The Mak­ing Of...

On the crest of a con­sole rev­o­lu­tion, how one small Bri­tish stu­dio broke the rules to cre­ate a smash­ing new racer

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY ED SMITH De­vel­oper Re­flec­tions In­ter­ac­tive Pub­lisher Psyg­no­sis For­mat PlaySta­tion Ori­gin UK Re­lease 1995

How a small Bri­tish de­vel­oper broke the rules to cre­ate PS1 clas­sic De­struc­tion Derby

By the sum­mer of 1995, in its na­tive Ja­pan, Sony’s PlaySta­tion had al­ready shipped more than two mil­lion units. Its Amer­i­can and Euro­pean launches were now im­mi­nent. True 3D graph­ics, which would al­low gamers to tan­gi­bly en­act once-dis­tant dreams, were about to glob­ally ar­rive. Ten years and 100 mil­lion sales later, the PlaySta­tion would leave be­hind a wealth­ier, more in­tel­li­gent and more widely ad­mired videogame cul­ture. For many peo­ple, it would be­come the con­sole to con­vince them games de­served at­ten­tion. But on the eve of its world­wide suc­cess, with the old stan­dards of games and game-mak­ing about to be left be­hind, de­vel­op­ers were un­der pres­sure. The most re­li­able gen­res, from side-scroller to shoot-’em-up, were about to leave vogue, never to fully re­turn. Cre­ative op­por­tu­ni­ties per­mit­ted by 3D were off­set con­stantly by the strug­gles of de­sign­ing for new and com­plex hard­ware. Sit­ting in his of­fice in New­cas­tle Upon Tyne,

Martin Ed­mond­son, the co-founder of Re­flec­tions In­ter­ac­tive, which un­til then had made its money on the BBC Mi­cro and Com­modore Amiga, was thou­sands of miles from PlaySta­tion ground zero. But in the sum­mer of 1995, when tem­per­a­tures in Bri­tain reached up­wards of 35°C and rain­fall hit a record low, he was feel­ing the heat in more ways than one. De­struc­tion Derby, his stu­dio’s first PlaySta­tion game, was on a tight sched­ule. In just seven months, on a bud­get of £250,000 and with a devel­op­ment staff of seven, it had to be started, fin­ished and shipped. Videogames were about to change; Ed­mond­son, Re­flec­tions and De­struc­tion Derby were bat­tling to keep up.

“We wanted De­struc­tion Derby to co­in­cide with the PlaySta­tion’s Euro­pean launch,” Ed­mond­son tells us. “That meant a very com­pressed devel­op­ment: seven days a week, every week. We didn’t know the per­for­mance of the ma­chine. Like any manufacturer, Sony would tell you, ‘These are the gi­gaflops, this is what it can do.’ But when we were work­ing on it prop­erly there were al­ways bot­tle­necks and prob­lems. Then again, 3D was a re­ally new thing. As game de­sign­ers, the com­plete 3D vi­su­al­i­sa­tion of any idea rep­re­sented one of our wildest dreams come true. So, we were rid­ing the wave of a lot of en­thu­si­asm.”

In­trigued by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Sony’s new ma­chine, Ed­mond­son and his col­leagues were also bol­stered by one of the plat­form holder’s new­est sub­sidiaries. Psyg­no­sis, the Liver­pool- based stu­dio that had pre­vi­ously pub­lished Re­flec­tions’ Amiga games, in­clud­ing Shadow

Of The Beast, had re­cently been bought out by Sony, and was now help­ing to fi­nance the devel­op­ment of PlaySta­tion games through­out

“THE COM­PLETE 3D VI­SU­AL­I­SA­TION OF ANY IDEA REP­RE­SENTED ONE OF OUR WILDEST DREAMS COME TRUE”

Europe. This gave Re­flec­tions a foot in the door. Trusted by Psyg­no­sis al­ready, Ed­mond­son and com­pany had been swiftly able to sell the idea for a new form of rac­ing game. If PlaySta­tion was about to throw out dozens of the old videogame stan­dards, it only fol­lowed that a racer in which crash­ing your car was the key to vic­tory should fea­ture on the plat­form.

“We had an early in­tro­duc­tion to the hard­ware specs and were asked if we could come up with any orig­i­nal ideas to do on the ma­chine,” Ed­mond­son ex­plains. “I was al­ready en­thu­si­as­tic about the whole area any­way – when I was a kid, I used to go and watch de­struc­tion der­bies with my dad. So I cre­ated a very sim­ple seven- or eight-page doc­u­ment, to try and get across how a game based around de­struc­tion, rather than de­struc­tion just be­ing a side ef­fect, would work. That was the head­line for our de­sign. For the first time we’d fo­cus on the ac­tion, the sat­is­fac­tion and the real­ism of crash­ing. The rest of that orig­i­nal de­sign doc­u­ment de­scribed the game modes and the skills that would be in­volved. You couldn’t have play­ers just drive head-on into other cars or they’d take out their own car, so we ex­plained how, for ex­am­ple, spin­ning a car 180 de­grees would earn you points, and spin­ning it 360 de­grees would earn you even more points.

