Making Crash Bandicoot – part 4

PREVIOUS installment, or the FIRST POST.

[ NOTE, Jason Rubin added his thoughts to all the parts now, so if you missed that, back up and read the second half of each. ]

 

But this brings us to the gameplay. We were forging new ground here, causing a lot of growing pains. I started fairly programming the control of the main character early. This is the single most important thing in a CAG, and while intellectually I knew this from Way of the Warrior, it was really Mark who drove the message home. I did all the programming, but Mark helped a lot with the complaining. For example, “he doesn’t stop fast enough,” or “he needs to be able to jump for a frame or two AFTER he’s run off a cliff or it will be frustrating.” Jason’s also really good flaw detection. Which is a good thing. Internal criticism is essential, and as a programmer who wrote dozens of world class control schemes in the years between 1994 and 2004, I rewrote every one at least five or six times. Iteration is king.

Even after the control was decent, we still had no idea how to build good 3D gameplay with it. Our first two test levels “the jungle, level1” and “lava cave, level2” were abysmal, and neither shipped in the final game. First of all, they were too open with way too many polygons. Level1 had over 10 million, whereas a shipping level tended to have around a million (a lot back then). Level2 was better, but not much.

So during the summer of 1995 we retrenched and tried to figure out how to make a level that was actually fun. The F word is the most important concept in making games. Too many forget this.

But Mark – who served the practical function of producer – never let us.

By this time most of the art design for the game was complete, including the vast layout of possible looks and levels, but we skipped to about 2/3 through and used Cortex’s factory levels to really focus on fun. Our first successful level was essentially 2D (“Heavy Machinery”). It was all rendered in 3D, but the camera watched from the side like a traditional platformer. Here we combined some classic devices like steam vents, drop platforms, bouncy pads, hot pipes, and monsters that tracked back and forth in simple patterns. This was in essence a retreat to success, as it employed the basic kind of techniques that Donkey Kong Country had used so successfully. This palate of objects would be arranged in increasingly more difficult combination.

It worked. Thank God.

Simultaneously, we were working on a more ambitious level where the camera sat above and “Willie” walked both into/out and side to side (“Generator Room”). This factory level included drop platforms, moving platforms, dangerous pipes, and various robots. By using a more mechanical setting, and briefly forgoing the complex organic forest designs we were able to distill this two axis gameplay and make it fun. In both areas we had to refine “Willie’s” jumping, spinning, and bonking mechanics.

We then got our third type of level working (“Cortex Power”). This involved having the camera behind the character, over his shoulder, in the original “Sonic’s ass” POV that had faired miserably with level1 and level2. By taking some of the new creatures and mechanics, and combining them with hot pipes and slime pits we were able to make it work in this more factory-like setting.

Having learned these lessons, we turned back to the jungle design with a new jungle level, known as “levelc” (“Jungle Rollers”). This used some of the pieces from the failed level1, but arranged as a corridor between the trees, much like the over-the-shoulder factory level. Here we utilized pits, skunks on paths, stationary plants, and rollers to create the palate of obstacles. With this level the into-the-screen gameplay really came into its own, and it remains one of my favorite levels. Each element served its purpose.

Rollers (big stone wheels that could crush the player, and rolled from side to side) provided timing gates. They could be doubled or tripled up for more challenge.

Skunks traveled down the path tracking back and forth toward the player, requiring him to attack them or jump over them.

Fallen logs, tikis, and pits needed to be jumped over.

Stationary plants could strike at the player, requiring one to tease them into a strike, then jump on their heads.

Once we had these three level types going things really begun to get on a roll. For each level art design, like jungle, we would typically do 2-3 levels, the first with the introductory set of challenges, and then the later ones adding in a few new twists combined at much harder difficulty. For example in the sequel to the jungle level we added drop platforms and moving platforms. The elements combined with the characters mechanics to form the fun.

It’s also worth noting that we stumbled onto a few of our weirder (and most popular) level designs as variants of the over-the-shoulder. First “Boulders,” aping that moment from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the giant stone ball starts rolling toward Indy. For this we reversed the action and had the character run into the screen. This proved so successful that we riffed on it again in Crash 2 and 3. Same with “Hog Wild,” in which the character jumps on the bag of a wild “hog ride” and is dragged at high speed through a frenetic series of obstacles.

