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