Crash Bandicoot as a Startup (part 7)

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 .

Dave Baggett, Naughty Dog employee #1 (after Jason and I) throws his own thoughts on Crash Bandicoot into the ring:

This is a great telling of the Crash story, and brings back a lot of memories. Andy and Jason only touch on what is to me the most interesting aspect of this story, which was their own relationship. When I met them, they had been making games together — and selling them — literally since middle school. I remember meeting Andy for the first time in April 1992, at an MIT AI Lab orientation. He knew as much as I did about games and programming, was as passionate about it as I was, and was equally commercially-minded. I just assumed meeting someone like this was a consequence of the selectivity of MIT generally and the AI Lab in particular, which accepts about 25 students each year from a zillion applicants.

In the long run I found that assumption was wrong: Andy and Jason were ultimately unique in my experience. None of us on the Crash 1 team realized it, but as a team we were very much outliers. At 23, Andy and Jason had commercial, strategic-thinking, and negotiating skills that far exceeded those of most senior executives with decades of experience. These, combined with their own prodigious technical talents and skillful but at times happenstance hiring, produced a team that not only could compete with Miyamoto, but in some ways outdo him. (More on this in a moment.)

I still remember the moment I decided to bail on my Ph.D. and work for Andy and Jason as “employee #1”. I don’t think they saw themselves this way, but my archetype for them was John and Paul. (The Beatles, not the saints!) They were this crazy six-sigma-outlier yin/yang pair that had been grinding it out for literally years — even though they were still barely in their 20s. I knew these guys would change the world, and I wanted to be the George Harrison. One problem with this idea, however, was that they had been gigging together for so long that the idea of involving someone else in a really deep way — not just as an employee,but as a partner — was extremely challenging for them emotionally, and, I think, hard for them to conceptualize rationally from a business standpoint. This ultimately led to my leaving after Crash 2 — very sadly, but mostly for dispassionate “opportunity cost” reasons — though I continued to work with Josh Mancell on the music for Crash 3 and CrashTeam Racing, and remained close friends with all the ‘Dogs.

Andy and Jason had evolved a peculiar working relationship that the rest of the team found highly amusing. Jason would stomp around raging about this or that being terrible and Andy would play the role of Star Trek’s Scotty — everything was totally impossible and Jason couldn’t possibly appreciate the immense challenges imposed by what he was really asking for.  (As a programmer myself, I generally took Andy’s side in these debates, though I usually hid in my office when the yelling got above a certain decibel level.) Eventually when matters were settled Andy usually pounded out the result in a 1/10th of the advertised time (also like Scotty). The rest of us couldn’t help but laugh at these confrontations — at times, Andy and Jason behaved like an old married couple. The very long work hours — literally 100-hour weeks — and the stress level definitely amplified everyone’s emotions, especially theirs.

Andy and Japanese Crash in the NDI offices

On the subject of Mario 64, I agree more with Andy than with Jason, and think that Jason’s view highlights something very interesting and powerful about his personality. At the time I thought — and in retrospect, I still think — that Mario 64 was clumsy and ugly. It was the work of a great genius very much making a transition into a new medium — like a painter’s first work in clay. Going from 2D to 3D made all the technical challenges of games harder — for both conceptual and algorithmic reasons — and Miyamoto had just as hard a time as us adapting traditional gameplay to this new framework. The difference was that Miyamoto was an artist, and refused to compromise. He was willing and able to make a game that was less “fun” but more aggressively novel. As a result, he gave gamers their first taste of glorious 3D open vistas — and that was intoxicating. But the truth is that Mario 64 just wasn’t that fun; Miyamoto’s 2D efforts at the time — Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi’s Island — were far more fun (and, in fact, some of my personal favorite games of all time, though I never would have admitted that out loud at the time). As Andy said, the camera algorithms were awful; we had an incredibly hard time with camera control in our more constrained rails environment, and the problem wasn’t really technically solved for open environments like Mario 64’s until many years later. Mario 64’s collision detection algorithms were crap as well — collision detection suffers from a “curse of dimensionality” that makes it much harder in 3D than in 2D, as we also found. At Naughty Dog, we combined my ridiculously ambitious octree approach — essentially, dividing the entire world up into variable-sized cubes — with Mark’s godlike assembly coding to produce something *barely* fast enough to work — and it took 9 months. This was the one the one area on Crash when I thought we might actually just fail — and without Mark and I turning it into a back-and-forth coding throw-down, we probably would have. (As an aside, some coders have a savant-like ability to map algorithms onto the weird opportunities and constraints imposed by a CPU; only Greg Omi — who worked with us on Crash 2 — was in the same league as Mark when it came to this, of the hundreds of programmers I’ve worked with.)

