Making Crash Bandicoot – part 6

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. ]

 

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.

Dr N. Cortex goes medieval on Universal Marketing

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.

Crash's hot girlfriend, Tawna

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.

Jason (right) and I (left) at E3 1996

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.

Mark & I watch Miyamoto play Crash

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.

 

Jason says:

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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The Limited Edition Launch Poster

Making Crash Bandicoot – part 3

PREVIOUS installment, or the FIRST POST.

Crash in the Jungle

While all this art design was going on, I, and then in January 1995, Dave, struggled to build an engine and tool pipeline that would make it possible to render these grandiose cartoon worlds we had envisioned on paper. Since during fall of 1994 Jason was also the only artist, he frantically generated all the source material and banged on my head to make sure it would look incredible.

Our motto was “bite off more than we could chew, then figure out some crazy complicated way to make it work.”

The Playstation had this oddball 512×240 video mode that everyone else ignored, it wasn’t standard (320×240) and ate up video memory others wanted for textures. But it looked SHARP and we found the machine was really good at rendering shaded, but un-textured, triangles. In fact, just as fast in the 512 mode as 320. Jason pointed out — he’s always been the master of seeing the intersection between art and tech — that since polygons on 3D characters our size were just a few pixels, shaded characters actually looked better than textured ones. So we went with more polys on the characters, less texture. This was a highly usual approach, but had lots of advantages. The characters popped, like cartoons are supposed to, we had lots more polygons to work with, and it worked around the Playstation’s lack of texture correction or polygon clipping.

Since the soul of good Animation, is…. drum roll please… animation! We were obsessed with making ours look like that really good Disney or Looney Tunes stuff. In those days, most people used a simple skeleton system with “1 joint” weighting, and very few bones. This gives a very stiff look, so we went instead with vertex animation. This allowed us to use the more sophisticated 3-4 joint weighting available in PowerAnimator, which the Playstation had no hope of matching at runtime (until the PS2), instead we stored the location of every vertex, every frame at 30 frames a second. No one else had the guts, as while this was easy to render, it required inventing some totally hardcore assembly language vertex compressors. First me (three times), then Dave (twice), then finally Mark took a crack at it. Mark’s was the best — being the best assembly programmer of us three — but also the most complicated.

Complexity became the name of the game at Naughty Dog.

We also wanted vast and detailed worlds. Dave, Jason, and I had done a bunch of research “post Doom” on visibility calculation. And Dave and I were convinced that extensive pre-calculation of visibility could allow the renderer to handle A LOT more polygons. So we did experiments in free roaming camera control and settled on branching rail camera + pre-calculation = gorgeous visuals.

The Evolve-o-Ray

The idea was that the camera would follow along next to, behind, or in front of the character, generally looking at him, moving on a “track” through the world. Dave and I experimented with pre-calculating the visibility and sort (the Playstation had no z-buffer, and hence no easy way to sort polygons) ahead of time on the SGI workstations the artists used. Although painful and expensive, this worked really well. As long as you could never SEE more than a set number of polygons (800 for Crash 1, 1300 for Crash 2 or 3) from any given position we could have perfect occlusion and sort, with no runtime cost. We conceived of using trees, cliffs, walls, and twists and turns in the environment to hide a lot of the landscape from view – but it would be there, just around the corner.

So we decided to use an entirely SGI and IRIX based tool pipeline. In fact the game itself even ran on the SGI (with terrible keyboard control). This meant buying programmers $100,000 SGIs instead of $3,000 PCs. Gulp again. No one else did this. No one. And at the time, when a 50mhz Pentium with 8-32 megs of RAM was typical, our 250mhz 64 bit SGIs with 256 or 512 megs of RAM opened up totally different computational possibilities. By 1997 I had 4 gigs of ram in my machine! Of course some of those computational possibilities were so brutal that I had to code tools to distribute the calculations out to the video hardware, and chop it up onto all the office machines, where processing could be done in parallel 24 hours a day. Levels often took several hours to process on our 5-8 machine farm!

