[ 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. ]
Not only did we need to finish our E3 demo, but we needed a real name for the game — Willie the Wombat wasn’t going to cut it. Now, in the Naughty Dog office proper we knew he was a Bandicoot. In fact, we liked the idea of using an action name for him, like Crash, Dash, Smash, and Bash — fallout from the visceral reaction to smashing so many boxes.
But the Universal Marking department (of one) thought differently. They had hired one of those useless old-school toy marketing people, a frumpy fortyish woman about as divorced from our target audience – and the playing of video games – as possible. This seems to be a frequent problem with bigger companies, the mistaken idea that you can market an entertainment product if you aren’t also an enthusiastic customer of said product. On the other hand, everyone making the game played constantly. We had regular Bomberman tournaments, we could all debate the merits of control in Sonic vs Mario, and Dave was even a former Q*Bert world champion.
In any case, this obstacle (the marketing woman) wanted to call the game “Wuzzle the Wombat,” or “Ozzie the Otzel.” Fortunately, after much yelling we prevailed and Crash Bandicoot became… Crash Bandicoot.
It’s also worth mentioning that she objected to Crash’s rather busty girlfriend (or Bandicoot-friend) on basic sexist principles. Now, Tawna wasn’t the most inspired of our character designs, more or less being Jessica Rabbit as a Bandicoot, and without the cool personality. But remember who generally played games like Crash. The same kind of guys we had been 5-10 years earlier.
The music also had to be cobbled together before E3 – and in classic video game development fashion had been left to the last minute. This task had been assigned to our nominal producer at Universal, a gentleman who mostly sat in his office and played Sexy Parodius. While of dubious benefit to the project, at least he loved video games. However, he proposed that instead of conventional music we create something called “the urban chaotic symphony” in which the programmer (me) would cause random sound effects such as bird chirps, car honks, grunts, and farting noises (actually listed and underlined), to be randomly selected and combined. When we rejected this innovative proposal, we were introduced to Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo and more recently Mutato Muzika. He and (mostly) Josh Mancell composed all the music for the games, produced by music aficionado and Naughty Dog programmer Dave Baggett. Besides, Dave actually knew the game inside and out.
Finally we arrive at E3, and the debut of the N64 and Mario 64. Gulp.
Mario was a bit of a two edged sword for us. First of all, the attention it garnered helped force us into the limelight. Sega was engaged in the slow process of killing themselves with bad decisions and bad products, and so Sony and Nintendo found themselves head to head. This literally put Crash and Mario into the ring together. In fact, this was depicted on the cover of at least one game magazine (along with Sonic who declined to enter the ring).
In any case, since Crash released about a month after Mario the press often assumed that we had copied various elements, which always bugged us to no end, as both games were developed with no real knowledge of each other. Crash was nearly beta by the time we saw Mario at E3, and gold mastered by the time the N64 shipped and we could play it. Both games took very different approaches to the then unproven 3D CAG genre.
With Crash we decided to emphasize detailed cartoon visuals and classic Donkey Kong Style gameplay. So we used a camera on rails (albeit branching rails).
With the N64’s VERY limited texture system and poly count, but with its smoothing and z-buffer, Mario chose to go with a very loosely defined polygonal free roaming world and a much more playground style of gameplay.
Personally when I first got my hands on Mario I was like WTF? How is anyone going to know what to do here? And although there was a pretty real sense of marvel in this funny new world, I never found it very fun. The early camera AI was brutally frustrating. And the Mario voiceover. I still cringe, “It’sa me, Mario!” Still the game was brilliantly innovative, although I remain convinced that if anyone but Miyamoto had made the game it would have flopped.
Really, the future lay in the hybrid of the two.
Critics loved Mario. Perhaps because many of them were Nintendo fan boys, perhaps because it was more innovative (and it was). But the players loved both, because they sure bought a LOT of Crash Bandicoots too, approximately 35-40 million of our four PS1 games.