But Jason was tormented by Mario 64, and by the towering figure of Miyamoto generally. Like Andy Grove, Jason was constantly paranoid and worked up about the competition. He consistently underrated his — and our — own efforts, and almost neurotically overrated those of his competitors. I saw this trait later in several other great business people I worked with, and it is one I’ve found that, while maddening, correlates with success.

Fifteen years later, I’m now on my third startup; ITA Software followed Naughty Dog, and now I’m doing a raw startup again. The Naughty Dog model set the mold for all my future thinking about startups, and so far each one has followed a similar pattern: you must have a very cohesive, hard-working, creative team early on. This team of 6-12 sets the pattern for the company’s entire future — whether it grows to 50, 500, or — I can only assume — 5000 employees. The Crash 1 team was one of those improbable assemblages of talent that can never quite be reproduced. And unlike our contemporaries, our team got lucky: as Andy said, we were able to “slot in” to a very low-probability opportunity. Yes, Andy and Jason, with Mark, had identified the slot, and that was prescient. But many things had to go our way for the slot to still be genuinely available. The Crash team was an improbably talented team that exploited an improbable opportunity. As a life-long entrepreneur, I’ve lived to participate in — and, now, try to create — teams like that. There’s nothing more gratifying in business.


Part 8 CONTINUES here with another guest post and subscribe to the blog (on the right), or follow us at:

Andy:  or blog

Jason:  or blog

Also, if you liked this, vote it up at at Reddit or Hacker News, and peek at my novel in progress: The Darkening Dream

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43 comments on “Crash Bandicoot as a Startup (part 7)

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jason Rubin, Celsius Game Studios and Andrew Gavin, Andrew Gavin. Andrew Gavin said: Crash Bandicoot as a Startup […]

  2. jasonrubin says:

    Well… sure, I do always overvalue the competition. That’s fair. That certainly happened again at . It’s probably happening again on the project I am working on now. It’s weird. I see the competitions products for what they SHOULD be and assume they will succeed. Of course, our project has to be better than that PROJECTED success. That sets a target far above the competition.

    Invariably, once I do finally try the other product I am surprised that they haven’t figured out what they SHOULD be as well. I am even more shocked when they don’t improve with time. But I would argue that it is better to overvalue the competition and overachieve, than undervalue the competition and come up short.

    The problem with AAA games is that the wait to see the other product is endless. We had a year of Mario 64 anticipation and it was killing me! I remember finally seeing the E3 build of Mario 64 and thinking “this isn’t the game I thought it would be.”

    On the flip side, I always see the flaws in whatever I am working on, even after it is completed. I mentioned that in one of the 6 blogs. That uneven weighting of the value of the products causes frustration that may be painful to those involved (the yelling) but it does tend to give focus that improves the product (the insight).

    I still maintain that Crash 1’s balance was not there. I think we remember the Crash series as being roughly even, with 2 and 3 being “nearly perfect” and 1 being “nearly, nearly perfect”. But Crash 1, in my opinion, was far from Crash 2 and 3 in balance quality. I just don’t think Crash 1 was as fun for less skilled players.

    Comparing Crash 1 to Mario 64 is hard. They were such different games. But Mario 64 was NOT frustrating. It was more balanced for all to enjoy in my opinion.

    Like I said, I know we bested Mario 64 with Crash 2. At least we can agree to that!

