Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

A Game Dev’s Story, Part IX: King of the World

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 3, 2012

(You can catch up on the whole story here.)

So the last time I left off, we were knee-deep in the development of Twisted Metal and Warhawk. While massive crunch-mode hours and stuff sounds cool and everything, and I was still thrilled at having the kind of job I’d dreamed about since my first confused steps into the realm of programming over a decade earlier, it was pretty brutal. And, to be honest, it was often boring and frustrating. It’s nothing like those late-night TV ads (not that those were running at the time).

Most of the time, programming a game is not too much unlike any other kind of programming. There’s a lot of long hours spent chasing down bugs and performance issues. And playing a game in-development to test functionality is nothing like playing a finished game. There are times when it is fun, sure, but most of the time it is tedious. But every once in a while, you can take a step back and look at what is slowly taking form on the screen, and you can say to yourself, “Cool!”

And then something magical happens towards the end of development. Somehow some magical combination of features, polish, and functionality comes together and the game actually resembles a game. Hopefully a good game.  This happens practically overnight, and usually not all at once. But it’s cool when it does.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Two events stood out during that year prior to release. First of all, I attended the winter CES (Consumer Electronics Show). Up until that point, C.E.S. was *the* show for videogames. I remember reading about the shows in the magazines while in college. It was about to be supplanted that summer by the very first E3, and apparently was not in its fullest glory when I attended. It didn’t matter. For me, it felt like I had arrived. This was the semi-annual Mecca of gaming, and it happened while our relationship with Sony (and indeed, Sony’s U.S. plans for the Playstation release) were still on the quiet side. So we had nothing to do but troll the booths and check out the competition. It was an amazing assault upon the senses. Sega and Nintendo were of course showing off their latest offerings with full light and sound, pushing games like Donkey Kong Country for the SNES and Star Wars Arcade for the Sega CD-ROM. Booth babes were everywhere.  I remember seeing Blizzard’s booth, where a couple of guys sat next to their box of “Warcraft: Orcs Versus Humans,” looking bored and hoping that anybody would pay any attention to them. Maybe Bill Roper was one of the guys. I don’t know. The game that excited me the most was Mechwarrior II, which I’d been waiting for for … well, years. I got the chance to play a working build several months before release. We also got to go to a private Sony appointment and see a production Playstation and the Japanese launch titles, and talk a little about the U.S. launch plans.

CES gave me a chance to see “the industry” as it wanted to be portrayed: The lights, the glamor, the sex, the rock-and-roll. All turned up to eleven.  THIS had been what I’d been reading about in the magazines for all those years.  It was overwhelming but incredible.

A few months (weeks?) later, I was able to go to the Computer Game Developer’s Conference (CGDC) – now called just the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). While the expo floor shared a tiny bit in common with the CES and upcoming E3 show, it was far more low-key… and far, far cooler. This was a conference of the actual game developers (and businessmen), not just a show for the press. While the press drooled over the booth babes and P.R. people demoing the upcoming titles, this was where – in my mind – the true ‘rock stars’ of the industry could be found. And the others who – like me – were just plain developers in the trenches of the industry, earning very little public acclaim but creating these awesome games.

Because Singletrac wanted to economize, and because I was in the critical path for both of our games that were deep in development – I only got to attend the first half of the conference, while some co-workers used my badge for the final (half-) day of lectures, and Microsoft’s renting out the Great America Amusement Park for game developers to push gaming on their upcoming Windows 95 platform. While I missed out on free roller-coaster rides, I didn’t feel like I missed very much. The first two days of lectures, roundtables, the expo floor, and the ‘hospitality night’ the first night of the conference was enough to blow my mind. I met Richard Garriott, said hi to Warren Spector, spoke for a few minutes with Sandy Peterson, sat a few seats away from Sid Meier, and passed Chris Roberts in the hallway. I sat in roundtables and partied in hotel suites with guys I didn’t know who had built some of the coolest games of the last five years. I learned a ton about the rest of the industry outside my one little piece of it, particularly in the realm of PC game development.

I was very lucky to have hit this CGDC, as it felt like it – or the next one – were something of a last hurrah as it transitioned to a different form: much larger, much less personal, much more anonymous.  As the games industry was transitioning from a hobby industry to Big Business, so did the Game Developer’s Conference. I returned home with a ton of business cards and swag, feeling like I was the king of the world. I realized I was now a part of this growing industry I’d only read about for so many years.  But then I had to return to reality, just like the rest of ’em, with milestones to hit and gold masters to complete. Sigh.

The final weeks of making Twisted Metal and Warhawk were as long, painful, stressful, and overwhelming as you can imagine. Our producer, Scott Campbell, gained the nickname “Sergeant Scrub,” for his ruthless removal of unfinished or low-quality features and levels to make milestones. I think of all the lessons I learned the first year about game development, this was perhaps the most valuable. While at times it felt like we were dropping or breaking up levels that would have served the games pretty well if we’d had enough time, the bottom line was that most of the time the games were improved by what we decided to leave out.

At this point, Sony had finally begun promoting the games. We began to see previews in the magazines, and were cautiously optimistic. Finally, after many 70+ hour work-weeks, we finally sent the gold masters of the games off to Sony. Then there was little to do but wait… well, wait, and do some preliminary work on the next games in our queue – a sequel to Twisted Metal, and a racing game involving hovering sci-fi versions of motocross bikes which was to be called “Jet Moto.”

