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31st January 2020
Building Death Rally's Freeware Version
[A Conversation With Jari Komppa]

In 1996, Remedy released their debut title, Death Rally, a top-down racer which challenged players to rise through the ranks in the hope of facing the Adversary.

Following the success of their initial game, the studio expanded and changed its goals, moving to focus on more narrative-centered titles where it released Max Payne to an incredible reception. By 2009, things were looking quite different for the developers; the studio had changed logos, released three games, sold the rights to Max Payne, moved offices, and was now in the final months before the launch of their psychological action-thriller, Alan Wake

Still, as development was wrapping up on Alan Wake, Remedy would make a surprise return to its original IP, with an unexpected reveal.

Thirteen years after the launch of Death Rally, Jari Komppa contacted Remedy with the proposal of working with the studio in making the game open-source. If accepted, the project would allow the original source code to be made freely available with the potential for modification.

Screenshot from the Windows edition of Death Rally. Taken by Picard, posted on MobyGames.

At the time, Jari was working on OpenGL ES drivers for Qualcomm, and was no stranger to keeping projects under wraps. In a recent email conversation, we spoke to him about what it was like working on the project, and what led him to contact Remedy, "since absolutely everything I did at work was under NDA or possibly several, I did hobby projects just to have something to talk to about friends with... One of those hobbies was to try to get old games running on modern machines. I'd send emails to companies asking them to open source old games for culture preservations' sake, and I was pretty used to not getting replies at all. In some other cases, I'd get to talk with developers of some games I loved, including the downright force of nature of Sean Bennett, who had worked at Looking Glass Studios."

Ahead of contacting Remedy, Jari had established a long of previous projects including titles released alongside Death Rally, "I wrote a VESA VBE driver for windows console in order to be able to run Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri. VESA VBE was a VGA BIOS extension that let DOS programs access SVGA resolutions in a more or less standard way." Some of these projects also saw international collaboration, "since the driver I wrote was generic, it's been used to run other programs as well. I was contacted by some eastern European school who used it to run some old scientific software. I also wrote a bunch of hacks to be able to run old windows versions of Wing Commander games on modern windows, by converting old DirectDraw calls into OpenGL."

When it came to Death Rally, Jari had known the team from back in the mid-nineties. At that point Death Rally was still referred to by its original name, Hispeed, a change brought in just prior to launch in July 1996. "I actually saw DR in prototype form when I visited Remedy at some point while they were still a basement company... All of the Remedy folk back then had a demoscene background like I do. I don't know how many of the original people still work there, so I don't know if this background helped."

Screenshot from the DOS edition of Death Rally. Taken by B.L Stryker, posted on MobyGames.

At the time his email came in, there were still most of the old team around including Sam Lake (then Lead Writer), Sami Vanhatalo (then Lead Technical Artist), Petri Järvilehto (then Creative Director), Markus Mäki (CTO) and Kim Salo (then Core Technology Programmer). While it's not known for certain, given their roles, it's likely some of those original members were involved in the internal discussions regarding Jari's open-source proposal. "Death Rally was one of the games I had loved back when they were new... I've tried to get a bunch of different games to be open-sourced with fairly little success. I don't know if I just got lucky with Remedy, contacted the right person at the right time, if my reputation with them helped, or any combination of the above. Maybe it was the fact I'm a fellow Finn."

Even still, in our conversation, he admits that "I did not expect a reply from them either on my request to open source Death Rally, but instead I got a 'maybe'." Though things didn't quite go as originally hoped, "eventually we got to the conclusion that Remedy doesn't want to release the source code. From an intellectual property point of view, I understand - it's their property, they can do whatever they want with it - but if it was a matter of not wanting to show what a mess old source code was, they wouldn't have had to worry. The codebase was surprisingly clean for its age (and the age of the programmers that had written it!)." Remedy, however, was open to the possibility of releasing a freeware version of the game, and in July 2009, Jari downloaded the source package to see what could be done.