In a lot of ways Crash was the last of the great video game mascot characters, despite the fact that Sony never really wanted a mascot. We set out to fill this void, and made a game to do it, but we never really expected – only hoped – that it would happen. By the era of PS2 and X-box, the youthful generation of video game players had grown up, and the platforms began to appeal to a much wider age range. With this, and increased graphics horsepower that made possible more realistic games, came a shift to more mature subjects. The era of GTA, of Modern Warfare and Halo. Sophisticated and dark games mirroring R-rated action movies.
A part of me misses the simple, but highly crafted comic fun Crash represented.
There were so many great stories from Crash Development. I’m sad that this is the last of 6 blog posts. There is so much that has been missed.
One of my favorite memories relates to the collision detection. Crash had more detailed environments than most games had attempted at that point, and there was no known solution for such complex collision detection in games. Even after Crash came out, most developers just let their characters wade through most objects, and stuck to simple flat surfaces, but we wanted the character and the world to interact in a much more detailed fashion.
Andy and Dave called one of their friends at the Media Lab at MIT. Basically, the Media lab worked on state of the art visual and computing problems. They were, and still are, some of the most advanced in the world. They asked their friend what high detail collision detection solutions were kicking around at that time.
The next day the friend called back and said he had the perfect solution. Unfortunately, it demanded a Cray Supercomputer and hundreds (thousands?) of PlayStations worth of memory to work in real-time.
Andy and Dave hung up and started to come up with something on their own.
Naming Crash was one of the hardest things I have ever had to take part in. It became so confused, so frustrating, so combative, and so tiring that I remember starting to think that Willie Wombat sounded good!
Credit goes to Taylor and Dave for combining Crash and Bandicoot for the first time.
If Andy and I deserve credit for anything name related, it is for viciously defending our character from the ravages of the Universal Marketing Death Squad. I remember the name mooted by Universal to be Wez or Wezzy Wombat, but as I said things were very confused, and frankly it doesn’t matter what the alternate name was.
When Universal stated that as producer and they were going to pick the name, Andy and I walked the entire team (all 7 of us!) into the head of Universal Interactive’s office and said, “either we go with ‘Crash Bandicoot’, or you can name the game whatever you want and finish the development yourself.”
I think the result is obvious.
This was not the only time this tactic had to be used with Universal. With all the “everyone grab your stuff and head to the office at the other end of the hall” moments, I don’t know how we even finished the game.
But we didn’t win every battle. Crash’s girlfriend Tawna ended up on the chopping block after Crash 1. We tried to choose our battles wisely. Unlike the name “Crash Bandicoot”, Tawna wasn’t worth fighting for.
There was so much negativity and dispute with Universal Interactive that it is a miracle it didn’t scupper the game.
For example, Naughty Dog was told that it wasn’t “allowed” to go to the first E3. This was part of a continuing attempt by Universal Interactive to take credit for the product. It might have worked if Universal were parents and Naughty Dog was their six year old child, but we were an independent company working under contract. Nobody was going to tell us what we could or couldn’t do.
There were also some leaked copies of the temporary box cover and press materials for E3, upon which Naughty Dog’s logo had “mysteriously,” and in direct conflict with the letter and spirit of our contract, been forgotten.
My response to both was to draft and print 1000 copies of a glitzy document entitled “Naughty Dog, creator and developer of Crash Bandicoot” ostensibly to hand out in front of the Crash display at E3. As a “courtesy” I to passed these flyers out “for review” to Universal Interactive beforehand.
The head of Universal Interactive came as close to literally flipping his lid as a person can come. He stormed into Andy’s office, made some extremely threatening comments, and then promptly went off to a shooting range in order to produce a bullet-riddled target to hang on his office door.
Things did get heated from time to time.
And just for the record, kudos to Mark for surviving all the hassle. He was an employee of Universal Interactive yet completely uninvolved in any chicanery. And as I’ve said before, he was always the Nth Dog, so times like these were harder on him than anyone else.
But all this is keeping us from discussing E3!
Ah the big show…
Sony booted one of its own internal products to give Crash the prime spot on the floor. Walking in and seeing dozens of monitors playing the game was a moment I will never forget.
