Making Crash Bandicoot – part 5

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. ]

 

A Bandicoot, his beach, and his crates

But even once the core gameplay worked, these cool levels were missing something. We’d spent so many polygons on our detailed backgrounds and “realistic” cartoon characters that the enemies weren’t that dense, so everything felt a bit empty.

We’d created the wumpa fruit pickup (carefully rendered in 3D into a series of textures — burning a big chunk of our vram — but allowing us to have lots of them on screen), and they were okay, but not super exciting.

Enter the crates. One Saturday, January 1996, while Jason and I were driving to work (we worked 7 days a week, from approximately 10am to 4am – no one said video game making was easy). We knew we needed something else, and we knew it had to be low polygon, and ideally, multiple types of them could be combined to interesting effect. We’d been thinking about the objects in various puzzle games.

So crates. How much lower poly could you get? Crates could hold stuff. They could explode, they could bounce or drop, they could stack, they could be used as switches to trigger other things. Perfect.

So that Saturday we scrapped whatever else we had planned to do and I coded the crates while Jason modeled a few, an explosion, and drew some quick textures.

About six hours later we had the basic palate of Crash 1 crates going. Normal, life crate, random crate, continue crate, bouncy crate, TNT crate, invisible crate, switch crate. The stacking logic that let them fall down on each other, or even bounce on each other. They were awesome. And smashing them was so much fun.

Over the next few days we threw crates into the levels with abandon, and formally dull spots with nothing to do became great fun. Plus, in typical game fashion tempting crates could be combined with in game menaces for added gameplay advantage. We even used them as the basis for our bonus levels (HERE in video). We also kept working on the feel and effects of crate smashing and pickup collection. I coded them again and again, going for a pinball machine like ringing up of the score. One of the best things about the crates is that you could smash a bunch, slurp up the contents, and 5-10 seconds later the wumpa and one-ups would still be ringing out.

This was all sold by the sound effects, executed by Mike Gollom for Crash 1-3. He managed to dig up the zaniest and best sounds. The wumpa slurp and the cha-ching of the one up are priceless. As one of our Crash 2 programmers used to say, “the sounds make the game look better.”

For some reason, years later, when we got around to Jak & Daxter we dropped the crate concept as “childish,” while our friends and amiable competitors at Insomniac Games borrowed them over into Ratchet & Clank. They remained a great source of cheap fun, and I scratch my head at the decision to move on.

Now, winter 95-96 the game was looking very cool, albeit very much a work-in-progress. The combination of our pre-calculation, high resolution, high poly-count, and 30 fps animation gave it a completely unique look on the machine. So much so that many viewers thought it a trick. But we had kept the whole project pretty under wraps. One of the dirty secrets of the Sony “developer contract” was that unlike its more common “publisher” cousin, it didn’t require presentation to Sony during development, as they assumed we’d eventually have to get a publisher. Around Thanksgiving 1995, I and one of our artists, Taylor Kurosaki, who had a TV editing background, took footage from the game and spent two days editing it into a 2 minute “preview tape.” We deliberately leaked this to a friend at Sony so that the brass would see it.

They liked what they saw.

Management shakeups at Sony slowed the process, but by March of 1996 Sony and Universal had struck a deal for Sony to do the publishing. While Sony never officially declared us their mascot, in all practical senses we became one. Heading into the 1996 E3 (May/June) we at Naughty Dog were working ourselves into oblivion to get the whole game presentable. Rumors going into E3 spoke of Nintendo’s new machine, the misleadingly named N64 (it’s really 32 bit) and Miyamoto’s terrifying competitive shadow, Mario 64.

Crash and his girl make a getaway

For two years we had been carefully studying every 3D character game. Hell, we’d been pouring over even the slightest rumor – hotly debated at the 3am deli takeout diners. Fortunately for us, they’d all sucked. Really sucked. Does anyone remember Floating Runner? But Mario, that wasn’t going to suck. However, before E3 1996 all we saw were a couple of screen shots – and that only a few weeks before. Crash was pretty much done. Well, at least we thought so.

Now, we had seen some juicy magazine articles on Tomb Raider, but we really didn’t worry much about that because it was such a different kind of game: a Raiders of the Lost Ark type adventure game starring a chick with guns. Cool, but different. We’d made a cartoon action CAG aimed at the huge “everybody including kids” market.

