Expansion of the WOW Factor

I was once a very hardcore WOW (World of Warcraft) player. And although I burned out and haven’t been playing this year (after reaching 85 with my main, I just lost interest), but I still follow the news. Blizzard just released a trailer for the upcoming fourth expansion, the Mists of Pandaria. Below is a series of cinematics, from the original 2004 release to this newest (sometime 2012). It’s an interesting exercise in progression.

Above is the classic WOW launch cinematic.

Burning Crusade, where the demon infested Illidan Stormrage is confronted.

Then, above, the corrupted Lich King and his army of Scourge, in Wrath of the Lich King.

Then the gigantic Deathwing shatters the world in Cataclysm.

And finally, above, the arrival of… talking pandas. Hmmm. Seems a little like an April Fools joke. But not.

Now Blizzard also just released the cinematic for the upcoming Diablo 3.

That’s more like it! Even if the demon lecture is slightly cheesy. Also note how awesome the rendered girl looks, particularly the lighting and skin textures.

For more info on my video game career, click here.

For what I’m up to now, click here.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Genre: Pop Science-Fiction

Length: 384 pages

Read: September 13-18, 2011

Summary: 10: buy book 20: read book 30: goto 10

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I read this after two different friends recommended it in the same week. Wow! If you’re one of my (presumably) many readers who love video games. Go buy and read it. This is pretty much the ultimate classic video games novel! And I should know, having been born in 1970, the perfect time to experience the full rise of video games and modern pop culture (inaugurated May 25, 1977). I was so enamored of computers in general and these little beasties in particular that I went and made (and sold) thirteen of them professionally.

But back to Ready Player One. It’s a first person narrative set in a roughly 2040 dystopia where the world has basically gone to shit and most people live inside a gigantic virtual reality video game. It’s creator has died and left his vast fortune to the winner of an elaborate easter egg hunt (think Atari Adventure Easter Egg crossed with the Great Stork Derby). This whole world and contest centers around an obsessive love of all things pop-culture and 80s, particularly films, comics, and most importantly, video games.

In practice the novel is an old school adventure set mostly in virtual reality. But it contains an astounding number of well placed and deeply woven 80s pop-culture references. For me, they were continual fun. I got 99% of them, including some damn obscure ones. I’ve played every game described in the book (except for Dungeons of Daggorath — never had a TRS-80 — but it looks like Wizardry), seen every movie, heard nearly every song, etc. I don’t know how this book will read for someone a lot younger who isn’t up on all this old school geekery, but I sure enjoyed it.

The story is great fun too. The protagonist is likable and all that. It’s not a long book but races along. There are a few second act jitters (the “romantic” period between the first and second keys), but I blew through them fast enough. The prose is workmanlike but unglamorous and there are some cheesy or cringeworthy moments. They don’t distract from the fun. The last third in particular was awesomely rad with numerous 1337 epic moments. When the protagonist faces off against an unstoppable Mechagodzilla avatar and invokes a two-minute Ultraman powerup I felt tears coming to my eyes.

As Science-Fiction the book is a bit mixed. Mr. Cline manages to deftly describe what must to the novice be a bewildering array of virtual reality technologies and concepts. He’s fairly unusual in actually specifying some of the interface elements in his world and he does a credible job with all of this. Nothing stood out as particularly bogus, but was based on decent extrapolation. There are some elements, however, which still exist in his 30-years-from-now future that are already on the way out. Hard drives in “bulky laptops” for example. One only has to look at the iPad and the Macbook Air to see that writing on the wall. Again, I must point out that these minor quibbles do not detract from the book’s extreme fun factor.

Cline is uncannily knowledgable about his video games (and again, I should know), but there is a curious oddity in the biography of the central Bill Gates crossed with Richard Garriot character. He is described as releasing his first hit game (for the TRS-80) in 1987 in plastic baggies. Besides wondering if any TRS-80 game had much cultural impact (Read my own Apple II guy origin story here!), the date is totally off. If he was talking about 1982 that would have been fine. But by 1987 the TRS-80 had gone the way of Allosaurus and plastic baggies hadn’t been seen in years. My first game, Math Jam, was released in baggies in 1984 and that was way late for them. 1987 featured games like Zelda II, Contra, Maniac Mansion, Mega Man, and Leisure Suit Larry. All of these are well after the era venerated in the book. This small, but important, error is odd in a book so otherwise accurate. I can only assume that the author (and his character), living in the middle of the country, existed in some kind of five-year offset time-warp 🙂

On a deeper level, the novel toys with one of my favorite futurist topics: Will we all get sucked into the computer? I actually think the answer is yes, but that it’s unlikely to happen via 90s envisioned visors and immersion suits (like in Ready Player One). I think we probably will have retina-painting laser visors/glasses at some point. Then neural implants. But the real big deal is when our brains are digitized and uploaded into the Matrix. Muhaha. I’m actually serious, if flip. Eventually it will happen. If not this century then the next. I just hope I make it to the cutoff so I can evade bony old Mr. Grim and upgrade.

In conclusion, I have to agree with the back cover quotes of some other authors I like:

John Scalzi: “A nerdgasm… imagine that Dungeons & Dragons & an ’80s video arcade made hot, sweet love, and their child was raised in Azeroth.”

Patrick Rothfuss: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I felt like it was written just for me.”

So if you have even the least enthusiasm for video games, virtual reality, 80s pop culture, or just plain fun. Go read this book!

For more book reviews, click here.

PS. If you are 5-10 (or more) years younger than me (born 1970) and have (or do) read this book. Tell me in the comments what you think of it. I’m really curious how those who didn’t live it see it.

I couldn’t resist.

So you want to be a video game programmer? – part 4 – School

…CONTINUED from PART 3. Or start at Part 1.

There are two basic approaches: home training and school. Personally I’d recommend both.

Let’s talk school. In my day (1980s) pre-collegiate computer classes barely existed, and if they did they were mostly about Pascal programming and data-structures. They often used p-System pascal, an old-school predecessor to Java!

