Behind the scenes of Dangerous Golf
The inside story of how the founders of Criterion Games formed a new studio and began making Dangerous Golf
How do you explain an idea like Dangerous Golf to a small team of game development veterans eager to start a new project?
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s probably a bit like Crash Mode, but with a golf ball. But it’s probably way more out there than that, with a shitload of destruction’,” reveals Alex Ward, co-founder of Three Fields Entertainment and former chief of Criterion Games. It’s a pitch that managed to capture the imaginations of colleagues from the Burnout development team and beyond, but obviously it wasn’t quite so simple as that.
As we discovered sitting with the Three Fields team, including fellow ex-Criterion and Three Fields co-founder Fiona Sperry, for all that the concept of a highly explosive indoor golf game may appear to be a modest new beginning for developers of such pedigree, this new game leverages decades of combined development experience and stunning new technologies to create something that captures the kind of pure fun that made this group’s previous titles so enjoyable.
Three Fields started back in 2014 with a simple question: what happens next? “We came together and the most interesting things were the questions we arrived with, which were: ‘What would a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Next game look like, how could we start preparing for that now and how could we start to get there?’,” Paul Ross, formerly a lead programmer and then technical director at Criterion, tells us. These are ambitious questions for what was then an even smaller team to be leading, but it took them in some interesting directions.
“We have no idea what those machines are going to be, even if there are new machines, but as developers we’re always looking at what’s around that corner,” adds Ward as we begin to watch some tech demos of physics simulations. More and more objects are smashed and thrown against each other, causing debris to scatter on the ground. Everything is rendered in incredible detail and fidelity, with every new polygonal shape interacting with the others. This is advanced stuff.
“This is a plugin for a render package – it takes days or maybe even weeks to render. We want to run a game quickly on hardware that everyone owns,” explains Ross.
We then looked at some demos using liquids, which are some of the most realistic-looking we’ve ever encountered. These are physics models way in advance of anything any developer is putting out yet, but it’s where Three Fields wanted to start. “This technology is called ‘smoothed-particle hydrodynamics’ and was something that NASA developed back in the 80s for averaging out quantities for when they were gazing at the stars, trying to work out how things fitted together and how they could measure something over such a long distance,” Three Fields founding member and former Criterion technical director Phil Maguire informs us. “As it turns out you can also use it to average out the quantity of pressure over a fluid, which is the important thing for working out the maths.”
These were the areas this experienced team wanted to push on current generation consoles in preparation for what was to come, but it raises the question again of how this all lead to Dangerous Golf. “We like playing for scores, we like fast action, we like to entertain people,” begins Ward. “We’re not frustrated story-tellers… We were thinking whatever we’re going to try and do we should do something physics-driven, that could be pretty smart.”
So, we can see the path to physics and destruction, but how did golf enter into it? Ward explains how it all began to come together thanks to some newly-installed fast internet at his home and a three-month wait between leaving EA and being able to start Three Fields. “In that time I was watching Netflix and one of the first things I watched was this documentary called The Short Game, which is a documentary about seven-year-old golfers,” he says.
“I play a lot of mini golf. And the thing I like about it is trick shots. Mini golf is better than real golf because you can bang it around. When you do a wicked hole-in-one it’s really fun. It makes you feel powerful, it makes you feel special. At the same time I was also looking on YouTube at this series called Dude Perfect and it’s these guys who do trick shots in various different things, basketball, archery, snooker balls, pool, everything. I’m terrible at pool because I try to do a trick shot all the time and in mini golf I normally lose, because I just can’t resist it.”
So when Ward gave his pitch for Crash Mode with a golf ball, using the highest-end physics and liquids simulations the team could muster, ideas began flying. Visual targets such as the Quicksilver scene from X-Men: Days Of Future Past, the explosions in the street from Inception or the gun battle in a bathroom from True Lies began to inform potential locations for the most chaos a flaming golf ball could cause. The rules of golf also quickly fell away. “There are no explosions – why not? The ball doesn’t catch fire at all – why not? It’s obvious,” Ward exclaims.
“Do they reward you for trick shots? No, because you can’t do them outside on the 18th hole of Bushwood country club. It’s positively discouraged. There are a lot of strict rules in golf. Whereas, we thought, if we create our own sport, it’s just like Burnout. What’s the rulebook? We don’t know, but let’s rip it up and start again. In Burnout, the more dangerously you drive, the faster you can go. In Dangerous Golf, the more you rip the place to pieces, bang it in the hole with an outrageous trick shot, [the more you score and then] you’ll be the winner.”
The other key factor was an eagerness to get moving fast. “I think Mark Cerny [lead system architect for PS4] calls it the Cerny Method: go like hell, as quickly as you can, get as much as you can playable and see if it’s fun, and if it’s not, stop it and do something else,” Ward explains. The concern was that this small, talented team could be waiting for months for ‘the right idea’ rather than moving forward with a project. “That’s the dirty secret of game development all around the world; in film, it’s the equivalent of having the cast and crew on set and you’re rolling but you haven’t got a finished script,” adds Sperry. “That’s what happens in the games industry every day, and in big companies. Just burning money!”
What it led to was a more open mindset, akin to classic game development in the arcade era. “People would have an idea [then] and they’d make a game. We’re seeing that in indies at the moment. There’s a resurgence; if people have a stupid idea, they can make it,” is Ward’s take. “We were talking about this yesterday, about Unfinished Swan on PS4. I mean, the game starts on a white screen. You’ve got to reward anybody who’s gone ‘You know, the game starts and it’s all white’…”
Three Fields Entertainment has embraced that bold, pioneering spirit of making a game that the team thinks is fun, following the humour and creative possibilities wherever they may lead and no matter how silly it may appear. “You’ve got to dare to be stupid,” Ward says. “I come from that era where there was just this great variety of stuff. Hopefully we’ll get there again, when things are cheaper and people go back to that. It’s very free. It’s not for everyone, and you’ve got to have a good team who can sit there and go ‘Yeah, but will that hotdog come out of that bun while the burgers are separate? Can you make that tomato bounce? What’s happening with the wheels on that mop bucket? Guess what – we’ve just put a mop bucket through a shop window.’ ‘Oh, fantastic!’ ‘Can we put C4 explosives in?’ ‘Dunno – give us half an hour!’ That stuff is really quite wonderful.”
