‘Development Hell’ is a well-known term for the painful gestation of a Hollywood movie. Whether modern AAA games suffer the same problems from concept to release, I don’t know personally but I am certain that they do. I am currently reading Tales From Development Hell, and whilst the movie industry is not the games industry, there are some themes I’m finding painfully familiar. Last month I wrote about Hired Guns and the freedom it offered me in writing. Body Harvest proved to be the antithesis. I didn’t find it to be the most enjoyable of projects, and I wasn’t alone. DMA itself, in contrast to the early days, wasn’t an entirely happy place to work at that time.
By 1997, we had expanded to nearly the maximum number of employees we would ever have, being close to 150 people. Discovery House was the centre of this enterprise, being a selection of offices, then the whole floor. When even that space wasn’t enough, we leased an entire building on the opposite side of the car park.
Our modern shiny-green workplace was normal office space, divided into rooms, whereas the new place was more akin to a warehouse: open-plan.
The Design Department lived in a small corner of Discovery House and was nominally a place where we could throw around ideas, mull over concepts and illustrate what we had come up with. New projects were tried out here. From a letter, Stewart Graham “will be heading up a design department from which new ideas will be conceptualised, and taken to the prototype stage.”
I was bundled in there because I didn’t fit anywhere else. Indeed it soon seemed as though the room was the embodiment of ‘miscellaneous’. Not that it was always well-respected; one of the nicknames at the time was Dave’s Pet Department. But it was here that Mike Dailly created the graphics engine which would form GTA. It was where Stewart rendered illustrations and where I would – sometimes – write up design documents. Many game ideas came out of here, though few ever got much further. Body Harvest’s formal inception dated from the original design meeting on 17 Nov 1994. As with many projects, the originator of the initial idea is unclear. It would soon go further.
And it would soon have its greatest proponent.
We came to Nintendo’s attention by way of a trade show, where we had something rather neat to show off. Dave Jones had wanted to be able to play back (what was then called) FMV from the SNES and the Amiga. Full Motion Video was named as such to differentiate it from video of lesser frame rate, resolution, or colour depth. Brian Watson handled the SNES coding with Andy White taking care of the Amiga. Nintendo had seemingly believed that FMV playback from a SNES cartridge simply simply wasn’t possible. Given its limited processing power and graphics chipset, it was an understandable assumption. Such delights would have to wait for a next-generation console. With a clip from Star Wars burnt into a cartridge ROM, we proved them wrong.
(Mike Dailly, whom I regularly annoy with questions, can upend any discussion of DMA history – in this case he told me he possesses said cartridge. It’s 4MBits.)
Nintendo wanted to do business with us. DMA’s relationship with them was first made in print by myself in the Feb 1994 issue of our internal newsletter World of DMA. An official Nintendo press release followed, dated 30 Apr 1994: “the highly acclaimed video game developer DMA Design Ltd. of Dundee, Scotland, is the latest company developing cutting-edge games for Nintendo’s 64-bit Project Reality”.
We were now part of Nintendo’s Dream Team. The significance of this move meant that DMA was ditching development on the competing 3DO console (Audio, Video and Threedeeo!) In typical understated DMA fashion, we created some rather cheap ‘Eat my Dev Kit’ T-Shirts, though no-one seemed willing to wear them.
Nintendo was more stylish, at least as far as clothing went. They gave us ‘Play it Loud’ jackets in addition to kind words and SNES development kits. We got to see the Project Reality console before it morphed into the Ultra 64 and then N64. The door was now open to writing for more powerful hardware than we’d ever seen before. Dave asked us to come up with ideas which would require the power of a 100 MIPS processor. Body Harvest was one of the new projects. Prior to this, I had written the story and background for Hired Guns and more recently Uniracers. Both of which had been mostly positive experiences. I had assumed that performing the same service would feel much the same. I was wrong. Conceived as a B-Movie style game, Body Harvest was a classic Sci Fi alien invasion flick. Every couple of dozen years a wave of bug-like monsters would descend on the Earth and start chomping down on the humans. It was a silly, lightweight, fun conceit. I sketched some ideas, did my usual work on characters and background. Tonally, we wanted it to feel like the low-budget flick Tremors. Indeed the original spec also referenced Them!, Invaders from Mars and The Blob. A quote from the spec is quite clear: “It isn’t a serious game either.”