College Computer Science programs followed (and I imagine they still do) a traditional regimen of stuff like Algorithms, Data-structures, Architecture, Compilers, AI, Theory of Computation etc. They rarely taught or emphasized programming itself. Personally, while I have this training myself (several years at the M.I.T. AI Lab working toward my PhD) I got it long after teaching myself to program and after having 5 published video games on the market.

What I was taught at M.I.T. (1992-94) was way too theoretical to make a good starting place for a young programmer. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a tremendous amount there and it really upped my game. But it was best digested in light of several years practical experience. So I don’t personally think that traditional CS is the way to start. But if you are really serious about computers it is a very solid choice for your higher education. You just need to be ready for it.

And here is the dirty secret about the University Education system: It’s made up of classes. Yep. Your four (or more) year educational experience will just be the summation of eight semesters worth of classes, usually 4-5 per semester. The exact order of these, which topics, and how they are taught will be at the whim of all sorts of varied factors. For example: scheduling, major and general requirements, teacher sabbaticals, friends, personal choice, etc. The school itself will have broad requirements (like you must have 3 science and 2 history classes). You major/department will have more specific ones (like requires 14 classes in the major, with 7 out of the 10 “core” classes — as defined by the department). So everyone’s education is different. That can be a good thing, but it’s less coherent.

And even within a particular class type, like say: Computer Architecture, the classes vary wildly and are rarely designed to work with each other or be taken in a particular order. The school and department might have determined that it should have a Computer Architecture class, but each teacher is free (somewhat) to determine the specific content and style of his or her class. Teachers vary wildly in teaching ability. I mean WILDLY! Even at the best schools. In fact, the teaching quality at M.I.T. was considerably lower than at my undergraduate school, Haverford College. It’s not that the M.I.T. professors weren’t as smart — they were plenty brilliant — but they leaned more toward being famous researchers while Haverford selected people who excelled first and foremost at undergraduate education.

In any case, even within a particular major, say Computer Science, the slate of courses you take might not form a coherent picture. There isn’t much effort made to ensure this. It’s more like, “we need a Compilers course, who wants to teach it?” and then that professor goes off and builds their plan. I’m sure there are constraints and feedback, but it being part of a single coherent program doesn’t seem to be one of them. And teacher style so heavily influences the experience. Now, don’t get me wrong, many of these courses are really good. But they require that you, the student, do a lot of the work integrating the bigger picture. Which really, for first rate minds trying to absorb advanced modalities of thought, is totally fine. It’s just not exactly the same as learning a complex practical field like programming.

But let me speak briefly about the classic topics:

Theory of Computation – Is the cool (but highly esoteric) field of math that endeavors to prove things about what can and not be computed. It includes a lot of discussions about theoretical computers like the Turing Machine and what sorts of computational problems are equivalently complex. This is actually very useful, but only if you have already encountered practical programming tasks. Otherwise it will probably just confuse the bejesus out of you.

Compilers – Is about writing compilers, and how computational semantics are transformed. This is bordering on totally useless for the novice programmer. I myself found it fascinating, but I wrote several compilers. Again, you want to study this several years into your career.

Algorithms – Is the formal study of different methods of problem solving. This is where stuff like the difference between a bubble and an insertion sort goes. Every programmer should know the basic algorithms, but you can read a beginning book fairly early in the learning process and pickup the basics. The college version is much more rigorous. But in the early stages you can lean on libraries which encapsulate these solutions.

Data-structures – These relate closely to Algorithms, but are methods for actually storing data in computers. Different data-structures lend themselves better to different algorithms. The mistake made by a purely academic approach is in thinking that they make a lot of sense without some practical knowledge of the kind of things that you do in normal computing. Still, Algorithms and Data-structures are essential at all levels of programming beyond the totally trivial, and these are the most practical of the classic topics.

AI (Artificial Intelligence) – Can be extremely useful to the game programmer. Games, after all, need enemies that appear intelligent, and in addition have to solve all sorts of big computational problems which use AI techniques (like moving the camera around etc.). But as taught in school it’s pretty theoretical and you need at least a couple years of practical skills first.

Architecture – Is the study of computer hardware, usually micro-processors. A lot of people hate this topic, not being hardware guys. And although you can learn this anytime, you really should. It’s impossible to be a truly great programmer without knowing something about the hardware that makes it all happen. If you are into compilers, this is even more true. I personally loved these classes.

I also want to mention the subject of Programming Languages. Most schools rightfully view the choice of specific programming language as fairly “academic” (or not actually). In the above classes advanced CS guys learn that all normal computer languages are “Turing Complete” and therefore equivalent to each other. Any program in one could be converted to a program in another by automated means (this is what compilers do). Languages all have the same basic features. And if it’s missing one you can write the feature within itself. So who cares which one you use?

This makes a certain academic sense, but in practice, the choice of programming language is vital. And the budding programmer should be introduced to a wide variety of them at a steady yet-not-overwhelming pace so that they learn the fundamentals common to all and do not become one of those lame-ass programmers who are afraid to learn a new programming language. I can be programming in any new language in one day, proficient in a week, expert in a month, master in six. It’s just not that hard.

Schools often have a particular language that they favor. These days it might be Java. In my era it was either Pascal or C. For many schools it’s still probably C/C++. At M.I.T. it was Scheme/Common Lisp! But often professors are also free to just teach a class in a different language. I had an undergraduate AI class all in Prolog. For the gifted student this is a good thing, having a whole class in a new language, as it’s a decent enough emersion to actually learn a new mode of thought (the Prolog class substantially improved my programming even though I’ve not used Prolog since). But also some professors will try the new language for each assignment approach, which is retarded, as there isn’t enough time or depth to master anything, and so the whole assignment becomes about learning the minimum information needed to get it done. The net net is that there is rarely a coherent plan to get you programming and then to have you learn a wide range of practical languages. In said plan, you might start learning with an easier interpreted language like Python, then be taught to master four or five others that are both practical and varied (say C/C++, Java, Javascript, at least one assembly, a “fancy” or two like Ruby/LISP/Scheme/Prolog/Smalltalk etc.) That doesn’t usually happen. You might get lots of Java and a smattering of 10 others.

