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Bleemcasting: An Interview With Bleemcast! Developer Randy Linden

As the amount of online articles and Tweets around the recent anniversary of the North American 9.9.99 release date illustrates, the Dreamcast is still very fondly remembered. While the scene continues to grow at a steady rate in terms of bootleg and independent game development, there are still a fascinating number of Dreamcast areas that remain either untouched or that haven't had their rich historical veins fully exposed. One of those areas that myself and others in Dreamcast fandom are fascinated by is the story of bleemcast!.
A bit of a throw forward, I have another article in the works about ‘Why I Dreamcast’ even though it’s fast approaching 2020; and a large part of that is a deeply personal and nostalgia-fuelled longing and sense of clinging to a certain place in time. The Dreamcast, as much as I love it, and despite my role here at The Dreamcast Junkyard is a console I am wilfully ignorant on compared to the other staff members. The main reason for this is that I had only owned the console for a mere 8 months when I packed up and left home for the bright lights of university. The console, therefore, existed for me during a stage of enforced self poverty. New (well, pre-owned) games I still managed to justify occasionally, but instant noodles and supermarket value bread were prioritised over games magazines; and the internet was something I went to the library to check for roughly 1 hour a week when hungover and between lectures (and even then was mainly to email friends who had gone to other universities...and nearly almost always simply to tell them how hungover I was). Anyway, what I am trying to paint a picture of is that my finger during the 2000-2004 era was hardly on the pulse of information about anything...let alone Dreamcast.


So for me, I didn’t learn about bleemcast! until way after the events of the Dreamcast had long transpired, and it was years later still that I actually discovered this had been an actual retail product, and wasn’t like my copy of DreamSnes that had been created and uploaded from some shed somewhere. This was instead a full-fledged and commercially available product release promoting legal emulation that allowed you to load PlayStation game discs on the Dreamcast, adding a load of graphical improvements along the way.
What all this leads up to then, is that I tracked down Randy Linden, a member of the original PC bleem! and Dreamcast bleemcast! team. I fired off some questions and Randy was kind enough to answer. Hopefully you will enjoy reading them as much I did, and will give an interesting insight into the development of one of the most notorious releases on the Dreamcast...

DCJY: Hi Randy, firstly thanks for agreeing to speak to us. Lots of other interviews I have read from you discuss your past developing DOOM for the Super Nintendo, and then bleem! for PC. What lead you to look to develop it for the Dreamcast?

Randy Linden: Actually, it was David Herpolsheimer, my brilliant bleem! partner who first suggested it - I think he knew it would be quite an accomplishment to have the PlayStation games running cross-platform on Sega's hardware and he initiated the contact with Sega.

Did you have any experience with the Dreamcast development scene when making that decision?

Not at all - I did some preliminary research into the hardware specs (SH4, PowerVR, etc.) and knew that the system could handle bleem! and based on what I found, bleemcast! could enhance the games that were running much more than what I had done on the PC.

Do you recall how David pitched this to you and the rest of the team?

I think he just said "What do you think about making bleem! work on Dreamcast?" one day on the phone - just part of our daily conversations - and I thought “Wow! Another awesome idea...let’s do it!”

Was there anything about working with the Dreamcast you either liked or disliked?

The DC was an awesome machine -- very powerful and versatile.  It's unfortunate that it didn't receive the same success as other platforms. The Hitachi SH4  was an unusual choice for a processor, but was very powerful and it made emulation easier because of some of the unique instructions and operations available through actual opcodes. For example, division was easier because the SH4 provided a handful of instructions that were intended to perform fast division – otherwise it would require writing software to perform division much more slowly. These days, processors have division instructions so you don’t need write extra code to perform simple (or even complex) math.


Did you own a Dreamcast? If so, what are your thoughts on it and what are either your favourite games or fondest memories?

Actually, I had a Dreamcast and bleem! (the company) had a few too - a European model so I could implement PAL support and a Japanese model as well. bleem! had a whole bunch of other Dreamasts that we colour-coded for each of the beta discs during development. I remember when I first got the code running and seeing the first game operational. It was very exciting, like making a new discovery. And two of my favourite games are Shenmue and Crazy Taxi.

Do you still have any Dreamcast gear today, either from that time or acquired since?

Somewhere I still have a few DCs and maybe some of the development hardware (GDROM burner, for example). I intend to donate all that stuff to one of the few game 'museums' The Video Game Project – this way the rich history and evolution of gaming can be preserved. Everything we do is based on all the things that someone has done before – and it would be a shame to lose that part of history because all that stuff is in storage instead of on display.

