Life after GoldenEye

In addition to creating the universe, story and character, much of the early development was spent improving on GoldenEye. Doak, for example, immediately explored ways to make the AI better. “By the end of GoldenEye, we had a shopping list of things we wanted to do that we couldn’t do so late in the process of shipping the game,” he says. “We did a lot of stuff trying to get the sound and lighting to be more interesting [in Perfect Dark], like the thing where you can shoot the lights out.”

There were also small incremental improvements, such as player movement and collisions, plus things that were never made possible in GoldenEye, like the introduction of lifts and the ability to drop down from ledges. Even simple things like shattering glass; having enabled players to destroy a few beakers in Facility, the Perfect Dark team improved the effect and set up Carrington’s villa basement with row upon row of wine bottles for a John Woo-style shootout – another memorable set-piece (particularly for those who got the audio easter egg for shooting every bottle).

The biggest example, according to Edmonds, was the simulants – AI-controlled bots that could participate in multiplayer matches alongside human players. While never planned for GoldenEye (the game’s groundbreaking multiplayer was famously added late on), he recalls this was “probably mentioned” during that game’s development.

Perfect Dark© Nintendo Life

Ross Bury, who designed many of the levels, notes that it wasn’t just GoldenEye the team was trying to improve upon. “We were always looking at other games. We were looking at things like Turok and MDK, and wondering if we were going to be better. That was one way of pushing ourselves, and the graphics especially, to make sure we were going to come out better than that.”

Bury and Chesluk were both first-timers, having never professionally made a video game before. They joined Rare at a most interesting time, as it gradually became apparent how influential GoldenEye would go on to be. While today it’s heralded as a transformative title, the game that proved shooters could work on console, in the immediate aftermath of its release it was just a well-received film tie-in – and one that arrived two years after the actual film.

It wasn’t apparent that GoldenEye was going to be as successful as it was until four, five months after it came out

“It wasn’t apparent that GoldenEye was going to be as successful as it was until four, five months after it came out,” Doak says. “It reviewed very well, but the sales were quite slow at the start. So there wasn’t the pressure of ‘Oh my god, you’ve made a game that’s going to be in the top ten games of all time.’ It was ‘Yes, you’ve delivered and it’s reviewed really well.'"

In those days, sales figures were hard to come by. Only rental figures were publicly available and they showed GoldenEye was frequently borrowed much longer after launch than most games – even a year after its release. This was a huge boost for the GoldenEye developers on the Perfect Dark team. “There was a bedrock of positivity that came from that,” says Hollis. “Although I don’t think it caused the ambition for Perfect Dark, that was just from the nature of the team.”

Edmonds adds: “I don’t remember ever thinking there’s more pressure. It just gave us more incentive to try and make it better. It was just cool having the response to GoldenEye. After the two, three years we’d been working on it, it helped keep us going and encouraged us to put the hard work in again on Perfect Dark.”

Mission Profile

Despite the success of GoldenEye’s multiplayer, the single-player remained the priority for Perfect Dark – at least, to begin with. As Botwood observes, this was where the highest-quality objects and geometry was developed – although that didn’t stop him from lifting some of it and using it to shape the multiplayer arenas.

Interestingly, the campaign was actually shaped by the levels rather than the story. Doak says the team had a list of environments they wanted to do, and wrote the plot around those. The opening mission in Datadyne Tower was particularly important, as it would signify the massive leap forward from GoldenEye.

“We wanted a nice big opening setpiece, something which was very different to GoldenEye with the verticality and the fairly open office, being able to see an exterior,” he says. “It was a very deliberate thing. The Dam had ended up being an impressive start to GoldenEye, so with this we were like, ‘Well, can you have a level where you look out and see a cityscape?’”

The inspirations for Perfect Dark came across most clearly through the locations. Chicago’s rainy streets were a blatant nod to Blade Runner. The layout of Air Force One was also recognisable to anyone familiar with the 1997 Harrison Ford film of the same name, although Jones notes that was partly out of necessity. “That’s the only reference there was at the time for the interior of the plane,” he says. “Don’t forget, we didn’t really have the internet. If you wanted to get references, you either had to have them in a book, a video clip, or something. There was no ‘Just go on the internet and find an image.’”

