Sunday, April 4, 2021

Giant Monsters Attack Japan: An Interview with Game Designer Simon Strange

Giant monsters are awesome.  Who doesn't love seeing colossal beasts fight in the middle of the city, causing millions in damages as they duel to the death?  Video games are great for monster action, especially Atari's Godzilla games.  Destroy All Monsters Melee and Save the Earth are regarded as the best games based on the radioactive lizard, and how these games turned out can be attributed to Simon Strange.

In this interview, we discuss how Simon got his start in the industry, his experiences working on the Godzilla and Rampage franchises, and working on getting a PHD in game design.  I want to thank Simon for taking time out of his schedule to do the interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?

Growing up, I played a lot of games, but I never considered working in the industry.  About three to four months before I graduated, a friend of m one who graduated the year prior came to present a panel on the gaming industry.  I got interested and not long after graduating I applied for a job at a studio in New York.

2. How has your role as game designer evolved over the years?

This is complex because some of the changes have been motivated by changing teams and technology, as well as the types of different projects Pipeworks takes on.  While other changes are just more natural adjustments to my role as I moved from being the junior designer to the most senior designer at the company.

I now have a lot of direct management responsibilities, and I have to split my time between high-level "what should we work on, how should we adjust the team structure" and actually doing the day to day data and iterative design work that used to be my whole job.

I'm also much more involved in the planning and client negotiation, which makes the rest of my work much easier since I'm confident everyone is working towards the same goal.

3. You worked as a designer on the three "Godzilla" games made during the 2000's.  How did the first one, "Destroy All Monsters Melee," come to be?

Pipeworks was founded by a bunch of people who worked at Sierra Online.  They approached Microsoft about doing a tech demo for the then-upcoming Xbox, and the publisher was so impressed with their work that they asked them to make a game called "Raven and Rex".

Around the same time, a guy in the studio was trying to get a "Godzilla" game off the ground.  The "Raven and Rex" project fell through, resulting in a lot of layoffs, and everyone who was still at Pipeworks was put on the "Godzilla" project with the hopes of preventing Pipeworks from being shut down.

A colleague told me about the project, so I left Dark Horse Games and joined Pipeworks.

4. How did the team tackle the game's combat?

I was in charge of putting all the different elements together.  I crafted a development tool that'd help with the animations, the problem was the tool had problems recognizing certain actions.  For example, if Godzilla did a leaping tail swipe, he'd be facing backwards, but the tech didn't realize it.

I had to work on the tech to get it to recognize such actions.  Once we figured that out, we were able to work on the monsters.  I made a list of animations and gave it to the animators.  We gave the monsters different fighting styles, like having Anguirus use spiky back for most attacks or turning Destoroyah into a mid-range fighter based on his abilities like the laser horn and micro-oxygen.

5. How involved was Toho on the making of the games?

They were involved in terms of look and sound.  We were constantly sending them builds of the first game and they could be quite nitpicky about certain things, like how the scales on Godzilla's feet should look.  They were also adamant about the audio and making sure we used the right sounds for each monster.

Too also had a few rules.  The biggest one was the military couldn't defeat the monsters, only the monsters could, that's why in the final game, the military harms you, but not by much.  On the flip side, we couldn't have you playing as the military.  When working on "Godzilla Unleashed," we wanted to include the Atragon as a playable character, but it didn't work since he's technically a military vehicle.

6. Were there any ideas considered for "Destroy All Monsters" that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Not really.  By the time I joined the project was well-defined in terms of scope and focus.  Kirby Fong was instrumental in how the game came to be and turned out.  He was adamant the game featured a four-player brawling option, even though we had designed the game to be a 1 v 1 type of fighter.

We were concerned the amount of memory it consumed would be too high, but we were surprised by how well it turned out.

7. I understand there was a PS2 version of "Destroy All Monsters" considered.  How far in development did that get till it was scrapped?

It went nowhere.  The PS2 was huge, but Atari wanted a Gamecube game from the get-go.  The Xbox version was funded by Pipeworks themselves.  They had the experience working with the system and decided to use their own money to create a port for the system.

"Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee" was a hit on Gamecube and Xbox.   The Gamecube version
sold well enough to earn the "Player's Choice" moniker.

8. What lessons did you learn from "Destroy All Monsters" that you were able to take and apply to its sequel "Save the Earth?"

After production wrapped the team did a post-mortem on the game and made a list of what worked and didn't work.  The biggest thing was we wanted development tools that were more general purpose, that way it'd be easier developing for the PS2 and Xbox.

The new system also allowed us to implement better AI.  It worked fine in the first game, but there was room for improvement.

9. What challenges did the team face when making "Save the Earth?"

Our initial pitch for "Save the Earth" or "Godzilla 2" as it was known at first, was a bigger but better version of what we did before.  More monsters, more cities, more modes, etc.  Atari loved it but wanted something else.

