The rise and fall of SingleTrac
- 21 November, 2011 14:42
Jay Barnson was hired by SingleTrac right out of college. The developer had barely gotten funding to be able to afford employees and really begin full-fledged development on Twisted Metal and Warhawk. At the time, the projects were known under the codenames "Firestorm" and "Red Mercury" respectively.
SingleTrac had acquired talent from the simulation industry, but they needed some more junior-level staff who knew and loved video games to round out the company. That was where Barnson came in. For several months, he was the youngest person in the studio until he would eventually rise to become senior programmer.
We caught up with Barnson, who rose to be a senior programmer at SingleTrac, to talk about those early days of development.
What did you think of the original PlayStation?
SingleTrac senior programmer, Jay Barnson (JB): I started in October of 1994, almost a year before the launch. It was kinda funny as I'd try to tell people about this console I was developing games for, and they'd ask me, "So is that a new Sega or Nintendo?" I tried to explain that it was by Sony, and they'd dismiss it out of hand, because it was so obvious that Sony had no chance of taking on those gaming console juggernauts. A lot of people were really taken by surprise a year later.
What do you remember from those early days at the studio?
JB: We were literally working for the survival of the company at SingleTrac. We had less than twelve months to create two games from scratch, with no pre-existing engine and a software development kit and target hardware that changed regularly. I remember looking around the room and seeing pretty much the entire company working hard at their desks, and then glancing at the clock and realizing it was nearly 1:00 in the morning.
I don't remember management ever insisting that people put in those kinds of hours. It was just that everybody there was responsible and committed, understood there was nobody else to take up the slack, and we had to ship two great games in time for launch. We were under a lot of pressure, but highly motivated and really excited about what we were doing. And as far as making games was concerned, we were all total newbies.
What was Sony Computer Entertainment like?
JB: While I didn't have a ton of exposure to the higher-level meetings, what I did experience and what trickled down to my level was really pretty positive. Their system libraries were top-notch, although not always translated into English. Fortunately, we had one programmer on staff who was fluent in Japanese, so he was able to help translate. It was clear they were gunning for dethroning both Sega and Nintendo, and were willing to spend and do whatever it took to be number one.
How was their support with PlayStation game development?
JB: I know Sony was a little concerned about our studio, as we had a bunch of engineers and technical artists from the simulation industry and really no game-making experience. I think it was [then executive vice president of Sony Computer Entertainment America] Bernie Stolar who came to our studio one day to check on our progress and discuss new business, and he apparently made a comment about how we didn't look like a gaming company. We had all these people in knit or button-down shirts, who looked more like engineers than gamers.
At our next company-wide meeting for all twenty-something of us, [SingleTract founder and CEO] Mike Ryder decided to clarify the dress code for all of us. While we didn't really have a formal dress code, he encouraged us to feel free to 'dress down' a little if we felt so inclined - to wear baseball caps backwards, wear jeans in holes in them, more T-shirts, that kind of thing. I think he was only half joking.
How was development of Warhawk and Twisted Metel?
JB: For a while, the two games shared a common code base. Even after we split them into two separate code bases, we still developed common libraries for both games, which is why I have credit in both games developed simultaneously. I was literally on both teams, mainly working on weapons and AI. But for a while, they were both the same game and you could fly the Warhawk ship, which we called the "Peregrine," around in the first Twisted Metal arena, shooting your guns at the cars. The second and third levels of Twisted Metal were originally just part of one giant level. Not only did we run into technical issues with the level, but playing it was incredibly boring. You'd spend half the time just finding other vehicles to fight. So we split it into two levels, and shrank both of those levels down to make them more playable.
Was there any feature in Twisted Metal that stood out?
JB: The way that missiles toss cars around was originally a bug in my code, as I was misreading the weapon type, assuming all non-bullet weapons were the catapult weapon, which would launch cars up in the air and in their direction of travel. It took me a little while to fix the bug and people were complaining about it. So I fixed the bug and everybody complained that the cars weren't getting tossed around anymore when they were hit with a missile. They liked the effect but just wanted it toned down. So the bug literally became a feature.