Mario  was our competition.

 

Jason says:

The empty space had plagued us for a long time.  We couldn’t have too many enemies on screen at the same time.  Even though the skunks or turtles were only 50-100 polygons each, we could show two or three at most.  The rest was spent on Crash and the Background.  Two or three skunks was fine for a challenge, but it meant the next challenge either had to be part of the background, like a pit, or far away.  If two skunk challenges came back to back there was a huge amount of boring ground to cover between them.

Enter the crates.   The Crates weren’t put in to Crash until just before Alpha, or the first “fully playable” version of the game.

Andy must have programmed the “Dynamite Crate/Crate/Dynamite Crate” puzzle 1000 times to get it right.  It is just hard enough to spin the middle crate out without blowing up the other two, but not hard enough not to make it worth trying for a few wumpa fruit.  Getting someone to risk a Life for 1/20th of a Life is a fine balancing act!

Eventually the Crates led to Crash’s name.  In less than a month after we put them in everyone realized that they were the heart of the game.  Crash’s crash through them not only filled up the empty spots, the challenges ended up filling time between Crate challenges!

This isn’t the place for an in depth retelling of the intrigue behind the Sony/Crash relationship, but two stories must be told.

The first is Sony’s first viewing of Crash in person.  Kelly Flock was the first Sony employee to see Crash live [ Andy NOTE: running, not on videotape ].  He was sent, I think, to see if our videotape was faked!

Kelly is a smart guy, and a good game critic, but he had a lot more to worry about than just gameplay.  For example, whether Crash was physically good for the hardware!

Andy had given Kelly a rough idea of how we were getting so much detail through the system: spooling.  Kelly asked Andy if he understood correctly that any move forward or backward in a level entailed loading in new data, a CD “hit.”  Andy proudly stated that indeed it did.  Kelly asked how many of these CD hits Andy thought a gamer that finished Crash would have.  Andy did some thinking and off the top of his head said “Roughly 120,000.”  Kelly became very silent for a moment and then quietly mumbled “the PlayStation CD drive is ‘rated’ for 70,000.”

Kelly thought some more and said “let’s not mention that to anyone” and went back to get Sony on board with Crash.

The second story that can’t be glossed over was our first meeting with the Sony executives from Japan.  Up until this point, we had only dealt with Sony America, who got Crash’s “vibe”.  But the Japanese were not so sure.

We had been handed a document that compared Crash with Mario and Nights, or at least what was known of the games at the time.  Though Crash was rated favorably in “graphics” and some other categories, two things stood out as weaknesses.  The first was that Sony Japan didn’t like the character much, and the second was a column titled “heritage” that listed Mario and Sonic as “Japanese” and Crash as “other.”  The two negatives were related.

Let us remember that in 1995 there was Japan, and then there was the rest of the world in video games.  Japan dominated the development of the best games and all the hardware.  It is fair to say that absent any other information, the Japanese game WAS probably the better one.

Mark presided over the meeting with the executives.  He not only spoke Japanese, but also was very well respected for his work on Sonic 2 and for his years at Sega in Japan.  I could see from the look in Mark’s eyes that our renderings of Crash, made specifically for the meeting, did not impress them.

We took a break, during which it was clear that Sony was interested in Crash for the US alone, hardly a “mascot” crowning.  I stared at the images we had done.  Primitive by today’s standards, but back then they were reasonably sexy renderings that had been hand retouched by Charlotte for most of the previous 48 hours.  She was fried.

I walked over to her.  I think she could barely hold her eyes open.  I had spent the previous month spending all of my free time (4am-10am) studying Anime and Manga.  I read all the books available at that time in English on the subject.  All three!  I also watched dozens of movies.  I looked at competitive characters in the video game space.  I obsessed, but I obsessed from America.  I had never been to Japan.

I asked Charlotte if she could close Crash’s huge smiling mouth making him seem less aggressive.   I asked her to change Crash’s eyes from green to two small black “pac-man” shapes.  And I asked her to make Crash’s spike smaller.  And I told her she had less than 15 minutes.  With what must have been her last energy she banged it out.

I held up the resulting printout 15 minutes later.

Sony Japan bought off on Crash for the international market.

