Way of the Warrior – The Lost Interview

A Twitter friend of mine dug up this ancient and forgotten interview that I gave from my Cambridge Mass apartment in 1994, during the development of our 3DO fighting game, Way of the Warrior. The original post can be found here, but he gave me permission to repost the whole thing here. It’s certainly one of my older interviews on record. I did a number in the 80s but those are pre-web and certainly long lost (unless I comb through my parent’s basement for old copies of EGM and the like!).

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Back in May I had a chance to interview Andy Gavin, one half of the team that makes up Naughty Dog Software. The other half consist of Jason Rubin who’s a graphic arts specialist. These guys are based in Cambridge, MA., where I happen to be from, and have created what may be the best fighting game for the 300. I played Way of the Warrior and it definitely blows the first Mortal Kombat away easily. The game is similar to Mortal Kombat in many ways. The digitized characters, fatalities, combos, blood galore, hidden characters, and special attacks are all here. What Way of the Warrior does is take if a step further with an amazing AI(Artificial Intelligence), characters that shrink and grow, over 50 attack moves for each character, 100% 3D scrolling, hidden weapons, interactive backgrounds, bonus items, and so much more. Let’s have a talk with Andy and see what he has to say about Way of the Warrior.

VGT: When did you first start programming video games?
Andy: About 1 0-12 years ago, the first game we made was Ski Crazed on the Apple II, which came out in 1986. It sold a couple thousand copies. Dream Zone was our next game that sold about 15000 copies. Keef the Thief, from Electronic Arts, did much better and sold about 50,000 copies on various machines. We then did Rings of Power, which was our only Genesis cartridge. It’s was very complex and sophisticated and took about 2 1/2 years to produce.
VGT: When was Naughty Dog founded?
Andy: Well , Naughty consists of mainly Jason Rubin and myself . Naughty got its names from a cartoon character that Jason drew. (Andy showed me a picture of an old Naughty Dog logo). Their new logo is on their flyers. The character was created about 8 years ago.
VGT: Is there any downside when programming on the 300 with their CO’s? Does access time and RAM space affect your games?
Andy: Well, first of all the 3DO has 3 megabytes, not mega bits of RAM, which is bigger then the largest SNES cartridge. The CD itself is 660 megabytes . There are technical issues that need to be addressed when programming on the 3DO. One has to use clever designs to reduce and eliminate load times. In Way of the Warrior the entire program was designed in what we call, Asynchronous. The loading is done while you play, by anticipating what needs to be loaded’ in advance with a hardware process called DMA (Direct Memory Access) . There ‘s a short pause going into a fight, but once the action has begun, there is no pause. Players can perform all their moves, with fatalities, 3D scrolling and the stereo music blaring, but with no load time.
VGT: So even though we’re playing continuously, there’s no slow down what’s so ever.
Andy: Yes, the 3DO is capable of loading stuff without any slow down. However, many previous CD games, including the 3DO, have had notable slow delays.