College professors also don’t usually think that classes that directly and specifically teach programming languages and practical programming are very cool. There is no research or terribly theoretical aspect to them. I.e. the subject isn’t very academic. They are rarely themselves very good programmers (if they were, they’d be off working for Google or whatnot 🙂 but seriously the personality type for “programmer” and “professor” are different — albeit both bookish). This leads to professors rarely adding this kind of class to the curriculum unless someone makes them.

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Having heard about all these more practical Gaming majors that colleges now have, but which I know nothing about (they didn’t exist 20 years ago), I asked a friend of mine who just finished her CS degree yesterday! Lauren is a fellow blogger, programmer, WOW fan, and budding game designer-programmer. Big congratulations! Her comments are in blue:

Having just completed my degree yesterday, I can confirm that not as much has changed in Computer Science education as one might expect, especially given the exponential growth of the field. Aside from the specific languages taught, which for me was mainly Java instead of Pascal, the curriculum is much the same. The breadth of languages taught is still very much dependent on what you choose to seek out yourself; were it not for honors opportunities or research, I never would have become as familiar as I am with functional programming or the MVC architecture.

After the first two years, programming takes a back seat to theory; upper division classes, while useful and offering a degree of specialization, can be light on actual coding. There are still opportunities to improve your skills, though. Project classes, at least at my school, offer a chance to really show your programming chops, so to speak; with the exception of one I personally considered, all required the completion of extensive coding projects in ten weeks or less to the exclusion of lecture material.

The biggest factor that affected the quality and extent of the education I received was the professors. Sometimes, you will get a truly horrible lecturer, someone who isn’t fair or just doesn’t care. For me, this happened more often than not. The best advice I can give is: Be able to teach yourself. To be honest, I didn’t bother attending classes where the professor was incapable of teaching — I don’t want to waste my time. I went home and read the textbook, or taught myself using tutorials or information online.

“Bad” classes will happen, and the most important thing I learned in college, or even before, is that you need to take active control over your education. Even if the teacher sucks, you can’t blame a failing grade on him; you have the power to learn the material and should do so to the best of your ability. This isn’t to say that poor professor performance doesn’t raise my hackles (it does, a lot), just that self-directed learning is a necessity for succeeding as a student and a programmer, especially since the number of future employers that will accept “The teacher sucked!” as an excuse for a failing grade must be pretty small.

Even if you’re taking the so-called “structured” or “formal” education path, no one will hold your hand. You need to look out for yourself, and find opportunities to broaden your knowledge. I learned firsthand that often these opportunities will not be supplied to you, or even pointed out. You need to be responsible for your own education, especially at large universities. Self-directed study and college are not mutually exclusive.

In that spirit, in addition to my CS degree, I also took a Concentration in Game Culture and Design. This was an interdisciplinary program in conjunction with the art school which, did add a nice game “focus” to my studies. I think these types of programs can be helpful, though to say this improved my coding skills would be more than a stretch. Mostly, it gave me a bit more insight into the game pipeline, and the scale of the work that goes into making a game. I’ve gained some skills which I otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to; for instance, I’m now comfortable finding my way around game design docs and I’ve had practice giving pitches.

While not a value traditionally espoused as part of a CS education, some gaming or art courses can help your creativity. I can’t speak for the more technical games programs out there, I think there is merit in learning a bit about the industry even prior to leaving school.

This fresher opinion confirmed my belief that no school can be as rigorous as GOOD self training like I gave myself, and under no circumstances should you want until you’re 18 (unless you already are!).

The basic message: Start as early as you can, preferable at age 8-12.

Given that college is roughly age 18-22, and adds a lot of value an education begun at home, it can actually dovetail perfectly with said self education. This will be the topic of a later post in this series.

CONTINUED HERE with The Method!

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Parts of this series are: [WhyThe SpecsGetting Started, School, Method]

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Crash Bandicoot – Teaching an Old Dog New Bits – part 3

This is the twelfth of a now lengthy series of posts on the making of Crash Bandicoot. Click here for the PREVIOUS or for the BEGINNING of the whole mess.

The text below is another journal article I wrote on making Crash in 1999. This is the third part, the FIRST can be found here.

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The Crash Bandicoot Trilogy: A Practical Example

The three Crash Bandicoot games represent a clear example of the process of technology and gameplay refinement on a single platform.  Crash Bandicoot was Naughty Dog’s first game on the Sony Playstation game console, and its first fully 3D game.  With Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, we were able to improve the technology, and offer a slicker more detailed game experience in successively less development time.  With the exception of added support for the Analog Joystick, Dual Shock Controller, and Sony Pocketstation the hardware platforms for the three titles are identical.

Timely and reasonably orderly development of a video game title is about risk management.  Given that you have a certain amount of time to develop the title, you can only allow for a certain quantity of gameplay and technology risks during the course of development.  One of the principle ways in which successive games improve is by the reuse of these risks.  Most solutions which worked for the earlier game will work again, if desired, in the new game.  In addition, many techniques can be gleaned from other games on the same machine that have been released during the elapsed time.

In the case of sequels such as the later Crash games there is even more reduction of risk.  Most gameplay risks, as well as significant art, code, and sound can be reused.  This allows the development team to concentrate on adding new features, while at the same time retaining all the good things about the old game.  The result is that sequels are empirically better games.

Crash Bandicoot   –   how do we do character action in 3D?

Development: September 1994 – September 1996

Staff: 9 people: 3 programmers, 4 artists, 1 designer, 1 support

Premise: Do for the ultra popular platform action game genre what Virtua Fighter had done for fighting games: bring it into 3D.  Design a very likeable broad market character and place him in a fun, and fast paced action game.  Attempt to occupy the “official character” niche on the then empty Playstation market.  Remember, that by the fall of 1994 no one had yet produced an effective 3D platform action game.

Gameplay risk: how do you design and control an action character in 3D such that the feel is as natural and intuitive as in 2D?

