Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Lyle Hall, creator of pioneering 32-bit platformer GEX.
Working With Babbage
Hall began using computers at the age of nine, when a friend’s father acquired both a Commodore VIC-20 and an Atari 2600. “Soon after, I talked my parents into getting a Commodore 64, with dual 1541 floppy drives, a screeching Okidata dot matrix printer and a 300 baud modem,” he recalls. “From that day through high school, I wrote and printed all my school papers, chatted and played online with people across the country and spent countless hours mastering favorite games like Space Taxi, Jumpman, Bard’s Tale, Beach Head and Ghostbusters.”
“I have loved video games since the first day my older brother first dragged me into an arcade,” he sighs.
By the end of the decade, in his final two years of high school, Hall was working at software retailer Babbage’s, though he notes that he never saw the industry as a possible career choice, despite his “obvious passion for video and computer games”. This didn’t change until the summer break between high school and beginning a degree at UCLA, when he was given the opportunity to apply for a job with Virgin Mastertronic.
“I got a phone call from a friend and former Babbage’s coworker who had left a few months earlier to join Virgin Mastertronic. I was interviewed and was offered the job on the spot!” Hall says happily. “A few weeks in, I made the tough decision to withdraw from school and tell my mother that I was committed to succeeding in the video game industry.”
On To Mastertronic
Hired by future Trilobyte co-founder Graeme Devine, Hall worked in a team of four people who were “essentially the entire production department”. He spent the majority of the first year of his tenure with the company managing the external development of ports from PC to other computer platforms like Amiga, Atari ST, Macintosh and C64. The rest of his time was spent supporting the PC SKU in either a production or quality assurance capacity, depending on what was required.
“At the time I had few expectations, but I was determined to learn everything I could from the amazing group of people I still consider myself blessed to have worked with at Virgin,” Hall says.
During his first year, Hall worked on titles like Realms, Conan: The Cimmerian, and Vengeance of Excalibur in 1991, and The Legend of Kyrandia the next year, for which he was product manager.
“During the 1991 CES in Las Vegas, one of my fellow producers and I met the crew from Westwood Studios, who had just shipped one of the greatest Advanced Dungeons & Dragons RPG’s of all time: Eye of the Beholder for SSI,” he explains. “From that day on, we made it our mission to get Virgin to sign Westwood Studios to a publishing deal for their next few games. Soon after, it actually happened, and I feel fortunate to this day to have worked so closely with many of Westwood’s founders and key veterans.”
The same year, Virgin began expanding into the console and handheld markets as well, something Hall was more than happy about. “As a huge fan of Sega’s 16-bit console,” Hall muses, “I took this opportunity to take on production duties for our entire slate of Genesis games, and The Terminator was the first one I produced.”
In the same year, Hall also produced the Genesis version of Core Design’s Chuck Rock, before once again working with Westwood Studios; this time as co-director on their revolutionary real-time strategy title, Dune II.
“Dune II surpassed all of our expectations,” Hall recalls. “We knew we had something special when everyone in product development and quality assurance spent all day playing it for months before it shipped, but none of us expected it to define a new genre of computer game and inspire countless competitors. Without it, it is likely there would not have been a Warcraft, let alone a World of...”
1993 saw Hall moving into design, with a co-design development credit on Robocop vs. Terminator. “I was the original producer assigned to that project,” he notes. “That was the first opportunity I had to both design and produce a game, and I recall never being more excited about work.”
“So naturally,” he continues, “I left about 4 months in to join Crystal Dynamics.”
GEX And The Crystal Dynamic
Moving to the newly-founded developer allowed Hall to begin work immediately on an original design project – this time on the 3DO Multiplayer – which Hall notes was an opportunity he felt unable to pass up. “I began working on the GEX concept shortly after joining Crystal Dynamics in early 1993,” he says. “The vision for the experience I wanted to create came easy, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of the exhaustive brainstorming and concept work.”
The game was designed by Hall to “to take advantage of both the graphics prowess and the CD audio capabilities” of the 3DO, and was, at first, packed-in with the console. “The bar was set to make the best platform game ever and put the coolest character I could come up with in it,” he explains. “I wanted the character to be able to break the 2D plane, literally jump onto the background and play in a different dimension so to speak. And he had to talk, like he knew he was inside the game and could entertain you with commentary along the way.”