VGT: Like the Sega CD for instance?
Andy: Yes, this is due to sloppy, programming and not being aware of how to program on CD’s. It’s a difficult issue when writing programs that can actually play and load at the same time. It’s a technical challenge. With good program design the load time can be minimized. In turn, the quality of the sound effect, music, FMV, and game play surpass any cartridge game. Cartridge games only have a limited amount of memory in which you can program. CD’s only cost a dollar to manufacture, while cartridges can cost anywhere from 20-30 dollars. CD’s have enormously superior cost to storage ratio.
VGT: Can the access time for the Sega CD be reduced with technical design programming?
Andy: They can definitely reduce the access time. I don’t know that much about the Sega CD though. I don’t think their DMA is better than the 3DO. The 3DO has 4-5 times more memory. It also has a CD drive that’s twice as fast. It has decompression hardware that effectively doubles the speed. It has a unique and extremely powerful custom DMA architecture that can move graphics from disk to memory to screen and back without effecting game play.
VGT: What makes Way of the Warrior different from all the other fighting games?
Andy: As I mentioned before, I have an Artificial Intelligence Graduate degree from MIT. The computer players in WOTW are much more sophisticated then in other fighting games. Whereas they often resorted to patterns to beat the human players, there are no patterns programmed in for WOTW. It uses research grade AI that learns the best way to beat you. It’s extremely cunning and different and actually looks like a real player fighting by adapting to the situation and using all it’s moves.
VGT: Is it always learning consistently more and more each time you play it?
Andy: Yes.
VGT: What about the characters? What makes them so special.
Andy: The characters have around 50 normal moves and about 15-20 special moves. These moves reflect their styles and personalities. There are many secrets that use the background area and hidden characters can also be found.
VGT: So is each character equal in sense or are some stronger then others?
Andy: All the normal human characters are designed to be equal even though they’re different.
VGT: Well, I remember the first Street Fighter II game had very uneven characters. Some had a major advantage over others.
Andy: It’s tough to get the characters exactly even. We tried to get them as close as possible. People also developed different strategies for beaten the other characters. There are a lot of unique techniques and abilities for each character. Like Konotori, which means “stork” in Japanese, can flap and stay in the air longer. Major Gaines has special steroids’ implants that can change his size and therefore the amount of damage he receives become minimal. Nikki Chan is a Chinese Kung Fu artist who can do flips with special moves. She’s very fast and agile. Crimson Glory has close in grabs and special multi-missles that can be fired. Some character has special weapons. Nabu Naga has a sword and throwing stars. Shaky Jake has a staff.
VGT: There seems to be a little bit of everything from all the other fighting games in this game.
Andy: The other fighting games are very narrow. Most of them are to much alike. What we tried to do was take everything good from all the other fighting games and combine them all into WOTW. We’ve added unique features with better graphics, sounds, 3D backgrounds, special magic and potions, panning and zooming, background interaction, and larger more detailed characters.

VGT: Was the process of digitizing the characters the same as Mortal Kombat.
Andy: There are similarities. We’ve never seen them actually doing it. We have seen photos in magazines. They are actually a little more regimented then ours. Their fighting engine is much less sophisticated then WOFW. It requires that every characters moves line up to the exact same position. When each character does a high punch in Mortal Kombat, they high punch at the exact same point. So when they digitize their characters they have to line up perfectly. In WOTW, every character has its own information so not all characters need to have a high punch. Some of the characters punch high, some low, while others are tall, short, big and small. There’s no requirement that the character be the same size. We built the character the same way the actor would appear, rather then force them to convert to our pre-requirements.
VGT: With the 300 having such a small user base at this point, do you think it can increase sales and become successful?
Andy: We think it has a good chance. All game systems start off with a small user base. People forget the Genesis came out in August of 1989 and 2 years later when the Super Nintendo was released it only had 700,000 machines out there and only 23 games after the first year. 300 already has more then that. The 300 is the first of the 32/64bit machines and the difference is academic. Sony, Sega, and Nintendo have all announce 32/64bit systems that won’t be available until 1995. The 300 will be the only significant 32bit machine when Christmas comes. It will have a year of development by then and the price will probably drop some more. So I think it’s in good shape. We hope WOTW with help sell systems.
VGT: Are there any other projects being worked on for the 300?
Andy: We have 2 other projects we’re working on, but we can’t comment on them at this point.
VGT: Do you think that CD’s are the way to go for our future programmers?
Andy: I think this year is the year of the CD’s. It already has the PC market. It offers so many advantages in cost and amount of storage . The access time disadvantage can be overcome with well-designed machines and good programming techniques.

VGT: Are there any other types of games that Naughty Dog will be working on besides fighting?Andy: We signed a deal to put WOTW in the arcades.
VGT: If WOTW does come to the arcade, will it be different then the 3DO version.
Andy: It would be a bit different. The basis of it would be the same. There are different constraints for the arcade version. The 3DO is capable of producing arcade quality games.
VGT: What’s the most outstanding achievement you’ve seen in video games today? What games really blow your mind?
Andy: I have favorites over the years. I tried Ridge Racer which was very impressive looking, but had mediocre game play. In the PC world, “DOOM!” was very good looking. It shows us that 3D games are here and can be produced very well, even on PC’s.
VGT: Well, that’s about it for the questions. Thank you very much for taking the time to be interviewed by VGT. We all hope that Way of the Warrior is very successful and we look forward to reviewing it and any other games that are produced by Naughty Dog.
Andy: Your welcome. Thank you for choosing Naughty Dog as your first interview. We look forward to reading VGT when it’s released.

