EAWFiles Exclusive Mike.NL Interview

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Hello everyone, z3r0x here and I would like to welcome a true legend among the community as a guest for this EAWFiles exclusive and I mean EXLUSIVE interview. For someone that needs no introduction we would like to introduce Mike.NL. For those of you that do not know Mike.NL, he is the source of almost every viable modding tool created for the community since the EaW beta has been released. He has created many tools such as the famed ALO Viewer, Particle Editor, DAT Editor, ALO Importer and many more. The community owes this guy a big debt as if it were not for him; many mods and mod teams would not be able to exist.

z3r0x: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Mike. I am sure this will be a real treat for the community and the public. We would like to know a bit more about the man behind the legend. So can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Mike: Well, there is not a lot of exciting stuff to tell. Born and raised in the Netherlands, after high school I went to study Computer Science in college where I got my B.Sc. and M.Sc and am currently going for a Ph.D. I was programming stuff since I was young, starting with Basic, then moving on to Pascal and finally C++.

z3r0x: Now, we know about you as a programmer, and a person but please tell us what prompted you to devote so much interest, work, and time into the EaW/FoC engine, and or game. Are you are a Star Wars Fan? Or did something about the games engine interest you enough to do this?

Mike: At the start I never intended to commit this much time into it. After playing EaW when it was released, I wanted to see ships like the TIE Interceptor in the game, so I looked around for mods. Seeing that no one could mod the game due to proprietary file formats, I decided to spend a little time trying to reverse engineer them, just for the heck of it. Fortunately, the file formats were relatively simple, so I was able to document the .alo format and create the first Alo Viewer version. As the Alo Viewer grew, and the mod tools were delayed or just insufficient, the community needed someone to fill the gaps. And I was one of the few who did. And I would hate to let that many people down. And besides that, it also gave me challenging projects for my favorite hobby, programming. Actual programs with actual users. I felt it might look good on my future resume.

z3r0x: What is it about Star Wars that really captures your imagination and motivates you? Did you grow up with it as a kid? Or are you a new fan? If you had to pick what would be your favorite of the 6 films, and also what is your favorite era in the SW Universe, Clone Wars, KOTOR Era, Classic Trilogy, Legacy, etc?

Mike: Tough question. I may upset some people with this, but I'm just as much a Star Trek fan as a Star Wars fan! I like Sci-Fi in general. I can't put my finger on what's so great about the whole genre or Star Wars in particular, but I was definitely a fan when I was a kid. Yes, I grew up with Star Wars, but only by seeing the original trilogy on TV. The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favorite film, simply because I like to see the bad guys win. As far as eras go, I would have to go for the KOTOR era, as I feel it has been more fleshed out; the game has been a huge influence in that aspect. But the classic era with its Star Destroyers is definitely a close runner-up. You just cannot beat the awesomeness of ISDs and the Imperial March!

z3r0x: During your work, on making the various tools you have created were there any surprises that were unexpected about the game or its engine? If so please elaborate.

Mike: Oh yes there were surprises, though mostly small ones. They are mostly technical in nature, such as wasting space in files for no apparent reason, having values that the engine no longer uses, render order of particles, file enumeration for AI XMLs, and so on. But most surprises are of the "hey, that's neat" instead of the "d'oh!" kind. The game engine, despite having several things annoyingly hardcoded, is overall really quite neat and elegant, from what I can tell. Unfortunately, not many of these things translate into things the average modder can get excited about.

z3r0x: What was your biggest challenge or hurdle to overcome regarding the EaW/FoC game and or engine so far to date?

Mike: I would have to say reverse engineering the particle file format. Since there was no editor for it and obviously no documentation, I had to painstakingly change value by value in a hex editor, fire up the Map Editor, see what effect the change had and from that figure out what the property did. This worked well for some of the elementary properties such as color or velocity, but the more exotic options took quite a while to figure out. Combine this with complex interaction between certain properties and the fact that some properties are simply not even used by the game engine, and it made for quite a challenging task. I do have to thank Greg Hjelstrom from Petroglyph for being so kind as to help me resolve some of the more obscure properties.

z3r0x: So what is next on the agenda for you? Care to share any ideas or thoughts about your next project or projects?