The original Body Harvest design document tells us that it takes place in the future during a global 1950s revival, over a number of islands. The lead character doesn’t yet have a name and the lightweight, fun, almost silly aspect is emphasised. It wasn’t for kids, though: in keeping with Nintendo’s new, edgier, attitude exemplified by the Play It Loud campaign, they were pushing into an older demographic. Sega had managed to make Nintendo uncool, and now they were fighting back.
And for a while, that’s how it was developed.
But where Hired Guns gave me considerable freedom, Body Harvest rapidly suffered from too many people pulling to too many directions, and not only in the story. Early on, Dave asked me to come up with a tagline we could use for an upcoming trade show. Still in the B-Movie mode, I came up with what is still my favourite single bit of writing: “They came to meet us. Greet us. And EAT us.”
But the B-Movie concept was falling out of favour. As part of Nintendo’s Project Reality ‘Dream Team’, DMA got to meet the doyen of gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto. At the time, 1995, he wasn’t as well known as nowadays. In fact, when we were told of the visit, the only information I recall being told was that we should be well-dressed. Simon Little – management, and runner of a tuck shop – handed out a prize for whoever had the most improved appearance. (I won. The prize was a Kit Kat). In the event, Shigeru – if indeed it was he – was in the Design Department for mere minutes and never spoke to us.
But as a corporation, they could be difficult to deal with. Nintendo of Japan had taken a shine to time-travel and the 1950s vibe of the project had hardly lasted beyond the first few revisions. Some of the team were flown out to Kyoto, Japan first class. After being mistaken for a boy band – a refutation of the nerd stereotype if ever their was one – there followed an uncomfortable meeting. One of their artists sketched “offensive cartoons” of the DMA staff. Nintendo knew what they wanted, and knew when they weren’t getting it. The trouble was, Nintendo often didn’t know what they wanted, and they definitely knew when they weren’t getting that.
By now, our protagonist was Adam Drake. They had plans for him. Nintendo gave the artists notes, famously the inscrutable requirement to make the graphics ‘more material’. And the tale is told of the horrified expressions on the team’s faces when seeing Rare’s Blast Corps and realising that the Adam Drake graphic wasn’t going to cut it as a sprite. We hadn’t quite believed that the Ultra64 was capable of the number of polygons ascribed to it. Meanwhile, I was in direct fax communication not only with Nintendo of America, but also Nintendo of Japan. The artists had created the basic setting, the action kicking off with a wave of aliens in 1914 Greece, then on to other locations; a modification of the island-hopping concept. I thought that had left plenty of scope for backstory, but once more I was wrong. Somewhere along the line, the tone of Body Harvest had begun to get rather serious. The different locations became different locations and timezones, the last one being set in the future.
I proposed that he simply waited in between invasions by preparing for the next wave and having a number of methods of making the time pass. One of these, for example, was of having his frozen in an alien meat locker for twenty years. I thought it was quirky and interesting, but the lightheartedness was slowly evaporating.
Having different time periods lent itself obviously to actual time-travel, something I was against because it was becoming quite a cliche in the wake of Twelve Monkeys. I wanted to avoid all the messing around with paradoxes. As was soon to become clear, being a cliche was effectively why Nintendo wanted it. Almost everyone had a say in the story. The backstory continued to lurch here and there, congealing rather than being designed. I had the unpleasant experience of outlining my overall unifying scheme to one of the project leads, who nodded and enthusiastically agreed with me, then ignored everything I had said.
One week in particular demonstrated the lack of a clear focus.