This is back to 2011 Andy. It’s so worth watching the totally hilarious video from our 1994 masterpiece (LOL). As you can see, we went for over the top.

For more info on my video game career, click here.

For what I’m up to now, click here.

Crash Bandicoot – An Outsider’s Perspective (part 8)

This is part of a now lengthy series of posts on the making of Crash Bandicoot. Click here for the PREVIOUS or for the FIRST POST .

After Naughty Dog Jason and I joined forces with another game industry veteran, Jason Kay (collectively Jason R & K are known as “the Jasons”). He was at Activision at the time of the Crash launch and offers his outside perspective.

Although I would not meet Andy and Jason until after Crash 3 was released, the time around the launch of Crash Bandicoot was a fascinating time in the game business, and I believe that the launch of Crash, which was so far ahead of every other game of its generation in every aspect – technical achievement, production values, sound/music, design and balancing – caused everyone I knew in the business to rethink the games they were working on.

Warhawk: One of the best looking early PS1 games

It seems hard to imagine given the broad scope of games today — Console Games costing $50+ million, Social Games on Facebook with 100 Million monthly average users, gesture controlled games, $.99 games on iPhone – how troubled the industry was before the release of Crash, which heralded the rebirth of console games after a dormant period and ushered in the era of the mega-blockbuster game we know today. In the year that Crash Bandicoott released, only 74 Million games were sold across all platforms in the US – of which Crash accounted for nearly 5% of all games sold in the US. By 2010 – more than 200 Million games were sold, with the number one title, Call of Duty: Black Ops selling “only” 12 million copies in the US – about 6% of the total market. In some ways, adjusted for scale, Crash was as big then as Call of Duty is today.

Twisted Metal - Another of the better early PS1 games

After the incredible success of Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog, the game business was really in the doldrums and it had a been a boatload of fail for the so-called “rebirth of the console”. Sega had released a series of “not-quite-next-gen” peripherals for the incumbent Sega Genesis system (including the 32x and the truly awful Sega CD), and made vague promises about “forward compatibility” with their still-secret 32 bit 3D Saturn console. When the Saturn finally shipped, it was referred to by many people as “Two lies in One”, since it was neither compatible with any previous Sega hardware, and nor was it capable of doing much E3. Sega further compounded their previous two mistakes by giving the console exclusively to then-dominant retailer Toys “R” US, pissing of the rest of the retail community and pretty much assuring that console, and eventually Sega’s, demise in the hardware business.

Wipeout - at the time it looked (and sounded) good

The PlayStation had shipped in Fall of 1995, but the initial onslaught of games all looked vaguely similar to Wipeout – since no one believed that it was possible to stream data directly from the PS1 CD-Drive, games were laboriously unpacking single levels into the PS1’s paltry 2 MB of ram (+ 1 meg vram and 0.5 meg sound ram), and then playing regular CD (“redbook”) audio back in a loop while the level played. So most games (including the games we had in development at Activision and were evaluating from third parties) all looked and played in a somewhat uninspiring fashion.

When Crash first released, I was a producer at then-upstart publisher Activision – now one of the incumbent powerhouses in the game business that everyone loves to hate – but at that time, Activision was a tiny company that had recently avoided imminent demise with the success of MechWarrior 2, which was enjoying some success as one of the first true-3D based simulations for the hardcore PC game market. To put in perspective how small Activision was at that time, full year revenues were $86.6 Million in 1996, versus over $4.45 Billion in 2010, a jump of nearly 50x.

MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat DOS Front Cover

Jeffrey Zwelling, a friend of a friend who had started in the game business around the same I did, worked at Crystal Dynamics as a producer on Gex. Jeffrey was the first person I knew to hear about Crash, and he tipped me off that something big was afoot right before E3 in 1996. Jeff was based in Silicon Valley, and a lot of the former Naughty Dogs (and also Mark Cerny) had formerly worked at Crystal, so his intel was excellent. He kept warning me ominously that “something big” was coming, and while he didn’t know exactly “what” it was, but it was being referred to by people who’d seen as a “Sonic Killer”, “Sony’s Mario”, and “the next mascot game”.