At the time, they had published "Enter the Matrix," a game that was a tie-in to the "Matrix" films and featured the Wachowskis doing the story and filming original scenes exclusive to the game.  It featured 40 percent driving, 40 percent shooting, and 20 percent fighting.  It didn't do well critically, but it was the most pre-ordered game at the time, with about 3 million units pre-ordered.

Atari wanted more games like "Enter the Matrix," products that were about shipping with different modes instead of a whole game.  With "Godzilla: Save the Earth," they wanted a game where you were Godzilla and went around exploring the world, fighting the military and other monsters you encountered.

We spent more than a year making Atari's version, and it was not fun.  There were brief moments where it could be entertaining, but it was so mundane since the military didn't pose much of a threat, nor was the open-world stuff all that interesting.

A long ways in, we scrapped Atari's version and took a lot of those mission ideas and made them into mini games.  We wasted a lot of time and resources on the mini games, especially the rail shooter segments.  The time that could have been spent making a better game was spent creating assets and enemies for a couple of on-rails segments.

The "Save the Earth" that came out was made in five months.  Things would have been different if we had focused on our original ideas from the beginning.

Mount Fuji was considered as a level for "Save the Earth" but was scrapped.  However, data
for the level was recently discovered by YouTuber DylanRocket.

10. On the subject of monsters, what was the process like for deciding which monsters should be in the game?

For the first game, I wasn't involved in choosing the monsters.  They wanted the Gamecube and Xbox versions to have an exclusive monster, that's why Orga is in the Gamecube version and Kiryu is in the Xbox port because at the time, "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" had just come out.

For the second game, I had a little input, but not much.  For "Godzilla Unleashed," I was heavily involved.  The team has ideas about what monsters they want, but our ultimate question is "Will it be worth it?"

Will it be worth having monsters people recognize, or will it be worth having a high monster count you can tout on the back of the box?

There's also a lot of legal wrangling between Pipeworks, Toho, and Atari.  You have to remember Japan has different IP laws than us.  Every monsters is its own copyright, meaning Toho has to go the original owner of that monster, talk with them, then get back with Atari, and then they have to get back with us on if it's viable or not.  Plus, there's the likelihood the company could pull its license and not allow its use.

11. In between "Save the Earth" and "Godzilla Unleashed," you worked on "Rampage: Total Destruction."  How did that project differ from Pipeworks' previous projects?

It was different in many ways, but it was a lot of fun.  I played the game recently and was surprised by how well it holds up.  "Rampage" is something that's meant for eight year olds and not meant to be a complex experience.

Unlike the "Godzilla" games, the monsters in "Rampage" used a common skeleton.  People think we re-used the same animations from game to game, when in actuality, we don't.

Midway had specific ideas for the movement and sent out some animators to help figure it out.  What we landed on was a cartoony movement style that worked with the game we were trying to make.

We had fun coming up with different monsters.  One of them, Philbert, has the lowest stats, but he's still capable of destroying the city.  Shelby, a giant turtle creature, has a high defense due to the shelf on its back.

2006's "Rampage: Total Destruction" was the last official installment in the "Rampage" series.  It
would be 12 years until the series was revived with a movie starring Dwayne Johnson.

12. When did development on "Godzilla Unleashed" begin?

Not long after finishing the Wii port of "Total Destruction," talk about a third "Godzilla" game began.  The team knew it'd be on the Wii after our experience working on "Total Destruction."  Production began at around the end of 2005.

13. How was the combat redesigned to accommodate for the Wii's controls?

Atari wanted a game specifically for the Wii, so we began brainstorming about how the game would control.  The result was something that seemed great on paper but was impossible to play.  I was the only one who knew how to play the game, and when you know how everything works like I did, it felt great, but to everyone else, it was not.

We spent a lot of time trying to get the controls down and the results were not satisfactory.  You had to press a button while flicking the remote in a direction to do a movie, and it wasn't that responsive.  Trying to do five things at the same time is not fun.  

The combat itself wasn't as good because of the controls and how it was structured.  You had to whittle down a monster's health, then finish off their current health square with a heavy blow, but when you're trying to do the move with the controls, it doesn't work as intended.

In retrospect, we should have thought about implementing a more traditional set-up, but Atari wanted the controls to be exclusively with the Wii remote and nunchuck.

14. The game's story mode is a bit more elaborate compared to previous games.  How did the team approach the story and things like the faction system?

Because of the hurdles during development, a lot of ideas I had for the story were cut back.  It was going to be much more interwoven with a bigger emphasis on cause and effect.  It's there in the final game, but it isn't as intricate as what I planned.

I had laid out a 16-day system that kept track of your efforts.  The idea was that based on your standing with other factions and factors like whether you won or lost the day before, the story could unfold differently.  You could ignore encountering monsters from one faction the entire game and then find yourself in a grand slam with all the monsters from said faction later in the campaign.