The time travel idea had now taken hold. At this stage I had to write a self-contained intro story, more a treatment than an actual narrative, and so I pieced together a complete page and a half worth of plot. I faxed it off to both Nintendos and waited. A day later, two replies were dropped on my desk. Was my text any good?
Nintendo of America though it was fine, but would rather it was more detailed and complex. Well that was OK, there had been a lot of detail I’d written in my notes, but left out for reasons of space.
Nintendo of Japan wanted it to be simplified.
I took it to one of our managers, looking for guidance on cutting through this Gordian Knot. He said “Suck up to the Japanese.” So much for the detail.
It continued in this vein for a while. Over at Nintendo of Japan, they now wanted Adam Drake to be a secret agent, with the backing of a secret organisation, in the future.
Not only that, Adam didn’t look enough like a secret agent. Could he perhaps wear a dinner jacket? Even so, time-travel was the dominant theme.
Being a hardcore Science Fiction nerd, I needed my story background to in some sense ‘work’. Handwaving the details away wasn’t something I relished doing, so I included a line to the effect of travelling back in time fighting of the invasion in such a way as to avoid time paradoxes. Much fax based discussion about time paradoxes followed.
Nintendo of Japan thought even that single line added too much complexity. Worse, they now wanted the hero to travel back in time through a portal manned by scientists. To explain why he has to find weapons and vehicles, asked that I write in that only living flesh can travel through time.
Only living flesh can travel through time… That is the signature feature of possibly the most famous time-travel movie in history, The Terminator. I said so. The response stunned me. Well, yes, Nintendo of Japan explained, “Don’t worry about the Terminator rip-off situation, because the time travel themes are common one [sic] anyway.” Their overriding concern was that the story be comfortingly familiar. Ironically, they didn’t wish to challenge the players too much.
In a fax from Apr 1996 I wrote, in part: “My main concern with the story in general is that the basic premise has been forgotten, namely that the aliens are harvesting people for food. If that was removed from the game, it would make no difference at all to the plot. The aliens would be here for some generic interchangeable reason.”
There was little I could do to rail against this. I compromised by writing that only a limited mass could go through the time portal. Now something else became apparent. Originally, DMA’s pitch was an edgy, humorous, but decidedly grown-up game – everything that GTA was to become. (I’m told there were tensions between teams. GTA, for example, having the freedom of a full CD to do the audio, Body Harvest having the limited N64 memory and sound hardware.) Here, though, as those faxes made unambiguously clear, the audience for Body Harvest was intended to be a general one, i.e. family friendly and simple enough for kids to grasp. In retrospect, there had always been a conflict between the main players. DMA had a distinctly European sensibility when writing games. Here not only did it conflict with the US sensibilities, it conflicted with the Japanese ones simultaneously. Nintendo struck a deal for a DMA game and succeeded in turning it not into a Nintendo game, but an uneasy hybrid of the two. Somewhere along the line the game changed from an a shoot-em-up to an RPG. The game fundamentally changed once the ‘mission-based’ design kicked in. The sheer number of vehicles to use became the most important element. My subsequent decision to go freelance to pursue a Hired Guns sequel meant that I would never have time to see the completion of Body Harvest, undercutting any limited say I might have had. But that was OK, because HG was my dream project and Body Harvest, far from retaining a B-Movie vibe was becoming po-faced. The high-concept idea of aliens harvesting people for food was pretty much de-emphasised to the point of nonexistence. The backstory, in effect, had being written out entirely.
Stewart Graham told me that he was glad when he was no longer working on it. When I became freelance, it was something of a relief for me too. Body Harvest would go through more iterations and a change of publisher. It was a good game, but it was not the one we set out to make, and it was not the game I signed on for. Most of the projects I worked on at DMA came together relatively cleanly, but for this one time a project perfectly embodied the filmic notion of Development Hell. Thanks to Colin Anderson, Mike Dailly, Stewart Graham, Stacey Jamieson, Grant Middleton & Jane Robertson for allowing me to bug them. Anything which I’ve misunderstood or got completely arse-backwards is squarely on my own shoulders.