Behind the scenes of Vigilante 8
Following the success of Interstate 76, Activision turned to newbie developer Luxoflux to produce a console spin-off. Created by a team of just five members, this is the story of Vigilante 8…
When budding screenwriter Zachary Norman was hired by Activision in the mid-Nineties, it set into motion a chain of events that would lead to the creation of Vigilante 8. In league with Sean Vesce, Dan Stanfill and other key personnel, the result was Interstate ’76, a funky and cinematic vehicular combat game that placed players in an alternate Seventies world where the oil crisis of that decade never went away. It’s a cheerless scenario, and one that is told via souped-up, deadly vehicles and discordant vigilantes.
Interstate ’76 was released on PC in 1997 to generally positive reviews and sales. Keen to accentuate the cinematic side of videogames, Activision itself was pleased with the result, and soon pondered about how to approach another platform with its fresh IP. Working at Sega of America as a game designer and producer, was Peter Morawiec; together with software engineer Adrian Stephens, the pair were based in a small satellite office in Burbank, California. “We were approached by Howard Marks of Activision,” begins Morawiec, “who was interesting in funding a team to develop for the PlayStation. At that time, Sega was in reorganisation, the Saturn was floundering and we were between projects, so after a great run it seemed like the right time to try something new.”
The result was Luxoflux, a new developer co-owned by the two men and based in Santa Monica, California. “Howard was basically looking for a console adaptation of Activision’s Interstate ’76 franchise,” recalls Morawiec, “but since that game was more of a serious adventure-type simulation, ultimately we ended up using it as more of a springboard for a completely new arcade-style game. Nothing was converted or used from Interstate; both the technology and the assets were developed anew.”
As befitted Luxoflux’s freshly minted status, the roles of its two members, Morawiec and Stephens were initially all-encompassing, as the former explains. “My duties involved being the lead designer, plus, suddenly, being an all-round small business owner: securing leases, hiring, legal and accounting.” Stephens remained throughout the sole programmer. He says, “As with Comix Zone [Morawiec and Stephens’s previous collaboration at Sega], Peter did the design and art and I created the technology, which involved creating a game engine for the PlayStation and developing all the tools we needed to create the game assets, such as a terrain/level editor and 3DSMax plugins.”
By the time Vigilante 8 shipped, the team was up to grand total of five, with Edvard Toth, Jeremy Engleman and David Goodrich all on board. “It was a large effort for such a small team,” continues Morawiec. “I created the overall game design, characters, built the vehicles, weapons, effects and also did some sound design.”
With Stephens occupied on coding duties, it was soon apparent the pair needed someone to begin artwork design. One of those people was Edvard Toth. “I was still in the UK when Peter hired me,” he says, “and one of the pre-requisites was to check out Interstate ’76. I really enjoyed the all-in commitment to the Seventies theme.” Toth had gained invaluable experience in the UK working for famous developer Psygnosis where he had designed and developed the cult RPG Perihelion: The Prophecy. Nevertheless, he jumped at the chance to join Morawiec and Stephens in California. Also with the team by this time were Jeremy Engleman and artist David Goodrich. “I had been approached by Activision for an artist role on its Battlezone reboot,” recalls Goodrich, “However the position had been filled the day I was interviewing. I guess I interviewed well, because they asked me back a few days later to meet the Luxoflux team.” Goodrich met with Morawiec, Stephens and Engleman in their small office in Santa Monica. “They were interviewing me for an artist position that mainly involved making all objects and vehicles in the game destructible, something that was rarely seen in games of that time.”
Having graduated from a large studio, Goodrich was sceptical of the size of Vigilante 8’s team. “I had some concerns about such a small group successfully making it to launch, but I confess this was a hasty conclusion on my part, especially considering the subsequent success of Luxoflux and its games.” However, the proposed scenario for Vigilante 8 endeared itself greatly to the new recruit. “I researched Interstate ’76 once I knew I was going for the interview, so I could get a feel for the game I would be modelling on. I was amazed by it, the stylised visuals, Seventies funk and car customisations caught my interest immediately, and the storyline was also engaging and entertaining.”
So having introduced the team, what about the game itself? As with Interstate ’76, global tensions surrounding the shortage of oil are a key element behind Vigilante 8’s plot. The nefarious Oil Monopoly Alliance Regime (OMAR) is seeking to monopolise the world’s oil trade and is opposed by just one remaining country: the United States of America. With shortages of gasoline causing a near-economic breakdown in the country, OMAR hires professional terrorist Sid Burn to organise troops in the American Southwest and begin targeting oil refineries and other commercial installations throughout the region.
