Of course we wanted the J&D franchise to be as big (or bigger) than Crash. And while this didn’t come to be, it was certainly our goal. The formulation of new game ideas involves two aspects: genre and style.
As to gameplay genre: On the PS1, good looking free roaming 3D seemed impossible. The machine lacked any hardware sorting or clipping, and had a relatively low polygon count. Plus, the AI challenge of creating a camera that didn’t leave players puking was extremely daunting. So we locked down the viewpoint to improve graphics and focus on traditional Donkey Kong Country style gameplay.
But with Mario 64, Miyamoto showed that free roaming was possible, albeit on the N64 and with no small dose of camera frustration. By the time we began Jak & Daxter (January 1999) newer games like Banjo-Kajooie vastly improved the playability. Clearly, on the PS2, full 3D could be great.
Did you draw inspiration from anywhere in particular for the game’s look and feel?
With regard to style: With Crash we enjoyed enormous worldwide success in no small part due to our collaboration with Sony’s worldwide producers. So for J&D we set out to create a character and environment that merged elements from worldwide cultures. You can see the result in Jak, who is a hybrid of western cartoons and eastern manga.
We asked every Naughty Dog artist to spend a couple of days sketching concepts for the look of the game. We threw these on a giant table and picked elements we liked as a group.
It was an ambitious title for its time – what were your biggest challenges in realising your original vision? Was it a rocky development?
Like every first on a system Naughty Dog game, Jak had a rocky development. First of all, the PS2 was ludicrously difficult to program, particularly in those early days when no workable examples or libraries existed. On top of that, I made the audacious choice to write the entire game in a programming language of my own design called GOAL, creating a brand new compiler and debugger from scratch. In addition, to realize the ambitious graphical goals we invented a roster of brand new technologies: several different level of detail systems, perhaps 10 rendering engines, seamless loading from DVD, advanced runtime physics, and joint animation systems to rival the offline tools. It was really really crazy and basically took us about 20 months just on the engineering side before the engine was able to produce the kind of levels we wanted.
Can you tell me more about the mooted 3rd character and why it was axed?
There never were any serious plans for a third character. But we had more ambitious plans for Daxter in the beginning. He was supposed to be able to hop off your shoulder and run around and do stuff. That didn’t happen until the second game. Same with the vehicle stuff. We squeezed the racer in, but barely, and we had much more aggressive plans for it.
How close to your original concept was the finished game?
Very close. We wanted to put you into this beautiful fully rendered fantasy world and yet to allow full interactive exploration. We wanted no loading, elaborate storytelling, a camera you didn’t need to manually control, and both classic platform and vehicle gameplay.
Which element of the game are you most proud of, and which element, if any, do you feel fell short?
I’m both most proud and most torn over GOAL, my custom language and development environment. This ended up being so much harder than I thought, and is certainly the most sophisticated programming I’ve done in my career. In the end it was pretty awesome, although not without its quirks. I’m also supremely proud of our completely load-free seamless-world . We were the first to do this (I even have a patent on it!), and few have attempted since. It was a lot of work! And let’s not forget Jak’s control, which I personally programed. Jak has really good control, as good as any game ever. His animation is incredibly fluid, yet he is supremely responsive to both the player and the environment. Even basic elements of his control system were written and re-written a dozen times.
How would you like the first Jak & Daxter to be remembered? What has it brought to the medium of video games?
The single most important thing that J&D brought to the medium (and there are countless smaller things) is its consistent and complete integration of the game and story elements. This comes to full fruition in Jak 2, and continues peerlessly today in newer Naughty Dog games like Uncharted. Jak has a detailed and involved story, but it’s never a semi-interactive movie, it’s a video game! The storytelling does not come at expense of the gameplay.
Which of Naughty Dog’s big PlayStation characters – Crash, Jak & Daxter, or Nathan Drake – is closest to your heart, and why?
Crash and Neo Cortex are my favorites, and I also have a really big sweet spot for Daxter (who is such a hoot). The Uncharted characters are awesome too, but I can’t take any responsibility for them, so the connection isn’t as personal. And don’t get me wrong, I love all of my babies, even back to the forgotten ones like Keef the Thief, but really Crash’s wicked orange grin melts my heart, and Cortex is who I secretly wanted to be… If I were a cartoon 🙂