Die Hard Trilogy
How a team of underdogs created three action-packed tie-ins for the price of one
Cars fitted with atomic bombs. Hostages in flames. Arterial spray. Die Hard Trilogy is wildly inauthentic, but exactly the game that 20th Century Fox should have expected from Probe Entertainment had it consulted the studio’s back catalogue. Since the mid-1980s the UK studio had built a reputation from its handling of movie licences and arcade conversions, producing titles such as Batman Forever and Judge Dredd along with Master System and Mega Drive versions of Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat II. While the Croydon company also delivered a ZX Spectrum port of Sim City, it was better known for picking up where the arcades left off via a succession of no-nonsense, action-heavy shooters. Platform agnosticism and a willingness to take on almost any job meant that Probe became the go-to studio for lucrative movie crossovers based on the likes of The Terminator and Alien.
In early 1994, the power of Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation promised a new era for licensed games, and Fox struck a deal with Probe to make Alien Trilogy, an atmospheric FPS that combined three movies’ worth of source material into a single narrative. It was never intended for the developer to work on a Die Hard game.
“Fox then suggested we develop a game based on their new TV game show called Scavengers,” Fergus McGovern, founder of Probe, says. “We had already committed to the project when I saw the first episode. It was absolutely dreadful. When they reviewed the TV ratings over the next few weeks, they decided to cancel the game.”
Fox wanted to transfer the investment it had made in Scavengers to a licensed game based on Die Hard With A Vengeance, due in cinemas in the summer of ’94. McGovern had other ideas. “The two previous Die Hard games were terrible. I suggested that we develop all three Die Hards and make a game that would blow everyone out of the water.”
This pitted the xenomorph against McClane within the studio, with the projects developed by different teams on the same office floor. Alien Trilogy stole an early advantage when Probe was bought by publisher Acclaim, whose arch-rivals at Electronic Arts had already signed a deal to publish Die Hard Trilogy. This meant the studio had little to gain by giving the latter game full resources. Talent and technology were funnelled across the room and Alien Trilogy became Probe’s priority. Die Hard Trilogy was soon the underdog, staffed by a small team numbering in the teens.
Charged with making it work were two men new to Probe: Simon Pick, lead programmer and game designer, and Dennis Gustafsson, art director and game designer. “We were sitting in a room and Fergus came in to tell us that we had the Die Hard licence,” Gustafsson recalls. “He asked us what we thought we could do with it.”
Neither had worked with hardware as powerful as Sony’s PlayStation before. “None of us really understood what was involved in making a 3D game; we’d all written 2D sprite-based games,” Pick says. “We had a PlayStation around a year before it was out. We hadn’t seen any other titles, and we really had no idea what we were up against at that point. That was really scary.”
The team had 18 months to deliver the finished product. It would have been easiest for Die Hard Trilogy to mimic Alien Trilogy and combine the films into a single cohesive game. “But we didn’t have a script for the third film,” Pick says. “Early on, we didn’t really know what was going on. It was difficult to get a consistent idea without knowing what the third film was.” The staffers tried their luck by producing a number of prototypes, which included various shooters and a vehicle game set in subterranean tunnels.
“Then we got the script through,” Pick says. “Fox came over and they basically said they didn’t like any of what we’d done. They said we needed to find a different direction.” It was then that Probe’s team made an unorthodox decision that would make this the hardest job of their lives. “I remember walking into a meeting one day and saying, ‘Why don’t we make three games? How hard can it be?’ We were very naïve.”
“I remember saying, ‘Why don’t we make three games? How hard can it be?’ We were very naïve”
Making three bespoke games for one package was rare, and for good reason. “I think I wanted to impress Fergus,” says Pick by way of explanation. Die Hard took shape as a thirdperson shooter, the player working their way up the tight, terrorist-infested floors of Nakatomi Plaza. Die Harder is a lightgun shooter set in Dulles International Airport. The car prototype became Die Hard With A Vengeance, putting you behind the wheel in a nonlinear New York City to chase ticking bomb cars against the clock. Gustafsson calls it ambitious. Pick calls it stupid. “Three times the work, three times the code, three times the QA,” he says. “We massively overreached in what we thought we could do.”
While Alien Trilogy was worked on by a large team of seasoned professionals, Die Hard Trilogy had to rely on the enthusiastic but inexperienced. James Duncan was 19 when he was hired as 3D world modeller. He hadn’t made a game before. “It was strange,” he says of arriving at Probe. “Die Hard had this Hollywood razzamatazz. The reality was a few guys in a room in Croydon.”
Their Acclaim-favoured neighbours nicknamed them Team Try Hard. “We were the poor relation to [the Alien Trilogy team],” Duncan says. “That was a very tightly controlled, highly focused and designed game. We had fewer people, we had older machines, and we were working ridiculous hours. We were just having a laugh. So there became this rivalry, and that spurred us on.”
What the Try Harders lacked in resources, they gained in creative freedom. Fox mostly left the team to get on with it. “There was no real design. We made it up as we went along,” Pick says. “We knew the overall feeling we wanted and the various points we wanted to hit gameplay-wise. We had a design document, but it was written after the fact. We’d implement a feature and the designer would write it up to send over to Fox as an update. We all just wanted to make it as fun as possible.”