“Rac­ing games at the time, if they fea­tured cars from real life, weren’t al­lowed to dam­age them – man­u­fac­tur­ers weren’t keen on hav­ing their cars por­trayed like they were dan­ger­ous. Tech­ni­cal lim­i­ta­tions pro­hib­ited car dam­age as well. So we imag­ined these kind of box cars, which looked a bit – but not ex­actly – like Ford Granadas and Corti­nas from the ’80s. They were sim­ple. The rest of the pitch was ded­i­cated to how we would achieve the dam­age.” To cre­ate the bro­ken-up ap­pear­ances of

De­struc­tion Derby’s cars, Re­flec­tions at­tended real-life stock races, and cap­tured pho­to­graphs of each com­pet­ing ve­hi­cle be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter they’d been out on the track. “We took pic­tures from dead front, dead rear and dead side each time they came back to the pits,” Ed­mond­son says. “But more of­ten than not a car would be so oblit­er­ated that we couldn’t ac­quire a tex­ture from it! It took hun­dreds of races be­fore we fi­nally had the ma­te­rial we needed.”

Af­ter the pho­to­graphs had been ac­quired, Re­flec­tions be­gan work on a sys­tem that would pro­gres­sively add vis­i­ble dam­age to cars based on how many times they had been hit: rather than cre­ate the in­di­vid­ual mod­els for a clean car, a par­tially dam­aged car and a wrecked car by hand, De­struc­tion Derby’s pro­gram­mers added to each car model a se­ries of ‘morph points’ – in­vis­i­ble de­tec­tors that, af­ter reg­is­ter­ing a cer­tain amount of col­li­sions, would in­stan­ta­neously swap out one ve­hi­cle tex­ture for an­other. At 30fps, the speed at which Re­flec­tions was de­ter­mined De­struc­tion Derby would run, the process would be im­per­cep­ti­ble.

“At 30fps the PlaySta­tion could throw around thou­sands of fully tex­tured poly­gons,” Phil

Bax­ter, De­struc­tion Derby’s graph­ics and tex­ture artist, says. “The tex­tures in De­struc­tion Derby were colourised, had de­cals and art­work ap­plied, and were then pal­letised to 8bit and 256 colours. Com­ing from the Amiga, which strug­gled to ren­der a flat shaded scene

com­prised of just a few hun­dred poly­gons and where ev­ery­thing was drawn by hand, pixel by pixel, us­ing a pal­ette of just eight or 16 colours, this was a huge change on every front. But none of us re­ally knew what we were do­ing. Even the PS1 devel­op­ment kit – one of the first in the coun­try, which we’d man­aged to get from Psyg­no­sis – had no sound, no CD drive and all its in­struc­tion man­u­als were in Ja­panese.”

To hurry things along, Psyg­no­sis bought a col­lec­tion of work­sta­tions from a US com­pany, Sil­i­con Graph­ics, which typ­i­cally sup­plied 3D-mod­el­ling tools to the film in­dus­try. Re­flec­tions, mean­while, hired a coder, Robert Troughton. Along with Ed­mond­son, he be­gan work on

De­struc­tion Derby’s tracks and op­po­nent AI. By now, how­ever, the PlaySta­tion’s Euro­pean launch date, Septem­ber 29, was be­gin­ning to creep up. Not only did Re­flec­tions need to ramp up devel­op­ment – it had to start mak­ing cuts, too. “The AI we orig­i­nally wrote for De­struc­tion

Derby was much more com­pli­cated than what made it into the fi­nal game,” Troughton says. “The prob­lem was, the tracks were rel­a­tively small and we were cram­ming onto them 20 sep­a­rate rac­ing cars. We’d taught the AI how to do three-point turns when they’d been spun around and how to re­cover from bad crashes, but they’d get half­way into these ma­noeu­vres and find that an­other car was slam­ming into them. The more com­pli­cated we made the AI, the stu­pider it would ap­pear.”

