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Shiny Entertainment is well known for its successful console platform games. And yet, huge hits such as Earthworm Jim and its sequel have resulted in huge expectations for future projects within this genre. Game players who might forgive minor imperfections in an innovative PC title, such as Shiny’s MDK, are less understanding of faults in a platform game. The Golden Age of platform games, ushered in by the NES, the Super NES, and the Megadrives consoles, established some very high standards for this genre. In this environment, our team at Shiny launched the development of Wild 9.
Like None Before
We were fortunate in that Tom Tanaka, Wild 9’s lead designer, had been one of Earthworm Jim’s designers. His experience and love for the platform genre guided the project’s efforts from the beginning. During some of the early design meetings, we decided that one way to differentiate our platform game would be to come up with creative ways of getting rid of the enemies — most platform games involve some form of the player jumping onto the enemies’ heads. So from the very start, we designed Wild 9 to be different in this respect. From this beginning point, we realized that the main character would have to possess some kind of weapon that could eliminate the baddies in a lot of different ways.
David Perry, Shiny’s president, took an interest in our initial design and challenged us to create a weapon like none that had been attempted before in a videogame. Our first ideas centered on a female character wielding a glove that could remotely vaporize enemies or objects. This glove would deliver the same kind of actions you could perform with your own hands, only with a thousand times more strength. And then, somewhere in the early design stages, we realized that this wasn’t a weapon at all. The glove evolved into a beam that came out of the back of the main character’s suit. This system was to take center stage in the game’s design and eventually was dubbed "The Rig." Wild 9 was to become one of the most violent games around, but ironically the main character was to have no weapon.
Kevin Munroe, character and story designer and lead animator on the project, expanded Tom’s first attempts and created a whole universe and storyline for the game. The main character became Wex Major, a male teenager lost in another galaxy. Wex’s encounter with The Rig gives him the opportunity to fight the evil creature controlling the planet upon which he’s just landed. As Kevin described his own design, "Imagine if George Lucas co-wrote Star Wars with Lewis Carroll. And imagine if George Lucas then codirected it with Tex Avery." Wex soon finds allies (eight of them), and together the Wild 9 embark upon a "David vs. Goliath" battle against Karn, a 376-year-old being with the power of a god and the temperament of a toddler. Karn has set his sights on harnessing the ultimate power of The Glove and Rig, as well as the only being capable of using them: Wex Major. From his humble anti-hero beginnings as a pizza boy in earlier designs, Wex was now the planet’s only hope, and the task ahead of him was nothing short of incredible.
Concept art for the Little Evil Green Men
Because Shiny had had luck with licensing its properties in the past, we created a game bible that contained the character profiles, as well as multiple sketches of all the characters in the game. This document was then used to show production studios and other interested parties the game universe from which TV shows or toy lines could eventually draw. As David had the chance to say in multiple speeches he made on the subject, a game bible is invaluable in the quest to license your game worlds and characters. In our case, it was also a useful reference to the huge database from which we were going to create a game. Kevin and Tom designed a lot of game content — to the point where we nearly had to lock them in Shiny’s basement to stop them from adding anything else. In addition to the main character Wex, the designers came up with a sidekick named B’Angus; Nitro, who is allergic to everything and has a bad tendency to explode when he sneezes; Henry, who helps navigate the water levels (Wex doesn’t know how to swim); Crystal and Boomer, the game’s female characters; the multiple bad guys grunts Wex encounters along the way; Karn, the evil giant who faces Wex at the end of the game; the famous Little Evil Green Men (or LEGM as we later called the tiny, single-eyed green pests); Filbert the sniper; and many other characters, as well as the world they inhabit.
The initial game bible only served as Wild 9’s starting point, because we added a number of elements to the design as we went along (we even managed to finish some of them). Still, this document proved to be such a valuable resource that all of Shiny’s future titles will start with the development of a game bible. Many times, titles are late because certain gaps in the original design were overlooked and the full design was never really laid down on paper before development started. Writing down design details forces the designers to make all the micro-decisions that the design encompasses and leaves less room for interpretation or hesitations from the rest of the team.
The designers chose to follow a traditional 2D environment to allow full freedom of movement for The Rig, the beam-like main weapon
9’s development began around the time that the first all-around
3D platform games had started to appear. Faced with this emerging trend,
we had to make a choice whether to follow it or to stick to more traditional
2D-based game play, even if it meant evolving in a 3D environment. The
second solution was chosen mainly because of The Rig. We
wanted full freedom for the beam to move, and that meant using the full range of joypad inputs just to achieve that goal, never mind running around in 3D. So we decided that the main character would travel on a predefined path that would roam through a 3D universe, involving changes of direction and multiple camera angles. This decision also allowed the level designers to carefully place camera angles along the character’s path, thus enabling dramatic scenes and varied views of the scenery. Later, we used the camera to give players more awareness of their surroundings and warn them of the dangers ahead by panning the camera one way or another.
While Wild 9’s design was challenging from the start, we also wanted the game to push new limits on the technical front. We wanted to deliver not only great and innovative game play, but also amazing visuals. The results were a mixed bag, and our technological effort was probably the most tumultuous part of the game’s development.