Tank Level Design
In January 2009 I left Criterion Games in Guildford to take up a job with Eurocom Developments in Derby. It was not only a chance to finally get together with the great bunch of people I'd had the pleasure of working with during the creation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but also, after some 13 years of working away from my family, an opportunity to head back home to the Midlands and spend more time with them.
Although little did I realise it when I took the job, spending more time at home was the last thing I'd be doing for the next 18 months...
Due to the understandably secret nature of the Games Industry where it's important to keep quiet about new technologies and what upcoming games are going to be, I only had an inkling of what I was going to be working on when I took the job at Eurocom.
When I got there, I discovered that I was working on James Bond...
I'd been a fan, since Roger Moore's Bond blew my tiny 8-year-old mind in 'Live and Let Die', so this was, like Asterix, Monty Python, and later, Harry Potter - such a huge privilege. The great thing is that not only do you get the chance to work on such a license, working every day immersed in a world that you enjoy,but also you get to contribute to the body of work that is associated with that property. But it's a huge responsibility too - whatever you put in the games, you're making a part of an officially endorsed product - so you'd better get it right for the fans.
The thing that stopped me in my tracks though on that first day was that I learned that not only would I be working on a James Bond title, but I'd be working on THE James Bond title - a remake of the legendary 'GoldenEye' - possibly the most beloved console game of its time and the game that arguably showed the world that First Person Shooters could be successful on console; they were no longer just the preserve of high-end PCs.
Now, for readers of this site that may not be aware - being asked to remake GoldenEye is effectively the videogame equivalent of being asked to remake Casablanca, Citizen Kane and Star Wars (original cut, of course) ...simultaneously... while juggling chainsaws... ...and on fire. Seemingly every gamer out there desperately wanted the game to be remade for modern hardware, but not one of them seemed convinced that anyone could ever do it justice. To say that it was a daunting challenge would be an understatement - we knew we weren't just competing with a 12-year-old game, we were competing with the rose-tinted memories of a classic game, one that for some of its fans, not only was a great game but it defined a fondly-membered time in their lives.
But, picking my jaw up off the floor and several coffees later I joined the team and we set to work. We knew that getting the game absolutely right was paramount but we accepted the pressure, set it aside and focused on simply making the best and most respectful game that we possibly could.
And so began a tremendous amount of work, with everyone from ourselves at Eurocom, to our publisher and the people at Eon Productions (the people responsible for producing the James Bond movies) doing everything possible to make sure that the game was all that it could be - a re-imagining of the classic GoldenEye storyline, brought up to date for Daniel Craig's Bond, with all of the spectacular you'd expect from a modern day shooter. ...And with modern multiplayer gameplay that could also recreate the feeling of the original game from 12 years earlier.
For 18 months we all worked our butts off. I led the design team during the early phases of the project ; the time that saw us pitching our ideas to our publisher and Eon through to developing a fully-playable, fully-polished two level prototype to reassure everyone that we could indeed make the complete game.
As the project progressed the whole team got bigger and we had to split the design team into smaller sub-teams, each responsible for a different aspect of the game - this was the most designers I'd ever worked with on a single project.
In December 2009, just before the holiday break, I was asked if I could pitch in and help out with some level design. We'd always known that in addition to the on-foot First Person Shooter gameplay that we'd have to create a level for the sequence in the GoldenEye story in which Bond steals a tank and drives it through the streets of St Petersburg, and with 2010 around the corner it was time to make our first stab at the level design.
I dusted off my 3D modeling skills and by the time we broke for our holidays, had assembled a prototype level that we could drive our tank around in to show our intentions for the level.
Coming back to work in 2010 I continued to lead and work on the tank level - negotiating time for it from our (already incredibly busy) world artists, coders and visual effects artists to get it built. As the time moved on and we realised how spectacular the level had to be to sit alongside the already impressive on-foot levels I got more and more involved in the nuts and bolts of building it. (Which, I confess, coming from my coding-and-wanting-to-do-everything background, getting involved in the low-level detail of making something is always extremely enticing.)
And so, for the next 9 months (pausing for a break in April 2010 when a holiday to the USA saw me trapped in San Francisco by a certain Icelandic volcano) I spent pretty much every day, 7-days-a-week driving Bond's high-tech tank through the streets of St Petersburg trying to blow it up, and, with the help of the Bond team, doing our best to pack every square foot of the level with explosions and spectaculars.
In game-making we often paraphrase Spinal Tap by saying that we're 'turning things up to 11' - there were days while we were building the tank level where it genuinely felt like we turning the dial way beyond that. I mean, I'd had ambition to push it over the edge when I suggested in the December to drive the tank off a collapsing roadway and leap the tank out of a car park into a helicopter gunship, but I'd never imagined that several months later we'd be actively driving the streets we'd created looking for additional skyscrapers to topple and extra places to bring MIG fighters in. But we did.
In the end, after 18 months of incredibly hard work from everyone on the team - from the Directors to the QA guys, all pitching in, we finished GoldenEye 007. The game was, thankfully, well-received and reviewed. It seemed that everyone understood what we were trying to do - create a spectacular, modern Bond game that did its utmost to respect the N64 original while still maintaining its own, new identity.
And we all took a huge heap of time off afterwards to remind our families what we looked like before heading off on whatever adventure came next.
For me, came an offer to return to Criterion Games, who had just finished the award-winning Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit. They made me an offer I simply couldn't refuse, so I set off back south to renew another set of old friendships.