Development became a free-for-all of wish fulfilment. An idea suggested in the morning would be in the game by the time everyone went home. Play any of the three games in Die Hard Trilogy and barely a moment passes without an action beat. Terrorists catch fire. Pigeons catch fire. Civilians you should be saving catch fire. Most infamous among fans is the gore that spatters your windscreen in Die Hard With A Vengeance. “That was my idea!” Pick says. “As soon as I got the pedestrians on the sidewalks, I wanted to run them over. But it wasn’t quite
cool enough. Wouldn’t it be funnier if there was blood on the windscreen?”
“You’re talking about young guys being given the chance to do whatever they wanted with a major Hollywood movie,” Duncan says. “[PlayStation] moved the goalposts substantially forward. We could put in anything we wanted. It was liberating. We were waiting for someone to stop us, to force us to tone it down.”
Nobody did, and while the team cranked up the carnage quotient, a lack of experience and paucity of resources began to bite on the technical side. The need to deliver three complete games stretched the team members to breaking point, and forced them to cut corners wherever they could. “On Die Hard 3, the cities were too large to build completely,” Pick says. “We made very small sections, and then a system would generate some kind of internal map that would figure out what came next over the horizon.”
It was effective, but the results were riddled with errors that had to be fixed by hand. “It would get hugely complicated. We didn’t have a sophisticated way to manage that,” Duncan says. “It was all like a big jigsaw.”
It was worth it: Die Hard With A Vengeance became a forerunner for open-world driving games on PlayStation. “We did that as well as stressing out over two other games,” Pick says. “It was a couple of years before Driver. They refined it, but I like to think you can see our influence.”
The next challenge was filling these stitchedtogether environments with people. The team was used to working with sprites, and didn’t know how to economically use polygons for character models. This is why the people in the game are bizarrely misshapen. The team called them Meatball Men. “They were layered sprites, scaled and stretched to give the illusion of being a person,” Gustafsson says. “They were ugly, but it allowed us to have something like 16 people onscreen instead of two. I don’t think it would have been the same with only two enemies. They looked believable as long as you didn’t get too close, because we had mo-cap animation.”
This was another unusual process. “I think we had the first European mo-cap. There wasn’t any studio to go to, so we got a suit with ping-pong balls on it and set up cameras in a local church hall,” Gustafsson says. “The animations were really glitchy, so we hired two guys from the BBC, who were so happy to get a job in the game industry. They sat in a windowless room for a year cleaning up the mo-cap animations. Poor guys.”
The Meatball Men were so ugly that the team decided to give them their own faces. Probe’s team appear as hostages, terrorists, and general fodder. “Fergus came back from a trip to Japan with what was supposedly one of the first digital cameras in the UK,” Gustafsson remembers. “It was a brick. It was real amateur stuff. We sat on an office chair and took eight photographs from different angles, and we ended up in the game. It didn’t matter that it looked so awful – we had a great time setting each other on fire.”
The team used the same DIY methods for the protagonist, who is seen mostly in Die Hard. The budget wouldn’t stretch to Bruce Willis’s likeness. “The model in the game is my head with programmer Greg Modern’s hair,” Gustafsson explains. “Greg had a lot of hair, and I didn’t. The first one, where Bruce Willis has a lot of hair, we used a lot of hair. Then less for the second, and even less for the third.”
The deadline loomed, and the last few months of production held several seven-day weeks to ensure the final product wasn’t an embarrassment. “I basically had a nervous breakdown,” Pick says. “We were working such long hours. It was pretty awful. At the time, I hated [ Die Hard Trilogy]. I just thought, ‘Sod it, let’s get it out the door’.”
The haphazard approach to almost every aspect of production could have equalled a disaster, but Die Hard Trilogy became a critical and commercial hit. It worked, says Duncan, because the Try Harders developed a close bond. “We went out to a greasy café once a week, and to the pub a lot,” he explains. “It was a bonding thing for the team. And because we got on, we could get through the hard times more easily. We developed real friendships and we trusted each other. It meant we could rely on each other and know the job would get done.”
Alien Trilogy was released six months earlier to generally positive reception, but it was criticised for repetition and a lack of narrative focus. Those weren’t issues for Die Hard Trilogy, which was praised for its variety and bombast.
“It could have gone either way,” Pick says. “It could have been a complete nightmare of a game. I think it has a good heart. It’s a bit glitchy and dodgy in places, because we bit off way more than we could chew, but I think the passion we had for the game really shows through. After it was out, I was very proud of it.”
Die Hard Trilogy sold well, but Probe didn’t see much of the money. “Over the years, Acclaim hadn’t been paying Fox all their due royalties for things like The Simpsons and previous Alien games,” McGovern says. “Fox offset all the money that Acclaim owed them from previous projects against the money we should have got as royalties on [ Die Hard Trilogy]. I’ve always said if I ever see the guy who screwed us out of that money, I’ll punch him on the nose.”
Nearly 20 years later, Die Hard Trilogy isn’t a technical masterpiece, but its unpretentious exuberance means it is more fondly remembered than its po-faced Alien counterpart. Many games went on to improve upon everything Die Hard Trilogy attempted, but the gleeful diversity of the compilation hasn’t been repeated. And it’s still the game that each member of the team is most frequently asked about. They all agree that only a once-in-a-lifetime production could have triumphed over the odds like it did. “It was one of those things that catches the zeitgeist,” Duncan says. “It had a real impact. They were big action movies, and it arrived on the cusp of PlayStation coming out. We were riding that wave and had a game that had never been achievable on a home console. It was right place, right time.”
The New York City of Die Hard With A Vengeance pioneered nonlinear driving, arriving some three years prior to Reflections’ Driver
The Saturn version lacked the PS1 iteration’s transparency effects. In the old days, console wars were fought this way