When did anyone at Sega first see bleemcast!? Who was it? (if you remember and can say!)

Hmm... Sega probably saw it a few months after I started development. I never visited Sega or met with anyone in person. David did the huge amount of work (and convincing) necessary, and he and Scott Karol (one of our amazing lawyers) flew to Japan and actually met with Sega's president and their board of directors! Yes, I was also invited, but I don't travel much and hate to fly, so I missed out on an incredible and generous opportunity...something I won't repeat in the future!
Oh wow! Very impressed they go to met the team at Sega Japan. Did they pass on how Sega reacted? Did they themselves foresee or have concerns about a rival platform's games on Sega hardware?

Sega invited bleem! to visit as both an honour and a courtesy – it wasn’t until after the visit that Sega decided that they couldn’t be directly involved in bleemcast! and allow us to publish it as an official title for a few reasons. That’s when I started to reverse-engineer the DC’s MIL-CD format, so we could still release the product without Sega’s official authorization.

I read a random comment on the internet that Sega were big fans of your work though, and went as far to make sure you received a Katana development kit. Is there any truth in that?

Yes, we had a Katana dev kit -- and a GDROM burner with a few blank discs.  I also received lots of very low-level hardware documentation from Sega and Imagination Technologies about the PowerVR chipset. Sega couldn’t really help us directly - we couldn't use any of the Sega libraries for obvious legal reasons, so the entire codebase was all low-level logic that handled the entire Dreamcast hardware system and components. Sega did provide all sorts of low-level docs that most developers probably didn’t receive (since they would be using the libraries and wouldn’t need them anyway!) and this enabled me to write our own code. They didn't promote us officially, but I remember at the E3 conference at Sega’s press announcement they mentioned bleemcast! and everyone there was clapping and cheering for us. That was pretty neat.


That's really amazing. When you say the Sega libraries, what do you mean by that?

The libraries are the software that provides a way to 'talk' to the hardware. For example, a library might provide a function that you call when you want to draw a polygon to the screen. We couldn't use Sega's libraries because that could implicitly make Sega 'connected' and liable to bleem! for allowing us to create the product. This was a lot of work to write our own libraries but we didn't want Sega to be sued by anyone! We did receive lower-level technical information from Sega, so we had to write our own code that would draw a polygon on the screen by 'talking' to the PowerVR and other chips directly.

That sounds like a monumental amount of work. How was the technical side of the programming completed then? Was it just you working on that?

I did the initial prototyping and proof-of-concept work and once I had things operational, Rod Maher, a brilliant programmer (who wrote Fraps!) joined bleem! to help complete the project. It was a lot more work than we originally anticipated, but I think the results (particularly with respect to the graphics support) were worthwhile. The resulting bleemcast! also supported all the Sega controllers, VMUs, etc. plus the bleemPods and bleemPads – and all that took a large amount of code (and work!)

Initially bleemcast! was going to be a multi-game emulator, but was then spilt down to 3 separate individual games (Metal Gear Solid, Tekken 3 and Gran Turismo 2). What was the process involved in deciding those particular games to be the first? Were there any others considered for that first batch?

The initial idea was to have three separate discs that would generically run large blocks of games, but once we saw the improvements that could be made on a per-game basis we started thinking about individual games. Everyone has their favourite title, but the latest PlayStation games had started to push Sony's hardware at a lower level and it became a choice of either supporting more games or supporting fewer that were significantly enhanced. We chose the latter, obviously. These days, backwards compatibility support on various systems (and software) does the same thing – enhance the game from the earlier generation. But bleem! was one of the first projects to actually accomplish it, both on PC and Dreamcast.
This may be the fanboy in me, but do you and the guys ever feel this accomplishment is under-appreciated in the games community? I mean it's remarkable to think about it, as like you say it's not just the compatibility, but the enhancements, all running on a non-native console. That is pretty staggering.

I don't think under-appreciated is the right term. I think most people recognize the achievement that bleem! and bleemcast! both represented. One of my life’s proudest achievements will always be the fact that bleem! was instrumental in legalizing emulation in the US.

The initial sales of bleemcast! looked extremely promising from reports and historical news I’ve dug up, and the bleem! pads and convertors were announced. How far along did the work on them go?

The bleemPads (PlayStation-style controllers) and bleemPods (so you could use actual PlayStation peripherals) were David's idea as well. He did a huge amount of work with a Japanese (or maybe Taiwanese) company and they were both 100% completed. We actually received fully operational samples that are still out there somewhere. If I recall correctly, we didn't see much in the way of orders, another company made a 'third party' bleemPod that looked sort-of similar, so I made sure it worked the same as the original hardware we had designed.
Fascinating - I wasn't actually aware any of those units were produced. Do you recall roughly how many were around? I like to hope there are some out there in someone's collection, or maybe stashed away in a box in a garage!