This was not easy in 1995!

I also concocted a crazy algorithmic texture packer that would deal with the fact that our gorgeous 512×240 mode left us with too little texture memory. And the even crazier – way crazier – virtual memory system required to shoehorn the 8-16 meg levels the artists created into the Playstation’s little 2megs of RAM. Dave meanwhile had to invent insane bidirectional 10x compressors to help get the 128meg levels down into 12, and figure out some tool for managing the construction of our gigantic 3D worlds.

Our levels were so big, that our first test level, which never shipped and was creatively named “level1” or “the jungle,” couldn’t be loaded into Alias PowerAnimator even on a machine with 256megs. In fact, it had to be cut up into 16 chunks, and even then each chunk took 10 minutes to load!

So Dave created a level design tool where component parts were entered into a text file, and then a series of 10-15 Photoshop layers indicated how the parts were combined. The tool, known as the DLE, would build each chunk of the level and save it out. Artists tweaked their photoshop and text files, ran the tool, then loaded up chunks to look for errors. Or they might let the errors pass through the 8 hour level processing tool, there to possibly pick up or interact with new (or old) programmer bugs. If one was lucky, the result wouldn’t crash the Playstation.

But the craziest thing I did was create a new programming language – with Lisp syntax – for coding all of the gameplay. It had all sorts of built in state machine support (very useful with game objects), powerful macros, dynamic loading etc. It was also highly irregular and idiosyncratic, and in true Naughty Dog fashion “powerful but complicated.”

 

Jason says:

The secret to Crash’s success was its Art.  And the secret to its Art was its Programming. [ Andy NOTE: well, and the F-word ]

Andy and Dave broke a lot of rules.  First and foremost, they didn’t follow PlayStation’s library restrictions.  Other developers often complained that Crash was using some sort of secret Sony library.  That is the exact opposite of the truth.  The truth is that Crash used as little as it could of Sony’s library and the programmers basically hacked everything right to the hardware.

Years later Sony tried to create a game called Harry Jalapeño to compete with Crash.  No, I am not making that up.  Besides the name fail, the internal team in San Francisco also utterly failed to create the complex worlds and characters that we created in Crash.  Let me repeat – an internal Sony team couldn’t create Crash.  Let the rumors of “insider information” forever rest.

Hitting the hardware directly was against the rules.  But by the time Sony saw the results they needed a Mario killer.  It was too late for them to complain.

It is easy to underestimate the value of the pre-occlusion and vertex animation hacks.  But let me tell you, this was everything.

The occlusion meant more polygons in the background, and more polygons meant we could do the levels.  Without it we NEVER could have made the world look as good as it did.

Our occlusion worked on a texture level.  That is, if we had a giant polygon with a fern texture on it (think many leaves but lots of empty space) the occlusion could actually get rid of polygons behind the leaf part of the texture but leave the polygons seen through the alpha channel holes.  No other game had that kind of detail in occlusion, and it paid off immensely. Given how small ground polygons could be in the distance, a little fern action went a long way.

We were up against the polygon draw limit at every twist and turn in the game.  We wanted to have as much distance and detail visible as possible, but the minute we went over that limit the game started getting “hitchy.”  We’d build a level over night (really 4am-11am, the only times the office was ever empty) and come in to see the results.  Wherever we had too many polygons we’d add some leaves or whatever to occlude some distance.  Wherever there were more polygons available to draw we’d pull leaves out.

And remember, more foreground (boxes, enemies, platforms) meant we had to have less background.  So just when you had a level perfectly balanced, someone (usually me or Mark) would determine that the level was too hard or easy and we’d have to add a platform or enemy and the level builder (usually Bob Rafei or Taylor Kurosaki) would have to start balancing the background poly count over again.  It was so cruel.

We couldn’t see the result of any change for at least 12 hours, so if we made a mistake we’d make a tweak and then we’d have to repeat the process.   No level was “done” till the game shipped.