When we first asked ourselves, “what do you get if you put Sonic the Hedgehog (or any other character action game for that matter) in 3D,” the answer that came to mind was: “a game where you always see Sonic’s Ass.”  The entire question of how to make a platform game in 3D was the single largest design risk on the project.  We spent 9 months struggling with this before there was a single fun level.  However, by the time this happened we had formulated many of the basic concepts of the Crash gameplay.

We were trying to preserve all of the good elements of classic platform games.  To us this meant really good control, faced paced action, and progressively ramping challenges.  In order to maintain a very solid control feel we opted to keep the camera relatively stable, and to orient the control axis with respect to the camera.  Basically this means that Crash moves into the screen when you push up on the joypad.  This may seem obvious, but it was not at the time, and there are many 3D games which use different (and usually inferior) schemes.

Technical risk: how do you get the Playstation CPU and GPU to draw complex organic scenes with a high degree of texture and color complexity, good sorting, and a solid high resolution look?

It took quite a while, a few clever tricks, and not a little bit of assembly writing and rewriting of the polygon engines.  One of our major realizations was that on a CD based game system with a 33mhz processor, it is favorable to pre-compute many kinds of data in non real-time on the faster workstations, and then use a lean fast game engine to deliver high performance.

Technical risk: how do the artists build and maintain roughly 1 million polygon levels with per poly and per vertex texture and color assignment?

The challenge of constructing large detailed levels turned out to be one of the biggest challenges of the whole project.  We didn’t want to duplicate the huge amount of work that has gone into making the commercial 3D modeling packages, so we chose to integrate with one of them.  We tried Softimage at first, but a number of factors caused us to switch to AliasPower Animator.  When we began the project it was not possible to load and view a one million polygon level on a 200mhz R4400 Indigo II Extreme.  We spent several months creating a system and tools by which smaller chunks of the level could be hierarchically assembled into a larger whole.

In addition, the commercial packages were not aware that anyone would desire per polygon and per vertex control over texture, color, and shading information.  They used a projective texture model preferred by the film and effects industry.  In order to maximize the limited amount of memory on the Playstation we knew we would need to have very detailed control.  So we created a suite of custom tools to aid in the assignment of surface details to Power Animator models.  Many of these features have since folded into the commercial programs, but at the time we were among the first to make use of this style of model construction.

Technical risk: how do you get a 200mhz R4400 Indigo II to process a 1 million polygon level?

For the first time in our experience, it became necessary to put some real thought into the design of the offline data processing pipeline.  When we first wrote the level processing tool it took 20 hours to run a small test case.  A crisis ensued and we were forced to both seriously optimize the performance of the tool and multithread it so that the process could be distributed across a number of workstations.

Conventional wisdom says that game tools are child’s play.  Historically speaking, this is a fair judgment — 2D games almost never involve either sophisticated preprocessing or huge data sets.  But now that game consoles house dedicated polygon rendering hardware, the kid gloves are off.

In Crash Bandicoot players explore levels composed of over a million polygons.  Quick and dirty techniques that work for smaller data sets (e.g., repeated linear searches instead of binary searches or hash table lookups) no longer suffice.  Data structures now matter — choosing one that doesn’t scale well as the problem size increases leads to level processing tasks that take hours instead of seconds.

The problems have gotten correspondingly harder, too.  Building an optimal BSP tree, finding ideal polygon strips, determining the best way to pack data into fixed-size pages for CD streaming — these are all tough problems by any metric, academic or practical.

To make matters worse, game tools undergo constant revision as the run-time engine evolves towards the bleeding edge of available technology.  Unlike many jobs, where programmers write functional units according to a rigid a priori specification, games begin with a vague “what-if” technical spec — one that inevitably changes as the team learns how to best exploit the target machine for graphics and gameplay.

The Crash tools became a test bed for developing techniques for large database management, parallel execution, data flexibility, and complicated compression and bin packing techniques.

Art / Technical risk: how do you make low poly 3D characters that don’t look like the “Money for Nothing” video?

From the beginning, the Crash art design was very cartoon in style.  We wanted to back up our organic stylized environments with highly animated cartoon characters that looked 3D, but not polygonal.  By using a single skinned polygonal mesh model similar to the kind used in cutting edge special effects shots (except with a lot less polygons),  we were able to create a three dimensional cartoon look.  Unlike the traditional “chain of sausages” style of modeling, the single skin allows interesting “squash and stretch” style animation like that in traditional cartoons.

By very careful hand modeling, and judicious use of both textured and shaded polygons, we were able to keep these models within reasonable polygon limits.  In addition, it was our belief that because Crash was the most important thing in the game, he deserved a substantial percentage of the game’s resources.  Our animation system allows Crash to have unique facial expressions for each animation, helping to convey his personality.

Technical risk: how do you fit a million polygons, tons of textures, thousands of frames of animation, and lots of creatures into a couple megs of memory?

Perhaps the single largest technical risk of the entire project was the memory issue.  Although there was a plan from the beginning, this issue was not tackled until February of 1996.  At this point we had over 20 levels in various stages of completion, all of which consumed between 2 and 5 megabytes of memory.  They had to fit into about 1.2 megabytes of active area.

At the beginning of the project we had decided that the CD was the system resource least likely to be fully utilized, and that system memory (of various sorts) was going to be one of the greatest constraints.  We planned to trade CD bandwidth and space for increased level size.

The Crash series employs an extremely complicated virtual memory scheme which dynamically swaps into memory any kind of game component: geometry, animation, texture, code, sound, collision data, camera data, etc.  A workstation based tool called NPT implements an expert system for laying out the disk.  This tool belongs to the class of formal Artificially Intelligence programs.  Its job is to figure out how the 500 to 1000 resources that make up a Crash level can be arranged so as to never have more than 1.2 megabytes needed in memory at any time.  A multithreaded virtual memory implementation follows the instructions produced by the tool in order to achieve this effect at run time.  Together they manage and optimize the essential resources of main, texture, and sound RAM based on a larger CD based database.

Technical/Design risk: what to do with the camera?