Mike: I still want to finish my Map Editor, to improve upon Petroglyph's Map Editor. I am, also working on a Lua decompiler which will allow the FoC story luas to be decompiled. After that, I believe the modding community has all its bases covered. My focus has also shifted to Universe at War, Petroglyph's upcoming game Mytheon and any future games which may be based off the same engine. There's always plenty to do to keep me busy.

z3r0x: We have gotten a great insight into your background, and the work you have put into the game, we would be interested in getting your take on the modding community as a whole for EaW/FoC? What do you see are its biggest challenges and obstacles? Also, what are the good things about the community that you like? If you could change something about the community what would it be?

Mike: EaW/FoC is a great game to mod, if you accept its limitations. Although I do not quite keep my finger on the pulse of the community, I can say that it looks like it will be here a while. The fact that EaW/FoC is stilled played and modded is a testament to their success. I've played a mod or two and they looked and played very nice, so I'm sure many great things will still come from that. I like the enthusiasm that is still alive in the community, and that people will help new modders get into the game. Unfortunately, as I understand it, there's somewhat a lack of animators or other artists. The count seems to be rather swayed towards XML modders, which is a shame, because the XML parts are easy enough to be done by a fraction of those. So if I could change anything, I'd inject more artists into the community.

z3r0x: What is your opinion on Petroglyphs support of the modding community? How has Petroglyph been towards you in regards to the work you have done on the game? Have they offered you a job? If they did would you take it? Would you like to have the creative freedom you have now or would you like to work for someone else?

Mike: Petroglyph can only support the community to the extent that the publishers tell them they can. Ultimately, Petroglyph cannot justify time and other expenses on support for a game if the publisher does not agree. But I am sure that given the chance, Petroglyph is very supportive of the modding community. Their current actions have already shown that the intent is there. As for me and my tools, they essentially don't mind. I have received some help now and then, in the rare cases where I asked for it. And while they haven't offered me a job (I do want to finish my Ph.D first, anyway), I'd seriously consider it if they did. And yes, I would like the creative freedom, but that's ignoring the reality of a game programmer's job, which is subject to deadlines, contracts and priorities.

z3r0x: If Petroglyph came to you and offered you the chance to change one thing about the engine what would it be?

Mike: I would change some of the things that are currently hardcoded in order to, for instance, better allow multiple factions or use certain AI code more easily. Don't get me wrong, the engine is quite nice, it's just that some of the hardcoded things limit modders. Things which would have been trivial to fix, had anyone thought about it. It is quite frustrating to realize that.

z3r0x: You told me recently you have gotten into modding the game besides just creating tools for the community. Are there any mods coming out that you are looking forward to either to play personally or as a bolster to the community?

Mike: Unfortunately I don't keep track of all (or even some of) the mods out there, so if I were to play a mod it'd be because I would happen to notice a release announcement on some forum. And as a shameless plug, I am part of Ultimate Empire at War, so I'm of course excited to see that one released. But it too suffers from an overall lack of artists.

z3r0x: If you could sum up in one word your experiences working in the community, and on the various project you have completed, what would that word be?

Mike: Educational. It has been a great learning experience for me. As I mentioned earlier, from a programmer's point of view, until this community, my programs were never used by anyone but myself or certain friends. To get the feedback from the community, to see what they do with them, and hear what they want has been fascinating and inspirational.

z3r0x: Mike, this has been wonderful of you to share your thoughts on such a wide array of topics and subjects, is there anything you would like to say to the community before we end this interview? Is there any advice you can give to aspiring programmers, and or modders?

Mike: You just need to get right in and do it. You cannot learn anything without doing it You may fail at first but you cannot succeed without failure.

z3r0x: Mike, keep up the good work and on behalf of the whole EAWFiles team we would like to thank you for this exclusive insight into your opinions and workings of the Empire at War game and Community. I am sure the public will greatly appreciate this.

z3r0x: You can download any or all of Mike’s wonderful and helpful tools at the following location: http://modtools.petrolution.net/

~z3r0x~ ~EAWFiles News Poster~

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