Hall adds that he feels designing a 2D platformer at a studio “studio committed to cutting edge 3D graphics on new hardware” was challenging, but suggests that “in many ways, that was the point”.
“We were intentionally ambitious, and likely too passionate and inexperienced to know better,” he admits. “It was a unique and memorable time in my life and the industry, and I assembled a team of some amazingly talented people, who are still making great games we all play today.”
The company’s management had a lot riding on the success of the 3DO, believing at the time that the console would be successful enough for them not to worry about developing titles for any other systems. They also worked on publishing titles for the console, which saw Hall reprising his role as producer for a number of other projects during GEX’s development time.
“We were sourcing third party developers who had both the talent and capacity to develop the highest quality original games, and at a developer conference, another producer and I met Denis Dyack, founder of Silicon Knights,” he explains. “At the time, they were just finishing their Dark Legions game for SSI. We discussed our vision for producing and publishing games with big budgets and bigger expectations, and it matched perfectly with Denis’ ambition to build epic experiences. We considered three game concepts that Denis and his team had dreamed up, and I was instantly taken by one called The Pillars of Nosgoth.”
“Denis and his creative team were extremely passionate about telling a story; about taking the player on a journey and how they could bring a strong narrative and artistic cinema to a console game,” Hall continues. “I was all about the gameplay and how this unbelievable character and epic story translated to the controller and game mechanics. To me it was obvious this game deserved a Zelda-style take on a vampire action RPG, and it immediately struck a chord with Denis. We were convinced we could truly evolve the genre.”
The game was put into production, but Crystal Dynamics’ plan began looking shaky after the 3DO’s lacklustre release in October of 1993, after which two of the company’s founders resigned.
“Even the best games could not overcome a $700 price point for a video game console in 1993,” Hall muses. “Until the Wii and Wii Sports, GEX was the last game to be packed in with console [launch] hardware. [It] shows just how far we have come as an industry when consumers are willing to pay $600 for just the hardware.”
Hall remains happy with what the game itself achieved, however, noting that “it was a dream come true to see the game packed in with 400,000 units of 3DO consoles”; as well as seeing the title on the cover of numerous magazines, and also seeing it ported to the PC. Despite the failure of the console, GEX proved recognisable enough as an icon – and, by this time, the mascot of Crystal Dynamics – for a number of sequels to be produced. Though Hall was not involved with these, he notes that he “really liked the second game, GEX: Enter the Gecko”, though he’s less enthusiastic about the latter 3 dimensional games in the series, only stating that he knows “what a challenge it was to translate the experience into a true 3D game”.
Crystal Dynamics were far from finished though - nor was Dyack’s vampire project, which was eventually released on PlayStation in late 1996, and on PC the next year under the name Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain. The game was immensely successful, and was highly praised for its storytelling and atmosphere, as well as its Zelda-styled gameplay. “In the end,” says Hall, “Herculean efforts were made to complete that project: but it delivered on its promise.”
By that time, though, Hall had already left Crystal Dynamics, in order to work with DreamWorks SKG on 1999 PlayStation action title T’ai-Fu: Wrath or the Tiger. Soon after the game’s release, Hall left and spent two and a half years as a development consultant – working with clients in Austin and San Francisco, as well as French developer Kalisto Entertainment.
“Living in Bordeaux, France for nearly 7 months was one of the highlights of that time,” Hall announces happily.
Hall eventually ceased consulting work in 2001, after being recommended for a job with Culver City based developer Heavy Iron Studios. “I was intrigued by the challenge and opportunity of running a development studio poised for growth,” Hall says. “Certainly the studio has grown in leaps and bounds, and I am very proud of we have accomplished and contributed at Heavy Iron over the last five years.”
While much of the output of the company is license based – Hall’s credits over the past five years include work on SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo and The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer - Hall feels that these have been “some of the best licenses ever”.
“I have been very happy with how our audience has received our games,” he says. “Clearly they get what we are doing. I do wish there was more developed understanding of this audience from game reviewers.”
Heavy Iron Studio’s relationship with Disney/Pixar remains strong, with Hall currently working on Ratatouille, which will be in cinemas in 2008.
“There are other things we are doing as well,” he notes cagily, “but that info is not ready for prime time just yet.”