As soon as people got a glimpse of the game at E3 1996, the conspiracy mongering began and the volume on the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt meter went to 11. In the pre-Internet absence of meaningful information stood a huge host of wild rumors and speculation. People “in the know” theorized that Naughty Dog had access to secret PlayStation specifications/registers/technical manuals that were only printed in Japanese and resided inside some sort of locked vault at Sony Computer Entertainment Japan. Numerous devs declared the Naughty Dog demo was “faked” in some way, running on a high-powered SGI Workstation hidden behind the curtain at Sony’s booth. That rumor seems in hindsight to have been a conflation of the fact that that the Nintendo 64 console, Code-Named “Project Reality” was in fact very similar to a Silicon Graphics Indigo Workstation and the Crash team was in fact writing and designing the game on Silicon Graphics workstations.

Tomb Raider - Crash contemporary, and great game. But the graphics...

Everyone in the business knew how “Sega had done what NintenDONT” and that they had trounced Nintendo with M-Rated games and better tiles in the 16 bit Era, and most of the bets were that Nintendo was going to come roaring back to the #1 spot with the N64. Fortunately for Nintendo, Sega’s hardware was underpowered and underwhelming and Nintendo’s N64 shipped a year later than the Playstation 1. With all the focus on many people’s attention on this looming battle, and the dismissive claims that what Naughty Dog was showing was “impossible”, most people underestimated both the PlayStation and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot.

Since no one that I knew had actually gotten a chance to play Crash at the show – the crowds were packed around the game – I fully expected that my unboxing of Crash 1 would be highly anti-climatic. I remember that Mitch Lasky (my then boss, later founder of Jamdat and now a partner at Benchmark) and I had made our regular lunch ritual of visiting Electronics Boutique [ ANDY NOTE: at Naughty Dog this was affectionately known as Electronic Buttock ] (now GameStop) at the Westside Pavilion and picked up a copy of the game. We took the game back to our PS1 in the 7th Floor Conference Room at Activision, pressed start, and the rest was history. As the camera focused on Crash’s shoes, panned up as he warped in, I literally just about sh*t a brick. Most of the programmers we had talked to who were pitching games to us claimed that it was “impossible” to get more than 300-600 polygons on screen and maintain even a decent framerate. Most of the games of that era, a la Quake, had used a highly compressed color palette (primarily brown/gray in the case of Quake) to keep the total texture memory low. It seemed like every game was going to have blocky, ugly characters and a lot of muted colors, and most of the games released on the PS1 would in fact meet those criteria.

Mario 64 - Bright, pretty, 3D, not so detailed, but the only real contender -- but on a different machine

Yet in front of us, Andy and Jason and the rest of the Crash team showed us that when you eliminate the impossible, only the improbable remains. Right before my eyes was a beautiful, colorful world with what seemed like thousands of polys (Andy later told that Crash 1 did in fact have over 1800 polygons per frame, and Crash 2 cracked 3,100 polys per frame – a far cry from what we had been told was “a faked demo” by numerous other PS1 development teams). The music was playful, curious and fun. The sound effects were luscious and the overall game experience felt, for the first time ever, like being a character in a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. Although I didn’t understand how the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (discussed in part 6) actually worked, I was truly amazed that it was the first game everyone I knew who played games loved to play. There was none of the frustration of being stuck on one spot for days, no simply turning the game off never to play it again – everyone who played it seemed to play it from start to finish.

For us, it meant that we immediately raised our standards on things we were looking at. Games that had seemed really well done as prototypes a few weeks before now seemed ungainly, ugly, and crude. Crash made everyone in the game business “up their game.” And game players of the world were better off for it.

 

These posts continue with PART 9 HERE. You also never know when we might add more, so subscribe to the blog (on the right), or follow us at:

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Detailed and Colorful - but most important fun

Certainly varied

Sorry for the lousy screen shots!

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. ]


CONTINUED HERE WITH PART 3 HERE or

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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.

The index of all Crash posts is here.

And peek at my novel in progress: The Darkening Dream

or more on GAMESBOOKS/MOVIES/TVWRITING or FOOD

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