There weren’t many produced because the bleemPods and bleemPads were still in the prototype stage. Everything was ready to go, but the demand wasn’t there and so we put those on the back-burner. I do still have some of the hardware (smiley face!). There are probably five total units in the world.
What did you have lined up for after those first 3 bleemcast! discs were released? Prior to the Sony intervention I mean. Was there a roadmap or anything like that?

The decision was mostly to choose very well-known titles from different genres that were premier PlayStation titles. That way we knew that the bleemcast! version would be something really special.  While there were lots of other titles that technically ran OK, the three bleemcast! games we settled on - Gran Turismo 2, Tekken 3 and Metal Gear Solid - are actually optimized for specific things that each of the titles is doing in the hardware, so the improvements are far more noticeable that in some of the other games.


Have you ever returned to or tinkered with bleemcast! since?

A couple days ago I came across some of my Dreamcast bleemcast! notes and found the low-level details of a hardware bug I discovered in the PowerVR. There was a setting that 'offset' the pixel centers by 0.5 pixels. Some hardware treats pixels as squares with the center of the square at the intersection of coordinate lines, other hardware considers a pixel as in the middle of the square itself...this hardware setting was used to let the hardware know where the 'center'  of the pixel is supposed to be and is important because standards for pixel centers vary between APIs (OpenGL vs. DirectX for example). The PowerVR hardware is extremely complex and has multiple 'stages' that process polygons in blocks of 32x32 pixels called 'tiles.'

In one of the bleemcast! games, the game kept hanging and appeared stuck. It took a couple days to track down that the problem was with the centering option and polygons that lie across two separate tiles, but only just barely. One part of the PowerVR considers a particular pixel as 'included,' but another part considers the same pixel as 'excluded,' so the hardware gets confused and hangs completely.
When I figured out what was going on, I wondered why no Dreamcast games exhibited the problem...and it turns out that they do! I reverse-engineered one of the Sega Dreamcast libraries and the way they avoid the bug is to simply detect when the PowerVR hardware is 'stuck' for a frame or two, then they reset the hardware and unless the game running sends down the exact same polygon list to the hardware, you'll never see the problem!

Since I couldn't use any of the Sega libraries, I didn't know about their workaround for the hardware bug until I uncovered and debugged it myself...as you can imagine, it was a huge pain.

Wow - I'm very impressed to hear this. As I'm sure you know, a version of bleemcast! was leaked online years ago, and several compatibility lists are kicking around. In theory, could the discovery you mention mean potential fixes to the games people have reported trying and either don't run or have issues?

Well, sort of – each bleemcast! disc was different so that they could enhance and optimize each title specifically – The titles that we supported did lots of complex things, but often in different ways, so the three bleemcast! discs each had optimizations that were 'tuned' to the particular title intended.
Put another way, each bleemcast! disc knew how the game it was emulating did certain things, so if you tried to do that with other titles your results could vary significantly depending on which bleemcast! disc you used.
After bleem!, the team all seemed to go their separate ways. Do you still keep in touch with any of them?

Actually, we’ve all lost touch with each other. I’ve previously tried to find the bleem! team, but have only managed to stay in touch with Rod Maher, the other programmer.

Maybe this article can help to change that! What was your own journey since bleem! and what are you currently doing?

After bleem! I wrote an indie title called Cyboid that was a Quake-like 3D first person shooter game originally for the Game Boy Advance, then for Nokia Symbian phones; and then I worked for Microsoft for almost ten years. While at Microsoft I was part of the Xbox team that worked on the development kits, Kinect and Microsoft Band.

Lately, I’ve been an indie developer again with Cyboid for Amazon Fire devices and Android hardware. My current work is at www.randrdigital.com.

Cyboid itself is free and there are in-app items and subscriptions that people can purchase.
Are you aware there is still a fairly dedicated Dreamcast community and independent developers still support the Dreamcast with new games? And if you could have brought any other PlayStation game across, what would it have been?

I was very surprised and happy to find that people are still creating games for the Dreamcast. It’s an amazing machine. Games wise, I was always a huge fan of the Spyro the Dragon series. And also the Crash Bandicoot series. In both series, the graphics were amazing and really pushed the hardware, so that alone made me a huge fan of those titles.

