Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Game Dev’s Story, Part VIII: Learning the Ropes

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 28, 2012

My first day at SingleTrac was chaotic. They had not received a shipment of computers for the expected new hires, yet. So I had no computer. The main development “bullpen” was a bunch of folding tables and thrift-store chairs, with some developers using their own computers brought from home. My first day was a lot of orientation.

The Playstation Development Kit was a big beige box with no sound capabilities. I don’t think it could even access files from a CD-ROM, or do any file reading… everything had to be loaded into memory when it ran.  But I don’t recall much about it, because I did work on it very long before they were replaced by cards that were simply plugged straight into the motherboard (with an external CD-ROM drive).

Originally, for the first month or so I was there, I was also kinda-sorta the default PC Port guy, as well. I was hired at the tail-end of the DOS era, and we had no idea that the upcoming version of Windows 95 would work at all for high-end games. So on my first day,  I asked my new boss what sort of hardware we were targeting, video resolutions, sound card requirements, etc. He gave me a half-grin and said, “Actually, we were hoping you’d tell US that.”

Gulp! First day on the job, and I’m supposed to be the guy in charge of making decisions like that?!?!? Actually, in the end, I was not. We hired a couple more guys who ended up being in charge of the PC port. By that time, I was pretty knee-deep into development for the Playstation, mainly working on weapons code and special effects.

But for the first couple of days, I didn’t even have a computer. Besides the usual orientation-stuff, they handed me a couple of massive three-ring binders containing design documents for the two games under development. They were named (at the time), “Red Mercury” and “Firestorm.” Scott Campbell, the producer for both titles, explained that the titles were temporary and intended to be generic.  I spent most of the morning reading through the documents. I was pretty excited about the possibilities. “Red Mercury” (which later became “Warhawk: The Red Mercury Missions“, although all but the first word was usually dropped) to me sounded like a 3D version of the classic 80’s shooters like R-Type. And “Firestorm,” soon re-titled “Urban Assault” and then later (after a trademark search found potential conflicts) re-titled “Twisted Metal,” sounded like a major winner. While I personally envisioned something closer to Car Wars by Steve Jackson games, the design document was really more like a racing game mashed with a fighting game – which was at the time a genre king. The binders were full of level descriptions, spreadsheets, and explanations.

Next, they had me study the Playstation documentation. They had to have me do something until our computer arrived at the end of the week. They were reasonably “hot” machines for the era – Pentium 90s.  Yes, running at the smoking fast speed of 90 mhz.

Our first “game” at SingleTrac was actually a dumb little demo I wrote to experiment with the weapons code & sprite libraries. You’d move a targeting crosshair on the screen at a bunch of spinning frog-like things (I took the sprite and animation directly from some of Sony’s demos), and shoot a visible bullet at them to make them explode. It wasn’t exactly rocket science – nor was it all that much fun. But a buzz got going around the office, as nobody there had actually worked in the ‘games business’ before, and here I was dinking around with something that vaguely resembled a game. Someone called the president of the company over to look at what I’d done, and he jokingly said, “Ship it!”

I think it might have been that little demo program I’d thrown together that helped make me “the gameplay guy” at SingleTrac for the first couple of years.  I’d thrown together something that had incorporated input, game logic, and graphics (no sound, yet, on that early target box) into something that was kind of amusing to play (I won’t go so far as to call it “fun”). So I apparently had a head for pulling all those things together into a “game.” After the first year, most everyone in the office (including myself) had a lot more experience with doing that under their belt. But for some reason a lot of people still treated me as “the gameplay guy,” which got me into most of the design meetings. Programming was my main job, but I really loved participating in the design process.

It was there that I discovered how little I actually knew about game design.  It took me a little longer to figure it out than I should have, because at the time the only people with any more experience than me at it were the producers from Sony or another investing local company that would pay us periodic visits. But I was able to point out some pretty obvious flaws. I noted that the design document for Warhawk had bullets firing at something like 2 shots per second, doing a single point of damage each, but the towers on the first level would take 800 points of damage to destroy. That would mean over six and a half minutes of sustained fire from the cannons to blow up the tower — not including the ‘cool down’ period. Even though the cannon was supposed to be underpowered, that seemed pretty much ridiculous and boring to me (as I was the one implementing it). I was told those values were not intended to be definitive, and that I should feel free to change those values to get us closer to the ‘ballpark’ for future gameplay balance.

Incidentally, the manual and in-game instructions for Warhawk refers to weapon damage as “JDUs,” for comparison between the weaponry. They guy who was doing the technical documentation invented the term, and said they stand for “Jay’s Damage Units.” My legacy!