    • Dave says:

      Agreed that Crash 2 was a far better game. I remember being able to beat Crash 1 in just over two hours just before we shipped it, and now when I play it with my kids I can’t even complete some of the levels. It was far too hard. Crash 2 was much better balanced, as you said.

      I also agree that Mario 64 and Crash are pretty difficult to compare. To continue the art analogy, it’s like comparing a string quartet with a pop song. I see pretty major flaws in both, though it would be hard to say one is better — even trying to be objective (which is hard).

      I don’t believe any great piece of work is produced without someone involved who is perpetually dissatisfied. Different people may manifest their high standards different ways, but most teams simply don’t hold themselves to high enough standards to produce really great work.

      The important difference between pure critics and critical creators is that the latter understand not only what’s wrong, but can articulate a vision of what’s right. That’s not always achievable, but it at least sets some kind of target. That’s the key to me.

      • jasonrubin says:

        I think over the years I’ve become better at “manifesting my high standards.” In other words I don’t yell as much. Part of that is monitoring myself. Part of it is that I have experienced over-reacting so many times that I am now starting to assume that I am over-reacting. That is probably a good sign that it is time to retire!

      • jorb says:

        Mr. Baggett! I have a question for you.
        I originally send it to Andy and he directed me to you because you seem to know a lot of details on the music of the Crashgames. I’m really interested in the music of Josh Mancell and think he was very important for the games also.

        I would like to ask: How was it to work with Josh Mancell and Mutato Muzika? How did you met and what where your thoughts on the first time hearing the music? Did they always hit the spot with the right tune or where there often needs for adjustments, what was your favorite song etc?

        It would be a great honor if you could reply.

        Thanks in advance

      • Dave says:

        @jorb: Working with Josh and Mark at Mutato was a really amazing experience for me. I’ve always been very interested in music, but have never really taken the time to learn how to play seriously, study music theory, or anything like that. I’m mainly an avid listener.

        Working with Josh on the music was very similar to working with the ND artists on levels. The only difference was that with level design and game art, I had a lot more influence on the outcome because the coding has such a deep effect on the look of the level.

        With the music, Josh pretty much did it all and I gave him helpful reactions to things. I tried to encourage him not to shy away from doing things that were offbeat despite the fact that we were making a mainstream game. (This was his natural inclination anyway, BTW.)

        We struggled a bit with the sound of the game in the beginning. Both the initial music and sound effects (done by Mike Gollum) were really over the top. We ended up using a variant of the initial song for the intro; you’ll notice that it is stylistically rather different from the level music.

        For the level music, we really wanted a more ambient feel. Most game music to date had been insipid, repetitive, and really in your face; we wanted the music to play more of a supporting role, and help flesh out the beautiful world we’d been creating.

        This meant that on many levels the music, while melodic, was often understated, and filled with unusual “semi-musical” timbres — or in many cases, outright sound effects.

        As you may know, Mutato is run by Mark Mothersbaugh and other members of Devo. Josh definitely channeled some Devolution into the Crash music; you can really hear it in the synth sounds on the brio/cortex/ngin boss levels.

        Josh was also heavily influenced by electronica; he had a lot of fun with levels like “Heavy Machinery” and Cortex Power, where this kind of sound made sense.

        In terms of how we met, I think Jason and Andy met with Mark M initially; Mutato was doing a lot of film and TV work already, had a “fun” approach, and were local (on Sunset Blvd), so I’m sure they were one of the obvious teams to look at for the music.

        Mutato’s offices are an amazingly fun place to just walk around. There are instruments of all kinds everywhere, a “design” vibe to the place, and crazy art objects just lying here and there. Mutato has adopted a fire-engine shade of lime green as their color, so there are lots of things that color (including various peoples’ socks) in the office.