While Jari had to sign an NDA while working on the project, the strictness of it slightly relaxed as in early October, news that Remedy had filed a new Death Rally trademark was picked up by media outlets, prompting Oskari "Ozz" Häkkinen (Head of Franchise, a role now referred to as Communications Director) to release a statement on behalf of the studio. "There are quite a few fans of Death Rally out there and over the years Remedy has been hit by various requests time and again to do something around it," Oskari said. "With Death Rally we're looking at getting something neat out to the community by having a version that is playable on modern PCs out there. This is more of a sweet small thing for people, rather than a full-scale commercial project at this point. We've really enjoyed playing some of the classic games that we have grown up with, and having the opportunity to revisit Death Rally and to share those memories with the fans and community would simply just be cool." The launch would only be a few days later on October 20th. 

Screenshot from the Windows edition of Death Rally. Taken by Picard, posted on MobyGames.

Even as a hobby, work on the game was quick. It took only four months from receiving the original source package to the launch of the freeware version, which saw the game ported from DOS to Windows, allowing fans who couldn't run the game before the chance to check it out. Unfortunately, a redesign of the Remedy website a few years ago has since removed the place where fans could check out the game for free, but gamers who want to relieve the classic can now check out the title on Steam.

Looking back on the project, Jari reflected on some of the decisions that he had made during the project, specifically about some of the bugs that he decided to tackle and those that he intentionally left. "Sure there were bugs, even some crash bugs that would be total release blockers today, but I doubt many people found them back then. For example, you could wiggle your way between a couple of buildings in some map to get out of bounds, which would cause the game to render outside the framebuffer, which, because this was pure software rendering meant a buffer overrun and would promptly crash the game. I fixed some of these, but largely opted to keep the game as close to the original as possible."

One of the features of the original Death Rally, and an aspect that the team had originally wanted to continue with later games, was multi-player. In the freeware version of the game, the focus was entirely on the single-player experience, but very intentionally, as Jari describes, "some bits of the source code were missing, so I had to reverse engineer some bits to get things going. I've described this in the game developer magazine article, but one pretty large chunk that didn't exist that I'd like to mention was the networking library. This was something that Remedy had licensed from outside, so they never even had the source code. Reimplementing the library (which was IPX based, not modern networking) to work on the internet would have been about as much work as the whole porting process itself, so that bit was dropped from the project."

Screenshot from the Windows edition of Death Rally. Taken by Picard, posted on MobyGames.

In October 2009, Remedy released the freeware edition of Death Rally on their website and forums, and gave permission for Jari to write about his work for the April 2010 edition Game Developer Magazine, who in turn gave him permission to post the article on his site a few months later. In the piece, Jari describes in-depth the technical challenges faced during the project and neatly breaks down his experience with the source code. The magazine has unfortunately since been discontinued, but the article is preserved in full on Jari's website

Following the launch of the title and Jari's involvement on the project, Qualcomm had initial concerns about their employee's involvement on the project, fearing that he had been working on something that could include something patentable. The situation was soon dropped though and with no further development.

Work hurdles aside, Jari still has a very positive outlook on the project, "working with the Death Rally source code was fun, and the whole project let me learn a bunch of things. Having to reverse-engineer the compression stuff, for example, lead down several rabbit holes I likely wouldn't have gone otherwise, and converting all those assembler functions into C taught me x86 assembly on a whole new level; well enough, actually, that I started noticing optimization opportunities in the routines I was converting. Nothing dramatic, and a couple decades too late in any case."

Screenshot from the Windows edition of Death Rally. Taken by Picard, posted on MobyGames.

As for future projects, he has a few ideas, "I'd still love to get my hands on Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri sources, but the unfortunate fact of life is that game development was even more of a wild west back then and things like source control wasn't a standard thing. And even if the source code was found on some old hard drive one day, the rights to the games are splintered around the world in hands of creditors who probably don't even know they own something. In other cases the rights have ended up with giants like EA or Ubisoft, who don't reply to these emails at all. Looking at it from their perspective, it would cost them actual money to research whether they own something, so why should they go through that trouble just to give it away?" And as for Death Rally, "I still wouldn't mind if Remedy wanted to open source Death Rally, and I'd gladly help them with that if they wanted."

A huge thank you to Jari Komppa for taking the time to talk to us!

You can follow his adventures on his website or through Twitter at @Sol_HSA! To read more about how he brought the freeware edition to live, read his Game Developer Magazine article, HERE!


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