Interview with Scamper

Sep 12th, 2020 at 12:00

Worlds Chat was the original service provided by Worlds Inc. for what we know now as or WorldsPlayer. Worlds Chat was the foundation and a huge portion of the current Worlds has derived from the original work. The developers and artists were passionate about the project.

I did a short interview with one of the artists and designers for Worlds Chat, Jeff "Scamper" Robinson. He was one of the artists for the space theme in many of the older worlds, and has definitely kept with that after all these years. Feel free to check out his author site, where he is still running with the sci-fi.

Q: How did you land your position on working on Worlds and becoming the artist?

I'd already been working with Photoshop for a few years by then, so I moved out to CA in late '94 with the idea that I'd find a job in gaming or the like.

One of my then-girlfriend's friends was Helen Cho, whose name you probably recognize. She's the one who put me in touch with Dave Marvit about a designer role at Worlds. I'm not sure how she knew him, but at the time she had no intention of working at Worlds herself. So I went in and interviewed, and the rest is history. (Later on, when we wanted to scale up the company, I told Helen she should come in too. And that's when she joined. We both ended up working on Worlds Chat, among other things.)

Q: What was it like working on Worlds?

It's probably the best job I've ever had. The amount of creativity and camaraderie was off the charts. You could say that we were flying blind somewhat, but that's what made things so fun. As testament to that, many of us are still in touch, even though we've scattered to the winds. I probably have some contact with ex-Worlders at least once a week.

Q: How did you come up with the space theme for Worlds? Was this already a decided factor before you began work?

I'm a sci-fi geek, and the office was absolutely packed with people like me. A lot of Cal Tech nerds. The Diamond Age had just come out in 1995, and it swept through the office, and that was definitely influential. It helped to get us thinking about incorporating elements of sci-fi into an online experience. (It wasn't just that book, but that was one influence.)

Regardless, a lot of the textures I was making tended to lean toward tech anyway, so having a sci-fi playground to play in just let me run wild. I'm pretty sure-though I may be misremembering this-that the idea of a space station hub was my idea. The teleports may have been too, but I can't be sure. Regardless, early on there was the idea of making the environment extensible, and the teleports were a good mechanism to support that.

Later on we Brough Helen Cho to the design team, and her aesthetic was much more organic and flamboyant-which was great. She was able to bring in this whole other aesthetic.

Q: Any interesting stories behind any specific texture or avatar?

I had so many penguins littering my desk that I had to make a penguin avatar. I was the penguin guy. (Never be known as the _ guy, or you'll never be able to escape it.) If course the limitations of the platform at the time made flat "facer" avatars a real challenge, but we pushed the tech to its limits. (This is well before we, on the WC team, started flirting with the Alpha World engine, which was more versatile in many ways.)

For textures though our color palette was super-limited, and every piece had to be (at least in the beginning) 256x256, regardless of its size in the world. So that made patterns and seams and alpha channels a whole separate challenge. But that was part of the fun too. My aesthetic (usually) was to make things look a bit worn, but also part of the environment. We had to bake in all the lighting effects, so I remember lining up light source textures with the glows on the floor tiles.

Simple example:

But there were other times when I could go kinda crazy with the Photoshop layers (which were still a novelty back then) and lighting cues, like this:

And I really enjoyed creating little texture variations to make spaces seem less monotonous:

Q: It's a question the Worlds community now has been asking for years. Who is Holden? Is he based on someone real or completely made up?

Argh, I wish I could provide some insight. I think we all dropped in some Easter eggs, so I'd have to ask around. I just searched my archive though, and I can't find any reference.

Q: Have you been on Worlds anytime recently?

That’s a funny question, but I have to say: I’ve always been a Mac guy, from the 80s, so even back in the Worlds days I was never able to get on Worlds Chat except for on the test machines at the office. But I used to work until ~ 2 AM, so I was on there a lot in those early days.

Q: Anything you would like to end this off with?

Always interesting to take a walk down memory lane. Feel free to check out my author site. I didn't give up the sci-fi after Worlds, I'm still running with it.

This was all quite fascinating to hear. Thank you Jeff for answering these.

Jeff is also an author, so be sure to check out his site here!