Jason says:

Making games is no game.  So many aspiring designers think that all you do is come up with a great idea and the sit around and play.  That may be true if you are aping something that exists, like making just another first person shooter (this time in ancient Sumeria and with Demon Aliens!), or making something small and easy to iterate, but it is certainly NOT true when you are trying something new in the AAA space.

And to make matters worse, the LAST person who can attest to a good game design is the game designer.  Not only do they know what to do when they test it, but they are also predisposed to like it.

Oh no, the proper test is to hand it to a complete noob, in Crash’s case the ever rotating list of secretaries and clerical staff that worked at Universal.   For many of them it was their first time touching a controller, and they succeeded immediately in failing, miserably, to get a single challenge passed.  As they smiled and tried to be positive they were saying “this sucks” with their hands.  Thus a good designer has to both dread and seeks out other people’s advice, especially those most likely to hate the work he has done.  And the designer has to accept the third party opinion over theirs.  Every time.  Only when the noobs start completing challenges and smile WHILE PLAYING do you know you are getting somewhere.

I don’t know why, but I have always had an innate ability to see the flaws in my own projects, even after they are “final” in everyone else’s eyes.   Naughty Dog graphic engine coder Greg Omi, who joined for Crash 2, once said I could spot a single pixel flicker on his monitor at 30 yards while holding a conversation with someone else and facing the opposite direction.  Whatever it is, I get a weird frustrated sweat when I see something wrong.  Mark Cerny has the same “talent.”

The two of us were always unhappy with the gameplay.  I don’t mean just the early gameplay, I mean always unhappy with the gameplay, period.  I know in retrospect that I was to hard on the team quite often because of this, and that perhaps more often than not I was too poignant when voicing my frustration (letting myself of easy here!), but I think a certain amount of frustration and pain is inherent in making gameplay success.

Stripping the game down to familiar 2D, and then building from there to levels that contained only platforms floating in space was the crutch we used to get to the jungle levels that made Crash such a success.  In the end, these levels aren’t that different in gameplay design.  But starting with the Jungle was too big a leap.  We needed simple.  Upon simple we built complex.

Andy has done a good job of compressing a year of design hell into a blog-sized chunk.  With all our technical and art successes, the game could not have succeeded without good gameplay.  This was by far the hardest part of making Crash Bandicoot.

Dave and Andy’s code, Justin’s IT and coloring, Charlotte Francis’s textures, And Bob, Taylor and my backgrounds and characters would have been worth nothing if Crash hadn’t played well.

Jason, Andy, Dave, Bob, Taylor, Justin, Charlotte

CONTINUED in PART 5 or

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Making Crash Bandicoot – part 2

CONTINUED FROM PART 1 ABOVE.

So what was it that Sega and Nintendo had in 1994, but Sony didn’t?

An existing competing mascot character. Sega had Sonic and Nintendo had Mario (even if the N64 was just a rumor at that point). But Sony product slate was blank.

So we set about creating a mascot on the theory that maybe, just maybe, we might be able to slide into that opening. I’m still surprised it worked.

The first real Crash

Next we had to find a creature to hang our hopes on. We wanted to do what Sega had done with the hedgehog and Warner Bros had done with the Tasmanian Devil and find some kind of animal that was cute, real, and no one really knew about. We bought a copy of “Tasmanian Mammals – a field guide” and flipped through. The Wombat, Potoroo, and Bandicoot fit the bill. For the meantime we went with Willie the Wombat, as both Jason and I like alliteration. We never considered it a real name as it was too dorky. And just a month or so later someone told us about some other non-game property with the same name, so it remained a working title. By October 1994 the character was a Bandicoot as far as we were concerned.  We loved the word, but we kept calling him Willie, and the game Willie the Wombat until spring of 1996. It wasn’t really worth it to sort out a final name – some marketing department would probably change it anyway.

In September and October of 1994 we were busy trying to figure out who this Willie guy was. We felt he should be goofy and fun loving, and never talk — on the theory that voices for video game characters were always lame, negative, and distracted from identification with them.

But the villain gelled faster than the hero.