With the 32 bit generation of games, cameras have become a first class character in any 3D game.  However, we did not realize this until considerably into the project.  Crash represents our first tentative stab at how to do an aesthetic job of controlling the camera without detracting from gameplay.  Although it was rewritten perhaps five times during the project, the final camera is fairly straightforward from the perspective of the user.  None of the crop of 1995 and 1996 3D action games played very well until Mario 64 and Crash.  These two games, while very different, were released within two months of each other, and we were essentially finished with Crash when we first saw Mario.  Earlier games had featured some inducement of motion sickness and a difficulty for the players in quickly judging the layout of the scene.  In order to enhance the tight, high impact feel of Crash’s gameplay, we were fairly conservative with the camera.  As a result Crash retains the quick action feel of the traditional 2D platform game more faithfully than other 3D games.

Technical risk: how do you make a character collide in a reasonable fashion with an arbitrary 3D world… at 30 frames a second?

Another of the games more difficult challenges was in the area of collision detection.  From the beginning we believed this would be difficult, and indeed it was.  For action games, collision is a critical part of the overall feel of the game.  Since the player is looking down on a character in the 3rd person he is intimately aware when the collision does not react reasonably.

Crash can often be within a meter or two of several hundred polygons.  This means that the game has to store and process a great deal of data in order to calculate the collision reactions.  We had to comb through the computer science literature for innovative new ways of compressing and storing this database.  One of our programmers spent better than six months on the collision detection part of the game, writing and rewriting the entire system half a dozen times.  Finally, with some very clever ideas, and a lot of hacks, it ended up working reasonably well.

Technical risk: how do you program, coordinate, and maintain the code for several hundred different game objects?

Object control code, which the gaming world euphemistically calls AI, typically runs only a couple of times per frame. For this kind of code, speed of implementation, flexibility, and ease of later modification are the most important requirements.  This is because games are all about gameplay, and good gameplay only comes from constant experimentation with and extensive reworking of the code that controls the game’s objects.

The constructs and abstractions of standard programming languages are not well suited to object authoring, particularly when it comes to flow of control and state.  For Crash Bandicoot we implemented GOOL (Game Oriented Object LISP), a compiled language designed specifically for object control code that addresses the limitations of traditional languages.

Having a custom language whose primitives and constructs both lend them selves to the general task (object programming), and are customizable to the specific task (a particular object) makes it much easier to write clean descriptive code very quickly.  GOOL makes it possible to prototype a new creature or object in as little as 10 minutes.  New things can be tried and quickly elaborated or discarded. If the object doesn’t work out it can be pulled from the game in seconds without leaving any hard to find and wasteful traces behind in the source.  In addition, since GOOL is a compiled language produced by an advanced register coloring compiler with reductions, flow analysis, and simple continuations it is at least as efficient as C, more so in many cases because of its more specific knowledge of the task at hand.  The use of a custom compiler allowed us to escape many of the classic problems of C.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back  –   Bigger and Badder!

Development: October 1996 – November 1997

Staff: 14 people: 4 programmers, 6 artists, 1 designer, 3 support

Premise: Make a sequel to the best selling Crash Bandicoot that delivered on all the good elements of the first game, as well as correcting many of our mistakes.  Increasing the technical muscle of the game, and improving upon the gameplay, all without looking “been there done that…” in one year.

For Crash 2 we rewrote approximately 80% of the game engine and tool code.  We did so module by module in order to allow continuous development of game levels.  Having learned during Crash 1 about what we really needed out of each module we proceeded to rewrite them rapidly so that they offered greater speed and flexibility.

Technical risk: A fancy new tools pipeline designed to deal with a constantly changing game engine?

The workstation based tools pipeline was a crucial part of Crash 1.  However, at the time of its original conception, it was not clear that this was going to be the case.  The new Crash 2 tools pipe was built around a consistent database structure designed to allow the evolution of level databases, automatic I/O for complex data types, data browsing and searching, and a number of other features.  The pipe was modularized and various built-in restrictions were removed.  The new pipe was able to support the easy addition of arbitrary new types of data and information to various objects without outdating old information.

We could never have designed such a clean tool program that would be able to handle the changes and additions of Crash 2 and Warped at the beginning of the first game.  Being aware of what was needed at the start of the rewrite allowed us to design a general infrastructure that could support all of the features we had in mind.  This infrastructure was then flexible enough to support the new features added to both sequels.

Technical/process risk: The process of making and refining levels took too long during the first game.  Can we improve it?

The most significant bottleneck in making Crash 1 was the overall time it took to build and tune a level.  So for Crash 2 we took a serious look at this process and attempted to improve it.

For the artists, the task of surfacing polygons (applying texture and color) was very time consuming.  Therefore, we made improvements to our surfacing tools.

For both the artists and designers, the specification of different resources in the level was exceedingly tedious.  So we added a number of modules to the tools pipeline designed to automatically balance and distribute many of these resources, as well as to auto calculate the active ranges of objects and other resources that had to be controlled manually in the first game.  In addition, we moved the specification of camera, camera info, game objects, and game object info into new text based configuration files.  These files allowed programmers and designers to edit and add information more easily, and it also allowed the programmers to add new kinds of information quickly and easily.

The result of this process was not really that levels took any less time to make, but that the complexity allowed was several times that of the first game.  Crash 2 levels are about twice as large, have integrated bonus levels, multiple branches, “hard paths,” and three or four times as many creatures, each with an order of magnitude more settable parameters.  The overall turn around time for changing tunable level information was brought down significantly.

Technical/Design risk: can we make a better more flexible camera?

The camera was one of the things in Crash 1 with which we were least satisfied.  So in order to open up the game and make it feel more lifelike, we allowed the camera to look around much more, and supported a much wider set of branching and transition cameras.  In addition, arbitrary parameterized information was added to the camera system so that at any location the camera had more than 100 possible settable options.

If the two games are compared side by side, it can be seen that the overall layouts of Crash 2 levels are much larger and more complicated.  The camera is more natural and fluid, and there are numerous dynamic camera transitions and effects which were not present in the first game.  Even though the Crash 2 camera was written entirely from scratch, the lessons learned during the course of Crash 1 allowed it to be more sophisticated and aggressive, and it executed faster than its predecessor.