I also wanted the player to piece together the story by playing as the different factions.  If you play as the Earth Defenders, the game starts with the crystals hitting Monster Island, destroying the generators powering the security system, and the monsters get loose.  The humans suspect the aliens but in actuality, the aliens knew about the crystals beforehand and the power they posed.

One thing that's still in the final game is the idea that you can choose to go rogue from your own faction and collect all the powers for yourself.  This results in an alternate ending where you fight the monsters from your own faction in a gauntlet run.

The game was to have comic book-style cut-scenes and we hired a studio to animate over 163 panels.  However, due to pay disputes and other issues, they were dropped, and one of our own artists had to pull double duty to animate as many sequences as possible.

15. How far in development was the PS2 port considered?

The original plan was to do the Wii game followed by a PSP port.  Our studio had produced a couple of PSP ports of the "Prince of Persia" games and was familiar with the hardware.  It didn't run well on the system and by this point, Atari didn't put much support into making games for it, so we switched gears and did a PS2 port instead.

I was not involved with the PS2 port.  It was a half-baked effort since the team wasn't able to implement any of the new monsters or modes from the Wii version, and to save money, they re-used the "Save the Earth" engine.

While it released to negative reviews, "Godzilla Unleashed" did go on to sell
800,000 units.

16. You went on to start your own company, Sunstone Games, and launch a Kickstarter for "Colossal Kaiju Combat," a game touted as a spiritual successor to the "Godzilla" games.   Why was it never properly finished?

Production stopped because we ran out of money.  The Kickstarter raised over $100,000 dollars, which was a lot, but not enough for the scope of our project.  I spent $100,000 of my own money just to license the Spigot engine from Pipeworks.

Once I licensed it, I hired an environmental artist from Pipeworks who could help figure out how to get the engine running and accommodate what we had planned.  However, he passed away, I tried to find someone who could build the levels but to no luck.

By that point, the engine was out of date, so we decided to pull the plug on "Colossal Kaiju Combat."  It's shame because we had a lot of fan support and a card game based on the project, plus the demo is still available to download on Steam.

I was also disappointed because I had laid out this elaborate narrative for the game that I'd like to see get realized proper.

17. What are some other projects you've worked on recently?

"Gems of War" from 2016 was the last commercial video game I was significantly involved with.  Pipeworks does a lot of commercial work, including "Terraria," "Adventure Academy," and the upcoming "Spellslingers," a "Hearthstone" like game.  I'm not the lead designer on any of those projects.

Instead, I head up efforts for contracts that fall outside the commercial space.  Things like research into machine learning, AI development, scientific research support, etc.

18. You're also pursuing a PHD in game design.  What inspired you to do that?

I've worked with a lot of people with various academics, but in my field and at the level I'm working at, there are very few peers to refer to for help.  No one has a PHD in game design, so I figured I'd be the first.  Yes, that'd literally make me Dr. Strange.

I also have some books I'm looking to write that aim to examine the technicalities of game design.  The books you see written by people in the industry tend to be about what it was like working on a certain game, and I want to do something a bit more informative.

I'm currently in my second year, and I hope to graduate in 2023.

19. How has the industry changed since you started?

A lot has changed.  It used to be computers were the cutting edge of gaming.  They had the best graphics, the most innovative stuff, but that changed in the 2000's.  The PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube allowed developers to better realize their ideas on consoles than with previous hardware generations.

Before "Halo," the idea of console first-person shooters that controlled as good as their computer counterparts seemed absurd but look at where we are now.

It's also easier to make games.  The NES library has about 185 games, but compare it to the Apple store, which sees thousands uploaded each day.  Most of them are crap, yes, but to me it shows how technology has streamlined the process of making games.

You could download Unity, make a game, and have it up on Steam or the Apple store in a matter of minutes.  When the demo for "Colossal Kaiju Combat" was put on Steam, we had to pay submission fees and jump through other hurdles just to get the demo up.

The industry is always evolving, and I'd like to see a clearly defined template future generations of game creators can refer to decades from now.

The last commercially released game Simon worked on was "Gems of War."  Simon is still at Pipeworks, though he focuses on game tech instead of making
games themselves.

20. If you weren't designing games, what do you think you would be doing?

I love learning, so I probably would have tried to become a teacher.  I'm also a very technical person, so either that or engineering.  I believe in doing something for a purpose, so if I had done teaching or engineering, I would have done it to educate others, or to help society.

21. What advice would you give to aspiring game designers?

Practice writing.  Learning how to express yourself clearly with words is key for coming up with ideas but it also helps facilitate communication.  When you're a designer, other people on the team will be looking to you, so you need to be able to communicate what it is that needs to be done.

While it's easy to make something, it's tough trying to finish it.  If you're new to game development, start off with a small project.  You're more likely to finish it versus starting big from the beginning and getting nowhere.  I refer to it as the "doing the first 90 percent and the second 90 percent."

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