The President’s plane was also the birthplace of one of Perfect Dark’s most enigmatic elements: the cheese. Every mission in the campaign has a wedge of fromage hidden somewhere, but the original can be found in the lowest level of Air Force One. Bury explains how this all started. Sharing an office with Jones, he was building the level and his colleague made a comment about a piece of equipment he designed near the President’s escape pod.

Perfect Dark© Nintendo Life

“Brett called it a cheese tidy,” he says. “That just tickled me, so I dropped in a piece of cheese in there. It just spiralled from there, it was stupid really. I just started hiding them in all the levels. Each level I made sure there was a piece of cheese and Brett would try to find it. The most amazing thing I found out was that there was this big conspiracy theory about if you shoot enough cheeses, you got something special. I was like, ‘Stop making something up.’ The thing that tickled me was a magazine produced a guidebook with a map that managed to plot out all the cheese locations. I couldn’t understand how they’d managed to do that.”

N64 gamers will remember the conspiracies well. Rumour was that shooting every wedge would unlock something special, perhaps all the cheats. And yet it all stems from an inside joke between two members of the team – although Bury is careful not to call it that. “Honestly, it wasn’t that funny. It was just cheese.”

Alien Conspiracy

While the story centred around extraterrestrials, the otherworldly beings actually played a minimal role in the missions themselves. Elvis was the only Maian that Joanna ever met and the Skedar did not appear until towards the end. Of the 17 levels, only the last four have you fight the Skedar yourself. The rest pit Joanna against fellow humans.

Botwood says this was a story decision, designed to build up through the alien conspiracy. Elvis’ arrival reveals that aliens exist, and hints are dropped later about two warring factions, culminating in Mr Blonde’s reveal as a Skedar in the cutscene after Crash Site. The idea was to constantly offer something new for players to discover throughout the campaign. “If you had a full-on alien war halfway through the game and you were fighting more and more of them, then where is the crescendo?” Botwood says. “Where’s it going to peak after that?”

If you had a full-on alien war halfway through the game and you were fighting more and more of them, then where is the crescendo?

While you first fight the Skedar in Deep Sea, the prospect of an alien invasion truly hits home during the Carrington Institute mission, in which the Skedar assault Joanna’s headquarters – a particular highlight for Hollis.

“I was excited about the idea of shooting these scary aliens, and about the idea you’d be doing it in the Carrington Institute,” he says. “We’d come up with the idea that this would be your hub, your safe base, and then later on in the story, the aliens would attack and you’d have to defend it. That was something I was especially pleased about.”

The Maians were modelled on the typical little grey men that have been associated with alien conspiracies for decades, but Jones had more unorthodox ambitions for the Skedar. “They came from my desire to do something with chicken legs,” he explains. "I wanted to do a chicken leg animation to make them look really sinister, so they ended up with this wobbly walk. We had to rotate one joint, then the next, then the next. There were no sophisticated animation techniques at all because they just didn’t exist. It was all a bit of a labour of love.

“A lot of the human characters we motion-captured, but you can’t motion capture someone with chicken legs because no-one has backwards knees. So everything was animated by me and Jonathan Mummery.”

TeamSplitters

Unfortunately, the development for Perfect Dark was far from smooth. One minor disruption came when the entirety of Rare moved from the idyllic country farmhouse where it was first formed to the bespoke £3.5 million office complex from which it still operates today. Despite the fact that these two locations are mere minutes away from one another, the change was dramatic for some.

Then key members of the Perfect Dark team began to leave. The first to go was Hollis. With his four-year contract coming to an end, he was offered another. As much as he wanted to finish the game, he did not want to stay at Rare for that long and decided instead to leave, soon after taking a role at Nintendo.