Desperate for help, civilians have decided to take the law into their own hands and formed a band of defenders known as the Vigilantes. The player can take on the role of either a member of the Vigilantes or Sid Burn’s cadre of villains known as the Coyotes, with each character having its own specific ending. Recalls Morawiec, “To be honest, the characters and their backstories were developed in the service of the vehicle selection, a sort-of gameplay-first approach. In other words, the vehicles came first, then we brainstormed suitable characters to go with each car, weaving a storyline to connect it all together.”
Despite the clear influence of Interstate ’76, involvement of the original team in Vigilante 8 was kept to bare minimum, as Morawiec reveals. “We had a couple of brief discussions with Zack and his team early on, but I could tell they weren’t very keen on our direction. I probably would have felt the same, their vision of the franchise was a lot more intellectual and realistic, but it just wasn’t going to translate to the console well. Rebranding it to more a combat arena shooting game was probably the right idea.”
As lead coder, Adrian Stephens got to liaise with the Interstate team close up. “I spent a day with Activision’s internal I76 team,” he recalls, “sitting in one person’s office or cubicle at a time, trying to understand the decisions they’d made and the pitfalls they’d come across in the process. At that point I think we were still imagining a closer port than we ended up going for.” Given a huge dump of code, Stephens was predictably overwhelmed by the hugeness of the Activision game. In view of Zachary Norman’s scriptwriting background, Interstate ’76 was developed mainly from script to gameplay; Vigilante 8 reversed this method of working.
Edvard Toth recalls the influence of Interstate and another memorable PlayStation game. “I think the primary seed of the idea was to re-use the over-the-top characters and premise from Interstate in a pure car combat game, with the intention of taking on Sony’s own Twisted Metal series. Initially I thought it was a bit goofy, but it rapidly sucked me in. Our game was extremely fun to play, and there was a kind of disarming authenticity and charm to the characters and the whole package in general that was hard to resist.”
David Goodrich agrees. “Visually Vigilante 8 was amazing for the time, and in my opinion it set a new standard for PlayStation visuals. The game was already oozing with style from the inspiration of Interstate.” Goodrich, despite being a relative newcomer to the project, wasted little time in putting forward suggestions for improvements to Vigilante 8’s gameplay. “While I was initially hired to handle the world destruction assets, I also ended up doing a lot of game design as well.” Given that at the time the game was being developed by a four-man team, this sort of overlap was inevitable. “We had to wear a lot of hats to get things done. Like, while they had a lot of basic components already in place, I felt it lacked a combat system with strategic depth. Being a car combat fanatic, I wasted no time suggesting how we could add a deeper combat system. Fortunately, Peter and Adrian listened to my ideas, despite me being a newcomer.”
Goodrich’s suggestions improved the gameplay immeasurably. Vigilante 8’s original template was composed of just driving and shooting enemies, with whatever weapon was currently installed. Goodrich added combo moves akin to the aforementioned Twisted Metal and even fighting games such as Street Fighter, to give the player a broader range of offensive and defensive moves. This included missiles that confused homing weapons, mines with which to trap enemy cars and set them up for an attack, and weapons that would push an enemy away, useful for when players found themselves surrounded.
“The new weapon combo system led to some brutal attack strategies,” says Goodrich proudly, “but they seemed like they should have been more damaging than they were.” Combat, the meat and drink of Vigilante 8, lasted too long as the player could empty an entire barrage before the enemy escaped and grabbed some health, returning refreshed to the combat zone. “So I came up with the ‘whammy’ system,” explains Goodrich, “which increased the damage of each attack that lands within a split second. I ran this by Peter and he was all for it. This allowed skilled players to take out enemies quickly, and also added satisfying results to a barrage of attacks.”
In addition to this, Goodrich drew inspiration from another famous fighting game. “I took note of Mortal Kombat’s fatality mechanic: our version was called ‘total’ after totalling a car’,” he grins. “If you brought an enemy car’s health down to zero, and then performed a special attack or combo, it would launch the vehicle into mid-air and blow it up.” The result was over-the-top, yet undeniably satisfying.
Pushing all these ideas around the PlayStation was Adrian Stephens, Vigilante 8’s lead coder. “Adrian is simply an amazing coder,” say Goodrich. “I recall on a few occasions telling him that a feature we had was more polished in another game, in an attempt to goad him into implementing it.” The one major sticking point among the small team was between Stephens in particular and Activision, as Toth explains. “There was an on-going real-vs-fake physics debate that stuck with the project. One side were unwavering proponents of using real physics on the vehicles, with multiple points of suspension, springs, mass and momentum. The other side – which I think included our producer from Activision – pushed for ‘fake’ physics that would have made the vehicles stick better to the terrain and exhibit more predictable behaviour in general.”