        Finally, actually fitting the music into the game was a lot of work. And I do literally mean “fitting”: we had to individual compress each timbre by hand; sort of like MP3s now, we could set the sample rate for each sound separately. In order to get everything to fit, we had to set the sample rates low enough that the loss was actually audible. Since we didn’t want the music to suffer, we went through every single sound using headphones and auditioned it at each sample rate. We’d set the sample rate as low as it could go without sounding bad. (This meant, e.g., that percussion and other timbres with high frequencies had to have high rates, while low-fequency sounds could have lower rates.)

        We used a resampler program that came with our SGI workstations that was utterly amazing at this. I still don’t know to this day exactly how it worked, but it was worlds better than any other similar tools we had.

        Once we’d resampled everything to its lowest natural rate, we’d generally find that the song still didn’t fit. At this point, I would ask Josh what changes we could make to try to preserve the intent of the music without wrecking the sound quality. He would go and make various timbre substitutions, and I would try to fit everything again. It was a tedious, iterative process, but the end result was that our music sounded really, really good. In my opinion, it was just as far ahead of its time on the PS1 as the graphics were.

      • jorb says:

        Thanks for all the information.
        It must’ve been really really hardcore to place the music into the games that way,
        but I must say that it has definitely paid off to me.
        I mean, imagine Crash Bandicoot having Mario-music?
        It would’ve been outrageous and over the top.

        No, it was the music of Crash Bandicoot together with the artstyle that gave him this mystique and intriguingly touch,
        instantly making it a 1000x better series.
        And you’re right about the ‘ambient’ feeling of the music. Not every track is exactly ambient, but it does feel that way.
        It has a consistent and somehow always ‘relaxing’ feeling. Most other games had these epileptic rush-rush music and you
        would get tired soon, but with Crash you could just take a break only to
        listen to the beautifull soundtrack and watch the marvellous art of the levels.

        The art and music really added an unique dimension that only existed in the ND-Crashgames.
        I might never been such a Crash-fan without it.
        So thank you and Josh for the efforts!

    • agavin says:

      The truth is, that in a competitive arena where the products are all priced the same and are based on their quality (in games overall “cool” and “fun” factors — combined with some system filtering). Quality matters.

      So anything that improves quality, like working harder, smarter, or being critical or demanding — helps the product.

      I try to bring same kind of thing to my novel. I’ve done approximately 10 major revisions. People who read the early drafts are like, “why, I liked it.” But I see it as getting better and better with each take, cutting anything that isn’t needed or great, adding more that is. In my mind (and this is perhaps even more true of Jason), making something the best it can be matters.

      • aimee says:

        I strongly believe that Mario is far too overrated he is just a plumber, who got lucky, whilst crash Bandicoot was on another level, from amazing snowy levels (my favourite) to the wacky cast. If Crash was still in the hands of you guys and Naughty Dog he would have been miles bigger than Mario. Jason there was no need to worry, from a video game fan point of view Crash exceeded on so many levels from its competitors. It is so frustrating what has become of him now (curse Universal). It would have been better if you came up with Jak and Daxter earlier and sold that to Universal instead.

  3. […] This (sort of) continues with a virtual part 7 by Dave Baggett with his thoughts on Crash. […]

  4. […] February 10, 2011 at 7:46 am Crash Bandicoot as a Startup « All Things Andy Gavin […]

  5. Josh Mancell says:

    very nice… I was hoping Dave would chime in with a little Scotty/third person perspective. Over the last 10+ years, it seems on a weekly (or at least a monthly) basis, I receive messages from Crash fans all over the world. It speaks volumes to the memorable universe of characters and (obviously) the endless chances that were taken in all the facets of gameplay and design. I’ll just say (publicly) that I had a blast working with you all! Hog wild, indeed 🙂 JM

  6. Lukasz says:

    All this could easily make a great book just like “Masters of Doom”. Think about it guys, I’d buy it.

    • I have a book coming out in the summer about video game companies called Gamers at Work. Over 30 interviews are planned to appear in the book, including interviews with Jason Rubin, Trip Hawkins, Nolan Bushnell, and Warren Spector. While not as flowery as Masters of Doom, each chapter is effectively a crash course in entrepreneurship.