How about the development of Twisted Metal 2 and Jet Moto?
JB: This was my first taste of the drive for sequels and franchises in the industry, though I was only directly involved in Twisted Metal 2 for the first month or two before going over full-time to the Jet Moto team. In some ways, I was a lot happier there, as the scrutiny and demands of the sequel were huge. On Jet Moto, we were mostly ignored. But I remember coming home at three in the morning after working a 15-hour day with the entire company killing itself trying to get gold masters of both games out the door. I would hit the Internet, which back then was mostly UseNet as the World Wide Web was still in its toddler stage, to see what people were saying as the hype was starting to build.
What were people saying at the time?
JB: I saw a ton of messages of people selling "HK" [an acronym for "Hong Kong" and a euphemism for pirated software] discs of Twisted Metal 2 for $15. Here we were killing ourselves to get two great games out the door, and here were some leeches making themselves a bunch of money selling beta versions they'd somehow acquired through press contacts. I remember feeling like I'd just been punched in the gut when I saw that.
What did you think of GT Interactive’s acquisition of SingleTrac?
JB: For me, my reaction was mainly confusion. I wasn't sure of the financial state of our company as I was still pretty naive about those things back then, and I probably still am today. A lot of what made the company a great place to work in the early days was our small studio culture. But on the flip side, we were becoming part of what we thought was a bigger, more stable company and joining some outstanding studios. We'd hoped, and I know we tried on a couple of occasions, to try and get together and share tech a bit more internally with our sister studios. And as a gamer, it was great to get access to some GT games for cheap through the company store.
Why create new IP with Critical Depth and Rogue Trip?
JB: Sony owned the rights to Twisted Metal, so I guess we had decided to try and see if we could get lightning to strike twice. They had the name, but we had the talent and code base, and I suppose GT was anxious for us to reproduce the magic of our previous games as original IP. I guess we learned the hard way how much marketing might Sony wielded, and how much of Twisted Metal's success was based on that strength.
Were there plans to release the games on Sega Saturn or Nintendo 64?
JB: Oh, yeah. For a while they even had me working on some proof-of-concept porting of parts of our code base for the Nintendo 64. I don't know why we didn't keep pushing in that direction, but I suspect the lack of manpower was a big part of it. We just didn't have people to spare.
How successful was Critical Depth and Rogue Trip for SingleTrac?
JB: I never saw the numbers, so I can only speculate. I thought Rogue Trip was fantastic and superior to Sony's internally-produced Twisted Metal 3, but I suspect it did not achieve anything close to Twisted Metal 2's numbers. And again with Critical Depth, I don't know how well it sold. I was always worried about that one, though, as high-speed submarine chases and combat just isn't something that registered in my mind as a compelling fantasy. Maybe they both sold very well and they never told us, but it sure seemed like management wasn't enthusiastic about sales. I don't know if there were plans for sequels or not. We usually started talking sequels before the first game shipped, though, so it wouldn't surprise me if at some point somebody had a rough-draft of a design document for a Rogue Trip sequel.
How the PC game Outwars with Microsoft come together?
JB: I can't tell you how Microsoft became involved, but we'd done PC ports of our previous games, though for some inexplicable reason Twisted Metal 1 and Warhawk were only released in Japan for the PC. So we'd had some experience making PC games. Microsoft was really shooting for something that was like Doom but two generations removed, leapfrogging the then-in-development Quake. I don't know if they knew what they were getting when they worked with us on it, as the way we approached 3D was almost diametrically opposite to the way it was approached by the crop of first-person shooters at the time. We could make really big, open worlds, which they couldn't do, but they could do detail on a level that we couldn't hope to achieve.
What were you the most proud of with Outwars?
JB: We did do some pretty cool things with the game, bringing more mission-based, task-based gameplay into what was otherwise more of a straight-up first-person shooter, something that is pretty common today but pretty unusual in the genre at the time. When we were bought out, Outwars found itself a victim of something of a custody battle between Microsoft and GT, which in my mind pretty much everybody lost. Sometimes it's a wonder how good games ever get made in this business.