Stephens himself recalls more the technical issues of embracing a new technology over any design conflicts. “We were a fledgling company with no PlayStation experience,” he says, “although each new hurdle kind of made you forget all the hurdles before. But I do remember trying – and failing – to write a terrain editor using direct X and MFC. Getting the physics of the vehicles right was a struggle throughout development – and beyond!” In mild conflict with Goodrich, Stephens recalls a slightly different take on the vehicle physics design. “Yes, opinion was divided over vehicle control. I felt they should handle like vehicles, everyone else thought they shouldn’t! I’m exaggerating, but personally I prefer games where mastering the controls is integral to the game, like Defender or Joust.”
As you’d expect with a new team working on a particular format for the first time, there were other technical issues, as Goodrich recalls. “There were frame rate issues when we had too many explosions, but that was mainly my fault. I was hired to create the destructibles and in an attempt to make it more exciting, I initially used too many.” Fortunately Stephens was on hand to set up a system where Goodrich could offset the explosions with a timer, limiting the number on screen at any one time. A bigger problem lay with the car physics themselves. Under certain circumstances, vehicles were prone to jump hundreds of feet in the air upon striking obstacles, making them unfairly vulnerable to enemy fire. Constant play testing failed to locate the bug, until, towards the end of development, Goodrich persuaded Stephens to have final look at it. “I left for lunch, still annoyed at this imperfection in the gameplay, and returned to find that Adrian had had an ‘A-ha!’ moment, and he ended up fixing the issue hours before our final submission to Activision.
Post-release, Vigilante 8 received good reviews, with critics and gamers alike unconcerned with the game’s lack of frills. A few months after the game’s release, however, controversy struck, and Activision and Luxoflux found itself at the centre of a media storm. The latter were busy developing Vigilante 8’s follow up, 2nd Offense, the former promoting the original game and the imminent Nintendo 64 version. One such promotion involved the school bus from the game, a ridiculously over-the-top vehicle (in keeping with the rest of the game) and into this fragile situation came the Columbine tragedy. Edvard Toth remembers, “Despite our bus being really cartoony, the game still received a lot of negative media attention as the finger-pointing at videogame violence kicked into high gear.”
A live-action TV advertisement for the Nintendo 64 version, featuring a bullet-ridden and burned out school bus was hardly a salve on tensions, and the school bus in the sequel was quickly changed to a less-controversial prison bus. “We all thought it was a great commercial,” says Morawiec, “very funny and light-hearted, just like the game itself – but the timing was unfortunate. I believe Vigilante 8 even figured in one of President Clinton’s addresses on videogame violence, and while I’m not a fan of ultra-violent games, I didn’t really see our game as such. So it was a surprising development.”
As mentioned, Vigilante 8 was successful enough to spawn an immediate sequel in 2nd Offense. “The indications from the marketplace were very positive,” recalls Morawiec. “I remember walking into Hollywood Video the day of release and these boys rushed in, eagerly asking the clerk about V8, which I thought was a good omen.” Ultimately, Vigilante 8 sold far beyond everyone’s expectations at both Activision and Luxoflux. The effect this had on the latter was significant, as Morawiec continues. “Vigilante 8 legitimised our studio as one of the better upcoming devs of the PS1/N64 era. It allowed us to move onto bigger projects, and by partnering with Activision we grew from two employees to 100-plus within eight years or so. It was a bumpy ride at times, but an amazing experience nonetheless.”
Luxoflux co-founder Stephens has fond memories of the development process too, despite the long nights and coding death marches. “Vigilante 8 remains the most positive and rewarding game development process I’ve ever had. It wasn’t easy but we never got bogged down, and every bit of progress felt like a hard-won group achievement.” The development of Vigilante 8 can be seen as a bridge, the last one perhaps, between the small coding teams of the Eighties and early Nineties, and the modern gaming behemoths of today. “It was one of those rare experiences where every team member had a say and made a significant impact on the game’s outcome,” says Goodrich, who found art, animation, design, play-testing and even helping to write the game’s Prima guide, roles he took on. “Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all sugar and sunshine; we worked very long hours and late nights for many months, and by the end we were exhausted. But what we created was satisfying, and worth it. I’m very proud of the work we all did on that game.”
It may not have been the most complex of games, and eschewed many of its forebear’s intricacies in favour of all-out action. But there’s no doubting for those road hogs looking for frantic vehicular combat on the PlayStation, there was no equal.