  7. Those were the days – something was so raw and powerful back then; programming and the power it imparted you was much more of a drug than it is now.

    I remember meeting you guys in a bar in Tokyo (we were all there to learn the inner-secrets of the PS1) around the post-Crash 1 and worrying you about all the tech we were putting into Captain Blasto at the time (boned animation, environment mapping, faked z-buffer via planar clipping, full streamed levels etc etc)… unfortunately that game fell down in a no. of other areas (and two deaths during production certainly didn’t help morale!). I always enjoyed hanging out with the two of them when they came to Tokyo during the pre-ps2 days even if they probably thought I was annoyingly precocious.. but then, so were they. 😉

    Crash 2&3 (and Jak 1) are classics of their time, and are just a few of a small exclusive set of games that I have played until 100% complete. (Jak 1 was especially good)

    • agavin says:

      Lexington Queen and “great mystery in the effeminate world!”

      For those not “in the know” LQ is/was a Rocker and Model night club in Tokyo with the quoted sentence as its “slogan.” I was a proud owner of a “bottle card” VIP membership for several years. Pictures of 80s rockers partying at the club on tour in Japan (think Ratt, Poison, Motley Crue etc) adorn the walls.

    • Dave says:

      Hi Dylan. Shout out for PS3/PSP Monsters! I have lost days of my life that game. 🙂

      • Thanks Dave!! Even if I do say so myself, that game is hellishly addictive and it’s about time we did a sequel.. hmm…
        btw, Shooter 2 (with some great particle fluid/physics tech in it) is out in a few weeks!

      • Dave says:

        Re: Monsters sequels, you guys should put out a $9.99 add-on that lets people make their own levels. That would really rock.

        It is a *really* well-balanced game — albeit a fiendishly tough one.

        Will check out Shooter 2!

  8. aimee says:

    I strongly believe that Mario is far too overrated he is just a plumber, who got lucky, whilst crash Bandicoot was on another level, from amazing snowy levels (my favourite) to the wacky cast. If Crash was still in the hands of you guys and Naughty Dog he would have been miles bigger than Mario. Jason there was no need to worry, from a video game fan point of view Crash exceeded on so many levels from its competitors. It is so frustrating what has become of him now (curse Universal). It would have been better if you came up with Jak and Daxter earlier and sold that to Universal instead.

  9. aimee says:

    Have you guys seen what Activision has done with Spyro he looks awful he’s changed completely, I hope they dont do this to Crash

  10. Ricardo Fernandes de Souza says:

    do you think crash bandicoot can go back to naughty dog and naughty dog remake the crash games for ps3 with new graphics? just like sppyro with sierra?

  11. bluepasj says:

    Part seven is king.! hahaha

    I played Crash with my sister. It was the only game in PSX she played. I, too, have girl classmates that played Crash. For some reason, this game is popular amongst girls. And this, in that time, was rare. Too, in PSX there were just a few games to be played by more than one people. In my house, we played alternating. A lot of people, each one played till pass a level or lose a live. Then was the time to the next. It was so fun! Things rare in PSX. So congratulations!

    • agavin says:

      We didn’t really anticipate this, but it certainly seemed true. I think because A) Crash was fun B) it was funny and cartoony C) it wasn’t filled with guns and gore D) the move set and menu complexity is nearly zero (even if the gameplay is fairly complex).

      Most modern PS3 or xbox games are pretty serious “boy games”

  12. mika says:

    I have to ask you guys this:

    how does that make you feel?


    Bring back the bandicoot!

  14. […] 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 […]

  15. Zippo says:

    LOL @ Aimee. Crash bigger than Mario? He might be just a plumber but he sells systems singlehandedly, can’t say the same for Crash, can you? @Andy, you too crack me up. Surpassing Miyamoto and Mario 64? I hope you’re joking, cause that was not funny. At all.

    • mysterious stranger says:

      You sound mad, what have you accomplished so far, besides an amazing lack of empathy/humour? Maybe these guys are proud of the work they poured a chunk of their young adult lives in. Or maybe they have different benchmarks than yourself for grading something.