An even larger blow was the loss of Doak, programmer Steve Ellis, lead artist Karl Hilton and composer Graeme Norgate. The four left roughly halfway through the project over the space of a few months, banding together to form Free Radical Design, the studio behind TimeSplitters.

The Perfect Dark team at E3 (from left to right): Duncan Botwood, Dave Doak, Steve Ellis, Ross Bury, Martin Hollis, Mark Edmonds, Karl Hilton, Lee Ray, B Jones, Graham Norgate
The Perfect Dark team at E3 (from left to right): Duncan Botwood, Dave Doak, Steve Ellis, Ross Bury, Martin Hollis, Mark Edmonds, Karl Hilton, Lee Ray, B Jones, Graham Norgate (Image: Ross Bury)

The reasons varied from person to person, but it was partly due to the culture within Rare itself. The studio was split into teams, which created a lot of internal competition. Perfect Dark was essentially known as the Bond team, with others including the Killer team (Killer Instinct) and Diggers team (Blast Corps). The group that held most in favour, at least as some perceived it, was the Dream team, the developers behind Donkey Kong Country and the ambitious Project Dream, which was eventually scrapped with some elements salvaged for Banjo-Kazooie.

By comparison, the Bond team were the newcomers – again, for many, GoldenEye had been their first game. But despite the growing realisation of how revolutionary that title was, it did not improve the team’s standing within the studio – at least, not in the eyes of the Free Radical founders. Intensive working conditions only exacerbated the issue.

“We had ambitions beyond working every hour that God sends in the middle of nowhere to make other people rich,” Doak recalls. “We spoke to the Stampers about that – that’s why some of us ended up leaving Rare. After GoldenEye, it was very much, ‘Well, we’ve laid a golden egg and you want us to lay another one, what do we get? Other than waiting to see if we get a bonus?' I liked working there, had enormous respect for a lot of the people, and I’m in touch with a lot of them to this day. But it was a bonkers culture of basically not going home, of ‘You’re lucky to be here, you don’t need a life outside of here.’”

It was comparatively easy at that point to just staff up and continue with that plan. If we had stayed together, who knows what it might have been?

When the Free Radical team left, Perfect Dark underwent what Botwood describes as “a small project reboot.” In today’s terms, the game was in alpha: the story was set, a lot of the levels were in first draft, the multiplayer had taken shape and the simulants were up and running. The impact of the departures was definitely felt, and Perfect Dark remained in limbo for a short time. But the Stampers recognised the potential and sourced the resources it would need to be completed.

“The team was basically split in half and it set production back several months,” says Botwood. “But it was comparatively easy at that point to just staff up and continue with that plan. If we had stayed together, who knows what it might have been? Probably slightly different because new people come on and they’ve got their own expertise and personalities and that inevitably makes its way into the game.”

Leadership fell to Edmonds, and to this day there is still praise from his colleagues for his picking up the baton. His knowledge of the engine and code gave him a firm understanding of how the game worked, and the fact that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing made his task somewhat easier. Still, the precarious situation Perfect Dark suddenly found itself in was more than a little worrying.

Rare's £3.5 million Leicestershire HQ, which the Perfect Dark team relocated to during development
Rare's £3.5 million Leicestershire HQ, which the Perfect Dark team relocated to during development (Image: Nintendo Life)

“It was a big change for the game,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, can we carry on? Can we finish this now?’ It was really a case of carrying on, trying not to get downhearted, I guess. At that point, Chris Tilston and a couple of the others had come off one of the Conker games and were working on the prototype for something else. They came over and joined us, and that really helped bulk it up.”

Jones adds: “This wasn’t the first time this had happened. A lot of people made a game at Rare, then left to form their own companies, so it wasn’t a surprise. Obviously, people who come in bring new and better ideas.”

Tilston describes the change as “massively positive,” adding: “The guys that left didn't really want to be at Rare anymore and that was having a detrimental effect on those that stayed. There's a tension that exists when there are different goals – one group wanted to stay at Rare and make a great game, the other wanted to leave and start a new company. There was a period of transition when those who ultimately wanted to do something different left, but it allowed those who stayed behind to bond.”