I don’t want to make the decision on their part seem arbitrary.  Naughty Dog would do a huge amount of work after this on the game for Japan, and even then we would always release a Japanese specific build.  Whether it was giving Aku Aku pop up text instructions, or replace a Crash smashing “death” that reminded them of the severed head and shoes left by a serial killer that was loose in Japan during Crash 2’s release, we focused on Japan and fought hard for acceptance and success.

We relied on our Japanese producers, including Shuhei Yoshida, who was assigned shortly after this meeting, to help us overcome our understandable ignorance of what would work in Japan.  And Sony Japan’s marketing department basically built their own Crash from the ground up for the marketing push.

Maybe Charlotte’s changes showed Sony that there was a glimmer of hope for Crash in Japan.  Maybe they just saw how desperate we were to please and couldn’t say no.  Maybe Universal put something in the coffee they had during the break.

Who knows, but Crash was now a big part of the international PlayStation push.  So there were more important things for us to worry about then Sony and the deal:

The fear of Miyamoto was thick at Naughty Dog during the entire Crash development period.  We knew eventually he would come out with another Mario, but we were hoping, praying even, that it would be a year after we launched.

Unfortunately that was not to be.  We started seeing leaks of video of the game.

It was immediately obvious that it was a different type of game: truly open.  That scared us.  But when we saw the graphics we couldn’t believe it.  I know there will be some that take this as heresy, but when we saw the blocky, simple, open world we breathed a sign of relief.  I think I called it I Robot Mario, evoking the first 3D game.

Of course we hadn’t played it, so we knew we couldn’t pass judgment until we did.  That would happen at E3.


CONTINUED in PART 6 or

more on GAMES or BOOKS/MOVIES/TV or WRITING or FOOD.

The Big Fight!

Making Crash Bandicoot – part 4

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. ]

 

But this brings us to the gameplay. We were forging new ground here, causing a lot of growing pains. I started fairly programming the control of the main character early. This is the single most important thing in a CAG, and while intellectually I knew this from Way of the Warrior, it was really Mark who drove the message home. I did all the programming, but Mark helped a lot with the complaining. For example, “he doesn’t stop fast enough,” or “he needs to be able to jump for a frame or two AFTER he’s run off a cliff or it will be frustrating.” Jason’s also really good flaw detection. Which is a good thing. Internal criticism is essential, and as a programmer who wrote dozens of world class control schemes in the years between 1994 and 2004, I rewrote every one at least five or six times. Iteration is king.

Even after the control was decent, we still had no idea how to build good 3D gameplay with it. Our first two test levels “the jungle, level1” and “lava cave, level2” were abysmal, and neither shipped in the final game. First of all, they were too open with way too many polygons. Level1 had over 10 million, whereas a shipping level tended to have around a million (a lot back then). Level2 was better, but not much.

So during the summer of 1995 we retrenched and tried to figure out how to make a level that was actually fun. The F word is the most important concept in making games. Too many forget this.

But Mark – who served the practical function of producer – never let us.

By this time most of the art design for the game was complete, including the vast layout of possible looks and levels, but we skipped to about 2/3 through and used Cortex’s factory levels to really focus on fun. Our first successful level was essentially 2D (“Heavy Machinery”). It was all rendered in 3D, but the camera watched from the side like a traditional platformer. Here we combined some classic devices like steam vents, drop platforms, bouncy pads, hot pipes, and monsters that tracked back and forth in simple patterns. This was in essence a retreat to success, as it employed the basic kind of techniques that Donkey Kong Country had used so successfully. This palate of objects would be arranged in increasingly more difficult combination.

It worked. Thank God.

Simultaneously, we were working on a more ambitious level where the camera sat above and “Willie” walked both into/out and side to side (“Generator Room”). This factory level included drop platforms, moving platforms, dangerous pipes, and various robots. By using a more mechanical setting, and briefly forgoing the complex organic forest designs we were able to distill this two axis gameplay and make it fun. In both areas we had to refine “Willie’s” jumping, spinning, and bonking mechanics.

We then got our third type of level working (“Cortex Power”). This involved having the camera behind the character, over his shoulder, in the original “Sonic’s ass” POV that had faired miserably with level1 and level2. By taking some of the new creatures and mechanics, and combining them with hot pipes and slime pits we were able to make it work in this more factory-like setting.