Optimization risk: can we put more on screen?

Crash 1 was one of the fastest games of its generation, delivering high detail images at 30 frames per second.  Nevertheless, for Crash 2 we wanted to put twice as much on screen, yet still maintain that frame-rate.  In order to achieve this goal we had one programmer doing nothing but re-coding areas of the engine into better assembly for the entire length of the project.  Dramatically increasing performance does not just mean moving instructions around; it is a complex and involved process.  First we study the performance of all relevant areas of the hardware in a scientific and systematic fashion.  Profiles are made of cache latencies, coprocessor parallel processing constraints, etc.  Game data structures are then carefully rearranged to aid the engine in loading and processing them in the most efficient way.  Complicated compression and caching schemes are explored to both reduce storage size (often linked to performance due to bus bandwidth) and to speed up the code.

Simultaneously we modularized the game engine to add more flexibility and features.  Crash 2 has more effects, such as Z-buffer-like water effects, weather, reflections, particles, talking hologram heads, etc.  Many annoying limitations of the Crash 1 drawing pipeline were removed, and most importantly, the overall speed was increased by more than two-fold.

In order to further improve performance and allow more simultaneous creatures on screen, we re-coded the GOOL interpreter into assembly, and also modified the compiler to produce native MIPS assembly for even better performance.

Technical risk: if we can put more on screen, can we fit it in memory?

We firmly believe that all three Crash games make use of the CD in a more aggressive fashion than most Playstation games.  So in order to fit the even larger Crash 2 levels into memory (often up to 12 megabytes a level) we had to increase the efficiency of the virtual memory scheme even more.  To do so we rewrote the AI that lays out the CD, employing several new algorithms.  Since different levels need different solutions we created a system by which the program could automatically try different approaches with different parameters, and then pick the best one.

In addition, since Crash 2 has about 8 times the animation of the first game, we needed to really reduce the size of the data without sacrificing the quality of the animation.  After numerous rewrites the animation was stored as a special bitstream compressed in all 4 dimensions.

Design risk: can we deliver a gameplay experience that is more than just “additional levels of Crash?”

We believe that game sequels are more than an opportunity to just go “back to the bank.”  For both of the Crash sequels we tried to give the player a new game, that while very much in the same style, was empirically a bigger, better game.  So with the increased capacity of the new Crash 2 engine we attempted to build larger more interesting levels with a greater variety of gameplay, and a more even and carefully constructed level of difficulty progression.  Crash 2 has about twice as many creatures as Crash 1, and their behaviors are significantly more sophisticated.  For example, instead of just putting the original “turtle” back into the game, we added two new and improved turtles, which had all the attributes of the Crash 1 turtle, but also had some additional differences and features.  In this manner we tried to build on the work from the first game.

Crash himself remains the best example.  In the second game Crash retains all of the moves from the first, but gains a number of interesting additional moves: crawling, ducking, sliding, belly flopping, plus dozens of custom coded animated death sequences.  Additionally, Crash has a number of new control specs: ice, surfboard, jet-pack, baby bear riding, underground digging, and hanging.  These mechanics provide entirely new game machines to help increase the variety and fun factor of the game.  It would be very difficult to include all of these in a first generation game because so much time is spent refining the basic mechanic.

Technically, these additions and enhancements were aided by the new more flexible information specification of the new tools pipeline, and by additions to the GOOL programming language based on lessons learned from the first game.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped!  –   Every trick in the book!

Development: January 1998 – November 1998

Staff: 15 people: 3 programmers, 7 artists, 3 designers, 2 support

Premise: With only 9 months in which to finish by Christmas, we gave ourselves the challenge of making a third Crash game which would be even cooler and more fun than the previous one.  We chose a new time travel theme and wanted to differentiate the graphic look and really increase the amount and variety of gameplay.  This included power-ups, better bosses, lots of new control mechanics, an open look, and multiple playable characters.

Technical/Process risk: the tight deadline and a smaller programming staff required us to explore options for even greater efficiency.

The Crash Warped production schedule required that we complete a level every week.  This was nearly twice the rate typical of Crash levels.  In addition, many of the new levels for Warped required new engines or sub-engines designed to give them a more free-roaming 3D style.  In order to facilitate this process we wrote an interactive listener which allowed GOOL based game objects to be dynamically examined, debugged, and tuned.  We were then able to set the parameters and features of objects in real-time, greatly improving our ability to tune and debug levels.  Various other visual debugging and diagnostic techniques were also introduced as well.

Knowledge from the previous game allowed us to further pipeline various processes.  The Crash series is heavily localized for different territories.  The European version supports five languages, text and speech, including lip sync.  In addition, it was entirely re-timed, and the animation was resampled for 25hz.  The Japanese version has Pocketstation support, a complete language translation, and a number of additional country specific features.  We were able to build in the features needed to make this happen as we wrote the US version of the game.  The GOOL language was expanded to allow near automatic conversion of character control timing for PAL.

Technical/Art risk: could the trademark look of the Crash series be opened up to offer long distance views and to deliver levels with free-roaming style gameplay?

In order to further differentiate the third Crash game, we modified the engine to support long distance views and Level of Detail (LOD) features.  Crash Warped has a much more open look than the previous games, with views up to ten times as far.  The background polygon resource manager needed some serious reworking in order to handle this kind of increased polygon load, as did the AI memory manager.  We developed the new LOD system to help manage these distance views.  These kinds of system complexities would not have been feasible in a first generation game, since when we started Crash 1, the concept of LOD in games was almost completely undeveloped, and just getting a general engine working was enough of a technical hurdle.

Similarly, the stability of the main engine allowed us to concentrate more programmer time on creating and polishing the new sub-engines:  jet-ski, motorcycle, and biplane.

Gameplay risk: could we make the gameplay in the new Crash significantly different from the previous ones and yet maintain the good elements of the first two games?

The new free-roaming style levels presented a great gameplay challenge.  We felt it necessary to maintain the fast-paced, forward driven Crash style of gameplay even in this new context.  The jet-ski in particular represented a new kind of level that was not present in the first two games.  It is part race game, part vehicle game, and part regular Crash level.  By combining familiar elements like the boxes and creatures with the new mechanics, we could add to the gameplay variety without sacrificing the consistency of the game.

