After Naughty Dog Jason and I joined forces with another game industry veteran, Jason Kay (collectively Jason R & K are known as “the Jasons”). He was at Activision at the time of the Crash launch and offers his outside perspective.
Although I would not meet Andy and Jason until after Crash 3 was released, the time around the launch of Crash Bandicoot was a fascinating time in the game business, and I believe that the launch of Crash, which was so far ahead of every other game of its generation in every aspect – technical achievement, production values, sound/music, design and balancing – caused everyone I knew in the business to rethink the games they were working on.
It seems hard to imagine given the broad scope of games today — Console Games costing $50+ million, Social Games on Facebook with 100 Million monthly average users, gesture controlled games, $.99 games on iPhone – how troubled the industry was before the release of Crash, which heralded the rebirth of console games after a dormant period and ushered in the era of the mega-blockbuster game we know today. In the year that Crash Bandicoott released, only 74 Million games were sold across all platforms in the US – of which Crash accounted for nearly 5% of all games sold in the US. By 2010 – more than 200 Million games were sold, with the number one title, Call of Duty: Black Ops selling “only” 12 million copies in the US – about 6% of the total market. In some ways, adjusted for scale, Crash was as big then as Call of Duty is today.
After the incredible success of Super Mario World and Sonic the Hedgehog, the game business was really in the doldrums and it had a been a boatload of fail for the so-called “rebirth of the console”. Sega had released a series of “not-quite-next-gen” peripherals for the incumbent Sega Genesis system (including the 32x and the truly awful Sega CD), and made vague promises about “forward compatibility” with their still-secret 32 bit 3D Saturn console. When the Saturn finally shipped, it was referred to by many people as “Two lies in One”, since it was neither compatible with any previous Sega hardware, and nor was it capable of doing much 3D. Sega further compounded their previous two mistakes by giving the console exclusively to then-dominant retailer Toys “R” US, pissing of the rest of the retail community and pretty much assuring that console, and eventually Sega’s, demise in the hardware business.
The PlayStation had shipped in Fall of 1995, but the initial onslaught of games all looked vaguely similar to Wipeout – since no one believed that it was possible to stream data directly from the PS1 CD-Drive, games were laboriously unpacking single levels into the PS1’s paltry 2 MB of ram (+ 1 meg vram and 0.5 meg sound ram), and then playing regular CD (“redbook”) audio back in a loop while the level played. So most games (including the games we had in development at Activision and were evaluating from third parties) all looked and played in a somewhat uninspiring fashion.
When Crash first released, I was a producer at then-upstart publisher Activision – now one of the incumbent powerhouses in the game business that everyone loves to hate – but at that time, Activision was a tiny company that had recently avoided imminent demise with the success of MechWarrior 2, which was enjoying some success as one of the first true-3D based simulations for the hardcore PC game market. To put in perspective how small Activision was at that time, full year revenues were $86.6 Million in 1996, versus over $4.45 Billion in 2010, a jump of nearly 50x.
Jeffrey Zwelling, a friend of a friend who had started in the game business around the same I did, worked at Crystal Dynamics as a producer on Gex. Jeffrey was the first person I knew to hear about Crash, and he tipped me off that something big was afoot right before E3 in 1996. Jeff was based in Silicon Valley, and a lot of the former Naughty Dogs (and also Mark Cerny) had formerly worked at Crystal, so his intel was excellent. He kept warning me ominously that “something big” was coming, and while he didn’t know exactly “what” it was, but it was being referred to by people who’d seen as a “Sonic Killer”, “Sony’s Mario”, and “the next mascot game”.
As soon as people got a glimpse of the game at E3 1996, the conspiracy mongering began and the volume on the Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt meter went to 11. In the pre-Internet absence of meaningful information stood a huge host of wild rumors and speculation. People “in the know” theorized that Naughty Dog had access to secret PlayStation specifications/registers/technical manuals that were only printed in Japanese and resided inside some sort of locked vault at Sony Computer Entertainment Japan. Numerous devs declared the Naughty Dog demo was “faked” in some way, running on a high-powered SGI Workstation hidden behind the curtain at Sony’s booth. That rumor seems in hindsight to have been a conflation of the fact that that the Nintendo 64 console, Code-Named “Project Reality” was in fact very similar to a Silicon Graphics Indigo Workstation and the Crash team was in fact writing and designing the game on Silicon Graphics workstations.
Everyone in the business knew how “Sega had done what NintenDONT” and that they had trounced Nintendo with M-Rated games and better titles in the 16 bit Era, and most of the bets were that Nintendo was going to come roaring back to the #1 spot with the N64. Fortunately for Nintendo, Sega’s hardware was underpowered and underwhelming and Nintendo’s N64 shipped a year later than the Playstation 1. With all the focus on many people’s attention on this looming battle, and the dismissive claims that what Naughty Dog was showing was “impossible”, most people underestimated both the PlayStation and Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot.
Since no one that I knew had actually gotten a chance to play Crash at the show – the crowds were packed around the game – I fully expected that my unboxing of Crash 1 would be highly anti-climatic. I remember that Mitch Lasky (my then boss, later founder of Jamdat and now a partner at Benchmark) and I had made our regular lunch ritual of visiting Electronics Boutique [ ANDY NOTE: at Naughty Dog this was affectionately known as Electronic Buttock ] (now GameStop) at the Westside Pavilion and picked up a copy of the game. We took the game back to our PS1 in the 7th Floor Conference Room at Activision, pressed start, and the rest was history. As the camera focused on Crash’s shoes, panned up as he warped in, I literally just about sh*t a brick. Most of the programmers we had talked to who were pitching games to us claimed that it was “impossible” to get more than 300-600 polygons on screen and maintain even a decent framerate. Most of the games of that era, a la Quake, had used a highly compressed color palette (primarily brown/gray in the case of Quake) to keep the total texture memory low. It seemed like every game was going to have blocky, ugly characters and a lot of muted colors, and most of the games released on the PS1 would in fact meet those criteria.
Yet in front of us, Andy and Jason and the rest of the Crash team showed us that when you eliminate the impossible, only the improbable remains. Right before my eyes was a beautiful, colorful world with what seemed like thousands of polys (Andy later told that Crash 1 did in fact have over 1800 polygons per frame, and Crash 2 cracked 3,100 polys per frame – a far cry from what we had been told was “a faked demo” by numerous other PS1 development teams). The music was playful, curious and fun. The sound effects were luscious and the overall game experience felt, for the first time ever, like being a character in a classic Warner Brothers cartoon. Although I didn’t understand how the Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (discussed in part 6) actually worked, I was truly amazed that it was the first game everyone I knew who played games loved to play. There was none of the frustration of being stuck on one spot for days, no simply turning the game off never to play it again – everyone who played it seemed to play it from start to finish.
For us, it meant that we immediately raised our standards on things we were looking at. Games that had seemed really well done as prototypes a few weeks before now seemed ungainly, ugly, and crude. Crash made everyone in the game business “up their game.” And game players of the world were better off for it.