But I don’t think Andy and I had spent more than a moment looking at our triumph before we went off to fight the hoards at the Mario 64 consoles over at Nintendo’s booth for a chance on the controller. As amazing as it was seeing our wall of monitors, seeing the lines for Mario made my heart drop. Could it be that good?
Unlike Andy, I actually think Mario 64 WAS that good.
Mario 64 was a better game than the first Crash Bandicoot.
Miyamoto-san was at the top of his game and we were just getting started. Crash was our first platformer, remember, and thus it lacked many of the gameplay nuances that Mario had.
Mario 64’s controls and balance were just better.
And then there was our annoying way of making players earn continues. This was a major mistake. It makes players that need lives fail while boring players that don’t. It is the opposite of good game balance.
We were already learning. We had realized that if a novice player died a lot of times, we could give them an Aku Aku at the start of a round and they had a better chance to progress. And we figured out that if you died a lot when running from the boulder, we could just slow the boulder down a little each time. If you died too much a fruit crate would suddenly become a continue point. Eventually everyone succeeded at Crash.
Our mantra became help weaker players without changing the game for the better players.
We called all this DDA, Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, and at the time the extent to which we did it was pretty novel. It would lead later Crash games to be the inclusive, perfectly balanced games they became. Good player, bad player, everyone loved Crash games. They never realized it is because they were all playing a slightly different game, balanced for their specific needs.
But for all of our triumphant balancing attempts, we still made many mistakes in the first title.
Miyamoto-san didn’t make these mistakes. 3D Gameplay choice and art aside, Mario 64 was a better game.
And that isn’t to say that we didn’t have some serious advantages of our own.
For example, Crash looked better. I am sure there will be disagreement with this statement. But when 100 people were lined up and asked which looked more “next generation” (a term like ‘tomorrow’ that is always just over the horizon), most people pointed to Crash.
If I had to guess what Miyamoto-san was thinking when he was playing Crash in the photo above it was probably “damn this game looks good.”
Of course he had consciously made the decision to forgo the complex worlds Crash contained. The N64 had prettier polygons, but less of them to offer. Crash Bandicoot could not be made on the N64. Of course Mario 64 couldn’t be done on the PlayStation either. The PlayStation sucked at big polygons, specifically scissoring them without warping textures. Mario 64 relied on big polygons.
But more fundamentally, the open world he chose would tax ANY system out at that time. Mario 64 couldn’t be open and any more detailed than it was. Miyamoto-san had chosen open and that meant simple.
Spyro later split the difference with walled open worlds, but at E3 1996 there was only the choice between the complex visuals of Crash, or the crayon simple expansive simplicity of Mario 64.
Yes, Crash was a throwback to old games and on “rails”. But Mario 64 just didn’t look (as much) like a Pixar movie. That created space for an argument, and thus one of the great wars between games, and by proxy consoles, could be fought.
I believe, right or wrong, that Crash won that comparison when it got to the shelves.
And this was just the beginning.
Unlike Miyamoto-san, Naughty Dog was willing to forgo the light of day to bring out a sequel to Crash Bandicoot one year later in September 1997. By comparison, there wouldn’t be another Mario platformer until “Mario Sunshine” in 2002.
We took what we had learned from Crash 1, and from Mario 64 for that matter, and went back to the drawing board. Crash 2 was re-built from the ground up. Everything was improved. But most importantly we focused on the gameplay.
Crash Bandicoot had taxed us to our limits. Much of that time had been spent figuring out what the game would be, and then getting it working.
The second game could be built on the platform and successes of the first, but also from its mistakes. The same would eventually true of Jak and Daxter, and, though I had no hand it the games, is probably true of Uncharted. While Andy and I led Naughty Dog it had, and seems from outside to still have, a relentless pursuit of improvement. That has meant historically that the second game in a series tends to be a better game.
Crash 2 would be a MUCH better game than Crash 1. I would even argue that Crash 2 would end up being as good, if not better, than Mario 64.
But that is as story for another day.
This (sort of) continues with a virtual part 7 by Dave Baggett with his thoughts on Crash.
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