The Man with the Golden Fun
The current buzz surrounding Goldeneye’s will-they won’t-they appearance on Xbox 360′s Live Arcade platform has got gamers keenly debating whether such a re-release would actually be a good thing.
Widely regarded as the finest console-based first person shooter of the 1990s, the unexpectedly good Bond movie tie-in holds a special place in the hearts of gamers-of-a-certain-age. But time’s been unkind to 3D games of the 32/ 64-bit era, especially those first person shooters released before dual stick control was a common feature in game controllers. As a result there are fears that revisiting Severnaya et al will break hearts rather than warm them, no matter how well developer Rare manages to refit the content for a contemporary gaming landscape.
The port has definitely been in production – that much is certain – but rumours abound of a royalty split dispute between Microsoft, Nintendo and Rare that has put the project on hold. However, the game’s memorable theme music was played prior to Microsoft’s GDC keynote two days ago, so, even though there’s no sign of the game on Partnernet, perhaps it is on the way after all.
All this reminiscing about the game reminded me of a talk the game’s producer and director Martin Hollis gave at the 2004 European Developer’s Forum in 2004. In it he examined the reasons behind the unprecedented success of the game (it went on to be the best selling N64 game, dwarfing sales of both Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).
“It would be fair to say that critical expectations were very low. It would also be fair to say that we, the GoldenEye team, didn’t realize this, mercifully. To quote one reviewer: “Everyone was dubious about the prospect of a video game version of a rather ropey Bond movie. The fact that it was going to be a first person shooter on a home console made it all the more likely that this game was going to be poor.” Accordingly, no-one who played it at the show seemed terribly impressed. Worse, most people just walked by without playing.
Mark Edmonds and myself were slightly depressed over GoldenEye’s reception. But still we went back to Rare, having only a few weeks left in which to fix about 500 bugs. Later that month, the NTSC version is finished, much to the relief of the team. We did our best. We worked hard. Very hard. We’re hoping people will like the game.
Fast-forward to the future. One month later, July 1997 GoldenEye is released, to modest critical and commercial success. In 1998, Half-Life is released for PC. GoldenEye keeps on selling. In the same year, Metal Gear Solid is released for PlayStation. GoldenEye keeps on.
2000 brings Perfect Dark. GoldenEye keeps on. 2002: Splinter Cell. And here we are back in 2004. How time flies. GoldenEye has stopped selling. It’s getting old. Technology has moved on. Plus, you can get it for a few bucks on ebay.
To date, GoldenEye has sold more than 8 million units. In the US it is the best selling N64 game ever. Ahead of Mario Kart in second place. Ahead of Super Mario 64 in third place. Ahead of Ocarina of Time in fourth place. I consider Mario 64 and Ocarina to be vastly superior to GoldenEye. And both have a better franchise for gaming. People expect Mario and Zelda games to be good. They expect movie licenses to be rubbish. Why did GoldenEye sell better? Why did it sell better than Ocarina? Why did it sell better than Perfect Dark? Why did it sell better than all those other Bond games? Why did it sell better than Doom? And Quake?
A transcript of the talk can be viewed here, on the website of Hollis’s current company, Zoonami, and it really is an essential read.
In particular, this paragraph stands out as an interesting regarding the tension between realism and ‘unrealism’ in crafting enjoyable game mechanics:
It so happens that enemies in GoldenEye can’t see through many windows in the game. The player can see through, and shoot through, but the enemies just won’t see through. The window is opaque to them. This might seem like a bug. It is certainly unrealistic. It is an example of unrealistic gameplay. And, as it happens, it is pretty good gameplay. It means you can spy on people more easily. Which makes sense for a Bond game. And that is fun. Realism isn’t relevant to good gameplay. Only verisimilitude matters.
The art is in knowing what you can get away with. Sometimes as a designer you are surprised how much players don’t object to, for example enemies that can’t see through most windows. Other times, players are very sensitive to unrealism, for example if you shoot someone and somebody else nearby doesn’t react.