In addition to jet-ski, biplane, and motorcycle levels, we also added a number of other new mechanics (swimming, bazooka, baby T-rex, etc.) and brought back most of Crash 2’s extensive control set.  We tried to give each level one or more special hooks by adding gameplay and effect features.  Warped has nearly twice as many different creatures and gameplay modes as Crash 2.  The third game clocked in at 122,000 lines of GOOL object control code, as compared to 68,000 for the second game and 49,000 for the first!  The stability of the basic system and the proven technical structure allowed the programmers to concentrate on gameplay features, packing more fun into the game.  This was only possible because on a fixed hardware like the Playstation, we were fairly confident that the Warped engine was reasonably optimal for the Crash style of game.  Had we been making the game for a moving target such as the PC, we would have been forced to spend significant time updating to match the new target, and would have not been able to focus on gameplay.

Furthermore, we had time, even with such a tight schedule, to add more game longevity features.  The Japanese version of Warped has Pocketstation support.  We improved the quality of the boss characters significantly, improved the tuning of the game, added power-ups that can be taken back to previously played levels, and added a cool new time trial mode.  Crash games have always had two modes of play for each level: completion (represented by crystals) and box completion (represented by gems).  In Warped we added the time trial mode (represented by relics).  This innovative new gameplay mode allows players to compete against themselves, each other, and preset goals in the area of timed level completion.  Because of this each level has much more replay value and it takes more than twice as long to complete Warped with 100% as it does Crash 2.

Technical risk: more more more!

As usual, we felt the need to add lots more to the new game.  Since most of Crash 2’s animations were still appropriate, we concentrated on adding new ones.  Warped has a unique animated death for nearly every way in which Crash can loose a life.  It has several times again the animation of the second game.  In addition, we added new effects like the arbitrary water surface, and large scale water effects.  Every character, including Crash got a fancy new shadow that mirrors the animated shape of the character.

All these additions forced us to squeeze even harder to get the levels into memory.  Additional code overlays, redundant code mergers, and the sacrifice of thirteen polka dotted goats to the level compression AI were necessary.

Conclusions

In conclusion, the consistency of the console hardware platform over its lifetime allows the developer an opportunity to successively improve his or her code, taking advantage of techniques and knowledge learned by themselves and others.  With each additional game the amount of basic infrastructure programming that must be done is reduced, and so more energy can be put into other pursuits, such as graphical and gameplay refinements.

_

Yet more Crash Bandicoot posts can be found here.

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Crash Bandicoot – Teaching an Old Dog New Bits – part 1

This is loosely part of a now lengthy series of posts on the making of Crash Bandicoot. Click here for the PREVIOUS or for the FIRST POST .

Below is another journal article I wrote on making Crash in 1999. This was co-written with Naughty Dog uber-programmer Stephen White, who was my co-lead on Crash 2, Crash 3, Jak & Daxter, and Jak 2. It’s long, so I’m breaking it into three parts.

 

Teaching an Old Dog New Bits

How Console Developers are Able to Improve Performance When the Hardware Hasn’t Changed

by

Andrew S. Gavin

and

Stephen White

Copyright © 1994-99 Andrew Gavin, Stephen White, and Naughty Dog, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Console vs. Computer

Personal computers and video game consoles have both made tremendous strides in graphics and audio performance; however, despite these similarities there is a tremendous benefit in understanding some important differences between these two platforms.

Evolution is a good thing, right?

The ability to evolve is the cornerstone behind the long-term success of the IBM PC.  Tremendous effort has been taken on the PC so that individual components of the hardware could be replaced as they become inefficient or obsolete, while still maintaining compatibility with existing software.  This modularity of the various PC components allows the user to custom build a PC to fit specific needs.  While this is a big advantage in general, this flexibility can be a tremendous disadvantage for developing video games.  It is the lack of evolution; the virtual immutability of the console hardware that is the greatest advantage to developing high quality, easy to use video game software.

You can choose any flavor, as long as it’s vanilla

The price of the PC’s evolutionary ability comes at the cost of dealing with incompatibility issues through customized drivers and standardization.  In the past, it was up to the video game developer to try to write custom code to support as many of the PC configurations as possible.  This was a time consuming and expensive process, and regardless of how thorough the developer tried to be, there were always some PC configurations that still had compatibility problems.  With the popularity of Microsoft’s window based operating systems, video game developers have been given the more palatable option of allowing other companies to develop the drivers and deal with the bulk of the incompatibility issues; however, this is hardly a panacea, since this necessitates a reliance on “unknown” and difficult to benchmark code, as well as API’s that are designed more for compatibility than optimal performance.  The inherit cost of compatibility is compromise.  The API code must compromise to support the largest amount of hardware configurations, and likewise, hardware manufacturers make compromises in their hardware design in order to adapt well to the current standards of the API.  Also, both the API and the hardware manufacturers have to compromise because of the physical limitations of the PC’s hardware itself, such as bus speed issues.

Who’s in charge here?

The operating system of a PC is quite large and complicated, and is designed to be a powerful and extensively featured multi-tasking environment.  In order to support a wide variety of software applications over a wide range of computer configurations, the operating system is designed as a series of layers that distance the software application from the hardware.  These layers of abstraction are useful for allowing a software application to function without concerning itself with the specifics of the hardware.  This is an exceptionally useful way of maintaining compatibility between hardware and software, but is unfortunately not very efficient with respect to performance.  The hardware of a computer is simply a set of interconnected electronic devices.  To theoretically maximize the performance of a computer’s hardware, the software application should write directly to the computer’s hardware, and should not share the resources of the hardware, including the CPU, with any other applications.  This would maximize the performance of a video game, but would be in direct conflict with the implementations of today’s modern PC operating systems.  Even if the operating system could be circumvented, it would then fall upon the video game to be able to support the enormous variety of hardware devices and possible configurations, and would therefore be impractical.