Having learned these lessons, we turned back to the jungle design with a new jungle level, known as “levelc” (“Jungle Rollers”). This used some of the pieces from the failed level1, but arranged as a corridor between the trees, much like the over-the-shoulder factory level. Here we utilized pits, skunks on paths, stationary plants, and rollers to create the palate of obstacles. With this level the into-the-screen gameplay really came into its own, and it remains one of my favorite levels. Each element served its purpose.

Rollers (big stone wheels that could crush the player, and rolled from side to side) provided timing gates. They could be doubled or tripled up for more challenge.

Skunks traveled down the path tracking back and forth toward the player, requiring him to attack them or jump over them.

Fallen logs, tikis, and pits needed to be jumped over.

Stationary plants could strike at the player, requiring one to tease them into a strike, then jump on their heads.

Once we had these three level types going things really begun to get on a roll. For each level art design, like jungle, we would typically do 2-3 levels, the first with the introductory set of challenges, and then the later ones adding in a few new twists combined at much harder difficulty. For example in the sequel to the jungle level we added drop platforms and moving platforms. The elements combined with the characters mechanics to form the fun.

It’s also worth noting that we stumbled onto a few of our weirder (and most popular) level designs as variants of the over-the-shoulder. First “Boulders,” aping that moment from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the giant stone ball starts rolling toward Indy. For this we reversed the action and had the character run into the screen. This proved so successful that we riffed on it again in Crash 2 and 3. Same with “Hog Wild,” in which the character jumps on the bag of a wild “hog ride” and is dragged at high speed through a frenetic series of obstacles.

Jason says:

Making games is no game.  So many aspiring designers think that all you do is come up with a great idea and the sit around and play.  That may be true if you are aping something that exists, like making just another first person shooter (this time in ancient Sumeria and with Demon Aliens!), or making something small and easy to iterate, but it is certainly NOT true when you are trying something new in the AAA space.

And to make matters worse, the LAST person who can attest to a good game design is the game designer.  Not only do they know what to do when they test it, but they are also predisposed to like it.

Oh no, the proper test is to hand it to a complete noob, in Crash’s case the ever rotating list of secretaries and clerical staff that worked at Universal.   For many of them it was their first time touching a controller, and they succeeded immediately in failing, miserably, to get a single challenge passed.  As they smiled and tried to be positive they were saying “this sucks” with their hands.  Thus a good designer has to both dread and seeks out other people’s advice, especially those most likely to hate the work he has done.  And the designer has to accept the third party opinion over theirs.  Every time.  Only when the noobs start completing challenges and smile WHILE PLAYING do you know you are getting somewhere.

I don’t know why, but I have always had an innate ability to see the flaws in my own projects, even after they are “final” in everyone else’s eyes.   Naughty Dog graphic engine coder Greg Omi, who joined for Crash 2, once said I could spot a single pixel flicker on his monitor at 30 yards while holding a conversation with someone else and facing the opposite direction.  Whatever it is, I get a weird frustrated sweat when I see something wrong.  Mark Cerny has the same “talent.”

The two of us were always unhappy with the gameplay.  I don’t mean just the early gameplay, I mean always unhappy with the gameplay, period.  I know in retrospect that I was to hard on the team quite often because of this, and that perhaps more often than not I was too poignant when voicing my frustration (letting myself of easy here!), but I think a certain amount of frustration and pain is inherent in making gameplay success.

Stripping the game down to familiar 2D, and then building from there to levels that contained only platforms floating in space was the crutch we used to get to the jungle levels that made Crash such a success.  In the end, these levels aren’t that different in gameplay design.  But starting with the Jungle was too big a leap.  We needed simple.  Upon simple we built complex.

Andy has done a good job of compressing a year of design hell into a blog-sized chunk.  With all our technical and art successes, the game could not have succeeded without good gameplay.  This was by far the hardest part of making Crash Bandicoot.

Dave and Andy’s code, Justin’s IT and coloring, Charlotte Francis’s textures, And Bob, Taylor and my backgrounds and characters would have been worth nothing if Crash hadn’t played well.

Jason, Andy, Dave, Bob, Taylor, Justin, Charlotte

CONTINUED in PART 5 or

more on GAMES or BOOKS/MOVIES/TV or WRITING or FOOD