[ 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. ]
But this brings us to the gameplay. We were forging new ground here, causing a lot of growing pains. I started fairly programming the control of the main character early. This is the single most important thing in a CAG, and while intellectually I knew this from Way of the Warrior, it was really Mark who drove the message home. I did all the programming, but Mark helped a lot with the complaining. For example, “he doesn’t stop fast enough,” or “he needs to be able to jump for a frame or two AFTER he’s run off a cliff or it will be frustrating.” Jason’s also really good flaw detection. Which is a good thing. Internal criticism is essential, and as a programmer who wrote dozens of world class control schemes in the years between 1994 and 2004, I rewrote every one at least five or six times. Iteration is king.
Even after the control was decent, we still had no idea how to build good 3D gameplay with it. Our first two test levels “the jungle, level1” and “lava cave, level2” were abysmal, and neither shipped in the final game. First of all, they were too open with way too many polygons. Level1 had over 10 million, whereas a shipping level tended to have around a million (a lot back then). Level2 was better, but not much.
So during the summer of 1995 we retrenched and tried to figure out how to make a level that was actually fun. The F word is the most important concept in making games. Too many forget this.
But Mark – who served the practical function of producer – never let us.
By this time most of the art design for the game was complete, including the vast layout of possible looks and levels, but we skipped to about 2/3 through and used Cortex’s factory levels to really focus on fun. Our first successful level was essentially 2D (“Heavy Machinery”). It was all rendered in 3D, but the camera watched from the side like a traditional platformer. Here we combined some classic devices like steam vents, drop platforms, bouncy pads, hot pipes, and monsters that tracked back and forth in simple patterns. This was in essence a retreat to success, as it employed the basic kind of techniques that Donkey Kong Country had used so successfully. This palate of objects would be arranged in increasingly more difficult combination.
It worked. Thank God.
Simultaneously, we were working on a more ambitious level where the camera sat above and “Willie” walked both into/out and side to side (“Generator Room”). This factory level included drop platforms, moving platforms, dangerous pipes, and various robots. By using a more mechanical setting, and briefly forgoing the complex organic forest designs we were able to distill this two axis gameplay and make it fun. In both areas we had to refine “Willie’s” jumping, spinning, and bonking mechanics.
We then got our third type of level working (“Cortex Power”). This involved having the camera behind the character, over his shoulder, in the original “Sonic’s ass” POV that had faired miserably with level1 and level2. By taking some of the new creatures and mechanics, and combining them with hot pipes and slime pits we were able to make it work in this more factory-like setting.
Having learned these lessons, we turned back to the jungle design with a new jungle level, known as “levelc” (“Jungle Rollers”). This used some of the pieces from the failed level1, but arranged as a corridor between the trees, much like the over-the-shoulder factory level. Here we utilized pits, skunks on paths, stationary plants, and rollers to create the palate of obstacles. With this level the into-the-screen gameplay really came into its own, and it remains one of my favorite levels. Each element served its purpose.
Rollers (big stone wheels that could crush the player, and rolled from side to side) provided timing gates. They could be doubled or tripled up for more challenge.
Skunks traveled down the path tracking back and forth toward the player, requiring him to attack them or jump over them.
Fallen logs, tikis, and pits needed to be jumped over.
Stationary plants could strike at the player, requiring one to tease them into a strike, then jump on their heads.
Once we had these three level types going things really begun to get on a roll. For each level art design, like jungle, we would typically do 2-3 levels, the first with the introductory set of challenges, and then the later ones adding in a few new twists combined at much harder difficulty. For example in the sequel to the jungle level we added drop platforms and moving platforms. The elements combined with the characters mechanics to form the fun.
It’s also worth noting that we stumbled onto a few of our weirder (and most popular) level designs as variants of the over-the-shoulder. First “Boulders,” aping that moment from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the giant stone ball starts rolling toward Indy. For this we reversed the action and had the character run into the screen. This proved so successful that we riffed on it again in Crash 2 and 3. Same with “Hog Wild,” in which the character jumps on the bag of a wild “hog ride” and is dragged at high speed through a frenetic series of obstacles.
Making games is no game. So many aspiring designers think that all you do is come up with a great idea and the sit around and play. That may be true if you are aping something that exists, like making just another first person shooter (this time in ancient Sumeria and with Demon Aliens!), or making something small and easy to iterate, but it is certainly NOT true when you are trying something new in the AAA space.
And to make matters worse, the LAST person who can attest to a good game design is the game designer. Not only do they know what to do when they test it, but they are also predisposed to like it.
Oh no, the proper test is to hand it to a complete noob, in Crash’s case the ever rotating list of secretaries and clerical staff that worked at Universal. For many of them it was their first time touching a controller, and they succeeded immediately in failing, miserably, to get a single challenge passed. As they smiled and tried to be positive they were saying “this sucks” with their hands. Thus a good designer has to both dread and seeks out other people’s advice, especially those most likely to hate the work he has done. And the designer has to accept the third party opinion over theirs. Every time. Only when the noobs start completing challenges and smile WHILE PLAYING do you know you are getting somewhere.
I don’t know why, but I have always had an innate ability to see the flaws in my own projects, even after they are “final” in everyone else’s eyes. Naughty Dog graphic engine coder Greg Omi, who joined for Crash 2, once said I could spot a single pixel flicker on his monitor at 30 yards while holding a conversation with someone else and facing the opposite direction. Whatever it is, I get a weird frustrated sweat when I see something wrong. Mark Cerny has the same “talent.”
The two of us were always unhappy with the gameplay. I don’t mean just the early gameplay, I mean always unhappy with the gameplay, period. I know in retrospect that I was to hard on the team quite often because of this, and that perhaps more often than not I was too poignant when voicing my frustration (letting myself off easy here!), but I think a certain amount of frustration and pain is inherent in making gameplay success.
Stripping the game down to familiar 2D, and then building from there to levels that contained only platforms floating in space was the crutch we used to get to the jungle levels that made Crash such a success. In the end, these levels aren’t that different in gameplay design. But starting with the Jungle was too big a leap. We needed simple. Upon simple we built complex.
Andy has done a good job of compressing a year of design hell into a blog-sized chunk. With all our technical and art successes, the game could not have succeeded without good gameplay. This was by far the hardest part of making Crash Bandicoot.
Dave and Andy’s code, Justin’s IT and coloring, Charlotte Francis’s textures, And Bob, Taylor and my backgrounds and characters would have been worth nothing if Crash hadn’t played well.