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.
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.
And peek at my novel in progress: The Darkening Dream