It looked much better on my friend’s PC

Another problem with having a large variety of hardware is that the video game developer cannot reliably predict a user’s personal set-up.  This lack of information means that a game can not be easily tailored to exploit the strengths and circumvent the weaknesses of a particular system.  For example, if all PC’s had hard-drives that were all equally very fast, then a game could be created that relied on having a fast hard-drive.  Similarly, if all PC’s had equally slow hard-drives, but had a lot of memory, then a game could compensate for the lack of hard-drive speed through various techniques, such as caching data in RAM or pre-loading data into RAM.  Likewise, if all PC’s had fast hard-drives, and not much memory, then the hard-drive could compensate for the lack of much memory by keeping most of the game on the hard-drive, and only spooling in data as needed.

Another good example is the difference between polygon rendering capabilities.  There is an enormous variation in both performance and effects between hardware assisted polygonal rendering, such that both the look of rendered polygons and the amount of polygons that can be rendered in a given amount of time can vary greatly between different machines.  The look of polygons could be made consistent by rendering the polygons purely through software, however, the rendering of polygons is very CPU intensive, so may be impractical since less polygons can be drawn, and the CPU has less bandwidth to perform other functions, such as game logic and collision detection.

Other bottlenecks include CD drives, CPU speeds, co-processors, memory access speeds, CPU caches, sound effect capabilities, music capabilities, game controllers, and modem speeds to name a few.

Although many PC video game programmers have made valiant attempts to make their games adapt at run-time to the computers that they are run on, it is difficult for a developer to offer much more than simple cosmetic enhancements, audio additions, or speed improvements.  Even if the developer had the game perform various benchmark tests before entering the actual game code, it would be very difficult, and not to mention limiting to the design of a game, for the developer to write code that could efficiently structurally adapt itself to the results of the benchmark.

Which button fires?

A subtle, yet important problem is the large variety of video game controllers that have to be supported by the PC.  Having a wide variety of game controllers to choose from may seem at first to be a positive feature since having more seems like it should be better than having less, yet this variety actually has several negative and pervasive repercussions on game design.  One problem is that the game designer can not be certain that the user will have a controller with more than a couple of buttons.  Keys on the keyboard can be used as additional “buttons”, but this can be impractical or awkward for the user, and also may require that the user configure which operations are mapped to the buttons and keys.  Another problem is that the placement of the buttons with respect to each other is not known, so the designer doesn’t know what button arrangement is going to give the user the best gameplay experience.  This problem can be somewhat circumvented by allowing the user to remap the actions of the buttons, but this isn’t a perfect solution since the user doesn’t start out with an inherent knowledge of the best way to configure the buttons, so may choose and remain using an awkward button configuration.  Also, similar to the button layout, the designer doesn’t know the shape of the controller, so can’t be certain what types of button or controller actions might be uncomfortable to the user.

An additional problem associated with game controllers on the PC is that most PC’s that are sold are not bundled with a game controller.  This lack of having a standard, bundled controller means that a video game on the PC should either be designed to be controlled exclusively by the keyboard, or at the very least should allow the user to optionally use a keyboard rather than a game controller.  Not allowing the use of the keyboard reduces the base of users that may be interested in buying your game, but allowing the game to be played fully using the keyboard will potentially limit the game’s controls, and therefore limit the game’s overall design.

Of course, even if every PC did come bundled with a standard game controller, there would still be users who would want to use their own non-standard game controllers.  The difference, however, is that the non-standard game controllers would either be specific types of controllers, such as a steering wheel controller, or would be variations of the standard game controller, and would therefore include all of the functionality of the original controller.  The decision to use the non-standard controller over the standard controller would be a conscious decision made by the user, rather than an arbitrary decision made because there is no standard.

Chasing a moving target

Another problem associated with the PC’s evolutionary ability is that it is difficult to predict the performance of the final target platform.  The development of video games has become an expensive and time consuming endeavor, with budgets in the millions, and multi year schedules that are often unpredictable.  The PC video game developer has to predict the performance of the target machine far in advance of the release of the game, which is difficult indeed considering the volatility of schedules, and the rapid advancements in technology.  Underestimating the target can cause the game to seem dated or under-powered, and overestimating the target could limit the installed base of potential consumers.  Both could be costly mistakes.

Extinction vs. evolution

While PC’s have become more powerful through continual evolution, video game consoles advance suddenly with the appearance of an entirely new console onto the market.  As new consoles flourish, older consoles eventually lose popularity and fade away.  The life cycle of a console has a clearly defined beginning:  the launch of the console into the market.  The predicted date of the launch is normally announced well in advance of the launch, and video game development is begun early enough before the launch so that at least a handful of video game titles will be available when the console reaches the market.  The end of a console’s life cycle is far less clearly defined, and is sometimes defined to be the time when the hardware developer of the console announces that there will no longer be any internal support for that console.  A more practical definition is that the end of a console’s life cycle is when the public quits buying much software for that console.  Of course, the hardware developer would want to extend the life cycle of a console for as long as possible, but stiff competition in the market has caused hardware developers to often follow up the launch of a console by immediately working on the design of the next console.

Each and every one is exactly the same

Unlike PC’s which can vary wildly from computer to computer, consoles of a particular model are designed to be exactly the same.  Okay, so not exactly the same, but close enough that different revisions between the hardware generally only vary in minor ways that are usually pretty minor from the perspective of the video game developer, and are normally transparent to the user.  Also, the console comes with at least one standard game controller, and has standardized peripheral connections.

The general premise is that game software can be written with an understanding that the base hardware will remain consistent throughout the life-span of the console; therefore, a game can be tailored to both exploit the strengths of the hardware, and to circumvent the weaknesses.

The consistency of the hardware components allows a console to have a very small, low level operating system, and the video game developer is often given the ability to either talk to the hardware components directly, or to an extremely low hardware abstraction layer.

The performance of the components of the hardware is virtually identical for all consoles of a given model, such that the game will look the same and play the same on any console.  This allows the video game developer to design, implement, and test a video game on a small number of consoles, and be assured that the game will play virtually the same for all consoles.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


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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:

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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

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