We were all learning how to make games together. SingleTrac offered stock options and a profit-sharing plan, which we naively assumed would make us all rich if our games were huge successes. So (almost) everyone was heavily invested in making our first games the best we could possibly make them. And we were acutely aware that while we had some people with a lot of love of games and experience in high-end simulators, none of us really knew how to make a commercial game.  It was intimidating. It was breathtaking. It strained marriages at times. I’ve repeated the story several times of walking into the large ‘bullpen’ style office from a bathroom break and seeing almost everybody huddled in front of their monitor, separated by low-walled cubicles (if that), and then looking up at the clock and realizing that it was after midnight.

We were all working as hard as we could, knowing that there was nobody to ‘pick up the slack’ if we didn’t. Most of the time, it was a quiet, professional environment. Sometimes, when we’d been working 12+ hours, patience would wear thin and tempers would flare. But we had no wild parties (or if we did, I somehow missed ’em). We’d occasionally end up with our lunch breaks taking a little longer than usual as we’d do ‘competitive analysis’ on a new multiplayer game that had just been released, or a new game down in the arcade in the nearby mall (yes, the arcades were dying, but they weren’t quite dead yet…)

The teams were pretty small, and the game designs were pretty flexible. Things were always in flux. We learned as we went, learning what worked and what didn’t as we went, with some helpful guidance from Sony along the way (which wasn’t always useful, but in retrospect I recognize they were right more often than they weren’t.)  A whole lot of things that sounded great on paper proved to either be infeasible or un-fun on the screen.  Those giant three-ring binders full of spreadsheets and descriptions proved to be a useful foundation and outline for the games – a necessary stage – but were hardly blueprints. I really wish I still had a copy of them now. I remember looking back over the documents after we’d shipped and seeing how little of the original design actually made it into the game. But again – as useless as they were in the latter stages of development, they were crucial to getting started.

Another thing about that first year at SingleTrac was that it was a company full of very, very sharp and talented people. I really had to stretch myself. Many of them didn’t know much about games – though there were a few who were still pretty hardcore fans, and were console game fans to boot – but they were experts within their field. I’d come out of college thinking I knew how to program in C and C++. And when it came to optimizing code for games, I’d known a lot more than most of my peers. But these guys really knew their stuff, and I quickly learned how much more I needed to learn.

Next time, we’ll talk about my first trade show, my first GDC (back when it was still the Computer Game Developer’s Conference or CGDC), and how our little company went from laboring in obscurity to releasing one of the biggest hit series of the Playstation era.

Filed Under: A Game Dev's Story - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Eldiran said,

    Good series of articles, very interesting! Looking forward to the next installment.

  • JeffSullins said,

    I used to spend hours playing Twisted Metal. One of the only games I played on the Playstation, before giving up console games in college.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hadn’t really played many console games while in college, either. I’d kinda missed the whole Genesis / SNES era. I had to play a little bit of catch-up while at SingleTrac. Oh, yeah, it was an ugly job, but someone had to do it… 😉

    Actually, most of what I played was “new gen” console games for the Sega Saturn (which beat the Playstation to market by a few months) and some Japanese Playstation games (since the console was released in Japan prior to its U.S. release). And it really was “competitive analysis” most of the time. Not that I didn’t have a lot of fun playing Virtua Fighter, Ridge Racer, and Panzer Dragoon. 🙂

    Glad you enjoyed playing Twisted Metal. I wish I could say we had a lot of fun making it. I guess we did, but it was mixed with a lot of pain. I think we all sensed that it had the right concept and had the most potential, but it wasn’t like car combat was exactly a new idea, either. I’d played plenty of “Road Blaster” in the arcade in college. There was plenty of room for us to be “just another” car combat game. We were acutely aware of it. But I guess we did something right.

  • Cuthalion said,

    A couple days behind on my blog reading, but this is really interesting. Thanks for posting it! It’s neat to compare it to my experience with a fledgling game dev group and wonder if anything similar will be coming in the future.

    (–Cuthalion / formerly Yo’el)

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    I’m even more behind that Cuthalion is on my reading. Really enjoyed this post.

    I remember when Pentium computers were huge. The text MUD I played put in “pentium cloaks” that when equipped would give you an extra attack, because Pentium computers were ZOMG SO FAST!

    So funny. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – the other thing to remember was that in the days before 3D cards (they were just beginning to appear at this time, and few games supported them), games were mostly CPU-bound, so the difference in the upgrade to a faster CPU was extremely noticeable. Man, that pretty much defined most of the 1990s… it was totally about processor speed. Then 3DFX happened.