Incidentally, during testing with the rest of the company, I was almost unbeatable playing Spectre in every level except the Arena – where Darkside or Warthog had a huge advantage due to their ramming power. Yeah, we did what we could to balance the game out, but some vehicles just had an advantage in certain locations. Some locations called for speed, others for ramming power, others for maneuverability. We did the best we could, and most of the time it came down to player skill and preference. I was also pretty dangerous driving Road Kill or Outlaw.

After a few more weeks, the games were released – shortly after the Playstation itself was unleashed upon the North American public. The impossible happened, and Sony managed to unseat both of the top dogs in the console space – Sega and Nintendo – a blow from which Sega never fully recovered, eventually giving up on the console hardware business. And our two little games – released close enough to the platform’s release to be considered ‘launch’ titles – did quite well.  The reviews were generally extremely positive for both games, and Twisted Metal became not only a full-fledged hit, but a hit franchise.

It is definitely a weird thing to go from laboring in obscurity on a relatively unknown project on a platform that almost nobody has heard of yet to having it become practically a household name. Within months, gamers had all heard of Twisted Metal.  A lot of people had played Warhawk as well. I was lucky enough to have worked on both hit games, right out of the starting gate. A lot of game developers go their entire careers without working on a single hit like that, but thanks to a great team and Sony’s incredible marketing muscle, I worked on three (including Jet Moto) in my first two years.  No, I wasn’t the brains behind it, just a member of a comparatively small team… and a relatively junior member at that. But it was an awesome experience, and in a lot of ways a dream come true for me.

For a while, at least, I felt like the king of the world.

Filed Under: A Game Dev's Story, Game Development, Retro - Comments: 11 Comments to Read

  • JeffSullins said,

    Why does it feel like something bad is about to happen…

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    ‘Cuz it sounds like it could only go downhill from there? 😉

  • CaptainKraft said,

    It’s cool to read these stories cause it reminds me of the awesome games that came out when I was deep into my gaming “career”

    I also like the insight from a game developer.

    This story is awesome man. Keep it up.

    P.S. I challenge you to a Twisted Metal duel!
    P.S.S. Just kidding, you’d probably crush me

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh, not anymore. I was the world’s best Twisted Metal player – and the world’s best Jet Moto player – only until the games hit the store shelves. Within days (or hours) there were people able to whip my butt. And my skills have only degraded since then.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I think starting at the top of the ladder is kind of a double-edged sword. I’m like JeffSullins – it feels like something bad is going to happen.

    Starting at the top gives a terrible sense of vertigo – there is only one direction left on the ladder. Down.

    I had a similar experience in movies – I never worked on a single indie or student film, and never even shot a home movie – and my first job out of college was working on a multi-million dollar blockbuster for one of Hollywood’s biggest and most critically acclaimed directors! I loved reading about Jay’s first day at the company – it sounded a lot like my first day at the studio I worked for. Shared computer stations until the new ones could arrive, being thrown in the deep end by the brass looking for your opinion on critical stuff. Always exciting times!

    I’m not a fan of the culture though, so I feel I’ll probably do as Jay did and pursue the indie side eventually. To end with the metaphor I started with, a lower rung on the industry ladder may be less nausea inducing!

  • Adamantyr said,

    Did you happen to see Chris Crawford there, or the Dragon speech?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Nope, that came about three years before. He DID speak again the following year, I think, which I did attend. He gave a couple of talks – one about interactive storytelling, and one about ‘information passing’ between virtual characters.

  • Craig Stern said,

    This is really entertaining reading. It makes me feel a little bad being born so late and missing some of the early days of the games industry, though; I really like the sound of a small, intimate GDC. I’ve decided that I’m going next year no matter what. Hopefully it’s still good for networking!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Oh, don’t get me wrong – it was still plenty big in 1994. In fact, the feeling I got was that this was the year that they finally recognized (after the fact) that it had gotten “too big” for the old way of doing things. That, and the “industry” had become too big of a business. A lot of the things they did that year they never did again (to my knowledge), and it just felt like it was still trying to be a small / medium-sized conference that had just grown too big for itself.

  • slenkar said,

    Im ashamed to say Ive never owned a playstation or played Twisted Metal, looks good though,.
    Did you have problems with cars going through level geometry or shooting off somewhere too fast?

  • Anon said,

    I have a modded PS1 to play imports and bought Twisted Metal 2 at some time because thrashing Paris etc. appealed to me. 😉
    However, everybody else in my vicinity disliked it and I therefore never found someone to play. That pretty much killed it for me as I didn’t get really warm with the single player mode (I’m probably doing the game injustice right now but I liked Vigilante 8 better in this respect).
    I sold it for far less to recoup at least some money and nowadays I still regret that as popping in old console games is far easier than installing old PC games.

    As for other Singletrac games:

    A friend had Jet Moto 1 and we had several nice races together until it was superseeded by newer stuff: Destruction Derby 2 and especially Wipeout XL (Wipeout 2097 in Europe). I’m still of the opinion that Wipeout XL was the best racing game on the PS1 but that’s only me.

    And I do still have the original US release of Warhawk. One of the few PS1 games not aware of memory cards, not even for high scores, which is sad.
    Still a fun little shooter, the missiles are especially cool. I bought it used and it’s in one of those huge hard plastic boxes that easily scratch and break (todays DVD/Blu-ray/game boxes are much sturdier thanks to the softer material).