How did the studio's work culture change following the acquisitions?
JB: It was a radical change, but the company had been changing a lot over time anyway, and the studio that existed the first year or two was already gone. I was down in the trenches and not privy to a lot of the goings-on up the management chain, but it was clear that morale was dropping and there was a lot of politics and legal wrangling happening. It felt like there were also some competing visions for our company's focus and definition as we grew. We had most of our senior/lead personnel all but disappear for several weeks dealing with legal arguments regarding their contracts, ready to jump ship. In the meantime, the rest of us were trying to make these games, but without the authority to make decisions. So from my mouse-eye vantage point, it didn't look like a smooth transition. It was a frustrating era.
Were any further sequels to Twisted Metal or Jet Moto planned?
JB: I really don't know. When we were bought by GT, the focus was on creating new, original properties. I think it is safe to say that while it had some pretty unique twists to it, Rogue Trip really was the spiritual sequel to the Twisted Metal series on our end.
What did you think Sony developing Twisted Metal and Jet Moto sequels?
JB: When you invest so much of yourself into something like that, you can't help but feel a sense of ownership. That's usually a good thing. So yeah, it was kind of weird and disappointing to see Sony take off with what I couldn't help but feel was "our" games, but they were very much Sony's properties and their original ideas. In that sense, we were really just "guns for hire," contractors brought on and paid to make their games. And I personally hadn't been involved in either sequel, as I was quick to volunteer to work on creating new titles. While Twisted Metal 2 was superior to the original in almost every way, I feel an amount of pride knowing that without the effort we put into the first game, there would never have been a Twisted Metal 2, or any other sequel for that matter.
Why did SingleTrac develop Animorphs: Shattered Reality?
JB: I don't know the business side of how it worked out, but I know we'd had several discussions about doing licensed games previously that had fallen through. Animorphs was just the first and, as fate would have it, the last licensed title on which we went into full-fledged development. We ran into a lot of problems on that one, though.
What were the issues that you encountered?
JB: In the middle of development, the Columbine massacre happened, and for several weeks the media was making the video game industry out to be the designated scapegoat for that tragedy. Scholastic and [Animorphs series author] K.A. Applegate grew concerned and wanted to distance themselves from anything resembling "violent video games," even though the books themselves got pretty violent at times. They demanded that we radically change the game design, salvaging what work we could, but the release date wasn't going to move too much.
The new design was much more of a platformer, but that style of game wasn't one of our strengths. It was a really pretty crazy scramble to re-design and re-write the game to get it ready for release. Before the final release, half the studio was laid off, including myself, and the remainder knew the company was on borrowed time. That might be part of the explanation why the release was "low-key."
Did you ever foresee SingleTrac's properties fading away?
JB: I don't really know what any of us expected at the time. The fact that so many people still remember these games a decade-and-a-half later, and that Twisted Metal is still a major Sony franchise, just amazes me. While game quality is an important ingredient, making a hit game still seems like catching lightning in a bottle. You just do the best you can and make a game that you hope doesn't suck. I think in some ways we were spoiled by the success of all four of our first games. I don't think we fully understood how rare that really is. I think we kind of assumed that it was just what happens when you make a good game.
What do you think of the new Twisted Metal and Warhawk?
JB: I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a tiny bit of jealousy. While I was just one of many who were involved, and my contribution was relatively small in the grand scheme of things, we all felt a lot of pride and some sense of ownership in the final results. And I do get pretty nostalgic seeing Twisted Metal about to make a return on PlayStation 3. But mostly, I'm just honoured to have had a part in creating what has become a strong legacy. It's really awesome to see that legacy continue. With [Eat Sleep Play founders] David Jaffe and Scott Campbell at work on the new Twisted Metal, I feel the game is in good hands. I'm thrilled that modern audiences are able to enjoy them, and that new players can discover the series. It means a lot to me.
For more information about Jay Barnson and his time at SingleTrac, go to: www.rampantgames.com.
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