Dr. Neo Cortex -- pissed

I remember it clearly. The four of us were eating at this mediocre Italian near Universal and I had this idea of an evil genius villain with a big head. Obviously brainy cartoon villains have big heads. He was all about his attitude and his minions. Video games need lots of minions. Jason had become very fond of Pinky and the Brain and we imagined a more malevolent Brain with minions like the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A villain, all full of himself, unable to conceive of ever doing anything the simple way, but constantly (in his eyes) betrayed by the incompetence of his henchmen.

I put on my silly villain voice and intoned, “If you had three neurons between you, you couldn’t make a triangle!” With this attitude, his name, Doctor Neo Cortex, popped instantly into our heads.

For “Willie” was to be – in our minds – a game that tried to combine the game play of Mario or Donkey Kong Country with the animation and cartoon sensibility of a Looney Tunes or Tex Avery cartoon.

To that effect, we took the very unusual step of hiring real “Hollywood” cartoon designers to help with the visual part of the production. This was Mark’s idea at first, although Jason and I saw the brilliance of it immediately. In those days we were enamored with the idea blending the best of Hollywood into game making – creative synergy if you will. In the long run, we would be disabused of much of the synergy notion. However, production design, sound design, voice acting, and later motion capture, were to be the areas in which Hollywood resources proved valuable to video game teams.

A Crash that wasn't

The guys we brought on were Charles Zembillas and Joe Pearson. Charles was principally character, and Joe background. These two were instrumental in developing the look of Crash Bandicoot, particularly prior to us hiring Bob Rafei in January 1995. Bob was an extremely talented young artist who would eventually come to head the art design at Naughty Dog. But in 1994, what Charles and Joe did was provide the fleshing out, or visualization, of ideas pitched mostly by Jason, myself, or Mark. In essence, they translated into cartoon sensibility.

Charles in particular was a very fast sketch artist, with a real knack for capturing cartoon emotion. So we would just say things like, “Cortex has a huge head but a tiny body, he’s a mad scientist, and he dresses a bit like a Nazi from the Jetsons” and in 2 minutes he’d have a gray and blue pencil sketch. We might then say, “less hair, goofier, crazier” and he’d do another sketch. Repeat.

The jungle, concept

Joe did the same for the backgrounds, but as landscapes have more lines, on a slightly longer time scale. Given that “Willie” was Tasmanian we set him on a mysterious island where every possible kind of environment lurked. Evil geniuses like Dr. Cortex require island strongholds. So we had lots of environments to design. Jungles, power stations, creepy castles, evil natives, sunset temples, spooky caves, etc. At some point early on we hit on the “tiki” idea and thus: goofy Easter Island tikis everywhere.

 

Jason’s comments:

When we started designing Crash, or Willie as he was first known internally, we decided that there need be no connection between the real animal and the final design — hey, all mammals, uh marsupials.  A Wombat looks nothing like Crash.  He is closer to a Bandicoot, maybe, but that was pure luck.  Instead the design of the character was determined 51% by technical and visual necessity and 49% by inspiration.

A (very) partial list of the Necessities:

Why is Crash Orange?  Not because we liked it, but because it made the most sense.  First I created a list of popular characters and their colors.  Next I made a list of earthly background possibilities (forest, desert, beach, etc.) and then we strictly outlawed colors that didn’t look good on the screen.  Red, for example, tends to bleed horribly on old televisions.  At the time, everyone had old televisions, even if they were new!  Crash was orange because that was available.  There are no lava levels, a staple in character action games, because Crash is orange.  We made one in Demo, and that ended the lava debate.  It was not terribly dissimilar to trying to watch a black dog run in the yard on a moonless night.

Why is Crash’s face so large?  Because the resolution of the screen was so low.  Some people think we were inspired by the Tasmanian devilPerhaps, but it was the necessity of having features large enough to be discernable that caused us to push for the neckless look.  The move made it a little harder to turn his head, and created a very unique way of moving, but it let you see Crash’s facial expressions.  And that was to be very important.

Why does Crash have gloves, spots on his back, and a light colored chest?  Resolution, bad lighting models, and low polygon counts.  Those small additions let you quickly determine what part and rotation of Crash you were looking at based on color.  If you saw spots, it was his back.  Yellowish orange was the front.  As the hands and arms crossed the body during a run the orange tended to blend into muck.  But your eyes tracked the black gloves as they crossed Crash’s body and your mind filled in the rest.