      OT: thanks for all the cool info, I really enjoyed reading these posts, and some of it was really funny, also for anyone who has had dealings or work experience in the industry this is extra fun to read imo.

      Oh yes, and ‘up the creek’ was an evil level! Just like that 2nd dark temple level with the on rails flying somewhere on the 2nd island… I must have spent way too much time trying to finish those without dieing for that ever elusive crystal bonus.

      Crash 1 was a great game though, and one of the few actually good platformers of the 3D era (I liked gex 3D personally for all the puns and rayman 3, and that about covers it:P).

      And as some other poster already mentioned, the music really helped. For example in up the creek you could just stand on top of a moving leaf and look at the (back then revolutionary) very pretty water with a chilled out song. Not knocking on mario, but those organ tunes drive me INSANE after a while.

      Oh yes greets from the netherlands, guess when your game sells a few mln copies ppl all over the world tend to play it 😛

      • agavin says:

        The killer Mario sound’s “It’s a me, Mario” + his little woots. In ’96 someone or another in the test lab was playing Mario 24/7 and I could’ve ripped out the speaker on the N64’s TV! 🙂

      • mysterious stranger says:

        Whoops forgot to say:

        Jack and daxter 1 is without a doubt my favorite 3D platformer I’ve ever played. Especially the first part of that game, it’s just amazing, the ambiance in there is just perfect. I’m still amazed that graphically it holds up to many games a whole console generation later.

        To be honest I found the ”dark and grity’ direction of jax 2 very disappointing, though graphically it was still a feast to behold… Dunno I still feel absolutely comfortable playing a ‘kid game’ like j&d at my age, because it’s pure in what it does. But at jax 2 I was immediately reminded of the inherent flaws of the video game medium still maturing. Kind of how the early movies (check any Fritz Lang) were copying theater and still sometimes try to directly imitate books.

        Movies took many decades to mature, there is still a lot of time left and the tech only keeps pushing away creative borders.

      • agavin says:

        I also liked the look of J&D 1 better — although we got SO much better at the cinematics in 2 and 3. But we were under a lot of pressure from GTA / MGS, etc. to be darker. The gun played pretty well too, but the Robot (and I did all the robot levels) sucked!

  16. mysterious stranger says:

    Oh yes, I really enjoyed D2 and 3 as well for the design elements and most of the gameplay, the fifth element style traffic in 2 was so very well done and the set pieces and 3 had those enormously fun racing things. All the time you keep thinking: how did they DO this?:P

    Maybe it’s also a hidden nostalgia element for me, as I always enjoyed looking around in the game worlds. From observing the static background in doom to the moving cloud thing in hexen. Anyway; in J&D 1 I folded out the fold out world-map that came with the disc, and went to the highest point in the first village to see if I could see a glimpse of the lava worlds in world, and I could! it was like seeing the 2nd island in GTA3, only much grander. To me it was one of those few gaming moments that redefined how I looked at games and the new new possibilities new tech could bring.

    But I think I just prefer J&D 1 because to me it is not only the best (perfect?) in its genre, but also an homage to simpler gaming, both story wise and gameplay wise and how the basic elements can still create a great game in its own right. Although I was happy to play the 2 sequels.

    Sorry to hear that your higher ups took MGS as a benchmark, it’s a completely different game, and the last MGS game is absolute blasphemy to me. The moment you have to save INBETWEEN cutscenes you know someones ego had too much power in the design proces. Real shame because the mgs series had a lot of innovation in the gameplay elements.

    • agavin says:

      I haven’t played MGS since the PS2 versions — but it always did take itself way too seriously. But at the same time it had a tremendous level of detail and all sorts of neat stuff.

  17. […] posts on Crash: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, […]

  18. […] Making Crash series: [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, […]

  19. […] 4. Crash gameplay 5. Crates and other items 6. Attending the E3, premiere of the game 7. As a startup 8. An outsider’s perspective 9. The programming 10. Tools for the game 11. Teaching an old […]

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