Finally, are you aware that the programme that was created to allow people to change and alter the recently released 'Playstation Classic' console, is called 'AutoBleem'? Just wondered if you had spotted that and wondered how that clear nod to you and the bleem! team makes you feel?

I’m quite flattered that people are using the bleem! name - it is an honour to the memory of the whole bleem! team, how hard we all worked and what we accomplished.

***

So there we have it. Huge thanks to Randy for taking the time to speak to us, and if any of the former bleem! team are reading, please get in touch so we can help to reunite you! Thanks also to Mike Phelan for supplying the images of the various bleemcast! discs, and thanks to Tom Charnock for taking most of his Sunday afternoon out to edit my article and remove all the ridiculous formatting errors I still included, even though he told me at least a thousand times how to do it.

If you had/have bleemcast! - either the bootleg multi-game version or any of the 'official' single game versions that were released, feel free to let us know in the comments below; and if you happen to have any of the bleemPods or controllers then we would love to hear from you and see photos!

Follow Randy on Twitter, and while you're at it, find The Dreamcast Junkyard on Twitter, Facebook and iTunes.

11 comments:

  1. Excellent article and what a great interviewee Randy is. It would be lovely to get him back involved in our community again, my friends over at Joshprod would make great use of his skill set.

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  2. Fantastic article Kev. Thanks also to Randy for sharing his memories!

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  3. Let's get a Dreamcast port of Cyboid! :D Would be so cool to have something from Rand again.

    Excellent interview guys. I am also stoked to hear there are still other bleempod prototypes out there since the only one we ever saw got sold about 10 years ago.

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  4. That was a great read. I didn't know SEGA was open to this at one point.

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  5. This was such a great read! Thank you Kev for inviting Randy here! I wish he could release his later betas of the emulator, so the community could get more games running. Heck, doing it anonymously would be great too. The community could do a lot more with a later beta release than the one that was leaked.

    Recently a homebrew developer by the name of megavolt85 who worked on Dreamshell, has released a new front-end menu for GDEMU the optical drive emulator for the Dreamcast console. This menu actually allows us to load up PSX iso's from an SD card on real hardware with custom cover art, and reconfigured the controls to work much better, making the D-pad remapped to the analog stick, and L2 and R2 and Select are mapped to the D-pad itself. This makes way more Bleem beta games playable. Future releases plan on getting FMV's working, as well as implementing cheat code support like entering Action Replay codes as well as possibly using the later hacked retail Bleem binaries to run more games upping the compatibility.

    If you guys want to find out more about the amazing Bleemshell project, and what is in store for the future, please give it a follow here.

    https://www.obscuregamers.com/threads/bleemshell-new-gdemu-menu-for-playing-psx-games-on-dc.970/

    Whenever there is a new version of the menu, or other developments I will post it in the thread.

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  6. Great article and lovely to hear from Rand again.

    Many years back he used to pop up on a few forums like DC Emulation (along with Rod who appeared less frequently) and it was always great hearing from people with so much experience of working with the Dreamcast in its heydey.

    I remember buying the GT2 disc when it came out in the card sleeve then thinking big things were coming when the MGS release had a jewel case!

    I'm glad to hear he is still doing his own thing and sounds like he is enjoying himself.

    Top work.

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  7. Since these guys won the lawsuit with Sony, is there a particular reason why Randy or any other of the programmers who have access to other bleemcast software couldn't dump them for the community or rather help guide a hand to optimize the code we have now?

    I mean it's clear there's a huge community that would appreciate any insight or help with what we have.

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  8. I remember reading in an interview with one of the developers who was more heavily involved with the Dreamcast version that he really, really wished that Dreamcast fans could see just how far they really got with Bleemcast, but truly felt that he should not and could not because of Sony. I don't think he's ever gone too deep into specifics, maybe because he doesn't even feel like he can publicly talk about it, but it really seemed like they would release it if they felt like they safely could. Makes you wonder if there wasn't some kind of agreement behind the scenes or something.

    Anyway, I don't think I'd ever seen the Bleem! Pads before. Really makes you think about what could've been.

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  9. RE: inCahoots

    Actually, come to think about it (two seconds after pressing "send" on my last comment, of course), it might have to do with the fact that members of the Bleem! Team are still in the industry. It might not be an issue of legal action, but of worsening a bad reputation with a huge industry player like Sony.

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  10. Thanks for the comments all. Glad people enjoyed reading it as much as I was enjoying making it and speaking to Rand.

    inCahoots - some of the Bleem team actually went on to work for Sony, and Randy himself worked for Xbox too, so probably is like you say.

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