We were wrestling with these design constraints the entire process.  Joe and Charles, with all their talent, were free to do anything that they could imagine on paper.  But Bob and I were the artists that eventually had to ground that back in the reality of calculator strapped to a TV that was the PlayStation 1.

Charles would hand us a sketch and we would start the math:  240 pixel high screen, character 1/6 to 1/4 of the screen height, character 40 to 60 pixels high, proposed hat 1/8 of height of Character, hat 5 to 6 pixels high, hat has stripes.  Striped hat won’t work because the stripes will be less than 1 pixel high.

Take the image Andy posted titled “A Crash that Wasn’t.”  I can tell you immediately that the tail and any kind of flappy strap was immediately shot down because it would have flickered on and off as the PlayStation failed to have pixels to show it.  And that little bit of ankle showing beneath the long pants would have been an annoying orange flicker every few frames around the bottom of his pants and shoes.  Shorter pants would have to prevail.  Crash did end up with a belly button, but it would be about 2x as big.

The first sketches of Crash as we know him

Charles would look at us like we were speaking SwahiliBut then he’d go off and draw something totally cool and all would be well.

Cortex had few of these issues.  We could make him totally improbable, un-animatable, and just keep him bigger on the screen.   He didn’t show up too often anyway.  He could never really walk with those short legs.  He had to do a weird thrusting tra-la-la dance.  But he looked cool so we just kept him stationary most of the time.

Cortex was my favorite.  I think Andy preferred Crash.  They fit our differing personalities!  Andy has the original ink Crash sketches and I have the original Cortexes.  Both are a true testament to Charles Zembillas’ skill as a character designer. [ NOTE from Andy: I love both, but I too have a secret fondness for my brainchild -- he's just funnier, and he takes himself way too seriously to ever dress in drag. ]


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Caves, concept

Castle Cortex

Making Crash Bandicoot – part 1

Crash Bandicoot cover

In the summer of 1994 Naughty Dog, Inc. was still a two-man company, myself and my longtime partner Jason Rubin. Over the preceding eight years, we had published six games as a lean and mean duo, but the time had come to expand.

In 1993 and 1994 we invested our own money to develop the 3D0 fighting game, Way of the Warrior. In the summer of 1994 we finished it and sold the rights to Universal Studios. At the same time we agreed to a “housekeeping” deal with Universal, which meant moving to LA, and for me bailing out on my M.I.T. PhD halfway. It certainly didn’t turn out to be a bad decision.

Jason and I had been debating our next game for months, but the three-day drive from Boston to LA provided ample opportunity. Having studied arcade games intensely (yeah, in 1994 they were still relevant) we couldn’t help but notice that 2 or 3 of the leading genres had really begun making the transition into full 3D rendering.

Racing had, with Ridge Racer and Virtua Racing. Fighting, with Virtua Fighter. And gun games, with Virtua Cop. Racing was clearly 100% the better in 3D, and while Virtua Fighter wasn’t as playable as Street Fighter, the writing was on the wall.

Sensing opportunity, we turned to our own favorite genre, the character platform action game (CAG for short). In the 80s and early 90s the best sellers on home systems were dominated by CAGs and their cousins (like “walk to the right and punch” or “walk to the right and shoot”). Top examples were Mario, Sonic, and our personal recent favorite, Donkey Kong Country.

So on the second day of the drive, passing Chicago and traveling through America’s long flat heartland, fed on McDonalds, and accompanied by a gassy Labrador/Ridgeback mix (also fed on McDonalds), the idea came to us.

We called it the “Sonic’s Ass” game. And it was born from the question: what would a 3D CAG be like? Well, we thought, you’d spend a lot of time looking at “Sonic’s Ass.” Aside from the difficulties of identifying with a character only viewed in posterior, it seemed cool. But we worried about the camera, dizziness, and the player’s ability to judge depth – more on that later.

Jason, Andy & Morgan on arriving at Universal

Before leaving Boston we’d hired our first employee (who didn’t start full time until January 1995), a brilliant programmer and M.I.T. buddy of mine named Dave Baggett. We were also excited to work closely with Universal VP Mark Cerny, who had made the original Marble Madness and Sonic 2. In California, in 1994, this foursome of me, Jason, Dave, and Mark were the main creative contributors to the game that would become Crash Bandicoot.

