boy Advance in my spare time, though… its up on my webpage.

Sega-16: After testing WOTES you became a programmer. How did that transition occur?

Doug Lanford: That was just lucky timing… around the time I started working as a tester, Sega of America was getting ready to start up their first internal development studio. After about four months as a tester, apparently the manager of the test department went to the hiring people and told them that he had an EE major being wasted as a tester, and asked them to take a look at me.

Soon after I had an interview, and next thing I knew I was hired up as a tech support programmer, though I continued to do part time testing, mostly on WOTES, for the next month or so. After about three or four months as a tech support guy, during which I learned the basics of programming the Game Gear and Genesis, I then got bumped up to a junior game programmer on Jurassic Park.

Sega-16: The Sega Technical Institute had a great deal of autonomy that other in-house teams did not. How was the work environment and dynamic with the other groups different from the STI?

Doug Lanford: Actually, at the time, it was the only internal development group. Before then, all development for Sega of America was done by outside contractors. We did have some contact with several of the contract houses early on, most especially the guys working on the Genesis version of JP. In fact, much of the artwork I originally used to prototype with came from them.

I never had much contact with the Sega Tech Institute… in fact I never knew it existed back when I was working for SoA. I recall being told that the Multimedia Studio was Sega of America’s first and only in-house dev group (I’m guessing the the STI worked as a somewhat autonomous set up). Also, reading through some of the interviews you have done for your site, it sounds like most people think the Multimedia Studio was mostly a support studio for sound design and so on (and the sound guys I know did sound and music for a bunch of games). However, that studio also had programmers, artists, designers, and so on… we created JP CD completely within that studio, as well as Woody, and I recall some partial work on another project (code named Astrocade) that was never finished.

Sega-16: Your experience with Wild Woody doesn’t sound like a positive one, what with the developer being broken up and the Sega CD on its last legs. What happened?

Doug Lanford: Actually, I had a lot of fun working on Wild Woody. Though I was getting paid as a junior programmer, in many ways I was doing the work of a full systems coder building many of the main graphics and behavior systems for the game. Towards the end of the game I had a blast adding in a bunch silly cheats and easter eggs.

However, by the time we were a little ways into the project, it was obvious that the Sega CD cycle was coming to an end, so we all figured that by the time we finished the game, it would probably go straight to the bargain bins (which was exactly what happened). But we were still being paid to finish it, so we just did our best to have fun with it.

Sega-16: Jurassic Park for Sega CD got its style of play from a design you were working on that originally included three perspectives (top-down, side-scrolling, first-person). How did the design make the transition from multiple perspectives to the “point-and-click” dynamic that was finally used?

Doug Lanford: Well, when I first started working on JP (as the most junior of the programmers on the team), each of three junior coders were given the task of prototyping one of the three perspectives. I was given the first-person view, probably because it was the most likely to be dropped from the game if needed.

However, about two months later, the designers realized that the game design was far to big, and made the decision to just concentrate on one of the three perspectives. I think the decision to go with the first person point and click view came from two things. 1) there were very few point and click style games on the consoles, though they were pretty popular on PCs at the time, so they thought the style might stand out on a console, and 2) my prototype was the most complete when they were making the decision….

From there, they just threw out the old design and started from scratch, redesigning everything from the ground up.

Sega-16: You acquired quite a bit of experience on the Sega CD and seemed to be hitting a stride just when the hardware was discontinued. Do you think there was anything more you could have gotten out of it, or was it really time to move on?

Doug Lanford: It definitely would have been fun to do another Sega CD game, but we had pretty much pushed the hardware as far as it could go, so in that sense it kind of was time to move on. Plus, that was right about the time the 3D systems were starting to come out, which was something the Sega CD would never have really been able to very well.

One final story…. when I first got hired out of the test department as a tech support guy, my first assignment was to do build a tool to stress test the Sega CD units, which were due to ship to stores in a few weeks. I built a quickie program that would just run the laser head across the CD back and forth for hours at a time, and then see how the motors degraded over time. Unfortunately, most of the Sega CDs we tried this on died after a few hours. I recall setting up a conference room with about thirty Sega CDs, letting them run overnight, and coming back to work to find only two were still running. It turned out that a ribbon cable had a tendency to get caught under bracket in the hardware, and would eventually break, totally killing the system.

Sega eventually had to hire a bunch of people to open all the Sega CDs that were about to ship, and add a rubber band to each one. Since that was my first actual job as an employee of Sega (I was a contractor when testing), I’ve always found that amusing… I almost killed the initial shipment of the American Sega CDs….

Sega-16: Why did you leave Sega?

Doug Lanford: After Wild Woody, the Sega Multimedia Studio closed. Soon after, a number the people left, several of them going on to Gametek. I got stuck for the next six months going back to doing tech support (now for the Saturn). Then, my old friends at Gametek offered me a job to work on Robotech, not just as a programmer, but also to be the resident Robotech fanboy and help design the game (I think the toys… er… action figures in my cubicle at Sega gave me away). I jumped at the chance, and soon found myself working on the Nintendo 64….

Our thanks to Mr. Lanford for taking the time for this interview.

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