Playing Dangerous Golf with the team it becomes clear what a winning idea it is: ‘daring to be stupid’ and backing it up with incredible technology and creative zeal. Playing it brings to mind the pure fun of not only Burnout, but also more recent fare like Rocket League or even Goat Simulator. Although it’s important to point out that while everyone’s favourite physics sandbox with a goat revels in madness to a similar degree to Three Field’s game, Dangerous Golf is built on solid, handcrafted worlds. We played a stage designed by Fiona Sperry, inspired by an episode of Only Fools And Horses, where we could knock down a chandelier to fall on a table piled high with plates, but the underlying design was more complex than it appeared.
“What you’re seeing is a very complex light swinging, which is all physically simulated correctly, a very complex body that’s then falling down on to hundreds and hundreds of destructible plates, which are all stacked correctly,” says Ross. “They’re all shattering in real time into thousands of pieces as you go around that room, so you’re seeing more physics simulation being done than has been done in any other videogame just on that one sequence.” One small error and like a failed rocket launch, the whole thing could just explode in front of you as the level begins. Setting up field after field of realistic objects for you to cause mayhem with is a far more precise endeavour than you might imagine. “We’ve got massive physics simulations, NASA technology for fluids and Only Fools And Horses. That’s a videogame for you,” summarises Ward.
We played through several stages of Dangerous Golf, becoming increasingly more impressed in each area with the level of detail and strange new twists on the already strange concept this group had managed to come up with. Holes set in a kitchen, castle, petrol station or mansion start off with a simple drive (although there’s no golf club, it’s important to add), typically towards something vulnerable rather than the hole.
Get a big enough score and the Smash Breaker is earned that, not unlike a Crashbreaker from Burnout, gives you the ability to fly around the room with aftertouch on the right analogue stick. That’s where the real fun begins, of course, but it’s also where some of the new tricks can be added in, such as landing in water buckets and using them as bowling balls to knock down pins or destroying everything in a room except for the giant, multi-tiered cakes and of course no landing on the floor, because it’s lethal. What other game would give you bonus points for getting a hotdog down the hole?
Three Fields Entertainment and Dangerous Golf are labours of love for this group. It’s taking risks and pushing itself hard, but there’s no better time than now to be making that attempt. “I was looking back at my old work journals and talking about it with Alex, and we had actually started talking about doing this in 2007,” Sperry tells us.
“There were lots of reasons why we didn’t do it, one of them was just that it just wasn’t the right time. We’d had a really successful career, we didn’t want to just suddenly pack that in and be a mobile developer and not really push ourselves. So the market had to be in the right place; self-publishing and digital downloads had to be possible… If you think about it, Paradise was EA’s first downloadable title, in 2008. It wasn’t really possible at that point for us to do that; the tools and technology didn’t really exist for a small team like ours to compete. So in those seven years between when we were first thinking about it and when we actually did it, we couldn’t believe how long it had been. A lot has changed. That was really good for our decision.”
So rather than attempt a mobile game – though Dangerous Golf was prototyped on a tablet for a brief time – Three Fields pursued its passion for console gaming, knowing that the landscape of self-publishing was changing. Still, the team knows that the concept for Dangerous Golf and the expectation from fans of their previous games are potentially tough hurdles to overcome. “It’s a big risk making a golf game. Not everyone’s going to be interested,” admits Ward. “But this was the same thing we had in 2000 with Burnout. I mean, we were turned down by everybody trying to make that game; ‘You’re not going to beat Gran Turismo.’ I think nine publishers turned us down flat.”
As we sat with Three Fields, Dangerous Golf had only been revealed 24 hours earlier, but the expected reaction of a small number of Burnout fans questioning why this new team wouldn’t be making a spiritual successor to that franchise had emerged. “We’d love to make a game like that for those people,” Ward insists. “Hopefully we can, and hopefully we will. But you have to start somewhere, and that’s what we’ve done. We’re not at Criterion any more; we don’t work for EA. We’re starting off, and this is our first one. You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s like a total reset.”
Still, for the most part, the reaction has been positive as the promise of pure, silly, couch co-op fun from a small and committed team clears any cynicism away. “It’s touching to see people wishing us well, and saying that they’ll buy it, and that’s good, because that means there’s an audience that’s responded, but I’m sure a lot of people haven’t heard of us yet, don’t know what it is,” says Ward. “We just have to get to that point where we can put it up on the store and people can download it, and we can see how well we can entertain them. This is, in any project, the time when it can all come together. It can make you or break you.”
Three Fields Entertainment is a venture backed by passion. Everyone here has made sacrifices and invested time and money into the endeavour knowing that the group as a whole is talented enough and driven enough to make a success of it. There’s no crowdfunding, no publisher ready to pick up the pieces and no massive testing network. It’s only made this group care even more about the strange game it’s built together. “It is very personal, because there’s no safety net,” Ward wraps up. “We’ve just done this because we believe in it and wanted to try it. It’s the line at the end of Field Of Dreams; ‘If you build it, they will come’. If we don’t build it, they’re never going to come. We never knew. We talked about having our own studio and what it would be, but if we didn’t have a go, we’d never know.”
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