We all agreed that the “Sonic’s Ass,” game was an awesome idea. As far as we knew, no one had even begun work on bringing the best-selling-but-notoriously-difficult CAG to 3D. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, was said to be working on Yoshi’s Island, his massive ode to 2D action.

But an important initial question was “which system?”

The 3D0 was DOA, but we also got our hands on specs for the upcoming Sega Saturn, the Sega 32X, and the mysterious Sony Playstation. The decision really didn’t take very long.  3D0, poor 3D power, and no sales. 32X, unholy Frankenstein’s monster – and no sales. Saturn, also a crazy hybrid design, and really clunky dev units. Then there was the Sony. Their track record in video games was null, but it was a sexy company and a sexy machine – by far the best of the lot. I won’t even bring up the Jaguar.

So we signed the mega-harsh Sony “developer agreement” (pretty much the only non-publisher to ever do so) and forked out like $35,000 for a dev unit.  Gulp.  But the real thing that cinched the deal in Sony’s favor though wasn’t the machine, but…

Before we continue to part 2 below, my parter and friend Jason Rubin offers the following thoughts on this section:

Andy and I always liked trying to find opportunities that others had missed.  Fill holes in a sense.  We had done Way of the Warrior in large part because the most popular games of the time were fighting games and the new 3DO system didn’t have a fighting game on it.  Our decision to do a character action game on the PlayStation was not only based on bringing the most popular genre on consoles into the 3D, but also because Sega already had Sonic and Nintendo already had Mario.  Instead of running headlong into either of these creative geniuses backyard, we decided to take our ball to a field with no competition.

Filling a hole had worked to an extent with Way of the Warrior.  The press immediately used Way as a yardstick to make a comparison point against other systems and their fighting games.  This gave it a presence that the game itself might never have had.  And as a result, ardent fans of the system would leap to defend the title even when perfectly fair points were made against it.  The diagonal moves were hard to pull off because the joypad on the 3DO sucked?  No problem, said the fans, Way of the Warrior plays fantastically if you just loosen the screws on the back of the joypad.

Why couldn’t the same effect work with a character action game on PlayStation?

And remember, at the time these games were the top of the pile.  It is hard to look at the video game shelves today and think that only 15 years ago childish characters dominated it.  There were first person shooters on the PC, of course, but sales of even the biggest of them couldn’t compare to Mario and Sonic.  Even second tier character games often outsold big “adult” games.

It’s also easy to forget how many possible alternatives there were along the way.  Most of Nebraska was filled with talk of a game called “Alosaurus and Dinestein” which was to be back to the future like plot with dinosaurs in a 2d side scrolling character action game.  I still like the name.

The “Sonic’s ass” nomenclature was more than a casual reference to the blue mascot turned 90 degrees into the screen.  It defined the key problem in moving a 2d game into the third dimension:  You would always be looking at the characters ass.  This might play well (it had never been tried) but it certainly would not be the best way to present a character.

Our solution, which evolved over the next 2 years, was multi-fold.  First, the character would start the game facing the screen (more on this later).  Second there would be 2d levels that guaranteed quality of gameplay and a chance to see the character in a familiar pose allowing comparison against old 2d games.  And third, we would attempt the reverse of a Sonic ass level – the run INTO the screen – which became the legendary boulder levels. [ NOTE from Andy, more on that in part 4 ]

It may have been this very Sonic’s ass problem that caused Naka-san to “cop out” of making a true 3D game called Nights for Saturn.  I also believe, but have no proof, that he felt so unsure of the move to 3D that Sega didn’t want to risk Sonic on that first experimental title.  Instead they created a new character.  This lost Sega the goodwill that Sonic would have brought to the three way game comparison that eventually ensued.  That ended up working to our favor.

Of course Miyamoto-san did not have this problem.  He created a truly new type of character action game with Mario 64.  The controls and open world allowed you to see the character from all sides.  Eventually this proved to be the future of 3d Character games.  But at the time it had disadvantages.  More on that later.

The concept of making a mascot game for the PlayStation was easy.  The odds of succeeding were next to nil.  Remember, we were two 24 year olds whose biggest title to date had not reached 100,000 units sold!  But if there was something we never lacked it was confidence.

NEXT PART [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11] PART 11 is brand new 08/13/11.

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The Crash Bandicoot in-game model. His only texture was the spots on his back, but every vertex was lovingly placed by Jason