Crash was 512 polygons in the first game, with textures only for his spots and his shoelaces, and his model didn’t change much through the 3 platform titles.  It took me a month to settle on the perfect 512.   As Andy said, we went with non-textured polygons instead of textured ones on most of the characters.  Instead of texture, we used corner colors to create the textures that seemed to be there.

There were many advantages to this strategy.  The simplest was that we got more polygons.  But we also solved a texture stretching and warping issue inherent in the PlayStation’s renderer that tended to make textures look terrible.  Since you spent most of your time looking at the character, and he could get quite close to the camera, avoiding texture mess meant a lot for visual quality.

And there was another important issue solved by using polygons instead of textures.  The PlayStation tended to render every polygon as a pixel, no matter how small it got.  Had Crash’s pupils been texture, they might have disappeared when the got smaller than a pixel.  But by making the pupil 2 polygons (a quad), they almost always showed up as long as the total eye, including whites, was more than a few pixels tall.  Subtle, but trust me, it made the game so much more clean looking.  It’s the small things that matter.

The most important advantage of our character system was vertex animation.  I cannot imagine the torture that other game developers went through trying to bend the low polygon arms and legs of their characters using nothing but bone weighting!  When the bones failed for us, and they often did in a character with <1000 polygons, we just grabbed vertices and yanked them around until things were fixed.  This is why Crash doesn’t bend and fall apart when animating.  It meant more mobility and stretchability.

In some of the most stretched or bent poses, we just pulled vertices by hand and forgot the bones altogether, which brought us two additional abilities that nobody else had. [ Andy NOTE: this allowed the same animation techniques then at use at Pixar into our little effort ]

The first is that the characters in Crash had different facial expressions on every single frame.  Forget bones.  I just pulled the vertices until I had what I wanted.  It doesn’t sound like a big distinction, but I could go from a huge smile full of teeth to a whistle mouth that was toothless or no mouth at all just by collapsing vertices on top of each other to make zero volume polygons.   Thus Crash had a more expressive face than any other character had ever had before, and this created emotion that gamers hadn’t felt before.

It was that opening sequence, when Crash pulls his flat face out of the sand, shakes it off, looks confused, leaps up, looks at the camera and does his great big goofy smile that SOLD Crash as a character.  No 2d game could afford the art, and no other 3d game had the facial animation that our vertex system brought.  And thus the main character transformed from emotionless “vehicles” to an emotive friend.

Before Crash characters had no emotion (Pacman, and even Mario), or one dimensional emotions (Sonic was “fast”).  Crash had facial emotions that let him speak to you and gave him personal range.  Crash wasn’t any one emotion.  Crash was Crash.  For example, you could see Crash acting like a mime.  Sonic and Mario weren’t capable expressing even a mimes range of emotion until after Crash came out.  “Itsa me, Mario” just doesn’t cut it, especially when Mario’s face didn’t even animate as he said it!!

Of course it wouldn’t be until much later that the game industry got fully 3 dimensional characters, like Daxter, who had full personalities, and could go beyond mime and do, for example, a scene from Shakespeare, but in their very own way.  But that’s a story for another time. [ Andy NOTE: and when we got there we had to build a special “face engine” and “eye engine” to do it ]

The second thing that vertex animation allowed is total warping of the character beyond bones.  If I wanted Crash to become a balloon, I just animated a keyframe of him wrapped around a sphere (shoes and face usually un-stretched!) and the game tweened to it.  If I wanted to smash him flat into his shoes I just folded his legs and body up into his face and cleaned up the resulting frames as it went.   The animators were free to do anything, and we did.   Again, helped endear Crash as a character.

That made Crash’s characters feel more like the Loony Toons than the stiff 3d bone creatures of the day.  I still have a signed copy of Disney’s “The Illusion of Life,” by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of the greatest animators of all time.  It’s dog-eared and beat up.  Bob, Taylor and I read it, absorbed it, and tried to live it.

Again, all this was only possible thanks to some incredibly crafty programming from Andy, Dave, and Mark.

CONTINUED HERE WITH PART 4 or

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Crash was never suave

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.

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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