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Postmortem: Treyarch's 2002 hit, Spider-Man
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Postmortem: Treyarch's 2002 hit, Spider-Man

June 21, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

What Went Wrong

1. Not enough staff soon enough.

Some of our other problems can be traced back to staff size. When the project started, we had about four programmers, four game designers, three modelers, one texture artist, one producer, and one creative director. NGL was only in our imaginations at this point. Treyarch was eagerly looking for more staff, but staff doesn't just come out of thin air. Most important, we didn't have a concept artist, we didn't have a writer, and we had so many people working on the proof-of-concept that we didn't really have someone to come up with a full design.

Later, when we rolled into full production of our inadequate design, things got even worse, because some of our veterans were taken away to work on other projects, without adequate replacement. Eventually we were fully staffed and then some; we had more than 40 people at points during the project, and more than 50 worked on it at one point or another. We had to make up in the end for what we lacked in the beginning.

2. Inadequate initial design.

I think designing is overrated; coming up with a 200-page design document only to scrap most of it seems like a waste of resources. Still, you need some design — a bad plan is better than no plan — and you need more than we had.

By the time we finished our proof-of-concept, the design consisted basically of a list of bosses, a list of levels, and some ideas on how our new AI system might work. Each item had about a paragraph devoted to describing it. Our story was a page long. By the end of the project, we had a wealth of design: we had the output of each level implementation meeting; we had the script; we had a couple of pages on each boss, describing the moves he would be capable of; we had concept art and storyboards; we had concept art for the front end. If we had come up with that material earlier in the project, we would have been rudderless for less time and could have made more game before shipping.

3. Audio and voice-over problems.

Because we didn't hire a scriptwriter until fairly late in the project, we didn't get the script approved by Activision and Sony/Columbia until even later. By the time the people who make these decisions had decided to accept the script and get Willem Dafoe and Tobey Maguire to do the voice-over, we were long past the drop-dead date we had given to Activision. It was already alpha, and we had very few of the cutscenes done, because it's a waste of resources to do the cutscenes until you have final voice-over. But we soldiered on. We got the final voice-over recorded and transplanted animators into the Spider-Man animation sweatshop to get all of the cutscenes finished as soon as possible. The end result is that a lot of our cutscenes don't look as good as we would like.

Audio also suffered from massive disorganization. We didn't have anyone on our team dedicated to managing audio resources. What we needed was a good directory structure, file-naming conventions, and the like to make dropping in final sound effects easy. Too many times we put in a placeholder sound effect without changing the name, resulting in massive confusion about which sound file went with what. After those issues were all resolved, we discovered that the console versions didn't sound the same as the PC version, due to discrepancies created by the different tool chains on the different consoles. We were working out these problems right up until we shipped.

4. Too much done in script engine.

One of the most valuable things about our game engine is CHUCK, the script language named after its creator, Chuck Tolman. It's a C++-like script language that emulates multithreading, allowing you to have multiple game entities processing their individual scripts at the same time. It's used to script game events, trigger audio, change AI states, speed up or slow down the whole game or individual entities, and even place front-end widgets and text on the screen. One can prototype whole new kinds of gameplay in CHUCK with very little programmer help; this is where the stealth mode of Spider-Man came from, for example. The game designers on Spider-Man are really programmers in their own right. They are empowered.

Because CHUCK is such a powerful script language, however, game designers would often take on tasks that could have been handled in code better. CHUCK doesn't really have arrays, and it doesn't have a debugger, so for anything complicated, C++ is the way to go. Unfortunately, it wasn't always the way we went.

The worst example of this may have been the front end. Although programmers did the work, we thought it would be clever to write it in CHUCK instead of C++ with the idea in mind that this would open it up for more people to maintain it, if necessary. This idea worked in a way: when we got to the eleventh hour and we still hadn't finished the front end, the game designers stepped in and helped finish it off. If we had done the front end in code, we would have finished it sooner and the game designers wouldn't have had to step in at all.

Again, this is a result of our staffing difficulties, because if we'd had more staff sooner, programmers could have provided these features in code. Instead, the game designers got fed up and did it themselves, costing us efficiency in the long run.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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