“We’d had stuff up and run­ning on the PlaySta­tion very quickly,” Ed­mond­son con­tin­ues. “We’d got­ten a tri­an­gle up on the screen within a day. Within a week, we had our first car ro­tat­ing so we could ob­serve all its pan­els. But when it came to the ac­tual rac­ing we had a whole dif­fer­ent set of rules. It had to work like a rac­ing game, but also we needed AI that would crash into you and re­spond prop­erly if you crashed into it, and not just lock back onto the road. So we built our tracks like Scalex­tric. They were di­vided into pieces and the AI would read what piece of the track was com­ing up next and ad­just its steer­ing and speed in kind. Af­ter that we started to al­ter be­hav­iour based on prox­im­ity of other cars. Some were very ag­gres­sive. Some were timid. It was about build­ing blocks, re­ally.”

To De­struc­tion Derby’s AI, the tracks were as­sorted and com­plex. For play­ers, they were sim­ple. Much of the game’s mem­ory had al­ready been ded­i­cated to the cars them­selves – the myr­iad poly­gons and morph points on each ve­hi­cle made dam­age ap­pear de­tailed and seam­less, but did not leave Re­flec­tions much space when it came to cre­at­ing back­grounds, scenery and race cour­ses. A for­est, a beach front, a canyon: to gen­er­ate an in­stant sense of di­ver­sity, De­struc­tion Derby’s six tracks were based on rac­ing-game sta­ples. They were all com­pletely flat – the game’s physics en­gine was so ded­i­cated to il­lus­trat­ing dam­age that cars could never leave the ground any­way – and could all be com­pleted in mere min­utes. Re­flec­tions en­sured each course had a dis­tinct sig­na­ture fea­ture: The Bowl was a wide, con­crete cir­cle, specif­i­cally de­signed for crash­ing and brawl­ing; Cross­over en­cour­aged con­ven­tional rac­ing, but in­cluded in its mid­dle a four-way junc­tion, re­sult­ing in mas­sive, spec­tac­u­lar pile-ups. Sim­ple cre­ative flour­ishes like these kept pro­duc­tion of De­struc­tion Derby hum­ming along.

Nev­er­the­less, Re­flec­tions was forced to make dif­fi­cult choices. To be­gin with, it had planned to in­clude a track-ed­i­tor fea­ture, which would al­low play­ers to clip to­gether, us­ing those Scalex­tric pieces, their own cour­ses. But as the end of Septem­ber grew closer, it had to be cut. Mul­ti­player mode cre­ated chal­lenges, too. Splitscreen mul­ti­player would mean ren­der­ing each track and all 20 AI cars twice through the same PlaySta­tion, lead­ing to a dra­matic slow­ing of the all-im­por­tant fram­er­ate. Re­flec­tions in­stead opted to in­cor­po­rate Sony’s Link Ca­ble, which would con­nect two con­soles to­gether and trans­mit game and player in­for­ma­tion be­tween them. Through­out devel­op­ment, how­ever, it proved prob­lem­atic.

“The Link Ca­ble was a com­plete night­mare,” Ed­mond­son says. “All it could send, re­ally, was pad in­put data: player one is press­ing X, player one is press­ing right, and so on. And if any­thing wasn’t sent, it fell all out of sync. We spent hun­dreds and hun­dreds of hours get­ting that right. Day in, day out, we were fix­ing bugs. A week be­fore mas­ter it was still drift­ing out of sync.”

De­struc­tion Derby’s in­tense devel­op­ment had taken a toll on Re­flec­tions. “We were all liv­ing on junk food,” Bax­ter re­calls. “With no of­fice cleaner we were soon sur­rounded by empty pizza boxes – by the time we were fin­ished, the place was full of flies.” Still, the game launched to rave re­views, just af­ter the PlaySta­tion’s Euro­pean re­lease. The 3D rev­o­lu­tion had be­gun and Re­flec­tions, by rapidly pro­duc­ing a racer that ei­ther bent or broke genre con­ven­tions, had man­aged to get in on the ground floor – just about, any­way.

“It wasn’t there on launch day and that was frus­trat­ing,” Ed­mond­son says. “But we’d hosted press days and just from the looks on jour­nal­ists’ faces we’d known we were onto some­thing. The PlaySta­tion had a lot of US and Ja­panese games. De­struc­tion Derby was Bri­tish, and that earned us a lot of good­will. We were helped by rid­ing the wave of a new con­sole, but it sold very well.”

“When I joined Re­flec­tions it was just Martin,” Bax­ter says. “I had no ex­pe­ri­ence in de­sign­ing games. We were ba­si­cally teenagers, liv­ing away from home. We all mucked in wher­ever we could and the long hours be­came part of the fun. De­struc­tion Derby was just an ad­ven­ture.”

De­vel­oped in­side just seven months, De­struc­tion Derby was orig­i­nally in­spired by the game’s lead de­signer Martin Ed­mond­son’s child­hood love for stock-car and banger rac­ing

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