Die Hard Tril­ogy

EDGE - - CREATE - For­mat PlayS­ta­tion, PC, Saturn Pub­lisher EA De­vel­oper Probe En­ter­tain­ment Ori­gin UK De­but 1996

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

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